The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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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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A new beginning

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Winter is a time of hibernation, of sleep, of drawing back but also a time for rejuvenation and preparation for the glory of spring and summer.  I have been busy but there is not much to show at present.  These gorgeous holly branches with their vibrant green and reds show that winter still has power to dazzle as much as spring.

Britain has been hit by storms and rains and it has been very hard to do any useful gardening work.  However, the warmer winter has meant that the plants which normally would have died down by this time are still thriving without any help- such as as the sweet peas and some of the flowering climbers.  But soon, I will be back out again, to show you some of the ‘invisible’ work that nature has been doing without my help. In the meanwhile, hope you all have a lovely 2016!


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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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Gratitude for plants

Recently I was reading about plants that grow in water.  You can put literally anything like carrot tops, onion tops, celery etc in water and they grow again.  Amazing, so I have  been doing some experiments to see how little plants need to grow again.

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But there are plants that grow in air too. You will have seen root plants such as potatoes, ginger etc as well as bulbs such as garlic and onions also grow from nothing.  Here are my experiments with turmeric which needed nothing but darkness and air  to start growing green shoots.

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Here are the planted shoots, growing beautifully-

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Which brings me to the point of this post- how amazing plants are and how little they really need.  A bit of water, a bit of soil, bit of sunlight, some pruning from time to time and perhaps a change of soil and addition of compost.  Yet they provide an eco system that supports our very life.  They attract bees that pollinate other plants, they give us food, medicine and clean and purify the air we breathe.  We’d all die if plants died.  They are beautiful and keep us healthy.  They give us so much for so little.  Yet, how many times have I expressed gratitude for plants?  Not many times, perhaps because I take them for granted.  From now on, I shall express gratitude for plants every day!


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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.

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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.