Gardening for Your Location
Considering your location
Your location determines which plants will grow most successfully in your garden, which plants you should avoid, and even how early in the spring you can begin planting.
The further north your garden, the shorter and cooler the summers, and the harsher winter conditions are likely to be. Many sun-loving, tender or semi-hardy shrubs and perennial plants that thrive in warm, southern counties struggle to survive in more northerly gardens. To give them the best chance of survival they may need to be planted against a warm, sunny wall and given winter protection.
In more northern regions the growing season is a little shorter – it begins later in the spring and ends earlier in the autumn, since autumn rains and winter frosts arrive sooner in northern areas. Northern gardeners will usually find that spring planting, sowing and soil cultivation has to be delayed until later than is normally recommended.
Gardeners living at altitude may also find that their garden is behind those in nearby valley areas, with plants emerging later in spring and the winter arriving sooner at the end of the year. It is estimated there is a drop of about 1°F (0.5°C) in average temperatures throughout the year for every 300 ft slope above sea level. North facing and north-east facing slopes are always colder (and shadier) than those facing south or south-west. This means, for example, that soils on a south facing will warm up more quickly in the spring than those on a north facing slope and will stay warm for longer into the autumn.
On the other hand, a low-lying garden in a frost pocket – a valley or other hollow, or a dip where cold air flows down and collect from surrounding high ground – can also be exceptionally cold in winter; perhaps even colder than gardens on the surrounding high ground. A small-scale frost pocket may also occur within a garden on a slope where a barrier, such as a wall, a solid fence or a dense hedge, blocks the flow of cold air running down from higher ground above. Here a localised pocket of freezing air may gather in winter, scorching plants and shrubs.
Gardens that are further inland also tend to be much colder in winter than those nearer to the coast. As a result, tender plants and shrubs usually stand a better chance of surviving winter in a coastal garden than in an inland garden at the same latitude. This is most noticeable on the south-west and west coasts of the UK (swept by the warm, oceanic Gulf Stream), but it also applies, to a lesser degree, to all other coastal areas.
Gardens in the heart of a city or a large town benefit from a so-called ‘heat island’ effect. This is caused by several factors, including the presence of large expanses of heat-storing concrete, bricks and tarmac. It means that cities are typically warmer than the surrounding rural areas, and therefore offer a slightly more supportive evironment for less-hardy plants.
Sites on high ground and steep slopes are typically most exposed to wind, along with gardens in coastal areas, where winter gales blowing in from far out at sea can cause severe damage. Gardens near coasts also face the additional challenge of salt spray, which can be carried for miles inland on high winds, damaging plant growth and increaing the salinity of soils.
The wettest areas of the UK are in the west and north (particularly on high ground). Conditions become gradually drier towards the east of the country. Driest of all is the south-east of England – roughly east of a line drawn from the River Humber to the Isle of Wight – where summer droughts tend to be the most severe.
Planning Your Garden
After considering the unique climate in your local area, there are certain things you can do to mitigate its effects and ensure that you are growing the best possible selection of plants for your location.
The best advice is to adapt planting schemes as much as possible to the local climate. Local nurseries will be able to advise you on which plants are likely to do well in your area and which are most likely to fail, and this should be reflected in the basic range of plants they offer. Their advice is well worth seeking and listening to – along with the advice of other private gardeners in your area. You might also visit local gardens to see what is growing most successfully.
If ordering plants online, try to ensure that you choose suppliers who are located further north than you. If you choose suppliers who are further south, the plants may struggle to establish themselves. Also, remember to check where nurseries and garden centres obtain their plants – ideally they will source plants locally but you may find that they purchase them from suppliers located many miles away and sometimes in a different country.
Where severe winter cold seems likely to be a serious problem, or experience has shown it to be a concern – for instance, if permanent plants and shrubs have been repeatedly damaged or killed by winter frosts – then go for reliably tough, hardy plants. Avoid tender shrubs and perennial plants that require winter protection or a very warm and sheltered site, unless you are prepared to give them special attention and accept possible disappointments.
Where wind exposure is a serious problem, creating shelter should be the long-term aim – this can be achieved by planting or constructing a windbreak – but choosing suitably sturdy and wind-tolerant plants will also help. Avoid tall-growing border plants, which may require staking or other support, and plant for which gardening books recommend a well-sheltered site.
If you have an exposed coastal garden, plants that are both wind-tolerant and salt-resistant are especially useful – particularly when choosing plants for hedging to take the brunt of the wind and salt spray.
If your garden suffers from the low rainfall levels of the south-east and is also located on a fast draining, dry soil (for example sandy or chalky soil), improving soil condition with organic matter and selecting drought-resistant plants and shrubs will help to reduce the labour of summer watering. You can also use mulch or other ground cover to reduce water loss.
Increasingly, gardeners in low-rainfall areas are choosing to do without the traditional lawn, instead opting for a gravel garden or hard landscaping.