The Climate Change Gardener

—by Roxanne Bergeron

In late April, while I was wrapping up this article for the June newsletter, several inches of wet, heavy snow were falling. A few days later, the snowy landscape had transformed into a tennis-friendly, bird-chirping extravaganza wrapped in an 80–degree day. Then on May Day, upwards of nine inches of snow were predicted to fall upon the Twin Cities over the following two days. Then my furnace kicked on.

Was I the only one thinking—what gives?! Climate change sure has a wicked sense of humor! What will summer be like? Spells of crazy, blistering hot winds? Weird cold snaps in July? Only time will tell.

To help prepare for the unknowable, here’s a list of some must-haves for today’s climate change gardener to ensure healthy landscapes and successful, sustainable kitchen gardens over the next few months. 

1. A creative mind.  Last year, parts of the Twin Cities metro area were rezoned to the balmier status of “5a” on the updated Plant Hardiness Zone map, released by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) last year.1 The higher the number, the warmer the lowest mean extreme temperature is for that area. 

The area of the metro rezoned to the same hardiness level as, say, Mason City, Iowa, includes Bloomington, Richfield, and parts of south Minneapolis. Considering that the metro area in question is the location of the Mall of America, our two international airport terminals and lots of interstate traffic, it’s not really surprising that this urban “heat island” has been reclassified as a bit more hardy than the surrounding metro.2

It’s fun to experiment with a range of new plant friends. But experts suggest proceeding with caution if you are tempted to try to grow plants normally happier in warm climes,3 such as Japanese maple trees and Russian sage. One hard “normal” winter, and your new friend may freeze to death. 

Last year, ongoing drought was a prevalent issue in the national, and indeed, international conversation. Can we expect more of last year’s drought?  Be ready for hot weather and unpredictable rainfall by installing:

2. Rain barrels.  All the cool kids have these! Set up a rain barrel under gutter run-off points and catch and conserve precious rain to keep it out of the lakes and on your garden. Check your local and municipal websites, such as the City of St. Paul’s Hamline Midway Coalition,4 or Ramsey County’s website5 on how to build your own rain barrel. 

Another option is to capture used household, so-called “gray water.”6 Set-up is a bit involved, but it’s an available conservation and water reclamation option.

Whether you’re using old rinse water or collected rainwater to irrigate, keep that moisture on your plants by:

3. Having plenty of mulch on hand. Keep weeds down and the soil cool by holding moisture in. Check out the University of Minnesota’s extension service handout7 for great ideas of types of mulch, depth, placement, and a pros-and-cons chart of mulch materials from cocoa bean hulls, pine needles, and leaves to newspaper and clear plastic. A fellow gardener posted tips and tricks on the Gardening Matters website.8

4. Get in front of the drought pitch by: Researching and selecting drought-tolerant options for your vegetable garden. Here’s a list to get you started from the Seed Savers Catalog9 and the Veggie Gardener website:10

American spinach, certain varieties of okra and eggplant, Rattlesnake snap beans, Moon and Stars yellow watermelon, True Lemon cucumber, Oaxacan green dent corn, and Arikara yellow beans.

Some interesting vegetable varieties can be found in the Friends School Plant Sale online catalog,11 which is up and available even after the plant sale is over:

The Neon variety of eggplant does well in cooler, short summer climates. Amish Deer Tongue lettuce is heat tolerant and less prone to bolting. Malabar spinach is at its best in the heat of the summer, when other varieties have gone bitter. Egyptian walking onions, from my personal experience, will grow no matter what you do to them! Gypsy and Takii Ace peppers are well suited to the Minnesota climate.

Don’t forget to balance your garden with drought-tolerant flowers, including native perennials. Some suggestions from the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum website:12

Aster, black-eyed Susan, butterflyweed, catmint, cranesbill, daylily, false blue indigo, gayfeather, globe thistle, hosta, lamb’s ears, little bluestem, pasqueflower, peony, primrose, Russian sage, salvia, stonecrop, and wormwood.

5. Be open to new ideas. Try organic straw bale gardening, a technique that is gathering speed in urban areas and other places where soil conditions are not ideal.13 Explore “hugelkultur”—the building of a raised bed consisting of a mound constructed on top of rotting logs.14

6. Keep a journal. If you don’t already do this, let this be the year that you start keeping track of what you plant where and how it fared. Collect the seeds and develop your own seed warehouse of what thrives best in your particular garden space. Share your results with your fellow gardeners and favorite blog and listserv. 

A virtual ongoing conversation about all things garden can be found on the listserv COMGAR,
a website where community gardeners in Minnesota share information and advice from other local gardeners, and learn about resources available to gardeners.15 Gardening Matters16 “moderates and maintains this listserv.”

7. This above all: Stand courageous before our transforming world. A gardener by nature has faith in tomorrow.

[Roxy Bergeron is a volunteer cashier at Hampden Park Co-op. She is keeping an eye on CO2 levels.]




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Additional Information

1. Archived COMGAR postings available at <>.

2. For information about Ramsey County’s “Going Green” program: <>. 

3. In the Seed Savers online catalog, search for “drought” and poke through the many drought-tolerant varieties: <www.seed>.

4. Learn about Minnesota’s changing climate and how to think creatively about trying new species in the new hardiness zone: <www.>. 

5. For a webcast and transcript discussing just how hot it has gotten over the last decade: <>.

6. The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum has a compilation of trees, shrubs, and perennials for creating a drought-friendly garden: <>.

7. Metro Blooms is a popular organization dedicated to the promotion of raingardens in the metro area. They also have information on rain barrels and online videos on installing both rain gardens and rain barrels: <>.