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Susan Medcalf

Doctoral Researcher

My interest in plant ecology grew from an early age. Before reading botany at St Hilda's College, Oxford University I worked briefly as a trainee gardener in the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens and then subsequently in Oxford Botanic Gardens during the summer holidays. I went on to join a population cytogenetics research project at Queen Mary & Westfield College, London University before a 25 year diversion via a career as a classical singer. Working alongside experienced taxonomists, horticulturalists and conservationists at that formative time as a student contributed to a lifelong interest in vegetation science which I have maintained through an active involvement in field botany and conservation management.

I made my return to science in 2015 studying for the Masters in Plant Diversity at the University of Reading which included a research project on the restoration potential of degraded wetland plant communities within a protected site. Since then I have worked for Natural England in the Thames Basin Heaths Partnership, at Surrey Wildlife Trust in the Ecological Planning Advisory Team, and for RSK Ecology as a Botanical Consultant.

Research Project

Maximising the environmental and social benefits of gardens in the modern housing market

Domestic gardens offer us opportunities to create places of beauty, escape and relaxation within the built environment. For many people, a domestic garden is their first contact with nature. With over 80% of the UK population now living within towns and cities, according to the 2011 Census, private gardens make an important contribution not only to our health and well-being, but also to the green infrastructure of urban areas and contribute significant environmental benefits to the wider landscape.

With climate change predicting more extreme weather events (drought, intense rainfall, increasing temperatures), domestic gardens and traditional horticultural practices face unprecedented challenges and bring into question what design and management is required to enable them to adapt to and mitigate changing conditions.

Trends in house-building and the recent increase in the rental market along with factors like 'garden-grabbing' and paving for parking have resulted in increasingly simplified gardens. Loss of vegetation increases localised flooding risks, contributes to elevation of urban temperatures, and threatens biodiversity through a direct loss of green space. This in turn makes domestic dwellings and associated biodiversity more vulnerable to climate-change effects.

What we plant in our gardens now and how we manage them can have a significant environmental impact now and into the future. Given the longevity of trees and larger shrubs, planting decisions made today may continue to have effects on the local environment into the next century.

My project aims to bring together what is known as best-practice for planting choices to achieve high environmental benefits and to test the ecological services provision of different planting combinations to develop a better idea of planting schemes that provide multifunctional benefits.

This research project is jointly funded by The Spencer Trust/RHS and the University of Reading.

Interested in garden birds?
Check out the details of our Urban Bird Conservation project to find out how you can take part.