The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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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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Making a terrarium

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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-

  1. 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.
  2. Moss- which helped to regulate moisture in the air, absorbing the excess
  3. 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.


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Natural beauty

My friend Jonathan went out and found these lovely autumnal colours in the local park.

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He took these photos and I wanted to share these with everyone because of what someone decided to do with the fallen leaves.  Ephemerally beautiful, arranged in the manner of the art of Andy Goldsworthy, these are worthy natural artworks by an unknown creative.

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But this kind of beauty is also found in many smaller seasonal vegetables and plants that I have been photographing recently-

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Spring is not the only time to find beauty in nature! In case you are interested, BBC has done a short film about why leaves change colour in autumn, which you can find here.

 

 


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Surviving climate change

Despite what climate change sceptics might say,  in my several decades of gardening, I have seen how unpredictable and severe the climate has become in London where I live.  The summer seems to last for ages and the heat is almost unbearable.  The winters are mild and cool, snow hardly ever falls.  Storms are like crazy maniacs on the loose- just last week, five people lost their lives in the stormy seas, tragically caught in fast changing weather conditions.  I have just come back from a two week holiday to find my lovingly created patio garden in a wreck.  The strong sun has killed off most of the flowering shrubs and other delicate herbs and flowers.  Strong climatic conditions hit patio gardens more than plants grown directly on soil.  Here is a photo of my patio-

P1050656.jpgEven some of the nettle has died, along with my elderflower shrub.  Some weeds though are thriving as you see.  Disaster!

After a few days of shock and mourning, my first instinct was to cut out the dried plants and buy some new plants.  However, after thinking some more, I thought about working with climate change, instead of fighting it.  Here you can see that some plants have survived- these are the plants that originated from hot climates such as the African Cala lily, the Agapanthus from South Africa, the Indian hawthorn (from Hong Kong), avocado plant and Mexican daisies- all survivors of the intense heat.  In the future, we will have to get used to less water.  So I thought of creating a low water garden.  At present, I have decided to leave the dried bushes as they are.  They are preventing seeding by weeds and also protecting the soil from getting too dry.P1050657.jpg

In the meanwhile, baby agapanthus plants have started appearing even in the cracks in between the pavers-P1050659.jpg

So here is the to future- more resilient plants out on the patio!


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Reuse, recycle

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At the end of events, I always ask to take away flowers that might be placed on our table.  The reason is that such decorations are always almost thrown away.  What a waste!  For example, Anthuriums are one of the most popular tropical flowers with a long vase life of about six weeks and even more depending on the variety and season.  The staff are also happy to see the flowers go to a good home and it saves them clearing away.

Here you can see flowers and foliage from a corporate event, mixed with my own Christmas holly (yes, they are still going strong after more than two months!) and ‘Ruscus’ leaves from my Buddhist altar.  When these wither, then I will compost them.


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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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Pests?

I grew up in India where there were many household insects ranging from the dangerous such as flies, mosquitoes and termites- to others such as spiders, ants, bees and butterflies. These last three were considered beneficial or not harmful.  Now living in the UK, I find that bees are on the decline due to many factors including disease and the the widespread use of insecticides and pesticides.  Butterflies are also on the decrease- in 2012, the Telegraph reported that bumblebees, beetles and butterflies are at greater risk of extinction than lions and tigers, according to a global study by the Zoological Society of London. And as for ants, I am always amazed at finding ‘ant killers’ at DIY and hardware stores.  Why kill ants?

Ants

Most of the things ants do are good for us and the environment, including eating the larvae of fleas, spiders, bed bugs, flies, silverfish and clothes moths.  There is a notion that ants may contaminate your food by crawling on it. The remedy is simple- cover your food and keep it out of reach of ants.  I find a seasonal invasion of ants and I watch them with fascination as they go about looking for food.  The first scouts can be held back I realised by putting out some water soaked cloth on the floor- I saw that when it rained they did not come in, only in the heat did they come in to find water.  I had a great benefit from the ants- I found that they had been eating the tiny mites growing on my houseplants.  Every year I have had disasters with my houseplants, particularly with the delicate parrot plant.  This plant you see below was saved from the descendent of another parrot plant and then after that by cutting of the mite ridden branches in the new plant.  I didn’t think it would survive the extreme pruning and by being left out in the cold but it did- parrot plants can also be resilient.

This year I was dreading the return of the spider mites but noticed that my friends, the ants had been busy on its branches.  Now the plant is growing well and the ants return from time to time to clean off any mites that may come back.

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