Global warming's impact on your garden.

All things green.
Feb. 28 2007 12:20 PM

The Greenhouse Effect

Global warming's impact on your garden.

A garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens
The hardly-any-water-at-all garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens

Lilac bushes in New England have pretty steadily been blooming earlier every year for the past 30 years. One way some gardeners have begun to think about shorter winters is to say, "Hey, great, I live in Ohio [or wherever, north of the Mason-Dixon Line] and now I can grow some camellias, maybe a fig tree." This is, frankly, nuts. Be careful what you wish for. Kudzu is creeping north, poison ivy is growing more toxic on its diet of extra carbon dioxide, and allergy season lasts longer.

Another reaction is to say, "I will make the world greener by planting a tree in my front yard that will inhale carbon dioxide and slow global warming." This is not nuts, and it's better than nothing, especially if you are planting a shade tree on the south side of your house and thus cutting your air conditioning use. But in the face of the enormity of global temperature change, it's only a little bit better than nothing.

Advertisement

There are two very specific and more sensible ways to prepare than by cheerily planting the flora of Charleston, S.C., in Cleveland. First, insulate the green things you have from the shock of drought to come by making the soil they live in better at holding on to moisture. Next, choose new plants that can tolerate drought and a wide range of temperatures.

The institutions that guide gardeners have themselves started to adjust. The Arbor Day Foundation recently released a hardiness zone map. Their members complained that the widely used official government source—the U.S. Department of Agriculture map—didn't reflect how much the country was warming up.

The Arbor Day Foundation map, using the USDA Hardiness Zone Map of 1990 as a starting point, tracked some dramatic changes from then to 2006. Our heartland—Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and even Michigan's mitten—has shifted from Zone 5 to a warmer Zone 6. (Higher temperatures mean that most U.S. gardeners will be facing longer summer stretches without water.)

The USDA, slower off the mark, will release its own update of the 1990 map sometime this year. When asked if the forthcoming new map was a response to global warming, USDA spokesperson Kim Kaplan said, "Not specifically." She gave as more compelling reasons the fact that the Government Printing Office is out of copies of the last version and that the old version wasn't Internet-friendly.

Both maps divide the United States into zones by shared average low temperatures. Bands of different colors run from a very cold Zone 1 (Fairbanks, Alaska) to a tropical Zone 11 (Honolulu). The maps are a general guide; you may have something like a sunny wall where cold-averse plants can grow. Or your garden may be in a valley that's colder than the surrounding hillsides.

For those who acknowledge that warming is definitely here, the highest priority is to protect trees, which shelter other plants from drying wind and sun, as well as absorb carbon dioxide. The single best drought-survival help you can give those beneficial trees and your other plants is to cover any bare earth, from which water evaporates quickly, with mulch. Spread shredded bark or bark chips or compost about 3 inches deep on top of the soil (take care not to push mulch right up against plant stems or tree trunks where it can cause rot).

When you're planting new things or moving old plants, improve the moisture-holding capacity of your soil even more by digging in organic matter—the same bits of bark or well-rotted cow manure, or compost.

Compost—dark, earthy, decomposed organic matter—has the immediate and obvious effect of making your soil moister, and it's also a welcoming home for the earthworms and microorganisms that make nutrients available to your plants.

  Slate Plus
Working
Dec. 18 2014 4:49 PM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 17 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked a middle school principal about his workday.