The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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Until death do we part

I have been very guilty of loving my houseplants too much- by overwatering, over-fertilising and doing every other over-the-top thing.  I have lost many plants and also money.  So now I have reduced what I buy- though I still love to have plants in the house.  Contrary to the view that houseplants hugely increase the amount of carbon dioxide during the evening and night and therefore it is not good to have them inside the house, it has now been calculated that they only increase it by a very small amount.  This amount of carbon dioxide does not have any health disadvantage and the benefits of having house plants outweighs everything else.

During the late 1980’s, NASA did some research on houseplants as a means of providing purer and cleaner air for space stations. The plants filter out certain harmful compounds in the air and make it much healthier to breathe. My top three maintenance free and double use houseplants are-

  • Spider plant (which can absorb 90 percent of the toxins inside the house by absorbing mold and other allergens, small traces of formaldehyde and carbon monoxide; and best of all, live on practically nothing and yet produce ‘little babies’ that can be detached and given away as gifts!)
  • Aloe vera (the juice of which can be used for burns and insect bites)
  • Peace Lily (which improves the indoor air quality by as much as 60 percent by reducing the levels of mold spores, keeping bathrooms free from mildew and absorbing harmful vapors from alcohol and acetone.  The peace lily also produces beautiful white or pale flowers- bonus! And after reducing my watering, it has finally produced a beautiful flower after many years of being flowerless.
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Over the years, I have drastically reduced the numbers of houseplants but I was still overpowering them with water.  But simply keeping water levels low or watering them every 2-3 weeks works well.  A tip I got about watering houseplants when going away was to leave an ice cube in the pot- this has also worked well.  This time was the first time I didn’t find my houseplants nearly dead from overwatering after I returned from a three-week holiday (previously I used to sit my houseplants knee deep in water!).  My nearly dead poinsettia has even come back to life with glorious red leaves as you see below. I am now working on the orchid on which I will report later.

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Making a terrarium

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I travel quite frequently for work, so while I like to see greenery indoors, I found that I can’t really take time over indoor plants.  From books to plant feeds and self-watering systems, and once, even leaf shining wipes (embarrassing!), I have tried many ways to look after these plants.  Inevitably these have been a waste of time and money.  I have been responsible for many shriveled and dead plants.  So now I have made a terrarium.

While I looked at many Youtube videos and web based advice before starting out, I was also keep to make it out of what I had at home and not buy more stuff.  I also took inspiration from the Princess of Wales greenhouse at Kew Gardens, London.  I learnt that there were some key ingredients for a terrarium-

  1. An inert base made of charcoal, especially if there were plants needing frequent watering.  The charcoal helped to absorb odours, keep the terrarium free of fungal or insect infestations, like it does in aquariums.
  2. Moss- which helped to regulate moisture in the air, absorbing the excess
  3. Main plants that you want to use inside and any ‘decorations’

Charcoal is useful if you are going for a closed self sustaining system but as I was using cactus and succulents, my terrarium needed to be open and so I didn’t need the charcoal.  So I made the base of used match sticks, found the moss in the garden and I already had the pasta jar which I cleaned before use.  I reused the compost that came with the succulents and cactus to which I added some sand.  Believe it or not, the aloe plant came as a decoration from a plate of rice ordered in a restaurant!  I needed to have a vision of what I wanted the terrarium to look like before starting.  If you like, you can draw a rough sketch before inserting anything inside as it can be very fiddly to take things in and out and also this risks damaging the delicate plants.  You can use chopsticks, or tweezers or any kind of grabbing instrument to place the plants.

I first laid out the matchstick base, then put in the soil over which I laid the moss. I kept space in between these where I wanted to place the plants.  These plants do not need depths for soil- they are happy with shallow soils as their roots don’t go very far.  What you need to be careful with is the amount of water you use as these plants need good drainage.  After I inserted everything including the ornaments, I sprayed the inside generously.  Then I forgot about it!  It has been one month now and the cactus has sprouted a little baby and the succulents, aloe and the moss are doing fine. I spray water every 3 weeks and that seems to keep it fine.  Too much water and everything will rot.  My next project will be to make a terrarium for orchids.


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Natural beauty

My friend Jonathan went out and found these lovely autumnal colours in the local park.

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He took these photos and I wanted to share these with everyone because of what someone decided to do with the fallen leaves.  Ephemerally beautiful, arranged in the manner of the art of Andy Goldsworthy, these are worthy natural artworks by an unknown creative.

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But this kind of beauty is also found in many smaller seasonal vegetables and plants that I have been photographing recently-

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Spring is not the only time to find beauty in nature! In case you are interested, BBC has done a short film about why leaves change colour in autumn, which you can find here.

 

 


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Drawing plants

Even if you think you can’t draw or paint, it is a good habit to have. Drawing plants is a very easy thing to start with.  They don’t move or need a rest.  You can practice on them for as long as you like before progressing on the more difficult subjects.  But many well known and skilled artists also used painted flowers, vegetables and trees.  So you are in good company.  Van Gogh’s sunflowers is one of the best known flower painting, painted in his idiosyncratic style-

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(credit: Wikipedia)

You can use flowers and plants to develop your own style and experiment with colours, mediums and textures.  Here are some of my own work using water colours, pencils and even cherry juice.  They won’t be critical of your attempt at their portrait!

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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.