To Be Or Not To Be

It occurs to me that humans are quite possibly the only species that make deliberate decisions regarding the existence of other species. I’m not referring to self-survival associated decisions. Its the ones we make to suit our life styles I’m thinking about. We build houses to give ourselves good views and displace or dispose off whatever else lived there before. Land reclamation is casually achieved with no thought to effects on marine life close to shore or shoreline. “If a habitat does not suit, then its presence is moot.” We Homo sapiens do not easily compromise to coexist with other species. Control freaks – that what we are.

And so it came to be in my corner. I’d mentioned in a recent post that a bird was trying to settle into the chandelier above the dining table on the terrace. I was leaning towards letting it do so but other voices relevant in my life were leaning the other way. After all, with the weather warming up, dining outdoors is de rigueur. We wait all through the cold months dreaming of the many hours spent lingering at said terrace. Meals, poker games, painting, reading, rounds of Scrabble, writing and actual face to face conversations, this area is well used. A nest in the chandelier would preclude such happenings for the entire duration of its occupancy. Thus, it was decided that since the nest was not actually built, it would be okay to discourage all attempts to do so. Each evening, as I finished up in the garden, I’d remove the mess of twigs that lay strewn on the table as well as the ragged bits of paper that clung to the tole leafs of the chandelier. Judging from the sheer untidiness and obvious lack of architectural experience, I’d say this was the avian equivalence to a teenage pregnancy. It seemed like bird and I were playing a silly game. She tossed around stuff and I cleaned up. Each of us teasing/tormenting the other. I figured eventually she’d get tired and find another location well out of my reach and sight.

Then, it rained hard for two days straight. With no possibility of gardening, I happily went about my indoor chores. Come the first dry day after the deluge, and there it was – a sturdy nest solidly ensconced in the chandelier. I graciously conceded to the bird. Her determination and persistence to acquire this rather choice site for her future babies demanded and received my deep admiration. As far as I was concerned, Nature had spoken. It was no longer my place to deem where the bird was to build the nest.

The nest looked clearly to be that of a robin. Kind of blocky and functional. Not particularly tidy – fibers and twigs still hanging or sticking out. Robins build that way. I was right. Soon, as I passed by doing my garden tasks, I’d see a robin hover around making disapproving sounds and keeping a keen eye on me. After what had happened between us in the early days, I didn’t blame her.

With a very strong table right beneath, I now had a perfect way to peer into the nest. So clamber atop the table I did. I still fell short by a few inches. With a too-good-to-be-true viewing opportunity such as this, I was frustrated but not put off. I contorted my hands whilst holding the camera and tried to take a photograph of the interior. Since I couldn’t see what my camera was pointed at, I made numerous attempts till my arms and shoulders hurt. Finally, just when I was ready to concede once again, I got the shot I sought. All the while, I was aware of the distressed mama bird making annoyed and anxious sounds. She stayed near by and I half expected her to fly at my face and poke my eyes out. I kept thinking safety glasses were in order.

I’m terribly thrilled to have that photo of four exquisitely perfect, brilliant Robin’s blue eggs but I also have a deep sense of shame and guilt for having traumatized the bird. I had behaved like paparazzi.
Standing a respectful distance from the nest, I asked for forgiveness. From now till the time the eggs hatch, the babies grow and fly away, there will be no dining under the nest. We will move the table to a spot away from it if we want to eat outside. It’ll perforce be in semi-darkness as if to echo the state of human intelligence. C’est la vie.

Along similar lines, a second event occurred this week. My neighbor had a silver maple tree taken down. This tree was huge. At least eighty feet tall and from what a tree expert once told me, it was perhaps close to a hundred years old. Understandably, it was a real presence in our lives. Its branches hung over our back terrace and gave quiet shade in the heat of summer. In the fall, it was the last to shed its leaves and we did not mind our share of them. Small price to pay for its majestic beauty.

Concerned about rot and limbs falling in storms, the owners had the tree removed last week. It took the highly skilled tree guys all day to take it down. Thats how big this tree was. I was already sad when informed the tree was to go but the intensity of my sorrow upon hearing the start of the buzz-saw, surprised me. I hadn’t realized just how much trees mean to me. And this elderly specimen towering over us all had earned its stripes. With the loud, steady thrum in the background, I thought about life, death, loss, love, friendship and so many other things. I offered up my deep gratitude to the tree. I apologized for what was happening to it. I wished it well and hoped it understood why this was happening. Mostly, I asked pardon for all the atrocities committed by my species. The necessary, the excusable, not so excusable as well as the unforgivable.

Être ou pas être?

Today, May 27 is Rachel Carsons birthday. Celebrate by being kind to this amazing, fragile Earth of ours.

How gorgeous are these eggs?

How gorgeous are these eggs?


Messy nest of the Robin family.

Messy nest of the Robin family.


The big silver maple seen behind the gazebo (under which live the Robins)

The big silver maple seen behind the gazebo (under which live the Robins)


Sans the majestic one. I wish I'd known to take more specific pictures of the tree.

Sans the majestic one. I wish I’d known to take more specific pictures of the tree.


Tree cutting in progress

Tree cutting in progress


No trace of the tree remains

No trace of the tree remains


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Blurred Lines

There is much chatter in the gardening community. Words like native, natural, informal, climate change, environment, jungle, ecology, organic are bandied about loudly. Even forcefully. As in all situations with many voices and opinions, it results in confusion. The voice that gets recognized and whose opinion might prevail is not necessarily the wisest. Politics ( yes, even in the garden world), public profile and personality all play strong roles in swaying the vote on what is responsible or modern gardening. Gardening is often a victim to trends and fashions which can do more damage than good. The gardener must stay alert so she does not fall prey to them. So, how does she sort out all the information and do the right thing for garden and self? How does she express herself without feeling overwhelmed or for that matter, without being judged in a negative light?

According to the Merriam- Webster dictionary, a garden is a plot of ground where herbs, fruits, flowers, or vegetables are cultivated. The Oxford English dictionary goes one step further in clarification – “A piece of ground, often near a house, used for growing flowers, fruit, or vegetables.” Are we clear on this? Straightforward and simple I should think.

With that said, lets just get comfortable with making a garden to suit our needs – be it for the sake of beauty or food or a combination thereof. This will run the gamut of extremely ornamental gardens that are tasteful and elegant and most often high maintenance to the untidy, charming cottage garden where the rules are very relaxed. The idea is to make a space that closely reflects the gardener’s personality and preferences. To do that in conjunction with values that support and nurture the environment is not difficult. Think organic practices and planting more native trees, shrubs and other plants than non-native representatives. Avoid anything that is invasive or fussy. Composting, using water judiciously, reducing the lawn area are additional factors to include in being a responsible, environmentally conscious gardener. All of this sounds familiar and doable right? Nothing new. I, myself have expounded often on this subject.

Now comes the confusing part. For the purpose of keeping it simple, I see it as two dominant factors to consider. One is the current buzz-phrase of bringing the jungle to suburbia. Several have written about their ‘successful’ experiment and how happy they are with it. I wish them well and if that is what floats their boat, so be it. But I’m not clear as to why exactly that is touted as a more intellectual or informed approach to what one does with their suburban land. Should I hang my head in shame or feel ignorant with my own efforts at creating an attractive, more orderly, organic garden that is quite un-jungle in design and that still supports plenty of birds, bees, butterflies, toads, bats, wasps, snakes, rabbits, occasional deer, surplus of squirrels, nocturnal prowlers like skunks, raccoons and sneaky rodents? Is a garden that looks like a garden suddenly not cool?

If a jungle is desired, wouldn’t it be simpler for the individual to move to the jungle? Exactly what type of jungle is being created? A true recreation of one that can be found in nature and that has arrived on its own to a state of balance? Where canopy, understorey and forest floor are in harmony as are the creatures that inhabit such a place? Or is this a melange of plants whose fruit offer sustenance planted together in a manner that resembles a jungle but would in nature not be found in such proximity to each other? And what of the diverse insects and small animals that reside in jungles – are we all to accept the very critters that forced humans to create their villages so we could live feeling safer not to mention live healthier lives?

For the record, Merriam-Webster defines jungle as -a : an impenetrable thicket or tangled mass of tropical vegetation
b :  a tract overgrown with thickets or masses of vegetation

I don’t pretend to be an expert by any measure but I do know that I represent a large body of intelligent, responsible gardeners who go about cultivating their land to create beauty and produce. I definitely do not desire a jungle around my house. I like a sense of order and even my ‘meadow’ is an area of controlled chaos. The creation of said meadow has got rid of a wasteful lawn, is mowed but once a year, permits the growth of anything that wishes to be here and yet, what meadow in America is naturally full of daffodils, crocuses, alliums, scillas, frittalarias and other bulbs and the whole contained within a boundary of assorted shrubs? You see what I mean? I did it my way.

The other point that has come up is that of planting only natives. As I’ve said before, being scrupulous about this means we rid ourselves of old favorites like lilacs, Asian wisteria, peonies, many roses, hydrangea, most bulbs, innumerable fruit and ornamental trees and, countless more. My take is to plant more natives and include only non-invasive non-natives. Native plants help preserve natural diversity. A few years ago, when I asked about planting perennials in my garden, professor of entomology and wildlife ecology Dr. Douglas Tallamy told me that in planting natives, the emphasis should be on the bigger plants like trees and shrubs because these are the plants that support the native fauna and hence keep a natural equilibrium going. I recommend his book Bringing Nature Home.

Here comes the rub. With the changing climate, some natives are no longer growing where they used to and others from elsewhere ( non-natives) have been observed to be sources of nectar for native pollinators and seed dispersers. This is big. How does one reconcile ones principals of gardening with natives to the climactic changes going on?

There is no simple or immediate answer to this conundrum. For the moment, we must keep doing what is correct for the environment and our conscience. Just be prepared that a shift in what we plant is in the cards.

Keeping that in mind, go ahead and create a garden, enjoy the process as well as the space, take time to get in touch with your inner naturalist and finally, stay informed on developments in the fields of horticulture and environmental sciences. Fads and trends be damned. Follow your heart and the little voice that tells you right from wrong. Lets not kid ourselves and blur the lines between garden and jungle. Humans left the jungle for good reason.

The meadow with camassias in bloom

The meadow with camassias in bloom


Daffodils in meadow

Daffodils in meadow


The orderly herb garden and potager

The orderly herb garden and potager


Part of the resident wildlife

Part of the resident wildlife


Checkerboard garden

Checkerboard garden


Walkway in pristine lawn? Not at all - its merely a green backdrop for that walkway - full of what many would shudder to have in their lawns!

Walkway in pristine lawn? Not at all – its merely a green backdrop for that walkway – full of what many would shudder to have in their lawns!


(c) Shobha Vanchiswar

Afterglow

So Open Day has come and gone. Stepping down from the frenzied work pace feels a bit strange. Can it be that I am really able to afford to just sit in the garden?! Unbelievable but, I catch on fast. Spent a delightful Sunday simply sitting and taking in the garden’s glory. It had been a pretty good open day. A steady pace of very nice visitors – many friends stopped by and lots of others left as new friends. To all, I want to express my heartfelt gratitude for not just coming but for the appreciation, support and kindness you expressed. Thank you. It was additionally satisfying to note that many of you had purchased my botanical notecards and bought up all the plants I had for sale. Merci encore mes amies.

It never ceases to amaze me that people come to see my humble garden. That I’m worthy of such an honor is always a wonder and for which I’m deeply gratified. In truth, to my own biased eyes, the garden looked its best. Judging from the number of visitors taking pictures galore, I do believe others approved as well. The long, severe winter has kept many perennials behind in bloom time but instead, the tulips were at their peak. Really spectacular. With the rest of the bulbs such as alliums and camassias and the baptisia, amsonia and columbines to follow, there is still much to look forward to in the unfolding of spring.

It feels rather luxurious to bask in the successful completion of the chores and the event itself. And I’m making sure I stay properly present in the moment. All too often, I am guilty of either dismissing a job well done and rushing on to the next pressing project. Not this time. I’m determined to enjoy the garden for what it is and give myself some kudos.

But you know what? This is mighty hard. It is all too easy to think of what comes next. The native wisteria, climbing hydrangea, lilacs, peonies, irises and roses are yet to make a splash. I’ve begun planning a soirée just so I can have friends over to enjoy the splendor of their blooms.

The more pressing and rather serious projects are already trying to sabotage my sense of satisfaction. Chiefly the espaliered trees. They are in need of urgent attention. About four trees have failed all together. The mice must have decimated the roots. They will need to be replaced. Still other trees might succumb to the summer heat – I have to discover if these too must be replaced or whether bridge-grafting will be the best and most viable option. To do all of this, I need to have discussions with tree experts and nurserymen very soon. Followed by recommended action. I am however looking forward to the learning. It is not just plants that need to grow.

There are some other plants that are also revealing that they have not survived the winter. I must decide if they will be replaced by the same type of plant or by something even more hardy. Who knows what future winters will be like.

There is evidence of real estate seeking birds eying the chandelier above the table in the terrace. Twigs are scattered all over its surface with a few sticking out of the chandelier ‘basket’. I’m conflicted – do I thwart the birds and prevent any nest building or do I let the birds take up residence and sacrifice all al fresco meals until the babies have flown away? That could be several weeks and also affect above mentioned soirée.. I hate such conundrums.

However, not right now. Not this minute. Everything can wait just a wee bit longer. For now, I’m going to linger in the afterglow. With a deep sense of gratitude.

In the meadow

In the meadow


Meadow
Leucojum
Snakes Head frittilaria
Tulip
Tulip Crystal Palace
Parrot tulip
Tulip
See that chandelier? Prime avian real estate.

See that chandelier? Prime avian real estate.


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

No Pressure, No Diamonds

Thomas Carlyle said those title words. I repeat them to myself every time I’m faced with deadlines, burgeoning schedules or demanding responsibilities. Right now, I’m feeling the pressure of my impending Open Day. Its the final stretch and I’m hoping to deliver a diamond.

Nothing like getting galvanized into action when you know visitors are expected. I’m pretty sure that at some point everybody has scrambled to get the house looking decent before the arrival of guests. A less than presentable space is probably the number two reason why the unexpected knock on the door is not appreciated. Number one being a less than presentable self.

Unlike the house where clutter can be cleared and hidden in a closet or bedroom, there is no place to hide in a garden. Particularly a garden that will be thoroughly examined. For gardeners, as in every creative endeavor, it is exciting to be able to show their work. Like a parent, we have that burning need for our “child” to dazzle and amaze. A garden that impresses translates to a gardener who is brilliant. Who doesn’t want to be perceived as such?

Thankfully, all the tasks that need doing are those that would get done anyway. It is merely that instead of a pace like a long-distance run, one is now sprinting. So I’m working fast. I’m not saying I’m doing it better. Just faster. The upside to all this is that I will have some well earned leisure time later. Something that gardeners often do not get to indulge in.

The daffodils are almost done and the tulips are coming into their prime. A very disarming sight. Other bulbs are waiting in the wings. I am hoping they are in bloom for open day. The Amelanchier and the pears are in frothy white. Plenty of other perennials are getting ready to put on a show. I absolutely adore this moment in the garden. The thrill of anticipation gives me such a high.

Of course, preparing for a public opening involves some additional things but after several years of experience, one takes it in stride. The main factor to contend with is the weather. What the winter did to the garden, if the days leading to the open day are favorable for gardening and finally of course hoping for fair conditions on the big day itself. Weather is the double-edged knife that keeps the gardener company and the gardener has absolutely no influence on it. The relationship is completely one-sided.

Given good weather, I thoroughly enjoy open day. It is so much fun to meet friends who come to show support and wander around comfortably. New friendships get forged here as well. Questions are asked, discussions ensue, experiences are shared and before one knows it, kindred spirits are recognized and embraced. In general, those who visit gardens are doing so for pleasure and inspiration. They do not come with intent to criticize or look down. That said, it does behoove the gardener to do her part to have her garden look its best.

And so, back to the garden I go. A diamond in the rough will simply not do.

I’m not adding any photos this week because I want you to come and see my garden for yourself!

Addendum – Just in time for Mothers Day, graduation, summer party invites, hostess gifts, notes to campers … Notecards of my botanical watercolors will be for sale.
I might even have some young plants available.
The New Castle Chamber of Commerce is getting in on the day and several local businesses are offering special deals to those who visit my garden. Such fun!
Do please come!

For directions and other information go to www.gardenconservancy.org/opendays

(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar