The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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A community garden takes shape

For the last year I have been involved in the designing of a community garden in East London.  I have set up a charity which undertakes this kind of work- part architectural, part landscape design- using community engagement as a tool to do this work.  We have worked in a number of different countries- India, Venezuela and Palestine and now, in the UK.  To see more of our work, do have a look at Charushila. This project is a community allotment and seating area in a green space attached to a housing block in Hoxton.

The first part of this project was the community consultation on what was needed and who could help us. This part was called ‘Everyday on the Canalside’. This part of the project was funded by Metropolitan Housing who own this site. Owing to the diverse nature of the community, we worked with Counterpoints Arts (a migration charity), Shoreditch Trust (a youth charity) and Marcia Chandra, a local photographer. Our work involved consultation with the residents, local community and businesses; and meetings with Metropolitan Housing. In June 2014, we organised a community fun day with pottery and gardening workshops run by local organisations. Finally in November 2014, we put up sketches of the proposed design for a final consultation with residents and businesses.

The second part of the project, which started in parallel with the first phase, runs until March 2015 when we will be constructing the seating and allotment garden. For this part we are working with Groundworks Trust, St Mary’s secret garden (a local charity), Turning Earth Ceramics and Gareth Shiels, a stone sculptor.  We are using reclaimed stones and paving bricks to create the seating, discarded broken pottery in the allotment beds and animal manure.  We received a grant from the Mayor of London’s Pocket Park programme. Groundwork London is administering the Community Strand on behalf of the Mayor. We are going to have a planting day on 28th March, so if you are in the area, please come along.


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Photographing gardens

Photographing gardens and plants are something we can all do. These stunning photos taken by amateurs and professionals prove that it is the eye that counts- we must try to see the beauty that may be invisible to most. Many of these photos have been taken with a smartphone, many are on the spur photos. But the attention to detail and composition make them stand out- this requires ‘being in the moment concentration’. So do get your camera and start- I feel inspired to take some myself and will be sharing those with you in the coming year.

International Garden Photographer of the Year: Winning photos of nature’s beauty


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feeling summer

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I tried this winter to grow something but thanks to climate change, it was all very unpredictable.  I shall have to think of something to beat this chaotic weather for next year.  I am beginning on an exciting community garden project which I will report another time.

For now, I am using the summer harvest to good use in the chilly winter.  This is my chilli oil.  The ingredients consisted of a base of a neutral oil (I used 100 litres of organic sesame seed oil) which I heated for 30 seconds in the microwave.  Then I added four birds eye chillies, two sprigs of rosemary, a few sage leaves and four peppercorns.  You can adjust the chilli according to your needs- my children seemed to love the chilli taste.  Then leave to infuse in a jar for at least two weeks before using.

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useful animals

Animals are very useful in organic farming, in more ways than one.

In Parana district in Brazil, an intrepid Mayor, Jaime Lerner, used sheep to trim the lawns of gardens and the sheep’s wool was used for funding children’s schooling.  A totally win win situation!

My Uncle who used to run an organic farm in the Himalayas used geese to do the same plus geese are effective burglar deterrents!

unnamed (Photo from BBC)

Goats are being now used in the USA to fight invasive weeds and plants.  One of the reasons they are more effective than weedkillers and chemicals is that plant seeds rarely survive the grinding motion of their mouths and their multi-chambered stomachs – this is not always the case with other techniques which leave seeds in the soil to spring back.

Also, unlike machinery, they can access steep and wooded areas with tall goats able to access plants more than eight feet high (smaller goats can climb trees as I have seen in India). A herd of 35 goats can go through half an acre of dense vegetation in about four days which is the same amount of time it takes them to become bored with eating the same thing.

From the BBC magazine, January 2015- “At Duke University in North Carolina, marine biologist Brian Silliman has spent 20 years working on understanding and eradicating the invasive species phragmites. This reed, which thrives in salt marshes, can grow up to 10 feet tall, pushing out native species and blocking bay and sea views for coastal residents. One way of tackling phragmites is to burn it.  Silliman says at first he tried insects and other forms of “bio control” to tackle the plant, but nothing worked.

“Then I took a holiday to the Netherlands, where the plant comes from, and saw it wasn’t a problem there because it was constantly being grazed by animals,” he says.  In studies, Silliman found that goats were very effective – in one trial, 90% of the test area was left phragmites-free. “I think all wetland managers should take up this method,” he says. “It’s cheaper, less polluting, better for the environment and goat farmers get paid.” One plant goats are increasingly being used to clear is kudzu. This fast-growing vine, native to east Asia, was first introduced into the US in 1876, as a ornamental plant that could shade porches and prevent soil erosion.

However, this technique is not good for African countries where livestock, especially goats, have eaten useful plants and decimated the land of plants, leading to erosion.  So other means have to be employed there.

To be a canny gardener, one must find the best animals for the job and use them effectively.


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Diaper tricks for houseplants

I came across this funny video about making water absorbing soil from nappies.  Some thoughts-

1. You don’t need to do this for outdoor plants, only house plants, unlike what the video says.  Outdoor plants get water from rain or from the soil.  Adding these gels is unnecessary and might pollute if washed away.

2. But you don’t really need nappies even- many water supply companies supply such gels for free- I have mine from Thameswater (see the blue packets in the photo).  Try and see if your water supply company will send them- all water suppliers are anxious to reduce water waste.  I am also trying to re-use the desiccants that you get with food (as in the bottom of the photo below)- will let you know how I get on!

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3. Do remember that you will need to have unused nappies lying around to do this- to simply buy nappies to do this is not the way of the canny gardener!  Also, do ignore that plug for Volkswagen cars at the end!