To begin our two-part series, Hollie Newton draws on her experience (and mistakes) to offer tips for rookie gardeners.
Your first ever strawberry. Your first tiny courgette. Your first weird, malformed potato. This is the stuff of proper human achievement. Spend a few hours a week pootling about with plants and you won’t simply have created something lovely to look at, or grown your own food from scratch, you will have created a small slice of contentment.
From the very first morning that you spend up to your elbows in mud, a change occurs. A proper connection with the natural world is rediscovered right in the heart of your little human soul. This is a happiness we can all enjoy, a genuine escape from an absurdly fast and stressful life.
For me, a Dorset lass who’s worked in London for more than a decade, running a frantic creative agency, the natural world has seemed a long way away at times. I’ve spent much of my life attempting to wrestle near-obliterating depression to the floor and, unexpectedly, covering myself in compost while trying to coax a brussels sprout from a misbehaving brassica is one of the few things that’s genuinely helped. Saved me, even.
One thing before we crack on: I’d like to reiterate perhaps the most important rule of gardening, in my opinion: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with completely fudging it up. I’ve spent the past seven years monkeying around in my own garden, merrily making every faux pas it’s possible to make before learning and moving on to the next. The time I accidentally used neat tomato feed and fried the baby tomatoes. The time I got drunk, fell over and broke the beetroot. The time the horseradish overpowered me and tried to take control of all that I held dear.
Start with a few things that tickle your fancy, then go and commit some ingenious new fudge-ups of your own. Wear them with pride. Laugh. Then try again.
What if you don’t have any outside space? I say, snaffle some. The shared gardens of an apartment block will have more than enough room for a vegetable patch. Go and pitch your heart out to the residents’ association.
Similarly, unused patches have huge potential, from the little squares of soil around the trees in pavements to bigger strips of neglected land in your community. Helpfully, transport and conservation trusts are increasingly supporting groups that want to turn these over to vegetables. British Waterways, Network Rail and the National Trust are prime examples. Seek them out.
Get to know your local independent garden centre. In my experience, you can ask the staff the most foolish question in the world and they won’t laugh in your face. Not only will they give you advice and emotional support in times of garden woe, they will order in most things for you. Fancy a posh golden beetroot variety? They’re on it. Need a carrot suitable for a shallow window box? No problem.
And, of course, there are the large DIY chains. Nothing wrong with these guys. Their grow-your-own ranges are getting bigger every year.
The internet is a wonderful place, too. If, like many of my city-dwelling friends, you don’t own a car, or you live far away from a big garden centre, online ordering is a necessity. Take it from me, lugging three huge bags of compost home on a 40-minute bus journey involving three changes should be avoided at all costs.
And of course you can buy plants on the internet. There are all sorts of options, from small dedicated nurseries to the big ’uns, all offering huge ranges, sending everything from mangetout seedlings to a hazel tree through the post. The only thing I’d advise is that you place your order a good few weeks before you need your plants, as some of these small nurseries do things in their own sweet time. And make sure you’ll be at home when they arrive. It won’t surprise you to hear that a tray of sweet peas left in a hot cardboard box for three days will die a horrible death.
Here’s the truth about soil: it really doesn’t matter what kind you have. Nothing is truly insurmountable — particularly in small gardens, where much of what you’re planting will be grown in pots, planters and raised beds.
The biggest thing to think about is drainage. After a heavy downpour, go outside and have a look at your soil. If you have puddles hanging about for ages afterwards, you’ve probably got heavy, slow-draining soil. Break it up with a fork, dig in some mulch, bark or compost, then add a bit of gravel or horticultural sand. This will vastly improve both the drainage and nutrient content, ready for planting.
If you notice that your soil is dry and “sandy” in texture, again, dig in mulch or compost, but leave out the gravel and sand. In fact, whatever the soil problem, the answer is usually to dig in some mulch or compost. It’s like magic.
Peat-free compost is also a must when selecting a big bag for your bed. We don’t want to go wrecking the environment in the process of improving our own patches.
How to plant
If you use pre-grown seedlings — the little plants you find in multi-celled boxes and small plastic pots lined up in rows at the garden centre — does that mean you’re not a proper gardener? Of course it doesn’t. When you’re starting out, you may have neither the space nor the money for a greenhouse. But, more than that, I truly believe that you’ve got enough to learn, experiment with and generally muck up without adding the pressure of growing seeds into the mix. Give yourself a break.
To plant out your seedlings, water them with the fine spray of a watering can while they’re still in the tray or pots. Then pop them out by pushing your thumbs up underneath. If that doesn’t work, a quick sharp tap with a trowel while holding the pot upside down should do the trick.
Loosen the seedling’s roots by teasing them out of their soil ball, then dig a hole in the soil, slightly larger than the pot it came in, and tuck in your plant in. Fill in the hole, firming the soil to ensure it doesn’t wobble. Then it’s one last water for luck.
Overplanting compulsion disorder
Now listen up. Don’t get overexcited and plant too much. Seedlings go in small and come out big. Very big. I’ve had tomatoes battling beans bullying beetroot harassing carrots knocking over potatoes committing genocide on the romaine lettuces. To avoid this fate, check how much space each plant will take up once it’s fully grown. Also, bear in mind that the more you grow (particularly fruit and veg), the more time you’ll need to spend tending it.
Light and shade
Before planting anything, it’s important to know where the best and worst areas are in the garden, and to plan accordingly. Over a few days, keep an eye on where the sun rises, falls and casts its light throughout the day.
If you are plagued by shade, dry those tears, for all is not lost. It turns out that awkward shady spots can be transformed with a little clever thinking. Ferns, succulents and flowers can be planted in big, brightly coloured planters, which will lighten up any shady corner. Woodland flowers such as foxgloves and edible wild garlic love a dappled spot. Woodland-mix seeds can be sprinkled in even the tiniest of dirt patches, becoming an oasis of colour in only a few months. Good old nature, sorting us out again.
Some plants can be used purely to lure pests away from your favourite crop. French marigolds and mint are brilliant for deterring all sorts of harmful insects, thanks to their pungent smell. Nasturtium, on the other hand, does the opposite, attracting caterpillars away from your precious crop and sacrificing itself. What a hero. Pop a few of these in your vegetable patch and they’ll act like Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard.
Things I wouldn’t start off with
Yes, there is hilarity to be had in total failure, but there are certain things I wish someone had told me when I first started out. Cauliflowers, for instance. In the scheme of happy-go-lucky, easy-to-grow vegetables, cauliflower is at the Joan Collins end of demanding. Everything in the world wants to eat, infect or undermine it. Similarly Brussels sprouts. To say that caterpillars like them is to say that crack cocaine is a tad moreish.
Artichokes, aubergines, sweetcorn and celery are only going to give you an equally hard time in your early gardening years. I say, start with the easy chaps.
The essential kit
Gardening can get expensive if you are the type to give into temptation. There are so many shiny things to catch your eye as soon as you set foot in the garden centre (or browse the internet) — so many “must-have” tools, sprays, widgets and accessories.
Ignore them all. The truth is, you need very little to get started, just these basics.
Tools and gadgets
Thick gardening gloves to protect your hands from scratches — and accidentally caressing slugs
• A small garden trowel and fork — essential for every gardener
• A hand rake for fast, easy weeding
• Garden twine to tie up everything from beans to sweet peas
• A spray bottle for everything from bug killer to tomato feed
• Sharp secateurs for snipping, harvesting and pruning
• Bamboo canes to construct plant supports. Use rubber end caps to protect your eyes
• A garden broom to keep things tidy
• A big garden spade and fork if you’re lucky enough to have a garden with flower beds
Compost and feed
• Multipurpose peat-free compost for using in beds
• Tomato feed for pretty much all veg, not just tomatoes
• Bonemeal as a feed, in particular for raspberries and rhubarb
• Fertiliser pellets to provide plants with nutrients gradually over time
• Peat-free potting compost for planting in pots