New Gardener Series: How To Develop A New Garden

We have been looking in this series at how the garden developed from the derelict to what it is today. Back in 2012, the UK was celebrating the Olympics in London, the mood was optimistic and the days were long because our two year old slept in the afternoon. We had a two year old but we had also invested in a new greenhouse, which we refer to as the glasshouse, due to its size and the fact that it was much bigger than are last one which was a mere 6 x 8 on a plot in Stalybridge. It's still there, you can see it from the road as you drive towards Glossop, wave at it as you pass, it will make it happy. We knew the importance of the a greenhouse in a large garden, and one geared towards growing food it becomes vital. No matter what size of garden you have, you need growing space undercover, even windowsills are useful spaces that should be decluttered of ornaments and filled with tomato plants. Who needs a whimsical sheep that has a music box in it when you can have your own juicy, red tomatoes? Yet, we'd outgrown our windowsills, a windowsill can't hold all the seedlings for a 1/4 acre garden.

How to develop a new garden

We'd like to say the process of building a greenhouse is easy -- we'd like to say it but when it involves your relatives and big panes of toughened glass it's bound to dissolve into mutterings, four letter words and arguments about who has the instructions, the spanner, the screwdriver and the bottle of gin -- it took us a week to build the greenhouse. First came the footings which would house the easy build base, for the record it isn't easy, there is geometry involved and not just bloody right angles -- everything, we mean everything has to be square. Get it wrong and the whole thing will lean, as does our shed. Being on a site that isn't flat, also makes the siting and eventual assembly a little harder. The back of our greenhouse is lower than the front, we literally dug it into the hillside. We took one day to dig the footings, not because we were slow diggers but because the first site was much lower down the hill -- taking the advice of many gardening books that demand that a greenhouse should be in walking distance from your kitchen, easy to access in an emergency etc etc -- the problem with the original site was when we dug down the required 18 inches for the footings, we hit bedrock after 8 and it was largely granite. Eventually, after much debating in four lettered tongues we opted to place it on the bed we'd first cultivated. The soil here had been turned, the roots taken out and the stones pushed and pried away. It was the logical site. Footings we sunk, the easy base was put in place, corners, diagonals, and sanity were measured, remeasured, measured once more and then fixed in place with cement. Levels were checked too, just to be on the safe side and the thing still shifted during the week by a few millimeters, which still had a knock on effect to what was going to be built. We didn't know that then, but for God's sake get the base right or pay the price in a series of comedy skits with your father in law.

Water is important in any garden

It was the final pane of glass, you can see one of the roof struts in the above photo bows under strain. As we shoehorned the final piece of glass in, the whole structure went under strain and the strut bowed. We were out only by 2.5 millimeters in that corner and we barely got that last piece of glass in. That said, we did it, and now we had a greenhouse that would provide us with plants earlier in the season. We need water and installed four large butts (don't snigger, a butt holds water, it retains it, we have water retentive butts) by the hornbeam hedge we'd planted over winter. Of course, we had no idea how big these hedges would grow, or how wide, see how close the butts are to the hedge, you can see the mulch that we have placed down -- this was from 2010 when we'd cleared the garden and turned a load of branches into bark mulch. Which is a great tip for any one in gardening, try to reuse and repurpose what is on your site, it's cheaper and less of a back pain. If you plan to have a hedge we'd recommend bare rooted plants, they're much cheaper. Our whole hedge to date has come in less than £100 and we have a lot of hedge. Be careful what kind of hedge you go for, if you go down the conifers route, be prepared for a number of things: (1) you're stuck in the 70s, (2) your neighbours will hate you, and; (3) the buggers are mardy and tend to die if they get a whiff of anyone using a weedkiller within five miles. Finally, they're trees and have a tendency to drain your soil faster than university students do at a free bar. Do some research, consider the location of your garden, your soil (is it heavy or sandy?) and if you don't know, go to a specialist nursery, like we did and they will take you step by step through what to do. We wanted to have beech on our soil but our soil couldn't take beech, beech is too soft and therefore we went for hazel, blackthorn and a large amount of hornbeam. The hazel and hornbeam have done well but the blackthorn still struggles, just showing that no matter how much advice you get, it can be down to the smallest of things that you have no control over. Losing a bare root plant that cost you 27p is not as heartbreaking as losing a plant in a pot that cost you £4.99. You can take it. To date we have only lost one plant. The reason for this was preparation and in that don't be mean, prepare the ground well, we dug over a thousand feet of trenches in late autumn and winter 2011/12, taking out all the old laurel roots, adding manure and compost and four years later, the results speak for themselves. These whips which when we planted them were barely 11 inches long, and which you have to prune back by around a 1/3 each year are now over 5 feet tall and around 2 1/2 feet wide.

Invest in netting

It is not just a question of putting a greenhouse in your garden or some coldframes, or even a hedge to make your garden suddenly come to life. You have to plan what you want to grow and how to protect them. If you like eating it, every other creature in nature will also like eating it, so invest in some nets or prepare for the worst. Even now our pumpkins are still nibbled by the hares and our five year old. We will look at individual vegetables over the coming months, and next spring we will film the life cycle of our vegetables to take you from the seed to the plate.

Plan the veg patch

Back in summer 2012,we were still under the misguided belief of treating our garden like an extension of Drovers, our old cottage garden, you can see this in how we were planting and though this was lovely to look at over a fence, it was a bugger to get around. We'd planted hundred of lupins, we could never grow them at our old house but here they had taken, so we grew loads of them in our new greenhouse. We suspect you have done the same, bought a seed packet, sown the lot and been pleased as punch when they all grew. Then you started to see that having 300 small seedlings lead to 300 small plug plants, that then have to potted on into 5 inch pots and then 1/2 litre pots and then litre pots because the weather isn't playing ball and it's still cold in April. You know that misguided optimism all gardeners have that summer will arrive early and we can all get ahead? It never happens, something always drags us behind. In our case, 300 lupins filling a glasshouse to over brimming. Today, out of those 300 lupins, we have exactly 5 left, though that summer was a riot of colour, the lupins learnt to hate the winters and the wet, and being moved as we rejigged the garden -- gardeners do that a lot. 

Lupins are great plants for improving soil

We created a dedicated fruit patch for the strawberries and the soft fruit. We should have double dug this too but by then we were behind and we dug some holes, prayed to the Norse Gods, and chucked them in. They fought a valiant fight against the sheeps sorrel but the nets here became a hindrance as the sorrel crept through and choked the strawberries. We made a big mistake but we will look at how to get strawberries to a good start in another blog when we can spread out our strawberry knowledge and screw ups. The mistake we should have rectified was keeping on top of the weeding, every gardener will tell you to do this and every gardener will inevitably fail to do so. Weeds come with the territory but if you prepare the soil well the plants will hold their own.

The mistakes we made by not preparing the soil

We took stone from the garden and bricks from the old kitchen and made interesting cottage garden paths. These types of paths had worked at Drovers, surely they'd work here -- never, ever think one garden you have been successful at will translate into a new garden, it just doesn't -- today what remains of them by the glasshouse have been swallowed by grass.

Get in the long standing structures first and do them well

However, by careful planning of what we were going to grow, meant that around the edges we could slot in those wonderful lupins. Lupins are great even as annual, because they are nitrogen fixers, they bring nitrogen into your soil and can easily be dug in. We found that peas and salads thrived amongst them. They're also incredibly easy to grow in a glasshouse!

Lupins are nitrogen fixers, grow them

Slowly out of chaos, a garden was forming that was a million miles away from that first year. However, beyond the weeds, our continued battle to grow onions and potatoes, we discovered we were losing soil. It wasn't being stolen during the night, it was being eroded by the weather and we saw this thanks to our glasshouse, earth was heaping up against it on the far side but on the side facing the house, we could put our hand under the base of the glasshouse and harvest tomatoes. Something had to be done...

New gardens can lead to soil erosion

...and next time we'll look at the importance of soil to any gardener and how we stopped the erosion.


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