WARNING of WARMING: How can we protect our gardens from climate change?

Updated: May 18, 2021

What could be more joyous than a traditional English garden? Grand herbaceous borders, maybe a cottage garden crammed with hollyhocks and roses, perhaps a sweeping, Capability Brown landscape with rolling hills and a lake in the valley. Or maybe neatly trimmed lawns with a few croquet hoops. Topiary, parterres, pots and plenty of bling in the form of colourful bedding plants.

The English Landscape style is unmistakable, with its temples, follies, bridges, lakes, rolling hills and planted copses. This is Stourhead in Wiltshire.

It seems there is no single recipe for a traditional English garden. Instead, there’s a huge menu of possibilities. But… there is uncertainty ahead. With the exception of the naturalistic landscape style, brought to England in the 18th century as a revolt against symmetry and formality, it’s unlikely that these types of traditional gardens can survive climate change without a lot of support from gardeners.

A warming warning. Gardens are likely to become victims of global warming:

  • Spring and summer rain will probably be in short supply as droughts happen more frequently. Many traditional and native plants will perish without regular water.

  • There are already far more pests and diseases as temperatures continue to rise. Exceptionally damp spells during winter will cause mildew and fungal diseases. Plants will come under attack throughout the seasons.

  • Many plants won’t be able to survive the increasingly extreme winter weather, either succumbing to drowning in the floods and excess winter rain or snapping in extreme winds. It’s rarely practical to mollycoddle a wide variety of species.

Life-giving rain might not always be welcome, but it's vital to survival. And it's rather beautiful too!

Reap some garden rewards because of rising temperatures

Gardeners are resourceful folk and can adapt by changing focus and future-proofing outdoor spaces. It's all about good garden design. Indeed, there are benefits to be enjoyed from climate change as well as negative impacts!

  • Some plant species might now be able to survive our winters, whereas they had to be brought indoors in the past. They include some palm trees and even banana palms, also some tender perennials that were once classed as annuals.

  • Flowering annuals and perennials tend to flower for longer. Indeed, some can bloom from mid spring right through to late autumn if they are regularly dead-headed. This applies to beauties such as certain forms of Veronica and Salvia, also some daisy-types such as Erigeron karvinskianus.

  • The growing season is longer, so that’s got to be good for the kitchen garden and the allotment. Given enough feed and water, vegetables will keep on providing crops.

This is French lavender on the left, with silver-leafed Stachys in the foreground and the daisy-like Erigeron karvinskianus on the right. All planted within a drought-tolerant gravel garden.

How to future-proof your garden

Let’s look at ways we can make steps towards a more sustainable future:

  • Design your space with the future in mind. You want to make maintenance as simple as possible and you need to ensure the plants that you choose will be able to survive extreme conditions. Think about water conservation, wildlife protection, pollination and growing for the kitchen.

  • Choose drought-tolerant plants for your sunniest, driest spots. Some of these have hairy leaves or silvery foliage as this reduces water evaporation, protects the plant from extreme heat and the hairs tend to trap water during the night.

  • Ensure your soil is free-draining as many plants won’t enjoy soggy soil in the winter. You can add grit, stones and gravel to help keep the air pores open.

  • Choose trees and shrubs with care, looking specifically at their ability to cope with both drought and flooding. Plants that come naturally from arid locations tend to be the most suitable. Look at Mediterranean plans for inspiration.

  • Use raised beds if you want to control the soil – it’s easier for garden maintenance too!

  • Consider not having a lawn. Alternatively, don’t be precious about keeping it green. A traditional lawn is a monoculture which doesn’t offer much in the way of biodiversity and it turns brown during a drought. Accept the fact that patches of your lawn will look dead during summer. It will green up again when the rains come.

  • Allow grass to grow a longer sward and encourage weeds to grow amongst the grass. It’s so much better for bees and other beneficial insects – also it will protect the roots from completely drying out during dry weather.

  • If you have slopes in the garden, ensure to keep them planted. Otherwise your precious soil will be washed off during heavy rainfall. Fill every inch with plants so that you can’t see the soil. It cuts down on weeding too.

  • The same applies to your beds. You don’t need to see the soil, this isn’t the 1950s! The plants will protect each other, help keep each other cool and upright too. Their roots will also soak up more water during times of flooding.

  • Cultivate the soil before planting. Dig in lots of organic matter, not just within the planting hole but as far and wide as you can dig (home-made compost is brilliant). This will help the soil to retain moisture. If you make sure the ground isn’t compacted, it will help to drain excess rain away too.

  • Grow your own! If you have never tried, now is the time. Start with just a few reliable vegetables such as runner beans, courgettes, cucumber and maybe potatoes. You’ll soon be getting the growing-bug.

  • Encourage wildlife into your garden. A pond is probably the very best feature you can provide as it will provide water for birds, small mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects too.

  • Make a log pile in a tucked-away location to give wild creatures a place to shelter and keep cool and moist.

  • Consider making your own insect hotel, or even multiple hotels in a ‘holiday complex’.

  • Put up as many bird boxes as you can manage.

  • It goes without saying: save water. Install several water butts and always use the water in these before you resort to the mains supply. It’s more natural for your plants too.

  • Finally, if you are thinking of replacing or extending your patio, consider using porous materials. This means the rainwater will pass through the surface and will be funnelled through to a pond, a swathe or a French drain that gradually returns the water into the water table. It will help to prevent flooding in times of heavy rainfall when the main drainage system often overflows.

Bringing wildlife into your garden has benefits all-round. Who wouldn't want to see a beautiful butterfly on the Sedum?

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