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Making a Start

An 'over the fence' introduction to recreational gardening

by Alan Gould

(Originally published on www.nugget.demon.co.uk)
Alan and Joan Gould (ret'd) garden 2 acres in North Lincolnshire.

There, that's the Rules and Regulations of gardening dealt with.
"All of them?"
Yes, that's all you need, now we'll see how to go about it.
If you are just starting gardening, you might be taking on an established well kept garden or allotment. It is more likely that your plot has either never been gardened as with a new house, or it has long been unattended. An established garden does not stay in good order for very long without a gardener, and a new person coming in will want to make changes to it. So let's assume that you are starting from scratch.
"But I have no idea where to begin or what I'm expected to do"
You have already begun by deciding that you want do some gardening. Having read this far you have learned that you are not 'expected' to do anything other than enjoy it because recreational gardening is a pastime, not an obligation. You decide what sort of garden you want to have, what sort of gardening you want to do and what results you want from it. Take no notice of wiseacres who say you must do this, or shouldn't do that. Enjoy the freedom of choice which gardening offers.
"What sort of choices are there?"
Endless, but gardening choices are not binding and other circumstances like weather or work arrangements can influence progress, so be flexible in your approach and arrange your gardening to suit yourself. There is no such thing as a typical garden or allotment, but some things you can begin to think about are flower beds, lawns, a vegetable patch, a rockery, trees, hedging, paths.....
"Hang on, that sounds like hard work, I won't have time to do all that"
Some gardeners do make hard work of it, but it doesn't need to be. Many people who aren't very active do gardening because it gives them just the amount of exercise they need when they feel like doing it. Some folk spend a lot of time in their gardens, but that isn't because they have to, it's because they like being there doing what they choose, when they choose. For most of us, gardening is a pleasant, relaxing interlude in an otherwise busy life, a pause for peace and fresh air.
The secret of easy gardening is to do a little at a time regularly. Some people leave their garden until spring then overdo it for a few days or weeks at Easter time. They knock themselves up, they don't have either pleasure or results for their efforts, then they lose interest until next spring.
Try to spend a little time each day in your garden, if it is only to walk round it and see how things are doing. You will have to spend some initial time sorting your new garden out to what you want, but in an average sized established garden, 10-15 minutes per day will keep most things in order. That time spent each day will get more done than half a day once a week - or half a week once a year. Make gardening part of everyday routine. If you can add a few hours now and then to the daily round, say at occasional weekends, that will provide time for bigger jobs of development and construction. Spring time is always busier in the garden, that's the main planting out time and grass begins to grow.
"How soon will I begin to see returns for my efforts?"
Immediately. From the moment you step into your garden you will be enjoying the pleasure of being in your own chosen world. Pleasure from gardening comes as much from doing it as it does from achieving results. Time spent in your garden, surrounded by the sights, the sounds, the smells, the challenges and setbacks too, is intensely rewarding. It is a communication with the natural world around you, with the soil, the plants, the birds and bees. It is very real and personal. The pleasure of seeing a beautiful flower open can be breathtaking, but it is only the last of a series of experiences you have on the way.
Results in the sense of flowers or vegetable produce, a rose arbour, a neat lawn, a shrubbery or a hedge screening just the right place can take longer than is often thought. Quite as lot of garden projects need to be planned over two or three years. The garden however is a place of many interests, so while you are waiting for some things to reach completion, you are getting other things done. It is more often the case that the garden is waiting for its gardener than the other way round.
"My garden is waiting for me now, it's full of dreadful weeds"
There are only two sorts of plant, natural ones and cultivated ones. Natural plants grow of their own accord, e.g. wildflowers, herbs, trees and shrubs etc. Cultivated plants are the ones put there by gardeners.
A weed is a plant growing where the gardener does not want it to grow. Grass is a weed in a flower-bed unless it is ornamental grass, flowers like daisies and buttercups are weeds in a lawn, unless you decide that you like seeing them there.
Weeding is a necessity in a cultivated garden. If you put out specially raised plants, be they flowers, shrubs, vegetables or whatever, they can become smothered unless you remove weeds. If you have a neat looking shrubbery or lawn, or a rose garden nicely laid out, natural plants springing up can spoil the look of your garden and you will want those out of sight. You can do that in several ways.
When you are cultivating soil, take out any root and weed parts you see. In growing areas, weeds can be hoed off below ground level. Many will not return, or will give up after being hoed two or three times. Some very persistent or invasive weeds need special attention, but remember that unplanted fertile soil will always green itself over in time. If your garden is kept well tended and productive, most of the area will be taken up by what you want, rather than what you don't.
Weed control is sensible garden management where it is needed but it can be overdone. Natural plants are not enemies to be defeated, each of them grows for a reason and has a job to do. Kept under control they can have many uses to the gardener and solve a lot of gardening problems.
"Weeds are the only things that will grow in my garden, it's solid clay"
Clay, or what looks like clay, is very often good but uncultivated soil. Particles of clay-like soil are so densely packed that plant roots cannot grow through it and reach any soil nutrients. That is the food which the plant needs to grow and thrive. Clay needs to be broken up with a fork and some roughage or fibrous matter worked into it. If that is done regularly, clay soil will become good garden loam in time. Further details on how to handle clay is in another urg FAQ which you can find here.
"What about slugs and snails and all those creepy-crawlies?"
Your garden is part of the natural environment and you share it with all kinds of other living species, some nice like skylarks, some not so nice like slugs. At times you will need to protect some of your plants from them, as you will from weeds, frost, heat-waves, thieves, pets, children and so on. That is all part of the gardening job.
"Do I have to kill anything?"
Very seldom, unless you want to. As with natural plants, wildlife has an agenda of its own, if you work in co-operation with nature, your garden will be a happier place for all. A lot of wildlife species cancel each other out by natural selection, some won't even enter a garden which is cultivated by people. Wait until you and your garden have settled down together, then have a look at what the other occupants are doing before deciding to act against them. Life is easier to destroy than to create.
"My garden is just a jungle, what do I actually do first?"
First go round the garden and check whether there is anything growing which you want to keep, i.e. trees, shrubs, a grassed area or other worthwhile herbage. If you can get another gardener to go round with you all the better. Clear all the rest of the herbage right down to the ground and use it to begin a compost heap, then you can.....
"Hold on a minute, what herbage is that, and what's a compost heap for?"
Herbage is all plant growth, leaves, stems, roots, flowers, seeds etc. A compost heap is a collection of garden herbage, plus various wastes and soils stacked up and left to biodegrade, i.e. break down, into compost which has many uses in the garden. It is the way by which gardeners can ensure that most of what comes out of their garden soil is returned to it. Compost can be bought ready prepared in various grades for seeding, growing and potting up if you don't have any of your own available. Leaf-mould is very good too if you have trees to collect the leaves from. Full details about making and using your own compost can be found in other urg FAQs, which are available as Standard Compost and Organic Compost.
"But if that's compost, what is soil and earth, are they all dirt?"
Compost is specially prepared soil. Soil, loam and earth are much the same thing, it's only called dirt when it gets under your fingernails, or into a cut. Soil is the outer surface or skin of the planet we live on. It is a gardener's most precious asset, it teems with life and given proper care it will house, feed and nurture the plants in the garden. It is a collection of tiny particles of things like loam, clay, grit, sand, fibres, traces of solid and liquid elements. It is home to millions of micro-organisms, worms and insects, which all have a part in the wonderful chain which sustains living things like plants animals and people. If you keep your soil in good condition, plants will grow strong and healthy in it.
"I'll try to do that, when do things start growing?"
For really quick results in the first year, to see some colour and give you a bit encouragement, fill a tub or trough with growing compost and plant some annual bedding plants in it. Try a couple of kitchen herbs too for interest. You can also cultivate an area of soil and put some annual flowers or vegetables into that. That will give you an indication f what your soil is actually like to work with and the plants will tell you about the condition of it. Soil test kits are available too if you want to do a scientific check on it.
"Could you explain some of that a bit more please?"
Well, you won't want to be working in a barren garden, so some annuals like petunias, marigolds, nasturtiums, alyssum etc. in a tub will help you to believe that flowers will grow for you. Annual are only there for one year unless you let them re-seed themselves. By the following year you can begin to add some more permanent stuff, like shrubs, trees, a lawn and so on. Give those things plenty of space to grow, remember that baby plants soon become adult ones.
You can very often get the tub, the compost and the plants from local shops and market stalls, or you can go to garden centres which are like gardening superstores and have a much bigger range on offer. If you want more specialised plants, you may need to visit a nursery where they raise them. Nurseries usually stock specialist equipment too for gardeners. While you are in any of those places, you will see a lot of interesting plants, composts, accessories and equipment, but don't rush into buying things you are not ready to use. Take gardening along in easy stages and let it develop at its own pace.
When you turn over an area of soil, you will see some roots left from the weeds you have cleared. Pick those out where you can, also any rubble, bricks, lumps of metal, wood and so on. You should find that the soil is darker and looser at the top, then it goes paler and denser as you go down into the subsoil. In a new or neglected place, it may not be like that at the top, but you will almost always come to subsoil underneath.
Work on the better looking soil near the top, make it loose and friable so that air and water can move through it. Gardeners call that the tilth, it is where plants send down their roots for food and water. Tilth, i.e. cultivated soil, should ideally be a spit deep, which means as deep as a garden fork prong. If it's dug two prongs deep, which is seldom necessary, that's called double-spit or bastard trenching .
"I've heard that potatoes break up soil and clean it for you"
They do and they don't. You have to break up your soil so as to plant the potatoes, and keep them hoed while they grow, so the soil finishes up in good condition after a potato crop. It's a good way to start a fresh piece of ground.
"Will I need to put manure or fertilisers round my plants?"
It's better to feed the soil, then let the soil feed the plants, that way they take up just what they need. Have a supply of stable or farmyard manure around to be maturing for future use if you can. It's ready to use when it is black and crumbly. With any luck, it might throw a crop of mushrooms too. You can make a very good liquid plant feed yourself by infusing nettles or comfrey in water. There's another urg FAQ explaining that process here by Alan Gould.
If the soil has not been used for a while, it probably won't want any extra feeding in the first year, but how your plants get on will indicate a lot about its qualities. Settle them in firmly, support them if necessary, give them a good watering in, then leave them alone apart from a daily visit.
"You make them sound like patients in a hospital, do I nurse them?"
No, you care for them, but you shouldn't coddle them or fuss over them. Plants are living beings, they feed and drink, they breathe in and out, they grow in stature, they produce an annual crop of flowers and seeds, they hibernate, then wake up and take steps to ensure the continuance of their species. The main difference between plants and animals is that plants do not move around. They do not have a brain to think with as animals do but they react to light and dark, heat and coldness, humidity, season of the year and to other plants growing near to them. Plants have a lot more about them than they are given credit for, and they can do most things for themselves if they are allowed to.
"Good for them, but what about their names? They're Latin aren't they?"
They all have Latin names, most of them have popular nicknames too, but you don't have to worry if you don't know them, the plants won't mind.
"Nice point that. Now what sort of tools will I need to work with?"
Start modestly, then add to your garden tools as you find a need for them. Use good well made tools comfortable for you to handle. Keep them clean and sharp, but remember that any tool can only be as good as its user. Begin with a fork, spade, rake, hoe and trowel, maybe a pair of shears too. You'll soon know when to add something else. You'll also need a wheelbarrow, a sieve and a garden line. You can make the line yourself with two pegs and a length of string. Have a shed or a place where you keep the tools, so that you won't be forever hunting for them in the long grass. You can use the same shed for storing pots and trays odd plants waiting for attention and so on. That's your potting shed.
"What do I cut the grass with, shears?"
At first, but it won't be long before you'll need a lawnmower, but find out more about different mowers available before you buy one. Depending how much area you want to cultivate, you may decide to have a rotovator too. In a big garden a strimmer and a hedge-cutter might be justified, but you can wait a while before going into those. There are often very good secondhand bargains to be had if you bide your time a bit. Ask around before you go buying garden machinery.
"Supposing I cut myself in the garden, can I get tetanus?"
Tetanus is a very real risk from a cut which gets dirt in it. Check with your doctor about tetanus jabs. Have some antiseptic and a few plasters around too, and some cream for blisters.
"Blisters? I thought you said it wasn't hard work!"
It needn't be, but hands unused to gardening tools easily blister at first. Add a pair of gardening gloves to your kit to help prevent that. You can also get blisters from sunbathing in the hammock on the patio.
"Fat chance of that. So what else will I need, what about a greenhouse?
If you are going to be a keen gardener, you'll almost certainly want a greenhouse or poly-tunnel eventually, but don't rush into those things before you know more about the kind of gardening you are going to do. You can get a simple propagator for a couple of pounds, it's just a plant tray with a fitting lid. That will help you with seeds and tender plants for a season or two. Good gardeners work as simply as possible.
"Well I feel keen, but what is a good gardener? Will I ever become one?"
Of course you will. A good gardener is one who enjoys their garden and gets the results they want from the gardening they do.
"What happens if I have a problem, or need more information?"
You can discuss any aspect of gardening with other gardeners by e-mail in the Usenet group uk.rec.gardening (better known as urg) and in several other groups on the Internet. Whatever it is just ask, if you don't get an answer first time ask again - it's a busy group. There's no such thing as a silly question if it's about the group's topic, but if you want to send a question privately, many regular group contributors including me will help you. There are countless websites devoted to gardening, you can find out about those in urg and other similar groups.
Gardening is one of the best informed pastimes of all. Bookshops, newsvendors and libraries have shelves sagging with the weight of every kind of gardening book, magazine and encyclopaedia imaginable. The Hessayon 'Be Your own Expert' books are very good for beginners.
There are many TV and Radio gardening programmes dealing with popular up-to-date issues. You can go to Open Gardens also National and local garden societies hold annual competitions and exhibitions open to the public. Gardening courses are available on the Internet, by correspondence, at schools and universities. There are garden design programmes available on CD. The list is endless.
"With all that help available I can't go wrong can I?"
If you don't, you'll be the first perfect gardener ever! Reading about it and discussing it are not the same as doing it. Allow for plenty of mistakes and failures, especially in the early days. Be prepared to try things again if they don't work at first. In spite of all the helpful people and information, your most reliable learning will come from doing it. You find out as you go along, you soon become your own self-made expert in the types of gardening you do. Patience and persistence are two of the gardener's best assets.
Don't be afraid to experiment, if something goes wrong, there's always next year. Gardeners always claim that next year is their best because they are eternal optimists whatever the setbacks and difficulties.
"I haven't even started on this year yet but I'm going to do some now"
Best wishes to you then, but you haven't taken the test yet.
"Test, what test?"
What is the first requirement of recreational gardening?
Great, you're a gardener, join the club!
Alan Gould

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