Saturday, 7 January 2012

Gardening advice for Beginners - Part 1

I don't claim to be a gardening guru, but I have been gardening seriously for well over 25 years now, so I have picked up a little wisdom along the way...

I know that at this time of year some people will be acting upon their New Year Resolutions, one of which may involve a foray into self-sufficiency, sustainability, eating more healthily, growing one's own food, etc, so in this post I'm going to offer a few tips for anyone setting out to start their own first Veg Plot .


1. Before you start, take a look round and see what other people have done. Read some gardening books (get them from your Library if you don't own them yourself); visit some websites; read some blogs; look for something that inspires you - and then copy it, or at least use it as your guide. One such resource is the website of my friend David Offutt, the Gastronomic Gardener, who is running a series of articles on starting-up your own garden, which will provide you with some useful initial advice.

2. Size matters! Think very carefully about how big your veg plot is going to be. Gardening is not necessarily hugely time-consuming, but there is no point in starting a massive plot if you are only going to be able to devote an hour a week to looking after it. It's probably best to start small - maybe with just one raised bed or a few containers or something - and expand later if you enjoy the hobby.


3. Don't be in too much of a hurry. I know most people will be just itching to get some seeds sown, but it really is best to prepare your ground first, and delay sowing until everything else is ready. If your new veg-plot is "virgin soil" (for instance if it was until recently covered in grass / turf), then you will need to dig it thoroughly, eliminating any perennial weeds, removing the bigger stones and any other miscellaneous debris - such as builders' rubble. You should also enrich the soil by digging into it a fair bit of "organic matter" - which can be either well-rotted animal manure, or compost. Being a newcomer at this stage, you probably won't have any home-made compost, but if you're going to be a serious gardener you soon will have! For now, just buy some from the garden centre...


4. Only sow or plant when the weather conditions are right. Sowing seeds too early in the year is the most common cause of crop failure. It is better to delay until the weather warms up before sowing. In the UK this means about April. [Of course, if you have a greenhouse, or indoor heated propagators, you can get things started earlier.] Late-sown seeds usually seem to grow quicker, and usually catch up with those which have been sown early and have been struggling to survive. Also, don't sow or plant if the soil is very wet, or very cold.



5. Only grow what you like to eat. Have a Family Conference and discuss what you are going to grow. There's no merit in growing something that produces a bumper crop of veg that no-one in your family will eat. On second thoughts: you may decide to go into "Growing for Showing" - growing veg that is destined for the Exhibition table rather than the kitchen worktop. In this case, it obviously doesn't matter how things taste, but I suggest that you leave this type of gardening for a year or two until you have mastered the basics!

6. Explore the concept of Value For Space Rating (VSR). Basically this involves getting the best return from your space- judged not just in terms of weight / volume, but also in terms of things like price and availability, and the time required to bring the crop to maturity . Maybe you would like to read this blog-post that I wrote some while ago on the subject of VSR.

7. Accept the fact that gardening, like any hobby, takes time to learn. You wouldn't expect to be a World-Class golfer in your first year of playing the game, would you? Therefore be realistic in your expectations. You may not get a bumper crop of perfect veggies first time round, but I assure you that you will get plenty of pleasure from eating anything you have grown yourself, however wierd its appearance! And with experience your harvests will improve.


8. Accept the fact that the weather has a big part in determining the success or failure of your enterprise. Plants are living things, and you will need to consider their requirements: how / when will you water them? How will you protect them from sun / wind / snow / frost etc? How will you support their upward growth? (e.g. bean-poles, netting, stakes etc). If you have enough funds available, I certainly recommend investing in crop-protection measures, such as fleece or cloches. Many of the "hardware" items involved in gardening are durable and will last many years if properly looked after, but there is no escaping the fact that you will need to spend a bit of cash up-front. The mini-greenhouses in my next photo were each bought for less than £10.



9. It's not just the weather that you need to guard against either; it's also animals, birds and insects. I have a lot of trouble with foxes in my garden (they root around in the soil searching for worms) so I often cover my crops with nets. Chicken-wire is also a useful asset if you have only a small space to protect. Other people may have a similar problem with birds - especially pigeons, which can quickly destroy any crop of succulent veggies. Slugs and snails are probably the biggest threat to many gardens, and you will need to consider your plans for deterring them. I use proprietary Slug Pellets. I've tried everything else, and nothing works as well. These days you can buy environmentally-friendly ones, so you can use them with a clear conscience.


10. Diversity is good. In my opinion, it is best to sow / plant small quantities of lots of different veggies rather than huge quantities of only one or two. My reason for saying this is that I have found that despite your best efforts, some years some crops will not do well, whereas others will thrive. You don't know in advance how each will perform, so it's best to hedge your bets, by growing as big a variety as you can manage. Another good approach is to try a few of the mixed packs of seeds, such as the variants of "Baby Leaf Salad". You could also try one of those selections of mini plug plants, grown for you by the supplier to the stage where they are ready for planting-out.
This post is already very long, so I'll stop here for now. Subject to positive feedback, I may revisit this theme later.

I'll leave you with one more photo... Now get out there and grow something!


28 comments:

  1. It is nice to share thinks that you learn over the years. Gardening can be easy but it can be also very difficult. Bravo for the great post.

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  2. we're about to start two small patches of kitchen garden. I'll certainly be looking at your advice and beautiful photos to make sure we get a crop of some sort this year !

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  3. Mark, what an excellent post - all really good advice. I think your garden always looks great, mine will never be as neat as yours but hopefully I'll still be able to 'produce' something out of it. Lots of reading and planning has been done over the last few months and I am keen to get started now. I may be coming to you for advice!!

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  4. very sound advice Mark - may I add be prepared to work hard and keep working hard. To many newcomers see a fully stocked vegetable plot and think it's easy. It's not just a case of ppreparing the ground once and for all - weeds grow again and again and again. Nature will make every effort to reclaim the land that you think you have claimed. So you just have to keep weeding again and again and again!

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  5. Sound advice Mark - I have been growing veg for over 30 years and I am still learning new ideas to try.

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  6. Very well said Mark always something to learn thanks.

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  7. Wow, your plot is so beautiful. Just that first photo was totally inspiring but then to get such great clear advice. Helpful reminders for everyone, not just novice gardeners.

    I'm hoping you might consider adding your garden to Folia. Here's my bit of blurb about it: It's a great resource for gardeners and has helped me keep on top of my 800+ plantings with photo's, notes, journals, milestones etc. They have an extensive plant wiki and a seed stash section where people can also list seeds for swapping. Here's the link to my Folia page so you can see how it works: www.myfolia.com/gardener/CDfolia/invite. I hope you'll consider adding your obvious wealth of experience and great photo's to the site.

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  8. Great advice Mark! I'll certainly be reading it again when I replant in a few weeks following The Storm!!! Another great blogger has recommended growing borage in amongst my strawberries to help with the fruit. Am going to try it as she swears by it but have you heard of it??? lol x

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  9. Great guide for beginners, Mark!
    Your "ground-is-first" idea is the same philosophy with my wife's aunt, who is my gardening teacher.

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  10. Thank you so much for the pictures of your garden. It is absolutely gorgeous. Is that pea gravel between the beds?

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  11. Great post Mark, If I was to add anything it would be to have fun - I think the biggest mistake I made when I first started gardening was taking it all too seriously. I was impatient and frustrated by the simplest set back and spent too much time dwelling on the failures rather than seeing the successes and enjoying the process itself.

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  12. Excellent advice Mark, I don't think you ever stop learning.

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  13. Erin; It's shingle, with paving slabs between the beds, not gravel. The difference is mainly in the size. This shingle is in nominally 25mm pieces.

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  14. What a great post, Mark. You've mentioned that there will be some spending up front, but I'm sure in your next post you'll also be mentioning the ways in which you can also save money. I know you're passionate about recycling every day items, and it's always good to save a bit of money. The first photo is really inspiring, you have everything so neat and tidy, but you manage to pack so much in to your garden.

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  15. Thanks for the mention Mark. I do agree, once the location is chosen, a style picked then soil is the key. The next post in the series discusses soil. Keep up the good work!

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  16. Cally; Thanks for the invite to join Folia - which I have accepted. I'm also investigating Pinterest.com, which I didn't previously know about (thanks for "pinning" me there too!

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  17. Thanks so much for this post! I'm getting excited about spring gardening in Florida this year, and now I know I've got a few things to consider before I move forward.

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  18. Great post. Some good tips here for beginners like me!

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  19. A really inspiring post and lovely to see all the photos of your very well kept garden! I like the idea of starting small and then adding more and I can also see plenty of pots around your plot, as well as the main area with a variety of crops. The main issue I forsee if protecting the crops from animals, we get a lot of wild rabbits and also the neighbour's cats - so the little greenhouses are a good idea as well as the netting. You've given me plenty of ideas so thank you!

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  20. Thank you so much for this great post. Lots of useful tips in it for me.

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  21. I am waiting for my allotment to come up - should be soon. @walpolegirl

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  22. This post is really inspirational - we're hoping to start our first attempts into veg growing this year and it will be really helpful!

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  23. Hi Gail; Thanks for including the link to my blog in yours. I'm glad to see I've got you interested in VSR!

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  24. I've been growing fruit and veg here in North Wales for years with varying degrees of success! Your fresh and lively approach has inspired me all over again. I have my own blog on a variation of Bonsai gardening at bobrob.info/gardening.

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  25. Tip No. 8 is very helpful as grow tents and other tools can save the lives of your plants during harsh weather. And Tip No. 1 is a must--learn as much as you can about gardening! Very helpful post, thank you.

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  26. Some great tips here.
    Ty my blog at http://www.plottips.blogspot.co.uk/

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