Our correspondent, the legendary gardener Rosemary Verey, describes how she started gardening with enthusiasm and a few ideas and suggests you do too.
"You are lucky to live in the country with your own garden". This chance remark was made to me many years ago by an unknown lady sitting beside me in a London restaurant. It occupied my thoughts as I drove home to Gloucestershire. Like today spring was in the air, the sun and soil were warming up, and it dawned on me that our garden must have new beds, new plants, a whole new look. I remembered the woman's next comment, "My mother told me that anyone can garden if they love plants."
For several happy years we had lived at Barnsley House with its nice but ordinary vicarage-style garden; lawn for dogs and children and ideas from Vita Sackville-West (of Sissinghurst fame) that had been added by my mother-in-law. I took it all for granted. Now suddenly my eyes were opened. My daughter, Davina gave me an alluringly bound notebook inscribed 'Your Gardening Book.' My son Charles made me a member of the Royal Horticultural Society. In my imagination I saw borders and shrubs, colour emerging inside our old garden walls. It became an adventure from which nothing was stopping me except my own ignorance.
I read gardening magazines and spent money on packets of seeds as well as on graph paper for drawing out rough shapes for flowerbeds and borders. Articles in magazines helped me understand about annuals and perennials and their flowering times. But most helpful of all was visiting other gardens, talking to the gardeners, taking my precious notebook with me and writing down the names of flowers I liked and how I could see them in the garden at home.
After my own early efforts I will always suggest that you choose easy plants for your first border and ones that like the soil in your garden. I planted euphorbias, hardy geraniums, alchemilla mollis (ladies mantle), astrantias*p>, ajugas and cowslips. All of these are happy in the lime soil that we have.
When they began to flourish the next border had a different flavour, starting in spring with daffodils and tulips, then delphiniums and asphodels, pinks, peonies and annual echiums. I also put some shrubs among them that made the plant groups look a bit more substantial.
These early borders were not complicated: I used common, easy to grow plants. But they were my learning curve and this was helped by ideas from visits to Royal Horticultural Shows in London and from other people’s gardens and nurseries. Sherrards was a tree and shrub nursery near Newbury that had lime soil like us. With their help I chose and planted my first trees: mountain ash and whitebeams, which have flowers, fruit and bright autumn foliage colour. Planted nearly 40 years ago they have been an increasing joy and I can now walk in my own little woodland wilderness. It also showed me that trees in your garden are as important for the design as paths or borders.
Now it is spring and time to start, so what are your priorities? Make sure you have the right tools: a trowel and hand fork, as well as a border fork, are essentials, secateurs and a large sack to carry away weeds. Decide where your compost pile will be and keep this tidy. Prepare a patch in a border or bed, old or new, for your annuals and the new plants you buy. Go slowly and don't worry if parts of the old bed are weedy, instead concentrate on new areas. Watch the annuals germinate and their seedlings grow, soon their flowers will be ready to pick and have in the house, your first triumph.
We all have to start somewhere. Years ago I drew rough plans on the back of envelopes for friends for their borders when they wanted plants. I still do the same, so come and see us at Barnsley and we'll help you get started.
Rosemary Verey's garden at Barnsley House, Gloucestershire is open to visitors.
See also the Helping Hands workshops:
Planning a garden from scratch
Planning groups in a border
Planting groups of plants
Making a compost bin
Choosing your first tools
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