The Canny Gardener

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


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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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Natural dyes

 

Having an Armenian link in my family, I decided this year to make traditional Armenian Easter eggs alongside a traditional meal. Making these Easter eggs involves using onion skins, turmeric and other natural dyes to colour eggs. Here are some of my efforts. I collected red onion skins- shopkeepers were happy to get rid of them. I also put in some chilli flakes that I was not using (these also make the water red). I boiled these for about twenty minutes and left it to cool overnight. In the morning, I pasted some leaves I found in the garden on the raw eggs using water. I used organic hens and duck eggs. Then I put the eggs inside cut up old stockings and boiled them further for about 20 minutes. After removing them from the stocking, I left them to cool. When they were cold to touch, I polished them with some olive oil to make them shine. Even though the duck eggs were less successful, the over all effect of mottled colour with silhouettes of leaves, was charming on both types of eggs.

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What about waste?  The skins were put in the compost and the leftover liquid was used to dye an old white silk blouse which is now a pretty pink colour. No waste- perfect!

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I will be trying out more natural dyes made from vegetable waste or origins such as blueberry juice, coffee, tea, etc. I have already used such colours in creating a portrait of person who likes spicy food (turmeric and onion skins), tea and coffee and more mineral colours.

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Compost update

Those of you following the blog since last year will know that I created a small home composting system.  This consisted very simply of putting a plastic pot inside a large planter and covering it with a double lid.  Today, I went to see what it was looking like. Here it is, some compost made from kitchen waste six months ago without any additional help-

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As the stuff gets composted, it gets compacted and goes down and so I added some more fresh peelings and kitchen waste into it today.  I will also be using some accelerator to see if that helps to speed up the composting.  As the weather has been so wet, this is not ideal but at least it seems to be working.  Inside my kitchen, I have made a four part sorting system- one bin for composting, one bag for cooked food waste, one for dry rubbish and a big bag for recyclables.  I tried using a normal sized rubbish bin and realised that it was taking weeks to fill up with the result that the cooked food waste thrown in was getting mouldy.  I also have very little cooked food waste which is not compostable in the above manner and so this four part sorting means that I can use my peelings and tea and coffee grinds for compost, crushed egg shells for staving off slugs and also for sprinkling on the pots.  The small rubbish is kept in crisp packets or similar size bags that I was going to throw away anyway.  This way my kitchen also doesn’t have any mouldy stuff while I save on buying bin bags!  Of course, this kind of system will only work if you have small bits of non compostable rubbish and don’t eat lots of meat, etc.  Here are my carrot tops growing in my home made compost.

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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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Abundance of nature

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Nature is not mean with her gifts to us.  This is a pear tree which grows in a community centre where I volunteer at the reception every five weeks.  Yesterday, I not only had four pears for lunch but also brought back a bagful to give away.  Having been grown organically and being in season, they were deliciously sweet.  I don’t normally like pears but these were out of the world.  Eating with the seasons mean that Nature is more than ready to shower us with its abundance.


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reorganising for the winter

Sad to say that the summer is almost finished and now I am working to reorganise my little garden for the autumn and winter.  One of the lessons, I have learnt is that having too many pots and plants is too much to look after.  So after having rescued two barrel planters waiting for the rubbish tip, I got some help in transporting these to my terrace. So for next few months and next year, I am going to use these barrels for a permanent flower ‘show’ and use the smaller pots for summer salads.  I gave away extra pots to the neighbours.  Better to have fewer good looking planters than several straggly ones!

I had gone away for a week while I left my home made compost to dry so that the slugs go away ‘naturally’ (sorry, I cannot stand slugs).  Upon return, again working on the HegelKultur principle, this is how I filled the planter.  I don’t like using plastic bottles for the bottom as some bloggers do- I don’t have them anyway and because, I don’t want the risk of plastic decomposing amongst a growing medium (I have seen plastic bags disintegrating even when kept inside).  Instead as a first layer, I used broken oyster and egg shells, pieces from a terracotta pot and cardboard packaging. I also put in garden waste and kitchen bits and pieces.  Not only do the cardboard soak up the valuable juices from the decomposing waste (unlike the plastic) but also they will decompose eventually someday.  It will also lighten up these very heavy barrels and create some air space while they do so.

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Next I put in my home made compost, again lightened with some perlite. My mistake in the past has been that the compost has been too ‘wet’ which does not suit most plants.  Water should be able to drain naturally as it does in the ground.

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I had found a baby’s bath which I now use for making compost and nettle juice- my nettles in the planter provide a year long supply of nourishing organic fertiliser (cut up the long stems and they grow again).  This was also mixed with the compost.

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Now I took out the plants from the smaller pots and replanted them in the barrel, spreading some new compost around the gaps.  Great- at least five less pots to water! and it looks lovely (and saves water). I tried to make it look ‘wild’ rather than planted.  Hope you like it!  The Cala lily, by the way, is the one I rescued from oblivion- the bulb looked tumorous, but after cutting away those bits, see the gorgeous glory!


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canny composting

I have been trying to make compost for some time. Living in an apartment, I do not have access to soil- all my plants are grown in containers.  I looked at buying a composter but found not only the costs and maintenance difficult but after reading reviews, realised that not all composters work effectively.  I don’t have the money to try experiments to see which composter might work.

So working on the principle of Hügelkultur, I put all my cuttings from gardening and cooking, leftover soil from pots and some shop bought compost as a ‘starter’ and wrapped it in plastic sheeting and left it for a year inside a used tyre.  Today, I unrolled it. Apart from the slugs, spiders, wood lice and earthworms, I have lovely black compost!  It felt warm to the touch, so it must have been composting and some weeds have taken advantage of this!

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Hügelkultur is a composting process where one creates raised planting beds on top of decaying wood debris and other compostable biomass plant materials. The process helps to improve soil fertility, water retention, and soil warming, thus benefiting plants grown on or near such mounds.  This idea replicates the natural process of decomposition that occurs on forest floors. I had previously used this idea in the planter itself, copying this from the Cuban urban gardeners who had to work with poor soil inside cities.

 


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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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