Gardening Basics

Is gardening expensive?

shed 1It can be, but doesn’t really need to be. Like most things, you can spend a small fortune on all the latest gadgets that promise you perfect pumpkins, or magnificent greenhouses that look superb on a huge estate. But the reality is you don’t need to spend much at all.

A row of bent coathangers with a sheet of polythene makes an excellent polytunnel cloche for early vegetables, and you can buy some very reasonably priced tools in garden centres or DIY stores. Many seeds can be collected from your plants and saved from one year to another.You’ll also find friends and neighbours keen to share and swap. These gardening pages will give you lots of tips on how to garden without breaking the bank.

What tools do I need?

You’ll need a few basics to get started, and some more specialist tools for some jobs. Check out our guide to gardening tools for lots of advice.

What’s organic gardening all about?

Organic gardening is way of working with nature, taming it gently to produce the plants – fruit, vegetables, flowers etc. that we want. Organic gardening does not use synthetic chemicals to kill pests and diseases, or weed killers to do the work of the spade or hoe.

Synthetic chemicals designed to kill aphids can also kill friendly insects like bees, hoverflies and ladybirds, which are essential pollinators at the flowering stage. Toads, hedgehogs and birds can eat slugs and snails that have been poisoned by pellets.

Weed killers can be helpful in extreme cases, for instance, where the roots of pernicious perennial weeds like Japanese Knotweed (see Pests and Diseases, below) cannot be removed without making things worse. But on the whole, weedkillers are strong poisons and have no place in an organic garden.

What about peat?

A naturally peaty soil is rich and easy to work, and for many years peat has been used as a valuable soil additive. But peat bogs, from where all the peat is extracted, create a unique and fragile ecosystem where a number of exceptional plants and animal species are able to thrive.

In recent years large-scale commercial peat extraction has severely endangered our peat bogs, while gardening and horticulture is devouring 2.5 million cubic metres of peat per year. Peat grows at less than 1mm per year, so we don’t need a calculator to realise that we shouldn’t continue to use peat at this rate.

Instead of using peat as a soil conditioner there are many excellent commercial alternatives available: Coir (made from coco fibre); chipped and composted bark; peat-free potting composts; homemade compost

What about sunlight and shade?

Daylight is a basic requirement for growth. Sunlight enables plants to convert the food in the soil to energy and growth, so fruit and vegetables grown in natural sunlight have a better colour and flavour than anything grown in artificial or poor light.

In the northern hemisphere the sun moves in a southerly arc from east to west and the hottest brightest light is facing south. In the southern hemisphere the sun moves in a northerly arc, so the brightest sun is in the north. In Britain the longest days stretch from the spring equinox on 21st March, right through to the autumn equinox on 21st September, with the longest day on 21st June.  During its path across our skies the height of sun also affects the light, which is why our short December days are so dark and the glorious long days of June are so bright.  This is also why most plants struggle in low winter light, even when the temperature is mild.


What are annuals, biennials and perennials?

The natural lifecycle of a plant begins with a seed.  The seed germinates and the plant grows to maturity, producing one or more flowers that develop into fruit. The fruit produces seed that stores the food for the next plant to begin the cycle all over again.

An annual goes through its complete cycle in one year. Many vegetables are picked before they reach the final flowering stage, e.g. lettuces.  But with others, we eat the final fruit or seeds, e.g. beans, peas, courgettes, pumpkins.

A biennial plant is one that takes two years to complete its life cycle. So the seed will be sown in spring or summer, will grow to maturity throughout the year and flower a year later.  Biennial vegetables include many cabbage type plants (brassicas), e.g. Brussels sprouts, kale, sprouting broccoli, as well as many root vegetables, e.g. parsnips, carrots, beetroot, salsify. Of course, we usually eat them before they reach the flowering stage.

A perennial is one that lives for many years. The seed may be sown in spring, the plant will often take a year to reach maturity and produce flowers. The plant will die down in the winter but sprout new shoots the following spring from the dormant crown, root or tuber. Examples of perennial vegetables are globe artichokes, asparagus, strawberries and potatoes. Some perennials, like potatoes, we lift and eat before the tubers in the soil grow again the following year. Others, like globe artichokes, we eat the buds, or the flowering shoots of asparagus.

Can I save my own seed?

Yes, saved seed is an excellent way of getting more from your crops and, of course, saving money. But one word or warning: some seeds have been developed commercially to enhance certain characteristics of the parent plant, e.g. sweet flavour, good colour, or resistance to some diseases. These will be marked on the packet as F1 hybrids and if you save the seeds resulting from these plants they will not grow to be like their parents.

Judy Maciejowska

Keen allotment holder for over 25 years. Currently creating an orchard of rare and traditional fruit varieties on a small-holding in Devon. An environmental political campaigner, election strategist and campaigner.

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