Gardening wisdoms from my first gardening year

It’s over a year since we moved from a top-floor gardenless London flat to an Edinburgh tenement with front and back gardens and a large communal backgreen. It’s a year since I looked in bewilderment at the unfamiliar shrubs, plants and trees, empty tubs by the front door, un-pruned roses and flopping peony stalks (I didn’t know they were peonies) and thought, ‘I have no idea what to do with all this’. And so I began to ask questions of people who knew about gardening, and I searched books, websites and blogs for anything that would give me a clue as to what these dying stalks and fronds wanted from me. A learning curve is steepest at its outset, and while I have infinite gardening knowledge left to gather over my lifetime, this year has taught me the basics, a firm foundation on which to build more complex knowledge.

Patience was the first inevitable lesson, along with not worrying . In winter, life sleeps quietly  below the soil, biding its time until the temperature and day length suits its needs. No matter how much one hops from foot to foot willing seeds to sprout or bulbs to flower, they’ll come exactly when they feel like it and not a moment sooner, like these irises that showed no sign of flowering for months, and then overnight burst out like this:


 Sunshine is King, warmth is Queen. The difference between similar plants planted in our north-east-facing front garden and our south-west-facing back garden was most educational in this respect. It was also enlightening to visit gardens further south, like my friend Tessa’s in Kent, and my grandmother’s in Derbyshire. It was quite wonderful how much farther sunny, warm Kent had got ahead of Scotland in March, and how Scotland trailed at least three weeks behind Derbyshire in the early summer.

And length my spring bulbs all came out, and displayed a dazzling show of … white. For some long-forgotten reason, I made the odd decision to plant only white bulbs. Nothing like experimentation for the development of wisdom. Don’t shy away from colour, even if you prefer neutral colours for your clothing or interiors. All-white gardens are not very interesting!


In spring, I planted some seeds, and learnt my next lesson: like humans, plants need space and will grow into it if you leave enough of it. In my early planting, I found it hard to resist packing plants in among each other, forgetting that they would grow much larger, and creep, divide, and eventually crowd each other out. Like the lamium I planted in the wilderness which has overtaken a large area, suffocating the other plants nearby as they compete for water and light.


I planted the seeds in pots, and cultivated a several other pots of plants including lavendar, bulbs, and various cuttings. Pots are pretty but a lot of bother. They need constant watering, even after it has rained, and pots mean troubling your neighbour to water them while you are away (you will be required to reciprocate). Forget your pots for half a moment and their soil turns to dry, solidified husks, especially if the compost was of mediocre quality. Related to this is another wisdom: care for your soil as you care for your plants. Keep it well nourished and fertilised. In an ideal world I would as many of my plants into the ground, where water and nutrients are slower to exhaust; they’d thank me for it, and so would my neighbours.

Speaking of neighbours, the first people we were lucky enough to meet in Edinburgh were Left Neighbour, quickly followed by Right Neighbour and Right-But-One-Neighbour, three of the friendliest and most welcoming women on the planet, and through whom we were introduced to communal gardening in our back green, and to several other neighbours, many keen gardeners. Gardening is sociable. Not only do we have access to the shared potting shed full of tools, seeds, fertilisers and suchlike, but to an amazing fund of gardening knowledge from gardening old-timers, and opportunities to bond over dividing and sharing plants, mowing the lawn, building up our compost heap, making bonfires, or simply being invited to share a G&T on someone’s back patio.

In all disciplines (and gardening is a discipline, if you make it one) study will reward your efforts. For busy people with gardens, just letting the garden do its own thing is often enough, and often has to be.

But if you yearn for your garden to look like this: IMG_0005

Then you’ll need to get stuck in to these: IMG_0091

(Except, perhaps, the one about making a white garden.)



4 thoughts on “Gardening wisdoms from my first gardening year

  1. Those irises were truly impressive. I’ve never grown irises, apart from the ones which came with the garden which are the rhizome sort, and the very little ones which flower early in the spring. Yours look like the big bulb sort and are clearly well worth giving a try.
    As for pots and potting compost, my first efforts – geraniums (doubtless cuttings from your grandmother) in pots on my balcony at Chiswick Village, suffered terribly from drying out until I discovered John Innes which was a revelation, and since then I have used no other. Non-loam-based compost must have improved since 1970, but from what you say, not that much. I see the stacks of it at garden centres, and wonder, whoever buys it a second time?

    1. We should probably declare here that John Innes is not paying us for this endorsement. At least, they’re not paying me… who knows what pies you have your fingers in, dearest mama.
      Anyway, the stuff I was using WAS JI. I think any compost, if not watered enough, will dry out eventually.

  2. Ah, but if you water dried-out JI it will be moist again, not so the old peat-based “all-purpose” composts. If you watered them too late the water would run down between the pot and the solid brown block now strangling the roots of your withering plants. The only solution was to stand the pots in sink or bath and fill it up for a few hours. Messy, and annoying to flatmate. I daresay the modern “all-purpose” composts are not so bad, but have never bothered to try them.
    Do not worry that I am Tainting your Blog with Commerce – John Innes is a recipe, not a firm. The recipe (actually there are five, plus a fertiliser recipe) was devised by the John Innes Institute at Merton in Surrey. The compost itself is produced by lots of different firms, most of which produce all-purpose compost as well.
    Here is the recipe for JI No 3 :
    Sterilised medium loam 7 parts
    Horticultural peat 3 parts
    Coarse clean sand 2 parts
    JI fertiliser 12 oz per bushel of the above
    Ground limestone 2.25 oz ditto
    Sadly I cannot find the fertiliser recipe, doubtless Google or Wiki would produce quickly. As I remember it contained saltpetre (N) and superphosphate (P), not sure where the K came from, unless it is also in the saltpetre (potassium nitrate?). I bet you can’t go into Boots and buy 4oz saltpetre these days.

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