Hopeless at gardening? Here’s the solution

·10 min read
Nikki shows Sheila (left) the basics so she can maintain her garden herself - Andrew Crowley
Nikki shows Sheila (left) the basics so she can maintain her garden herself - Andrew Crowley

Garden designer Nikki Scott, based in Grendon Underwood, Bucks, expanded into mentoring after seeing how some of her clients wanted to take control of the gardens she had created for them but lacked the confidence and know-how. “The idea is to show people how to garden so they can then do it for themselves,” says Scott.

“I take the fear out of it because people do seem to be scared of their gardens. They’ll either leave their plants to grow and grow or they’ll go out and chop away then wonder why they’ve not got any flowers on their philadelphus this summer.”

Mentoring now accounts for half of Scott’s workload. With some clients, she is providing ongoing support after redesigning their garden. Other customers come to her for practical advice on how to cope with their garden.

“It’s like being a counsellor. I ask them, ‘What do you want from your garden, how do you see it?’ I just know that people can do it themselves with a bit of initial support from me. I’ll show them how to do something then say, ‘Go on, you can do that yourself.’ It’s because I like helping people. Either that or I’m just plain lazy!”

She shows clients how to care for existing plantings, including transplanting those that are ailing, and how and when to prune shrubs. She also advises on choosing plantings and how and where to plant them. It’s just a case of hand-holding, says Scott, 56, who is based in Grendon Underwood, Buckinghamshire.

Mentoring involves return visits through the seasons as and when clients request it. Leading by example does require certain skills, says Scott, a fine arts graduate, who also holds an HNC in Garden Design from Pershore College in Worcestershire.

“I enjoy sharing my knowledge but I’d say that communication is the biggest skill you need. Making sure that the client understands what you’re talking about and doing. I like joshing them along to bring them out a bit, then building up their confidence.”

The key, she says, is to establish a close rapport with clients. Then send them on their way at the earliest opportunity. “I like to think that my fledglings will take flight. I want clients to be able to stand on their own two feet.”

For further information, visit Nikki Scott's website. For mentors in your area, visit the Society of Garden Designers

‘I’m red-green colour blind so can only see bright colours’

David Armstrong, 65, turned to gardening to occupy his time in retirement after injury thwarted his rugby coaching plans. He and his partner Beth Johnson, 53, quickly clashed over colour schemes for their garden in Edgcott, Buckinghamshire.

New tricks: David reached a compromise with his partner over colour schemes - Andrew Crowley
New tricks: David reached a compromise with his partner over colour schemes - Andrew Crowley

“Beth and I visited Arundel [in West Sussex] and fell in love with the white garden there. It inspired us to create one here, and I can see white because it’s bright. However, this is where Beth and I had a difference of opinion because she wanted pastel shades whereas I wanted bright, bold and brash colours so I could see them.

“Beth and I were coming at the garden from different angles. I wanted high visibility, because what’s the point of spending all that money if you can’t see the plants? For me it’s all about vision and smell. Beth suggested I have just a tiny corner of the garden where I could grow my own colours. I said, ‘That’s not going to work.’ We brought Nikki in via a neighbour’s recommendation because we agreed we needed guidance on this.”

Nikki suggested that Beth keep the large garden nearest the house, while she designed a potager garden for David in what used to be an apple orchard at the end of Beth’s garden.

“So the middle garden is Beth’s domain and the potager garden is mine, where I have reds, oranges and yellows, which sing out at me,” says David. “Though Beth does come into my garden to grow vegetables and I’m allowed into the middle garden to maintain it.”

David’s patch includes Digitalis lutea; Geum ‘Prinses Juliana’; Lupinus ‘Chandelier’ and Rosa ‘Lady Emma Hamilton’. Beth’s pastels area includes Dianthus ‘Haytor White’; Potentilla fruticosa ‘Abbotswood’ and Scabiosa columbaria ‘Misty Butterflies’.

David found that he also needed help with basic skills: “Beth and I would put plug plants much too close together, not realising that in three months’ time they’d be overflowing. Nikki taught us about spacing, and even how to water properly. How crazy is that?

“On-site mentoring is invaluable. Nikki comes and prunes then watches me do it and shows me where I’m going wrong. I get so bored reading books on gardening. We do watch gardening programmes, but I want to learn hands-on.”

David says a strong rapport is crucial for successful mentoring. “It’s wonderful to work with Nikki because although she’s a bit of a bossy so-and-so you have to bond with your mentor. If Nikki had not been my cup of tea it wouldn’t have worked.”

Three years on, David intends to continue with the mentoring. “This spring Nikki will come back to assess it all. It’ll be tweaking an on-going process.”

‘My dad was a good gardener but I wasn’t interested back then’

Inheriting a ‘mess of a garden’ left by the previous owners, meant novice Sheila Richards, 66, had to call on the experts and learn from the ground up.

Richards had never heard of garden mentoring before she met Nikki - Andrew Crowley
Richards had never heard of garden mentoring before she met Nikki - Andrew Crowley

Nikki Scott was first called in to redesign Sheila Richards’ garden, which then comprised “deathtrap decking and a mess made by the previous owners’ two dogs who had dug up all the grass”.

It’s a big garden that encircles Richards’ house in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, and Scott introduced mixed borders, beds and patios. When the hard landscaping was finished in early 2020, Richards realised that she needed someone to show her what to do next.

“I’ve never gardened before, I worked full-time and always employed gardeners to do it for me,” says Richards. “My intention when I moved to this house in summer 2019 was to have a garden I could do some work in, so I wanted to learn a lot more about gardening.”

Although a business mentor herself, Richards had never heard of garden mentoring before she met Nikki. For more than two years now, Nikki has tutored her in skills ranging from where to locate plants to how to maintain them long-term. Richards says that, while she has found television programmes and YouTube videos can be useful guides for vegetable growing, she finds shrubs, trees and flowers far more complicated and nothing beats being mentored in person.

“For example, Nikki taught me that I’d have to water the plants correctly because that was going to make the difference between growth and non-growth. She would start a section off then say, ‘now you finish it’, and three years down the road I can still remember how to plant because Nikki made me do it myself. I can also now see why Nikki located the plants in the places she did because it’s all come together in terms of height, colour, structure, and spacing.

“Without her mentoring I would have been absolutely lost. It was very hard work because I have hundreds of plants, but under Nikki’s guidance, she, I and a friend who came to help, did the planting in a day.”

Plantings include trees to provide privacy: Prunus serrulata ‘Pink Perfection’; Sorbus commixta ‘Embley’; and Syringa vulgaris ‘Carpe Diem’.

Richards finds Scott’s follow-up support invaluable, recently asking her by WhatsApp how to prune a penstemon that had not been touched for two years. “Nikki told me to cut it like a hedgehog. Still unsure, I sent her a photo of it and she said, ‘Well, that’s a very big hedgehog, but still cut it right back.’ So I did.

“Nikki’s practical, down-to-earth, knowledgeable and very accessible. It’s been all about building up my confidence. My dad was a good gardener but he didn’t show me what to do. Though to be fair, back then I probably wasn’t very interested.”

‘We don’t want to always be out there digging’

Angela and Keith Shenstone, both 75, have minimal gardening experience between them.

Late bloomers: After a little help, Angela and Keith now enjoy a lovely garden - Andrew Crowley
Late bloomers: After a little help, Angela and Keith now enjoy a lovely garden - Andrew Crowley

“I like to potter but I wouldn’t call myself a gardener and Keith will mow the grass but that’s about it,” says Angela Shenstone.

When the couple moved to their new-build house in Bicester, Oxfordshire, in December 2018, the 150ft by 30ft garden consisted of grass, a poor soil and “an awful lot of horrible conifers”, says Angela. They asked Nikki Scott for mentoring help on planting and maintenance after she had redesigned it.

Given the couple’s age and their preference “to not be always out there digging”, Scott transformed the garden into a low-maintenance space with several sitting areas, a pergola, three raised vegetable beds and several mixed borders. She also drew up a planting list based on their need for low-maintenance, year-round interest. Angela is also a flower arranger so asked for plants that she could use as cut flowers.

With the hard landscaping finished in early 2020, the plants had just arrived as the first lockdown hit. So Nikki embarked on her first-ever socially distanced mentoring of planting, starting with the basics of how to dig a hole properly.

“I’d thrown the odd thing into the ground before but nothing like Nikki showed us and I don’t suppose I’d ever bothered maintaining anything afterwards,” says Angela.

Scott positioned the plants around the garden then showed the couple how to plant them properly, before leaving them to do it themselves. Plants for Angela’s flower arranging include Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’; Fatsia japonica; and Paeonia lactiflora ‘Karl Rosenfield’.

Scott also advised on how to move plants, as Angela explains: “When we first came here we planted a bed under the conifers but nothing would take. Then we made a bed elsewhere but everything failed in that one too and it all had to come out.”

Scott explained that the plantings had failed because they were in the wrong place, either for those particular species or, in the case of the trees, because the soil and aspect were too poor for anything to thrive.

“It’s not cheap to have a garden redesigned so being mentored on how to look after it properly is a good idea. We found Nikki very knowledgeable, personable and chatty without being invasive. We chatted about different things and it all went so quickly I didn’t have time to realise how back-breaking it all was,” says Angela.

Scott also mentored the couple on how to prune and cut back.

“So now I do prune, though whether I do it correctly I’m not sure,” says Angela. “Keith will have a go too – if I tell him what to do.”

Would you hire a gardening mentor? Let us know in the comments section