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Gardening in an Unpredictable Climate

Climate change is putting more and more stress on world ecosystems. As gardeners, we face these challenges daily as we struggle to adapt to unpredictable weather patterns and changing seasons.

Climate change is affecting every region of the world a little differently. Some areas are getting hotter and drier, others warmer and wetter. Changing rainfall patterns mean that gardeners can no longer depend on the seasonal showers we depend on. Instead, those rains could come down with enough force to wipe out not only our gardens but our homes.

As growing seasons lengthen and cold seasons grow shorter, gardeners will have more time to plant. On the surface, this might look like a good thing. However, changing seasons and shifting hardiness zones come with their own set of challenges.

Sustainable agriculture groups are spending a lot of time and energy researching the ways in which our farms and gardens can adapt to these challenges. Here are some of their suggestions.
Embrace New Varieties And Diversify

One of the ways we can mitigate the impacts of climate change in gardening is embracing new varieties. Unfortunately, this might mean saying goodbye to old favorites in exchange for varieties better suited to a changing world. Drought-tolerant perennials could replace lush, water loving lettuces in your garden, and in increasingly wet areas, flood-tolerant crops make more sense.

The bright side is that longer growing seasons allow for more flexibility in garden planning. If your summers get too hot for your usual crops, try focusing on spring and fall production. Milder winters open up opportunities for season extension techniques, and having a diverse garden full of different varieties is better for you and your soil.
Soil Health Matters More Than Ever

Soil health matters more than ever in a world with decreasing biodiversity and increasing adversity. Well-drained, fertile soils withstand flooding better than clay-based or dry soils. Active, healthy soils are resilient in times of stress, while depleted, unhealthy soils suffer, as history clearly illustrated in the Dust Bowl.

Unfortunately, keeping our soil healthy could get more difficult. Climate change negatively affects nutrient cycling in several ways. We will have to provide more and more of our garden’s needs as nature’s mechanisms slow and change. If you don’t already have a compost pile, now is the time to start thinking about one.
Keep Row Cover And Shade Cloth Handy

Later first frost dates and earlier thaws don’t guarantee frost free conditions. Many of you probably remember the early thaw a few years ago that damaged fruit yields in the U.S. and Canada. Then there were the freak temperatures around Christmas this year that had plants blooming way out of season. We label these events “extreme” and “freaky,” but this is the face of the new normal.

There is little we can do about these sorts of events. For freezes a little more on schedule, however, there is an easy solution. Keeping frost-grade row cover on hand makes last minute temperature plunges manageable. Shade cloth is equally essential for long, hot periods, especially for those of you who enjoy lettuce.
Be Prepared For Pollinator Problems

Scientists are not sure if pollinator populations are going to follow the rising mercury. This means that while spring might come sooner, pollinators are not guaranteed to change their habits, resulting in tragic missed connections in your garden. Pollinators are struggling in other ways as well, as habitat loss and other climate change stressors deplete populations worldwide.

Hand pollinating on a large scale is not possible for many farmers, but for smaller gardeners it is a useful skill to learn. Growing crops that are not reliant on pollinators is another option, although certainly a tragic one for those of us who appreciate a wider variety of fruits and vegetables.
Grow In Controlled Environments

Hoop houses and greenhouses offer gardeners the benefit of controlled environments. They also come with baggage of their own. Controlled environments require irrigation and are not free from pests and disease. They do, however, offer your plants protection against torrential downpours and unseasonable temperatures.

Container gardening is another option for small-scale gardeners. Container plants are easy to move around and shelter (unless the containers are exceptionally heavy), giving you more control over conditions.
Mulch, Mulch, Mulch

Mulch does wonders for gardens and is an invaluable tool for unpredictable weather. Mulch prevents excessive evaporation during droughts. It minimizes erosion during torrential downpours and minor flooding. Organic mulch feeds your soil, but even non-organic mulches fight the increased weed pressure that climate change is expected to bring.

Many mulches are cheap or even free. Straw, hay, pine needles, cardboard, leaves, garden cloth and black plastic all help your garden cope with unprecedented stress.
Rearrange Your Garden Areas

The reliable beds you’ve used for years might not be in the best location for gardening in a changing climate. Low, wet patches might flood more. Drought could dry out other areas of your garden, forcing you to rearrange your garden plots.

Over the course of the coming seasons, take detailed notes about your garden’s productivity. As one area struggles, take advantage of other locations.
Climate Change Calls For Creativity

To cope with climate change in our gardens, we need creativity. For me, gardening is an inherently creative process. It requires constant problem-solving and a lot of out-of-the-box thinking, as any gardener on a budget can relate to. This is the sort of thinking required to adapt to an unpredictable climate. As the climate strays from familiar paths, we need to wander beyond our comfort zones as well.

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