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Here comes the sun: gardening with the weather

Volume 5 Number 1 - April 2008

Alison Darby

French title: Voilà le soleil – jardinage avec le temps

Spanish title: Aqui viene el sol – jardinería climática


In Spring 2006 Winterbourne Botanic Garden was awarded £10,000 by the UK government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) as part of the their Climate Challenge project. Money was awarded to schemes that would raise people’s awareness and understanding of climate change. The ‘Working with the Weather’ project was primarily aimed at adult visitors who were asked to make the connection between changes in their own garden and climate change. A model garden was designed to show what features could be incorporated in a domestic setting to help counter the effects of climate change. A leaflet including these ideas was produced to help visitors make changes to their own gardens.


In recent years, there has been a significant increase in media coverage about climate change (Kalaugher, 2007). However, despite this, statistics from a government survey (Defra, 2001) revealed that males aged 18 – 24 and the over 65’s in general admitted to knowing very little about climate change. Most interesting was that of the older age group questioned, nearly a third responded that they did not believe in climate change. This age group forms a large percentage of the visitors to Winterbourne Botanic Garden at the University of Birmingham, UK, a six acre Edwardian Arts and Crafts style garden on the university's Edgbaston Campus which is open mainly during weekdays. We believed that by creating a climate change garden we could make a real impact on this age range.

Starting out

In Spring 2006, Defra awarded us a grant of £10,000 which we matched with staff time. The project timeline was just over two years and the money was tight, but a focussed campaign targeting a specific group seemed the most effective way to use the grant. Our response to the challenge was to develop a programme in three phases. We first asked visitors to make a connection between their experiences of extreme weather conditions in the garden and the cause of the conditions - climate change. Although we used the example of hotter, drier summers, we were careful throughout our information to refer to extreme weather conditions, rather than global warming. This decision proved to be a wise one as the second summer of the project was one of the wettest on record, resulting in one of our special talks about the project being rained off.

Phase 1

The first phase of the project ran for the summer of 2006 with a series of five A4 sized panels placed around the garden with a ‘Have you noticed . . . ?’ on each one. Each panel featured a different kind of extreme weather and its effect on the garden. For instance, one panel asked if visitors had noticed whether they needed to continue mowing their lawn later in the year. The panel went on to explain that longer, milder winters were just one of the effects of climate change. By relating visitors own experiences to the effects of climate change we (hopefully) established that not only did the problem exist but that it was one which was already facing them. These panels were researched and designed in-house and to save money they were produced using Microsoft Publisher and our own heat press.

Phase 2

Once we had introduced the idea of climate change, we created the Phase 2 model garden area. Here we offered solutions for a domestic garden which could help counter the current effects of climate change. Our aim was for visitors to understand how their actions could reduce further damage in the future. The garden was created in a previously under-used area of the main garden. It was contained on three sides so that the interpretation panels could play a large part in the area without impacting on the rest of the site. It was important to us that the garden was attractive in its own right as our target audience, the older generation, were sceptical about climate change. To encourage the use of ideas offered in the garden, we created a space that visitors could relate to in terms of design and scale; ideas they could imagine in place in their own gardens.

There were five features in the model garden which demonstrated different ways to work with the weather. We felt this was the optimum amount of information for the space (which was only five by ten metres). The features did not demonstrate groundbreaking ideas; instead they offered simple explanations of why each of the features could help gardeners mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.

  • Water butt – importance of saving rain water
  • Compost Heap – recycling garden waste
  • Wildlife pond – benefits of attracting wildlife
  • Vegetable bed – benefits of growing your own produce
  • Washing line – energy saving and benefits of outdoor drying
  • Green roof on shed – creation of habitats and minimising water run off

The model garden was designed by our Head Gardener and all practical works were carried out by our staff. We also carried out the initial research and decided on the themes for each of the model garden boards.

Lessons learned from our first set of panels meant that the final text for the boards was put together by an interpretation specialist and the boards themselves were produced by a specialist company. Although we had been pleased with our first phase of the programme, it was felt that we could do more to get the message across and we simply did not have the required expertise in-house. This second phase process was much more enjoyable and we were excited to receive the final boards which used our ideas. Of all the monies spent, the majority went on these Phase 2 boards.

Phase 3

Evaluation was carried out at strategic points during the project. Our first survey was distributed prior to any work on the project and was designed to find out general attitudes towards climate change. After the introduction of our Phase 1 panels we carried out a second survey where we asked the same questions and included some new open questions to discover any change in attitudes or behaviours. This feedback was used when deciding on the features for the model garden and on the themes for the boards. A third survey was distributed once the garden was in place to help us put together Phase 3 of the project, a leaflet of hints and tips to take home.

As a result of the survey we reduced the amount of information that we were offering. We kept returning to the main brief ‘to raise people’s awareness and understanding of climate change’, although it was tempting to bombard visitors with ideas and suggestions we were concerned this may have frightened the visitors away from the subject. We are now coming to the end of the project and one of the benefits of our work with Defra is that we will still have a model garden which we can retain for as long as visitors show an interest.


A final survey will be carried out in May 2008 at the close of the project, but our feedback already shows that we have been successful in raising awareness of climate change. It must be said that the extreme weather conditions of 2007 did much to help convince our sceptics! Visitors have taken our ideas leaflets away with them and only time will tell if they implement any of our ideas in their own gardens.

My final message would be that there is a role for smaller botanic gardens to play in helping to inform our audiences. Even though Winterbourne has no budget for an education officer or a formal education programme, this does not stop us finding ways to educate our visitors about the topics that are important to all of us.



Au printemps 2006 defra (Department of environment, food and rural affairs, UK) a attribué la somme de 10 000 £ au Jardin botanique de Winterbourne, dans le cadre de son projet ‘Climate Challenge’. L’argent a été alloué aux programmes de sensibilisation et d’information du public quant au changement climatique.

Le projet ‘Working with the Weather’ était tout d’abord destiné au public adulte à qui il était demandé de faire le lien entre les changements dans leur propre jardin et le changement climatique.

Une maquette de jardin a été conçue pour montrer quels éléments pouvaient être intégrés à un espace domestique en vue de parer aux effets du changement climatique. Une brochure présentant ces notions a été réalisée afin d’aider le public à apporter des changements dans leurs propres jardins.


En la primavera del 2006 el Jardín Botánico de Winterbourne recibió £10,000 de DEFRA (el departamento de medio ambiente, alimento y asuntos rurales del Reino Unido) como parte de su proyecto del Reto al Clima, fondos con el propósito de ayudar a los proyectos que aumentan el conocimiento público sobre el cambio climático.

El proyecto de jardinería climática estaba dirigido a los visitantes adultos a quienes se les pedía relacionaran los cambios en sus propios jardines con el cambio climático. Se diseñó un jardín modelo para demostrar cuales son las características que se pueden incorporar en una situación doméstica para contrarrestar los efectos del cambio climático. Se produjo una hojilla para ayudar a los visitantes a hacer cambios en sus propios jardines.

Alison Darby, Curator
Winterbourne Botanic Garden
University of Birmingham
58 Edgbaston Park Road
Birmingham, B15 2RT, UK