Much of the world has been looking in alarm at recent events in Texas. No lights, heat or water for days for millions of people doesn’t sound like America. We can point the finger at deregulation and a failure of power companies to prepare for extreme weather events, but what lessons can gardeners learn from events like this? In places that suffered extreme lows, the damage won’t be visible until spring gets underway, but we can expect to see lots of dead shrubs and trees in many gardens.
Climate Change in the Garden
We used to talk about ‘global warming’, and some northern gardeners started to see this as a possible ‘good thing’, because they would be able to grow a wider range of plants, and more of those warm climate plants they covet. Change, though is more complex than that, and the storms of 2021 show us that, for sure. While the overall trend is clearly upwards, changing weather patterns mean an increase in all extreme weather events, both heatwaves and cold snaps. While governments and corporations struggle with big issues, most of us have smaller ones to deal with, and as life goes on, having a successful garden means adapting in many small ways. Let’s look at some strategies we can use in the garden to reduce the chances our gardens will look like a post-apocalypse movie set, and more like our personal paradise.
In the face of uncertainty, it helps to find some good. Zone changes are advancing over a yard a year, according to records. Studies show that on average plants are blooming and leafing-out earlier every decade. So for northern gardeners what was once a border-line plant for warmth is going to have a better chance of flowering successfully, and that longer season means that vegetables and fruit have more growing-days to develop and ripen. So in most years we might expect bigger crops, and be able to succeed with plants that were not possible before. Even in the south, where increased drought is definitely a down-side, the chance to grow citrus, figs, olives or bananas is a definitely plus.
Gardeners and Boy Scouts have this slogan in common. I wonder how many Texas gardeners could have saved their most precious tender plants if they had some thermal blanket in the garage? A staple of northern gardeners, but not even for sale in the southern hardware stores, these fluffy white blankets can be thrown over plants and secured with a little string, if the forecast looks bleak. No, you won’t protect your whole garden, but you will save a new plant or something precious. Just as many people keep an ‘emergency cupboard’ with candles, bottled water and canned food, a gardener today would be smart to makes sure they have supplies to deal with unexpected cold snaps, and dry spells. Do a check of your garden supplies, and try to think of things you might need in an abnormal season, like watering cans, and a hose to drain the bathtub or washing machine out into the garden if there is a watering ban in place.
Play Safe with Long-term Plant Choices
Your growing zones is basic information that most gardeners already know, but if you don’t, you should. We all want to push the zones, and plant at the extremes, but there is a way to do that with built-in insurances. Some plants, like perennials and fast-growing bushes, will give us a lot of pleasure if we get a ‘lucky’ run of warm winters. They are worth giving a try. The same for plants badly affected by heat. If summers are a bit cooler than normal they will be fine for a while. But if you are choosing a plant that is an important long-term part of your garden – screening, specimen trees – or you have your eye on something special but slow-growing, think again. Rather than choose plants that are at the extreme end of their hardiness in your area – for both heat and cold – choose from the middle zone and make your permanent planting ‘safe’ plants. While we look at average temperature changes, and say, ‘it’s getting warmer’, plants notice only the extremes – the cold winter that cuts them to the ground, or the drought that kills. In the long-term, even without climate change, extreme events always happen. So choose plants that can handle it.
There is another form of preparedness needed if you live in an area with increased fire risk. May houses are lost because they are buried in the woods. It might be a great way to live, but is it safe? Keeping trees away from your home, or having a clear zone around your property (if it is large enough) is a good form of fire insurance. If you have a sloping garden, keep taller plants at least 100 feet away on the ‘upside’ from your home. If they fall while burning they can set your home alight.
There are lots of reasons to grow native plants, and adapting to a changing climate is one of them. Of course, there are ‘native plants’ and then there are ‘local plants’, and that makes a big difference. Growing plants from Oregon in the Carolinas isn’t really ‘going native’ at all, is it? Certainly not when it comes to resistance to climate extremes. In the big picture of evolution, those plants that naturally grow where you live have seen it all – and then some. The chances are good that plants from your own area are survivors. In our descriptions of plants you will always find an indication of where a plant originated, and it’s not hard to get more local detail. Remember that many plants have been selected for better looks or better adaption, from among all the possibilities contained in a species. So growing named varieties, rather than any old seedling, pays off for good looks and often for climate too.
That isn’t necessary true, though, when planting on a bigger scale. If you have any local influence on street tree choices or park planting, try to encourage planting seedlings, not grafted trees, or plants grown from cuttings. These ‘clones’ might look good today, but if they have some weakness – to climate or diseases – then there is a risk they will all be lost. Encourage diversity too, with many different species on your streets and in your parks, as well as in your garden. That way, if one suffers there is a good chance you won’t see your local landscape decimated completely.
Gardening isn’t Going Away
Despite the uncertainty facing us in the coming decades, that is no reason to stop gardening. Just learn to hedge your bets a little, be prepared for extremes, and pay more attention to adapting to where you live – all good ideas in a changing world.