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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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!


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watering plants

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Plants need watering the summer. I have been using my bathwater (cooled down) for watering and this is economical and eco-friendly. I use bio-degradable and organic soaps so I am guessing that the water should not harm the plants in any way. In fact, soapy water kills off certain bugs and pests so this is a double benefit.  Here is a wiki article-

http://www.wikihow.com/Make-Soapy-Water-Garden-Spray

Street plants need water too although their roots absorb a lot of water from underground.  In the summer, the watering pipes stuck into the soil help the local council to water trees as the soil may be very dry.  However, lately I have been finding people putting rubbish into these pipes- sweet wrappers, paper, cans and here in this photo, a plastic bag full of dog poo.   This is so silly and selfish.  If you see anyone doing this, please explain the reason why the pipe is there- they may not know.  Already plastic is choking our seas and killing animals, now we are choking plants with plastic too.


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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 (http://laetitiamaklouf.com). 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)