What are the basics of gardening that everyone needs to know?
Sometimes it’s good to go back to the basics of gardening.
Several friends and family have moved house recently. They’re either gardening for the first time or gardening in a significantly different type of garden from one they’re used to.
Or even if they’ve got a similar size garden, they’re effectively starting from scratch again, because every garden has its own style and personality.
I think I’d even recommend going back to the basics of gardening if your garden has got overgrown or needs re-vamping.
So what are the things that every garden lover needs to know? I’m going to stick my neck out and say that these are the points that really matter in gardening. I’ll explain each one in more detail after the list.
14 gardening basics – the tips you really need to know
- Start by doing nothing. Just sit in the garden at different times of day. Sit in different places.
- Assess what you already have. What size is the garden? What is already there?
- What is your weather? And what is your climate? Both will affect how your garden grows.
- Learn to identify weeds. Ask a knowledgeable friend or pay a gardener to identify your major weeds several times over the summer. Take photos of them, so you can pull them out when you see them.
- Make a list of what you want from your garden. Glorious flowers all year round? Somewhere to entertain? To be wildlife friendly?
- What’s your style? Urban sophisticate or English country? See 12 garden styles.
- Where is the sun? Which areas are shady? Plants will forgive you a great deal, but not the wrong amount of sun or shade.
- Test your soil or not? If you don’t like test tubes and charts, don’t worry. It’s an ‘ideal’ not a ‘must have.’
- Watering is key. Plant for your local rainfall and have well placed taps/water butts in the garden.
- How much time do you have? If you’re time-poor, concentrate on trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs. Annuals or bedding plants are more work. For the definition of each, see further down this post.
- You don’t need lots of tools. Start with good quality versions of the 7 essential tools.
- Find reliable resources. Start with a month-by-month gardening jobs list (such as the RHS or BBC Gardeners World), then check out individual tasks on YouTube or by reading blogs. Blogs and YouTube often go into more detail or are more personal to you.
- Visit other gardens, especially those near you. If a plant grows well just a few miles away, it will probably grow well for you.
- There’s no such thing as a ‘silly question.’ If you want to know something, ask.
The number one tip for new gardens or beginner gardeners
Friends or family often say ‘we’ve got a garden for the first time – what shall we do?’
I always reply ‘do nothing.’ Take a chair or chairs out and just sit there. Pour yourself a drink. Watch how the sun rises or goes down and where it falls. And how that changes at different times of year.
List what you already have in terms of sheds, terraces, trees and other major structures. They are all expensive to replace, so if they’re not right for you, you may be able to adapt them.
If you move into a new house in winter, then the garden will largely be asleep. Try to get through at least one summer before deciding to do anything major. Gardens grow fast so everything will look quite shaggy by July.
But don’t just hack something back or take it down immediately. Get to know the garden first. So many people take down an overly large tree only to discover that they are now overlooked or they’ve exposed a glaring street light! Pruning and shaping might have been a better option.
Your weather and your climate…
Your weather is what happened yesterday or last winter – or what is predicted for next week. Your climate is the overall pattern of weather and is largely defined by your normal extremes of temperature. In the UK, we have a very mild and rather patchy climate, because of the Gulf Stream.
In the USA, there are a series of climate zones called USDA Hardiness Zones. Everyone with a garden seems to know their hardiness zone as one of the basics of gardening. Most gardeners will immediately tell you that they’re a Zone 5, a Zone 9 or whatever.
In the UK, we are relatively vague about it all. But knowing your weather and your climate and what plants will thrive where makes a big difference to your gardening.
The main point to understand is that it’s largely about how cold the weather gets in winter. Many plants die if temperatures are below a certain level for too long. So a USDA Hardiness Zone of 9 is a zone where it’s rare for temperatures to go below minus 6 Celsius or 21 Fahrenheit. This means that South East England roughly equates to a Zone 9 – except that a Zone 9 in the US will be much hotter than we are in summer.
So the important thing is to know how cold your garden gets in winter. Then check whether plants you buy can cope with that winter weather. There will usually be some information on the label. And plants grown locally or sold locally to you will usually be able to cope with your weather.
Get to know your weeds…
Old hands will tell you that missing ‘one year’s weeding means seven year’s seeding.’ That’s true, but don’t panic. Your weed seeds are blown in from gardens, fields and highways for miles around. You’re never going to completely eradicate them. A summer of neglect is not going to change the picture by much.
There are two kinds of weeds. Annual weeds are grown from seeds which are dropped by birds or blown around on the wind. Perennial weeds spread underground by a root system. Perennial weeds come back year after year.
Ask a knowledgeable friend or pay a professional gardener to spend a few sessions in the garden with you over the first summer to identify different weeds at different times. Take photos on your phone, so you can pull the weeds out whenever you see them.
Personally, I find weed sprays useless because they always spread to the nearby plants you want to keep. Read my no-nonsense guide to weeding your garden here.
You will learn a lot about plants from your weeds. Author and blogger Jack Wallington wrote Wild About Weeds – designing with rebel plants because he thinks that many so-called weeds can be valuable assets in your garden. Read about his new approach to weeds here. Once you’ve got to know your weeds, you can decide which ones can stay.
What do you want your garden to be?
It’s your garden. When you start out to discover the basics of gardening, ask for advice. But sometimes you will have to make your mind up to suit yourself.
Garden lovers are generous with their time, advice and spare plants. But we do love to tell you what you must and mustn’t have or do. Dahlias used to be considered vulgar, but now most people adore them. Fashions for certain plants come and go.
So if you like a plant, and it grows well in your garden, embrace it.
Show gardens are great for inspiration. But they can’t be re-created in real life, so don’t expect your garden look like something from a magazine or TV programme.
If there’s something specific you want to do with your garden – entertain friends, grow veg or be wildlife friendly, then make that your goal.
Psychological studies have shown that if you have a specific goal, then you have something to aim for. So you are more likely to achieve what you want to achieve. If you need to have a big dining table bang in the middle of the garden, then do just that. If you want a wild-looking garden with a single deckchair, that’s fine too. See here for how to choose a garden style to suit your garden.
Where does the sun fall?
When you’re checking the basics of gardening, remember that the sun helps plants grow. But some plants do better in lower light conditions.
Plants and gardens are very easy going. They want to flourish and grow. But sun-loving plants need to be in the sun and shade-loving plants should be in the shade. Check on the label or look up the plant name on the internet.
If a garden has four boundaries, at least one will be very shady and two will be partly shady. They can be the best and most beautiful part of your garden if you plant them with shade loving plants. Shady borders are easier to look after, because plants and weeds don’t seem to grow so fast. There are some good shady, north-facing garden tips here.
And don’t think you can turn a shady border into a sunny one by cutting down a tree. Look at where the sun falls and when it falls there. A ‘sunny border’ gets 6 hours of full sun a day.
Test your soil
One of the basics of gardening is to ‘test your soil’. If you are good with instructions, this is indeed good advice. It will help you choose the plants that will flourish in your garden and work out if your soil needs improving.
But most people don’t test their soil. They either ask their neighbours what the soil is like locally or they learn by trial and error. Here’s a post on how to test your soil. Read it and see if you want to try it.
Water supply is one of the basics of gardening
It’s worth knowing whether you live in a relatively dry or wet area. A session with Auntie Google should establish that. Or just ask the neighbours if it rains alot.
Firstly you need to choose plants that like ‘moist’ soil if you live in an area of high rainfall. And look for ‘well-drained’ soil on the label if you live in a dry area. If the label says ‘needs moist, well-drained soil’, then my theory is that they’re hedging their bets. Plant it and see.
Secondly, you need access to water in your garden. A garden tap within an ordinary hose length of the borders is ideal. Water butts are useful, but run out quickly in dry summers. Buy the largest water butt you can fit in. And if you can add a second or third, linked to it, that’s even better.
When watering plants, pour or spray the water around the roots and make sure the soil gets really damp. Don’t just sprinkle a spray over the whole plant, because this will waste water and won’t give the plants’ roots enough moisture.
Time-saving plants are good for beginner gardeners…
One of the key basics of gardening is to understand which plants grow in what way.
If you’re short of time, then fill your garden with trees, shrubs, ornamental grasses, perennials and bulbs. Most will go on for years with relatively little attention. Although they will all need some attention at least once a year. There is no such thing as a ‘no-maintenance garden’.
Shrubs are plants with a woody stem that stays above ground all year round. Evergreen shrubs keep their leaves in winter. Deciduous shrubs lose their leaves in autumn, but they turn a glorious colour before they drop.
Perennials are plants that come back year after year. Some are dormant in winter, with their roots underground and nothing to show on top. Or there may be a dead structure of seed heads and grasses. Some, like day lilies, spread to fill gaps in your garden. See perennials made simple to find out more about choosing these very beautiful plants.
Ornamental grasses are some of the easiest plants to grow. They’re usually like over-sized grass, with graceful seed heads. Plant them in groups, meadow style. And they look good in pots.
But the stars of the show will make your heart sing…
Annuals are the show-stoppers in the garden. They are planted as seeds at the beginning of the year. They grow, flower and die within the year. Bi-ennials do the same, within two years.
Annuals and bi-ennials need to be planted, dead-headed and dug up, all in the same year. They’re often referred to as ‘bedding plants’. In grand gardens, this may happen two or three times a year, in order to make sure that borders are a blaze of colour.
Although they’re more work, many annuals are easy to grow. They make excellent beginner plants. Try antirrhinum, cosmos, marigolds or cleome.
What basic gardening tools do you need?
Buy good quality tools. Brands such as Fiskars, Burgon & Ball, Kent & Stowe, Spear & Jackson, The RHS, Niwaki and Felco are my favourites. There’s a post here on the 7 essential garden tools you need.
It’s a good idea to consult an expert, especially when pruning or cutting anything down or back. Get a good basic book, such as the RHS How to Garden When You’re New to Gardening. Gardening writer Helen Yemm also has a chatty and informative introduction to gardening called ‘Gardening in Pyjamas.’ It got me into gardening. Note that links to Amazon are affiliate, see disclosure.
Subscribe to blogs and YouTube channels – like the Middlesized Garden, of course! I think it can be helpful to see how we get it wrong as well as how we get it right. For example, see my post on the honest truth about dividing perennials.
If you want to grow your own veg and fruit, Charles Dowding runs an online course.
But otherwise, here is my favourite saying. Gardeners Learn By Trowel And Error. I have even put it on a T shirt and an organic carrier bag. The mug is to come! All the expert gardeners I’ve interviewed say that they have killed lots of plants. So don’t feel guilty if something doesn’t work out, just see if you can learn from it.
See more of the gardens in video
Shop my favourite gardening books, tools and products
I’m often asked for recommendations, so I’ve put together lists of the gardening tools, books and products I use myself on the Middlesized Garden Amazon store. For example, my list of the best gardening books I’ve read has some good books to inspire beginner and more expert gardeners alike.
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