The Canny Gardener

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


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A bitter sweet experience

Bitter gourd or karela (in India), is a unique vegetable-fruit that can be used as food or medicine.  As the edible part of the plant Momordica Charantia, it is considered the most bitter among all fruits and vegetables.  My children hate it but I’ve persuaded them to eat it. It has such a bitter taste which is difficult to acquire easily. So why would anyone eat such a vegetable?

In traditional Indian medicine, bitter gourd has used for a range of diseases, including colic, fever, burns, chronic cough, painful menstruation, skin conditions including wounds and assist childbirth.  In parts of Africa and Asia, the bitter gourd is used prevent or treat malaria and viral diseases such as measles and chicken pox. The plant grows well in the tropical climate and is found in Indian grocery stores in the West.  However, people are not aware of its amazing properties when they look at the strange warty surface of the gourd- indeed it is neither attractive to look at or to eat.

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Fresh bitter gourd which can sliced thinly and eaten with lemon and salt but don’t eat too much of it- mild abdominal pain or diarrhoea can result

But research has proved that it has amazing medicinal properties- including fighting Type-2 diabetes and cancer.  In January 2011, the results of a four-week clinical trial were published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology , which showed that a 2,000 mg daily dose of bitter melon significantly reduced blood glucose levels among patients with type 2 diabetes, although the hypoglycemic effect was less than a 1,000 mg/day dose of metformin.  The gourd contains at least three active substances with anti-diabetic properties, including charanti, which has been confirmed to have a blood glucose-lowering effect, vicine, an insulin-like compound known as polypeptide-p and lectin. Lectin is an appetite suppressant that reduces food intake and consequently thought to be a major factor behind the hypoglycemic effect that develops after eating it. In clinical trials in the USA show that extracts from bitter gourd can kill breast cancer cells and prevent them from growing and spreading.

Bitter gourd can be taken in several forms- a fresh fruit (squeeze some lemon juice and sprinkle salt), juice, and the seeds can be added to food in a powdered form. In traditional Bengali foods, it is eaten fried with turmeric and salt- this makes it quite palatable.  It can also be boiled with the rice, then the gourd eaten with some salt.  Some of the bitterness is lost this way.  Fresh or dried and made into tea- the Japanese like it this way and the tea is actually not bad at all- much of the bitter taste is gone especially with a teaspoon of honey in it.

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Fried bitter gourd with turmeric, chillies and salt.

Alternatively, bitter melon extract can be bought as a herbal supplement in health food shops. But because the gourd reduces blood sugar, the dose will need to be watched carefully and it is best to start with a small amount.

But considering everything it is an amazingly versatile medicinal plant. I’m trying to grow some from the seeds I’ve saved when summer comes and let you know how that goes!

 


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Using green mulch

In these days of climate change with extreme heat and lack of rain, even in the UK, one has to think about how to keep plants hydrated.  I went away for three weeks recently and had only just bought a lavender plants before leaving.  I was worried about it dying while I was away.  So I used a weed- nettles which grow well in my terrace- to make a green mulch.

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The green mulch would not only save the soil from drying out but also as the nettle dried out, it would nourish the soil.  It also would prevent other weeds from growing in the pot. I had first learnt about green mulch from some Cuban organic farmers who had used it during the ‘crisis’ days to grow urban food but had never used it myself.

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Almost four weeks later, this is the result.  The plant looks healthy and has grown well while the nettle has dried and become part of the soil.  Some small weeds have grown in the pot but those will also form part of the new green mulch.  This was so effortless and economical that I’m going to use it again and again.


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Bees and us

Lately I’ve been walking around the streets trying to photograph bees.  I’m not a professional and all I have is a smartphone, and these little creatures are very fast.  So the photographs aren’t very good.  However, I have noticed a much smaller number than last year, especially in my garden.  I grow wildflowers and plants in my terrace, hoping to attract bees.  But in one day, I may see about 5-8 bees (I don’t know if they are the same ones or different ones).  Last year, I could see 10-15 bees each day in my terrace.  The numbers of hoverflies remain the same as before.

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Bees seem to like purple or pink flowers- I’ve noticed. Lavender, appear to attract the most bees, including bumble bees, while honeybees also like the blue/white borage flowers, and marjoram, which has small pinkish white flowers.

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What I’ve also noticed are dead bees- particularly the large bumblebees.  This photo below was taken on a nearby pavement.

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Declining bee populations have been blamed on a combination of factors: climate change, pesticides – notably neonicotinoids – and varroa mites spreading in beehives.  While the EU has imposed an almost total ban on neonicotinoids, climate change is decimating bee populations with late frosts and later summers.  Honey is one of the products that bees create and we eat, but on a general level, bees are responsible for pollinating plants.  This ‘unpaid’ act by these busy workers, help plants to grow and give food, flowers, cosmetics and thousands of other plant based products.

In a study by Sussex university on a project called ‘Honey bee health and well being’, it was found that bees do prefer all varieties of lavender and borage (which was the best all rounder).  These are also very cheap plants to grow- while Lavender is a perennial, Borage will self seed.  The lead scientist of the study, Professor of Apiculture, Dr. Francis Ratnieks, said, ‘The most important message from this study is that choosing flowers carefully makes a big difference to pollinators at zero cost. It costs no more to buy bee friendly flowers and they are not more difficult to grow and are just as pretty. The flowers don’t have to be native, wild flowers.’

Let us grow more organic blue, purple and pink flowers and help these hardworking saviours of humankind.


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Never give up!

I had been away for awhile and the blazing spring had turned into a burning summer.  One of the plants that had suffered from this was my bay tree.  I don’t know why or how the others survived but this one literally looked burnt.  I’ve had this tree for a long time and was sad that it had gone.  But I don’t know why, I decided to replant it elsewhere. Each time I watered it, I muttered words of encouragement and thanks for the bay leaves it had given me.  In the meantime, someone had given me another bay tree for which I was very grateful.  So I decided I should get rid of the dead bay tree.  Lo and behold, when I went to do so, this is what I saw-

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It was as if the bay tree was saying to me, ‘Why did you give up on me?’  Now I’ve taken this lesson as a metaphor for life.  Never give up!


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A quick homemade insect spray

Each summer, my olive tree and other plants get mealy bugs and woolly aphids.  Now I abhor both of these.  Looking up the Internet suggestions on how to get rid of these in the most eco-friendly way, If found the use of soap solution along with physically touching the stems and picking them off.  How ghastly- I’d never touch these! I have been cutting off the branches each year and that has also helped with pruning.  But this year, the tree appears to give off snowy showers when I shake it and I didn’t even feel like pruning it.  I’ve tried the home made soap solution but I think the solution needs to stick to the infestation to be effective. I’ve tried vinegar solution but don’t like the smell.

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This year, while thinking about the ‘stickiness’ aspect of the solution, I found some unused Ecover floor cleaner.  I added 25% cleaner to 75% water along with a pinch of turmeric to act as disinfectant (total 500ml).  IMG_7678

When I sprayed this, the foam actually stuck to the branches and nodes where the insects were.  You need to shake the bottle from time to time as the turmeric tends to settle at the  bottom.  Almost immediately I noticed that infestation was gone!  IMG_7681

I will have to wait and see if it does return but the olive tree looks amazing now.  You have to be careful not to spray surrounds but as you see that my tree was next to wood, it  was okay.  Also, don’t spray edible plants with this spray.  Ecover floor cleaner, which has linseed oil as an active ingredient, claims to have the following eco-credentials:

  • Fresh perfume from plant based ingredients
  • Cleans floors effectively and quickly
  • Excellent natural floor care and protection against staining
  • No petrochemical based ingredients
  • No residue of unnecessary chemicalsFast and complete biodegradability (OECD-test 301F, full product)
  • Minimum impact on aquatic life (OECD-test 201&202, full product)
  • Against animal testing
  • Suitable for septic tanks

I am not advertising for Ecover as this was just an experiment but I thought it was better to use this than sugar soap and WD40 which also some people have used as insecticide.

The cost of Ecover is £3-50 for 1L, so my spray works out to be less than 1pence for 500ml.

Someone else tried my solution for her rose bush and says it has worked on the aphids.  So you can try it and let me know if it works for you in the comment section below- good luck!

PS- as an added advantage, I use this mixture to quickly spray and clean up wooden floors and non food use areas.


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Become a bit untidy

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Its officially summer and time to work on the garden.  The recent storms and previously unseasonal snow in February and March plus two travels, made my garden a bit untidy.  I felt a bit embarrassed by it all, but today as I went out, I saw what I had been missing.  There were bees flying around, spiders making their nests, earthworms in the soil and many other insects going about their business.  Birds such as sparrows, pigeons and gulls floated about in the air.  There was a real eco-system there which I had not recognised. Even tiny patio gardens have a way of making a complete micro eco-systems which are a part of the much bigger eco-system we live in.  Even inside the home, there are spiders, ants etc which are part of an eco-system which help you- spiders eat other harmful insects such as moths and mites; while ants can take away bit of food that you can’t see.  I’ve got all these and feel fine with it.  What about your home?


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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!