Climate change and gardening practices

Blueberry starting to leaf out in January ©Janet AllenOur blueberry starting to leaf out in January—not a good thing

The signs may be more subtle here in Central New York than in other parts of the world, but we can see changes.

For one thing, the Arbor Day Foundation issued a new zone map a few years ago, "upgrading" Central New York (and the rest of the country) to a warmer zone. And everybody has noticed an increase in unusual weather.

Regardless of the signs we may notice, though, we (both science majors) have been convinced for many years that the evidence for the dangers of continued global warming is overwhelming and legitimate. It's very distressing to see that it has become cast as a political issue rather than the environmental issue that it is—especially when our children's and grandchildren's future is at stake.

We're trying to reduce our carbon footprint in many ways (see Our Green, "Good Life"), and that includes our yard.

Taking climate action in our landscape and gardens

Here are some things we're doing, organized by the five categories in the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) booklet The Climate-friendly Gardener.

Minimizing carbon-emitting inputs

Reel mower ©Janet AllenOur Fiskars reel mower

Power tools used in landscaping are an obvious way to reduce climate pollutants. After reducing the size of our lawn, we found that it only took seven minutes to mow the lawn, thus using a lot less fuel and producing a lot less pollution.

We then bought a Fiskars reel mower, so we won't be producing any lawn-mower pollution now.

And we don't need any weed-whackers and certainly not those horrendous leaf-blowers! It's best to leave the leaves where they fall anyway, except for our small lawn area, and even then, the leaves can be shred by a mulching mower and left on the lawn.

Broom ©Janet AllenSo simple our two-year-old grandson can do it!

Equally crazy is using a leaf blower to clean the sidewalk or driveway. Even worse is to hose it down with water!

Except for the frail elderly or the disabled (who probably wouldn't be using a leaf blower either), how did we come to the point in this country where we're not able to use a push broom? We think of it as free exercise.

Less obvious contribution to climate change are chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Considering their whole life-cycle, they're also carbon-intensive. We don't use any of these products.

Not leaving any soil naked

Cover crop ©Janet AllenWinter rye cover crop starting

UCS recommends growing cover crops on any bare ground since they provide fertilizer (when dug in) and also store carbon.

We don't have much bare soil in our habitat garden. We grow perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees in every available space, and we leave any fallen leaves where they fall (except on our tiny lawn).

We do grow cover crops in Our Edible Garden, though. (We're also growing a lot of our own produce in Our Edible Garden, thus minimizing food transported long distances.)

Planting trees and shrubs

Armstrong maple ©Janet AllenRed maple

UCS recommends planting trees and shrubs both to store carbon and to reduce the need for air conditioning. We've planted quite a few trees and shrubs, and many of our deciduous trees and shrubs are on the south and west sides of the house, which helps cool our house. We use air conditioning very sparingly—only on the very hottest days.

This red maple (Acer rubrum 'Armstrong') (the tall tree sticking up over the roof line) is a cultivar that grows in a column shape, the only shape that would fit in the narrow space between our house and the neighbor's house. It's on the south side of our house and shades the kitchen window in the summer, but lets the winter sun come in to warm the house in the winter. It also helps shade the porch that is attached to the house directly in back of the tree. It certainly helps in the afternoon to prevent the sun coming in from the west. It also helps somewhat during the day, but not as much as did the very large Norway maple that overhung the entire porch before the 1998 derecho took it down. Losing that tree made the porch pretty much unusable while the Armstrong maple was still young, but I'm glad that we got rid of the Norway maple.

Cooler in the shade ©Janet AllenCooler in the shade here in our front yard

One hot July day, I measured the temperature at midday in the sunny part of the yard and in a shady part of the yard. It was 96° in the sun, but was a much cooler 85° in the shade of the coffee tree and shrubs.

And besides the temperature difference, there was just a cooler feel to the shade, partly due to the psychology of being in a shady, foresty area and probably also because of the evapotranspiration from the trees.

Expanding recycling to the garden

Front composter ©Janet Allen
Our front composter made of old pallets

We compost all our yard waste in compost bins and sometimes just in a pile in an out-of-the-way place. (We compost all our kitchen food scraps in indoor worm bins, too.)

Thinking long and hard about lawn

Newly-planted hellstrip ©Janet Allen
Newly-planted hellstrip

We did that thinking long ago! We've been really happy with our decisions to dramatically reduce our lawn area, to use some alternatives to lawn in some areas, and to take care of our small remaining lawn organically.

Our latest change is to convert lawn in the "hellstrip" to include planting beds.

Of course, not having a conventional lawn also enables us to conserve water. We were surprised to learn a few years ago that considerable energy is used to move water into reservoirs etc. And so we conserve water in other ways, too.

Some other steps we've taken

UCS didn't mention some of the other things we're doing. They aren't specifically gardening, but they have to do with how we use our yard and organize our landscape.

Energy use in the garden

Outdoor clothes dryer ©Janet AllenOur outdoors solar clothes dryer

I never have enough space to grow everything I'd like to grow, but even so, I make room for my clothesline so we don't have to use the electric dryer, the second-biggest electricity-using home appliance after the refrigerator. Actually, we don't even lose that much space since we grow plants underneath the dryer.

A bonus is that it's a good reason to be outside in the cool, fresh morning air, serenaded by birds. And it really doesn't take very long when you get the "hang" of it.

We hang our clothes indoors in the winter, too, so we haven't used the electric dryer for years.

Darkness ©Janet Allen
Our yard at night (sometimes with a small solar light)

We use motion-detector security lights outside so we're using electricity for lights only when some movement activates them, not all night.

And we definitely do not use light to highlight trees, outdoor walls, or anything else. It may sound harsh, but we think this is an irresponsible use of energy.

(And all that extra nighttime light may be interfering with fireflies and other nocturnal creatures.)

Citizen science

Trillium gone by ©Janet Allen
Why notice a trillium flower gone by? To track the timing of its life phases

We're helping scientists learn more about global warming by participating in citizen science phenology projects. Phenology is the timing of plant and animal life cycle events. Collecting this data help scientists determine how climate is changing. At first, I participated in Project BudBurst, but I later switched to the National Phenology Network.

Particularly valuable is comparing today's data with data from the past. That's why I've been participating in the North American Bird Phenology Program. Oddly, even though it's just transcribing bird observation cards into a digital format, I find that it's interesting and addictive. And I feel good about participating in this very concrete way to help scientists learn about climate change and bird conservation.