I gave her four days in late April: digging up the lawn, building raised beds, painting raised beds, transporting compost, buying seeds, planting out, seeking obscure herbs, and spreading gravel. From those who were here before, I kept only the apple tree. In return my garden has given me a summer of flowers, courgettes, peas, tomatoes, rainbow chard, romaine lettuce, tsoi sim, landcress, beets, spinach beet, carrots, beans, squashes, strawberries, spuds, rhubarb, an extravagance of herbs, and a chilli.
As Plato noted in the trial of Socrates “I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.” After twelve months of owning a garden, twenty four hours of reading around the topic, and a mere six months of erratic tending, I should know better than to share my learning. However, if you will humour me, these are my lessons; if only so that I remember them next year:
1. Plants are survivors
I’ll start with the basics: I am the first to admit that this sounds ridiculous on paper, but it is something that countless gardening books do not make clear. Plants have grown on this earth for hundreds of millions of years. They get on with it. A wise chap on Gardeners’ World recently said “As gardeners, we are here to try to help a plant thrive somewhere it might not naturally have chosen.” For example, growing agave plants in London may be difficult, growing potatoes should not be. I had many plant deaths, but this contrasted with an undeserved number of survivors. The deaths I put down to careless overcrowding and slugs. For those that survived, I thanked their long heritage of battling the world around them.
2. Plants get big
A person who doesn’t garden will not understand the importance of space. I need space, and yet I incorrectly assumed a carrot does not. From 5 square metres of raised beds, a couple of halved whisky barrels, and a little border space, I was hoping for self-sufficiency. I planted as many crops as would fit in the remaining space: seedlings touching and barely thinned, tumbling tomatoes in the shade of a rose, peas climbing the same posts as tomatoes, courgettes rubbing against echinacea, rhubarb cheek-to-cheek with strawberries, globe artichokes in the shade of Jerusalems, and dwarf beans chummy with chard.
Similarly enthused by tales of companion planting, I placed 16 tiny African marigold plug plants in my 1.2m square raised bed to act as sacrificial offerings to slugs and other pests. Four months later, there was a bed of 30cm cheery yellow marigolds cheek-to-cheek; crowding out the few carrots, and straggly spinach beet that were coming up in between.
You can see the hectic results in the picture below, taken a few weeks back (click on image to enlarge and see the full chaos). I fear I will be similarly optimistic next year, even though I know better.
3. Planning without experience is little better than no planning at all
Hours were spent drawing plans to scale, gazing from my desk towards the garden, as I plotted the sun’s path in detail during its 14 hour crescent. In the end, some of the most unpromising areas were fertile, and my favoured ‘sun traps’ were not. Plant the same thing in several areas of the garden, and note down for next year which worked the best.
4. Stake early and well, and at least 50% higher than you initially think
Leave staking for a month after you think about it, and the plant will fall over. It may not be dead, but will certainly be altogether sadder for it (refer to the sorry picture above). Peas, beans and tomatoes all benefit. I am even supporting my Jerusalem artichokes, just in case.
5. Interleave vegetables in flower borders
The battle over where vegetables are allowed and where they are not is a constant one. My other half deems vegetable plants unattractive. However, he has little interest in gardening, and I have little interest in growing anything one cannot eat. We dined on delicious courgettes all summer from a bountiful plant in the rose border, thanks to my subterfuge. The debate is set to continue next year.
6. Get rid of slugs
I lost countless beautiful seedlings, and some more mature plants, to these creeping vials of leaf-consuming pus. After an initial few weeks of considering my position on their rights, and a further few weeks testing ruinously expensive copper bands, and sprinkling ‘slug deterrent’ granules, I now take just two approaches: liberal application of slug pellets, along with something more violent. Forensic examination of web articles denoting slug removal techniques led me to this by a Barbara: “One morning I had over 50 slugs in my garden. Each morning before leaving for work, using gardening clippers (shears) I cut them in half and threw them in the garbage can. […] each year there were fewer and fewer to deal with.” I do the same. Next year, nematode worms are to be included in the arsenal. Triumvirate complete.
7. Water, water, everywhere
My garden would be dead without its watering system. It keeps things alive when I am too lazy. A wonderful thing.