Kent Wildlife Trust ‘Wild about Gardens’ award scheme

I began turning our bare concrete balcony into a garden in spring 2010. We’d moved in the previous November and I saw the potential to create a garden which, although only measuring one metre by three, could be an enjoyable space and attract wildlife.

I brought in various different containers, hauling them up the stairwell and through my flat to the balcony, and gradually covered the concrete with greenery. At some point around this time, a colleague mentioned to me that the Kent Wildlife Trust were advertising a gardening award scheme, and half-jokingly suggested that I should enter it. So I did.

Fast forward to this week, and I’ve just managed to win a gold award from the ‘Wild about Gardens’ scheme for the third year running. I should mention here that they give out lots of awards in each of the gold, silver and bronze categories, but I’m still chuffed to bits to have achieved the hat trick. In 2010, I also won the first prize in the ‘Best balcony, container or small garden’ category and was presented with a big metal plaque along with my certificate and smaller plaque given for the gold award.

The idea of the scheme is to encourage people to adapt their gardens to attract as much wildlife as possible, as well as conserving water and generally being environmentally friendly. Volunteers come out to look round the gardens which have been entered, and give advice as well as judging the competition. They look at the plants that have been grown to attract wildlife, provisions for birds (such as feeders and baths), what habitats have been created (such as ponds, log piles and bird and bat boxes), how wisely water is used and how compost waste is used. Obviously I can’t really install, say, a pond on my tiny balcony, so they take into account the resources available and how well gardeners have maximised the potential. They also look at how entrants have documented the wildlife visiting their garden.

I know my awards aren’t exactly up there with winning first prize at the Chelsea Flower Show, but it’s still worth remembering the importance of keeping green corridors open to wildlife. Even if all you have is a window box or a tiny balcony like mine, with a bit of imagination you can still make a difference.

So, in celebration of my achievement, I thought I’d post some of my favourite photographs from my balcony garden this year:

Snake’s head fritillary- one of my favourite flowers.

Unidentified caterpillar

Borage

Coriander flowers

Dill flowers

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The orchid experiment

Orchids are one of my favourite flowers, and up until now I’ve had three orchid plants living with me in the flat. Two of them are phalaenopsis plants which I bought when they were reduced to about a pound each in Homebase because they’d finished flowering (I’m such a sucker for a slightly sad looking plant that’s been reduced because it looks like it’s past its best). That was a couple of years ago and I’ve had loads of flowers from them since. One of them has actually been in bloom for about three months now- they must just really like that spot on my windowsill. I also have what I believe to be a dendrobium orchid, which was a keiki taken in 2007 from a plant my mum had. It’s struggled along ever since, and I’ve had to rescue it from near death a few times by removing it from the orchid compost it was potted in and just leaving it in a jar of water. This seems to have worked as it’s now grown lots of healthy looking roots and I’ve planted it back in a pot of orchid compost. Fingers crossed it’ll finally get settled!

Keiki taken from my mum’s plant in 2007.

People often seem to think that orchids are difficult to look after, but I think as long as you put them in a place they like, they pretty much look after themselves. Phalaenopsis orchids in particular make good houseplants.

One of my phalaenopsis orchids.

Being an orchid fan, I’ve been particularly enchanted by the orchid section of the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew Gardens on the two occasions I’ve visited. On my most recent visit there, I was inspired by the orchids growing on bark and branches to have a go at trying something like that myself at home. I realise I’m being a bit ambitious, bearing in mind I don’t have a special conservatory with regulated temperature and humidity like Kew Gardens does. However, the seed was planted (no pun intended) in my mind so I sourced the necessary items online:

Clockwise from top – large piece of cork bark, LEGO Boba Fett to show scale, raffia, sphagnum moss, dendrobium taurinum keiki, white dendrobium nobile keiki. (Large portion of optimism not pictured.)

I bought two keikis to attach to the bark. The dendrobium nobile came from Ashford (which is half an hour’s drive from where I live) and the dendrobium taurinum came from Malaysia (which is a 14 hour flight from where I live). I was actually surprised at how well the dendrobium taurinum had fared on the long journey here, but I’ve still decided to put it in water for a bit to promote the root growth before I transplant it onto the bark as it wasn’t quite as healthy looking as the other one:

This is the finished product with the other keiki attached to it, the idea being that the roots will grow into the fissures of the bark over time:

And this is an example of an orchid display at Kew Gardens which inspired me to embark (again, no pun intended) on this project (which looks a lot more spectacular than the example above!):

While the bark of trees is an orchid’s natural habitat, a first floor flat in Kent is not, and I haven’t really thought through where to put the bark now I’ve attached the orchid. There is a fine line between having a beautiful display of orchids growing happily on bark and a weird looking thing cluttering up the living room, so I’m hoping it doesn’t look too tacky…

Growing lemongrass and tamarind

A quick Google search will give lots of ‘how to’ guides on growing your own lemongrass plant, so I won’t go into masses of detail here. Basically you just get a stalk of lemongrass, put it in water until it’s grown roots about an inch long, plant it in a pot and leave it in a sunny place to carry on growing. I did this a while ago and I now have a lemongrass plant with three stalks. It was getting a bit pot bound so I’ve potted it up today in the hope it may sprout some more stalks- I’m a bit reluctant to cut any off to use in cooking until there are more of them!

The pictures are a bit crap, but you get the idea:

Now I’ve potted it up, this plant doesn’t fit on the sunniest of my windowsills anymore, so I’ve had to move it to a slightly shadier spot. I’ve put it in a miniature greenhouse where I’ll keep it misted to try to replicate the humidity of its natural habitat and we’ll see how it goes.

Some time ago, I also managed to germinate some tamarind seeds from shop-bought tamarind pulp, and I now have two tamarind plants. I’m not expecting them to grow much bigger, but I’m glad they’ve made it this far. I also like the way their leaves fold together at night:

It seems quite apt to be writing about tropical plants when we’ve enjoyed the hottest days of the year so far this weekend (a sweltering, clammy 32⁰C). However, the chilly UK winter will soon be on its way and my lemongrass and tamarind will no doubt be shivering in their pots, clutching a mug of tea and a hot water bottle. In the meantime, I’ll keep slapping on the factor 50 sun cream and will try to squeeze in as much beer gardening as possible while I still can.

When life gives you mangoes, make mango chutney

When Owen worked in a smoothie bar, he used to bring home all the old mangoes when they’d outlived their time on the fruit display at the front of the bar. I always thought it was a bit odd that they didn’t actually use these mangoes in the drinks and bought in boxes of mango purée instead, but I guess it would be a bit of a hassle peeling and chopping loads of fresh mangoes. Anyhow, the free mangoes were all very good, but there’s only so much fresh mango two people can eat without getting fed up with it. So, I looked for alternative uses for all these slightly wrinkly looking mangoes which were cluttering up my kitchen. I’ve tried all sorts of things, including mango jelly (which was my first attempt at making proper jelly and didn’t turn out very well) and mango cake (which was a disaster- just an absolute mess). The only mango-based cooking venture that’s really been a success for me is mango chutney, of which I’ve made countless batches since finding out how to make it. The recipe below is my version of one I found on the BBC Food website (read it here, if you like). I’ve cut out the bit at the beginning about salting the sliced mangoes, as while I’m generally fairly patient with cooking, I didn’t really see the point in doing this. If you’ve only got two or three mangoes, just adjust the amounts of ingredients accordingly.

Ingredients

  • 4 large mangoes (peeled, stoned and chopped into small chunks)
  • 2 cooking apples (peeled, cored and chopped into small chunks)
  • 450g (1lb) caster sugar
  • 600ml (1 pint) white wine vinegar
  • A chunk of root ginger- about the size of two thumbs (peeled and grated)
  • 4 cloves of garlic (peeled and crushed or finely chopped)
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 teaspoon English mustard powder

Put all the ingredients into a big pan or pot and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for while (at least 30 minutes) until the chutney is thick and syrupy. Put into hot, sterilised jars and seal (I use cellophane over the top secured with an elastic band, then put the screw top lid on).

A note about blue garlic

I’ve noticed that when I make this chutney, the garlic tends to go a kind of bluish-green colour. I assumed that this was due to some sort of chemical reaction between the sulphur in the garlic and the acidic vinegar, and a quick bit of Googling confirmed my theory. I’m not sure of the exact scientific logistics of it, but apparently it’s not harmful in any way, even though it does look a little unsightly. If you have any tips on how to avoid this, please do share.

Growing a mango plant

I never seem to have grown out of my childlike fascination with germinating and growing seeds and stones from fruit and other random plants. As an aside from the above recipe, this is how to sprout a mango stone and (hopefully) grow your own mango plant if you’re that way inclined…

Now, before you get excited about having your own mango tree and picking fresh mangoes, warm from the sun- these plants are unlikely to survive indefinitely in our unpredictable UK climate, and even if they did grow big enough to fruit, the mangoes would apparently be horrible and fibrous (I’m basing that last bit on what I’ve read online- I obviously don’t know from experience). So yeah, I don’t want to be a party pooper, but this is still a fun project, especially for children, should you have/ know any.

Start with a stone from a mango that’s had all the flesh stripped away from it. This should be a long, oval type thing with fibres and things all stuck to it. This is actually more of a ‘pod’, and the seed you want is inside. Use a paring knife to slide gently into the ‘seam’ around the edge, being careful not to damage the seed. Carefully use your fingers to prise open the pod, to reveal what looks like a big bean. Plant this in a pot with the end poking out of the soil, then put a clear plastic bag over the pot and tie at the top to make a kind of mini greenhouse. Leave this somewhere warm and sunny until the seed sprouts, then take the bag off and leave in a warm, sunny place to grow.