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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Gratitude for plants

Recently I was reading about plants that grow in water.  You can put literally anything like carrot tops, onion tops, celery etc in water and they grow again.  Amazing, so I have  been doing some experiments to see how little plants need to grow again.

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But there are plants that grow in air too. You will have seen root plants such as potatoes, ginger etc as well as bulbs such as garlic and onions also grow from nothing.  Here are my experiments with turmeric which needed nothing but darkness and air  to start growing green shoots.

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Here are the planted shoots, growing beautifully-

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Which brings me to the point of this post- how amazing plants are and how little they really need.  A bit of water, a bit of soil, bit of sunlight, some pruning from time to time and perhaps a change of soil and addition of compost.  Yet they provide an eco system that supports our very life.  They attract bees that pollinate other plants, they give us food, medicine and clean and purify the air we breathe.  We’d all die if plants died.  They are beautiful and keep us healthy.  They give us so much for so little.  Yet, how many times have I expressed gratitude for plants?  Not many times, perhaps because I take them for granted.  From now on, I shall express gratitude for plants every day!


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Pests?

I grew up in India where there were many household insects ranging from the dangerous such as flies, mosquitoes and termites- to others such as spiders, ants, bees and butterflies. These last three were considered beneficial or not harmful.  Now living in the UK, I find that bees are on the decline due to many factors including disease and the the widespread use of insecticides and pesticides.  Butterflies are also on the decrease- in 2012, the Telegraph reported that bumblebees, beetles and butterflies are at greater risk of extinction than lions and tigers, according to a global study by the Zoological Society of London. And as for ants, I am always amazed at finding ‘ant killers’ at DIY and hardware stores.  Why kill ants?

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Most of the things ants do are good for us and the environment, including eating the larvae of fleas, spiders, bed bugs, flies, silverfish and clothes moths.  There is a notion that ants may contaminate your food by crawling on it. The remedy is simple- cover your food and keep it out of reach of ants.  I find a seasonal invasion of ants and I watch them with fascination as they go about looking for food.  The first scouts can be held back I realised by putting out some water soaked cloth on the floor- I saw that when it rained they did not come in, only in the heat did they come in to find water.  I had a great benefit from the ants- I found that they had been eating the tiny mites growing on my houseplants.  Every year I have had disasters with my houseplants, particularly with the delicate parrot plant.  This plant you see below was saved from the descendent of another parrot plant and then after that by cutting of the mite ridden branches in the new plant.  I didn’t think it would survive the extreme pruning and by being left out in the cold but it did- parrot plants can also be resilient.

This year I was dreading the return of the spider mites but noticed that my friends, the ants had been busy on its branches.  Now the plant is growing well and the ants return from time to time to clean off any mites that may come back.

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Diaper tricks for houseplants

I came across this funny video about making water absorbing soil from nappies.  Some thoughts-

1. You don’t need to do this for outdoor plants, only house plants, unlike what the video says.  Outdoor plants get water from rain or from the soil.  Adding these gels is unnecessary and might pollute if washed away.

2. But you don’t really need nappies even- many water supply companies supply such gels for free- I have mine from Thameswater (see the blue packets in the photo).  Try and see if your water supply company will send them- all water suppliers are anxious to reduce water waste.  I am also trying to re-use the desiccants that you get with food (as in the bottom of the photo below)- will let you know how I get on!

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3. Do remember that you will need to have unused nappies lying around to do this- to simply buy nappies to do this is not the way of the canny gardener!  Also, do ignore that plug for Volkswagen cars at the end!