Gardening for Climate Action


I’ve rarely been as deeply affected emotionally as I was this fall when I attended a pair of demonstrations by young people — teenagers and pre-teens  – calling for climate action.  These young people want a future they can believe in, and I couldn’t help feeling they deserve it.  But how do you reach the powerful faction of adults that has so far stymied the taking of corrective steps?

This may be where gardening comes in.

One difficulty I’ve encountered in trying to speak to those who doubt the need for or the feasibility of action against climate change has been the politicization of our vocabulary.  Those on the right bridle at the mere sound of such words as “environment” or “global warming”.  These conservatives, often well-meaning and intelligent people, associate such language with their political opponents, and commonly stop listening as soon as they hear those words.

We need a different, less antagonizing, means of communication.

One person who has worked successfully along these lines is  Dominique Browning, who was the editor-in-chief when I was a columnist at House & Garden.  Dominique has since founded and now directs an organization called “Moms Clean Air Force”.  Dedicated to combatting air pollution and fighting for children’s health, it boasts a million members, a large number of them, Dominique told me not long ago, in deep red states.  After all, when you ask a parent if they want their children to breathe clean air, of course they say yes. Having connected over that, it’s easy – inescapable, almost — to move on to a dispassionate discussion about the dangers that greenhouse gases pose to those same children.

Gardening, I believe, can and should serve a similar function.  Gardening is an apolitical activity, as popular in red states as blue, yet one that you cannot pursue without soon learning about the importance of respecting natural systems.

I remember how forcefully I was taught this by a rose garden I took care of as part of my first horticultural job 45 years ago.  Following the common wisdom of the time, I applied synthetic fertilizers monthly through the growing season and I sprayed those roses weekly with a broad-spectrum insecticide and a fungicide.  Indeed, my roses grew vigorously and remained insect and black spot free.  But within a couple of years, the soil in the garden, initially a fertile loam, had collapsed into a dense and barren clay.

That brought home to me in a way I could not ignore that a garden is a living complex, and that there were consequences to treating it as a mere chemistry experiment.

Sharing is intrinsic to gardening.  We all need to make a consciousness effort to share with others not only its pleasures but also its lessons.  Whether you are a garden club member, garden coach, or the passionate gardener in your neighborhood, I believe that you should be a leader.  I’d love to hear ideas from readers, especially those in red states, about how they think this could play out.


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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. Hi,
    I live in a blue state but am politically somewhat conservative. One frustration I have with all the “gardening for climate change” messaging is that climate change is so unpredictable and nebulous I feel that I can’t possibly take concrete steps in my garden to adapt to it, nor do I feel that I have any good advice to give to fellow gardeners. Are we to prepare for more rain or less? Warmer temps or just more extreme temps? The prevailing wisdom seems to fluctuate constantly. Truthfully, I have not been able to make any connection to what survives/dies in my garden and any long-term weather patterns. And the fact that the loudest voices on the left are also the most hyperbolic and polarizing (Al Gore, AOC, Greta T.) does not help the cause.

    Meanwhile, it seems that the attention on climate change has drowned out all other environmental issues like pesticide use, habitat destruction, etc. Those are issues where gardeners can play a more obvious role and set an example through their gardening practices. To me, “Gardening for Climate Action” translates as “Go protest in the streets” (noting your photo), not actual gardening practices. Conservatives aren’t as apt to march and protest as liberals are.

    I do think it’s a terrible shame that environmental issues seem mostly absent from Republican/conservative party platforms. Conservatives used to be advocates of — not surprisingly — “conservation” but never cared too much for “environmentalism” I admit. But you don’t hear much about conservation anymore either, sadly. Anyway, I appreciate that you are open and welcoming conservatives into the discussion and not just telling us we “hate science” or don’t care if the “planet is obliterated for our grandchildren” or some such. That is a refreshing change!

  2. Mary, I share your puzzlement with how to prepare my garden for a changing climate. It’s such a complex process and will vary in its effects from region to region. I think we can agree, though, that it is not a good thing. Perhaps we can model a response in the garden: try to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and synthetic fertilizers made (mostly) from natural gas is a start. Practice gardening practices that help sequester carbon in the soil. And just bear witness. Those kids are right — this is an existential threat to their future and we need to take action as our legacy to their generation.
    Thank you for your insights.

  3. I am politically conservative and live in a “red state’. However, I am also a scientist (chemist, retired) and a gardener. The ‘politicaliization’ of science is deeply frustrating to me – both from the left and right. Science depends on data and the data show that climate change is real. However, the dilemma is how to reverse it and still maintain the standard of living we all expect and also to still feed an exploding population. Both questions deserve the urgent attention of our best and brightest and not the polemics of politicians seeking to round up uninformed voters. Your thoughts are well put!

    • “However, the dilemma is how to reverse it and still maintain the standard of living we all expect and also to still feed an exploding population.”

      I think this gets to the real problem—we can’t maintain the standard of living and also continue to have an exploding population. It will require a drastic change that I don’t think most of us are willing to take.

    • Hi Ken,
      To your point about wanting data about methods to reverse global warming, I recommend the book Drawdown. It outlines the top 100 solutions and contains meticulous research from the best and brightest around the world. I learned about new-to-me solutions, but also left with a much better understanding of solutions I knew about before reading the book. Two of the sectors in the book, Land Use and Food, contain solutions that are of particular relevance to gardeners.

  4. Scholars, such as Kristina Hill at UC Berkeley, research and present images of shifting plant hardiness zones. Obviously, plants cannot move themselves due to varying conditions and so places such as Joshua Tree National Park are threatened with extinction along with the insects and other species that are part of that ecological system. Any loosening of environmental regulations that weaken protections of clean air and clean water will adversely affect the environment. Any garden contributes to reducing our carbon footprint through its biomass and habitat preservation. Please, gardeners, keep planting!

  5. History shows that lasting change only occurs when ordinary people lead. There are myriad examples of this being seen in the gardening world. In my area there are young people returning to organic small scale farming, a resurgence in growing our own food and buying locally, using regionally adaptive plantings, resurrecting depleted soils through biochar and organics and encouraging beneficial insect life. I don’t thingk we can wait for our politicians to act. The general population needs to lead the charge and make necessary changes at the grass roots level. As groups like this from around the world work together we can accomplish anything.

  6. “We are active environmentalists, not environmental activists.” Quote from a Conservation Farming Expo that formed my approach. We bought ten acres of degraded farmland, planted thousands of trees, two prairies, created a rain garden and are now active in helping others do the same, even on a small urban scale.

  7. Would conversation around water management, food and plants for butterflies help? Everyone cared about how water enters, stays, leaves their garden. Do they have to manually water everything– or does the ground cover they planted hold the water? Clover lawn might hold water, provide nectar for bees, and hold/add nitrogen in their soil.

  8. I’ve been following this discussion closely all week. I most agree with the comments by Misti and KenW: our standard of living and growing population are huge obstacles to stopping the environmental changes that are happening everywhere. All of my thinking this week reminded me about Paul Kingsnorth, a writer and former environmental activist. He has his critics but I’m not one of them. Some of you might be interested in his ideas, even if you don’t totally agree with him. A good place to start is on YouTube, his 50-minute documentary “The Battle Against Climate Change.” His 2012 essay “Dark Ecology” is also good.

    Also, today’s NYT has a thoughtful piece by Emma Marris (author of
    Rambunctious Garden–Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World)
    titled “How to Stop Freaking Out and Tackle Climate Change.” It’s awfully optimistic (which I generally am not) but it will appeal to many others.

    I’d love to see a Garden Rant post devoted to Kingsnorth’s ideas.

  9. Yes! So glad to see this. As a tree service expert in Winnipeg I like to believe my serivices do nothing but help the climate and this post confirmed that. Thank you!

  10. Yes, I totally agree. To save the planet and make it not political is the issue I feel. It’s hard for us to separate the two but I think with gardening which is popular around the world it could help bridge the gap for sure. Thanks for sharing I was having similar thoughts around this.

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