Climate Change Gardening


One of the virtues of gardening is that it brings its practitioners into intimate contact with natural systems.  As I discovered as a young gardener many years ago, and a practitioner of the “better living through chemistry” school of my craft, you cannot long ignore and abuse the living aspects of your soil without causing its collapse.  I remember how, in a matter of a very few years, through a reliance of chemical quick fixes, I reduced the good loam of a rose garden I tended into an impoverished clay.

Likewise, I think that the most exciting gardening I have experienced was the response of my Californian colleagues to the cycle of droughts in the late 1980’s, when they re-invented their craft.  From landscapes of irrigation-dependent exotics and Anglophilic lawns, the best of the Californian gardeners moved to plantings that emphasized native plants grown in pattern that mimicked the local flora.  In this way, those gardeners turned a crisis into a new departure and a triumph.

Given this history, I have been deeply disappointed by American gardeners’ overall failure to address climate change.  For the most part we have gardened on through recent years, planting the same kind of landscapes as if the world was not changing around us.  What’s more, in lectures that I have given, I have found audiences often resistant to even discussing the matter.  Ignore the problem, has been the too-common attitude, and perhaps it will go away, or at least not precipitate a crisis until our grandchildren’s day.

This is why I was so impressed by a talk that Ken Druse gave last Saturday, for the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Winter Lecture.  “The New Shade Garden: Creating a Lush Oasis in the Age of Climate Change” was the title of the talk, and Druse began by directly addressing the scientific issues. With a mix of fact, humor, and enticing photographs of what could be, he very soon had the audience on his side and receptive to his message.

I think what Druse is advocating as a response to our present challenge, the creation and beautification of shade, is just a beginning.  I believe that revolutionary, fundamental changes in our definition of garden beauty must come.  But I admire Ken for making a persuasive start, and I urge readers to take a look at his book, The New Shade Garden.

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My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. You can hear Ken monthly with Margaret Roach on her podcast “A Way to Garden”.

  2. New scientific papers report that the global warming models are underestimating the effects of cloud cover and of the effects of melting northern ice on the deep ocean temperatures. At least one of these papers were published by the Global Warming people who set up the carbon debts for countries. By examining solar studies that show the GREATER effect of solar output on our weather and the current temperatures not being hindered by our carbon polluting and by examining a longer range view of temperature data it is clear that the late warming was the typical warming cycle that occurs right before dramatic colder cycles. You can google these topics to discover the data. I say this not to push a political agenda, but to explain why I am considering myself a hardiness zone COOLER and increasing the size of my food garden.

    • Any citations at all? Your descriptions are vague enough that it would be impossible to confirm whether we were even reading the same paper.

    • Erin, when I am faced with making decisions I look to experts in the field. The basics of climatology seem to be accepted by the vast majority of scientists on climate, and they all agree on the basics. Just as physicists can get in arguments about the cutting edge of research, but all agree on the existence of atoms, in climatology it seems to be indisputable at this point that global warming is real and serious. While mavericks have occasionally been correct in the history of science, most of them have simple been dead wrong.

      When I look to car maintenance, I go to standard mechanics; when I have my teeth checked I go to a dentist who is pretty much mainstream. The problem with outliers in a real subject like climate is that we lay folks cannot adequately judge the substance of their arguments. I always bet house odds, and have rarely regretted it.

      • Kermit, I agree completely with your comments. Perhaps, however, Erin is in Europe. There is some good evidence that the Gulf Stream could be stalled, in which case Europe would likely cool down more in line with North American locales of comparable latitudes. London, for example, is roughly as far north as Calgary, yet has winters as warm as the Carolinas. Shutting down the Gulf Stream would indeed cool Europe, at least temporarily.

  3. Wow! I just got “The New Shade Garden” by Ken Druse for $5.20 Amazon Prime! Inside cover price $40.00. Thanks Thomas!

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