Listen Now

One Garden's Climate Struggle (And How To Save Yours)

Jul 6, 2013
Originally published on July 6, 2013 11:44 am

At the Hillwood Estate gardens in Washington, D.C., the new norm is: "Expect the unexpected." So says volunteer coordinator Bill Johnson, who has worked on property belonging to the heiress of the Post cereal fortune for 30 years.

Like home gardeners, the horticulturalists and professional gardeners at Hillwood are confronting an unpredictable climate.

"We've been getting mild winters, things start growing sooner, so the bloom time is skewed on everything," Johnson tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer.

So what's a home gardener to do? Johnson says it's likely you have to change plants.

Picking which plants fit your climate is crucial. Your first stop might be the U.S. Department of Agriculture's interactive "hardiness" map to compare the local climate with the plants' needs. (The USDA also has plant care guides to see what those needs are.)

For more on what weather to expect, the National Weather Service has drought predictions for the rest of the summer.

Hillwood garden supervisor Jody Fetzer says the agency has also teamed up with the American Public Gardens Association to help the public — and its gardens — adjust to changes in the climate. To an extent, Fetzer says, these kinds of shifts come with the territory.

"Almost every person out there who's a gardener is a flexible person," she says. "You know, you have to be flexible in body and also in spirit because we know we're at the beck and call of weather."

Many of the plants and flowers at Hillwood are doing well, despite fluctuations in the weather. Fetzer says the weather has even opened opportunities for early blooming.

But less welcome guests have sprung; frequent rain has helped the Dead Man's Fingers fungus grow. Flower leaves must be checked for signs of fungus or bacteria.

In addition to keeping up with the weather, some public gardens are trying to reduce their impact on climate change. The Union of Concerned Scientists has tips on how home gardeners can do their part in sustaining a more "climate-friendly" plot.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


It rained off and on when we visited one of the most beautiful gardens in Washington this week at Hillwood House, the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the fabulously rich heir to the Post cereal fortune, once the richest woman in America. Her Washington home is open for visitors who can also walk around the gardens. Hillwood has a staff of horticulturalists, gardeners and volunteers, and like home gardeners, they are confronting a climate which is not behaving.

BILL JOHNSON: Every year seems to be different now. The new norm is expect the unexpected. Every year is so different. We've been getting mild winters, things start growing sooner, so the bloom time is just skewed on everything. And as a garden designer, people probably have a lot of trouble, and you never know when things are going to bloom. So, if you have plant combinations that are based on color, you never know.

WERTHEIMER: For instance, this year in Washington, all the bulbs came up at once. Bill Johnson told us that happened at Hillwood as well. He is the volunteer coordinator and he's worked in the garden for 30 years. Jody Fetzer is the garden supervisor. She says the increase of violent weather in the Middle Atlantic States has also created big problems. She talked about the extensive damage caused by a storm called a derecho in 2012 - thunderstorms and steady 60 mile-an-hour winds.

JODY FETZER: It' not only tore through the heart of Hillwood, it tore through the heart of every horticulturalist here. It was very difficult to see the tops of trees just ripped off, trees uprooted, and massive root zones just standing straight up, and we can even take a look at that in a moment. But how do you recover from something like that?

WERTHEIMER: Can you see derecho damage from where we're standing now?

FETZER: Yes. It started right here, and then the heart of it is probably about 10 yards down the path.


FETZER: You can see this is one of the dramatic examples of the damage from the derecho, where the tree was absolutely just tipped over, the roots were ripped out of the ground, and you can see the root mass that's probably about 12 feet across.

WERTHEIMER: Washington is near the southern edge of one of those climate zones, which tell gardeners which plants grow well in which climate zones. But that's another area where unexpected things are happening. At Hillwood's garden, crab apples, sparkle berries and holly berries are not lasting.

JOHNSON: You know, we love those in the winter and we like them in the holiday arrangements, but we don't have anything because the birds eat them all.

WERTHEIMER: I must say, that would be a climate change detail that I would never had thought of.

JOHNSON: Yeah, well, I've been observing this I guess maybe four or five years, but I think most of it's the robins. They're just not going anywhere. And, you know, they're the ones who eat a lot of the hollies and so forth. So, it was like the Alfred Hitchcock movie, 'cause the birds were just everywhere. I mean, it's all robins on these holly trees. It was just phenomenal.

WERTHEIMER: But for every story like the robins who don't fly south and instead strip the garden of berries, there is another story. Things that used to require extra care to get them through cold winters now thrive.

JOHNSON: We're seeing a lot more tropicals coming into our displays, and quite a few of them are turning out to be fairly hardy. And, you know, it's like, you know, we have a lot of banana trees that survive the winters now. You never would have thought of that earlier.

WERTHEIMER: Now, what is the name of this tree?

JOHNSON: This is Liriope pendulum chinetz(ph). It's in the witch hazel family, May blooming, so it's a little different. Most of the witch hazels are either in the fall or in the really late winter. So, this is like usually May, although it's blooming earlier. There's no timeline anymore, you know. You appreciate things when they're in bloom, and don't expect them to come on time anymore.

WERTHEIMER: We were told that Marjorie Merriweather Post loved that particular tree for its delicate spring bloom, but it required a lot of TLC to keep it alive. Now, milder winters make it a very happy tree. And April showers coming in July have brought some newcomers into this garden.

FETZER: Dead Man's Fingers.

WERTHEIMER: Is that what it's called?

FETZER: It's a fungus.

WERTHEIMER: Dead Man's Fingers?

FETZER: Doesn't it look like dead man's fingers coming up out of the ground?

WERTHEIMER: Ew, yes. Well, so, is that happening just because we've had such an unusually wet summer?

FETZER: Right. It's associated with rain and we're seeing a lot of other mushrooms along out pathways. It's a great time to go and just do a mushroom walk. You know, we have purple ones, orange ones, and these are kind of greyish-black, like I guess the color of a dead man's finger.

WERTHEIMER: In addition to unfamiliar fungi, Hillwood is also finding it's bugs are working on a different schedule.

FETZER: One of the things that the gardeners have reported early this year are Japanese beetles. Normally, we don't very many until into July, and they were reporting them about mid-June. So, some of the beetles are emerging, and Japanese beetles spend their immature stages in the soil. So, that could be an indication that the soil's warming up a little earlier so that then the adults emerge earlier.

WERTHEIMER: We asked our plant pros what's a gardener to do? How can we keep up with plants needing extra attention because they're now out of their comfort zone and new plants which might now do well for people who've never grown them. Here's advice from Jody Fetzer and Bill Johnson.

JOHNSON: Well, I think you have to probably change plants more than likely. I really feel like it's best to grow plants that survive in the environment. I really think that's the best approach.

WERTHEIMER: Is there some place that we could go to look up plants that are, where their favorite environment seems to be moving a little south or a little north of where they are now?

FETZER: A really good resource that I use is the American Public Gardens Association website, APGA. And they're partnering now with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

WERTHEIMER: NOAA, as we know (unintelligible)...


FETZER: NOAA - you guys know this better than I do 'cause it's a new partnership. And what they are doing projections on some changes and things that the different gardeners can do and public gardens can do to adapt and kind of be flexible with the changes. And I think almost every person out there who's a gardener is a flexible person. You know, you have to be flexible in body and also in spirit. Because we know we're at the beck and call of weather.

WERTHEIMER: So, even if you're concerned about global warming and you're a little bit afraid of global warming, when your tulips come up a month earlier than they did when you were a kid, it looks really pretty.

FETZER: We're adapting, we're adapting.

WERTHEIMER: Jody Fetzer, thank you very much.

FETZER: You're welcome.

WERTHEIMER: And Bill Johnson, thank you.

JOHNSON: Oh, my pleasure.


WERTHEIMER: For more on climate-conscious gardening tips and to see those Dead Man's Fingers, visit our website, This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.