The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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What I have learnt about ‘biodegradable plastic’

‘Just put it in the compost heap- and it will biodegrade!’  That is what I have heard from enthusiastic proponents of biodegradable ‘plastic’.  But now I’m cautious about doing that.  This is after my experiment trying to actually compost this stuff.

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As you see in the photo above, this is what the plastic bag looks like after more than a month inside the pot.  I filled the bag with dried and green leaves, hoping to start the process of biodegradation.  But it remains as strong as ever with no signs of disintegration. My friend used a large ‘hot’ composter and she also found that the ‘vegware’ she threw in haven’t composted at all.  I have since learnt that these bags require specific environmental conditions to biodegrade. Most require an industrial composting facility.  If accidentally mixed with regular plastics, compostable ones contaminate the recycling process.

Keep Britain Tidy has complained, ‘The drive to introduce bioplastics, biodegradable plastics and compostable plastics is being done with limited emphasis on explaining the purpose of these materials to the public or consideration of whether they are in fact better from an environmental perspective than the plastic packaging they replace.’  I also saw report from the BBC where a biodegradable shopping bag could still carry a full load of groceries after submerged in water for three years or buried underground for the same time. In some ways these are worse than the normal plastic ones because they come with the myth that they are somehow more benign to nature.

I was recently offered a ‘vegware glass’ at a charity meeting. When I asked for a proper glass, the woman said, ‘But these are compostable- and it’s all a part of a circular economy’.  I replied, ‘Please show me where your composter is.’  She said the office didn’t have one. ‘So you expect me to take this home and compost it?  What if I don’t have composter?  What happens if the vegware doesn’t break down?’  She didn’t have the answers and so reluctantly led me to the kitchen and gave me a glass.  Whether it is vegware, or biodegradable- it is also a single use item.  Single use items should be banned- our planet is not big enough to take in all the rubbish we throw in it.

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Using green mulch

In these days of climate change with extreme heat and lack of rain, even in the UK, one has to think about how to keep plants hydrated.  I went away for three weeks recently and had only just bought a lavender plants before leaving.  I was worried about it dying while I was away.  So I used a weed- nettles which grow well in my terrace- to make a green mulch.

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The green mulch would not only save the soil from drying out but also as the nettle dried out, it would nourish the soil.  It also would prevent other weeds from growing in the pot. I had first learnt about green mulch from some Cuban organic farmers who had used it during the ‘crisis’ days to grow urban food but had never used it myself.

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Almost four weeks later, this is the result.  The plant looks healthy and has grown well while the nettle has dried and become part of the soil.  Some small weeds have grown in the pot but those will also form part of the new green mulch.  This was so effortless and economical that I’m going to use it again and again.


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A sustainable present for the home

This Christmas a lot of tinsel, wrapping paper and cards will make their way to you via many different routes.  Tinsel is not recyclable (so I reuse the tinsel that I actually found 12 years ago on the street) and any wrapping paper that doesn’t stay crumpled up, is not recyclable (try crumpling a part of it and see).  Each card takes about 140 kgs of CO2 to make and send- enough for two cups of tea.

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One of my cards made out of the box that my Panettone came in!

For years, I have been using the same plastic Christmas tree and its decorations so it is as sustainable as I can get.

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Our 12 year old Christmas tree!

I generally believe that living plants should stay living, in its natural habitat but terrariums are another thing. Especially during cold and wet days, it is quite nice to do indoor gardening!

This year, instead of buying flowers,  I made a terrarium and a planted pot to decorate the Christmas table.  Here is the step by step guide to both (which are slightly different to what you will find elsewhere).  So first the things you need-

  • Activated charcoal (from an aquarium or pet shop)
  • Pebbles and rocks (I had some and bought some from the pet shop and washed them carefully)
  • Moss (I got these from the pots outside)
  • Different plants- I bought a fern (asplenium), a plant with colourful leaves(Fittonia Skeleton) and an orchid (Dendrobium Berry Oda)
  • A glass bottle (I had a leaky one which I’ve used)
  • packets of desiccator usually found with food
  • Any decorative things- I had some sea shells, sticks, and bigger rocks
  • Tools which included a newspaper to cover the table, a cloth to wipe, a wood spoon to tap soil and place the plants inside the bottle, secateurs, and a plastic funnel (the one I used was a leftover from an old dishwasher)IMG_0678.jpg

The first step was to wash the bottle thoroughly. Once it was dry, I put in the desiccators first and sprinkled some charcoal around it.  Then I put in the washed pebbles, following it up with some more activated charcoal.  One advantage of choosing colourful rocks was that the charcoal doesn’t look too out of place.IMG_0688

Instead of buying more soil, I used the ones in the pots- they were were more than enough.  I put in the soil next.  All my plants were quite big, so it I had to divide them up. The Fittonia was easy to do but the fern and the orchid were hard.  I looked up various articles on how to do this on the internet but I’m still not sure about the orchid (which was the most expensive thing to buy!).  Time will tell if these plants will survive although I’ve followed the instructions.  Upon reflection, my advice will be to buy the smallest possible plants which will grow into bigger ones and are also easy to handle. On the cons of that, you will need to buy enough potting soil.

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Dividing the orchid was difficult!

IMG_0689Planning the inside is also an art- you don’t want it to be overcrowded but to look well managed.  The plants need space to grow and breathe. So I have placed the plants well apart as the orchid was pretty big.IMG_0686

There was enough soil and plants to make another pretty pot, so I did that using all the leftovers.  This is what it looks like.IMG_0685

IMG_0697 2.jpgMerry Christmas and happy holidays!

And here are some ideas from Tom Dixon Studios for some fun terrariums (they don’t need many plants only a sense of humour and creativity!)

 

 


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Our charity project is coming along

These are photos from an ‘Energy garden’ project we are doing on a London Overground station.  The intention is to have vegetables, herbs and flowers growing on the platform, with rainwater harvesting, composting, and recycling.  So the vegetables and flowers have been planted and are doing well- thanks to the station staff who look after them.  A mural and slate plaque are planned for later this summer.

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This work is being done as part of the environmental design charity I started, Charushila.  For more information see www.charushila.org

This video introduces the Energy Garden concept which is a partnership between London Overground, Groundwork Trust, Repowering London and local organisations like ours-


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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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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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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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