The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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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.


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Natural beauty

My friend Jonathan went out and found these lovely autumnal colours in the local park.

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He took these photos and I wanted to share these with everyone because of what someone decided to do with the fallen leaves.  Ephemerally beautiful, arranged in the manner of the art of Andy Goldsworthy, these are worthy natural artworks by an unknown creative.

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But this kind of beauty is also found in many smaller seasonal vegetables and plants that I have been photographing recently-

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Spring is not the only time to find beauty in nature! In case you are interested, BBC has done a short film about why leaves change colour in autumn, which you can find here.

 

 


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Buildings, beauty and plants

Even the most ugly buildings get transformed by flowers.  I have been photographing beautiful flowers on buildings.  As John Ruskin realised during the Industrial Revolution ‘that the quest to make a more beautiful world is inseparable from the need to remake it politically, economically and socially’. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi believed that beauty, benefit and goodness provided the basis for a creative society.

I am currently working on a project that is bringing beauty in the form of plants and flowers, sustainability in the form of rainwater recycling and solar panels and benefit in form of public seating in a rather plain London overground station.  Here are some photos that I took for inspiration ranging from pubs, houses and stations

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Foraging rules

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Summer is here and I am making the elderflower cordial I have made for many years now.  This year I am going to try out agave nectar instead of sugar- it is sweeter but has less calories.

I got these flowers from an abandoned garage near my house and also some from the park.  Before foraging any edible plants, leaves, fruits or flowers, it is best to have a check to see what you are doing is legal or not.  In the UK, many parks and wild areas have plenty of material for foraging but you might be damaging the biodiversity of the area by overpicking.  For instance, many people were prosecuted for picking mushrooms from the Royal parks.  Picking mushrooms by bagfuls would destroy the natural flora of the area.  So do not pick from any protected areas such as Royal parks, area of scenic beauty or those with fragile or seasonal flora (Dungeness beach comes to mind).  Always check notices to see if foraging is allowed- local bye laws which prohibits foraging can be passed by councils, the National Trust and government conservation agencies such as Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales.

The second is if you are foraging for yourself, that is fine.  But commercial activity, i.e. selling what you get out of foraging is not permitted. The Theft Act 1968, for England and Wales, states that: ‘A person who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not (although not in possession of the land) steal what he picks, unless he does it for reward or for sale or other commercial purpose.’  And the Scottish Outdoor Access Code allows foraging, but again, not for commercial use.  My one small bag of flowers for my own use is allowed from the park I got the elderflowers from.  You should never pick all there is, you should always leave plenty for others to enjoy – including wildlife.

Third, you can’t pick someone’s overhanging branch that might be on the street or even over your garden fence.  Nearby this tree were some other elderflower trees with lovely blossoms. I was lucky that the owner happened to be there and I asked permission to get the flowers.  It all sounds simple really and part of good manners- only take for yourself, leave for others and always ask permission.

 


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Spring is in the air

I love it when the first clematis come out in- it really is the beginning of warm weather and it makes me smile.  Here are the first blossoms, along with their friend my ‘permanent robin’ and the new leaves on my olive tree.

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