Climate change gardening is a set of tactics that make our yards and gardens more resilient to extreme weather as well as reduce our personal impacts on the climate. There are several ways to approach climate change gardening. You can use sustainable and organic gardening practices that put soil, biodiversity, and pollinators first. You can also plan to reduce plastic waste, up-cycle materials, and collect rainwater. Keep reading to discover 12 strategies for climate change gardening.
3 reasons to care about climate change gardening
Climate change gardening influences the health and success of your garden. When you nurture your soil, foster biodiversity, and support pollinators you create a garden that is more resilient to the challenges of climate change. Here are 3 reasons to care about climate change gardening.
- Extreme weather – The impact of weather related challenges like droughts, storms, precipitation, flooding, and above or below normal temperatures can be reduced with climate change gardening strategies.
- Pollinators, birds, and beneficial insects – Climate change can affect pollinators and birds in various ways. Weather extremes can impact migration timing and success, host plant growth and bloom time, disease and pest issues, and habitat and food supply.
- Non-native invasive pests and plants – With a longer growing season, invasive plants, pests, and diseases will move north and potentially affect plant health and crop yields.
12 Strategies for climate change gardening
We can take action to reduce the impact of climate change on our gardens and communities. Below you’ll find 12 strategies to help you increase resilience and adaptability in your yard.
1) Sequester carbon with no-till gardening
No-till gardening is among the biggest trends in gardening and for good reason. It’s an easy way to boost soil health as well as mitigate climate change. For decades, vegetable gardeners tilled or dug their soil each spring to prep for the growing season. However, we now know that tilling destroys the structure of the soil, increases weed seed germination, and damages soil life like earthworms. It also exposes stored carbon to the atmosphere. Adopting a no-dig approach promotes healthy soil, healthy plants, and a healthy environment.
Existing beds can become no-till gardens or you can break ground on a bed quickly and easily. To create a no-dig garden bed for food or flowers begin by mowing or cutting down existing vegetation low to the ground. Water the site and then add several sheets of newspapers (about 4-5 sheets thick) or a single layer of cardboard. Remove any tape or plastic from the cardboard. Overlap the materials so there are no gaps between the sheets. The next step is to add 2 to 3 inches of compost or manure on top of the paper mulch. Water well and in 7 to 14 days plant seeds or small seedlings directly into the compost. As the compost layer breaks down over time, continue to top it up to keep feeding the soil and establishing the bed.
2) Focus on biodiversity
A biodiverse garden is one that celebrates plant diversity. My yard is planted with a mixture of plant species to support bees, birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. Success starts with a little planning. Focus on plant species native to your region, but also consider bloom times to ensure there is something flowering from early spring though late autumn. Bees and butterflies need a continual source of nectar and pollen and if your yard doesn’t offer a progression of blooms, they’ll head to your neighbors. Include trees, shrubs, perennials, vines, bulbs, and even herbs like thyme, dill, and sage, which are popular with pollinators.
Rewilding is a term adopted by gardeners who aim to restore their yards to a more natural and uncultivated state. They let Mother Nature take the lead, but often lend a helping hand by planting native species of trees, shrubs, and perennials. Grow Now: How We Can Save Our Health, Communities, and Planet – One Garden at a Time by Emily Murphy is an excellent guide to rewinding and regeneration. Meadow gardens are also making a comeback in urban and suburban yards. Instead of buying seed mixes that contain pretty annual and perennial flowers, eco-gardeners are planting true wildflowers and native grasses to create natural meadows.
Biodiversity isn’t just for ornamental gardens as I also practice this strategy in my large vegetable garden. Including a variety of vegetable plant families can deter pests and reduce nutrient depletion of the soil. Plus, it entices plenty of pollinating and beneficial insects like bees, hoverflies, lacewings, and lady bugs.
3) Mulch soil in food and flower gardens
Mulching soil with organic materials is a basic tenant of climate change gardening. Mulch offers so many benefits to the environment. It reduces soil erosion, suppresses weed growth, feeds soil, holds moisture, and looks tidy. The material used for mulching can vary on whether you’re mulching a food garden or an ornamental bed.
In vegetable gardens common mulches include compost, shredded leaves, and straw. As organic mulches break down, more is added to maintain a 2 to 3 inch deep layer. Living mulches, like nasturtiums, cover crops, or sweet alyssum, are also put to work in vegetable gardens to shade soil, reduce moisture evaporation, and foil weeds as well as attract pollinators and beneficial insects.
Mulches used for trees, shrubs, and perennials are materials that typically last longer than straw or leaves. Bark nuggets or bark mulch are popular and generally persist for 1 to 2 years depending on the climate. These are also applied in a 2 to 3 inch deep layer. While mulching offers many benefits, it’s a good idea to leave some unmulched areas in your garden for soil nesting bees.
4) Eliminate pesticide use for climate change gardening
A climate change garden is one that focuses on biodiversity, pollinators, and soil health. That leaves no space for pesticides, even organic pesticides. Instead, adopt strategies to reduce pests naturally. I practice science-based companion planting, buy native and pest-resistant plants, ensure plants are placed in the right growing conditions, and encourage nesting birds.
5) Focus on soil health with a climate change garden
In my large vegetable garden maintaining soil health is my top priority. I test my soil every 1 to 2 years so I can better understand my soil and not add unnecessary fertilizers. You can buy soil test kits, but it’s more effective to send a sample of your garden soil off to your local state extension service. A soil test indicates soil fertility as well as soil pH and organic matter levels.
I feed my garden soil each spring by topping the beds with 2 inches of compost or aged manure. Organic matter comes from living materials and improves soil health, water holding capacity, microorganism activity, and nutrient uptake. If a soil test indicates that my soil needs nutrients, like nitrogen, I’ll also add an organic vegetable fertilizer. I avoid synthetic fertilizers which don’t build soils, can impact microbe activity, and don’t provide a long steady feed.
Another option for soil building is to plant cover crops. Planting cover crops, like clover or buckwheat, improves soil structure, reduces compaction, adds nutrients, and increases organic matter. Plus, cover crops are really easy to grow! I like to plant buckwheat seeds in empty beds in mid to late spring, cutting the plants back once they begin to bloom. They’re left on the soil surface to break down for 7 to 10 days and then I’ll replant the bed. Later in the season, I’ll sow seeds for fall rye on beds that are to be empty over winter. This reduces winter soil erosion and builds the soil in spring when I turn it over.
6) Make your yard bee and butterfly friendly
For years I was obsessed with attracting bees to my garden. Little did I realize that many of the bees I was seeing were non-native honeybees from local hives. And while these bees certainly did their fair share of pollination, I should have been thinking of ways to attract and support native bees. There are more than 4000 species of native bees in the United States and over 800 species of native bees in Canada. Native bees are diverse in their appearance and don’t live in hives like honey bees. Most native bees live in tunnels in bare soil, dead wood, or hollow stems, and many are endangered.
The best way to support native bee and butterflies species is to take a ‘hands off’ approach in your garden. Leave stems, leaves, and other debris in place in autumn and winter. Pile up sticks and brush in out of the way spots in your yard. Don’t mulch all your soil. Leave bare spots for native bees to nest. And, as noted above, practice biodiversity.
7) Encourage birds and other wildlife in the garden
A couple of years ago I removed my back lawn and replaced it with a mixture of native perennials, shrubs, and edible plants. Within months, I noticed an increase in the number of birds, bird species, and other wildlife visiting my yard. Research has shown that creating a biodiverse garden, which means planting a wide mix of plant species, is far better at supporting wildlife than a lawn.
I opted for native plants, which in my northeastern garden meant plants like serviceberry, summersweet, swamp milkweed, and blueberries. (Learn more about which plants are native in your state). As noted above, there are many benefits to growing native plants, but in the case of birds, indigenous plants have evolved with local insect species and are therefore more attractive to them. Nesting birds need a steady supply of insects and caterpillars to feed their young. Creating a bug-friendly garden means you’ll enjoy a higher population of birds .
Another way to invite birds is to create snags. At the back of my property there are a couple of dead trees. We left them in place because it was safe to do so – they’re not near areas where we gather and if they fell they wouldn’t hit any structures. Dead trees, also called snags, are a smorgasbord for wildlife. They provide habitat and food for birds, bats, squirrels, and many species of insects. You can also create piles of brush, logs, or sticks at the back of a yard or garden to support wildlife.
8) Avoid invasive plants
Invasive plants, like goutweed and purple loosestrife, are often non-native species which can spread throughout your garden – and beyond! Some invasive species have invaded natural areas, choking out native plantings. When you add new plants to your garden avoid invasive trees, shrubs, vines, and perennials. Do a little research before you head to the garden centre or accept plants from well-meaning friends and neighbors. When reading plant tags at the nursery, look for warning signs like ‘fast-spreading’ or ‘groundcover’. These descriptions often indicate plants that are hard to control. Do yourself a favor and steer clear.
9) Use less water with climate change gardening
There are many strategies for reducing water waste in the garden. These are particularly important with increasing and prolonged droughts and heat waves affecting many parts of the world. Below are 5 water-saving suggestions:
- Build soil – A healthy loam soil amended with organic matter is able to hold more water than a sandy soil. Feed garden soil with amendments like compost, animal manures, and leaf mold to help it retain moisture.
- Mulch soil – I use mulches on the soil of my ornamental and vegetable beds to reduce water evaporation. Bark mulch is best beneath trees, shrubs, and perennials, while I use straw or shredded leaves around vegetables.
- Water smart – Water early in the day to reduce water loss from evaporation. Also consider using a soaker hose, watering wand, or drip irrigation system to deliver water directly to the root-zone of plants. Sprinklers are far less efficient as they waste up to 80% of their water, particularly on hot or windy days. Water from sprinklers also doesn’t penetrate the soil deeply, resulting in shallow rooted plants.
- Collect water – Using a rain barrel to collect water from a roof is a great way to capture rainwater for irrigation as well as reduce water run-off from your property. You can DIY a rain barrel or buy one from a garden supply company.
- Choose drought tolerant plants – Conserve water by planting drought tolerant, trees, shrubs, perennials, and even vegetables. Many native plants, like coneflowers and yarrow, are drought tolerant and, once established, thrive without additional water. Keep in mind that newly planted landscape plants should be watered their first growing season.
10) Start a compost pile
I’ve already mentioned the importance of feeding soil with organic amendments and one of the best materials to add to garden beds is compost. You can buy bags of compost from garden centres, but the ingredients and quality can vary. Starting a compost pile is an easy – and free – way to ensure a high quality amendment. There are many ways to compost: you can pile up materials and let them rot, you can buy or DIY a compost bin, or if you have a very small space, you can vermicompost or use the bokashi composting system.
Not everything can be added to a compost bin. I compost kitchen and yard waste, as well as seaweed (I’m lucky to live near the ocean), coffee grounds from a local cafe, and rotted straw. Because I have a big garden, I have two 4 by 4 foot compost bins as well as a rolling composter near my back door. To help fill them up, I also gather autumn leaves from neighbors. I turn my compost piles every few weeks in spring, summer, and fall, and after 6 to 9 months I have a dark, rich, crumbly compost to add to my garden beds.
11) Switch to manual lawn and garden equipment
Many gardeners are practicing climate change gardening by making the switch from gas or electric lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and other lawn and garden equipment to push mowers and manual tools like rakes. It’s much better for the environment and you get a workout as well. Of course you can also do what I did and reduce the size of your lawn. This eliminates the need to mow. I also ‘leave the leaves’ in my yard raking them off the lawn (if there is a thick layer of leaves) and into nearby garden beds. I don’t remove a thin blanket of leaves from the lawn. They’ll break down and feed the soil. Autumn leaves provide winter protection to many species of native bees, butterflies, moths, and other insects. Plus, leaves insulate plants over winter and prevent soil erosion.
12) Recycle and upcycle in the garden
Gardens use a lot of plastic. There are plastic pots, cell packs, plant trays, plant tags and labels, tools, garden gear, fertilizer containers, weed barriers, watering cans, rain barrels, compost bins, and more! One of my main garden goals is to reduce plastic use in my garden. My first step was to stop buying so much plastic and make sure that I reuse plastic items in my garden for as long as possible to keep them from local landfills.
I love starting my own seeds, but indoor seed starting uses a lot of plastic. Plastic pots or cell packs are placed in trays and covered with plastic domes or clear plastic wrap. I’ve stopped buying these materials and am reusing them from year to year. I’ve also made the switch to using soil blockers to form small cubes of potting mix for seed starting. Not only are they plastic-free, but they also encourage dense root system development. It’s a win-win option for my garden!
Many nurseries now offer a plant pot recycling program where old pots, cell packs, and trays can be returned to be reused or recycled. You’ll also find more garden centres growing plants in biodegradable pots. Some are made from peat (not so good for the environment), coconut coir, bamboo, paper, or manure. It may be hard to become zero waste in the garden, but being mindful about plastic use can move you closer to that goal.
For further reading on eco-friendly gardening, you may be interested in the excellent book The Climate Change Garden by Sally Morgan and Kim Stoddart, as well as these detailed articles:
- A wildlife garden project: The best plants for success
- The benefits of composting
- Types of bees found in yards and gardens
- Build a pollinator palace for your garden
What climate change gardening strategies are you using in your garden?