How to Prepare Your Garden for Climate Change
Climate chaos is upon us. Droughts are becoming more common. And when the rains come, they come in torrents. How do you prepare your garden for climate change? Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to make your plants more resilient to climate change. Let’s dive into these steps to build a climate-resilient garden.
Do you know what the impacts of climate change are in your area? While temperatures are steadily increasing globally, this can result in a wide variety of extremes depending on where you live.
An example of this is the extreme winter storms that have hit the mid-west of the United States. While it may seem strange that warming temperatures could result in more snow, it actually makes sense. I know growing up in eastern Washington that our coldest days were never our snowy days—snow always came when the air was warm enough to hold extra moisture.
This is why I like to use the term climate chaos—it’s not just about warmer temperatures.
But where I live now, in western Washington state, snow really isn’t our primary concern. Here we have the issue of droughts in the summer and too much rain in the winter.
And over time, this pattern is expected to get worse. The total expected rainfall is projected to stay about the same, but that same amount of rain will come over a shorter time period in larger, more intense storms. And our summer droughts are expected to become worse.
Even now, it’s not uncommon to have little-to-no rain from June to September. And in the future, we could be dry from May through September, and even into October.
Wherever you live, chances are that intense weather extremes will become the rule, rather than the exception, in years to come.
So what should you do to prepare your garden for climate change?
What you need is a way to reduce the impact of both these extremes. And luckily, addressing one can also help you deal with the other.
If you can hold onto more of the rain that falls on your property, then you can reduce the impact of summer droughts. And there are also ways to reduce the impact of summer droughts that, in turn, help you retain more water.
A key part of preparing your garden for climate change is learning to work with your land and embracing the characteristics that make it unique. Working with your land is a pathway to abundance for people, plants and wildlife—and an important part of creating a climate-resilient garden. Ready to learn more? Make sure to grab your free guide all about how to work with your land to get started today.
Dealing with too Much Rain
What makes climate change so impactful is the extreme events. If you get 20 inches (50.8 cm) of rain over several months, chances are you can deal with it fairly easily. But if you get all that rain in a week—or even all at once—then that can result in erosion, flooding and other issues.
Unfortunately, with climate change, many areas like western Washington are facing larger and more intense storms. Rain that used to be spread out over multiple storms is coming all at once.
And when this happens, the rainwater often ends up flowing off your property as surface water flow instead of soaking into the ground.
When water leaves your property as surface water, it’s gone. It can’t sink into the soil to help you deal with summer droughts.
And it can cause substantial erosion and wash away your topsoil and nutrients. This is bad for your property and it can cause problems downstream.
What you need to do is slow the water down so it has more time to soak into the soil, and then also to improve how much water your soils can hold.
Preparing Your Garden for Climate Change – Slowing Down the Water
Slowing down water is simple in concept—look for areas with slopes and see if you can create “speed bumps” to slow any surface water down.
One way is to terrace a sloped area. This is also a great option for transforming a slope into great growing areas for vegetables and other food plants.
Terracing a sloped area basically transforms it into a series of steps. Any water that lands on these areas will slowly sink in instead of flowing downhill.
Here is a great article all about how to quickly make a terrace.
Another option is to create swales. These are basically ditches that are level (on contour) so water collects in them instead of flowing away. The result is that water pools up and soaks into the ground instead of flowing downhill over the surface of the water.
Just make sure to have a spillway where water can flow out of the swale if it fills up. People often make a serries of swales to increase how much water they can hold.
If you put the swales uphill from your garden, then the water will soak in and become available for your plant roots.
And if you don’t want to be digging out swales or building terraces, a simple option is to put your garden beds or other growing areas on contour.
When you plant on contour, the growing beds and the plants, themselves, will slow down any surface water that reaches them.
This happens because leaves, twigs, branches and other material build up and basically create mini swales.
You can even add some logs or rocks in these on-contour growing areas to help slow water down. Plus those logs and rocks will make great habitat for wildlife.
All these options work as speed bumps to slow any water down that is flowing over the surface of your property. The longer the water is on your land, the more time it will have to soak in and transition to groundwater. And ultimately, groundwater is what you want since groundwater travels more slowly than surface water, and that is where your plant roots are.
Preparing Your Garden for Climate Change – Increase How Much Water Your Soils Can Hold
So now that you’ve slowed down the water so it can soak in, you need to make sure your soils can hold as much water as possible.
The key to doing this is to increase the organic material in your soils. This is often referred to as your soils’ “percent organic material”.
Garden soils can have 6-12% (or even more) organic material, while poor, degraded soils often only have 1-2% organic material in them. If your soils are dark and crumbly then you likely have a much higher percentage of organic material.
So what does this mean for your soils’ ability to hold water? It turns out, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), every 1% increase in organic matter results in as much as 25,000 gallons of available water per acre.
That is roughly the amount of water the average American family uses in 3 months.
And on the garden scale, that means that for every 1% increase in organic matter you get an extra 0.6 gallons of water per square foot in your garden. And that is roughly the amount of water your plants need on a weekly basis.
So how do you increase your soil’s percent organic material?
To increase your soil’s percent organic material, you would ultimately take the same steps you’d take to build healthy, living soil that can help your plants thrive. Here are the steps you should take:
The first thing you should do is stop tilling your soils. Every time you till your soil, you reduce how much organic material there is in your soils.
The next thing you should do is to cover your soil with mulch. This mulch should be wood chips, straw or some other organic material that will break down over time. You can also use plants as a living mulch—but make sure the plants completely cover the ground. You don’t want any bare ground.
All that mulch will slowly get broken down and incorporated into the soil through the actions of soil life like worms and fungi.
As this happens, it will increase the organic material in your soils. And a great way to jump start this process is to add compost to your growing areas. Not only does the compost have organic material in it already, but it also has lots of soil life, which will help you build more soil.
You can also chop-and-drop your spent plants and cuttings as a simple way to add organic material to the surface of your soil.
Finally, the more perennial plants you can plant the better. These can be perennial vegetables, fruit trees, berries, etc. All these plants will grow deep roots that will support soil life and further add organic material to your soil.
If you do this each year, your soils will improve, and they will be able to hold more water. And when it comes to preparing for climate change, this is key—the more water your soils can hold, the less issues you will have with flooding, erosion, and droughts.
Dealing with Droughts
If you’ve taken some steps to deal with too much rain, then you’re already well on your way to dealing with droughts.
All that water that you’ve slowed and stored in your soil will be there for your plants. This directly prepares your garden for climate change—and specifically, for droughts.
But now you need to hold on to as much of that stored water as possible. A key method is to keep the soil covered by using mulch and/or living plants.
Not only will this build organic material over time, it will also lower the temperature of your soil. This will reduce evaporation, keep your soil life active, and help keep your plants from becoming stressed.
And it will have the added benefit of reducing how much watering you need to do.
Keeping the soil covered will also reduce how much water your soil loses from evaporation—especially from wind.
And if you want to take this a step further, you can even place small logs between your plants. These logs will shelter the soil and your plants. As long as the logs are relatively small, your garden plants will easily grow above them.
Your goal should be for no sunlight to reach your garden soil either because of your plants or because the soil is covered with mulch.
Another step is to plant perennial vegetables and consider transitioning your growing areas to food forests filled with perennial food plants.
Perennial plants, once established, are far more resilient to climate change than annual plants like lettuce. Their roots go much deeper, giving them far better access to nutrients and water.
Native vegetables and other edible native plants are also a great option. This will not only create a resilient garden but also support local wildlife.
All of this will help prepare your garden for climate change, but there is more you can do. Here are some posts that dive into how you can deal with drought and reduce your watering.
- 5 Ways to Transform Your Garden into a Low Water Garden
- How to Water Your Plants (without Over Watering)
- 19 Ways to Deal with Drought on your Property
But regardless of your specific method for creating a climate-resilient garden, it really does come down to 2 things you should do:
- Keeping the soil covered.
- Building the organic content of your soil
If you do these 2 things every year, you can prepare your garden for climate change. And don’t forget that switching over to perennial food systems will further improve the resilience of your garden to climate change.
First Steps to Take to Prepare Your Garden for Climate Change
Droughts and floods—these are the 2 extremes we’re dealing with here in western Washington. The specifics may be different in your area, but expect extremes.
Ultimately, moderating these extreme events to lessen their impact is key to building a climate-resilient garden.
There are many steps you can take to retain moisture, and many of those steps will look different depending on the unique conditions of your property.
But to prepare your garden for climate change, perhaps the best place to start—no matter where you are—is to increase the organic material in your soils.
That means mulching, planting perennial plants, and of course, not tilling your soil.
The more you can keep your soil covered with living plants and/or mulch, the better. Over time, the organic material in your soil will grow.
This will greatly increase how much water your soil can hold, reducing your flood risks while providing more water for your plants when they need it to withstand the summer drought.
And remember to be prepared for extreme years. What is extreme today may be the norm in a couple decades.
But regardless of the impacts your land faces from climate chaos, if you increase how much organic material is in your soil, plant perennials, and keep the soil covered, your garden will be much more resilient to climate change.
And if we do address climate change and start reversing climate chaos, all these methods to prepare your garden for climate change will still provide them the conditions they need to thrive.
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