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Gardening is both an art and a scientific experiment that involves a lot of luck and skill. Hundreds of thousands of Brits across the country have been keeping their hands busy tending to their own gardens, flower boxes or allotments lately – so much so that there are even seed shortages.
No wonder lockdown gardening is booming. As anyone with a green thumb will tell you, time spent tending a garden is great for your mind, body and soul.
But where do you start? Look no further than this beginner’s guide. Arm yourself with the basics and you really don’t need to feel intimidated as a beginner. Even experienced gardeners do not know everything. This is one of the great joys of gardening. It’s the very definition of a work in progress.
Find your ground neighbor
First things first, it is important to know what type of soil you have as it will affect what you choose to grow. “The best thing you can do is get yourself a soil test kit, which can be found at most garden centers and nurseries,” Steven Howes, director of The Real Gardener, told HuffPost UK. “You stick them in the soil and they show you the pH level.”
This will tell you if your soil is more acidic or basic. Different types of plants like different types of soil – and while there is no one soil that is right for everyone, most plants thrive in slightly acidic soil as it gives it better access to nutrients.
“Another good way to check the soil is to assess what’s surrounding the area and what’s thriving in the soil,” Howes says. “Azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons, for example, like acidic soil. You may want to mix in peat moss if a soil test shows your soil is on the alkaline side.
Despite the miserable January weather and seemingly not much growth, there is plenty to do in the winter months. Howes recommends using this time to till your soil—”soil amendments can be added to improve soil structure, improve drainage, and change moisture retention”—as well as weeding to prepare your garden for planting.
“Make sure you pull by hand. This way you’ll get air back into the soil, then you can top up with a nice type of rich organic compost. It’s time consuming to pull weeds by hand, but it’s worth it and it’s better for the environment.”
Before you start throwing seeds in the ground and hoping for the best, do your research and learn about the different growing seasons and lifespans of a plant. This is especially useful for annual plants, garden vegetables, and flowers that only live for one year.
Consult the Gardeners’ Bible, aka the Royal Horticultural Society’s Monthly Calendar (or, if you prefer books, the RHS Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers) for a monthly breakdown of what to grow and when.
“Snowdrops are usually one of the first signs of spring – beautiful little white flowers that ooze through this season – as well as delightfully fragrant winter flowering shrubs,” says George Plumptre, executive director of the National Gardening Scheme.
“From March to May there are more signs of life. They move on to daffodils, tulips and various perennials. And in recent years, flowering shrubs like roses and perennial grasses have become very fashionable, and they’re quite resilient.”
When it comes to planting, you have two options: buy seeds to start from scratch or buy starter plants to transplant into your garden.
Many vegetables and flowers are easy to grow from seed, making this an easier and less expensive choice in many situations. “I always say this to new gardeners, but whatever you’re growing, start small and simple,” says Plumptre.
That means investing in a seed tray. “When you sow seeds directly into the ground, it’s a lot more complicated because you have to account for spacing and other natural elements. With a seed tray, you plant the seeds in individual holes that you can keep indoors or in a greenhouse. Then you can take the seedlings outside and take them out one by one and put them in little mini individual pots.”
Purchasing plants instead of seeds may be preferable when a plant is difficult to grow from seed or the growing season is particularly short. But why not a mix? Experiment and enjoy the best of both worlds – learning as you go.
Location, location, location
Gardens come in all shapes and sizes so you need to find what works for you and what is within your reach. Whether you’re blessed with lots of sun on your own piece of land or gardening in a shared allotment or small balcony where space is limited, where you place specific plants is important.
“The biggest mistake most gardeners make is putting the wrong plants in the wrong place,” explains Howes. “What ends up happening is that the plant either gets scorched or doesn’t get enough light and doesn’t thrive or bloom. Ask kindergartens for help. They will be happy to advise you. And read the information on each plant’s label, showing what it likes and dislikes.”
If you don’t have a garden, you can still join the gardener’s mania. In fact, gardening doesn’t even have to be an outdoor thing — growing plants on balconies or indoors can provide many of the same stress-reducing benefits as gardening outdoors, while also improving the air quality in your home.
“Don’t limit yourself to using a lot of space, there are so many different ideas you can use,” he adds. “Try living walls, drill planters on the walls, pots and hanging baskets.”
Patience and perseverance are the key
Gardening is a slow and steady race. Don’t expect things to bloom overnight. Some plants take two or three years to reach their optimum size – or in the case of trees, many years longer – so keep that in mind.
“Avoid overcrowding, you can either be patient and plant things with big gaps in between so they can overgrow,” advises Plumtre. “Or you can be impatient and get the effect right away, but you’ll waste a lot of time and effort killing some of your plants in a few years.
Not only that, there’s a lot of trial and error involved. Some plants will inexplicably die on you and that’s okay – that’s how you learn and grow as a gardener.
“I’m really pleased that so many people are starting to garden, especially young people,” adds Plumtre. “It’s a lot more accessible than it was 40 years ago when I started gardening. That’s exactly what it should be. It shouldn’t be anything scary and reserved for experts.”
After all, in the garden there are no mistakes, only experiments. And every time you plant something, you have a chance to bloom a little, as does your garden.