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Designing to adapt

Nigel Kirby

Climate change is happening. We ignore it at our peril and we must begin to consider how it will affect our landscapes. Horticulturists will have a significant part to play in how this is managed.

UK Landscapers, garden designers and gardeners will all need to take stock of plants that currently thrive in our present climate, as it is suspected we are going to lose between 11 and 17 percent of our popular species.

What are the implications?
Research has shown that the growing season has lengthened. In 2006 the season lasted 269 days which is nearly a month longer than the 252 day average between 1961 and 1991. (Source: United Kingdom Climate Impacts Programme)

The plants we currently use, especially in summer bedding will flower earlier and be finished earlier. We will need to find alternatives that will have a longer flowering season, probably sourcing plants from warmer and drier climes.

With temperature set to rise globally, the percentage of the current landscape used for amenity horticulture may be reduced. Countries such as Spain and Israel that produce a high percentage of food crops, may themselves have difficulties.

Milder winters may also compromise our fruit yields, as cold weather is required for bud burst.

The once cooler European countries will need to look to producing different food crops. More plants are surviving our milder winters, although our most recent winter was an exception. This winter was the first substantial amount of snow that most 18 year olds had ever seen.

Water storage will be more important than ever.

Water will be plentiful in winter and scarce in summer, falling by 10-20% in the UK by 2080.

Protecting our soil
Predicted heavy rainfall in winter will wash nutrients out of free-draining soils and hot dry summers will bake clay- based soils. Increasing the amount of organic matter in our soil will be vital. It will bind sandy soils to reduce nutrient depletion and lighten clay soils, allowing air and water to move more freely.

An increase in organism activity in soil will be more essential than ever to aid nutrient uptake, help to aerate soil and prevent diseases.

Plants require 30% less water if mycorrhizal fungi are present in the soil.

An increasing ally in plant health is mycorrhizal fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi can be added to the soil to work symbiotically. Plants produce food in the form of starch and sugar for the fungi. In return, the fungi absorb nutrients and water from an increased surface area. By inoculating with a mycorrhizal fungi product, horticulturalists can create a sustainable base for effective plant development and growth.  This will allow nature to protect and nurture our plants provided that we avoid the temptation of quick fix solutions such as conventional salt based fertilisers which prevent the occurrence these natural micro organisms. 

Adaptability will be key
The client briefs of the future may read slightly differently than they do today. Environmental issues will define what the clients of tomorrow demand. If all the scenarios of the future weather implications materialise a client brief may include:- Water storage area, vegetable and fruit growing plot, an area for the installation of solar panels, planting of ornamentals that have a long growing season and require less irrigation, trees that will provide shade.

As designers and gardeners we can begin by rethinking our garden management strategies.

How will the changes we face today, change the face of our gardens tomorrow?

In summary, designers of the future will need to work even more closely with horticulturists, agronomists and meteorologists.

Nigel Kirby
Project Co-ordinator
Enterprise and Innovation office
Writtle College, Essex, UK

Horticulture Group

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