Rejoice In Everything!

Once again, it’s that time of year when the buzz is all about new year resolutions. Humanity’s eternal quest to be given a new chance at becoming and doing better. Find a new job/ lose weight/ train for a marathon/ join a book club/ save more money/ go organic – there is a never ending list of commitments. Sound familiar? The very essence of being human is that we are imperfect and must therefore keep trying to overcome our shortcomings yet knowing all the while that perfection is unattainable. As I’ve said before, I’m not one for specific resolutions. Typically, I just strive to try harder in general. That is a full time job in itself.

Considering that these personal reformations are life-long endeavors, I’m not going to even reiterate them to myself. They just are. Like shadows that faithfully follow even when we don’t notice. Instead, I’m giving myself a one word cue to apply to everything. The word is, drum roll please – CELEBRATE.

We know to duly acknowledge the big events. Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and such. But the reality is that the days and happenings we look upon as routine or mundane are fraught with reasons to celebrate. We’ve come to take so much for granted that we fail to recognize the wonder and miracles that honor our lives every single day. I felt this lack in me this year – for, while I was mostly preoccupied with big happenings and doing a fair amount of travel, I completely missed the numerous simple yet special moments that occur all the time no matter what else is going on.

In spring I got so immersed in getting ready for a solo art show, house guests, garden open day and my daughter’s high school graduation, that I failed to fully appreciate the myriad incredible moments in the garden. This was a particularly good spring. Yet, I spent so little time celebrating it. Oh, I certainly hosted a couple of garden parties, took a decent number of photographs of the horticultural splendor and airily pointed them out to anybody within earshot, but I didn’t truly give anything their just due. Every plant fulfilling its role in the garden deserves congratulations and thanks. A proper pause to admire and bask in their beauty is worth the effort. It is a moment to get outside of myself and focus on these treasures. The deep sense of well-being and enrichment I get from doing so is priceless.

The timely opening of the different flowers, the fragrance of hyacinths signaling the commencement of spring, the arrival of bees as the apple blossoms peak, wrens resettling themselves in the bluebird box, the early morning cacophony of avians tuning up for chorus, the cicadas repeating their song all summer long, the flashes of red as cardinals flit in and out of the rose covered apple tree, fireflies punctuating the sultry nights of summer, the drama of a good rain shower and the refreshed state of the garden following it, the turn of color as fall picks up speed, the quietness of a blizzard, the brilliance of light just before the sun begins to set. So many daily acts of grace that go uncelebrated. So many opportunities to feel good gone untaken.

Similarly, awakening the senses to the smell of coffee first thing in the morning, the sleepy greeting of a loved one emerging from the embrace of a cozy bed, the porch light twinkling its welcome at the end of a long day away, the unexpected note from a friend simply saying hello, the completion of a project be it big or small, the discovery of a $ 5.00 note in the glove compartment of the car, a favorite song coming through the radio just when you needed a boost, reading a really good book, coming upon a painting that seems to speak to your soul, finding the cherished scarf you thought you’d lost, the smile of a stranger as you pass on the escalator. Little sparks of comfort and goodness light up our days constantly. Are we paying attention?

So, by reminding myself to ‘Celebrate’, I’m going to be more present in all the quotidian goings on. When the peonies explode open is cause to pop the champagne. A morning of weeding and tidying calls for a luxurious soak in the tub. Invite a a few friends for a simple meal of homemade pasta with fresh pesto when the basil is ready for its first harvest. A quick watercolor to mark the unfurling of the roses. A poem to honor the parade of tulips. Wake the family with muffins loaded with just-picked blueberries. ( Place a rose-geranium leaf at the bottom of each muffin cup and then pour the batter. The fragrance is heavenly). In commemorating and rejoicing, we are expressing our gratitude in being fully alive and attuned to the world. How much more human can that be?

I wish each and everyone a year of miracles and celebrations. Every, single day.

While the unusually warm winter days are being favored with plants showing signs of spring, we might as well enjoy the sight. Give them some rightful attention. After all, who knows what will happen when spring months arrive? Below are photos taken this past Sunday at the Cloisters. The gardens looked like it was April. Including the fact that it was raining gently as though coaxing the plants awake.

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Stop The Fast Forward!

Is Spring cutting line? Sure feels like it. Here we are in the last stretch of December and it feels like April. The long range forecast assures a balmy Christmas. That might be just fine out in California but in the North-east? The fireplace sits cold and unused and winter jackets still hang fresh from the cleaners. Admittedly, it’s kind of fun to head outdoors without the weight of layers but I’m beginning to get nervous. I’m holding my breath as I await the drop of the other shoe.

Clearly, weather patterns are topsy-turvy. The west is getting all the snow generally reserved for the east. Is Nature messing with our minds? Climate change is very real people! Seems humans are not the only ones confused. Looking around, the garden is showing distinct signs of spring awakening.

When news arrived that the cherry blossoms were in bloom in our nation’s capital, I thought it was a hoax. Like an April Fools joke. But then, as I wandered around the garden and elsewhere, I noticed plants that ought to be dormant bearing nascent buds and/or leaves. Normally, such sights make me insanely happy but at this time, I’m downright alarmed.

What are the immediate consequences? Perhaps some light color from early bloomers like cherry and forsythia will no doubt still put a smile on our faces. It might even be fun to go for spring-like walks in late December. But, where is this taking us? To a forever changed climate pattern in these parts or will winter roar in with a vengeance in January? In either case, what does that imply? Should I go ahead and order crape myrtles that I’ve envied in southern gardens?

A return to the usual winter conditions would kill the emerging growth but perhaps all will not be lost. While there will be some damage and even the loss of certain spring blooms, the plants will rally. They are resilient for the most part. The gardener will simply have to take their cue and stoically carry on with a potentially less than spectacular post-winter show.

However, if we completely forgo a cold season, it’ll wreak havoc. All bloom/fruit time bets are off. Plants that require a spell of hard cold will struggle to stay in character – after all, how can they play their part when the script has been completely changed? Others will bloom too early and who knows what this will do to producing fruit and seeds as the pollinating insects and migratory birds may not be around to do their job.

I’m not as yet aware how this warm weather is affecting animals that hibernate. Are they getting tired or do they have some sort of internal mechanism that compensates and adjusts? Have certain birds delayed their winter sojourn to enjoy these warm days of December? If so, what will happen if the temperatures plummet suddenly? Questions flood my mind as I casually sip my tea seated on the stone bench in the meadow and gaze upon squirrels at play. In December!

Meanwhile, how will we gardeners go about the ministry of our duties? Do I get my usual winter rest or am I to keep going with tasks brought forward per force?
I’m concerned about the myriad bulbs that need the winter to come up properly in spring. I spy the tips of bulbs piercing through the still unfrozen earth. A friend noticed that hyacinth bulbs planted in a pot and kept outdoors were protruding through the soil. So she brought them in and watered the pot. No leaves were put out and only the emergent end of the flower stalk bloomed. In fact, the plant did not grow any further. It merely put forth what it could and called it quits. So sad. Is this what we can expect more of?

To say I’m worried is an understatement. We are currently going through an unsettling period. The four distinct seasons, their arrivals, durations and departures have set the rhythms of our lives. We’ve come to know what to expect and what to do by their timeliness. Our own resilience is now being called upon. Plus our willingness to do our part in coping and caring for this beautiful Earth that is seeing shifts and changes. Some phenomena are natural but there is plenty that we humans have wrought. The answers to my numerous questions will come only in due course.
I’d like very much to hit the ‘Rewind’ button.

On a brighter note, today is the Winter Solstice. An extra minute of daylight every day hence! Use the minutes well – smile at a stranger, write a ‘thinking of you’ note to someone, take deep breaths and calm your mind, drink a glass of water, do some stretches, hug your pet, floss your teeth, read a poem, make a sketch …

Don’t the images below remind you of the start of spring?:

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

Sweet Holy Grass!

This is a good news/not so good news post. First the good news. Turns out, in the search to find powerful yet natural mosquito repellents, we need but look at one of our very own native grasses – specifically, sweet grass Hierochloe odorata. It also goes by the common but very auspicious names Holy grass, Manna grass, Mary’s grass, Peace grass, Unity grass or Vanilla grass. In north America, Hierochloe odorata occurs in southern Canada, northern Great Plains/Rocky Mountains and northwest of U.S., and New England. Not to be confused with the sweet grass Muhlenbergia filipes found in the southeastern United States.

Long used by Native Americans to deter mosquitoes, it is a sacred plant, used in peace and healing rituals. Leaves are dried and made into braids and burned as vanilla-scented incense; long leaves of sterile shoots are used by Native Americans in making baskets. The plant is showing great promise in scientific research. In laboratory tests, two sweet grass compounds drove mosquitoes away just as well as the widely-used repellent Deet. Imagine that!

One of the compounds is coumarin. Not only effective but it smells good too. Same stuff that renders Skin So Soft ( Avon’s moisturizer) as an anti-mosquito salve. The product is not advertised as such but users have long known it’s additional property. Coumarin is also a safe chemical.

Smells fine, safe to use, fends of mosquitoes – hmmm, what’s the problem then? Studies are still required to see how long the effects last. Oddly enough, coumarin is not registered or marketed as a repellent.

The second compound isolated from sweet grass is phytol. A common constituent in essential oils from plants. Phytol, similarly, is known to repel insects but is not currently sold for that purpose. Go figure.

And therein lies the not so good news. It’ll be at least two to three years before all of the research is completed to establish the efficacy, Still, I’m optimistic. I dream of summer evenings spent in the garden sans the swatting and scratching.

In the meantime, I’m seriously planning to introduce sweet grass in the garden. Hierochloe odorata is a very hardy perennial, able to grow to the Arctic Circle. Its leaves do not have rigid stems, so only grow to about 20 cm (7.9 in) in height, and then the leaves grow outward horizontally to 100 cm (39 in) long or more, by late summer. Grown in sun or partial shade, they do not like drought. Seeds are usually not viable, or if they are viable, take two to three years to develop a robust root system. So I’m guessing they will not be invasive.

I think testing out this plant near outdoor dining areas, swimming pools, children’s play areas and other spaces where humans gather, will be worth trying. I understand that the grass’ mosquito fighting property is more potent when it is dried so wearing a crown and garland of braided sweet grass might well become my go to accessories for outdoor soirées. At least until coumarin is available as a commercial product. I will check if my local nursery carries the plant or will get me some. Stay tuned!

If any of you have knowledge or experience with sweet grass, please share!

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

The Enduring Gift

Perhaps it is a sign of growing wise with age but I’m just plain tired of the commercial pressure to run out or get on-line to buy the latest and trendiest products to hand around as gifts. Am I the only one astounded that cars are considered perfectly normal Christmas presents? The insistent barrage from all manner of media dictate that I should not be the one who missed out on being the coolest gift giver. The message preys on the pervasive insecurity of humans – the fear of being the odd one out, to be considered stingy, ‘out of it’, unfashionable. Yet, for the most part, a month after the holidays, both gift and giver are forgotten. The world resumes its day to day rhythm and struggles to keep New Year resolutions and make those credit card payments. What are we doing to ourselves? More importantly, what does this say about us?

I have no idea how to change anybody but I do know what I can and will do to give what I believe is an authentic, thoughtful gift. One that surpasses time and trends. A gift that endures.
And I’m not talking packs of tube socks, electric toothbrush or flannel pajamas. While these are all practical, much used, loved and long lasting items, they admittedly do not carry the pizazz to elicit the squeal of delight one expects. They are simply not special. (Personally, I don’t need the squeal. I’ll take a genuine. heart-warming hug instead).

So how does one converge thoughtful with interesting? Welcome to the garden where it will show you how. Here, being rich or poor is inconsequential. What matters is the generosity of the heart.
The garden itself is a timeless, most generous gift. Day after day all through the years it feeds, nurtures, comforts, inspires and delights. For so much, all it asks in return is your time and attention. And there you have the key elements of honest, sincere giving – reciprocity, time and attentiveness.
Keeping this in mind, here is how I apply myself to the season of giving which, in my mind, is all year round.

First and foremost, I believe in passing on the benefits of being present in a garden. So, I’m happy to welcome friends to my own garden not only for gatherings I put together, but also for their own quiet pursuits like meditating, painting or writing. To those in need of continued encouragement to garden and gain inspiration, I give memberships to the New York Botanical Garden ( or the premier botanical garden in their area) and the Garden Conservancy. Then all through the year they can visit public and private gardens gaining intangible benefits that will last a long time. ( Pssst!This works for non-gardeners too!)

Staying with the horticultural theme, gifts of young trees, shrubs and plants are always welcome. Sometimes they are in memory of or in honor of somebody or some event. Toss in an assurance to help with their planting and your gift is golden. If funds are short, a promise to help with weeding and/or mowing on a weekly/monthly basis will be priceless. Even the offer to share your garden’s bounty is always much appreciated. Homegrown fresh flowers, herbs, veggies and fruits provide the most elegant of offerings. Sharing, helping, kindness equals feeling good all around.

One of the sweetest gifts I’ve received was a flat of young plants from seeds carefully collected by an old gardener going through very hard times. Knowing my love for columbines, he’d collected seeds from those in his plot and got them started. When they were ready for planting, he presented them to me. It felt like I’d just inherited the earth.

With children, taking the time to teach them or have them ‘help’ in the garden is one of the best gift exchanges of all. The adult gets to enjoy alone time with the child, pass on valuable lessons and the young one gains more than he/she can ever know. While receiving instruction on growing plants, thoughts and secrets are shared, confidence boosted and bonds strengthened.

If someone enjoys music or the theater, get tickets to a performance. Go together. Share a meal before or after. That memory will endure far longer than any object you might have given. Trust me.
If tickets are beyond your budget, make a date to watch the show on DVD/Netflix/on-line. Pizza, popcorn and libation of choice round out the present nicely.

One year, struggling to come up with gift ideas for boys, I taught a college sophomore a few super- simple recipes he could use to ‘impress’ his friends at his next party. We not only got to know each other better but, we shared lots of laughter over those tasty treats and the young man has gone on to become quite the amateur chef. I didn’t make him a cook. All I did was show him he could do it.

If a child plays a music instrument, then taking her to a concert where the soloist plays that particular instrument will go a long way in sustaining the interest. It doesn’t have to be a concert at Lincoln Center ( which of course is a real pleasure), but there are lesser known,highly talented groups/orchestras that play locally. Tickets to their events are less costly and just as enjoyable. In which case, a season’s subscription could be in order.

Likewise, an interest in art or natural history can be supported with membership to museums. Taking that person to a special exhibit might be all you can afford but it’ll be more than sufficient to show how much you care.

Walking/biking dates with a friend, a regular visit and game of Scrabble with one confined to the bed/house, a weekly phone or Skype chat living someone living far away …. the list is endless. Recently, a friend told me her son, a college freshman in the Midwest, missed the colorful fall of the Northeast. So, I sent him a box of multi-hued leaves. I had fun picking the leaves and he had a good laugh receiving them. I was sent a photo of his window decorated with said leaves.

The common thread through all of these gifts is that triumvirate of thoughtful giving: Personal Time, Attention and Understanding. The garden taught me that.

Note: From Dec 8 – 22, 2015, the Holiday Art Show is on at the Phyllis Harriman gallery of the New York Art Students League. Lots of art to be enjoyed! You might score a great deal. Take a friend and make it a play date. Full disclosure – I have a painting in the show.

Enjoy the photos of this year’s Train Show at NYBG. It is always inspiring and delightful.

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Planning Time

I’m thoroughly enjoying this protracted autumn. While concerned thoughts of global warming and memories of last winter come to mind, I’m nevertheless taking full advantage of these magnificent, sepia-hued days.

After months of giving us its all, the garden has slowed down and retired for a much deserved rest. Now is the time to envision our plans for the ‘perfect’ garden. This quiet period is exactly when we must do the hard work of planning, preparing and executing ideas and dreams. The fullness of spring and summer do not let this happen. If you have an image in your mind/phone/camera that depicts your version of paradise, then the moment is nigh to begin making it a reality. By the time winter is making an exit, your dream garden can be well on its way to becoming a reality.

With this intent, the old pergola is being replaced by a better, bigger and sturdier one. The two wisteria that ramble all over it can at this time be safely clipped and propped to remove the existing structure from under. The slate flooring below now has the four concrete foundations poured, set and waiting to support the posts of the cedar replacement.
Not only could this task not be done in the growing seasons, it would have been difficult to actually visualize the dimensions and design of the new pergola in the midst of so much growth.
Come spring, the wisteria should be able to resume its jolly habit of sprawling and wrapping itself all over. I fully expect to be thanked for their new accommodations with prolific blooms..

Even as the hedges, trees and grasses provide the ‘bones’ of the garden, the seed heads and waning foliage offer a visually textured feast that glows in the low autumn light. I see the ‘holes in the plantings and make notes. In the next few weeks, I will select appropriate additions for these areas. Just like the seedpods, our minds are full of promises to come.

On my walks in the woods, I observe trees and plants that trigger my acquisitive habit. I return to my garden to see clearly just where I might be able to introduce the coveted ones. Given that the garden is small and already intensely planted, only a few from my wish list will make it. But I’ll keep in mind the rest as they can be placed in other gardens.

The natural undulations of the land are visible now that vegetation is either cut down or removed. This permits me to see how the flow of rain water is guided and why certain plants did well and others did not. These same crests and dips dictate to the required height specifications when introducing plants to be a part of a natural grouping or meadow. For instance, a low growing plant set on a higher point will be visible and show itself at equal stature to a mid-height plant growing in an indentation. All planting does not require a flat surface.

Similarly, decisions on fences and hedges can be made in the clarity of a garden in hibernation. Style, height and function are made apparent. Let the earth speak to you.

In the process of noting, observing and planning for the garden, I find myself filling up on creative inspiration for new art and poetry as well. Nature has that knack. She will open your mind and expand your heart every time you spend time with her. And she will give you enough work to do for a lifetime.

Announcements!:

1.For those of you following my work with the HIV/AIDS children, a new post has been added on the Lucky Ones page: the-van-den-bergs-visit-the-children-november-2015

2. Three opportunities to buy art and related products for the holidays: http://seedsofdesign.com/happenings/

I am participating in all three. Do come. Support the arts by giving art!

Enjoy the photos of late fall:

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar