How to practice climate-friendly gardening

By Lisa Hamilton, Henrico Master Gardener

A few years back, January and February were warm, with day temperatures in the 50s and 60s, even 70s, and night time rarely below 45. It looked like spring would be early that year. Flowers began blooming earlier than usual. The always popular big-leaf hydrangeas emerged early from their dormancy, as leaves budded out. It looked to be a stunning spring and summer. But the stunner was the 20-degree cold snap in April … killing the tender hydrangea buds. There would be no beautiful blue hydrangea blooms that year. Because of climate change, this scenario is becoming more and more familiar.

Climate change is the consequence of global warming due to naturally occurring, heat-trapping atmospheric gases which are amplified by the cumulative effect of human activity (greenhouse gases). Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (a product of fossil fuel combustion and deforestation), as well as nitrous oxide, methane and ground level ozone. Data over the last 30 years indicate a definite upward trend in temperatures. With the ever-increasing temperatures, some predictions are that by 2050 Virginia’s climate will be more like that of Georgia. Excess heat, along with its accompanying increased evaporation of oceans, is leading to extreme weather events such as heavy precipitation, drought, sudden freezes and wildfires.

Many of us are familiar with the effects of climate change in our gardens. Unpredictable bloom times and temperatures are leading to a loss of synchrony between pollinators, migratory birds and plants. Consequently, for example, hummingbirds can miss out on floral nectar when source plants bloom early, before the hummingbird’s arrival. Additionally, these changes in temperature and moisture in the atmosphere create conditions in which plant insect pests can take advantage of stress-weakened plants. This “new normal” means one cannot simply look to the Old Farmer’s Almanac for garden guidance, one must adapt to change year to year.

Set a Goal

Home gardeners can help to adapt to and help to mitigate the effects of climate change by implementing simple, climate-friendly practices in their home landscapes. Climate-friendly gardening can be satisfying, fun, productive and beautiful. The following suggestions are just a sampling gleaned from a presentation by Frank Reilly and panelists at the International Master Gardener College in Fall 2021. Consider setting a goal to try implementing one or two changes each year. You’ll be gratified with the resultant beauty and lively wildlife, and with being part of the solution.

  • When practical, use electric and human-powered garden equipment rather than gas-powered equipment.
  • Compost plant-based food scraps and yard waste in your yard. Leave the leaves in the fall. Why buy mulch when you have free mulch in the form of leaves?
  • Avoid use of peat moss which releases carbon into the atmosphere.
  • Amend soil with organic material such as compost and avoid petroleum-based fertilizers.
  • Support tree planting in your community. Trees remove carbon from the atmosphere.
  • Increase bio-diversity in your landscape and focus on native plants which are more resilient as well as beautiful. Set a goal to reduce lawn areas, change types of turf or plant a meadow or a native plant garden. Start by looking learning about native plants from Plant Virginia Natives or Virginia Native Plant Society.
  • Manage water movement to protect streams, rivers, and the bay. Consider installing a rain garden. Check out The James River Association or your local soil and water district for information on water management.
  • Protect your soil. Do not leave soil exposed; mulch or, better yet, plant groundcovers, and practice no-till gardening. Tilling soil is a common and, generally, an unnecessary practice that not only releases carbon into the atmosphere but also provides the ideal growing medium for invasive weeds.

For more information check out the following resources: