How do we keep gardening in the face of a changing climate?

Keep the climate in mind when you’re choosing what to plant. shutterstock

Since 1880, the average global temperature has increased by 0.8°℃, with large changes in rainfall redistribution. With these changing conditions upon us, and set to continue, gardeners will have to alter the way they do things.

As climate largely determines the distribution of plants and animals – their “climate envelope” – a rapid shift in these conditions forces wild plants and animals to adapt, migrate or die.

Gardeners face the same changing conditions. If you look at the back of a seed packet, there is often a map showing the regions where these particular plants thrive. But with a rapidly changing climate, these regions are shifting.

In the future we will need to be more thoughtful about what we plant where. This will require more dynamic information and recommendations for gardeners.

The shifting climate

Changes in altitude significantly affect the temperature. As you walk up a hill, for every 100 metres of altitude you gain, the temperature drops by an average of 0.8℃.

Changes in latitude obviously have a bearing on the temperature too. It gets cooler as you move towards the poles and away from the Equator. An accurate rule of thumb is difficult to derive, because of the number of interacting and confounding factors. But generally speaking, a shift of 300 km north or south at sea level equates to roughly a 1℃ reduction in average temperature.

This means that due to warming over the past century or so, Adelaide now experiences the climate previously found in Port Pirie, whereas Sydney’s climate is now roughly what was previously found halfway to Coffs Harbour. The temperature difference is equivalent to a northward shift of approximately 250 km or drop in altitude of 100 m.

At current climate change trajectories, these shifts are set to continue and accelerate.

The plants in your garden might need to change.


Plants are already adapting to the changing climate. We can see that in the hopbush narrowing its leaves and other plants closing their pores. Both are adaptations to warmer, drier climates.

We have also seen some major shifts in the distribution of animal and plant communities over the past 50 years. Some of the most responsive species are small mobile insects like butterflies, but we have also seen changes among plants.

But while entire populations may be migrating or adapting, plants that grow in isolated conditions, such as fragmented bush remnants or even gardens, may not have this option. This problem is perhaps most acute for long-lived species like trees, many of which germinated hundreds of years ago under different climatic conditions. The climate conditions to which these old plants were best adapted have now changed significantly – a “climate lag”.

Using such old trees as a source of seed to grow new plants in the local area can potentially risk establishing maladapted plants. But it’s not just established varieties that run this risk.

The habitat restoration industry has recognised this problem. Many organisations involved in habitat restoration have changed their seed-sourcing policies to mix seeds collected from local sources with those from more distant places. This introduces new adaptations to help cope with current and future conditions, through practices known as composite or climate-adjusted provenancing.

The shifting climate and your garden

Gardeners can typically ameliorate some of the more extreme influences of global warming. They can, for example, provide extra water or shade on extremely hot days. Such strategies can allow plants to thrive in gardens well outside their natural climatic envelope, and have been practised by gardeners around the world for centuries.

But with water bills rising and the need to become more sustainable, we should think more carefully about the seeds and seedlings we plant in our gardens. The climate envelope we mentioned earlier is shifting rapidly.

We will need to start using seeds that are better adapted to cope with warmer and, in many cases, drier conditions. Typically, these plants have thinner leaves or fewer pores. This requires more information on the location and properties of the seeds’ origin, and a more detailed matching of diverse seed sources to planting location.

As the climate changes, we need to be more selective with what we plant.

As the climate continues to change we will also need to introduce species not previously grown in areas, using those that are better adapted to the increasingly changed climatic conditions. Plenty of tools are now available to help guide seed collection and species selection for planting. These include those offered through the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility and the Atlas for Living Australia, for instance.

But these resources are often aimed at expert or scientific audiences and need to be made more accessible for guiding gardening principles and plant selection for the public. The information needs to be intuitive and easy to understand. For example, we should produce lists of species that are likely to decline or benefit under future climate conditions in Australia’s major cities and towns, along with future growing areas suitable for some of our most popular garden species.

This won’t just be useful for a backyard gardener, either. Many exciting new gardening initiatives are being proposed, including rooftop gardens, which promote species conservation, carbon sequestration and heat conservation, and future city designs, which incorporate large-scale plantings and gardens for therapeutic benefits. All of these activities need to take the shifting climate into account, as well as the need to change practices to keep up with it.

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