Gardening for Climate Change


I am continually astounded when I pause to read gardening and landscaping magazines to see what can pass for a “garden” – apparently there

 doesn’t need to be a living plant in sight

, let alone one that could produce an edible yield! Swimming pools, decks, canopies, sunlounges, artificial turf, water features, outdoor kitchens and living rooms complete with weatherproof (read “synthetic”) furniture and appliances, but it seems actual dirt and vegetation are no longer required to create the ideal Australian “garden”.

I beg to differ.

BoM heatwave map

It will be interesting to see in a few decades whether these treeless, sterile but sparkling spaces are even habitable during our summer months. The Climate Commission’s report on climate change impacts for South Australia predicts increased heatwaves with associated health risks, and decreased rainfall, posing risks to both agricultural and urban water supplies, while the CSIRO also warns of heavier rainfall events in summer and autumn and increased evaporation. This is not in some far-off century either: it is within our lifetimes and reaching critical stages in our children’s lifetimes. Are we going to stick our heads in the sand (or the pool), or really think about how we can live with this?

Emissions reductions are now needed more urgently than ever, but many of the damaging effects of climate change upon our environment are now inevitable – so we must also adapt, NOW.

Obviously this raises a whole raft of issues about how our governments and social systems respond and adapt, but today I want to address climate adaptation from a home gardener’s perspective.

Here are some of the priorities that I want my family’s garden to address, as well as being a lovely place to hang out:

  • To help cool our home in summer
  • To capture and use or store all available rainwater
  • To supply a lot of our fresh food
  • To create a stable, comfortable microclimate for people, plants and animals to live in
  • To have a net positive impact on the natural environment in terms of biodiversity, energy inputs and outputs
  • To reduce our reliance on external systems that have a damaging impact (e.g. fossil fuel-based agriculture and food transport)

Our garden has made fair progress towards these goals over the four years that we’ve been shaping it, but there is still much to be done. Below are some of the key design strategies that I’ll be applying here and in my discussions with clients:

  • Working with the natural elements and integrating house and garden to create a comfortable, energy-efficient place to live.
  • Water security – e.g. investing in water storage, greywater recycling and irrigation systems as well as landscaping features such as wetlands, ponds and swales that capture rainwater, slow runoff and supply the garden.
  • Soil improvement: building the soil’s water-holding and nutrient-holding capacity to grow stronger, healthier, more resilient plants.
  • Plant selection for extreme conditions from inundation to drought and heatwaves; valuable heritage varieties of food crops; hardy ornamentals that provide living mulch to protect the soil from scorching heat and sudden downpours.
  • Stacking the garden with layers of edible plants in a self-shading and sheltering system.
  • Windbreak planting and infrastructure to reduce the effect of wind on evapotranspiration and plant stress in the garden.
  • Creating a more resilient local microclimate – and a more resilient community – by working with neighbours to green shared spaces.
  • Providing habitat for native birds and insects whose natural habitat is becoming more threatened, and who supply us with free garden services such as pest control and pollination.
  • Considering how different garden elements can protect and support one another in extreme conditions.
  • Planning gardens that we can still maintain when our own energy levels and health may be affected by heat and harsh weather.

The main ingredient we need to apply more of to our gardens is not water or fertiliser, and certainly not fashion outdoor furniture! It’s thoughtfulness.

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