Written by MG Leonard


A beginner’s guide to gardening

Once upon a time, MG Leonard was too scared of bugs to garden, but now she’s discovered the delights of being as green-fingered as they come.

Do you think about doing a spot of gardening then decide it’s only for the green-fingered pagans and giant turnip fanciers?

You may want a couple of nice plants cheering up the place, but you’re overwhelmed by soil types, pruning techniques, weird plant names and watering rules?

Fifteen years ago I would have cried, “HELL YES!” But, with a little help from Alan Titchmarsh and the internet, I’ve fallen in love with the most wonderful room in my house, my garden.

Gardening has helped me overcome a lifelong fear of insects, which I thought were created to terrify me but, it turns out, do important jobs and are my friends. It’s helped me cope with stress and anxiety, brought me closer to nature, and enabled me to throw some great parties!

Starter’s tips

If you go into a garden centre of a weekend…

DON’T walk along a seed display choosing all the things you think it would be awesome to grow. You’ll pick something dispiriting like carrots that only people with very strong Somerset accents and wrinkles in their wrinkles can actually grow successfully.

You want to start off with easy growers, like courgettes. As long as you keep them watered they’ll grow huge, flower orange and yield mega veg.

DON’T get excited and buy all the gorgeous things you want in your garden at once. You’ll spend £200 and fail to plant half of them in the time you’ve got before work starts on Monday, and then they’ll start to die in their trays, making you feel like a murderer who wasted a bucket load of money on an impossible dream.

DO think of each plant like a pet. It will need to be fed and watered, and it will have likes and dislikes.

“‘Hush with your kitchen garden nonsense!’ I hear you cry. ‘I want colour and scent, glitz and glamour.’ Well calm yourself, I have pots of glamour for you.”

DO acknowledge that gardening is physical activity, so it is good for you, but also a bloody ballache at times. In summer months all plants in containers will need watering every day, and not in direct sunlight. Yup, that means mornings before work or the evening when you’re knackered.

DO start small. I recommend starting with a container, not a whole flowerbed. Remember, if each plant is a pet, you don’t want to go out and buy a whole fucking zoo before you learn how to look after one monkey. Start with one plant, learn to look after it, and then build your garden gradually.

Choosing plants for your garden should be all about you. How much time do you have to spend on your garden? Do you want to spend your mornings out in the garden while the kids are at school? Do you want a low maintenance garden that you can potter in on a Sunday, but you’re too busy to tend to during the week?

The honest answers to these questions will ensure you kill fewer plants and waste less money.

Containers are your friend.

Start planting

Container planting that needs very little care is my favourite kind. If you plant up one container, look after it for a couple of weeks and see it’s doing well, then you will be confident about planting up a second. Containers also help minimise slug and snail attacks, which honestly annoy me as much as politics.

A good starter project is a Mediterranean herb garden. Herbs that hail from the Mediterranean thrive in nutrient poor soil and dry conditions. So if you don’t have much time and you have a sunny spot or window ledge for a large container, then plant it with rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage.

To recreate the soil these plants grow well in you can use soil from your garden (or a bag of top soil) with some sand. As the plants grow, you’ll be able to pick them and add them to your cooking and they’ll smell heavenly. You’ll also realise that supermarkets charge a fortune for a sprig of herbs that you could quite easily grow yourself.

“DO think of each plant like a pet. It will need to be fed and watered, and it will have likes and dislikes.”

An easy tree to look after that will complement your herb garden is the bay tree. They look fab standing in a pot, have evergreen foliage (which you can trim into shapes if the whim takes you) and you can use the leaves in your stews and soups.

“Hush with your kitchen garden nonsense!” I hear you cry. “I want colour and scent, glitz and glamour.” Well calm yourself, I have pots of glamour for you.

The key to a gorgeous container of flowers is height. You want a tall plant – a climber on a trellis such as clematis or jasmine is my favourite; a medium height plant – this might be a bulb like a lily, an iris or a tulip or an annual; and then ground cover, a selection of annual bedding plants which will need refreshing each spring.

This mix in a pot will allow you to be creative with colours, flowers and foliage types, and as long as you make sure you choose plants that thrive in the same kind of soil, and in the same amount of light, you’re sure to create something beautiful.

One day, all this could be yours.

Maybe you are shaking your head and tutting, muttering: “It’s all very well this container gardening, but I’ve got a massive garden out there constructed of a patchy lawn and a fir tree that I wish would die, but has grown bigger than my house.”

Well then, I say, you’ve nothing to lose from buying a big bag of mixed wildflower seed, turning over your soil and doing the shake and vac. Sure, the birds will eat half of it and the slugs and snails will take out at least a quarter, but you’ll get some lovely surprises because plants do their best to grow despite the conditions.

And, hey, it might be weeds that grow, but you won’t know that, and a weed is really only a plant growing where it’s not wanted; some of them have lovely flowers.

MG Leonard’s acclaimed debut children’s book, Beetle Boy, shortlisted for the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize, is out now. Beetle Queen, the second in the trilogy, is published by Chicken House on 3 April.


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Written by MG Leonard

MG Leonard’s latest book, Beetle Queen, the second in the Beetle trilogy, is published by Chicken House on 6 April in paperback. Follow her @MGLnrd