I don’t believe in ‘green thumbs’. While gardening can be seen as an art-form, or sometimes as being about luck, the truth is it’s a perfectly learnable skill. It’s possible the current environment has you looking at growing some food yourself, but if you’re new to this, you’re about to find the learning curve can be steep, and you might not succeed right away.
Trust me, over the last decade (and especially the last 4 years), I’ve dedicated myself to learning (and failing) in the skill of growing food. It’s not really something you can pick up in a month – it takes years to figure some things out due to the nature of seasons – but practice makes perfect.
10 years ago, I was living in an inner-city townhouse with a small balcony container garden (shown above in December 2010). My gardening there was mostly on instinct. Everything I knew about gardening I had learned before I was 12 years old, when I decided gardening wasn’t a cool enough way to spend my time. The balcony garden was successful in that I grew things and we ate them. But over the years I’ve learned many things I wish I’d known back on that balcony.
In 2016 after the death of my mother, I started to take gardening more seriously and moved away from my instinct and towards some more formal and informal active learning. As a result, my gardens have got better and better. Having more space helps, but there’s heaps of ways to make clever use of limited space too – if you know how.
Find experts you trust
I am a gardening enthusiast, and far from an expert. Gardeners can be ranked by their seasons of experience, and I feel like I’ve wasted too many of my seasons. I’m really still learning the ropes. The real experts have spent more than half their lives in the garden. Here are some of my favourite gardening actual-experts.
Ruth is old school and was active in the mid-20th century. I’ve written about her before. She is famous for pioneering (or at least, being the first to write popularly about the subject) deep-mulching. She has inspired many more modern gardeners, and a quick search of “Ruth Stout method” will bring up hundreds of videos, blogs, and forums dedicated to her methods.
Getting hold of her books (How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back and Gardening Without Work) was a real mission for me, but if you ever get a chance to read one, you should. She is wonderfully opinionated and has some really interesting tips. I have every intention of following her strawberry planting recommendations when we plant out our new bed this winter.
Like Ruth Stout, Charles Dowding believes in a lot of mulch. He’s famous for having a “no dig” garden, with very little weeding (are you noticing a trend in my gardening heroes? I am very lazy).
He has a very popular YouTube channel where he covers most aspects of creating, planting, and maintaining your garden. To go alongside that, he’s also got an online course in No-Dig Gardening. I haven’t done it myself, but maybe it’s the thing you need to gain your gardening skills.
Kay (of the Koanga Institute) is one of New Zealand’s most expert gardeners. Until the end of April 2020, you can gain access to her online workshops and masterclass for 50% off. Again, this isn’t one I’ve done myself, but Kay has taught generations of Kiwi horticulturists with this course, her knowledge is incredible.
Medwyn grows the most beautiful vegetables in all of the UK. He’s won the gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show every year for the last 12 years. His Twitter account is well worth a follow, and dozens of his gardening articles are available on his website.
When I’m in the garden, I’m often listening to podcasts. After trying every gardening podcast I could find, I keep coming back to the Joe Gardener Podcast with Joe Lamp’l.
Take time to learn
As well as the more informal courses mentioned above, you can gain a formal NZQA qualification in horticulture if you want to. I’m about to finish my fourth formal qualification in plants and growing stuff.
There’s a couple of free or cheap ways to gain formal qualifications in horticulture online in New Zealand.
Open Polytech of New Zealand
Open Poly really know what they’re doing when it comes to distance learning. They’ve been doing it a long time. I’ve been studying with them since 2018, and will complete my Certificate of Horticulture (Level 3) by the end of the month.
It’s a great course that covers a really broad range of plant biology, weeds, common pests, propagation, and maintenance. The best bit? It’s totally free. They take enrollments every month, so it’s easy to jump into it at any time.
Southern Institute of Technology (SIT)
In 2016 and 2017, I did a Certificate in Organic Horticulture (now discontinued) via SIT2LRN, the online branch of the Southern Institute of Technology. I learned heaps. The one I did isn’t available anymore, but there’s a number of agriculture and horticulture courses at a range of levels that you can do entirely online.
In fact, as I went to go grab a link for this blog, I found the New Zealand Certificate in Land Based Sustainability Practices (Level 3). It looked so good that I’m now enrolled for the May intake. There’s a horticulture strand, but I’m going to do the livestock strand to learn more about keeping our cows sustainably.
SIT courses are ‘fees free’, but you still pay $7 per credit, and a $50 processing fee. It’s cheaper than your usual tertiary course, but it’s not quite free. My latest enrollment (40 credits) cost $330.
Get some good books
Gardening advice can be confusing. Everyone says something different. If you’re searching the internet with the questions, you’ll get a planet’s worth of answers. The advice you find might apply to a different climate, and it might just be plain wrong.
Books are hard to get right now, but if this is something you want to take up longer term, you’ll quickly see the benefit of a single offline source. In my bookshelf, I have two go-to books. These are my bibles. I trust them above everything else I might read or hear. I’ve made that choice to trust these particular books because: (a) they haven’t been proven wrong yet; and (b) they cover my particular gardening needs quite thoroughly.
It makes things simple. And if I ever learn something new, I usually annotate the book so I know the next time I look it up.
The New Zealand Gardening Calendar by Michael Crooks
This book tells me when to plant stuff in my region. After more than a decade of use, I trust it whole-heartedly. It’s about 40 years old, so I’m increasingly finding I need to make some accommodations for climate change, but it’s still my go-to guide.
It’s out of print, but copies frequently come up on TradeMe.
The Complete Book of Vegetables, Herbs & Fruit
Actually three books in one: The Complete Book of Vegetables by Michael Biggs; The Complete Herb Book by Jekka McVicar; and Bob Flowerdew’s Complete Fruit Book.
I picked this up for a wildly cheap $14.50 at my local secondhand book store. There are not many species of vegetable, herb or fruit that is not covered here. It includes a history, some information on varieties, growing guides, and even a recipe for every single plant it covers. It’s an Australian publication, so you have to adjust some advice if you’re in New Zealand – but not by much.
Get your hands dirty
Nothing beats actual hands-in-the-dirt experience. It doesn’t matter what your scale is. Whether you are just using a few containers on a windowsill or balcony; or whether you have an entire yard to play with. There is no substitute for just growing something and gaining that knowledge by finding out for yourself.
You might fail – I fail a lot – but something usually takes off. And I always learn from my failures.
Every ‘expert’ gardener feels like they learn something new every year. A new pest or disease. A new pruning technique. A new way to reinvigorate their soil. A new favourite vegetable or fruit. If you’re open to constantly learning from a range of sources, you can only become a better gardener.