The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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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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Surviving climate change

Despite what climate change sceptics might say,  in my several decades of gardening, I have seen how unpredictable and severe the climate has become in London where I live.  The summer seems to last for ages and the heat is almost unbearable.  The winters are mild and cool, snow hardly ever falls.  Storms are like crazy maniacs on the loose- just last week, five people lost their lives in the stormy seas, tragically caught in fast changing weather conditions.  I have just come back from a two week holiday to find my lovingly created patio garden in a wreck.  The strong sun has killed off most of the flowering shrubs and other delicate herbs and flowers.  Strong climatic conditions hit patio gardens more than plants grown directly on soil.  Here is a photo of my patio-

P1050656.jpgEven some of the nettle has died, along with my elderflower shrub.  Some weeds though are thriving as you see.  Disaster!

After a few days of shock and mourning, my first instinct was to cut out the dried plants and buy some new plants.  However, after thinking some more, I thought about working with climate change, instead of fighting it.  Here you can see that some plants have survived- these are the plants that originated from hot climates such as the African Cala lily, the Agapanthus from South Africa, the Indian hawthorn (from Hong Kong), avocado plant and Mexican daisies- all survivors of the intense heat.  In the future, we will have to get used to less water.  So I thought of creating a low water garden.  At present, I have decided to leave the dried bushes as they are.  They are preventing seeding by weeds and also protecting the soil from getting too dry.P1050657.jpg

In the meanwhile, baby agapanthus plants have started appearing even in the cracks in between the pavers-P1050659.jpg

So here is the to future- more resilient plants out on the patio!


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Compost update

Those of you following the blog since last year will know that I created a small home composting system.  This consisted very simply of putting a plastic pot inside a large planter and covering it with a double lid.  Today, I went to see what it was looking like. Here it is, some compost made from kitchen waste six months ago without any additional help-

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As the stuff gets composted, it gets compacted and goes down and so I added some more fresh peelings and kitchen waste into it today.  I will also be using some accelerator to see if that helps to speed up the composting.  As the weather has been so wet, this is not ideal but at least it seems to be working.  Inside my kitchen, I have made a four part sorting system- one bin for composting, one bag for cooked food waste, one for dry rubbish and a big bag for recyclables.  I tried using a normal sized rubbish bin and realised that it was taking weeks to fill up with the result that the cooked food waste thrown in was getting mouldy.  I also have very little cooked food waste which is not compostable in the above manner and so this four part sorting means that I can use my peelings and tea and coffee grinds for compost, crushed egg shells for staving off slugs and also for sprinkling on the pots.  The small rubbish is kept in crisp packets or similar size bags that I was going to throw away anyway.  This way my kitchen also doesn’t have any mouldy stuff while I save on buying bin bags!  Of course, this kind of system will only work if you have small bits of non compostable rubbish and don’t eat lots of meat, etc.  Here are my carrot tops growing in my home made compost.

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canny planting

An important part of being a canny gardener is thinking about how to do the most with least (thereby save money).  Some could be about buying perennials, some could be about plants that re-seed/re-grow  by themselves every year and some about plants that do two or three things. Here are some easy plants that have worked for me because they are easy, need little watering and resistant to common pests while attracting bees and good insects.

  • Eating and looking/smelling good– Edible Chrysanthemums, Chopsuey greens (extreme right), pansies and lavender.  Shown below (left) is the edible chrysanthemums and my thai rice noodle made with it.  I am going to use the flowers and the pansies, along with the nasturtiums to make a ‘flower salad’ later.

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  • Buy one and get many for free– Calla lilies, Hosta, Alpine sedum, mint (both mint and sedum work well as ground cover, saving time on weeding. Shown below is my Hosta plant which has had many babies and survived slug onslaughts (slugs love Hosta).  When the leaves are young, you can eat them as greens.

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  • Reseeding by themselves- Mexican Daisy, poppies and Marigold. White flowers spring through fall. All needs medium to low water.  With the daisies, you can also divide and get many from one small pot that you buy.

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  • Perennials– Clematis, Agapanthus, Lobellia Fan Scarlet, Canna (many of the South African flowering plants will also grow in the UK and Europe, needing only little watering and care and producing gorgeously vivid blooms) . Shown from left to right are the Californian poppy (that occasionally becomes perennial!, calla lily and agapanthus, Erysimum (Bowles Mauve) and Clematis.

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  • Useful weeds– Herb Robert, Dandelion, common geranium, nettles- I have got these free from the heavens- they are medicinal herbs, good for bees and grow with no problems! Shown below are nettles which I use for food, fertiliser and tea and also wild geraniums.

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reorganising for the winter

Sad to say that the summer is almost finished and now I am working to reorganise my little garden for the autumn and winter.  One of the lessons, I have learnt is that having too many pots and plants is too much to look after.  So after having rescued two barrel planters waiting for the rubbish tip, I got some help in transporting these to my terrace. So for next few months and next year, I am going to use these barrels for a permanent flower ‘show’ and use the smaller pots for summer salads.  I gave away extra pots to the neighbours.  Better to have fewer good looking planters than several straggly ones!

I had gone away for a week while I left my home made compost to dry so that the slugs go away ‘naturally’ (sorry, I cannot stand slugs).  Upon return, again working on the HegelKultur principle, this is how I filled the planter.  I don’t like using plastic bottles for the bottom as some bloggers do- I don’t have them anyway and because, I don’t want the risk of plastic decomposing amongst a growing medium (I have seen plastic bags disintegrating even when kept inside).  Instead as a first layer, I used broken oyster and egg shells, pieces from a terracotta pot and cardboard packaging. I also put in garden waste and kitchen bits and pieces.  Not only do the cardboard soak up the valuable juices from the decomposing waste (unlike the plastic) but also they will decompose eventually someday.  It will also lighten up these very heavy barrels and create some air space while they do so.

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Next I put in my home made compost, again lightened with some perlite. My mistake in the past has been that the compost has been too ‘wet’ which does not suit most plants.  Water should be able to drain naturally as it does in the ground.

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I had found a baby’s bath which I now use for making compost and nettle juice- my nettles in the planter provide a year long supply of nourishing organic fertiliser (cut up the long stems and they grow again).  This was also mixed with the compost.

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Now I took out the plants from the smaller pots and replanted them in the barrel, spreading some new compost around the gaps.  Great- at least five less pots to water! and it looks lovely (and saves water). I tried to make it look ‘wild’ rather than planted.  Hope you like it!  The Cala lily, by the way, is the one I rescued from oblivion- the bulb looked tumorous, but after cutting away those bits, see the gorgeous glory!


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making the most of basil

As I have mentioned before, it is worth buying potted herbs from shops, rather than trying to grow your own from seeds.  Growing from seeds has been lengthy and bit of a hit and miss. I do still try.  Recently I read about making the most of shop bought herbs.  One of the tips was to re-pot the herb after buying and the other tip was to cut off the tip.  I tried both techniques and this is what happened-

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The pinched basil is more bushy, the leaves more rounded and tasty.  In the picture to the right, I am holding up the type of three leafed bud that needs to be taken out.  The re-potted one which has flowered as well, has more pointy leaves which are less tasty and a bit woody.  However, it might be worth doing both things- re-potting and pinching to encourage even more growth and I shall do that an dlet you know the outcome.  Both plants were bought about 3-4 weeks ago and I imagine should last me the whole summer if not more.


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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.