Nervously, the couple make their way across the nursery.
“Er, we’re new to gardening. Can you help us choose some plants?”
“No problem!” I say. “Is your garden sunny for most of the day, or would you say it’s quite shady?”
“And do you know what the soil’s like?”
“Probably pretty average then.” I wave an expansive arm across the acre of plants we have and beam at them. “Sounds like you can grow pretty much everything that’s here.”
They continue to look at me with pleading eyes.
I continue to beam encouragingly. “Just find a few plants you like the look of and we can work from there.”
It’s a scene that has played out more than once during my time at Katie’s Garden.
But the first thing to know about gardening is that your garden should give you pleasure, and no-one can decide what pleases you but you.
Local open-garden events, as featured in these very pages, are great places to get ideas. Also, flick through books and magazines and websites like Pinterest to get a feel for the kind of plants, colours, combinations and layouts that gladden your heart.
Copy your neighbours
If it grows well in your neighbours’ gardens, chances are it will grow well for you. Just don’t copy that retired couple who spend every daylight hour working in the garden – they’re operating at expert level.
If you don’t know the names of any plants, take photos with you to the nursery or garden centre, where staff should be able to help.
Keep it simple
A beginner’s mistake is to buy one of everything. But if you buy 50 different plants, you then need to remember how to care for 50 different plants. Find 10 plants you like and then buy five of each. Because there’s only so much space in your brain for this sort of stuff.
Get tooled up
The number of tools and gadgets available is mind-boggling. Start with a fork and spade (stainless steel if your soil is sticky) and a half-decent set of secateurs. Save anything else till you really think you need it.
Don’t worry about the lingo
“Perennial” means the plant will come back year after year (think of the phrase “perennial favourite”). “Annuals” live just one year. “Deciduous” means all the leaves fall off in winter. “Evergreen” means they don’t. “Hardy” means it won’t shrivel up and die at the first sign of frost. Don’t worry too much about the rest.
Bulbs will put a spring in your step
Flowering bulbs are so easy to care for that you will forget what you’ve got, making for fresh delight every year when they pop back up.
Most nurseries and garden centres now sell potted bulbs in spring, so you can see exactly what you’re getting and where they will be most effective.
Seasonal bedding plants, also known as patio plants, are a great way to get started. They are small and manageable and you’re not expected to keep them alive for more than six months. Think of them like the starter pets your parents made you have before they would let you have a dog. But with more scope for trying out colour combinations.
If the label says it grows to five metres and you have room for only one metre, you might well be able to keep it pruned to size, but it could turn into a battle of wills as you spend yet another Sunday afternoon hacking the ruddy thing back.
Pick a plant that fits for a happy and harmonious future.
Soil’s boring, but soil matters
If puddles form on it, it’s poorly drained; if it’s reminiscent of muddy sand, it’s sandy; if you can’t think of any way of describing it other than “brown”, congratulations: you probably have average soil. Whatever it is, you will be able to find a list of plants that will thrive in it.
The greatest thing you can do for gardening success – both long-term and short-term – is to fork in organic matter to your soil, whether it be well-rotted manure, homemade compost or soil conditioner from the garden centre. The better the soil, the stronger and healthier your plants will be.
Pretty flowers are easier than tasty veg
Many people are first drawn to the garden by the desire to grow their own, but the pitfalls are many. Nature, raw in claw and beak and slime (and unceasing rain, late frost and limited sunshine), will conspire against you and it’s easy to become disheartened.
Earn your green fingers with ornamental plants and easy-to-grow perennial herbs – save learning about blight and sawfly and nematodes till at least year two of your gardening life.
Plant through the seasons
If you’re planting up a new border and you want it to look interesting all year round, you will either need good plant knowledge and strong powers of imagination… or to regularly go to your garden centre throughout the year to buy what’s looking good then.
Horticulturally, it is easier to plant in the cold months, but at this time of year you will be mostly looking at sticks in pots and seemingly empty pots of compost. Unless…
Because they don’t die down, you will always have something to admire. Most are also low-maintenance (there is no such thing as “no-maintenance”. I repeat: No. Such. Thing). If you prefer the leafy look to an abundance of flowers, try ferns, grasses, Pittosporums and Phormiums. Many herbs are evergreen, come in all sorts of colours, often attract wildlife, and of course taste nice.
Save your labels
Because Google can tell you how to look after your plant, but it cannot tell you what it actually is. For that, you will need the likes of me.
Gardening advice by Catherine McMillan
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