I’m a gardener with a huge passion for growing food. The more I learn about the agricultural industry, the more I want to detach myself from it. Whilst I would love to be entirely self-sufficient, I know that it is not realistic in today’s society. My mission is to encourage and teach people how to grow their own food in a way that works with nature, not against it.
Here, I have compiled a list of my top tips for eco-conscious beginner gardeners.
Find out your last frost date
If there is one crucial date to be aware of in a gardeners calendar, it is your last frost date in the Spring. Knowing your last frost date can help you determine when to sow frost tender plants. Many beginners sow these too early because of sowing dates on seed packets. This results in plants that are pot-bound and more difficult to move and transplant. By sowing too early, you risk setting yourself back further by increasing your likelihood of having to resow.
To find out your last frost date, it is best to talk to an experienced gardener in your area. If you have an allotment then this is much easier to do. I have found online resources to be incredibly unreliable, one forecasting my last frost date up to 6 weeks before my actual last frost date. If in doubt, much of the south of the UK is often around mid-May, meanwhile the north is usually frost free at the start of June. If you live in coastal areas, it is likely to be earlier, meanwhile if you live on higher ground, it could be later.
Over sow and over planting
It can be incredibly tempting to sow and plant exactly what you need, particularly if you are trying to reduce your waste. However, you can’t expect all seeds to germinate, and it is inevitable that you will lose some plants to pests or disease etc. I always sow double the amount of seeds for the number of plants I’m growing, and always try to grow a few too many plants to account for losses too. If everything goes well and you have too much, you can always give your excess to friends, family and neighbours.
Plant for pollinators
By planting specifically for bees, you can improve your gardens productivity by increasing the number of pollinators. We all know how important pollinators are, so lets make sure we provide for them. If in doubt, bees can see purple flowers easier than other colours. For this reason, lavender and borage are great starting points. Mixed wildflower seed packets can be a great, low effort option too.
Go peat free
If you are buying compost for sowing seeds and potting on seedlings, then look for good quality peat free organic compost. Whilst this may be more expensive at the outset, a good quality organic compost with no added fertilisers is like comparing brown bread to white bread in terms of how nutrients are released. Ultimately, it will produce more steady plant growth over a longer, more sustained period. This can reduce the need to use as much compost and also negate the need for adding fertilisers. My personal favourite compost is Dalefoot compost. Whilst it is expensive, I find the return on investment invaluable.
Grow expensive or excessive packaging crops
I used to always assume that expensive crops in supermarkets were expensive because they are difficult to grow. This is rarely the case. The reason many crops are more expensive is because of harvesting methods. Any crops that cannot be harvested and processed by machine, have to be harvested and/or processed by hand. Some examples include berries, chard, green beans and mangetout. All of these are super easy to grow, and taste so delicious when fresh.
Assess your growing space
Before you start on a new garden it is so important to assess your growing space first. How much sunlight does your garden get each day? Assess which areas of your garden get more sunlight than others and if there are areas that are more exposed to wind. Light levels vary significantly during the year. For example, the back wall of my small north facing garden is the only part that gets the winter sun, meanwhile in summer it is in complete shade because of an overhanging tree. There is no point trying to grow sun loving plants in a shady area, so look for plants that are suitable for the area you are planting. This way you increase the likelihood that your plants will thrive.
Grow from seed
There are so many benefits to growing plants from seed. It’s cheaper, more satisfying and usually results in stronger plants. Growing from seed is also more sustainable because there are no wasteful pots, reduced transportation and you can ensure peat free compost is used. You can buy some plug plants in peat free compost now, but they are still in the minority.
With all of the above being said, some seeds are trickier to germinate than others, and sometimes pests get to your seedlings etc. Do not be disheartened if you find yourself having to buy plug plants despite sowing your own seeds. It happens. Learn from your mistakes, find a solution and move on.
Practice no dig
No dig has become a bit of a buzz phrase this year in the gardening community, and for good reason. By not digging you are not disturbing or destroying all the beneficial micro-organisms in the soil. No dig is a huge back saver, and it is better for soil health and the environment on the whole. Did you know that the act of tilling soil releases CO2 into the atmosphere? I highly recommend watching the documentary Kiss The Ground on Netflix to learn more on this.
Grow year round
Many people view gardening as a summer hobby, but I am a huge advocate for gardening throughout the entire year. Whether you are growing flowers or vegetables, the same still applies. In the UK we are fortunate to have a temperate climate, with temperatures in the south rarely exceeding -8C. There are plenty of plants that can tolerate these temperatures. Some of them may not grow much above ground over winter, but they will be establishing themselves and developing a good root system ready to hit the ground running in the spring. This can give you earlier flowers/harvests and help you to make the most of your growing space.
Did you know that 94% of seed diversity has been lost in the last century? This is largely because of industrial scale farming, where farmers favour the high yielding, long storing varieties above anything else. Try to source seeds from companies that specialise in heritage varieties, because they often do a lot of work to bring back varieties from the brink of extinction. One of my favourite companies is Real Seeds, plus I also love my annual subscription to the Heritage Seed Library.
I almost left this one off this list because it seemed too obvious. However, many people still don’t make their own compost and are missing out! When something is composted, it is never wasted. Instead, it is turned into sweet, beautiful, crumbly gold dust for your garden. Furthermore, when organic matter decomposes in landfill it releases methane, which is a greenhouse gas that is 25x more potent than CO2.
Collecting rainwater is one of the best things you can do for your garden. Rainwater is better for your soil and your plants than tap water, because the chemicals used to treat tap water adversely affect the micro-organisms that live in the soil. Another win that is better for your soil, the planet and your wallet, too.