Lockdown after lockdown has taught many of us that being outside and connecting with the natural world is a welcome distraction from computer screens and zoom meetings. Indeed, there is a staggering amount of evidence that exposure to green spaces has a measurable impact on mental wellbeing as well as improving blood pressure and heart rate.
Research at the University of Westminster has found that just one gardening session leads to higher self-esteem, energy levels and alleviated moods. In fact, even the NHS has started to take green spaces seriously, as GPs in Scotland have just trialled giving patients ‘Nature Prescriptions’ with impressive results!
Some of us have even sprouted green thumbs over lockdown, along with a fresh interest to start some growing. But where to start?What is the best thing to grow for a gardening beginner and what can you grow without a garden at all?
Know Your Plot
Before you head out to buy seeds and compost, get to know your space. Every garden is unique and is its own little environment – what works for a grassy garden may not work on a balcony!
First, figure out where the sun hits your garden. A north-facing garden will be shadier than one facing south, so you will need to grow plants which are happy in the shade. It’s a good idea to improve your soil by adding compost or even manure to the areas you want to grow in – this will give your plants lots of lovely nutrients.
As a beginner, it is important to pace yourself! While your dream may be to plant your own orchard, you must build yourself up to this – don’t run before you can walk. Starting off with small and easy-to-grow plants will develop your gardening skills, as well as giving you a huge amount of satisfaction when the first thing you plant grows into a delicious meal or a colourful border.
Starting small is the easiest way to stay motivated. Planting an orchard which inevitably fails will leave you feeling very disheartened, cursing gardening forever as you bin your trowel and gloves. You can get seeds, compost, gloves and more from your local gardening centre, or even online if you’re a city dweller.
Seed packets have a handy calendar on the back to tell you when to sow (plant) and harvest the seeds. If you panic that you’re too late – you can always give it a go planting in early summer – just be aware that the plants will flower later and will be facing colder temperatures than usual.
Five Flowers for First-Timers
Sunflowers are easy to get going and provide food for the birds and the bees! They just need lots of water to start with and (as their name suggests) plenty of sun! If you have a balcony, or even a sunny windowsill, the traditional varieties might be too large – but there are smaller, ‘dwarf varieties’ out there which would fit your space perfectly. Try ‘Big Smile’, ‘Sundance Kid’ or ‘Elf’ in a long, 1-gallon container on your balcony. Other varieties can be planted straight into the ground in a larger garden. Pot or plot – be sure to water the seeds whenever the top of the soil feels dry.
Sweet Peas are a great option for garden borders or containers on balconies. These sweet-smelling flowers are climbing plants, so they would be happy growing up a fence, trellis or railings. Sweet peas make lovely cut flowers for your kitchen table and, once cut, will encourage more to grow. For garden growers, it is important to note that mice will enjoy snacking on your sweet pea seeds and seedlings, so start them off in protected small pots and plant them in the ground once they’ve grown to about 10cm.
Snowdrops thrive in full shade and emerge in early spring or late winter when it is still chilly outside. You can plant already flowered snowdrops in February or plant the bulbs in October and November, ready to surface in the new year. These are naturally a woodland species, meaning they want moist, shady and well-drained soil. As such, they won’t be happy in a pot on a balcony, but they will thrive planted straight in the ground.
Begonias will fare better on a shady balcony, blessing you with red, orange, yellow and pink frills of joy. Bedding begonias such as ‘Million Kisses’ are great plants to grow in containers and hanging baskets – perfect on a shaded balcony.
While not a flower, Coleus is a great choice for hanging baskets and small pots, as it has multicoloured green, white, red and even pink and purple leaves to brighten up any dreary, partially shaded corners.
Remember Your Five-a-Day
Of course, some of us aren’t just looking for a decorative garden, but an edible one too! Growing your own fruit and veg brings an enormous amount of satisfaction as you can see the entire process from plot to plate – as well getting creative in the kitchen!
Herbs are perfect for beginner gardeners. They’re pretty low maintenance and many of them can be grown in the same container. Do avoid common mint and horseradish in a mixed herb container, however, as both will spread and swamp out your other herbs, but by all means have them in their own pot! A herb pot needs to be well drained, a feat which is easily achieved by placing bits of broken pot or crockery at the bottom before adding your soil and compost.
Top Tip – herbs grown in John Innes No 1 compost will have an intense flavour!
To make the most of your herb garden, chose a spot close to your kitchen so you can grab them as you’re cooking. Parsley, chives, thyme, rosemary and coriander will do well in a partially shaded pot – though thyme and rosemary, being rather woody, will do well in sunny spots too. Basil does not like the cold, so this would do very well on a sunny windowsill along with coriander. Coriander is particularly good as you can use both leaves and seeds in cooking!
Salad leaves can grow in pots, gardens and windowsills and make for an impressive dinner party showstopper “…and here is my home-grown salad!” Rocket and oak-leaf lettuce are both very easy to grow and can give you delicious leaves just a few weeks after planting. If you’re growing outside, be sure to sow the seeds in the spring, but a windowsill-dwelling plant will do just fine as long as it has heat and light.
Broad beans make a great addition to salads or pasta dishes and are a great source of protein. While they prefer to be grown in the ground, they would fare pretty well in a large container. For those with limited space, there are dwarf varieties available, such as ‘Sutton Dwarf’, which can be grown in a deep and long pot on a balcony. They do, however, need plenty of sun, so don’t plant them in a shaded spot. Like the sweet peas, it is worth growing each bean in its own little pot before planting it in your raised bed, to give it a fighting chance against hungry mice.
Bush tomatoes can be grown outside or in a greenhouse in hanging baskets or pots. These are a good beginner’s tomato as they don’t grow tall and are easy to control, but after a few successful harvests you might be ready to take on more challenging varieties such as ‘green zebra’, ‘black Russian’ and ‘San Marzano’. But for now, stick with bush tomatoes. Tomato seeds can be sown into small pots and left on a bright windowsill before being moved into bigger pots outside. The best tasting tomatoes are grown in sunny, sheltered spots.
Strawberries make for a lovey dessert after your home-grown main course and, thankfully, can be grown in pots, baskets, window boxes and the ground. Strawberry plants generally grow best in sunny spots but ‘alpine strawberries’ are a good choice for shaded spots; though they give smaller fruits, they are no less delicious than other varieties! Strawberry plants are a worthwhile investment, as they generally keep giving fruit for three or four years before running out of steam. A layer of gravel or broken pot pieces will, like the herbs, help keep your strawberry pots well drained and happy.
Chichester has a wealth of nurseries and garden centres to help you on your growing journey, many of which are mentioned in our November edition, which you can find online.