Your garden and climate change

We’ve had a couple of plants mysteriously die on us this year – well established trees just giving up the ghost all of a sudden. Even though we’re in drought, they have plenty of water and nutrients thanks to our blackwater recycling system. It’s really odd – I guess I could just blame it on global warming, but it may also be poor care of these plants on my part. I’m not by any means a master gardener – more of an “oops, that *wasn’t* a weed?” sort of guy  :). Still, I thoroughly appreciate a nice garden even if my plant identification needs a little work.

As I type this, the temperature here is 34 degrees Celsius (93.2 degrees Fahrenheit). At 6 am it was 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). It’s unseasonally warm given we’re only in the middle of spring. We’ve had total fire bans here in South Australia well before the fire danger season officially commenced – even fire warnings in winter. I noticed some tree species blooming a couple of weeks earlier and birds nesting sooner. Bugs that would usually have been knocked on the head during the colder months seemed to have not skipped a beat.

I often ponder what the years ahead hold for the average suburban gardener given that climate change is no longer a far off possibility – it’s very real and it’s happening now. This is particularly relevant to those who are currently building and will be starting their gardens from scratch. Investing a stack of cash into a new garden that’s not designed to stand up to a changing climate could be a very expensive and disappointing mistake.

Plant selections

In Australia, and I guess it’s the same in most other countries, we have this really bad habit of planting our yards full of non-native and non-local species – and often thirsty varieties. This is even though we have a wide range of beautiful plants in our own country and local areas.

Australia is not Europe and we shouldn’t plant based on the “old country” – especially now. Non-native plants that only just hung on through the extreme sorts of temperatures we usually experience here are going to have an even tougher time in the future.

I live in an area that’s relatively dry normally and just a hundred miles away, it’s even drier. The plants in that area are what we should be planting here based on the assumption that predicted drop in rainfall will actually occur and that the soil is somewhat compatible. You can do the same in your area if it’s one where rainfall is predicted to drop – check out regions close by where there is less rainfall now and see what thrives.

Lawns – an endangered species?

As I look out at our front lawn, I see it as basically being an endangered species for this area. I’ve used water saving crystals in the past and I’m letting the grass grow longer now as that helps with water rentention and root growth – in fact, I’m using the highest setting on the mower possible.

I’m not concerning myself with weeds in the lawn so much as I have a feeling that just keeping things green will be a big enough challenge, let alone being picky as to what that green consists of. In fact, there’s a theory  that in addition to water/heat issues, increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere encourage the growth of many weed species. Better a carpet of lawn mixed with weeds than scorched, barren dirt.

It’s certainly time for me to consider more in depth xeriscaping – which is a term meaning low-water landscape design by emphasizing native and/or drought tolerant plants, but also eliminating turf areas and minimizing maintenance. Sounds good to me.

Mulch, mulch, mulch

Mulching is simply the addition of a layer of degradable organic materials to the soil surface as a protective barrier and nutrient source. It certainly makes a huge difference to water retention and also helps with weed control. If a patch of ground in your garden is bare and is subject to sun and wind, get some sort of coverage over it; otherwise it can act as starting point for a miniature form of desertification – the patch can grow larger.

Some places will be wetter

But it’s not going to be dry everywhere around the world – the rain will fall somewhere. The general understanding is that climate change just will see dry areas becoming drier and wet areas, wetter. In some parts of the world, rainfall is expected to increase dramatically; so before you rip out half your garden, research on the predicted effects of climate change in your area. Your challenges may be the polar opposite to ours in Australia and issues such as drainage and mold and fungus will be of greater concern.

The common factor – heat

Something that is fairly certain is most places on Planet Earth are going to warm up and are doing so already. This means some plants will flower earlier and have longer growing seasons. Other species may flower earlier, but die due to extended hot periods. Some plants that need cold weather to trigger blossoming (such as fruit trees) will simply fail in their ability to produce fruit and seed. We’re going to see entire sections of the agricultural industry being forced to shift their operations north or south in coming generations; in fact, it’s already begun.

Help out animals and insects

Animals and insects will need to adapt to these changes in the plants they rely on either directly or indirectly. The timing of natural events in relation to breeding that have been fine tuned over millenia are being thrown into disarray.

As suburban gardeners, we can help by planting and caring for species that benefit insects, birds and other animals. This is not only about providing food sources for creatures, but for preservation of plant species as many insects and animals play a crucial role in pollination. There’s been a great deal of concern in recent times in the decline of butterflies and bees .

Increasing pestilence

The other challenge that gardeners, particularly in colder climates, face is the increase of pests. Usually winter is the natural population control mechanism of many insects, but with winters becoming less harsh, pests will thrive increasingly all year round. This also applies to certain types of fungus. Again, it’s a matter of looking at the plant options available to you, bearing in mind the water issues of the future, the needs of local animals and beneficial insects and selecting varieties that aren’t so prone to infestation.

I guess the bottom line is, there are no hard and fast blanket-type rules for how to approach gardening in the future, except for the basics related to wetter/drier/warmer conditions depending upon locale. It’s very much new ground we’re breaking here – with breaking being the operative term.

In a world where we have become decreasingly connected from nature, we’re now suddenly having to re-establish that connection. Listen to your garden, watch it closely; it will tell you what you need to do.