Protect Your Backyard Garden from Climate Chaos!

How can home gardeners gear up for climate chaos in their backyards?

August 10, 2011

Turn on the news, and it's easy to see how climate change can cause major disasters around the globe. In Somalia, tens of thousands are fleeing the cracked, water-starved land to seek food. In America, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack promised continued multimillion-dollar financial support to farmers affected by catastrophic drought or out-of-the-ordinary rains and floods. Data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found 2012 to be the hottest year on record in the contiguous United States.

The takeaway? Climate change is hitting close to home. We're talking in-your-backyard kind of close. For home gardeners, climate change is messing with growing seasons, shortening spring and lengthening summer and fall. So a new partnership between NOAA and the American Public Gardens Association is aiming to help gardeners and city planners ID climate change on the local level and protect crops and green spaces in the face of climate destabilization.


The two groups teamed up to create a pilot project that seeks to educate gardeners on the local impacts of climate change as it relates to gardening. The exhibit, located at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, features signs illustrating changes in hardiness zones. Visitors can also pull out a cellphone and dial a specific number to hear scientists go into more detail regarding climate change and gardens. (The number is 610-717-5599, ext. 380# and 381#. FYI, it's not toll-free.) Even if you don't live in the Philadelphia area, an exhibit may be coming to your area soon; the American Public Gardens Association plans to install similar climate change displays in public gardens throughout the United States.

As we've seen severe drought ravage Texas and ruin many farmers' summer crops in that state, you may not realize that the same problems could soon plague your own garden, though on a much smaller scale. Extreme heat exacerbate drought conditions, causing the largest exceptional drought footprint in NOAA's National Climatic Data Center's 12 years of collecting data. In some areas, drought conditions exceeded those seen in the Dust Bowl era, and some climate experts say such extreme weather could be the new normal.

Early blooms are another problem that could hit home gardeners hard. Plant researcher Zoe Panchen, Longwood Gardens graduate fellow, has shown that flowers in the Philadelphia area are blooming up to 1½ days earlier per decade, compared to 150 years ago. Earlier blooms may mean some bees arrive too late, which could adversely affect pollination of your flowers and vegetables. That type of shift affects our pocketbooks, too, as scientists have found that pollinators contribute billions to the agriculture sector.

Home gardeners will feel the heat of climate change in their own backyards, but says Ethne Clarke, editor in chief of Organic Gardening magazine, they'll also be the ones helping to mitigate climate problems on a backyard level.


Protect your garden from the harmful effects of climate change with a few simple steps:

• Check out the new hardiness zone maps. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to update its hardiness zone maps to reflect a changing climate, NOAA has released climate-related planting zone maps based on the new normals. This means that in certain areas, certain crops could be planted earlier or planted later without the danger of frost.

• Calculate perennial plantings with a changing climate in mind. Since these zones are also predicted to shift even more in the coming decades, NOAA researchers urge homeowners, landscapers, and city planners to consider this 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.

• Compost, compost, compost. To help climate-change-proof your garden, use high-quality compost. "Just adding compost to the soil to begin your garden is one of the greatest climate change benefits you can make," says Clarke. "If we all did that, just imagine the impact." 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. Research at the Rodale Institute has found that organically grown crops produce higher yields in years of drought, mainly due to the healthier soil.

In addition, home gardeners should avoid planting in flood plains and can use organic straw or lawn clippings as a mulch to retain more moisture and conserve water in times of drought.

Learn how to make your own compost.

• Keep celebrating the home vegetable garden! Frost dates are shifting and gardeners may be planting at new times compared to several years ago, but that doesn't mean fewer people will garden. In fact, cooking from a home garden is becoming more mainstream than ever, and should be celebrated. Kitchen Gardeners International, a nonprofit dedicated to encouraging self-reliance through gardening, home-cooking, and sustainable local food systems, wants home gardeners to host a garden potluck, organize a kitchen garden tour, or visit a CSA or local farm on August 28, which is International Kitchen Garden Day.