Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Guardian Gardening expert Kim Stoddart escaped climate change in the South East of England by moving to a frigid Welsh hilltop – then discovered her tomatoes wouldn’t grow.
Why climate-change gardening means breaking all the rules
Sat 4 Dec 2021 22.00 AEDT
Early in 2010, I moved from a home with a small, tidy back garden in Brighton to a wild smallholding more than 200 metres above sea level in Llandysul in Wales. Concerns about the climate crisis were at the heart of my move: I was living at sea level, near an underground river, and worried about flooding. But more than anything, I longed to live somewhere I could be self-sufficient.
After considering the options – Spain (extreme heat) and New Zealand (attractive but too far away) – I decided on Wales. Water shortages were unlikely, I thought, and property and land were affordable. So I left behind my old life to turn my passion for organic homegrown food into a full-time career – writing, running courses, making public speaking.
Gardening in this part of west Wales is very different from gardening in Brighton – the land is more suited to livestock than crops, and it has been a steep learning curve. No casual outdoor growing of tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and chillies in this cooler, wetter climate. No protection from the strong winds, no respite from the relentless rain (and, in 2018, a drought). And no fruit trees so high above sea level in a wind-ravaged spot, or so I was told. As a result, I had to adapt all my gardening techniques.
I don’t use fertiliser for hungry Mediterranean fruits like tomatoes (which I grow in a polytunnel) because it makes them needy for more, and stops their roots seeking out natural resilience through symbiotic relationships with underground fungi. Instead make your own compost from leaf mould, and boost it with comfrey, nettles, seaweed, chicken poo and borage.
Polytunnels are cheap plastic greenhouses (see the top of this post). But the cheap plastic Polythene is produced from ethylene, a petroleum product.
To be fair Kim seems a pretty decent person, her social enterprise group Garden Organic “… help teachers and school professionals to develop gardening projects that teach children where their food comes from, develop their scientific and environmental awareness and encourage them to eat more fruit and vegetables.”.
But a Guardian gardening expert expressing surprise that Mediterranean vegetables refuse to grow on a Welsh hilltop, without lots of help from our friend plastic – what was she expecting? Did she really think global warming had already made Northern Welsh hills a suitable location for warm climate vegetables?
Don’t get me wrong, I have fond memories of Wales, lots of friendly people in Cardiff and Swansea who made me feel a welcome part of their community. But even the south of Wales is really cold and wet for much of the year, let alone some hilltop in North Wales.
The BBC predicted in 2005 that Britain would have a Mediterranean climate by 2050. But I’m guessing people hoping to grow Mediterranean climate vegetables on the hills of chilly Northern Wales will have to wait a lot longer than 2050, before they can ditch their Greenhouses.
Correction (EW): Mediterranean climate vegetables – as Tom Halla points out, tomatoes and eggplants are not originally from the Mediterranean.