Fight Climate Change in Your Garden | Tips for Gardening in the Desert |
red, orange, and yellow blanket flowers.

Gardeners are quite aware of global environmental changes, many of which we experience in our own backyards. In New Mexico, we have seen our gardens suffer from increased heat and drought. We often feel helpless in the face of such dramatic changes.

As we should be, many gardeners are concerned about the impact on the environment in recent years of gardens becoming smaller, plant choices becoming less diverse, and chemicals being proven more dangerous than we knew.

Some of us prefer to act in support of nature rather than waiting on the glacial pace of world leaders to respond to climate concerns. Gardeners, as a large constituency interacting with nature daily, are beginning to act globally and locally to make a difference — at least we can cause less harm!

Climate change Campaign

Quail sitting on a fence eating red flowers.As a member of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) — yes, that is in the United Kingdom, and it is a long story — I was inspired when this year the RHS initiated a climate campaign to encourage the United Kingdom’s 30 million gardeners to take action in their own backyards to combat greenhouse gas emissions and boost wildlife habitat in efforts to tackle climate and nature crises.

This leading garden charity proposed a list of achievable actions gardeners can take to effect positive change. None of the actions are radical or new or difficult. As gardeners, we have heard them before. The RHS proposal would be equally effective anywhere, including right in our backyards. What’s groundbreaking is the idea that the united actions of gardeners can have a global impact. We can stop waiting for others to address climate change and begin in our own gardens.

Nature’s Best Hope

When I read about this effort, I wondered what would happen if the billions of American gardeners united to aim for a similar impact. I was directed to an inspiring book by Dr. Douglas W. Tallamy: Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard. Dr. Tallamy is a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware and has written several award-winning environmental books. He proposes a national movement to create Homegrown National Parks™.

According to both the RHS and Dr. Tallamy, research has shown gardens have the potential to store huge amounts of carbon, as well as mitigate some of the effects of climate change such as flooding, urban heat islands, and loss of biodiversity. The RHS research shows that if every gardener planted a medium-sized tree and nurtured it to maturity, that tree would store the carbon equivalent of driving 11 million times around the planet. The impact of a united American effort could be immensely powerful. Massive change often begins at the local level.

Dr. Tallamy and the RHS each advocate 10 steps a homeowner can take to make a positive difference for the environment. They have different approaches and missions, but similar goals for restoring nature. The RHS addresses gardeners specifically while Dr. Tallamy concentrates on homeowners. The RHS encourages specific changes in gardening practices and Dr. Tallamy expands beyond the landscape to focus on restoring nature, providing recommendations that include citizen activism. Naturally, not all of the steps in either proposal apply to our desert environment.

looking up to the sky from under a Texas oak.

What You Can Do to fight climate change

Here are some of the recommendations from these two sources that are applicable for our New Mexico gardens and gardeners.
Plant a tree in your community, school, workplace, or garden to draw carbon out of the air, says the RHS. Dr. Tallamy echoes this advice but specifies the tree should be at least a native and preferably what he defines as a keystone tree. His East Coast example is a white oak; however, we have excellent native oaks available for our landscapes, including Texas red oak and chinquapin oak. (Dr. Tallamy’s newest book, The Nature of Oaks, is focused on this valuable tree species.)

Brits are asked to switch from tap water to rainwater to water their gardens. This is even more important in the desert during an extended drought. Homeowners everywhere could actively collect rainwater, using berms, collection tanks, or holding ponds. Dr. Tallamy echoes the importance of conserving water when he proposes that homeowners should shrink their lawns, which are not only water guzzlers but not at all supportive of wildlife. He recommends removing 50 percent of your lawn and replacing it with native plants for habitat.

Make your own compost to save carbon, according to the RHS. This is especially important in the desert, as our soil has very little organic matter. Composting is a positive solution that keeps yard waste out of the dump, creates organic matter that can be used as a balanced fertilizer, and feeds insects and microbes that live, dine, and multiply on the materials in the compost pile.

Pull up a paving slab and grow perennial plants such as grass, shrubs, or trees to suck in carbon from the air, says the RHS. Dr. Tallamy supports less paving and “generous planting.” He proposes using plants of differing heights and including groups of native plants. His reasoning is less focused on carbon reduction and more about providing habitat for insects, birds, and other creatures. He also emphasizes the impact plantings have on reducing flooding, reducing heat build-up around the home and community, and increasing biodiversity.

Dr. Tallamy’s suggestions include removing invasive and imported species from yards. For traditional landscapes in this area, that would include most plants from the mulberry and weeping willow to euonymus and privet and rose bushes. His arguments are sound, and certainly we could at least consider replacing these introduced species with native plants.

Put in plants for pollinators to help slow and reverse declining numbers of bees, butterflies, moths, hoverflies, and other insects. Both the RHS and Dr. Tallamy support this action. Dr. Tallamy extends this recommendation beyond just planting flowers and addresses the entirety of a creature’s life cycle. One of Dr. Tallamy’s 10 recommendations is creating caterpillar pupation sites under your trees by leaving leaf litter or planting native groundcovers. He also recommends decreasing light sources around your home to provide darkness for bats, moths, owls, and other night creatures.

monarch butterfly on a flower

The RHS recommends growing your own cutting flowers, as growing or buying locally grown flowers can save carbon compared to buying imported bunches. They also promote eating more homegrown, local, and seasonal fruit and vegetables. Look for locally grown flowers and produce at your farmers market and consider planting your own cutting and veggie garden.

Electrify your garden by using electric-powered gardening tools, not ones that run on fossil fuels, according to the RHS. Even better? Use manual tools. Dr. Tallamy’s list also advises that homeowners not spray insecticides, pesticides, or fertilizers because native plants have evolved to survive in their native soil and do not require additional chemical fertilizer.

Homegrown National Park

Dr. Tallamy would like to see the movement to create a Homegrown National Park™ sweep the country. So would I. His list includes an exhortation for homeowners to network with neighbors to connect and coordinate in an effort to increase the areas being conserved and to have a bigger impact on the landscape.

He also encourages homeowners to educate their neighborhood civic association, homeowners’ association, and city and county officials about the benefits of restoration and conservation. Many rules these groups enforce discourage the very actions that can be taken by individuals to restore the environment.

Dr. Tallamy writes, “If we can destroy habitat with blinding speed, we also have the intelligence, knowledge, and ability to restore it.”
Both the RHS and Dr. Tallamy emphasize that the modest changes we make in how we garden and landscape have the potential to make a dramatic impact. The more restoration and conservation actions you achieve in your garden or your piece of the Homegrown National Park™, the healthier the planet will be. Together, we can make a difference.
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Written and photography by Jackye Meinecke
Additional photography by Cheryl Fallstead, C.J. Goin, and Nirmal Khandan
Originally published in Neighbors magazine.

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