Advice to a New Gardener | 15 things you should know before digging in
This year I’m taking on a second plot at my allotment (community garden) which means double the work, at least for the time being. My second plot has been well taken care of over the past year and will require very little work in getting it back into shape. Still, I’m now faced with decisions as to how I want to lay out my beds, what I should plant where, and how I’m going to manage doing it all in the time that I have.
As the Secretary of my allotment association it got me to thinking about all the new gardeners I’ve met and the advice I might give to them to keep them motivated and on the right track to becoming successful growers.
You see, I find that novice gardeners who take on plots at LALAA will start up with a lot of enthusiasm but unfortunately half of them will throw in the spade within two years. After watching folks come and go, I have an idea of what some of their challenges might be and have advice that might keep beginners passionate about growing. Though there may well be more than the fifteen ideas I have listed below (feel free to suggest more in the comments section), I feel that if these are tackled, that ‘Growing Your Own’ will be far more enjoyable and fruitful!
1. Spending too much money
It so easy to go overboard on spending and before you know it you’ve spent a couple hundred pounds on fancy garden tools, gardening clothes, plants, and magazine subscriptions. If you’re aiming to grow fruit and veg to save money this can be a very bad thing.
Books – look at the selection of books at your local library first. The one here in Douglas, on the Isle of Man, has an excellent selection and if you find a book that resonates with you then go ahead and try to find a used copy of it online. Chances are that you’re going to take it to the garden with you and get it dirty anyway. My favourite gardening reference is The New Self-Sufficient Gardener by John Seymour.
Tools – there are only a few things that I feel you absolutely need to get started growing your own and these include high quality:
– Garden Fork
– Garden Spade for digging holes
– Garden Rake for raking soil smooth
– Dutch Hoe for easy hoeing
– Trowel for smaller holes/planting
– Form Fitting Garden Gloves, Sun Protection Garden Hat, Natural Insect Repellent, and SPF 45 Sunblock
I’d probably tack a wheelbarrow onto that list too but it’s not 100% essential if you have Garden Tubs to haul weeds, crops, plants, and anything else you need to your plot and back again.
As for clothing, invest in a pair of durable wellies (rubber boots) and thick soled boots suitable for garden work. The rest should just be comfortable clothes you already have and that you don’t mind getting stained or damaged.
Seeds – you can save a lot of money on seeds if you attend a Community Seed Swap like the one I help organise every year in Laxey. The way it works is that everyone brings in extra seeds and swaps them against new ones. Beginners with no seeds are encouraged to come too and to leave a small donation (20p per packet) if they take any seeds or plants. If you can’t find a seed sharing event in your area there are also online seed swaps and gardening society discounts with seed companies. Every year I arrange an allotment seed order for our members and packets of seeds are often half or a third the price as you’d find in a garden centre. You can also find free seeds in gardening magazines or with friends and family.
This is where you can end up spending an absolute fortune. You’ll walk into a gardening centre and spot the most lush vegetable plug plants that would look amazing growing in your new garden. Try to restrain yourself though because growing from seed will save you so much and is really very easy. Larger plants like rosemary and lavender will also lure you in but I encourage you to buy a few to get you started, keeping in mind that you can propagate (create new plants) from many of them. Here’s my tutorial on how to take one lavender plant and propagate dozens of new plants from it.
For more cost-saving tips, read this post on Gardening on a Budget.
2. Sowing Seeds Too Early
You decide what you’d like to grow and get a hold of your seeds. Clearly stated on the packet is a sowing time which may stretch across two or three months or could even say can be sown year-round. As a beginner you’ll want to get those seeds growing and start sowing them at the absolute earliest time. Can be sown March-May? You might be tempted to put them in the soil on March 1st. If they don’t grow due to it being too cold you’ll be sorely disappointed so check to see if there is information on sowing times for your Hardiness Zone and find out when the right time to start sowing outdoors will be for you and your soil.
3. Succession Sowing
All this means is that instead of sowing all the seeds in your packet at once, that you sow a little every now and again. Think of sowing a long row of lettuce and watching them all grow nicely and then mature all at once! This is a mistake I’ve made myself and you can’t imagine how sick you’ll be of eating salads, spinach, zucchini (courgettes) or anything else. You’ll be GIVING your hard earned harvest away because it’s just not possible to take another look at the thing. Joking aside, try to sow little and often for crops that don’t store well or that you’re not planning on preserving or freezing.
4. Power of the Potato
Potatoes aren’t just tasty root vegetables, they’re also a very fine friend to have if you’re taking over a neglected plot. They grow in fairly rough soil and their spreading green leaves will block out the sunlight from any competing weeds. Plus, there’s nothing more fun than digging up potatoes when they’re ready for harvest. Hunting for the tubers in the soil is like hunting for Easter eggs and when you grow your own spuds you realise that there are hundreds of varieties to choose from. This year I’m growing Pink Fir Apples, Desiree, King Edwards, Maris Piper, and Blue Salad Potatoes
5. Weed suppression
You can reduce the amount of weeding you’ll need to do by stopping weeds from growing in the first place. The best and most eco-friendly way to do this is by using compost, seaweed, carpets, plastic, and other weed suppressant material to cover the soil. If you’re aiming to alter your soil’s PH chemistry (see point 9) then all the better.
6. Understanding situation
You can have the loveliest little patch but if it only receives a little bit of sun then you might have to grow vegetables and fruit that will thrive in lower light conditions. On the other hand, you could have a plot that receives sun all day long but it’s exposed to high winds and other environmental challenges. Find out which direction your plot faces, how much sun it gets, if there are any possible frost pockets, and if you need to build wind breaks before you start planting. A little prior planning can make the difference between a disappointing harvest and a bountiful one.
7. Understanding pests and weeds
Pests and weeds will be different from site to site and understanding what you’re up against will be key in succeeding at growing your own! The best thing to do is when you begin gardening is to ask your neighbours about what they’ve been dealing with as well as their most successful way of combating weeds and pests. You can then do further research and find if you’d like to try a different solution.
At our site in Laxey there is one main weed that affects everyone – Dock. The roots of this plant are long and thick and even the smallest piece can sprout a brand new plant. So imagine what happened when a few of our new allotmenteers decided to Rotovate their plots. Their entire patches soon became infested with this tough weed leading to plot abandonment. Not the best outcome for either allotmenteer or allotment association.
A personal challenge of mine over the years has been combating Carrot Root Fly, which is a fly that lays eggs on the ground at the base of carrots. The larvae, when hatched, burrow through your carrots making them completely inedible. I found that laying Enviromesh over the top of my carrots is extremely successful in keeping these pesky insects away from my crop.
8. Grow things you like to eat
It sounds ridiculous to grow things that you and your family won’t eat but it’s amazingly common. Whether it’s Brussels Sprouts or the infamous Jerusalem Artichoke, make sure you’re not wasting space and time growing veg that is just going to be wasted or given away. I made this mistake my first year as an allotmenteer and grew a patch of Jerusalem Artichokes. I love their taste but found out quick enough that my system doesn’t deal with them well (and why they have the nickname of Fartichoke). Unfortunately I found out how invasive they were only after I grew them the first year and it took a further two years to completely eradicate them from my plot.
9. Understand your soil
There are many types of soil but there are two main ways of categorising it. The first is classing its acidity levels into ‘Acid’, ‘Neutral’, and ‘Alkaline’ and these will determine which plants will like the taste of your soil and if they’ll grow well. Soil consistency and particle types are described as ‘Clay’, ‘Chalk’, ‘Loam’, ‘Silt’, ‘Sand’, and ‘Peat’ and each of these will have attributes that describe how free draining and nutrient rich the soil is. You can find out what type of soil you have with a Soil Test Kit and by having a look at the soil itself.
If you find that you have challenging soil, you can amend it by adding Lime and Mushroom Compost to neutralise acidity or by adding high-acid manures and compost to your soil to make it more acidic. To reach your idea soil type may take years so the alternative is to build raised beds and fill them with soil and compost that reach your (and your crops’) expectations.
10. Growing Perennials
Perennials are plants that regrow again every year and so require less work and time. I actually don’t grow spring onions any more because I discovered Welsh Onions which are like giant chives. They can be used as spring onions, taste virtually identical, and you can rest assured that they’ll come up year after year with very little interference from you. Other perennial vegetables and fruits you can grow in a temperate garden are Asparagus, Raspberries, Globe Artichokes, Thornless Blackberries, Strawberries, and Rhubarb
11. Working too hard
I’m guilty of this one too. You head to the allotment or into the garden and end up spending a full day digging, weeding, tidying, and planting, and by the end you feel so proud of the work you’ve done (though your body may not function properly for a few days after). Then you get caught up in life and work and two or three weeks pass before you’re able to work in the garden again. And it’s like that full day of work never happened! Weeds are everywhere, your seeds don’t appear to have grown (because they’ve probably been eaten by slugs), and you are absolutely gutted. Getting into a routine of working in your garden for thirty minutes to an hour a few times a week is far better than a full eight hours just once a week. You’re better able to tackle any challenges as they arise and you spare your body from overexertion.
12. Taking on too much
It’s natural to want to have a large plot of land to grow on. The main factor is deciding if a large plot is good for you is how much time you have to dedicate to keeping it well maintained. If you have only an afternoon per weekend to dedicate to your growing space then you’re going to need to grow hardy plants that can fend for themselves in the week without too much work. Potatoes, squash, greens that pests won’t like, and herbs spring to mind. You might also be better off with a smaller patch or growing in containers at your home. Another alternative is to find a friend who’d like to garden with you and you can take turns working on weeding, pest control, staking, watering, and all the other tasks that contribute to a fruitful growing space.
Sometimes when a plot becomes too much to easily take care of then a gardener will give up completely. This is especially true of beginners and what I say to people is start with a smaller patch and then work your way up to something bigger if that’s what you’re aiming for. It’s often better to learn how to walk before you try running!
13. Shying away from experimenting
This is something that both beginners and more experienced gardeners should consider. Growing tried and tested varieties and produce is great but as a green thumb you have the opportunity to grow some rather unusual veg that might not be available to buy at the supermarket. It makes harvest time so much more exciting and learning new dishes can put a bit of a spark into your dinner menus. Unusual varieties I’m planning on growing this year are Oca, Purple Cauliflower, Cauliflower Romanesca, Achocha, and Quinoa.
14. Make Gardening Friends
When I first started getting into growing, none of my friends were gardeners. That meant that I didn’t really have access to other people’s experiences, advice, or help. For me, starting my blog and Facebook page proved invaluable to meeting other people with the same interests and to becoming a better gardener. If none of your current pals are growers, or if you’d just like a bit of fun, inspiration, and green-fingered banter, join gardening Facebook groups, forums, and make gardening friends at the allotment. It’s amazing what you can learn from others and their own stories will help motivate you to continue growing-your-own.
15. Giving up
The last point is to encourage you to not give up. You might feel overwhelmed or maybe you’ve had a change in personal circumstance that means you don’t have much time for the garden. Take a break maybe, consider your options, get help from friends, and just keep at it. Every year in the garden is different, and there will come a time that you really have some bad luck. Stick to it though and know that everyone encounters challenges in the garden. Try to keep yourself focused on your successes rather than failures and know that next year is a whole new chance to begin again!
Find Lovely Greens also on: Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest
Browse Lovely Greens handmade soap and beauty products here.