"Notes to self"

What would I tell my younger self about gardening?
Sunday, 26 March 2017     

Coleus plants are among those I would recommend to myself

I am enjoying the current TV series of Home Delivery on ABC TV where people are taken back to their old homes, schools etc; at the end they are asked what advice they'd give their younger selves. I have been wondering what guidance I'd now give to myself as I was at the time I started gardening and garden-making, more than 35 years ago. I certainly can't say I have all the answers but there are a few things I wish I'd known then that I know now, which might have saved me some angst, time and money!

First of all, I would tell myself to garden in accordance with my climate. I spent a good 10 or so years deluding myself that I actually lived in England (in a thatched cottage) and that I would be able to grow all the gorgeous English cottagey plants that filled the sumptuous gardening books that were around in the 1980s and 1990s. It was only a matter of determination (I thought). When the penny finally dropped that Sydney's climate bears no resemblance to that of England, with our hot, humid summers; our mild, basically frost-free winters; and our very different rainfall patterns, that I was able to move forward and look for plants better suited to all this: those originating in warm-temperate and semi-tropical parts of the world. Don't waste your time on those rare plants from the Himalayas or European Alps, I would say: look to South America, Southern China, South-East Asia and Mexico, and consider your local native plants too!

Next, I would tell myself to plant trees, hedges and major shrubs early on in the garden-making process, so that the structure of the garden would be well underway before I even thought about the smaller plants to be placed within this framework. Unfortunately, in my early years in my first garden, I was utterly smitten with perennials (see above) and fiddled around for too long with these, neglecting to create the vital bones of the garden.

Thirdly, I would advise myself not to be seduced TOO much by flowers. I will, of course, always love them - who wouldn't? - but over time, I have learned not to chose a plant solely on what its blooms are like. The overall shape of plants and what their foliage is like - and how good that foliage looks throughout the year - are far more important considerations than the beauty of their flowers. There are so many stunning foliage plants (including the coleus shown at the start of the blog), which can provide wonderful colour in the garden. When flowers ARE considered, the length of the blooming period is an important point, as a few short days of flowering - however stunning - can't really be the reason for me to plant a specimen, or so I believe now.

Fourthly, I would suggest that I should always, always listen when people tell me that a tree, shrub, climber, perennial, annual or groundcover is 'a monster' or something that 'goes berserk'. How often in my younger years did I scoff at such advice, and believe that I would be able to keep the said plant under control. I still pay for this folly in my garden, with towering trees dwarfing all else in the garden, suckering shrubs that appear many metres away from the original planting, rapacious creepers that have to be wacked back almost every week in summer with a tomahawk to keep them even vaguely under control, self-seeding annuals that appear everywhere, and stealthy, rhizomatous perennials that take over whole borders.

Another point I'd make to myself is to create generously sized garden beds. My very first beds were about 20 cm deep, which seemed plenty of room to my inexperienced eye. Where possible now, I make beds several metres deep and try to keep their shape simple, rather than making wiggly edges that I once thought quite artistic. Within borders, I've learned to mass plants in groups of at least three of the one kind, to give an impact, rather than stuffing in a plethora of many different varieties. I've also learned to bring occasional taller plants towards the front of the border rather than having a uniform descending height from the back to the front.

I'd tell myself that making compost and using it in the garden to improve the soil is one of the keys to success, and that mulching really does work to add organic matter to the soil, keep moisture in, and prevent weeds. I'd also tell myself to avoid using any chemicals in the garden, now that we know what a detrimental effect that they can have upon the environment, as well as on ourselves. When I first started gardening in the 1980s, so many horrid poisons were cheerfully suggested in books and magazines as the solution to pests and diseases.

A smaller point I would make to myself is to always label the place where you put in bulbs of herbaceous plants. Seeing any unlabelled gap at any time in the garden is always an invitation to me to plant something there, slicing through precious bulbs or dormant perennials as I go. I would also tell myself to always label pots of cuttings, because though I might think I will 'definitely' remember what they are, the sad reality is that I have forgotten pretty much by the next day. I'd also tell myself to always share cuttings with other gardeners, because that is one of the most enjoyable aspects of gardening, and fills one's garden with special memories of kind friends.

To finish off I would tell my beginning gardener self not to take garden too seriously: it isn't a competition to see who can make the best garden. It's meant to be fun! I'd let myself know that pursuing gardening was going to be one of the very best things I would ever do in my life; that it would lead me on wonderful journeys to many places to see fabulous gardens; that it would provide solace and a distraction in hard times, and always make me focus on the future; that I would meet so many delightful people along the way; and that gardening would simply bring quite unimagined joy!

 Reader Comments

1/12  Bren - 2540 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 27 March 2017

Great blog! I agree with it all, especially growing things to suit the climate, and growing plants that look good all year rather than just having red leaves or flowers for one or two weeks of the year. I also agree about Wisteria! Thanks, Bren. Wisteria is a huge curse in my garden! Deirdre

2/12  Janna - UK Monday, 27 March 2017

All very good advice and knowledge that I would definitely have benefited from when I started out. I look back at the very first garden I made and cringe! But perhaps making mistakes and learning from them is also part of the journey. I think the volume of "stuff" to learn about gardening is a lot of what keeps it so fascinating. I"m sure I"ll look back in ten years time to what I knew in 2017 and cringe again! Yes it is all so true that we need to go through it all and make our own mistakes! I am pretty sure that older, wiser gardeners did give me advice along the way and I just ignored it! Trying and failing with so many plants helped me learn why some do better than others and looking at the provenance of plants was the real breakthrough for me, so it really was helpful to kill all those northern hemisphere rarities!! Deirdre

3/12  Maureen - 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 27 March 2017

OMG!How apt-spent last two days battling with removing a Wisteria & its many offspring. Down to stump & some newbies. Years ago disconnected it from up a gum down to a standard then began wandering tendrils popping up everywhere. all for couple of weeks of blooms!! Not worth it-What a task I have to say. Bulb signs YES! Taken to photographing things for a MY GARDEN folder too-one"s memory needs a nudge as we get older. All in all great timely Blog for me.Thanks. Thanks, Maureen; I like the sound of the photographs as reminders! Deirdre

4/12  Carole - 2264 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 27 March 2017

...all your sentiments I"m sure are echoed by most your avid readers. Your new posts always seem to arrive at just the right time to round us up again and keep us at it, focussed. It"s so easy at times with a plethora of seemingly valid excuses, to not get out there amongst it all, when we know we need to. Thanks for your ongoing motivating articles; they"re much enjoyed and appreciated. Thanks so much for your kind words, Carole! Deirdre

5/12  Peta - 2758 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Monday, 27 March 2017

All very true but sometimes I think that you need to learn through experience. You need to make mistakes. One thing I"ve decided is that there"s nothing wrong with completely renovating an old garden bed. I used to think that once I"d planted something it was there forever......not so. Now if I"m not happy with a plant or a combination, out it comes. To be honest I was very glad to move out of Sydney when the opportunity came.....the heat and humidity were not for me. Yes we really do need to learn by making our own mistakes. I agree with you about renovating old garden beds. There is little at all in my garden beds that I put in when I started the garden 23 years ago; mainly because my ideas have changed so much over that time! You are so lucky to be in a cool climate - and to be able to grow all those wonderful gems! Deirdre

6/12  Sue t. - 2566 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 27 March 2017

i know enough not to actually try but I"ve always wanted to grow a Blue Poppy. As for "monsters" I"ve fought fierce battles to uproot many of those. When I finally saw a blue poppy, I wanted to weep because it was so beautiful! Deirdre

7/12  Beth - 2257 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 27 March 2017

Thank you so much for this blog. It will give me something to mull over as I work through the list of autumn chores out in the garden. Enjoy your break. Thanks, Beth. Good luck with your autumn chores; it is a gorgeous time of year to garden. Deirdre

8/12  James - 2042 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 27 March 2017

I have not tried Mecanopsis but have attempted many ill-fated beauties-for whom the only reminders are the plastic tags. But still I groom a Wisteria floribunda for sentimental reasons - it is the surviving cutting from the one that grew on the tennis court fence of my childhood home. I love it"s bronze new growth, huge leaves, repeat flowering and those ever lengthening racemes of violet - but have advised my partner who is not a gardener to remove it when I go to the next paradise. Loved hearing about your wisteria and I do know what it is like to feel attached to plants from childhood. In full bloom, wisteria is stunning! Deirdre

9/12  Barbara - 2580 (Zone:8-9 - Cool Temperate to Alpine) Monday, 27 March 2017

I too have been on the receiving end of the havoc caused by wisteria and am now wisteria-free. However there are two growing in my neighbourhood which are always in bounds. One is grown on a standard rose "wheel" in what looks like a 1930"s purpose built structure in the middle of a front path. The structure has a brick base about 1 metre high, brick columns rising from the base which are infilled with a wrought iron lattice which confines the wisteria stems. Gives the illusion of a tree. I have admired those kind of standards. Must look amazing. Deirdre

10/12  Maree - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 27 March 2017

Home Delivery one of the best shows on TV. There should be more like it. Yes the days of trying to grow plants unsuitable for our climate are gone, bring on the plants of the areas you have mentioned. I do love that show. Very authentic. I do try to work with my climate rather than against it these days. Deirdre

11/12  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 27 March 2017

In the past, I was totally enraptured with the English cottage garden style, and delighted when I received numerous seed packets, with exotic names, from the RHS. Vainly I battled on, trying to grow these seeds, but my endavours ended in despair. The only survivors are members of the Aster family - white and blue flowered plants, which have grown for years. I also had success with sweet pea seeds. Interesting to hear of those ones that did well. I have a few vestiges from my cottagey years, and I am very fond of them! Despite all the frustrations, I did enjoy those years when I dreamed of having a cottage garden! Deirdre

12/12  Helen - 7256 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 27 March 2017

Agree with Peta, nothing wrong with moving things and renovating. Christopher Lloyd"s "The Adventurous Gardener" was liberating for me. No 1 tip for new gardeners - don"t rely on the sizes listed on the labels in the garden centre. Research in your neighbourhood or online gardeners blogs (like this one) for some idea of what a plant might actually do in your area/climate. Its a miracle hpw many shrubs there are that only grow "to 2m". Such a good point about shrub sizes. And yes, I am forever moving plants around! Now is such a good time to be thinking of what can be moved to a better spot! Deirdre

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