Science, Tech & Environment

How climate change is altering environments as small as your backyard garden

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Jim Barilla and his family eat from the garden they keep in their own backyard.

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Jim Barilla

Jim Barilla says he can see and feel the effects of climate change in his urban garden in South Carolina.

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Barilla is an associate professor of creative writing at the University of South Carolina and the author of My Backyard Jungle: The Adventures of an Urban Wildlife Lover Who Turned His Yard into Habitat and Learned to Live with It.

Until recently, Barilla says, climate change seemed “theoretical and futuristic, and really kind of disconnected from what I was doing ... in my own yard. But recently I've started to see tangible changes that make me question whether this is kind of the new normal.”

What helped spur Barilla’s thinking was the “polar vortex” the US experienced this past winter, in which successive waves of very unusual cold were followed by periods of normal warmth.

“Observing the impact that that had on plants and insects and other creatures that live in our yard was disconcerting,” Barilla says. “[It] had me out there putting frost blankets over everything one week and pulling them off and watching things come into bloom, only to watch them freeze — it was a whipsaw of weather back and forth here.”

Barilla says he is still trying to figure out the practical implications of climate change on his annual garden practices.

“What's intriguing to me,” he says, “is that once you recognize that climate change is going to have a tangible kind of effect on your practice in the yard, then you start to think about those pragmatic questions. ‘What am I going to plant? When am I going to plant? What can live here?’”

During the winter, Barilla says, he had an interesting experience with some blueberry cultivars he had planted that are adapted to grow in different climate zones. Some, for example, had been developed to grow well in the mid-Atlantic states, while others were developed to grow well in Florida.

“[T]he cultivars developed for Florida were coming into bloom in early January,” Barilla says, “and just getting hammered by the freezing weather. The ones that were developed for more northerly climate actually came through pretty well.”

Now, he says, the northerly varieties have fruit, while the southern varieties don't have much.

This is a good example, he says, of learning to plant a “much broader spectrum of species, and trying to encourage that kind of local diversity on a microcosm level — to think of the yard as a microcosm, but also as a way of connecting the small yard to the continental and the global questions of species diversity.”

Gardening during this period of unpredictable climate disruptions, Barilla says, will require “challenging the notion of what belongs where.”

“If something as fundamental as the climate is changing,” he says, “then that has deep implications for what we consider native and non-native and what can live in various environments.”

This means developing a more nuanced approach to how we label species. For instance, Barilla thinks we need to make a clearer distinction between species that are "invasive" and those that are "non-native.”

“If we use the term non-native, we can think, ‘Well, it may be non-native, but it may actually be beneficial or it may not be doing us any harm, or doing the environment any harm.”

This means asking different questions, such as, “‘What can I do to help [this] species survive? This plant may not be native here, but at the same time, it's not invasive. Is it possible I could encourage it to live here? What could live on it?’”

Also, Barilla says, we should be thinking about how we adapt in our city gardens, as well as how we manage our wilder places.

“The city is already a highly mediated environment. The soils are different, the temperatures are already different, so we have a kind of place where we can experiment with what's going to work in the future, and to me there are some exciting possibilities along those lines,” he says.

John Holdren, the science advisor to President Barack Obama, has said he prefers the term "climate disruption" to climate change or global warming. Barilla agrees “disruption” is an accurate term for the events of this past winter. “I found myself — like the plants and the bees and the other creatures in the yard — thinking, this is clearly a disruption. This is clearly bewildering,” he says.

“What's been interesting to me in the aftermath is to see that, at least in the short term, plants have come back...[I]t isn't apocalyptic yet. I think there is a lot of work to be done to make sure that it doesn't become an apocalyptic scenario. I think we need to figure out how we can embrace and guide the change so that it becomes as minor a disruption to life as we know it as possible.”

This story is based on an interview from PRI's environmental news magazine, Living on Earth.