The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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Energy garden project

Last year, I started a project with my charity, Charushila, for a concept called ‘Energy Gardens’. The Energy Garden project is a partnership project delivered by the NGO Repowering London and environmental charity, Groundwork Trust, with Transport for London. In time, 50 of London’s Overground stations will be transformed into community ‘Energy Gardens’ with thriving gardens that will incorporate food growing plots and solar panels providing on-site renewable energy for lighting, water pumps or other station amenities.  In addition to improving the daily commute of people going to work the creation of the gardens will also help people get into work through training opportunities and paid horticulture apprenticeships for young people.

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Charushila was a partner in facilitating the project at one of the stations, Acton Central.  The first year was spent in community engagement which provided a blue print for what the local community wanted and getting ideas for the project that people felt were of local importance.  The engagement was also about securing future commitment to the project in terms of maintenance and ownership.  In all, about 200 local people were consulted for this project- including residents, passengers, station staff, school children and local businesses.  The project has been taking shape slowly and many ideas are yet to be implemented. Some of the planters have already been adopted by local organisations, so if you’d like to adopt one, please let us know.  We are looking for volunteers to plant, water and weed, so please come along if you live nearby.  

But even though it is yet to be finished (these community projects involving gardens always take a long time!) , it is always heartening to get compliments from people getting in and out of the trains (a man said, “wonderful to see this work!”) and even better to eat the produce.  My two recent recipes involve spinach and pumpkin flowers (these flowers were about to be thrown away!)

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Spinach, Bangla style:

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This is about 500 gms of spinach but as you’ll see when it cooks, the volume reduces!

Heat couple of spoonfuls of cooking oil in a wok- I used organic sunflower oil. Throw in a teaspoonful each of mustard seeds, black onion seeds (Kalonji) and Fenugreek (Methi) seeds, one birds eye chilli pod, a tablespoon of turmeric and a small ball of jaggery/molasses or if you can’t find that, then a teaspoon of sugar will do.  I also added some chopped carrots.  Put in salt to taste- the spinach is slightly salty anyway, so put in less than you might do for other dishes.  Put on a lid and relax with a cup of tea while the spinach cooks.  In about 20 minutes, take off the lid and check- it should look like this- IMG_4168.JPG

Pumpkin flower fritters

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Wash the flowers carefully and and take out the hard stalks and petals at the bottom of the flower but make sure you keep the shape of the flower.  Dry them on a towel.

This is for three flowers- so if you have more or less, do adjust accordingly.  In a small bowl, mix a teaspoon of freshly crushed coriander and cumin seeds, add salt to taste (and paprika powder to taste if you like chilli taste).  Add three large heaped tablespoons of chickpea flour and carefully add water so that you get a runny consistency.  When you dip each flower into it, the paste should stick evenly to the whole of it, otherwise adjust the water so that it does.  If you make too much of it, you can always add chopped onions and make some bhajjis with the same paste!  These are now fried in hot oil and you can eat them with ketchup (like my son does!) or with tamarind chutney-

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Until death do we part

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.
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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.

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Easy pumpkin seed snack

It is autumn and pumpkins are readily available.  Use them for your Halloween pumpkin and then make pumpkin soup from that.  But don’t throw the seeds or the gooey stuff around the seeds.  That gooey stuff attached to the seeds can be taken out easily using water as this Youtube video shows.  The gooey stuff can be thrown into your compost and the water used for the plants (so don’t use running water to clean the seeds as the video shows but use a bowl of water instead)  The cleaned seeds can be used for snacks.  Many of the recipes use shelled seeds and some don’t- you can use what you prefer.  Due to some health issues, I can’t have the shells so I have used bought pumpkin seeds for this recipe but you can do the same with your seeds with shells. I have also let go of the olive oil used in many recipes because it is not good in the heat but used coconut oil instead. You need much less oil this way.

Heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade.  Put your oven tray in for a few minutes to warm it, get it out and then put a tiny (I used a teaspoon) of coconut oil. It will melt.  Spread the oil around the tray evenly and then put in a teaspoon of cajun spice or you can use garam masala.  Mix the oil and the spice and blend in the seeds so that you have a even one layer of seeds on the tray.  I also sprinkled some Himalayan sea salts on the mixture- again a small amount.

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Stick the tray back in the oven for about 10 minutes or so until the seeds have turned crispy and become a lighter colour.

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The finished seeds should have golden light colour- see the difference in the photos above and below.  Then they are done. They are so yummy, low fat, free (if you have the pumpkin) and so simple to make! Its great party food plus very healthy-with nutrients ranging from magnesium and manganese to copper, protein and zinc. They also contain plant compounds known as phytosterols and free-radical scavenging antioxidants.

Because these are high-fibre seeds, they’re able to boost your fibre intake, helping you reach the ideal amount of 50 grams per 1,000 calories consumed and keep your bowels clear.  You can also take them as snacks for work or to the park because pumpkin seeds are highly portable and require no refrigeration.

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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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Beauty and the beast

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This is a new project undertaken by our local council to manage rubbish tipping. For almost seven years, these trees had all sorts of rubbish left there. I was always amazed to find out these trees attracted such bad treatment.

Last week, I saw the workmen digging- I wasn’t sure what they were doing.  A day later, I found this.  It looks so much better and so far, hasn’t had any rubbish left there.  A simple, beautiful and lasting solution to rubbish.

 


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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.

Mexican breakfast

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.


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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!