The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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From the muddy pond, arises the amazing Lotus flower

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The Lotus flowers at Kew Gardens, London

The lotus flower grows, which is an aquatic perennial, in muddy ponds all over South East Asia. But the flowers are offered to the gods and kings, despite such humble origins.  That a muddy dirty pond should give rise to such a beautiful and majestic flowers- a flower that is the national flower of a country, India- is not a contradiction.  In Buddhism, the lotus flower is held up as a symbol of how one can transform life’s trials and tribulations into beauty, compassion and wisdom.

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Worshippers in Kandy, Sri Lanka with the white lotus

The lotus flower is also unique in the sense that seeds and flowers are to be found almost simultaneously in it, as a metaphor for the Buddhist belief that cause and effect are to be found together.

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White and purple lotus flowers on sale at a stall, Kandy, Sri Lanka

The lotus flower is also held up a symbol of longevity. Seeds of a lotus flower which bloomed 1300 years old in a lake in northeastern China  ago were made to flower. The lotus flowers are to be found in ancient Egyptian murals as well as many countries of Asia- China, India, Japan and Korea- testifying to the universal sense of wonder that one experiences when seeing them.  Now they are grown all over the world.

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My friend’s terrace where he grows the lotus flower in a small container

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Photo of my friend’s lotus flower

So next time you see a lotus flower, enjoy its beauty but also think about the various metaphors associated with it that might help you in life!

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Lotus flowers in a tea estate, Sri Lanka

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Launch of Energy Gardens

I have written previously about the garden we were working on the station platform at Acton Central Station, West London.  We finally had a grand launch on Friday with members of the community, our work partners- Repowering London, Groundwork Trust and Arriva (the train company) and the local Member of Parliament.  The garden is complete with ornamental and food sections- from which the local community can freely take away what they need, as long as they leave something for others!  The centre piece of the project consists of a large ornamental bed featuring a stone plaque with the encouraging words of Nichiren, a 13th century Buddhist philosopher, ‘Winer always turn to spring’.  These words are not just about seasons but also about finding hope and inspiration.  The bed is also a tribute to a station staff, well loved by the users of the station and local community, who died suddenly from cancer three years ago- around the time that the project started.  We hope that these words give hope to everyone while they wait at the platform.

Charushila/Energy Garden - Acton Central Railway Station Flower Bed opening - 18/5/18

We will now begin the second phase of the project which will concentrate more on the ‘energy section’ with solar panels and water harvesting schemes in the station.  Here are some photos from the event-

My speech from the day that you can see me reading out went like this-

Charushila is a charity, working to promote social engagement through the design and creation of community projects. ‘Charu’ means beautiful and ‘Shila’ means foundation in Sanskrit.

The charity is based on the theory of ‘Value creation’, as put forward by the 20th century Japanese school teacher, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. Value creation consists of three aspects- beauty, goodness and benefit. In all our projects, we have strived for these aspects to shine through. Through this broad yet profound philosophy, we have found that we can work with people from all backgrounds, communities and countries. To date, Charushila has worked in the UK, India, Venezuela and Palestine. In the 1920’s Makiguchi was writing about the ‘generosity of plants and animals for which we are totally dependent upon our survival’. While today which is also the endangered species day, Makiguchi’s ideas seem so natural and logical, they did not go down well in war time Japan. He was banned from teaching and ultimately thrown into prison, where he died on 18th November 1944. He was 74 years old. Makiguchi was an extraordinarily far sighted man, whose legacy lives on. He particularly felt that young people would benefit from learning within a community. He said in 1930,

“The natural beginning point for understanding the world and our relationship to it, is that community which is a community of persons, land and culture, that gave us birth. It is that community that gave us our very lives and started us on the path towards becoming the persons we are. It is community that gives us our rootedness as human, as cultural beings.”

Today is a great celebration, and we are together here on this platform on a sunny day to launch this project. There will be days when it will be cold, the sun is not shining, and we might be alone on this very platform. When spring will turn into winter! For me, the success of this project will be when I see that people from the local community are helping to take care of the garden and also taking away food grown here. I am very grateful to Dr Huq for coming here to launch this project, to Robert Harrap, General Director of SGI-UK for his encouragement, and to my colleagues at Charushila and our partners in the project- the Energy gardens team, Groundwork Trust and Repowering London. My gratitude to all the station staff with whom we have worked for nearly three years. The project might be small but hopefully, the effect will be big- creating beauty, goodness and benefit for all.”

I hope the readers of this page can visit the station sometime!

 


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Life after death

Recently at Kew Gardens, there was an exhibition called ‘Life in death’ which featured an installation made of dried flowers, itself inspired by garlands found with mummies in Egypt. There was a solemnity and dignity about the work, while reminding us about the fragility and beauty of life.  I was immensely touched by this exhibition by Rebecca Louise Law, an installation artist based in London.

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It also stirred up my childhood memories of working with seeds and pressed leaves and flowers.  Fresh flowers can be fleeting joy but correctly preserved, flowers can give pleasure for a long time as the garlands from the Egyptian tombs show.   I try to bring back flowers which are meant to be thrown out after just a few hours in an event- such a waste not just of the flowers but also the artistry that made that bouquet.  Recently, I was attending an event with a lovely bouquet at my table made of white or pale flowers. It reminded me of both life and death.

I brought the bouquet back home and after a couple of days, the flowers started to dry up. Normally I would have thrown the entire bunch in the compost but these struck me as having a touch of fragile beauty, a whiff of life with a whiff of death about them.  I photographed them before it went on for composting. Here are the results-

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I hope these two encounters with dried flowers will rekindle that spark I used to have for them!


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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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Until death do we part

I have been very guilty of loving my houseplants too much- by overwatering, over-fertilising and doing every other over-the-top thing.  I have lost many plants and also money.  So now I have reduced what I buy- though I still love to have plants in the house.  Contrary to the view that houseplants hugely increase the amount of carbon dioxide during the evening and night and therefore it is not good to have them inside the house, it has now been calculated that they only increase it by a very small amount.  This amount of carbon dioxide does not have any health disadvantage and the benefits of having house plants outweighs everything else.

During the late 1980’s, NASA did some research on houseplants as a means of providing purer and cleaner air for space stations. The plants filter out certain harmful compounds in the air and make it much healthier to breathe. My top three maintenance free and double use houseplants are-

  • Spider plant (which can absorb 90 percent of the toxins inside the house by absorbing mold and other allergens, small traces of formaldehyde and carbon monoxide; and best of all, live on practically nothing and yet produce ‘little babies’ that can be detached and given away as gifts!)
  • Aloe vera (the juice of which can be used for burns and insect bites)
  • Peace Lily (which improves the indoor air quality by as much as 60 percent by reducing the levels of mold spores, keeping bathrooms free from mildew and absorbing harmful vapors from alcohol and acetone.  The peace lily also produces beautiful white or pale flowers- bonus! And after reducing my watering, it has finally produced a beautiful flower after many years of being flowerless.
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Over the years, I have drastically reduced the numbers of houseplants but I was still overpowering them with water.  But simply keeping water levels low or watering them every 2-3 weeks works well.  A tip I got about watering houseplants when going away was to leave an ice cube in the pot- this has also worked well.  This time was the first time I didn’t find my houseplants nearly dead from overwatering after I returned from a three-week holiday (previously I used to sit my houseplants knee deep in water!).  My nearly dead poinsettia has even come back to life with glorious red leaves as you see below. I am now working on the orchid on which I will report later.

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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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Making a terrarium

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I travel quite frequently for work, so while I like to see greenery indoors, I found that I can’t really take time over indoor plants.  From books to plant feeds and self-watering systems, and once, even leaf shining wipes (embarrassing!), I have tried many ways to look after these plants.  Inevitably these have been a waste of time and money.  I have been responsible for many shriveled and dead plants.  So now I have made a terrarium.

While I looked at many Youtube videos and web based advice before starting out, I was also keep to make it out of what I had at home and not buy more stuff.  I also took inspiration from the Princess of Wales greenhouse at Kew Gardens, London.  I learnt that there were some key ingredients for a terrarium-

  1. An inert base made of charcoal, especially if there were plants needing frequent watering.  The charcoal helped to absorb odours, keep the terrarium free of fungal or insect infestations, like it does in aquariums.
  2. Moss- which helped to regulate moisture in the air, absorbing the excess
  3. Main plants that you want to use inside and any ‘decorations’

Charcoal is useful if you are going for a closed self sustaining system but as I was using cactus and succulents, my terrarium needed to be open and so I didn’t need the charcoal.  So I made the base of used match sticks, found the moss in the garden and I already had the pasta jar which I cleaned before use.  I reused the compost that came with the succulents and cactus to which I added some sand.  Believe it or not, the aloe plant came as a decoration from a plate of rice ordered in a restaurant!  I needed to have a vision of what I wanted the terrarium to look like before starting.  If you like, you can draw a rough sketch before inserting anything inside as it can be very fiddly to take things in and out and also this risks damaging the delicate plants.  You can use chopsticks, or tweezers or any kind of grabbing instrument to place the plants.

I first laid out the matchstick base, then put in the soil over which I laid the moss. I kept space in between these where I wanted to place the plants.  These plants do not need depths for soil- they are happy with shallow soils as their roots don’t go very far.  What you need to be careful with is the amount of water you use as these plants need good drainage.  After I inserted everything including the ornaments, I sprayed the inside generously.  Then I forgot about it!  It has been one month now and the cactus has sprouted a little baby and the succulents, aloe and the moss are doing fine. I spray water every 3 weeks and that seems to keep it fine.  Too much water and everything will rot.  My next project will be to make a terrarium for orchids.