Gardening brings people together. When a community garden is built, there is a sense of shared accomplishment. People have been using gardening for self-help for generations. Additionally, when gardeners give away their produce or sell it at a farmer’s market, they are participating in a wise intervention. They are changing the environment that surrounds their community by providing it with healthy food. This is especially beneficial in low-income communities. When they engage in community gardening, they are building social bonds with others and attracting more people to join them. Gardening is used to benefit the health of the individual, but it is also used to create a healthier environment that encourages healthy and adaptive behaviors. However, in order to access the full benefits of gardening on an individual level, one must develop a gardener’s identity through learning and creating experiences.

A gardening identity can be seen in communities, as well as individuals. Low-income communities often face a lack of individual agency (Cumbers, Shaw, Crossan, & McMaster, 2017). Without the financial support to make their own decisions, people will feel as though they cannot take control over their own lives. However, when a community garden is implemented into a community, suddenly they regain some control over their food. This feeling of empowerment spreads to other aspects of an individual’s life, such as work or social life. When a community embodies a gardener’s identity, their quality of life and overall happiness increases (Cumbers, et al., 2017). Developing a community garden also helps diversify the community by drawing in all kinds of people in the community (Cumbers, et al., 2017). When a garden is built and people start using it, people will likely be in close contact with people they otherwise would have never met. Diversifying a community helps solve other problems that the community might be facing by introducing new and unique viewpoints to the discussion. Additionally, low-income communities do not often get a say in what happens to the land around them. When a community garden is built, the people who use the garden should be the ones who decide how it is operated. This choice in operation helps increase the agency people feel in their lives.

While gardening does provide a way to observe natural forces in a concrete and interdependent way, there are times when it is impractical as a self-help method. Many low-income people do not live in a place where they can grow their food. Some neighborhoods have vacant lots where a garden could be built, but these lots are often either privately owned or owned by the city, making it illegal to garden in those areas (Finley, 2013). Gardening is not the only method to develop ecocentrism, however. Gardens, especially in urban areas, are beneficial for everyone, even if they do not garden. Nature spaces where people in the community can wander freely through them expose those people to biodiversity and natural forces of change (Lin, Egerer, & Ossola, 2018). When we cultivate a space with diverse native species of plants, the plants attract other living things, such as insects and birds. Different plants can attract different creatures, and those creatures can attract more creatures. In urban areas, biodiversity and the way each living thing interacts with its environment is an excellent way for people to learn about the world they live in. If community leaders can create these environments, the whole community improves. Nature spaces such as these do not have to be for food to receive the environmental benefits. People who use these spaces receive the opportunity to interact directly with their environment, cultivating an ecocentric and biophilic mindset (Lin, Egerer, & Ossola, 2018).

We can influence ecocentrism through schools. Children benefit greatly through exposure to nature. When children garden, they learn about where their food comes from. This promotes healthy decisions in the future when it comes to food choices (Finley, 2013). When children learn about where their food comes from, they start to make a connection between themselves and their environment. Smith (2019) found that participating in environmental clubs during secondary school enabled children to build an ecocentric ideology. When we learn about our environment and how our actions impact it, we internalize it and it informs our working-self. These learning experiences also help children contextualize people as a whole in their role in the ecosystem. They are able to conceptualize how we need the environment to live and in order to keep living, we need to take care of it. Each of us has a responsibility to the environment and to each other. These responsibilities might be to limit how much we take or to call others out for causing an unsafe environment.

  A gardener’s identity is a form of ecocentrism. Ecocentrism is a form of environmental philosophy and ethics that focuses on the idea that humans are a part of their environment rather than above nature (Smith, 2019). Gardeners see themselves as having an active and important role in their environment. Gardening prompts learning by engaging with our natural environment. As we till and plant, we learn how our actions change our surroundings. If our actions have a positive impact, then we learn to enjoy them. Through learning and positive experiences, people develop a biophilic mindset (Lin, Egerer, & Ossola, 2018). Biophilia is the aesthetic attraction to nature and natural shapes and structures. When we develop an ecocentric identity, we do so because we find comfort and beauty in our environment and feel the need to care for it. These experiences and emotions are then accommodated into the Self-Memory System (SMS). The SMS is how our autobiographical memory interacts with working memory (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). This interaction informs us on how we behave and think at any given moment.

Positive experiences stick in our memories, especially when the experience is of the completion of a goal (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000). When we accomplish something, we not only feel good about it but we are more likely to remember it. However, gardening does not have a set end like we might imagine most goals to have. The goal of gardening is to garden. It is to grow food that we enjoy eating and to feel a sense of accomplishment whenever we harvest. It might also be to feed people who might have limited access to healthy and cheap food. All these things together help us create a gardener’s identity, as we internalize these ideals and accomplishments. How does it work? Consider this example: To cultivate a gardener’s identity, bring to mind the first time you successfully grew your first crop. You may remember how good it tasted when you ate it. Because this experience was related to the completion of a goal, you are more likely to keep gardening and moving forward with that goal.

Individual experiences, such as goal-related experiences, build and become incorporated into our autobiographical memory. Conway and Pleydell-Pearce (2000) describe autobiographical knowledge as the combination of lifetime periods, general events, and event-specific knowledge.  Lifetime periods are times in our life with a common theme such as “high school” or “when my mom was teaching me to grow tomatoes”. Lifetime periods are made of memories of general events. For example, in the  “when my mom was teaching me to grow tomatoes” lifetime period, there might be a specific event such as eating a tomato for the first time. General events are then made up of event-specific knowledge. This would be the taste of the tomato or how the sun felt on that day.

Our autobiographical memory interacts with our working memory to create the working-self. Autobiographical memory gives us a self-schema. Our working-self uses this self-schema as a guide for how we behave and feel at any given moment. The working-self takes lifetime periods to build our self-image, life story, and our beliefs and attitudes (Conway & Loveday, 2015). If we have a self-remembered history of gardening, our working-self builds a self-image based on gardening. Our beliefs will reflect those that align with a gardener’s identity such as ecocentrism. Furthermore, our working-self behaves in ways that align with our goals. Our goal system is not only informed by our lifetime periods but is also informed by individual remembered events in which we achieved some sort of goal in the past. The self-concept and goal system then work together to create our working-self. If our self-concept and goal system is gardening-based, we will embody a gardener’s identity.

Regardless of how we choose to cultivate ecocentrism in ourselves and our community, our experiences shape both how we see ourselves and others. When we use our autobiographical memory, we inform our behavior at the moment. When we use an ecocentric model of identity, our behavior and attitudes tend to be more adaptive. If we can cultivate ecocentric attitudes and spaces in low-income communities, these communities should start to see an increase in overall health and wellbeing. As the health of the environment increases and healthy food becomes more readily accessible, people’s lives become healthier and happy. While gardening and natural environments are not a cultural panacea, they will increase the quality of life for the whole community in which they are implemented.