Coping with Climate Changes in an Historic Garden

Dan Cartwright, Head Gardener at Winterbourne House and Garden, on dealing with the challenges of climate change in an historic garden. - 29 June 2024

Every year, most frequently in the summer months, I lead dozens of guided tours around the garden at Winterbourne, expanding on its history, pointing out seasonal highlights, and talking about our plans for the future.

These tour groups can come from all different walks of life. Many are local societies interested in history or gardening as you might expect, but lots also come from other more unexpected places. They might be professionals from other gardens indulging in a team day out, other university departments (we are a part of the University of Birmingham), or tourists from other countries exploring the city and wider region.


We even run ‘seasonal highlights’ tours that visitors can pre-book in advance as individuals, so that Members and regular visitors don’t miss out too.

I’ve been doing these guided tours for many years now and although it was a very nerve-racking experience initially as an inexperienced gardener, anybody who has been on one of my tours in the last few years will tell you that I can talk about the garden at length (perhaps sometimes for a bit too long!).

They are really interesting experiences, and the garden is always changing so hopefully there is always something new and interesting to discuss. Sharing the garden with other people has long been one of my passions so I really enjoy seeing and hearing everybody’s reactions to all the different sights, sounds and smells within it.


I usually get asked lots of questions along the way of course. Some are really surprising and often catch me out! But others recur again and again as people are often intrigued by the same things. Most often people want to know how many people work here and how on Earth we keep the slugs off our hostas (the answers are: 7 gardeners on the garden team, and we don’t, we’re just lucky!).

Evermore frequently now I am asked how we plan to combat the effects of climate change on the garden. There’s a real interest from tour groups in new styles of planting using a new pallet of plants better suited to a typically warmer climate, that are emerging as trends in the wider horticultural industry.


It’s a tricky question for us to answer if the truth be told. As a garden team we’re aware of the need to meet the demands of a changing climate but we’re also conscious of the garden’s history and its heritage. We are after all an Edwardian, Arts and Crafts, garden at heart.

We’re also aware that climate change, at least in part, doesn’t simply mean warmer weather, but more unpredictable, and volatile, weather patterns that make it far harder to adapt in the garden than it would if we were accounting for a singular trend.


Looking back over the past few years demonstrates this amply. During the winter, although often on average not any colder than usual, temperatures fluctuate dramatically between warm and cold over a prolonged period of time, causing all manner of confusion in the garden with plants starting and stopping into growth as a result.

The summers that follow are equally as challenging. Last year we had a very hot, dry, May and June, and then an uncharacteristically cool and wet July and August. All of this has had a huge impact on the garden as the tender perennials, like salvias and dahlias, that we’ve relied on so heavily in recent years to get us through scorching summer months, sulked in the cold and rain.


I think the answer is that in terms of garden design and planning, there simply is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy that can successfully negotiate the uncertainty surrounding our future climate. Instead, as with everybody else, we must experiment and adapt, and make small incremental changes along the way as we learn which plants are resilient enough to overcome this new challenge.


This incremental approach has always served us well and, I think, is a really good philosophy when gardening regardless. Plants often do the opposite to what you expect, so, as gardeners, we always have to be ready to observe what is happening and react accordingly. In my opinion, the best gardens evolve over time and the best gardeners must evolve too, along with them.

So don’t expect to see bananas on the Terrace in December any time soon, but you might notice a more diverse range of species, from all over the world, being used in mixed schemes as we make changes to beds and borders to suit. Some of them will work and some of them won’t of course, but when has it ever been any different when gardening?


Dan Cartwright is the Head Gardener at Winterbourne House and Garden.