The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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Coconut husk compost

I have just started using coconut husk compost for my spring/summer planting.  First of all, I have to comment on how easy it was to transport and use.  I didn’t have to lug a heavy bag of compost on the bus- the compost comes a brick sized light block.  I took it out of the paper wrapping (which was recycled unlike the usual compost which comes in a plastic bag and it is difficult to find places that recycle them), then put the entire brick into a bucket on a day when I knew it was going to rain heavily.

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So when the bucket was full of water, the coconut compost expanded to fill the bucket (one block makes 9 litres of compost). I could then use it to fill my baby bath tub planter which I found abandoned.

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I had used up the winter offerings of dried shrubs and leaves as a composting material, on which I lay the coconut husk compost. I spread some seeds on the compost and then spread a thin layer of the coconut husk on that. The coconut husk compost is easy to work with, unlike the conventional compost.  My seeds are now sprouting and I will keep you updated on how the plants do.


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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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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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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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camping at home- and living without

I was brought up in India, a hot tropical country. We did not have many ‘modern amenities’ for most of my life- things that would be considered almost impossible to live without, for example- the fridge, telephone and the TV.  Now I live in London, a country of temperate climate.  In 2011, I decided on an experiment to switch off my fridge and freezer.  Initially I used an old fashioned ‘food safe’- a Victorian metal cabinet which I left out in my balcony- to store perishables.  As I was away on and off for eight months of that year doing research for a book, it was a particular challenge to manage food and food waste.  However, needless to say, my fridge and freezer had been usually empty as I cook with fresh ingredients and do not usually buy frozen or chilled foods anyway.

Initially I made mistakes, mostly with rice.  I usually eat rice as I am on gluten free diet.  Gone off rice is dangerous because it harbours spores of Bacillus cereus, a bacterium that can cause food poisoning.  If the rice is left standing at room temperature, the spores can grow into bacteria. These bacteria will multiply and may produce toxins (poisons) that cause vomiting or diarrhoea.  In order to save time, I cooked more rice than needed but it was more than I could eat. I was sick.  So l learnt not to cook more than I needed.  I learnt to give away extra food to people when I was going away.

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Of course, my two children did not like that their eccentric mummy did not use a fridge (‘all our friends have fridges and their mums don’t sing while they cook!’ were the complaints I heard).  Amongst all other things, apparently cold milk is a necessity, I realised for children who have been brought up in the city and do not realise that fresh milk from the cow is actually warm.  When we wanted ice cream or ice, we bought it and used it straightaway.  I did not use my fridge for two years!  After much complaints about the milk temperature and my singing, I decided to switch on the fridge and freezer only for the summer.  This year I found someone had left a good quality insulated picnic box outside our place. I got it and washed it; and have been using this- again left out on the balcony.  Delicate herbs like coriander keep quite well outside in a small cup of water and hardy mint actually grows roots (and I have planted some of it). The coriander you see in the photo is a week old (from the supermarket)- in the fridge it would have rotted by now.  The mint is several weeks old!

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Thanks to climate change, as the weather is still cold enough, I am not using the fridge at the moment (even the milk is cold enough for my children).  So what are the advantages of not using the fridge or freezer?

1. I buy only what I need (my food bill has gone down immensely)

2. Food is cooked fresh, using fresh ingredients.

3. Zero or nil food waste.

4. Although not enough to be huge difference, my electricity bill has gone down slightly.

5. Due to being forced to have fresh food, we buy local and thereby save on food airmiles.

6. We’ve had to cut down on several high calorie foods such as butter, cream, etc as all these foods need the fridge- this is actually good.

7. Best of all, I don’t have to clean the fridge or freezer- I am using them for storage at present.

Wacky or canny- you decide!!!  I am still singing though!