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.