Climate Change Gardening

How to use your garden as a force for good, in a changing climate.

Scientists have been warning us about climate change since the 60s. We have known that increased atmospheric carbon can affect global temperatures for almost 200 years. Recently, Sir David Attenborough simply warned us that is “if we don’t act now, it will be too late”. In 1992 1,700 scientists signed a ‘Warning to Humanity’ about climate change, and in 2017 this warning was repeated, but this time signed by over 20,000 scientists worldwide. ‘Scientists are, for the most part conservative creatures. That 20,000 of us would put our name to this statement ought to indicate to the world that this is an issue deserving of the full attention of mankind’ says Professor Dave Goulson in his best-selling book Silent Earth.

Bumblebee visiting Poppy

Governments have been warned, children have been taught, rallies have been held, and news has been spread. Some of us have already noticed the symptoms; the weather events, and wildfires, the lack of arctic ice and the droughts. The impending climate crisis is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, and yet ignore it we do. Life goes on in the shadow of this steadily gathering storm. 

For those of us who have grown up knowing that the climate is changing, frustration and fear are as familiar as the issues themselves. There is even a condition that is now recognised, known as eco anxiety affecting those that are worried about environmental issues. The divide between the concerned and the unconcerned continues to widen with most of us falling hopelessly into the void. 

What climate change could mean

By now, most of us agree that climate change is on it’s way. But very few of us understand what that means for us. We, quite understandably feel distant from it. On the other side of the world island populations are being driven from their homes due to rising sea levels and we know that permafrost is melting, and glaciers are retreating. But these things do not stop most of us, here in the UK going about our lives. Droughts do not stop us being able to buy food and rising sea levels will not drive most of us from our homes. But that doesn’t make us immune. The effects we experience here are perhaps more insidious, less obvious, and less immediate. But no less significant. So instead of this fact driving apathy, this should drive us to slam on the breaks and act now. 

Cabbages grown in Ecosystem Garden

Habitat loss and degradation due to climate change and other environmental factors such as pesticide and fertiliser use will continue to drive biodiversity loss. This will lead to less pollination, and therefore more need for manual pollination which is certainly more expensive and probably much less successful. There will be fewer predators to manage our pests, so to get more crops se will rely more on the use of pesticides. Soil degradation will continue, and we will see increased use of fertilisers too. Habitats will be further affected by these things, and we can expect our food costs to continue to rise. The result will be less food production, more pests, and more reliance on chemicals. And this is just the start. We can choose to opt out of a large part of this of course, by growing our own food and supporting biodiversity.

What can we do?

Busy Garden Sow Much More

As gardeners we are responsible for our own little patch of land. We may not have a choice about how the rest of the world is managed, but we can decide how we use our garden. It might be bigger than average, smaller than average, paved, laid to lawn or an overgrown jungle; but it’s ours. Gardens in the UK span more than 430,000 hectares, or 1,670 square miles. This area is more than twice the area of Snowdonia, one of the largest national parks in the UK. Our own humble gardens may seem insignificant, but all together they are enormous. Most of us would rejoice if we were told that a nature reserve of that proportion would be established in this country. As individuals, we do not possess that kind of capability. We simply have dominion over our own small portion. But if we use our little patch for good, and encourage others to do so too, collectively we can make a huge difference.

Protecting biodiversity in a changing climate is paramount. Our global food system and global ecosystems rely on biodiversity and without it, they will, inevitably collapse. 

Bumblebees – Professor Goulson’s speciality – are a cold climate insects. There is even a species of bumblebee – bombus polaris – that lives in the arctic circle. Goulson fondly describes bumblebees as big furry creatures and says ‘they’re big and furry for a reason. That’s a fur coat to keep them warm, and with their large size they generate heat’. 

Bumblebee on Echinacea

It’s been estimated that they, and their relatives, the honeybees are worth around £200 million to the UK economy annually for their pollination services. Our climate could chase our beloved bumblebees from our gardens and countryside altogether. This is not only tragic but incredibly costly. 

The first, and most important thing that we can do to tackle climate change is to grow our own food. In his book, In Defence of Food, Michael Pollan estimates that an average of 10-12 calories of fossil fuels are used to deliver a single calorie of food onto our plates in the western world. This includes the machinery to grow and harvest the food, the processing, packaging, and transport. But also, the fossil fuels involved to make the synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. By choosing to grow just a few salad leaves on a window sill, or having a small patch of veggies, we are actually making a huge difference to fossil fuel consumption. 

I chatted with Professor Dave Goulson about tackling climate change from our gardens; ‘It feels a bit like our individual actions are futile in the face of this global event but actually they’re not, we can all do stuff to help’ he says.

Marbled White Butterfly on Pyramidal Orchid

One of our primary aims should of course be to look after and encourage wildlife in our gardens. This builds resilience to pests and gives our national wildlife more places to live. As the climate warms, some species will need to shift north and if they cannot find habitat, they will simply die out. We can provide habitat for their northerly shift and help to build resilience from our gardens. ‘We all depend upon biodiversity’ says Goulson ‘we might not see it, it may not be obvious if you live in a city and your food all magically appears in the supermarket shelves but actually that food requires a healthy environment. It requires healthy soils, it requires pollinators, and it requires natural enemies of crop pests’.

Encouraging wildlife in your garden is very simple: Goulson recommends not using pesticides, being more tolerant of weeds and native plants, building a pond or having a bee hotel. ‘You don’t have to do anything particularly special to encourage wildlife’ he says ‘a combination of those simple actions in no time at all will result in a garden it’s this teeming with life and is more resilient to climate change’. 

Another key focus for gardeners should be to build organic matter in our soils. Plants are constantly drawing down atmospheric carbon and converting it into plant matter, so compost is very high in carbon. Plants also send carbon down through their roots to feed the life in the soil, adding to carbon levels in the soil on a constant basis. By making compost and growing plants, we are in essence, cultivating our own carbon capture system.

Ladybird on Borage

‘We should all think about what we buy as gardeners’ Dave adds, ‘and number one here is don’t buy peat-based composts’. Peat is the first stage in the process of fossilisation. Peat is  almost pure carbon, like coal, and as other with fossil fuels such as oil, when these stores of carbon are in the ground they are locked up, and not in our atmosphere. Peat moss actively draws atmospheric carbon out of the air and locks it up in the ground. When we drain or extract peat however, it immediately starts to release carbon back into the atmosphere. So, we can be doing our best to build up carbon in our garden’s soils, but we must ensure that we are not having a negative impact on other carbon stores. Peat bogs are also very important for biodiversity, so preserving them is fundamental to building resilience against climate change. 

‘It really is that simple’ Professor Goulson says with a smile. If you are reading this it’s likely that you are already way ahead of the curve, so be proud. Keep going, and know that what you are doing really is making a difference.

Becky Searle – Sow Much More

Published by sowmuchmore

Ecologist and Botanist by training, now most often found pottering around my no dig kitchen garden. I love sharing gardening tips and advice based on science, and teaching people how to employ plants and nature to work for you

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