Getting To Know You

IMG_1022What are the things you absolutely cannot live without? I’m asking things not people. Yes, air, water and food are obvious but those are not what I’m asking about. Nor do pictures of your loved ones count. Think about it. We love a lot of items but there some essentials that the very core of our being needs to sustain itself and be whole. There are probably many things that come to mind. List them. Now pare the list down to the three most important. Those three things probably define you. Am I right?

I asked myself this same question. The final three came down to flowering plants, classical music (specifically Bach’s compositions), books. Make your own analysis about moi. I’ve been having a blast analyzing myself.

The value of Bach’s music is easy to understand. No other composer moves me as he does. It is as though he knows the human condition intimately and calls upon us to reach for our higher selves. For me personally, Bach’s music is the highest, purest form of prayer. His music moves the planets. From such a reaction, I understand that I’m spiritual and something of a purist. Both true – I don’t like Shakespeare performed to suit modern times, operas dumbed down to attract ‘younger’ audiences, brownies a la mode ( keep the ice-cream and brownie separate!) or emailing in abbreviations. I readily embrace new concepts, I just don’t like the classical forms messed with. No doubt a psychologist will have much more to say from this.

Books – I cannot get enough of learning, imagining, being inspired and yes, escaping. The very sight of a pile of books makes me happy. Without books, I couldn’t nurture my own creativity. And without creativity, I’m lost. Okay, cranky and impossible to live with.

Flowering plants. That made me think. I have waxed eloquent on many occasions about the role nature plays in our lives, our psyche. So my absolute requirement for staying connected to nature is a no-brainer. But, I’ve refined it further to flowering plants. Mind you, I’m enchanted with foliage. The colors, the variety, the textures that abound in foliage are hugely impressive and very satisfying. If they were to be all that a garden was designed around, I’d be quite content in such a place. But, I discovered that I must have flowers as well. Why?

True, they are beautiful. They add shots of color that uplift the spirit. Many provide fragrance to suffuse our souls. But beyond the apparent, what exactly makes them get on my list? It is the anticipation of them that I find invaluable. Awaiting the flowers keeps me going. Like the caliph in Scheherazade’s stories in One Thousand And One Arabian Nights, I keep wanting to ‘see’ how the story unfold. As much as I love the flowers in bloom, waiting for them is a most exquisite pleasure. It is why I like planning and preparing for a party more than the event itself. Or why Fridays are better than the weekend. The last weeks of winter and first weeks of spring are sweeter than the rest of the growing season.

Flowers are how I get through the winters – amaryllis and paperwhites abound in the house all of November and December. Meanwhile, the refrigerator is occupied with bulbs needing a cooling period. They will be ‘forced’ in January/February. March is passed with forced forsythia and cherry blossoms. April takes over with blooms outdoors. Receiving cut flowers is always wonderful but having to watch and wait for the bulbs or plants to bloom is even more exciting.

But there are two other qualities bestowed by the expectancy. Patience and hope. I work on having the former and this promise of all good things come to those who wait is my regular instruction. A kind of gentle guide provided by nature herself. Expecting instant gratification is no way to go through life. Having a deep appreciation for the way things develop suits me better. As a born optimist, I’m good with the latter quality. Having to wait perforce simply reaffirms that I’m on the right path. Without hope, how could one go on? The much anticipated flowers have no idea of the big responsibilities they bear. They, as all of life, are ephemeral. I must therefore use my own time consciously and fully.

In the anticipation, I visualize the outcome over and over. I imagine perfect, happy endings. For , in the course of waiting, the world, in my mind, is unsullied. Still pure and in perfect balance. No violence, madness , inequality or corruption. I imagine the universe in the harmony that Bach invokes. I attempt to do my part in making that a reality.

In the final analysis, all three of my imperatives are also my muses. Without them, I could not create. And then, we’re back to being grumpy and loathsome.

So there you have it. The three things I cannot live without. They teach me who I am and how to live.

What three precious things are on your list?

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On the subject of flower power, don’t forget! It is the season to write notes to friends and family – my botanical cards are available for just that purpose. The 8-card packs are also good for hostess and teacher gifts. Just saying. 15% percent of the sales goes to the Rocky Hills preservation efforts of the Garden Conservancy.

(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Cultivating Giving And Gratitude

‘Tis the season for giving. You already knew that. The media informs us of it every second of the day. The businesses have already taken care of all the worries and inconveniences. Short on cash? No problem. There are layaways, store credit with no interest till year 2016 when presumably you will be well off, free shipping, sales and heavy discounts and of course, their everyday low prices. Strapped for time? Personal shoppers, on-line shopping, experts who will tailor your gift list for people you didn’t know you knew or loved, will take care of that problem. Gift wrappers, tree decorators, party planners, caterers, clean up services, even people who will eat and exercise for you are on the ready to serve you. No need to interrupt your uber-busy life.

Personally, the garden reminds me all the time to be grateful, to give freely, to be in the moment. The time, energy and love I lavish on it is directly proportional to the difference I make and how I feel. To begin with, getting my hands dirty, getting on my knees, bending and lifting as I go about tending to the garden, keep me humble. The sore muscles, achy joints, broken nails, scratched skin and seasonal allergies are evidence that nothing worthwhile comes easy. My efforts are rewarded with beauty and bounty. Much to be thankful and awed by. By taking care of the needs of a garden, I am forced to be mindful. My time spent cultivating it is reciprocated in a better understanding of nature, the world at large and my own self. As I better my garden, I find that I have bettered myself. The tutorial here is really about giving more of oneself. Having a lovely garden is the gift I give to family, my world, myself. For nurturing this piece of land, nature returns the favor in the many life lessons and innumerable brushes with grace.

Here is my take on giving. Each act of giving must involve the self in a deep way. When you have money, time, health and general wherewithal, it is easy to give. Write a check, sign up for a couple of hours at the soup kitchen, join a committee to fund raise – heck, head the committee why don’t you, purchase toys for underprivileged kids, train and run a marathon for a cure. You get the idea. All of that is noble, necessary and commendable. But, now, ask more of yourself. Make that check bigger by letting go of your dream for one more pair of designer shoes. After writing that check, ask what else you can do for that cause. Extend your hours at the soup kitchen and forget about the movie you hoped to take in. It’ll be on Netflix soon enough. Even better, you can pick up the DVD for free from the library. It will not hurt to see it a few months late. Take the toys you purchased and personally deliver it to the children. Spend some time with the recipients and get to know them. Skip the blow-out sales at the mall and shop local. Help your community thrive. So you didn’t get all the trendy bargains but, you helped more people than you know. Having fewer but more meaningful presents to give is good. Give by reaching deep within yourself.

The point I’m trying to make is this: give till it hurts a wee bit. Make it matter. Making a personal sacrifice so you can be of the most help is the spirit of true giving. It creates a mindfulness of how and what you give. Accommodating opportunities to volunteer and help despite tight schedules, lack of funds and/or other limitations and obligations is when we are called upon to rise to the occasion and show our true intentions. Please don’t get me wrong. Any gift is worthy. But, in these times of extreme consumerism we are all too caught up in the frenzy of thoughtless giving (and getting). The bigger, the more expensive the better. It is also the easiest. Meanwhile, since most folk do not have deep pockets, this results in feelings of being inadequate and insufficient. Worse, one witnesses the rearing of the ugly heads of discontent and envy. Often, people then don’t give at all. Sadly, it is not about wounded feelings but about bruised egos that gets in the way of giving.

Every little bit helps. So if you can only give $1.00, that is fine but perhaps you can also give the gift of time. The homemade, handmade and heart made are often the most cherished. Creativity and imagination go a long way in increasing the giving possibilities.

As a whole, we need to stop feeling sorry for what we don’t or cannot have or afford. Cease to look outside our lives and instead look within. Compare yourself to no one. Consider your blessings. The body you have is beautiful as is. It permits you to do the things you need to do. Cherish that. It probably could use more exercise, less dessert and better sleep. Well, you can do something about it but right now, give thanks for this perfectly imperfect body. The same goes for everything else in your life.

Between sincere gratitude and pure generosity, we have all the ammunition we need to make a serious difference in bettering our world. Everybody thinks they are too busy and frankly, I’m tired of hearing that refrain. The fact is, if we care enough about anything, we always find time for it. If we want to have or do something badly enough, we always get it done. It’s that simple. But please, I beg you, lets not brag about it, consider ourselves ‘experts’ or expect accolades. You know what you do and that is enough.

Instead, let your garden proclaim your goodness.
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Don’t forget! It is the season to write notes to friends and family – my botanical cards are available for just that purpose. The 8-card packs are also good for hostess and teacher gifts. Just saying. 15% percent of the sales goes to the Rocky Hills Preservation efforts of the Garden Conservancy.

(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Sacred Groves, Mighty Cathedrals

Replete with gratitude and Thanksgiving repast, I sought the outdoors for a little reflective time and to come out of the turkey stupor. The rush of cold air instantaneously removed the cobwebs from my mind. I took a walk in the woods appreciating how wonderful it felt to be in this place at this moment. It felt very right.

As much as I enjoy hiking in more open spaces, it is amidst the trees that I’m made aware of my state of grace. Walking slowly along the tall pillars of this hallowed space, my breath is deep and deliberate. My body relaxes as accumulated tensions slip away. The soft light of the late afternoon streams through the high fenestrations in the naked branches bracing the forest’s vault. It creates gentle shadows that will soon merge into a singular darkness.

At first, I’m only conscious of the quiet but, as I let go of the noise in my head, the hushed sounds of life in the woods let me know that I’m not alone. My presence, if noted, does not appear to cause an interruption. Here, there is room for everybody. All are welcome.

Before I know it, I’m feeling more alive and uplifted. Restored in spirit, I head back to the house. It has only been a mere twenty minutes but I know the positive effects will remain much, much longer.

Trees have this power to influence us in ways beyond our understanding. Cultures all over the world have held them precious, sacred. Beyond the fact that trees are the source of fuel and food, shelter and shade, abodes and boats, they have been venerated. Trees have played a central, valued role in human history. Siddhartha became the Buddha under a Bodhi tree. There is the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. The Wishing Tree and the World Tree. In religion, mythology and literature one finds trees given exalted positions in the human context. All across the globe there are Sacred Groves, Holy Trees, labyrinths amidst trees and, old forests rich in folk lore. We need trees but they can well do without us.

I recall my visit to the Monarch Grove in Pacific Grove, California about ten years ago. Having read that west of the Rockies, Monarch butterflies spend their winters in this stand of eucalyptus trees, I was determined to visit it. It was August so no Monarchs were going to be there but I still felt compelled to go. We found it with some difficulty and as I approached the grove, it looked like nothing much. However, once I stepped into it, an inexplicable calm came over me. I had no doubt whatsoever that this was sanctified space. The Monarchs had blessed it so. Even in their absence, the holiness of the place was palpable. The eucalyptus stood sentinel. Guardians of everything meaningful; maintaining nature’s delicate balance. It was spellbinding. When I left this fragrant, leafy temple, I took with me the sense of having been in the presence of greatness.

I will share here something I’ve never told anyone – when I’m upset or troubled, I choose a tree and pour out all my thoughts and fears to it. Leaning on it or sitting beneath, I vent. The tree silently absorbs my worries and thus unburdens me so I am free to return to the business of living wholly. I call it my Shrieking Tree. Perhaps it ought to be renamed as the Shrink Tree. Has worked wonders for me.

Many years ago, we took our first trip to Provence, France. Topmost on my husband’s must-do list was to hug an ancient olive tree. Who knows why but this cerebral and pragmatic man felt driven to connect with a tree that had stood witness to so much history. It mattered to him. That’s it really, trees are inextricably linked to our human heritage. After all, we used to be arboreal.

Trees are living landmarks. They represent our past and hold our future. They need to be protected, honored and celebrated. Future generations deserve to inherit these treasured monuments of life.

If you haven’t paid much attention to trees lately, been too busy, stressed to the max and feel like you need more hours to the day, I ask you to pause. Trust me, whatever you are doing can wait a bit. Now go outside into the garden or to the nearest park or woods. Pick a good sized tree. Get close and lean into it. Spread your arms around it. Breathe deep.
Notice how you feel. Let the texture of the bark speak to you. Smell the earthiness. Listen to the sounds. Become aware of the dappled light, the temperature of the air and tree, the colors around. Allow the tree to embrace you back. Close your eyes and permit it to comfort you. Remain there for a few minutes or longer. Then, step back and observe how much better you feel. Hug a tree, hug the world.

Ancient olive trees

Ancient olive trees

 

The woods that border my garden

The woods that border my garden

 

The tree house

The tree house

 

Snow forest

Snow forest

 

Labyrinth in the woods

Labyrinth in the woods

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Note: If you are looking to send secular cards this season, or in need of hostess/teacher gifts, you might want to consider my botanical cards.
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Is Grateful Dead?

The garden has been put to bed. The final rounding up of leaves, mulching of beds and last of the bulbs were planted this past Sunday. It happened a bit later than usual due to the shockingly cold weather we recently experienced. There is a certain satisfaction that comes from completing the seasons chores before repairing indoors for the winter. One feels like one has delivered on being a responsible grown-up.

With my favorite holiday approaching fast, thoughts of gratitude filled my mind as I went about the tasks in the garden. Having this patch of earth to cultivate and call my own is in itself a prized gift. To tend land is so basic to humans and yet not always appreciated enough by those of us who primarily
garden more for pleasure than necessity. By having a garden, I feel I have been specially chosen and given custody of it for posterity.

The rewards of gardening are innumerable and I often wax eloquent on the subject. For maintaining physical, mental and emotional health, putting hands to earth cannot be beat. This has always been understood through the ages but research has established the sustained benefits of connecting with nature. Gives our puttering around the garden solid credibility.

As I take care of the myriad to-dos, I recall the many high points I’ve enjoyed through the growing seasons. The flowers, the vegetables, the birds and the babies they hatched here, the butterflies that never failed to thrill, the inspirations for my writings and my art, the visitors on Open Day so generous with their praise and, countless moments that awed and humbled. The garden hosted so many gatherings with loved ones: it provided place and reason for much laughter and fellowship. It also provided solace when I needed it and a sanctuary for quiet and contemplation. I am overcome with gratitude for my piece of paradise.

Looking back at the year I see how much I’ve been given in the garden and beyond. Even in the difficult moments, there were always the ‘helpers’. By allowing myself a retrospective of sorts, I am empowered by the received bounty and come the New Year, I can look ahead to being and doing better. In the big picture, all the minor grievances fade into oblivion. I firmly believe gratitude begets hope and optimism. The mainstays of all human endeavors. The work of one who attends to the land is the very embodiment of hope and optimism.

Those of us privileged to have a house with property often take it for grated or acquire it as a symbol of some level of success and affluence. In the context of the population at large, we fail to consider how few of us are given this precious gift. Being thankful should be the first and last thoughts in our minds every single day. But on Thanksgiving day, we should be rejoicing in this and all the people in our lives full on. Nothing else should matter. Surely we owe ourselves at least one day of the year to be completely present and give thanks mindfully and deliberately. Consciously counting ones blessings is perhaps the single most powerful factor in how well we live our lives.

So, when we are bombarded and barraged by retailers and media to toss away the opportunity to spend valuable time with family and friends and instead spend the time shopping, we ought to take serious umbrage. No person or organization should be permitted to invade our lives and disrupt the most fundamental essence of our humanity – to share our selves and break bread together. That is priceless and sacred.

From the depth of my heart I wish each of you a Thanksgiving rich in blessings and grace.
Here are some of the things for which I’m grateful:
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Weeding help!

Weeding help!


Beauty

Beauty


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(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Naturally Designed

As I write this, it is a dreary sort of day in autumn. The kind of day that calls for hot tea and crumpets slathered with butter to go with a hot book. Instead, I’m reviewing garden chores that remain to be done and plans for Thanksgiving and house-guests. It all sort of goes together. As the garden is put to bed, the house is given a revamp. What the outdoors might lack, the indoors must make up.

As I cut back and clear in the garden, I set aside material that could be used in arrangements and wreaths. The fall colors inspire what I choose to display or create for the house and myself This applies to home décor, clothing as well as, seasonal menus. Taking my creative cues from nature works out mighty fine.

The instinct to make the home warm and cozy comes by necessity. The cold, dark months keep us indoors a great deal and while animals grow thicker, longer fur, humans bring out blankets and thick coats from storage. But look at the colors we choose! More often than not, they are tones matching those found in nature. Hues that echo the earth, trees, leaves, flowers, water and sunshine.

It stands to reason doesn’t it? While we may require shelter and safety from the elements, we cannot do without consistent contact with nature. We bring in plants, select nature inspired furnishings, take solace in basic, comfort food that tell tales of soil and rain and sun-kissed days.

In my own preparation for the winter, I have paperwhites and amaryllis putting out green growth and timed to bloom just as December brings the year to a close. Jars of jellies, sauces and chutneys sit poised to flavor meals with the essence of summer. Blankets and throws in shades of sage, bark and sand lay scattered anywhere one might feel inclined to curl up. Plant and seed catalogs are kept handy for dreams and plans. Pinecones, acorns and seedpods decorate tables. Shells collected at the beach are displayed as treasure. Clementines and tangelos piled high like diminutive suns perfume the air and tempt one to pause and savor a healthy snack. The kitchen is redolent with aromas of root vegetables and herbs simmering in stews and casseroles. I put out napkins printed with images of flowers that only a few months ago bloomed in my garden. Everywhere I look I see tributes to the natural world. This is what defines me.

It is plain and simple, we cannot thrive without a constant connection to nature. Far beyond our need for physical sustenance, we need the presence of trees, birdsong, sunlight, flowers, rain and the occasional rainbow. Its what keep us whole and balanced.

As we settle indoors in the comfort of warmth and beauty, lets honor the spirit of the garden within us and keep blooming.

Attention!In keeping with the topic of bringing nature indoors, I am very excited to announce that I have designed a botanical fabric. Please check it out here. It available in a variety of fabrics and also as wallpaper and giftwrap. Fabric for pillows (18×18 sq.inches) is also available here.
Product ideas from this fabric design can be viewed here.
Also -In time for the holidays, have added two more sets of botanical cards. See them here. Great for sending out holiday greetings, hostess gifts, teacher gifts, thank you notes, get well soon …
Please check out these links and give feedback! Plan your gift list!
Paperwhites

Harvest of herbs

Harvest of herbs


Grape jelly

Grape jelly


Garlic - watercolor

Garlic – watercolor


Antlers and seaglass hold up amaryllis

Antlers and seaglass hold up amaryllis


(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Kiss Of Judas

The garden, a beautiful, productive piece of nature. A place to relax and recreate. An escape from the cares of the world. Paradise on earth. Enter at your own risk. What?

Yes, the garden is a dangerous place. There are more chances of getting hurt and/or sick right here than at a child’s trampoline party. More duplicity exists in the garden than in a single episode of House Of Cards. Hard to believe right?

There is the obvious of course – insects that bite or sting, snakes that terrify, rodents that reside in places you’d rather not know about, neighbors who consistently annoy and stress you out as they lurk about the fence alongside your terrace, plants with parts that pierce, burrs that cling and, limbs that stick out just so they meet your forehead with a whack every single time you hurry by. Not to mention the likes of poison ivy and that stunning but sinister monkshood. The list of plants with all or some parts that are poisonous is extensive and for the most part, we live with them quite harmoniously. Think hellebores, lily-of-the-valley, pennyroyal, foxgloves, rhubarb, hydrangea, rhododendron, wisteria, narcissus, chrysanthemums, …

Then there are the perils in the hardscaping. Paths that turn slippery when it rains, narrow steps that are less than stable, wooden railings that can fall apart from rot, stones and hoses that can trip, you get the idea.

But, there are the sly, seemingly innocuous threats in the blur of green and bounteous beauty. Lets start with seasonal allergies that we’re all too familiar with. Grass and tree pollen are ubiquitous elements in every garden. The allergy might kick in at any age and then every now and then it might amp its intensity or simply not bother to show up at all. I myself became victim to spring allergies only in recent years. It took me a while to figure out that this was what was causing my misery. I felt relieved to identify it and at the same time, I was absurdly upset. It felt as though my best friends had turned on me. I thought they liked me!

Years ago, each time I came in from weeding in the garden, I’d discover itchy rashes on my forearms. The saps of many plants cause skin conditions that can prove quite distressing. But I couldn’t think what was affecting me in the course of pulling young don’t-want-‘ems of assorted parentage. Then it occurred to me – the self-seeded euphorbias were the culprits. As I went about digging them out, some of the broken plants rubbed on my arms and caused the skin reaction. Often, saps, in combination with sunlight, will react with human skin aggressively. In my experience, this is true for figs, poppies and peonies amongst others. I’ve since learned to do much in the early or late hours of the day.

Likewise, handling hyacinth bulbs causes my hands to itch unless I wash them with soap and cool water soon after. Pricks from rose thorns are universally painful but in some like myself, it leads to long lasting wounds that hurt for days. I think the intensity is kind of disproportionate to the size of weapon. And terribly unfair. After all, I lavish so much kind attention on the offenders. I have no doubt that several undetermined, apparently common plants are responsible for my other discomforting reactions like hives and mild headaches.

Its hard to determine what will be toxic to a person until learned the hard way. By growing it. The irony is that we assume the plants we grow are harmless. The notion that any of them can hurt us is unthinkable. Yet, there are plenty of plants that adversely affect plenty of people. Quite literally, one gardener’s favorite plant is another man’s poison.

The next time you develop a mysterious itch, welt, rash, blister, swelling or, feel a tingling or pain, look to your botanical companions. There could well be a Judas in your midst.

Enjoy the gallery of rogues:

Hellebore

Hellebore


Daffodil

Daffodil


Peony

Peony


Wisteria

Wisteria


Cannot remember the name of this tropical plant. Observe thos thorns on the leaves!

Cannot remember the name of this tropical plant. Observe thos thorns on the leaves!


Rose

Rose


Monkshood

Monkshood


(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Ultimate Harvest

I am so overcome with the beauty around where I live. Autumn is just past its peak but the colors are still vivid and rich. The almost uniform green of summer has faded away and the more fiery hues shine brilliant. In the afternoon hours, the yellow leaves still clinging to trees act like gel filters permitting the sunlight to pass through and emerge pure and radiant. In counterpoint, the trunks and branches form a dark, abstract network holding up this vast, delicate lumière.

The fallen leaves scattered along roads and paths illuminate my walks. They create beautiful patterned carpets that give me as much cause to keep my head lowered as look up at the seemingly reflected blaze above. I am awash in light. There is a sacredness in this. We are each chosen to be anointed with the luminescence. As though our openness to receive it will determine how well we will shine our own way through the dark hours of winter.

In this season of harvest and stocking up for leaner times, it is reassuring to store, can, freeze, dehydrate, pickle and ferment. Wood is chopped and stacked. Fuel for inner and outer warmth. But that is not enough to keep the soul content. It is sustained by beauty and light. When the nights stretch far and the days barely get past gray, the soul reaches into the larder of memories infused with that energy only the truly aesthetic can contain. Like sunrises and sunsets, the emerging butterfly, a cobweb strung with raindrops twinkling in the sun, nascent growth revealed by the melting snow, the vibrancy and utter exuberance of the fall foliage. Harnessing the power of natural wonders nourishes the psyche. Its the difference between surviving and thriving. So I must linger in the light of the leaves and fill myself to the brim. To carry this gift within me is the challenge I must take up in order to pass the bleak periods with grace and dignity. The ultimate harvest.
Sunrise
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(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

“What A Wonderful World”

“I see fields of green
Red roses too … “
- Louis Armstrong

Every muscle in my body aches. Even in a state of rest, supine in bed, I feel the pain. There is no inclination whatsoever to rise and meet the day. A slight move elicits a big wince. I’m willing to forgo coffee and brushing my teeth – its simply too much effort to get up. I’m well past being embarrassed by my admission. No, I’m not unwell. I’ve been planting bulbs. Hundreds of them. One by one because they go between already established plants and other older bulbs. Every autumn I endure this ordeal. Every year I question my sanity. And every spring I am so ridiculously ecstatic to see the explosion of bulbs lighting up the garden.

There are still more bulbs to plant but for those, I’m recruiting the help of my family. They have been given no choice. Threats, guilt trips and bribery work well. I highly recommend those measures. I’m too sore to be nice. Rest assured I’ll return to nice after the body has forgotten its present trauma.

The other fall garden chores are also well underway. Cutting back and clean up, leaf raking, pruning, lawn reseeding, getting pots of tender perennials and tropicals into the greenhouse, planting new perennials and shrubs, pruning, cleaning and putting away outdoor furniture, the list goes on. Its exhaustive and exhausting. Then why do we gardeners punish ourselves repeatedly?

Because we must. It makes us happy. Keeps us in balance. It helps us make sense of this complicated, amazing world. Creating a beautiful, productive garden is our calling. As a result, other people appreciate us for our equanimity.

In post-bulb planting repose, I’ve had time to contemplate this horticultural preoccupation. Connecting so directly with nature as one does when gardening has rewards that cannot be matched by almost any other activity. Humans need green spaces. Our survival depends on it. Its not just for our food but our general well being. Since time immemorial, cultures everywhere have promoted the benefits of working or being in nature. At some level we have understood this need. There is no argument against the compulsion we have to seek our rest and recreation outdoors. It simply is.

Bad moods are banished after a turn in the garden or a walk in the park. Learning from personal experience, I’ve often dealt with the resident teenager’s age-appropriate histrionics by slyly getting her to do garden chores like weeding and watering. Her initial complaints, loud as they are, mean nothing to me. The child that returns indoors is invariably a transformed one.

I recently had to go out of town and was put up in a ‘resort’ of sorts. This place was vast – two thousand rooms, a large conference center, a full spa facility, seventeen restaurants, multiple shops, even a ‘riverboat cruise’ in a man-made ‘river’ that covered 4.5 acres. It had gardens, waterfalls and fountains. And all of this enormous complex was completely roofed over! There were well concealed vents that blew air to simulate a breeze. I found this place terribly disorienting. I was supposed to feel like I was outside but was instead in a bizarre world indoors. Most significantly, the painstakingly created gardens lacked vitality. After all, where were the sounds and activities of the birds, bees and butterflies? Where was that distinctly earthy aroma assuring me that worms and microbes were busy at work? These gardens of living, mostly tropical plants might as well have been fake. My mind and my heart could not, would not accept this make-believe world. There was no fooling them. It was a very unsettling experience. Like a newly caged bird, I got anxious and couldn’t wait to break free.

Lately, researchers have studied the benefits of green spaces. The anecdotal has moved to the scientific. More credible that way. Several studies have concluded what gardeners already knew – there is no doubt that spending some time in nature everyday considerably improves our health – mentally, physically and emotionally.

One study found that living with green spaces has a long-lasting positive influence on people’s mental well-being. Compared to the short term boost from pay rises and promotions, the positive effect from being in nature has a sustained, long term impact. Levels of anxiety and depression were reduced. The findings appear in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology. What is seen is that even after three years, mental health is still better which is unlike many of the other things that we think will make us happy.

So coming back to my current status of muscles in agony and reluctance to move, I admit that my spirits are high, my mood is upbeat and I’m already planning future projects in the garden. I’m also harboring the fantasy that the aforementioned body parts will shed fat, get toned and move like they used to twenty years ago. Thats the other thing – gardeners are huge dreamers.

Enjoy the images of New York City getting into the Halloween spirit:
NYC Halloween 1
NYC Halloween 2
NYC Halloween 3
NYC Halloween 4
NYC Halloween 5
NYC Halloween 6
NYC Halloween 7
NYC Halloween 8
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

To Hire Or Not To Hire – Part II

How often have you wished you had a cook, chauffeur or a general dogsbody to help you with the tasks of the day to day? An assistant to keep up with the paperwork. Someone to pick up the dry cleaning, getting the dog bathed or stocking up the refrigerator would be nice. Admit it, it has crossed your mind numerous times right?

The same happens in the garden. Busy schedules and/ or aging bodies could do with a little help. Keeping up with the seasonal demands in the garden whilst keeping abreast with duty calls elsewhere can be quite challenging . Recruiting the assistance of a gardener might be in order.

In suburbia, the sight of a team of men spilling out of a pick-up truck, unloading tractor mowers and powerful leaf blowers is as common as pigeons flocking in Central Park. The ‘mow, blow and go’ outfits fulfill very adequately the basic requirements of suburban living – a pristine property mostly displaying a swathe of green lawn. But a garden is more than lawn isn’t it? It has trees and shrubs, beds of flowers, vegetable plots and areas to sit and enjoy the beauty of nature. It is home to birds, butterflies, toads and other critters. A garden is a complex, diverse world, the upkeep of which involves watering, weeding, planting, fertilizing, pruning, cutting back, propping up, training, digging up, repositioning, composting, raking and a few other chores. All the while keeping it beautiful, productive and functional.

The English, who have a longstanding garden tradition, routinely employ a ‘jobbing’ gardener. This is an individual who has garden skills and can be relied on to take care of specified jobs. He/she can be hired for a few hours everyday or a couple of days every week. You tell them the job that needs doing and they do it. In the United States, such a person is not so commonly employed. People with the means tend to employ full time gardeners or the aforementioned weekly service. In my opinion, for someone who is an active gardener but needs extra hands, a jobbing gardener is a godsend. The peace of mind in knowing a task will get done correctly is invaluable. One stays involved with the garden but has the satisfaction that nothing will be neglected because attentions had to directed elsewhere.

Before you employ a gardener, consider what needs doing. These can run the gamut of chores you cannot do, don’t want to do or don’t have time to do. Depending on garden needs and available budget, a decision must be made to hire an experienced gardener or a novice. The former can pretty much do all or any of the work a garden needs without supervision while the latter will require some oversight. Your call.

Next, decide how often you need garden help. Seasonal or regular year-round or single project. Obviously, the expense of hiring depends on the level of experience the person has. How and when payments are to be made should be clear from the start.

Word of mouth is the most frequent way that gardeners get hired. Personal recommendations are best.
Self-employed individuals or a company depends again on what is required and how much you can spend. It is imperative to have trust in the person. Developing a good working relationship goes a long way in making a beautiful garden. Just like life.

More images of the season. All taken at Innisfree, Millbrook, NY this past Sunday. Hope you’re taking the time to enjoy the autumn wherever you are.
Innisfree 1
Innisfree 2
Innisfree 3
Innisfree 4
Innisfree 5
Innisfree 6
Innisfree 7
Innisfree 8
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

To Hire Or Not To Hire

Part I
With autumn being the other planting season, it presents a good opportunity to scrutinize the garden. Review the garden’s layout, begin on a new design, expand the garden, consider adding or subtracting plants or simply decide to revamp the whole. Perhaps the existing garden has become too much to maintain or lost its former appeal. Life changes might demand changes in the garden. Beginning a new garden or trying something different can be a tad overwhelming. One can use some advice and help. It might be time to work with a designer and/or employ a gardener. But how does one choose the right one or know what to look for?

Lets first consider the possibility of working with a designer.
Going on the adage that two heads are better than one, a good designer will share ideas that you may not have thought of or even known of. No matter if you are a garden veteran or a hesitant beginner, there is value in receiving an expert’s advice. Design plans must be both practical and tasteful; suited to the client’s preferences, budget, style of house, lay of the land and regional climate. A good designer will steer you towards what is appropriate and point out what is not possible or plainly not right. A complete overhaul of the garden or a redoing of a section that has become irksome will benefit from some professional input. A designer’s horticultural knowledge and aesthetic sensibility should not be underestimated. Needless to say, both client and designer must be comfortable with each other.

Before you begin with a designer, take a hard, honest look at your garden. Own up to what is wrong and appreciate what you like. Evaluate what the garden means to you. Very importantly, determine your budget. Be realistic about it. This will later help the designer prioritize the things you’d like to get done in the garden. It works to your advantage to be upfront about finances.

Designers are used to hearing – “I don’t want to spend too much money but, I’d like …”. A litany of garden wants will then follow. For whatever reason, the uncertainty of plants thriving or simply not being aware that making a garden is akin to furnishing a house, people are loathe to allow a suitable if not generous budget. A designer is not out to squander money but knowing what you can honestly afford will make the difference between nice and amazing, pretty and inspired. They know where to cut corners and where to invest. Bear in mind, any additional requests will increase the original cost. Size and complexity will affect costs. Small but sophisticated can be more expensive than large and lawn-dominated. Big garden projects can be done in stages to suit budgets. In return, the designer should be clear about their fees and other expenses. Trust goes both ways.

In order to best serve you, a designer needs to really understand you and your needs. This will happen with briefs or questionnaires requested from you as well as face to face meetings. Your style, needs, use of garden, time in garden etc are all relevant to coming up with the right designs. If your goal is to out do the neighbors or welcome more butterflies, express that as well. In the end, your garden must be a reflection of you and not the designer.

Being frank about expectations is crucial. Its vital to establish what you want and how much you will do yourself. The three typical service options are –
1. Design only which entails a drawn plan, details of plants and structures i.e. soft and hardscaping information.
2. Design and implement which means the designer will her/himself install the agreed upon plans.
3. Design and overseeing. This last one means the client will hire the required labor (or contractor if necessary) and the designer will keep an eye on progress and make sure plans are followed correctly.
Whatever service you choose must be made clear from the start.

From redoing a single flower bed to creating interesting paths to remaking the whole garden, hiring a designer can be a real asset. Ask yourself how much it means to you to have a beautiful, enjoyable garden.

Next week, in Part II, I’ll discuss the ifs and hows of hiring a gardener. “Mow, blow and go” is not your only choice!

Enjoy these images of Fall:
Autumn window-box
Still life with apples
From the window
Woods
Autumn in the garden
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar