Jennifer Cole is a Vancouver-based writer and gardener.
A recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report doesn’t mince words about global warming, with one expert calling it a “code red for humanity.” But I don’t need to read a hefty report to understand the rapid changes to the climate. The evidence can be witnessed in the humble urban garden beside my house.
I live in Vancouver, where the average temperature in June typically hovers around 21 degrees. This year we experienced a historic heat wave – the first of three this summer. Meteorologists and climatologists with Environment Canada say they cannot remember a season with three heatwaves. During the one in June, my phone’s weather app recorded a whopping 39 degrees.
Living in a temperate rain forest, I’d never felt that kind of heat before. The natural rhythm of growth in the garden was altered significantly over a four-day period and never recovered. Plants I’d expected to bloom in August burst open by July 1, while others gave up trying or withered. Following the heat wave, the World Weather Attribution group released a paper that concluded the likelihood of a weather event of that magnitude occurring was made 150 times more likely because of climate change.
It used to be, five to seven years ago, that by the time Thanksgiving came, it was cool enough to plant spring bulbs, and by Halloween you could expect the first frost telling you to hurry up, winterize containers and put down mulch to protect the roses. It was a hard and fast rule that annuals such as geraniums and impatiens would never be planted before May 1st. For several years now, it’s been warm enough to plant in late March and early April. It makes me wonder what will happen ten years from now. Will I plant in February – or will the garden simply be one long endless summer of bloom?
The UN report says that some of the climate changes now being experienced may be permanent, because no one listened or took rapid and definitive action. Sadly, my garden won’t, in the long run, make a difference on its own. But at least it’s better to garden than do nothing. The garden is telling me about the planet’s changes. It’s not happy. I’d like to make it happy, but I need help from those in power to fix the problem, even though they seem perplexed as to what to do. Maybe if they gardened too.
Last February, in the middle of a Canadian winter, the daffodils in my garden bloomed, and a hummingbird built a nest in a rhododendron bush. I was excited by an early spring. In hindsight, it was an alarm bell signalling what was to come.
The 2017 Royal Horticultural Society report Gardening in a Changing Climate highlighted what gardeners could experience as a result of a warming planet. Springs and autumns that extend growing seasons may on the surface seem exciting, but it’s a double-edged sword. Some species will flower earlier, some plants may not be able to adapt at all, and the leaves on trees will change colour later. Hotter and drier summers will mean shortages of water, the elixir of life for plants. Extreme weather events producing heavy rains and floods will leach the soil of nutrients, such as nitrogen, that plants need to grow.
In many parts of the world, extended sub-zero winter freezes are history. In Washington, D.C., for example, the last deep freeze was in 1994. Many fruit producing trees and berry bushes need a certain number of “chill hours” (temperatures below 7 degrees) to flower and produce fruit. Warmer winters will mean berry producing crops may, as time goes on, not attain enough chill hours and stop producing.
Green spaces and gardens absorb carbon dioxide, the main cause of climate change. With less than thirty years for governments to live up to the 2015 Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, any help they can get has to be welcomed. In the meantime, I’ll hope gardens like mine can withstand the heat and survive the rapidly deteriorating climate.
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