By Greg Loades
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Find happiness, connection, and accomplishment by cultivating your garden life every day of the week using this inspiration-packed guide that shows aspiring gardeners exactly what they need to know.
Are you ready to discover your garden’s unexpected gifts? All it takes is a daily practice. In The 30-Minute Gardener, Greg Loadesreveals what dedicated time spent in the garden every day can create: a moment of solitude in a busy world, a welcoming space to enjoy with family and friends, and an increased connection to nature. In this practical and inspiring guide you’ll find advice on tasks such as pruning a rose bush and planting bulbs, inspired ideas for transforming an overgrown garden into a beautiful flower-filled haven, and hints on how best to savor your garden and enjoy your accomplishments.
It's two weeks until Christmas and the geese are flying home. I know because I can hear them calling, like a warning bell that winter is here. The grey clouds are looming ominously in the east and the sun is long gone to the west. It's half past four in the afternoon and everyone's leaving. Except me. Here I am with a digging fork in my hand, beaten-up old trainers on my feet, and a line of brambles in front of me.
What am I doing out here? Why haven't I headed for the couch, with the central heating and the tv streaming service at the ready? Isn't it too cold to be messing about outdoors? Well, no, because out here, alone in the fading light, is where I belong and where I feel most alive.
My journey started a long time ago, or so it feels, when I was a small boy. I grew up on a farm and got involved from a young age. By the time I was eleven, I would spend summer holidays planting fields with Brussels sprouts and cabbages for winter harvest, or pulling out weeds that I swear were taller than I was (perhaps I was very small or these were good years for the weeds). In any case, ever since then I've spent as much time outdoors as possible.
An understanding of the changing seasons came naturally to me, as did a sense of how they relate to being a gardener. I haven't always had a lot of growing space available, but this feeling has never left me: that gardening gives me a chance to connect with nature, to live life at a slower pace, and to gain perspective on the things that compete for my time and attention.
Maybe you feel this way too. Making a garden, savouring a garden, living and breathing a garden, comes from a spark inside of us that once lit will not be put out. So how does this relationship begin, and is it possible anywhere?
Whatever growing space you have, connecting to it every day can ignite a process that will enrich your life. Maybe for you the garden is a few pots on a balcony or windowsill, or perhaps it's an area that seems big and untamable. Half an hour a day is enough time to become attached to a natural world, and this relationship will help you put problems into fresh context, not to mention inspire you (or me) to create a new garden.
The journey to becoming a 30-minutes-a-day gardener starts here. And if you choose to take it, you may never see life the same way again.
Being in the garden An introduction
Dare to discover another life
Walk along well-trodden paths
Find joy in unexpected places
We can find ourselves in gardens for so many reasons. Perhaps we need somewhere to hang out the laundry, or to give children some fresh air because they are driving us crazy indoors. Maybe the reason to spend time in the garden is to catch up on a good book on a sunny day off work, or to host a picnic on the lawn for family and friends. None of these things involves having green fingers or a green thumb, perhaps just a working knowledge of a lawnmower. All this may seem rather obvious, but the point is that gardens can be largely ignored even when they are still used, with the user oblivious to the possibilities that await if nurturing the garden and being in the garden become a year-round, daily habit.
Alternatively, gardens can easily end up as utility spaces, infrequently visited and even then only for life's mundane routines or occasional social appointments. The calendar tells you that a friend is coming to visit tomorrow. The weather is warm and sunny, summer is in full swing, and a glance at the garden creates that feeling of dread. It's scruffy and overgrown and the only way to get it ready for your friend is to give it a blitz. Maybe you're familiar with the process. Out come all the tools for hacking and slashing. For a few hours in the summer heat, grass and weeds are flying amid a frenzy of noise, perspiration, and the awakening of previously dormant muscles from their sleep. Burgeoning plants are resented: those that looked neat a few years ago have now muscled into the patio space and cast unwanted shade.
I have a similar relationship with household chores. I don't notice that they need doing until the results of my inactivity become impossible to ignore—the stack of plates to wash, the piles of laundry that need attending to, or the rug that needs a good vacuum.
We can't hide from the fact that like homes, gardens need attention. And they need time. But unlike the inanimate objects that household chores are made up of—and it's amazing how much I can loathe a saucepan when it has yesterday's porridge stuck to it—a garden is a living, breathing abundance of life in all its diversity. Engage with it daily, nurture it, and you will discover something more deeply rewarding than the feeling of having a clean house or a wardrobe of fresh clothes.
As we turn our attention to our outdoor space on a regular basis, we find an escape from the madness of modern life. An opportunity opens to be part of what it has meant to be human for millennia: growing plants and tending a place on the earth. Focus on the garden and in turn our world starts to realign. Regularly spending time in the garden encourages us to notice small things, such as seeds or new shoots which can easily go unnoticed, and to watch their slow development with wonder—the antithesis of a world where instant gratification has become the norm.
Our goal in becoming 30-minutes-a-day gardeners is not to make an efficient garden-maintenance regime (sounds too much like doing the dishes to me), but rather to open the door to a parallel universe that is bursting with life, to delight in the process of natural growth, and to embrace nature's pace.
Oh, and once you are in the 30-minutes-a-day habit, you will probably notice that your garden isn't out of control. And you'll come to agree that this is a byproduct of a new way of life rather than the purpose of it.
Discovering the cycle of life Embracing nature's pace
If our relationship with our gardens is one of detachment, then it is easy to resent growth. The lawn is too long. That climbing plant by the back door is out of control. Those weeds in the cracks in the patio are taking over. In contrast, as with any relationship, this one is far more likely to blossom if we find quality time for it. As we start to venture out into the garden for 30 minutes a day, hear the birdsong or the background hum of pollinating insects, take some deep breaths, observe the changes, and pay more attention to nature. This is when an understanding begins. We are all just doing our best to live, whether we are humans, grasses, insects, or weeds. Your garden is an orchestra playing a symphony, and you get the privilege of being at various times the conductor and the audience, sometimes coaxing the best from a natural talent, at other times reining in youthful exuberance, and at the best times, simply basking in the glory of the music.
The development of a garden is like the sound of a song that can't be silenced. A haze of green shoots emerging in a tree or hedgerow is a powerful force, a constant in an ever-changing world. Perhaps now more than ever, a garden can be a place of comfort, not just for our physical well-being but for our mental and spiritual existence too. Step out into the garden and wherever you look, there will be a reminder of the cycle of life: a worm just beneath the soil surface, discovered as you dig with your trowel (or in my case, discovered by my son and adopted as a pet for the rest of the afternoon), or perhaps some dandelions flowering in the cracks in an old wall (a nuisance weed or a source of free salad, depending on how you look at it).
There is so much to discover in our gardens and if we decide that being there matters as much as the day job, the gym class, or the streaming options, then we will begin a journey that not only puts our lives into context, but also changes them for the better. We may have made that journey to the bottom of the garden a thousand times to collect the washing or to put some unwanted household junk into the shed. Or maybe it's the world of work that swallows up so much of our time and thinking. Like metal detectorists discovering gold, we can also unearth unknown treasure that was there all along. We just have to take the time to stop, press pause, and discover it.
Do you struggle to escape from a need for instant gratification? If so, you're in good company. I love numbers, and in this era of social media, life can be consumed by wanting to know how many followers you have. I have two minutes to spare—let's see if anyone else liked that post that I checked five minutes ago. Or how many minutes of screen time have I had today compared to yesterday? Have I managed to shave off a few minutes? Am I winning or losing? It seems that we record more and more of our day, from the length of our sleep patterns to the numbers of steps we've taken, as if the quality of our lives can be scaled down to good or bad statistics.
You can see why I am so grateful to be spending regular time in the garden. I have no apps telling me how long germination has been for a particular crop, how many flowers have appeared compared to last year, or how many blueberries I harvested compared to the previous summer. But more importantly, I have no choice but to take life at nature's pace. And nature offers no promise of instant gratification. Unless you get the keys to a garden, walk in, and find a bed of strawberry plants bearing perfectly ripe fruits (I'm sure I had a dream like that one time), then to garden is to live by the adage that good things come to those who wait.
At a time when television programmes are criticized because only one new episode is made available per week, it is nothing less than countercultural to embark on a hobby that asks you to wait weeks, months, or even years for the next episode. And why would anyone do such a thing? We garden because doing so offers us the privilege of working with nature to see something beautiful come to life. And surely nothing tastes as sweet as a strawberry that you've grown yourself through to delicious ripeness.
Shifting our focus How do you become a 30-minutes-a-day gardener?
This question brings to mind some advice given to me by the much-loved British gardener, broadcaster, and plant explorer Roy Lancaster. He told me that to embark on a career in horticulture required three things: patience, adventure, and curiosity. For me, this perfectly sums up how to embrace and enjoy the benefits of life in a garden. It doesn't sound like much—over the years I've used the acronym PAC to make sure that I remember it—but I believe it is the essence of what we need in order to get into the 30-minutes-a-day habit.
A sense of adventure has helped me practice patience as a gardener and it has also inspired me to experiment with plants. I've found through experience that I am far more likely to wait patiently for results if I set in motion a project that I really believe in and have orchestrated myself. My north-facing front garden is a prime example. There are plenty of plants labelled as shade-lovers that I could have decided to grow in this garden, and I have grown some of them. But I have also experimented by planting some plants that aren't famed for their tolerance of shade, and then I am excited to see what happens with another one of my crazy ideas. This adventurousness goes hand in hand with curiosity.
It is also easier to be patient, adventurous, and curious if we concentrate on growing what we want to grow. This might sound obvious, but it is so easy to fall into the trap of just growing what you see by accident in the plant centre rather than seeking out something that appeals to you more. Or maybe we grow something because grandma used to grow it. Or because a friend gave us a plant that, truth be told, we don't really like but couldn't refuse (hands up with me if you're not good at saying no to a gift). This is why some gardeners give up: why grow plants that you don't love?
To see something through, we also have to really want results. Otherwise, it's a bit like being persuaded by a friend to go to a vegan restaurant when you really feel like eating fried chicken. Your heart won't be in it. Grow vegetables that you think are delicious. Grow flowers that you think are truly beautiful. Then patience, adventure, and curiosity will all roll into one.
Facing north A calm place in the garden
My north-facing front garden also means something else to me. Most of the plants here rarely see the sun, even on a cloudless day. It can be a hot, sun-drenched afternoon just a few steps away in the south-facing back garden, with plenty of plants to water and hot faces to smother in sunscreen, but in the front garden it is cool, calm, and peaceful. In truth, it is a far more relaxing space in the height of summer than the sunbaked backyard that British gardeners tend to flock to, probably because they don't know when they will experience hot sun again.
Yet we all need a place where we can cool off from the searing heat of life—to escape from the strained relationships, money worries, workplace drama—and to sit for those precious minutes, reflect, tend to our plants, harvest crops, and take pleasure in the scene. Once we are in the habit, venturing into our garden, regardless of its geographical orientation, is like choosing to be somewhere that faces north at the end of a tiring day, and as we do, the sun isn't quite so wearing. Developing the 30-minutes-a-day habit is like standing up to a playground bully. The bully's heat begins to fade. We may be "facing north" only metaphorically, but the garden, balcony, or growing space offers true perspective and peace.
In fact, to get the most from this book, I strongly recommend devoting at least one 30-minute stint a week to facing north, just sitting in the garden (facing in any direction) or walking around and taking it all in. At the end, write down everything that you observe: progress, wildlife, weather, new flowers or fruits, successes, and failures. This will create an essential account of the year to look back on, to serve as a reminder of the fundamental, ever-changing dynamic of a garden and to remind you of the wonder of this world-within-a-world that once embraced is not readily discarded.
As we spend more time in the garden, we develop a healthy habit that provides an escape from the madness of the world and rediscover nothing short of what it means to be alive. I hope you will join me on the adventure of a lifetime. Maybe this all sounds too good to be true, but here it is. Whatever the season, whatever the space, and whatever your garden looks like right now, this is a perfect time to begin.
1 Belonging in the garden Begin with a few simple steps
Now there's a chance to recharge and unwind
Escape all the screens and the ongoing grind
Leave all the stress and the madness behind
I belong in the garden
Carving out 30 minutes a day to spend in the garden might be a challenge for you at first, especially if it's winter and dark for much of the day. But it is amazing how quickly half an hour disappears when you get involved in something you enjoy. Think how quickly 30 minutes vanishes into thin air when you are watching a favourite tv show or listening to a much-loved collection of songs. If you are new to the process of getting out in the garden to grow things rather than doing chores, then the habit may take a while to kick in, a bit like that habit to go running every day that I have tried to set in motion for at least the last decade (I'm still trying with that one).
For me, though, finding that precious half hour for the garden is not an appointment in my diary or a reminder on my phone but something more opportunistic. It could be early in the morning if the kids have decided to sleep in and let me make a peaceful coffee, a rare event but it does happen occasionally. Or it might be a lunch break when I'm home working and need to take my eyes off the screen or playtime with my toddler when he needs some fresh air—you get the gist. When spending 30 minutes in the garden becomes part of your way of life, it isn't a planned event: it weaves its way through all the busyness of work, play, family, friends, and all the things that make life what it is.
Maybe you're thinking, well that's nice and fine for you once you're in the habit, but where do I begin? And that's a great thought to have. To take the running analogy again, is there anything worse than listening to that smug colleague at a 9 a.m. work meeting who tells you that they've come back from a quick 10k, made waffles and a fresh pot of coffee, and were still on the call five minutes early while they waited for all the mere mortals to scrape there on time?
It can take a while for gardening to become part of life if you're starting from scratch or if you have become disconnected by the time-consuming duties of life. I've been there myself. For a while I had a long commute to London every day to work, and then later on I lived and worked in the city. My connection to the changing seasons and the natural world was still there, but it had become dulled by hours spent on cramped trains, lack of growing space, and that dizzy feeling of having been churned up by the rat race.
Yet this was when I most needed a respite from the crowds, the concrete, and the congestion. The hedgerows, wildflowers, and fresh vegetables of my youth were a distant memory rather than a daily pleasure. It was then that I realized that the 30-minutes-a-day-in-the-garden habit that had been a subconscious fixture in my life would now need to be worked at more. The process of growing things was not only countercultural, it was critical to finding an escape from the grind. And fortunately I remembered that a simple seed could transform a life.
An acorn or a tiny seed Dream big because the sky's the limit
I can think of no better way to begin the journey to being a 30-minutes-a-day gardener than by sowing some seeds. No matter which seeds you choose to sow, or how long it takes to germinate and become something beautiful, you are embarking on gardening's greatest miracle. I still get excited when seeds start to sprout. That moment when the compost bulges and you catch a glimpse of a stem starting to unfurl is both a story with a happy ending and the thrill of a new beginning. You have sown a seed that germinated. New life has begun, whether in your allotment or community garden space, your own backyard or large garden, or on your windowsill. Whatever the context, whatever the plant, something has grown from nothing. And that's something to get excited about, whether it's for the first or the fiftieth time.
Thus begins the habit of daily checking, which for me is the natural world equivalent of scanning a cell phone for Facebook likes. I probably check pots of sown seeds at least three times a day, often knowing that it is far too early for anything to happen. Or if you put your pots or trays of seeds on the kitchen windowsill, you will be forever keeping an eye on them (unless you take my approach to washing plates).
If you're not a confident seed-sower, start with large seeds, which tend to be easier to handle and sow. I love the thick, curly seeds of pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis), which resemble an ultra-miniature form of a children's snack. If you think I'm crazy, imagine them four times as big and covered in salt or syrup. I sprinkle them everywhere in early spring: along the edges of paths and in gaps in the border where I know that some hot orange flowers will be most welcome in the second half of summer. There's no need to wait for warm weather to sow these amazing seeds: pot marigolds are considered hardy annuals, rated as hardy to UK zone 6 and in USDA zones 2a to 11b.
A plant's hardiness zone rating is generally based on the minimum temperatures at which it will survive. The hardiness zone doesn't reflect other requirements that plants have, for example, for light and moisture. And zone ratings don't take a garden's microclimates or a gardener's judgment into account. As the USDA says, "No hardiness zone map can take the place of the detailed knowledge that gardeners pick up about their own gardens through hands-on experience."
U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones are based on average annual minimum temperatures over a 30-year period. The lower the zone number, the colder the winter temperatures. Including a range of zones is meant to suggest the maximum as well as the minimum temperatures at which the plant will survive.
To see temperature equivalents for each USDA zone and to learn in which one you garden, see the interactive USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map at planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/
The Royal Horticultural Society's hardiness ratings for garden plants are based on "absolute minimum winter temperatures (°C), not the long-term average annual extreme minimum temperature used for the USDA zones." Download the table from rhs.org.uk/plants/pdfs/2012_rhs-hardiness-rating.pdf.
For Canada, go to planthardiness.gc.ca/.
For Europe, go to uk.gardenweb.com/forums/zones/hze.html.
The experts probably wouldn't recommend transplanting them, but I also start some pot marigolds in trays in the kitchen, scattering the seeds lightly on the compost surface and covering them. Then I use my trusty pencil to tease out the tiny plants to grow in individual 5cm (2in) pots, and I keep potting them up as the roots continue to fill the pots.
Pencil it in
Before transplanting seedlings from their trays, use a pencil to make a deep hole in the centre of the compost in each new pot. Then the seedlings can be easily dropped into the new pots without the roots being squashed.
Gently tip a pot or two upside down to have a look. This is a job that teaches patience because if you start tipping them upside down every day to check, it's easy to have an accident with the ones that haven't rooted yet and find yourself with a small heap of compost and a squashed seedling. I've done this plenty of times in my eagerness to get things done in the garden in spring. Best not to beat yourself up though, because as I try to remind myself all the time, gardening shouldn't be a competition. There are no winners or losers. If we decide to engage with the world of growing plants, with its inherent beauty, we are all winners.
Once the plants are sturdy, I plant them out, throwing a handful of compost into the hole first, and they keep flowering until frost (or fall mildew) finishes them off. If your soil is light and sandy, then you may well see the seedlings popping up in the following year unaided, more of nature's wonder to behold in early spring. You'll most probably stumble across them on that morning walk through the garden. That's the beauty of what we're doing.
Sowing seeds and teasing out seedlings into their own space so that they can begin life on their own in the big wide world presents an obvious parallel with raising children or pets. You've begun the process of nurturing a living thing, which in turn needs regular attention, although thankfully you don't have to worry about youngster plants writing on the walls or digging up the lawn.
And the same goes if you start your habit by buying some young plants. This definitely isn't cheating. There are no medals awarded for growing from seed (okay, maybe in some areas of competitive horticulture but that's, in truth, another world). The process is the same. Once we get in the 30-minutes-a-day habit, you have a living thing that you will make a connection with as it grows. And grows. In fact, I should offer some words of encouragement to anyone who would refer to their garden as a jungle and not in a good sense.
If you are not sure how deep to sow seeds, a good rule of thumb is to cover them with a layer of sieved compost or vermiculite that is twice as deep as the height of a seed.
Try to space out the seeds evenly and avoid sowing them in big piles. Spacing the seeds will make the seedlings much easier to transplant later.
If the compost goes dusty and dry, water pots and trays from the bottom by placing them in trays of room-temperature water.
Clearing an overgrown garden Just take it step by step
Remember that garden full of ripe strawberries that I dreamed about earlier? Well, you can keep it! There is something incredibly rewarding and satisfying about overhauling an unkempt garden. Can it be done in 30 minutes a day? Definitely. In fact, if you are faced with an overgrown jungle, I would say that you are in a perfect position to get the 30-minutes-a-day bug.
- “Loades provides a template of how to turn a few moments into a zen-like experience that also improves your garden as you follow his lead.”—Orange County Register
- On Sale
- May 30, 2023
- Page Count
- 232 pages
- Timber Press