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Last years cuttings labelled and in pots.

Gardening for all: max garden, min budget

By Flora Gardiner

To Do in November:

  • buy perennial tulips for planting in November
  •  trim shrubs & hedges- take cuttings to increase stock (see features)
  • harvest seed from plants you want to propagate
  • browse catalogues to look for next season’s ideas
  • clean greenhouse, cold frames and pots
  • buy fleece to cover plants that do not withstand frost

This month’s features:

  • caring for tender plants over Winter
  • PLANNING FOR 2024 - choosing what to grow; books on propagation
  • book recommendations – selecting plants & growing your own
  • propagating from cuttings and seed – book recommendations
  • compost – adapting commercial compost

Gardening is more important than ever for mental wellbeing, as well as exercise. This year comes with little improvement in the news, yet hope can be found if you dig for it. Everyone can do something and there are plenty of ideas out there to improve where we live, no matter the circumstances. I can’t think of any disability that would prevent anyone, of any age, taking up gardening. There are blind gardeners, wheelchair gardeners and other inspirational gardeners like Sue Kent (born with short arms after her mother was prescribed Thalidomide). Watch Chelsea-winning Sue at work on Gardener’s World (BBC iPlayer).

Let’s do what we can to improve our garden and living space, tackling local waste patches and encouraging others to do the same. A nice environment improves well-being and a sense of belonging, even for the socially-isolated. These factors are proven to have huge impact on happiness, well-being and living a longer, healthier life.

So, welcome if you are new here and would like to have a go at gardening. No prior knowledge is necessary. Gardening can take you to many places, as far as you want; a career in horticulture or botany, freelancing as a jobbing gardener, or the simple pleasure of designing and making a garden from scratch. The ethos is, ‘maximum garden, minimum budget.’ All my articles are online and I intend to gather these in a book for gardeners in social housing. Send gardening questions or ideas for projects to Flora Gardiner at NDH. 

CARING FOR TENDER PLANTS OVER WINTER

Some plants cope when temperatures hit zero and below, others do not. Make a list of your plants (especially those you enjoy) and look up their hardiness on the Royal Horticultural Society’s website, noting this in your Garden Journal. Now is a good time to take cuttings (see article below) as replacements if the parent plant does not survive Winter. 

Perennials (plants living more than one season) are divided into these groups:

  •  Hardy – can withstand down to -15°C
  • Half hardy – can withstand down to 0°C
  • Tender – cannot withstand below 5°C

If you want to dive deeper, each plant has an ‘H’ or hardiness rating. The H rating is not usually on seed packets, which generally refer to the above groupings. For potential botanists among you, this is the latest list of H ratings:

H rating

Temperature in °C

Where to grow

H1a

15 +

indoors

H1b

10 to 15

indoor or outdoor in summer

H1c

5 to 10

outdoor in summer

H2

1 to 5

cold but not frost

H3

-5 to 1

hardy in sheltered area

H4

-10 to -5

hardy except for coastal

H5

-15 to -10

hardy in most of UK

H6

-15 to -20

very hardy except in containers

H7

Below -20

hardy in all areas

Botany is a fascinating subject; the study of plants and their collection by intrepid explorers over many centuries. It is one of the many fascinating offshoots of horticulture, including botanic art and the science of plants.

PLANNING FOR 2024 - Choosing What to Grow, with book recommendation

Buying Reduced Plants

There are so many plants it is difficult to choose what to grow, whether you have one container to fill or a whole garden you would like to fill with colourful shrubs. Cost is another factor. Ready-grown plants from the colourful catalogues thudding through letterboxes at this time of year are expensive. Far better to choose the effect and colours you like, then grow from seed, cuttings or a similar plant from a cheaper outlet like a supermarket. Cost is not indicative of success. Many reduced plants will grow if cared-for properly. Incidentally, do not buy reduced bedding (they rarely live and in any case only last a season); go for reduced perennials that show green or white beneath the bark if you break off a piece of branch.

Finding Similar Plants to Those in Catalogues

There are many plants of similar colour & height, for different types of soil or location. You can look these up in full colour books such as, ‘RHS Gardeners’ Encyclopaedia of Plants and Flowers(original cost £85, on sale at Amazon around £5!) or online. Personally, I prefer sitting inside on a freezing cold day browsing through a book like this. 

Starting Small

Starting out, do not worry about design or tackling a whole plot. Learn to grow plants first, and to take cuttings and do not overwhelm yourself with worry about what the plot looks like or what people think. All finished gardens you see on TV or in magazines are the end product of years of work with many changes, also things that did not work out as the gardener intended. Working with nature is a process; a journey, not an instant fix. Gardening means learning throughout life, no matter what your experience.  New gardeners often make discoveries, including propagating new selections, which is very heartening!

Start with one large trough or container or one deep bed (see earlier articles). Fill this with your choice of with vegetables, flowers and herbs – or all three. A multipurpose compost is a good base but I add to this, according to what I am growing (see later). Cottage gardens from the 18th and 19th centuries were colourful mixes of edibles, flowers, herbs and perennial shrubs like lavender, roses and geraniums. These are still considered among the most beautiful gardens in history.

Selecting Vegetables & Herbs

As to vegetables, do not spend time growing vegetables you do not like to eat or are cheap to buy. Among the latter are onions, cabbages, swede, turnips, garlic, ‘old’ potatoes – staples of old-fashioned allotments that take a lot of room. Grow vegetables that do not travel well, are relatively expensive or taste better when harvested just before eating, such as courgettes; French and runner beans; cos, iceberg, butterhead & other lettuce; new potatoes;

Herbs are a very good option. These grow easily even in poor soil and are expensive to buy fresh or dried. You can easily take herb cuttings to increase your stock, so only buy one herb plant! The process of drying home-grown herbs is pleasurable at this time of year, my favourites being chives, sage, bay, oregano, various mints, parsley, coriander and rosemary. You can grow herbs on a sunny windowsill or a trough outside your kitchen door.

Drying Herbs

Dry harvested branches on mesh or cheesecloth stretched over a cardboard box or use a wire cooling rack. Spread the leaves well to allow good air flow. When crisp, transfer to jam jars or empty spice jars then store in a dark cupboard. If you need a large quantity, buy a dehydrator (see below) which dries herbs, vegetables, fruit also meat (if you like jerky) on a tower of circular racks.

Dried herbs in labelled jars on a shelf

A home dehydrator

Book recommendations - PROPAGATING PLANTS FROM SEED & CUTTINGS

I covered basics of seed sowing and cuttings in earlier articles. This time, I would like to recommend some good basic books. With Winter coming on, this is a good time to curl up and learn practical stuff about gardening. In line with the ethos of ‘Max Garden, Min budget’, these can be obtained cheaply second-hand, even where the original price was high. Also, it is a good way to get kids involved, especially introverts who spend hours on Gameboys and computers, so that come Spring they will be keen to get out coats and wellies and dive into their own patch, fully enthused.

These books are inexpensive from Amazon, World of Books, Abe Books & sometimes ex-library stock. The Mossman book is especially good for kids:

  •     ‘Grown your own Garden’ - Carol Klein
  •  ‘The Propagator’s Handbook’ – Peter Thompson
  •   'The Flower Arranger’s Garden’ – Rosemary Verey
  • ‘The Pip Book’ – Keith Mossman (growing plants from fruit pips)
  • ‘Bonsai, a Step-By-Step Practical Guide’ – Colin Lewis & Neil Sutherland
  • RHS ‘Gardeners’ Encyclopaedia of Plants and Flowers’- full colour plant images

Getting together a gardening library is far cheaper than it used to be, especially the full colour books. Plants and their classification do not change much so these books date relatively slowly. And sometimes it is more pleasant to sit with a glass of wine or beer or a jug of coffee over a book, than to sit in an office chair in front of a screen for hours. Give me a jug of coffee, mulled wine, some snacks, a thick, soft throw and I will be entertained all day at little cost –gaining a great deal of knowledge on a fascinating subject. And if you are more social than I am, there are many gardening clubs and seed swops out there, including allotment societies and city farms. Take the kids for free entertainment, fresh veg, lots of company of people who love growing and more knowledge than you can shake a hat at.

COMPOST – adapting commercial composts

I sigh when I watch Monty Don mixing his own composts. Is there such a thing as compost envy? He has access to huge heaps of home-made compost, also large amounts of leaf mould, two major components of rich compost. However, most of us have to make do with commercial stuff, which can be a problem, especially if you want to help save the planet by not buying any that contains peat. The new multipurpose composts, made of coir or coconut waste, form a good base, but have two problems – they are hard to wet once they dry out, and are very light (plastic pots easily fall over, if filled with this and heavy plants).

There are several ingredients you need to make useful composts for various situations. I have given my recipes below, with a list of basics – the ‘egg, flour and sugar’ of the plant world. You will get to know the ‘feel’ of a good compost over time and what works for you. You can just use commercial stuff but will soon recognise if plants are waterlogged, or look unhealthy because there are not enough nutrients, if the compost is too heavy (loam based and not enough perlite or vermiculite or grit added) or too light (too much perlite or vermiculite). Do remember to feed plants in containers more often, about once a week in the growing season. If you water more than once a week, dilute the fertiliser by half to avoid over feeding – overfed plants die as easily as under or over watered plants!

Don’t worry - everyone in the gardening world is having to adapt because of climate change and the drive toward sustainable gardening - especially not robbing peat from wetland habitats that take centuries to recover. The ingredients below are not prescriptive like a bread recipe – it depends on many factors, such as composition of the base compost, weather conditions and individual plant needs. Just have a go and learn.

Basic Ingredients for making seed and plant composts

  • Multipurpose compost – based on coir, coconut husks
  • John Innes formula (seed, nos. 1, 2, or 3) – soil-based with varying amounts of fertiliser
  • Home-made compost – rotted vegetable matter from your compost or ‘Dalek’ bin
  • Perlite – pearl-like beads made from volcanic rock; these hold moisture & lighten soil/compost
  • Vermiculite – grey natural silica material, holds more moisture than vermiculate but similar in effect
  • Horticultural grit (horti grit) – adds
  • Garden compost – home made in plastic Dalek or slatted bin or compost heap

For Seed sowing

·       General mix - Multipurpose + (1/3 perlite + grit)

·       General mix, soil based (heavier) – John Innes seed compost + perlite or vermiculite

·       Succulents/cacti/alpine – John Innes + perlite + 50% grit (these need a lot of drainage)

 For Bulbs, corms etc

·       Multipurpose + with grit added on top of planter, after planting

 

For Small Plants

·       John Innes no. 1 + perlite

·       John Innes no. 2 + perlite

·       Multipurpose + horti grit + perlite

 

For Mature Plants in large containers

·       John Innes no. 3 + horti grit (soil-based, this is heavier and therefore holds the plants firmly, therefore pot less likely to fall in high winds).

Happy gardening. Do send in your pictures to encourage other gardeners.

When buying Spring bulbs, I prefer the minis - tete-a-tete daffodils, mini-irises and muscari. These look proportional for modern properties and perform better in a windy area. If you plant into containers, transplant the bulbs into the garden after flowering. Native bulbs are perennial, spreading quickly and saving the cost of buying new every year. Species tulips flower well in year one, less in year 2 and usually fail at year three, whereas perennials will last, producing bulblets which spread into a carpet over time.

NATURAL CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS

Last year, I showed you how to cut flexible branches to make a wreath ring (see image). This will last several years until it gets too brittle. Start to collect trimmings from charity shops, pound shops, online, fairs etc. You can use literally anything – plastic greenery swags, cones, dried fruits, nutmegs, ivy, shells, glitter, beads, also ‘snow,’ gold and silver spray paint. Nearer the time, add fresh greenery like ivy, holly and ferns (mist with a water spray if they start to dry out). Yes, you can buy cheap wreaths but it is more fun to make your own and kids like helping out. Start early, because every one else will be looking (I bought my Christmas jumper in early August). If you are not creative, get ideas from wreaths and swags in posh stores then copy its components.  Also, there are second-hand ‘Christmas ideas’ books online at a fraction of the published price. On a cold or wet day, it is pleasant to rummage through. ‘The joy of anticipation is often better than the thing you’re waiting for’.

SKILLS LEARNED

  1. Gardening in stages
  2. Garden colour design
  3. Growing your own garden
  4. Planning ahead