There are new pest insects, fewer pollinators and more invasive weeds. In some parts of the country, plants, trees and shrubs are blooming earlier than ever before, while in other regions once-hardy species are struggling because the temperatures are either too hot or too cold. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts weather will only become more severe (more heatwaves, more heavy rains) as global temperatures continue to increase.
What this all means, of course, is many traditional gardening practices no longer fit into our changing climate, says Mitchell McLarnon, an assistant professor of environmental education at Concordia University in Montreal.
It all sounds dire but McLarnon says home gardeners can help preserve and protect the delicate ecosystem by getting smarter about what they plant, how they plant and how they care for their gardens. Here’s how to ensure your garden – big or small – is doing its part to make our world a greener, healthier place.
Build a rain garden
“Climate change is sending us bigger storms so rain gardens are gaining popularity as gardeners look for new ways to soak up the water on their property, to hold it, and then slowly release it,” says Sean James, a master gardener who lives in Milton, Ont., and has specialized in ecofriendly landscape design for the past 20 years.
Many municipalities in Canada are now promoting rain gardens (some, such as York and Peel in the Greater Toronto Area, even offer financial incentives) as a cost-effective, aesthetic and fairly simple way for homeowners to help improve the water quality by using excess water that normally drains into storm sewers or local waterways. (Storm water accounts for 70 per cent of the pollution in streams, rivers and lakes in North America, according to the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council).
A natural site for a rain garden is a low spot in your yard where water puddles after a heavy rain. Round in shape, they must be at least two metres from the foundation of a house and drain away within 24 to 48 hours. James says a wide assortment of native plants thrive in this habitat.
“Ones that don’t mind getting their feet wet, can stand a spring flood and weather summer drought.” His top picks: Potentilla, Inkberry Holly, Sparkleberry, Marsh Marigold, Fireworks Goldenrod, Great Blue Lobelia, Marsh Milkweed and the unfortunately-named Common Sneezeweed (a North American species of flowering plants in the sunflower family).
Think Regenerate. Regenerate. Regenerate
A regenerative garden is conscious of emissions and waste, and it advocates a go-slow approach that nourishes the soil naturally rather than using chemical-laden fertilizers and pesticides, many of which damage plants and the soil’s microscopic life.
Niki Jabbour, a Nova Scotia-based gardening expert and author of the bestselling Growing Under Cover, says the best way to nourish your soil is to feed it annually with nutrients derived from organic mulches and fertilizers, aged manure, shredded leaves, straw, seaweed (easier if you live on the East or West coasts) as well as compost made from household kitchen waste. According to the Compost Council of Canada, as much as 50 per cent of our household garbage is nutrient-rich organic matter that goes to waste in landfills.
Jabbour is also a recent convert to the no-dig movement. She says tilling and/or digging up the soil breaks down its rich, intricate structure while releasing built-up carbon that has been stored in the soil. “I stopped digging my gardens three years ago,” she says, adding that her soil (which was sandy) is now darker, dense with organic matter and holds moisture much better. She notes there is a peat-free movement under way, too. The global decimation of peat bogs, which store vast amounts of carbon, is a serious environmental threat.
For vegetable gardeners, consider drought-resistant crops. Ideal for this are pole beans, mustard greens, okra, beets, watermelon and turnips – they all develop deep root systems to counter both heat and low water levels. Also, Jabbour says to water smartly. She waters her vegetable garden early in the morning before the day heats up and uses a long-handle watering wand to ensure it gets directly to the roots and penetrates deeply. Then she mulches between the vegetables with straw or shredded leaves to slow water evaporation and reduce weeds.
Go wild for native plants
In her own garden, Jabbour has more than 100 different species of plants, many of which are native and attract a wide range of native pollinators, birds and other wildlife. “Native plants create a healthier landscape that is less prone to disease and insect damage,” she says. “I’m getting more food from my vegetable and fruit gardens for no more work so it’s really a no-brainer.”
Native plants from small seed companies or regionally-adapted nurseries are more likely to have built-in defences to weather whatever Mother Nature throws at them. Before rushing off to purchase plants (native or otherwise) take stock of the area you are planting in and assess whether it’s sun, shade or a mix of both, and buy accordingly, Jabbour says.
Some of the heartiest include the Purple Coneflower and Black-Eyed Susans. Jabbour is also partial to Swamp Milkweed (a plant Monarch butterflies love), Red Oak, Sugar Maple, Red Maple and the Pawpaw, an edible fruit tree species unique mainly to Southwestern Ontario. James suggests a shrub called New Jersey Tea (another favourite with butterflies) as well as Silky Dogwood and Fireworks Goldenrod. “Flowers come and go. Texture will make or break your garden and native plants have texture built into their DNA,” he says.
Garden your front yard sustainably
In the past, we thought of the front and back yards as two very distinct spaces – one was for relaxing and the other was for show, says Tara Nolan, author of Gardening Your Front Yard. As ecoconscious gardening has gained traction, more homeowners are getting rid of (or cutting back on) grass and turning their front lawns into minigardens with native flowering plants, raised vegetable gardens, rain gardens, seating areas and stone walkways lined with herbs and lettuces as border plants instead of annuals.
Nolan’s climate-friendly front yard, for instance, is a mix of ornamental, drought-tolerant plants, lavender, catmint, Black-Eyed Susans, Echinacea, Russian sage, Coreopsis and native plants including Prairie Smoke, Wild Bergamot and milkweed. Instead of ripping everything out, she recommends starting small by sneaking food plants in among existing perennials.
The pro acknowledges many families with young children want to maintain a lawn, however, a healthier habitat than traditional grass is ecofriendly fescue blends, such as Eco-Lawn, which requires less watering and mowing. Other options include clover, a sedum carpet, as well as succulents, cacti and grasses. “Many people now have the courage and conviction to envision something different for their front yard than a perfect lawn with no weeds,” Nolan says.