Handy Gardening Tips Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Handy Gardening Tips

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From how to protect your favourite citrus tree to planting the perfect booby trap for slugs and snails, here you'll find all manner of advice and tips on how to make your neighbours go green with envy at your garden.

Plant Life

If you're someone who really appreciates a nice garden, the best tip of all is to get a gardener in on a regular basis.

Seriously though, if you want to get your fingers green without getting your hands too dirty, here are some helpful little hints to start making your garden a happier place to be.

  • If you want to get ahead of the planting season, open up a packet (or packets) of seeds, place them on a wet, damp paper towel, and leave them there. Keep checking that the towel remains wet and that the towel is in sunlight - not artificial light. The seeds will begin to grow in a few days, and when you feel secure of their size you can transplant them to either pots or freshly tilled soil.

  • Leylandii (a type of cypress) should be pruned to the earth's surface as soon as they are spotted in the garden or anywhere else, except maybe arboretums or in the middle of large fields, but no one ever plants them there. If not they will quickly take a hold and dominate the whole garden.

  • Get rid of the lawn, and sow a wildflower 'meadow' around a sunken area that gives some privacy from the neighbours. Weed it once or twice a summer, when it gets a bit too wild, but otherwise it's a no-fuss garden.

  • If flagstones are your thing, sow some common thyme between them... your nose will love you for it.

  • Any 'mint' type plant is very easy to grow. So easy that you may have a difficult time containing it. Peppermint, catnip (which incidentally, gives cats a natural high) and oregano all are very hardy. You can start them from seed in the spring. They do need to be kept well watered after you've transplanted them, though.

  • If you don't have a greenhouse or cold frame, you can keep your plants in a warm, humid atmosphere, by making something similar. Take an empty fizzy drinks bottle, one made from clear plastic. Then cut off the top 10 - 15cm, so you have a sort of 'dome', and cut the bottom section to a similar height. Ensuring that the top section has the cap screwed on tightly. You now have two DIY plant covers. Just pop them over the plants while they're young to encourage growth, and keep out the cold.

  • An alternative to setting up a whole garden is to grow things in pots. Tomato and strawberry plants, as well as herbs and flowers, are quite successful in pots. It is also a good way to contain the aforementioned mint family.

  • Letting the native plants grow freely as opposed to trying to force some kind of regulation on them will create a low maintenance nature patch. Less weeding that way too.

  • While preparing a hanging basket, place a sheet of plastic, just enough to cover the base, at the base on top of the moss so that all the water doesn't run out at once. Then add you compost. Then hang before watering, it's lighter that way.

Fruit and Vegetables


Tomato plants are fairly easy to grow. You can either grow them from seed, or go to a spring fair or garden centre and find a few ready grown (but still small) plants.

You can grow them in a greenhouse or outside - once the risk of frost has gone. Of course, if you have a greenhouse, there's much less risk of frost and you can plant them earlier.

Although most tomatoes are red, some varieties are yellow, and have an even sweeter flavour.

Tomatoes have a high water content, so you must keep them watered, they need plenty of water.

Studies show that tomatoes respond to the colour red1, by ripening more quickly. Use bright red tinted mulch or a few red stakes around the plants. Within a couple of weeks you'll have ripe tomatoes. Apparently the tomatoes are fooled into thinking that they're in competition with another fruit, so they grow bigger and ripen earlier.

This could explain why farmer's wives in the American Midwest always preferred to plant their tomatoes by their big red barns.

There is another way of encouraging more fruit on a tomato plant. Known as cross-pollination, basically, you grow more than one variety of tomato. And to help the bees pollinate the plants, you get a humble pipe cleaner, and gently rub the flowers of the plants with it, transferring the pollen from one plant to another.

Other Veg

Some believe that zucchini or courgette is the way to go. It is also prolific. Come autumn you will have eaten as much as you can stand. You will have made bread with it, cookies, salsa, added it to spaghetti sauce and stir fries and given away so much that no one will accept any more from you.

Spring onions and lettuce can be easy to grow. Just plant the seeds at the correct time (as stated on the back of the packet), cover, and keep watered.

Try growing runner beans. To germinate the seed, you will need a jam jar, some blotting paper, a paper clip, and water. Roll up the blotting paper so that it will fit into the jar, and fix it with the paper clip. If there is a lot of excess paper sticking out of the jar, trim it off with a pair of scissors. Wedge the individual bean seeds between the glass of the jar and the blotting paper, making sure that they don't touch the bottom of the jar. Then pour in a little water, keeping the level of the water below all the seeds. Put the jar on a sunny window sill, and top up the water when required. After a few days, the beans will start to sprout - this is the time to plant them outside. Just push them into the soil and water gently. Next to each seed, put a cane for the plant to grow up. Or, you could plant the seeds next to a fence or wall, and attach a net or trellis to support the plant as it grows.

Trees versus Mowing the Lawn

If you hate mowing the lawn, plant some trees and shrubs instead.

Trees are great anyway. They shelter you from the sun and rain; they look good all year round and - if you choose the right species - they're absolutely amazing when they're in blossom. They even help clean the air. But the best thing about trees is that they rob the grass below them of the sunlight it needs to grow. By late May, you'll be unlucky if you've mown the grass once.

Unfortunately trees drop leaves which you have to clear up, so they don't eliminate work altogether but:

  • The leaf-dropping season is much shorter than the grass-growing season.

  • At least some of the leaves will blow into nearby gardens, sharing horticultural duties and giving you a topic of conversation for friendly chats over the fence with the neighbours.

  • When selecting trees and shrubs, be careful not to choose ones with long trailing roots that undermine the foundations of nearby buildings, or you'll have even more to discuss with your neighbours.

Another way of avoiding mowing the grass is to have a wildflower lawn and only mow it once or twice a year.

If all else fails, get a patio.

Watering the Garden

Here are a few thoughts on how to facilitate the activity of watering those precious plants that you've just blown a month's wages on:

  • You will never ever have a sufficient number of watering cans. Anytime you need one, you won't be able to find it and if you do find it, it's probably broken or filled with mud of unknown origin. So, every time you visit a hardware or garden shop, buy a watering can (the metal ones are far more durable, though they are more likely to disappear mysteriously), and put it somewhere safe.

  • Buy a watering hose that reaches even the remotest point in your garden. Better still, buy two of them; one for the garden in front of your house and the other one for the back yard. The drawbacks of watering hoses are that they tend to leak. However, just when you made it watertight again, the leak will reappear somewhere else. Furthermore, it is downright boring to stand in the garden for hours watering the lawn and plants while watching the water come out of the hose.

  • To avoid the above, buy a sprinkler which you can connect to the watering hose. That way, just open the tap and have a drink yourself, too. Sprinklers, like watering cans, are also most likely to disappear when most needed.

  • The almost perfect solution is to have an automated watering system with subterranean water hoses supplying various strategically placed stationary sprinklers; it is controlled by a timer device that almost never fails - well, hardly ever. The main problem with this system is that underground pipes have a tendency to burst in wintertime in regions that have frost.

  • Another couple of hints. Firstly, have a few water butts2 around the garden, and if you have guttering on your roof, see if you can divert some rainwater from the roof into a water butt, that way you can use as much rainwater as possible to water your garden, which cuts down on water bills, as some parts of the UK have water meters the more you use the higher your bill will be. It's also especially handy to have water in storage like this when there is a hose-pipe ban. It's worth noting that some parts of the UK are more prone to hose-pipe bans than others due to the lack of rainfall/stored water.

  • Surprisingly, rocks can help with preventing soil from drying out, so plants don't need to be watered so often. Put a layer stones, about fist sized, round particular plants, like clematis, or on the top of plant containers. A thick layer of gravel would work but it gets mixed in with the soil eventually.

Making a Pond

Creating a wildlife pond is pretty easy - except for the digging.

Dig your hole to required size - kidney shaped is the most natural looking, with gently sloping sides. If you're making a pond in the UK, make one part of it about 45cm deep to stop it completely freezing solid.

Pick out any stones and put pond underlay, old carpet or lots of layers of newspaper down to protect the liner. Liners can be any waterproof plastic-like stuff but 'proper' pond liners, such as Butyl, may cost more but will last longer. Lay it out letting it get slack and leaving plenty of extra around the edges. Fill with water. Landscape with saved turf (you didn't throw it away did you?).

You always need more turf than you've got - sod's law3, pardon the pun. Adjust the level of the liner as it fills up by putting turf under the edge or sliding the turf further into the pond, underneath the liner - but you could be technical and use a spirit level before you fill it up.

Leave some liner un-landscaped until the pond is full to allow for slack - then cover all the liner up. After that what you put in and around it depends on you and where you live. One Researcher put in two bunches of pond weed from the garden centre (oh yes and some non-stony mud to cover the liner first), and decorated it with some beach pebbles and shells on the edge, then added some iris brought from a damp patch elsewhere in the garden, and some daffodils. The wildlife will come in on its own. Before long you'll see whirligig beetles, water boatmen and dragonflies. If you want fish you'll have to sacrifice the wildlife as the fish will eat it.

Slugs and Snails

If anyone tells you that either slugs can't get up a smooth surface or that slugs can't get up a rough surface, ignore them because they are lying. They have been known to climb fridges and enter houses through ventilators. These bugs are the enemy of all gardeners, so here are a few pointers to control their onslaught:

Method One: Spread slug pellets around any area containing plants that might be eaten. The downside to this is that birds might eat the poisoned slugs, which won't do them any good - they'll die, in fact.

There is a slug and snail killer that used to be sold, and may still be sold, in the RSPB4's catalogue and is safe for birds and pets. It's based on aluminium sulphate and works on contact and not as a poisoned bait.

You could try the following too: cover the ground that you are going to put your plants in with slug pellets, as per the instructions on the box. Then get a roll of roofing felt and cut lengths the same length as the area you've put pellets on. Cover the pelleted ground with the roofing felt, making sure that the rough side faces upwards. You may need to weigh down the corners with large stones or bricks.

When you plant your plants, just cut a small cross in the felt, and peel back the corners - don't cut them off - and plant through the felt.

Hopefully, if the slugs go under the felt they'll get poisoned, and if they go over the top, they'll be very uncomfortable indeed.

Method Two: Use salt. It kills them, but it doesn't do the soil any good.

Method Three: This is more effective when dealing with snails but the idea is to throw them next door, onto the back path, somewhere hopefully too far for them to get back to your garden anytime soon. Don't try this with slugs, in fact don't touch slugs, the slime is disgusting, and you'll still feel it on your hands even after you've washed it off.

Method Four: Put some beer in a jam jar, and put it in the ground - with the edges of the jar flush to the soil. They will then drown in alcoholic heaven. However, this is not a very good idea if you have a thirsty dog on the premises or adolescent children who would do anything for a drink.

Method Five: For dealing with containers which capture these little beasties: get containers which have a lip which curls right around... so that they can't, if they're a snail, get around the lip because their shell is in the way, and so that they can't, if they're a slug, crawl across the gap between the lip of the container and the main part of it.

Another thing you can do is procure a metal grille, and put your plants on it with a brick at each corner to raise it off the ground. Make sure that none of the plant's leaves are in contact with the ground, the wall or another plant growing in the ground.

Method Six: Encourage thrushes and other birds to come to your garden; then when you hear this sharp 'tap-tap' noise, you can rest assured that a thrush is cracking the shell of a snail on a stone.

Method Seven: This one is great for the garden but not for the squeamish: cut them in half and add them too your compost heap, in the hope that others will be warned or at least be cannibalistic rather than vegetarian.

Method Eight: Enticing frogs, toads and hedgehogs into your garden is a good idea. They'll not only eat the slugs and snails, but also all manner of bug eggs.


As if slugs and snails weren't bad enough, there is one animal that is the bane of every budding gardener - the cat.

You can try to keep cats out by:

  • Having your own cat, who will then hopefully see all your garden as his territory, and will hopefully drive others away.

  • Not feeding birds; the neighbourhood cats will then be less inclined to come to your garden to try to catch them. This may lead to an increase in slugs though.

  • Not having any catnip whatsoever, so that none of the neighbourhood cats will come to your garden to get high.

There is another method of keeping out cats that comes with a somewhat natty rationale. Basically, all you do is fill bottles with water and plonk them around the garden. They can be glass or plastic, as long as they're clear.

If you get your head down to cat's eye level and move it from side to side, anything seen through the water moves illogically and might, possibly, look like something living and possibly menacing. Anyway, whatever the reason, these bottles do the job and the cats won't come a'calling any more.

The bottles are also fairly unobtrusive. On the other hand, if you want to show off your garden or you've invited people round for drinks on the patio it's the work of a moment to bring the bottles in and hide them in a cupboard – far quicker and far more enjoyable than scraping cat excrement off the soles of your shoes.

Alternative Gardening

Here are a series of hints and suggestions that reflect the gardening experience of a number of enthusiastic amateurs. While some of these suggestions may not have the support of conventional thinking on horticulture, they are techniques practised by a large number of successful gardeners. These can be found either in your garden or kitchen.

Garlic Sprays

As an alternative to chemical sprays, garlic sprays can be made in the home and used to discourage slugs, flies and other insect pests.


  • 75g (3oz) chopped garlic
  • 2 teaspoons paraffin oil
  • 30g soft soap mixed in 600mls water


Soak the garlic in the paraffin oil for 24 hours, then add the water. Mix well and store in a plastic container.

Apply to foliage at the rate of 50mls to 1 litre of clean water.

Citrus Care

Citrus trees need copious quantities of nitrogenous fertilizer, which is often supplied by the use of animal manures. The environment created by the rich soil and the shade of the tree is a natural home for violas, which make a delightful winter show, as well as keeping weeds in check. A citrus that is reluctant to fruit can be sprayed with sugar as flowers set to attract bees. To provide iron for citrus, drive a nail into the trunk or place tin cans under the roots at planting time.


Aphids are the single most prevalent insect pest on roses. Nature has provided a natural predator in the ladybird, but the use of commercial pesticides can eliminate both beneficial and destructive insects. Using a jet of water from the garden hose with sufficient force to remove the aphids is fatal to them but not the ladybirds. The same technique can be used on insect infestations on citrus and garden vegetables.


If you don't share your neighbours love of his dog and are the victim of Fido's unacceptable toilet habits, rejoice. Here is the answer. Simply half fill one or two plastic 1.25 or 2 litre soft drink bottles with water and place them on the lawn near where the errant mutt does his business. It is as simple as that. The ideal bottles are the type with the plastic band at the base. Have all your neighbours who don't own dogs join in your crusade and very soon the dog will be obliged to spoil his own nest rather than yours.


The simplest method to rid yourself of ants is to pour boiling water on their nests. A mixture of two parts powdered borax and one part sugar placed near their nest or on their trail is also fatal. Kerosene poured on to the nest is another effective remedy. If ants are a problem under the house, a borer bomb or two activated in accordance with the manufacturers instructions will assist in control.


The leaves of this plant are not only toxic to humans but can be used as a general purpose insecticide. Boil the leaves in a pot of water. Dilute the resultant liquid about 1:3 for general garden use.

As a repellent for white butterfly, shred a rhubarb leaf and place it in a container such as the type used to package ice cream. Add water, then place these traps about two metres apart amongst the brassica (cabbage, etc). For some reason or another this is sufficient to drive the white butterfly menace into someone else's place. Make sure the traps are laid before the caterpillars - the source of all the trouble - arrive.

Cabbage, Carrots and Garlic

A small spiral twist of tinfoil around the stalk of a cabbage plant will inhibit the larvae of the white butterfly. Also laying common garden twine soaked in creosote around the garden will dissuade predators from attacking your plants. Mothballs crumbled in with carrot seeds will assist with carrot fly attack, as will the creosote twine. When planting garlic, slightly crush the clove to increase the flavour and discourage flying insects. Plantings of marigolds, especially the tagetes minute variety, is said to assist with insect control.


Garlic planted amongst the roses, (one clove to each plant) will assist in the control of aphids. The roots are said to take up a substance from the soil fatal to the pest. Even if a few survive the garlic, they cannot reproduce nor will they linger for very long. If the garlic is allowed to flower, it may affect the scent of the rose. Other members of the onion family are also detrimental to the survival of aphids, but garlic is the only completely efficient answer.

Seeds and Things

Before sowing very hard seeds that are difficult to germinate, sprinkle them onto a pad of several sheets of wet paper towels. Keep them on a tray or a tin, always moist. Store in a light window until the seeds germinate, then wash them into the soil. On sandy soils which water filters through, leaving seeds without life-giving moisture, spread a newspaper some few centimetres under the row. After the seeds germinate, the paper will disintegrate, but not before it has ensured the survival of the plants at their most vulnerable stage.

Slug Bait

A unique way to catch slugs is to put a little bran or orange peel under a cabbage leaf held down by twigs or stones near the garden. The unwanted ones will feed on the bran under the leaf until you lift it. They can be dispatched by sprinkling them with common salt or lime. Pyrethrum is an organic insecticide which, when mixed into sawdust, can be used as a slug bait around the garden.


The best fertilizer you can use is blood, fish and bonemeal. It comes ready mixed, so all you have to do is sprinkle it round the plants and water in.


This section gives some further ideas on how to use the stuff you grow in your garden to look after the health of you and your family.

  • Ginger is said to be good for upset stomachs. One of the best ways to use this as a remedy is ginger tea - take about 1/2 inch of root ginger, peel and slice thinly. Place in a mug, pour boiling water over, and allow to infuse.

  • Parsley is good for removing odours. Eat a sprig after a meal to help alleviate bad breath, or rub on your hands to stop them smelling.

  • Been stung by a stinging nettle? Don't worry, just look round the nettle plant for a dock plant - they have big, slightly rough leaves. And they grow very close to nettles, which is useful. Having located a dock plant, pick off a fairly big leaf. Then rub it vigorously over the area where you were stung. You should release some of the juices which help to neutralise the sting of the nettles.

  • It's also useful to be able to recognise dead nettles - they're not just nettles that have died, but a particular species of nettle that does not sting. They have smallish white flowers, which you can pick. You can then suck the 'innermost' end of the flower (ie, the bit that attached it to the plant) and suck out the very sweet nectar. It's very refreshing, but you don't get much in each flower.

1National Geographic, July 1999, page 83.2A water butt is essentially a very large barrel for storing rain water.3Otherwise known as Murphy's Law.4The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

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