Climate-resilient gardens: future-proof your landscape

The importance of climate-resilient landscapes

By Victoria Cummins 

In today’s world, it’s hard to ignore the undeniable reality of climate change. The impacts of rising temperatures, more frequent extreme weather events, ocean acidification, and changes in species behavior are just a few ecological changes that have become very apparent. We now find ourselves in a time where adaptation is not just a choice but a necessity, especially as younger generations come of age.

A climate-resilient landscape offers us a proactive and practical way to navigate the uncertainties of our changing climate

That’s why creating a climate-resilient garden or landscape is not only a deep and profound way to take care of the earth, but a necessity for our survival as a species. A climate-resilient landscape offers us a proactive and practical way to navigate the uncertainties of our changing climate, while also reconnecting in ways that may have been lost from the generations before us.

By prioritizing ecological balance, and conserving resources, climate-resilient landscapes provide sustainable solutions that benefit humans and the intricate web of life on Earth. In this article, we will explore and delve into the three key elements that define resilient landscapes, in hopes that we can translate these into our home gardens and beyond. 

Storing water in the landscape: efficient water management techniques 

Water is life, and without it, we wouldn’t exist. Through large-scale industrialization and the misuse of water, the hydrological cycle has been broken in many places across the world. Without concerted efforts to repair and restore the hydrological cycle, the scarcity of water will persist and worsen.

In the garden, we are presented with the opportunity to work with water rather than depleting it from a local fresh source. By employing efficient water management techniques, we can transform our gardens into regenerative and abundant havens that not only conserve water but also begin to restore the greater watershed.

“Slow it, Spread, it, Sink it.”

Rainwater harvesting stands as a cornerstone of water sustainability, allowing us to capture the gift of rainfall and channel it where it’s needed most. A common phrase used in permaculture and greater water harvesting communities is: “Slow it, Spread, it, Sink it.”

Embracing the practices of systems such as permaculture, we can design our landscapes to include techniques such as swales and terraces, strategically directing and retaining water to nourish our plants and replenish the groundwater reserves.

Store water in containers such as rain cisterns and apply materials that make use of local waste streams and store water in the soil like wood chips. Select drought-tolerant plant species that reduce evaporation and minimize and even eliminate the need for additional irrigation.

Work with the rain instead of allowing it to run directly into roadways and farm fields. Collectively through these mindful approaches, we become stewards of water, recognizing its life-giving ability and ensuring its responsible use in the garden – and beyond!

Soil health: building a strong foundation

Today you might hear someone call soil “dirt”, but the truth is, our soil is so much more than that. All life on Earth can be traced back to the minerals found in our soil. From the tiniest microorganisms to the grandest trees and biggest creatures, the essential elements and nutrients provided by soil minerals are the building blocks that sustain and support life. It’s estimated that a single teaspoon of healthy soil can contain billions of microorganisms!

On top of this, the healthiest and most successionally advanced ecosystems on our planet are characterized by the presence of thriving and rich soil. In the garden, we can mimic these same environments by enriching our soil with practices such as: 

  • Layering organic matter such as leaves, food scraps, manure, wood ash, grass clippings, cardboard, straw, and plant matter from the garden
  • Composting food scraps and other commonly wasted natural materials
  • Minimizing soil disturbance with methods like No-Dig Gardening
  • Designing and choosing plants that accumulate soil nutrients in their leaves such as comfrey, borage, and apple
  • Design and choosing plants that fix nitrogen into the soil such as alder, Siberian pea shrub, or clover 

By feeding your soil you are in turn feeding your plants, which is a much different concept than the modern idea of adding fertilizer sourced from across the world solely to “feed” your plants. What we really need to do is feed our soil, which will establish a robust foundation that heals through water infiltration, carbon sequestration, and overall ecosystem health. 

Choosing plants that allow for life to thrive

On our journey to future-proof our gardens for the challenges of climate change, the selection of plants takes on a huge role in cultivating an environment that fosters resilience and enables life to thrive.

You have probably seen a traditional garden with a lawn that contains only ornamental flowers and requires many inputs such as fertilizer, pesticides, and water in order to sustain itself. Outside of some pollination and aesthetic beauty, this ecosystem takes much more from the earth (and from us!) than it gives back, depleting instead of enriching the landscape.

With a more mindful approach, we can choose plants with characteristics that are adaptable to changing climatic conditions, capable of withstanding droughts, and resilient to extreme weather events. In your garden, choose plants with some of the following in mind:

Edible plants

Our modern food system is broken. By integrating edible plants into our gardens, it not only offers the joy of homegrown food but also enhances our self-sufficiency and food security.

Cultivating a diverse array of perennial edible plants, from fruits and vegetables to herbs and medicinal plants, we not only nourish ourselves but break the unhealthy patterns of supporting large-scale, mono-cropped, and industrialized agriculture. We rely on ourselves and in turn work with our neighbors and communities to trade what’s available.

Native plants

Choosing native plants for our gardens allows us to embrace the inherent wisdom of our local ecosystem. Native plants have coevolved with the regional climate, soil conditions, and wildlife, making them well-adapted to the local environment and known to thrive. They often serve multiple functional roles as well such as fertilizing the soil, providing food, and pollination services.

Incorporating native plants, we create habitats that support local biodiversity, provide food and shelter for native wildlife, and restore the ecological balance that is crucial for the long-term health of our landscapes.

Drought-tolerant plants 

Amidst the increasing water scarcity challenges posed by climate change, selecting drought-tolerant plants is a wise choice for our gardens as it means we have to water less. These plants have evolved mechanisms to thrive with minimal water inputs, reducing and eliminating the need for irrigation and conserving precious water resources. 

Providing a refuge for wildlife

Our gardens can serve as sanctuaries, offering a refuge for wildlife in the midst of urbanization and habitat loss. Many species on the brink of extinction have been observed to migrate toward more rich ecosystems that better suit their needs.

Intentionally including plants that provide food, shelter, and nesting sites for birds, butterflies, bees, and other beneficial creatures, we create havens of biodiversity. The bonus of that is experiencing the joy that these creatures bring while in our presence. 

Plants with multiple uses

Plants with multiple uses are an invaluable addition to our climate-resilient gardens. By selecting plants that offer various benefits beyond their aesthetic appeal, we maximize the productivity and functionality of our landscapes. These plants may provide edible fruits, leaves, or roots for our sustenance, medicinal properties for healing, fibers for crafting, or even nitrogen fixation to enrich the soil.

Embracing the concept of multi-purpose plants allows us to optimize space and resources, ensuring that every plant contributes to the overall resilience and sustainability of our garden ecosystem.

Conclusion: creating your climate-resilient garden

The journey of creating a climate-resilient garden transcends mere gardening—it becomes an act of profound stewardship and care for ourselves, the land, and the generations yet to come.

Keeping the principles of climate adaptation, soil health, native and drought-tolerant plants, and mindful plant choices at the forefront of our garden design, we embark on a transformative path. We become guardians of the Earth’s vitality, cultivating spaces that nurture not only our present selves but also the future versions of who we will become, as well as the legacy we leave for the next generations. 

The rewards of these conscious gardening practices extend far beyond the beauty and bounty we witness in our gardens—they are imprinted on the very fabric of our existence, intertwining with the threads of our interconnectedness and echoing through time. 

For more on resources and inspiration projects that are currently gardening with these concepts in mind, see below: 

victoria cummins

Victoria Cummins

Victoria is a landscape designer, writer, and gardener based on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.


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