The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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Surviving climate change

Despite what climate change sceptics might say,  in my several decades of gardening, I have seen how unpredictable and severe the climate has become in London where I live.  The summer seems to last for ages and the heat is almost unbearable.  The winters are mild and cool, snow hardly ever falls.  Storms are like crazy maniacs on the loose- just last week, five people lost their lives in the stormy seas, tragically caught in fast changing weather conditions.  I have just come back from a two week holiday to find my lovingly created patio garden in a wreck.  The strong sun has killed off most of the flowering shrubs and other delicate herbs and flowers.  Strong climatic conditions hit patio gardens more than plants grown directly on soil.  Here is a photo of my patio-

P1050656.jpgEven some of the nettle has died, along with my elderflower shrub.  Some weeds though are thriving as you see.  Disaster!

After a few days of shock and mourning, my first instinct was to cut out the dried plants and buy some new plants.  However, after thinking some more, I thought about working with climate change, instead of fighting it.  Here you can see that some plants have survived- these are the plants that originated from hot climates such as the African Cala lily, the Agapanthus from South Africa, the Indian hawthorn (from Hong Kong), avocado plant and Mexican daisies- all survivors of the intense heat.  In the future, we will have to get used to less water.  So I thought of creating a low water garden.  At present, I have decided to leave the dried bushes as they are.  They are preventing seeding by weeds and also protecting the soil from getting too dry.P1050657.jpg

In the meanwhile, baby agapanthus plants have started appearing even in the cracks in between the pavers-P1050659.jpg

So here is the to future- more resilient plants out on the patio!

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Beauty and the beast

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This is a new project undertaken by our local council to manage rubbish tipping. For almost seven years, these trees had all sorts of rubbish left there. I was always amazed to find out these trees attracted such bad treatment.

Last week, I saw the workmen digging- I wasn’t sure what they were doing.  A day later, I found this.  It looks so much better and so far, hasn’t had any rubbish left there.  A simple, beautiful and lasting solution to rubbish.

 


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Avocado uses

The avocado is a very useful fruit. Originally from the sunny climes of Central and South America, it is now widely available.  I get organic avocados shipped in with my vegetable delivery box from time to time in the summer.  Avocados have a ‘higher fat content than most other fruit, mostly monounsaturated fat, and as such serves as an important staple in the diet of consumers who have limited access to other fatty foods (high-fat meats and fish, dairy products)’.

Baked avocados with some sardines are a great treat but raw ones with a mixture of honey, vinegar, olive oil and garlic are amazing to have. I have served them with all sorts of foods- fish, meat and salads.  The seed is useful to keep in an avocado half because it stops the exposed flesh from going brown due to ‘Enzymatic browning’ a chemical process like what happens to banana skins.  However, when you are done, you can rub the stone across your face with gentle and circular motion for a soothing massage and a rub in of oils straight from the stone.

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And some people have asked if an avocado tree grows in a cold climate.  Yes, below is my three year old plant, growly slowly in a container in the UK.  Perhaps this is climate change.  It hasn’t flowered or produced fruits yet. I am going to replant it in the spring in a deeper pot. Lets see what happens then. But it certainly looks beautiful anyway!

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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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reorganising for the winter

Sad to say that the summer is almost finished and now I am working to reorganise my little garden for the autumn and winter.  One of the lessons, I have learnt is that having too many pots and plants is too much to look after.  So after having rescued two barrel planters waiting for the rubbish tip, I got some help in transporting these to my terrace. So for next few months and next year, I am going to use these barrels for a permanent flower ‘show’ and use the smaller pots for summer salads.  I gave away extra pots to the neighbours.  Better to have fewer good looking planters than several straggly ones!

I had gone away for a week while I left my home made compost to dry so that the slugs go away ‘naturally’ (sorry, I cannot stand slugs).  Upon return, again working on the HegelKultur principle, this is how I filled the planter.  I don’t like using plastic bottles for the bottom as some bloggers do- I don’t have them anyway and because, I don’t want the risk of plastic decomposing amongst a growing medium (I have seen plastic bags disintegrating even when kept inside).  Instead as a first layer, I used broken oyster and egg shells, pieces from a terracotta pot and cardboard packaging. I also put in garden waste and kitchen bits and pieces.  Not only do the cardboard soak up the valuable juices from the decomposing waste (unlike the plastic) but also they will decompose eventually someday.  It will also lighten up these very heavy barrels and create some air space while they do so.

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Next I put in my home made compost, again lightened with some perlite. My mistake in the past has been that the compost has been too ‘wet’ which does not suit most plants.  Water should be able to drain naturally as it does in the ground.

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I had found a baby’s bath which I now use for making compost and nettle juice- my nettles in the planter provide a year long supply of nourishing organic fertiliser (cut up the long stems and they grow again).  This was also mixed with the compost.

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Now I took out the plants from the smaller pots and replanted them in the barrel, spreading some new compost around the gaps.  Great- at least five less pots to water! and it looks lovely (and saves water). I tried to make it look ‘wild’ rather than planted.  Hope you like it!  The Cala lily, by the way, is the one I rescued from oblivion- the bulb looked tumorous, but after cutting away those bits, see the gorgeous glory!


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Elderflower tests

Elderflower juice

This photo shows some of my elderflower cordial being sold at my son’s school fair- it was very popular and sold out soon, even though it was not the sort of weather for it, i.e. cold and rainy.  I made the cordial this year with a little added Chinese wine vinegar which appeared to have improved the taste.  Now the elderflowers on trees are slowly turning into elderberries, so soon it will be time for compotes.  This summer I tried some more experiments with elderflowers.  Here are couple-

1. Growing elderflowers in a pot

My previous potted elderflower died- they do not like containers but that is all I have, so I have to keep trying to grow them.  This year while getting the flowers for the cordial I made above, I managed to tear down an entire small branch. Racked with guilt, I didn’t want to throw it away.  So I thought, why not try to plant this in the pot. I kept it for a few days in some water and then using some rooting compound on the cut stem, I put it in a pot. It seemed to a be failure and I was about to throw it away yesterday but lo behold, it seems to be growing. Now I need to see what happens- will keep readers updated and if any of you have have success with growing elderflowers in a pot, please let me know.  Apparently they need severe pruning in early spring or late autumn and they may die after three years (as it happened with my last one)

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2. Elderflower tea

I did a taste test between dried and frozen elderflowers.  In samples tasted by four people who didn’t know which one was which, all concluded that the dried elderflower worked the best for tea. So next year, more dried elderflower tea (the good thing is it doesn’t need any kind of sweetener- it is lovely as it is) and has many health benefits.  Elderflower is rich in bioflavonoids, mostly flavones and flavonols. The most abundant flavonols in elderflower are quercetin, isoquercitrin and anthocyanins, which have antiviral properties as well. Elderflower also contains chlorogenic acids, such as cinnamic acid, which may help with allergies, regulate blood glucose levels and have a laxative effect on the body (so take in moderation!). Triterpenoids, especially β-amyrin, erythrodiol, and oleanolic acid, are also found in elderflower. These triterpenoids offer a variety of health benefits including analgesic, anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects.

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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!