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13 May 2020

Where, and how, to begin if you are one of lockdown’s many first-time gardeners

As I have been telling novice gardeners for years, gardening successfully is largely about assessing priorities.

By Stefan Buczacki

Seldom in the history of British home gardening can so many people have been so unsure about what they are supposed to be doing. Lockdown and self-isolation have meant folk who have never previously been inclined to mow lawns, sow seeds, till soil, control pests and weeds, or propagate plants, have been seeking to rekindle long-forgotten skills or acquire new ones, and in a very literal sense learn on the job. 

It is not easy, and there is a limit to the gardening expertise that can be learned through books, TV, radio, the internet – or magazine articles even! Gardening is learned by doing, and improvement comes only from experience.

Where does this leave today’s locked-in, locked-down horticulturists? People I meet on my daily permitted walk tell me, across the required two-metre distance, “I just don’t know where to start.” And that, in a nutshell, defines everything. As I have been telling novice gardeners – of whatever age – for years, gardening successfully is largely about assessing priorities: knowing which tasks must be done today or this week, and which can be left a while.

So what are the priorities for a typical garden in May? Weed control is high on the list because weed growth is almost exponential at this time of year – and if weeds are left unchecked, gardens will not only soon look unsightly but garden plants will suffer under the weight of competition. 

The first sowings of vegetable crops should be done as soon as possible to obtain early produce, although sowing can and should continue sequentially over the coming two or three months in order to obtain a succession of crops and not a glut.

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The sowing of annual flowers should similarly be done soon, but there is no rush to put out bedding plants. Provided they are kept watered in their pots or modules, they can be planted as and when time allows, and if they are in the ground within the next month they will still make a good show this summer.

Lawns are growing fast, but mowing can always be put off for another week, given the effectiveness of good modern lawnmowers. And if you are concerned about the overall appearance, then trim the edges. I have always believed you can get away with murder in the garden provided your lawn edges are neat.

Hedges are growing apace, too – box hedges are generally ahead of the rest –  but there is no need to rush to deal with them. They should be clipped as and when time allows. Although they may be looking a little ragged,  it’s important to avoid disturbing nesting birds, and bear in mind that many large public gardens are still clipping their yew hedges well into the winter.

And what about pest and disease control? There are some nuances here in that although some diseases and pests are more serious than others, that sort of specialist knowledge is only acquired over time. So my advice is to strike at any obvious problems as soon as you see them, using organic controls whenever possible. Roses especially will suffer if aphids and black spot are not stopped in their tracks.

I don’t guarantee success with any of this, and there really is no substitute for experience, but above all, I do hope that when we finally emerge from the Covid-19 tragedy, we shall have more committed lovers of gardening than when we started.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

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This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion