The world is finally, at the last minute, waking up to the impending effects and consequences of climate change. In the scramble to work out we must do (apart from the obvious cessation of burning fossil fuels), one thing, one factor is looming large: we need to put carbon back into the soil, where it can be stored indefinitely, and we need to reforest the Earth. Much of this is in the agricultural realm but there is a huge amount that can – and must – be done within the landscape and horticultural sectors.
Horticulture has a MISSION, it just doesn’t realise it yet
At the centre of this is good soil husbandry, something that we have largely forgotten about. Modern agriculture bypasses all need of soil health by chemically feeding crops; no need for microbes, nutrients, humus, mycelium or earthworms. Chemical fertilisers and herbicides bypass the lot. Most of our soils now are depleted to the point of useless by chemical farming, exacerbated by the tradition of ploughing, which causes erosion from rain and enables much of the soil carbon to move back into the atmosphere.
So whilst we need current global models of food production to transform into regenerative agriculture and agroforestry, we also need to look at our urban landscapes and gardens, and create a new design ethic, a new paradigm, even. I can’t deal here with agriculture but I have been thinking long and hard on what the landscape and horticulture trades need to do; fortunately, I believe there is a lot that we can do.
We need to envelope our existing horticulture trade within ecology, to create an “environmental horticulture” You could also call it ecological, resilience or regenerative horticulture. We (those of us in the trade) know that as a profession, the training of both horticulture (growing) and landscape (doing) are in decline. Horticultural colleges have shrinking budgets and often get the less ambitious or capable students; after all, who is inspired by the prospect of strimming verges or hedge-trimming another unloved carparking lot? Yet last year’s report by the Ornamental Horticulture Roundtable Group valued horticulture at £24.2 billion in GDP in 2017. That’s not inconsequential, yet it goes unrecognised. Fortunately, there is a way to make it much more enticing to prospective students.
Horticulture has a MISSION, it just doesn’t realise it yet. That mission is to adapt our urban landscapes and gardens to cope with climate change, to mitigate temperatures, water flows, to grow biomass and regenerate soils back to health. Healthy soil is the foundation of life, of all life, including our own. Good soil holds fertility, water and carbon. Yet who amongst us now knows much of soil science? Who designs landscapes as ecologies, as “novel ecosystems”, who chooses plants because they have these abilities, not just for pretty flowers? Who designs plantings for their biomass harvest, for creating mulches to feed the soil?
In this respect, I don’t believe it’s necessary – or right, in fact – to work with native plants only. What is native? What was native? What was here 11,700 years ago when the last glacial period ended and the glaciers retreated? Flora and fauna move around the globe all the time, they are opportunistic, not fixed permanently into some tightly integrated ecosystem. We know there is no “ecological climax”, no ultimate ecosystem for any given place. As temperatures rise, climate zones are now shifting away from the equator quicker than Nature can keep up, although it’ll get there eventually. Maybe we help nature, rather than interfere when we bring in exotic plants that naturalise. Maybe those plants are the start of new ecologies that will adapt to the rapid changes that this climate emergency is bringing us. If plants do well, we need to understand how to enhance and build new ecologies with them. This is how we adapt, how we survive and how we rectify the damage we have done as a species; not by returning to some pristine “before” (which doesn’t exist) but by assisting Nature to heal and adapt. The Earth will do this all by itself, and has done so many times. It doesn’t mind if it takes thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of years to adapt. But we do; we can’t wait that long.
So horticulture needs to stop growing pansies in peat with unrecyclable plastic trays and start sorting out which plants really matter for our future; which ones contribute to new and existing ecologies, which ones are good for biomass, which ones contribute to soil health, which ones give us ecosystem services. We should not enhance one environment at the expense of another.
That’s a very-near future profession of trained eco-warriors, soil saviours, tree patriots and landscape lovers. It needs people who understand soil, who know how to design and use sensors, data and the internet of things, people who see what’s coming and how to mitigate and reverse negative effects, people who really know how to design and install green infrastructure and future automated robotic maintenance systems. Our landscapes can grow food in amongst all the beauty, with urban food forests. We need new knowledge built on old and we need passion, commitment. A wise government would fund this for the returns will be numerous.
This is the enlightenment, that out of dire stress and trouble, we could really learn how to value, connect with and protect this crazy, beautiful world within which we live. Or we can do nothing and watch it all go to hell. I know which I’ll be doing.
Rain gardens are a relatively new approach on how to deal with water in the environment. In the last 10-15 years, there has been a big rise in the use of SUDS (sustainable urban drainage systems), the practice of delaying the entry of rainwater into the drainage system by the use of swales, ditches and ponds. However, this is generally the domain of engineers who are mostly concerned with their pipework; rain gardens, on the other hand, do the same thing, but are equally concerned with aesthetics and ecology – and so are far more exciting. Easily applied to the domestic situation, but the concept works just as well in urban and commercial design. In fact, WSUD – Water Sensative Urban Design – looks set to take on this wider role in the municipal environment, possibly replacing SUDS.
Having built many water gardens in my life, I decided (in 2010) it was time to build a rain garden in my own home, where I could enjoy it and also monitor its performance. These pictures show the just-completed garden, only a few months old; it also rained right on cue and appeared to be working well!
So what is the “philosophy” of a rain garden: why build one? Well, flood prevention is one answer; if you have ever experienced floods in your area, you have directly or indirectly contributed to them. If the rain didn’t fall on your actual roof, it fell on part of the urban fabric that has been built to support you. Another answer is to re-charge ground water supplies; many urban areas have groundwater levels that are dropping due to the fact that rain cannot permeate the land where it falls (95% of urban land is impermeable). Water tables are also dropping because we are abstracting water far more quickly than it is being replenished.
Rain gardens are a great way to re-connect with nature, opening you up to the experience of natural rhythms and process. It will sit there quietly in hot weather, dry, yet still a micro climate for flora and fauna that like a little extra moisture, in the lowest parts, providing free drainage to the drier areas. When it rains, though, the garden comes to life; water from the roof of your house, instead of disappearing down the drain, starts running into the areas of dips and dry ponds you have created, perhaps having topped up your rainwater butts first. Gradually pools start appearing and maybe in a heavy downpour, water starts running between them. How long it then takes to dissipate will depend upon your soil type; I’m on an alluvial soil, so it is very free draining; on heavy clay it might take days for the water to disperse, and this might mostly be from evaporation. This is good too as it helps re-charge the local hydrological cycle, which is also severly lacking sufficient moisture content, and may well be a significant but overlooked driver of climate change. If you have limited space or can’t allow water to rise beyond a certain level (after all, you don’t want to move the flood potential from somewhere further away, to your own home!), then you might need an overflow which puts any surplus water back to drain, or perhaps (and preferably) to another part of the garden. You will have still considerably delayed the timing of water going to drain, as well as the volume.
In my garden, I have disconnected one of the main roof downpipes (which it turned out was blocked) and used an old steel channel I found when they demolished the adjacent dairy. We have old cast-iron downpipes so I bought a 90° bend and fitted that to direct the water into the chute. I then dug a channel and partly lined the bottom with plastic, because our ground is very free draining and I wanted to connect this to an existing small water feature, so that this was topped up by rainfall. Surplus water is then dispersed to the sides, through the planting. If I were designing this from scratch, I would put the pond before the raingarden, so this was topped up first. Having said that, this section of the garden has always been incredibly dry and I’m hoping that the ground will, over time, recharge itself and things will grow better. This dryness is evidenced by the fact that we have a young fig growing well, right by the downpipe.
In periods of heavy and prolonged downpours, it may be that the pond will overflow; this will happen at the back and will disperse out away from the house under the bushes. With our soil, I don’t see the need for any further overflow drainage.
The roof section that feeds this downpipe is about 50m2, south facing. We get on average 50cm rain per year, so this should capture 25m3/year. This morning in light/medium rainfall, the chute was delivering 3 litres/minute (nowhere near the rate of a hosepipe). The rain garden is about four metres long and I’m not sure how to measure the drainage rate of soil, apart from having the plasticity index measured in a lab but over time I will use these figures to try and calculate how much water is passing through the system; in theory 25m3/year.
I was sent this picture (right) of a rain garden I designed for a client around the same time that I made mine. What a great picture, it gets right to the heart for so many issues about life, play, learning, experience, the elements. We tend to over-design our environments for safety, yet end up sanitizing them to the point where life becomes uneventful and we loose the richness and diversity that being connected to nature gives us. On a rainy day most kids are sat in front of the TV; I think this as a much better option…
The soil in this raingarden is a heavy clay and so holds the water for longer. It is bigger than mine and would need to be to increase the percolation area. You can also see that mine is more planted and this is again a condition of its function – theirs was designed to be a play space for the children (which is why I’m so pleased that it is successful). When they have grown up, it can be planted more intensely. It also created a feature in an otherwise rather awkward, narrow, North-facing space.
Rainwater management isn’t just for large commercial or public-realm sites, it can be done in your own garden too, with multiple benefits to environment, garden, wildlife and of course, you.