If you’re like me, the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came as a kick in the stomach amid the seemingly ongoing crisis we call life. Subsequent news coverage surrounding the report served only to further my frustration and existential dread. But, similar to previous reports, none of it really came as a surprise. As a permaculture landscape designer and educator, I’ve worked intimately with the environment for nearly two decades. Over the past five years in particular, I’ve watched atypical patterns become the norm as regional shifts in seasonality and weather events become more extreme and unpredictable.
What did strike me about the report was its tone. Language in the headline statements alone marks a stark departure from past reports and conversations on climate change by the ‘powers that be,’ all characterized by a certain degree of uncertainty regarding scale, timeline and direct connection to human causation—or a hesitation to assert it, at least. Now, however, in a report undoubtedly scrutinized by legions of staffers from all 195 IPCC member countries, words like unequivocal, unprecedented and irreversible leave zero room for ambiguity. The climate is changing. Humans have accelerated the change. Frequency and intensity of flooding, heatwaves, drought—you name it—will increase. No matter what we do—even if 100% of carbon emissions ceased today—global temperatures will continue to rise ‘until at least the mid-century.’
Sounds pretty hopeless, right? I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t one of the menagerie of emotions I felt at first (followed by sobbing at the seemingly certain fate that my daughter will face in her lifetime). But the reality is that I’ve long been operating under the assumption of these now-facts. My life is dedicated to helping people build resource-efficient, ecologically-intelligent outdoor spaces that integrate human activity with natural surroundings. Much of our regenerative landscaping work at Shades of Green Permaculture is focused on designing solutions for water management, soil stabilization, food production and wildlife habitat. And, when implemented in the residential landscape, I’ve watched innumerable times as these nature-based solutions not only provide sustenance and joy but prevent serious damage to homes and land. The benefits of these methods are indisputable, and I’m confident that their application at the individual and community levels will increase our collective resilience.
With the effects of climate change no longer in question, homeowners should use regenerative landscaping to prepare their property for extreme weather and other expected events. Below, I’ve outlined 4 ways you can build a more resilient landscape and counteract climate change at home.
1. Restore the water cycle.
In the context of our urban and suburban landscapes, the water cycle is broken. Compacted soil, impervious surfaces like roofs, sidewalks, streets and driveways, and the removal of trees and other vegetation drastically reduce the opportunity for water to infiltrate. Why does water infiltration matter? It works to store water in the soil, recharge aquifers and maintain healthy base flow in streams, all of which prevent issues like drought and flooding. Issues we already see and, as the IPCC report asserts, will become much worse. Conventional building practices treat water as a nuisance and seek to direct it ‘somewhere else.’ This all combines to create a maelstrom of water management issues, like high volumes and speed of surface water runoff which inundate our stormwater systems and cause devastating flash floods as streams and creeks swell to overflow their banks. Instead, homeowners can treat water as a resource, and design landscapes, surfaces and water systems that, as Brad Lancaster so catchily coined, ‘slow, sink and spread’ it. You can do this by:
- reducing water runoff by constructing permeable driveways and pathways that allow water to infiltrate instead—we use recycled crushed concrete in lieu of gravel in our Shades of Green Permaculture projects when possible for added sustainability
- harvesting rainwater from your roof and building earthworks like rain gardens and swales to capture and infiltrate water—stored rainwater can be used for irrigation or even drinking in emergencies (with proper filtration or treatment)
- building your soil’s capacity to hold and store water—adding organic matter continuously through leaf litter and composting and planting a diversity of species of varying heights and root depths will help tremendously
- reducing the need for irrigation—plant at the appropriate time of year and start with smaller plant sizes that require less water as they acclimate and grow; consider drought-resistant species
2. Diversify the plants in your landscape.
Conventional landscaping focuses on ornamental plants that are commonly cultivated and easily available, but that have less genetic variation and may be more prone to a variety of issues like disease and pests as a result. Additional issues arise when plants are placed poorly in landscapes without consideration to their sun tolerance or ideal soil conditions and out of relationship to the site. This creates the need for costly, ongoing soil amendments, fertilization and irrigation. Furthermore, by focusing on ornamental plants alone, our human needs for food and medicine are left neglected and our landscapes fail to support the wildlife and pollinators we depend on (including threatened species such as bees and songbirds). Limited plant diversity and reliance on extractive irrigation and inputs will hinder our ability, and that of our environment, to effectively weather the drought, disease and weather extremes we can expect to see with climate change. Avoid these things by:
- planting a greater diversity of species, particularly native plants, to lower susceptibility to disease and pests and to create food and habitat for pollinators and wildlife
- planting species in the appropriate location with consideration to their needs and site conditions
- integrating species that provide food and medicine in addition to beauty—you never know when you might need it!
- planting species on the border of their cold hardiness range in anticipation of rising temperatures—in agriculture, we’re already seeing traditionally mediterranean and even tropical crops being grown in previously out-of-zone territory
3. Build soil.
Building soil quality and fertility takes time, but is one of the most important things you can do. Soil health is the foundation for a thriving ecosystem and resilient landscape above and below the ground. Soil with high biodiversity and organic matter is more porous and fertile, and makes growing plants and infiltrating water easy. Conventional landscaping views yard ‘waste’ negatively, and places undue emphasis on its removal. This is an unnecessary and excessive waste of resources on numerous levels (fossil fuels used in mowing and blowing, hauling ‘waste’ materials off site, production of yard refuse bags, etc.). By removing so-called waste and debris like leaves and trimmings from the landscape, we lose the ability to put those valuable materials to work building soil and storing both water and carbon. By needlessly mowing and blowing, we contribute further to greenhouse gas emissions. These activities serve only to exacerbate climate change and weaken our landscape’s resilience against current and future weather events. Instead, homeowners should view waste as a resource and integrate it on site to help build soil. You can do this by:
- creating closed-loop systems with livestock (as permitted)—chickens and rabbits make excellent manure for composting and can help graze and fertilize as they go, too!
- composting yard and kitchen waste on site to use as soil amendment and fertilizer when finished—be sure to manage your compost correctly to maintain heat, facilitate decomposition and eliminate pathogens effectively
- collecting and keeping leaves on site to use as a cover for planting beds—this helps retain moisture and creates habitat for beneficial insects and microorganisms
- sheet mulching with used cardboard to suppress weeds and maintain soil moisture
- cover cropping in vegetable gardens and raised beds to add nutrients like nitrogen back into the soil between crop rotations or seasons and to produce ‘green manure’
4. Stop using chemicals.
Using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides has catastrophic effects on the ecology of your landscape and the environment at large. Not only do these chemicals kill beneficial organisms in the soil and environment—critical components of the carbon sequestration process—but using them creates a self-reinforcing cycle in which soil becomes less habitable for beneficial plants and organisms and more habitable for aggressive, invasive species due to salinification and a multitude of other issues. By ‘killing’ soil, you create an environment dependent on continued synthetic inputs. Ultimately, this creates a costly, ongoing cycle that, from an economic and practicality standpoint, any homeowner would want to avoid.
A host of serious health hazards associated with these chemicals should further serve to deter their use. The correlation between exposure to chemicals and the development of disease has been widely studied and reported. I shared my personal experience with this last summer; you can read it here. As we continue to see new studies, lawsuits, record-breaking settlements and bans related to the health consequences of chemicals used in conventional landscaping and agriculture, why risk it?
Beyond the economic, health and environmental costs to you directly, the use of chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers has far-reaching impacts on us all. The ecological mayhem they cause by decreasing populations of pollinators, eliminating soil fertility and more is made mobile by water flow and biomagnification—everything is connected. Runoff carrying chemicals between our creeks, streams, lakes and rivers ultimately reaches the ocean, impacting human, plant and animal communities negatively along the way. Particularly when laden with synthetic, nitrogen-heavy fertilizers, this runoff effectively strangles aquatic species and creates ‘dead zones.’ These chemicals wreak havoc at every level of our ecosystem, and not only contribute to climate change by reducing carbon sequestration and emitting greenhouse gases, but obstruct our environment’s ability to respond to extreme weather and regenerate.
Instead of using chemicals, homeowners can:
- increase species diversity in their lawns and landscapes to reduce susceptibility to disease and pests
- plant more native species with increased natural resistance to disease and pests
- embrace imperfection—nothing is perfect; every small spot on a leaf does not need to be sprayed
- build healthy soil—abundant microorganisms, increased fertility and capacity for water infiltration will help beneficial plants and insects grow, decrease the need for inputs and irrigation and prevent pathogens
- appreciate the benefits of bugs—in a regenerative landscape, many of the bugs you will see are beneficial and help minimize or eliminate destructive pests
- understand that plants provide food for you and other creatures—sometimes it’s sad to see something munching on your favorite shrub or flower, but many plants are important hosts for pollinators; let that caterpillar do its thing and know that most plants bounce right back with vigor!
- grow, don’t mow! —consider converting some of your lawn into a garden for growing food; raised beds and foodscapes are both fun and practical, and decreasing the size of your lawn reduces the need for mowing (which means less soil compaction and less unnecessary carbon emissions)
Climate change is daunting. And the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report was undeniably alarming. But solutions do exist. Solutions that every property owner can apply at home—not only to fortify their own space against continued extremes in weather, but to bolster efforts to counteract climate change at the community level. Collective impact depends on the actions we take as families and individuals. Stewards of property both large and small can effect change by using regenerative landscaping techniques as a tool to build resilience in their own backyard. To learn more about global climate change solutions, check out Project Drawdown for further research and resources. To learn more and get involved locally in Georgia, take a look at Drawdown Georgia. And when you’re ready to take the first steps in transforming your landscape into a regenerative, ecologically-intelligent oasis, I invite you to join me for my 7-module permaculture course, Regenerative Backyard Blueprint. You can find free resources and more at www.shadesofgreenpermaculture.com/learn.