Following some recent conversations with first time gardeners it dawned on me that there are a few morsels of advice that I have accumulated that would have served me well if I had known them when I first started gardening. So here are a few of my top tips for new gardeners.
1. Start Now…
Get something in the soil this spring, whether it be in pots or a square meter of spare ground. There will be time to plot and scheme grander designs as you go, but take advantage of the waxing day length and increasing warmth to get your plants established and their roots deep in the soil.
You’ll be surprised at just how much you can squeeze into just one square metre of garden, especially if you can get to grips with successional sowing (see below).
2. …but Start Small
Keeping the size of your endeavours in check will help make your gardening sustainable long term and maintain your enthusiasm.
You’ll have more success with a smaller garden that you can manage, and in working that small plot for a season, you’ll come away with a wealth of learnings when you come to expand.
It can be disheartening to be faced with a plot of weeds that have taken over your vege bed because you cultivated an area larger than you have time to maintain.
I’ve got a myriad of plans, sketches and notes for my future garden, but I implement just a few of these a season. This helps me understand how much time and effort I need to invest in each venture to make it work and not get out of control. Like most urban gardeners, I’m time-poor and so time in the garden is precious and limited.
3. Grow what you like to eat
It’s true when they say nothing tastes quite like you own homegrown vegetables. Although I’m never sure if that is due to the higher nutrient value of home-grown crops or simply due to the sense of satisfaction you get from growing your own.
It took me several failed attempts to grow a number of different varieties of beans before I realised that I’m actually not that fond of them and didn’t really care enough about them to ensure they had what they needed to thrive.
I tend to lean towards growing higher value crops as I get an extra kick of satisfaction knowing that I’ve saved myself a few dollars as well growing amazing food. Garlic is a good ‘un as it never seems to get cheaper no matter what the season, needs hardly any space to grow and is easy to store ready for use.
4. Mulch! Mulch! Mulch!
Mulch is magic! It reduces the need to water, it suppresses weeds, it feeds the soil releasing nutrients to your plants, it nurtures microbial life and builds soil structure. Once you’ve got you’re plants in the ground, make sure you mulch. Think of it as a cosy blanket to keep your plants snug.
Almost anything organic can be used to mulch. From finely chipped wood pulp, straw or hay, compost, well rotted manure, or fresh ‘chop and drop’ plant material from prunings and thinnings. An ideal mulch is made of a mixture of different density fibres which break down at different rates – as long as it is porous to allow moisture to seep through to the roots, and thick enough to slow evaporation. I’ve even see old woolen jerseys used to cover bare soil between plants.
I grow a variety of vigorous herbaceous perennials and annuals that can be used as cut and come again plants for mulch. Examples include comfrey, yarrow, calendula, borage and phacelia. I also nurture living mulches like clover between plants. If any of them get a little out of control I simply chop them back and lay them on the soil.
5. Start thinking about Succession (but don’t stress about it)
I will straight out admit it: this is an area I am still coming to grips with, but I think the only way to learn how to plan successional sowings is just to get stuck in and do it, observe and give things a try.
Ideally, you want to be able to plant out your next crop of seedlings as you harvest the current crop. And if you manage this over a large enough garden area, there should be something close to a harvest throughout the year.
However, I still can’t quite get this right.
A few things I’ve learnt on my journey so far:
- Don’t leave bare soil after a harvest – lay down some mulch to keep the soil covered, prevent unwanted weeds taking root and to protect the microbial life in the soil.
- A green manure crop is a great way to replenish, rest and feed the soil if your next seedlings aren’t quite ready.
- Rotate crops so that you are not following on with the same family you’ve just harvested can help prevent disease. For example, after harvesting broccoli, avoid sowing other brassicas (cabbage, cauli, kale, sprouts) in the same bed for at least a year, preferably two.
- A local gardening calendar is invaluable for planning successions. The Sustainability Trust in Wellington and Common Sense Organics do a fantastic Wellington Garden Planner which gives sowing and planting out times for a large number of vegetables.
6. Protect you plants
Nothing is more disheartening than having your lovely cabbages and cauliflowers decimated by white butterfly larvae. Or seeing your seedlings succumb to frost or high winds.
If you are planting brassicas in spring, it is well worth covering them with an insect barrier to limit the damage these critters do. Be sure to protect tender seedlings from the late frosts. A cloche made out of half a plastic bottle is a useful tool. Many vegetable seedlings such as tomatoes, courgettes and pumpkins won’t thrive until the soil temperature is at least 15 or 16 degrees. Planting them out any earlier could lead to problems.
Remember, the Wellington the spring winds can wreak havoc on the garden. Consider staking plants or creating shelter around them to protect them from the worst of it.
7. Spend time with you plants
Take your morning coffee out into the garden and sit with your plants a while. Enjoy a moment of quiet and calm as you absorb the sounds, sights and smells of you surroundings. Take note of the plants that are thriving and the ones that are not doing so well. Stick your finger in the soil and check for moisture. Sip your coffee. Pull out the odd weed, remove the odd slug and cover up areas where the mulch has blown away. Notice which plants are the favourites of bugs and birds, which might need extra protection and which ones are almost ready to harvest.
This simple act of mindfulness will not only benefit you personally but will keep you in regular connection to your garden, helping you build a relationship with your plants, understanding how they grow, what makes them happy and what areas need a little bit of your attention. It opens you up to learning how your garden wants to grow and helps you catch potential issues before they become problems.