Climate Change and Garden Design

Climate Change and Garden Design

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) consisting of the world’s leading scientists have recently issued a warning that we have 12 years to reduce global warming to a maximum of 1.5◦C. We are already seeing the effects of climate change in this country with wet winters and hot summers but some other problems this will cause are floods, water shortages, poor crops leading to food supply issues and loss of wildlife as animals fail to adapt quickly enough to the changing climate and unpredictable weather effects. What does this have to do with garden design and gardening?

Almost everything we do contributes to climate change whether it is through building work, the things we buy or how we dispose of things, but re-designing your garden does not need to have a high impact in the environment and you can take measures to mitigate some of the harm and even contribute to carbon capture through planting.

Some of the areas to consider are:

Reduce the amount of materials used, particularly paving and walling

Hard landscaping is probably the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions due to quarrying and shipping, production of man-made products, and laying, as it is dependant on using cement which is the source of about 8% of the world’s CO2.

To cut down on cement use, think about how much paving you really need. In some instances you could replace cemented walls with alternatives such as dry-stone walls (I have one made of broken up old paving stones), gabions filled with recycled materials (could include old bricks from existing site), sustainable timber, or for boundaries or screens use planting/hedging.

Re-use and recycle materials where possible.

Aim to waste nothing and export nothing from the site. This is not always possible but as a minimum try to ensure that waste material is kept separated and recycled appropriately and not all put in a general skip destined for land-fill or incineration which releases large amount of greenhouse gases.

Any materials taken on or off site will be using fuel (as well as costing money) so try to re-use as much as possible. Often, the landscapers will advise on what can and can’t be used in terms of existing materials being re-used or broken up for hardcore. If the existing materials are good and re-usable you can always list them on a website such as Freecycle if you can’t use them yourself.

This also applies to soil. Try to create ground levels that mean that good topsoil is re-used as much as possible. If it does have to go offsite, ensure it is kept clean and not contaminated with concrete or metals for example, so that it can be collected for recycling.

Use recycled materials in the design

There are now a variety of products on the market that are made from recycled materials or you can create your own features using found or existing items.

Reclamation yards/antique shops are good places to find features for the garden.

Use sustainable timber

Always use timber from sustainable sources. Ideally buy locally produced timber products that are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or PEFC certified.

Even with FSC approval it is best not to use tropical hardwoods as it has further to travel. For native hardwoods use green oak (although it will warp and move as it dries out over a number of years) or Sweet chestnut which is best as poles for rustic pergolas, fences and retaining walls. Western Red Cedar is also good. Look for a local renewable supply.

Check what the timber has been treated with and see if it is compostable.

Old timber from site could be used to make seats, wildlife habitats, logs for firewood (after a long period of seasoning) or be chipped for use as path surfacing. Small amounts of chipped wood can also be put in the compost heap.

Energy production/conservation

Avoid using energy hungry items in the garden, e.g. hot tubs, patio heaters. Also review your use of other gadgets. Raking leaves is just as effective as a leaf blower.

If you want lighting, make sure it is low energy lighting. Allow space for a clothes line and use it as much as possible.


If you have space, unwanted turf can be stacked to make loam or used upside down at the bottom of raised beds.

Plant more trees and shrubs

Trees and shrubs will take carbon from the air and lock it up in their structures, so are invaluable in offsetting your carbon emissions in other areas, especially if you are installing new hard-landscaping. However it important to note that this carbon capture through trees and shrubs is only part of a long term solution whereas short term, carbon needs to stay in the ground, so taking one or two less flights in the year (or using a petrol or diesel car less) is a more effective way of offsetting the carbon used.

Managing plants

Just because a plant looks overgrown and untidy it does not mean it has to be removed, a considered prune can get a plant back into shape and productive again.

Consider the possibility of raising the canopy of a mature tree or shrub instead of removing and starting again.

Purchase plants grown in the UK, they will grow away more successfully than many grown and imported from warmer climates such as Italy and France. They will also have traveled less, and there is less risk of importing pests and diseases from overseas. Ideally, use a local nursery that propagates its own plants.

Choose plants that have been grown in peat free compost if possible.

If you are removing plants from a garden, see if anyone local wants them, e.g. through a website such as Freecycle, or donate them to local charity projects.

Ensure plants used are suitable for the conditions in the garden, so that they do not get discarded, wasting the energy that had been used to raise the plant and create/dispose of the pot/label.

Use smaller plants which will adapt better than larger specimens. 2 litre for perennials and 3 litre for shrubs are ideal.

Plant in early spring or autumn to reduce water usage.


Avoid using annual bedding unless you sow your own seeds, as it uses lots of packaging.

Recycle plant pots

Plastic is made from oil and so we need to recycle plastic plant pots as much as possible to prevent it ending up in landfill or incineration where we are, in effect, still burning fossil fuels.

In Central Bedfordshire black plant pots can be put in the ‘hard plastics’ container at the local recycling centre. Check with your own local authority as how best to recycle these.

Polystyrene is not recyclable so avoid buying products in this.

Peat free multi-purpose compost

When looking to buy compost from a garden centre, look for reduced peat or peat-free options. Peat bogs are an important, but dwindling habitat for wildlife and valuable store of carbon which has been accumulated as decomposed organic matter over thousands of years.

Water conservation

If we do continue to have the hotter summers forecast in the UK like 2018 then we need to conserve as much water as possible.

Install water butts to capture water that falls on the house or shed roof. Rain chains are a fun way to direct water from a gutter to a planting bed or barrel beneath.

All impermeable surfaces should fall towards either a planted bed, lawn, or, if that is not possible into a French drain which can be linked to soakaway.

For front gardens, legislation means that, unless you seek planning permission, water from impermeable driveways must go into a soakaway, lawn or planting bed. Instead of impermeable paving, there are many products now from permeable paving setts, to grass or gravel infilled matrix panels that allow water to go to ground rather than into stream and rivers, or sewers.


Home composting not only saves fuel for collection, processing, and re-delivery, it means your local council saves money to spend on other services and you get some free compost to use in the garden.

You could use a simple compost bin (ideally made from recycled plastic), of which many councils offer at a reduced price, buy ready made timber bays, or make your own out of old (untreated) wooden pallets.

See the composting section of the website for more details on what to put in and how to use it.

Grow your own food

Supermarket food creates a lot of greenhouse gases through agricultural practices, transport, packaging and waste. Growing your own not only means you can choose to grow organically, but also massively reduces these emissions. Even if you have not got a large plot, something is better than nothing and you might learn to love it!

Crops like salad leaves are easy to grow, even on a windowsill. You can pick just as much as you need to so there is no food waste, no food miles and no plastic packaging.

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