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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!