I’ve been trying to grow things – and writing about it on this blog – for around a year. During that time it has rained, there has been a (very) minor heatwave, and some days have felt windier than the arctic. Did I mention that it has rained? I live in Manchester, so that’s usually a given.
Plants have thrived, plants have failed. Slugs and snails have proved difficult to beat, and I have spent many months waging war against the cat from two houses along who chose to use my flower bed as a toilet.
But what’s most satisfying to reflect on is the fact that, throughout all of this, I’ve learnt stuff. If I were on a Saturday night television show right now, I’d be saying the word ‘journey’ and wiping tears out of my eyes. Each season has taught me new things about plants and wildlife. The small, often-daily observations made while pottering around my tiny back yard, together with online research and a couple of books about gardening, have helped me to become a better gardener.
Here are my five key observations:
Drainage is everything
Roots don’t like to be soggy for too long. That applies to the vast majority of plants – even those who prefer a more humid climate, such as ferns.
Providing drainage outdoors when growing in containers is fairly easy – make sure your pot actually has some drainage holes to begin with (or get handy with a drill and create some yourself) and put a layer of small stones or rocks at the bottom before shovelling in your compost.
One of the most useful things I have learnt about indoor drainage is to keep house plants in their plastic pots, rather than replanting them into something else. You can then place the plastic pot inside a larger, more attractive container, which it can be removed from for watering.
If you really want to repot things indoors, choose a container that has drainage holes, and remember to keep it on a tray or dish to catch the excess water and bits of soil that leak out.
Growing stuff from seed can be easy and really hard
Feel like growing some basil from seed? Go for it – it’s a doddle. Sweet peas, on the other hand – total nightmare.
Some things are tricky to grow from seed – not only do they require space and equipment that urban gardeners are unlikely to have (how many greenhouses do you see in the middle of cities?) but they can come with quite strict instructions. I have learnt that ignoring the instructions on the back of a packet of seeds, and just treating them all like basil, does not reap particularly good rewards. In fact, it reaps nothing.
Be careful what you buy from garden centres
Branching (sorry) into the world of gardening is exciting. You make the decision to populate an area of your home – a balcony, garden, or even just a window ledge – with green stuff that you hope will flourish.
Almost all novice gardeners start in the same place – their nearest garden centre. And while garden centres can be wonderful places (there must be a good reason why grandparents the country over see them as a delightful day out) they can also be dangerous.
It’s easy to spend a fair amount of money on things that have passed their peak, or just won’t work for your space. It’s probably only through making these mistakes that gardeners really learn their trade, but it’s still worth being on your guard.
Lots of annuals such as pansies can be purchased for a much more reasonable price at your local greengrocer/ supermarket/ Quality Save. It’s also worth buying less mature plants early in the year, rather than splashing your cash on fully flowering items mid-summer that will only last you a couple of weeks.
Growing stuff in the ground is hard
This probably sounds a little odd, but one of the joys of gardening in a small space is the control afforded by growing things in pots or containers. You can ensure good drainage, prevent things from spreading, and experiment with moving things in and out of the shade/sun.
But when it comes to growing things in the actual ground, it’s a different story. My small back yard is entirely paved, except the back left corner, where I lifted the slabs and created a small bed. And I just can’t seem to get it right.
I’ve altered the plants around a fair few times, but I’m still not happy. Things that I bought a year ago have spread out and taken on a shape that just doesn’t work, and at the moment it’s very messy. What I want to see is different levels, textures and colours, but I’m not quite there yet. Back to the drawing board.
Sometimes you have to cut your losses when things go wrong
When my clematis was covered with a powdery mildew, I cut my losses, along with the plant. Research had told me clematis don’t mind being cut back after flowering, and this turned out to be true. It’s now growing back stronger and thicker than before.
I also grabbed a pair of secateurs and hacked away at my crocosmia about halfway through the summer. I may have been wrong about this one, but it something just didn’t feel right. Although this type of plant is hardy and relatively pest-free, it was littered with holes and smothered with tiny black creatures. For fear of some kind of horrendous pest spreading around my small outdoor space, I made the executive decision to lop it all down. I’m hoping it will come back fighting, but if it doesn’t, it’s no big deal. I’ll replace it with something else.
Essentially what I’m saying is this: things don’t always work out when it comes to gardening. The key is to adapt and keep learning. And that way, as your garden changes, you will too, becoming a better gardener along the way.