Spring has sprung! Why gardening can be your salvation in these times of crisis

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Alice Vincent: 'Before you even think about self-isolating, you will need some decent-sized pots'
Alice Vincent: 'Before you even think about self-isolating, you will need some decent-sized pots' Credit:  

As a fairly needy extrovert, the notion of self-isolation is not one that thrills me. The prospect of spending up to four months in the sole company of my live-in partner is mildly concerning, and my lumbar spine is already fed up with my new “office chair” (a Fifties bentwood number). But I am enormously grateful for one thing: the opportunity to gaze at my balcony garden all day. 

My one-bedroom flat may prove claustrophobic over the coming weeks, but I’m fortunate to be a London-dweller with access to a balcony garden. In normal circumstances, this little plot where life grows in pots and through crocks keeps me level-headed. In such unprecedented times as these, I think it might save me from insanity.

That may sound hyperbolic, but as an urban gardener I know it to be true. Growing things – from herbs to hellebores – 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 and stoically weather storms, was the one thing that helped me realise, 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 why 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. Even working on my tiny balcony can prove a workout when I’m carrying 60 litres of compost up three flights of stairs. 

There’s also the encouraging practicalities of being stuck at home on the cusp of Spring: the days are lengthening, the temperatures are heating up and it’s the perfect time to get plants to grow.

Often, the only thing that stops me from gardening as much as I’d like in March and April is a lack of time – but with every social event scrubbed from my diary in the wake of government advice, I’ve suddenly got plenty of it on my hands.  

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 realise that much of the learning is in the doing. I’m an untrained gardener – and still have plenty to learn – but that hasn’t stopped me from realising the benefits of greening up even a small, inner-city space. Here are a few tips to get you, the self-isolated worker, started. 

First, stock up on essentials

Forget loo roll, this is your number one priority now: if the nation’s garden centres are in danger of being commanded by the Prime Minister to make like our pubs and theatres and go on unofficial lockdown, that’s a good enough excuse for me to head to my local nursery now. 

Some of the more cunning among my gardening friends are treating the prospect of horticultural self-isolation with military precision, buying up essentials like they’re loo roll; I’ve already got about 90 litres of peat-free, organic compost clogging 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 20-30cm at least – in which to plant up seedlings, grown on your windowsills in (preferably, compostable) seed trays. Wilko (wilko.com) does 36 fibre mini-pots (4cm) for £1, and with a 3-for-2 deal – 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, although I definitely recommend RHS SylvaGrow Multipurpose (50l, £16.99 from suttons.co.uk), which adds coir (coconut matting) and wood fibre into the mix. Or douse whatever you’ve got with a Maxicrop all-purpose fertiliser, which is seaweed-based, for those keen on vegan products and which means foxes, squirrels and other critters will be less tempted to dig your efforts up. 

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, and after a good sweep, too. A lick of paint can also dramatically improve things, whether it’s applied to walls and fences or tatty 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. These can be strung through with wire and hung on an empty wall or fence to good effect. Just make sure you drill holes in the bottom for drainage. 

Get sowing

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 sown weeks ago. The supermarkets may be out of pasta, but those seed racks wheeled near the cigarette counter remain pleasingly full. 

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. But if you’re a complete beginner with some well-lit, outdoor space, courgettes will thrive and keep you well-fed throughout the summer months; pea shoots are a favourite cut-and-come again crop packed with vitamins. Herbs offer satisfaction and much-needed flavour to stockpiled tins: parsley and mint are easy and plentiful.

Want tomatoes? In small spaces, try Crimson Crush, which is good for containers (full-sized), and Roma, a nice compact variety.  

Get the children involved

If you’ve got little ones to entertain at home then learn alongside them. Nasturtiums are a brilliant variety to grow with children as the seeds are big enough for small hands to handle and they germinate quickly enough to satisfy short attention spans. They bloom furiously with early summer and will continue to do so if deadheaded (something else easy enough for children to do) and the whole lot tastes delicious in a salad. Other easy ornamentals to grow from seed include cornflowers (also edible), ammi majus (a dainty annual with creamy-white branched umbels, like a cow parsley) and blue lace flowers.  

Share with your neighbours

These are community-spirited times. If you end up with more seedlings than you can handle, offer them to your neighbours – they may even have some of their own to swap with. Beyond the growing things, don’t be afraid to see if you can borrow tools or even offer your time to those who might find getting around the garden more of a struggle. One of the greatest joys of gardening is how much those who do it like to chat about the matter. 

Create an indoor jungle

It’s still possible to pick up house plants on the supermarket shelves (or, even better, from your local independent nursery or plant shop, which arguably need your cash more) 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. Vines such as Devil’s Ivy are great to begin with; succulents will happily root in air after several weeks. 

Rootbound, Rewilding A Life by Alice Vincent (RRP £14.99). Buy now for £12.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514

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