Garden grief: when yellow becomes the new green

There are two gardens in my life. One is a tiny, enclosed patch in inner London, home to a mishmash of vegetables, rescues from the pavement and unknown plants from random seed packets, all grown during the COVID-19 lockdown. The other is in North-East France, a 2 hectare plot which was once lovingly cared for my grandparents, and now by my father.

Having renovated the house in the 1960s, they set out to create an orchard, a walled garden, a veg garden and ornamental areas. I’ve known the garden since I was a child and remember hot summer days under the parasol, surrounded by my grandmother’s garish arrangements of summer annuals. I remember my grandfather talking about the “dreadful drought of 1976”. I don’t remember being unable to go out in the garden for fear of passing out.

But in the past few years, “dangerously hot” days have appeared. As I am writing this, it’s 37°C outside and I can hear fruit falling on carpets of dry leaves. I’ve been posting images of drought on social media on a regular basis, but this year is looking to be worse than ever.

I am regularly being told on social media that “there’s nothing wrong with the climate”, that “hot days are normal and great”, and that I should “stop listening to scaremongers”. Hmm. I feel angry, but also sorry for these people. They really have no idea of what we, and more particularly their children and grandchildren, are heading for.

I went to have a look at scientific evidence, in fact, weather observations published by the French weather agency. This graph show for each month of July (1959-2020) the cumulative rainfall relative to a 1981-2010 reference. Yes, dry July were common in the 1960s and 1970s but the lack of rain was not as intense or as repeated as it has been in the past five years.

To me, the frequency of hot events is key. I am watching well-established plants being less and less vigorous as years go by. After two or three months with no rain, plants spend the autumn trying to grow new leaves, only to be stopped by the first frosts. With drier springs too, they are not able to produce as much new growth as they used to, early in the season. This July, soils in my area held around 70% less water than compared to the 1981-2010 reference.

This is what I saw this morning. Dry leaves, dead branches, lifeless plants, cracked soil, desiccated fruit and burnt shrubs. Even Mediterranean plants such as lavenders are not coping well.

What comes next? For me, a period of grief. The garden as I knew it is no more. Trees and shrubs that I care for, planted decades ago by my grandparents are slowly fading. We won’t be able to grow delicate vegetables, as we used to in the past. It’s a potent realisation that we are no more than tiny ants in the face of natural processes.

After grief comes resistance.

  • I want to plant more trees to increase the amount of shade around the garden. It’s not easy. I’ve tried planting young trees, which haven’t lasted past their first summer. I may have to plant semi-mature ones but they are expensive and it is a gamble.
  • I hope to let grass grow longer as a way of conserving some water in the ground and of helping insects.
  • I am mulching where ever possible. For vegetables, it has sadly not been sufficient. Pumpkins have not survived. For other plants, I have to be careful to let the soil dry in winter as we can have harsh frosts (-15°C).
  • Increasingly, I am looking at radical changes. Replacing perennial beds with a gravel garden, temperate trees with sturdy palms may be an option to retain some colour and interest. I have been inspired by gravel gardens in the UK, but also by local examples such as the Jardin des Traces, created on the site of an old steel plant.

I was lucky to co-lead a trip to Kazakhstan last year and to visit dry canyons with an amazing range of flora and fauna. Drought wasn’t an issue there, but rather provided opportunities for adapted species.

The mental switch required to accept that yellow might be the new green is not easy. We have to counteract the deeply ingrained belief that healthy landscapes come in shade of greens. The more I look at shrivelled leaves in the garden, the more I feel that accepting change is our only solution to cope with the challenges of climate change…

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