It has been the coldest week of the winter so far for me down here near the Sussex coast. We had a frost. Woohoo! It was SO cold that my main pond froze over, for the first time this winter. And then immediately thawed again. I know, I know - it is hardly what you'd call 'winter', is it? And I see the forecast is for temperatures back in double digits for the next week or two at least.
That's not saying we won't get a sudden cold snap at some point. That's the weather for you; unpredictable.
But climate - our average weather - is much more predictable. And, of course, we know it is already getting warmer, and is going to get warmer still. And mild winters like this are going to become the norm. So what can we do to adapt to - and combat - climate change in our gardens, for the benefit of us and for wildlife.
Well, we will probably have to alter the range of plants that we grow in order to be able to cope with what will probably be milder, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers. Fortunately for our pollinators, there are plenty of Mediterranean plants that we can grow, and already grow, that are loved by bees and butterflies. Lavenders and Rosemary, Sedums and Eryngiums (sea-hollies) are all able to cope with long periods of drought and are some of the better pollinator-friendly plants there are, things such as this gorgeous French Lavender Lavandula stoechas that I photographed growing wild in Portugal.
What many of these plants have in common, however, is that they don't like getting their feet soggy in winter, so we may need to adjust how we manage our garden soil. It is ironic that plants that can cope with only the occasional water also need the soil to be relatively free draining - you'd think they'd like to hold onto every bit drop they receive. If you're on sandy soils, you've no problem, but if you're on clay, you'll probably need to work in some sharp sand.
One of the ways to create suitable conditions is to create a gravel garden. The most famous example is probably in the Beth Chatto garden in Essex, one of the driest places in the country. Here's a picture I took a few years back:
Now you might be mistaken for thinking that a gravel garden must have lots of gravel dug deep into the soil, but really it is just a mulch over the top, a couple of inches or so thick. Underneath, Beth actually ensured that the soil was well worked and had LOTS of well-rotted compost in it. The gravel allows rain to percolate quickly through the surface layer and then the good soil underneath holds enough of it without getting sticky. The soil isn't fertilised - that would prompt the plants to create too much soft, leafy growth. But it is definitely good soil.
I plan to make a gravel garden in my garden over the next couple of years, and will share how it gets on. I am definitely going to be inspired by the natural vegetation I have seen growing in nature's own sand and gravel gardens, such as here in the Algarve:
With climate change, it will probably mean that we can grow plants that previously would have been too tender. Maybe in future we'll be growing Cork Oaks and Olive trees such that our gardens look rather like this:
I'm currently growing Giant Viper's Bugloss Echium pininana, which is from the Canary Islands. You will probably be familiar with it if you've been down to south west England, but more of us will be able to do so in future. Here are two plants I photographed today in my garden, grown from seed last year:
And this is what I hope they will turn into next year - 12 feet of bee heaven:
Maybe in the fight against climate change, we all ought to think about whether we can plant another tree (or two) in our gardens. Mother Nature did a grand job for all those millions of years, sucking out carbon from the atmosphere and turning it into standing timber.
Maybe, too, we ought to limit our fossil fuel use in the garden. Can we let go of our petrol mowers? I switched to a push mower last year for my grassy paths and was surprised how easy it was to push (and what a superior cut finish it gives on the grass).
Green roofs and walls - are they part of the solution? They have the power to help insulate houses from the heat in summer, and reduce the need to heat them in the winter. However, green roofs are very difficult to retrofit on anything larger than a shed, so maybe every other roof is best covered in solar panels in the future rather than having to fill whole landscapes with them.
Of course, we already had a great reason to move away from peat-free composts because of the damage its extraction does to wildlife-rich habitats, but now there is an added reason, for it also releases masses of stored carbon from the thick layers of peat bog.
Some of these things may seem trivial, but these are critical times and doing what we can, when we can, I think will become increasingly important. But, as I always say, just the act of being a gardener is a great start, for every day you spend in the garden among nature is a day not spent travelling or consuming. Gardening with wildlife in mind is surely one of the best things we can all do for our planet.
a sign of times to come, Laura!
I expected the olive tree given to me eight years ago to die but it's really thriving, and now fruits (S. Hampshire).
It's a really interesting question, Hildegard, and one that has fascinated me for over 20 years now. There is some really great research that has been done which has shown that some non-native plants can have as much wildlife value as native ones, and some native plants actually have very little wildlife value. That is not to underestimate the value of native plants, and I grow and promote the use of lots of them. And, of course, we all need to avoid invasive non-native species. In a nature reserve setting, native plants would definitely be what I'd advocate, but in a garden setting, I try to recommend plants that are brilliant for wildlife and are 'garden worthy', wherever they come from (just as most bird seed you can buy is not from native plants). Interestingly, many of the plants that are good for wildlife come from western Europe, which is where most of our wildlife originates, too. Hope that helps.
hi Hildegard. Yes, you're right, a manual mower. They tend to be called push mowers when you buy one.
And "push mower" I suppose is a manual one, because all the electric and petrol mowers I have ever used needed pushing also.
We spend 90% of net income on conservation, public education and advocacy
The RSPB is a member of BirdLife International. Find out more about the partnership
© The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a registered charity: England and Wales no. 207076, Scotland no. SC037654