Lesson 1: How well do you know your outside space?

Gardening is not just about planting seeds and waiting for them to grow. It's about understanding the soil, the amount of sunlight, and the water needs of each plant. Getting the foundations right at this early stage will give your plants the best chance for success. In this module we will learn about the outside space you have and understanding your soil conditions.

when to plant spring bulbs
when to plant spring bulbs

Step 1. Get to know your space

Whether it's a balcony or a much larger garden, understanding your conditions is the best foundation you can give to successful planning and planting. There is nothing more disappointing than something dying or just not flourishing and so often this is down to the position or conditions not being right.

6 steps to planning your garden

Preparation is key in garden design. Time taken now to really understand your space is important preparation and it will save you a lot of time later on.

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Step 1

Begin by sketching out your space

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Step 2

Note where the sun rises and sets and mark what is going to be in full shade or full sun.

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Step 3

Mark any permanent structures such as sheds or storage, and also any utility access points.

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Step 4

Also mark any large shrubs or trees. You don't want to dig too close to these in case you damage roots.

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Step 5

Consider how you will use your space and who else is using it (such as children and pets).

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Step 6

Think if areas of your space get very wet or very hot and mark that on your plan.

Crocus tip

Once you have sketched out your garden use a sheet of baking paper or tracing paper placed over the top to sketch out different garden layouts over the top of your garden plan.

You might want to consider where to place a dining set or areas of planting. If you want to enjoy the afternoon or evening sun, then plan your seating or dining area to be in that area of the garden. You can plan out multiple iterations of your dream garden to get a design that works perfectly for you and the planting style that you want to go for.

when to plant spring bulbs
when to plant spring bulbs

Step 2. Understand your soil

Soil composition influences the fertility of the soil and its water holding capacity amongst other properties. Anyone who has tried to build a moat around a sand castle knows that sand does not hold water. The large soil particles let water drain straight through the profile. Conversely, try walking over a clayey field in winter and you'll end up bringing most of it home with you on your boots! Clay soils hold on to moisture. Silty soils are reasonably moisture retentive but, like clay, compact easily due to their small particle size, so can be difficult to work until they dry out. Clay soils bind to nutrients better than silty soil, whilst sandy soils have poor nutrient retention.

Time to get your hands dirty

There is a very simple and quick test to determine what your soil type is. Collect a handful of soil from your garden and rub it between your fingers. If it is gritty, then it is a sand, especially if you moisten it and it will not form a ball. Clay soil feels smooth between your fingers and forms balls readily. A silty soil feels soapy and doesn't form a ball as easily as clay does.

Knowing what kind of soil you have in your garden helps you to plan what plants to grow, how much water and nutrients to apply, and whether you need to improve your soil's nutrient and water holding capacity by adding organic matter in the form of well composted manure, leaf mould or garden compost.

What type of soil you have is important as it is where your plants are going to get their nourishment from. Some plants prefer particular soil types and it will usually tell you in the plant description.

Plants for different soil types

It can be really disheartening when plants don't flourish and it is easy to think it is something that we as gardeners have done, but so often it is simply ensuring you are choosing the right plant for the right place. In your garden drawing you will have identified the orientation of your growing space so you can determine if your plants will be in sun or shade. The next area to consider is the soil they will be growing in. When you understand your soil type you can better select plants that will grow successfully in your garden.

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Chalky soil

Chalky soils (or those based on limestone) are usually alkaline, so have a pH above 7. They tend to be freely draining, stony and don't hold on to nutrients very well. Therefore, to help your plants flourish, you should water regularly and dig in lots of composted organic matter as often as you can.

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Clay soil

Clay soil is usually rich in nutrients, but it can be hard to dig, and if it is very heavy, it can hold water for long periods of time. It may also take a long time to warm up in spring, which can slow down the new growth. If your clay soil is badly compacted, you can help improve the structure by digging in lots of sharp sand and composted organic matter.

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Sandy soil

Sandy soils tend to drain very quickly, so are ideal for supporting Mediterranean-style or drought-tolerant plants, which are happiest in dry conditions. These soils are usually low in nutrients, so digging in lots of composted organic matter will not only bump these up, but will also help it retain water.

Is it possible to improve soil quality?

It is possible to improve your soil. The usual way is with the addition of multi-purpose compost when you are preparing the ground for planting. Heavy clay soil can also benefit from the addition of sand or grit which improves drainage so plant roots don't get waterlogged and rot.

Acidic plants and ericaceous compost

Some plants like an acidic soil. These plants which are acid-loving are also referred to as ericaceous plants. Common examples are camellias, azaleas, rhododendrons, and blue hydrangeas. If you specifically want to grow these plants and you know your soil is not acidic, then you can add ericaceous compost when you plant them. You will continue to need to feed the plants with ericaceous nutrients (in plant feed and topping up with compost). It is easier to plant them in pots where you can better control the nutrient mix to ensure these plants stay healthy and looking their best. You can conduct a PH test on your soil to better understand the type of soil you have

Soil pH testing

Soils are further divided into alkaline and acidic depending on the behaviour of hydrogen ions in the soil which are measured as pH (potential hydrogen and is an indicator of how active the hydrogen is). All gardeners need to know the pH of their soils as plants are grouped into acid loving and non-acid tolerant. If you grow acid loving plants like camellias or rhododendrons on an alkaline soil, they will eventually die as the soil chemistry will not allow the plants to absorb all the nutrients that they need to live.

Share your progress

This week we encourage you to share your progress in the Lessons in Gardening group, on our FREE app Iris. Share the drawings of your garden, and how you might plan to lay it out. If you have tricky planting areas why not ask the group what they would do? Our Plant Doctors are also on hand every day to impart their gardening advice and to answer your questions.

Share progress

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