‘Just one change in your garden can really make a difference’

We’re in a global biodiversity crisis, but just one change in your garden can really make a difference say Glen Powell and John David

Nature Target 2 of The RHS Sustainability Strategy: Biodiversity Positive by 2025

Reversing habitat destruction in gardens and community green spaces around the country; protecting and improving conditions for pollinators and other wildlife and enhancing and conserving cultivated plant diversity for the future

What does this target mean?

‘We’re in a global biodiversity crisis, which is happening alongside the climate crisis. It’s happening quickly and it’s happening now. For example in terms of abundance we lost a third of our wild pollinating insects between 1980 and 2013, and 31% of UK moths between 1973 and 2020.

‘Human-driven factors such as changes in land use, climate change and pesticide applications are behind these massive declines in biodiversity. Yet we know that gardens can have a huge positive impact - even those that are relatively manicured can be important refuges for biodiversity.

‘It is the RHS’s mission to spread this message far and wide, and provide encouragement, support and information to ensure the UK’s 30 million gardeners all play their part. We’ll also be monitoring the biodiversity of all RHS Gardens to demonstrate the effects of our activities.

‘Gardens cover twice the size of Somerset and represent a unique habitat. They are rich in a diversity of plants both native and non-native, but particularly the latter. There are an estimated 400,000 different types of plant in cultivation, many raised and selected in the UK. This represents a remarkable resource, although it is threatened by the lack of awareness of its value, and over time, sadly some of these plants have already become extinct.’


What is the RHS already doing to meet this target?

‘The RHS has already done considerable research into how gardening can help promote biodiversity. In particular our Plants for Bugs was a groundbreaking project which looked at how plant choice in gardens (based on where the plants come from) can impact invertebrates such as bees and butterflies. Since 2011 the RHS has also been developing and refining the RHS Plants for Pollinators lists and logo. These enable gardeners across the country to quickly and easily choose plants that will help support many threatened pollinating insects.

‘Through our website, magazines, books, gardening advice service, social media and community outreach work, we’re spreading the biodiversity-positive gardening message to a wide and diverse audience. Our media campaigns include BBC Radio 2’s Big Bee Challenge, and we have partnered with The Wildlife Trusts to create the Wild About Gardens campaign.

‘Promoting biodiversity has worked its way into the structural core of the RHS, and has become a key element of all new construction projects. For example, RHS Hilltop contains a fantastic wildlife garden with many features designed specifically to encourage as much life as possible, from dead hedges and diverse planting to shelving water features and more. Management regimes on wider RHS estates, such as areas of woodland, have also been adapted to encourage wildlife.

‘The RHS has a long tradition of growing a wide range of cultivated plants, with over 30,000 different kinds of plant being grown in our five gardens. These have been assessed by the garden plant conservation charity Plant Heritage and currently the RHS looks after nearly 6,000 plants which are considered threatened in cultivation. In addition, the RHS holds 19 National Plant Collections, assembling as many representatives of these plants as can be found in the UK. We have been documenting plants in cultivation, most notably in our reference collection of dried preserved specimens.’


What will the RHS do next to meet this target?

‘We’re already changing the way we look after our gardens and to be sure that we’re becoming truly biodiversity positive, we’re going to ecologically survey key groups of plants and invertebrates, establishing a baseline of biodiversity, then re-survey to measure the impacts of our activities.

‘These survey results will help inform the advice that we give out to gardeners and we’ll be building on the RHS Plants for Bugs research, focusing on gardening for pollinators and wildlife to share RHS knowledge and best practice with gardeners.

‘We also will encourage gardeners to record the plants in their gardens using MyGarden online tools to help obtain a more accurate measure of how many plants are in cultivation in the UK and to help gardeners look after this diversity, and to monitor how these change with climate. We will support this by documenting as many of the plants in cultivation as possible, and making that information available online.

‘Another important part of our approach will also include looking at how to encourage beneficial insects such as natural predators of garden pests – reducing the needs for gardeners to use pesticides. This is part of our commitment to research ecological controls for pests, diseases and weeds: helping gardeners avoid using any artificial chemicals.

‘We’re encouraging gardeners to recognise their gardens as ecosystems, and breaking down the ideal of ‘perfection’. If you can relax some of your practices and take a moment to think about the impact you might be having, your garden becomes much more eco-friendly. Tolerate the wildlife, including pests, and hold your nerve, balance will be restored. A clump of aphids on your rose bush may well become a vital meal for baby blue tits – but only if you don’t spray them off first!’

If you want to do one thing for biodiversity in your garden, plant a tree. Something with flowers and fruit like a wild cherry (Prunus avium). You’ll bring in wildlife including pollinating insects and birds – and you’ll help lock in some carbon too.

Glen Powell, RHS Head of Plant Health

Why should gardeners care about this?

‘The decline in biodiversity is alarming, not just globally but in our back gardens too. While lots of it is unseen, all of it matters. 

‘For example, in her seminal study of life in an ordinary suburban garden, scientist Jennifer Owen recorded 2,673 species of animals and plants, several of them new to science. The vast majority of them were invertebrates (insects, spiders and other small creatures without a backbone). These ‘inverts’ are vital - they occupy a hugely important place in the food chain, not to mention directly helping our crop plants produce food for us. They’re nature’s cleaning squad, helping turn dead matter into plant food, pollinating flowers and much more. Basically, no bugs, no humans. It’s that simple.

‘Cultivated plants have a critical role in supporting wildlife to cope with shifting seasons due to climate change, as they can provide sources of nectar and food at times when native plants may no longer be in flower. In addition, they can provide resilience more generally by providing environmental benefits such as pollution capture, noise filtering, reduction of rainfall run-off and temperature moderation. The greater the diversity of plants we hold, the greater the chance of finding the best plants to increase the sustainability of the green spaces that surround us.’

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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.