Nick’s Garden: know your place

Nick Leech explores the issues new gardeners should consider when starting a garden.

In social situations, telling somebody that you work with plants is rather like saying you’re a doctor. For those not gifted in small talk, the announcement often provides the perfect antidote to those awkward moments that might normally pepper polite conversation. While listening to the gardening anecdotes that always follow your announcement, silence will be read as sagacity and not as evidence of any social ineptitude.

Being put on the spot like this can be a nerve-wracking experience because, as ‘the expert’, you are always expected to produce some magic cure or nugget of advice. Luckily, encyclopaedic knowledge is rarely necessary as the root cause of the usual litany of disease, sickness, pestilence and failure is often the same issue, albeit in different guises.

When I used to work with tropical plants at a nursery in London, death rode most frequently on a thermo-nuclear blast of central heating while more recently it reared its ugly head on a friend’s roof terrace where lush, lacquer-leaved Gardenia had been lovingly planted in conditions that would have challenged the very toughest Cacti.

Setbacks like these often litter the start of that special relationship that can form between a plot and its gardener but the good news is that most can be easily avoided. The key is to take time first to consider a small number of issues that will make all the difference between gardening heaven and horticultural hell. Put simply, important early successes with plants are almost entirely a matter of context and an awful lot of heartache will be avoided if you can resist the urge to immediately splash your cash in the nearest nursery and follow one simple rule. When it comes to climate, aspect, irrigation and soil a gardener must know their place!

A map showing the tropics, bordered by the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the tropic of Capricorn in the south.

Despite its location on the edge of the desert, the UAE actually straddles the Tropic of Cancer, sharing sub-tropical latitudes with Taipei, Monterrey in Mexico, Nassau in the Bahamas and even Florida’s Key West. Armed with this key information there are some invaluable online tools that will allow you to get started.

The United States’ Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zone Map groups plants by their ability to withstand minimum temperatures while the glorious plant finder tool on Sunset Magazine’s website allows you to choose plants by a whole host of criteria. The important thing to realise is that the USDA would probably give the UAE a 10 and 11 while Sunset Magazine would rate Abu Dhabi’s climate as a 25. Not all of the plants on the lists will be available to UAE gardeners, but you’ll soon develop a palette of suitable plants.

Closer to home, it’s important to understand the particular foibles of your plot. My garden is on the very sunny side of the building, facing directly southeast. This should make it a veritable sun’s anvil but I’m lucky to be shaded each morning by taller adjacent buildings and my front door receives gentle shade all afternoon. By understanding these facts I immediately know that I have different light conditions to work with and should consider each of these when it comes to buying my plants.

Luckily, my garden already had an external tap when I moved house. If it hadn’t I would have asked for one to be fitted to make watering the garden easier. This may sound extreme but in all but the very tiniest gardens an external water supply is essential. Even those with the very best horticultural intentions will soon tire of repeated journeys to an indoor tap, a level of effort that would be almost impossible to sustain year round. With an external water source I always prefer to water by hand so I can enjoy my plants while checking for pests but I do so knowing that I’ll be watering twice a day in the heat of the summer. With less time or a larger garden an automated watering system would be the only thing that ensured my garden remains the pleasure it should be.

In my small urban garden soil only becomes an issue when I’m experimenting with different potting mixes however, if you’re establishing a larger garden the cost and effort of providing enough ‘sweet soil’ capable of supporting a wide range of garden plants may prove unrealistic or prohibitive and should be carefully considered.

Now the basics of climate, light, soil and irrigation are considered I’m ready to start making informed decision when choosing my plants. If you’re still a little nonplussed, always remember to look over the fence for inspiration and don’t be shy in quizzing your neighbours when something catches your eye.  Just make sure you’re sitting comfortably before they start talking as once you get a gardener started, you could end up listening for some considerable time.

This article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi

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