Did you discover or rediscover gardening during The Great Confinement of 2020? Perhaps you already intuited its therapeutic power and prescribed generous doses for yourself and your family, your unintended 3-month lodgers, and new Zoom chums?
Despite its innocent public image, the wonderful world of horticulture can have many pitfalls for the uninitiated and can even become a vice. Here are some nuggets of friendly advice to help you steer a safe course through the rocks and shallows of the gardening world.
A Virtuous Vice
Gardening makes you feel good – you’ll have noticed that. Unfortunately, the buzz it gives can make it a highly addictive activity. You may find yourself spending more and more of your time and money on your habit, leaving friends, family, and pets miffed and your Netflix and social media accounts neglected.
Weeding in particular is one of the more strongly habit-forming aspects of gardening. Even when you promise to reform and stay away from the weeding fork, you are never more than a dandelion seedling away from relapse. Even seeing weeds in a neighbour’s garden can be a trigger. Treat your new addiction with respect – it is bigger than you and you may not be able to control it. There is however, a positive dose-response effect i.e., the more you do, the better you feel, and there’s no risk of overdose.
Be a Nosey Neighbour
You can do a lot worse than take a good look at the gardens in your neighbourhood to help you decide what to grow. No, not that one with the wall-to-wall paving slabs and a couple of suspiciously evergreen hanging baskets that look the same come blizzards or scorching sun, despite never apparently being watered.
Look the other way, to that lady with the giant shrubs with glossy leaves and scented blossom in spring, the plum tree that’s laden in late summer and armfuls of blooms cascading from pots in June. Or the family with the vegetable patch that produces bucket loads of peas, potatoes and rhubarb every year. What grows well for these nearby gardeners is likely to grow well for you too – the soil and weather conditions will be more or less the same so you’re unlikely to end up with plant failures if you grow similar varieties.
Aim for a Shipshape Shed or Tool Store
If you’re lucky enough to have room for a shed or tool store, you’ll get better use out of it if you introduce some order and keep it more or less organised. Hammering in a few nails to hang up your tools and stowing pots and seed boxes in the same places will help you keep track of your gear and find things easily. If your tool store is a corner behind the front door or a space in a drawer near your window box, it’s still worth keeping some sort of order to make sure you don’t waste precious gardening time cleaning tools before you can use them or hunting for a crucial piece of kit.
Get to Know Your Plot
Make it your mission to understand as much as you can about your soil type and garden microclimates. What will thrive in your garden or containers will depend partly on the soil and your gardening techniques but also on local conditions. While the weather forecast tells you some things, there will be differences, sometimes quite marked, in the temperature, wind chill and humidity levels when you move from one area of your space to another, even within a small plot.
If a neighbouring building casts a shade on one side of your garden for instance, it can mean that many plants won’t do well there. It may make sense to plant shade loving varieties in this part of the plot rather than persisting with Mediterranean plants which will be much happier just a few steps away.
If you’re planning on making a vegetable patch, it too would do best in sun, though there are several crops that will grow well enough in shadier spots.
Across the country, soil types vary a lot and the characteristics of different soils affect how they retain nutrients and water, how soon they warm up in the spring and whether they will tend to crumble evenly at the slightest nudge from a rake or form large heavy clods that cling to your spade. Learning about soil structure will help you understand how your patch of earth will respond to cultivation and which plants will grow well in it. Before long you’ll be using terms like ‘aspect’, ‘drainage’, ‘tilth’ and ‘frost pocket’ with all the authority of Percy Thrower at his prime time best.
Grow with Others
If you’d like to garden with others or simply find your horticultural ambition has already outgrown your home growing area, you might be able to find an allotment or community garden in your area where you can take on a plot within a larger site, or garden alongside others in a communal growing space.
Although demand has been rising, council initiatives regarding provision of allotments and food growing space have been boosted in recent years so there may well be more chance of finding a place to sow and grow in your neighbourhood now, even if it has been difficult in the past. Allotment sites have become sacred refuges since successive lockdowns made us yearn for escape to places beyond our four walls that were not shopping malls. The possibilities of half plots, buddy schemes and community plots can sometimes mean there is not such a daunting waiting list and more flexibility in finding a plot that fits your needs. Find out more from the allotment and community growing organisations, SAGS, NSALG and Social Farms and Gardens.
Make Time to Observe
Many gardeners tend to be doers, always busy working on something, unable to sit down for five minutes before they spy another job needing doing. Do try to take time to sit and just be in your garden or beside your window box or doorstep pots. Observe and enjoy. Notice what is changing – are there buds fattening up or bursting, bulb shoots poking through the earth or some mystery creatures nibbling the leaves of your prized roses or gooseberry bush? You’ll get more pleasure from your garden if you make time for these moments of stillness and appreciation, and you’ll notice problems and changes in good time to take action.
Learn and Explore
In the quieter winter months, especially, you’ll find inspiration and things to learn in the excellent selection of gardening books, magazines, blogs and websites on offer. The Royal Horticultural Society is a stalwart of dependable advice on plant information and it is worth checking out the online lectures from the Royal Caledonian Horticulture Society.
For a fascinating programme of events with an international perspective, check out the Trellis Seminar Series in March (7-11th) 2021 – you can sign up to listen to speakers involved in therapeutic gardening from all over the world, and from lots of local projects too at www.trellisscotland.org.uk. Beyond the Seminar week, Trellis run regular Live Zoom events demonstrating simple gardening activities.
Seize the Moment
You may have stumbled into gardening later in the year in 2020 with all the drama and trouble finding supplies, but this year, you have a full season ahead when you can plan and be sure to hit the sowing dates for all the things you want to grow. You can explore the possibilities of your pots and garden in all the seasons. Make notes, take pictures and above all take every chance to appreciate your garden.