A couple of weeks ago I tuned into the PM programme on BBC Radio 4 on my way home from work, and listened to a report by Andrew Bomford from the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley. The occasion was a survey being organised by the RHS and Reading University into people’s perceptions of how climate change might be affecting their gardens, and as usual my interest was immediately aroused when I heard the words “climate change”.
Later I found it again on iPlayer, and have written up the segment on my transcript website.
The report is interesting, I find, for several reasons. One is the changing narrative of global warming and the – to my mind – rather reactive nature of the predictions being made about how climate change is going to manifest itself. Many forecasts seem to be more about what was happening when they were being made, rather than about times to come. As Andrew Bomford said, on PM:
…I think a lot of people get quite confused about this and think about global warming – you know, ten years ago, when we talked about this, I think people imagined that right now we’d all be growing cacti and that clearly hasn’t happened.
I commented about this on the Bishop Hill blog (“Unthreaded” page) and also linked to an old National Geographic article from 2003, in which horticulturalist Richard Bisgrove looked forward to the delicious things that might be grown in a hotter, drier England.
Bananas, dates, olives, pomegranates, palms, yucca plants, and other plants not usually associated with the typical English garden may also become increasingly common in the English gardens of the 21st century.
I then got a response from famous commentator ZedsDeadBed, in that person’s typically rather uncompromising style:
Yet more denier quote mining and attempts to mislead. The timeframe in the article you mention is around 70 years. It is also almost exclusively drawn from the work of gardeners, are they really who you look to for your climate science Alex? Or are you just slinging mud around in the hope that some of it sticks?
ZedsDeadBed does have a point about the time frame. The Gardening in the Global Greenhouse report was about climate trends up to the year 2080, which is still 67 years hence – climate-wise, pretty much anything could have happened by then, including, of course, England indeed becoming more like Spain or the south of France. From a starting point in 2003, we are barely a sixth of the way there.
On the other hand, though, who on Earth plans a garden on a 70 or 80-year time scale? Gardeners (of which I am one – I have the scars to prove it, from a weekend of weeding and root removal) tend to want advice they can heed and results they can appreciate during their lifetime. A horizon of ten years, give or take, seems just about right.
As to whether I look to gardeners for climate science, the answer would be: no, not really. A more interesting question, from my point of view, would be: who did the RHS gardeners look to, for authoritative statements about the climate? And the most likely answer would appear to be: they looked to climate scientists such as Myles Allen, who works at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute (ECI), which hosts the UK Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP), which in turn was one of the partners of the RHS and Reading University in producing the Global Greenhouse study, over ten years ago.
(By the way, I thought the “slinging mud” remark, in the context of gardening, rather clever, although I also suspect it might have been unintentional.)
Interestingly, there’s an article this year on the Reading University website which does mention the discrepancy between what was predicted then and predicted now.
Vines growing in Scotland, olive trees in England and longer, drier summers – these were among the long-term predictions 11 years ago in a landmark report commissioned by, among others, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), based on work by scientists at the University of Reading.
Now scientists are conducting the biggest survey of its kind to find how gardeners are responding to the reality of Britain’s changing climate, which has been dominated in recent years by cold spells in winter, extended periods of drought, record rainfall and flooding.
Climate change plant scientist Dr Claudia Bernardini adds:
The latest projections indicate that the climate is likely to affect gardens and gardening in a significantly different way than that predicted in 2002.
Will these latest projections be any better, I wonder, than their predecessors, though?
At the turn of the 21st century, when the future was one of long, hot, parched summers, the English lawn seemed to be doomed, according to some, being “increasingly difficult and costly to maintain.” As late as 2009 it was even suggested that lawns would become a “sign of moral decadence“, due to climate change.
They’re still going on about this. In an article in the Telegraph, back in January, Richard Bisgrove – who had dreamed of English olive groves and banana plantations back in 2003 – “believes people will have to abandon the dream of having the perfect lawn.”
And in the PM report from Wisley earlier this month, RHS gardener Leigh Hunt expressed his doubts about the future of the lawn, because “we’re not going to have those moist, warm summers” (although at the same time he recommended establishing a green roof to soak up water and reflect heat, which seems to suggest that he nevertheless thinks summers will be moist and warm. Go figure.)
No-one really knows what weather patterns will emerge, between now and the mid 2020s – including, it’s becoming ever more apparent, the experts. However, I think it would be a delicious irony if the good old-fashioned English lawn, despite being virtually written off and consigned to climate history’s compost heap, were to thrive and prosper, regardless.
(Just to quickly express my gratitude to Richard Brautigan – wherever he is now – for the use of his wonderful title, which I’ve always loved and intended to borrow at some point. Thank you!)