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:

Wash the spinach carefully and chop.IMG_4128.JPG

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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when life gives you lemons…

Lemons, preserved or not, are really great for many types of foods from Western to Eastern, stopping by at Middle eastern, so really universal.  Lime is sweeter than lemon and is used more in Eastern dishes but you can interchange them as I discovered if you have one and not the other.  I have been experimenting with lemons and limes recently so here are some of my discoveries and money saving tips.

  1. To keep lemons and limes fresh for a long time, do not put them in dishes and display them on dining tables as they show in home improvement shows.  Instead, put them in a jar and fill it with water and keep in the fridge.  This way, they keep for a long time instead of becoming dried and unusable.  Lemons and limes are quite expensive, so this is a good money saving idea.IMG_0990.JPG
  2. Lemon rinds can be dried at home, before you use the juice for cooking, so try to buy unwaxed limes and lemons and make lemon peels instead of throwing the peels away.
  3. It is quite easy to make preserved lemons however, the cost and time required are not worth it, according to me.  So it is cheaper to buy organic preserved lemons than making them at home.  Plus you can buy these anytime of the year- if you choose to make them at home, lemons can be quite expensive in the summer, so you have to wait for winter to make them at home. However, one money saving tip I have discovered is not to throw the fleshy bits as many of the Moroccan recipes suggest and only using the rind. In fact, once you cut everything in bits and discard the inedible internal skins and bitter seeds, you can use everything up. I have so far used these in Moroccan style lamb and chicken; and Italian style pork.  I have used grape juice to sweeten the dish as the lemon bits can be quite sour.IMG_0985.JPGIMG_0996.JPG
  4. Both lemons and limes can be used to make lemonades. I prefer a quick version using squeezed lime and lemon juice and some sugar and a pinch of salt- then mixed with fizzy water and ice. You can thrown in the used rinds and some mint leaves if you have them.  A cheap cool drink for the summer.


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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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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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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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Surviving climate change

Despite what climate change sceptics might say,  in my several decades of gardening, I have seen how unpredictable and severe the climate has become in London where I live.  The summer seems to last for ages and the heat is almost unbearable.  The winters are mild and cool, snow hardly ever falls.  Storms are like crazy maniacs on the loose- just last week, five people lost their lives in the stormy seas, tragically caught in fast changing weather conditions.  I have just come back from a two week holiday to find my lovingly created patio garden in a wreck.  The strong sun has killed off most of the flowering shrubs and other delicate herbs and flowers.  Strong climatic conditions hit patio gardens more than plants grown directly on soil.  Here is a photo of my patio-

P1050656.jpgEven some of the nettle has died, along with my elderflower shrub.  Some weeds though are thriving as you see.  Disaster!

After a few days of shock and mourning, my first instinct was to cut out the dried plants and buy some new plants.  However, after thinking some more, I thought about working with climate change, instead of fighting it.  Here you can see that some plants have survived- these are the plants that originated from hot climates such as the African Cala lily, the Agapanthus from South Africa, the Indian hawthorn (from Hong Kong), avocado plant and Mexican daisies- all survivors of the intense heat.  In the future, we will have to get used to less water.  So I thought of creating a low water garden.  At present, I have decided to leave the dried bushes as they are.  They are preventing seeding by weeds and also protecting the soil from getting too dry.P1050657.jpg

In the meanwhile, baby agapanthus plants have started appearing even in the cracks in between the pavers-P1050659.jpg

So here is the to future- more resilient plants out on the patio!