Going Back To The Future

When I was growing up in urban India some decades ago, plastic, other synthetics or processed were not mainstream. Shopping bags were made of cloth and we took our own to the shops. Toys were mostly made of wood, paper, cloth or metal. The clothes we wore were of natural fibers such as cotton, linen, silk or wool. Food was stored in glass or metal containers. Meals were prepared from scratch with fresh, seasonal, local produce purchased from vendors in the neighborhood. Water, electricity and fuel were judiciously used. Paper, metal, cloth and glass were recycled after they’d first been thoroughly used and reused, composting was commonly practiced and walking was the most common means of getting to places in the neighborhood. Pure coconut oil was used to keep hair and skin soft and silky, face-packs of plain yogurt and chickpea flour made faces glow while body scrubs of sugar, lemon juice and coconut oil effectively and safely exfoliated our skin. No worries about parabens, artificial coloring or perfumes. The leitmotif that played through our lives was simple, organic, natural.

Fast forward to 2014 USA. We are being coaxed, cajoled and convinced to rethink our current habits and move to, wait for it, simple-organic-natural. What was old is new again. Only this time, there is ample scientific/medical/sociological data to corroborate the advice. Somewhere between the years of my youth and middle-age, we were seduced by products and methods that were brilliantly touted as convenient, time saving and less expensive. We know now that much of this has come at great cost to both the health of our planet as well as our own physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. But this is not about slamming all things new. Certainly, great progress in understanding and helping our needs has been made. I’m grateful for many modern conveniences and necessities and would not consider turning back the clock all together.

That said, there are several things from yesteryears that we have already adopted back into our lives. Recycling, composting, going organic, energy conservation, avoiding processed foods, shopping local are some of the those. But, it wouldn’t hurt to consider more of the old ways in our gardens and by extension, the earth at large. It is not a matter of whether or not one believes in climate change. It is elementary that every action results in an equal and opposite reaction. So each time we do something to the land or the atmosphere, we are creating a shift in the balance. That, will naturally have consequences.

It stands to reason that we examine and revive some forgotten, yet correct practices. From re-establishing windbreaks of trees to protect the soil and crops to encouraging open pollination, the time is ripe. Looking to the past would be very instructive in how we not only protect the earth but in controlling the damage we have already wrought. Our very survival depends on this.

Take the case of trees. We are either denuding entire forests for purposes of construction or drilling or we are hugging trees and cannot, will not allow any cutting down at all. In both cases, it is misguided and short-sighted. Let me explain with two examples.

The first is the ancient craft of coppicing. This the regular cutting of trees and shrubs to ground level. On the face of it, it might sound destructive but there are clear environmental benefits to be reaped. This cutting down permits light to reach the forest floor which in turn encourages a rich variety of flora and fauna to thrive whilst providing a renewable timber source from the strong re-growth from the coppiced trees or stools. Many trees make new growth from the stump or roots when cut down. Hence, regular coppicing is a sustainable way for to get timber for various uses. Without the filtered light, many plants would never grow. Consequently, the creatures that seek such plants would not venture to these parts. You get the picture.

The forest or woodland is harvested in sections on a rotation basis. This means there is a crop ready each year somewhere in the woods. This traditional method of woodland management is beneficial for great biodiversity. It also maintains trees at a juvenile stage which means coppiced trees will never die of old age.

The second example concerns the Aborigines of Australia. For millenia, they managed the continent like a garden. By effectively using controlled fires they kept the flora in check. The grasslands that resulted from this practice attracted animals which could be hunted to feed the Aborigines and at the same time, they provided huge firebreaks that prevented the devastating fires that are today becoming increasingly common.

With the arrival of Europeans, many new plant species were introduced and the native people were displaced. Without these indigenous caretakers, the plantings went wild. A practice perfected over tens of thousands of years was effectively stopped almost overnight. Experts on fire prevention and environmental preservation are now calling for a return to the old ways. Ironically, there are conservation groups against the use of this ancient method. Their heart is in the right place but they need to understand the obvious science behind it. It really comes down to each of us taking the responsibility of becoming knowledgeable and using that knowledge correctly.

There is plenty we can learn from old, time-tested ways of maintaining our land and our lives. Everything from the past is not bad, naive or based on ignorance. After all, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The ancients already gave that to us.

Love the peeling bark. It positively glows in sunlight.

Love the peeling bark. It positively glows in sunlight.


Tree
Tree
Tree
Daffodils in woodlands

Daffodils in woodlands


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Different Kind Of Community Garden

Romano cauliflower

Romano cauliflower


With spring officially starting this week, my mind is singularly focused on the garden. I’m anxious, okay, downright worried about what havoc this particularly brutal winter has wrought. With my garden’s Open Day approaching on May 10, I’m feeling the pressure. Thats less than two months away! There is still a fair amount of snow over places I need to get to inorder to prune the roses, plant a tree, spray the espalier (dormant oil and fish emulsion) and so much else. Take a deep breath! I tell myself. And I do. To panic is pointless and I know not to fight nature. I’ll just stick to getting organized and approach the task of getting the garden in shape systematically and with mindful presence. Aaah! Already that feels better.

With gardening foremost in mind, I’ve taken to observing the various community gardens in the city (NYC). Over the years, more and more of them have been created. I’m in the city a great deal and as I walk around, the diversity and uniqueness of these gardens is apparent even when nothing is growing at the moment. The layout of the gardens, the types of paths, the ‘décor’ with statuary and other whimsies and even the shapes of the beds say a great deal about the gardeners and the neighborhoods. I just love it all. This year, I plan to stop by as many of the gardens during the growing season. With any luck, I’ll get to meet and learn from some of the gardeners.

Back in suburbia, community gardens are less common. With most folk residing in houses with adjoining property and lack of land for communal use, their proliferation is naturally restricted. However, the practice is catching on as more people are becoming keen to grow their own produce and towns and certain private organizations are permitting the use of their land for very little or no fees.
Having heard from many about lack of time, not having enough suitable space for a proper potager on their own property, reluctance to be gardening ‘far off’ from home, I’ve been toying with the idea of an alternative sort of community garden.

What if within a neighborhood, each home grows just one sort of vegetable or fruit that then can be shared with the others? Depending on the conditions available – semi-shade, full sun, protected or open areas, arbor space, I would guess that a fair amount of produce can be grown. With attention and time to just one type of plant, the gardener can easily include their cultivation in busy schedules. Case in point – in my own garden, I don’t have the type of light and space to grow a wide range of veggies. So, I concentrate on leafy greens – assorted lettuces, arugula, Swiss chard, mustard and plenty of herbs which do very well. Tomatoes, cruciferous vegetables, eggplants, gourds etc are simply not worth the struggle. Not to mention, a waste of time and energy. Its like cultivating the $40 tomato. But somebody else’s garden might happily support a crop of squash or tomatoes. You get the idea? Once a week, all produce can be brought in to a central location and distributed equally. A block party of sorts! Every year, each gardener tries a different yet suitable vegetable to maintain soil strength. With everybody receiving a fair share, the neighborhood gets to eat better but even more importantly, it grows a better community. Each home is vitally connected to the others. Instead of Facebook time we now have face-to-face time.

Of course, like any project, this requires some leadership but that can be taken on a rotation basis. What practices (organic of course!) are acceptable, the selection of vegetables that suit all, how much to grow, vacation schedules, are some of the points to be duly considered ahead of time and by consensus. Those unable to garden due to disabilities, age, or lack of garden space can help in the harvesting, sorting, communications etc., The success of such an endeavor is incumbent on close cooperation of all members but it is so very doable. As in life, keeping a sense of humor is essential. As much as it is a serious business to grow crops, this should be fun. After all, if we cannot come together to grow and share our food, how on earth can we expect peace talks to succeed in different parts of the world? Imagine the valuable lessons children will gain from this experience. I see this undertaking as one that promotes health and well-being at many different levels.

A neighborhood that “comes to table” together,thrives together.

Building a community garden

Building a community garden


Ready for picking

Ready for picking


Vegetables to share

Vegetables to share


More veggies
Row of tomatoes

Row of tomatoes


NYC community gardenSignage of community garden
(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar
Mark your calender – Open Day at my garden is Saturday May 10, 10:00 am – 4:00 pm.

Naturally Good

What does ‘natural’ really mean? Women go natural and that could indicate they go sans make-up or more often, give the illusion of having no make-up on. It could also indicate one who does not shave her underarms or legs. Florists work hard to make arrangements appear natural and less contrived. We are told to be our natural selves but it is implicit that we conform to socially accepted guidelines. Foods ranging from raw nuts to processed, sweetened cereals are labeled natural and wholesome. Natural athletes and musicians work hard to prove and maintain their prowess. Natural looking gardens have been carefully planted to look that way. So, what exactly do we mean by natural?

Natural is that which has not been touched or manipulated. Left in its original form, intact with inherent properties. In reality, we have conflicting ideas about the word. This is because, it is assumed that healthy or good is synonymous with natural. Lets remember that tobacco is a natural plant product. Natural is also not the same as organic. Cotton is a heavily sprayed crop. Hence, while cotton is a natural fabric, only organically grown cotton is actually healthy. A natural food can contain genetically modified elements, sprayed with chemicals and supplemented with other questionable components.

In the garden, most of us have been misled to think that we are being environmentally correct when we use sacks or boxes of ‘natural’ products to fertilize, control pests, encourage blooms and suppress weeds. Not so. But don’t blame yourself – the marketing skills of the manufacturers are at play here. Using vocabulary that is misleading or ambiguous, they have convinced multitudes to purchase and liberally use their products. It is time however for us to take personal responsibility and to do our own research and thinking. By this, I don’t mean we hit the reference section in the library and pore over scientific papers. No, it is much, much simpler than that.

Think minimal. Less processed or manufactured. The operative word is ‘organic’. Case in point, ordinary, banal compost. Converted from garden waste such as grass and leaf clippings, vegetable and fruit peelings and leftovers from the kitchen, this wonder product is the best mulch, fertilizer and weed suppressant ever. Look what the sun, rain and indigenous microbes can do! Does it get any more natural than that?

We have already embraced organic foods, cosmetics and cleaning products. It is time to do the same in our gardens. Can we all just make this upcoming season in the garden the start of a sincere commitment to go completely organic in the garden? Yes, it is doable and yes, you can.

Resolve to start composting. Until you can begin using your own compost, obtain it from your local recycling center. Ditto for mulch. Leave grass clippings to integrate back into the soil. Collect rain water to decrease the amount of water used from the tap. Add more native plants and work up to having them outnumber the non-natives. Reduce lawn size and consider using push mowers.

If all this sounds drastic, it isn’t. These practices are time-tested and true. Even better, they are particularly kind to the pocketbook. At the most, a bit more sweat equity is required but then, that could mean giving up that expensive gym membership. Exercising in nature is much more satisfying! Heck, if you have no neighbors to shock, you could even go au naturel. I won’t tell. Or look.

Concord grape harvest. Go ahead, eat it straight from the vine - its organic!

Concord grape harvest.
Go ahead, eat it straight from the vine – its organic!


Ditto the apples and pears.

Ditto the apples and pears.


The lettuce bed enriched with compost.

The lettuce bed enriched with compost.


The meadow. Mowed just once a year except for the path that runs through it. Never fertilized or sprayed.

The meadow. Mowed just once a year except for the path that runs through it. Never fertilized or sprayed.


Organic angelica to feast upon for this swallowtail caterpiller.

Organic angelica to feast upon for this swallowtail caterpiller.


New Dawn roses

New Dawn roses


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Wising Up On Wisteria

Is there any sight more stunning than wisteria in bloom? The pendulous racemes in shades of purple or a pearly white never fail to take the viewers breath away. For the rest of the growing season, the composite leaves provide dense, green backdrops for other, less dramatic but more colorful blooms. Even in winter, the wisteria adds keen interest to the barren landscape, The twists and turns of the denuded gray-brown vine bark are pure calligraphy. Its no wonder then that this hardy plant has been a long time resident of gardens everywhere.

Yet, as in all living beings, perfection is a myth. This beautiful vine can be something of a garden bully. Its vigorous growth has been known to push out other plants and has been positively invasive somewhat frequently. As a result, many gardeners have banished it from their properties. Which is a crying shame.

However, I come bearing some heartening news. Go native! Yes, there is an American variety of wisteria – Wisteria frutescens. While its Asian cousins are the ones we know well, the native wisteria has been sadly overlooked. With the clamor for bigger and better, the ‘foreigners’ won out. I think it is time to bring this surprisingly modest, American stalwart to the forefront.

For the most part, Wisteria frutescens is much like its Asian counterparts. The general appearance is the same and it winds around its supports in a clockwise manner. It is however, not invasive, the pre-bloom seed pods are smooth not furry, and, it is not given to overly exuberant, jungle-like growth. So far so good? Its the racemes that don’t compete quite so well. Atypical to the American stereotype, they are only about half the length of the Chinese or Japanese wisteria. Yes, it is not bigger! But, that does not mean it is not better. Given all the other attributes, in my opinion, this is the wisteria to plant in our gardens. And wait, let me sweeten the deal – it blooms twice. Once in late spring ( well after the Asian varieties) and again in summer when it is in full leaf. I love that.

A few years ago, I planted a pair of W. frutescens so they could scramble up the metal gazebo and form a natural canopy. They have faithfully bloomed from year one and are now quite fetchingly sprawled over the gazebo. At this point, I’m not sure if the gazebo is supporting the vine. Looks like its the other way around.
I prefer the late blooming nature of W. frutescens. In early spring there are plenty of bulbs and other early blooming perennials in flower. But, later in the season, just as the big drama is easing up, it is very nice to have this wisteria add extra oomph to the garden.
The Asian variety that I have elsewhere in the garden is cantankerous, far too vigorous and has not bloomed since the first year. I have had horticultural experts look at it and nobody can figure out why it does not reward me with fabulous flowers. Needless to say, its days with me are numbered.
If you have a non-native wisteria and you are well-satisfied with it, keep it!

Wisteria is genuinely one of my favorite vines. It offers something all through the year. A true four season winner. The twisting, rope like vines are strikingly sculptural in winter. In leaf, the wisteria is the answer to a stunning canopy. But of course, the wisteria flowers are the show stoppers. In our climate, wisteria require full sun, strong support and space for good air circulation. Keep protected in windy areas. Young plants need to be well fertilized and watered. Once established, they do not need to be pampered. There are some straightforward pruning techniques that enable good flowering.

How to prune wisteria to make it bloom (keep in mind my own failure with the one delinquent):

In February, select a few strong side shoots to train horizontally and cut all remaining shoots back to two buds from old wood. Repeat this process to extend the spread of wisteria. New side shoots will grow from the horizontal stems and these side shoots should in turn be cut back to two buds in February.
After flowering, side shoots will start growing out and can be cut back close to main stem. Do this two to three times in summer. If you fail to do this, then your work in February will be intimidating! Occasionally, this practice stimulates a second flowering.
Sometimes, failure to flower can be due to the flower buds succumbing to the intense cold. This would then indicate a need for some protection in the future.

Go forth and plant W. frutescens in your garden this year. Just make sure you provide it the sturdy support it needs.
Enjoy the photos of my W. frutescens:
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W. frutescens
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Note: I have added a new page ‘The Vertical Garden’. Do check it out.
(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar