1 Think realistically what you want to achieve
Decide how you want to use your available space, and options include fruit trees, wildlife gardens, garden hedges, green walls, chickens and livestock, bee hives and insects and ponds, as well as the more traditional lawns, vegetable beds, greenhouses, decks and patios.
Self-sufficiency in food might sound a great idea, but for most of us it’s not likely to be achievable anytime soon. Estimates vary considerably on how much land is required to achieve domestic self-sufficiency for a family of four, depending on local climate, soil and methods employed – but something in the range of 1 to 3 acres is suggested on by most sources.
One option might be to focus on a range of higher value crops like asparagus, purple sprouting broccoli, rhubarb and salads to maximise the value of what you grow. Another option would be to grow vegetables that can be cultivated successfully in small areas, such as beans and peas. Intercropping is another option, for the slightly more confident gardener. I personally just tend to grow what the family likes to eat.
Remember gardens are long term projects, and it will usually take several years to put in place all the various elements, but a well thought out and flexible underlying structure will make life much easier.
2 Think about how the how the garden will work in practice
Leave space for composting, preferably a couple of containers, perhaps a wormery and as many water butts as you can fit in. You”ll also need to think about paths around the garden, and how light and shade will work, based on the orientation. Annual rotation of vegetables is an important consideration too.
Making the garden work within the wider natural environment is also important – attracting pollinating insects and beneficial and attractive wildlife. Bird nesting boxes, bat boxes, bird feeders, available water, insect shelters etc are all useful, but equally if not more important is simply leaving untidy areas of the garden, with stones, rotting wood and leaves and upturned pots available.
3 Plan for the seasons
It’s tempting to plan the garden solely around late Spring and Summer, when most plants are at their best, but it’s better if your garden has something to offer throughout the year, both because it’ll improve it’s visual appeal, but also because you’ll be more likely to venture out into it.
Successional planting, evergreens, structural plants, features, homemade art, bird attracting berry plants and ornamental grasses are all possibilities.
4 Tidy up a bit
Make the most of any good weather – removing leaves, tidying up borders, fixing fences, removing dead hanging or fallen fruit (to avoid harbouring pests), prune trees and shrubs and carrying out general maintenance. If you’re dead keen (and have too much time on your hands) you could clean, sharpen and prepare your tools.
Remember to leave some rough edges though, especially any areas where animals like hedgehogs might be hibernating.
5 Look after the birds
Populations of garden birds rise and fall over the years, but there appears to be evidence that numbers of some species are falling – the result of several factors, including the weather, predation by cats, fewer native plant species in gardens and reductions in the amount of green spaces in our cities. Putting out food and water over the winter can help birds survive, and also brings them into your garden where you can enjoy them.
Every year the RSPB run the Big Garden Birdwatch project, to record the number of garden birds across the UK. This year it is being run on the 28th or 29th of January – and it only takes one hour of bird watching to take part.
6 Order your seeds
There are no shortage of seed providers, happy to regale you with seed catalogues – with varieties ranging from heirlooms to hybrids, organics to old favourites. I’m not enough of a gardener to make a recommendation, but suppliers I’ve tried myself include Marshalls, Mr Fothergills, Seed to Plate and Suttons. Alternatively if you’ve a good local garden centre, why not give them a try.
It’s a good idea to try to save seeds from plants or varieties you really like, either for planting again the following year, or to give as gifts to like minded gardners (or those you’re trying to convert) – not all seeds all likely to be viable, with trial and error the only reliable test.
7 Document your before and after
If you’re planning a huge transformation in the garden this year why not share the experience of your triumphs and disasters by documenting it. There are numerous gardening blogs and photo blogs you could use, or even simply use Facebook or Twitter – as with many aspects of social media, there’s something about sharing the experience that seems to make it more enjoyable.
Gardening seems to be one of the new spectator sports, like cooking, that we like to watch other people doing, and imagine doing ourselves, but somehow never seem to get around to. Perhaps we should all take a bit more of an interest – the process of connecting both with nature and with your own food can be tremendously rewarding. The value of gardening on mental health is well recognised (so called eco-therapy), and increasing numbers of organisations now use gardening as part of their wellbeing and social development work.
8 Improve your gardening using the internet
With the possible exception of brain surgery, you can teach yourself pretty much anything using the internet, and gardening is no exception.