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Simon Smith Garden & Landscape Design

Hertford and Our Changing Climate

16 October 2021

I was asked recently to talk to a diverse group of interested people at the Hertford and Our Changing Climate (HACC) seminar on 25th Sept 2021. I spoke on topics including, "how green is my garden" and "top tips to tackle climate change". Because addressing climate change is so vital to each of us I felt you might like to read my presentation...

I'd like to talk about gardening to heal this planet. We are at the stage with this climate crisis where everyone has to do whatever they can to make a difference. Just by being here today you have made a difference. Thank you for being here. And a thank you to HACC for asking me to speak.

I am a garden designer. I work alongside people who are garden owners and I design gardens. I use design to create garden landscapes that are beautiful, practical, full of wildlife, sustainable, that capture carbon, reduce flood risk (SuDS). I bring a creative and collaborative approach to solving garden design problems. I care about this stuff and you know what I think you do too!

My starting place today is that we should be the best gardeners we can possibly be. We can do this! Now, the best gardeners are going to be on the front line in the battle to tackle climate change. We have a law in this country that says we have to get to net zero by 2050. Assuming that gardeners are law abiding citizens, then the best gardeners will play their part in ensuring that this legal requirement is carried through.

Now some perspective. There are an estimated 30m gardeners in the UK. 3m new ones since COVID. In (2009) Davies et al estimated that UK gardens cover an area of 432,000 hectares. An area greater than the county of Suffolk. But that is only 2% of the UK land mass. Agricultural land comprises about 70% of the UK area. So parks and gardens can’t really make up for what is happening in the wider countryside. [P157 Ollerton]. None the less the RHS (2017) stated “Gardens have an important role in helping to mitigate against the effects of climate change, as certain management practices may help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or help fix (sequester) atmospheric carbon into the soil”.

So what does it mean to be one of the ‘best gardeners’? Our climate has been altered by human activity. Let’s acknowledge that us humans are the problem! Climate change means we have to change our behaviour and the way we garden.

To help us answer the question of how to be the best gardener I am going to divide my talk into three sections: control/influence/concern. In practice it means three things:

1.     control what we can control

2.     influence what we can influence

3.     don’t be too concerned about what we can’t control or influence

Question one: as best gardeners what can we control?

From the tiniest space to acres of land, everyone can do their bit eg CFS balcony gardens were a new category. Indoor options too. Whatever the size of your space we should grow more food at home and eat it. Think of the food miles. We can control quite a lot in relation to growing food. This applies to gardening in general.

Let’s start off by composting our green waste. Why? Composting locks up carbon because it decomposes slowly. Food waste that goes to landfill is bad because it produces methane which is 26 times more damaging as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Once compost is produced we can incorporate it into the soil. The build up of organic material will lock up CO2. It’s a winner. In contrast using peat to grow things releases CO2 and destroys valuable sphagnum moss rich ecosystems. Look for, ask for and use peat–free composts. There are now some high quality products out there that work. Do not buy peat. Do not buy products grown in peat. I’ll mention peat again. Mulch.

This sorts out some of the soil issues. Now let’s look at plants. When it comes to planting, Beth Chatto’s mantra, "right plant right place" is very helpful. What this means in practice is the careful selection of plants for the soil and growing conditions. Don’t just go to the garden centre and say to yourself, “Oh look at that, I think I’ll have one of those!” the chances are it will end up being wrong plant wrong place. Choose plants that are right for your soil, your garden microclimate and that give you pleasure. So do your research eg use the RHS website. Buy books. Build up a good reference library. Right plant right place means that you won’t have to water continually or replace plants that die because they are unsuited to the growing conditions. It will save you money It also means you are better placed to influence others.

Try to reduce the use of petrol–powered tools eg on lawns. Using hand tools means we are using our muscles. We will grow stronger and hopefully healthier. BTW all my client’s garden meadows are cut with an Austrian hay scythe. No petrol. No C02. No worries.

I don’t worry about so called weeds in a lawn that kind of thing is helpful to insects and beetles. In fact we should encourage biodiversity and structural diversity in our gardens. For example Ken Thompson’s (p217 Goulson) studies in Sheffield gardens show that dense vegetation is good for insects. So plant trees and shrubs. They trap CO2 from the atmosphere, reduce the risk of flooding and can even capture particulate pollution. Dead wood retention on site or introduction is good for the environment. Good for saproxylic invertebrates.

Try to plant a diverse variety of pollinator friendly plants. Choose plants with different flowering times. Late season stuff is very helpful eg Ivy. Encouraging vertebrates is good too. Hedgehogs will hoover up a lot of slugs from your garden. Amphibians are predators too. Some people have butterfly nectar gardens. Butterfly nectar plants are good for the adult (imago) BUT the egg, caterpillar and pupa part of the life cycle need long grass and plants such as nettles to complete their life cycle. Keep some longer vegetation in your garden. Wherever possible avoid the use of chemicals. If required, use products with a low carbon footprint.

How many of you have ever consulted a garden designer? Most people will need some kind of help to design a garden amid climate change. A good garden designer will be on top of the climate change issues, can advise, help you select plants and create climate friendly design strategies that best suit your garden environment and its surroundings. They will introduce you to craftsmen and techniques that will help you to heal the planet. Because our summers are warmer and getting longer I often advise clients to plant a dry garden or use drought resistant plants or even drought tolerant plants. These are what I call planting strategies. They can be very low maintenance with just one annual maintenance event. Certain plants have evolved drought resistant growth strategies. They might have deep fibrous root systems (Dianthus), exhibit mounding (Lavender), silver leaved (Artemesia), long tap root (Verbascum). The leaves are hairy, furry, fleshy or leathery. These are all water conservation adaptations. They will do well in a warming climate.  

Question two: as best gardeners what can we influence?

Near to home shopping habits (shocking habits?!) need to be self-policed. I am cautious about garden centres that will sell you anything. I use plant nurseries because they seem less consumer driven and more plugged in to the community network. I try to avoid outlets who stock peat. But I do speak to them about their peat products and I have to say I am not always comfortable with their response. Don’t buy peat. Peat decomposes in the soil releasing CO2. Peatlands store considerable amounts of carbon. They are a renewable resource but are being destroyed rapidly and it renders them practically non-renewable. Many people are working to restore peatland ecosystems by planting Sphagnum mosses. If we buy peat we are actually working against them when we ought to collaborate! Don’t buy slug pellets containing metaldehyde; it is very dangerous to hedgehogs and birds. If you must use them buy the products based on iron phosphate and aluminium sulphate they are less toxic. Don’t buy single use plastic. Naomi Klein says it “is like our economy is at war with our environment”.

High impact rain events are a problem now the climate crisis is here. 100 year events are arriving at 30 year intervals. If you are developing parts of your garden or house there are some things you should do. Green infrastructure can be installed on a property. It will help to tackle climate change issues such as flooding. Flood risk can be reduced by the deployment of rain gardens, retention ponds, detention ponds, blue roofs, swales, permeable paving, street trees. SUDS. It is illegal to discharge water from your front garden into the road. Installation of green roofs and walls can result in year–round home energy savings, due to a cooling effect in summer and an insulating effect in winter. While we are thinking about water: seek water butts with a larger capacity to ensure a sufficient water supply over the summer.

Question three: as ‘best gardeners’ what should we be concerned about?

I was always strive to be upbeat. But some things you just can’t ignore and I've picked out two things from a long list of concerns.

The IPCC Report says the climate crisis is Code Red – this is a threat to human existence. Hard to ignore that one! The RHS has made it clear that gardens and gardeners have a role to play. But it should be a concern to all of us that on average 40% of GDP was spent on WW2, yet less than 0.5% is being spent on this climate crisis! (Independent 12.8.21.). 

We need to improve our knowledge, our objectivity, our thinking skills and recognise the value of reason. We should get our information from books, journals (RHS) and we should support scientists and scientific research, for example at Kew Gardens and Cambridge Botanic Gardens. They have great information, graphic displays and they run courses where we can learn. I am a lifelong learner and I believe everyone should be. After, learning is empowering and fun!

Finally, my call to arms... 

I am concerned that you might feel challenged by the climate crisis. You are not alone. We all feel like that. And we cope with that by doing something and giving ourselves a sense of control. 


Thank you for reading this - I hope you found it interesting and informative.


Selected references you may find interesting: