Importance of gardening and growing

Profiles of Norwegian Science

urban garden

Photo: Credit: Ilan Kelman
Urban gardeners in Sagene, Oslo, learn the value of growing their own food.

Agder, Norway

How much could our gardens feed us? Some recent science from Norway contributes to answering this question.

In a paper published earlier this year, one historical study from a trio of researchers in Oslo and Ås details an urban community garden in Trosterud in eastern Oslo. The site was a farm before being purchased by Dr. Henrik Dedichen in 1901. He set up a psychiatric institute with a garden and park. The ethos was gardening and farming to support patients’ mental health and wellbeing, including the construction of a greenhouse in 1935.

The lands were transferred to Dedichen’s son, who then died in 1963. The municipality of Oslo took over the institute and closed it in 1966. The area became fully enfolded into the capital’s life and livelihoods through the construction of apartment buildings. Currently, an urban regeneration plan runs from 2017-2023 aiming for Trosterud to be much more sustainable with substantial resident involvement.

Dr. Dedichens Drivhus (Dr. Dedichen’s Greenhouse) is now a local sustainability center, headquartering a community group to bring together people from the locality. One of the activities is organic gardening, part of which occurs in the greenhouse building. Some schools own allotments, with the children learning how to grow and sell plants, including vegetables.

The scientists compare this Norwegian example with the Darwin Ecosystem in Bordeaux, France. They highlight similarities of the mental and physical benefits of urban green spaces, support for local identity, connecting diverse residents, and providing a focus for community activities.

Producing food is part of both projects’ successes, but the food itself is not a top outcome. Instead, even when the products are more token than substantive, urban gardening instills a deeper understanding of our food and, more widely, the community, the environment, and the two together for sustainability. When growing up in cities, particularly with high population density, many such basics can be absent.

Another paper published this year, this one from four Trondheim-based researchers, asked children what they know about the origins of their food. Across nine kindergartens in central Norway, the scientists conducted 56 interviews with 5- and 6-year-olds. The interviews were semi-structured and open-ended, stressing to the kids that their viewpoints are key, without there being correct answers.

The researchers showed each child pictures of eight food items assumed to be typical for home and kindergarten. These were milk, caviar, bread, wheat flour, cheese, macaroni/pasta, sausage, and meat. Aside from not fully recognizing dairy-free, gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan households, numerous cultural assumptions are imbued in these choices, along with an obvious absence of the healthiest foods.

How many people eat caviar regularly? How many different ways could meat, bread, and cheese be depicted and so vary among household experiences? Chicken breast is quite different from pork ribs, as is a white loaf compared to rye, not to mention brie in contrast to the Norwegian favorite brown cheese, the beloved brunost.

The children were asked to name each food and its origin from a choice of five pictures that the researchers labeled a cow, a fish, eggs, vegetables, and cereals. The “vegetables” were carrots and the “cereals” were wheat stalks. Verbal and non-verbal responses were recorded and analyzed.

The results reported the percentage of children knowing the origin of milk (94%), caviar (61%), bread (67%), wheat flour (67%), meat (79%), cheese (30%), macaroni/pasta (30%), and sausage (33%). These values were higher than similar studies in England and Slovenia. No difference was found by gender, farm proximity, or parents and teachers discussing food origins. It is unclear how these numbers might have differed with the frequency of the children eating each food regularly.

These topics of knowledge and action for food and gardens become intertwined. They go far beyond the research in these two scientific papers. Possibilities for education and improvement relate to food transportation and packaging through to energy needs, water use, and waste.

Perhaps all this work will encourage us toward healthier and sustainable food contributing to a healthier and more sustainable urban environment. More local gardening for the food we should eat could play a large role.

The papers referred to in this article, in order:



This article originally appeared in the May 27, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.