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Before you can achieve the garden of your dreams – whether this is flower borders filled with colour and scent, a vegetable plot with sumptuous carrots and succulent tomatoes, or a fruit garden with strawberries and apples as far as the eye can see – you need to understand what’s going on out there.

Do you have the right amount of sun and shade? What kind of soil do you have? Do you suffer from wind!?

The Garden of your dreams

Sun v shade:

Have you ever really thought about shade? There are degrees of shade, and they can usefully be broken down into four categories, from best to worst:

Casting Shade
  • Partial shade: This is an area of the garden that is shaded for part of the day, but also receives full sun at times as well. All gardens are subject to this, so it does not really create a problem.
  • Dappled shade: This will have sunlight filtering through when the sun is in a certain direction. Many trees, particularly those that drop their leaves in the autumn, provide the most useful form of shade. Their light foliage canopies allow through some of the sun’s rays, but as the sun moves across the sky, different areas are illuminated.
  • Light shade: This is the shade cast by walls, buildings, hedges and so on, but with the area open to the sky. Therefore, there may be little or no direct sun, but still the light is bright. The soil can also be dry in this situation.
  • Deep shade: This is where the light intensity is very low, and the area is quite dark and gloomy, such as under large trees with dense foliage, particularly evergreens and conifers, as well as between large buildings, and basement gardens. There are no vegetables recommended for growing in such a place, unless you can grow them in containers and bring them out into the sunlight for the crucial part of the growing season.

It’s all in the soil:

It’s dirty. It’s mucky. And if you’re any sort of gardener, it gets right under your fingernails! The soil is singularly the most important part of a garden. The first question is whether your soil is ‘light’ and sandy, or ‘heavy’ and clayey. And if you were into the subject in quite a major way you could also break it down to ‘silt’ and ‘loam’ soils. Oh yes, the soil is a very ‘deep’ subject!

Throughout the UK there is a widely varying soil base. So, to tell you what kind of basic soil structure you have you could do the ‘thumb and finger’ test. Wet a sample of soil about the size of a ping-pong ball, and work it to break down all crumbs until it is smooth. Rub the sample between your thumb and fingers and assess it as follows:

  • 1. If the soil feels soapy and silky, then it is a silt soil.
  • 2. If it sticks slightly to the fingers and is slightly ‘plastic’, it is loam.
  • 3. If it is very sticky and forms a glaze when rubbed, it is clay.
  • 4. If it will not form a ball when rolled in the hand, then it is sand.


Then you should ascertain your soil’s pH. This is the measurement of acidity/alkalinity in the soil, and you can test your own with a simple and widely available pH kit. You’ll need to select samples of soil from various parts of the garden. The location of each sample should be recorded and each sample tested separately. The sample is placed in the tube supplied and a liquid added. The whole thing is shaken and then when settled you check its colour against a colour chart.

pH values start at 7.0; anything higher than this is alkaline, and anything lower is acid. The vast majority of plants like a slightly acid to neutral soil (that is, with a pH of 6.5-7.0). When you know the pH of the soil, you can choose all of the garden plants that are recommended on Ideal Gardening (and in books) for that level. If, however, there are other plants you want but they have the wrong pH requirements, then you can make the decision of whether to add lime to the soil (to make it more alkaline), or sequestered iron (to make the soil more acid).

And now, the weather:

Another condition that will influence your choice of plants is the amount of exposure your garden has to the elements. If, for example, it is high up on a hill and is full exposed to high wind (which can be bitingly cold in winter), any tall growing plants are likely to be affected – and not in a good way! You should therefore plant the hardiest plants in such a place, and possibly also go for the smaller or lower-growing kinds.

Often you can compensate for an exposed, windy garden by creating some form of shelter. At one extreme this could be a tall screen of mature poplar trees, for example, or it could be a simple slatted fence just 4ft (1.2m) high.

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