climate change environment

Your garden in a changing climate

I didn’t get to the Chelsea flower show this year, or any year come to think of it, but I was curious to see what the Royal Horticultural Society was up to with their urban garden. The RHS has done some great work on gardening in a changing climate, assessing the changes as they happen and are likely to happen, and advising gardeners on how to maintain a thriving garden. This year, they launched a new report, Gardening Matters: Urban Gardens, that suggests ways to fight climate change in your own garden. (It isn’t available online yet, I will link in when it is)

According to their study, gardens play several important roles. In an urban environment, gardens help to control both extreme heat and extreme cold. They can absorb excess rainwater and protect against flooding – especially important in front gardens, as I’ve written about before. Gardens encourage human welfare and animal welfare, providing habitats for birds, insects, frogs and small mammals.

Water is one key aspect of gardening in a changing climate. At the time of writing, we’ve just had the for a century in this part of the UK, with less than half the average rainfall. If that sort of water shortage becomes more common, we’re going to have to find ways to use water more wisely, and harvest more rainwater when it is available. The RHS has pioneered both, reducing its water use by 40% at its demonstration gardens at Wisley. (If you don’t harvest rainwater already, your local council can offer you a water butt at a subsidised price.)

Drought resistant plants are another line of investigation, and RHS runs an experimental ‘‘ at Hyde Hall in Essex. That includes plants and varieties from the Mediterranean or California. Silver-leaved plants reflect sunlight and can help cool a garden. Succulent plants retain water, and ground cover can help retain water and prevent evaporation. Some gardeners spend their lives trying to eradicate clover from their lawns, but clover is a great ground cover plant for growing between larger plants, and it will fix nitrogen while it’s at it. Mulching with straw or bark chips can also create a water-retaining layer across the soil, ensuring that more water stays in the ground for plants to use.

If you’re one of the many English gardeners who value a nice lawn, allowing a little diversity into the mix will actually keep it greener for more of the year, where a pure grass lawn will dry up and go brown in peak summer unless you water it intensively. A little moss retains moisture, and clover stays green in dry conditions, so remove the bigger weeds by hand rather than blitzing them with chemicals and keeping a lawn monoculture. Clover is also good for bees, so there’s a double pay-off, if you can live with the risk of stepping on one barefoot.

You can also grow plants that will improve the energy efficiency of your home. In his fascinating book Plants for a Future, Ken Fern describes how ivy growing across a wall can insulate your house in winter and keep it cool in summer. In winter, it reduces wind chill and keeps an insulating layer of air between the wall and the air. In summer, ivy blocks solar heating and lowers indoor temperatures.

Another way to mitigate against rising temperatures is to plant more trees. Trees capture pollution and absorb CO2, and offer shade. They also provide windbreaks and reduce dust. If you want to plant more trees on your land, there is a that suggests which ones are most likely to survive drier conditions. Given the growing time involved, it makes sense to start planting more drought resistant varieties sooner rather than later.

The other side to drought is flooding. In a destabilised climate, rainfall tends to arrive all at once, and flooding is an increased risk. It is possible to design parks and gardens to help with flooding. In a garden, sinks and run-offs allow water to be absorbed by the ground, rather than run into sewers or drainage systems. In a park, streams can be bounded with natural banks and floodplains, so that overspill can be managed and even turned into an advantage.

Finally, growing more of our own food is a way of reducing food miles and reducing our carbon footprints. Few of us could ever be self-sufficient, but the more we can grow for ourselves, the more energy we can cut from the food supply chain. We can also grow more perrenials, which continue to yield crops year after year, saving energy in turning soil and replanting.

I’ve been trying out a few of these things in our own garden. I have rainwater harvesting barrels front and back, and I intend to fit a large water tank when I find one of the right size and shape. I’m growing more mediterranean vegetables this year, including a variety of different squashes and beans. I’m also using climbing sun-loving plants as cover for less hardy, shade-loving plants grown beneath them. A neighbour from New Zealand has given me some seed for a drought-resistant Kiwi spinach, which I have yet to plant.

Anybody else trying anything different?

  • For more on gardening in a changing climate, see Debbie’s .

14 comments

  1. I cannot wait to have my own garden, and I do plan on rain barrels. I’ll use them as part of a gravity feed irrigation system.

  2. Jeremy, I agree with you re planning gardens to avoid overburdening the drains with rainwater when we get downpours – I have a low-maintenance front garden with gravel (and have kept the original flowerbeds) so that it’s still able to soak up the rain.

    I’m a little more dubious about ivy – on some buildings ivy looks great, and I’m sure it does insulate and add some natural climate-control; living in a 1930s mid-terrace, my experience has been a bit negative, though as it tended to push its way into gutters and spoil the surface of the wall. It looked lovely – as did some virginia creeper we also had – but unfortunately it had to go.

    1. Yes, they say it will do no damage to a new wall, but can snag on older ones. All creepers can get out of hand as well. And we’re in a 1928 mid-terrace ourselves, and ivy wouldn’t work in our context either.

  3. Nice article. Thanks.

    We have a biggish garden, not so far from yours. I say “we” but really my wife, Mary, is the gardener (and Chair of the local garden club) so I asked her to comment. Here are some of her thoughts:

    1. The trouble with the “dry garden” idea is that many of these Mediterranean and Californian (we know a bit about these as a daughter lives in LA) plants cannot cope with wet, cold winters – and we seem to be having a lot of these now.

    2. Straw and bark chips are fine for mulching but even better is home-made compost – with (erm) a much smaller “carbon footprint”. And sometimes you can get compost bins from your local authority – sometimes even free compost too (thanks to Transition St Albans’ publicity, we took advantage of this recently).

    3. We don’t bother to water our lawn in the summer – a poor use of valuable water. It nearly always greens up quickly in the autumn rains.

    4. As Alex says, ivy may have a downside. But another advantage is that, as it flowers late in the year, it’s an excellent source of nectar for bees and other insects.

    5. We have planted lots of trees – both stand-alone and in hedges. But you won’t be surprised to learn that the objective was unconnected with an intention “to mitigate against rising temperatures”: if they’re going to rise, our planting trees will do nothing to mitigate it. (Yes, my wife’s another sceptic.) And BTW nearly all of ours are English natives – and especially those found in the wild locally. Worth checking.

    6. All our roof water goes either into soak-aways in the garden or into four water butts. You’re right: avoid allowing it into the drains and sewers.

    You asked if anyone was trying anything different. Here’s a couple of tips:

    1. Mulch your vegetable beds with home-made compost (it’s impossible to have too much) in the autumn. Then the worms take it into the soil during the winter, which means you can avoid deep digging altogether.

    2. Plant plenty of vegetables that your family like** and which are successful in your soil – in our case, for example, that pretty well excludes cabbage. Then you can freeze any surplus and have good home-grown vegetables for winter use when there’s little in the garden. And don’t forget they can also be made into (delicious) preserves and pickles.

    Three final points;

    1. Slightly O/T: when you have to buy fruit and vegetables, always buy UK produce whenever possible – e.g. no asparagus from Peru when asparagus from East Anglia is available. It tastes better too.

    2. ** In our case, this includes beans (various), peas, leeks, spinach, chard, courgettes, marrows, sweetcorn, new potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, shallots and all types of salad. Also we have soft and orchard fruit. And more. Only problem: it’s a lot of work.

    3. A really nice garden (and, yes, we have flowers as well) is a way to enjoy life – without (dare I say it?) burning the dreaded CO2 by flying off to foreign parts. (Although we do a bit of that as well.)

    PS: when we do that book swap, maybe you’d like to see our garden. And vice versa.

  4. Wow! Over here in Australia water conservation in gardens, doing away with lawns, using native plants etc have been gaining popularity for quite a few years (in WA we have had some (record-breaking) really dry summers recently and not much rain in winter either), but I had no idea it was also relevant for the UK.

      1. It’s a much more obvious problem in Australia, but if you take rainfall per person, there are parts of England that are drier than Israel or Spain.

      2. Maybe – but don’t forget that, only a few months ago, we were hearing about massive floods in Australia.

    1. Kylie – I know how far ahead you are in Australia with adapting to climate change in the garden – mainly due to the extreme weather conditions that Australia now experiences as a result of our changing climate.
      The UK is slowly waking up to the fact that seasons are now very unpredictable and our traditional
      herbaceous borders and manicured lawns are under threat.
      I do hope you will visit my blog at and read the Australian Climate Change pages – maybe even add some comments and offer personal experiences of drought in your garden?

  5. That’s part of the change we’re seeing, for more extremes. There’s no rain, and then it all comes at once. We’ve seen that in the UK too in fact, with some quite serious flooding in recent years.

    Great to see some rain around here in the last few days though.

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