The Canny Gardener

how to grow, cook and use plants, plus some philosophy!


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Abundance of nature

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Nature is not mean with her gifts to us.  This is a pear tree which grows in a community centre where I volunteer at the reception every five weeks.  Yesterday, I not only had four pears for lunch but also brought back a bagful to give away.  Having been grown organically and being in season, they were deliciously sweet.  I don’t normally like pears but these were out of the world.  Eating with the seasons mean that Nature is more than ready to shower us with its abundance.


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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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Natures does not make waste

I used to wrap sweetcorn in aluminium foil and bake it- along with countless other times of using the aluminium foil for other things.   I learnt a more eco-friendly way to bake sweet corn from my vegetable delivery company last week.  And it is very simple too.  Just soak the sweet corn in water for 30 minutes without taking off the outer husk- it also keeps in fresher and sweeter for longer.

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Then without taking off the husks, bake it for about 25-30 minutes in oven 180 degrees.  Take it out but do not remove the husks until the last minute- they will keep warm.  Then serve with lashings of butter and a little salt if you like, delicious!  You can also barbecue the sweetcorn in this way, instead of using the oven.

I can reuse the husks to cover other stuff instead of using foil and they cover tricky shapes like ovals and circles as they stretch. Foil is of course, recyclable infinitely but the raw production of it is very energy intensive. Foil can be reused but most people throw it away after one use.  Used husks below are very easy to use- and after the second use, I have now put them for composting- Nature does not make waste!

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I found the following information about aluminium foil. http://www.green24.com/lifestyle/foil.php

Up to six tonnes of bauxite ore (the raw material for aluminium) is needed to produce one tonne of aluminium metal. Lot of of fossil fuels are used to mine, transport, and refine the ore (embodied energy). Foil in a landfill is said to last at least 400 years before breaking down. Burning aluminium foil with the waste from landfill sites (as many people don’t bother to re-use or recycle it) releases toxic metals and gases.  Health concerns have been raised about using aluminium cooking vessels so using foil should have similar concerns.  So why not use a totally biodegradable and natural material to bake or barbecue your sweetcorn?


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A homemade present

These days when anything can be bought from royal titles to a bit of the Moon, making something to give to someone appears very unique.  When I was young, my Uncle used to give us the best presents- they were always the same and they brought me and my sisters so much delight.  They were shoes boxes filled with the things we liked- crepe paper, scissors, glue, tape, tinsel, string and paint.  From those things we created a lot more things- I remember those shoe boxes with such pleasure.  A box that made me do something creative! Times have changed now- shoe boxes filled with such things won’t be accepted with such joyous innocence!

This year, I made something for my son alongside a ‘bought present’.  Plants are very easy to propagate and make great presents.  So here is my homemade Bonsai starter pot for my son.

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I grew that little tree out of another bonsai tree that I was pruning, the moss was found growing on another pot that needing cleaning out and I had the sedum plants.  I had found that little pot as well.  There are many Youtube videos on soil composition needed for Bonsai, so I won’t be going into that.  That said, the main things I learnt from the videos were that the soil needs to drain easily and that composition of the loose soil to that of the compost or hot soil is 75% to 25%.  Some of the sandy soil I found in an old pot and mixed it with some fresh sand that I found when a local basement was been built (talk about sourcing locally!)  I mixed everything by hand and instead of sieving as shown in the videos, I took out bigger bits of rocks and gravel by feeling with my hands.  The rocks and shells have been collected during our holidays, so they will have memories and familiarity.  It will take a few years for that tree to look like a bonsai tree (it is only 6 months old). Until then, he is going to have learn to take care of it as Bonsai needs a lot of looking after.  So this is my version of our childhood shoe box presents- something creative that will encourage my son do something creative.


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trying new foods

I didn’t know what prickly pears were- I thought they could refer to pears that were a bit irritating (only joking!).  No, I really didn’t until I went to the local Lebanese shop and bought these-

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As an artistic person I was attracted to the colours, texture and shape of the fruit and thought they were beautiful!  I cut open the fruit and the fragrance was amazing- it had a ‘sweet’ perfume and tasted like cross between a melon and an apple.

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So I did some research on the fruit.  Apparently it grows on a cactus in semi-arid regions and is better known as Opuntia ficus-indica. It is a common drought-resistant fodder plant.

The fruit can be chilled in the refrigerator for a few hours and then cut into slices- the outer hard skin and seeds are not eaten. They can be boiled and made into jams and juices.  Mexicans eat the young cactus pads sliced into strips, skinned or unskinned, and fried with eggs and jalapeños, served as a breakfast treat.  In the early 1900s the USA imported these from Mexico and the Mediterranean countries but they gradually fell from f(l)avour during the mid-1950s. Since the late 1990s, they have become popular again.  Below is my version of the Mexican breakfast made with fried green prickly pears, Romero peppers, green chilli, fried egg with cumin, garlic, coriander and red pepper seasoning.

Mexican breakfast

I was also amazed to find out that they serve as not only fodder and drink for the cattle in the Southwest United States but also may be used for a boundary fence.  Cattle can be made to stay in one area enclosed by a prickly pear fence. The spines can be burned off to reduce mouth injury to the cattle when feeding them with the plant. The cactus pads, on which the cattle feed, are low in dry matter and crude protein, but are useful as a supplement in drought conditions.  In addition to the food value, the moisture within provides the cattle with hydration.  All from a lowly cactus!  I will try to grow one from the seed.

So next time you see an fruit or a vegetable that you’ve never eaten before- do try it!  You may learn something about our wonderful world as I did.


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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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Pests?

I grew up in India where there were many household insects ranging from the dangerous such as flies, mosquitoes and termites- to others such as spiders, ants, bees and butterflies. These last three were considered beneficial or not harmful.  Now living in the UK, I find that bees are on the decline due to many factors including disease and the the widespread use of insecticides and pesticides.  Butterflies are also on the decrease- in 2012, the Telegraph reported that bumblebees, beetles and butterflies are at greater risk of extinction than lions and tigers, according to a global study by the Zoological Society of London. And as for ants, I am always amazed at finding ‘ant killers’ at DIY and hardware stores.  Why kill ants?

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Most of the things ants do are good for us and the environment, including eating the larvae of fleas, spiders, bed bugs, flies, silverfish and clothes moths.  There is a notion that ants may contaminate your food by crawling on it. The remedy is simple- cover your food and keep it out of reach of ants.  I find a seasonal invasion of ants and I watch them with fascination as they go about looking for food.  The first scouts can be held back I realised by putting out some water soaked cloth on the floor- I saw that when it rained they did not come in, only in the heat did they come in to find water.  I had a great benefit from the ants- I found that they had been eating the tiny mites growing on my houseplants.  Every year I have had disasters with my houseplants, particularly with the delicate parrot plant.  This plant you see below was saved from the descendent of another parrot plant and then after that by cutting of the mite ridden branches in the new plant.  I didn’t think it would survive the extreme pruning and by being left out in the cold but it did- parrot plants can also be resilient.

This year I was dreading the return of the spider mites but noticed that my friends, the ants had been busy on its branches.  Now the plant is growing well and the ants return from time to time to clean off any mites that may come back.

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feeling summer

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I tried this winter to grow something but thanks to climate change, it was all very unpredictable.  I shall have to think of something to beat this chaotic weather for next year.  I am beginning on an exciting community garden project which I will report another time.

For now, I am using the summer harvest to good use in the chilly winter.  This is my chilli oil.  The ingredients consisted of a base of a neutral oil (I used 100 litres of organic sesame seed oil) which I heated for 30 seconds in the microwave.  Then I added four birds eye chillies, two sprigs of rosemary, a few sage leaves and four peppercorns.  You can adjust the chilli according to your needs- my children seemed to love the chilli taste.  Then leave to infuse in a jar for at least two weeks before using.

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One does not need a dog

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I have recently been diagnosed with osteoporosis.  This is bad news not only because I am relatively young, but also that the disease has hit my spine.  I have read a lot about the condition and how it can be avoided or its onset reduced.  I have been prescribed Vitamin D and calcium tablets but it is not enough to swallow tablets.  Being outside in the actual sunshine is more important.  But Britain does not have enough sun all through the year and in the winter months, it is particularly difficult getting the right amount of sun every day.  So as soon as I see the sun coming out, I am impatient to get out- sunshine is like precious gold, I have decided.  Having seen how dog owners are quite healthy, I have been going outdoors and reading or walking for most days- even when it is raining or cold. No, one doesn’t have to have a dog to go outside- having children can help but even if you don’t have either of those, going out helps. And it certainly costs less.  I also enjoy watching children playing- their joy is infectious.  In this photo taken this afternoon, these boys were black with mud but really totally engrossed in their muddy football.  It brought a smile to my face.

In a recent study at the University of Exeter lead by Matthew White, it was revealed that the health benefits of being outdoors is as much as about a third of the impact of getting married (minus the costs!) and a tenth of the impact of being employed.  So it shows that one does not need to be married or employed to get the benefits of being outdoors.  In the Netherlands, a study of almost 350,000 people, found that the people were less likely to have 24 of 35 diseases and in Japan, another study found that elderly people were more likely to live longer if they used open spaces.  The positive effects of being outdoors last longer than the euphoria that comes from winning the lottery or getting a pay rise or promotion.  And with little stress involved!

I remember a documentary about the children’s author, Judith Kerr, who is now 93.  Come any weather, she talks a walk for two hours every day.  How amazing she looks and how creative she is.  Engaging with nature influences our mental being by raising our spirits and exercising our mental abilities.  Many mover and shakers and authors have described how their creativity is helped by walking- Thoreau, Gandhi, and many others along with Kerr were walkers.  Further, walking is in streets is better than no walking- the health benefits of a weight bearing exercise like walking outweighs the risks from pollution.  So get your precious gold today- one doesn’t need a dog!


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Freezer tricks

My last post was about summer abundance and how to cook with unripe or extra produce from your garden.  Well, if you don’t want to cook it, you can also freeze it.  In the UK, about 800,000 tonnes of food valued at £2 billion is thrown away annually- 30% of the food thrown away is perfectly usable but we buy too much and throw it.  Six steps to reducing food waste are-

  1. Plan ahead for the week, on a daily basis.  Use coupons and reduced price food wisely- don’t buy reduced price food just because it is reduced and give away coupons you won’t use.
  2. Buy what you need or what you will definitely eat (do try a new food once in awhile!).  Do not be tempted by BOGOFs and money off coupons unless they are about what you would buy anyway.
  3. Store food correctly at the right temperature and place- many food such as bananas and avocados do not need to be stored in the refrigerators.
  4. Cook the right amount. I use things like yoghurt and fruit to supplement if one person says they are hungrier that particular day rather than making more food.
  5. Store leftovers for later use.
  6. If you really must throw, then see if you can compost it.  Many food items such as meat can’t be composted.  Some food can be eaten by pets and animals such as pigs but again check before giving it to them.

About £860 million worth of food is stored in freezers.  We could do more.  Saving food not only saves the planet by keeping down the greenhouse gases but also saves us money.  Freeze food before it goes off and bought food can be frozen on the day of purchase.  Some tips-

  • Check your freezer is below 5C- your chicken and greens will last three days longer.
  • Bread gets stale in the fridge six times faster, so divide your bread and store excess in the freezer.  You can easily defrost it by leaving it out or using the microwave.
  • You can also divide other food into smaller portions for freezing.  Ice cube trays are handy for freezing juices, milk, tomato sauce, herbs into small portions that can used as needed.
  • Cut vegetables into pieces and freeze- these are very handy for quick stir fries.
  • You can also freeze eggs, cheese, chopped bananas, summer fruits and cakes.