We live in unsettled times, and nowhere is this more evident than outside our own windows. Through them, we see more extreme weather events every year. Leslie Yetka, of the Freshwater Society, has been observing these changes since childhood, when she would sail tinfoil boats down rivers of snow-melt in the street. As an adult, she has studied how we channel those same streams of runoff down gutters into storm sewer systems that drain to local water bodies—and how climate change will affect our practices. “We know that our climate will be warmer, with warmer winters, more flooding events, more severe weather, and more drought,” says Leslie, who works with communities around the metro to adapt to these effects.
But climate change isn’t felt just at the community level. The unpredictability of our weather poses challenges for individual gardeners. Lawns turn brown during more frequent spells of intense heat or drought; stronger downpours wash away newly-planted seedlings; trees bud and plants sprout too soon, lulled out of dormancy by 60-degree February days. The plants and practices that used to work just aren’t as reliable now. But we can adapt. We can instill resilience in our yards.
More frequent instances of extreme weather are a symptom of climate change. In Minnesota over the last 50 years, the average temperature has gone up half a degree every decade—and twice as fast during the winter. Several of our state’s warmest years have occurred in the last couple of decades. Of the 12 largest “mega-rain” events recorded in Minnesota in the last 150 years, half have occurred in the last 30 years, and half of those in the past 10. Snow melts sooner in the spring. Our growing season is longer, and plant hardiness zones have changed.
To compound matters, the Twin Cities is an urban heat island: our concrete and paved infrastructure absorbs and retains more heat than its rural surroundings. In recent years, we have experienced summer days that belong in tropical rainforests, as well as mega-storms unleashing severe wind, hail and much, much rain.
Gardening with Grit
Understanding the impact of climate change is the first step in protecting your yard. Taking specific actions comes next. “People can increase the resilience of their landscaping by reducing and managing water use for irrigation, choosing the right plants for the right places (plants that are appropriate for future conditions), and using integrated pest management strategies to reduce chemical use,” Leslie suggests. Actions can be as small as installing a rain barrel or two. “This not only reduces use of treated water, but takes advantage of the more frequent, intense storms we are having by capturing excess rain and using it during drought periods.”
Actions can address larger elements such as your lawn. A carpet of conventional grass requires copious amounts of water and maintenance during high summer, even more during a drought. When it rains, conventional turf tends to get quickly saturated and then contributes to runoff. You may be surprised at the alternative ground covers that can withstand the ups and downs of changeable weather. Some can be mowed; better yet, some do not need it.
You may want to get down to the nitty-gritty: the soil. Mixing compost into your soil or planting deep-rooted native plants that love to drink helps the ground absorb heavy rainfall better. Or plant a raingarden. The water helps the plants, cools the ground and is cleaned as it filters through the earth. Raingardens have the added benefit of diverting storm water runoff that would otherwise wash pollutants from roads and sidewalks into sewers, eventually emptying into our lakes and streams.
What you plant can help make your yard stronger. Drought-resistant native plants stand up to heat and lack of rain. Trees and shrubs, planted strategically, provide shade and cooling. They also capture carbon, reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a major culprit in climate change.
This problem isn’t going away. Leslie states, “Climate change will affect everyone, everywhere, every day. We only stand to benefit by reducing our risks now and creating more resiliency in our yards, our neighborhoods, and our cities.”
Creating a resilient yard is like instilling resilience in a child. It happens a little at a time, and you likely will not see results right away. But small steps leave bigger footprints than you think. Planting a tree captures carbon; installing a raingarden prevents pollution in nearby lakes and streams. Over time, the actions that strengthen the micro-climate in your backyard will have a ripple effect in the greater natural world.
This spring, Leslie and Metro Blooms are presenting workshops on gardening for resilience, including one-on-one assistance from landscape designers and other experts. Resilient Yards workshops will be offered from April to June in many Twin Cities locations, and cost $15 per household.
Learn more about our workshops here.