The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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camping at home- and living without

I was brought up in India, a hot tropical country. We did not have many ‘modern amenities’ for most of my life- things that would be considered almost impossible to live without, for example- the fridge, telephone and the TV.  Now I live in London, a country of temperate climate.  In 2011, I decided on an experiment to switch off my fridge and freezer.  Initially I used an old fashioned ‘food safe’- a Victorian metal cabinet which I left out in my balcony- to store perishables.  As I was away on and off for eight months of that year doing research for a book, it was a particular challenge to manage food and food waste.  However, needless to say, my fridge and freezer had been usually empty as I cook with fresh ingredients and do not usually buy frozen or chilled foods anyway.

Initially I made mistakes, mostly with rice.  I usually eat rice as I am on gluten free diet.  Gone off rice is dangerous because it harbours spores of Bacillus cereus, a bacterium that can cause food poisoning.  If the rice is left standing at room temperature, the spores can grow into bacteria. These bacteria will multiply and may produce toxins (poisons) that cause vomiting or diarrhoea.  In order to save time, I cooked more rice than needed but it was more than I could eat. I was sick.  So l learnt not to cook more than I needed.  I learnt to give away extra food to people when I was going away.

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Of course, my two children did not like that their eccentric mummy did not use a fridge (‘all our friends have fridges and their mums don’t sing while they cook!’ were the complaints I heard).  Amongst all other things, apparently cold milk is a necessity, I realised for children who have been brought up in the city and do not realise that fresh milk from the cow is actually warm.  When we wanted ice cream or ice, we bought it and used it straightaway.  I did not use my fridge for two years!  After much complaints about the milk temperature and my singing, I decided to switch on the fridge and freezer only for the summer.  This year I found someone had left a good quality insulated picnic box outside our place. I got it and washed it; and have been using this- again left out on the balcony.  Delicate herbs like coriander keep quite well outside in a small cup of water and hardy mint actually grows roots (and I have planted some of it). The coriander you see in the photo is a week old (from the supermarket)- in the fridge it would have rotted by now.  The mint is several weeks old!

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Thanks to climate change, as the weather is still cold enough, I am not using the fridge at the moment (even the milk is cold enough for my children).  So what are the advantages of not using the fridge or freezer?

1. I buy only what I need (my food bill has gone down immensely)

2. Food is cooked fresh, using fresh ingredients.

3. Zero or nil food waste.

4. Although not enough to be huge difference, my electricity bill has gone down slightly.

5. Due to being forced to have fresh food, we buy local and thereby save on food airmiles.

6. We’ve had to cut down on several high calorie foods such as butter, cream, etc as all these foods need the fridge- this is actually good.

7. Best of all, I don’t have to clean the fridge or freezer- I am using them for storage at present.

Wacky or canny- you decide!!!  I am still singing though!

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communities and gardens

Undoubtedly the most important thing about a project of any kind is to make sure that original work is maintained as the designer wishes. This is where the community comes in. This the social capital behind any project. The above photo is taken from a new project I have been involved in Hoxton with the charity I set up, Charushila. This particular one is a community park with allotments and seating. Initially we found it difficult to involve the local community but as the work moved along, that itself was an impetus to get the community involved.

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The other big issue these days is ‘environmental capital’. Publicly funded projects, such as this one, need ‘environmental capital’ in order to receive ‘social capita’l or indeed the funding itself. We used leftover materials from the Chelsea flower show to create the seating. Local volunteers who were interested in learning about stone carving and masonry were recruited to work on the seating under the tutelage of the stone sculptor. While we did not save money or time by using the reclaimed stones and bricks (a large amount was taken up with the transport), that local people learned how to work with plants and stones was the most important benefit for us.

Many architects are getting involved in such work because together with the social and environmental benefits, the personal satisfaction from this kind of work is immense, although this is not ‘architectural work’ in a narrow sense. And academic institutions are also thinking along these lines to offer support for this kind of work that perhaps new graduates might turn to. This academic year, the Pratt Institute will introduce a new master’s program in designing public spaces through community planning. The ‘Urban Placemaking and Management’ degree, within the institute’s architecture school. This course is led by the British born architect David Burney from Liverpool, who was responsible for the Times Square’s pedestrian-friendly makeover as the New York City’s commissioner of design and construction.

The course, the first of its kind in the USA, will focus on community planning processes and creating great public places, according to the school. Courses include topics like ‘history and theory of public space, open space and parks,and the economics of place’. These aspects of are of prime importance as they focus on spaces between buildings and what happens there is a key social marker (is that space being used for crime or community space?). A very welcome course for a changing world.