Extreme Gardening For An Extreme Climate

BY ON May 28, 2014

mother and daughter gardening

Even under the best of conditions, gardening is a delicate balancing act. While one plant needs to dry out between waterings, another loves getting it’s “feet” wet. This plant likes sandy soil, but that one prefers loam. Wind, water, sun, shade, and soil conditions all have to be considered when placing a particular plant in a particular spot.

Add climate change to the mix, and gardeners face a whole new set of challenges. Even the formerly reliable hardiness zone map is changing, with most of its borders moving northward.


In some regions, spring may come earlier, encouraging blooms that are then killed by frost, because cold snaps still occur even where average spring temperatures are rising.

South Carolina gardener, James Barilla, sums up the conditions in his yard echoing what is becoming a common lament among gardeners.

“One week I’m sweating, the bees are buzzing, buds are breaking; the next, the birdbath is frozen and there’s snow on the ground.”

According to a science backgrounder from Climate Nexus, gardens in the Northeast are particularly vulnerable to the early onset of spring or “season creep,” and the Southeast, Midwest, Rocky Mountains, and Northwest are feeling its impact as well. And, it notes, this shift in seasonal weather upsets other natural cycles.

“Research shows that species differ in their ability to adjust lifecycles to warming temperatures. If one species adjusts and the other does not, for instance, flowering times can end up out of sync with peak pollinator activity. Mismatches can also occur between predators and their prey, which may affect gardeners interested in attracting birds to their gardens.”

When it comes to water, a key component of a healthy garden, there’s either too much or none at all. Drought conditions, such as those experienced by those in the West and Southwest, make it difficult or even impossible to water regularly, and heavy downpours, now common in the Northeast, can erode landscaping, damage plants above ground and cause root rot below it.


According to Climate Nexus,

“It may seem counter-intuitive that both droughts and downpours are increasing, but these are not mutually exclusive. Overall variability in the climate has increased, which means that we are seeing more ‘feast or famine’ swings rather than constant conditions. As such, some regions are experiencing a simple rise in drought or rainfall, while others are experiencing a rise in both through increased variability.”

So, what’s a gardener to do?

Organic Gardening suggests that gardeners check out the most recent zone hardiness maps and calculate perennial plantings with a changing climate in mind, remembering that these zones are predicted to shift even more in the coming decades. This is especially important, they say, when selecting long-lived species like trees.

“You wouldn’t want to plant a tree that works in your climate today but might not thrive there 20 or 30 years down the road.”

Organic Gardening also suggests that by using high-quality compost, gardeners will not only protect their gardens from the impact of climate change, they will also help reduce greenhouse gases.

“Adding high-quality compost to your garden allows the soil to slurp up the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and store it in the ground, where it helps mitigate climate change. Compost also makes the soil healthier, which allows it to soak up and hold more water. This comes in handy during times of drought.”

Barilla recommends striving for a resilient garden.

“Creating a resilient garden means paying attention to the life histories of individual species and how they interact with others in the community. What benefits, like nectar or shelter, do they provide? Are they likely to crowd out other species? What kind of help do they need from us to withstand wild fluctuations in temperature? A gardener who asks these kinds of questions mixes things up, leaving some parts of the yard untouched while weeding and enriching the soil in others.”

Figuring out how to adapt our gardens to conditions that are no longer reliable requires “extreme gardening for an extreme climate,” he says, “It’s going to take a lot of work. But it sure beats despair.”

Agreed. Halting climate change also takes a lot of work, and you can beat despair right here by signing this petition:


TOPICS: Climate Change, Food, Heat and Extreme Weather