Easy Tips for Garden Novices

How to get green fingers in no time


Picture / Babiche Martens

As the long weekend begins, we are all full of renewed conviction that this is going to be the year we make our garden gorgeous. For many, though, gardening can feel a little daunting. Recently, Sue Biggs, of the Royal Horticultural Society, said people in their thirties and forties were a “lost generation” of gardeners, whose parents never taught them the basic skills. That may be true, but being taught is absolutely not essential. In fact, not knowing anything about plants allowed me to plunge straight into the flowerbed, unfettered by the limitations of “rules”, which are mostly better broken.

It’s never too late to get into gardening: here are 10 things for inspired novices to do this weekend.

1. Get to know your soil
Pick up a handful of soil and give it a squeeze - you’ll instinctively know if it’s good, and not just because it’s crumbly but sticky at the same time, with a sweetish smell, but because the plants in it are looking healthy. Anything too dry, hard, sticky, stony or cloddy needs attention. Add manure or soil improver to very dry or sandy soils, and something dry and gritty (like sand) to very sticky soils. Pull up the weeds and dig with a spade, levering and turning soil, breaking it up, then forking in any additions.

2. Plant ready-grown flowers
At the garden centre, pick cheap bedding plants that make you smile. Don’t get bogged down with reading labels; these are temporary plants. Take them out of their pots and rub the sides of the compost a bit, so the roots know it’s OK to start spreading. Dig a hole a bit deeper than you think you need, place the plant and fill with soil so there aren’t any gaps. Firm it down gently with your hands or a foot, and water liberally.

3. Sow some seed
If you’ve never done it before, prepare to be thrilled. Get some easy, large seeds (nasturtiums are a good starter), fill a container with multi-purpose compost from a bag, water and push in a few seeds to a fingernail’s depth. Squidge the soil back over the seed and leave it somewhere you can see it daily. Make sure the soil doesn’t dry out. You’ll see shoots appearing unbelievably soon.

4. Dig up what you dislike
If you’ve inherited plants that don’t make you happy, yank them out. This is just as fruitful and effective as putting stuff in - it’s all gardening.

5. Prune
Most people in inherited gardens have overgrown shrubs that can be transformed by a judicious haircut. Identify the plant and establish the best time to prune. Go at it, slowly and gently, stepping back after each cut to see what you’ve done. Evergreen shrubs like box, privet and yew can be pruned into wonderful shapes. Large shrubs that take up a lot of ground can be “lifted” by chopping the foliage to leave bare stems. Fill the space with shade-loving plants.

6. Discover bulbs
Bulbs are an absolute gift to the new gardener; easy, virtually failsafe and providing the most marvellous of spring surprises.

7. Grow something delicious
Edibles, though rather higher maintenance than ornamental plants (because you have to prevent wildlife from chomping at them), are hugely rewarding. You can buy ready-grown baby fruit and vegetable plants, from courgettes and squash (great fun) to individual carrots, which you just plonk into a pot or a bed and water.

8. Sow peashoots
Fill a wide, shallow container with compost, water, and cover the surface with pea seeds. Cover with a bit more compost and watch them erupt out of the soil and turn into delicious, sweet-tasting pea shoots.

9. Try a herb container
Buy a selection of soft herbs, like parsley, chives and basil, from a garden centre and plant them in multi-purpose compost, in a container big enough to let the roots spread, keeping them watered and harvesting the leaves regularly.

10. Tidy
Most gardening is actually tidying - but this is compulsive, meditative, happy tidying. Use a hand fork to remove anything that looks like a weed, and secateurs or scissors to prune any bits of plant that look dead, dying or unwell. If you make a mistake and damage something, that sucks, but it’s not the end of the world.

- The Daily Telegraph·

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