Climate Change: What To Do? What To Do.

Doomed skunk cabbages shooting up in December. Because they are bulbs, these plants will not re-sprout in spring.

What is the point of gardening in support of pollinators, birds and wildlife habitat, when the natural world is on the verge of becoming strange and unfamiliar, if not unlivable, to so many species?

Climate change is the most serious problem of our time. Its consequences will dwarf the impact of our current economic troubles. Oddly, the crisis feels sort of remote, so one popular approach to the subject is to just not think about it. In the face of frightening evidence to the contrary, many in this country have chosen to believe those who say, “Relax. It’s no big deal.” The number of respondents in a nationwide poll who think climate change is a serious problem has fallen from 77 to 65 percent, in the last four years.

Some believe, as the US Chamber of Commerce recently claimed, that there’s no need to worry anyway, because populations can adjust to warmer climates via a range of “behavioral, physiological and technological adaptations.” No problem! We could make those pesky, heat-trapping atmospheric carbon dioxide molecules spiral off the planet by shooting laser beams and radio waves at them. We could add more reflective pollution to the atmosphere by spraying clouds with saltwater, or by flying jets with old-fashioned, sulfur-laden fuel. Or maybe should just soak up more CO2 by fertilizing the oceans with iron particles to increase plankton growth, or by inventing some really really fast-growing trees. These ideas, amazingly, are actual solutions proposed by serious scientists.

Alternately, some people accept that climate change is happening, and maybe even believe that it’s serious, but they’ve concluded there’s nothing they can do to slow or stop it. They feel that the only solutions now will have to come from government or industry.

The Deerfield River, flooding after Hurricane Irene.

Shelburne Falls village, back to "normal."

I don’t buy these any of arguments. Even apart from the 40-degree January days we’re currently experiencing in western Massachusetts, record high temperatures and catastrophic weather events in the decade just past would be evidence enough for me. Even if we privileged Americans can adapt via whacky and expensive solutions (more air-conditioning, yay!), what about the millions of people, and thousands of other species, who don’t have that option? Even if it’s true that we need big solutions and dramatic policy shifts from our governments, it is also true and that we can do many things ourselves to help make a difference.

Are you saying: “Yeah, yeah, support renewable energy, buy efficient appliances, insulate my attic, shrink my carbon footprint, duh, I get it, and I’m already doing everything I can. And anyway, why are we talking about climate change in this garden blog?”

Here’s why.

I’m completely in favor of sustaining wildlife, conserving water, reducing lawn, boosting soil quality, growing local food, etc. After all, these efforts have been a major part of my work for the last 25 years. But they are all starting to seem like pretty small potatoes, compared to the really big job of dealing with climate change. Sustainable gardening and landscape design, as they are currently practiced, don’t do enough to help solve the coming crisis. We who claim to work in support of the natural world should be doing more. We should be putting tremendous effort toward reducing atmospheric CO2. How?

We should intentionally design all gardens and grounds so that they – and we who create, maintain and inhabit them – consume less energy.

Tiny lawn, big tree: good but not enough.

Now, I need to say right at the start, I’m not talking about just shading a house in summer and deflecting cold winds in winter. No. Those are fine ideas, but there are hundreds of other things we can do to save energy in our landscapes (a few of these are listed in my recent post “Peak Oil Landscape Design“).  Actually, garden-book author Ken Druse claimed in a recent interview that Energy-Wise Landscape Design presents thousands, not hundreds, of actions we could take.

So, I repeat, if our concern is to care for the natural world, our real task right now should be simply to focus our attention on saving energy as the most important consideration in every garden and landscape decision we make.

It’s really very simple. We can create landscapes that increase energy savings in a building, and we can create landscapes that consume less energy in themselves, apart from any building. Here are 10 easy, energy-wise ideas:

1. When planting trees, start with smaller ones. They’ve been grown for a shorter time in the energy-intensive nursery setting, and they’ll likely survive better than larger trees, minimizing further energy expenses to care for (or possibly replace) them.

2. Remember that the south and southwest yards in most landscapes are often the hottest spaces (unless they’re shaded by trees or other buildings), and realize that lawn grass is hotter than any other kind of ground cover. So, to help cool the house, minimize lawn directly outside south walls.

Do we REALLY need to use so much of this stuff?

3. Instead of buying bagged mulch, which is packaged in plastic bags made from petroleum, and which is transported to your garden center and then your property by burning fossil fuels, buy only local materials, or make your own mulch. Or use less mulch by converting a part of the property into a woodland grove, where you can just let fallen leaves stay where they fall (and if you position the grove properly, it might also help cool your house or patio).

4. Provide shade over paved surfaces that receive a lot of sunlight, and try to design and build these hard surfaces so they’re pervious, so rain can soak in and help cool the ground (in addition to recharging groundwater).

It is actually possible to have no lawn at all.

5. Design an entirely lawn-free landscape; reduce (or stop?) all mowing.

6. If you can’t do without lawn, at least allow a portion of every property to become a semi-wild “conservation patch,” where nature provides most of the maintenance energy.

7. Design every major component of a landscape to serve multiple purposes, to get the most benefit from every investment in materials, energy and effort. Build things to endure for decades or generations, to minimize the energy later needed to repair or replace them.

This bluestone patio is big enough but not too big, designed to waste no stone and built to last.

8. Make hard-surface areas as small as possible, because all paving products are manufactured with huge energy-inputs. And design these spaces to fit the site with minimal earth-moving.

9. When working to conserve water or creatively manage storm-water, remember that half of all the water we use each year is consumed by thermoelectric power plants to generate electricity. So reducing your demand for electricity will have an even bigger impact than simply harvesting rain or switching to drip irrigation.

10. Think about the whole landscape as a system for saving energy. If you advise others about what to do in their gardens, emphasize the energy-saving benefits of your recommendations, to raise awareness.

These are just a few ways to create landscapes and gardens that will save energy while also being beautiful and teeming with wildlife. We who call ourselves sustainable, environmental and ecological gardeners and designers, we are the ones who should be leading the way in this movement. We should be choosing energy-saving actions in all our work. We should be showing our friends, neighbors and clients how to do it.

Admittedly, compared to the colossal scale of the climate crisis, these efforts might still seem like small potatoes. But just because we can’t solve the whole problem is no excuse for not doing anything at all. And just because climate change is already upon us is no reason not to work toward minimizing it in the future. So I wonder: if we don’t actively focus on energy conservation in our landscapes, are we like those cheerful musicians who fiddled an elegant tune while the Titanic tilted into the sea?

© 2012, Sue Reed. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us

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    About Sue Reed

    Sue Reed is a registered landscape architect who has helped hundreds of homeowners create comfortable, livable and beautiful landscapes that save energy. She has worked in western Massachusetts for nearly 25 years, including twelve years as an instructor at the Conway School of Landscape Design.

    Sue is an expert at designing sustainable landscapes that are environmentally sound, ecologically rich and energy efficient. Her new book, Energy-Wise Landscape Design, was published in April 2010 by New Society Publishers. To learn more about the book, visit Energy Wise Landscape Design, or the book's Facebook page

    Comments

    1. Donna@Gardens Eye View says:

      Sue this is such an excellent post. I have incorporated many of your points. My biggest issue is the lawn. Our local native plants group will be having a presentation about what we can do in our area to replace lawn…I will be attending and this will be next on my list. Your list will be included in everything I do and I will be taking these points to my design business as we get going as well as talking about them on my blog as I continue to incorporate them…thx Sue
      Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Simply The Best-January

      Reply
      • Sue Reed says:

        Thanks Donna. I really believe we can make a difference by taking advantage of all the opportunities in our landscapes to save energy!

        Reply
      • Sue Reed says:

        Hey Donna, one more thought: in addition to mentioning my post’s ideas to your native plants group, I hope you’ll also mention my book! There’s a ton more information in there :o }

        Reply
    2. Heather Schrock says:

      Sue, I thoroughly enjoyed this thoughtful post. I feel the same as you on all points. When I started my heather’s natural landscapes last summer in north Texas, I had studied water and energy saving conservative methods. I totally feel they are very important. My views stem from my beginnings, growing up in San Francisco bay in a time of social awareness. I graduated in 1979! I really need to read your posts and maybe books! I design landscapes to live in with low impact creating them! Thanks for all your postings, but this one hit home for me!

      Reply
      • Sue Reed says:

        Thanks, Heather, for your positive comments. It’s such a great idea to link water and energy conservation, because they really are so closely related. Best of luck in your new business!

        Reply
    3. Loret says:

      hmm, I always bought my trees small because I like to watch things grow and they also seem to establish better. Who knew I was saving energy too boot! I’ve also stopped buying lawn “decorations” that don’t last because of the intense sun and wind down here. Now to contemplate your additional examples and see how they can fit in or ….how I can fit in with them.

      Then again, if climate change doesn’t make the ocean rise, there goes my chance at ocean-front property. ;) According to the map renditions of the various scenarios of oceans rising over Florida shores, my place (currently 33 miles inland) looks to have a perfect view of the Atlantic…..SCAREY!
      Loret recently posted..Making a Comeback

      Reply
      • Sue Reed says:

        Hey there Loret, and thanks for your comments. It really is lucky that so much of what we already do to be sustainable, or just to be a good gardener, is also a good way to save energy. Regarding your own property, I’d say there’s very little chance that sea levels won’t rise…. the only question is how fast and how far. And that’s the big problem with this climate crisis: it moves in really slow motion. I hope you have to continue to leave home to see the ocean!

        Reply
    4. julianna says:

      wonderful post – thank you. i think one of the things that needs to change is the ordinances that demand conformity in people’s yards. can’t count the number of times over the years that i have had people complain that we don’t rake our leaves up – very glad that we have a house that is on the edge of the village backing up to a field and with wooded edges between us and the neighbors. i think that in many places getting rid of the lawn would be an upward battle too. a difficult, but necessary attitude adjustment is needed!

      Reply
      • Sue Reed says:

        Thanks, Julianna. Great reminder that another piece of the work ahead is to change individual, local local laws, one neighborhood at a time!

        Reply
    5. Carol Duke says:

      Oh, I so agree Sue. Climate change is the number one issue to hopefully put a crimp in . . . since we most likely cannot stop it completely. Your ideas are exceptional. The photos of Shelburn Falls . . . amazing and frightening! It is so depressing how people just do not take this issue seriously. Besides what we do in our own environment and daily lives. It is important to call congress and the white house to demand clean/green energy and take other steps to curb our CO2 output. It is a worldwide problem and the metaphor of the musicians on the Titanic is great. For many peoples of the world . . . it is already too late . . . displacement is a reality. Very important post. Thanks!
      Carol Duke recently posted..A Piece of the Center . . . Centerpieces For Katarina

      Reply
      • Sue Reed says:

        Hi Carol, and thanks for your thoughts. It’s so true that the big changes and solutions will have to come from the big institutions of society. I just hope that we little folk, too, will keep trying to make things better. It all comes down to attitude!

        Reply
    6. Ruth Parnall says:

      Sue – Since consumers in the US contribute a disproportionate amount per person to the world’s emissions, and US-controlled corporations mine, pump, ship, package and otherwise consume a huge part of the world’s resources, legislation and government policies in the US could be helping abate the trend of global climate change. Here is me as cynic: Fat chance, under current special interest lobbying. So I would add No. 11 to your list – advocate for, vote for, focus on, DO SOMETHING about campaign finance reform to give big money less influence in the critical strategies to work on the problem.

      Reply
      • Sue Reed says:

        Yes, Ruth, I agree. The system is a mess. My hope is that it’s finally getting so bad that people will see it, and be moved to change it. In the meantime, we can keep working at whatever we know how to do, to make things at least little better.

        Reply
      • Carol Duke says:

        Amen!
        Carol Duke recently posted..A Piece of the Center . . . Centerpieces For Katarina

        Reply
    7. Benjamin Vogt says:

      Freaking brilliant post. Putting up a link on my garden coaching website.
      Benjamin Vogt recently posted..Macro Orcam

      Reply
      • Sue Reed says:

        Thanks Benjamin! I hope all your readers get inspired.

        Reply
    8. Gloria says:

      I so agree and appreciate your continued work to bring this information to us.
      Gloria recently posted..Save Starved Rock

      Reply
      • Sue Reed says:

        Thanks for writing, Gloria. Sometimes it’s not easy to keep reminding people about things they might not be so happy to hear or think about, but I feel this message is just too important to let that difficulty get in the way. So… onward!

        Reply
    9. Elephant's Eye says:

      Yes, to all you say. We have no lawn, no mower. Weirdly, I have to battle Kikuyu runners from, but we HAVE no lawn!

      One thing I regret, didn’t realise that the facebricks we chose for low maintenance, use a lot of energy to manufacture. South Africa is locked in an upmarket trend for granite countertops in kitchens – that means a granite koppie and the ecosystem it supports is destroyed. And most of the stone is wasted, discarded as a spoil heap.
      Elephant’s Eye recently posted..January garden walk

      Reply
      • Sue Reed says:

        Yeah, we sure are surrounded by opportunities to save energy…. it all comes down to awareness and attitude. Congrats on no mowing!

        Reply
    10. Carole says:

      Yes to everything you’ve said. We also need to let politicians know that this is an important issue.

      Reply
      • Sue Reed says:

        Totally. Our efforts to save energy in our homes and landscapes will ultimately be meaningless if government and society don’t make some big changes. I recently heard somebody call our climate change policies “slow-motion suicide.” To me, that term sums it up perfectly. However, even if some people can do nothing more than just vote and pressure the lawmakers and policymakers, I still feel that a lot of us can do more.

        Reply
    11. Debbie says:

      Sue, What a great post full of actionable steps to begin to make a difference. I can’t imagine how anyone living in New England in 2011 can downplay the effects of global warming.
      Debbie recently posted..Biocontrols for Your Garden: Advice from the Experts

      Reply
      • Sue Reed says:

        Thanks Debbie. Amazingly, the effects of climate change aren’t even terribly strong in the Northeast. At least not yet. The American Southwest is in line for some of the worst consequences of all (in this country), because already scarce water out there is about to become disastrously much scarcer due to extended drought and higher everyday temperatures, all while more and more people keep choosing to make their home in that region, demanding their green lawns and 10-minute showers.

        Reply
    12. Susan Smith says:

      Thanks so much for this post, Sue. I think people become overwhelmed with the topic of climate change, it begins to feel like there is nothing significant one person can do to make a difference. It is empowering to know that by getting your hands dirty gardening CAN and DOES make a difference. I’ve been asked to speak at a March workshop on sustainable & native landscaping, so I’ll be checking out your book for more ideas!

      Reply
      • Sue Reed says:

        Hey, thanks Susan. I think you’ll find a lot more useful info in the book, beyond the items I listed in the post. If you do incorporate some of my ideas in your presentation, I’d be really grateful if you’d mention my book to your audience. Also, might I suggest seeing whether the workshop where you’ll be speaking would like to offer Energy-Wise Landscape Design for sale? It’s distributed through Perseus Books, and they’re happy to fill small wholesale orders. Just a thought…

        Reply
    13. UrsulaV says:

      I get discouraged, too, by the “What possible good can this do in the grand scheme of things?”-itis.

      Still, what I often find myself thinking is the one-starfish principle—I may not slow climate change by planting host plants for butterflies, but the butterflies are sure going to be stressed by climate change, and one more meal they don’t have to hunt for will make their lives a little bit easier. The water feature will help everybody as our summers get drier. Trees and some perennials like cup plant sequester carbon, so maybe there’s a little bit less out there because of what I’ve planted. (Etc, etc.)

      I have to remember not to feel guilty because I cannot singlehandedly fix it all. Some days are more depressing than others.
      UrsulaV recently posted..I came, I saw, I composted!

      Reply
      • Sue Reed says:

        Hi Ursula. You’re sure right: we can’t fix it all. I just try to stay upbeat by doing what I can, and showing others what they could think about doing too. It’s an exciting time, I think, because things may finally be getting so bad that a lot of people will wake up and work for change. I hope!

        Reply
    14. Susan Smith says:

      Reminds me of this quote, I saw it on as someone’s email signature a couple weeks ago… paraphrasing from memory…

      An elephant sees an ant lying on its back with its feet up in the air. The elephant asks the ant what he is doing, and the ant says that he is helping to hold up the sky because he heard that the sky is falling. “But you are too small to hold up the whole sky,” laughed the elephant. And the ant says undaunted: “Everyone must do their part.”
      Susan Smith recently posted..Welcome

      Reply
      • Sue Reed says:

        Good story!

        Reply
    15. stone says:

      And the band was playin’ “Nearer My God To Thee”, Fare thee well Titanic, Fare thee well…
      quoted from Jaime Brocket’s “Legend of the USS Titanic”.

      A very well written post… All those air conditioners are adding to the problem, pumping out hot air in an ill-fated attempt to produce cool air indoors, which just leaks out the cracks as soon as it’s manufactured…

      The next generation has a scary future to look forward to as the temperate zones move north, and the ocean current changes, and die-offs become daily occurrences, the trade winds change… more wind, larger hurricanes, tornadoes, larger deserts, aquifers pumped dry, everybody running out of food, peak oil, water tables polluted due to fracking, earthquakes pestilence, floods…

      Have you read the Zelazny story “Damnation Alley”? I always think about the weather he describes in the opening chapter when contemplating the future.
      stone recently posted..stone commented on the post, top 8 reasons why there’s no flowers in my flower bed

      Reply
      • Sue Reed says:

        I totally understand. Looking ahead can be pretty scary, and it’s so easy to become overwhelmed and discouraged. That’s why I’m trying to remind us all that there are still lots of things we can do to at least try to make things better, or less bad anyway. That’s why I wrote my book, Energy-Wise Landscape Design. Just trying to make a difference, even a small one.

        Reply
        • stone says:

          Ok… But you didn’t answer the question… :b

          I linked to this post…

          I watched the Al Gore video, and have always been a true believer, even after having read “State of Fear” by Michael Crichton…

          Just because nothing we can do is likely to make enough difference to keep the place livable, doesn’t mean that “full speed ahead” is a good choice.
          The planet recovered from the Permian–Triassic extinction event, and Gaia has the ability to heal the planet, but… It’s gonna be an uncomfortable experience for the next generation.
          I believe (as you do), that anything we do to mitigate the damage is worth doing.
          stone recently posted..Seems like we’re all just re-arranging chairs on the…

          Reply
          • Sue Reed says:

            Ohh!…. I thought you were just recommending Damnation Alley, not that you really wanted to know whether I’d read it. So…my answer is no, I, hadn’t hear about it, but I’ll check it out. Thanks agin.

            Reply
    16. Cori Rose says:

      Sue, loved this post! I too get discouraged and need a “kick in the head” once in a while. I truly do believe however that on a cumulative scale ecosystem gardening has the potential to mitigate some of the wrongs our society has unwittingly wrought. I also feel that the actions we take as individuals can minimize or somewhat offset the major changes that are to come. We can predict & facilitate vegetational transition by planting native trees suited to the next highest plant zones and we can maintain wild food sources to feed the critters and preserve parts of our yards as wild corridors to assist them when they undertake their transitional migrations to new regionally suitable habitat. Also, I have really enjoyed your book and hope to implement many of the recommendations in the coming seasons (still fighting the good fight with my husband about the lawn, but every year it gets smaller as the footprint of my wild areas increase…).
      Cori Rose recently posted..Portrait of the Oak

      Reply
      • Sue Reed says:

        Hi Cori, and thanks for these extra reminders. I love the one about providing and expanding corridors to help animals move more easily if they need to. As to your lawn… have you looked at the site http://www.lawnreform.org? There you might find some new ideas to help in your “campaign.”

        Reply

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