Presenting solutions to climate change

Research at the University of Reading is uncovering new approaches to the management of planting schemes. Magda Ibrahim reports.

With climate change scenarios pointing to steady rises in UK temperatures and shifts in weather patterns, the role of horticulture in adapting to effects such as flooding and longer growing seasons has become a big point of debate.

While the notion that the climate is changing is certainly not new, a firm focus on adapting to the expected effects has only gained prominence among government circles within recent months. However, this is an area in which horticulture, perhaps out of necessity, has been leading the field. Research currently being carried out at the University of Reading's Centre for Horticulture & Landscape is looking at a number of elements relating to the theme, with a total of six PhD students and post-doctoral scientists working on climate-influenced projects.

Ranging from HTA-sponsored research, investigating the environmental impacts of gardening, to RHS-sponsored work on determining how well Mediterranean species will be adapted to future UK climate-change scenarios, the key is on finding useful results for the industry.

The university's lecturer in amenity horticulture and environmental landscape Dr Ross Cameron is supervising the work and said the research could help to inform government as well as industry. "It is difficult to know how quickly things will change but the climate is changing and getting warmer, and there is very good evidence for that," he explains.

"There will be quite big management implications and the range of species will begin to change subtly. It is not an absolute science but rises in temperatures over the next 100 years will have effects for growers and gardeners."

This year's RHS shows have already seen a proliferation of gardens that feature plants chosen for their drought-tolerance or ability to do well in warmer climates, and Claire King is examining the suitability of Mediterranean species in UK climate change scenarios.

King's RHS-sponsored PhD on "Waterlogging intolerance and its remediation in Mediterranean plants" aims to discover just how well these species will cope during UK winters.

She explains: "We know they are going to be great in the summer because they have the characteristics of drought-resistant plants, but climate change scenarios also predict more intense rainfall and wetter winters."

Using Salvia, Lavandula, Cistus and Stachys, King has been researching the plants' capacity for dealing with flooding, and its resulting oxygen deprivation.

"Flooding is stressful and it does have growth penalties in the following season but in terms of survival we were surprised how well some lasted through the winter; Stachys was the best but Salvia was one of the more sensitive ones," says King.

"It doesn't mean we must all start growing Mediterranean plants but under certain circumstances we can probably get them through the winter; there may be a certain amount of management involved, such as using raised beds."

A changed approach to water is also the subject of RHS post-doctoral scientist Tijana Blanusa's research.

Her primary interest is in bedding plants with a focus on using less water in managing petunias.

Blanusa says she believes that the research would be helpful to local authorities and parks staff: "I'm a big fan of bedding and, even though climate change is imminent, hopefully by changing the way we water-manage them, we can enjoy them for a bit longer.

"Petunias are quite drought-tolerant - we have been looking at giving them less than 100ml per day in a two-litre container and they are still fine."

Blanusa adds: "In terms of bedding in the park this can work; we have a slightly smaller plant but the principle is that less is more."

Cameron added that the research could also have important implications for local authorities in the event of a hosepipe ban.

He said: "The impact of (such a) ban might be that local authorities don't want to have bedding plants. But if they can make an argument to the water board that they have strategies in place to minimise watering, then rather than facing a carpet ban they might be rewarded for being more efficient."

Also among the projects being researched at the University of Reading are Neal Ward's Horticultural Development Company-funded work on optimising leaf defoliation in young trees, expected to be useful to nurserymen having problems with retention of leaves during warmer autumns, and James Wagstaffe's examination of how scheduling influences the flowering period of perennial plant species and their subsequent performance in the garden.

Becky Wheeler has been looking at the use of waste-derived organics on brownfield sites to promote plant growth, and says results have already been promising in growth of willow trees.

In addition, the HTA has recently announced sponsorship of a PhD project "Investigating the Environmental Impacts of Gardening", begun in May by Jane Taylor.

Although Taylor's work so far has been primarily reviewing current literature relating to the subject, she expects to highlight in detail the positive and negative impacts of gardening, including activities like using a mower and the carbon absorbed by a plant.

The research will also look at the extent to which garden plants can influence energy consumption of buildings. Taylor says: "We will be looking at the potential for plants to affect the thermal performance of a building.

"In places that are very hot, adding a few plants on or around the building seems to have a marked effect, and we want to see how much it is of relevance to the UK," she adds.

Taylor will be presenting her initial findings to the HTA in November.

Cameron explains: "These are very practical problems we are trying to deal with. There is a lot of controversy over climate change in the scientific community, but we have only been looking at the climate for the past 100 years in terms of data."

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