Gardening for Climate Change

Big Change in a Small Space — Your Own Backyard Garden

Gardening for Climate Change

Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Erika Jensen — Gardening for climate change is necessary in order to enjoy a bountiful garden year after year. I remember the year I found ducks swimming in my garden. It had rained hard that spring, day after day, and the several inches of standing water provided a warm swimming pool for the migratory waterfowl. Though the garden eventually drained out, the soil was compacted and the nitrogen leached. I also blew my planting window — the weather turned hot before I could plant spring lovelies like spinach and snap peas. Welcome to climate change!

Many people consider climate change to be overwhelming. With huge issues at stake, it’s a little hard to know where to start. I favor a hands-on approach because it’s what I’m good at. Luckily, you can make a difference right in your own backyard with sustainable gardening practices.

First, look at the big picture of your yard or property. Just as some people consider the carbon footprint for various activities, you might consider the footprint for your property. Which of your gardening practices sequesters carbon, and which practices release carbon into the environment? Next, evaluate what you could do, even in small ways, to shift the balance towards a more sustainable system. At the same time, you can also ensure that your garden is healthier and more resilient to the changes that will come. Far from being an extra burden, these methods can make you a better gardener as well as saving time, labor, and money.

The following are a few practical suggestions to help you get gardening for climate change.

Ditch your lawn (or most of it).

Together, homeowners “farm” about 40 million acres of lawn, making turf grass one of our biggest crops. Yet lawns use a lot of resources. The EPA estimates that the average household uses 320 gallons of water per day, 30% of which is for outdoor use including lawns. Lawn chemicals require a lot of energy to manufacture, and that releases carbon dioxide into the environment. Reduce the size of your lawn to a few key areas, then plant the rest into a perennial planting such as a prairie, low maintenance shrubs and trees, or a no-mow lawn blend. Rural property owners often spend a lot of time mowing the lawn; planting some of your lawn into a native plant meadow is a lower maintenance solution.

Wisconsin gardener, Connie Ramthun, has created a native plants prairie surrounding her homestead, which includes this Russian style sauna. Photo credit Peter Goodlaxson.

Build a resilient landscape.

Gardening for climate change brings many challenges to gardeners. A few of them include rising temperatures, pests moving in from warmer weather areas, and extreme weather events (including both drought and excessive rainfall). Building a resilient landscape can include low maintenance plant selections, planting windbreaks to shelter your home and other buildings, using mulch to moderate soil temperatures, and building simple raised beds with good drainage and plenty of organic matter.

Mulch can cut down on weeding chores while adding carbon to the soil. Photo credit Erika Jensen.

Sink some carbon.

There are a number of ways to sink (or store) carbon in your landscape— in the form of soil organic matter, or vegetation that converts carbon dioxide to a stable form. Overall, practices that keep the soil covered with plenty of vegetation will conserve carbon. A mixed planting of trees, vines, shrubs and other perennials will sink much more carbon than a lawn with a tree or two. If you’re growing your own food, consider permaculture options that keep your soil continually covered. Traditionally, many of our food crops come from annuals like vegetables. Tillage releases carbon, so till your vegetable garden once during the beginning of the season, then use the best mulch to prevent weeds. Never export valuable organic matter in the form of lawn clippings or fall leaves. Instead, turn them into compost and keep the carbon in your garden.

In my garden, I use cover crops like buckwheat to keep the soil covered and prevent the loss of soil organic matter through erosion. Photo credit Erika Jensen.

Save some water.

Conserve water for its own sake, but also because it’s tied to energy use — the electricity used to run your well pump. Depending on where you live, you might be able to practice rainwater harvesting for your landscape if you can store it and manage it properly. Look at the big picture of water use in your homestead, assessing areas which are poorly drained or areas where you want more water, like your garden. Consider adding some elements like rain barrels for water conservation. Poorly drained areas can become rain gardens. Around 80% of our nation’s water is used in agriculture, so growing your own food can provide considerable water savings. Drip irrigation has always been my favorite way to water, and it provides a cost effective way to deliver water right to the plant’s roots.

Grow your own food.

A quarter of the world’s gas emissions come from producing the food we eat. Agriculture contributes more to climate change than any other sector, including energy and transportation. Whether you’re growing for market, or just for your family, there are many ways to make your operation more sustainable. Conservation tillage, cover cropping, lowering or eliminating your use of synthetic fertilizers are a few of the options. There are a number of ways to make your garden more resilient to change. Protect your plants from abrupt temperature changes with spun poly garden fabrics to warm the soil, or shade cloth to keep crops cooler. By building a cheap, seasonal greenhouse, you can grow greens and other crops year-round, except in the most northern parts of the country. Choose energy efficient ways of preserving food, such as root cellaring, fermentation and dehydrating.

My son shows off our field tunnel, where greens like spinach can be grown year round. Photo credit Erika Jensen.

Get inspired by your garden.

Finally, I’ll ask you to become inspired by your own garden. Let the work of your own hands teach you how much you can do when you set your mind to gardening for climate change. Use your newfound energy to inspire those around you in your community and shine a light on climate change. 


The Climate Friendly Gardener

The Carbon Farming Solution by Eric Toensmeier available at

2 thoughts on “Gardening for Climate Change”
  1. I am pretty surprised that you don’t know that plants take in carbon dioxide so they can photosynthesize and grow. A byproduct of photosynthesis is oxygen, that we breathe in. We have a symbiotic relationship with plants. Warmer climates grow more. That’s why the equatorial regions are jungles. We should not be “sequestering” carbon. It’s life’s building block. Also, northernmost gardeners pump carbon dioxide into their greenhouses (which presumably are warm) so they can grow more plants. Please do a basic internet search and see all the write-ups regarding climate data errors and outright fraud and falsifying records. For instance, actual temperatures are NOT used to compile data, but instead COMPUTER MODELS are the basis for predictions. That is not scientific. It’s also not truth. Take care.

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