Managing Climate Change – What Are We to Do?

Mark Bauche, Master Gardener, MALA, SALA, CSLA

As Master Gardeners, we see the effects of climate change season after season, but what can we as individuals, or even as an association, do to help address it? There have traditionally been two approaches: mitigation and adaptation. These two strategies work hand in hand. Mitigation is all about taking our proverbial foot off the accelerator of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and holding carbon in the earth so that the atmosphere has a chance to catch up (so to speak). Adaptation is coming to terms with where we are, and figuring out how to create a world that can move with the changes, however extreme they may be. But in between the two, and feeding into both, is another secret tool that we have as Master Gardeners, one which I will reveal toward the end of this article.

As individuals it may seem that our powers to make a real impact on the problem of climate change may be limited, and indeed when it comes to mitigation, that is unfortunately quite true. While every action we each take to reduce our emissions is a good thing, even the collective actions of every citizen doesn’t stand a chance against the biggest emitters: big industry and big agriculture.

And so adaptation becomes our main focus. Here on the Prairies we know that the main changes we can expect to see based on modelling, and indeed observable trends over the past decades, are hotter summers with more prolonged stretches of days above 30 degrees C., more frequent droughts, wetter winters, and more sudden extreme weather events, resulting in more frequent flooding. There are things that we can do within our own gardens that can help us adapt to these changes.

One of our greatest friends in the adaptation approach are trees. Of course we are well aware of the value of large mature trees to provide needed shade on those very hot days, but trees are also great tools for stormwater management, and sequestering carbon, doing their part for mitigation. Losing so many trees to the waves of diseases that have swept our urban canopies in the past half century has been devastating. Planting as many trees as we can will help us to create microclimates that can protect us from those extreme temperatures, drink that extra water that comes down in those extreme rain events, breathe in some of that carbon dioxide in the air, and give us back oxygen. Planting a range of species will create biodiversity and help to stave off those waves of pests and diseases. It is also extremely important to plant trees properly, and give them the care and attention needed to thrive, especially as they establish themselves in their first three years.

Managing stormwater is important for protecting our watersheds and preventing prolonged and repeated damage from flooding. Our watersheds are already pushing their capacity with agricultural drainage systems and increased hard surfaces contributing to runoff. Extreme weather events further exacerbate this. It is important for every property owner to hold as much stormwater within their lot lines for as long as possible to give water downstream a chance to shed without overwhelming the system. Rain gardens, cisterns and rain barrels are great ways to help with this. These at-home stormwater management methods can also be a big help in reducing the amount of potable water we use to water our plants. It takes a lot of energy to collect, filter and transport water from lakes into our taps.

In cities and towns, we even have the opportunity to use our public rights-of-way to help trap some of that water. More and more people in Winnipeg are digging up the sod and planting lush boulevard gardens. Normalizing this practice, despite some of the administrative hurdles it may present with municipalities, is an important step to increasing that biodiversity, and of course making our cities greener and more visually appealing. More plants mean more oxygen, more evapotranspiration, and ultimately cooler, cleaner air.

But it’s not all about rain gardens and shade trees. One of the most important things gardeners can do to battle climate change may not even happen in the garden, but rather at townhall meetings, public forums, and in the voting booth. Here is that third approach I alluded to earlier: advocacy – that is, holding the powers that be to account for making the big moves that are necessary to turn things around and build a more liveable world.

Master Gardeners, like farmers, arborists, and entomologists, have already been observing the impact that climate change is having. From droughts one year to floods the next, changing pollinator patterns, shifting growing seasons, and adjustments in plant hardiness, gardeners already see what’s coming. Unfortunately, policymakers have been slow to act. Emission reduction plans and adaptation strategies in Canada have been less than audacious in their implementation. But the more voices of reason that are sounding the alarms – through advocacy, the more likely we will be to move toward a different kind of change, an active shift toward environmental responsibility that will become second nature to entire new generations. Building awareness and ultimately choosing who those policymakers are based on the actions they are willing to take will be the strategy that can have the biggest impact on halting the trends.

So keep doing what you’re doing. Plant trees, make rain gardens, plant pollinator-friendly gardens, and encourage biodiversity. But also, be active in demanding that those in power act with more urgency and boldness, and step out of their comfort zone to enact legislation, however unpopular or uncomfortable, to move us away from practices that contribute to the problem, and incentivize those that help to solve it. Use your experience, observations and knowledge of plant systems to push elected officials, at all levels, for a different kind of climate change, one that will stop the trend toward a hotter, and less liveable planet.

Mark Bauche is a Landscape Architect and Master Gardener. Through his work at HTFC Planning & Design in Winnipeg, he incorporates climate adaptation into his designs and seeks out new tools to help landscape architects design more resilient landscapes.

Richardson Innovation Centre Rain Garden

Photo  by Mark Bauche