Last year, when friends learnt I was graduating from a balcony to a garden, their response was almost universal. “You must be so excited!” they gasped, kindly. Sometimes it was easier to grin along and agree rather than admit the truth: I was terrified.
Soil! Cats! Self-seeded things! Lawns! Balcony gardening was something of a corset, but I’d made myself quite at home within its whalebones over the previous six years.
I’d battled pigeons and squirrels, dealt with drainage and rain shadows, and knew my way around rudimentary structural engineering. Now I was to embark on a brave new world of seasonal changes and fox poo. I felt deeply unqualified.
A year on and the blank rectangle of turf with a dance floor-sized patio has grown up a little. A hollyhock peers over the top of the back wall, dahlias – the first I have ever grown – paint a rainbow where tulips stood three months ago.
I’m the proud custodian of a new water butt, and nary a potato peel escapes the compost bin. This is the first baby step on a long journey of gardening – and this is everything I’ve learned so far.
Don’t necessarily wait a year “to see what turns up”. This is the classic advice given to new gardeners, or those with new gardens. But, if you’re starting with a relatively untended space, don’t be afraid to get stuck in.
The gardening calendar can stun you into paralysis. For everyone who likes to sow sweet peas on Boxing Day or start tomato feeding on June 21, there are people like me who believe in a generous six-week window around the time when things “should” be done. Throw in our increasingly unpredictable seasons – and sometimes the best time to do it is when you have the time.
There will come a point where the best way to start a planting scheme is just to go to a very good garden centre and buy as much as you can afford/can’t resist. I was fortunate that this moment collided with a spontaneous trip to Beth Chatto’s nursery.
Wider beds, always. But make sure you give yourself a route in. If you don’t have the space for a sneaky path around the back of a border, create stepping stones – I use bricks and small paving slabs.
An afternoon spent putting training wire in place – with vine eyes, if you have walls, or hooks or steel angles if you don’t – will save many future hours of attempting to stake things.
Keep a note of beautiful varieties blooming in other people’s gardens. Instagram remains the best kind of shopping list.
Buy plants in multiples of threes and fives only. I know it seems indulgent but one rogue variety of dahlia looks ridiculous.
Buying from specialist nurseries online will seem daunting initially and then become far more satisfying than a trip to the garden centre. You can never be too early to buy certain things (I ordered my dahlias, all five singular varieties of them, in October). Keeping an eye out for the sales is always worthwhile.
When some of these orders turn out to be something else, it’s worth ringing up to see about a replacement, but if, inevitably, they don’t have what you ordered months before, just enjoy your lucky dip regardless. (No one got their pheasant’s eye narcissus this year, BTW.)
There will be rogue colours in your beds. My “no orange” rule went out the window in May, courtesy of some accidental geums and some poppies I expected to be pale pink. As a wise friend said: “Colour schemes are for Monty.”
“Finely raked tilth” is lovely, but scattering annual seed with wild abandon into any space you’ve got also works.
Plant more alliums.
Sweet peas are hardier than you think. Honestly.
If your sweet peas survive frost, but not an unseasonably autumnal May, you can buy plugs right into the summer.
You really, really don’t have to sow everything frantically early. March is fine for the organised. May will do for most things. It is still worth bothering in June.
Take photos. Lots of them. And not just Instagram-worthy close-ups. I marked up my pics from spring with all the areas I’d failed to put bulbs in, which I’ll be grateful for in October.
Leaving bits of the lawn long brings goldfinches to the yard.
Hang on to your shed even if you want to replace it. I foolishly let my nephew and brother-in-law deconstruct the rotting metal one that came with the garden within days of moving in, without knowing about the national shed shortage. Three months later, I finally got another one.
Mulch is sexy. The effect of well-rotted manure on my sad, gritty loam-pretending-to-be-clay soil is amazing. I will mulch every year now; in gradual stages from November to New Year, having dragged a near-tonne of the stuff through the house. It’s the best way to suppress weeds and have healthy plants.
Squirrels chew through fairy light wires.
There are few more satisfying ways to jazz up a winter garden lacking in evergreens than by painting a fence. Black is my favourite – green pops against it, the pale pink of Clematis montana even more so – but whatever you go for, do two coats and keep the leftovers for a quick garden furniture glow-up.
Facebook Marketplace is a bargain container haven.
Bamboo cloches will defy squirrels but they will uproot your potted tulips if they’re not sunk in deeply enough. Topping with gravel helps – a bit.
You can keep slugs away but only for so long. Applying Nemaslug nematodes in March, and again in May, on drizzly days, saved the hardy annuals I’d been nurturing in a cold frame from devastation. This produced a false sense of security that led to all of my nicotiana being munched in the June deluge. I could deploy beer traps and grapefruit halves (not pellets, this is an organic garden, thank you) but soon enough the thrushes and blackbirds will find the slugs.
Watching a bumble bee feast in your garden outweighs slug damage, and is a useful reminder to avoid the pesticides.
After a long winter, there is nothing more cheering than a daffodil.
It is very difficult to kill a rose, but David Austin have a little-known five-year replacement policy if yours fails to thrive.
You need more browns (cardboard, leaves, newspaper) in your compost than you think.
Alkanet looks a lot like a fun pulmonaria. The gift of this ignorance is a surprise patch to fill with a plant that isn’t green alkanet.
A swift inspection once a day will keep you on top of weeding and snail ambush. I snatch five minutes before breakfast. Heavenly, even in hail.
The five things I’ll do differently next year
Plant bulbs across the entire garden, rather than in just the one sunny corner
Think about evergreen structure. Everything will look rather sad in winter.
Mark out dormant perennials with canes. Lots of canes.
Move the peony that didn’t bloom.
Sit back, and see what self-seeds.