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.