The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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Energy garden project

Last year, I started a project with my charity, Charushila, for a concept called ‘Energy Gardens’. The Energy Garden project is a partnership project delivered by the NGO Repowering London and environmental charity, Groundwork Trust, with Transport for London. In time, 50 of London’s Overground stations will be transformed into community ‘Energy Gardens’ with thriving gardens that will incorporate food growing plots and solar panels providing on-site renewable energy for lighting, water pumps or other station amenities.  In addition to improving the daily commute of people going to work the creation of the gardens will also help people get into work through training opportunities and paid horticulture apprenticeships for young people.

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Charushila was a partner in facilitating the project at one of the stations, Acton Central.  The first year was spent in community engagement which provided a blue print for what the local community wanted and getting ideas for the project that people felt were of local importance.  The engagement was also about securing future commitment to the project in terms of maintenance and ownership.  In all, about 200 local people were consulted for this project- including residents, passengers, station staff, school children and local businesses.  The project has been taking shape slowly and many ideas are yet to be implemented. Some of the planters have already been adopted by local organisations, so if you’d like to adopt one, please let us know.  We are looking for volunteers to plant, water and weed, so please come along if you live nearby.  

But even though it is yet to be finished (these community projects involving gardens always take a long time!) , it is always heartening to get compliments from people getting in and out of the trains (a man said, “wonderful to see this work!”) and even better to eat the produce.  My two recent recipes involve spinach and pumpkin flowers (these flowers were about to be thrown away!)

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Spinach, Bangla style:

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This is about 500 gms of spinach but as you’ll see when it cooks, the volume reduces!

Heat couple of spoonfuls of cooking oil in a wok- I used organic sunflower oil. Throw in a teaspoonful each of mustard seeds, black onion seeds (Kalonji) and Fenugreek (Methi) seeds, one birds eye chilli pod, a tablespoon of turmeric and a small ball of jaggery/molasses or if you can’t find that, then a teaspoon of sugar will do.  I also added some chopped carrots.  Put in salt to taste- the spinach is slightly salty anyway, so put in less than you might do for other dishes.  Put on a lid and relax with a cup of tea while the spinach cooks.  In about 20 minutes, take off the lid and check- it should look like this- IMG_4168.JPG

Pumpkin flower fritters

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Wash the flowers carefully and and take out the hard stalks and petals at the bottom of the flower but make sure you keep the shape of the flower.  Dry them on a towel.

This is for three flowers- so if you have more or less, do adjust accordingly.  In a small bowl, mix a teaspoon of freshly crushed coriander and cumin seeds, add salt to taste (and paprika powder to taste if you like chilli taste).  Add three large heaped tablespoons of chickpea flour and carefully add water so that you get a runny consistency.  When you dip each flower into it, the paste should stick evenly to the whole of it, otherwise adjust the water so that it does.  If you make too much of it, you can always add chopped onions and make some bhajjis with the same paste!  These are now fried in hot oil and you can eat them with ketchup (like my son does!) or with tamarind chutney-

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Our charity project is coming along

These are photos from an ‘Energy garden’ project we are doing on a London Overground station.  The intention is to have vegetables, herbs and flowers growing on the platform, with rainwater harvesting, composting, and recycling.  So the vegetables and flowers have been planted and are doing well- thanks to the station staff who look after them.  A mural and slate plaque are planned for later this summer.

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This work is being done as part of the environmental design charity I started, Charushila.  For more information see www.charushila.org

This video introduces the Energy Garden concept which is a partnership between London Overground, Groundwork Trust, Repowering London and local organisations like ours-


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Coconut husk compost

I have just started using coconut husk compost for my spring/summer planting.  First of all, I have to comment on how easy it was to transport and use.  I didn’t have to lug a heavy bag of compost on the bus- the compost comes a brick sized light block.  I took it out of the paper wrapping (which was recycled unlike the usual compost which comes in a plastic bag and it is difficult to find places that recycle them), then put the entire brick into a bucket on a day when I knew it was going to rain heavily.

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So when the bucket was full of water, the coconut compost expanded to fill the bucket (one block makes 9 litres of compost). I could then use it to fill my baby bath tub planter which I found abandoned.

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I had used up the winter offerings of dried shrubs and leaves as a composting material, on which I lay the coconut husk compost. I spread some seeds on the compost and then spread a thin layer of the coconut husk on that. The coconut husk compost is easy to work with, unlike the conventional compost.  My seeds are now sprouting and I will keep you updated on how the plants do.


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Wild Garlic

Wild garlic is now available- for free!  You can get it from about April to June so although you may overindulge on it now, like other wild plants such as samphire, it is made more delicious by the very nature of its seasonal availability. You can forage for it in the woodlands, especially in places where it is quite shady.  Allium ursinum – known as ramsons, buckrams, wild garlic, broad-leaved garlic, wood garlic, bear leek, or bear’s garlic – is a wild relative of chives native to Europe and Asia.Blooming_wild_garlic.jpg

(Wild garlic leaves and flowers: image credit Marcelle Rose Nutrition)

Wild garlic of course, doesn’t look like garlic and it is the leaves that you use.  The taste of the wild garlic leaves is quite mild but the effect on your stomach can be strong, so it is best used cooked, not raw.  You can smell the leaves from quite far and so they are easy to find.  Be careful because often they grow with other leaves and grass which are not only unsavory but can be poisonous.

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There are many ways to cook it but my favorite is the wild garlic and potato soup because it is healthy, filling and easy to cook. There are soups with just wild garlic in it but I find them too strong.  I first learnt to make this soup in Devon, almost twenty-five years ago and this is it-

Ingredients
I tbsp oil or a small blob of butter for frying
1 medium size onion, chopped
400g potatoes, peeled & diced (occasionally I have also used carrots in this mix)
1.2 litres vegetable or chicken stock (I use organic stock cubes or Bouillon powder dissolved in water)
50g wild garlic leaves, shredded
Crème fraîche or double cream (or I prefer yoghurt) to serve
Wild garlic flowers (if you have them and make sure they are opened up, not closed)
Salt & pepper to taste

Heat the oil/butter in a large saucepan. Add the onion and fry on a low heat for 6-8 minutes, until softened without colouring.  Add the potatoes and stock. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. Blitz in a blender or food processor until smooth, with flecks of wild garlic leaves. Reheat in the pan, seasoning to taste. Serve with a swirl of cream/yoghurt and garnish with a few shreds of wild garlic leaves and flowers.

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The other way I have used them is to use them in pasta with a seasonin of chilli flakes, salt and shreds of garlic leaves fried in olive oil- heavenly!  You can also make garlic leaf pesto but again I find that too much.  In my opinion, you can need to use garlic leaves sparingly like you would coriander.

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Shreds of wild garlic also work well in salads.  Here I have used it in a raw courgette salad with a simple dressing of lemon, salt and pepper with olive oil.

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London Festival of Architecture

We are doing a lecture about our work on our project about community gardens and participatory design on 11th June at 1530 hours.  Please come if you can!

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container composting experiment

I have been looking into composting for those living in apartments in cities with only containers.  So far there are not many options apart from communal composting and small wormeries/bokashi bins.  Worms are quite delicate creatures and the thought of killing the worms has prevented me from using worm composting.  Bokashi bins also need investment in terms of buying the bokashi powder and perhaps also having a wormery to go with it.  So having tried the composting using plastic sheeting last year, I thought of another variation.

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This consists of taking elements of composting bins and using them differently, utilising my knowledge as an architect.  So I took an ordinary plastic pot and have started filling it up with kitchen waste.  It is covered up to prevent flies and other vermin from reaching it.  But the main thing is it is placed inside the container as shown in the photo on the right.  The holes at the bottom of the plastic pot drain into the soil and therefore there is no mess.  The nutrients reach where they need to.  The soil around the pot keeps it insulated much as a piece of carpet or double walled construction would.  At present, as you can see, the plants are loving it and I have had no problem with this.  The waste keeps getting compacted automatically and I keep putting new material in.  You have to be careful with the balance of dry and wet materials- I found out.  Too much wet stuff like apple or pear cores is not good- I balance it out with onion skins, twigs, dry soil etc but this is much easier than using a shop bought composting bin and reuse of the many plastic pots that come free with any plant purchase.  Also, so far no cleaning has been involved and no smells!  This home made ‘mini composting bin’ has been working well.  I hope to report later in spring to see how it all went.


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canny composting

I have been trying to make compost for some time. Living in an apartment, I do not have access to soil- all my plants are grown in containers.  I looked at buying a composter but found not only the costs and maintenance difficult but after reading reviews, realised that not all composters work effectively.  I don’t have the money to try experiments to see which composter might work.

So working on the principle of Hügelkultur, I put all my cuttings from gardening and cooking, leftover soil from pots and some shop bought compost as a ‘starter’ and wrapped it in plastic sheeting and left it for a year inside a used tyre.  Today, I unrolled it. Apart from the slugs, spiders, wood lice and earthworms, I have lovely black compost!  It felt warm to the touch, so it must have been composting and some weeds have taken advantage of this!

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Hügelkultur is a composting process where one creates raised planting beds on top of decaying wood debris and other compostable biomass plant materials. The process helps to improve soil fertility, water retention, and soil warming, thus benefiting plants grown on or near such mounds.  This idea replicates the natural process of decomposition that occurs on forest floors. I had previously used this idea in the planter itself, copying this from the Cuban urban gardeners who had to work with poor soil inside cities.