The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener


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Spring is in the air

I love it when the first clematis come out in- it really is the beginning of warm weather and it makes me smile.  Here are the first blossoms, along with their friend my ‘permanent robin’ and the new leaves on my olive tree.

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the most expensive and dangerous flower

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(print from Wikipedia)

In the 17th century Netherlands, arose the ‘Tulip mania’ when people believed that investing in tulips would make them rich.  Plants grow and flower- so what was there to lose?  Tulips originated from Eurasian and North African genus of perennial, bulbous plants in the lily family with around 75 wild species. The name ‘Tulip’ is reputed to come from a distortion of the word in Persian for turban, as reference to the shape of the flower.

The most expensive of the tulips was ‘Semper Augustus’, considered to be the most beautiful of all flowers and a pinnacle of achievement from the breeders.  Even before the ‘Tulip mania’, a single Semper Augustus bulb was said to have been sold for 5,500 guilders, reaching the dizzy  heights of 10,000 guilders in 1637, just before the crash.  In the 17th century, the annual earnings for a worker would have been around 150 florins, so 10,000 guilders would have been a huge sum of money.  But these flowers did not make the poor richer but as it were- it was to make the rich poorer. By the time the market for tulips collapsed in February 1637, Nicolaes van Wassenaer, a chronicler of the period, relates that only a dozen examples of Semper Augustus existed, all owned by a single individual.

The tulip also hid an unusual secret. It’s extraordinary beauty of blood red streaks across its ivory white petals was due to a virus.  This virus ‘breaks’ the single block of colour thereby streaking the petal and also added a stunning striation of yellow and red.  But in the meanwhile the plant is increasingly weakened by the virus. So the virus not only made it a ‘short lived’ beauty but also made it difficult to propagate, thereby naturally ending its genetic line. The famous Semper August bulb no longer exists except in some paintings of the Old Dutch masters. Instead we now have tulips with healthy blocks of colour with a few striated varieties.  This photo below was taken during the Tulip festival at Eden, Cornwall. Perhaps the lesson here is that not everything that looks beautiful is good for us.

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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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Container garden experiments

Summer has sort of started in the UK and so I am starting on a container garden experiment.  Rather tired of growing conventional stuff and losing them to slugs, insects and weather, I am going to be a bit daring.  Three weeks ago, I bought some seeds as written about in the books by James Wong, the best selling author of many books including ‘Grow your own drugs’.  James trained at Kew as an ‘ethno-botonist’ and has worked with herbalists and other experts to write his books.

These are some of the seeds I will be using-

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These include many unusual container vegetables- Chopsuey greens, Mooli, liquorice, Chinese chives, callaloo and Samphire.  I chose these ones because I usually eat them and buy them at exorbitant prices from supermarket.  For £2-49 each, it was worth a try!

The Chinese chives have already started to come through- see below and note how I am protecting them from slugs by using crushed egg shells.  Unlike an ordinary garden, my terrace is protected from rats so I can use egg shells.

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Above you can see the tiny liquorice and one samphire plant coming through in my improvised egg carton seed tray.

James Wong also writes that Hosta is edible, but when I got round to seeing why my Hosta plants weren’t coming up, I realised that slugs had also found them equally tasty!  However, I managed to salvage one tuber although at that point much its leaves had also been chomped through.  Re-potting them, and protecting the remaining leaves by using some crushed egg shells, has made new leaves come through.  I can’t wait to try them in a stir fry.  I will be posting stories of this experiment through the summer (including recipe successes and disasters!) and I hope this helps others who might be minded to try the same thing.

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three benefits of gardening

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I have but a modest little balcony to adorn with flowers and it has given me such valuable benefits, apart from the food I grow in containers.  Here the three main benefits-

1. Exercise- bending, straightening up, kneeling, stretching, lifting (carefully!), lifting up on your toes- all these positions that we use while gardening are also poses used in Yoga, Pilates and other stretching exercises.  With care, these can become a  part of our daily routine- and time saving as well because you can exercise while doing something else .  Gardeners are some of the healthiest and fittest people I have seen.

2. Mental health- The gardener’s concentration skills and calmness are also affected positively by what they do and how they do it.  I suppose that is why Zen monks take such good care of their gardens. It is a two way process- creating beauty with very little (some Zen gardens are just raked sand and stones) which in turn gives the benefits of creativity and calmness. Spending time outdoors is also healing.

3. Building better bones- I recently had a health scare when my blood test revealed very little Vitamin D.  The lack of vitamin D can lead to bone pain and tenderness due to a condition called osteomalacia.  Despite doing Yoga and stretching, I was still suffering from aches and pains (and am due to visit a physiotherapist).  I have been prescribed Vitamin D tablets now.  However, I was surprised to learn that these tablets by themselves do not do much- they still need sunlight to make them effective.  Sunlight has UV light that helps Vitamin D to absorb the calcium from food.  Particularly for women after the age of 30-35 when bones start to disintegrate and for older people, sunlight is essential.  However too much UV exposure can lead to melanoma and pre-mature skin ageing.  So I was scared of going in the sun.  However, if you do your outdoor gardening before 11-00 am and after 4-00pm, when the sun has lost its fierceness, you will be be fine as long as you don’t let your skin burn.  About 5 minutes exposure to white skin is fine while darker skins should be out for longer.

My 81 year old Japanese friend who looks at least 20 years younger, gave me this tip- she exposes her palms and lower arms to the sun for about 20 minutes and she has had no problems at all.  This can be done very easily when gardening.