in the Met Office’s central England temperature dataset, which stretches back to 1659. Shoesmith notices how pollinating insects, such as solitary bees, often emerge during these mild midwinters. If there are no flowers, and no nectar, they will perish. “Climate change is a big issue and as gardeners we can all do our bit to help by planting the garden so it’s flowering throughout the year,” he says. “We all want that anyway.”
Allotment holders are also adapting to the increasingly capricious climate. Mandy Barber has turned to growing perennial produce on her plot in Ashburton, Devon. “Annual vegetables needed a lot more watering and it was touch and go whether they would make it last summer, but perennial vegetables have a lot more resilience to temperature changes,” she says. Barber is experimenting with crops including Taunton Deane kale; poireau perpétuel, a perennial leek; and Hablitzia tamnoides , or Caucasian spinach, which is grown in Scandinavia and can survive -25C. “The Hablitzia tamnoides plants go on for decades, they are like a rampant triffid, but you get a crop between February and June every year and the leaves are a bit like baby spinach,” says Barber.
Every gardener I speak to agrees that milder winters are enabling more pests to survive and encouraging new pest species. Allan Trigg has been growing vegetables for more than 40 years and has an allotment in Chelmsford, Essex. “This is my little patch of England,” he smiles. Fewer frosts means his fellow allotment holders plant out runner beans, sweetcorn and potatoes earlier. With an extended growing season, Trigg can grow more, and second crops, although last year he grew less because he was spending so much time watering his vegetables. The dry weather produced lower yields of crops such as potatoes. After 2017, his potatoes lasted him and his wife through to February; this winter, they were eaten by November. And allium leaf miner and leek moth are a growing problem. “I used to grow loads of leeks but now I don’t bother,” he says. He pulls one up to show the damage below ground. “We never used to have this trouble years ago.”
In Walsall the Newtons are accepting of their growing losses to pests such as the lily beetle and the lace bug. “It went absolutely berserk after the hot summer,” says Tony. “I thought it was going to kill all the plants in the garden.” Barber is beset by voles (which survive the milder winters), while in Cornwall, Shoesmith has noticed the spread of fuchsia gall mite along the hedges. “It had the opportunity to come to Britain for decades, but only arrived this century because of the milder winters,” he says. “We don’t have the same amount of frosts now and so we get many more fungal problems.”
These observations precisely match the more scientific language of Gardening in a Changing Climate, a 2017 RHS report that outlines the challenges – milder winters, more unpredictable extremes and more pests – posed by climate change. But the RHS also asks how gardeners might help save the planet. The way we garden is still sometimes part of the problem – using precious water in pursuit of a perfect lawn during a drought springs to mind – but it can be part of the solution. Gardeners can reduce carbon dioxide emissions, mitigate pollution and flooding, and help increase their neighbourhood’s resilience.
“Water use in gardens is going to be a major issue in the future,” says Alistair Griffith, director of science at the RHS. London is forecast to require 100m litres a day more than it can supply in 2020, with this deficit rising to 400m litres a day by 2040. The use of energy-intensive mains water on gardens is still socially acceptable and Britain lags behind more waterstressed countries where greywater recycling is commonplace. But hosepipe bans could become perpetual for some regions in coming decades.
Apart from using only rainwater – even a small balcony can catch and store rainwater with a minireservoir – Griffith recommends gardeners provide “as much greenery as possible”. He suggests planting hedges instead of fencing and planting trees. Trees not only dispel pollution but can alleviate flash flooding and provide shade for a home during heatwaves. Perhaps the most overlooked way gardening can benefit the climate is via the soil: adding organic matter (mulch from home-composting, not peat) can create a soil that stores more carbon and retains more water, also making gardens more resilient in flood and droughts.
Griffith’s final practical suggestion for climate-friendly gardening is to make everything permeable. Unfortunately, paving gardens for parking continues (in 2015, the RHS found that the number of paved, plant-free front gardens had tripled in 10 years from 1.5m to 4.6m). Even car park gardens can be permeable and planted with trees and shrubs around the edge. But, according to Griffith, people resist, citing a lack of time and a nervousness about failing at gardening. “Gardening is always trial and error,” he says. “Give it a go.”
Gardening won’t stop climate change, but it could make our local communities more resilient when faced with extreme floods, heat
– and mild weather. In troubled times, it is also a fundamentally optimistic gesture.
Spring-flowering hellebore Part of Truro’s entry for Britain in Bloom; perennial veg may be better than annuals