The gardening basics

The gardening basics

Gardening is good for you so why not give it a go? Not only does it get you outdoors and keep you active, it’s the ideal antidote to the pace of modern life. Our guide to the gardening basics will help you get more from your outdoor space.

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1. Check your garden’s orientation

The amount of sunlight that hits your garden - and at what time of day - is critical to how you plan your garden. Try to observe it in different lights – morning, evening and midday – and notice how the sun and shade travel across the space. Check your garden’s orientation – find north and therefore south, east and west. This will help you decide where to position plants and where you’d like to sit at different times of the day, perhaps for an evening drink or midday shade. There are beautiful plants for both sunny and shady areas, so don’t feel despondent if your garden is mostly shady. The combination of light and shade creates an atmospheric space.

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2. Identify your soil type

Soil provides an anchor for your plants – it’s where they find water and nutrients to grow. Take a close look at your soil and check its texture – are the particles fine or coarse? Also test its pH to find out whether it’s acidic, neutral or alkaline. A fine textured ‘clayey’ soil is dense and heavy to work. It holds water in the winter and may bake and crack in the summer. However, it’s rich in nutrients. Coarse, sandy soil is light and airy and lets water run through easily, washing out a lot of the nutrient content. Ideal soil types offer a balance between the two – and you can improve your soil by adding compost, leaf mould or well-rotted manure.

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How to find out your soil type

The soil you have will determine what kind of plants you can grow in the ground. The two things to check for are texture – whether the particles are fine or coarse – and the pH – whether acidic (lower than 7pH) or alkaline (higher than 7pH).

The pH can be tested with a simple DIY kit and litmus strips.

The texture is fairly easy to assess. Ideally, with a little bit of moisture (traditionally spit but you could use a few drops from the watering can!) you should be able to squash and roll your soil into a ball, then into a sausage but it should start to crumble when manipulated into a ‘U’ shape. If that’s the case then you have the perfect loam! If your soil crumbles before the sausage stage, or ball then it’s probably coarse grained and sandy. If you can make the perfect ‘U’ from your soil then it probably has a high clay content and the particles are very fine. A sandy soil is good for drought loving plants as it’s free draining – it allows water (and nutrients) to pass through easily. A clayey soil holds water and also hangs on to the nutrients in the ground so can be very fertile. 

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3. Water your plants efficiently

Plants need water to survive. It’s a scarce resource so ideally choose plants that suit your existing conditions and won’t need constant watering. If you’re growing fruit and vegetables or trying to establish new plants, it’s a good idea to install a water butt and harvest rainwater. Plants prefer it and it’s sustainable. Ideally install a watering system with a timer, so it does the watering for you and frees up your time. If you’re watering by hand, make sure you water the soil and not the leaves. The plants’ leaves act like an umbrella and most of the precious water will just evaporate, leaving thirsty roots.

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4. Prune your plants

Prune your plants to keep them healthy and growing in the shape and size you want. For woody flowering plants prune in winter before they’re in bud. If they’re spring flowering, prune back after flowering. Using sharp secateurs or loppers make a cut about three or four millimetres above a bud, at an angle, to allow water to run off. Cut out any dead branches. (If you’re not sure, scrape a two centimetre part of stem bark away - if it’s green underneath, it’s alive.) Also remove any branches that are rubbing or crossing each other. (When you’re pruning roses and fruit trees there are specific techniques to use, so check what these are individually.)

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5. Deadhead for more leaves and flowers

Deadheading redirects the plant’s energy from creating seed to producing more leaves - and often flowers - in the same season. At any time of year, use sharp secateurs, scissors or shears to snip off or pinch out the spent flower head from the stem, above a set of healthy leaves. If you’ve planted for wildlife don’t forget which seed heads will provide food for birds. You can deadhead bulbs, but leave the stem and leaves until they die back naturally so the plant can make and store as much food as possible for next year’s blooms.

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6. Protect your plants

Slugs and snails can make short work of the leaves and stems of young plants - and aphids can weaken a plant by sucking the sap. There are many ways to discourage these pests . The ideal scenario is to create an ecosystem where the pests’ numbers are kept down by their natural predators. Ladybirds eat aphids, while toads, frogs and newts eat slugs and snails - and birds pick off aphids and caterpillars. A small area of water will attract amphibians. You can buy ladybirds online and encourage birds with food and shelter. Alternatively there are eco-friendly, non-toxic products, we don’t recommend chemical treatments for gardens with children, pets or wildlife.

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7. Control weeds

If you grow some groundcover that covers the bare earth it will smother out weeds by blocking their light – geraniums are particularly good for this. A compost mulch will act as a barrier to stop weeds getting established. However, there will always be some that need removing, so try a hand trowel or hand fork to remove the roots without disturbing the plants around them. A hoe can be useful to avoid stooping if the weeds are very young. If your space is small then try snipping the young weeds out with scissors.

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8. Make your own compost

Compost is wonderful stuff and it’s free, so give it a go. Your plants will repay you with healthy growth and blooms. Composting is a great way to dispose of garden and kitchen waste easily - and there’s no need for any unsightly plastic compost bags. You can dig compost into planting holes to improve the soil in a new bed. You can also use it as mulch - around the base of larger plants or over an entire bed to improve soil texture and keep weeds down. To start making compost, choose a compost bin to suit your style and budget. Put in equal amounts of ‘green’ waste and ‘brown’ waste and put your feet up. The materials will decompose into dark, sweet smelling compost.

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9. Make leaf mould

Leaf mould makes a great soil conditioner. If leaves fall into your garden in autumn, you can make leaf mould - you just need to collect them and put them in a bin liner. If the leaves are very dry, spray them lightly with water to encourage decomposition. Poke a few holes into the bin bag to allow air to circulate and excess moisture to escape. Put the bag out of the way for a year or two. It seems a long time but if you do it every year you’ll have a constant supply of leaf mould.

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10. Plant up pots and other containers

Container gardening is great for growing plants in any outdoor space . You can move or replant pots and containers to reflect the seasons or use them to provide structure, foliage and flowers on a terrace or windowsill. You can also nurture plants that don’t suit your ground conditions in containers. Depending on the pH level of your soil and whether you have plants that are young or established, choose the appropriate compost. Rain alone is not enough water for pot plants, so water them by hand or with an irrigation system. Your plants will absorb the nutrients from the soil, so top it up with compost, mulch or liquid feed every few months in the growing season.

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