How Should My Garden Grow?

How can you most effectively reduce your carbon footprint through your choice of what food you grow yourself?


Growing your own food is often, and justifiably, talked about as an effective way to reduce your carbon footprint by avoiding the environmental impact of food miles and out-of-season veg from the supermarket. In the UK, between 20 and 30 per cent of our annual greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture – from pesticide use to refrigeration and transportation.

Over half the world’s population now reside in urban areas, and urban food production is becoming increasingly popular as a way to mitigate climate change, improve food quality and reduce personal carbon footprints.

The variety of herbs, fruit and vegetables grown by allotment holders, community farms and the like are endless – just take a wander around the town of Todmorden for example, where peppers grow outside the police station in homage to the Beatles, and the hospital boasts an apothecary garden with herbal remedies galore.

However, for those just starting to venture into the world of grow-your-own, especially those doing so from a concern to reduce their impact on our planet’s delicate climate, choosing what to grow can be an overwhelming experience. This is especially true if you, like the vast majority of us that live in urban areas, suffer from limited growing space. What on earth should you choose – what is the most effective way to grow food and save the planet?


Michal Kulak, Anil Graves and Julia Chatterton are three academics concerned with the above issues, and luckily for the new grower, they have undertaken the science for you. Their study of a community garden in London that was published in 2012 compared the greenhouse gas emissions, and potential greenhouse gas emission savings, of a number of commonly-grown fruit and vegetables in order to discover which crops had the largest potential for greenhouse gas emission reduction when compared to those of the conventional food supply chain. They took into account yield differences between organic and conventional cropping, embodied emissions (that is, the greenhouse gas emissions of building a polytunnel were taken into account when accounting for the emissions of the crops grown within that polytunnel), and emissions from food transportation.

Here, then, are the top ten fruit and vegetables that the new grower concerned with reducing their carbon footprint should investigate growing:

  1. Spring beans (relative global warming potential savings compared to conventional supply chain = 99%)
  2. Courgettes (98%)
  3. Autumn beans (95%)
  4. Peppers (95%)
  5. Pumpkins (91%)
  6. Spinach (91%)
  7. Apples (84%)
  8. Autumn lettuce (81%)
  9. Spring lettuce (79%)
  10. Tomatoes – grown outside (69%) or in a polytunnel (66%)


Luckily for the new (or even not so new) grower, all of the above fruits and vegetables are commonly grown throughout the UK in a variety of conditions – it shouldn’t be hard to get stuck in producing your own with any of the above!

On the other end of the spectrum, the researchers also discovered that if you are planning to grow strawberries in your polytunnel, you probably shouldn’t bother – it turns out that buying them from the supermarket is probably more climate-friendly (the locally-grown polytunnel strawberries actually had a negative climate impact compared to the conventional supply chain strawberries).

On all other counts, own-grown or community-grown fruit and veg turned out to be far more beneficial for the climate than purchasing produce from the conventional supply chain.

So enjoy your home-grown spring beans and courgettes in the knowledge that the climate enjoys them too.

Published by

Miriam Dobson

PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield. Soil, urban food, allotments, ecosystem services.

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