Global warming is a hot topic these days, so to speak, and data and predictions continue to accumulate. Though a handful of scientists still debate the issue, an overwhelming majority of researchers say climate change is not only coming, it's already well underway. What can we expect? It won't be the same for everyone. A general overview of regional issues in the United States include a shortage of water in the West, warmer winters and less-frequent but more-violent precipitation events in the East, northward creep of hardiness zones and disruptions to habitat communities.
While most of us already have been making changes to our lifestyle to be more earth-friendly — embracing such things as energy-efficient light bulbs, solar panels, hybrid cars and reusable shopping bags — it's still daunting to think of the task ahead. Climate change might be inescapable and societal change a necessity, but armies of one can still make a difference. The attack strategy needs to be two-pronged — mitigation and adaptation. Meaning, keep looking for ways to be green, but also be prepared to make adjustments, in attitudes as well as actions.
In many ways gardeners are way ahead of the game. We're tuned in to subtle changes to the environment, and we watch the weather like meteorologists. (What's the first thing gardeners do every morning? We look outside at the weather. Last thing we do at night? Watch the weather on the late-night news.) We're hawks about temperature — at some times of year, even 1 degree is a big deal (a dip into the 20s last week in Central Florida sent a lot of things in my garden to the compost pile). For many gardeners, the make-or-break part of the weather is precipitation, and that will be a critical issue as the climate continues to shift. Gardeners are also hypersensitive to changes in plant and animal routines — did the cherry trees bloom earlier this year? Are the peonies flowering less? Are the songbirds at the feeders sooner than usual?
To meet the challenge of climate change, gardeners are in a unique position to lead the charge. And many things we already do as a matter of course are right on track. Below is a list of things gardeners can do. But a good first step is to take stock of your situation by calculating your carbon footprint. Many businesses are already doing this, and they've found that they can actually save money by being green. Check out the carbon calculator on The Nature Conservancy's website and see how green you are.
- Before that first plant goes in the ground, getting the soil in good shape is key. Amend soil with materials that make sense for your region, or plant things that love the native soil as is.
- Compost, compost, compost.
- Mulch lessens the need to water and keeps down weeds, but choose mulch appropriate for your area — decomposed granite makes sense in a place like Phoenix, but bark is a better fit in the Northeast. And research which mulches are earth-friendly at the production end. You can also make your own mulch with compost or shredded leaves.
- Take a low-till approach since tilling oxygenates the soil and releases CO2. A clod-filled soil is healthy, and super-fine soil really is useful only for seeds. When planting seeds, just till a narrow strip and leave vegetative cover as natural mulch.
- Organic has become a buzzword, and organic gardening is a many-faceted, nature-friendly approach. But be judicious with fertilizers, since all of them, even the organic ones, produce NO2 — the third-most-important greenhouse gas — as a byproduct as they break down.
- Start by choosing drought-tolerant plants.
- If you're going to use irrigation, install rain sensors and make sure the water is reaching its targets and not the driveway or street. Also, fewer, deeper waterings form deeper roots and tougher plants; watering frequently and not deeply keeps roots shallow and vulnerable to drought stress.
- Decide how you want to appropriate your water resources (if you want a vegetable garden, conserve water elsewhere).
- Rain gardens are a good (and attractive) way to collect and channel natural precipitation.
- Just by adding plants to the landscape, you're already being green, especially since they take up CO2 as part of their natural processes.
- Select appropriate plants that are tough and adaptable, including plants native to your area. Right plant, right place will always be a smart concept. And keep in mind that in any garden there are numerous microhabitats.
- Avoid invasive plants, especially if you live anywhere near a natural area. One of the expected results of climate change is über weeds, since many plants that are already too vigorous actually gain strength from increased CO2 in the atmosphere.
- Create a garden with diversity. This not only increases your chances of successful gardening (you might lose some plants, but others will be good performers), but it provides wildlife with more opportunities and builds its own ecosystem rather than a monoculture.
- Growing your own vegetables and fruits and buying locally grown produce cuts down on CO2 from transporting them around the country (and the world).
- If you are attached to having a lawn, consider a freedom lawn (if it's green, it's a lawn) or a no-mow lawn of sedges or buffalo grass. Or choose lawn grasses with fewer needs (for example, fescues over Kentucky bluegrass).
Keeping Up Appearances
- Keep any chemicals (such as fertilizers and pesticides) to a minimum.
- Recycle everything you can and reduce the use of disposable products (there are now pots made from biodegradable materials).
- Leave lawn clippings on the ground as you mow.
- Mow fall leaves or collect and add to the compost pile (don't bag and leave them by the curb - that's good stuff you're throwing away!).
- Keep mowers and other equipment running efficiently, and consider electric versions or even a reel mower (which makes a nice, clean cut and is a great workout!).
- For outdoor lighting, there are now many solar and LED options.
- Keep an open mind about maintenance. For example, don't be a fanatic about cutting back perennials, and don't be bothered by a few spots on the apples.