The ultimate cheat sheet for beginner gardeners, including what to plant

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It’s a minefield out there. Gardening terms, words and jargon are driving new gardeners potty.

A consequence of the pandemic that no one could see coming was that millions of us suddenly found we had time on our hands, but with no prospect of travelling anywhere to spend it in a fun or rewarding way. So as the spring of 2020 turned into summer, we all went into our gardens.

Thousands, as if noticing their plots for the first time, decided to spruce things up, and many who found themselves without work or income decided to grow their own food. Others, who had saved money for a holiday, with no tourism permitted, chose instead to invest and upgrade their gardens.

Britain’s love affair with gardens was confirmed this week as new research conducted by the HTA found that almost three million gardeners sprung up this year as a result of lockdown.

By and large, these inexperienced gardeners were flummoxed. Percy Thrower, the famous TV gardener of the 1960s, was known to say: “You never stop learning in gardening.” But the gardening class of 2020 were, to all intents and purposes, full-time gardeners who hadn’t even been to kindergarten (or is that kinder-garden?).

With horrible Latin plant names, and terms that experts revel in, such as “grafted plant”, “F1 hybrid” and “ericaceous”, novice gardeners are struggling.

Since garden centres opened again after the first lockdown, their staff have spent a lot of time talking about techniques, and explaining words, and metaphorically holding the hand of new gardeners.

For more than a decade my wife, Denise, has worked at the Compton Acres Plant Centre in Poole, Dorset, where she is currently head buyer. The plant centre is attached to a beautiful 10-acre garden, one of the leading garden attractions on the south coast. Being the only garden retailer for several miles, it attracts both the experienced gardener as well as the beleaguered newbie.

Denise says: “Novice gardeners do need more help. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked which plant flowers all year round, and doesn’t need any watering. It doesn’t exist! When tulips are in flower, we regularly have people desperately wanting to buy the bulbs so they can have the flowers instantly. Others have found it difficult to grasp the fact that rhododendrons, camellias and heathers won’t grow well in their garden, which sits on pure chalk.

“Sometimes the situations are quite comical. A lady once asked me for the ‘osteoporosis plant’. Of course, she meant osteospermum, or African daisy.

“On another occasion, a lovely man bought a 12ft wisteria. He needed help getting it to his vehicle – which happened to be an open-top MG. We squeezed it in, but most of it was sticking out. Only then did we discover that he lived 100 miles away in London, so he will have been bombing along the M3 with a wisteria battered to shreds.

“Another customer paid more than £100 to buy a 6ft tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica). His question stopped me in my tracks: ‘When I get it home,’ he said, ‘can I cut the large dead bit off the bottom and just keep the ferny bit at the top?’”

She adds: “In a normal year we have coaches bringing holidaymakers to Compton Acres. Many times, I have seen them buy large 6-7ft banana plants in full, spectacular leaf, or something similar, and then having to beg the driver to let them back on the coach.”

However, according to Denise, it’s the words that cause most confusion with new gardeners. “The term ‘multipurpose compost’ seems like it couldn’t possibly be confusing. You’d expect to be able to grow everything in it. Well, of course, it’s not suitable for planting trees and shrubs in pots, which need a loam-based compost,” she says.

“Then we’re asked, ‘What’s loam?’ We explain that it’s a good grade of soil, such as is used in the John Innes compost range. That leads to, ‘What (and who) is a John Innes compost?’ And so it goes on.”

Jargon busting for beginners 

Annual/biennial/perennial

The three different growing cycles to which most plants belong. Annuals grow from seed, then flower and die within one year. Biennials do the same, but within two years (they usually grow from seed one year, then flower and die the next). Perennials last for longer; these are generally border plants, but may also be bulbs, trees and shrubs.

Cultivar

Short for “cultivated variety”, this is a plant bred for different or refined characteristics.

Deciduous

Any plant that loses its leaves in autumn and goes into a dormant state for winter before coming back into growth in spring.

Ericaceous

Plants (from the Erica or heather family) that generally need slightly acidic soils, with a pH of less than seven, to thrive.

Espalier

This is a fruiting or ornamental tree or shrub whose branches are trained to grow horizontally and flat, on wires, against a wall or between posts.

F1 hybrid

This stands for “Filial 1”, which the gardener doesn’t need to know. It’s a term used in genetics, referring to first generation seeds or plants (or animal) offspring resulting from a cross-mating of different parental types. In gardening, F1 hybrid plants are superior 
in quality or form, and invariably more expensive.

Grafted plant/rootstock

Nurseries use the roots and the bottom portion of one plant (the “rootstock”) and attach it to a shoot (“scion”) from the top portion of another plant. This is usually done with certain trees, shrubs, climbers, roses and fruiting plants to combine the best qualities of the two plants.

Hybrid tea/floribunda rose

Two commonly grown types of bush rose: hybrid teas have bigger single flowers on stems, and floribundas have clusters of slightly smaller flowers.

Mulch

Any organic matter (compost, bark or manure) laid on soil around and between plants, to help feed them, conserve moisture and smother weeds. Inorganic mulches (stone or glass) are used for decorative effect.

Mycorrhizal fungi

A modern phenomenon, developed from a natural biological process: dry granular beneficial fungi sold in packets are used when planting. They help plant roots to absorb soil nutrients and get off to a good start.

Potting up/potting on

“Potting up” is when you have a seedling or rooted cutting that is big enough to be removed from its first container, or nursery bed, and “potted up” into a small pot of its own. Meanwhile, “potting on” is simply moving a plant that has grown into a bigger pot.

Top dressing

In gardening there are two general meanings: 1) to sprinkle a dry or granular fertiliser over the soil around a plant, and 2) to scatter bigger, bulkier organic matter over a lawn, before brushing it in. This improves the condition of the soil on which the turf is growing.

Alan Titchmarsh’s five easy plants to grow 

Ribes sanguineum ‘Pulborough Scarlet’

Credit: mtreasure

This flowering currant makes an 8ft-tall rounded shrub that drips with pink flowers in spring, looking rather like blobs of raspberry jam. The leaves are deliciously aromatic.

Penstemon ‘Garnet’

Credit: REDA&CO

Now rejoicing under the name of ‘Andenken an Friedrich Hahn’, but don’t let that put you off growing this beauty with rosy-red spires of elegant foxglove-like flowers on 2ft-tall stems. Great for cutting and easy to propagate by cuttings, too.

Rose ‘Margaret Merril’

Credit: TeleMakro Fotografie/Ina Hensel

Wonderfully fragrant pearly-white flowers held among disease-resistant foliage. It blooms all summer on bushes around 4ft tall.

Allium ‘Purple Rain’

Credit: CoinUp

Plant the bulbs in autumn and purple-pink drumsticks of flowers on 2ft stems will appear in April and May. Great planted in groups among border perennials.

Geranium macrorrhizum

Credit: Ina Hesmer 

A brilliant ground cover plant with hairy aromatic leaves and flowers of pink, purple or white depending on the variety. Great under and around shrubs where little else will thrive.