Lawning Ahead. Enlightened Gardening #1

Winter is entering its final quarter. Are you ready to implement all those garden plans and resolutions? You want to go organic, grow some if not all your veggies, have something in bloom all year long, create a more casual garden to reflect your lifestyle, set up the patio so you can enjoy al fresco meals as often as possible, provide the children with a space that fires their imagination and finally, it all seemed so doable in January but now, you are daunted. Am I right?

Well, you are not alone. It is quite common to feel a bit overwhelmed and not know how or where to start. I get asked about this all the time. Let me reassure anybody who has doubts that all of those goals are not only well within reach but can be achieved this very year. The only thing you need to begin is a deep desire to do what it takes. Make time in your schedule, set aside a minimum of an hour every other day ( every day is better) and a good half day of the weekend ( a whole day is better!). You might not need all that time each day but then, you can use it to just sit and enjoy the garden. I guarantee you will get hooked to puttering in your corner of paradise. It just feels so good!

After hearing from many readers, I’m happy to discuss the several tasks and habits to cultivate (!) that will get you creating the garden you want.

Lets start with the lawn. That ubiquitous green swathe that seems to be the dubious prize of most property owners. A healthy, verdant, well manicured monoculture lawn has become the unofficial American symbol of success. And the struggle to maintain said lawn is the “successful” American way of life. Really America? After all that we now know about the huge cost to the environment and wallet in the upkeep of such a feature, are we still going to continue hankering after this shallow dream? Think about that.

So, if you are keen on such a perfectly superficial and downright wasteful element in your garden, then this article is probably not for you. But, before you leave this site, just pause to ask yourself why you think you must have that pristine lawn and why you are so willing to work so hard to keep it that way. Do you truly believe that such a lawn means you ‘have arrived’? You like having the ‘pure green’ space? You enjoy spending unnecessary amounts of time, money and effort in the pursuit of such a thing? Are you at peace with yourself? Do you believe climate change is not impacted by human activities?
If you said yes to at least three of those questions, then it really is not useful for you to read on. You’re excused.

For the rest of you I have excellent news! Giving up on that perfect lawn is most liberating. You will save time, money, energy ( yours as well as natural earth resources) and at the same time create a healthy, thriving environment.

Take a look at the size of your lawn. Does it need to have those dimension or could you whittle it down? The reduced lawn will make room for more plant beds, shrubs and/or trees which will only enrich the garden. Of course, mowing will also be quicker.

After determining how small ( or big ) a lawn you are happy to live with, banish the thought of it supporting that single crop of grass. The green color that serves as counterpoint to the flowering beds can be from a diverse array of ‘lawn’ plants. Leafy jewels once considered as weeds in the conventional lawn are now free to sparkle. For the most part, this ‘new’ lawn will be a canvas of green but, every now and then, little color will spark it up. Violets, bugleweed, scilla, crocus, clover, forget-me-nots, ajuga, grape hyacinths, wood hyacinths and yes, dandelions. That last one is one of the earliest sources of nectar for bees and hummingbirds. But understandably, one doesn’t want dandelions taking over entirely. Here’s what I do – in my tiny lawn in front, I pull up all dandelion plants in the spring and then only remove the flowers the rest of the growing season. In the ‘meadow’ however, I depend on the dandelions following on the heels of the daffodils and clashing madly with the blues of the forget-me-nots and ajuga flowers. It is such a happy-making sight.
The other lawn flowers are given complete freedom.

Maintaining this type of lawn is easier than you think. I have one word – compost! Compost doubles as fertilizer and mulch. No more chemical fertilizers ever again. By supporting diversity, friendly insects will arrive and they in turn will take care of the pests. No more pesticides ever again. Mulch will restrain true weeds like crabgrass as well as stop the lawn from drying too quickly and hence the frequency and quantity of water consumed will be reduced. Finally, mowing with the blade set at a height of 4 to 6 inches, means you will not have to mow as often. Lawn clippings left on the ‘grass’ after mowing will also mulch and enrich the soil as they decompose into it. Keeping the grass a bit higher will also help in conserving the moisture in the soil. All good!

Consider how this one shift in practice will reduce the volume of chemicals polluting the water-table, save use of water, cut down on fuel use, lower air and noise pollution, create a clean, healthy area for pets and children to play and still look provide the coveted green backdrop.

A 3 inch layer of compost spread when aerating and seeding the lawn in spring will go a long way. I feed this area once again in early summer and finally after leaf raking in the fall. That is it. Imagine how freeing this process is compared to the constant demands of the old, perfect lawn! Are you game to get started?

Whatever will you do with the new found free time?!!

My tiny front lawn - hardly pristine but looks good right?!

My tiny front lawn – hardly pristine but looks good right?!

The lawn nicely complements the perennial beds on either side.

The lawn nicely complements the perennial beds on either side.

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The meadow!

The meadow!

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Giving Back To The Future

Something happens in mid-February. With the sap rising in the sugar maples, my gardening spirit goes into high gear. I get fully vested in preparing for the growing season. While I might have luxuriated in dreaming my way through seed and plant catalogs in December and January, come February and I’m raring to start doing garden things.

The amaryllis have been blooming beautifully since the New Year and I just got the hyacinth bulbs that had been cooling in the refrigerator since early to mid-November into bulb forcers.. Does this gardener’s heart a whole lot of good to see them sitting in their jewel-toned glass vases twinkling with all the promise of the spring to come.

This year, my plans for the garden are focused primarily on native wildflowers. It is very much in keeping with my continued efforts towards stewardship of land. Restoration of the landscape to a healthy, indigenous state is a critically important step. It is the only true legacy we can be proud to leave for future generations. I firmly believe that by bringing back what is native to our region is critical before we can pass on the trowel to those who will inherit it. Reinstating the flora and the fauna will follow. Balance will have been re-established.

If each gardener added regional native plants, then ‘habitat corridors’ will be created for free passage of pollinators and helpful wildlife that protect and/or support the plants. The natural symbiosis that is the foundation of a stable ecosystem.

My ‘meadow’ is the natural choice for introducing native wildflowers. However, it is not a simple matter of scattering seeds and expecting the plants to happily emerge. First of all, seeds from the wild are notoriously finicky. Probably evolved to give themselves the best chance for successful propagation, the seeds will germinate only when conditions are ideal. Often, depending on the species, they could take months or years to show signs of life. All of this might be proper for Nature’s normal habits but for a home gardener, it can be torturous waiting. And waiting..

Hence, I’ve forged a two-prong approach. To get the meadow established with plants starting this spring, I needed to procure said plants. Since this area has numerous bulbs already in place, I cannot risk destroying them by digging into the soil to put in mature plants. The solution was to source native wildflower plugs. Not so easy to come by. By discussing with fellow gardeners and researching on my own, I was delighted to come up with North Creek Nurseries. My plugs were obtainable! The additional bonus of the plugs is that they are that much easier to plant. This is a tremendous relief for my back and knees as they were dreading the labor of dealing with a large volume of grown-up plants.

Given that the meadow gets dappled sun, my selections are restricted to plants that are fine with that condition. The order has been placed. Shipment should arrive late April. Already I can ‘see’ the meadow shimmer with columbines, pink turtleheads, yellow sneezeweed, toad’s lily, wild bergamot ….

Meanwhile, the scientist in me was interested in working with seeds. I wanted seeds legitimately sourced from the wild. Plants from such seeds are quite different from their cultivated counterparts. If we are serious about restoring to our countryside and cities true native plants, then we must propagate from those seeds. Enter the Wild Seed Project. Based in Maine, its goal is to bring back the natural flora of Maine to Maine. Fortunately, those of us living in other similar regions of the country can purchase appropriate seeds from them.

Serendipitously, this past December, I was given a bunch of seed packets from Wild Seed Project. A gift of the best kind! Most of the seeds need a period in the cold after being sowed in pots. I have now done just that. My ‘babies’ wait in a sheltered part of the garden for their spring awakening. I will do my very best to attend to them as required and anticipate their germination with patience. Those who know me well are probably smiling with skepticism. Just watch. I’m going to show you a side of me you have never known. Patient and persevering. Wipe that smirk off your face!

Note: North Creek Nurseries supplies wholesale quantities – far more than the typical garden might require. So, team up with friends and neighbors, garden clubs and such, to order. The bonus will be creating native habitats in whole neighborhoods or communities. All good!

Wild Seed Project has a wonderful website and e-newsletter chock full of information and beautiful photos. Their efforts in Maine ought to be emulated in all the other states. Lets get started! I see this as a wonderful project to be taken up by towns and cities, private and public gardens, Girl and Boy Scouts, garden clubs, local Rotary clubs, schools and every other person or group that cares about what happens to our environment.

Below are a few images of the beauty of native flora and fauna:

Joe Pye

Joe Pye

Monarch butterfly on asters

Monarch butterfly on asters

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Echinacea

Echinacea

Hummingbird at work

Hummingbird at work

Bees on asters

Bees on asters

Pink turtlehead

Pink turtlehead

Closed Gentian

Closed Gentian

Sneezeweed

Sneezeweed

Yellow Lady's Slipper

Yellow Lady’s Slipper

Columbine

Columbine

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Smarty Plants

As adamant as we humans are about being the most superior of all living things on this planet, I am compelled to differ. To begin with, I don’t think our time on earth should be focused on proving our dominance over everything else. In doing so, we expend enormous efforts and do considerable damage to the entire planet. We go well beyond what we need to do to survive and thrive. It seems we reach for excess in all areas. Food, shelter, clothing, safety, comfort …. We commit acts of unspeakable violence for reasons of wanting more than we need. Of course, we often disguise our true intents in the name of doing good. To put it plainly, humans love playing God. A greedy, selfish, wrathful God.

But look around at those other living beings with whom we share this world. Not a single animal or plant takes more than it needs to live and procreate. I am particularly in awe of plants. They truly rule!
Think about it – while humans cannot exist without plants, the reverse is not true! What would we eat? How would we build our homes, feed our animals, make our clothes, obtain life saving medicine? All of our celebrations and observances incorporate plants in some form or other. Meanwhile, plants themselves can grow happily without us altogether. Take away plant life and you effectively end our race.

How plants live is mighty clever. Whatever they need, comes to them. The pollinators, the rain, the sunlight, the wind. Their seeds, distributed by creature or wind, establish themselves wherever conditions are ideal and calmly continue the family line. When the climate turns unusually harsh as in a drought, plants are known to go dormant and/or set seeds in quantity so the species can be preserved for when circumstances return to normal. Research has shown that when a tree is attacked by a pest, it sends out chemical signals to neighboring trees which in turn arm themselves by synthesizing compounds that could help repel or harm the pests.

To protect themselves, the kingdom Plantae has developed a plethora of weapons. Disguises, thorns, chemicals that kill/repel/cause sickness or allergies, bark, fatty coats, trapping mechanisms and, in some cases even ensuring that animal ‘bodyguards’ are always at hand. Pretty cool right?

Plants have evolved to look or smell nice to those they need for pollination. In fair exchange, they offer their nectar or fruit. And if humans choose them for their gardens or farms, well, what the heck, the odds of survival just got better.

They respond to seasons with aplomb. Highly tuned to even the teeniest shifts in weather and temperature, like state of the art, well-oiled machines, they will launch themselves to grow, set fruit, enter senescence and dormancy right on cue. Ingenious and resilient, flora outdo fauna by far. And compared to Homo sapiens, they are, in my opinion, the most superior of beings.
Lets start treating them with due respect. Each time I bite into an apple, enjoy a cup of coffee, fix a salad, treat a cold with Echinacea, perfume myself with rose water, sit under the shade of a tree, use my wooden dining table, select a linen shirt, receive a gift of flowers or, go about a myriad quotidian activities, I will do so with heartfelt gratitude and humility.

Life with plants is very good.

The images below demonstrate our dependence on plants:

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

To Bow And To Yield

A whole month of the new year has come to pass. It went by so fast. On reviewing the to-do list for January, I’m relieved to note how much got done. But what I didn’t accomplish stares accusingly at me. Did I give myself too much to do or did I waste time by getting distracted/ lazy? All of the above I’m sure. Yet, it felt like I was working steadily and somehow time got ahead of me.
Each month has a list of tasks for every area of my life. The garden determines pretty much how I organize it all.

As gardeners, we know to prepare for each season. Winter for dreaming, planning, organizing, researching, ordering, starting seeds. Spring for cleaning up, readying the earth, planting, mulching, staking, weeding, deadheading and inhaling the freshness of the season. Summer for intense weeding, constant deadheading, mowing, watering, reaping the benefits of summer fruits and veggies, long, lazy meals al fresco. Autumn for harvesting, weeding, clearing and cutting, planting, tidying and moaning the end of the growing season. We know, we plan, we expect, we execute.

And working with the garden calender, I organize all my other projects. Writing and painting, while pursued all year round, pick up intensity as the garden grows. It seems counter-intuitive but the more that happens in the garden, the more I’m inspired to create. Fitting it all in the limited hours is challenging but oh so rewarding! Hence, I prepare for it. Sometimes, it is hard to keep up with all the ideas generated by the garden but in all honesty, I love the pressure to stay creative.

Vacations occur only when there is a natural pause in my garden. Winter and late summer work best. Short of impromptu trips partnered with upgraded tickets, I’m not likely to rush off anywhere. Thankfully, celebrations such as weddings and babies give enough lead time for making the right accommodations in my calender. If this admission makes me seem inflexible, it is only partially correct. For the right reasons I’ll happily adjust.

I like this rhythm and routine. There is comfort here. It keeps me centered and present. So when there occurs a shift or change in this schedule, it is unsettling. Like the temperature shifts we’re experiencing this week. Just when January felt more normal and I was beginning to settle into the winter groove, we are given springtime weather. February is off to a balmy start. When the snow melts tomorrow (57 degrees and rainy!), will the dormant plants think it is time to awaken? I should think they’d be mighty surly to be roused so rudely a couple of months too early.

Should I start regular watering of the vertical garden? Will the roses want to be freed of their burlap protection? What will happen to the flats of seeds kept outdoors so they can receive their required cold treatment? How will I do the stuff I’m supposed to do if I’m busy with these unexpected to-dos?

I’m certain winter temperatures will return. But for how long and how low is unknown. It might keep fluctuating erratically. Never mind the havoc to my carefully organized lists and schedules. Agendas be damned.

So with a great big breath I ask myself what is the lesson to be learned here. The answer becomes apparent. I’m being called to stay open and adaptable. The natural world is so resilient. It has seen immeasurable changes from time immemorial. Yet, here it is always bountiful and beautiful. Somehow, this planet of ours has survived every change and onslaught with grace and aplomb.

I shall stop fighting these natural departures from the norm. After all, there’s nothing I can do about it. Instead, taking my cue from the willow, I’ll bow and yield to the winds that blow my way and carry on with what I know to do – to nurture and grow ideas and plants.
With humility and optimism.

Here’s what is keeping me inspired right now:

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar