Smarty Plants

As adamant as we humans are about being the most superior of all living things on this planet, I am compelled to differ. To begin with, I don’t think our time on earth should be focused on proving our dominance over everything else. In doing so, we expend enormous efforts and do considerable damage to the entire planet. We go well beyond what we need to do to survive and thrive. It seems we reach for excess in all areas. Food, shelter, clothing, safety, comfort …. We commit acts of unspeakable violence for reasons of wanting more than we need. Of course, we often disguise our true intents in the name of doing good. To put it plainly, humans love playing God. A greedy, selfish, wrathful God.

But look around at those other living beings with whom we share this world. Not a single animal or plant takes more than it needs to live and procreate. I am particularly in awe of plants. They truly rule!
Think about it – while humans cannot exist without plants, the reverse is not true! What would we eat? How would we build our homes, feed our animals, make our clothes, obtain life saving medicine? All of our celebrations and observances incorporate plants in some form or other. Meanwhile, plants themselves can grow happily without us altogether. Take away plant life and you effectively end our race.

How plants live is mighty clever. Whatever they need, comes to them. The pollinators, the rain, the sunlight, the wind. Their seeds, distributed by creature or wind, establish themselves wherever conditions are ideal and calmly continue the family line. When the climate turns unusually harsh as in a drought, plants are known to go dormant and/or set seeds in quantity so the species can be preserved for when circumstances return to normal. Research has shown that when a tree is attacked by a pest, it sends out chemical signals to neighboring trees which in turn arm themselves by synthesizing compounds that could help repel or harm the pests.

To protect themselves, the kingdom Plantae has developed a plethora of weapons. Disguises, thorns, chemicals that kill/repel/cause sickness or allergies, bark, fatty coats, trapping mechanisms and, in some cases even ensuring that animal ‘bodyguards’ are always at hand. Pretty cool right?

Plants have evolved to look or smell nice to those they need for pollination. In fair exchange, they offer their nectar or fruit. And if humans choose them for their gardens or farms, well, what the heck, the odds of survival just got better.

They respond to seasons with aplomb. Highly tuned to even the teeniest shifts in weather and temperature, like state of the art, well-oiled machines, they will launch themselves to grow, set fruit, enter senescence and dormancy right on cue. Ingenious and resilient, flora outdo fauna by far. And compared to Homo sapiens, they are, in my opinion, the most superior of beings.
Lets start treating them with due respect. Each time I bite into an apple, enjoy a cup of coffee, fix a salad, treat a cold with Echinacea, perfume myself with rose water, sit under the shade of a tree, use my wooden dining table, select a linen shirt, receive a gift of flowers or, go about a myriad quotidian activities, I will do so with heartfelt gratitude and humility.

Life with plants is very good.

The images below demonstrate our dependence on plants:

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

To Bow And To Yield

A whole month of the new year has come to pass. It went by so fast. On reviewing the to-do list for January, I’m relieved to note how much got done. But what I didn’t accomplish stares accusingly at me. Did I give myself too much to do or did I waste time by getting distracted/ lazy? All of the above I’m sure. Yet, it felt like I was working steadily and somehow time got ahead of me.
Each month has a list of tasks for every area of my life. The garden determines pretty much how I organize it all.

As gardeners, we know to prepare for each season. Winter for dreaming, planning, organizing, researching, ordering, starting seeds. Spring for cleaning up, readying the earth, planting, mulching, staking, weeding, deadheading and inhaling the freshness of the season. Summer for intense weeding, constant deadheading, mowing, watering, reaping the benefits of summer fruits and veggies, long, lazy meals al fresco. Autumn for harvesting, weeding, clearing and cutting, planting, tidying and moaning the end of the growing season. We know, we plan, we expect, we execute.

And working with the garden calender, I organize all my other projects. Writing and painting, while pursued all year round, pick up intensity as the garden grows. It seems counter-intuitive but the more that happens in the garden, the more I’m inspired to create. Fitting it all in the limited hours is challenging but oh so rewarding! Hence, I prepare for it. Sometimes, it is hard to keep up with all the ideas generated by the garden but in all honesty, I love the pressure to stay creative.

Vacations occur only when there is a natural pause in my garden. Winter and late summer work best. Short of impromptu trips partnered with upgraded tickets, I’m not likely to rush off anywhere. Thankfully, celebrations such as weddings and babies give enough lead time for making the right accommodations in my calender. If this admission makes me seem inflexible, it is only partially correct. For the right reasons I’ll happily adjust.

I like this rhythm and routine. There is comfort here. It keeps me centered and present. So when there occurs a shift or change in this schedule, it is unsettling. Like the temperature shifts we’re experiencing this week. Just when January felt more normal and I was beginning to settle into the winter groove, we are given springtime weather. February is off to a balmy start. When the snow melts tomorrow (57 degrees and rainy!), will the dormant plants think it is time to awaken? I should think they’d be mighty surly to be roused so rudely a couple of months too early.

Should I start regular watering of the vertical garden? Will the roses want to be freed of their burlap protection? What will happen to the flats of seeds kept outdoors so they can receive their required cold treatment? How will I do the stuff I’m supposed to do if I’m busy with these unexpected to-dos?

I’m certain winter temperatures will return. But for how long and how low is unknown. It might keep fluctuating erratically. Never mind the havoc to my carefully organized lists and schedules. Agendas be damned.

So with a great big breath I ask myself what is the lesson to be learned here. The answer becomes apparent. I’m being called to stay open and adaptable. The natural world is so resilient. It has seen immeasurable changes from time immemorial. Yet, here it is always bountiful and beautiful. Somehow, this planet of ours has survived every change and onslaught with grace and aplomb.

I shall stop fighting these natural departures from the norm. After all, there’s nothing I can do about it. Instead, taking my cue from the willow, I’ll bow and yield to the winds that blow my way and carry on with what I know to do – to nurture and grow ideas and plants.
With humility and optimism.

Here’s what is keeping me inspired right now:

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

You Have The Time

`If you knew Time as well as I do,’ said the Hatter, `you wouldn’t talk about wasting IT. – Lewis Carrol’s Alice In Wonderland

If you were given an extra chunk of time each day what would you do with it? That was a question I asked myself on the first day of this year. There is so much we seem to have to/want to do that the most common lament is that we don’t have enough time. Not having the time is the #1 reason given for not gardening. Possessing a black thumb is the next most popular excuse. The problem of a lack of time begs close examination. Are we truly overwhelmed or is that merely a perception? Has being ‘too busy’ become the hallmark of being important/valuable? Is it just an easy excuse for not doing something?

So, with that gift of extra time, how would you use it? Would you spread the current to-do list to give yourself a better chance to handle it? Would you add new chores into that time? Or, would you designate something fun like dancing to your favorite music or playing with the children and/or pet, make a garden or, as in my case, reading more?

As I pondered this matter of extra time to reduce the reading material towering by my desk, how we actually use our normal hours needs serious consideration. In the course of any given day, how could one carve out, at the very least, an hour to do as one pleased and still accomplish the other necessary tasks without pressure? There is good news and bad news. Depending on how you look at it. To give up some habits or adjust oneself to a different approach can be inspiring to some and very challenging to others.

To put it plainly, I can expertly waste a huge amount of time every single day. While I might address the most urgent and/or important matters, I could and have spent a good many hours on the unimportant and non-urgent.

“Checking the news” is one such time guzzler. I come away with more unhelpful trivia than actual news I can use. And yet, I’m a repeat offender..
In the name of research, I log in several hours reading up on a variety of subjects. While all that material is no doubt good, solid data, more often than not, it has very little to do with the topic on hand. Though, I must say, at the time of doing this kind of reading, that fact escapes me altogether. Everything seems relevant and interesting.
Taking a break by watching a bit of mindless television can wreck havoc with my day or evening. Time truly is elastic because that break just stretches and stretches.
Saying ‘yes’ to too many demands on my time has invariably led to sideswiping my own responsibilities. And then I’m scrambling with deadlines and worried I’m not giving my best efforts.
While I am not one addicted to social media or even my phone, I find not prioritizing my emails can lead me to while away precious hours with completely silly communications. Haven’t I got anything else to do?!

Just as I know very well that gossiping and negative thinking are a drain on my energy and time, mindless activities like those mentioned above do the same. I cannot recall ever feeling good about myself after spending any length of time on any of them. (Okay, doing research is not all bad.) While it may have felt fun for a moment, the aftertaste is anything but. It is exactly like overindulging on desserts. So yummy and comforting but so energy sapping, unhealthy and, guilt inducing.

And I know that multitasking does not work. While I might think I am getting so much done, once I step back and review, the reality is disappointingly different. In my experience, multitasking is always followed up with damage control and/or redoing. Worse, it leaves me so dissatisfied with myself that I get grumpy and unpleasant to be with.

Eliminating, okay minimizing, time wasting activities is fine but what do I do about procrastination? At this point I could write a book on the subject but then, I have other stuff to do first.

So, here is how I’ve developed a way to create a chunk of time for myself. These ‘rules’ work well for me in as well as out of the garden

Take time to organize first, do the research. Not general research but specific to the task. Say you’re thinking about creating a Belgian espalier of fruit trees. Read up on this ancient, space-saving method of growing trees, source the nurseries that will provide the young trees, consider the cost and amount of work, understand the maintenance required. Talk to experts. Visit gardens that have such a feature and find out as much as possible from the gardeners themselves. Set up a schedule to address all the steps. Then, get cracking.
The winter months are ideal for this sort of planning. When I plan well and things are set up right, I’m not likely to put off doing them.

Instead of talking about it, just do it. Avoid all the unsolicited comments and advice that come forth when you do talk. That is a drain on your time and often leads to procrastination. The time spent on talking is better used in preparing and executing

Say ‘no’ politely but firmly – forget about FOMO (fear of missing out). Agreeing to do whatever/whenever something is asked of you gives one a false sense of importance. Instead, offer to think about it. Consider what you must give up to do what is asked. Question your real motive. Say ‘yes’ only if it is truly the right thing to do.

Budget your time. By allowing x amount of hours/days for each of my projects and commitments, I’m able to cover different tasks and meet deadlines.

By staying on top of regular maintenance chores like weeding, deadheading etc., I am hardly ever surrendering too many hours toiling in the garden. A half hour every other day patrolling for weeds is usually adequate. Another half hour to tidy up and check for problems/pests. I take action right away if there are signs of pests. Nip it in the bud so to speak. However, as I love being in the garden, I’m happy to putter around tweaking and tending much longer.

In the garden, practicing environmentally sound, ecologically correct, organic methods are perfect examples where doing the right thing is actually easier. Growing mostly native plants, using compost, mulch and living ground-covers, reducing lawn area are huge time, energy and money savers. Really. You get to sleep with a clear conscience to boot.

As a result of operating in this manner and seriously curtailing those time wasting habits I mentioned earlier, I find myself with absolutely no excuse not to do what I want to. There is always time to create, work, gather with loved ones, share, play, read, learn, pursue passions, sleep, exercise, day dream, learn something new … If something is important or meaningful enough, the time for it is unfailingly available. One activity at a time.

You have the time, take it.

P.S Please don’t be offended if you hear me say ‘NO’. You’ll understand!

The images below demonstrate what we can miss seeing if we don’t take the time to be present:

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Those Unseen Deeds

Men do not value a good deed unless it brings a reward – Ovid

As I’d mentioned a couple of weeks ago, house painters have been hard at work Chez Nous. All the indoor woodwork ( windows, doors, stairs, baseboards etc.,) was in dire need of being refreshed. And my goodness, it was long overdue. It’s surprising how easily one can get used to neglected maintenance. With the general upheaval caused by this commission, I was ready to call it all off and return to having tired, peeling joinery.

While I had been anticipating using the project as reason to declutter and spruce up the rooms, the volume of work involved kept growing. After removing items that were no longer relevant, re-organizing what remained, cleaning areas rarely reached or visible and finally putting together rooms as the painters got done, I was more than ready to sit back and bask in the new and improved abode.
And you know what? While everything appeared bright and tidy, it was impossible for anybody else to see what exactly had been done. Quite precisely like cosmetic surgery done really well.

I’d have genuinely liked an obvious, dramatic change. A ta-da! Instead, I’m left with a subtle effect and the knowledge that much effort, time and money was spent for it. On the one hand I’m enormously satisfied to have had this project completed and on the other, I’m still yearning for it all to be widely noticed and complimented. Wishful thinking.

The individual tasks are hardly ever lauded. While extremely vital, they are not acknowledged in their own right. Yet, the quality of our lives depend on a myriad such efforts. Who else but you notices the tidy, organized closets, thoughtfully stocked kitchens/bathrooms, carefully planned trips? Only you know the time spent each day in keeping home looking inviting and comfortable. The extra work hours in the office that win the company more clients. The years of volunteer service to uplift and improve the community. The long nights passed in finishing Halloween costumes/baking birthday cupcakes for school/ playing midwife to the family dog delivering six puppies a half-hour apart. How about the sacrifices in time and money just to put a smile on somebody’s face? All so integral and yet mostly unnoticed, unconsidered or taken for granted. These are not thankless efforts just unrecognised ones.

It is exactly the same in the garden. After knee grinding, back throwing, nail tearing hours of weeding, cutting back, staking, deadheading and tidying up, one is left with a garden that definitely looks well tended and could possibly elicit some praise but nothing to seriously impress anybody. No, those ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ are reserved for the showy flowers and cunningly propped up plants as though they could’ve achieved their beautiful, well-groomed state all by themselves. No one has ever given me kudos for my dedicated weeding. However, when I’m behind on that chore, I can usually count on a few ‘well-intended’ criticisms.

But, admit it. Despite not receiving the commendations we’d like for each of our accomplishments, there is still that inner glow of satisfaction that comes from knowing we did something (s) good and necessary. And that is all that matters. Our own peace with our contributions is sufficient reward. We each have a part to play and play them well we must. In the end, to paraphrase Koffka’s ‘the whole is other than the sum of its parts‘, our lives are indeed bigger and better than the sum of its parts. That, I do declare is synergy.

Reminder – My show is still on at the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library. Do go see!

I’m presenting here a bunch of feel good images. So feel good!

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Senescence Scene

Senescence is generally defined as the condition or process of deterioration with age.
loss of a cell’s power of division and growth.

Somehow that sounds depressing. As though that is it. It’s all over folks. I doubt any living form, humans included, want their final season expressed that way. I’d like to believe that everything is valued, vital and vibrant till the very end. Yet, each year, as fall makes way for winter, senescence is a word that comes up to describe the state of affairs in the horticultural realm.

I get it. The word in itself is only meant to define a stage in life with scientific accuracy. I myself have used it often. But recently, walking around gardens and woods, I remembered that in cell biology, this definition continues by saying that although a cell in senescence is no longer capable of dividing, it is still alive and metabolically active. Now, doesn’t that instantly cheer you up?

Look around in the garden, at this time in the north-East when nothing seems to be happening and all the deciduous plants have ‘died’ back, there is in reality a wonderful undercurrent at play. The same anticipation suffused tension that is palpable when the baton is being passed in a relay race, is underway in the garden. The lack of snow and mild temperatures this season have extended the time we get to view the beauty of plants in senescence.
First, take an overview of what lies in front of you. There is an almost abstract beauty in the shapes of the plants and trees. The stands of withered plants provide seasonal interest in their sculptural forms and the palette of earth tones is an artist’s delight. Is there really that large a range of shades in the color brown?! Many of the flower heads retain their shapes and impart an ethereal loveliness in their faded hues.

The dried flower heads, curled, wrinkly leaves and mysterious seedpods evoke the imagination. But even more than that, they epitomize life. Yes, life! While most of the organic matter will get broken down by microbes and the elements to enrich the soil that will nurture plant life, the seedpods signal the very birth of life. This is not just the end but also the beginning.

Look closer at those seed-bearing forms. There is such a variety in their representations; each of which, in its exquisite design tells how its seeds are dispersed. Feathery, fluffy, papery packages are primed for air mail. The wind carries them to destinations near and far. Then, there are those that hold appeal for birds by hiding within edible fruit. Distributed after digestion is complete, the seeds set up home when and where conditions are ideal. Some plants, like mothers who cannot let go, drop their seeds right around themselves.
Seedpods are also miniature instruction manuals illustrating sound  form-follows-function design. They hint broadly at the interdisciplinary nature of art, physics, engineering and architecture. And at the very heart of it all, is the lesson in biology. The circle of life. There is no beginning without end and no end without beginning.

A tiny seed is enough to remind us of the marvels of nature. It contains all the information it needs for its life purpose and, goes about doing just that. Waiting patiently for the right time and making the most of wherever it finds itself, a seed fulfils that commitment to the very best of its ability. It shows how to live bravely and die just as bravely. There is a strong yet gentle lesson in there for us.

“To see a world in a grain of sand
and heaven in a flower
hold infinity in the palm of your hand
and eternity in an hour”
– William Blake

Lots of images below to celebrate senescence! :

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Celebrate!

It finally feels like winter. Hallelujah! There is a slight upswing in temperature coming tomorrow but for right now, for today, it is as how it should be. Bitterly cold. And that is reason enough to cheer. Makes me look ahead to the gardening year with some optimism. And that’s the way I like to be.

Winter months are a good time to review what needs doing and how we can improve ourselves. With the holiday trimmings and trappings removed, it seems as though there is a lightness in the air. A sort of cleansing – out with the old, in with the new. Maybe it is simply because of the start of a new year but the act of putting things right after getting rid of the tree and garlands, is incentive to purge the house of stuff not needed any more. In my case, since I’m getting some interior painting done this month, all draperies and carpets are going to the cleaners. A refreshed, more organized home is eagerly anticipated. I’m determined to be ruthless in getting rid of anything that no longer serves me. This painting project has galvanized me into taking much overdue action in organizing and sorting. I’m certain I’m not alone in desiring simplicity and authenticity. The detritus from my erstwhile negligence will be banished!

I want to get back to making spaces work for how we live. This translates to no high maintenance anything. The business of living should not require attending to the care of objects or environments that do not play a part in our philosophy. Think silverware that need regular polishing,shelves of books that haven’t been opened in ages, outdated clothes, knick knacks with no real sentimental value, uncomfortable or no longer enjoyed but nevertheless pretty furniture ( that last one goes for shoes too!) – you get my drift. What I discard could be useful to others so of course they will be donated appropriately. Thrift stores, Goodwill, Salvation Army, libraries etc.,

The same approach works in the garden. Make your plans now before the busy season. Fussy plants, over-enthusiastic/invasive growers, play-sets that are in danger of becoming fossilized, outdoor furniture that need constant care, lawns demanding way too much attention are all things to get rid of. Fix steps, paths, railings and fences that have become shabby or broken. Introduce native plants that will thrive with minimum care. Reduce the lawn area by creating new flower/vegetable beds or planting trees. Mulch and groundcovers reduce the need for frequent weeding and watering. Keep with organic, environmentally sound practices and use sustainable, native woods for pergolas, gazebos, fences, furniture and such. Alternatively, consider hardworking metals. While plastics have made huge progress in appearance, it is still plastic and must eventually head to already burgeoning land-fills. Children’s play areas should stimulate imaginations and create a sense of adventure and understanding of the natural world.. I’m a big believer in blending that activity space with the rest of the garden. Await a future post on this subject!

With house and garden set up for how we live, it translates to more time to enjoy that lifestyle and fewer obstacles or excuses for not getting on with what we really want to do. That is definitely cause to celebrate.

Announcing my art show at the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library in North Salem, NY. It’ll be on all of January 2016. Please visit!

Just for fun, I’m posting photos of how it looked last year at this time and how it looks now:

Last year:

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Now:

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Rejoice In Everything!

Once again, it’s that time of year when the buzz is all about new year resolutions. Humanity’s eternal quest to be given a new chance at becoming and doing better. Find a new job/ lose weight/ train for a marathon/ join a book club/ save more money/ go organic – there is a never ending list of commitments. Sound familiar? The very essence of being human is that we are imperfect and must therefore keep trying to overcome our shortcomings yet knowing all the while that perfection is unattainable. As I’ve said before, I’m not one for specific resolutions. Typically, I just strive to try harder in general. That is a full time job in itself.

Considering that these personal reformations are life-long endeavors, I’m not going to even reiterate them to myself. They just are. Like shadows that faithfully follow even when we don’t notice. Instead, I’m giving myself a one word cue to apply to everything. The word is, drum roll please – CELEBRATE.

We know to duly acknowledge the big events. Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and such. But the reality is that the days and happenings we look upon as routine or mundane are fraught with reasons to celebrate. We’ve come to take so much for granted that we fail to recognize the wonder and miracles that honor our lives every single day. I felt this lack in me this year – for, while I was mostly preoccupied with big happenings and doing a fair amount of travel, I completely missed the numerous simple yet special moments that occur all the time no matter what else is going on.

In spring I got so immersed in getting ready for a solo art show, house guests, garden open day and my daughter’s high school graduation, that I failed to fully appreciate the myriad incredible moments in the garden. This was a particularly good spring. Yet, I spent so little time celebrating it. Oh, I certainly hosted a couple of garden parties, took a decent number of photographs of the horticultural splendor and airily pointed them out to anybody within earshot, but I didn’t truly give anything their just due. Every plant fulfilling its role in the garden deserves congratulations and thanks. A proper pause to admire and bask in their beauty is worth the effort. It is a moment to get outside of myself and focus on these treasures. The deep sense of well-being and enrichment I get from doing so is priceless.

The timely opening of the different flowers, the fragrance of hyacinths signaling the commencement of spring, the arrival of bees as the apple blossoms peak, wrens resettling themselves in the bluebird box, the early morning cacophony of avians tuning up for chorus, the cicadas repeating their song all summer long, the flashes of red as cardinals flit in and out of the rose covered apple tree, fireflies punctuating the sultry nights of summer, the drama of a good rain shower and the refreshed state of the garden following it, the turn of color as fall picks up speed, the quietness of a blizzard, the brilliance of light just before the sun begins to set. So many daily acts of grace that go uncelebrated. So many opportunities to feel good gone untaken.

Similarly, awakening the senses to the smell of coffee first thing in the morning, the sleepy greeting of a loved one emerging from the embrace of a cozy bed, the porch light twinkling its welcome at the end of a long day away, the unexpected note from a friend simply saying hello, the completion of a project be it big or small, the discovery of a $ 5.00 note in the glove compartment of the car, a favorite song coming through the radio just when you needed a boost, reading a really good book, coming upon a painting that seems to speak to your soul, finding the cherished scarf you thought you’d lost, the smile of a stranger as you pass on the escalator. Little sparks of comfort and goodness light up our days constantly. Are we paying attention?

So, by reminding myself to ‘Celebrate’, I’m going to be more present in all the quotidian goings on. When the peonies explode open is cause to pop the champagne. A morning of weeding and tidying calls for a luxurious soak in the tub. Invite a a few friends for a simple meal of homemade pasta with fresh pesto when the basil is ready for its first harvest. A quick watercolor to mark the unfurling of the roses. A poem to honor the parade of tulips. Wake the family with muffins loaded with just-picked blueberries. ( Place a rose-geranium leaf at the bottom of each muffin cup and then pour the batter. The fragrance is heavenly). In commemorating and rejoicing, we are expressing our gratitude in being fully alive and attuned to the world. How much more human can that be?

I wish each and everyone a year of miracles and celebrations. Every, single day.

While the unusually warm winter days are being favored with plants showing signs of spring, we might as well enjoy the sight. Give them some rightful attention. After all, who knows what will happen when spring months arrive? Below are photos taken this past Sunday at the Cloisters. The gardens looked like it was April. Including the fact that it was raining gently as though coaxing the plants awake.

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Stop The Fast Forward!

Is Spring cutting line? Sure feels like it. Here we are in the last stretch of December and it feels like April. The long range forecast assures a balmy Christmas. That might be just fine out in California but in the North-east? The fireplace sits cold and unused and winter jackets still hang fresh from the cleaners. Admittedly, it’s kind of fun to head outdoors without the weight of layers but I’m beginning to get nervous. I’m holding my breath as I await the drop of the other shoe.

Clearly, weather patterns are topsy-turvy. The west is getting all the snow generally reserved for the east. Is Nature messing with our minds? Climate change is very real people! Seems humans are not the only ones confused. Looking around, the garden is showing distinct signs of spring awakening.

When news arrived that the cherry blossoms were in bloom in our nation’s capital, I thought it was a hoax. Like an April Fools joke. But then, as I wandered around the garden and elsewhere, I noticed plants that ought to be dormant bearing nascent buds and/or leaves. Normally, such sights make me insanely happy but at this time, I’m downright alarmed.

What are the immediate consequences? Perhaps some light color from early bloomers like cherry and forsythia will no doubt still put a smile on our faces. It might even be fun to go for spring-like walks in late December. But, where is this taking us? To a forever changed climate pattern in these parts or will winter roar in with a vengeance in January? In either case, what does that imply? Should I go ahead and order crape myrtles that I’ve envied in southern gardens?

A return to the usual winter conditions would kill the emerging growth but perhaps all will not be lost. While there will be some damage and even the loss of certain spring blooms, the plants will rally. They are resilient for the most part. The gardener will simply have to take their cue and stoically carry on with a potentially less than spectacular post-winter show.

However, if we completely forgo a cold season, it’ll wreak havoc. All bloom/fruit time bets are off. Plants that require a spell of hard cold will struggle to stay in character – after all, how can they play their part when the script has been completely changed? Others will bloom too early and who knows what this will do to producing fruit and seeds as the pollinating insects and migratory birds may not be around to do their job.

I’m not as yet aware how this warm weather is affecting animals that hibernate. Are they getting tired or do they have some sort of internal mechanism that compensates and adjusts? Have certain birds delayed their winter sojourn to enjoy these warm days of December? If so, what will happen if the temperatures plummet suddenly? Questions flood my mind as I casually sip my tea seated on the stone bench in the meadow and gaze upon squirrels at play. In December!

Meanwhile, how will we gardeners go about the ministry of our duties? Do I get my usual winter rest or am I to keep going with tasks brought forward per force?
I’m concerned about the myriad bulbs that need the winter to come up properly in spring. I spy the tips of bulbs piercing through the still unfrozen earth. A friend noticed that hyacinth bulbs planted in a pot and kept outdoors were protruding through the soil. So she brought them in and watered the pot. No leaves were put out and only the emergent end of the flower stalk bloomed. In fact, the plant did not grow any further. It merely put forth what it could and called it quits. So sad. Is this what we can expect more of?

To say I’m worried is an understatement. We are currently going through an unsettling period. The four distinct seasons, their arrivals, durations and departures have set the rhythms of our lives. We’ve come to know what to expect and what to do by their timeliness. Our own resilience is now being called upon. Plus our willingness to do our part in coping and caring for this beautiful Earth that is seeing shifts and changes. Some phenomena are natural but there is plenty that we humans have wrought. The answers to my numerous questions will come only in due course.
I’d like very much to hit the ‘Rewind’ button.

On a brighter note, today is the Winter Solstice. An extra minute of daylight every day hence! Use the minutes well – smile at a stranger, write a ‘thinking of you’ note to someone, take deep breaths and calm your mind, drink a glass of water, do some stretches, hug your pet, floss your teeth, read a poem, make a sketch …

Don’t the images below remind you of the start of spring?:

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Climbing hydrangea

Climbing hydrangea

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

Sweet Holy Grass!

This is a good news/not so good news post. First the good news. Turns out, in the search to find powerful yet natural mosquito repellents, we need but look at one of our very own native grasses – specifically, sweet grass Hierochloe odorata. It also goes by the common but very auspicious names Holy grass, Manna grass, Mary’s grass, Peace grass, Unity grass or Vanilla grass. In north America, Hierochloe odorata occurs in southern Canada, northern Great Plains/Rocky Mountains and northwest of U.S., and New England. Not to be confused with the sweet grass Muhlenbergia filipes found in the southeastern United States.

Long used by Native Americans to deter mosquitoes, it is a sacred plant, used in peace and healing rituals. Leaves are dried and made into braids and burned as vanilla-scented incense; long leaves of sterile shoots are used by Native Americans in making baskets. The plant is showing great promise in scientific research. In laboratory tests, two sweet grass compounds drove mosquitoes away just as well as the widely-used repellent Deet. Imagine that!

One of the compounds is coumarin. Not only effective but it smells good too. Same stuff that renders Skin So Soft ( Avon’s moisturizer) as an anti-mosquito salve. The product is not advertised as such but users have long known it’s additional property. Coumarin is also a safe chemical.

Smells fine, safe to use, fends of mosquitoes – hmmm, what’s the problem then? Studies are still required to see how long the effects last. Oddly enough, coumarin is not registered or marketed as a repellent.

The second compound isolated from sweet grass is phytol. A common constituent in essential oils from plants. Phytol, similarly, is known to repel insects but is not currently sold for that purpose. Go figure.

And therein lies the not so good news. It’ll be at least two to three years before all of the research is completed to establish the efficacy, Still, I’m optimistic. I dream of summer evenings spent in the garden sans the swatting and scratching.

In the meantime, I’m seriously planning to introduce sweet grass in the garden. Hierochloe odorata is a very hardy perennial, able to grow to the Arctic Circle. Its leaves do not have rigid stems, so only grow to about 20 cm (7.9 in) in height, and then the leaves grow outward horizontally to 100 cm (39 in) long or more, by late summer. Grown in sun or partial shade, they do not like drought. Seeds are usually not viable, or if they are viable, take two to three years to develop a robust root system. So I’m guessing they will not be invasive.

I think testing out this plant near outdoor dining areas, swimming pools, children’s play areas and other spaces where humans gather, will be worth trying. I understand that the grass’ mosquito fighting property is more potent when it is dried so wearing a crown and garland of braided sweet grass might well become my go to accessories for outdoor soirées. At least until coumarin is available as a commercial product. I will check if my local nursery carries the plant or will get me some. Stay tuned!

If any of you have knowledge or experience with sweet grass, please share!

SW5-5

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

The Enduring Gift

Perhaps it is a sign of growing wise with age but I’m just plain tired of the commercial pressure to run out or get on-line to buy the latest and trendiest products to hand around as gifts. Am I the only one astounded that cars are considered perfectly normal Christmas presents? The insistent barrage from all manner of media dictate that I should not be the one who missed out on being the coolest gift giver. The message preys on the pervasive insecurity of humans – the fear of being the odd one out, to be considered stingy, ‘out of it’, unfashionable. Yet, for the most part, a month after the holidays, both gift and giver are forgotten. The world resumes its day to day rhythm and struggles to keep New Year resolutions and make those credit card payments. What are we doing to ourselves? More importantly, what does this say about us?

I have no idea how to change anybody but I do know what I can and will do to give what I believe is an authentic, thoughtful gift. One that surpasses time and trends. A gift that endures.
And I’m not talking packs of tube socks, electric toothbrush or flannel pajamas. While these are all practical, much used, loved and long lasting items, they admittedly do not carry the pizazz to elicit the squeal of delight one expects. They are simply not special. (Personally, I don’t need the squeal. I’ll take a genuine. heart-warming hug instead).

So how does one converge thoughtful with interesting? Welcome to the garden where it will show you how. Here, being rich or poor is inconsequential. What matters is the generosity of the heart.
The garden itself is a timeless, most generous gift. Day after day all through the years it feeds, nurtures, comforts, inspires and delights. For so much, all it asks in return is your time and attention. And there you have the key elements of honest, sincere giving – reciprocity, time and attentiveness.
Keeping this in mind, here is how I apply myself to the season of giving which, in my mind, is all year round.

First and foremost, I believe in passing on the benefits of being present in a garden. So, I’m happy to welcome friends to my own garden not only for gatherings I put together, but also for their own quiet pursuits like meditating, painting or writing. To those in need of continued encouragement to garden and gain inspiration, I give memberships to the New York Botanical Garden ( or the premier botanical garden in their area) and the Garden Conservancy. Then all through the year they can visit public and private gardens gaining intangible benefits that will last a long time. ( Pssst!This works for non-gardeners too!)

Staying with the horticultural theme, gifts of young trees, shrubs and plants are always welcome. Sometimes they are in memory of or in honor of somebody or some event. Toss in an assurance to help with their planting and your gift is golden. If funds are short, a promise to help with weeding and/or mowing on a weekly/monthly basis will be priceless. Even the offer to share your garden’s bounty is always much appreciated. Homegrown fresh flowers, herbs, veggies and fruits provide the most elegant of offerings. Sharing, helping, kindness equals feeling good all around.

One of the sweetest gifts I’ve received was a flat of young plants from seeds carefully collected by an old gardener going through very hard times. Knowing my love for columbines, he’d collected seeds from those in his plot and got them started. When they were ready for planting, he presented them to me. It felt like I’d just inherited the earth.

With children, taking the time to teach them or have them ‘help’ in the garden is one of the best gift exchanges of all. The adult gets to enjoy alone time with the child, pass on valuable lessons and the young one gains more than he/she can ever know. While receiving instruction on growing plants, thoughts and secrets are shared, confidence boosted and bonds strengthened.

If someone enjoys music or the theater, get tickets to a performance. Go together. Share a meal before or after. That memory will endure far longer than any object you might have given. Trust me.
If tickets are beyond your budget, make a date to watch the show on DVD/Netflix/on-line. Pizza, popcorn and libation of choice round out the present nicely.

One year, struggling to come up with gift ideas for boys, I taught a college sophomore a few super- simple recipes he could use to ‘impress’ his friends at his next party. We not only got to know each other better but, we shared lots of laughter over those tasty treats and the young man has gone on to become quite the amateur chef. I didn’t make him a cook. All I did was show him he could do it.

If a child plays a music instrument, then taking her to a concert where the soloist plays that particular instrument will go a long way in sustaining the interest. It doesn’t have to be a concert at Lincoln Center ( which of course is a real pleasure), but there are lesser known,highly talented groups/orchestras that play locally. Tickets to their events are less costly and just as enjoyable. In which case, a season’s subscription could be in order.

Likewise, an interest in art or natural history can be supported with membership to museums. Taking that person to a special exhibit might be all you can afford but it’ll be more than sufficient to show how much you care.

Walking/biking dates with a friend, a regular visit and game of Scrabble with one confined to the bed/house, a weekly phone or Skype chat living someone living far away …. the list is endless. Recently, a friend told me her son, a college freshman in the Midwest, missed the colorful fall of the Northeast. So, I sent him a box of multi-hued leaves. I had fun picking the leaves and he had a good laugh receiving them. I was sent a photo of his window decorated with said leaves.

The common thread through all of these gifts is that triumvirate of thoughtful giving: Personal Time, Attention and Understanding. The garden taught me that.

Note: From Dec 8 – 22, 2015, the Holiday Art Show is on at the Phyllis Harriman gallery of the New York Art Students League. Lots of art to be enjoyed! You might score a great deal. Take a friend and make it a play date. Full disclosure – I have a painting in the show.

Enjoy the photos of this year’s Train Show at NYBG. It is always inspiring and delightful.

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar