Gardening for a Changing Climate: How Shifts in Climate Should Guide our Conservation Practices

October 18, 2017

The onset of hurricane and fire season this year has brought an alarming degree of destruction to communities across the planet and disruption to the delicate balance of ecosystems. Record-breaking precipitation levels, fires, storm intensity, and storm frequency parallel the predictions of climate scientists for the past two decades: as oceans warm, we will observe increased storm activity, frequency, and intensity. In light of the devastation of recent extreme weather events from Hurricane Harvey and Irma on such a harrowing scale, we ask ourselves: are we powerless to stop this kind of catastrophic damage from happening again? What can we do at home to reduce our ecological footprint and adapt to the predicted long-term weather conditions? Further, what can we do to help strengthen the resiliency of our ecosystems and empower others to leave this earth better than we found it for future generations?

First, it is important to draw distinctions among a few terms that are often used in the discussion of climate interchangeably, namely: weather, climate, global warming and climate change. Although often interchanged, each term’s meaning varies in terms of geographic scale and time. Weather refers to atmospheric conditions in short periods of time in specific areas, causing events such as rain, thunderstorms, winds, and flash floods. Climate refers to long-term, large-scale trends in weather patterns, over seasons and larger geographic area. According to the NASA’s Global Climate Change website, “global warming refers to the upward temperature trend across the entire Earth since the early 20th century, and most notably since the late 1970’s due to the increase in fossil fuel emissions since the industrial revolution.” The term “climate change” refers to “a broad range of global phenomena created predominantly by burning fossil fuels, which add heat-trapping gasses to Earth’s atmosphere. These phenomena include the increased temperature trends described by global warming, but also encompass changes such as sea level rise, ice mass loss in Greenland, Antarctica, the Arctic and mountain glaciers worldwide; shifts in flower/plant blooming and extreme weather events” (NASA, 2017).

The first climate change model was presented nearly 50 years ago by Syukuro Manabe and Richard T. Wetherald. In their groundbreaking 1967 paper, they defined the complex interrelationships that regulate weather and climate, describing the dynamic relationships among components of various atmospheric conditions. Specifically, the model addresses the interrelationships among carbon dioxide, atmospheric temperature and ocean temperature (Siegel, 2017). According to their findings, an increase in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would result in warming atmospheric temperatures, thereby increasing warming ocean temperatures as well.

Unfortunately, CO2 levels have increased significantly since the Industrial Revolution. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in 1800, CO2 levels were at 280 parts per million (ppm). In 2010, levels were recorded at 390 ppm, the highest amounts in 20 million years. By 2050, we are on track to see a 500 ppm concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. By 2050, the IPCC estimates the average temperature of the earth will rise between 1.5 – 4 degrees Celsius or 4-9 degrees Fahrenheit (Porter, 2017). With the increase of atmospheric temperatures, ocean temperatures are predicted to rise too. As oceans warm, the evapotranspiration process increases, causing the increase of precipitation, frequency, and severity of storm events. Herein lies how global warming contributes towards long-term shifts in climate.


Although the shifts in climate and the resulting phenomena seem to be far out of our sphere of influence or management, there are actions we can take in our homes and gardens to minimize the effects of climate change.


  • Evaluate best management practices for water mitigation. Overall, gardeners should adapt to climate change by incorporating water mitigation strategies that account for increased rate and volume of precipitation. To account for the increasing rate at which water is reaching our gardens and homes, incorporate measures that allow for greater absorption of water, such as mulch, compost and other absorptive ground covers. In the hardscape, permeable pavers allow water to pass through driveways and sidewalks quickly, increasing absorption by the soil below and reducing storm water runoff. Further, gardeners should address the direction the water sheet moves across the landscape by incorporating drainage systems, swales, and hyra-humps.


  • Reduce your carbon footprint. The majority of the scientific community agrees these trends in climate change are likely due human activity as it relates to burning fossil fuel and the resulting carbon emissions into the atmosphere (Higgins 2017). Therefore, we must do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint at home and in our gardens in addition for accounting for increased precipitation. SHR is a partner of the American Public Gardens Association’s YOUtopia program, which encourages gardens to monitor their ecological footprint in the context of water conservation, energy efficiency, and waste reduction. Homeowners can make strides towards reducing their ecological footprint is by phasing out turf lawns and replacing them with gardens. With the right plant selection, gardens can help reduce overall water consumption. Energy consumption can also be reduced since gardens do not need to mowed like lawns do. According to Sara Via, a climate change specialist with the University of Maryland, lawn equipment emits a significant amount of carbon pollution, especially gas-powered lawnmowers and weed eaters. Further, the emissions from lawn equipment are not dealt with to the same extent other gas-powered motors are. Consider using rechargeable lawn equipment or push-technology in your lawn as much as possible (Higgins, 2017).


  • Evaluate fertilizer. Gardeners should evaluate their use of fertilizer as a way to reduce our carbon footprint. Fertilizer emits pollution as it breaks down, especially chemical varieties. Further, many fertilizers are cancer-causing and endocrine disruptors, even tiny amounts of them can prevent our hormones from functioning normally (Healthy Yard Project, 2017). The first step to nourishing your garden properly is to conduct a soil test to identify nutrient imbalances. This information will help determine the appropriate amendments for the soil conditions. Using compost instead of conventional fertilizer is a climate-friendly option to nourish your garden and vastly reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. In addition to reducing the need for fertilizer, compost does double-duty as a water mitigation strategy, increasing absorption rates while retaining moisture through dry spells. When we grow organically, we reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and therefore reduce emissions there as well (Higgins, 2017).


  • Prioritize native plants in your garden. Plant selection should be evaluated to increase garden resiliency, biodiversity and pollinator value. In his book “Bringing Nature Home,” Doug Tallamy discusses the importance of biodiversity as it relates to climate change: “it is biodiversity that will suck the carbon out of the air and sequester it into living plants” (Tallamy, 2007). Selecting native plants and trees for your garden supports healthy insect populations, providing food for insects and other wildlife.  In turn, healthy insect communities support birds, bats, butterflies and other pollinators, making our small corner of the world more resilient to climate change and reducing potential negative consequences towards our fragile web of life. Gardeners may need to select plants that have a similar range of geographic zones and evaluate neighboring growth zones as well. Selecting native plants can minimize the threat of invasive species and maintain the important pollinator connections that may be disrupted from climate change. Select a wide variety of native plants to increase the overall biodiversity of your garden, thereby increasing your garden’s resiliency from extreme weather events and conditions (National Wildlife Federation, 2017).


With appropriate selection of native plants, the implementation of water mitigation strategies, and a commitment to reduce fossil fuel and chemical amendment use, we can successfully adapt to a changing climate with gardens that thrive and sustain us.



“Gardening for Life.” Website based on Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home.

“Gardening for Climate Change.” The National Wildlife Federation. Retrieved from the web address: on October 7, 2017.

Higgins, Adrian. “How gardeners can combat climate change.” The Washington Post. April 20, 2017

Siegel, Ethan. “The First Climate Model Turns 50, And Predicted Global Warming Almost Perfectly.” Forbes. March 15, 2017.

Porter, James. “Climate Change and Coral Reefs.” (January, 2017). Presentation retrieved from the web address: on October 6, 2017).

The Great Healthy Yard Project. (Visited October 5, 2017).

“What’s in a name? Weather, global warming and climate change.” National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Retrieved from the web address: on October 6, 2017.