The British don't normally need an excuse to talk about the weather, but after an unusually wet and stormy summer, the country has had more to discuss than usual. But what if, rather than being a seasonal one-off, such a tumultuous weather pattern is here to stay? What does that mean for the nation's gardens?

According to horticulturalist Matthew Wilson, author of the forthcoming book New Gardening: How to Garden in a Changing Climate - published in conjunction with the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) - the days of the traditional British garden, complete with stripy lawn and neat, brightly coloured flower beds, are numbered.

And if gardeners wish to turn their hobby into a force for environmental good, they are going to have to adapt. Instead of manipulating soil with huge quantities of water, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, for example, gardeners will have to start choosing low-maintenance plants naturally suited to their garden's changing microclimate.

Water-saving techniques will become a must, and we'll have to learn to re-use and recycle materials instead of stocking up at the local garden centre every weekend. The national obsession with the perfect lawn will also have to go. But the first, and probably largest, change that Wilson outlines in his book is not a technical, but a cultural one.

"We need to redefine what we think is beautiful," he says. "Rather than worrying about things looking perfect, we need to look at our gardens in a different way. I call it the 'looking over our garden fence' perspective, because it's about considering how our actions impact upon the world outside.

"Lawns, for example, are not evil, but the perfectly manicured emerald spaces fanatics covet are inherently unsustainable because they take an incredible amount of water, chemicals and machinery to maintain. But why are lawns like this the gold standard? We can all appreciate a wild meadow for its beauty so we need to accept that there's nothing wrong with grass that has a few daisies and weeds growing in it."

Wilson's book couldn't have been more timely. According to a survey conducted by the RHS earlier this year, nearly three-quarters of Britain's gardeners rank climate change and its effect on the environment as their biggest gardening concern. In addition, 70 per cent of those surveyed want to translate this concern into action in their own back yards.

There are, admits Wilson, only a few things - of which windbreaks and adequate drainage are the most relevant in Scotland - that can be done to combat the increasingly extreme weather experienced in this country. Instead, he suggests working with the changing climate by finding plants that can flourish naturally in these new conditions.

Varieties that can cope with milder, wetter winters - those from the Russian steppes and the American prairies, like Rudbeckia and Perovskia, for instance - are at the top of his list of suggestions. As Wilson has found in his own garden, the creation of plant communities - groups of plants that like the same soil and prefer certain climatic conditions and thus grow easily together - also cuts down on the amount of chemical intervention needed.

Plants which like growing together look good together as well so, although it may be a departure from the carefully planned aesthetic which is the norm, the results of naturalistic planting will be far from unattractive. Then there's the question of waste and water use. "Water is a finite resource which is spread unevenly so we have a responsibility to use it sensitively," he says. "If you use a sprinkler on a hot, windy day you will lose around 80 per cent of the water through evaporation before it even hits the ground. By using a watering can instead, you use a lot less water and you will not be watering your plants indiscriminately.

"Mulching [adding a layer of organic material such as composted bark or garden manure to the topsoil] also preserves moisture, and if you refrain from frequent digging, there won't be so much moisture knocked out of it." And what about recycling? "Gardeners tend to have the perception that recycled materials look naff but there are huge opportunities to be stylish," he insists. "In my garden I've used U-bends, kettles and toilet basins as plant containers which look really cool and are a great talking point."

A compost heap may not be practical, he says, "but if everyone put their kitchen waste into a small wormery [a closed container which relies on a resident population of worms to break down matter], imagine the impact it could have on the amount of waste we send to landfill. It would be staggering." And that's the general point Wilson is trying to make. When it comes to the issue of climate change, gardening might only be a tiny part of the problem, but it can play a larger part in providing some of the solutions.

"Much of the information we are bombarded with about climate change is very negative," he says. "The message seems to be that we are all very naughty because we drive SUVs and fly away on foreign holidays. I believe gardening is the one positive 'can do' activity that will help us cut down our carbon footprint. Just by growing a little bit of our own food, for example, we might be able to stop a bag of salad being flown in. To do so, however, we must change our gardening habits and embrace new ideas and practices."


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