Growing pains: how the climate crisis is changing British gardens

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O n a dank day in January, a small slice of Walsall is blooming. Marie and Tony Newton’s back garden is filled with summery colour: miniature mauve cyclamens, frilly red camellias, graceful hellebores, seasonal snowdrops and the bright green sheaths of bulbs promising more flowers to come. A few winters back, their first daffodil bloomed on Boxing Day.

“It’s basically chaotic,” says Tony of the new climatic normal. “It’s non-stop flowers from now on. Winters are milder on average and there’s every opportunity to have a riot of lovely flowers from December right through till spring.”

Deadly floods in Bangladesh, devastating wildfires in California, melting glaciers in Greenland, coral bleaching in the oceans – this is climate change in action. Highlighting far more benign changes in Britain, long blessed with a moderate climate, may appear trivial or downright insensitive. Our gentle extremes – the beast from the east, or summer 2018 being England’s hottest ever – are far from drastic. But they still pose challenges, and there is more change coming.

Britain’s 27 million gardeners could be the canaries in our coalmine. How are gardeners experiencing climate change in Britain and how is it transforming our gardens? And can adapting our gardening styles mitigate the negative impacts of climate change?

Marie and Tony couldn’t see their garden when they first viewed the house in 1982 because it was covered by a snowdrift. In the years since, as their south-facing quarter-acre evolved from a children’s play-space to a “four-seasons garden” with an all-year-round rainbow of flowers, shrubs and trees, they have witnessed the Midlands climate become steadily milder. Autumn frosts are much later, if they strike at all, and September is a summer month now. Their begonias continue until October. “That would never have happened in the past; we’d barely get through September without air frosts,” says Tony. “Although it’s warming up, you’ve got to plan for the extremes. We’re still going to get very severe winters and it will wipe out many gardeners’ new species.”

They know about this only too well. Their garden features a jungle area of bamboo, palm trees, a banana tree and the stumps of several Tasmanian tree ferns. These ferns survived the winter of 2009, the coldest for 30 years, but a run of -15C nights and sub-zero days the following December killed them off. “It’s a mortgage to replace them,” grimaces Marie. Climate change is encouraging many gardeners to buy exotic plants but “we still need truly hardy varieties,” says Tony. Their banana is wrapped in black cloth over winter. He ensures that whenever they add a shrub to the 3,000 in their garden it can survive at -15C.

Marie and Tony’s garden fared better during last summer’s drought. Their clay soils retain moisture, which helps, but they didn’t lose a single plant to the weather, despite being on holiday for two weeks. This may be because they are obsessive mulchers. Mulch is material added to the surface of the soil to increase organic matter and repress weeds. The Newtons have added 108 cubic metres of tree bark to their soil over the years; each year they also compost all their garden leaves and cuttings, reapplying this to their soil. This organic matter has steadily improved soil quality and, crucially, helps it retain moisture.Advertisement

When Liam Shoesmith, deputy parks manager of Truro city council, saw how dry 2018 summer’s long-term forecast looked, he suggested the city’s gardeners should plant succulents and cacti for their Britain in Bloom competition entry. “It was a bit of a joke really,” he says. But the community group that organises Truro’s displays took his advice. In what the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) described as the “toughest year for community gardening in 54 years”, Truro’s blend of exotic, drought-tolerant plants, including palms and Mediterranean herbs, serviced by a solar-powered rainwater-harvesting system, thrived. And Truro won the Britain in Bloom competition for the first time.