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:

Wash the spinach carefully and chop.IMG_4128.JPG

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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when life gives you lemons…

Lemons, preserved or not, are really great for many types of foods from Western to Eastern, stopping by at Middle eastern, so really universal.  Lime is sweeter than lemon and is used more in Eastern dishes but you can interchange them as I discovered if you have one and not the other.  I have been experimenting with lemons and limes recently so here are some of my discoveries and money saving tips.

  1. To keep lemons and limes fresh for a long time, do not put them in dishes and display them on dining tables as they show in home improvement shows.  Instead, put them in a jar and fill it with water and keep in the fridge.  This way, they keep for a long time instead of becoming dried and unusable.  Lemons and limes are quite expensive, so this is a good money saving idea.IMG_0990.JPG
  2. Lemon rinds can be dried at home, before you use the juice for cooking, so try to buy unwaxed limes and lemons and make lemon peels instead of throwing the peels away.
  3. It is quite easy to make preserved lemons however, the cost and time required are not worth it, according to me.  So it is cheaper to buy organic preserved lemons than making them at home.  Plus you can buy these anytime of the year- if you choose to make them at home, lemons can be quite expensive in the summer, so you have to wait for winter to make them at home. However, one money saving tip I have discovered is not to throw the fleshy bits as many of the Moroccan recipes suggest and only using the rind. In fact, once you cut everything in bits and discard the inedible internal skins and bitter seeds, you can use everything up. I have so far used these in Moroccan style lamb and chicken; and Italian style pork.  I have used grape juice to sweeten the dish as the lemon bits can be quite sour.IMG_0985.JPGIMG_0996.JPG
  4. Both lemons and limes can be used to make lemonades. I prefer a quick version using squeezed lime and lemon juice and some sugar and a pinch of salt- then mixed with fizzy water and ice. You can thrown in the used rinds and some mint leaves if you have them.  A cheap cool drink for the summer.


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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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Foraging rules

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Summer is here and I am making the elderflower cordial I have made for many years now.  This year I am going to try out agave nectar instead of sugar- it is sweeter but has less calories.

I got these flowers from an abandoned garage near my house and also some from the park.  Before foraging any edible plants, leaves, fruits or flowers, it is best to have a check to see what you are doing is legal or not.  In the UK, many parks and wild areas have plenty of material for foraging but you might be damaging the biodiversity of the area by overpicking.  For instance, many people were prosecuted for picking mushrooms from the Royal parks.  Picking mushrooms by bagfuls would destroy the natural flora of the area.  So do not pick from any protected areas such as Royal parks, area of scenic beauty or those with fragile or seasonal flora (Dungeness beach comes to mind).  Always check notices to see if foraging is allowed- local bye laws which prohibits foraging can be passed by councils, the National Trust and government conservation agencies such as Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales.

The second is if you are foraging for yourself, that is fine.  But commercial activity, i.e. selling what you get out of foraging is not permitted. The Theft Act 1968, for England and Wales, states that: ‘A person who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not (although not in possession of the land) steal what he picks, unless he does it for reward or for sale or other commercial purpose.’  And the Scottish Outdoor Access Code allows foraging, but again, not for commercial use.  My one small bag of flowers for my own use is allowed from the park I got the elderflowers from.  You should never pick all there is, you should always leave plenty for others to enjoy – including wildlife.

Third, you can’t pick someone’s overhanging branch that might be on the street or even over your garden fence.  Nearby this tree were some other elderflower trees with lovely blossoms. I was lucky that the owner happened to be there and I asked permission to get the flowers.  It all sounds simple really and part of good manners- only take for yourself, leave for others and always ask permission.

 


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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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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.