Gardeners summoned to aid climate change effort

English gardens and African food supplies were the unusual combination of issues highlighted when Kew Gardens botanists spoke out about the climate change threat to the plant world this week.

As the English garden faces drought orders and hosepipe bans, for parts of the developing world desertification and dwindling food crops are the main concerns, environment minister Ian Pearson and RBG representatives told the media at London’s Kew Gardens on Tuesday.

“The quintessential English garden will have to adapt to our changing climate. Gardeners have a responsibility, in water use, species type, and garden design to adapt too,” environment minister Ian Pearson said.

With temperatures rising by 2.5 – 3 degrees by 2080 and summer rainfall decreasing by up to 50%, gardeners “will continue to be the first to feel the effects of climate change,” he said. English gardens will come under attack from drought, storms, flash floods, but also pests and diseases that are likely to thrive in a warmer climate.

Soil moisture content is likely to decrease by 10-20% by 2080 and by as much as 50% in the summer, with water shortages the priority for adaptation.

Gardeners should prepare for the changes in advance by planting drought and storm-resistant trees such as the silver maple or sycamore, Ian Pearson said. He directed gardeners to the Gardening in the Global Greenhouse report for a full list of recommendations.

With gardens playing an essential role in preserving Britain’s biodiversity, gardeners can make a serious contribution to climate change adaptation, said the Royal Botanical Gardens director Professor Peter Crane. But the strongest effects of warming will be felt elsewhere, he said:

“One thing that is clear is that Africa, which is already on the edge as a largely dryland continent, will be impacted enormously by climate change, disproportionately so. The real impact will be on the poor people of the world who live in those areas,” he told edie.

While Britain worries about keeping its gardens green, Africa is likely to suffer decreases in crop yields in an ever hotter, drier climate.

“Britain is increasingly concerned with the management of our countryside not for intensive agriculture, not for food production,” Prof Crane said.

It can afford to do so because “we are importing an increasing proportion of our food – and no doubt will continue to do so while transport costs and labour costs remain low.”

But while UK policy seems focused on gardening, the Royal Botanic Gardens are also working overseas to protect crop species threatened by climate change.

Paul Smith, director of the RBG’s Millennium Seed Bank project – an effort to conserve threatened plant species worldwide – believes that agriculture and gardening cannot be separated, especially in the developing world.

“We are collecting crop wild relatives, useful plants that people use for building for food for fodder for animals and those are the species that we prioritise to seed bank.

Britain may not seem as worried about climate change impacting its own agriculture, but it cannot rely on overseas imports forever, he said:

“The reason for not importing food from afar is food miles. What does it cost in terms of fuel burnt to bring over your strawberries from Kenya? But the problem is of course more complex, because many livelihoods and economies depend on the export of crops.”

British gardeners can, nevertheless, make an important contribution to adapting to climate change on a national scale, Prof Crane said:

“I think it is right that people should be made aware that what they do in their own gardens has an impact. If you’re planting something in your garden now you’re better off planting something that doesn’t need a lot of water because the chances are you’re going to get more hosepipe bans and as a nation we’re not that flushed with water.

And if you don’t engage people then they’re inclined to think that it’s somebody else’s problem,” he said.

Goska Romanowicz

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