I don't know about you, but my interest in gardens grew exponentially when I began to understand what makes plants grow well and what attracts wildlife to them. And if a gardening column is to do its job, it needs to explain the whys as well as the hows of gardening and conservation.
A good way into developing a deeper understanding of horticulture is to embrace citizen science programmes run by wildlife charities, following trends in animal numbers and plant behaviour. Scientists use the data to explain any changes.
Next weekend sees a long-standing citizen science event take place, when the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) conducts its 33rd annual Big Garden Birdwatch survey. Last year, a record-breaking 45,000 Scots took part. Louise Smith of RSPB Scotland, says: "It's unclear what impact the mixed weather of 2011 has had on our garden birds, so we are keen for as many people as possible to take part. This means we'll get lots of snapshots of UK gardens, and that equals quality information."
Volunteers are asked to spend an hour over the weekend counting and identifying – with the help of an ID sheet – the birds they see. Families, friends and schools take part, including a woman who lives on a boat on the Caledonian Canal. Three generations of one family regularly arm themselves with tea, biscuits and pencils, poised to count birds from the living-room window.
The information collected from long-term studies such as this is especially valuable since it shows fluctuations and changes in numbers. We often think there are fewer sparrows or starlings, and this study highlights their decline over 30 years. You might once have expected to see 15-20 starlings round a feeder, but there will only be four or five now. On the other hand, people now see a swathe of different species, such as siskins and woodpeckers. Goldfinches are also more common and are spotted in one-third of gardens. So it's not all bad news.
Year on year, the data shows how the weather affects bird numbers and how people can help the birds. The bad winter in 2009 probably explained why there were fewer blue tits, great tits or coal tits in Scotland the following spring. These small birds perished because they weren't getting enough food regularly to keep their energy levels up. But after 2010's bad winter, many of these species bounced back, probably after a good breeding season and vital food and water in gardens. Keeping those feeders filled makes a difference.
The RSPB uses these results to pinpoint where bird species are found in the UK. Scotland has traditionally been at the northern tip of the nuthatch range, but with steadily rising temperatures, the organisation is keen to know whether the nuthatch population is spreading and where the birds can be found. Look out for this solidly built bird with a slate-grey back, peachy underneath and a severe black eye stripe.
The comma butterfly is spreading steadily north at the rate of 10 miles a year, a trend Butterfly Conservation wants to track. It's seen in late summer, so the charity is holding a Comma Butterfly Count, asking you to participate by spending 15 minutes on a sunny day between July 14 and August 5.
Most data comes from English gardens so if you want to know the Scottish angle, you need to flood the charities with your observations. One such body, Buglife, is the only conservation organisation specialising in creepy crawlies, and it wants to hear from people throughout Britain. It's all too easy to label garden beasties friend or foe, forgetting that some less popular garden residents may not be as bad as they're portrayed. You'll be riveted by these tiny creatures when you start watching and recording them. It's just as important to count soldier beetles or netted slugs as it is to discover rarities such as Australian land hoppers, which have taken up residence in Glasgow. Although they can live among human litter, their usual home is in leaf litter so they are darker brown than more common sand hoppers.
Warmer temperatures affect plants too, so the Woodland Trust has launched Nature's Calendar, asking people to report any changes they see. The trust's Dr Kate Lewthwaite says: "Our native plants and trees are great indicators of wider changes in the natural world.
"By recording budburst and flowers blooming, the public can help us determine whether these changes are having a major effect on how mother nature functions. It has become more commonplace to see daffodils and snowdrops in late December and early January as the climate warms." Anyone taking party will be adding to the 60,000 records that date back to the 17th century.