Homes

Gardening for beginners

Getty Images
You have just mortgaged your life and bought a house — with garden. Or you are paying rent on a house, and a garden comes with it … Or you have had a garden for years but "garden" is a bit of an exaggeration, as it's mostly weeds, lawn that has to be mowed and a few hardy shrubs left by a previous tenant. You have no idea what they are … but you do know they're ugly.
Where do you start?
Do not panic:
Once you have the right plants gardens mostly grow themselves. After all, the bush grows without us interfering. You don't even have to spend lots of money — the best and most hardy gardens are usually grown from cuttings and spare bulbs dug from someone else's garden, ie, free.
Take a long walk around the neighbourhood and look at gardens:
Decide which ones you love and which ones you hate… then forget about the ones you love that have two eager gardeners in large hats weeding the flowerbeds. Their gardens get a lot more work that you probably want to give yours.
Come home, have a cup of tea, and work out what you'd like your garden to look like:
Flowering shrubs and a million birds and mulch? Neat shrubs and paving, with architecturally interesting shrubs like you'd find in a garden designer's handbook? A wilderness of fruit trees with a vegie garden? A heck of a lot of roses? A bit of everything?
Plan your garden:
Take a pen and paper and make a drawing of your garden. Work out where — if anywhere — you'd like the paving, big shrubs, tall trees, some colour to see when you drive up and something gorgeous outside the kitchen and living room windows.
Go to a few open gardens in your neighbourhood and take a note of what looks good and flourishes in your area:
Most garden problems come from trying to grow the wrong plants — the sort of "one plant suits all gardens" that you'll find in some garden centres.When in doubt, don't just buy what looks good in the garden centre — ask. Garden centres may have many plants that will only survive in your area with lots of cosseting, but they'll also have lots of expertise. Before you start mooching down the aisles and fall in love with a blooming great shrub, show one of the garden centre people the plan of your garden, and ask what they'd advise.The conversation could go a bit like this:
"Hi, I'm new to gardening. I'm looking for a shrub that grows about two metres high, that will have pink/white/blue flowers and doesn't need pruning or lots of water."Or you might say: "I really want a flowerbed with lots of colour. What do you advise? I'd like flowers that I just have to plant once and then mostly forget about. Oh, and what sort of mulch and slow release fertiliser do you recommend, too?"
When in doubt, don't just buy what looks good in the garden centre — ask. Garden centres may have many plants that will only survive in your area with lots of cosseting, but they'll also have lots of expertise. Before you start mooching down the aisles and fall in love with a blooming great shrub, show one of the garden centre people the plan of your garden, and ask what they'd advise.
The conversation could go a bit like this:
"Hi, I'm new to gardening. I'm looking for a shrub that grows about two metres high, that will have pink/white/blue flowers and doesn't need pruning or lots of water."
Or you might say: "I really want a flowerbed with lots of colour. What do you advise? I'd like flowers that I just have to plant once and then mostly forget about. Oh, and what sort of mulch and slow release fertiliser do you recommend, too?"
If you are renting you need to make a decision: Will you stay there long enough to make it worthwhile planting out the garden? This may well be "yes" in hot climates, where gardens grow fast and you'll have a stunning garden in a year or two. You may also love the idea of planting a garden for other people too. (I hope the people who live in the houses I once rented are still enjoying the trees I planted.)
But if you plan to move soon you can have a potted garden — even great big pots fit in a removalist's van. In hot, dry times you can even "plant" the pots of annual flowers that you plan to remove in a few months time. "Planting" pots keeps the roots cooler or warmer and moister, but there is the danger the roots will soon spread out from the pot, so only do this as a short-term project.
Ask for cuttings:
Think of anyone you know who has a garden — a friend at work, your mum, your gran. Ask them if you can have some cuttings. (If they've gardened for long enough, they'll know what a cutting is.) If your best friend just happened to be renting a place with a good garden but doesn't know anything about gardening either, head to the library and look at a gardening book with a section on "cuttings" or "propagation".
It's easy to take cuttings or divide plants — and you will be amazed how fast and easily hardy plants (the best ones for your area) will grow. Just try not to plant any that will turn into weeds, that is, ones that grow too easily. Hint: If anyone says, "Oh, you're welcome to it. I can't get rid of the stuff!" this means that — in your area at least — it's a weed.
But most of all — have confidence and have fun. That is the great gardener's secret. We don't do it to have gardens to be admired. We don't do it for the exercise either, or to reduce our waistlines or our blood pressure, though that happens too.
We garden because it is one of the great fulfilments in the world.
How can I possibly afford to buy all the plants I want?
Buy seeds and tiny plants — they're cheaper — and wait for them to grow. Or join a local gardening club and help someone in exchange for cuttings — it's a great way to learn from experienced gardeners.
Treat yourself to one packet of seed a week, one small plant a month and one great gorgeous treat — like a big pot or shrub — for your birthday.
How can I chop down a dead tree?
Don't. Get a professional to do it (look up the Yellow Pages).
Better still, ask around and find someone who is happy with the job they had done and use the same operator. There are some careless and (garden) ignorant cowboys out there. Conversely there are some real artists with a chainsaw — make sure the one you hire does what you want done.
Anyone you hire should take it down branch by branch so the whole thing doesn't collapse all over your garden. (You may only want to take the branches off anyway and grow a passionfruit or bougainvillea up the trunk.)
How can I have time to garden?
Set aside half an hour one day a week — it's amazing what just a regular limited amount of time can do. Better still, make a fortnightly date with a couple of friends to garden at their place or yours. The garden owner provides the cool drinks and blueberry muffins afterwards. You'll have earned it — and it'll be great exercise, mentally calming and enormous fun.
You may even end up with a stunner of a garden.

Your say: How did you start your garden? What tips do you have for someone starting a garden? Share with us at openline@bauer-media.com.au

read more from