The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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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?


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canny planting

An important part of being a canny gardener is thinking about how to do the most with least (thereby save money).  Some could be about buying perennials, some could be about plants that re-seed/re-grow  by themselves every year and some about plants that do two or three things. Here are some easy plants that have worked for me because they are easy, need little watering and resistant to common pests while attracting bees and good insects.

  • Eating and looking/smelling good– Edible Chrysanthemums, Chopsuey greens (extreme right), pansies and lavender.  Shown below (left) is the edible chrysanthemums and my thai rice noodle made with it.  I am going to use the flowers and the pansies, along with the nasturtiums to make a ‘flower salad’ later.

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  • Buy one and get many for free– Calla lilies, Hosta, Alpine sedum, mint (both mint and sedum work well as ground cover, saving time on weeding. Shown below is my Hosta plant which has had many babies and survived slug onslaughts (slugs love Hosta).  When the leaves are young, you can eat them as greens.

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  • Reseeding by themselves- Mexican Daisy, poppies and Marigold. White flowers spring through fall. All needs medium to low water.  With the daisies, you can also divide and get many from one small pot that you buy.

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  • Perennials– Clematis, Agapanthus, Lobellia Fan Scarlet, Canna (many of the South African flowering plants will also grow in the UK and Europe, needing only little watering and care and producing gorgeously vivid blooms) . Shown from left to right are the Californian poppy (that occasionally becomes perennial!, calla lily and agapanthus, Erysimum (Bowles Mauve) and Clematis.

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  • Useful weeds– Herb Robert, Dandelion, common geranium, nettles- I have got these free from the heavens- they are medicinal herbs, good for bees and grow with no problems! Shown below are nettles which I use for food, fertiliser and tea and also wild geraniums.

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useful animals

Animals are very useful in organic farming, in more ways than one.

In Parana district in Brazil, an intrepid Mayor, Jaime Lerner, used sheep to trim the lawns of gardens and the sheep’s wool was used for funding children’s schooling.  A totally win win situation!

My Uncle who used to run an organic farm in the Himalayas used geese to do the same plus geese are effective burglar deterrents!

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Goats are being now used in the USA to fight invasive weeds and plants.  One of the reasons they are more effective than weedkillers and chemicals is that plant seeds rarely survive the grinding motion of their mouths and their multi-chambered stomachs – this is not always the case with other techniques which leave seeds in the soil to spring back.

Also, unlike machinery, they can access steep and wooded areas with tall goats able to access plants more than eight feet high (smaller goats can climb trees as I have seen in India). A herd of 35 goats can go through half an acre of dense vegetation in about four days which is the same amount of time it takes them to become bored with eating the same thing.

From the BBC magazine, January 2015- “At Duke University in North Carolina, marine biologist Brian Silliman has spent 20 years working on understanding and eradicating the invasive species phragmites. This reed, which thrives in salt marshes, can grow up to 10 feet tall, pushing out native species and blocking bay and sea views for coastal residents. One way of tackling phragmites is to burn it.  Silliman says at first he tried insects and other forms of “bio control” to tackle the plant, but nothing worked.

“Then I took a holiday to the Netherlands, where the plant comes from, and saw it wasn’t a problem there because it was constantly being grazed by animals,” he says.  In studies, Silliman found that goats were very effective – in one trial, 90% of the test area was left phragmites-free. “I think all wetland managers should take up this method,” he says. “It’s cheaper, less polluting, better for the environment and goat farmers get paid.” One plant goats are increasingly being used to clear is kudzu. This fast-growing vine, native to east Asia, was first introduced into the US in 1876, as a ornamental plant that could shade porches and prevent soil erosion.

However, this technique is not good for African countries where livestock, especially goats, have eaten useful plants and decimated the land of plants, leading to erosion.  So other means have to be employed there.

To be a canny gardener, one must find the best animals for the job and use them effectively.