Our planet needs gardeners

In the third of a three part series, James Alexander-Sinclair, garden designer and RHS Council member, looks at the impact of gardening on people, plants and the planet

Community gardening on our planet
RHS Council member, James Alexander-Sinclair"Members of our esteemed Royal Horticultural Society may not see themselves, or be seen by others, as eco-warriors, but they are playing a part in the battle against climate change, reducing carbon emissions and trying to help the environment. So many of us do our bit simply by gardening as frequently and as enthusiastically as possible.

The RHS has always been a learned society with scientific research at the forefront. Now, more than ever, we need that science to be directed not only at how we can improve our gardens, but also – and most importantly – at what we can do to help the environment and the planet we all call home.

Let me rewind: around 4.5 billion years ago a cataclysmic coming together of cosmic atoms resulted in the formation of the Earth. Later, continents divided, oceans filled, glaciers sculpted valleys and microbes began their slow evolution. Eventually the first men heaved themselves to their feet. However, in the short time since, we have taken advantage of our opposable thumbs to play fast and loose with the place in the arrogant assumption we are the only inhabitants that matter, driving animals to extinction, plundering Earth's minerals and polluting the atmosphere – most of it in the 200 years since the industrial revolution.

In defence of the human race, initially we did not know we were wreaking havoc – we just thought we were doing our best for ourselves, our families and, to a certain extent, our countries. Those captains of industry who built mines, mills and military might did not see the damage they were doing. However, in the past 40 years it has become obvious to all but the most blinkered that something is wrong and we must change our ways quickly to avoid disaster."

"The RHS has always been a learned society with scientific research at the forefront." James Alexander-Sinclair, Member of the RHS Council

Evolving ethos 

"I have great faith in the ingenuity of mankind but if we all stand around leaning on door jambs, waiting for someone else to do something, then we will sleepwalk into catastrophe. So, in response, the RHS is doing its best to help. When the Society began it was often seen as being mostly about large estates and wealthy chaps encouraging their gardeners to grow all sorts of exotic plants gathered in from all corners of the British Empire. They achieved great things and popularised some of our favourite garden plants, but now the Society is doing more.

Of course, the horticultural trade as a whole has many areas in which it must sharpen its environmental credentials – it has played a part in adversely a­ffecting the planet, be it through the use of plastics, pesticides or transporting of plants and cut flowers; in some of these the RHS may be able to help provide solutions.

When I  first started gardening (only 30-something years ago) the impetus was mostly on spraying things: kill this weed, fertilise that fuchsia and, above all, poison that pest. I remember there was even a chemical designed to kill worms in lawns. Just think about that for a moment: one of the gardener’s greatest allies, our wiggly friend who helps aerate soil, breaks down debris and provides free plant food, condemned to death for daring to drop wormcasts on our perfect swards. Today, if you pick up The Garden magazine or go to an RHS Flower Show, you will find them both bulging with information as to how we can garden for the benefit of not just horticultural spruceness, but also the wider environment. Today we are trying hard to garden more in tune with the planet rather than imposing our will on the natural world. It is extraordinary how attitudes have changed, and for that the RHS can claim some credit."

Gardens are an important refuge for wildlifeReduce hard standing and replace it with permeable materials

Changing attitudes for changing times 

"Let us step just outside our doors into the front garden: what do we see? Paths, parking but, above all, there should be plants. The RHS has done a great deal of work on the simple act of reducing the hard standing in front gardens and encouraging people to plant – this the most visible example of its Greening Great Britain campaign. What we do in even the smallest spaces can make a difference. Digging up concrete in your front garden will help reduce floodwater that pours into drains; by planting something we can contribute to the reduction of air pollution in our towns. Plants work to shade buildings and reduce summer heat; green walls and climbers help insulate buildings in winter. All of these acts are a small nod towards environmental action, and RHS scientists are working to learn more about this. You may not have a front garden (or any garden) but you can still help: windowboxes, balconies, pots, even windowsills can be a home for plants. The more the merrier.

We are now aware that insects and pollinators are in decline, and that peat bogs are invaluable carbon sinks which should not be plundered for potting compost. We understand we need bees and know home-grown vegetables can taste better than pesticide-heavy produce flown thousands of miles in the underbellies of jumbo jets. All this is not just the whimsy of politicians and journalists, but is backed up by research from scientists at the RHS – this is soon to become even more sophisticated with the building of the new RHS Hilltop – The Home of Gardening Science at RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey. Instead of soldiering on in Edwardian buildings, there will be new laboratories and state-of-the-art facilities likely to make even the dourest scientist dance a jig."

Design for the National Centre for Horticultural Science at RHS Garden WisleyThe Dry Garden at RHS Garden Hyde Hall

At the forefront of science

"Scientists are massively helped in their work by home gardeners – this is a two-way street. The RHS provides the knowledge and the overview, but its members are the eyes on the ground. It is they who first spot an unusual pest or worrying disease, and it is they who report back about the health of a particular plant. In recent years gardeners have helped spot rosemary beetles, monitor the spread of box tree caterpillars and oak processionary moth. The Society is a key player in identifying the best plants for encouraging beneficial wildlife, as shown by the RHS Plants for Bugs study, and in choosing plants to grow in our changing climate. As the RHS is respected around the world, its findings are spread to and may be of use in countries far beyond our shores.

Of course we, the people, also need to lobby industry, hassle governments, fly less and eat locally, but sometimes the whole thing can seem too much. Alone it is intimidating but, together, gardeners can achieve a great deal. You don’t need a big garden or, indeed, any garden at all: all you require is willingness and an understanding that plants have the power to change lives. One family, one street, one school, one allotment society, one community, one RHS: together, one tree at a time. Onwards to the barricades: this planet needs gardeners.

Read more

Read the first part  and second part of James'  series of articles: Growing society, changing lives

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.