Things I wish I'd known about gardening.

My lovely daughter is about to acquire her first house and her first garden. After years of wandering around gardens with her and having her say "But how do you know all this stuff?" she is about to start getting to know it herself. Well here to start her off are a few things I wish I had known about gardening when I started.

1. Things die.

You will waste a lot of money on plants which turn up their toes. It is best to be philosophical about this and regard it as the opportunity to buy another plant. I used to beat myself up about all the things I put into my garden which simply disappeared. Now I realise that you can do things to minimise plant loss but sometimes it is just a mystery: you thought something would be happy in your garden and it isn't. Never mind. Move on. There are so many plants out there. Have a go with something else.

But the business about things being happy in your garden is important and it took me years to garden to my soil and not to be led by glorious visions in other people's gardens and by fabulous photographs of roses to die for. I am a huge believer in composting and in feeding soil but the best possible advice (which I can't always bring myself to follow) is to find out what kind of soil you have and grow the plants that like it. I have stony, fast draining soil. Lavender loves it as do all herbs. Penstemons and poppies grow like weeds and I am planning foxtail lillies (eremurus) and red hot pokers (kniphofia), evening primrose and euphorbia. Years ago I would have refused to believe I couldn't have delphiniums and clematis which I love. I would have carried on buying them in a moment of weakness and having them die on me. Time to focus on what wants to live here.

2. What doesn't die will grow.

I hate bare soil and for years planted things far too close together looking for an established look. Somehow this both never really worked when the plants were small and quickly meant that what didn't die was fighting for space, needing splitting and cutting back, things needing moving all the time because they had no space to breathe. It is worth establishing how big a longlived plant will get and giving it room when you plant it. Put beautiful easy annuals in the gaps: nicotiana, Shirley poppies, marigolds and nasturtiums. Everything will look more settled in the second year if you don't have to get in there moving things around because they are cramped together in a huddle.

3. Some plants are easy.

A sucker for instant gratification, I used to buy large perennials already in flower (and still do, it's a great way of being sure of what you are getting). But the most pleasure I have found in gardening comes from bulbs, the reverse of instant gratification, going into the ground with some work in the autumn and then nearly forgotten as winter takes over. But snowdrops and bluebells and daffodils and tulips will astonish you with their beauty and once in they just keep coming up, always delightful like the friends you don't see from one year to the next but see across a room at a party with a shout of pleasure.

Perennials are also easy, middling or hard and it is worth buying beautiful, easy things like lady's mantle and hardy geraniums that you can plant and rely on to come up again and again, getting bigger and producing new plants for free. Things your friends give you when you are starting out will be easy because that is why they have some to spare. Eventually you may get to a stage where you feel you have too much and start giving it away yourself but there is such satisfaction in watching things flourish that deliberately starting and continuing with easy plants is a great way to get your garden fix.

4 Some vegetables are easy too.

I thought for years that vegetable gardening was an arcane pursuit, best undertaken by my grandad in his flat cap with his pipe smouldering in his pocket. Now I have learned that some veg are hard work but some things are easy: potatoes, courgettes, runner beans, herbs and tomatoes if you have a greenhouse or a porch. and the satisfaction and pleasure in picking something you have grown yourself, bringing it into the kitchen and having it on your plate the same day is extraordinary. And it tastes better. And you know where it's been. And it is as green as green can be.

5 Fruit is easy

Raspberries and strawberries, gooseberries and apples: not difficult, not time consuming, just delicious. Making a apple crumble with your own apples and perhaps some blackberries (not pinched from Tattie) makes you feel a true domestic goddess.

and finally and most passionately, a garden which feeds the soul is not an "outdoor room". This is not about space. A tiny garden can be a marvellous place but a garden of decking and concrete and a couple of elegant granite pots gives no scope for the pleasure of watching things grow, of picking flowers for the house, of cutting your own herbs for cooking. A space which is somewhere to sit and to barbecue is no doubt useful and pleasant and adds square footage to your living space but a garden for me is about plants and soil and seasons, moves slowly, takes time, produces a mess. Grass is good and trees, a reminder that we are part of a living, growing world.


  1. I would like to add:
    Some plants are dull.
    There is a myth out there that all plants are fab. Like people, this is not true. Some are rubbish pumped up by fancy labels, sporting dull green leaves, dull small brown flowers, dusty-worthy at best. You do not have to like them all. I would like more general information not on individual plants, but on successful, year-round combinations. We all know when daffs flower, but what should be planted to take over from that saggy old bag of shagged out leaves that so irritate once the flowers have gone brown and shrivelled. Do we have to Feed The Bulb (delivered in shrill tones!) and leave it there for 6 weeks? With you, totally, on leaving enough room. Never ever do,even 20 years on. 6'? Surely they mean only 18". Oh dear!

  2. and meant to say YEs Yes Yes (or rather No No No) to outdoor rooms - is it John Brookes we have to blame for this actually, and not just TV gardeners, but how nasty is that phrase! Makes my toes curl every time. It's a *loody garden. Get over it. Rooms are indoors. Or not even there in our case, given the dust, and removed walls....

  3. I love your phillosophical approach to gardening! It very much compares to mine! Except for ladies mantle, which I curse every year, (after enjoying the flowers) as hoe up, pull up all the self sown seedlings and have to dig up the ones I missed last year!

    I try not to plant thugs but in fact there are far too many in this garden. It is not an easy one, at 650ft in central Northumberland, on the limestone, which in places is virtually at the surface. All is very quick draining - useful at times but does discourage a lot of plants. Oh dear, I am going on abit.
    I'd love to see your garden - and NO it is NOT an outdoor room!

  4. Really agree, gardens are not outside rooms. Your daughter wont go far wrong with Mum on hand for advice.Wish my daughter would get a bit more into gardening but I was the same at her age.

  5. A lovely blog and a beautiful garden. There's no mystery when a plant disappears in my garden. It's the b***** slugs. This year they are of the most enormous proportions.
    PS I'm going to try foxtail lillies myself this year. I hope they are slug resistant.

  6. wow, i love this. so practical. and absolutely right.

    meanwhile, if you have any advice as to why my delphiniums keep dying....

  7. All things I wish I'd known, too - and am still learning! Bulbs, especially are wonderful - just when you've forgotten all about them, they push themselves up through the earth and flower.

  8. What lovely have inspired me (being new to this gardening lark - currently in first house; with garden - just like your daughter!)

    I've already found out about the soil - clematis died....tomatoes have been a hit in the greenhouse this year, although courgettes got eaten by slugs when I put them outside (should have kept them in the greenhouse too!)

    We have inherited two types of pear tree - they are rock hard (the pears) and then the birds and wasps get them so we've had none! Maybe next year....

    Thank you for the lovely blog.

  9. I will keep visiting this blog, I am learning about gardening through experience, felt so heartened to realise that you just have to accept some plants will not grow in your garden. My flowers are still a 'wilderness' though, but it is really exciting they they are all madly reproducing and I have oodles of offspring to plant elsewhere.

  10. Perfect advice and I shall be printing this off for when, if ever, I plant a garden up here in Scotland.

  11. What a brilliant list about plants - worth printing out for all first time garden owners! I loved your list of scents and sounds Elizabeth; corks popping and the smell of babies rate pretty highly here too xx

  12. Great stuff Elizabeth - I am still finding a lot of this out for myself and so much of it rings true - esepcially the bit about not crowding things together - a big fault of mine. I've also been guilty of dotting things around, instead of keeping to a few favourites or repeating things - I'm too eager to try everythng. And yes, to echo Milla and others - SO agree that it's a living, breathing, garden, NOT an outdoor room. I also loathe that phrase. Do keep blogging more thoughts on your garden as they occur, I'm learning!

  13. Good list - I'm trying so hard not to plant too 'thickly', which is a mistake I always make. Am dying to plant more more more - foxtail lilies included, and heleniums, just gorgeous at this time of year. And as for the veg - I'm addicted. A glut of green beans today, have picked the brambles and a few large Bramleys to go with them - obvious what do do with those, but might have to try a green bean soup, with sorrel (which has run riot - a definite thug).

  14. Much truth in your words and experience - and experience seems to be the key word here. Learning what works and what doesn't by 'doing' - getting down and dirty, feeling the soil, its texture, temperature and also temperament of your garden.

    Your daughter is very lucky to have you to hand.

    ...and best of luck with eremurus - they don't like us!

  15. Great advice, you must have similar soil to me, have given up on clematis and delphiniums, fox tail lilies are good though I plant them in a pot for a few years until they are established, before letting them loose in the garden as they can be easy to misplace, a bit of advice i was given, those perennials that 'friends' give you well they have spare for a reason the plants are thugs

  16. Great practical advise in a very readable form - your daughter won't go wrong with this. I might add "Some plants will be deer fodder and there will be nothing you can do because you will never know which plants it will be on any given day."

  17. Oh lovely lovely Elizabeth. I am having to sit on my hands not to race off to look up the plants you mention that I don't know (loads). All very wise words. I try to garden to my soil but always get carried away. And some patches are just too difficult - remember once going to a nursery and asking if they had anything that would flourish on a north-facing steep hill that was plagued by rabbits. They were stumped.
    Foxgloves and alchemilla grew like weeds at our old house; here it seems to be euphorbia and aquilegia - both are everywhere! But my main challenge is battling the dreaded ground elder. And big bruiser thugs of bramble.
    My pet hate is decking and brightly coloured paintwork - the Alan Titchmarsh blue in particular that would look fabulous in the Aegean but not in Somerset. I shall say it very quietly but our neighbour has 'rooms'.....come on over and we'll peer over the fence and giggle.

  18. Gosh, you really love your subject, your daughter is going to be dragging you round garden centres every weekend! My children are too young (and too many!), and there's too much washing for me to see gardening as anything other than a chore. i look forward to a silent house and hours of pottering in a garden that loves me!

  19. I think you write best about your favourite subjects or when you write from the heart.

    Really great blog, as always. In my 'sheep pen' I didn't plant anywhere nearly so thickly, mainly as we didn't have so much money with the large beds...and it does look far better than previous gardens, when I would have to dig things up and replant or waste after only a couple of years as it looked over grown!

    warm wishes

  20. I am taking this all down and trying very hard to remember it all as I battle away with the garden here - my first proper garden!
    Would love to think I could actually plant some plants and plan a garden but mostly I weed or race to move plants from around the house which are in the way of the builders - I have no idea what half of them are but getting there....I have a funny feeling with gardening its the journey that counts and teh results are just a bonus!!!
    Wonderful blog - and if anyone wants blackberries they only have to ask and I'll point you out the fattest and most delicious ones I know!

  21. I'm so sorry I missed this when you posted it as it's lovely and a fine example of why you should send some writing out into the world (apart from the blog). Yes, as you rightly say, why abandon a successful career - but the good news is you don't have to. Why not try sending articles to a few garden mags and see what happens?

  22. I do so wish you were close enough to advise me on my garden - the bones are there but sadly not a very talented beautician tending it's very need. Withy is coming for lunch on Monday, so hopefully she will tell me what I should be doing!

    Loved your list - i'm busy doing mine and I have a couple of the same things.


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