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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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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Natural slug deterrent

With the wet and warm weather recently, there has been a deluge of slugs who are busy chomping up my salads and leaving slimy trails on my tomatoes.  Urggh- I have looked at them and can’t seem to like them. In fact I think I prefer spiders to slugs!  Having read many tips from books and on the internet, I have settled on one tip that works brilliantly on container gardens.  That are egg shells.  They are cost free in the sense that they are waste products of the eggs one has eaten. They are natural and easy to use.  I collect them and then put them in a plastic bag and crush them.  Then I lay the pieces in the containers.

The crushed eggshells deter not just slugs but also snails and cutworms because they can’t slither across the sharp edges of the shells. As a bonus, the egg shells also contain calcium that the plants love. If you have a compost pile, then putting these into it gives a calcium rich compost which are good for your tomatoes.  If you like feeding birds, then crush up the eggshells and add them to a dish near the feeder. Female birds, particularly those who are getting ready to lay eggs or recently finished laying, require extra calcium and will benefit from the extra calcium.

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wildflowers

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( a posy of wildflowers- wild geranium, euphorbia, buttercup, field genetian, forget me not, Green alkanet, sweet cicely, Mountain crane’s bill and the heavenly scented Butterfly bush)

We are so lucky in late spring to be blessed with wildflowers- many of whom are cousins of cultivars.  These are free, abundant and hardy.  While we have to be careful in picking these- for example, the Euphorbia shown here is a laxative!- we can still enjoy them whether in the garden or in a vase in our room.  I find these more delightful than cultivars- they seem to be naughtier, tinier cousins-daring you to pick them up. It was my son, in fact, who noticed the Butterfly bush with its deep scent- much nicer than any perfume or room freshener you could buy!

Such bits of wild spaces in the city attract bees, butterflies and birds- I heard the most delightful singing of birds when I was picking these flowers up.  As birdsong has decreased by 60% in the UK, wildflowers and spaces are the right thing to have in your garden.  Even one small container or pot with wildflowers will attract bees and butterflies as I know.