Is your yard ready for climate change?
April 24, 2018
Landscaping adds a lot to the value of your home. Not to mention how much you enjoy it. A summer barbecue is that much better under the shade of a cool, stately oak tree. And doing the dishes is a pleasure when you’ve got songbirds keeping you company in the berry bushes outside the kitchen window.
But what will climate change do to all your trees and plants? There are lots of big and small things you can do to help your yard meet the challenge of warmer temperatures and extreme weather. And make it more lush, comfortable, and valuable. The beautiful thing is, while you’re doing this stuff, you’ll shrink your carbon footprint too.
For expert advice, we called up landscape architect Sue Reed, co-author of Climate-Wise Landscaping: Practical Actions for a Sustainable Future. The book is a real tool for homeowners who want to be part of the solution. It’s absolutely packed with eye-opening info, inspiring ideas, and practical, doable steps to take.
The actions Reed shared with us here are just a taste. We say add her book to your essential homeowner library!
1. Nurture your soil
It’s easy to overlook soil. Out of sight, out of mind. But soil sequesters four times more carbon than all the forests and other vegetation on Earth, and it’s the starting point for a beautiful, resilient yard.
“Do everything you can to make good soil in every place that you can, which means soil that is loose and full of organic matter and nutrients,” says Reed. “That kind of soil will hold water, it’ll resist drought, it’ll resist flood, it stores the most carbon, and it helps plants grow.”
Action: Poor, hard, dry, or thin soil needs help. But synthetic fertilizers throw soil microbes out of whack and ultimately degrade the soil, says Reed. Plus, their manufacture has a huge carbon footprint. Instead, she advises, on a monthly basis scatter a thin layer of compost over your whole lawn and around trees and plants. Microorganisms will absorb it into the soil. It’s ideal, both environmentally and budget-wise, to make your own compost from leaves, grass clippings, and food scraps.
2. Keep only the lawn you need
All that maintenance — mowers, blowers, trimmers — leaves a big carbon footprint. Plus, kind of like pavement, lawns have a “heat island” effect because they don’t make any shade.
“Have just the amount of lawn you need, no more,” says Reed, “so there are other things growing in your landscape that will help keep the ground moist and cool. That’s not only good for plants, but it’s good for people, because the coolness of the ground and the coolness of the air make our lives better.”
Action: An incremental approach to “de-lawning” makes sense for most of us, and is usually more sustainable too, says Reed. Gradually shrink the perimeter, replacing grass with a border of plants. Look for areas where the grass isn’t doing well, like under trees or in wet spots, and start planting those too.
3. Go wild with trees and shrubs
Trees and shrubs store carbon, stabilize the soil, provide habitat, keep the ground and your house moist and cool — there’s that cooling effect again — and add value to your property. So pile on the vegetation!
“The more the better,” says Reed. Large, well-placed trees will shield your windows from the summer sun and block winter winds too, cutting the typical household’s energy use by up to 25 percent. But, she says, “even a small tree will shade a wall. Because of transpiration, the more foliage you have near your house or everywhere is a cooling force.” (Reed has a whole separate book on energy-wise landscaping.)
4. Embrace diversity
Climate change could happen faster than some plants can adapt. If you have too much of just a few trees and shrubs, you could lose them and their benefits — including the home equity that nice landscaping brings.
“The more types of vegetation you have, the more likely that some will be able to survive changes,” says Reed. “And the more it will support various kinds of species that are maybe moving, not just animals, but also plants needing to shift their region. If they can find a home in your yard, that can be a help.”
Action: Start planting! Be sure to buy hardy native plants. Research which ones are most resistant to pests that are spreading beyond their traditional habitats as temperatures rise. Good options for reliable, free advice: regional native plant societies, a university extension service, or a volunteer Master Gardener.
5. Design your yard to manage water
Depending on where you live, climate change could mean too much or too little water, or alternating between both. How will you keep your yard alive when there’s not enough rain? When there’s too much, where will it go?
“More and more people are going to be dealing with the opposite extremes,” says Reed. “We should always be thinking about where water is going to go so that we can get the most out of it and it causes the least harm. It’s like in New England, we always have to deal with where is the snow going to be plowed.”
Action: In some places, rain barrels or cisterns are smart, to both store water and help control water in times of plenty. (Note: Some drought-prone areas regulate rain collection.) Other places might call for a rain garden, which encourages water to sink in.
6. Grow some food
Our food system has a huge carbon footprint, with all the synthetic fertilizers, farm machinery, and shipping. Growing veggies is a great way to both battle carbon and control your food budget.
“Every pound of food grown in home or community gardens reduces greenhouse gas emissions by two pounds,” says Reed. “And you can produce an amazing amount of food in just a small space.” Plus, you’ll get rid of some lawn while you’re at it!
Action: Start with easy-to-grow crops, and grow them abovethe ground. With raised beds, you won’t disturb the existing soil ecosystem or release the carbon it’s storing. Plus, raised beds, whether boxed or simply mounded, can be planted very densely, which helps conserve water and reduce weeds.
Read next: How to build equity in your yard
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Filed Under: For Homeowners