I’ve distilled my top garden tips from my interviews with brilliant professional gardeners over the years. Often they have had very different gardens, styles and even different ways of saying things, but these points are universal.
And I’ve also asked a gardening expert from the US for her top tips, too. Erin runs the delightful Impatient Gardener YouTube channel and blog. She is based in Wisconsin. Her winters are much colder than ours in the UK, but we grow many of the same plants. For example, her post about how to choose dahlias features several dahlias I love in my own garden.
US gardening Zones are the most widely understood way of identifying garden climates around the world. South East England roughly equates to a Zone 9. That means we rarely go below minus 6 Celsius (21F). Erin gardens in Zone 5, where winters go down to minus 28 C/ minus 20 F! Her summers are a little hotter than ours, too. So these top garden tips apply across a wide range of climates.
Plus we’ve also identified the top 5 gardening mistakes to avoid, which you can find on her channel when it is uploaded at 5pm.
The 5 top garden tips
I’ll explain more about each one later in this post.
- When you first get a garden, just weed and mulch. Don’t even think about doing anything else. This was advice given to me when I moved in here. It was brilliant.
- Don’t feel that you have to spend a whole morning or a whole day in the garden. Try to do at least one little job every day in short bursts of 5, 10 and 15 minutes. This stops you getting overwhelmed.
- ‘Right plant, right place’ is a slogan that gardeners use. It means always think about where the plant will grow best. Think about sun and shade, but particularly consider the watering. We have a drier than average climate, so I am now checking plant requirements for the words, ‘well drained soil’ or ‘drought resistant’ and no longer buy anything that definitely requires moist soil.
- Do what you like in your garden. It doesn’t have to be what anyone else would do in theirs. It should make YOU happy.
- Come up with a general plan before you go hog wild on the plants. You’ll save yourself time and money.
Just weed and mulch…
When we moved into this garden, I asked a friend who worked for the RHS what I should do. I was a beginner gardener with a new garden.
His reply was ‘just weed and mulch.’ For the first year, I worked my way round the garden, learning how to identify weeds. I got down on my hands and knees and pulled them out by hand. Then I covered the small area I’d just weeded with a few inches of garden compost or manure. By the end of the summer, the garden looked surprisingly good and I understood much more about it.
This advice works well both for maintaining an established garden and for clearing an overgrown mess. However, if you’re clearing an overgrown mess, you’ll probably want to plant something temporary to give you colour an interest. Cosmos flower for a long time over the summer. They’re easy and cheap.
There is much more tolerance of weeds now. Some plants that were considered weeds are now accepted – even enjoyed – in many gardens. That’s why ‘weed and mulch’ works so well. You will get to know which weeds you like and which you want to pull out. You’ll learn a lot about plants and start to develop your own personal style.
Don’t do too much at once….
Gardens grow every day from spring to autumn. If you have to wait until you have a full morning or afternoon ‘to get the garden straight’, you’ll have much more work to do. And it will be disheartening to go outside two weeks later and see it looking overgrown again.
Gardening can also be demanding physical work. That’s great. It can help you keep fit. But it’s too easy to injure yourself if you go from ‘no gardening’ to a whole day’s gardening suddenly. Here is some advice on preventing back and knee pain in gardening.
But the easiest way to keep your garden looking good while preventing injury is to go into your garden every day, if you can. And just do something. It could be watering the vegetables. Or dead-heading. Or tugging out the most obvious weeds.
I often set a timer for 15 minutes, telling myself that even on a busy day, I can spare 15 minutes. When the timer goes off, I’ll often set it to another 15 minutes, or I’ll stop gardening. If you can even manage 15 minutes a day four days a week, that adds up to four hours gardening a month. That’s a good chunk of maintenance for most small or middle-sized gardens.
Of course, there’ll be times when you have to spend longer or get some help, but you’ll be able to plan that more easily. You’ll be much more in touch with your garden and will know its needs.
Right plant, right place…
Of all the top garden tips in all the world, this has to be the most important. If you have a shady border, you must plant shade-loving plants. If a plant label says it needs ‘full sun’, it must go into a sunny spot. And if you have low rainfall, look for plants that like ‘well drained’ soil. See this post on creating a ‘dry garden.’
In rainy areas, then plants need to be happy in ‘moist’ soil.
It took me years to accept this. I kept thinking the rules didn’t apply to me. As a result, many of the plants I bought didn’t thrive. They became spindly, scorched or died.
Expert gardeners often develop an instinct about what will do well in their gardens. As a result, they do sometimes seem to break the rules successfully. But often that’s because a shady spot isn’t quite as shady as you think it is.
The biggest mistake is to try to turn a shady border into a sunny one by cutting down trees. If the border aspect is north-facing, it will always be a shady border. And you can make it look stunning with the right, shade-loving plants.
But stripping your garden of trees will make it look flat and featureless. Humans evolved from forest edge dwellers and we have an instinctive need for trees in our environment. Trees are also good for wildlife and air quality. Sometimes a tree has been planted in the wrong place or has got too big. Those trees do need to go, but examine the pros and cons carefully before taking down any tree.
Do what you like in your own garden…
This is one of Erin’s top garden tips. She says that you shouldn’t worry about which plants are fashionable or what other people like. It’s your garden, and you should have what makes you happy.
When I first moved in here, I asked everyone who knew about gardening for their advice. It was so valuable and I learned so much from them. But I began to understand that I didn’t have to take every bit of advice anyone gave me. Often one person will say one thing and one another. Neither is wrong or right – there are just several ways of doing things.
Everybody said I should get rid of a large variegated plant called Acuba japonica. It has yellow-flecked leaves and is deeply disliked by many in the gardening world. It took me several years to realise that although I wouldn’t have bought it, I personally think it works very well here. It’s lighting up a dark corner. So it has stayed.
However, it can take a while to find out what does make you happy. I came across a saying the other day: ‘gardeners learn by trowel and error.’ Just keep weeding and mulching, and listening to advice. One day you will suddenly understand what you want out of your garden.
Plan before you shop…
This is Erin’s advice. It will save you time and money.
You don’t need to come up with a complete plant list, she says. ‘But have an idea of what you want to achieve in that part of the garden.’ Sketch out some rough ideas. Work out an idea of heights.
This advice runs alongside Lee Burkhill’s border planning tips in How to Plan a Truly Successful Flower Border.
He suggests deciding on a colour scheme before shopping for plants.
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