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grow resilient

My Garden Was My Refuge. Then Climate Change Came for It.

Plants offered a respite from grief and anxiety. They also offered a new way to live in the world—with all its challenges.

This picture shows wildflowers in the foreground, with a wooden bench behind them.
Jumping Rocks/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Shooting star, or Dodecatheon pulchellum, among native plants and flowers at Bowmans Hill Wildflower Preserve, New Hope, Pennsylvania

When I first set out to report on climate change, I was convinced I knew what to do: I needed to show how climate change was going to be personal and deeply connected to our lives. People are selfish—or, put another way, strongly motivated by what affects us personally. The more intimately I could tie climate change to our well-being, I reasoned, the more driven we would be to change course.

So, eight years ago, I trundled off to the U.N. climate change conference known as COP21 in search of ways global warming was poised to affect our everyday lives, especially the threats to our mental health and the emergence of infectious diseases. I discovered, of course, that these close connections weren’t theoretical or futuristic; our lives were already being disrupted. And I realized that people already care plenty about climate change; a majority of Americans believe climate change is a threat, and one in 10 Americans are showing signs of climate anxiety. It’s just hard to know what to do about it, and sometimes our actions seem too insignificant to make a difference. Without action, we feel helpless. The problem looms ever more immense, and we start tuning out.

In 2023, for instance, we reached temperatures of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels for a record number of days—about one-third of the year. Scientists are warning that the planet is close to crossing five tipping points, with three more on the horizon.

The news comes amid the malicious obstructionism of this year’s conference, COP28. The state oil company of the United Arab Emirates has been privy to emails to and from the COP28 office. The conference president and head of that company, Sultan Al Jaber, who has used the event to push more oil trades, said there is “no science” behind phasing out fossil fuels to stop warming. It’s not just the leaders of COP pushing a pro-hydrocarbon agenda; four times more fossil fuel lobbyists than ever before have descended on this year’s summit.

I don’t always know anymore how to get anxious people to tune in to these kinds of stories, because I struggle myself. Evidence of our rapidly changing world and the failures of our leaders to do anything about it is everywhere, all the time, and nothing I do seems to stop it. A few years ago, I started to go the other direction—to dissociate from it. It was too big to process. The problems felt too immense and thus too far removed from my life.

The summer of 2020 was a particularly low point for me. The pandemic kept us home even as racial violence brought us out to the streets; wildfires and storms battered our neighborhoods even as the Trump administration exited the landmark Paris agreement; a heated presidential election grew increasingly chaotic and nerve-racking. But most earth-shattering for me, my youngest brother died.

I felt surrounded by death, and I wanted more life. So I started collecting plants. I knew I was probably setting myself up for failure. I’d never been able to keep a plant alive for very long. I was probably going to get attached to yet another thing only to watch it die. (Like I said: a low place.)

Even so, I signed up for a plant subscription box, like a Wine of the Month club, that would start me off with something hard to kill and teach me how to care for it. Plants arrived every month. Some of them died, but most of them lived. A friend gave me a prayer plant; another gave me an amaryllis. Plants became a way to connect with friends in a tenuous time; they gave us something happy to talk about.

I started reading about native species and how easy they are to maintain because they are perfectly adapted to my environment. (This summer, in the midst of drought, I didn’t need to water my garden once.) I planted rows of phlox, goldenrod, asters; one of the most serene and accomplished moments of my year was spent watching a hummingbird bury its head amid the flowers of a turtlehead plant.

I knew my garden wouldn’t solve the biodiversity crisis, stop overdevelopment, or save pollinators single-handedly. But I could build those pollinators a little corner, offer a little respite for them and for me. I could do this small thing imperfectly, and I could keep striving to do it better.

I was, perhaps, too successful with my new gardening hobby. Now I have dozens of native species in my front yard, and (if you’re my husband, you can stop reading now) about 150 houseplants.

I learned to frequent native plant sales and local seed swaps, instead of buying plants at commercial nurseries that frequently use powerful insecticides and contribute to the spread of invasive species and plant diseases, which can further destabilize ecosystems. I started paying attention to what was happening outside my window, focusing on first and last frosts, on temperature highs and lows, on precipitation reports. I thought hard about when to bring plants outside for summer and inside for winter; I hustled to move them when strong storms swept the Doppler.

That’s why I noticed when the new U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Hardiness Map, which I’d never heard of before I started this hobby, was updated for the first time in more than a decade. USDA hardiness zones are based on average annual minimum winter temperature and can help people figure out which plants will or won’t survive and thrive in their location.

Because I’ve been paying closer attention to the vagaries of my local weather, I wasn’t surprised to learn from the recent update that my zone has changed from 7a to 7b, meaning the winter average minimum has risen from 0–5 degrees Fahrenheit to 5–10 degrees. These changes may seem small, but they make a huge difference with plants—and pollinators—needing exact temperatures and conditions to grow. Before I got into plants, I might have assumed warmer temperatures would simply expand the number of plants I could grow in my area, but it’s not that simple, particularly if the trend continues: These changes are being accompanied, for instance, by hotter and wetter summers in the region. What will that mean for pollination, seed dispersal, growing times, or the spread of plant pathogens? What about the species needing a certain number of winter “chill hours” in order to germinate and grow?

My area isn’t alone. About half the country moved into a warmer zone with this change. It’s part of a decades-long trend of warming temperatures across the nation that could disrupt both ecosystems and agriculture.

The news brought the specter of climate change into a passion project that was supposed to serve as a refuge. I braced myself for it to feel hopeless now too. But surprisingly, given my original fears of failure when getting into plants, this news didn’t break my spirit. I do wonder what my garden will look like in 10 or 20 or 50 years, and which species will make it through the gauntlet ahead. But at some point in the past few years, I’ve stopped worrying about killing every plant I cultivate.

Instead, this change makes me think about climate in a new way. It’s something I can feel every day. I can push my hands into the earth; I can smell the flowers blooming in the yard, even now, in December. I now understand the way a small change in temperature or frost patterns can disrupt an entire crop. Plants have connected me in practical, daily, intimate ways to the earth and its changes—giving those changes a new significance, a deeper understanding, and simultaneously grounding my experience of nature in something calming, soul-nourishing, and refreshingly distant from the hard work of processing news, analyzing policy, and taking action. Plants also open up space for any backyard gardener to have conversations about the hyperlocal effects of this crisis—conversations that can drive further change.

It’s a lesson I’m clinging to as the overwhelming reality of the climate crisis splashes across headlines this week, courtesy of COP28. Now I’m searching out the sometimes smaller but no less important wins at the conference: a new deal for a loss and damage fund; Colombia joining the Fossil Fuel Nonproliferation Treaty; a bigger push to fund sustainable agriculture; and the possibility, though faint, of the newest agreement spelling out the end to fossil fuels. Despite the glacial pace of policy change, the steps we take in our own lives, though small and incremental, can transform our experience of the world around us. And before you know it, you have a life filled with new growth.

I came to gardening because I was mourning. Mourning, in a largely abstract way, the millions dead from pandemics, wildfires, storms. Mourning, in a painfully specific way, my baby brother, who was supposed to be an inextricable part of my future until the day he left it.

When we mourn, we sit with our loss. We let it weigh on us with its full heft. We examine the dearly held beliefs of how we thought these lives of ours would go, what we’d hoped to do, and we undergo a swift and shattering reorientation of those hopes and dreams. When we mourn, philosopher and author Thomas Attig writes, we “relearn” the world. Mourning is a painful and absolutely crucial process of reacting to a new reality and continuing, despite and because of that pain, to inhabit that reality.

There is a plant that reminds me of my brother: a Hoya kerrii, a vining plant with thick, heart-shaped leaves. I was nervous to acquire it—I’ve grown less precious about killing plants, but if this one were to die on my watch, it would be a pointed blow. But I screwed up my courage and posted a query in a gardening group, expecting to buy a small propagation or seedling. Instead, I ended up with a monster with thick vines as tall as I am, one of the largest plants in my collection, a plant that I instantly fell in love with because of its very wildness and abundance. Taking care of it feels like taking care of my brother, and, in the meditative time spent nurturing, it has begun to feel like he is taking care of me.

It’s a small thing, watering these plants and watching them grow leaf by leaf. But that’s how actions are. If you’d told me when I received my first plant in the mail that my collection would grow to 150, I would’ve laughed at you—and perhaps I would have failed in my new hobby because of the pressure to do too much too fast. In the face of seemingly impossible goals, it’s hard to know where to start. So I went plant by plant, caring for whatever I had the capacity to care for.

Somehow, my desperate instinct in 2020, my Hail Mary pass with plants, was right. Surrounding myself with life keeps death—and dread, and despair, and immobility—at bay. Plants make you stop, slow down, and care for each one. It’s an antidote to the crushing immensity of the big picture. It’s a radical act of joy.