Transforming even small outdoor spaces can be fulfilling, practical and a lot of fun
As a fairly needy extrovert, the notion of self-isolation is not one that thrills me. But I am enormously grateful for one thing: the opportunity to gaze at my balcony garden all day.
My one-bedroom apartment may prove claustrophobic over the coming weeks, but I’m fortunate to have access to a balcony garden.
Growing things has helped me through some of the toughest times in my life. The perseverance of nature, to push through the soil even when it snows, was the one thing that helped me realize, several years ago, that I could keep going when I was left heartbroken and without a home. I’ve clung to the magic powers of gardening ever since.
I’m not alone: while tending to the borders may seem a frippery in such frantic times, people have long turned to gardening in extreme circumstances. There’s a reason English soldiers made the most of the dank mess at the bottom of the trenches in the First World War by growing celery. Scientific studies have shown that engaging with the ground, and the meditative effects gardening can induce, can encourage greater concentration, lower anxiety and improve our mood.
It’s good from a physical perspective, too: all that bending and digging can stretch muscles we might not use at other times.
There are also the encouraging practicalities of being stuck at home on the cusp of spring: the days are lengthening, the temperatures are rising and it’s the perfect time to get plants to grow.
Having spoken to hundreds of beginner gardeners over the years, it’s become clear that a lack of knowledge or inexperience can get in the way of getting outdoors.
But in many ways, the midst of a pandemic is the perfect time to dig in, and realize that much of the learning is in the doing. I’m an untrained gardener but that hasn’t stopped me from realizing the benefits. Here are a few tips to get you, the self-isolated worker, started.
FIRST, STOCK UP ON ESSENTIALS
Check with your local gardening centre. Some are offering curbside pickup if you order ahead. Some of the more cunning among my gardening friends are treating the prospect of horticultural self-isolation with military precision, buying up essentials; I’ve already got about 90 litres of peat-free, organic compost clog- ging up the bike shed, which will easily suit my needs for the next few months. But a self-isolator with access to outdoor space will need just a few good basics.
Before you even think about what to plant, you will need some decent-sized pots, around 20-30 cm at least — in which to plant up seedlings grown on your windowsills in (preferably, compostable) seed trays. Once your seeds have sprouted, you can simply plant out the complete pot.
As for potting compost, I look for peat-free and hope for the best. Or douse whatever you’ve got with a Maxicrop all-purpose fertilizer, which is seaweed-based, for those keen on vegan products and which means foxes, squirrels and other critters will be less tempted to dig up your efforts.
SPRUCE UP YOUR OUTSIDE SPACE
Think of your outdoor plot like an unloved guest bedroom: It will look infinitely better for removing the detritus that’s gathered in the corners over winter. A lick of paint can also dramatically improve things, whether it’s applied to walls and fences or old pots.
If you’re short of planters, think about improvising some. Old baths, enamel sinks and zinc tubs can make chic plant homes, if you have the space — but so do those empty tin cans that once contained food stockpiled for the outbreak. Just make sure you drill holes in the bottom for drainage.
When it comes to sowing, those with greenhouses will have started months ago; I have a single windowsill built bespoke for plant propagation and believe that starting later — any time from around now, actually — leads to stronger, less gangly plants that catch up with those optimistically sowed weeks ago.
I generally advise to grow what you like to eat — no point in producing masses of rainbow chard if you don’t like the stuff.
CREATE AN INDOOR JUNGLE
It’s still possible to pick up house plants on the supermarket shelves and having green things around the home can help to connect us with the outside world when we’re not able to see much of it.
If you’ve already got a few houseplants, then spring is the time to start taking cuttings and propagating them.
Check on the needs of your specific variety, but generally speaking cuttings will root once taken with a clean, sharp knife or pair of secateurs, dunked in rooting hormone gel (organic, please) and then in potting mix or simply put in a jar of clean water.