The more I garden the more it brings out the detective in me. I started learning out of a comfortingly authoritative book which told you what to do, when, how, and some of the why. Inevitably while much of the advice worked well, there were some crops or ornamental plants that just didn’t behave as they ought to. At first, I thought it was because they hadn’t read the book, but as time went on, I became increasingly aware of how much even small seasonal variability from year to year influenced growth, and particularly early growth. Spring could be lovely or cold and wet, summer wasn’t always summer as we know it (!!), autumn could be mild like this year or we might have a killer frost fairly early on which halted further development for that year.

I followed the (good) advice to rotate my veg crops to avoid some of the pests and diseases and noticed that some veg liked one part of the garden far more than another area whereas others weren’t fussy. Why? And when plants were being eaten or looked diseased, some detective work was needed to narrow down the culprits to help me decide what to do about it.

I felt that if I knew a little more I might have more consistent success, so I decided to study for the RHS Level 2 Certificate which awoke me to so many aspects of gardening. It taught me about many factors influencing plant development, including weather, soil type, soil conditions, fertility, pests and diseases, what crop and which varieties might suit my garden better, ways to provide protection, and the list goes on. Lots of exploring and experimenting to do!

As with so many areas in life, learning opens your eyes to see the finer detail. Your detective skills are honed when you have the facts to base your judgements on, and you start to question and observe more and more that at first just passes you by. If you find you share my curiosity and want to learn more, indulge by taking more time to observe what you see. This can be done when in the garden, or out walking in parks or along the road—when we’re busy our focus can be elsewhere.

How about a little plant identifying? You can start with trees or hedges, and look at their different characteristics: hawthorn is dense and prickly and may still have dark red berries, beech has lovely autumnal golden brown leaves which it may hold onto into the winter, evergreen hedges may be dense or loose (dense ones are better for birds to shelter in). Trees have very distinctive shapes. It’s a good idea to try to learn a few tree names in case you want one for your garden—birches have very thin dark branches and often lovely white bark, while sycamores are very tough and will provide dense shade but no real autumn colour. Horses for courses, as they say, or in gardening terms ‘right plant, right place’.

Other ways to develop the basis for your detective skills include browsing through gardening books, many have lovely pictures of plants with the names provided or websites, or by watching The Beechgrove Garden which is on during the growing season (head and shoulders better than any other gardening program in my opinion), or working with/picking the brains of other gardeners to share experiences. Garden centre staff can be very helpful with advice too, and you can also get to know plants by reading their labels. Challenge yourself to learn 2 plant names a week and by the end of the year, you will know and be more familiar with 100 plants!
Why is this important? You may be planting a new bed or planning for next year’s veg garden. While it’s fun and important to try out new things it can become expensive replacing plants that don’t succeed. Also, it’s a knowledge that builds up, which you can then share more confidently; and this adds to your enjoyment of gardening even more. There is always a degree of guesswork when something goes wrong, but by using what you know and observing the symptoms you can often arrive at a solution, which is very satisfying.