A habit well worth digging

ANY time is a good time to begin gardening, but it’s never seemed more worthwhile than now. Owned, rented, or even borrowed, a patch of soil offers you the chance to grow your own, reconnect with nature, green the city and help save the planet. Yes, all buzz phrases of the moment, but also simply part newly rewarding aspects of what has always been one of life’s most absorbing pleasures.

Gardening has also never been easier. Horticultural thinking and practice have changed to become more relaxed and eco friendly.

And there is loads of help out there in the form of professional expertise: landscape designers, environmental consultants, irrigation experts, contractors and services. Also, there are many products out there, from organic soil treatments to nifty planters for every kind of space.

Some things don’t change, however. Whether your piece of earth is as the builders left it or well established, there are five key factors you need to consider, which will shape how you garden and help you decide what to grow.

THE BIG FIVE

SUN: The amount of sun your garden receives during the day will dictate what you are able to grow and where. This will change through the seasons. Give yourself time to study how the sun moves and which areas of the garden receive sun and for how long.

You can then plan your plantings to suit full sun, shade or part shade.

You will also be able to see where you will most need shade in summer and plan structures and tree plantings accordingly.

Vegetables, herbs and many bulbs and annuals need at least six hours sun a day, preferably more. But there are plenty of options for shade as well; it’s about the right plant in the right place.

SETTING: Your garden should be in harmony with the architectural style of your house, as well as the climate and natural environment. Think green, think sustainable.

SOIL: Soil is the key to a flourishing garden. The ideal airy, crumbly balance of sand, silt and clay, rich in organic matter and microscopic life, is seldom found in South Africa. Our soils tend to range from slippery coastal sands, powdery silt, heavy clay, mildly acid to fiercely alkaline.

All kinds of soil will benefit from the addition of as much compost as you can pile. And “piling on” is the key phrase here. The old way was to dig the compost in to at least a spade’s depth, but many soil scientists now recommend simply spreading a thick layer of compost on top and sitting back – hooray, but I do think that with really hard ground it’s still a good idea to loosen the surface, using either a pick or a fork.

The earthworms and microorganisms in the compost gradually work their way down, aerating the soil and steadily improving its quality – provided you keep piling it on.

In addition to compost, there are many relatively new and organic ways to encourage plant growth. You can invest in a worm farm and use the castings or tea as plant food. You can apply pelleted manure, kelp, guano or rock dust.

And when you plant you can add mycorrhizal fungi or other inoculants. These are present in most soils in nature and help roots absorb nutrients.

All these supplements are designed to feed, maintain and improve the life of the soil, rather than the old way of simply feeding the plant itself via chemical fertilisers.

WATER: Aim to plant a garden that will survive mainly on rainfall – and retain as much rainwater on your property as possible. Also, make sure that it flows in the right direction and does not wash away your compost and topsoil. Capture runoff in storage tanks and via drainage into the ground.

Water quality is also important, as brackish water will restrict planting and watering dramatically.

TIME: Gardens can’t be rushed; you need a year to study the light, get the feel of the place and let your ideas develop. In an established garden especially, you need to experience four seasons.

There may be all sorts of things you can’t see and many delightful discoveries ahead: spring bulbs, bare trees and hidden shrubs that will surprise you in spring or autumn with flowers or leaf colour, berries and fruit.

It is possible, though, to have a virtually instant garden without committing yourself to an elaborate plan that you might regret or wish to change at a later stage.

Trial and error are part of the process; mistakes are inevitable but they don’t have to be expensive.

WHAT YOU CAN DO RIGHT AWAY Call in specialists – and knowledgeable friends – to assess your site and soil and give you advice, as well as design ideas.

Tackle weeds

and alien plants.

Start a clipping file of garden ideas that you like.

Learn about organic gardening and soil building.

Read up on plants that suit your situation. Spend time at garden centres and nurseries looking at the range.

Get to know beneficial insects.

Check out neighbourhood gardens to see what grows well.

Roll out a thick layer of compost over bare ground.

Lay out provisional paths with bark chips.

Lay or plant lawn grass for a play area next to the house. Make it a simple, strong shape – a rectangle, circle or half-moon, which you can change later once you’ve worked out your overall design. Avoid kikuyu grass – it’s thirsty, high-maintenance and horribly invasive. Get expert advice on the best lawn grasses for your region.

Buy a raised box frame or two for temporary beds, for herbs, vegetables and flowers.

Put up bird feeders and a bath.

Sow masses of annuals.

Plant screening plants along your boundary if necessary.

Invest in a few suitable perennials and bulbs like agapanthus – money in your garden bank. They will provide fast returns, multiply steadily and can be lifted and moved around as your plans change, which they will. © Home Weekly

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