The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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What I have learnt about ‘biodegradable plastic’

‘Just put it in the compost heap- and it will biodegrade!’  That is what I have heard from enthusiastic proponents of biodegradable ‘plastic’.  But now I’m cautious about doing that.  This is after my experiment trying to actually compost this stuff.

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As you see in the photo above, this is what the plastic bag looks like after more than a month inside the pot.  I filled the bag with dried and green leaves, hoping to start the process of biodegradation.  But it remains as strong as ever with no signs of disintegration. My friend used a large ‘hot’ composter and she also found that the ‘vegware’ she threw in haven’t composted at all.  I have since learnt that these bags require specific environmental conditions to biodegrade. Most require an industrial composting facility.  If accidentally mixed with regular plastics, compostable ones contaminate the recycling process.

Keep Britain Tidy has complained, ‘The drive to introduce bioplastics, biodegradable plastics and compostable plastics is being done with limited emphasis on explaining the purpose of these materials to the public or consideration of whether they are in fact better from an environmental perspective than the plastic packaging they replace.’  I also saw report from the BBC where a biodegradable shopping bag could still carry a full load of groceries after submerged in water for three years or buried underground for the same time. In some ways these are worse than the normal plastic ones because they come with the myth that they are somehow more benign to nature.

I was recently offered a ‘vegware glass’ at a charity meeting. When I asked for a proper glass, the woman said, ‘But these are compostable- and it’s all a part of a circular economy’.  I replied, ‘Please show me where your composter is.’  She said the office didn’t have one. ‘So you expect me to take this home and compost it?  What if I don’t have composter?  What happens if the vegware doesn’t break down?’  She didn’t have the answers and so reluctantly led me to the kitchen and gave me a glass.  Whether it is vegware, or biodegradable- it is also a single use item.  Single use items should be banned- our planet is not big enough to take in all the rubbish we throw in it.

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Using green mulch

In these days of climate change with extreme heat and lack of rain, even in the UK, one has to think about how to keep plants hydrated.  I went away for three weeks recently and had only just bought a lavender plants before leaving.  I was worried about it dying while I was away.  So I used a weed- nettles which grow well in my terrace- to make a green mulch.

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The green mulch would not only save the soil from drying out but also as the nettle dried out, it would nourish the soil.  It also would prevent other weeds from growing in the pot. I had first learnt about green mulch from some Cuban organic farmers who had used it during the ‘crisis’ days to grow urban food but had never used it myself.

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Almost four weeks later, this is the result.  The plant looks healthy and has grown well while the nettle has dried and become part of the soil.  Some small weeds have grown in the pot but those will also form part of the new green mulch.  This was so effortless and economical that I’m going to use it again and again.


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Bees and us

Lately I’ve been walking around the streets trying to photograph bees.  I’m not a professional and all I have is a smartphone, and these little creatures are very fast.  So the photographs aren’t very good.  However, I have noticed a much smaller number than last year, especially in my garden.  I grow wildflowers and plants in my terrace, hoping to attract bees.  But in one day, I may see about 5-8 bees (I don’t know if they are the same ones or different ones).  Last year, I could see 10-15 bees each day in my terrace.  The numbers of hoverflies remain the same as before.

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Bees seem to like purple or pink flowers- I’ve noticed. Lavender, appear to attract the most bees, including bumble bees, while honeybees also like the blue/white borage flowers, and marjoram, which has small pinkish white flowers.

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What I’ve also noticed are dead bees- particularly the large bumblebees.  This photo below was taken on a nearby pavement.

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Declining bee populations have been blamed on a combination of factors: climate change, pesticides – notably neonicotinoids – and varroa mites spreading in beehives.  While the EU has imposed an almost total ban on neonicotinoids, climate change is decimating bee populations with late frosts and later summers.  Honey is one of the products that bees create and we eat, but on a general level, bees are responsible for pollinating plants.  This ‘unpaid’ act by these busy workers, help plants to grow and give food, flowers, cosmetics and thousands of other plant based products.

In a study by Sussex university on a project called ‘Honey bee health and well being’, it was found that bees do prefer all varieties of lavender and borage (which was the best all rounder).  These are also very cheap plants to grow- while Lavender is a perennial, Borage will self seed.  The lead scientist of the study, Professor of Apiculture, Dr. Francis Ratnieks, said, ‘The most important message from this study is that choosing flowers carefully makes a big difference to pollinators at zero cost. It costs no more to buy bee friendly flowers and they are not more difficult to grow and are just as pretty. The flowers don’t have to be native, wild flowers.’

Let us grow more organic blue, purple and pink flowers and help these hardworking saviours of humankind.


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Never give up!

I had been away for awhile and the blazing spring had turned into a burning summer.  One of the plants that had suffered from this was my bay tree.  I don’t know why or how the others survived but this one literally looked burnt.  I’ve had this tree for a long time and was sad that it had gone.  But I don’t know why, I decided to replant it elsewhere. Each time I watered it, I muttered words of encouragement and thanks for the bay leaves it had given me.  In the meantime, someone had given me another bay tree for which I was very grateful.  So I decided I should get rid of the dead bay tree.  Lo and behold, when I went to do so, this is what I saw-

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It was as if the bay tree was saying to me, ‘Why did you give up on me?’  Now I’ve taken this lesson as a metaphor for life.  Never give up!


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Open Squares day

The open squares day is a great day to visit gardens in London- big or small.  London’s hidden green spaces open their gates for public enjoyment and discovery.

The very first London Garden Square Day took place in 1998, with 43 gardens taking part.  The aim was to draw attention to the contribution that green spaces made to the city- in fact, almost half of London is green.   The open Squares days offer opportunity to explore those private and more secret gardens which are not generally accessible to the public and to join in the community events taking place.  Caroline Aldiss, a resident of Collingham Gardens at the time, founded the event in 1998-9 with the support of the London Parks and Gardens Trust and English Heritage. She thought that a day when all the green spaces could become open to the public, would be good event for the summer and for people to become interested in gardens and gardening.

This year I visited St. Mary’s secret garden in Hackney with its wonderful array of tables selling home-made produce such as jams and chutneys, honey, plants, bird houses, tea and cakes. Along with the buzz of people, bees and birds, it was a lively atmosphere and inspirational.  For over 25 years, St. Mary’s Secret Garden has offered a safe space where people with support needs  and the local community can get hands-on experience of gardening,  gain a sense of inclusion and receive the benefits of horticulture and other eco-therapy activities.

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Winter’s gifts

I have written previously about how winter leaves gifts behind, although spring and summer are seen as seasons when we have more gifts from nature.  I made this gift for my colleagues at work using leaves and dried flowers that I was going to put into the compost heap.  It was easy to do and looks quite good I think. I had all the stuff at home including the vase and the sponge base, so it is a zero waste zero price gift!

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Winter’s gift for birds

This is spring time in the UK and we can hear birds flying, chirping and building nests.  Walking under a tree, I heard the sounds of baby magpies hidden somewhere while I watched the anxious parents bring food to them.  Birds are amongst the non humans who actually build homes for their young ones.  Many birds are expert builders (and don’t seem to need any training!), and some are experts at repurposing holes, ledges, and parts of buildings for their nests.  As an architect, I first learnt about non human architecture from this book many years ago-

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A weaver bird’s nest from South India (credit: wikimedia commons)

But these days, given our penchant for weeding and tidying gardens straight after winter, our non human friend have nothing to build nests with, especially in cities.  This year, I have been very busy finishing a book and had forgotten to ‘tidy up’ my patio.  It was full of dead plants and I felt very embarrassed about how it was looking.  But one day, raising my head, I saw two magpies busy pulling at my dried plants and branches and fly off with a beak-full. Next, I saw a little robin that has become a regular, taking little branches and stems for its own nest.  I have also had a thrush coming by to pick up building materials. Ahh, I realised, my patio was actually being useful, even though it looked a state!

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my untidy patio with metal robin

Seeing these birds has been such a delight and given me another reason not to tidy up so soon. Along with the nest building materials, they have taken away weeds, cleared up spider’s webs and eaten some slugs- saving me some work.  I never knew how useful birds are to the canny gardener.  Make sure you keep some of these materials to attract birds into your garden and help them build their nests in the spring-

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Things that birds could use

  • Twigs or sticks
  • Dead leaves
  • Grass clippings or dead grass
  • Moss or lichen
  • Pine needles
  • Mud
  • Pebbles or small rocks (not the ones in the photo though!)
  • Spider web silk
  • Straw or other dried plant stems

Do keep some water for these thirsty parents too!
PS- As these birds tend to be wary of humans, I tried but couldn’t take a photo!