The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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London Festival of Architecture

We are doing a lecture about our work on our project about community gardens and participatory design on 11th June at 1530 hours.  Please come if you can!

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Gratitude for plants

Recently I was reading about plants that grow in water.  You can put literally anything like carrot tops, onion tops, celery etc in water and they grow again.  Amazing, so I have  been doing some experiments to see how little plants need to grow again.

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But there are plants that grow in air too. You will have seen root plants such as potatoes, ginger etc as well as bulbs such as garlic and onions also grow from nothing.  Here are my experiments with turmeric which needed nothing but darkness and air  to start growing green shoots.

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Here are the planted shoots, growing beautifully-

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Which brings me to the point of this post- how amazing plants are and how little they really need.  A bit of water, a bit of soil, bit of sunlight, some pruning from time to time and perhaps a change of soil and addition of compost.  Yet they provide an eco system that supports our very life.  They attract bees that pollinate other plants, they give us food, medicine and clean and purify the air we breathe.  We’d all die if plants died.  They are beautiful and keep us healthy.  They give us so much for so little.  Yet, how many times have I expressed gratitude for plants?  Not many times, perhaps because I take them for granted.  From now on, I shall express gratitude for plants every day!


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where to spend and where to save

There are many things that people do during the summer planting season when they get enthusiastic about growing.  My neighbour plants tomatoes for instance every year.  Tomatoes, potatoes and some herbs (Rosemary, chives, mint in particular) are easy to grow from seeds or cuttings. Sometimes people plant too many and I am lucky to have got plants from neighbours who then wanted to get rid of them.

However, having tried growing some herbs and berries from seeds, I would advise that it is definitely easier to buy some of these than growing them.  These include Basil, thyme, parsley and strawberries.  Supermarket herb pots (as recommended by some blogs) have been a disappointment so I tend to buy them from small nurseries or Kew Gardens.  Strawberries can be notoriously difficult to grow from scratch, especially given the erratic weather.  Here are some of the bought herbs compared to ones I grew from seed- see the parsley and thyme.

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Home grown Parsley and thyme toward the bottom.


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communities and gardens

Undoubtedly the most important thing about a project of any kind is to make sure that original work is maintained as the designer wishes. This is where the community comes in. This the social capital behind any project. The above photo is taken from a new project I have been involved in Hoxton with the charity I set up, Charushila. This particular one is a community park with allotments and seating. Initially we found it difficult to involve the local community but as the work moved along, that itself was an impetus to get the community involved.

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The other big issue these days is ‘environmental capital’. Publicly funded projects, such as this one, need ‘environmental capital’ in order to receive ‘social capita’l or indeed the funding itself. We used leftover materials from the Chelsea flower show to create the seating. Local volunteers who were interested in learning about stone carving and masonry were recruited to work on the seating under the tutelage of the stone sculptor. While we did not save money or time by using the reclaimed stones and bricks (a large amount was taken up with the transport), that local people learned how to work with plants and stones was the most important benefit for us.

Many architects are getting involved in such work because together with the social and environmental benefits, the personal satisfaction from this kind of work is immense, although this is not ‘architectural work’ in a narrow sense. And academic institutions are also thinking along these lines to offer support for this kind of work that perhaps new graduates might turn to. This academic year, the Pratt Institute will introduce a new master’s program in designing public spaces through community planning. The ‘Urban Placemaking and Management’ degree, within the institute’s architecture school. This course is led by the British born architect David Burney from Liverpool, who was responsible for the Times Square’s pedestrian-friendly makeover as the New York City’s commissioner of design and construction.

The course, the first of its kind in the USA, will focus on community planning processes and creating great public places, according to the school. Courses include topics like ‘history and theory of public space, open space and parks,and the economics of place’. These aspects of are of prime importance as they focus on spaces between buildings and what happens there is a key social marker (is that space being used for crime or community space?). A very welcome course for a changing world.


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A community garden takes shape

For the last year I have been involved in the designing of a community garden in East London.  I have set up a charity which undertakes this kind of work- part architectural, part landscape design- using community engagement as a tool to do this work.  We have worked in a number of different countries- India, Venezuela and Palestine and now, in the UK.  To see more of our work, do have a look at Charushila. This project is a community allotment and seating area in a green space attached to a housing block in Hoxton.

The first part of this project was the community consultation on what was needed and who could help us. This part was called ‘Everyday on the Canalside’. This part of the project was funded by Metropolitan Housing who own this site. Owing to the diverse nature of the community, we worked with Counterpoints Arts (a migration charity), Shoreditch Trust (a youth charity) and Marcia Chandra, a local photographer. Our work involved consultation with the residents, local community and businesses; and meetings with Metropolitan Housing. In June 2014, we organised a community fun day with pottery and gardening workshops run by local organisations. Finally in November 2014, we put up sketches of the proposed design for a final consultation with residents and businesses.

The second part of the project, which started in parallel with the first phase, runs until March 2015 when we will be constructing the seating and allotment garden. For this part we are working with Groundworks Trust, St Mary’s secret garden (a local charity), Turning Earth Ceramics and Gareth Shiels, a stone sculptor.  We are using reclaimed stones and paving bricks to create the seating, discarded broken pottery in the allotment beds and animal manure.  We received a grant from the Mayor of London’s Pocket Park programme. Groundwork London is administering the Community Strand on behalf of the Mayor. We are going to have a planting day on 28th March, so if you are in the area, please come along.