The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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Why I love my fake Christmas tree

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My 16 year old plastic Christmas tree

My neighbours buy ‘real’ Christmas trees while I have a fake one.

First of all, why do we have fir trees inside our houses during winter festival? It is the most illogical thing to do!

Perhaps the concept of the Christmas tree came from the  Paradise Tree, representing the tree in the garden of Paradise, which was used in medieval German Mystery or Miracle Plays that were acted out in front of Churches on Christmas Eve. Fir trees were first used as Christmas trees about 1000 years ago in Northern Europe.

The first person to bring a Christmas Tree into a house, in the way we know it today, may have been the 16th century German preacher, Martin Luther. In many parts of northern Europe, cherry or hawthorn plants (or even a branch) and brought inside in the hope that they would flower at Christmas time. People also made pyramids of woods which were decorated to look like a tree with paper, apples and candles. Sometimes they were carried around from house to house, rather than being displayed in a home. Early Christmas Trees could been hung upside down from the ceiling using chains.  Anyway the custom has stayed and people love the seasonal decorations and especially the children love the spectacle of the Christmas tree.  So there is no getting away from not having one- what ever form you decide.

It has been calculated that artificial Christmas trees are made of plastic and PVC, shipped over from China. So there is a carbon cost of manufacture and transportation plus the energy cost of the materials. Added to that, artificial Christmas trees aren’t recyclable, so if they’re thrown away, they will end up in landfill.

According to the Carbon Trust, a two metre artificial tree has a carbon footprint of around 40kg, more than ten times that of a real tree that’s burned after Christmas. In other words, you’d need to re-use an artificial tree 10 times to negate its carbon footprint, yet it’s estimated that fake trees are used only four times, regardless of improving quality.

But if you’ve used your fake Christmas tree more for more than ten Christmases, then you are ‘carbon neutral’. I’ve used my Christmas for 16 years now, and it still looks good.  All the decorations also have been used for more than 16 and also were lent to someone when they didn’t have any.

While my fake tree is stored away for the year, my neighbours have to go and buy a tree- there is car use involved while the tree itself might have been transported from Scotland or somewhere even further.  Most real trees also come wrapped in plastic which also has to be disposed off.  Then there is the problem of the disposal of the actual tree especially if you haven’t got the space in your garden or even a garden (which is increasingly the case in city apartments). After the new Year, the streets are blocked by irresponsible people even though the Council offers collection for a small fee. So to avoid the fee, these people throw the trees anywhere.

This is where the fake tree is better in my opinion- the more you use it, the less it costs financially as well as ecologically. It stays in its cardboard box, handy for the next time it is needed.

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This is what one of my neighbours decided to do with a fake fir- looks good and deters many bugs!  Better than throwing a fake tree away.

Postscript: This was published last Christmas by BBC about a boy’s ‘Worst Christmas ever’

Ros Bruce, from Essex, said her 10-year-old son got an Xbox One for Christmas, and he and a friend had spent weeks planning what games they would play together online.

She said they had been downloading a game since 09:00 GMT – and by 23:40 it was still not ready.

“He has spent most of the day in tears,” she said.

“He says it’s been his worst Christmas ever.

“I think Xbox should compensate us all.”


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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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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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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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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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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?