How Gardeners can Adapt to Climate Change

How do erratic weather patterns and atypical seasons affect plants? If you garden, the thought may have crossed your mind. In fact, you may have asked yourself this recently when spring flowers began blooming in mid-February. What happens if the weather gets cold? How do you know when you should begin gardening again? And the big question: how will climate change affect gardening?  

These are all good questions, and in this gardener’s guide, we’re going to address them. 

How has Climate Change Negatively Affected the Ecosystem?

Because gardens are basically small ecosystems, the best way to tell how climate change will affect your garden is to examine how it has affected the ecosystem around you. 

As mentioned above, leaf and bloom events have begun earlier and earlier throughout North America, since 1921 for some species. This is important because frost and freeze damage can negatively affect plants when an earlier spring and extreme winter storms coincide. 

For those who grow fruits and nuts, warming winters will affect yields because these plant species depend on chill periods in order to flower and set fruit. This is disastrous for the economy and food security.  But warmer weather also means higher pollen counts, which is great for plants and pollinators alike, but not so great for people with allergies or asthma. While there will be more available pollen for bees and other pollinators, it won’t do any good because these insects and animals have a hard time adapting to climate change.

Bats, for instance, who usually fly south for the winter have been confused by warmer weather patterns and have remained in North America. If a cold front were to suddenly hit and wipe out their food source, they would starve. Similarly, bees who emerge from the hive during warm winters will use up all the honey they saved for that winter because they will need more energy from flying from flower to flower. When a cold front hits, they will starve without that food source. And, of course, fewer pollinators means fewer plants, as many plants depend on pollinators in order to pollinate. 

But it’s not all bad…for Some

Not everything reacts poorly to climate change. Invasive species (or non-native species), for instance, respond particularly well to climate change. As native species die from atypical weather, non-native species will flourish and replace these plants. This will negatively affect the ecosystem because the animals and insects that rely on native plants will lose their food source and habitat. For humans, poison ivy, which responds to higher levels of CO2, will become more toxic and more prevalent in gardens, woods, and parks. 

Pests and pathogens will become more unpredictable and widespread, as cold weather usually aids in their termination. Pests will likely migrate to new regions as climates become more suitable for them.     

So climate change won’t negatively affect everyone and everything, but it will negatively affect humans. It will especially affect gardeners whose methods are not well adapted to climate change.

So based on the way climate change has affected the ecosystem, how will it affect our gardens? 

How will Climate Change Affect our Gardens?

Weather is going to become less and less predictable. Because gardeners turn to past planting and freezing dates to predict when they should plant, this will make planning harder. You might find that your plants struggle to survive in erratic weather conditions. Long periods of heavy rainfall could flood your garden and kill your plants. On the other hand, hot and dry periods could leave your plants thirsty. You might see less and less bees, butterflies, and other pollinators or insects as a result of climate change. This could affect your plants’ ability to pollinate. 

You might find yourself weeding out more and more invasive species as they begin to populate our yards. In addition, you’ll probably deal with a few plant diseases (which proliferate in hot, humid conditions) and pests. 

But we shouldn’t be deterred from gardening. Gardening can actually benefit the environment by storing carbon in the soil. Like humans, our gardens must also adapt to a changing climate–and with your help, this is possible. 

How Gardeners can Adapt to Climate Change

The Cornell Cooperative Extension provides an excellent process for evaluating how your garden reacts and will react to climate change. Here, we’re going to discuss the methods they have delineated in their coursebook, Gardening in a Warming World

The most important thing you can do is observe your garden. You want to understand how your garden and its unique ecosystem change from season-to-season and year-to-year. If you haven’t done so already, begin by observing how your garden reacts to weather patterns and natural disasters; observe what changes take plan every year or every few months. To help you, here are a few ways you can do this: 

  • Journal: The Cornell Cooperative Extension suggests that gardeners keep a journal to document their garden’s “life.” In this journal, you can keep photographs, sketches, descriptions, and calendars. Journaling is an effective way of understanding your garden and will help you plan for future planting.  
  • Mapping: Create a map of your garden to remember where you planted certain species and to document the environment during a certain period. You can include precipitation patterns, air circulation, and temperatures as well. 
  • Identify Garden Systems: Record any organisms you find in your garden, including native and non-native species. If you introduce frogs or snakes into your garden to help manage pests, include these organisms in a separate column. Once you have identified the organisms in your garden, observe how they interact with one another. By doing this, you’ll understand how beneficial these organisms are–and if they suddenly disappear, you might better understand the effects of their disappearance and how to mitigate them. Determine elements of the ecosystem that might be susceptible to damage, such as areas that are susceptible to runoff or erosion. Make note of these areas so you can mitigate any potential issues. 
  • Document Microclimates:  It is important to consider outside factors that could affect your garden’s weather, precipitation patterns, etc. Just as the ocean and air circulation patterns in the Arctic affect weather in North America, outside factors can affect your garden. Large bodies of water nearby can affect air temperatures. If your garden sits on a balcony or rooftop, drying winds can affect your plants. Soil types can affect frost, pavement and sidewalks can affect surface temperatures, and fences can block cold air, forcing it to precipitate into puddles.

Once you understand how your garden functions and changes over time, only then can you create a plan of action. So let’s discuss how we can use our gardens to be more sustainable and fight climate change. 

Sustainable Gardeners can Adapt

Gardens that are designed to fight climate change are often referred to as victory gardens. To become a sustainable gardener and adapt to climate change, employ these four considerations:  

  • Organic material waste management 
  • Soil health and nutrient management 
  • Water management and conservation
  • Pollinator protection 

Organic Waste Management 

Organic waste stores carbon in the ground, keeping it from being released into the atmosphere. Not only does this help the environment, but it also helps your plants. Organic waste provides nutrients and water to our plants, reduces surface crusting, increases water infiltration in the soil, and supports soil microbes and insects. Here are a few ways to manage organic waste to benefit the environment and your garden: 

  • Leave grass clippings 
  • Mulch fall leaves 
  • Compost yard plant waste and food waste 

Soil Health and Nutrient Management 

Fertile soil is key for growing healthy plants. Not only this, but it also benefits the organisms within the ecosystem. For fertile soil, employ these practices: 

  • Grow a variety of plants
  • Rotate annual plants 
  • Grow perennials, including legumes, to help regenerate the soil  
  • User cover crops to protect the soil and keep carbon from entering the atmosphere 
  • Till the soil less to support healthy soil structure and carbon storage 
  • Use earthworms 
  • Add nitrogen 

By following these practices, you can help increase soil fertility and support soil structure. Be careful, however, when adding nitrogen to the soil. Excess fertilizer can actually contribute to greenhouse gas emissions as well as runoff. Soil microbes like to eat any nitrogen left over in the soil and release it as nitrous oxide. In addition, rainfall will carry fertilizer into rivers and streams, creating algae blooms. For an ecofriendly fertilizer that does not produce greenhouse gases or contribute to runoff, try xVital. After plants absorb the nitrates, xVital evaporates into nitrogen (which is not a greenhouse gas). Thus, this eliminates runoff entirely.  

Water Management and Conservation 

Did you know that garden watering accounts for 1/3 of all residential water use in the U.S.? And 50% is lost to evaporation, wind, or runoff!

It is important to conserve water, especially since much of it is polluted and the snow-melts on which drought-prone areas rely have been melting. Droughts will become more common in the future, and ensuring that we have enough water is critical. To conserve water, try planting a rain garden. Rain gardens conserve water in the soil and provide it to plants when needed. They also filter out pollutants from driveways and oils. For more information, you can read our article on building a rain garden here

Pollinator Protection 

 Did you know that more than 80% of flowering plants rely on pollinators? Without them, plants couldn’t produce fruit or viable seeds. Important pollinators include: 

  • Ants 
  • Bats 
  • Bees
  • Butterflies 
  • Hummingbirds
  • Beetles 
  • Flies 
  • Moths 
  • Wasps 

To protect pollinators, incorporate a pollinator garden in your yard. 

So now you know how climate change will affect your garden. If you want to become a better gardener and adapt to climate change, practice the tips described above. And check out xVital to see how you can go green in your garden.