The Canny Gardener

how to be a smart gardener

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A community garden takes shape

For the last year I have been involved in the designing of a community garden in East London.  I have set up a charity which undertakes this kind of work- part architectural, part landscape design- using community engagement as a tool to do this work.  We have worked in a number of different countries- India, Venezuela and Palestine and now, in the UK.  To see more of our work, do have a look at Charushila. This project is a community allotment and seating area in a green space attached to a housing block in Hoxton.

The first part of this project was the community consultation on what was needed and who could help us. This part was called ‘Everyday on the Canalside’. This part of the project was funded by Metropolitan Housing who own this site. Owing to the diverse nature of the community, we worked with Counterpoints Arts (a migration charity), Shoreditch Trust (a youth charity) and Marcia Chandra, a local photographer. Our work involved consultation with the residents, local community and businesses; and meetings with Metropolitan Housing. In June 2014, we organised a community fun day with pottery and gardening workshops run by local organisations. Finally in November 2014, we put up sketches of the proposed design for a final consultation with residents and businesses.

The second part of the project, which started in parallel with the first phase, runs until March 2015 when we will be constructing the seating and allotment garden. For this part we are working with Groundworks Trust, St Mary’s secret garden (a local charity), Turning Earth Ceramics and Gareth Shiels, a stone sculptor.  We are using reclaimed stones and paving bricks to create the seating, discarded broken pottery in the allotment beds and animal manure.  We received a grant from the Mayor of London’s Pocket Park programme. Groundwork London is administering the Community Strand on behalf of the Mayor. We are going to have a planting day on 28th March, so if you are in the area, please come along.


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A year later!

I started writing this blog as a diary of transformation of my garden.  See my first post from May 2013 and this photo of how it was-

Starting out

This year I have managed to put some effort into the garden which is what you will see below.  Many of the pots were got from street, some from charity shops, some given- only one was bought.  Most of the plants were either grown from seeds, rescued from somewhere or given and a few were bought as ‘baby plants’.  I have used wooden pallets found on the streets, tyres, home made compost and bits of furniture to create a container garden.  I love the fact that not everything grows all at once- there is always a new surprise all year, especially summer.  There is a bit of everything- things to eat- herbs, salads, tomatoes, potatoes;  things to look at- ornamental cultivars; and wild things- nettles, wildflowers, dandelions- all of which I use for cooking or decorating.  Someone once said that they spend about one hour each day, on the garden and from this experience, I concur.  A lot of the work is upkeep, rather than simply planting.  Again, I think, container gardening is harder than conventional gardening- the amount of moisture in the soil, the nutrients and the placement of pots are very important and take planning and time.


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Re-potting the Cuban way

In the short summer season of the UK, there is much to be done.  I have too many plants, I know and I have been remiss in taking care of them.  One of these was the bay tree that seemed to be stunted and suffering.  So I decided to take it out of pot. I found that the root ball was terrible mass of dead and live roots, twisted into each other.  Root balls are particular problem with container gardening.  These roots often strangle themselves, leading to the destruction of the plant itself.


When I finally managed to get the plant out of the pot, this is what it looked like.  Simply working with my fingers or a garden fork did not disentangle the roots.  I soaked the root in water in a bucket for many days, taking it out from time to time and untangling the roots, gradually.  Once the roots were free, I cut away the dead roots.  In the meanwhile I prepared the pot by layering alternate greens, dry leaves  and bought compost.  This is a technique I had learnt from Cuban horticulturists who have created amazing inner cities farms to grow food after the embargo on Cuba was imposed.  As they were short of materials, they created techniques such as this layering of green and compost.



This way I reused the tired soil, revitalising it with fresh material.  My final and deepest layer was of new compost into which I planted the bay tree again.  The plant definitely looks happier.  I have used the Cuban technique  for other pots and again the results have been good and have saved me money.


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Simple tips

I have been planting in preparation for summer months- salads and herbs and flowers.  Many of my perennials have come up with lovely blooms.  And I have so far bought nothing.  I see my neighbour frantically going to the garden centre, come summer, buying plants and seeds.  The whole of the summer is then spent sowing, watering and weeding- never time to enjoy the garden. Last year with minimal effort, I even managed to win a gardening prize.  This year I am learning to be even more of canny gardener.  So here are some tips, I have learned recently.

1. Go to your local garden centre for free lessons, seeds, plants and tips- many local centres hold planting and sowing workshops this time of the year.  Subscribe to their emails and go to the sessions.  I picked up some lovely seeds, pots and compost- all for free.  Plus a sowing lesson on herbs and flowers- all nicely washed with a glass of presecco!

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Photo1: compost+vermiculite/charcoal mix after one week; Photo2: pure compost mix after three weeks; photo3: sowing workshop at local garden centre with prosecco

Here are some tips from the author and gardener, Laetitia Maklouf ( I have edited and shortened what she sent me.  See my own comments in brackets and in italics)

1. Seed-sowing: the basics.

  1. Compost
  2. Container
  3. Seeds
  4. Sowing
  5. Covering
  6. Watering

1. Compost

There are so many ways you can go with this, but the important thing to remember is that seeds need compost that is nutrient-poor. I use a half-half mix of peat-free multi-purpose compost and horticultural grit (or sharp sand). (see the difference in that compost makes- the seedlings in the photo planted on a mixture of vermiculite and compost came up more quickly than pure compost)

2. Containers

Unless you are running a flower farm, or sowing for an enormous garden, there is no need for anything except small pots. 7cm circular or square pots are fine.  Cleanliness is key – I wash my pots in warm soapy water with a dash of bleach before I use them. (I use a mixture of vinegar and soap and put it out on the rain to wash off- helps with killing some pests as well)

3. Seeds

Sow seeds that you like. Don’t stick to ‘easy’ things. Instructions on the back of the packet are generally good. Always read, but then feel free to bend the rules! Best to sow a little late than too early. I do most of my sowing beginning of April, as March is so unpredictable. Late sowing is simply ‘successional’ which means that although your plants won’t ever reach the giddy heights of those sown in the autumn, you’ll get fresh, new plants later in the season, when everybody else’s are going over – nice.

(also see the use by date on packets. I found that seeds that are past the use by dates either produced very slow and weak seedlings or nothing at all)

4. Sowing:

Make sure your compost is damp BEFORE sowing – this way you avoid the need to water afterwards and you won’t wash all your seeds out of their pot.

Make sure compost is nicely patted down (horti word for this is ‘tamping’)…do this either by firmly tapping the pot on the table, or using another pot to push down gently but firmly on the compost. Reason for this is that these little seeds have teeny tiny roots, and the roots need to get water AND air from the soil. If there are huge air pockets in the compost they wont get the moisture they need. Likewise, if the compost is too compressed, they won’t get the air….so it pays to make sure things are just right.

The general rule re depth of seed is to sow at roughly 2.5 times the height of the seed. Important not to be shy about burying your seed; if the seed is sown too close to the surface it won’t anchor itself properly and you’ll get floppy, leggy seedlings.

Some seed benefit from being soaked, to help them germinate more easily. These are generally ones with a very hard seed casing, like sweet peas.

Cover seeds with sieved compost (although not all of them need it- as a rule of thumb, the harder the casing, the more likely you need a cover)

5. Covering

Most seeds benefit from a humid microclimate – this aids transpiration. Warmth and humidity is key for most seeds. Light is usually not a requirement until later.

Use clear plastic bag (so you can see what’s happening), with an elastic band, or you can buy a cloche to go over your tray (propagator). Some people use a pane of glass. (i have used a plastic cover but inside the room, I found one does not really need it)

The important bit!

AS SOON AS THAT SEEDLING SHOWS ITSELF PROUD OF THE COMPOST, REMOVE THE BAG. You want fresh, healthy air circulating around the little plant, otherwise it will grow long and leggy and floppy and unhealthy.

Open a window nearby, and after a couple of days, put the seedlings outside in the daytime (though not in full sun). For three days, bring them in at night, and on the fourth day, leave them outside overnight. This is called ‘hardening off’. (I have hardened them in the full sun- they seem to love it although I bring the plants inside after awhile)

6. Remember to water. It’s essential.

Water from the bottom (i.e. into the tray) or with the fine rose of a watering can, GENTLY. Compost should be moist but not wet. (you can make up a cheap watering can by punching some holes in a plastic milk bottle cap and then putting it on the bottle and watering with it)

DO NOT RELY ON RAIN, PLEASE. (I do really on rain, especially when I am away but yes, on hot summer days, just like you’d drink water, you’d give your plants enough water too)