New beginnings: How to start a garden

Beginner gardener Jennifer Cosgrove is keen to get her hands dirty in her rented home in Waterford but she must contend with a windy plot and waterlogged soil

A renter and a garden do not make natural bedfellows. Renters rarely stay in one house long enough to think about doing up a garden, especially one that does not belong to them, and gardens take time and money to look well. Why spend money on something that you’ll eventually have to leave behind?

I’ve been renting on and off since I was 18, but I never tried to put my own stamp on a garden in the apartments and houses I have rented. Then, last July, I moved from Dublin to Waterford with my boyfriend for reasons that are not unique; the rents were astronomical and we were struggling to save for a mortgage.

In our new house in Waterford, we have a lovely pizza-slice-shaped garden. It gets waterlogged easily, and it’s in a wind tunnel – not exactly ideal for gardening – but as it’s the view from my home office, I’m determined to give it a go.

I have worked from home since Covid struck in early 2020, and arguably spend too much time inside these days. While I’m not complaining, I recognise the need to get outside and into nature. I’m hoping this project might help me reconnect with the outdoors, as well as give me another area of my home that I can enjoy.


Wise choice

Before I unleash myself and my decidedly ungreen thumbs on my pizza garden, I gave our gardening columnist Fionnuala Fallon a call. As she mentioned in her recent column, on advice for renters, the best thing to do when starting out is making a to-do list, marking out where you want to plant in a sketch of your garden, while taking note of sunny and shady areas. It’s also important to find out what direction your garden faces, assess your soil type, and get the right tools. Heading to your local garden centre or enlisting the help of a horticulturalist is also a wise choice.

I’m learning that gardening is all about balancing the conditions of your garden to get the most out of the plants and flowers

I managed to find a great hand-tool set in Lidl for about €13. There were also larger items such as shovels, hoes and rakes, but I plan to borrow these from my mam.

First up, finding out what soil I have. If you don’t know what type of soil you have, Gardeners World has a good video that shows you how to figure it out.

I chatted with someone in my local garden centre and found out my soil is clay-based and quite claggy, without much drainage or aeration in the soil. There are plenty of plants that like heavy, clay soils such as roses, daylilies and hydrangeas. However, there are lots of cats in my area, so I plan to stay away from lilies because the pollen is toxic. I am a killer of plants, not cats.

Mobile gardener

As a renter, I want to take some plants with me when I move, so I will be doing a mixture of bedding and container planting. The idea is to go for a few annuals in the beds, which will die after their flowering season, and then behind them go for some taller shrubs and flowering plants in containers.

In pots you can create the ideal condition for your plant with holes for drainage, stones and whichever soil and compost that particular plants likes. It’s a little harder for beds, but you can add peat moss, sand or perlite to the soil to help with drainage.

I’m learning that gardening is all about balancing the conditions of your garden to get the most out of the plants and flowers.

My garden faces west. It’s in shade in the mornings, and it gets sunny in the afternoons and early evenings in summer.

The sun hits the north side of the garden between midday and 1pm, and then it gets progressively sunnier throughout the day, so that’s where I will put my sun-loving plants, leaving the shadier areas for plants that like a little darkness in their lives.

I also want to encourage wildlife in my garden as well as pollinators, while keeping things as natural as possible – chemical pesticides and fertilisers will be banned. Famous last words, etc.

Eggshells, coffee grounds and banana peels are natural fertilisers, so the plan is to fling them around the garden a bit and hope for the best.

I’ve bought two boxes of pollinator seeds from Homebase for €4. Admittedly, I didn’t check first whether these would suit my garden or if they were local to Ireland or my area. It might be a waste of €8, but it might turn out great. From what I have been told, gardening is as much a venture in trial and error as anything else.

Once they are done, I will start planting my annuals. I have my heart set on pansies, geraniums and snap dragons for colour. I’m also looking at lavender, salvia and buddleia for the bees and butterflies.

I’m excited to get started: I haven’t had a garden that I liked spending time in since I lived at home with my parents. That said, I wasn’t the person doing the work of keeping things alive.

Jennifer Cosgrove

Jennifer Cosgrove

Jennifer Cosgrove is an Irish Times journalist