Gardening and climate change: RHS report

Not so grim up north in RHS’s climate change report

Canary Island date palm
Echoes of holidays… drought tolerant Canary Island date palm (which stays outside all winter), Cordyline and geraniums

Despite many people in power’s rhetoric, most gardeners in the UK see on a daily basis that climate change is a fact of life.

From my garden in NE England, milder winters, drier springs and erratic weather patterns have changed the way I garden over the past few years – my base rule is now drought tolerance.

Wherever we live, the climate is going to change the way we all garden, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has claimed in a new report.

In Gardening in a Changing Climate, the lawn could become a thing of the past (hurray); gardeners in the north could enjoy a longer growing season (hurray) and pests and diseases could become established in new areas (boo).

The report authors believe it is possible that in the north of the UK, increasing temperatures and rainfall is extending the growing season, whereas the extent to which the growing season can extend in the south is limited by an increasingly dry climate.

The report, a collaboration between the RHS, academics from Sheffield, Reading, and Coventry Universities and the Met Office, looks at the impact the increase in global temperatures is having on plants and gardeners and the future of gardening as temperatures increase.

It is the first in-depth analysis of climate change on UK gardening since 2002, when the RHS worked with the UKCIP and the National Trust on the Gardening in the Global Greenhouse report.

The 2002 report concluded that gardeners would be basking in Mediterranean temperatures and so could grow more plants that thrive in bright, dry conditions, model projections suggest warmer but more variable conditions.

Gardeners can expect more extreme weather, variable, intense rainfall, combined with an increase in dry summers, most pronounced in the south.

If rainfall increases, traditional plants, such as tulips, Alliums and Asters may have to be planted in raised beds for better drainage and to lift their roots clear of the water table.

Gardeners experiencing higher temperatures may have turn to drought tolerant and heat-loving plants, such as Aloe or lavender. Lawns may become a casualty, converted to dry meadows, as pressure on water supplies increases.

A survey of more than 1,000 gardeners, which forms part of the report, provides a snapshot of how UK gardening is coping with a changing climate.

The survey found that:

  • Only two per cent of gardeners feel that they have the knowledge to adapt to a changing climate.
  • Most are concerned about the general effects of climate change and whether they will still be able to grow their favourite plants.
  • Approximately half of respondents have changed gardening practices and 79 per cent of people are paying more attention to the climate.
  • Drought and waterlogging will become the most critical factors in determining plant survival.
  • The introduction of new pests and diseases due was the greatest concern after drought and waterlogging.
  • Despite heavy rainfall and flooding experienced in recent years, water availability is a concern, as rainfall becomes more sporadic – there will be a need to capture rainfall for use during drought.

Based on average temperature and precipitation maps, Northampton appears to be on the boundary between the warmer and drier south of England and the cooler and wetter north.

The town’s gardeners are mowing their lawns more often in early spring and late autumn in comparison those living further south.

Garden
The garden last June – with Echiums, Yuccas, succulents and Mediterranean plants a plenty

RHS climate scientist and report co-author Dr. Eleanor Webster said: “This report provides really important information about the challenges gardeners have been and will continue to face as a result of climatic changes.

“While there will undoubtedly be hurdles for gardeners to overcome, when armed with guidance on the steps they can take to adapt to the changes, we are confident that they can continue to garden successfully.

“This report not only provides insights into the specific growing conditions the different areas of the country will face, based on their unique geography, but it also provides advice on the specific plants that are best equipped to thrive under the new conditions.

“Increasing housing pressures will exacerbate the possible implications of climate change outlined in the report. As a result, gardens will become increasingly important for flood protection, local climate buffering and as vital green spaces for wildlife.

“The threat to our gardens and green spaces from climate change is very real and is happening now. It is vitally important that gardeners have the information they will need to confront and adapt to the new challenges and that policy makers prioritise the importance of maintaining green spaces.”

In a foreword to the report Professor Dame Julia Slingo OBE, the former Met Office chief scientist said: “Climate change is likely to be one of the defining challenges of the 21st century and how we respond will determine our future prosperity, health and well-being and the sustainability of Earth’s natural environment.

“But as this report makes clear, our perspective on what a garden should be and what we might like to grow in it will have to change. The good news is that we now have a pretty fair idea, thanks to climate science, of what our future weather and climate might be like. That means that we can start to plan now for the changes that we will need to introduce to our gardens.

“This report provides some valuable guidance, and demonstrates how climate change need not be a disaster for our gardens, but instead provide us with a wealth of opportunities.”

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