Last year, when friends heard that I was moving from a balcony to a garden, their response was almost universal. “You must be so excited! They panted, gently. Sometimes it was easier to smile and agree than to admit the truth: I was terrified.
Ground! Cats! Self-seeded things! Lawns! Balcony gardening was sort of a corset, but I had made myself comfortable in its whalebone for the past six years.
I had fought pigeons and squirrels, had faced drainage and rain shadows, and was familiar with rudimentary structural engineering. Now I had to embark on a brave new world of seasonal changes and fox poo. I felt deeply incompetent.
A year later, the rectangle of pristine grass with a patio the size of a dance floor has grown a bit. A hollyhock peeks out over the back wall, dahlias – the first I ever grew – paint a rainbow where tulips stood three months ago.
I am the proud custodian of a new water tank, and no potato peel comes out of the compost bin. This is the first step in a long gardening journey – and that’s all I’ve learned so far.
Gardening tips for beginners
Don’t necessarily wait a year “to see what happens”. This is the classic advice given to new gardeners, or to those who have new gardens. But, if you’re starting out with a relatively low-maintenance space, don’t be afraid to get stuck.
The gardening schedule can stun you to the point of paralysis. For anyone who likes to sow sweet peas on Boxing Day or start eating tomatoes on June 21, there are people like me who believe in a generous six week window around when things ‘should’. to be made. Add to that our increasingly unpredictable seasons – and sometimes the best time to do it is when you have the time.
There will come a time when the best way to start a planting program is to simply go to a really good garden center and buy as much as you can / can’t resist. I was fortunate that this moment met with a spontaneous journey to Beth Chatto’s crib.
Wider beds, always. But be sure to give yourself an itinerary. If you don’t have room for a sneaky path behind a curb, create stepping stones – I’m using bricks and small paving slabs.
An afternoon spent setting up drive wire – with grapevine eyes, if you have walls, or steel hooks or angles if you don’t have one – will save you many hours to come. trying to stake things out.
Note the beautiful varieties that bloom in other people’s gardens. Instagram is still the best kind of shopping list.
Buy plants in multiples of three and five only. I know it sounds forgiving, but a rogue dahlia variety looks silly.
Buying from specialized nurseries online can seem intimidating at first and then become much more satisfying than a visit to a garden center. It’s never too early to buy certain things (I ordered my dahlias, the five singular varieties, in October). Keeping an eye on sales is always worth it.
When some of those orders turn out to be something else, it’s worth a phone call to see a replacement, but if inevitably they don’t have what you ordered months before, just take your chance anyway. (No one has had a pheasant-eyed narcissus this year, BTW.)
There will be rogue colors in your beds. My “no orange” rule came out the window, thanks to accidental geums and poppies that I expected to be pale pink. As a wise friend put it, “Color schemes are for Monty.”
“Finely Raked Grass” is lovely, but scattering annual seeds with wild abandon in any space you have works, too.
Plant more alliums.
Sweet peas are tougher than you might think. Frankly.
If your sweet peas survive the frost, but not an unusual fall May month, you can buy caps until summer.
You really, really don’t have to frantically sow everything early on. March is perfect for the organized. Mai will do for most things. Still worth bothering in June.
Take photos. Many of them. And not just Instagram-worthy close-ups. I marked my spring photos with all the areas I hadn’t put any bulbs in, which I will be grateful for in October.
Leaving pieces of lawn for a long time brings goldfinches to the yard.
Hang on to your shed even if you want to replace it. I stupidly let my nephew and brother-in-law deconstruct the rotten metal that accompanied the garden a few days after moving in, unaware of the nation’s shortage of sheds. Three months later, I finally got another one.
Mulch is sexy. The effect of well-rotted manure on my sad, gravelly loamy soil pretending to be clayey is amazing. I will mulch every year now; in gradual stages from November to New Years, having dragged nearly a ton of stuff around the house. It is the best way to control weeds and have healthy plants.
Squirrels chew on string lights.
There are few more satisfying ways to brighten up a winter garden devoid of evergreens than by painting a fence. Black is my favorite – green pops against it, the pale pink of Clematis montana even more – but whatever you choose, make two coats and save the leftovers for a quick patio furniture shine.
Facebook market is a haven of peace for containers.
Bamboo bells will defy squirrels, but they will uproot your potted tulips if not sunk enough. Covering with gravel helps – a little.
You can keep slugs away, but only for a while. Application Nemaslug nematodes in March, and again in May, the drizzling days saved from devastation the hardy annuals I had nurtured in a cold frame. This produced a false sense of security which led to chewing all of my nicotiana in the June Flood. I was able to deploy beer traps and grapefruit halves (not pellets, it’s an organic garden, thank you) but soon enough the thrushes and blackbirds will find the slugs.
Watching a bumblebee feast in your garden outweighs any slug damage and is a helpful reminder to avoid pesticides.
After a long winter, there is nothing more cheerful than a daffodil.
It’s very difficult to kill a rose, but David Austin has a little-known five-year replacement policy if yours doesn’t thrive.
You need more browns (cardboard, leaves, newspaper) in your compost than you think.
Alkanet looks a lot like a funny lungwort. The gift of this ignorance is a surprise patch to fill with a plant that is not Green Alkane.
A quick once-a-day inspection will keep you up to date with weeding and snail ambush. I tear up five minutes before breakfast. Heavenly, even under hail.