In these days of climate change with extreme heat and lack of rain, even in the UK, one has to think about how to keep plants hydrated. I went away for three weeks recently and had only just bought a lavender plants before leaving. I was worried about it dying while I was away. So I used a weed- nettles which grow well in my terrace- to make a green mulch.
The green mulch would not only save the soil from drying out but also as the nettle dried out, it would nourish the soil. It also would prevent other weeds from growing in the pot. I had first learnt about green mulch from some Cuban organic farmers who had used it during the ‘crisis’ days to grow urban food but had never used it myself.
Almost four weeks later, this is the result. The plant looks healthy and has grown well while the nettle has dried and become part of the soil. Some small weeds have grown in the pot but those will also form part of the new green mulch. This was so effortless and economical that I’m going to use it again and again.
Lately I’ve been walking around the streets trying to photograph bees. I’m not a professional and all I have is a smartphone, and these little creatures are very fast. So the photographs aren’t very good. However, I have noticed a much smaller number than last year, especially in my garden. I grow wildflowers and plants in my terrace, hoping to attract bees. But in one day, I may see about 5-8 bees (I don’t know if they are the same ones or different ones). Last year, I could see 10-15 bees each day in my terrace. The numbers of hoverflies remain the same as before.
Bees seem to like purple or pink flowers- I’ve noticed. Lavender, appear to attract the most bees, including bumble bees, while honeybees also like the blue/white borage flowers, and marjoram, which has small pinkish white flowers.
What I’ve also noticed are dead bees- particularly the large bumblebees. This photo below was taken on a nearby pavement.
Declining bee populations have been blamed on a combination of factors: climate change, pesticides – notably neonicotinoids – and varroa mites spreading in beehives. While the EU has imposed an almost total ban on neonicotinoids, climate change is decimating bee populations with late frosts and later summers. Honey is one of the products that bees create and we eat, but on a general level, bees are responsible for pollinating plants. This ‘unpaid’ act by these busy workers, help plants to grow and give food, flowers, cosmetics and thousands of other plant based products.
In a study by Sussex university on a project called ‘Honey bee health and well being’, it was found that bees do prefer all varieties of lavender and borage (which was the best all rounder). These are also very cheap plants to grow- while Lavender is a perennial, Borage will self seed. The lead scientist of the study, Professor of Apiculture, Dr. Francis Ratnieks, said, ‘The most important message from this study is that choosing flowers carefully makes a big difference to pollinators at zero cost. It costs no more to buy bee friendly flowers and they are not more difficult to grow and are just as pretty. The flowers don’t have to be native, wild flowers.’
Let us grow more organic blue, purple and pink flowers and help these hardworking saviours of humankind.
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.
I have written previously about how winter leaves gifts behind, although spring and summer are seen as seasons when we have more gifts from nature. I made this gift for my colleagues at work using leaves and dried flowers that I was going to put into the compost heap. It was easy to do and looks quite good I think. I had all the stuff at home including the vase and the sponge base, so it is a zero waste zero price gift!
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
Dividing the orchid was difficult!
Planning 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.
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.
Merry 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!)
This has been the worst heatwave in the UK since 1976 and with climate change, it is not known if this will be a temporary phenomenon or a lasting one. Climate change is slowly affecting food growing as well as the ability to maintain other forms of life such as bees. It is estimated that the USA is losing 10% of its crops due to climate change. My garden which is usually lush at this time of the year is not looking good at all. It seemed a battle that I wasn’t going to win with my planters looking like this-
But look at the plants that seems to be green and doing fine- it is the South African native, the Agapanthus and the ‘Indian’ hawthorn- both of which seem to need little water. Euphorbia are also doing well as they are drought resistant. Planters need more watering because the roots cannot access groundwater unlike plants grown on land. The succulents which can live with little water are also fine. We also have a hosepipe ban on now, but I don’t use it anyway. I use water that has been used to wash vegetables and fruits. You can also use cooled down bathwater as long as it is not too soapy.
The RHS says that most gardens are hardy enough to be watered in moderation with repurposed water – known as grey water – even if it does have soap and suds in it, ‘Grey water should be used with care, but can be useful in times of water shortages. Plants can be watered with shower, bath, kitchen and washing machine water – fortunately, soil and potting composts are effective at filtering them out. There should be no problem with small-scale, short-term use of grey water to tide plants over in summer drought. An exception is on edible crops, due to the risk of contamination from pathogens in the water.’
I’m going to wait and see what happens next- whether my Mexican daisies and other plants recover. Which plant lives and which dies will be important to decide my next year’s planting because climate change is here to stay.
or perhaps follow this person who has decided on an almost entirely plastic garden which doesn’t need watering and looks vibrant all year!
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.
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-
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.
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.
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-
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.
Moss- which helped to regulate moisture in the air, absorbing the excess
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.
Summer is here and I am making the elderflower cordial I have made for many years now. This year I am going to try out agave nectar instead of sugar- it is sweeter but has less calories.
I got these flowers from an abandoned garage near my house and also some from the park. Before foraging any edible plants, leaves, fruits or flowers, it is best to have a check to see what you are doing is legal or not. In the UK, many parks and wild areas have plenty of material for foraging but you might be damaging the biodiversity of the area by overpicking. For instance, many people were prosecuted for picking mushrooms from the Royal parks. Picking mushrooms by bagfuls would destroy the natural flora of the area. So do not pick from any protected areas such as Royal parks, area of scenic beauty or those with fragile or seasonal flora (Dungeness beach comes to mind). Always check notices to see if foraging is allowed- local bye laws which prohibits foraging can be passed by councils, the National Trust and government conservation agencies such as Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales.
The second is if you are foraging for yourself, that is fine. But commercial activity, i.e. selling what you get out of foraging is not permitted. The Theft Act 1968, for England and Wales, states that: ‘A person who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not (although not in possession of the land) steal what he picks, unless he does it for reward or for sale or other commercial purpose.’ And the Scottish Outdoor Access Code allows foraging, but again, not for commercial use. My one small bag of flowers for my own use is allowed from the park I got the elderflowers from. You should never pick all there is, you should always leave plenty for others to enjoy – including wildlife.
Third, you can’t pick someone’s overhanging branch that might be on the street or even over your garden fence. Nearby this tree were some other elderflower trees with lovely blossoms. I was lucky that the owner happened to be there and I asked permission to get the flowers. It all sounds simple really and part of good manners- only take for yourself, leave for others and always ask permission.