The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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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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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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London Festival of Architecture

We are doing a lecture about our work on our project about community gardens and participatory design on 11th June at 1530 hours.  Please come if you can!

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communities and gardens

Undoubtedly the most important thing about a project of any kind is to make sure that original work is maintained as the designer wishes. This is where the community comes in. This the social capital behind any project. The above photo is taken from a new project I have been involved in Hoxton with the charity I set up, Charushila. This particular one is a community park with allotments and seating. Initially we found it difficult to involve the local community but as the work moved along, that itself was an impetus to get the community involved.

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The other big issue these days is ‘environmental capital’. Publicly funded projects, such as this one, need ‘environmental capital’ in order to receive ‘social capita’l or indeed the funding itself. We used leftover materials from the Chelsea flower show to create the seating. Local volunteers who were interested in learning about stone carving and masonry were recruited to work on the seating under the tutelage of the stone sculptor. While we did not save money or time by using the reclaimed stones and bricks (a large amount was taken up with the transport), that local people learned how to work with plants and stones was the most important benefit for us.

Many architects are getting involved in such work because together with the social and environmental benefits, the personal satisfaction from this kind of work is immense, although this is not ‘architectural work’ in a narrow sense. And academic institutions are also thinking along these lines to offer support for this kind of work that perhaps new graduates might turn to. This academic year, the Pratt Institute will introduce a new master’s program in designing public spaces through community planning. The ‘Urban Placemaking and Management’ degree, within the institute’s architecture school. This course is led by the British born architect David Burney from Liverpool, who was responsible for the Times Square’s pedestrian-friendly makeover as the New York City’s commissioner of design and construction.

The course, the first of its kind in the USA, will focus on community planning processes and creating great public places, according to the school. Courses include topics like ‘history and theory of public space, open space and parks,and the economics of place’. These aspects of are of prime importance as they focus on spaces between buildings and what happens there is a key social marker (is that space being used for crime or community space?). A very welcome course for a changing world.