ABC / Gardeners

Climate change is coming for your hydrangeas and rhododendrons – what do you do now?

ABC Radio National / By Smriti Daniel for Blueprint for Living

Paul Bangay knows climate change is real.

Over 35 years as a celebrated gardener and landscape designer, Bangay has seen the shift happen before his very eyes.

When he began working in the 1980s, climate change still wasn’t something that was widely discussed.

“Climate change has really come to the fore, and I think all landscape designers and architects are really thinking about this very carefully,” Bangay told ABC RN’s Blueprint for Living.

“In Australia, I have seen things get drier and I’ve definitely seen things get hotter. So, it’s quite alarming for me to see a place where gardens are going to suffer, no doubt about that.”

Paul is sitting on some stairs wearing a navy blue shirt and khaki pants. He has blond hair and blue eyes.
Paul Bangay’s designs are celebrated for their emphasis on symmetry and rich detail. (Supplied: Simon Griffiths)

Don’t throw the succulents out with the cacti

Early in his career, Bangay’s great love was for formal gardens in the European style – and it was a passion many in Australia shared.

“We really looked to Europe and certain European plants. In Melbourne in particular, you would see that softer English style of planting – hydrangeas, azaleas, camellias, rhododendrons.”

Bangay has seen these same plants begin to struggle in Australian gardens.

“Hydrangeas, for instance, are not made for this moment. Hydrangeas are really a bit of a dinosaur now with climate change.

“We don’t plant rhododendrons … camellias burn. So, we’re just phasing them out.”

What could survive the blazing heat? Australian natives are an obvious choice, but Bangay is the first to admit he wasn’t always a fan.

“So, all my design life, I’ve had a great hatred of cacti … erections that appear in the garden everywhere. And with that hatred, I lumped succulents into the same basket.”

Succulents in shades of sage green and olive are planted along a slope alongside small trees.
You can plant herbs such as lavender and rosemary to complement the sage greens and olive palette of native plants. (Supplied: Simon Griffiths)

Bangay used to lean toward deep, vivid greens in a garden.

“Maybe that was what summed up a garden to me – that feeling of an oasis, a feeling of paradise, a feeling of cooling, you know, in a hot environment.”

With the climate shifting, Bangay was forced to reconsider, and he began to discover a quiet beauty in the native palette.

“They’re in the greys, they’re in the sage greens and they’re in the dryer green palettes but I think that’s a wonderful thing.”

A uniquely Australian style

These native plants aren’t suited to the stiff formality of Europeans gardens, which has meant that gardeners have been forced to re-imagine the geometry of their designs.

“So, we’re not doing right angles, we’re not doing straight lines. We’re doing more organic shapes,” says Bangay.

Stiff hedges are falling out of fashion. When pruning, Bangay will now often opt for clouding, which he describes as “a more soft and organic way of clipping plants”.  

Native species like correa lend themselves to clipping into these more relaxed shapes.

A house stands in the background of a thriving garden where several varieties of native plants form a thick hedge.
By making a few strategic choices, you can reduce your carbon footprint and help your plants survive extreme weather. (Supplied: Simon Griffiths)

“Correa alba is probably the best one … It’s got this lovely soft, grey colour that merges with the Australian landscape so well.”

Another option is westringia or native rosemary.

“Both of them [correa and westringia] are extremely tough and easy to grow and don’t need much water which is a wonderful thing.”

Taken together, the wide variety of native plants and these new ways of styling are a critical part of how garden design has evolved across the country.

“We’re freer. You know, as Australians we are more relaxed and more casual and I think that is showing itself with that sort of organic feeling and the form of the garden,” says Bangay.

“We are now developing our own unique garden style in Australia, which we really struggled to find before and I think climate change has been a big driver in that.” 

A drone shot of a formal garden belonging to a vineyard in the Barossa Valley reveals organic curves and fluid lines.
 Native species can be used in both formal and informal designs, or mixed in with existing plants to create a diverse palette.(Supplied: Simon Griffiths)

Let your weeds grow

There are other staples of garden design that Bangay has found himself rethinking – case in point, the lawn.

“A big trend now is to have a swimming pool sitting in the lawn, not surrounded by harsh paving.”

It makes sense – lawns don’t retain heat in the same way, plus they’re prettier.

On the other hand, lawns are very resource-intensive and many simply shrivel in the hottest months.

“They’re a big culprit of water use … There’s a whole push now not to have lawns in your garden,” says Bangay.

“So, we’re trying to work out – and I don’t think we’ve arrived at this place yet – what is going to replace the lawn?”

Lawns have long been that beautiful recreational space that offered room for the children to play, or for casual gatherings.

For those reluctant to part with their lawn yet conscious of its environmental impact, Bangay suggests approaching it with the same relaxed, more organic attitude we’re applying to the rest of the garden.

“We should treat them as a lovely, green space, not necessarily as a monoculture.

“So, we shouldn’t be madly spraying herbicides to get weeds out. We should embrace the fact that some weeds will come, and some of them will flower and the lawn will be a lot prettier for it.”

Alternatively, you could borrow a page from the Spanish.

“They have these contemporary gardens where they plant the plants straight into the gravel.

“So, the gravel is like the soil. In other words, there’s no delineation between the garden bed and the paths or the playing spaces, just one sheet of gravel that’s just got plants planted throughout it. It’s amazing.”

A winding gravel path is lined by trees and bushes clipped in the shape of soft spheres.
You don’t need a lawn, you can plant your plants directly into gravel.   (Supplied: Simon Griffiths)

Climate proofing your garden

Adapting your garden to the climatic reality is going to be far less resource-intensive, Bangay explains. 

“You’re going to be squirting less water into the thing. It’s going to be easier for you to maintain.” 

His advice for climate proofing your garden?

“Really look at designing the garden for extreme heat” – and begin with carefully considering your choice of plants.

“A garden is not a hospital, it’s not there to plant plants that need to be tended or are delicate or need to be mothered along.”

Bangay thinks the relatively mild weather of the last two years may have given us all a false sense of security – extreme heat (and water restrictions) are likely to return.   

“Plant plants that you know are not going to burn in the hot sun, are not going to burn in the hot wind; that are going to tolerate lengthy periods of extreme heat … think of plants that don’t need so much water.”

Another trick would be to create shade in the garden – yes, even over the pool.

A table for six is nestled in an alcove looks out over the garden and is frame in grape vines.
Changes in the pattern of rainfall have become obvious with some areas getting more rain than usual, while others are getting less. (Supplied: Simon Griffiths)

“One of your best defences against climate change and extreme heat is shade, says Paul, adding that those cooler temperatures under a tree benefit both smaller plants and humans.

“Don’t do areas of making hot paving with nothing. Put a canopy of a tree over it and pave underneath that and it’s just such a beautiful spot to sit.”

Even in the face of climate change, Bangay remains optimistic.

“The really strong point is that climate change is a reality. It’s hitting us, but we’re adapting to it.

“And I think we’re getting this great Australian style, this garden landscape style out of it. So, we shouldn’t look at it negatively.”

First published by the ABC on February 19, 2022.