When the first little plants are offered in the markets in spring, it is like a welcome wake-up call from hibernation for many. After the gray of the cold season, the anticipation grows for bright colors and lush blossoms, perhaps even for fruit and vegetables grown on the farm. But unfortunately, the desire to garden often ends in frustration, because not everything develops as one had imagined. One of the reasons for this is climate change in the garden, which is also making itself felt in Herbert Vinken’s organic nursery. “We observe overall that extremes are becoming more severe. There are longer dry spells, longer and heavier downpours, stronger storms and colder frosts. Many plants are simply not hardy enough for these conditions,” says the organic gardener, describing the changes.
Is that a cause for concern for him? “In terms of gardening, climate change is not just a threat. For us in Europe, it actually extends the vegetation phase overall; so we can enjoy our garden and its crops for longer. For me, however, the climatic changes are above all an invitation to take a closer look,” answers Vinken. That sounds quite positive – but how exactly is that meant?
Climate change in the garden requires, above all, a closer look
“In the face of ever-worsening weather extremes, it’s not simply a matter of buying ‘hardier’ plant varieties across the board. Instead, more than ever, it’s a matter of figuring out which plants are suitable for the individual conditions in your own garden, and then taking good care of them,” says Vinken. This is nothing new for the gardener, who has been gardening for decades without the use of artificial fertilizers and chemical pesticides. He’s known for a long time that the better the plants fit the garden and the gardener, the less effort is required and the fewer mistakes are made. So for his day-to-day work, climate change hasn’t changed that much at all? “My basic approach of making decisions according to prevailing conditions has remained the same. However, climate change is causing those conditions to change more rapidly. Recommendations I make for a garden today may be outdated in ten years. So we have to observe much more closely and redefine the ‘status quo’ in the garden more frequently,” explains Vinken.
The choice of plants is also crucial when it comes to climate change in the garden
Before Herbert Vinken even makes recommendations on the right choice of plants, he has to ask his customers a lot of questions. Who stands there before him, which interests and previous knowledge are already present, how much time and money are available? What are the light, soil and weather conditions in the garden – or is there only a balcony? Only when all this has been clarified can he proceed to the plant sale with a clear conscience. Now he has done his utmost to ensure that his protégés find a suitable home with the right amount of care – without being immediately carried off by the next hot, wet or cold spell.
“Up to 80 percent of flower and plant purchases are made spontaneously instead of according to plan. That has little to do with sustainability. While a certain tolerance for mistakes is an important basic requirement in gardening, far too many plants perish primarily because people have not checked beforehand whether they will find what they need in their own garden. One must be aware of the effort that wishes or spontaneous purchases entail, for which one actually does not have the right conditions. Those who nevertheless insist on rather unsuitable plants will have more trouble getting them through,” says Vinken.
Organic plants have a higher chance of survival – that’s sustainable gardening.
It’s not just the right plant selection that contributes to garden success. “Many conventionally grown plants are pushed to grow as fast as possible with synthetic fertilizers. Organic plants, on the other hand, are given more time to develop properly,” Vinken explains. As a result, they are more robust overall and have higher chances of survival in the garden, even despite climate change. Ideally, part of the cultivation takes place outdoors – then they are better hardened off and also less susceptible to diseases and pests. When buying, you should not be tempted by a lush mass of leaves and flowers, but make sure that as many buds as possible are still closed – so you can enjoy them later in the garden or on the balcony for longer.
Climate-friendly gardening has many facets
“By the way, anyone who wants to garden in a climate-friendly way should also consider the transport routes that some young plants have undergone before they end up with us. Bedding and balcony plants in particular, such as petunias, geraniums or fanflowers, are mainly sent to Europe by plane from South America or South Africa, rooted here and then cultivated in greenhouses close to the metropolises so that they are ready for sale at the latest as soon as the last frosts have passed here,” explains Vinken. Many of these bedding and balcony flowers are popular mainly because of their brilliant colors and long-lasting abundance of blooms, but they also need to be well cared for, fertilized and watered sufficiently, and cleaned out regularly. They are primarily visual highlights – but for our native insect world, they offer rather little. “I think it’s like vitamins and whole grains versus ice cream and chocolate: as with food, the basis for organic gardening should be long-lasting, healthy products that are as regional as possible. And every now and then there’s something colorful, sweet,” adds Vinken.
What to do when the heat is too intense and the drought continues?
In summer, climate change increasingly makes itself felt in the garden through higher temperatures over longer periods of time. If precipitation then also fails to materialize, many plants suffer from so-called drought stress. Strong-growing summer flowers then need more attention than, for example, adaptable wild perennials and, especially with potted plants, we cannot avoid regular watering. It is best to water in the early morning hours, then the water is available to the plants during the midday heat. Ideally, you should use collected rainwater for watering. This can be done in the classic rain barrel, but even better are water reservoirs that are sunk into the ground. “Another option is to plant more woody plants, creating several tiers in the garden. Leaf litter provides humus, and trees and shrubs provide windbreaks and cooling shade,” Vinken recommends.
But be careful: conifers can severely acidify the surrounding soil, and not all plants like it shady. If you plant roses, daisies and sunflowers in the shade, for example, you will wait in vain for their beautiful blooms. So how can we get these sun-worshippers through increasingly hot, dry summers, too?
Here’s how to get humus-rich soil that retains moisture
As a general rule, humus-rich soil is better able to absorb moisture during periods of high rainfall and store it for dry spells – even when climate change has arrived in the garden. Heavily compacted or even sealed soils cannot do this. That’s why, in light of climate change, Vinken advises unsealing more areas and greening and revitalizing soils. Applying mulch, for example made of wood, bark or shells, is also a good way to prevent drying out without shading the garden. At the same time, this suppresses unwanted weeds. Shallow hoeing also helps to keep moisture in the soil, as it creates so-called dust mulch. More vigorous hoeing, on the other hand, to supply the aerobic microorganisms with oxygen, should only be done very superficially.
“If you hoe too much, too often and too deeply, you additionally dry out your soil,” warns the organic gardener. A humus-rich soil, by the way, not only stores moisture, but also the climate gas CO2. Ideally, kitchen and garden waste is composted to build up humus, creating a small local material cycle. Anyone who has to buy additional soil should definitely look closely at the label. “Peat is mined on a large scale in bogs and added to potting and garden soil. However, peatlands – as long as they are intact – are huge carbon stores. Their destruction releases large amounts of CO2, which further drives climate change,” explains Vinken. Therefore, when buying soil, look for the indication “peat-free” or at least “peat-reduced.”
Do rock and gravel gardens accelerate climate change in the garden?
Who now the topic soil is too complex and who has little time for the garden – is not suitable for them simply a trendy stone or gravel garden? After all, this also covers the soil. “There it is necessary first of all to clarify what a stone or a gravel garden really is. A pouring of stones on a piece of plastic fabric in any case not – that is the denial of garden!”, outraged Vinken. The trend towards this supposedly low-maintenance front garden area is rightly strongly criticized by environmentalists. On the one hand, because birds and insects find neither habitats nor food here; on the other hand, because this suppresses plants that would otherwise fix CO2 through photosynthesis and thus counteract climate change.
“There are remarkable plants like the mullein, which take quite deep roots and therefore do not need much soil wetness. They have established themselves as real survivors, especially in the central uplands, where they prefer to grow on stony, very barren terrain. If you find these conditions at home, a gravel garden in the original sense is a natural choice. However, today’s gravel surface trend has little to do with this. Since from comfort and order mania whole residential areas are sealed, whereby the material used for this in the worst case before also still very far transport routes put back. And then nature is simply shut out. This has fatal consequences for our climate and the diversity of species,” warns Herbert Vinken.
Climate-friendly gardening means giving nature more space
In over four billion years, nature on Earth has adapted to astonishing changes – think of the ice ages, for example. It can probably also adapt to the rapidly advancing climate change – if only we let it. So instead of smothering it under stones, plastic sheeting, asphalt and concrete, we should garden more like it again, and also always allow a certain amount of wild growth. “Organic gardens can create spaces where natural balancing processes take place that are also good for the climate,” says Herbert Vinken.
His organic nursery covers three hectares of land, about a third of which he intentionally neglects. Here, his wife has only planted scattered fruit trees and hedges, now and then flower mixtures are sown, otherwise nature is left to its own devices. “This is also a blessing for biodiversity. On our grounds, cultivated and wild, there are over 1,000 different species and varieties; we have hundreds of insects – and our apprentice has counted about 65 different species of birds,” Vinken enthuses. “We don’t have a handle on our garden in many places. But we do keep an eye on it.”
So here, neglect leads to diversity, much like boredom often leads to creativity. And in the process, it’s also instructive to observe how plants develop when you simply let nature do its thing. From this, one can derive useful tips for both commercial and ornamental gardens – especially with regard to their robustness in times of climate change in the garden.