The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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Winter’s gifts

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!

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Winter’s gift for birds

This is spring time in the UK and we can hear birds flying, chirping and building nests.  Walking under a tree, I heard the sounds of baby magpies hidden somewhere while I watched the anxious parents bring food to them.  Birds are amongst the non humans who actually build homes for their young ones.  Many birds are expert builders (and don’t seem to need any training!), and some are experts at repurposing holes, ledges, and parts of buildings for their nests.  As an architect, I first learnt about non human architecture from this book many years ago-

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A weaver bird’s nest from South India (credit: wikimedia commons)

But these days, given our penchant for weeding and tidying gardens straight after winter, our non human friend have nothing to build nests with, especially in cities.  This year, I have been very busy finishing a book and had forgotten to ‘tidy up’ my patio.  It was full of dead plants and I felt very embarrassed about how it was looking.  But one day, raising my head, I saw two magpies busy pulling at my dried plants and branches and fly off with a beak-full. Next, I saw a little robin that has become a regular, taking little branches and stems for its own nest.  I have also had a thrush coming by to pick up building materials. Ahh, I realised, my patio was actually being useful, even though it looked a state!

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my untidy patio with metal robin

Seeing these birds has been such a delight and given me another reason not to tidy up so soon. Along with the nest building materials, they have taken away weeds, cleared up spider’s webs and eaten some slugs- saving me some work.  I never knew how useful birds are to the canny gardener.  Make sure you keep some of these materials to attract birds into your garden and help them build their nests in the spring-

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Things that birds could use

  • Twigs or sticks
  • Dead leaves
  • Grass clippings or dead grass
  • Moss or lichen
  • Pine needles
  • Mud
  • Pebbles or small rocks (not the ones in the photo though!)
  • Spider web silk
  • Straw or other dried plant stems

Do keep some water for these thirsty parents too!
PS- As these birds tend to be wary of humans, I tried but couldn’t take a photo!

 


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From the muddy pond, arises the amazing Lotus flower

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The Lotus flowers at Kew Gardens, London

The lotus flower grows, which is an aquatic perennial, in muddy ponds all over South East Asia. But the flowers are offered to the gods and kings, despite such humble origins.  That a muddy dirty pond should give rise to such a beautiful and majestic flowers- a flower that is the national flower of a country, India- is not a contradiction.  In Buddhism, the lotus flower is held up as a symbol of how one can transform life’s trials and tribulations into beauty, compassion and wisdom.

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Worshippers in Kandy, Sri Lanka with the white lotus

The lotus flower is also unique in the sense that seeds and flowers are to be found almost simultaneously in it, as a metaphor for the Buddhist belief that cause and effect are to be found together.

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White and purple lotus flowers on sale at a stall, Kandy, Sri Lanka

The lotus flower is also held up a symbol of longevity. Seeds of a lotus flower which bloomed 1300 years old in a lake in northeastern China  ago were made to flower. The lotus flowers are to be found in ancient Egyptian murals as well as many countries of Asia- China, India, Japan and Korea- testifying to the universal sense of wonder that one experiences when seeing them.  Now they are grown all over the world.

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My friend’s terrace where he grows the lotus flower in a small container

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Photo of my friend’s lotus flower

So next time you see a lotus flower, enjoy its beauty but also think about the various metaphors associated with it that might help you in life!

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Lotus flowers in a tea estate, Sri Lanka


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Become a bit untidy

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Its officially summer and time to work on the garden.  The recent storms and previously unseasonal snow in February and March plus two travels, made my garden a bit untidy.  I felt a bit embarrassed by it all, but today as I went out, I saw what I had been missing.  There were bees flying around, spiders making their nests, earthworms in the soil and many other insects going about their business.  Birds such as sparrows, pigeons and gulls floated about in the air.  There was a real eco-system there which I had not recognised. Even tiny patio gardens have a way of making a complete micro eco-systems which are a part of the much bigger eco-system we live in.  Even inside the home, there are spiders, ants etc which are part of an eco-system which help you- spiders eat other harmful insects such as moths and mites; while ants can take away bit of food that you can’t see.  I’ve got all these and feel fine with it.  What about your home?


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Life after death

Recently at Kew Gardens, there was an exhibition called ‘Life in death’ which featured an installation made of dried flowers, itself inspired by garlands found with mummies in Egypt. There was a solemnity and dignity about the work, while reminding us about the fragility and beauty of life.  I was immensely touched by this exhibition by Rebecca Louise Law, an installation artist based in London.

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It also stirred up my childhood memories of working with seeds and pressed leaves and flowers.  Fresh flowers can be fleeting joy but correctly preserved, flowers can give pleasure for a long time as the garlands from the Egyptian tombs show.   I try to bring back flowers which are meant to be thrown out after just a few hours in an event- such a waste not just of the flowers but also the artistry that made that bouquet.  Recently, I was attending an event with a lovely bouquet at my table made of white or pale flowers. It reminded me of both life and death.

I brought the bouquet back home and after a couple of days, the flowers started to dry up. Normally I would have thrown the entire bunch in the compost but these struck me as having a touch of fragile beauty, a whiff of life with a whiff of death about them.  I photographed them before it went on for composting. Here are the results-

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I hope these two encounters with dried flowers will rekindle that spark I used to have for them!


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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.