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Climate Change and Gardening

by Stephanie Suesan Smith on December 3, 2017

picture of repotting suculents

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Climate change can make gardening frustrating.  Techniques that you have followed for years no longer work.  Favorite plants die.  Rainfall has changed and you are either in a drought or a monsoon.  What can you do to cope?

You can continue gardening.  You just need to make some changes.  First, you may cautiously expand your plant selections to plants from the next warmest zone.  Plants that the growing season was too short for may now change.  Others that always froze out may now grow.  Some of your regular vegetables and ornamentals may be able to adapt to the warmer weather and you can still grow them.

Late freezes cause trouble.  You may find that late freezes kill many of your plants.  In North Central Texas this year, we have not had a hard freeze.  It is close to 80 degrees F as I write this.  Many plants are flowering out.  Many others never went dormant.  This not only means the grass still has to be cut often, it means if there is a freeze in January or February, our really cold months, flowers will be frozen and plants that are not dormant may die.

No cold, no fruit.  Some plants, such as fruit trees, need a certain number of hours of cold, called chilling hours.  If the plants do not get the chilling hours they need, they do not bloom.  No blooms means no fruit.  Some of our fruits will become increasingly hard to grow.  Orchards will have to move north to continue to produce.

Pests may thrive. Foreign plants and animals that are adapted to the new weather conditions may move in and thrive.  Problems such as fire ants, that have been kept in check by cold winters, may now spread to new places because of the lack of sufficient cold.  Finally, predators and prey may get out of sink with because of the new weather conditions.  This could allow pests to grow in number because of a lack of predators.  Even good animals can become pests if they have no prey (look at deer and gardens.)

Heat stress.   Plants that could formerly grow in your area may face a new foe.  The summer heat may come early and be more intense.  This means onions and cole crops such as cabbage and broccoli will bolt early.  They may bolt so early they do not make a crop some years.  Other plants may wilt in the extreme heat of summer.  Perennials that are unable to take the heat may have to be treated as annuals and be replaced each fall so they bloom in the spring before dying in the summer.

Drought.  You may have to choose carefully when planting because of limited water.  In some areas, outdoor watering bans caused lawns to die.  In others, you could only water certain days of the week between the hours of ten and six.  It may be necessary to plant slower growing, drought resistant plants, including vegetables.

Floods.  An intense rain event is calculated by the National Weather Service as one that brings more than two inches of rain in forty-eight hours.  These events are increasingly the way people get rain in many parts of the country.  This leads to root rot problems and can kill many plants that do not tolerate wet feet well.  This is especially problematic when you have drought interspersed with heavy rains.  The plants that do well during the drought generally do not do well with lots of water.

How to cope.  You can cope with these changes, although you may have to give up some old favorites among your plants.

  • Use plants from the next warmer zone.
  • Move up plant dates to take advantage of longer growing seasons.
  • Use longer spring temperatures to grow cool weather crops before it gets too hot for them.
  • Stay in touch with your Extension agent to find out about new pests and ways of dealing with them.
  • Use raised beds to prevent “wet feet” during prolonged rain events.
  • Plant frost resistant perennials so a late frost won’t kill them.

Gardening is great exercise, a way to improve your space, and a way to save on grocery bills.  All of these things are still possible.  Just make some adjustments to account for climate change.


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