Gardening for dummies: The top 10 tips for the bank holidays

Green-fingered? No? Don't panic! Emma Townshend knows how to get maximum results from merely modest efforts – and thanks to Easter and the royal wedding, there's plenty of time
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The Independent Online

It's always faintly depressing going along on a railway train in spring and peering into acres of back gardens that never get used by human beings. Of course, it's good news for wildlife, which happily runs havoc, but even on my London street there are gardens so overwhelming that their owners are scared to go out in them.

If this is a fair description of your garden, don't panic. There are plenty of simple things you can do to sort matters out, and with two long bank holiday weekends coming up, you've plenty of time to get your hands dirty. You'll enjoy the results all summer long.

If you want to keep morale high, the best guiding principle is not to take on any problem too huge. Tree stumps requiring uprooting and patios in need of construction from scratch are best not tackled now, however annoying you find them. The aim of the game is to render the garden usable, attractive and relaxing in the shortest possible time.

Set aside time for garden work and arrange a treat afterwards, making sure it doesn't take over the whole day. One of the best tips is to use a kitchen timer for 30 or 60 minutes, racing yourself against the clock to make as much difference as you can in a limited time. Make-or-break six-hour digging sessions also tend to result in expensive osteopathy treatment, so be gentle with your body. If April sun appears, it's hot, so suncream please. Beginning after breakfast is better than midday, plus there'll be less of a queue at the tip.

Finally, always feel free to resort to lots of cheating. Hiding junk is what God invented the side return of a house for. In an ideal world, it would be better to clear that entire wild patch, but if sticking a group of floral containers in front of it will distract your eye enough in the short term, just do it. Best of all, grow a row of sunflowers or sweet peas in front of your garden's most annoying feature, and completely forget about it until autumn.

1. Remove everything brown

The biggest favour you can do your garden this time of year is simply to collect everything that's dead. Scoop up the dead leaves from paths and flowerbed surfaces. A rake is an invaluable tool for this kind of tidying, as are a couple of those builders' plastic trugs ("soft buckets" if you consult, where they are £6.12). Cut dead rose stems, straggly bits of shrub and last year's flower spikes, and then add them to the pile. (Please consult an expert source before pruning valuable shrubs: they all have their eccentricities.) Then weed, weed, weed. Finally, burn the detritus, add it to a properly functioning compost heap or take it to the tip.

2. Spread the muck about

Once you have finished doing the garden tidy (and not before, or you will undermine all your own efforts) rip open one 40-litre (or thereabouts) bag of organic matter for each six square foot of flowerbed. This could be coir, bark chippings or manure – whatever is cheapest at the garden centre. Now enjoy some muck-spreading. And suddenly, everything looks ridiculously neat. One caveat: avoid spreading really smelly stuff (anything marked "farmyard" or "chicken") before a weekend. Your neighbours will hate you.

3. Salad in a bucket

Take one of the aforementioned trugs, or an old bucket, and drill some holes in the bottom. If you can add old broken flowerpots for drainage or a bit of gravel, so much the better. Then fill the rest of the bucket with the contents of a tomato growbag (£1.49, B&Q). Now sow your chosen salad seed on the surface. Go for the spiciest rocket (try the Duchy Originals Wild Rocket, which packs a punch), pea seeds to produce tasty shoots, or a nice mix (Seeds of Italy Misticanza, £1.95 a pack) depending on your tastes. Slugs and snails will have the softer lettuces off you sharpish, so nightly patrols are wise, and you could keep the container somewhere tricky for them to get to (on gravel itself, for example). Water daily if possible. Eat some as tiny microleaves, and take your chances with the molluscs for grown-up salad later.

4. Create raised beds

Others may be satisfied to sow some salad in an old bucket; otherwise, order a raised-bed kit online now for construction come the long weekend. Go for a lovely posh set from Harrod Horticultural: it even sells triangles for odd corners. An allotment bed 8ft by 8ft is £36 plus delivery. Or use pressure-treated timber from the woodyard and make your own, bearing in mind the extra splinter factor. For instant effect, also order a veg garden's worth of baby plants from Sarah Raven: her Best of British Veg collection comprises 35 seedlings for £24.50.

5. Colourful windowboxes

There's something weirdly satisfying about planting red, white and blue windowboxes for royal occasions, even if you are staunchly republican: they just look so very smart. Blue is the hardest flower colour to source, and the desperate among us occasionally resort to blue ribbon with red and white flowers, or painting the tubs with nice blue gloss. Good choices for now are red and white geraniums and baby blue hydrangeas. Bright floral containers will also distract the eye from the rest of your front plot. Do it well, and bask in the delight of old lady monarchists and the scorn of local republicans alike. (And, if you water the flowers nicely, they should last until Bastille Day, when you can convince all your French neighbours you really did it for them.)

6. Garden centre rules

In gardens ranging from Yellow Book openings to Chelsea Flower Show spectaculars, visitors never cease to be amazed at how much last-minute flowerbed stuffing goes on. Garden centres do good business out of this kind of trade as wedding and barbecue season approaches. The rules are: choose wisely in the garden centre. If you are a classic overshopper, set a budget before leaving the house and, if possible, take only that amount in cash to spend. Work out how much space you have and roughly how many plants you will need. Buy only what's in flower – no "pity purchases" from the reduced trolley that need radically nursing back to health. And water and feed as you plant, preferably organically with something like Blood, Fish and Bone – it's a fertiliser, not a Seventies band.

7. Restore your lawn

Most lawns look ropey at this time of year, but there are several good turns you could be doing your sward. To begin with, don't start the season's mowing on too short a setting: a couple of longer cuts allow the roots to get used to being shorn. Prod over the whole lawn with a garden fork to improve aeration. Comb over it with a long-tined rake (though any rake will do) to pick up any dead matter and to improve the light getting to the lawn. If the ground's especially damp, lightly scatter some lawn sand to be incorporated by worms. Feed, preferably with something organic, such as chicken manure pellets, to avoid damaging the soil's microbes.

8. Tomatoes for July

There's nothing more delicious than your own tomatoes for the two weeks annually our climate actually allows them to ripen. Grow in growbags from the garden centre: it's easier to get organic ones these days which won't use unsustainable peat. Tip the growbags up on one end and plant in the other to give a longer root run. Place in your garden's sunniest spot or tip the contents into a bucket. (See suggestion three.) I've grown good tomatoes from Tesco-bought seedlings before, but look out for more unusual varieties at Wyevale and other garden centres, as well as National Trust properties and school fetes. Again, watering is the key – daily, please. And lots of organic tomato food, too, for better flavour than the more chemical ones.

9. Instant structure

If what you really long for is a Chelsea garden straight out of the pages of the glossy mags, your best spend is 100 quid or so on box, the evergreen shrub, in a set of geometric shapes. Lovely, curving balls in a couple of sizes give wow and elegance to a flowerbed, drawing you to stroke your hand over the top and giving the whole lot some instant gravitas. Group in threes within beds, or go formal, with one either side of a straight path. Reclip the shape once or twice annually. (The tradition is Derby Day, at the start of June.) On special offer now at, a 30cm ball is £29.99. That might not sound like a bargain, but it really is. Or, for a wider range of shapes such as pyramids, contact Architectural Plants in Sussex which has the best selection

10. Sweet pea camouflage

Pretty much the best thing you can do in a garden is to grow sweet peas, but it's even better when you've got something ugly to hide. Plus, it's really easy and cheap. Buy eight or ten bamboo canes and some wire, and make a quick wigwam, wired together round the middle and the top. Plant two or three plants at the base of each cane. You don't need to buy individual pea plants – just one of those garden-centre budget pots with about 30 seedlings for a fiver will do. Water heavily till they're established, and check they're managing to twine around the canes. To hide a whole fence, cover it in pea netting and use canes to guide the plants to the net. You will have cut blooms and perfume for at least six weeks if you pick every flower.