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Managing for Climate Change
Puddock Hill Journal #43: Think ahead to make your property’s future brighter.
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In my upcoming dystopian novel, We Once Were Giants, which I set at an indeterminate point in the future, there are only two seasons in the Northeast: sere and fungus. Some days, it feels like that future has already arrived.
We had an unusually dry May at Puddock Hill, but not just at Puddock Hill, of course. The Canadian wildfires began in March. Another feature of my novel is the frequency of smokey skies in the East from Midwest wildfires. It doesn’t make me happy to be this prescient.
Now it seems to rain here every day. Fungus.
If you pay attention to the news, you know that the weather is haywire all over the planet, which is dropping heat records for air and sea at an alarming pace. But I shouldn’t use the word weather, because even though weather is the transient phenomenon we see daily, climate is the long-term trend. And the trend is not our friend.
The two most important actions we can take to slow and, with luck, eventually reverse the climate crisis are to stop burning things and to plant trees. Stopping burning things means getting rid of flames in our engines and our heaters and our means of production. With a few exceptions, this is already entirely possible both technologically and economically. Renewable energy is already the cheapest source of electricity on the planet almost everywhere. But making the shift requires a willingness to change and to invest.
Planting trees is easy on its face. Dig a hole, etc. But we need a lot of trees. (It would help immensely if we’d stop cutting down forests immediately, too, no matter the justification, which also requires changes that all humans must insist upon.) And the consequences of right action will probably not play out in the timeframe we would like. That ship has already sailed, and don’t gaslight anyone by saying you weren’t repeatedly warned. No, we are acting now—IF we act—for the benefit of our children and grandchildren and future generations. On average, those of us middle-aged and older will see more climate catastrophes than we’ve been accustomed to—perhaps more than any human generation has witnessed.
Meanwhile, backyard stewards must take into account the changing climate so all our efforts don’t come to naught.
The impacts of climate change are entirely predictable with regard to certain global aspects but not nearly as predictable in specific places at specific times. Yet, we must do our best.
We know there is more energy in the atmosphere and this will likely lead to more frequent extreme weather events as well as warmer average temperatures, especially in winter in temperate climates. These changes will have consequences that a steward cannot ignore.
Water, Water Everywhere
It has become a running unfunny joke that we’re seeing 100-year storms every two years. While our house and barn are elevated in relation to the rest of the property, Puddock Hill lies downhill from neighborhoods that replaced fields and forests.
The ideal solution would be to reconstitute those fields and forests, but I don’t see anyone volunteering to raze their houses for that effort. Still, even planting on the margins can make a big difference. Plants and trees slow water down so it can filter into the ground rather than sheet over the surface.
This strategy requires time for plants to grow, however. So, after enduring a series of punishing storms that led to severe runoff and erosion—including swamping an inadequate overflow pipe in the small pond—we got to work shoring up our infrastructure.
The first thing we did was to place a pair of additional drains along the driveway, which only had a single 2x2 drain at the bridge for directing a great deal of runoff into the stream. (To make matters worse, the grate often clogs with leaves at the early stages of a storm, despite efforts to keep the driveway tidy.) The additional drains helped with driveway runoff, but there was a bigger problem.
For several springs in a row, downpours led to a veritable river charging downhill and swamping the big pipe under the bridge. We ended up installing a relief pipe a few feet away, where rising water could run under the driveway and back into the stream during a storm event. This was critical because if water swamps a bridge and runs around its footings enough times you soon won’t have a bridge at all.
To deal with the overflowing small pond dam—which I feared would eventually breach if such volumes of water were allowed to continually flood over it—we built a spillway. On a dry day, it looks like this:
Several times a year, however, it gushes like a waterfall during and immediately following big storms:
Today, the pond persists relatively unscathed.
The two main ways to limit water damage with vegetation involve planting trees and eliminating lawns. Given any kind of grade, the latter act like water sluices, so we stopped mowing slopes where we could (or, to be more precise, we only mow them once a year or when the invasives get bad). Wild native grasses have deeper roots than non-native lawn grass, which helps hold hills. Left to their own devices, they also slow water down at the surface so it can infiltrate the ground. This change alone has helped us immeasurably with runoff problems.
Even limiting lawns on more gentle slopes can help slow water movement, so we have carved some beds out where there were big swaths of lawn. Where runoff from neighbors follows a certain course, we should plant low-lying shrubs and tough perennials that tolerate both temporary flooding and the violence of moving water, but we haven’t gotten there yet; we’re just letting the wild things grow in those places for now.
We have planted hundreds of trees to enrich the wooded perimeter of the property, and even though the trees are young, it has made a difference. Much like other planting solutions, their trunks, roots and leaf litter slow surface water down. They also absorb a lot of water from the ground in their own right, especially once they mature.
A final step the backyard steward must take with regard to climate change is giving careful consideration to what the future climate might look like when selecting plants, especially long-lived trees.
I’ll likely cover this subject in more depth in other posts. The most basic principles are, first, to plant a variety of trees because we can’t know which species will thrive decades from now. We have planted a dozen or more varieties here over the past few years.
Second, we now steer away from trees that would be in the southern end of their range in our area, such as sugar maple or blue spruce, and use more trees that are at the northern end of their range, such as loblolly pine and baldcypress. With several mature specimens, the latter already has a history of doing well at Puddock Hill, and since this tree survives in the swamps of southern Florida, I presume it’s ready for our hot, wet future.
As events in my novel suggest, ignoring climate change is no longer an option. The future may or may not be dystopian, but for the rest of our lifetimes it will likely be different.
Native seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia), a primrose relative, flowers near the big pond:
An Eastern swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) visits the raised bed garden:
Seed head of the native bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) that grows in a small copse of woods between the stream and the big pond:
Native Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) has begun to bloom in the barn meadow:
A scary-looking but harmless Eastern dobsonfly (Corydalus cornutus) visited he house this week: