Sunday, January 21, 2024

How to begin your route into gardening

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 How to begin your route into gardening

Inspiration can come from simply picking up a book or talking to friends and family

When my boyfriend cooks, he is meticulous. Planning, measuring, washing up. I’m more gung ho, vaguely following instructions and hoping for the best. My approach to gardening is much the same: I like to learn by doing, on the job. 

I now work as a garden designer, but I was lucky: having parents and grandparents who shared their love of the natural world meant that I had a head-start on my contemporaries, many of whom, now in their mid-thirties, find themselves with gardens they’re not entirely sure how to look after.
With a wealth of information to swim through online, where should new gardeners start? Online plant advice can be irritatingly broad (every plant seems to be for “full sun or part shade”) or, worse, contradictory. The truth is that plants are complicated, and myriad things affect their growth and lifespans. It can be overwhelming. 
Sarah Raven, the nursery owner and doyenne of British horticulture, says the gardening world contains “so much dogmatism”. Having originally trained as a doctor, Raven is a self-taught gardener. “Everybody has their different way. If you choose the right posse of plants, they’ll grow — whatever you do to them,” she says.
The 2021 census found that 87 per cent of UK households had access to a garden. But gardening isn’t on the school curriculum, and if you don’t have people around to teach you there are limited opportunities to learn.
While YouTube, Instagram and TikTok can be useful, hands-on time in the garden is crucial to developing skills. And, says Raven, buying books. “I started 35 years ago, I bought a massive tome from the RHS which had everything from annuals to shrubs to trees in it. 
“Then I started inhabiting the book, writing notes — so it then means something when I look back over it. Then, whenever I’d go out and look at gardens, if I didn’t know something I would look it up and read about it.” 
Gardening educational sources can be quite prescriptive, however; if you’re a certain type of person (say, the type who likes to follow recipes carefully) then this might suit your way of learning. But if you’re more hands-on, it could be off-putting. 
Sarah tends a pot plant full of flowers
Sarah Raven says everyone has their own way of learning how to garden © Create Academy
“Some training is very dry — and so condensed, so you can’t just follow your nose,” says Raven. “Everything is thrown at you, whether it’s how to look after lawns or the name of 75 different conifer trees.” The plantswoman is also a keen cook, and often draws comparisons between gardening and cooking.
If you live in an urban area, your chances of having a garden or access to nature are small, let alone knowing how to garden. West Londoner Tayshan Hayden-Smith turned to growing after the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, finding solace in the garden while his mental health was suffering. But he hadn’t grown up with a knowledge of gardening.  
“The words garden or horticulture or nature had never been spoken about in a way that involved me within it,” he says. 
Hayden-Smith is philosophical about his way of gardening. “There’s a perception of horticulture and gardening as something we impose on nature, but it’s about understanding nature and engaging with it,” he says. “It’s not just being told how to do things; it’s seeing and feeling and activating your senses. It’s a feeling, an ecosystem that you’re already in.”
He extends this open-mindedness to the idea that there is a right and a wrong way to garden. “How can you say, ‘this is how you grow a tree’? Of course there’s best practice and there is an ideal way of doing things but I’ve seen trees grow out of concrete buildings and pavements . . . that’s without us being involved,” he says. 
Hayden-Smith runs Grow2Know, an initiative that led to his participation in the 2022 RHS Chelsea Flower Show. More recently, he collaborated with greenhouse company Alitex and volunteers to repurpose an ex-display greenhouse and install it at Holland Park School, where Grow2Know is turning a previously unused space into a garden. His book, Small Space Revolution, which includes practical gardening advice, is due out in April.
Tayshan, with dreadlocks, smiles with a lush garden in the background
Tayshan Hayden-Smith, who co-runs Grow2Know, turned to gardening after the Grenfell Tower tragedy © Joya Berrow/Earthed
Actor Jim Carter is among the voices calling for gardening to be taught more widely in schools. “Not everybody loves sports,” he says. “If you don’t do sport, get digging. See the joy of growing a 13ft sunflower.”
Carter, who works with Greenfingers, a charity that provides gardens for children’s hospices, sees gardening as something that can be integrated into the existing educational framework, and quickly. “It teaches resilience and patience,” he says. “This is a way of looking at health and climate.
“I think gardening and horticulture should be considered as valuable to the nation’s health as art, music, design and theatre,” he continues. 
And there is a type of gardening for everyone. It doesn’t have to be how to grow the perfect rose (although that is an excellent ambition). A garden can be a piece of art, made by you, for you. Or perhaps you want to take a geographical region as your starting point; learning where plants come from, their history and how they got there. 
Once you’ve found your route into gardening “it’s not intellectual, it’s almost emotional”, says Raven, whose Cut and Come Again Masterclass course has just launched on the Create Academy website. For Raven, it’s all about “seeing that slight sparkle in somebody’s eye”.

Sarah Raven’s tips to get started

© Getty Images
  • Have one really good encyclopedia, a book instead of online. If you then populate it with your own notes and scribbles, you’ll absorb the information on a different level.
  • Pinpoint the key areas that interest you: do you want to grow food or flowers, or grow in pots or window boxes? Identify what you want to know and just begin with that.
  • Start with the easy things — calendulas, salvias — so you don’t get disheartened.
  • Learning through watching is powerful. TV or YouTube are good if a friend can’t show you.
  • Find somebody whose taste and aesthetic you trust well enough to copy. It’s great to have that godmotherly or godfatherly figure (even if you rebel against them at some point). 
  • If you like a family of plants, it’s really useful to know their country and climate of origin so you can understand their requirements.
  • If you’re struggling, stop. If something struggles for me I don’t grow it again (unless I love it — then I might try it once more).