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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Coping with the summer heat

This has been the worst heatwave in the UK since 1976 and with climate change, it is not known if this will be a temporary phenomenon or a lasting one.  Climate change is slowly affecting food growing as well as the ability to maintain other forms of life such as bees.  It is estimated that the USA is losing 10% of its crops due to climate change.  My garden which is usually lush at this time of the year is not looking good at all.  It seemed a battle that I wasn’t going to win with my planters looking like this-

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But look at the plants that seems to be green and doing fine- it is the South African native, the Agapanthus and the ‘Indian’ hawthorn- both of which seem to need little water.  Euphorbia are also doing well as they are drought resistant.  Eubhoria.pngPlanters need more watering because the roots cannot access groundwater unlike plants grown on land.  The succulents which can live with little water are also fine. We also have a hosepipe ban on now, but I don’t use it anyway.  I use water that has been used to wash vegetables and fruits.  You can also use cooled down bathwater as long as it is not too soapy.

The RHS says that most gardens are hardy enough to be watered in moderation with repurposed water – known as grey water – even if it does have soap and suds in it, ‘Grey water should be used with care, but can be useful in times of water shortages.  Plants can be watered with shower, bath, kitchen and washing machine water – fortunately, soil and potting composts are effective at filtering them out.  There should be no problem with small-scale, short-term use of grey water to tide plants over in summer drought. An exception is on edible crops, due to the risk of contamination from pathogens in the water.’

I’m going to wait and see what happens next- whether my Mexican daisies and other plants recover.  Which plant lives and which dies will be important to decide my next year’s planting because climate change is here to stay.

or perhaps follow this person who has decided on an almost entirely plastic garden which doesn’t need watering and looks vibrant all year!IMG_8001.JPG


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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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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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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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