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BE-A-BETTER-GARDENER

Did summer rains flood your garden? Instead of wringing your hands, roll up your sleeves and become a 'climate-wise' gardener

  • 2 min to read
Man tending a raised bed garden

Focusing on growing a garden in raised beds is one climate-wise solution for those who have suddenly found their gardens to be flood-prone. 

This past summer was one of record-breaking rainfall in my corner of Western Massachusetts — our dirt road washed out three times, and our garden soil was too wet to work much of the time. I can’t do much about my road, other than express my gratitude to the town crew that put it right. But I can adapt my garden, with the help of Ginny Stibolt and Sue Reed’s book, "Climate-Wise Landscaping."

First published in 2018, this book has become more relevant than ever as climate change takes off across the United States. My wife, an environmental scientist who researches the dynamics of our changing climate, has been telling me for years that storms, and their attendant precipitation, would become more violent in the Northeast. I took no action, but now I believe the time has come. And "Climate-Wise Landscaping" offers lots of ideas.

Road closed by flooding

Climate change is having an impact on different regions of the country, whether it is increased heat and drought, or flooding.

As it states in the introduction, this book takes a positive view of the situation. “Instead of wringing our hands,” say the authors, “we prefer to roll up our sleeves.” That suits me, for I deeply dislike the gloom and doom so often associated with the environmental movement, which I find encourages a sense of despair that leads to paralysis.

In a series of sharply targeted chapters, Stibolt and Reed offer ways to address the various ways that climate change is having an impact on different regions of the country, whether it is increased heat and drought, or flooding. By focusing on different aspects of our landscapes, from the lawn to the soil and water, trees and shrubs and herbaceous plants, they share not only ways for the gardener to minimize their garden’s contribution to climate change, but also, in many cases, to help reverse or at least limit the process.

Some of their recommendations were, for me, unexpected. For example, in a section of the book succinctly labeled “Food,” Stibolt and Reed point out that food production worldwide produces a third of the greenhouse gases we release into the atmosphere, and that every pound of food produced in a home or community garden reduces greenhouse gas emissions by two pounds. That will reinforce my passion for vegetable gardening.

Given my experience this past summer, I was drawn to Section VI: “Planning and Design,” which directly addresses the design of “Flood-Wise” landscapes. Sometimes, the authors counsel, the best response is acceptance. Naturally flood-prone areas such as flood plains, should be respected by garden designers, as by collecting and absorbing run-off, they serve an important function. After identifying such areas, gardeners should avoid planting there any species that can’t tolerate periods of standing water and avoid locating there any structures that will be damaged by flooding.

Working with the natural systems can also involve increasing the ability of your landscape to absorb the water that falls on it. Creating a rain garden is one way to accomplish this, but the process can also be simpler, adjusting the soil to create some low spots where the water can sink in and planting them with plants that can tolerate periods of water-saturated soil — species that originate in flood plains and wetlands. My vegetable garden, according to Stibolt and Reed, will be less muddy if I focus more on growing in raised beds. Plant trees on a slight mound. If an area of lawn has been under an inch or more of water for more than a week, the soil will have been compacted by the weight of the water, and the area should be aerated.

For more such useful tips and ideas, I suggest you consult the book itself, "Climate-Wise Landscaping," which is available from online booksellers, or may be ordered as a signed copy from the website of co-author Sue Reed: susanreedla.com. For a conversation about climate change and gardening with the other co-author, Ginny Stibolt, log onto the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Growing Greener podcast at thomaschristophergardens.com/podcasts/ginny-stibolt-and-climate-wise-landscaping.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books. He is the 2021 Garden Club of America's National Medalist for Literature. His companion broadcast to this column, Growing Greener, streams on WESUFM.org, Pacifica Radio and NPR and is available at his website, thomaschristophergardens.com/podcast.

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