Gardening for Beginners
We are still very much beginner gardeners, experimenting each year with what we can grow and the best way we can grow it using methods sustainable both by ourselves and by the planet. We are making lots of discoveries and embracing failure.
We’ve started out concentrating on growing food for our family, and in 2023 my focus is on trying to find a balance between growing crops, caring for nature within our space, and living within the space as a family.
Late January feels bitterly cold, with snow still on the ground and new layers of frost that build upon each other with no relief from a thaw. It’s a time when I want to be out in the garden more as a new year is calling, but the cold this year is a painful one that makes my bones feel sharp and my skin burn. So, I am taking my time to get organised. I have arranged for my broken secateurs to be replaced, I have started gathering the things that I will need. The potatoes are starting to sprout, and I can sit in the warm with a cup of tea and start planning my seed sowing and other tasks for the year.
At the very beginning of the year I made a simple weekly gardening calendar, which would help me to organise my tasks for the next twelve months, working in that format so that I could plan around them time that I had in any given week.
Today I have made myself an online week-by-week gardening schedule, with a tab for each month, that I can simply pull up on my phone when I need to quickly check on what tasks I can do. That way it will not matter whether I am at home, at the garden centre, or at the other end of the garden – I can simply find what I want to do. I will add to it as jobs make themselves apparent, such as pruning the hedges and shrubs, and setting up my new herb bed, but for now there is the basis of a good plan in place.
One of the best jobs of the year is choosing which tomato varieties to sow. I have some exciting new varieties this year which I hope will make up ‘tomato lane’, which runs down the central path of the garden in summertime. The varieties I am excited about this year are:
(links to suppliers of new seeds are given where available, and links to original suppliers of saved seeds where available elsewhere).
As well as planning my vegetable growing, I am going to give more attention to planting flowers this year. we are going to make a concerted effort to make more of the central flower patch, which I have planted with tulip bulbs as a starter, and to reclaim some of the borders which were long lost to ivy when we moved in. The flower seeds I have gathered together make me feel excited to start bringing colour back to the garden. Now I just have to wait for the seasons to change and bring back some warmer weather.
It is approaching the two year mark of when we got the keys to our own house, and with the house the thing that made us choose this as our home: the garden.
Background: The Flat
Until February 2021 we had been living for ten years in a rented flat. I don’t know if we ever really thought that this town would be our permanent home or a stopping point on a further journey, but we seem to be settled here now. We had tried a few times previously to buy a place of our own, but things always fell through. At one point a problematic house survey stopped us proceeding, but on other occasions buyers simply decided that, actually, they no longer wanted to move, months and months into the process.
When we did speak of having a home of our own, a garden was always important, but it became more important than ever during the lockdowns of 2020. Things were difficult in our flat. We had a four year old who suddenly was no longer allowed to go to nursery, or to see any other children. We carried on teaching him from home, and enriched his life with play and learning, and I am honestly so proud of what we managed during those difficult times, but not having an outside space affected us a lot. Our four year old was old enough to know what he was missing out on now that all of his activities and social experiences had stopped, and he yearned for them. My claustrophobia and agoraphobia were both heightened, but we managed to sort of bumble through it all until we got a letter from our downstairs neighbour.
Part of me wishes I’d kept that letter, but I know that looking at it now it would still upset me. It was quite a long letter, complaining about the sound of out four year old’s footsteps. He worked as a night cleaner at the local hospital, he explained, as well as his window cleaning job, and because of this he had erratic sleeping patterns. Part of the problem lay in the fact that because he had all of his recording equipment situated in the bedroom, he slept in the living room, which was below our own living room – the room all three of us were using in the day – and our four year old was constantly walking around in the living room. Yes, walking. Not running, or making a noise, but walking. I know we were never loud because my husband was working from home and on continuous zoom calls from the very room that we were in, and that would not have been possible had we ever been loud. Our neighbour proposed the solution that we send our child away to live with my parents during the pandemic, and said that if we would not then perhaps he might call people who would be able to ‘help’. I never actually worked out what this meant. Because of the rest of the contents of the letter it read as a threat to my already heightened sense of danger, but it may have been meant as a more genuine offer, I will never really know for sure.
Unfortunately for us all, that letter seemed to set into motion a chain of behaviour that was bad for our family. We were so frightened of repercussions that we were constantly asking our four year old not to stand or walk on the floor, which sounds unreal now, but it was a very difficult situation in a very difficult time globally and everything just seemed lost. Looking back on it now of course this was not a sustainable way to live, but this is how we carried on in hushed whispers in our flat for months.
I don’t want to downplay the idea of neighbour noise. We had problem neighbours living above us. Yes, they had loud footsteps (and theirs were shoes on a laminate floor), but more importantly the family had relationship problems. Going on many years earlier than the pandemic, the father was verbally abusive, the son was in trouble with the police and was always slamming doors and breaking things, and there was shouting and swearing day in, day out, which only increased during lockdown. In an interesting twist, the flat above us was actually owned by the man below us – if he’d owned ours as well it would have been good to have swapped so he could have experienced the noise of his tenants. But somehow, even living with that above us, we took to a life of silence for a long, long while.
The House And Garden
As the months rolled on we needed to find a space where we could just be, and despite all odds being against us we started once again to look for a house, during the pandemic. We found our house quite quickly. Or maybe we found the garden quite quickly and it was lucky enough to have a house attached to it, because we chose this house for the garden space. We had hoped to be able to move in before Christmas 2020, but as everything was moving especially slowly during the pandemic we eventually moved ourselves and our stuff into our house in February 2021.
When we moved in there were a few things that needed tending to in the house immediately, to make our little boy’s room safe for him to to move into. Wardrobes needed to come out, which lead to a need for the walls to be re-plastered, and everything re-decorated, so it was a lot of work to settle in, but we somehow managed to get the garden underway at the same time. I had a lot of help with the initial set-up and will be forever grateful to my friend Mandy for not only all the knowledge and seeds that she shared with me but also the sheer injection of motivation that she heaped on me at a time when I was tired and would almost certainly have put it off until the following year if it hadn’t been for her support. A contact of ours had recently started growing his own vegetables in his garden, and we asked if he had any advice on local manure and compost sources, and he said we’d left it far too late to start growing things for that year, and that we needed to have started set up in November to have had the chance of growing anything in the approaching season. Mandy was having none of it, and before I really knew what I was doing I had ordered some pallet collars, manure and compost to fill them, and was in receipt of the gifts of seeds and pages of help and friendly advice.
We were lucky to have taken over a space that had been mostly cared for, but it had some problematic areas that we will likely be working on for many years. There had, at some time, been some lovely planting, but a lot had died in the preceding years and things had been left to die in pots that had fallen over and never been stood back up. There was a magnificent acer that we managed to rescue, which now lives near the pond and is thriving, but when we moved here it was pot bound to the point of death, and over 50% had turned to old white, dead wood. Thankfully it is now living its best life and seems very happy, but there were many old, established plants that had died the year or two before and which we could never bring back.
Moreover, there was a lot of stuff everywhere. Rubble, burned and melted bits of plastic, building materials, and other things that we had to research to find out what they even were.
Among other bits of metal, wood, plastic and glass we found a lot of plastic garden trays that had been put into a burn pile by the previous owner, not long before we moved in (which our neighbours had explained to us, when we were finding melted plastic everywhere) and the old frames and garden play equipment, and the heavy metal frame of a piano. Though we cleared the area out completely, there is a still a lot of work to be done on nurturing that area of the garden, and bringing it back to something useful for our family and for nature. It’s a natural thoroughfare for wildlife in the garden and the usual route of our local foxes and badgers, which are regular visitors to our garden.
The Garden Grows
For the two years since buying the house, we have been breathing new life into the space. It is multi-purpose, for our family and also for nature. A wildlife pond used to be home some fish before we moved in, but our resident heron had them for lunch over the course of a year or two, and by the time we took the space over the pond was barren and ill kept. We’ve since been given some tadpoles and have some resident frogs and newts which like to pop their heads up to say hello every now and again. We give the pond just a little bit of maintenance, and make sure that the water level stays high enough for the wildlife, and have been rewarded with finding frogs around the garden, hopefully enjoying a few of the slugs that also make the place their home.
The giant badger that visits the garden was joined by another, slightly smaller badger (we hoped maybe a mate) and the foxes come and go and wreak havoc. There’s a bit of a balance living alongside the visitors to our garden. There are no fences between us and our neighbours, so animals come and go as they please, but we have put little screens up around our family vegetables. I always leave some available for the birds and other wildlife, but we grow food for our family as well.
Alongside the food growing, we also have spaces for play, and for beauty. Though I barely looked at flowers for the first year, we have been introducing more colour and variety, and insect-friendly planting since we started to feel more established, and we also have a swing, and the tallest slide that we could find for Bean to play on. We haven’t gone ‘all or nothing’ and are lucky enough to have space for nature, for food, for flowers and still space for a (mostly clover) lawn to play on, and that space is so important, where footsteps aren’t going to bother anyone, and our neighbours have been extremely welcoming and kind, and have become good friends.
My personal garden dream was to have enough space to grow some vegetables, and the long garden here was the reason that we chose this house. I’m forever grateful to this amazing space and that my husband found the listing that was right for us. It isn’t the flashiest house, but it suits us, and the garden space is our gift to ourselves. It is our safe space, and the gateway to fresh air when the other world outside is just a bit too much.
Withe the help and advice of friends such as Mandy, and the new friends I have made online since, we soon got our growing space up and running, and I have enjoyed it greatly. Only a few short months after moving in we were easting homegrown vegetables for year, and our first year was amazingly successful, especially considering we had never grown anything in our lives.
As we are about to set out on out third year in the garden I am endlessly grateful to all of the opportunity it has given us. Both because I feel like we are part of the world again, and can touch nature, which felt so far away for so long. It is a space that make me want to go outside and breathe the fresh air even on the most difficult days, and I will often go out for a walk in the rain just to appreciate the welcome that I feel out there, to listen to the birds and just reassure myself that everything is actually ok with the world and that I am in fact doing alright, all things considered. It has brought me so many friends and contacts, from the neighbours that we chat with to the friendly and welcoming community I have been welcomed into online, and it is a space that I cherish and enjoy above all others.
Follow our gardening journey on Codds Crops And Compost – our gardening Instagram account.
For the past year or so I have been looking for a very specific type of calendar for my garden, but I have come to believe that it doesn’t actually exist, so I have made one for myself and have linked to it at the bottom of this post in case anyone else might find it of use.
I have specifically been looking for a calendar that provides a large writing area that splits the month into four weeks. I have been working in the garden in this way using a calendar on my phone for the past year and apart from it being far too cramped on the screen and the weeks spanning awkwardly and messily across daily tasks, the week-by-week method works for me for a few reasons:
Firstly, because though I can’t always plan to dedicate time on a specific day to a task (because other tasks and events might take priority, or chronic illness gives me days where I just can’t do something), I can usually manage some point within a week to get it done, so by setting myself tasks to complete within a seven day week gives me some flexibility. Similarly, some days the weather just might be absolutely against me doing a particular task, but usually at some point within a week the conditions are right enough for me to see to that job. Last, but by no mean least, I often think of garden tasks in terms of week-long chunks of time due to the excellent Garden Focused website, which generates a personalised growing calendar with sowing, planting out and and harvesting dates according to the frost and weather conditions in your location (UK only).
As well as a large writing area for tasks assigned to given weeks, I made space for an area dedicated to each day, so that I could make notes on specific tasks I’d completed, or expected deliveries, online events, visits, or anything else. Though I will mostly be focused on the weekly entries, because that’s how I plan my gardening tasks, I thought it would be handy to have a place to make notes on things that were happening whether the rain was falling and my body responding or not.
In case it might be of use to anybody else, here is the 2023 Gardening Calendar. It is made to be practical, so all of the pages are given over to writing space rather than pretty pictures. It’s stripped back, in black and white (I have a monochrome printer) and unfussy, and because there is no need to be precious about it, it can hang in my shed from a piece of string or a bulldog clip. I can get muddy fingerprints on it, and it will still do the job I need it to perfectly. Finally I have the gardening calendar that I wanted, and if it works as well as I expect it to I will be able to make ones for future years so that I’m not always trying to hold all of my sowing, feeding and potting on tasks in my head.