Intersection of Gardens and Climate Change

Last Thursday (Aug. 13, 2020) I was thrilled to participate in a panel discussion of amazing conservationists.  Held as a virtual webinar, the panel was organized by Chatham Climate Action Network, a group of volunteers who are coordinating and encouraging local action in this age of climate change.  This effort, “Transitioning to Climate Smart Landscapes” was to educate homeowners about actions they can take on their own property in the face of climate change.  The expert conservationists discussed a myriad of ideas, big and small; my role was to describe how I used many of these ideas on my own landscape, both to inspire and to demonstrate what an individual homeowner can accomplish.

 

 

I would highly encourage you to view the entire webinar, which was recorded and which can be accessed at the CCAN website, as can a wonderful page of resources to help homeowners take their own actions.  In this post I want to summarize some of the key points, including a selection of the many action recommendations.

We can address the issue of carbon in the atmosphere directly.

Climate change is accelerating, but if every homeowner makes small changes, it can accumulate to have a big impact.  We can:

Reduce the carbon footprint in our landscape.  We have all heard about reducing our home’s and our car’s carbon footprints. It turns out that gardening activities also release carbon into the atmosphere.  The biggest culprit is the lawn, with mowing (gas engines), and all the amendments (manufacturing fertilizer releases carbon). Things we can do:

  • Reduce the size of the lawn, replacing sections of lawn with a meadow or islands of plantings.
  • Stop watering and fertilizing the remaining lawn and convert it to a Cape Cod lawn, which is a rough lawn with many kinds of low plants.
  • Switch out any gas-powered engines for battery-powered tools or hand tools.

Sequester more carbon.  Plants are great ways to capture more carbon out of the atmosphere. (A wise man once noted that adding more plants is almost always a good solution to any garden challenge.) Things we can do:

  • Plant trees, which have the largest capacity for capturing carbon.  Also, avoid cutting down trees.
  • Increase the density of your garden beds with multi-layer plantings of trees, shrubs, perennials and ground covers.
  • Keep carbon in the soil by not tilling it and by letting leaf litter stay and decompose directly in the beds.

We can mitigate the impact that climate change will have on our landscapes.

The big impacts are increased severity of extreme storms and more heat and drought.  We can:

Manage storm water runoff. Storm water can overwhelm gutters and drainage systems and carry pollutants into the waterways. The goal is to ensure storm water runoff stays on our property and has a chance to filtrate through the soil to the groundwater level.  Things we can do:

  • Use plants to capture runoff:  Install rain gardens in low spots and direct downspouts to them.  Or install a planting island as a vegetated buffer next to the road or any waterways.
  • Replace impervious surfaces like driveways and patios with more permeable materials so water is absorbed rather than running off into the street.

Prepare for drought and heat.  We are already seeing hotter summers and longer periods with little or no rain, and it is likely to get worse. Things we can do:

  • Seek out more drought-tolerant plants. You can get an idea of which plants do well in droughts right now by doing a survey of your own yard to see which plants are doing better in this current summer.  I’d bet they are mostly the native plants, which are generally adapted to this climate.
  • Conserve water by using rain barrels or cisterns to store water for dry seasons.

Make our gardens more resilient. This means they, and the life they support, will be better able to bounce back after extreme storms and droughts. Things we can do:

  • Use more native plants and heed the “Right plant, right place” wisdom
  • Wean your garden off the chemicals that serve as life-support systems for some plants
  • Improve the habitats for pollinators and other wildlife by postponing lawn cleanups until spring and leaving some areas of the landscape wild.

 

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