You really don’t need to spend a fortune on equipment in order to create a pretty garden. For many years I gardened on a very tiny budget. Of course it is lovely to have the fanciest pots and planters, and buy ready grown plants from the garden centre but it is possible to fill your plot with colour and vegetables in just one season. Doing it all from scratch is immensely satisfying, get your kids involved if you have them, get your partner involved and reach out to the community of gardeners around you.
Start sowing seed early in the season. February to March is the time to get salad crops started, and choose what annuals what you fancy. If you are a novice go for easy to grow things like marigolds, chives, cosmos, antirrhinums, nasturtiums and sunflowers; climbers like sweet peas, morning glory and canary bird to hide an ugly fence or grow up rustic obelisks. The seed packet will be labelled as annuals and will flower in the first year. You can either sprinkle where you want them to flower or sow them inside. If you choose the latter route, while your seeds are growing, spend time on the garden itself, preparing your garden soil, laying out paths and areas for planting, sitting, growing. If your plot is already established, then just tidy up the debris of winter and get the soil into a workable condition.
Remember you don’t need to buy seed from a shop, you can collect it in the autumn, dry it over winter and then sow in spring. If this is your first year as a gardener, then you may have to spend a small amount of cash or you may be able to beg some from friends. Gardeners are generally very eager to talk about plants and happy to share.
One of the best purchases I have made is an electric propagator which range from around £20 - £80 but you don’t NEED one: a plastic bag stretched over a pot will do, or you can cover your seeds with a plastic drink bottle cut in half if you have one. (Please try not to buy new non-recyclable plastic equipment but using things destined for land fill is fine.) You don’t even need a proper seed tray, you can perforate food containers; yoghurt pots, butter tubs, ice cream tubs, (as long as they are recycled eventually) or sow directly into cardboard toilet roll inners.
Some salad crops can be grown on a bright window sill – cut and come again lettuce, cress, spring onions, herbs but don’t let them scorch and remember to water regularly. For outside, or in a green house, grow bags are cheap and produce great vegetable crops – I have more success growing tomatoes, cucumbers etc. under glass but I live in Wales where the weather is … um … variable, so think about your climate and remember that it is possible to construct a simple frame using recycled timber and plastic sheeting, or invest in a temporary greenhouse.
If you’ve room for one, I’d really recommend one. A greenhouse is somewhere to escape to, somewhere to shelter from the rain with a coffee, somewhere to think as you prick out seedlings, or pot things on. I had two at my old home and I have one now but I’ve never bought a new one. My husband built my first ever greenhouse, a neighbour gave us my second, and we picked up the current one on a free-cycle page for £20. There is a post on this blog about how we adapted it into the one I use today. So look around, you won’t regret it. You can read my blog about building a greenhouse here.
You can plant your vegetables or flowers in anything, as long as it has drainage holes – old washing up bowls, buckets, wellington boots, sinks - I’ve even seen old toilets and cisterns turned into planters. Tomatoes and cucumbers do best in deep pots and need regular feeding so bear that in mind when the time comes to plant them up.
A ready mixed seed and cutting compost is best for seeds. For planting up pots and containers go for a general purpose mix. If you can’t afford to buy compost (try and buy peat free), make a compost heap and produce your own in time, look around for a riding school or stable who are usually only too happy to get rid of some muck – but beware, while manure is great for greedy plants like roses it can make your annuals do a little too well and you may end up with all leaf and not enough bloom. It is best to mix the manure in with shop bought or home produced compost or just use as a mulch for established plants. When I had horses I grew excellent veg on a bed of very well-rotted manure and I think I miss that more than the horses themselves – ha ha. My roses were fabulous but since I’ve moved and no longer have easy access to it, they are not so good.
Labels are important but you don’t need to buy them, I use wooden lolly sticks, which do a great job, are degradable, plus, they provides the excuse to eat ice cream. Another piece of advice is to find other gardeners who will swap/give you surplus plants, cuttings and share seed as well as provide a source of information. They may even have a supply of home grown compost to share.
The flow from watering cans is often too fierce for seeds and seedlings, initially it is an idea to use a hand spray like hairdressers use, you can pick them up cheaply or you may have one lurking under the sink. They cost anything from £1.99 to £7. I think you can still buy a screw on top that fits a soft drink bottle – again reusing plastic instead of throwing it away is always best. As the seeds mature you can use a fine rose on a watering can which is more efficient – don’t over water them but don’t let them dry out. The soil should be moist but not wet.
Many annual seeds can just be scattered straight into the garden where you want them to flower but I prefer to start mine off under glass and plant them out when the weather is clement. The reason for this is that I keep my weeds down by hoeing and it is too easy to hoe up precious seedlings by mistake. Follow the instructions on the packet, if you don’t have a packet or require further information then google it.
Once the seed has germinated, let it grow on until the second set of leaves appear – these will be different to the first set, then if they are crowded you can thin them into another tray or pot them into pots. Be gentle, hold them by the first set of leaves, never the stem or root and ease them into their new home with a little love. When you have decent sized plants you can plant them into containers or a flower bed and keep them well watered until established. You may find that when your young plants are ready to go out the weather is still too cold at night. Most annuals are frost hardy but you can gradually accustom them used to outdoor conditions by placing them in a sheltered corner of the garden and covering them with fleece or old net curtain at night in case of frost.
Once you have mastered the art of growing hardy annuals from seed you can move on to biennials (flowers in the second year) and perennials (comes back every year)
To sow seed you will need:
A container, tray or pot, perforate the bottom for drainage
Compost – seed and cutting compost is best
Plastic bag, propagator or plastic drink bottle cut in half – make sure you perforate the bag to let in air
Window sill or greenhouse
Watering can, or spray bottle
Patience – some seeds germinate quickly, others take their time.
Please don’t be put off if you don’t succeed at first. Every gardener fails some of the time, the trick is to learn about your garden, some things will thrive there, and some won’t. Stick with what you find rewarding. The joy is in the journey, not the destination. Gardening makes people happy.