Climate Change and Your Garden


You can’t be a gardener these days, not a serious gardener, and not notice some shifts in the climate. These vary with the region, but it’s safe to say that in most of the United States, what was once aberrant weather has become the new normal.  So how do you garden sustainably in a time of climate change?  That was the question I posed last Wednesday evening to Dr. David Wolfe of Cornell University, when I interviewed him for my radio program.

Dr. Wolfe is a plant and soil ecologist who has developed an interest in climate change through his work with farmers and gardeners.  He’s become an internationally recognized authority on the horticultural aspects of this issue.  Two years ago he was invited to give a lecture to Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society.

Apple blossoms damaged by late frost — Photo credit: Mark Longstroth, MSU Extension

Because my program broadcasts in central Connecticut, we focused largely on the gardening conditions of the Northeast, but much of Dr. Wolfe’s advice was more broadly applicable. For example, he addressed the alternating drought and deluge that has become characteristic of summertime in many regions besides the Northeast.  This is a result of the more intense evaporation that the extra heat is promoting: water is lost from the soil and plants more rapidly, so that the air becomes like a sponge, full of moisture that periodically is dumped.  Because organic matter increases the absorptive quality of the soil, as well as its ability to retain water, increasing its concentration in the soil is one way to mediate both extremes.

Warmer winters may sound like a boon to northern gardeners, but their effect has been, in Dr. Wolfe’s experience, to actually increase frost damage.  That’s because thaws are coming earlier in the year, hastening bud break and bloom, which prolongs the period when plants are vulnerable to a late frost.  Warmer winters, however, also pose an obvious opportunity for northern gardeners to experiment with perennials that would not have proved hardy a few years ago.

One topic on which Dr. Wolfe had much to say was the role that gardeners can play in fighting global climate change.   For example, gardeners tend to be much more lavish with fertilizers than farmers, especially when it comes to lawns, and this has a steep environmental cost. Synthetic fertilizers are produced with an intensive consumption of fossil fuels, and so are major contributors of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.  And a certain fraction of the nitrates applied to the soil, even in organic forms, will escape as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas more than 200 times as potent as CO2.

Unlike farmers, gardeners’ livelihoods don’t depend on their craft, so they are perfectly poised to experiment with such things as varying planting dates and crops, yielding data that can be useful beyond their plots.

David Wolfe also stressed the role that gardeners can play as community leaders.  You cannot garden without becoming intimate with natural systems. Sharing the knowledge gained in that fashion with neighbors provides locally-sourced information that is more difficult to dismiss.  That, surely, is the greatest contribution you and I can make to fighting climate change.

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Thomas Christopher

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. Yes climate change is happening. But as a soil ecologist, did Dr. Wolfe say anything about non native worms (e.g. asian jumping worms). Wouldn’t they have just as much, if not more, impact?

  2. Good point! I didn’t ask Dr. Wolfe about about the impact of non-native worms, a category which actually includes all earthworms in the northern states. I intend to devote a future radio program on an interview with an expert on that topic from the University of Vermont.

  3. I listened to your show last Wednesday with Dr. David Wolfe and afterward in my gardening journal I wrote that the biggest take-away for dealing with climate change was to add more organic matter to the soil. Not to toot my own horn, but I’d been doing this anyway by using my own compost and grabbing bags of leaves from the curb in the fall, which I scatter over the soil as mulch. I don’t know truly how much of a difference this makes as none of my neighbors who garden would do this. They wouldn’t be caught dead with leaves in their yard. I’ve also been experimenting with “weed tea” as free fertilizer with a low negative impact on the environment. Regardless, I like the show and will tune in again.

  4. Thanks for listening. I think so many solutions to our environmental challenges involve little more than inspired common sense. Seems like you’ve got that, but in general it’s in short supply.

  5. The New York Times published an op-ed about 5 years ago entitled “Gardening for Climate Change” that is even more relevant today. The author acknowledges the changing ranges of plants and animals in response to climate change and the need to accommodate those changes if species are to survive: “…species are disappearing across their native range but flourishing outside it…This phenomenon of species movement and adaptation is likely to become commonplace as the climate changes.”
    Here in California, where the native plant movement is very influential, the changing ranges of native plants is not being taken into consideration. Public land managers are destroying Monterey pines in the San Francisco Bay Area because they didn’t live here in 1769, when Europeans arrived. Monterey pines are native about 150 miles south of us and there is fossil evidence that they lived here several times in the distant past.
    Another local example is the recent eradication of a species of buckwheat that is also native to Monterey California, but not to the Bay Area, using the narrow criterion of the local native plant movement. If the plant or tree did not live in a specific location in 1769, it is not considered native and it is eradicated often with pesticides.

    Gardening for climate change requires that we revise our definition of native so that it can accommodate the realities of changed climate conditions. Here in California, we should be looking south of us for plants that are adapted to current and future conditions.

    • You make a very interesting point. I think that a basic element of gardening successfully in a time of a changing climate is going to be mixing flexibility with resourcefulness. Trying to turn the clock back in the local flora seems especially futile in a time when a fundamental ecological parameter is changing so quickly and dramatically.

  6. Always check your garden after any disaster that comes. We should take care of our gardens and have a maintenance for it. Anyway thanks for sharing this article, it is very informative.

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