Watering Plants: How Hard Can it Be?

PHEW it’s hot. Paul Richens, Gardens Manager at the Skip Garden in Kings Cross, shares some topical thoughts on how to get watering right.

WHAT IS IT about watering plants that people find so difficult? We often see two extremes: houseplants overwatered and drowned – troughs and outside pots not watered at all.

Is it because people don’t understand why plants need water? Let’s briefly look at how plants use water.

Actually, all living things need water because life requires a lot of chemical reactions to take place; for these to happen the chemicals must usually be dissolved in water.

Plants mix water together with carbon dioxide to make sugar. This takes energy, which plants get from sunlight; a process called photosynthesis. Water also helps plants stand up straight, even when they aren’t made of wood. They don’t have bones, but they do have cell walls and water pressure. A mature houseplant can transpire its body weight daily. This means it gives off a lot of water! If people needed that much water, an adult would drink 20 gallons of water a day.

Watering practice. We’ve always preferred that our skips and plant containers in the Skip Garden be watered using watering cans rather than hoses – it’s very hard to judge exactly how much water your hose has given, whereas you know exactly how much you’ve used with a watering can – but using a hose is quicker. So just take your time and really soak the soil.

The Skip gardening team joke that there are three recognisable stages of water stress:

1./ Dry soil – soil dry to touch, plants seem unchanged. Action: Water

2./ Flagging – leaves become soft and droopy. Action: Water

3./ Crispy – leaves and stems completely dry and shrivelled. Action: Compost

Rainwater is best. London tap water is okay, but is alkaline with a pH of 8 to 8.5. Rainwater has a pH of 6.5, which suits plants better; but don’t let that stop you using tap water if necessary.

You’ll find more info on the Skip Garden here, and on Paul here.


Big Dig for the Growers

ON 22ND APRIL, the Glazebrook Growers tapped into Capital Growth’s Big Dig day, Kew Gardens’ Grow Wild initiative, and the support of our Tenants & Residents Association to get together and plant up our new Pleasure Garden. Anne Cleary reports.


FIFTEEN ADULTS and lots of children turned up to make a wonderful Big Dig Saturday in the Croxted Road Pleasure Garden. The sun even came out! Sam, Paul and I erected the big gazebo which was fun, and under it Gina organised all the hospitality, with sandwiches, cakes, crisps, drinks and a homemade cake from Georgina.

Sam and Paul did a lot of the digging, but the women were magnificent too: Madeleine proved to be a very strong digger, as did our Grow Wild mentor, Jess. We created a large, curvy bed for the wildflowers, which Jess then taught us how to scatter correctly.



Madeleine did much of the digging for a Tunnel of Beans with Harry, and new Grower Paul then assisted Harry in erecting the canes for the runner beans to climb up. Gina started planting up our new Hotbed of Flowers with young plants raised from seed on the estate, and Zoë oversaw everything, giving advice and instruction as needed.

Ali drew on her gardening experience to lead the group potting on flower seedlings, showing Theresa, Charlotte and some of the children how it’s done. Sarah from Capital Growth had dropped by to see how we were doing, and also lent a hand. The children were magnificent, enthusiastic, willing to help with everything and to take instructions from the grown ups. As you can see from the photographs they were involved in every task and didn’t flag. I was very impressed.

It was a great day; I really enjoyed being out in the fresh air and having fun, doing something positive with my neighbours.

group pic small 2.jpg

Photos: Anne Cleary, Jo Corrigan & Zoë Petersen

Does Your Houseplant Know You’re There?

Oli and Adi report back on Paul Richens’ latest session

OLI: I had never considered plants to be remotely similar to humans. Perhaps that explained the sorry state of my houseplants – a Money Tree, and a Dragon Tree – that had withered in dark corners of my room for many months. But, on leaving Paul Richens’ workshop in March, I couldn’t help but think: plants are closer cousins to humans than I had ever imagined.

Paul & Oli's plants March17
Doctor, is there any hope? Oli’s plants see daylight at last

As Paul explained with characteristic vigour, plants sense the world in a manner not so dissimilar to our own. Of our core faculties – sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste – each can be ‘experienced’ in some parallel way by plants.

Moreover plants each generate a slight electromagnetic field, as does our own nervous system, though their ‘brain’ might be considered to lie below ground – in the dense interactions between root chemistry and soil microbes. The leaves we see above ground are simply the plant’s food-factory set up to harness the sun’s energy.

Rootbrain: a slide from Paul’s presentation, showing where the plant action really happens

That plants can hear might seem a little far-fetched. But as Paul revealed, great minds as far back as Darwin have hypothesised that plants can respond to sound. Many may be familiar with the (unproven) theory that classical music can make humans ‘smarter’ – but the fact that this too has been tested with plants was news to me.

If plants are indeed so similar to humans, it follows that they should be treated with similar care.  And this meant drastic action was required for my long neglected houseplants. Pruning, positioning and watering all followed in quick succession, optimising the light, heat – and sound! – that they would experience. The results were clear: the plants have erupted into colours that weeks ago could not be conceived of.

So let me conclude by thanking Paul and with the key lesson of the day – treat your plants as you yourself would like to be treated!

Oli Lomer

ADI: THANKS to Zoe for arranging and Paul for presenting a fascinating talk on plants and how ‘perceptive’ they are.

I KNEW SOME of the more obvious ways in which plants protect themselves from predators: thorns on roses, poison in deadly nightshade berries, and of course the good old stinging nettle. I even knew, following a trip to Peru, about the Mimosa plant which has sensitive finger-like leaves which close up when touched to ‘appear dead,’ so Darwin believed, and less appetising to would-be predators.

plant reactions
There’s more going on than you might think: a slide from Paul showing some of the things plants react to

BUT I HAD no idea about chemical signalling. Plants that are under attack, when set upon by a herd of hungry elephants, or subject to drought, can warn other nearby plants of the impending threat by releasing a chemical warning signal. This can kick start a defensive reaction in other plants – for instance to increase production of a bitter-tasting compound in their leaves to put off would-be attackers, or even to release a chemical of their own to attract their enemy’s predators.

NOT TO BE outdone, the crafty elephants have learned to eat the plants ‘upwind’, so that the airborne signals blow away from neighbouring plants, and the leaves remain sweet and edible.

Evolution never ceases to amaze me!

Adi Sayles


Where in the World is Your Plant From? Paul’s Tips on Making Your Plant at Home

CLIMATE ZONES: Tropical Rainforest ~ Tropical Grassland ~ Dry Grassland ~ Desert ~ Mediterranean ~ Temperate Forest ~ Mountain ~ Boreal Forest ~ Polar Tundra

OUR COMMON houseplants, from orchids to yuccas, come from very different environments around the world. Take advantage of the different conditions in your house to mimic the environmental origins of your plant.

ORCHIDS and SWISS CHEESE PLANTS originate in tropical rainforest, where there are low levels of sunlight under the forest canopy, and conditions are warm and humid – try your bathroom as the nearest equivalent.

YUCCAS are found across different different regions, but generally in arid conditions with plentiful sunlight, such as desert and grassland. Depending on the aspect of your house, your living room might be the best place (though we all know living rooms that are more like polar tundra…)

FERNS originate in forest and generally hate direct sunlight, so may be happiest in north-facing rooms, or at least away from sun and radiators.

DO a little research into your plants’ origins to decide what will be happiest where.

FINALLY: WATERING! The easiest way to know whether your plant needs watering is to touch the compost. Get into the habit of checking regularly. If it’s dry, water thoroughly, preferably with rainwater; if it’s wet, leave it alone. Roots need oxygen, so drowning is as bad as drought.

Paul Richens has provided moral and practical support to the Glazebrook Growers since the Kitchen Garden was just a twinkle in some of our eyes. Find out more about Paul and his gardening life at http://bluedomesynergies.co.uk/








The Fungus Files

Watching Our Mushrooms Grow

THIS MONTH we received a ‘grow your own’ edible grey oyster mushroom kit, sent by Lemos & Crane from the generous Kew Gardens.  With a growing fascination for the world of fungi I was keen to see these wonders grow so eagerly put my hand up to be their caretaker. Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing the progress of our Glazebrook mushrooms with you in a series of posts.

A FEW Fungus File Facts to shine a small light on fungi and why they are such incredibly fascinating beings:

  • it’s estimated there are more than 1.5million different species of fungi
  • fungus is the latin word for ‘mushroom’
  • fungi are more similar to the animal kingdom than the plant kingdom
  • you probably ingest them every day without realising as the yeast that makes bread is a kind of fungus & fungus is also used to make cheese
  • certain types of fungi act as networks below the ground connecting individual plants and trees together and helping them share water, carbon, nitrogen, other nutrients and minerals
  • they’ll eat almost anything that once was alive and are considered the ‘planet’s clean up crew’
  • many species have invaluable medicinal potential for us humans


Fungus Files: Part One

The process of setting up the mushroom farm started off with putting 2 kettles full of hot water over the bag of straw provided and then leaving it tied off for the night to cool.  After many incidents of burning my hands I’d suggest this is a two-person job in future!

The following morning, 20th March – suitably, the Spring Equinox – I drained all the water off the straw and mixed in the packet of fungal mycelium, shaking it through the straw to ensure even distribution.

The beautiful warm nourishing smell of the soaked straw made me envious of their new home.  As I believe all plants, fungi, trees, animals are able to sense our intention and emotions I made sure I sang a joyful song to the mycelium as they settled into their new straw home…


They now sit on my kitchen counter and each morning I peer in eager to see their transformation. Kew recommends weekly check ups so perhaps I’m being a little over eager. To be continued!

The Fungus Fan


Big Bird Little Bird

Just before Christmas I got dive-bombed by a robin, which I’m taking as a sign we should be keeping an eye on the little critters. The RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch, 28-30 January seems like a good way of doing this – ordinary people all over the country watch their garden or local park for an hour and report back on what birds they see. This gives a nationwide picture of how our birds are doing. Click here to go to the RSPB webpage with details – if you get your skates on they’ll send you a bird-identifying chart, and coffee.

So, on Monday 30 January from 3.30 to 4.30, we’ll be spending an hour in the Kitchen Garden on Croxted Road Estate. Put on your long johns and join us! I’ll have a thermos and flapjacks. The railway embankment is home to masses of birds, so we should be able to tick off a good few.

If the weekend suits you better, you can sign up separately and do it on Saturday or Sunday (28/29 Jan) in a local green space of your choosing.

Update – our bird count on 30 January 2017 was as follows:

Bluetits x 2
Great tit x 1
Robins x 2
Wood pigeons x 2
House sparrows x 2
Carrion crows x 2
Parakeets x 2

Unidentified birds (the light was terrible and it’s hard to identify a bird from its sihouette) x approx.12
Not bad for an hour in this little corner of our big smelly city.

Zoë Petersen

I have! Wrens live right next to us, on the wooded railway embankment







Dishing the Dirt on Compost

HELLO there everyone!

This is the first report from the Glazebrook Growers Compost Department….

As you will know, we currently have three compost bins in the Kitchen Garden. The round one on the right is the oldest, the two square ones on the left are more recent, and they are all currently in use.



Since this is a communal venture, we rely on all gardeners knowing how compost is made, and the simple do’s and don’ts of what to put into the bins. So I thought I would remind everyone of the general guidance given by Paul Richens:

  • To make good compost you need a more or less equal amount of ‘greens’ and ‘browns’ by volume.
  • Greens include grass cuttings, young weeds, uncooked fruit and vegetable peelings, tea bags, leaves and coffee grounds, soft green prunings, horse manure, and wood ash (in moderation).
  • Browns include cardboard, eg brown packaging cardboard, toilet roll tubes and egg boxes, waste paper and junk mail, including shredded paper, paper towels & bags, old bedding plants, straw.
  • Items that should NOT go to compost include meat, fish, dairy products or cooked food, coal & coke ash, cat litter, dog faeces, disposable nappies.

So when you put some ‘greens’ into one of the bins, it is a good idea to add some of the ‘brown’ card that we leave nearby.

Gina and I will also be keeping an eye on it and turning it every now and again with our newly acquired compost aerator (see example below). The compost needs to be watered regularly – those flies are an indication that it is too dry, so pour a can of water over the heap if you see them.

Paul & his trusty aerator

At the end of season gathering on 12th November we took our first ‘harvest’ of a rich mature compost, and divided it out amongst the beds. There is more to come from the other bins – we will prepare this soon and bag it up, ready for your use.

The future is bright! Food for our soil.

The composting will slow down over the winter, but in the spring we should have some more to use. When spread on the top of your beds it will enrich the soil, and its dark colour will conduct the spring sunshine and warm everything up.

Harry Hunt