Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Cold n’dry, lean n’mean

Scampston Hall, North Yorkshire, still looking good in early October

Preparing for climate change is an iffy business, driven by media hysteria, and the inability of many people, journalists especially to think beyond their next holiday. One misconception is that it is going to ‘get warmer’, whereas in fact here in Britain, or indeed more widely in north-west Europe, this does not seem to be happening. We have just had the coldest summer in twenty years, as have the Dutch, and I think the Danes too. This might be due to climate change or not - we can never know. As gardeners we have to plan and plant for all sorts of eventualities - so there should really be no need for radically-different plantings.
A historic greenhouse range awaits restoration.

One unfortunate result of a run of a twenty year run of mild winters, and much ill-informed press speculation about climate change, is that the British just got silly with what they were planting. A generation of younger gardeners grew up not knowing what a ‘proper’ winter was. And... I can’t help feeling, cynically perhaps, that there was a certain amount of wishful thinking that global warming was somehow going to make our climate more like that of the Med, that land where the British middle-class like to holiday, the land of olive trees, vineyard-draped pergolas and tomatoes picked effortlessly from the garden. ‘Preparing for climate change in the garden’ for some people meant living out their fantasies about the good life in Provence without having to move from Islington.
Sesleria autumnalis is a grass of infertile moorland type habits, its a useful height and spead.

The last three cold winters and our lousy summer should make them think again. OK, it is less sexy than the Mediterranean look, but the Steppe look might actually be a better look to cultivate. Forget Provence, Tuscany and San Tropez, think Anatolia, Kazakhstan and Colorado. Sorry lotus-eaters.

Steppe climates have cold winters and hot summers and tend to be dry. Anything from a steppe climate will survive drought, extreme heat and extreme cold. My experience of them is actually pretty limited, but I suspect we are all in the same boat. We already have plenty of steppe plants in cultivation: a lot of grasses, bearded irises, perovskia, European-origin Salvias. There is scope for more plant-hunting of course.
Molinia caerulea 'Poul Petersen' in waves - one of the best and most original pieces of contemporary formal planting I know.
Scampston Hall, Malton, NorthYorkshire, where I recently ran a workshop for the north-east group of the Landscape Institute has a splendid Piet Oudolf designed garden dating from 2001. The soil is sandy and not terribly fertile, the climate is north England cool, and being on the east coast relatively dry. Its a great model for the kind of planting which is very resilient to climatic extremes, and much more useful for indicating what we should be learning from than holiday snaps from southern Europe.


Susan in the Pink Hat said...

I live in a steppe climate in the Great Basin, and while the hot summers and cold winters are true, there is one essential difference between our climate and what I understand most of Britain: rain. The steppes of our valley floors and foothills receive 20 inches of water annually, often less. The plants from these regions don't do well at all with much more; they all rot away. British plant hunters would do better to look at plant selections from montane regions within these areas that have plants that do best with more water, but can get by with less.

scottweberpdx said...

A very timely topic, indeed, and I think the biggest point is that no one is really certain what the effects of global warming will be. The only thing that seems certain is that weather is getting more extreme...not milder. People seem to forget that the melting of the ice caps cools the oceans...and the oceans drive much of our weather. I 've noticed among fellow Portlanders that there is a general unease about borderline-hardy plants making it through our winters these days. Like Britain, Portland had a run of extremely mild winters, which encouraged many to start pushing the boundaries. Now, those who've spent a lot of time and money on rare sub-tropicals are faced with losing that investment...or investing even more time and money into protecting them. You are very right, however, no one really even knows if the recent weather is even directly linked to Global Warming, or just part of a longer-term weather cycle. As fun as it can be to push the limits of hardiness on occasion, we would all be wise to select our plants more thoughtfully. Great post!

Unknown said...

Over the four years since this was written, England, particularly the North, has experienced some of the coldest and wettest winter weather since records began. I second Susan's post, and would caution against Mr Kingsbury's advice to select perennials from 'lean and mean' locales. For a start heavy soils predominate the British Isles, and in winter precipitation far exceeds evaporation, meaning much of the ground lies wet for six months of the year. Freely-draining soils of the type seen at Scampston are the exception rather than the rule here in North Yorkshire and so are uncharacteristically suited to pervoskia, for instance, which thrives in poor dry soils. On our wetter, richer clays, even in the east, we would do better to choose plants that relish those conditions.