The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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Coconut husk compost

I have just started using coconut husk compost for my spring/summer planting.  First of all, I have to comment on how easy it was to transport and use.  I didn’t have to lug a heavy bag of compost on the bus- the compost comes a brick sized light block.  I took it out of the paper wrapping (which was recycled unlike the usual compost which comes in a plastic bag and it is difficult to find places that recycle them), then put the entire brick into a bucket on a day when I knew it was going to rain heavily.

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So when the bucket was full of water, the coconut compost expanded to fill the bucket (one block makes 9 litres of compost). I could then use it to fill my baby bath tub planter which I found abandoned.

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I had used up the winter offerings of dried shrubs and leaves as a composting material, on which I lay the coconut husk compost. I spread some seeds on the compost and then spread a thin layer of the coconut husk on that. The coconut husk compost is easy to work with, unlike the conventional compost.  My seeds are now sprouting and I will keep you updated on how the plants do.

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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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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.


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Avocado uses

The avocado is a very useful fruit. Originally from the sunny climes of Central and South America, it is now widely available.  I get organic avocados shipped in with my vegetable delivery box from time to time in the summer.  Avocados have a ‘higher fat content than most other fruit, mostly monounsaturated fat, and as such serves as an important staple in the diet of consumers who have limited access to other fatty foods (high-fat meats and fish, dairy products)’.

Baked avocados with some sardines are a great treat but raw ones with a mixture of honey, vinegar, olive oil and garlic are amazing to have. I have served them with all sorts of foods- fish, meat and salads.  The seed is useful to keep in an avocado half because it stops the exposed flesh from going brown due to ‘Enzymatic browning’ a chemical process like what happens to banana skins.  However, when you are done, you can rub the stone across your face with gentle and circular motion for a soothing massage and a rub in of oils straight from the stone.

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And some people have asked if an avocado tree grows in a cold climate.  Yes, below is my three year old plant, growly slowly in a container in the UK.  Perhaps this is climate change.  It hasn’t flowered or produced fruits yet. I am going to replant it in the spring in a deeper pot. Lets see what happens then. But it certainly looks beautiful anyway!

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trying new foods

I didn’t know what prickly pears were- I thought they could refer to pears that were a bit irritating (only joking!).  No, I really didn’t until I went to the local Lebanese shop and bought these-

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As an artistic person I was attracted to the colours, texture and shape of the fruit and thought they were beautiful!  I cut open the fruit and the fragrance was amazing- it had a ‘sweet’ perfume and tasted like cross between a melon and an apple.

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So I did some research on the fruit.  Apparently it grows on a cactus in semi-arid regions and is better known as Opuntia ficus-indica. It is a common drought-resistant fodder plant.

The fruit can be chilled in the refrigerator for a few hours and then cut into slices- the outer hard skin and seeds are not eaten. They can be boiled and made into jams and juices.  Mexicans eat the young cactus pads sliced into strips, skinned or unskinned, and fried with eggs and jalapeños, served as a breakfast treat.  In the early 1900s the USA imported these from Mexico and the Mediterranean countries but they gradually fell from f(l)avour during the mid-1950s. Since the late 1990s, they have become popular again.  Below is my version of the Mexican breakfast made with fried green prickly pears, Romero peppers, green chilli, fried egg with cumin, garlic, coriander and red pepper seasoning.

Mexican breakfast

I was also amazed to find out that they serve as not only fodder and drink for the cattle in the Southwest United States but also may be used for a boundary fence.  Cattle can be made to stay in one area enclosed by a prickly pear fence. The spines can be burned off to reduce mouth injury to the cattle when feeding them with the plant. The cactus pads, on which the cattle feed, are low in dry matter and crude protein, but are useful as a supplement in drought conditions.  In addition to the food value, the moisture within provides the cattle with hydration.  All from a lowly cactus!  I will try to grow one from the seed.

So next time you see an fruit or a vegetable that you’ve never eaten before- do try it!  You may learn something about our wonderful world as I did.


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Container garden experiments

Summer has sort of started in the UK and so I am starting on a container garden experiment.  Rather tired of growing conventional stuff and losing them to slugs, insects and weather, I am going to be a bit daring.  Three weeks ago, I bought some seeds as written about in the books by James Wong, the best selling author of many books including ‘Grow your own drugs’.  James trained at Kew as an ‘ethno-botonist’ and has worked with herbalists and other experts to write his books.

These are some of the seeds I will be using-

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These include many unusual container vegetables- Chopsuey greens, Mooli, liquorice, Chinese chives, callaloo and Samphire.  I chose these ones because I usually eat them and buy them at exorbitant prices from supermarket.  For £2-49 each, it was worth a try!

The Chinese chives have already started to come through- see below and note how I am protecting them from slugs by using crushed egg shells.  Unlike an ordinary garden, my terrace is protected from rats so I can use egg shells.

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Above you can see the tiny liquorice and one samphire plant coming through in my improvised egg carton seed tray.

James Wong also writes that Hosta is edible, but when I got round to seeing why my Hosta plants weren’t coming up, I realised that slugs had also found them equally tasty!  However, I managed to salvage one tuber although at that point much its leaves had also been chomped through.  Re-potting them, and protecting the remaining leaves by using some crushed egg shells, has made new leaves come through.  I can’t wait to try them in a stir fry.  I will be posting stories of this experiment through the summer (including recipe successes and disasters!) and I hope this helps others who might be minded to try the same thing.

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