Climate change is a worldwide reality -- a matter not just of warming temperatures and shifting patterns of precipitation, but of broad environmental transformations -- and it is also happening right in our own backyards. Smart gardening practices can help reduce its impact without compromising the pleasures of a beautiful garden.
You really don't have to give anything up to become a more effective steward of the environment on your own property. You can still grow flowers, fruits and vegetables and have family picnics on the patio -- in fact, you may enjoy these pleasures even more because climate-sensitive gardens conserve time, energy and money. Instead of mowing the lawn, dragging hoses around and fighting insect pests with expensive chemicals, you'll discover you have more time to relax and appreciate your garden.
Climate-smart gardening practices aren't radical recommendations, but sensible suggestions. Healthy trees help reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and they also provide welcome shade. Planting a tree on the south or southwest side of your property will shade the house in the summertime, reducing energy bills. Deciduous trees, when they drop their leaves in fall, allow the sun's rays to warm your house in the winter.
A lawn is a thing of beauty, especially if it is set among fine trees and shrubs and attractive flower beds. According to the National Audubon Society, this combination of elements turns any backyard into an environmental haven for songbirds, which so enliven a garden. Lawns are, in fact, the least important in this environmental sense.
"A lawn doesn't support much more life than a roadway," says Doug Tallamy, an entomology professor and author of Bringing Nature Home and Nature's Best Hope, both full of inspiration for beautiful, sustainable gardens. Tallamy argues persuasively for the environmental benefits of diverse landscapes that support insects, birds and wildlife in general, and backs his recommendations with research showing how many species of insects are supported by a single oak tree, a redbud, a sycamore and many other trees.
The naturally occurring vegetation anywhere in the world, from eastern woodlands to the great western prairies and the rainforest of the Pacific Northwest -- as well as every bug that creeps and bird that sings in these environments -- is a natural and thoroughgoing manifestation of regional climatic conditions. You improve your chances as a gardener -- and those of myriad living things -- by planting native plants that have naturally evolved in the area and are thus exquisitely suited to conditions where you live.
Native plants are also high on the lists of recommendations from the National Wildlife Federation, the Association of Professional Landscape Designers and the American Society of Landscape Architects, which all have programs that advocate for sustainable, climate-smart gardening and environmental responsibility.
John Greenlee, an internationally known garden designer who specializes in ornamental grasses and meadowlike, naturalistic plantings, likes to combine showy native grasses with perennial flowers in his designs for both commercial and residential clients. Natural lawns and native grasses stabilize the ecology, he says. Flowers "are the meadow sweeteners" that make such landscapes breathtakingly beautiful.
You don't need a large property to plant a meadow. "The greatest possibility for a meadow is a front lawn," Greenlee says. Small lawns, he says, "are strange things that are meaningless," and reducing the size of a lawn -- or eliminating a high-maintenance lawn altogether -- also eliminates the need for noisy, polluting mowers, blowers and edgers.
"We can't just decorate the planet anymore," Greenlee says. "We have to fix it. We have to garden for the planet."
If you're looking for support and encouragement beyond online resources, turn to a pro. Garden designers are focusing more closely on sustainable practices than ever before. The Association of Professional Landscape Designers is working to encourage environmental responsibility in every step of the design and installation process, and following up with sustainable practices for the care and maintenance of gardens. Wildlife habitats, pollinator-friendly gardens and conservation of water and energy are all part of the organization's effort.
Sustainability is a goal, but remember, the APLD emphasizes, that getting there is a process. Take every element of a garden's design into account. Thinking ecologically about garden design naturally leads to responsible decisions about the choice of appropriate plants that thrive in your region -- without pampering and with minimal supplemental water. When you're gardening for the planet, you naturally avoid invasive species and reduce your use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
Climate-smart gardening isn't a lonely task or a call for a wild and unruly landscape. Lots of people are thinking and gardening this way. It's a group effort with impressive professional support, and it's the future.
Take advantage of the many resources available to learn more about what you can do to become a greener gardener and reduce the impact of climate change. The following organizations and individuals, among many others, are committed to doing their part, and to helping educate residential and commercial design professionals and home gardeners:
-- The National Audubon Society's website (audubon.org) is full of tips and ideas for bird-friendly gardens that help make up for the loss of habitat due to development and climate change.
-- The National Wildlife Federation's online field guides, apps and guidelines for environmentally smart gardening practices (all at nwf.org), are excellent and encouraging resources for backyard gardeners. "Although the predictions for climate change are dire, they are not inevitable," NWF says.
-- Find a garden designer through the website of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (apld.org). On the website, you can also take a look at award-winning, sustainable design projects, full of ideas adaptable to gardens everywhere, and check out the organization's best-practice recommendations.
-- Environmentally responsible design is a top priority of the American Association of Landscape Architects (asla.org). The group's Sustainability Report, and reports on native plants and diversity, are posted on the website, along with guidelines for environmentally responsible lawns, healthy soil and more.
-- John Greenlee (greenleeandassociates.com) is a garden designer and author whose meadow designs in the U.S. and around the world are known for their environmental sensitivity and great beauty. Meadows are a natural alternative to traditional lawns, he says. Greenlee is the author of "Meadows by Design" and other books on ornamental grasses, design and sustainability.
-- Doug Tallamy is a professor at the University of Delaware, an entomologist, author and expert on the relationships between humans and nature. He is a founding partner of the Home Grown National Park initiative (homegrownnationalpark.com), which encourages biodiversity in home gardens, and the author of (among other books) "Bringing Nature Home" and "Nature's Best Hope."