Building a resilient garden for a changing climate

Garden designer Tom Massey’s latest book and accompanying garden at RHS Hampton Court, has struck a chord with every gardener concerned about growing in a changing climate and the new challenges that represents

What is resilience?

It’s a term that has been used increasingly in a horticultural context as we look to the future and how we will plan for a climate of more extreme weather. But what does resilience mean when applied to the average domestic garden?

Tom explains, “The climate emergency is affecting weather patterns, and extreme events are becoming much more likely and frequent. This is causing devastation to landscapes and gardens that are ill equipped to deal with these conditions. It is not sustainable to have to start again from scratch every time an extreme event occurs, so resilient gardens that can adapt, survive and recover are extremely important.”

The Resilient Garden at RHS Hampton Court 2023

See more about the garden

It was from this context that the Resilient Garden book, and corresponding garden at RHS Hampton Court were created. Tom says, “There are a lot of garden design books, many of which might now feel quite dated. My aim was to create something that felt fresh, future focused, exciting and dynamic, that would appeal to a younger generation of gardeners, but also have lots of good content that wouldn’t exclude more experienced readers.

  • UK gardens cover 1,670 square miles, that’s just over a fifth the size of Wales.
  • 2 billion people do not have drinking water in their home. By 2025 50% of the world’s population will live in places suffering water stress.
  • By 2050 London is predicted to have a climate equivalent to Barcelona.
  • UK flying insects have declined by 60% in the past 20 years.

“It was a great experience building the real garden. Making the VR version was a very involved experience and took some months to get right, working closely with AVA CGI, the team who built the space in 3D software. Seeing the virtual garden come to life really proved the concept and hopefully added a new dimension of understanding for anyone who has read the book.”

The RHS Resilient Garden Before and After

The virtual reality clip explores the before/after transformation of the front and back gardens towards resilience

The role of wildlife

This year, sustainability, resiliance and biodiversity have been key themes of news articles and show gardens, and the Resilient Garden explains how they apply to the domestic gardener, as Tom explains, “All those terms are connected but also very different too. There are a lot of terms thrown about and it can be quite confusing.  The book touches on all of the above and tries to demystify some of the terms, explaining how they are linked, what they mean and what people can do to understand or implement principles.

How to create a resilient and sustainable garden

Gardens at RHS Hampton Court offer solutions to make our gardens and green spaces more resilient, sustainable and wildlife-friendly.

“We are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis, and many species are in serious decline. Insects, for example, are suffering from overuse of pesticides and loss of habitat. Without insects we would be in serious trouble as we rely on them for many services including pollination of food crops. Gardens that are resilient and are more able to adapt and support wildlife are really important. A late frost could wipe out a food source for a certain type of insect, but if there are other plants less affected by frost within the scheme, then these can compensate.”

Gardens that are very clipped, formal and organised, with low biodiversity and a heavy input of resources to maintain, are never going to be particularly resilient. But is this aesthetic desirable?

Tom Massey

Practical steps gardeners can take now

“It is important to understand your garden, and design a scheme to be able to deal with the conditions that it is most likely to face. For example, in a shady woodland-style garden on a flood plain, it would not be resilient to design a dry Mediterranean gravel garden. These types of plants wouldn’t tolerate the wet well and would struggle in the shade. Site analysis is a really important starting point in the design process. 


Assess your garden

Assess your garden

Care for your soil

Care for your soil

Use sustainable materials

Use sustainable materials

Include water

Include water

Create habitats

Create habitats

Avoid using chemicals

Avoid using chemicals

“Working on your soil is usually a good place to start. Composting at home is easy and inherently sustainable, as you are creating a circular system, reusing garden waste, turning it into something beneficial and keeping it in the garden rather than transporting it off site”.

8 Key actions for gardeners

Map local biodiversity

Add the plants in your garden to RHS My Garden (https://www.rhs.org.uk/my-garden) to help monitor biodiversity nationally and also to get tips, advice and resources to help you garden.

Resilience vs aesthetics

Often the conversation around moving towards sustainable garden practices is one of sacrifice. Gardeners being asked to pull up their lawns, avoid rigorous tidying and maybe even allow a few weeds to go by, can be alarming and seem to undermine what some think of as ‘real’ gardening, but Tom suggests that it’s about shifting our definitions of beauty.

Massey’s UNHCR Border Control Garden at RHS Hampton Court 2016 contained early themes of resilience
With the Royal Entamological Society Garden at RHS Chelsea 2023 Tom showed how habitats can be created within a garden

“If you want a very neat and formal garden you could consider having a wilder or less maintained area out of sight, or employ crisp and clean lines in the hardscape with softer, looser and less formal planting framing this. Even a chaotic wildflower meadow can feel designed, simply by mowing a neat strip around the edge to frame it and make it feel intentional. That can really change the aesthetic feel.

“I think there is definitely an appetite to be more resilient and sustainable, most people really want to try and do something to help with the climate and biodiversity crisis, and see their garden spaces as a realistic way in which they can make a difference.”



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Tom’s top five resilient plants

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