Learn about Gardening with the National Trust

 

Inspired by the National Trust’s ‘50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾ activities and the remarkable collection of gardens in their care, we’ve created a new and exclusive range for little ones to explore the natural world. 

From window boxes to allotments, we’re getting ready to help gardens grow with this bright, organic cotton Garden Growers collection!

 

Get your wellies at the ready as we learn all about Gardening with the National Trust! 

We chatted to Pam Smith, Senior National Consultant for Gardens and Parklands at the National Trust to discover how you can make the most out of your garden.

 

Hi Pam, please can you tell us a little about yourself… 

I am originally from Wales but really enjoy city life. My career in gardening has allowed me to work all over the country, mainly in the north. I moved to Birmingham 25 years ago to take up the job of Director of University of Birmingham Botanical Gardens. It brought me to this great city from the northeast of England.  

 

My hobbies probably revolve around my career interests, I enjoy walking, local history and visiting museums, particularly natural history museums. I think as a gardener you have a certain set of eyes, no matter where you are, on a train, wandering around a city you see plants and their influence on landscape history and architecture everywhere. 

 

What is your role at the National Trust? 

I’ve worked for the National Trust for 10 years, always in garden roles initially supporting our garden teams and amazing gardens in Wales and the Midlands as a regional adviser helping gardeners improve presentation, research and prioritise work and create ways to engage our visitors with our amazing garden history and plant collections.  

 

I now work in a national role as the Senior National Consultant for Gardens and Parklands. I am an extra set of eyes for the opportunities for greater access and understanding and enjoyment of our gardens and parklands. I’m the lead specialist for horticulture and garden history and work a lot with external organisations, support the training of our gardeners and apprentices and look for opportunities for us to increase access, celebrate the skills of our teams and support innovative and new design. It also gives me an opportunity to create connections with external partners such as Frugi. 

 

Have you always been interested in gardening and horticulture? 

I’ve been involved in gardening as a career since I left school in 1981. I was lucky as I knew I wanted a job working outside from an early age. I grew up in Anglesey and the local countryside and nature meant I was often walking, bird watching and learning the names of all our local flowers and trees. At first, I wanted to be a forester but at the time it was very difficult to get any practical experience, so I realised horticulture combined all the elements I loved.  

 

What does a typical day in your job look like? 

Like many people who choose a career to work outside, the indoor demands of your roles as you progress your career creep up on you. Although I visit gardens, the majority of my work is now strategic, design, research and writing so I rely on my home office, laptop and phone. 

 

At the moment I am working on the design and plant ordering for two large projects – A Celebration of Blossom in Birmingham which involves planting Blossom trees all over Birmingham, working with communities and creating temporary Blossom installations in the City, particularly working with artists for temporary planting for the Commonwealth Games that happens this summer. 

 

I am also designing the Castlefield Viaduct planting. This is a National Trust project in the heart of Manchester where we are transforming an empty viaduct into a new park – up in the air! It is a very innovative project; I am still unsure how the plants will react to being planted so high above the city. I hope to take our apprentices along to plant over 1500 plants in May, ready for opening in June. 

 

I am also working with our garden team on the ambitious vision for our gardens for the future. Our gardens are places of great design, personal passions and reactions to the fashions and politics of the time. The National Trust is the largest holder of historic gardens in Europe and we have a plant collection greater than that of Kew. 

 

 

What are your first memories of gardening? Was there anyone who introduced you to it or sparked your interest? 

My parents were very practical people, my dad was a joiner and builder. They were very supportive of my wish to study horticulture. My grandad was a very keen gardener and he is probably the person who had the greatest influence. He had many gardening books, some greenhouses and showed me how to look after houseplants. I remember, as a Brownie, using my snack money to buy a bizzie lizzy cutting! I still have one of my grandad’s houseplants. It is a Christmas Cacti, full of pink flowers every Christmas. I inherited it in 1991! 

 

What would you suggest to grow and when?

Growing plants is exciting and no matter how much you think you know, plants always surprise you. I am not sure if there is such a thing as green fingers but a willingness to give things a go is key. 

 

I always grow mint and parsley. I am lucky to have a greenhouse and I can grow these all year round. The mint I use for mint tea and parsley I could eat anytime. I often just eat it straight from the greenhouse – it doesn’t always get back to the kitchen! 

 

If you know anyone with mint, ask to have a few pieces of root – it grows and spreads quickly, containers will control it. In spring, you can buy parsley in a pot from a garden centre or even a supermarket. Supermarket live herbs are usually many young plants packed into a small pot. You can separate them out and pot up for the garden or kitchen windowsill. 

 

I also love growing Half Hardy Annual climbers. These are often very tropical looking climbers which grow for one year only – they last until the first winter frost. But during the summer they can grow up to 3 metres easily. Look out for seeds in January and February or wait until nurseries get in young plants about Easter time. Some to look out for are Canary Creeper, Spanish Flag and Cup and Saucer plant.  

 

 

Do you have any advice for families wanting to start gardening this year? 

I could talk about the practicalities of soil management, container sizes, watering and all the nature in our garden that also wants to eat our plants. Gardens, streets and parks are full of plants from all over the world. Often as someone who was particularly keen to collect a certain type of plant, I would start by thinking about being a collector – think about a small group of plants you would like to focus on and then you can concentrate on having to provide a smaller range of growing conditions and enjoy as you become familiar with the range of varieties available. 

 

I would definitely recommend starting a mint collection – they are cheap to buy, easy to take cuttings from (just putting a piece of root in soil or a shoot in water). There is such a vast range of flavours and scents – some are very pungent and great fun to get visitors to try! There is even a chocolate mint. They are also great for pollinators too. 

 

For veg if you have the space pumpkins are always fun, I am still eating pumpkins from my allotment – they generally last until Easter! They will trail over supports or wigwams and there are many that you can grow in a container. One of the best things to do though is to eat a tomato or pea straight from the plant, again both great for containers too. 

 

I also love Sedums and Sempervirens – they are succulents that we can grow outside, some are very architectural making concentric rosettes of foliage. They can grow on walls, very shallow pots and roofs. Again, so many to collect and a great plant to be creative with – I have some growing in tea cups! 

 

Pam gave us some simple solutions for starting your gardening journey…

Think about growing space you have – you will be surprised where you can grow plants. Plants that are quick to grow and eat can often be planted in temporary containers from cress in a damp egg box to growing pea shoots for salads in plastic punnets. I use the plastic boxes I buy mushrooms in. I fill with peat free compost and plant dried peas (that you would buy for cooking). In a month you have cut and come again pea shoots. 

 

If you have a garden, you can try an annual meadow mix. There is a large choice of colour ranges, you sow the seeds in spring, just scatter them onto bare or scratched up soil, even between your shrubs.  

 

You don’t need to spend much, garden centres are full of containers, raised beds, soil enhancers and plant supports – have a look and then work out what you can try instead to get your garden journey started. I use empty plastic milk containers to make watering plants easier – especially water demanding crops like tomatoes, pumpkins and many plants in containers. Cut off the top, push into the soil next to the plant, a garden cane through the container keeps it in place. It means when you water you can just fill the container and let it slowly seep straight into the soil and the roots. 

 

You can also prick small holes into the lid and use the container like a watering can too. 

 

 

What tools do you need when getting started with gardening? 

Nature has most of the tools we need – soil, water and sunshine. If you can compost, then that will improve your soil’s ability to hold water and increase the food available to the plant. Water butts are really useful too. Depending on the scale of your gardening, you may need a small hand trowel and fork, or you may need a garden fork and spade. A rake is good for preparing larger areas for seed sowing but often a fork can do this job too. Gardening gloves are useful too. I would also recommend a notebook and pencil so you can remember what you planted where, what date you sowed seeds and somewhere to start your garden wish list. There are a lot of plant catalogues and websites. It’s great to start a garden scrapbook of plant images and ideas. 

 

I cut up plastic butter tubs to make plant labels, you can have great fun making different shapes of labels too. 

Pam cuts up plastic butter tubs in different shapes to make plant labels. Here she has made a heart-shaped label for her peas.

 

What should we plant to attract pollinators such as bees and insects?

I’ve already mentioned mint, but many plants are good for pollinators, the flower shapes that are most open and simple work best. Avoid flowers that are described as ‘double’. Many seed packets and plant labels list if they are good for pollinators.

 

Depending on the time of year, how often would you recommend watering the seeds and how can you tell when they need watering? 

You need to keep an eye on seeds in particular – they have such small roots they can dry out very quickly. Always water onto the soil if possible, not the plant leaves. Wet leaves in sunlight can burn and after all, it is the soil that needs the water not the leaves. For house plants I always give them a good soak – so the water runs straight through rather than a bit every now and again. I try and replicate a downpour! Often my shower cubicle is full of plants waiting to drain through! 

 

In winter when most plants are not growing, they do not need watering. Plants in containers outside do need more watering than if they were in the ground. Always stick your fingers into the soil – if it needs watering if it will feel dry and easily brush off your hands. 

 

How can you make sure the fruit & veg you’re growing won’t get eaten by little creatures found in the garden? 

Firstly, get to know the goodies and baddies – not all slugs eat plants, many insects are beneficial and some actually do little harm. There are less pests to our garden plants than you think. 

 

I think it is a balance of being willing to share and putting your efforts to preventing other things eating too much and thinking about protecting your crops ‘just in time’. Things only need protecting when they are almost ready to eat so you can spend your time and efforts only protecting what needs to be protected when. Also check every day at least once, so you can hopefully get there first. 

 

Slugs and snails are often our biggest frustration, they are good at hiding in the smallest of places, have a look in the evening and collect them up and move them to somewhere else. Copper tape around pots can discourage them for climbing up into the pot, as can eggshells. I have two large dogs and often use their dog hair around the base of particularly susceptible plants! It also provides great nesting material in the spring. 

 

Finally recruit some garden volunteers – bird feeders bring more birds into your garden and they will then eat some of your garden pests when there too. Creating a bug hotel or small pond also brings in some useful allies. There are some plants known as companion plants that help deter pests. I plant marigolds in with my tomatoes and some of the smellier plants such as onions and garlic can deter pests. 

 

Bird scarers of shiny things like CDs hung from fruit trees and bushes can help. One of our gardens make a fake hawk using a potato and pheasant feathers to hang amongst the plants! 

 

 

What are the best plants for pots if you don’t have access to a larger garden space? 

Indoors I like to use unusual containers from jelly moulds and glass bowls to serving plates I inherited from my grandparents. I line glass with coir hanging basket liner first to protect the roots from the light. They look great – I have even started to grow some houseplants this way. It is a great way to use and enjoy many of the plates, bowls and containers I have from my parents and grandparents. 

 

Bags for life can be used as growing containers – even for potatoes. I make my own growbags by just using larger compost bags and cutting holes into the side. 

 

Have a look through your recycling – it’s always better to re-use first. Tetra packs from fruit juice can have the top cut off and holes punched in the bottom – great for herbs and if you cut them a little lower so they are about 10cm deep, they can be used for seed trays too. 

 

I have also created wall planters from a pallet – they often have natural ‘shelves’, which you can line or just sit pots in. If you know any gardeners, they often have lots of spare plant pots you can use to fill your pallet. It can be lent against a wall and work well for quick salad crops and Sedums too. 

 

How would you recommend getting the whole family involved in gardening? 

Remember it is enjoyable. You are not going to become self-sufficient but it can be fun and even one portion of carrots are worth the effort – they taste so much better fresh from the ground and can grow even better in containers. Enjoy those moments and try not to grow in bulk or a vast range of plants.  

 

Quick growing plants from nasturtiums to the annual climbers always spark interest and may prompt a competition or two! Also choose plants that have more than one use – nasturtiums have edible leaves and flowers, and the seed pods can be used as capers; they have quite a kick – be warned! There are also some great plants with unusual berries and unusual smells, it’s always fun to see how we all think differently about some smells. 

 

Think about plants that are easy to share – for example you could give away cuttings – you can even design your own recipe leaflet to go with them to make great presents.  

 

Flower arranging is great fun so plants that you can bring indoors are always a joy and can encourage the creativity in us all. I have 5 small glass bottles on my kitchen windowsill. I love picking 5 things to put into them – sometimes it is a flower from my garden, sometimes a feather I have picked up on a walk or a twig.  

 

I also make blossom bowls – a bowl or cup of water with a flower floating in it – great for cherry blossom or for the flower that has accidently snapped off – which happens a lot in my garden, as my dogs are not very careful! 

 

Pam's blossom bowl with flower cuttings floating in water

 

We’d like to thank Pam for all her tips on gardening – we’re excited to get out and enjoy our gardens a little more this Spring. Get your Frugi x National trust outerwear and wellies at the ready to explore a garden near you!