Learn to Love Your Garden

19th April 2019

Getting your hands dirty in the garden is a wonderful boost for body and soul, with the process as rewarding as the result. But embarking on a horticultural project can be daunting (however small or large your plot). Jennifer Lipman offers tips and notes for the novice gardener…

As the sun shone last summer, I lapped it up. Not just because I’m happiest in good weather, but because for the first time in a decade I was in possession of a garden, so could fully appreciate the outdoor season.

Unfortunately, the rising temperatures left that garden resembling a barren wasteland. We’d hired a professional in the spring, only to watch despondently as everything turned brown. Reluctant to invest in the same process again, but keen to make my garden grow, it’s clearly time to brush up on my gardening skills. I’m not alone; according to a recent American Express survey, more than a quarter of people plan on taking up gardening this year, and it continues to be an enormously popular British pastime. The positive associations of getting down and dirty with shrubs are said to be myriad; good for health and mental health, not to mention the practical benefits of growing your own veg.

But where should the novice gardener start? The experts at Welwyn Garden City Horticultural Society break the news to me: there are no shortcuts. Of course, you could get in what they call ‘a squad of people’ to design, landscape, and plant up your garden. It’s an instant, even a satisfying, solution, although you might not feel it’s quite yours in the same way as you will when you’ve worked it yourself.

“Forget low maintenance for a lot later in life,” they say. “Gardening is going to save you a personal trainer, counsellor and physio. Working in the garden is de-stressing. It is a thousand times more fun than housework, and cooking becomes more satisfying when it includes your own fruit, vegetables and herbs.”

In other words, if you want a garden, you have to roll your sleeves up. “Get yourself started and your fingers will gradually become green,” advises Kevin Eaton, who has been gardening since he was 14, and now runs K&G Building & Landscape Services in Shenley.

If that sounds daunting, Guy Barter, the RHS’s chief horticultural adviser, tells me beginners should think before they plant about what they want from their green space. “People have different ideas, they want somewhere for children to play, they want somewhere to grow plants, they might want somewhere to entertain outdoors, or it might be a pesky darn nuisance,” he says. “Once you clarify what you want, then you can start thinking about what you’re going to do about it.”

I want a garden to entertain and relax in, but one that is also aesthetically pleasing. But I’m an urbanite, time-poor, and not naturally green-fingered. Barter reassures me this shouldn’t hold me back. He advises taking it slow; for new homeowners, there’s a good case for the first year for not doing much and just seeing what emerges. “If you’re lucky there will be lots of bulbs and if you’re unlucky it might be patches of weed or even Japanese knotweed that you’ll need to deal with over the summer.” In new builds it might be necessary to replace the soil first. “Builders are experts at destroying the soil and the drainage,” he sighs.

More broadly, it’s about doing the requisite research. “Look at existing plants in your garden and learn their name and requirements,” says Mark Falconer, who started gardening as a teenager and worked in garden centres before setting up in north London as ‘The Avid Gardener’. “You need to understand what a plant requires to grow successfully before choosing, planting and caring for it. Gardening books are very useful to learn the basics.”

The next step is to understand your land. “Look at where the sun comes from. North-facing gardens need a different set of plants than south-facing,” says Barter. “Consider the shade. Is the neighbour’s sycamore covering the whole garden, in which case you’ve got a big problem, or is it a nice open garden?”

The soil matters too. Falconer says this is the one thing he wishes he could tell his younger self. “Soil conditions have a fairly big impact on a plant’s overall growth success.”

This is echoed by Jonathan Hayter, a former journalist who retrained as a gardener 15 years ago. He stresses the value of preparing a bed by digging it repeatedly before planting. “Understanding and improving the soil is my number one piece of advice,” he says. “We are what we eat. Plants are what they eat.”

You don’t need to be a soil expert to work out what kind of mud you’re dealing with. Barter suggests digging a two-foot hole, filling it with water, then covering it overnight. “If the water is still there in the morning it’s a wet soil,” he says. Equally, you can tell if it’s a clay soil by picking some up; if it rolls into a clay-like ball, there’s your answer.

All this preparation might seem laborious, but it’s worth doing to give your garden the best chance in life. “These are a few simple things to consider so you don’t end up saying buying a nice camellia and planting it in a scorching hot south-facing garden with a heavy clay soil,” says Barter. “It’s to avoid some expensive mistakes.”

When it comes to planting, if you’re starting with a blank canvas, think trees. “Obviously you don’t want to go planting a really big forest tree, but there are lots of small garden trees that will produce a good effect,” he explains. Then on to grass, which he points out “is easy enough to arrange from turf or from seed”.

For the hobby gardener, short of time, low-maintenance plants are still the obvious choice. As Falconer explains, evergreen plants require less commitment than perennial plants, which die in winter. He suggests choosing those that are adapted to grow well in drier conditions. “It will make the care easier as they will be less demanding.” It’s worth consulting the experts in a local garden centre, taking note of what you’ve learnt about the slope of your garden, the light, and the type of soil.

To keep things simple, Barter suggests planting undemanding varieties like crocuses and daffodils and then just leaving them to flourish – at least in part of the garden. “Mow twice a year and have a wild flower meadow sort of thing, and perhaps invest in some wild flower seeds to spread in there.”

As a keen cook, I love the idea of nipping outside to pick up some thyme to top my potatoes, or some chives to go with my cheese. But how manageable is a herb garden? I’m aware, for example, that mint can be challenging to control.

“Nothing can withstand a dextrously wielded fork,” reassures Barter, adding that one trick is to plant herbs in a large pot and sink this into the ground. Herbs are particularly keen on light, so may be difficult in a shady garden, but largely it’s about choosing a sensible spot. A raised bed will help herbs grow in a clay soil.

As a novice, my assumption was that spring is the time to plant. In reality, says Hayter, it’s not that simple – January aside, a garden is a year-round project. But roughly speaking, you should prep the soil in February and March, then plant by May, water and prune over the summer and use the autumn to plant out bulbs, cut back, and mulch. What’s crucial is to keep an eye on the weather and tend your garden accordingly. In extreme heat plants might need thrice-weekly watering; normally, after things have got going, once every ten days will suffice.

The other menace is weeds. Generally, says Eaton, common sense applies. “We all know as kids what a weed is and what a plant is. If you’re not sure, leave it and dig round it.”

Truthfully, it sounds rather daunting. “My Welsh grandmother once told me there was always something to do in the garden,” agrees Hayter. “It never stops.”

But if it all goes pear-shaped, the key is not to be deterred, perhaps to buy in some advice or expertise, and to learn from your mistakes. As Falconer says, “it’s all about trial and error”.

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