I am the granddaughter of gardeners, agriculture was and still is my grandparents’ life. Not long ago we were reminiscing about the old tools they used to plant and harvest, the boxes for chicory which we still use to store just about everything outside and in the shed. My auntie and mother remembered that growing up, big expenses such as– new electrical devices, a trip to the sea – would be scheduled for mid-May, because the main income for the family would come in on the 1st May, where in France people traditionally give each other bouquets of white lily of the valley. My grandparents harvested them very early in the morning, tying all the bouquets on the day, ready to be picked up by the florist.
I grew up learning how to add numbers and handle money when in November we would sell Chrysanthemums, the flowers traditionally put on graves in France on 1st November.
So you could think I know a little about plants and gardening; but you are wrong, oh, very wrong.
My biggest achievement in the botanical department was keeping my four herb pots alive over one summer. I had sent them on holiday to my neighbour while I was away and they grew to twice their original size. From then on, I managed to keep them alive, and the basil even grew further.
That concludes the lists of plants I have managed to grow and keep.
I am interested. I love seeing flowers, I crave my fresh herbs when I can’t have them and I love being out in nature. I simply did not inherit the green thumb from my grandad. He, on the other hand, can grow just about anything. We have kiwi fruit growing in the North of France with a similar climate to England. Any seeds I have brought him from travels all over the world are to be found blooming in some corner of the garden.
The wonderful thing is that nowadays, you can learn just about anything – and I don’t mean by looking it up online. There are books specific to just about anyone’s need and so, as a project for the summer, I have decided to at least learn some of the gardening basics.
My books of choice were The First-Time Gardener by Frances Tophill – for obvious reasons: I am the definition of a First Time Gardener and it starts from scratch – and Grow For Flavour by James Wong – since flowers are beautiful to look at, but what I enjoy most is being able to pick and harvest food myself before cooking; there is nothing quite as good as preparing and eating your own, home-grown food.
Over the course of those two books I have learnt a lot! First of all, I can now tell you they are the type of books you don’t read just once, but you keep them as an encyclopaedia for your gardening knowledge.
I started off with The First-Time Gardener, because it seemed fit as an introductory book.
Tophill’s book starts at the very beginning, when you acquire your new garden. And, luckily for those as scared of messing up plants as me, at first it is only about analysing, watching and planning. My first lesson in setting up a garden was to watch my new garden space through the seasons to see what grows where, what is already there, where does sun come in and where are shady corners, maybe best for a seating area.
And then, it becomes more tricky: You need to know what you want; identify your needs.
Here are some examples of what I learnt to think about:
“Why do you want a garden? Are you interested in plants and look forward to tending them, or do you really just want an outdoor ‘room’ for relaxing and socialising?
Consider your storage needs – will you need to erect a large shed for tools, garden furniture, bicycles and any overflow from the house?
Do you want to grow vegetables and fruit?
Are you interested in creating a garden that encourages wildlife, such as bees and butterflies?”
So next, I had to think of garden styles, which again means decisions. In case you don’t know what that means, let me – now very well-versed in gardening – explain it to you. Gardens usually have a certain look, they can be modern, minimalist, themed with Asian art for example.
I can only do the planning part of the garden so far, since it is not yet mine to create. I would rather have a little more practice before taking over the reigns on my grandparents’ garden, but I did do a lot of planning.
I would like a cross between a cottage and wildlife garden. The latter is, as you can imagine, to encourage wildlife. I am not saying I expect deer (although since the forest is adjacent to the property, it is not out of the question), but bees, birds, butterflies and hedgehogs would be lovely. The former is a term for an informal garden, originally a ‘practical garden’ used to grow food. Now it can be a mix of flowers, self-growing annuals and edible plants.
Of course, a garden is not made up simply from plants. Creating a garden from scratch involves ‘hard landscaping’; paving, possibly erecting walls, fences, structures.
Frances Tophill has created a step-by-step guide to creating not just a garden, but a space, almost an oasis, that will meet your needs (as long as you identify them correctly!). I have learnt all from planning (almost my favourite stage), to saving plants, which is especially interesting when there are plants you like in the garden but their position doesn’t fit into your new plans, to placing plants.
One of the most useful lessons for a first time gardener like me was to know where to start and how to build up the garden. It seems logical to start with the large trees and scrubs before planting small flower beds. But after that? What other rules of thumb are there?
“Keep it simple. Limit your colours and limit your choices. It is better to use the same repeatedly than introduce hundreds of different ones. If you feel something is missing you can always add it at a later date.
Plant in groups.
Use multiple groupings of the same species or at least the same colour to draw the eye through the garden. This even applies to shrub and tree choices.
Plant using odd numbers. In formal gardening this is not the case and symmetry works best, but for all other designs choose odd numbers.”
And since my future garden is not all planned out, I am ready to move to the next level: learn how to grow food! I don’t need it to be in my own garden for now, I can just borrow a little corner of my grandfather’s vegetable patch.
Planting seeds is relatively, easy. I know a little about that, and changing from small to big pots and then planting them into the soil I have learnt. If not, there would also be some help in my Frances Tophill book. But how do I get the fruit and vegetables to grow into something edible?
James Wong is very helpful in that department!
I picked up Grow For Flavour knowing I wouldn’t use all of it straight away. I am not that advanced yet. And as I mentioned before, it is almost an encyclopaedia to pick up whenever help is needed. So I went mostly by plant. I read all about the tomatoes and herbs I wanted to grow, because I could apply it straight away, and then moved on to others, for general knowledge.
Be warned though – it is not as easy as it looks on first glance! It gets very technical when it comes to acid and fibre and I longed for my biology and chemistry teacher to go over some of it with me. Next time I read it through I will probably understand a little more already, but contrary to how it looks, it is more of a sitting at a desk taking notes book than lying in the garden reading for pleasure.
As with any book that is hard to read, there is a lot in it and you emerge from the page much smarter than before.
The beauty with Wong is that he doesn’t list the best chemicals to use to grow plants, but focuses on natural and home-made recipes to get your edible plants to grow and ripen. That part is in fact very well explained. My father always used the teacher phrase “You can show you have understood something by explaining it your own words to someone else”. Basically, saying “I can’t explain” translates into “I don’t understand it myself”.
So, as proof that I have understood and learnt something, I will explain to you how the aspirin mixture works on your tomatoes (you can look up the recipe for this mixture yourself when you read the book):
The mixture (and the aspirin in particular) contains acid that recreates the feeling of being attacked and stressed for the plant. Sprayed on a tomato about a week before it is ready to be picked means it will go into a defensive mode, putting all the flavour into the plant (which we then pick or it falls off) to focus on keeping the plant itself alive. Similarly to trees which don’t have leaves in winter to focus on getting the tree itself through the cold winter.
So you fake an attack and the tomato ejects all the flavour into the fruit, without actually being sick and getting harmed (we know this, but the tomato does not); plant goes into defence mechanism and we get a big, red, ripe tomato full of flavour – voilà!
There is a lot more to learn from Wong but I won’t spoil the book for you. I will however, give you a taste of what my flowers and plants look like after teaching myself basic gardening skills with these two books:
The First-Time Gardener by Frances Tophill
published April 2015
ISBN 0857832549 (ISBN13 978-0857832542)
Grow For Flavour by James Wong
published March 2015
ISBN1845339363 (ISBN13 978-1845339364)