The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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Open Squares day

The open squares day is a great day to visit gardens in London- big or small.  London’s hidden green spaces open their gates for public enjoyment and discovery.

The very first London Garden Square Day took place in 1998, with 43 gardens taking part.  The aim was to draw attention to the contribution that green spaces made to the city- in fact, almost half of London is green.   The open Squares days offer opportunity to explore those private and more secret gardens which are not generally accessible to the public and to join in the community events taking place.  Caroline Aldiss, a resident of Collingham Gardens at the time, founded the event in 1998-9 with the support of the London Parks and Gardens Trust and English Heritage. She thought that a day when all the green spaces could become open to the public, would be good event for the summer and for people to become interested in gardens and gardening.

This year I visited St. Mary’s secret garden in Hackney with its wonderful array of tables selling home-made produce such as jams and chutneys, honey, plants, bird houses, tea and cakes. Along with the buzz of people, bees and birds, it was a lively atmosphere and inspirational.  For over 25 years, St. Mary’s Secret Garden has offered a safe space where people with support needs  and the local community can get hands-on experience of gardening,  gain a sense of inclusion and receive the benefits of horticulture and other eco-therapy activities.

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Winter’s gift for birds

This is spring time in the UK and we can hear birds flying, chirping and building nests.  Walking under a tree, I heard the sounds of baby magpies hidden somewhere while I watched the anxious parents bring food to them.  Birds are amongst the non humans who actually build homes for their young ones.  Many birds are expert builders (and don’t seem to need any training!), and some are experts at repurposing holes, ledges, and parts of buildings for their nests.  As an architect, I first learnt about non human architecture from this book many years ago-

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A weaver bird’s nest from South India (credit: wikimedia commons)

But these days, given our penchant for weeding and tidying gardens straight after winter, our non human friend have nothing to build nests with, especially in cities.  This year, I have been very busy finishing a book and had forgotten to ‘tidy up’ my patio.  It was full of dead plants and I felt very embarrassed about how it was looking.  But one day, raising my head, I saw two magpies busy pulling at my dried plants and branches and fly off with a beak-full. Next, I saw a little robin that has become a regular, taking little branches and stems for its own nest.  I have also had a thrush coming by to pick up building materials. Ahh, I realised, my patio was actually being useful, even though it looked a state!

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my untidy patio with metal robin

Seeing these birds has been such a delight and given me another reason not to tidy up so soon. Along with the nest building materials, they have taken away weeds, cleared up spider’s webs and eaten some slugs- saving me some work.  I never knew how useful birds are to the canny gardener.  Make sure you keep some of these materials to attract birds into your garden and help them build their nests in the spring-

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Things that birds could use

  • Twigs or sticks
  • Dead leaves
  • Grass clippings or dead grass
  • Moss or lichen
  • Pine needles
  • Mud
  • Pebbles or small rocks (not the ones in the photo though!)
  • Spider web silk
  • Straw or other dried plant stems

Do keep some water for these thirsty parents too!
PS- As these birds tend to be wary of humans, I tried but couldn’t take a photo!

 


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A sustainable present for the home

This Christmas a lot of tinsel, wrapping paper and cards will make their way to you via many different routes.  Tinsel is not recyclable (so I reuse the tinsel that I actually found 12 years ago on the street) and any wrapping paper that doesn’t stay crumpled up, is not recyclable (try crumpling a part of it and see).  Each card takes about 140 kgs of CO2 to make and send- enough for two cups of tea.

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One of my cards made out of the box that my Panettone came in!

For years, I have been using the same plastic Christmas tree and its decorations so it is as sustainable as I can get.

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Our 12 year old Christmas tree!

I generally believe that living plants should stay living, in its natural habitat but terrariums are another thing. Especially during cold and wet days, it is quite nice to do indoor gardening!

This year, instead of buying flowers,  I made a terrarium and a planted pot to decorate the Christmas table.  Here is the step by step guide to both (which are slightly different to what you will find elsewhere).  So first the things you need-

  • Activated charcoal (from an aquarium or pet shop)
  • Pebbles and rocks (I had some and bought some from the pet shop and washed them carefully)
  • Moss (I got these from the pots outside)
  • Different plants- I bought a fern (asplenium), a plant with colourful leaves(Fittonia Skeleton) and an orchid (Dendrobium Berry Oda)
  • A glass bottle (I had a leaky one which I’ve used)
  • packets of desiccator usually found with food
  • Any decorative things- I had some sea shells, sticks, and bigger rocks
  • Tools which included a newspaper to cover the table, a cloth to wipe, a wood spoon to tap soil and place the plants inside the bottle, secateurs, and a plastic funnel (the one I used was a leftover from an old dishwasher)IMG_0678.jpg

The first step was to wash the bottle thoroughly. Once it was dry, I put in the desiccators first and sprinkled some charcoal around it.  Then I put in the washed pebbles, following it up with some more activated charcoal.  One advantage of choosing colourful rocks was that the charcoal doesn’t look too out of place.IMG_0688

Instead of buying more soil, I used the ones in the pots- they were were more than enough.  I put in the soil next.  All my plants were quite big, so it I had to divide them up. The Fittonia was easy to do but the fern and the orchid were hard.  I looked up various articles on how to do this on the internet but I’m still not sure about the orchid (which was the most expensive thing to buy!).  Time will tell if these plants will survive although I’ve followed the instructions.  Upon reflection, my advice will be to buy the smallest possible plants which will grow into bigger ones and are also easy to handle. On the cons of that, you will need to buy enough potting soil.

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Dividing the orchid was difficult!

IMG_0689Planning the inside is also an art- you don’t want it to be overcrowded but to look well managed.  The plants need space to grow and breathe. So I have placed the plants well apart as the orchid was pretty big.IMG_0686

There was enough soil and plants to make another pretty pot, so I did that using all the leftovers.  This is what it looks like.IMG_0685

IMG_0697 2.jpgMerry Christmas and happy holidays!

And here are some ideas from Tom Dixon Studios for some fun terrariums (they don’t need many plants only a sense of humour and creativity!)

 

 


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From the muddy pond, arises the amazing Lotus flower

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The Lotus flowers at Kew Gardens, London

The lotus flower grows, which is an aquatic perennial, in muddy ponds all over South East Asia. But the flowers are offered to the gods and kings, despite such humble origins.  That a muddy dirty pond should give rise to such a beautiful and majestic flowers- a flower that is the national flower of a country, India- is not a contradiction.  In Buddhism, the lotus flower is held up as a symbol of how one can transform life’s trials and tribulations into beauty, compassion and wisdom.

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Worshippers in Kandy, Sri Lanka with the white lotus

The lotus flower is also unique in the sense that seeds and flowers are to be found almost simultaneously in it, as a metaphor for the Buddhist belief that cause and effect are to be found together.

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White and purple lotus flowers on sale at a stall, Kandy, Sri Lanka

The lotus flower is also held up a symbol of longevity. Seeds of a lotus flower which bloomed 1300 years old in a lake in northeastern China  ago were made to flower. The lotus flowers are to be found in ancient Egyptian murals as well as many countries of Asia- China, India, Japan and Korea- testifying to the universal sense of wonder that one experiences when seeing them.  Now they are grown all over the world.

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My friend’s terrace where he grows the lotus flower in a small container

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Photo of my friend’s lotus flower

So next time you see a lotus flower, enjoy its beauty but also think about the various metaphors associated with it that might help you in life!

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Lotus flowers in a tea estate, Sri Lanka


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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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Life after death

Recently at Kew Gardens, there was an exhibition called ‘Life in death’ which featured an installation made of dried flowers, itself inspired by garlands found with mummies in Egypt. There was a solemnity and dignity about the work, while reminding us about the fragility and beauty of life.  I was immensely touched by this exhibition by Rebecca Louise Law, an installation artist based in London.

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It also stirred up my childhood memories of working with seeds and pressed leaves and flowers.  Fresh flowers can be fleeting joy but correctly preserved, flowers can give pleasure for a long time as the garlands from the Egyptian tombs show.   I try to bring back flowers which are meant to be thrown out after just a few hours in an event- such a waste not just of the flowers but also the artistry that made that bouquet.  Recently, I was attending an event with a lovely bouquet at my table made of white or pale flowers. It reminded me of both life and death.

I brought the bouquet back home and after a couple of days, the flowers started to dry up. Normally I would have thrown the entire bunch in the compost but these struck me as having a touch of fragile beauty, a whiff of life with a whiff of death about them.  I photographed them before it went on for composting. Here are the results-

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I hope these two encounters with dried flowers will rekindle that spark I used to have for them!


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Wild Garlic

Wild garlic is now available- for free!  You can get it from about April to June so although you may overindulge on it now, like other wild plants such as samphire, it is made more delicious by the very nature of its seasonal availability. You can forage for it in the woodlands, especially in places where it is quite shady.  Allium ursinum – known as ramsons, buckrams, wild garlic, broad-leaved garlic, wood garlic, bear leek, or bear’s garlic – is a wild relative of chives native to Europe and Asia.Blooming_wild_garlic.jpg

(Wild garlic leaves and flowers: image credit Marcelle Rose Nutrition)

Wild garlic of course, doesn’t look like garlic and it is the leaves that you use.  The taste of the wild garlic leaves is quite mild but the effect on your stomach can be strong, so it is best used cooked, not raw.  You can smell the leaves from quite far and so they are easy to find.  Be careful because often they grow with other leaves and grass which are not only unsavory but can be poisonous.

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There are many ways to cook it but my favorite is the wild garlic and potato soup because it is healthy, filling and easy to cook. There are soups with just wild garlic in it but I find them too strong.  I first learnt to make this soup in Devon, almost twenty-five years ago and this is it-

Ingredients
I tbsp oil or a small blob of butter for frying
1 medium size onion, chopped
400g potatoes, peeled & diced (occasionally I have also used carrots in this mix)
1.2 litres vegetable or chicken stock (I use organic stock cubes or Bouillon powder dissolved in water)
50g wild garlic leaves, shredded
Crème fraîche or double cream (or I prefer yoghurt) to serve
Wild garlic flowers (if you have them and make sure they are opened up, not closed)
Salt & pepper to taste

Heat the oil/butter in a large saucepan. Add the onion and fry on a low heat for 6-8 minutes, until softened without colouring.  Add the potatoes and stock. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. Blitz in a blender or food processor until smooth, with flecks of wild garlic leaves. Reheat in the pan, seasoning to taste. Serve with a swirl of cream/yoghurt and garnish with a few shreds of wild garlic leaves and flowers.

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The other way I have used them is to use them in pasta with a seasonin of chilli flakes, salt and shreds of garlic leaves fried in olive oil- heavenly!  You can also make garlic leaf pesto but again I find that too much.  In my opinion, you can need to use garlic leaves sparingly like you would coriander.

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Shreds of wild garlic also work well in salads.  Here I have used it in a raw courgette salad with a simple dressing of lemon, salt and pepper with olive oil.

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