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A Garden Expert’s Advice on Why You Should be Building a Resilient Garden at Home

Learn the importance of resilient planting during a climate crisis from Chelsea Gold medallist Tom Massey

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By House & Garden | May 30, 2024 | Gardens

One of the biggest names in ecologically-led garden design, Tom Massey's star continues to be on the rise, after a meteoric nine years since his graduation from the London College of Garden Design in 2015. He is on his fourth award-winning Chelsea Flower Show garden – his WaterAid garden, designed in collaboration with Je Ahn of Studio Weave, won a gold medal this year, as did his Yeo Valley garden in 2021, while 2023's garden for the Royal Entomological Society won silver-gilt.

All these gardens have had slightly different points of focus, from water conservation to improving biodiversity through attracting insects, but sustainable design is at the heart of them all. Resilient gardening is a subject particularly close to Tom's heart, and in 2023 he published his first book, RHS Resilient Garden: Sustainable Gardening for a Changing Climate. To recognise all these achievements, House & Garden this year gave him the Award for Responsible Garden Design, sponsored by Project Giving Back.

While resilient planting may be a familiar sight at Chelsea and in the higher echelons of garden design, for the rest of us it might feel more difficult to tackle, so we asked Tom to break down the key principles and offer advice on what we can do in our gardens at home to make them more resilient in the face of a changing climate.

Why Resilience is Important in Our Climate Crisis

“Resilience is becoming increasingly important with the climate crisis that we're currently experiencing,” says Tom. “These kinds of weather extremes are really challenging for gardeners and landscape designers. So designing schemes that are resilient to their effects is the only way to produce sustainable and long-lasting landscapes.”

Fundamentally, resilience is about responding to the prevailing conditions, and Tom points out that this has always been a part of the best gardens. “If you look back at, for example, Beth Chatto – who was gardening in Essex, which is a dry region – her whole mantra was ‘right plant, right place.’ And that's just becoming increasingly important to think about. If you put the wrong plant in the wrong place, you may well be able to get that plant to survive, but you might have to give it a lot of food, water, fertiliser and additional care to get it to thrive. Imagine trying to get a Mediterranean olive tree to thrive in shady, damp British woodland – it just won't work. Whereas if you put the right plant for the right conditions, you won't have to do much at all, and the plant will thrive."

Tom picks out the example of lawns, so common in British gardens, as a difficult thing to maintain in increasingly dry summers. “Trying to sustain a green, weed free, thriving lawn through a hot dry summer will involve constantly feeding it and constantly watering it – essentially creating an artificial environment which is not sustainable. Lawns are also made up of a single species or a couple of species, and that is not very resilient. The more species you have, the more resilient the whole will be to a catastrophic event like a heatwave. Why do we need to have pristine, green, weed free lawns? Can we be more accepting of a species-rich lawn that might contain flowering species like clover and achillea, that stay green in hot summers?”

Britain, especially in these times of extreme weather, can be a particularly difficult place to design a garden. “We can often have these very wet winters, and then prolonged periods of drought through the summer months. It does present a challenge to design a garden that can tolerate both of those extremes. You might look for drought tolerant plants, but then they're not going to handle being waterlogged in the winter." How to solve this problem? “One really good thing to do is to look around locally – if you live in the countryside, see what is thriving in the landscape, and if you live in an urban environment, take a look at your neighbour's gardens and see what's doing well.”

And it's not just the health of the plants you should be considering as you choose what to put in your garden – there is a whole ecosystem to keep in mind. “There are so many benefits that plants can bring. Trees can be very good at cooling the air to provide shade, and also at trapping particulate pollution. So if you live on a busy road, you can work with plants that will provide services beyond looking beautiful.” Tom's garden for the Royal Entomological Society at Chelsea in 2023 also illustrated how important gardens are for increasing biodiversity, using a varied mix of native and non-native plants to attract pollinators, and showing how gardeners can incorporate insect habitats imaginatively, with gabion retaining walls filled with waste materials such as leaf mulch, dead wood and broken terracotta pots.

Start With the Soil

So where to begin if you are designing a new garden or trying to make an existing garden more resilient? “The very first thing to do is to understand the site. Spend time looking at the soil – what what type of soil do you have? Is it free draining, is it clay, is it prone to waterlogging? What kind of exposure is the site – is it very exposed and windy, or is it sheltered and protected? What aspect is it – south facing and sunny, or north-facing and shady? And then look at what's there already – are there any trees or shrubs or plants that are thriving? Items within the garden that are already there and are already doing well make a great place to start.”

In the wake of Tom's garden at this year's Chelsea Flower Show, rainwater harvesting feels more and more important. “It's a precious resource that we shouldn't just be flushing away,” he notes. The WaterAid garden has a central pavilion that funnels water into underground tanks, and then various swales, depressions and channels that are designed to keep water in the landscape, rather than wash it into sewers. “We do suffer from the overuse of hard surfaces and the overwhelming of main sewer systems in heavy rainfall, so thinking about ways in which you can keep water in the garden and do it in a way that is still beautiful and good for wildlife is really important.”

And once the garden is established, Tom emphasises the importance of being patient with it. “Never panic. If there has been a heatwave, and you see certain things are struggling, just give them a chance. Allow some time for things to bounce back. Plants are very resilient by their nature. The kind of perfect image that you see on social media, or in magazines, or at flower shows is not necessarily the reality. Gardens are living things that will inevitably change throughout the seasons.”

This story originally appeared on House & Garden UK.