Roots and Shoots: Climate Change and the Garden

By Pamela Doan

Earth Day is coming up on April 22. It’s the 45th anniversary of this annual, global day of environmental activism and will be marked with events, protests and cultural commemorations. For people who get their hands down in the soil, it can feel especially urgent this year with all the bad news about our planet. In the U.S., California’s drought dominates reports and has many people thinking about water use and conservation at home. Last year, 2014, was the new “warmest year on record” globally, a designation that seems to get updated annually, and it’s hard not to notice the impact somewhere in your daily life.

There are many ways to address the global issue of climate change, and some argue that the only real and lasting impact will come from carbon tax credits and world leaders agreeing on emission cuts. Other people respond by changing their habits. Making their homes more energy efficient, switching to renewable sources of power like solar or wind, consciously consuming less, buying organic produce at the farmers market, taking public transportation instead of driving — these are some of the biggest lifestyle changes most people can make without a huge amount of effort.

The Hoover Dam created Lake Mead on the Colorado River in the 1930s; Lake Mead is now at its lowest level ever. (Photo by P. Doan)

The Hoover Dam created Lake Mead on the Colorado River in the 1930s; Lake Mead is now at its lowest level ever. (Photo by P. Doan)

Gardeners are adapting, too. Our local weather patterns bring more severe storms, longer periods of drought, heavier downpours in shorter periods, and hotter summers, and what we do in the landscape needs to adjust accordingly.

Here’s what I learned from a few master gardeners here in Putnam County about what they’re doing differently to adapt to climate change.

Jennifer Stengle: Water saving. When I wash lettuce or soak vegetables, I save the rinse water to water my perennials and shrubs rather than using potable water. I keep a five-gallon bucket by the door, and when it’s full I go for a walk.

Leah Kennell: I grow mostly natives and keep a light leaf duff in place to require less watering and provide a perfect pH for acid-loving, woodland shade plants. Not to mention hopes of encouraging more lightning bugs that depend on the leaves.

Rich Franco: In my years of gardening, things haven’t changed enough to cause any changes in what I do. Being more sustainable is an easier topic to discuss, even though the definition is still evolving. Growing crops using ecological principles, having little or no negative impact on the environment and using renewable resources is one way to define it. Generating and using compost is an easy way to avoid using synthetic fertilizers that might wash out into our watershed and pollute our waterways. It also sequesters carbon in the soil.

I am using ground leaf mulch to keep weeds down, which will end up as compost next year. I will try using cover crops at the end of the season that will prevent the soil from washing out over the winter; it will include nitrogen-fixing plants to enhance soil nutrients; it will reduce the tillage needed for planting; and will provide for weed suppression next year.

I currently don’t use any toxic pesticides, only Frank’s Hot Sauce for tomato hornworms. I have eliminated certain crops that were problematic for pests (cabbage) even though there are ways to safely prevent infestations (cover with a light fabric). I rotate crops to prevent nutrient depletion and avoid reinfestation with any pests from last year.

And of course, just having a garden and reducing consumption of big agriculture produce that is clearly not sustainable and has a large carbon footprint is the best all of us can do.

Nancy Teague: Each year I’m changing more of the front plants of my perennial beds to sedums. There’s quite a variety out there, and they’re quite attractive, while being fine with hot, dry conditions.

Janis Butler: I’m slowly turning my garden into an all-native garden. Native plants are better able to withstand our increasingly hot and humid summers and are generally heartier and more resilient than non-natives.

What are you doing?

Conserving water, choosing native plants or plants that are suited for changing conditions, minimizing or eliminating pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers and gardening practices that maximize natural resources are all part of the solution when it comes to reducing our carbon footprint in the garden. Send your stories and techniques to [email protected], and I’ll do another column on it if there’s enough of a response.

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