A Struggling Gardener In A Changing Climate

By Nikki Tilley | July 28, 2022
by Nikki Tilley
July 28, 2022

Life as a plant in the garden isn’t as easy as it once was. As the climate changes, so too does the weather, and lately it’s been crazy. Does climate change affect plants in the garden? You betcha, and it ain’t pretty! Some plants can survive the inhospitable changing environment, but me? Nope, that ain’t happening! Oh, what’s a struggling gardener in a changing climate to do?

Gardening in a Warming World

There’s no question that times are a changing and so is the climate. I’ve seen it in my garden, especially within the last few years, and it’s not showing signs of slowing down anytime soon. This, of course, means as a gardener I must adapt just as my plants are trying to, but it’s easier said than done. I mean, can it not be possible to survive a southern summer in reasonable comfort anymore? It’s always been rather warm here in NC, but nowadays it feels as if it’s hotter than six shades of hell! By May we’re already hitting 90-degree (32 C.) temps, and that’s unheard of. July and August are our hottest months when those 90+ days are the norm. But in spring? Are you kidding me? By the time summer rolls around, we’re in the three digits with added humidity. I simply can’t take it anymore! You know that saying about frying an egg on asphalt? Well, I’m the egg and the garden is asphalt. My plants are already cooked.

Adapting to climate change is easier for plants, but it takes time. Most already have their own set of superpowers, special features that help them adapt to the world around them. If only I could be so lucky. Take, for example, plants that can naturally repel predators. Where’s my stinging hairs or foul-tasting poison? How nice it would be to chase away our humid-loving mosquitoes. “Haha, c’mon and bite me now pesky skeeters!” If only I could possess such a superpower. While you’re at it, could you equip me with superpowers that help reduce water loss and offer sun protection, like cactus and many other plants have? Succulents have fleshy parts to store water, making them great for desert-like heat and drought. In fact, mine don’t seem to mind the changing weather conditions, but I haven’t yet figured out how to get my swollen, fleshy behind to store anything but fat. Would be nice not to dehydrate as quick during these warmer spring and summer days in the garden. Water just runs right through me.

It’s starting to feel like our hardiness zone is becoming a zone or two warmer. Winters are milder and spring is nearly nonexistent as it skips straight into summer with a barely noticeable autumn. I’ve seen more plant stress in the garden from our continuous heat waves and longer droughts. The flip-floppy weather patterns going from one extreme to another in a single week – hot to cool back to hot with no in between – doesn’t help either. The garden, as a result, is becoming less productive, as am I. It’s difficult to acclimate under such extremes. 

Like kids, plants are fairly adaptable and will somehow find a way to thrive in these unfavorable conditions. That said, the effects do not go unnoticed. Cold-hardy bulbs and plants that require chilling or dormancy periods aren’t thriving as well anymore. Planting times are off kilter too with the fluctuating weather patterns. Stunted growth is now typical. The increasing spring temperatures have led to earlier bloom times, which affect normal pollinator activity. Let’s not even get into how the number of pests and diseases have grown the last couple seasons. I grow a number of natives in the garden, but even they’re starting to struggle. And if something happens to them, how will the others fare? 

I feel bad for my plants having to deal with the hotter, drier conditions. I’m lucky enough to find relief indoors with the cool, comforting A/C. My plants, on the other hand, cannot move from place to place. They rely on me every bit as much as their superpowers to help carry them through. I can almost hear them chiding me as I run inside to escape the unbearable heat. “Hey you, come back here!” They yell. “Where do you think you’re going?” This followed by the “Suck it up, buttercup” chanting. And 9 times out of 10 it works. I bow my head in shame and trudge back outside, clinging to the outer edges of whatever shade I’m able to find. They need water and cooling off after all, just as I do.

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