The Canny Gardener

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


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London Festival of Architecture

We are doing a lecture about our work on our project about community gardens and participatory design on 11th June at 1530 hours.  Please come if you can!

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Spring is in the air

I love it when the first clematis come out in- it really is the beginning of warm weather and it makes me smile.  Here are the first blossoms, along with their friend my ‘permanent robin’ and the new leaves on my olive tree.

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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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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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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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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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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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A homemade present

These days when anything can be bought from royal titles to a bit of the Moon, making something to give to someone appears very unique.  When I was young, my Uncle used to give us the best presents- they were always the same and they brought me and my sisters so much delight.  They were shoes boxes filled with the things we liked- crepe paper, scissors, glue, tape, tinsel, string and paint.  From those things we created a lot more things- I remember those shoe boxes with such pleasure.  A box that made me do something creative! Times have changed now- shoe boxes filled with such things won’t be accepted with such joyous innocence!

This year, I made something for my son alongside a ‘bought present’.  Plants are very easy to propagate and make great presents.  So here is my homemade Bonsai starter pot for my son.

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I grew that little tree out of another bonsai tree that I was pruning, the moss was found growing on another pot that needing cleaning out and I had the sedum plants.  I had found that little pot as well.  There are many Youtube videos on soil composition needed for Bonsai, so I won’t be going into that.  That said, the main things I learnt from the videos were that the soil needs to drain easily and that composition of the loose soil to that of the compost or hot soil is 75% to 25%.  Some of the sandy soil I found in an old pot and mixed it with some fresh sand that I found when a local basement was been built (talk about sourcing locally!)  I mixed everything by hand and instead of sieving as shown in the videos, I took out bigger bits of rocks and gravel by feeling with my hands.  The rocks and shells have been collected during our holidays, so they will have memories and familiarity.  It will take a few years for that tree to look like a bonsai tree (it is only 6 months old). Until then, he is going to have learn to take care of it as Bonsai needs a lot of looking after.  So this is my version of our childhood shoe box presents- something creative that will encourage my son do something creative.


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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.