The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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Our charity project is coming along

These are photos from an ‘Energy garden’ project we are doing on a London Overground station.  The intention is to have vegetables, herbs and flowers growing on the platform, with rainwater harvesting, composting, and recycling.  So the vegetables and flowers have been planted and are doing well- thanks to the station staff who look after them.  A mural and slate plaque are planned for later this summer.

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This work is being done as part of the environmental design charity I started, Charushila.  For more information see www.charushila.org

This video introduces the Energy Garden concept which is a partnership between London Overground, Groundwork Trust, Repowering London and local organisations like ours-


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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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Natural dyes

 

Having an Armenian link in my family, I decided this year to make traditional Armenian Easter eggs alongside a traditional meal. Making these Easter eggs involves using onion skins, turmeric and other natural dyes to colour eggs. Here are some of my efforts. I collected red onion skins- shopkeepers were happy to get rid of them. I also put in some chilli flakes that I was not using (these also make the water red). I boiled these for about twenty minutes and left it to cool overnight. In the morning, I pasted some leaves I found in the garden on the raw eggs using water. I used organic hens and duck eggs. Then I put the eggs inside cut up old stockings and boiled them further for about 20 minutes. After removing them from the stocking, I left them to cool. When they were cold to touch, I polished them with some olive oil to make them shine. Even though the duck eggs were less successful, the over all effect of mottled colour with silhouettes of leaves, was charming on both types of eggs.

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What about waste?  The skins were put in the compost and the leftover liquid was used to dye an old white silk blouse which is now a pretty pink colour. No waste- perfect!

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I will be trying out more natural dyes made from vegetable waste or origins such as blueberry juice, coffee, tea, etc. I have already used such colours in creating a portrait of person who likes spicy food (turmeric and onion skins), tea and coffee and more mineral colours.

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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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camping at home- and living without

I was brought up in India, a hot tropical country. We did not have many ‘modern amenities’ for most of my life- things that would be considered almost impossible to live without, for example- the fridge, telephone and the TV.  Now I live in London, a country of temperate climate.  In 2011, I decided on an experiment to switch off my fridge and freezer.  Initially I used an old fashioned ‘food safe’- a Victorian metal cabinet which I left out in my balcony- to store perishables.  As I was away on and off for eight months of that year doing research for a book, it was a particular challenge to manage food and food waste.  However, needless to say, my fridge and freezer had been usually empty as I cook with fresh ingredients and do not usually buy frozen or chilled foods anyway.

Initially I made mistakes, mostly with rice.  I usually eat rice as I am on gluten free diet.  Gone off rice is dangerous because it harbours spores of Bacillus cereus, a bacterium that can cause food poisoning.  If the rice is left standing at room temperature, the spores can grow into bacteria. These bacteria will multiply and may produce toxins (poisons) that cause vomiting or diarrhoea.  In order to save time, I cooked more rice than needed but it was more than I could eat. I was sick.  So l learnt not to cook more than I needed.  I learnt to give away extra food to people when I was going away.

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Of course, my two children did not like that their eccentric mummy did not use a fridge (‘all our friends have fridges and their mums don’t sing while they cook!’ were the complaints I heard).  Amongst all other things, apparently cold milk is a necessity, I realised for children who have been brought up in the city and do not realise that fresh milk from the cow is actually warm.  When we wanted ice cream or ice, we bought it and used it straightaway.  I did not use my fridge for two years!  After much complaints about the milk temperature and my singing, I decided to switch on the fridge and freezer only for the summer.  This year I found someone had left a good quality insulated picnic box outside our place. I got it and washed it; and have been using this- again left out on the balcony.  Delicate herbs like coriander keep quite well outside in a small cup of water and hardy mint actually grows roots (and I have planted some of it). The coriander you see in the photo is a week old (from the supermarket)- in the fridge it would have rotted by now.  The mint is several weeks old!

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Thanks to climate change, as the weather is still cold enough, I am not using the fridge at the moment (even the milk is cold enough for my children).  So what are the advantages of not using the fridge or freezer?

1. I buy only what I need (my food bill has gone down immensely)

2. Food is cooked fresh, using fresh ingredients.

3. Zero or nil food waste.

4. Although not enough to be huge difference, my electricity bill has gone down slightly.

5. Due to being forced to have fresh food, we buy local and thereby save on food airmiles.

6. We’ve had to cut down on several high calorie foods such as butter, cream, etc as all these foods need the fridge- this is actually good.

7. Best of all, I don’t have to clean the fridge or freezer- I am using them for storage at present.

Wacky or canny- you decide!!!  I am still singing though!


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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.