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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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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Winter’s gifts

I have written previously about how winter leaves gifts behind, although spring and summer are seen as seasons when we have more gifts from nature.  I made this gift for my colleagues at work using leaves and dried flowers that I was going to put into the compost heap.  It was easy to do and looks quite good I think. I had all the stuff at home including the vase and the sponge base, so it is a zero waste zero price gift!

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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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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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A quick homemade insect spray

Each summer, my olive tree and other plants get mealy bugs and woolly aphids.  Now I abhor both of these.  Looking up the Internet suggestions on how to get rid of these in the most eco-friendly way, If found the use of soap solution along with physically touching the stems and picking them off.  How ghastly- I’d never touch these! I have been cutting off the branches each year and that has also helped with pruning.  But this year, the tree appears to give off snowy showers when I shake it and I didn’t even feel like pruning it.  I’ve tried the home made soap solution but I think the solution needs to stick to the infestation to be effective. I’ve tried vinegar solution but don’t like the smell.

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This year, while thinking about the ‘stickiness’ aspect of the solution, I found some unused Ecover floor cleaner.  I added 25% cleaner to 75% water along with a pinch of turmeric to act as disinfectant (total 500ml).  IMG_7678

When I sprayed this, the foam actually stuck to the branches and nodes where the insects were.  You need to shake the bottle from time to time as the turmeric tends to settle at the  bottom.  Almost immediately I noticed that infestation was gone!  IMG_7681

I will have to wait and see if it does return but the olive tree looks amazing now.  You have to be careful not to spray surrounds but as you see that my tree was next to wood, it  was okay.  Also, don’t spray edible plants with this spray.  Ecover floor cleaner, which has linseed oil as an active ingredient, claims to have the following eco-credentials:

  • Fresh perfume from plant based ingredients
  • Cleans floors effectively and quickly
  • Excellent natural floor care and protection against staining
  • No petrochemical based ingredients
  • No residue of unnecessary chemicalsFast and complete biodegradability (OECD-test 301F, full product)
  • Minimum impact on aquatic life (OECD-test 201&202, full product)
  • Against animal testing
  • Suitable for septic tanks

I am not advertising for Ecover as this was just an experiment but I thought it was better to use this than sugar soap and WD40 which also some people have used as insecticide.

The cost of Ecover is £3-50 for 1L, so my spray works out to be less than 1pence for 500ml.

Someone else tried my solution for her rose bush and says it has worked on the aphids.  So you can try it and let me know if it works for you in the comment section below- good luck!

PS- as an added advantage, I use this mixture to quickly spray and clean up wooden floors and non food use areas.