The Canny Gardener

how to grow, cook and use plants, plus some philosophy!


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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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Drawing plants

Even if you think you can’t draw or paint, it is a good habit to have. Drawing plants is a very easy thing to start with.  They don’t move or need a rest.  You can practice on them for as long as you like before progressing on the more difficult subjects.  But many well known and skilled artists also used painted flowers, vegetables and trees.  So you are in good company.  Van Gogh’s sunflowers is one of the best known flower painting, painted in his idiosyncratic style-

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(credit: Wikipedia)

You can use flowers and plants to develop your own style and experiment with colours, mediums and textures.  Here are some of my own work using water colours, pencils and even cherry juice.  They won’t be critical of your attempt at their portrait!

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Natural dyes

 

Having an Armenian link in my family, I decided this year to make traditional Armenian Easter eggs alongside a traditional meal. Making these Easter eggs involves using onion skins, turmeric and other natural dyes to colour eggs. Here are some of my efforts. I collected red onion skins- shopkeepers were happy to get rid of them. I also put in some chilli flakes that I was not using (these also make the water red). I boiled these for about twenty minutes and left it to cool overnight. In the morning, I pasted some leaves I found in the garden on the raw eggs using water. I used organic hens and duck eggs. Then I put the eggs inside cut up old stockings and boiled them further for about 20 minutes. After removing them from the stocking, I left them to cool. When they were cold to touch, I polished them with some olive oil to make them shine. Even though the duck eggs were less successful, the over all effect of mottled colour with silhouettes of leaves, was charming on both types of eggs.

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What about waste?  The skins were put in the compost and the leftover liquid was used to dye an old white silk blouse which is now a pretty pink colour. No waste- perfect!

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I will be trying out more natural dyes made from vegetable waste or origins such as blueberry juice, coffee, tea, etc. I have already used such colours in creating a portrait of person who likes spicy food (turmeric and onion skins), tea and coffee and more mineral colours.

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the most expensive and dangerous flower

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(print from Wikipedia)

In the 17th century Netherlands, arose the ‘Tulip mania’ when people believed that investing in tulips would make them rich.  Plants grow and flower- so what was there to lose?  Tulips originated from Eurasian and North African genus of perennial, bulbous plants in the lily family with around 75 wild species. The name ‘Tulip’ is reputed to come from a distortion of the word in Persian for turban, as reference to the shape of the flower.

The most expensive of the tulips was ‘Semper Augustus’, considered to be the most beautiful of all flowers and a pinnacle of achievement from the breeders.  Even before the ‘Tulip mania’, a single Semper Augustus bulb was said to have been sold for 5,500 guilders, reaching the dizzy  heights of 10,000 guilders in 1637, just before the crash.  In the 17th century, the annual earnings for a worker would have been around 150 florins, so 10,000 guilders would have been a huge sum of money.  But these flowers did not make the poor richer but as it were- it was to make the rich poorer. By the time the market for tulips collapsed in February 1637, Nicolaes van Wassenaer, a chronicler of the period, relates that only a dozen examples of Semper Augustus existed, all owned by a single individual.

The tulip also hid an unusual secret. It’s extraordinary beauty of blood red streaks across its ivory white petals was due to a virus.  This virus ‘breaks’ the single block of colour thereby streaking the petal and also added a stunning striation of yellow and red.  But in the meanwhile the plant is increasingly weakened by the virus. So the virus not only made it a ‘short lived’ beauty but also made it difficult to propagate, thereby naturally ending its genetic line. The famous Semper August bulb no longer exists except in some paintings of the Old Dutch masters. Instead we now have tulips with healthy blocks of colour with a few striated varieties.  This photo below was taken during the Tulip festival at Eden, Cornwall. Perhaps the lesson here is that not everything that looks beautiful is good for us.

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Reuse, recycle

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At the end of events, I always ask to take away flowers that might be placed on our table.  The reason is that such decorations are always almost thrown away.  What a waste!  For example, Anthuriums are one of the most popular tropical flowers with a long vase life of about six weeks and even more depending on the variety and season.  The staff are also happy to see the flowers go to a good home and it saves them clearing away.

Here you can see flowers and foliage from a corporate event, mixed with my own Christmas holly (yes, they are still going strong after more than two months!) and ‘Ruscus’ leaves from my Buddhist altar.  When these wither, then I will compost them.