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The global effects of climate change are often discussed in the news, but it is also affecting your garden with drought, floods and early/late freezes. Freeuse photo

Growth in Gardening: Adjusting to climate change in the garden

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Climate change is very much in the news these days and everyone knows that it is affecting things like icebergs in the North Atlantic and regions like Antarctica or Alaska. But you may also be dealing with changes in your own garden too.

Climate change is global and creeping up on us faster than originally forecasted. Gardeners probably sense it first, being so in tune with the natural cycles of the planet. I can certainly speak for myself, with warmer winters, freak December snow, early fake springs, “exceptional” drought followed by flooding rains, as well as record-breaking temperatures — highs and lows — and that is just since 2017.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are the cause of anthropogenic climate change. The Industrial Revolution was the beginning of these massive changes, with the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal. The air pollution from burning fossil fuels collects in the atmosphere and traps warm air close to the earth. Hence the rise in temperatures. But do not assume that Mankind alone is the cause. The truth of the matter is that the climate has been changing over and over again for millions of years. The last 12,000 years or so have marked a period of unusually calm, cool, and comfortable weather patterns. But that certainly does not mean that we are having no impact on our climate at all. We are, we definitely are and the choices we make do have an impact and so we must act responsibly and think about the future.

If you look at where today’s temperature fits in with the grand scheme of time on Earth since the dinosaurs were wiped out, you might be surprised. In terms of homo sapiens history, things are warm now — because we’re not in an ice age. But, in terms of homo sapiens civilization, things are cooler than usual, and appear to be cooling. In fact, since the T-rex vanished, the climate has changed a ton, and our current “record heatwave” is far cooler than the planet’s 65-million-year average. The dinosaurs would have scoffed at us: “What? You think this is warm?”

My point here is that if you think that we humans are destroying the planet I think that you are missing the point. It is the height of human arrogance to think we can destroy the Earth. Over the history of our planet, this beautiful blue marble we live on has suffered through conditions far worse than those we see today. The planet’s climate has collapsed, survived, recovered, and flourished, repeatedly. The point here is that while I believe we cannot and will not completely destroy the planet, we may well destroy ourselves and make the planet uninhabitable for our species.

It’s not just about warming, though. As temperatures go up, weather patterns become erratic and extreme, meaning bigger blizzards and colder winter temperatures as the jet stream shifts. Early blossoms and unseasonal frosts are just small signals that have gardeners scratching our heads. It seems the only thing to do is embrace the chaos and adapt for the new times ahead.

Many gardeners are finding the timing of everything seems to be shifting. Plants are blooming earlier, and frost date patterns are irregular. Plant researcher Mike Estees of Texas A&M University asserts that in some locations, plants are blooming up to 1.5 days earlier per decade compared to 150 years ago. This may mean some bees arrive too late and miss the necessary cycle of pollination that affects our flowers and vegetables.

Frost dates are shifting too, so gardeners may be planting at different times than they were several years ago and some plants that have historically done well in the garden may cease to thrive in present conditions. Unexpected early and late frost events can hinder growth and damage young plants. Likewise, summer heat and drought are a problem too, we all know that.

Of course, for a gardener the changing and unpredictable climate future makes growing more challenging than usual. Reducing CO2 emissions is a small part of the global climate solution, but gardeners can do small things at home to make a dent in the problem.

  • Stop using tools and equipment that are powered by fossil fuels. Even electricity is produced using coal, so think twice about an electric rototiller, hedge clippers or chain saw. There are sturdy and effective hand tools for the home garden. Besides getting the work done, you will get a decent workout. Pull weeds by hand and turn your soil with a flat tined pitchfork or a broadfork. Better yet, go no-till or low-till to not disturb the soil and micro-organisms and release its stored carbon.
  • Stop using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. They are manufactured in polluting factories, and shipped thousands of miles to get to you, creating tons of CO2 emissions. Soil captures and stores carbon. Build soil up with compost to create a healthy garden needing fewer pesticides and less fertilizer. Use plant-based fertilizers if necessary.
  • Buy locally grown plants to further cut down on transportation emissions. Learn to grow your own starts, and participate in seed swaps to get hardy, resilient, locally adapted seeds.
  • Plant trees and shrubs, which sequester the most carbon. Trees also provide shade to reduce your cooling bills and emissions.
  • Diversity is the best buffer against weather extremes and pests that have new, larger ranges. As bloom times change for plants, so do habitats and food sources for pollinators and wildlife. Bees can appear in spring or fall and have nothing to eat. Experiment with new varieties to maintain constant bloom times throughout the longer seasons.
  • Study the native plants of the next warmest zone. Experiment with what might survive and keep notes on how they do. Perennials and shrubs will respond to the climate faster than trees will.
  • Get rid of your lawn. Grass uses copious amounts of water, fertilizer, and pesticides, and mowing pollutes. Run-off creates air and water pollution downstream. Replace your traditional lawn with native grasses that don’t need mowing or fertilizing. Consider ground covers such as creeping thyme or succulents.
  • Do not use potting soil that contains peat moss. Peat bogs store loads of carbon that gets released when it is harvested. The bogs are also finite and home to diverse wildlife. They need to be protected.
  • Mulch to protect soil from erosion, keep it cool, conserve water, and protect the roots of perennials and shrubs. It will also keep stored carbon out of the atmosphere. Mulch keeps down weeds, which seem to be benefiting from warmer temperatures the most. As organic mulch decomposes it helps build healthy soil by releasing important nutrients and adding humus.
  • Observe your yard to see where water flows. With the potential for heavy rains, you need to direct the water away from your house and plantings. Know where potential flooding could go, and plant accordingly.
  • Do not send your yard waste to the landfill. Borrow a chipper and turn it into mulch. Alternatively, create a brush pile that can house wildlife and beneficial critters.

Even tiny urban gardens can help mitigate emissions. They not only capture carbon, they help moderate temperatures, buffering the heat island effect. Do you part, garden with the future in mind.

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Joe Urbach is the publisher of GardeningAustin.com and the Phytonutrient Blog. He has lived in the Central Texas area for over 30 years.

San Marcos Record

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