This Certain Change

Have you noticed? The apples have begun to blush while the fireflies are still courting. The lettuce have bolted but the asters are heavy in bud. The bees are crazy busy yet, the Monarch butterflies are regrouping to migrate. Even as we still warm our toes in the sun, the light in the afternoon hangs lower. That’s right, summer is slowly slipping away and autumn is tiptoeing in cautiously. Another week and the kids in my town are back in school – is there a surer sign that the seasons are changing places?

So for this week, enjoy the last days of August. Set aside time to simply be. Let the dew on the grass bathe the soles of your feet. Rest your eyes and listen to the song of the cardinals. Watch the lengthening shadows from the embrace of the hammock. Savor every last drop of summer.

This Certain Change

August is leaving

Summer lingers

Yet, I sense that

Fall has crept in

Settled down

in the usual places

Only, I don’t notice

Summer is still getting

her way.

I take a deep breath

inhaling a top note of autumn

Earth still stubbornly

giving up little

She’s holding on tightly

to summers warmth

So her heart

can keep beating

when winter roars.

– Shobha

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Harmonizing With Summer

What sounds come to mind when you think of summer? The thrum of bees on sorties in the midday sun. The vibrato of hummingbird wings as they hover over the stand of Bergamot in bloom. The periodic crescendo of cicadas punctuating the sultry, hot hours. The early morning choir of avian throats stirring the world awake. The staccato beat of the woodpecker keeping time on the dying sugar maple. The sunset chorus of frogs by the pond. The frenetic percussion of a summer thundershower ending the heat wave. The high pitched laughter of sun-kissed children cooling off in the neighborhood pool. These are the sounds of my idyllic summer.

Sadly, it has become almost impossible to truly enjoy these seasonal melodies. Like the rustling of candies being unwrapped or the ringing of the unsilenced phone ruining the experience of going to the philharmonic or movie, our solace in our gardens is being spoiled by mowers and leaf blowers in use at any given hour of day. They drown out the natural sounds or worse, scare away the musicians all together.

The Law of Mo-Blo rules our lives all through the warm months. If you’re sitting down to an al fresco meal or settling in for a read and/or nap in the hammock, rest assured a neighbor will begin priming the mower or leaf blower. It never fails. The noise from these machines has permanently become the background sound of the season. The hallmark of summer in suburbia.

But, it needn’t be a status quo. We can do something about it. We must make the effort for the sake of our health, our hearing, the environment and our sanity.

The verdict is in. Particulate matter is produced at dangerous levels by leaf blowers, hedge trimmers and brush cutters. Pregnant women and young children must be kept away from their harm. Recent studies at the University of Pittsburgh have implicated these particulates in increasing the risk of childhood autism by as much as 50%.
The high decibel noise generated by yard equipment can damage our hearing. The people operating the machines are exposed to this noise even more so. The U.S. Surgeon General warns that “Excessive noise exposure during pregnancy can influence embryonic development”.
That the machines consume a great deal of gas and the resulting pollution of the air hardly needs reiteration.

Additionally, leaf blowing erodes soil, destroys the habitats of wildlife, stirs up pesticides, dust and fungal/bacterial spores (watch out asthmatics), reduces the water retention capacity of soil and in high temperature, causes ground level ozone formation.

I don’t need to elaborate on the repercussions of being distracted or unsettled in our work and other creative pursuits by the impact of loud sounds. And I certainly don’t need to discuss the ruined ambiance at outdoor events. I expect very little argument against the need to curtail the use of the harmful machines.

So lets get pro-active. For starters, every town should have ordinances limiting the hours of lawn equipments use. Personally, I’d like a ban on any such noise after 6:00 pm on weekdays and absolutely no weekend use altogether. This might be seen as inconvenient at first but, trust me we can get used to it. The tranquillity that will ensue will be worth the adjustment. Across the country, there are some towns that have such laws but they are too few and far between. A concerted program is in order. Every citizen ought to lobby for it.

Until such legislation is instated, neighbors could form their own pacts to be considerate and thoughtful. Come to a consensus for the betterment of all.

At a personal level, follow the three Rs – Reduce, Recycle, Reuse. Reduce the lawn area by creating more/larger flower beds, planting more trees, letting a meadow grow. Mow with the blade at a height of about four inches. Let lawn clippings stay on the lawn as they will quickly settle down to nourish the soil and keep it from drying too fast.
Rake leaves off lawns and dispose them in the compost. You can skip a trip to the gym on those days! Let leaves remain in beds as they make for a good mulch – the soil will be enriched and kept moist and weed free. Plants will require less watering too.

If you must, use electric instead of the gas powered machines. This is the lesser of the two evils. Seriously consider getting a manual powered reel lawn mower. The new models are light to use and very efficient. And so quiet! Some sweat equity and fresh air will do us all good.
If you employ a lawn service, discuss with them the need for environmentally sound measures. There are now companies that offer ‘green’ management of yards. They might charge more but are worth the expense. What you think you’re saving in money by hiring the much too common mow-blow- and go crews actually comes at great cost to all of our well being. And this includes our pets, our environment and the entire planet.

We must each play our part responsibly so we can forever dance in harmony to the pure sounds of summer.

My front lawn is quite tiny. The grass is kept at a height of 4 inches. While it looks pristine, it is not all purely grass. Many other greens such as clover are mingled in.

My front lawn is quite tiny. The grass is kept at a height of 4 inches.
While it looks pristine, it is not all purely grass. Many other greens such as clover are mingled in.

The meadow in May. It gets mowed perhaps two times in the whole year - towards the very end of summer. With a push-reel mower.

The meadow in May. It gets mowed perhaps two times in the whole year – towards the very end of summer. With a push-reel mower.

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Whole leaf mulch at the Singapore Botanical Gardens

Whole leaf mulch at the Singapore Botanical Gardens

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

How To Get The Popular Vote

I’m going to help you shine at the next soirée you attend. Not with make-up or fashion tips – you’re on your own on those counts. I’m going to share with you the sort of stuff that will make everybody wonder about your high level of curiosity and intellect. Or, they might just think you’re kinda awesomely weird. Either way, your presence will be noted and remembered. So, lets get started.
I’m always on the look out for simple yet brilliant problem solving information. Out of the box thinking excites me. You’ll see what I mean:
First up is the use of moles in archaeological digs. That’s right, the much reviled creature is being put to proper work! A museum in northern Denmark is using the velvety creatures to gather information at a site where it is thought the remains of a fort from the Middle Ages are hidden below. The contents of the mole hills left behind by the animals are analyzed so the underground locations of the buildings can be determined. Bits of pottery and such are brought up in the mix of soil. The more the content of these, the closer they are to the buildings. How about that?!!
“Moleology”can be as effective as more technical research methods. The big bonus is that it doesn’t destroy anything at the historical mounds in order to get a lot of important information.
Understandably, the Danish culture agency initially thought the application by Viborg Museum was a joke. But after realizing the idea was legitimate they approved it. Ha.
We now come to my second nugget of brilliance. Dandelions, another object of disdain in many lawn loving circles, might be the future producers of rubber. To ensure the steady supply of natural rubber for tires, manufacturers are hoping to harness flower power in a big way.
Although rubber can be manufactured in a lab, tires require a large portion of natural rubber as it is more superior in flexibility and hardiness. Natural rubber is made from the milky latex of the rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis. However, this comes at a high ecological cost. Not the least is that the rubber trees in Asia are vulnerable to the same fungal diseases that decimated those in Brazil.
So there has been a need to come up with alternatives. Enter the humble dandelion. Scientists are working to improve the Central Asian strain of this weed that can supply latex sap on a large enough scale. Imagine! One day, there could be dandelion rubber farms!
My own fondness for these cheerful plants is vindicated.
Finally, there is good news from Europe in the fight against the bee-killing Asian hornets. Asian hornets ( not the European hornets) are a menace to bee hives and are spreading across Europe. They now face a natural enemy that lures them to destruction – a carnivorous North American plant, French experts say. Our own pitcher plant from Massachusetts is trapping the alien hornets but not the native wasps. Pheromone specific! Hot damn.
Each Sarracenia plant has up to 15 pitchers, and can attract as many as 50 hornets. But a typical hornet’s nest houses 4,000 insects – so the plants by themselves cannot deal with the problem. Clearly, much more research is required. A super-pitcher plant in the future? In any case, once again, Americans might have to save Europe. It is deja-vu all over again.
You see? You now have some priceless ice-breakers for your next party. Have fun.

Dandelions in my meadow. How splendid they look with the ajuga, daffodils and forget-me-nots.

Dandelions in my meadow. How splendid they look with the ajuga, daffodils and forget-me-nots.

Asters are a huge honey-bee magnets.

Asters are huge honey-bee magnets.

Pollination in progress

Pollination in progress

Bumble bees at work in the meadow

Bumble bees at work in the meadow

Ladybug on pest patrol.

Ladybug on pest patrol.

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Color Me True

Remember the colors you liked as a young child? Bright, joyous colors that shouted out their exuberance! We dressed with abandon, matching purple socks with a magenta skirt that sported yellow polka dots. It made us feel so happy. I recall a favorite dress that screamed chartreuse and pink. And you know what? I still love that combination. Particularly in the garden. Think Euphorbia polychroma and Triumph tulips like Barcelona – acid yellow/green with fuchsia! Stunning right?

Yet, as we grow up, we permit all sorts of rules to be imposed on our sensibilities. We give in to norms and tastes that do not necessarily reflect our own. Afraid to be different and call attention to ourselves, we join the herd. Which is a shame. We need more unique voices in our midst. I’m not suggesting anarchy or that we be inconsiderate but rather, I’m calling for us all to be true to ourselves. Lets not hide behind uniformity or be bullied by arbitrary taste-makers. Instead, we can each be a distinct, exceptional piece in the social quilt of life.

If breaking out and expressing yourself in all areas of your life is a daunting thought, then start with your garden. Maybe just a single flower bed. Forget rules about how many of each type of plant, coordinating colors etc., Just go for what your heart desires. As you tend this patch, you yourself will work out the details and specifics that best appeal aesthetically. Soon, you’ll feel confident about spreading your preferences to the rest of your garden. From there, move on to your home’s interior, your clothes, jewelery, choice of reading material…. take my word, you’ll feel good.

In my recent travels, I’ve come across many gardens but the the most memorable ones were invariably those that had their own spin. Clashing colors that put a big smile on your face. Unfettered by any visible scheme, these gardens celebrated the season. They created an atmosphere of unadulterated fun. And isn’t that exactly what summer is for?

I’d love to hear about your color tastes from childhood and if you still love those hues. If yes, how do you incorporate them in your adult life?

Note: For those of you in my neck of the woods, you have the opportunity to visit a wonderful garden this Saturday August 8. Mike Bakwin’s garden is open from 10 am to 4 pm. Mike is a good friend of mine and I can personally attest to the beauty of his garden. You might even see me there! For details click here.

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Life Hacking In The Garden

Every now and then, one comes upon little nuggets of wisdom that make life better. Like using plain dental floss to slice cheesecake. Puts paid to messy knives and sloppy servings. Or making lemonade/ coffee ice cubes to add to your lemonade or ice-coffee. As the cubes melt, they will not dilute the drink.

Here are some handy hints for the gardener:

Sprinkle baking soda around your tomato plants to get a sweeter yield.

Plant courgettes beneath French or runner bean tepees to save space and give shade later on.

Feed roses with Epsom salt. The same compound dissolved in a tub of cool water is also good to soak your tired feet in after a day in the garden.

Day old tulip blooms can be kept in the refrigerator for as long as a few weeks. Bring them out and place in room temperature water to wake up and open in time for your special event. Keep this in mind next spring.

On that note about chilling flowers, if you have a floral arrangement sitting pretty in your home and you are going away for the weekend, stick said flowers in the refrigerator. When you get back home, your flowers will be waiting to beautify your home once more. I usually stick vase and all in the ‘fridge.

Losing your boxwoods to blight? Ilex crenata is a reliable substitute for boxwood. It is can be just as easily clipped and shaped. Grows in a variety of soils and situations.

This last one is my favorite – I mention it often. Yet, how many of you remember?
Pour boiling hot water on all those pesky, hard-to-get-at-weeds that grow between flag stones and brick work. Do this on a day when rain is not imminent. Easy as pie. No more torn nails or unsuccessfully struggling to pull out the weeds along with roots.

Simple, sound advice easily heeded. Leaves plenty of time to enjoy the season.

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Brick walkway kept weed free with the use of boiling water.

Brick walkway kept weed free with the use of boiling water.

Epsom salt fed roses

Epsom salt fed roses

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Post-Vacation Depression

No matter how good a vacation I’ve had, I’m generally quite happy to be back in my corner of the world. There is truly nothing like the familiarity and comforts of home. Taking that first shower, settling into my own bed, making my coffee exactly the way I like it are reminders that I’m where I most love to be. Simple pleasures for which I’m enormously grateful. If I never went away I’d never know to appreciate how good I have it.

As much as I’m bursting to explore the garden, I usually take my time. Sometimes, I’ll delay it by as much as a day. Having first taken care of unpacking, laundry, awaiting mail, restocking the refrigerator and generally addressing matters to ensure domestic bliss, I turn my attention to the outdoors. With a degree of trepidation. While the house pretty much remains in the condition in which I left it, the garden appears to assume an alternative lifestyle. A devil may care, no holds barred attitude. If you’ve ever lived with a teenager then you know what I mean. So my hesitation to step into the garden is understandable.

Before this particular trip, I worked extra hard to get all the garden chores done. Weeding, mulching, trimming and tidying up were done with due diligence. Really. I took my leave feeling quite smug about how in-shape the place looked. How wild could it get in two weeks?

The answer is : plenty wild. All the rain that lavishly fed the garden must’ve been loaded with cloud borne super-fertilizer. Everything is out of control. The plants look like they’ve doubled in size. And the weeds! They have invaded, multiplied and conquered. I cannot recall them ever being this prolific. What on earth is going on? And I’d worked so hard to get the garden in order before going away! To absolutely no avail.

With so much to do and faced with an ongoing heat wave, I’m feeling rather disheartened. It is going to take many, many sweat drenched hours to restore some order and frankly, I’m not at all looking forward to it. I’m dreading the guaranteed bug bites and heat induced fatigue. And fully resent giving up a fair chunk of my lolling/reading time. How dare the garden mock my earlier efforts to groom it? Its enough to send me back inside and to the unfailing comfort of a pint ( or two) of ice-cream.

BUT, I refuse to throw in the trowel. I cannot let myself succumb. The garden has taught me well – to persist and never let anybody or anything stop me from going after my dreams. And I dream of a beautiful, life-affirming garden that nurtures and nourishes all who choose to be in it. So there.

Note:
The saving grace of this new jungle are the hydrangea and echinacea that are blooming with abandon. There is so much of the former that I’ve harvested arm loads to fill huge pitchers – they now adorn every room in the house. Such bounty, such bliss.

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

This Unjealous Heart

I’m currently about as far removed from my garden as I could possibly be. In almost equatorial conditions, I’m feasting my eyes on plants that I couldn’t even remotely consider growing. Last week I was in Singapore and this week I’m basking in Phuket, Thailand. Yes, somebody has to live the tough life.

Everywhere I look I see the kind of specimens I only get to see in the conservatory at the New York Botanical Gardens. Things are lush and luscious here. It is also incredible hot and humid so don’t start envying me too much.

What I’m particularly delighted with is seeing plants growing as nature intended. Orchids emerging from the ground or from niches in trees and rocks rather than pots. The same with Birds of Paradise and Lobster Claw plants. The flamboyant flowers of the Tropics that we only get to see at the florist are thriving happily – they are as common as our asters and coneflowers. Frangipani trees festooned with flowers perfume the nights. The heat heightens the fragrances of all the plants.

The ultimate pleasure of such an experience, in my mind, is the wholehearted joy I can take in it without even a drop of envy. It is kind of like going to the museum and viewing masterpieces – I can be inspired and enraptured but I do not covet. The same is true here. As I cannot dream of growing these beauties back in my zone 6 garden in New York, I am not disheartened in any way.

This is so freeing. Unlike visits to gardens back home where one is prone to compare and contrast them to one’s own, there is no such pressure here. I feel neither inadequate nor greedy. I can simply observe and enjoy. Now there’s a state of mind I ought to seriously cultivate.

On that note, I leave you with some glorious images of flowers and a few rather impressive trees. This time next week, I’ll be back in my own garden. Yanking away at weeds no doubt.

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer Nights

Summer nights are sensory experiences. Evoking our primal conncection to the natural world. Taking us back to a time when we lived by what was happening around us. Perhaps it is why we still feel the magic of summer nights – when we reestablish our place in the larger scheme of things.

Like me, I hope you too are taking every opportunity to savor these ephemeral, nocturnal pleasures in the garden.

Summer Nights

Wrapped in the thick air
heavy with heat
laden with moist
Watching fireflies
mimic the stars
against black velvet
Serenaded boldly
by tree frogs
and crickets
Fanned from on high
wings of bats
on purposeful sorties
While night moths
answer service calls
of moonflowers
and gardenias
Spicy notes of phlox
rise with the night
perfumed with clove,
oil of bergamot
essence of rose
Lulled into
well being
content to remain
greet the dew
of a new day.

Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Brugamansia flowers awaiting moths in the dark of the night.
Brugamansia flowers awaiting moths in the dark of the night.

 

Summer phlox

Summer phlox

 

White flowers illuminating the dusk in my friend Ron's garden.

White flowers illuminating the dusk in my friend Ron’s garden.

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Inside Out

About a week ago, I had an experience that set my heart racing and seriously tied up my tongue. I met Dr. Oliver Sacks.
It was actually my second encounter with him. The first was very brief. But then, even if I met him a million times I’d be reduced to a blathering idiot – he has that effect on me. I have such a deep respect and reverence for the man.

Having read his many books and articles, attended some of his talks, listened to podcasts, avidly followed his newsletters and generally admired him for decades, I hold him responsible for affecting how I live. The word live is the key. Dr. Oliver Sacks is fully engaged in living. His curiosity and thirst to examine every aspect of this big, beautiful world is hard to match.

He observes and examines. He tries to understand or work out the mechanics of how things/people function. Then, he explains what he has learned or thought out to the rest of us, in language that is clear and easy to comprehend. His writings are seasoned with a wit that elicits laughter even as one learns a complex topic. Dr. Sacks is brilliant at exposing us to our own humanity and telling us that no matter what, it is all right to be just as we are. Reading him makes me feel smart. At least for a while.

For years I knew of Dr. Sacks as a neuroscientist but then I read his book the Oaxaca Journal. This was about going on a fern hunting expedition. Ferns? Turns out Dr. Sacks is passionate about them. Interestingly, that expedition was led by Dr. John Mickel, he who is godfather to my vertical garden. John once told me that whilst on that trip, every time the team took a break, Oliver Sacks sat by himself and wrote in his journal. He was shy and quiet. Soon after they got home and before John had written up his scientific papers on the discoveries made on the expedition, a package was delivered to him. It was the manuscript to Oaxaca Journal in which Dr. Sacks expounds on not just ferns but related topics like chocolate, culture and other earthly wonders in that part of the world! John jokes that he needn’t have bothered writing his own papers.
Just goes to show once again that great minds are invariably naturalists and/or plantsmen as well. Galileo, Darwin, Sacks …

Dr. Sacks takes big bites of life and chews each mouthful thoroughly. No matter what he does, he does so with almost an obsession. Then he tells us all about it. How our brains work explains how we feel and behave. What goes on inside manifests on the outside. This is true for anything.

The current status of his health is well known. The great man has terminal cancer. But, he does not ask for pity or even empathy. Instead, he shows us how to keep living. He is still writing, visiting friends and doing all that he can and wants to do. He continues to make visible the unseen and unknown.

So how has he affected my life? I’ve learned to remain curious about everything. To stay present, to pay attention and learn all that life teaches. In the garden, in relationships, in work both creative and mundane, in the ordinary, in the different, in the new and in the old. Nowhere am I more cognizant of Dr. Sacks’ instruction as in the garden when I’m always confronting the familiar in novel, new ways.

He presented me with a personally signed copy of his latest book Moving On – a memoir. It will be treasured for life. I’m about to embark on a journey into Oliver Sacks’ life and I’m tightening my belt. It promises to be a bumpy, glorious ride.

On the heels of meeting my hero, I saw the movie Inside Out – an absolutely wonderful film about our emotions. It is on neuroscience if you will! Coincidence? I think not. I do wonder if Dr. Sacks has seen it and what he has to say about it. I highly recommend you go see it!
For a neuroscientist’s take on the movie, click here.

To read about Dr. Oliver Sacks, his books and his blog, click here.

My first meeting with Dr. Oliver Sacks

My first meeting with Dr. Oliver Sacks

A collection of ferns at Dr. Mickels' garden

A collection of ferns at Dr. Mickels’ garden

My vertical garden of ferns and heuchera

My vertical garden of ferns and heuchera

My most recent encounter

My most recent encounter

 

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Saving Face

Do you ever have that intense desire to completely do over an entire part of the garden? But before you can give in to this extreme act, sound reason gilded with just a trace of lethargy steps in? I hope you know what I’m alluding to because I’d hate to think I’m alone in madcap thoughts.

Each year about now when spring is transiting to summer and again, when fall is barely edging out summer, I can’t stand the front perennial beds. They look kinda meh! if you get my drift. The blooms of printemp that shone so gaily are dimming their lights but the flowers of summer have yet to hear their cue. There is no doubt a lush greenness present but the oomph is missing. In the broadcast world this would be described as dead air and something to avoid at all costs. In the garden design world this is not quite as serious but still a situation to prevent. If possible.

The problem is, nature has a mind of her own. No amount of careful planning will entirely eliminate the problem. In fact, my careful orchestration is happily ignored all too often. This year being no exception. Nothing followed anticipated patterns. It worked out okay except for now – unhappily, true to form, the perennial beds are pretty much doing nothing for my morale. I could use some annuals and maybe I will but, I’d still prefer to rely mostly on perennials.

I had high hopes for the rose on the front arch. Being late to bloom this season, for once, I guaranteed myself a seamless transition to summer. The arch would carry us till the phlox and acanthus made their appearance. But recent thunderstorms put paid to that dream. The cascade of soft pink roses now hang limp and tired, shedding petals resembling bits of brown paper.

Back to square one. There is nothing to hold ones attention in the front garden. The window boxes are trying but it is unfair to think they must carry the whole front. Clearly, something for this specific time is required. I’m flummoxed because in the past, everything I have planted for this purpose has turned traitor. They have all chosen an earlier or later time to bloom in my garden.

But, I’m not ready to surrender. I think I’m being challenged. If the garden has taught me anything, it is to never give up. As long as there is life, there is hope. A trip to the nursery is in short order. Stay tuned.

Perhaps I’ll run into some of you there?

The window boxes

The window boxes

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The beds are just all green. You see?

The beds are just all green. You see?

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar