The Master Gardener’s Bookshelf
Climate Change Gardening for the South: Planet-Friendly Solutions for Thriving Gardens by Barbara J. Sullivan
Review by Susan Wilhelm, Extension Master Gardener
“As gardeners, we’re realizing that we don’t garden for ourselves alone but for the interdependent web of nature our garden is part of. . . . . .Those of us who garden in the southern United States can create beautiful, inspiring gardens while becoming part of the climate change solution.”
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines climate as “the average course or condition of the weather at a place usually over a period of years as exhibited by temperature, wind velocity, and precipitation.” Historical data show that climate is warming, and, as Barbara J. Sullivan and others have noted, this has significant implications for gardeners.
In Climate Change Gardening for the South, Sullivan writes that everything gardeners do — from the way we design our landscapes to the plants we plant to the tools we use — can help reduce our carbon footprint and support the native flora, insects, and other wildlife which are critical components of the ecosystems in which we live. She says, “a garden is climate friendly if it prevents the release of more greenhouse gases than it generates and if it takes the web of life into consideration.”
Sullivan begins by explaining how our climate is changing and the impact of those changes on the southern United States. (She defines the South as Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, northern Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, eastern Texas, and Arkansas.)
Next, she identifies seven basic steps gardeners can take to address climate change’s challenges while growing vibrant gardens, including climate friendly landscape design, plant selections and gardening practices, soil, and water. Subsequent chapters address each of these steps in detail. For example, the garden design chapter includes tips for how gardeners can promote carbon storage by planting more trees (preferably native) or replacing large areas of mulch with plant materials (groundcovers, shrubs, ferns, perennials, and grasses—again preferably native) that will expand and take over bare spots in the garden. Covering the ground with the appropriate plants also mitigates the impact of flooding by protecting soil from runoff and erosion.
Additionally, each chapter lists samples of trees, shrubs, perennials, ground covers, and grasses related to the chapter’s topic, for instance, plants that provide food for migrating and breeding birds, plants that are hosts for butterfly larvae, or trees and shrubs that tolerate standing water. An appendix lists additional examples and includes the plant’s preferred growing conditions (sunlight and soil moisture levels) and in which of the three southern regions (Mountain, Piedmont, Coastal) the plant grows best. A list of generalist plants that can handle many different growing conditions within a United States Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone and planting region may be of particular interest to new gardeners. Readers can check the Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia Tried and True Native Plant Selections for the Mid-Atlantic to see which of these plants grow well in Northern Virginia.
Climate Change Gardening for the South is appealing because Sullivan explains the “why” as well as the “how” for the actions she recommends. For example, when recommending the use of native plants, she describes the ecological contributions of native plants including supporting pollinators and other beneficial insects and contributing to healthy soil. When discussing drought tolerance, Sullivan explains how planting in the fall and proper watering when first planted helps plants develop strong root systems that enable better long-term drought tolerance. She points out that even drought-tolerant plants need watering in cases of insufficient rainfall and explains why periodic deep watering is better than frequent shallow watering.
Sullivan says many reliable sources address climate change gardening and she encourages readers to do additional research and to get involved locally. To help, she includes a list of suggested additional readings and state-by-state resources.
Climate Change Gardening for the South: Planet-Friendly Solutions for Thriving Gardens (University of North Carolina Press, 2022) is available at the Alexandria Public Library, the Arlington Public Library, and national booksellers.
Want to learn more about climate change gardening? Check out these Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia resources: