Lettuce Turnip the Beet! Lessons I learned as an amateur gardener

I never really had any gardening experience, so moving in to a house with an overgrown garden in desperate need of a lot of work was somewhat daunting to say the least. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’ve learned a lot of amazing things too.

To see what the garden used to look like, see the garden makeover blog post! Since then, we’ve put down new grass, put up a new fence, built a new shed, a new garden gate, a new patio, and even a new garden path.


Two days ago we built large planters from the wood from the old shed, and painted them with Cuprinol’s ‘English Green’ outdoor paint. We even made a little window box for the kitchen, to plant a little herb garden!


Then yesterday we filled them with a layer of stones (for drainage), some soil, and even mixed in some home-made compost (we’re experimenting with this, with a kitchen compost bin from OXO Good Grips, as well as shop-bought compost. We signed up to an amazing program with Grow to School – they offer vegetable patches and how-to guides to schools so they can teach gardening to children, but they are starting to branch out to adults too! We got our first vegetable patch delivery (they are all seasonal) and planted them in the new boxes, with the help of their how-to guides and advice. Now I guess we just wait and watch them grow!


One of the main problems we’ve been having in our garden is slugs (more on that later), but by keeping the lettuce and other veggies in tall wooden planters we have successfully managed to keep them away! Although they are still lurking in the grass, and have managed to poison Flora who now needs drops on her neck to protect against lungworm. I tried to drown them once (in a vase of water), but they just swam up like eels! Very creepy. In the end I flushed them down the loo.


Anyway. Whether you’re a green-fingered garden guru or a novice, I have come across a few very clever tips and tricks (through trial and error), that are sure to come in very handy!

1. Coffee is your friend

Coffee not only perks you up, it perks your garden up too! Next time you make a cup, don’t throw away the used grounds – keep them in a container or kitchen compost bin (like this one) for your plants. First of all, coffee grounds help to deter slugs and snails – just put some coffee grounds around the base of your plants to help keep them away! As they are high in nutrient they can also be used as a plant fertiliser, helping them grow! Lastly, being acidic, they also alter the PH of the soil and can turn hydrangeas blue!


2. Getting rid of slugs

Another great (and eco-friendly) way of getting rid of slugs and snails is (cheap) beer. All this rain might be a welcome relief for thirsty gardens after the (very short) summer, but rain also attracts many slugs and snails waiting to feast on those fabulous foxgloves and pretty peonies. But how can we get rid of them, without causing harm to the plants – or using any poisons that might get discovered by cats, dogs or birds? Of course if you have the time, you can spend your hours picking out slugs yourself (which can actually be a strangely satisfying exercise); one way to do so is by using some old chopsticks to pick them up, and collect them all in a big bucket or jug, then throw them away or leave them somewhere (away from your plants) where the birds or hedgehogs might find them. But there are quicker and easier ways. The most popular and effective is to make a beer trap – slugs and snails simply can’t resist them! Find a container (something like a Philadelphia cheese carton, margarine tub, tupperware, ramekin or jar), and bury it so the soil level is just below the top of the container, then pour in beer. The slugs are attracted to the smell because of the yeast and the sweetness and prefer this to eating plants, then they slide in and drown. At least they’ll die happy (I hope). Other great ideas are using grapefruit skins (cut in half and turned upside down) around your plants as they can’t stand the smell or texture, or try breaking up a bag of rooibos tea leaves and spreading the leaves around the plant base. And, as slugs and snails don’t like rough territory, they can be deterred by using crushed eggshells around the bottom of precious plants too – which also provides your plants with a calcium boost! Much like humans, all plants need calcium for fresh growth. Calcium is important in plant development and processes and also helps reduce risk of plant diseases. Apparently even a little milk can be good for the plants!

3. Lay nappies in your flower pots and planters to keep the soil moist for days 

Going on holiday any time soon? A clever way to keep soil moist for days is by using a (clean) nappy. The granules used in nappies absorb a large amount of water and so will release this water to the pot or hanging basket as the plants need it. You could also try sanitary pads!

4. Some sprigs, twigs and cuttings can grow a new plant on their own

Don’t have time (or money) to pop down to the garden centre for new plants? Some plants, like lavender, will grow well from just a cutting! You’ll need to look up all the different kinds as they will each need different conditions, but my neighbours planted roses from just a stem that they picked in someone else’s garden.

5. Baking soda can make home-grown tomatoes taste less tart 

Baking soda can make tomatoes sweeter – but only in tiny amounts as overdosing can poison the soil!

6. Rotten cider helps wisteria grow

Is your wisteria refusing to flower? Treat it by pouring rotten cider over its roots.

7. Pine needles and mushrooms can change the colour of your hydrangeas

Aside from coffee (see tip 1), pine needles and mushrooms can also change the colour of your hydrangeas. Hydrangeas are fascinating in that, unlike most other plants, the colour of their flowers can change dramatically – and it’s all down to the pH level of the soil. If the soil is acidic, then the hydrangeas will turn blue, and when the soil is alkaline, then the hydrangeas will be pink! Add pine needles to make your soil more acidic and mushroom compost to make it more alkaline.

8. Soak your seeds in warm water 24 hours before sowing

If you’re planting seeds, it could be worth soaking them in warm water 24 hours before sowing. All seeds will need to absorb water before germination takes place, so soaking them will speed the germination process up in many plants. Soaking large, hard seeds helps break down their outer coating (this especially applies to sweetpeas), but small seeds don’t need soaking.


9. You can make your own compost

Making your own compost is easier than you may think. Use mixed layers of soft organic waste such as prunings and grass cuttings, and place them in a big bin or pile at the back of your garden. Every six inches, sprinkle a layer of Garotta compost maker (or add fresh farm yard manure if you have access to it), as these feed the microorganisms that break down the green waste – it will get hot as it does this and that sterilises it, meaning you get no smells! Food waste also works well – raw veg scraps, eggshells, coffee granules, tea bags and even pet fur, just put it all in a compost heap, and add grass clippings and any annual weeds. Give the heap a good mix every few weeks and you should get some good compost in 12-18 months.

10. Rice and nettles can be used to make your own plant feed / fertiliser.

You can cut nettles, put them in a bucket, add water and leave for a few days, then pour the liquid on your plants. Fill a bucket with nettles (remember to wear gloves!) and fill the bucket with water. Cover with a stone to keep the nettles underwater and leave in a corner of the garden for two weeks, then empty out the nettles and keep the water, which can be used, watered down at a ratio of 20:1, on plants. It will provide an excellent source of nitrogen for leafy plants and vegetables such as kale and broccoli. Another top tip for making your own plant feed: the next time you cook rice, keep the water to use as a natural fertiliser in the garden!

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