The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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Colours of a generous season

More than spring, I love autumn.  There is a smokiness in the air from the wood fires, it’s not too cold when you can walk in the parks and there are still days of sunshine when it is not too cold to sit outside.  Nature is settling down for a sleep over winter and there is quietness like when someone is preparing for bed and mysterious shadows especially in the afternoons.  Animals are busy gathering food to last over the winter and we are also busy foraging and preparing chutneys, jams and other delicacies from the bounty that nature presents in autumn. Autumn is a season of great generosity from nature. What I enjoy the most are the autumn colours which are quite unlike spring when branches are still bare.  The trees and shrubs display their most amazing colours in leaves, berries and barks.  Soon these will become nature’s own special compost.  I have been walking around in London and Cambridge, taking photos of autumn scenes.  I feel so energised when I go out to the park.  I hope you like these photos!

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Bees and us

Lately I’ve been walking around the streets trying to photograph bees.  I’m not a professional and all I have is a smartphone, and these little creatures are very fast.  So the photographs aren’t very good.  However, I have noticed a much smaller number than last year, especially in my garden.  I grow wildflowers and plants in my terrace, hoping to attract bees.  But in one day, I may see about 5-8 bees (I don’t know if they are the same ones or different ones).  Last year, I could see 10-15 bees each day in my terrace.  The numbers of hoverflies remain the same as before.

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Bees seem to like purple or pink flowers- I’ve noticed. Lavender, appear to attract the most bees, including bumble bees, while honeybees also like the blue/white borage flowers, and marjoram, which has small pinkish white flowers.

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What I’ve also noticed are dead bees- particularly the large bumblebees.  This photo below was taken on a nearby pavement.

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Declining bee populations have been blamed on a combination of factors: climate change, pesticides – notably neonicotinoids – and varroa mites spreading in beehives.  While the EU has imposed an almost total ban on neonicotinoids, climate change is decimating bee populations with late frosts and later summers.  Honey is one of the products that bees create and we eat, but on a general level, bees are responsible for pollinating plants.  This ‘unpaid’ act by these busy workers, help plants to grow and give food, flowers, cosmetics and thousands of other plant based products.

In a study by Sussex university on a project called ‘Honey bee health and well being’, it was found that bees do prefer all varieties of lavender and borage (which was the best all rounder).  These are also very cheap plants to grow- while Lavender is a perennial, Borage will self seed.  The lead scientist of the study, Professor of Apiculture, Dr. Francis Ratnieks, said, ‘The most important message from this study is that choosing flowers carefully makes a big difference to pollinators at zero cost. It costs no more to buy bee friendly flowers and they are not more difficult to grow and are just as pretty. The flowers don’t have to be native, wild flowers.’

Let us grow more organic blue, purple and pink flowers and help these hardworking saviours of humankind.


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Open Squares day

The open squares day is a great day to visit gardens in London- big or small.  London’s hidden green spaces open their gates for public enjoyment and discovery.

The very first London Garden Square Day took place in 1998, with 43 gardens taking part.  The aim was to draw attention to the contribution that green spaces made to the city- in fact, almost half of London is green.   The open Squares days offer opportunity to explore those private and more secret gardens which are not generally accessible to the public and to join in the community events taking place.  Caroline Aldiss, a resident of Collingham Gardens at the time, founded the event in 1998-9 with the support of the London Parks and Gardens Trust and English Heritage. She thought that a day when all the green spaces could become open to the public, would be good event for the summer and for people to become interested in gardens and gardening.

This year I visited St. Mary’s secret garden in Hackney with its wonderful array of tables selling home-made produce such as jams and chutneys, honey, plants, bird houses, tea and cakes. Along with the buzz of people, bees and birds, it was a lively atmosphere and inspirational.  For over 25 years, St. Mary’s Secret Garden has offered a safe space where people with support needs  and the local community can get hands-on experience of gardening,  gain a sense of inclusion and receive the benefits of horticulture and other eco-therapy activities.

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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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Coping with the summer heat

This has been the worst heatwave in the UK since 1976 and with climate change, it is not known if this will be a temporary phenomenon or a lasting one.  Climate change is slowly affecting food growing as well as the ability to maintain other forms of life such as bees.  It is estimated that the USA is losing 10% of its crops due to climate change.  My garden which is usually lush at this time of the year is not looking good at all.  It seemed a battle that I wasn’t going to win with my planters looking like this-

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But look at the plants that seems to be green and doing fine- it is the South African native, the Agapanthus and the ‘Indian’ hawthorn- both of which seem to need little water.  Euphorbia are also doing well as they are drought resistant.  Eubhoria.pngPlanters need more watering because the roots cannot access groundwater unlike plants grown on land.  The succulents which can live with little water are also fine. We also have a hosepipe ban on now, but I don’t use it anyway.  I use water that has been used to wash vegetables and fruits.  You can also use cooled down bathwater as long as it is not too soapy.

The RHS says that most gardens are hardy enough to be watered in moderation with repurposed water – known as grey water – even if it does have soap and suds in it, ‘Grey water should be used with care, but can be useful in times of water shortages.  Plants can be watered with shower, bath, kitchen and washing machine water – fortunately, soil and potting composts are effective at filtering them out.  There should be no problem with small-scale, short-term use of grey water to tide plants over in summer drought. An exception is on edible crops, due to the risk of contamination from pathogens in the water.’

I’m going to wait and see what happens next- whether my Mexican daisies and other plants recover.  Which plant lives and which dies will be important to decide my next year’s planting because climate change is here to stay.

or perhaps follow this person who has decided on an almost entirely plastic garden which doesn’t need watering and looks vibrant all year!IMG_8001.JPG


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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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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:

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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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