No Summer Whine Served Here

We are in the last week of August and although the official end of summer is still a few weeks away, these days before school reopens seems like the last call of the season. Sigh. One feels the tug of reality and the obligation to get back to serious, grown-up life. The most carefree months of the year are over.

The days are getting shorter and the early morning air carries with it a sharp, cool edge. Nature is in the process of a wardrobe change for her next gig. She gives herself time to move from one to another. Time to decompress and time to get ready. I take my cue from her and go into transition mode. I’m using this week to get myself centered. Its been a good summer. Not because the garden looked spectacular but because I paid attention and learned from it. I let go of trying to be in control and allowed matters to evolve as they may. I spent more time being present in the garden and enjoying its beauteous bounty than I did tending to the myriad chores. With or without my efforts, the garden went about growing, blooming, fruiting. So things were far from impeccable but who noticed? There was enough to delight the senses and distract any critical mind.

This year, I am satisfied with my own engagement with the season. I managed to strike a good balance between working in the garden and playing in it. And I collected abundant good memories along the way. So, now that autumn is right around the corner, I’m getting set to transit. While the weeding is addressed and plans are being drawn up in preparation for fall tasks, I’m still getting immense pleasure in the way the white hydrangeas glow at dusk. As I bite into a freshly picked fig and my fingers get sticky from its sweet syrup, I block off days in October for bulb planting. My bare feet caress the mosses carpeting the ground shaded by the tree house even as I make a list of plants to introduce in the meadow before the cold sets in.

The fruit will be harvested, the last of the vegetables consumed, newly made jams and sauces canned. But for now, I’ll recall the highlights of my summer and relive the moments of wonder and laughter. Thats plenty. More than one dares to ask for oneself. And then, I’ll be ready to move into fall. Will you?
Here are some glimpses of my summer – away from the garden:

Eryngium outside a restaurant in Vermont

Eryngium outside a restaurant in Vermont


Hints of autumn - end of July in Vermont

Hints of autumn – end of July in Vermont


Birding in Ooty, India

Red-whiskered Bulbul – Birding in Ooty, India


Trumpet vine on a wall - Nilgris, India

Trumpet vine on a wall – Nilgris, India


Brugamansia growing wild - Nilgris in India. This was taken at night. Oh the fragrance!

Brugamansia growing wild – Nilgris in India. This was taken at night. Oh the fragrance!


A clearer but not as romantic shot with the flash turned on

A clearer but not as romantic shot with the flash turned on


Terraced farming - Nilgris, India

Terraced farming – Nilgris, India


Tea plantation - Conoor, India

Tea plantation – Conoor, India


Langur monkey - Modhumalai preserve, India.

Langur monkey – Modhumalai preserve, India.


Mama with baby. Modhumalai, India

Mama with baby. Modhumalai, India


Peacock

Peacock


Lantana growing wild in the forest - Modhumalai.

Lantana growing wild in the forest – Modhumalai.


(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer School

I adore discovering new and surprising information on perfectly ordinary subjects. Since the fabric of life is mostly woven with the routine and the mundane, learning something fresh on a regular basis is what keeps it interesting and exciting. I particularly enjoy facts that remind me that I am part of a much bigger, mysterious, absolutely astounding universe. No doubt you feel the same. Right?

Nature provides an endless source of knowledge and anybody who spends time in it cannot fail to acquire some wisdom. There is gain in every encounter with nature. As part of my Mid-point review (scroll down to see the article from two weeks ago) and my ongoing quest to learn something new everyday, I came up with what I learned since the start of summer. Personal observations, further investigations/research and input from others has kept things around here quite interesting.

I observed that hummingbirds do not like to share. Unlike many birds that feed together at a feeder filled with seeds, these tiny avians prefer to dine solo. A feeder with sugar solution invites them to stop by quite effectively but just watch – while there is plenty of room and libation for all, the bird who is there first will aggressively try to shoo off any other bird also wanting a drink. They spend more time sparring than sipping.

Spiders really do make their webs only in fair weather. IF they continue working during rain, it will be a short storm. You have a better way to predict the weather?

I’ve always known the perfume of flowers is stronger as temperatures rise but now I’ve learned that the fragrance is stronger just before a storm when the air pressure is low. I’ll use that as a reminder to cut flowers to bring indoors before the storm smashes them down.

There is a growing body of scientific evidence establishing a link between urban green spaces and a positive impact on human well-being. Unlike the short lived happiness of pay rises, promotions, purchases or that slice of cheesecake, the positive effect of time spent in nature is sustained for long periods. Reason to get outside and enjoy the green as much as possible. Its no wonder one can come in hot, weary and sore from working in the garden and still feel really invigorated.

Amongst many types of birds, the way to a female’s heart is through her stomach. A male bird will ply his object of affection with juicy morsels of worms and bugs. Charming!

The eggshells of wild birds may act like “sunblock”, scientists in the UK have said. A range of birds’ eggs showed adaptations in pigment concentration and thickness to allow the right amount of sun to reach the embryos. No doubt this information will lead to useful applications amongst us sun loving humans.

We are always wondering if there is life on other planets. But if there is, those life forms must be wondering the same right? If ‘people’ on a planet 65 million light years looked at Earth, they’d see dinosaurs not humans. Imagine that. For now, lets do right by our assigned planet. Because eventually, the time will come when the alien ‘people’ from all those 65 million light years of distance, will see us humans. And we’d better look our best.

As a biologist, I’ve known this next fact but when I mentioned it to some others, they were surprised. So I thought I’d share. Fireflies are not flies. They are beetles. Chemical energy is converted to light energy in a ‘cold’ reaction. This is unusual. Most energy conversions use or generate heat. Thus, fireflies are the exceptions that prove the rule. Huge scientific contribution from a very little guy.

Finally, something to ruminate over: Cows do not naturally eat corn – so why is ‘corn-fed’ beef touted to be superior?

Being curious keeps one engaged and connected to the world around us. There is a comforting reassurance in that. We are all part of the grand web – the spiders as well as the flies. Understanding the seemingly ordinary opens the mind, enriches the spirit. We get a sense of who we are and our place in the large scheme. Q.E.D.

Hummingbird at feeder

Hummingbird at feeder


Hummingbird

Hummingbird


Eggs of a dove.

Eggs of a dove.


Empty spider web in the rain.

Empty spider web in the rain.


#SummerSchool
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Shaping Up

Its August, its summer, its time to ease up and chill. In my book, that means doing less in the garden. I cover only the bare minimum of required tasks. The fact that I go off on vacation this month does not help matters. As a result, my garden looks distinctly blah at this time. Shabby, shoddy and sad are how I’d describe certain areas.

It occurs to me that I really ought to follow my own advice and prepare in advance for precisely such eventualities. Grumbling around, I find I’m not alone. So, I’ve given the matter some thought and come next August, I’m determined that we present the world with much improved gardens

First and foremost, there is the watering. My policy of watering only the pots and not the beds works effectively for most of the garden. Except the two perennial beds in front. The very beds that are the first to be seen by anybody who approaches the house. The beds look very attractive all spring, and reasonably okay in early summer. But, by mid-summer, when temperatures have soared and rain is erratic, they start to look ragged and unruly. Its taken me a while to admit to myself that I’ve been much too rigid in my no-watering rule. I’ve been expecting too much from these hard working plants. They do indeed grow without extra watering but they simply cannot look lush and bloom prolifically which is what is needed in a flower bed. Mind you, the plants placed here for summer display are mostly native choices. Which is why they can survive okay. However, to thrive, even natives must be provided better conditions. While it does not matter how they do in the wild, within a contrived space like a garden, it does. Hence, my decision to water these beds more regularly. As much as possible, I’ll use rain water from the barrel and when that supply runs low, I’ll use the hose. I shy away from automation because I feel it disconnects me from the plants and leaves me unaware of their needs and progress.

Deadheading and weeding regularly will of course go a long way. Mulching well will reduce the time required for the latter considerably.

The remaining tasks need to be done in advance of summer:

Herbaceous plants need dividing every few years to keep healthy. Otherwise, they stop blooming well.
To do this, the plant is dug up and divided by prising roots apart. New growth from the edges are replanted and the tired, center of the clump is discarded. Fall is a good time to divide plants. Feed with compost. Water well till established.

Borders with many, established plants require staking to stop them from drooping or flopping. Placing the stakes as plants begin to emerge makes the task easier. Natural materials like twigs and bamboo blend into the background very nicely. This practice gives the beds a neat and cared for appearance.

Hedges, certain edging plants like boxwood, topiaries, rambling roses and other climbers need taming. Prune, trim, pin back or tie back as needed. Again, this tidies up the look of the garden.

Voila! The garden looks infinitely better.

I’m sharing images of gardens that look vastly better than mine at this time of year:
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#summerplans#shapingup
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Mid-point

The seventh of August roughly marks the mid-point of summer. The season is half over and how has your garden fared? This period can be extrapolated to the year. Mid-points are a good time to take stock. Enough time has passed to give a decent assessment on any project and enough time remains to catch up, do over or start to do. Its a good place to pause and take stock.

Unlike end of season or year end reviews, when its too late to change or rectify, a mid-point review gives one a chance to remedy or recharge. Like a benediction if you will – its a moment to invoke some guidance and wisdom to bless a project’s progress.

I had promised myself this year that I’d cut myself some slack and not get upset about neglected weeding and other chores. I’ve done well thus far. Mostly because taking it easy comes very naturally to me. However, despite the weeds having grown happily, matters have been just fine with my lessened vigilance. It was time well spent connecting with friends over lemonade and salads of freshly picked greens. The tall stack of beckoning books got a bit shorter while my literary appetite was increasingly satisfied. Creative output was given a freedom that only a relaxation of rules and agendas could achieve. I learned to identify the call of barred owls and taught someone how to compost. I spent hours in pursuit of photographing hummingbirds and harvested enough basil to make several batches of pesto which now rest in the freezer till called upon to perk up winter feasts. Loaves of delicious zucchini bread were made and given to friends or frozen for posterity while scoops of ice-cream were indulged daily. Night skies were gazed at and unfamiliar constellations identified right in step with discovering that a splash of lime juice in a 1:3 mix of St. Germain elderflower liqueur and club soda with lots of ice makes for a rather addictive summer drink.

Yet, advances were made in the garden – the foundation of the greenhouse was rebuilt, I designed a chandelier to be suspended from a tree and am now putting it together, plans to improve the meadow and checkerboard garden were drawn up, the watering system for the vertical garden was made more efficient, replacements for the lost apple trees in the espalier fence have been ordered, likewise, the bulbs for fall planting, ideas to make the perennial beds more attractive are under consideration and every now and then, the weeds have been given attention.

What about failures or lapses? I’ve realized that the front perennial beds do not look great in summer because of my reluctance to water any plants in the ground. Going on the conviction that they must be able to cope without help has not always been the best. When the weather has proven extreme, they do indeed need some kindness in the form of water. I have been negligent in keeping the walkway free of weeds and as a result, it looks shabby. For the rest of the season, this must be taken care of every couple of weeks. In the potager, several salad greens have bolted because they have not been harvested in timely fashion. That is wasteful. In future, I must either pick the leaves often or not plant as manygreens. Lastly, several plants need to be repositioned to make room for new introductions – this is not quite a lapse on my part but has come about due to an idea I have for the checkerboard garden. The to-do list keeps growing in any season.

Overall, I think the mid-point review has been useful and I’m not at all dis[leased. I’m just not sure if this is due to reasonable diligence or general low standards.
How have you come through?

January

January


February

February


March

March


April

April


May

May


June

June


July

July


#Mid-point #summerreview
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar