The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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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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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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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.


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Summer abundance chutney

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I returned from a three week holiday to find that there had been storms in the UK and my little garden was a little wrecked.  My prized crop of italian plum tomatoes which had not ripened were on the deck and there were raspberries which needed to be eaten, otherwise they’d go off. Well, we ate as many raspberries we could and then I thought about making a chutney with the rest.  Chutneys which originate from India are an accompaniment to a main meal, eaten at the end.  In the West, chutneys are eaten with crisp breads, cheese, salad and meats- just about anything.

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This is an easy recipe which can be adjusted to any amount of fruit lying around (which is what you see in the second photo of unripe tomatoes and raspberries).  I used a tablespoon of sunflower oil and put it on medium heat.  When the oil was ready, I threw in a pinch each of cumin and fenugreek seeds; and two birds’eyes chillies until the cumin seeds ‘swelled up’. Then I put the cut tomatoes and whole raspberries in.  When they softened, I added molasses- one and half tablespoon.  Molasses are a good alternative to white sugar as they contain fibres, minerals and iron and more, see link below-

http://greenlitebites.com/2010/11/11/sweetener-comparisons-honey-agave-molasses-sugar-maple-syrup/

Molasses are used in traditional Indian cooking, sugar being an unknown ingredient.  I also added a pinch of turmeric.  After less than 15 minutes, the chutney was ready. With a bit of zing- this is a delicious chutney!

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Wet Garlic

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Wet Garlic may appear in many vegetable boxes now. I was enticed by the name but I did not know how I could use it.  Wet garlic is called so because it has not been hung up to dry. It has to be picked by hand; a very lengthy process. During its short season it is very much sought after by gourmets.  My wet garlic actually came from France where it is well used.  The juicy cloves (you can see how the cloves will form if you cut through it) are less strong than dry garlic.  So wet garlic can give food like soups a particularly creamy, even sweet flavour. The creamy cooked garlic is delicious spread on toast or mixed with butter and used on vegetables or in baked potatoes.  Here are two other quick ways I used it.

1. Wet Garlic with chicken liver and potatoes

I used up some fat left behind from grilling pork left on the baking dish.  Being a lazy person, I put the whole thing on the hob, fried the potatoes first because they take the longest, then added the chicken livers and then the chopped up wet garlic.  It took 20 minutes to do, make sure the liver is cooked through.  I added some salt and pepper to flavour and voila!  a healthy simple meal.  The pork fat was used up in the cooking so not much cleaning up to do afterwards.

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2. Pasta with wet garlic

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Again another simple dish.  I sweated out the chopped up pieces of wet garlic, added some anchovy and pepper with some left over pasta- ready in less than 10 minutes!  Bon appetite!


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Nettle and plantain dish

Nettles grow wild in the UK and most throw them away as weeds.  However, nettles are quite nourishing with health restoring properties.  It is a slow-acting nutritive herb that gently cleanses the body of metabolic wastes. It has a stimulating effect on the lymphatic system, enhancing the excretion of wastes through the kidneys. Nettle contains iron and vitamins C and K. It is reportedly specially beneficial to pregnant women.  It is also anti-lithic and nephridic, breaking down stones in the kidneys and gravel in the bladder.

I had a recipe for a spinach and banana dish in which I decided to swap for nettles and plantain.  I used plantain instead of banana to overcome any possible strong reaction with the bowel because plantain slows it down.  Pick the nettle leaves carefully and put them in some hot water which makes them stingless and then they can be chopped up roughly.  To couple of spoons of hot oil, I added a pinch of cumin seeds and birds eye chillies and fried for 1-2 minutes until the cumin seeds were puffed up. Then I added four chopped garlic cloves, half chopped onion and one tomato, quartered, along with the sliced plantain and chopped nettle leaves. Stir until all done- takes about 4-5 minutes with a lid on during last few minutes.  Serve with rice and salt to taste.

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