Catherine StewartThe 7 best pieces of garden advice I’ve had

I first started gardening a few decades ago now, but there are seven pieces of gardening advice that stick with me, every day. They keep me going when problems seem insurmountable, they remind me of going back to basics when things go wrong, they help me understand exactly what I’m growing and they keep me enjoying my garden. Now I’m going to share them – and reveal the some of the sages who gave them to me.

Tip pruning Pentas1. The best time to do anything in the garden is when you think of it

It was the first Cottage Garden Club meeting I went to, back in the early 1990s. The late Valerie Swane was a guest speaker and someone asked her when was the best time to prune some shrub or other, admitting to being paralysed by indecision and fear of doing the wrong thing. Valerie went to give some more technical answer and then checked herself and said, to the best of my recollection:

“The best time to do anything in the garden is when you think of it. Whether its weeding or pruning or anything. You may lose a few flowers, but otherwise it will probably never get done”.

This is such sound advice. It’s a danger, especially for newbie gardeners, that you worry so much about the right and wrong way, or time, to do things that you end up doing nothing at all. I say that it’s far better to have no flowers on a well-shaped shrub than lots of flowers on some gangly, ugly overgrown mess. I find that planning a day in the garden seems to be an invitation for it to rain, be unbearably hot or cold, or for the rellies to suddenly decide to visit, and the planned work doesn’t happen. Far better to find yourself with half an hour to spare and rush outside and at least start some of those small jobs that have been beckoning you.


2. Keep a small bucket with weeding tools, secateurs and gloves by your back door

To facilitate the implementation of #1, I have a small bucket (actually an empty fertiliser plastic tub) near my back door with a few useful tools – a pair of gloves, a trowel, an old screwdriver and a pair of secateurs. Whenever I find myself feeling like a break, I can grab the bucket and do a speedy 5 minutes of deadheading, reducing the never-ending onslaught of weeds, or patting back the mulch that the bandicoots have spent the night rearranging. I can’t remember who told me about this. Maybe it was my idea!


Using a pH soil texting kit3. Buy a pH soil testing kit and use it

I studied landscape design and horticulture at TAFE and ‘Plant Growing Media’ was a year-long subject. My teacher Derry Thomas was full of all sorts of practical advice. I remember his recommendation to test how hot your compost was by simply sticking your fingers right into the centre of the heap. I remember the horror on his face when one student held up a hand missing two fingers and said “Are you sure? It didn’t work so well for me“. (Yes, you guessed it, he was an ex-butcher). But it’s Derry’s emphasis on the importance of knowing your soil pH that I remember. The wrong pH for a plant will rob it of essential nutrients that no amount of fertilising can fix. And pH can vary wildly in the one garden, depending on where a builder has washed out a concrete barrow, or a previous vegie gardener has limed the soil each year, or different parts of the soil profile have been exposed during terracing.

I have a simple pH test kit that costs under $20 and lasts for years. In my own garden I have found results of pH4, and also of pH9. Other than drainage, it is usually the answer as to why something is not thriving.


My TAFE Year 1, Semester 1 plant list

My TAFE Year 1, Semester 1 plant list

4. Learn the botanical names for things as it avoids a lot of confusion

When I first started learning a bit about gardening, I wasn’t too fussed on learning botanical names as they were all so unpronounceable and hard to remember. Then I met Sharryn Kennedy and was astonished at the way she could reel off names like Campanula portenschlagiana without pausing. Her plant knowledge was extraordinary. More importantly her use of the correct name meant that all those things vaguely called ‘something lily’ or ‘thingummy daisy’ had an exact, correct name. Common names are local, parochial and confusing and you’ll never really be a good gardener without being able to accurately identify and name a plant for others. Sharryn and also Deirdre Mowat (of the fabulous iGarden website) opened my eyes to the wonderful wealth of knowledge that goes with becoming a good gardener and were a major influence in my decision to enrol at TAFE and study landscape design. Sadly Sharryn died way too young back in 2006 but I often think of her example and advice.


Sydney's vibrant Cottage Garden Club

Sydney’s vibrant Cottage Garden Club

5. Older gardeners know secrets you’ll never find in a book

When I was a teenager I used to go next door to help old Millie Browning with her washing which meant boiling up the copper and then putting everything through the mangle! While in the late 1970s this was an eye-opener in itself, watching her attack her orange tree’s trunk with a broom each year, or pull off rhubarb stems instead of cutting them, or lime her cabbage patch has stayed with me for decades. The other place to find pearls of wisdom is in gardening clubs. You may think they’re for older gardeners, and, sadly that’s who mostly joins them these days, but you’ll learn great practical stuff there talking to some gardeners who’ve amassed a few centuries between them.


orange garden

This garden no longer exists but it was quite pretty, wasn’t it?

6. Photograph your garden every time you change something and when it just looks nice, even a little bit

Do you ever despair that your garden isn’t the way you want it? Or that it never gets any better? Recording your changes and progress with your camera or phone is the best antidote. A quick flip back through some old shots and you’ll realise that it’s much better than you think and you’ll be astonished at how far apart everything was when it was first planted. You’ll remember the pleasure you had in a special flowering or planting combination or the day your favourite tree got its first acid-green spring leaves. And the dates on those photos will help you know what happens when and what to plant for good flower and foliage combinations in every month.


Laura digging up a plant

This is my daughter Laura pretending to dig. What can I say – she’s GenY and you can’t take a selfie when you’re digging.

7. If a plant just doesn’t look right, try moving it.

I used to joke that when my mother opened her back door, every plant in the garden shuddered and whispered “whose turn is it today?” I think she probably moved every plant at some point or other, always looking for the perfect ‘plant picture’ combination. Sometimes the move didn’t work (for the plant’s longevity) but her view was that if I didn’t look right now, it wasn’t likely to improve with time and it was better to bite the bullet. Digging it up and getting it temporarily mobile allowed her to experiment with a few locations before she settled on the plant’s new home. Which usually meant also moving the plant currently occupying that place!


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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Original creator of GardenDrum. South Coast NSW.

22 thoughts on “The 7 best pieces of garden advice I’ve had

  1. Ah, so wise! I’ve acquired a few of these ideas myself but I should do a lot more pH testing. I tend to assume it’s all acid because I’m in Scotland and rhodies grow here, but there could well be pockets that are quite different, for any of the reasons you mention. So thank you for that one. And I like the idea of cheering myself up with a reminder that a part of the garden looked quite pretty, even for just a few days before something got too straggly and I wasn’t ruthless enough to cut it back. (Love the lovely Laura pretending to dig: those spotless jeans are a give-away!)

    • The real wisdom would be to always practise what I preach! It took me a couple of months of noticing yellowing leaves on a plant, and thinking “that’s odd, I’m sure the drainage there is OK” before the penny dropped that maybe there was something wrong with the pH. Sure enough – a pH of 9 was not giving it a nice new home.

  2. Oh, how I struggle with number seven! So easy to walk around someone else’s garden and rationally say ‘keep’, ‘bin’, ‘move’, ‘bin’, ‘move’, but oh so very different when you have chosen the plant at the nursery, thought about where to place it, lovingly planted it, watered it every two or three days until it is established, fertilised it, admired it each day and willed it on when it struggled. Then, impossible to move! I usually wait until it is way past a viable transplant and then justify to myself why you shouldn’t move things, when it fails.

    • After I published this as ‘7 pieces of garden advice’, I realised it should be 8! I would add ‘have a designer/friend/rel occasionally critique your garden for you and listen to them‘. My current redesign was prompted by my daughter saying to me “Mum, I don’t get this garden”. “Why?” I asked. “Because whenever you say about a photo or a place ‘this is a good garden’, it doesn’t look like this!'”. And she was absolutely right but it took her saying it out loud for me to be goaded into making major changes, instead of just faffing about at the edges.

      • Golly. I always imagined ‘faffing’ was spelt with a ‘ph’.

        All v good advice. I fail dismally on no. 3 and no. 7.

        Haven’t used a pH kit in at least 20 years, and am always, and inexplicably, reluctant to move stuff. I have a client whose kids call hers the ‘Velcro garden’, given that everything is ripped up and reorganised on a regular basis. She ignores advice about the right season – just dives in and does it, and deals with the consequences, if there are any. I really need to learn that one

        • As in phaphphing? I prefer an ‘f’ spelling as I feel it has a more visceral quality.
          I often forget to pH test but as I’ve had to buy and bring in ‘growing media’ (I could hardly call it soil) on several occasions, I’ve found that despite an allegedly stable pH, it varies wildly, and often on the highly alkaline side. Added to my site soil’s natural pH4-4.5, it can sometimes balance itself out but not always.
          I’m not sure I could ever go as far as velcro but an occasional ‘unbuttoning’ is an essential tool for my plantscapes. Often as not, it’s because I’ve not allowed a plant the right amount of room too grow, being too greedy for variety or just overplanting for quick effect.

          • Phaffing? Faphing? or, given the subject matter, pHaffing?

            The ‘no pH test in 20 years’ was a confession of failure, not a stand against the need for it. Like you, I’ve been faced with otherwise inexplicable failure-to-thrive, and have sometimes wondered whether my default assumption of acidic soils is faulty. I’m gunna get me one of those tester kits at the first opportunity

  3. If you see a weed pull it out, at the root crown preferably, do not put it off or it will have set seed or shed its bulbils by the time you get back to it. Never put it off, except when going out and you are clean and dressed up, this may not be acceptable to our partners.

    • Very wise advice Danny. I just pull the seedhead off a weed as I walk by it if I’m on my way out and try and remember to get the roots out asap. As you say, otherwise you can get into a bit of trouble from the ‘Party of the Other Part’…

  4. Thank you so much for this article Catherine. Can’t wait to show it to my husband who moans every time I need help moving someone to another spot – usually a basket or a pot. I point out that a garden is a dynamic creative being and as the sun changes and the basket flourishes it sometimes needs to be swapped with another that needs the spot. And someone who is to doing so well needs to be moved closer so I can give it daily scrutiny. And the moans ‘they don’t need watering we’ve just had rain’ needs the explanation ‘yes but that pot or basket is under the eave and didn’t get that rain’. Still he does love the garden and I smirk when I see him peering closely at something that has caught his eye. Well we are both pushing toward the big 80 so gardening hasn’t done us too much harm

    • How lucky are you, Pat, to have someone who secretly loves the garden too! My husband is also a long-suffering victim of my frequent plant movings and garden redesigns. He’s learned to accept my “I’ve been thinking….’ moments with polite resignation, knowing that in the end there can be no escape. But he’s such a clever DIYer, and I know there’s no landscape contractor who could figure out how to achieve exactly what I want the way he can!

  5. Great advice, Catherine, particularly keeping the essential tools by the back door. I’d add one simple piece of advice, always keep plant tags. I write on them when and where that plant was planted, and file it alphabetically in an old recipe file.

    • Yes! That’s one I forgot. I have a concertina file of old plant tags, now bulging and falling apart. It’s also sobering to see how many plants you’ve bought over the years, and how many you’ve still got!

  6. Thanks Catherine for the excellent list — I will have to investigate the ph kits too, probably save a lot of guesswork and buying expensive cures that could be totally useless. The last really good tip I got was to always keep a couple of pots with soil in them, so that when you accidentally break a bit off a plant or friends mention they would love a cutting of something while they’re visiting, you’ve got an immediate home for them.

    • That’s an excellent tip Suzanne and also what goes with it – that it’s a good idea to strike cuttings of successful plants both of your own garden plants for other gardeners and also to ask others for cuttings – but be ready to do something with them straight away. I’ve had so many bits of plants I’ve slipped into a glass of water intending to later put in a pot, but never quite got around to it. I will heed your advice!

  7. Thanks so much for the advice. I usually do most, apart from learning the Latin names for the plants. There are some plants where the Latin name has come to me easily, but these days I find I’m just thrilled if I remember the common name at the time I need it, as opposed to 10 mins. later.
    I also keep a small jar of honey in my bucket, as it’s not only a useful rooting medium, but it’s antibacterial properties make it handy & quick to smear onto your skin from a tiny scrape or prick from a plant.
    I also use fluoro tape on my gardening tools .. & if there’s a hole in the tools, I also tie bright shoelaces to them. Tools are so easily lost amongst weeds, soil, or under a shrub. I know how much time I’ve wasted just looking for something that was right under my nose.
    Another thing I like to keep in my bucket is a roll of budding tape & scissors. The tape makes for a handy tie, esp. as it stretches nicely if you need to stake something quickly, or just add a few new branches to a stake that’s already there.
    Just a couple more small items I like to keep in my bucket, are water crystals in a small pill bottle, for that plant that seems to need more water than others around it, another small pill bottle with slow release fertilizer .. & lastly, one with some snail/slug pellets .. but Remember, They CAN KILL PETS.
    You will find that pill bottles come in very handy not only for seeds that you buy, but also for any seeds that you notice on your own plants. If you have the container, you’ll catch them before they fall. It’s also handy to keep your larger, main containers in your cupboard as it keeps the contents of your main containers clean & out of the sun, with less chance of spilling the lot. They are also airtight, and many are also ‘child-proof’ … so that if you have children, or grandbabies around, they are also safe.
    Just one more small tip – I like to add a drop or two of dishwashing liquid to any plant or weeds sprays as the viscosity is just right to stop it from running or dripping off the leaves & stems.
    My apologies for this being so long, but these are just a few things I’ve found handy over the years.

    • What excellent advice! I can see you are a seasoned gardener. I must put some fluoro tape on my smaller hand tools. Maybe then my Felco #2 secateurs would still be in my bucket instead of somewhere in the garden! It always surprises me that hose manufacturers use bright coloured stripes on their hoses, which you want to disappear, but garden tool manufacturers favour grey, brown, black and dull green.

  8. Cath these are the best suggestions I’ve read in years. Some of the advice I do, but some of it I don’t (and should!) 1 & 2 are vital, and 6 highly recommended. I reckon my planting was rather livelier two decades ago when I seemed to make more time to look after it!

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