The Great Escape

Summer is here and thoughts turn to vacations and a general slowing down of the days. School is out – I’m nostalgic for those carefree, unstructured days. Oh for the gift of a total break of two whole months.

At the very best, most of us can get away for a couple of weeks. So much planning and preparing goes into making those vacations happen. Money, time and obligations place constraints as well as a thick mantle of guilt that we wear as though its par for the course. Don’t forget the crazy expectation we have – a total escape from our reality.

Vacations are necessary. There is mounting evidence of the restorative, health benefits of taking time away. Yet, despite rising stress levels, many do not take their vacation days. Funds, fear of becoming dispensable at work, family responsibilities such as elder-care are all real but, I think a periodic recess from all work ought to be mandatory.

While there are many benefits to going away, our furloughs do not have to depend on travel or deep pockets. All one requires is imagination and a willingness to let go of our quotidian routines. How often have we mindlessly watched television as an escape? How about those hours wasted scrolling through social media? Problem is one doesn’t come away from those ‘activities’ feeling better about oneself. Mindfully taking time off is necessary.

I have my own take-a-break strategies. A good break requires the right state of mind. Recognizing that I need to get away is the first step. Feeling grumpy for no reason at all, being distracted, not paying attention to what or how I eat are the first most noticeable symptoms. If I don’t take action, my body asserts itself with colds/coughs, migraines and/or general malaise. Disregard those signals and it goes downhill very fast.

Stopping right away to breathe deeply, calm my mind and step into the garden where I sit and let the sights, sounds and smells there wash over me is the first step. Centering myself is best done outdoors – it’s as though I have literally stepped away from whatever is causing stress ( this includes that ubiquitous phone ). Following this, I decide what needs to be done by me to alleviate or solve the problem.

That sort of thinking whilst weeding and deadheading is terrific. By the time I’m done, I’ve found clarity of purpose and tidied up a patch of the garden. Taking a walk also works wonders. I’ve come up with some of my best ideas and solutions during strolls through my garden, neighborhood and parks. The daily ritual of walking worked for Darwin too so, I’m in good company. It’s quite remarkable how such simple activities can refresh both physically and mentally.

Okay, sometimes I need to stray further afield. Like a public garden. For me, that means the New York Botanical Gardens, Untermyer Gardens in Yonkers and Wave Hill in the Bronx. A day spent in any of these beautiful places is the perfect escape. I leave inspired and rejuvenated. Sometimes, I take my paints and set myself up to capture the beauty. Very soon, I’m totally absorbed in my activity that all other thoughts have been pushed aside. A might fine tonic for anyone in need of a mental break.

Recently, I went to the NYBG to take in the current exhibit “ Georgia O’Keeffe in Hawaii”. I started with the art exhibit showcasing some of her works done during her short stay in Hawaii. I hadn’t been familiar with those paintings so they expanded my understanding of the artist. Heading into the conservatory for the plant show reflecting the flora of Hawaii was a whole other experience. I was in a tropical paradise. At first, I started by looking at the plants as Georgia O’Keeffe might have viewed them. But in no time, I was back to my childhood years in India. I grew up with so many of these same plants. Happy memories of times spent in the garden of my childhood home came flooding back. Making ‘buttons’ with Plumeria flowers, crushing hibiscus petals to color my cheeks, stringing jasmines to wear as garlands, bracelets or adorning my braids, plucking ripe papayas to bring into the kitchen …. when I left the conservatory, it felt as though I’d actually been away for a few days. A true vacation.

Yes, one could curl up on the couch and read a good book – books are excellent escapes too. Or watch a funny movie. But, a deliberate sojourn outdoors has a bigger, longer lasting impact. The positive effects of Nature are not all tangible but the healthful effects are there. Moods are improved, spirits are buoyed, blood pressure lowered, muscles relaxed, minds cleared and, best of all, there is a new energy as one gets back to routine. So, go ahead, take some respite as often as you need to. Create your own summer holidays.

Note: Don’t forget to check out Shop for those gifts you need to get – hostess, bridal showers, weddings, birthdays, housewarmings …

Invitation! You are invited to the reception of the art show ‘Waterfronts’ at the Manhattan Borough President’s Office.Tuesday, July 5, 5-7 pm.

My painting ‘A New Day’ is part of this show.

Enjoy the photos taken at O’Keeffe show at the NYBG:

Papaya

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

That Pesky Plastic Problem

I don’t know about you but, I’ve been feeling mighty unsettled of late. There is a lot going on in the world and much of it is not good. Discord is rampant. You, I’m certain, read the news as I do so, I shall not expand on what is wrong. It’s been making me sad, angry, frustrated and heartbroken. Those emotions are powerful and as such, do not feel good. However, that force generated is impetus to do something positive. However and whatever one does to change or solve a problem moves us in the right direction. Besides, just how long can anybody wallow in despair? What good comes of that anyway?

True, in most cases, a single individual cannot do much but, every solution starts with a single person and a single act.

So, I’m looking around my own little world with determination to do whatever I can. From reaching out to members of my community who might be lonely or in need of some help to signing petitions/calling my representatives in government to donating to worthy causes ( money, clothes, books, food) to putting in a few hours volunteering locally to doing my share in protecting the environment by my own practices in the garden and home. Every effort, however small is empowering. And that leads to more efforts. It becomes a mission. The sum impact is seen or felt in due course.

As gardeners, we are very aware of the environment. What impacts it positively or negatively is always on mind. We want that happy balance of flora and fauna that a healthy environment needs to thrive. There is plenty we can do in the garden that protects, revives and restores that balance. Planting native plants, applying organic practices, using sustainable materials, conserving water, composting, mulching etc.,

However, despite all the progress, one thing that still seems to be widely present is plastic. Pots, tools, furniture, ties, stakes, bags, labels, bottles, gloves – you see?

By now, our senses have been collectively shocked by the images of fish found not only with plastic waste in their stomachs but, plastic has found its way into their flesh. So, it is possible then that the seafood one consumes can contain plastic. No, I take that back – we are already eating some of the plastic we have thrown into the sea. Think what those implications are.

All too often, we are smug in the knowledge that we recycle our plastic and therefore we’re doing our part. Not so fast. 78 million tonnes of plastic packaging is produced globally every year. Of this, 14% is burned for energy recovery, another 14% is recycled but only 2% of that is actually recycled into new materials and 40% goes to landfills. We produce 20 times more plastic than we did 50 years ago and by 2050 it is estimated that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea. Imagine what the seabirds will have to eat. Consider the chain-reaction in such a situation.

Okay, so back into the garden. How many plastic pots do you have? It seems that the average gardener has 39 plastic pots hanging around in their garden. In the past, there were genuine attempts to use cardboard and/or paper pots. Whale-hide ( made of rigid pitch and fiber that resembled whale hide) pots were also developed. However all these pots fell apart soon and nurseries could not have plants sitting in stock all year round. Enter sturdy plastic that takes anywhere from 50 to 1000 years to break down. You get the idea. Shipping and stocking made easy.

Enough of the bad news. Lets think pro-actively. Start by reusing as much as possible. Case in point – bags that held soil or mulch or compost can hold garbage. Meanwhile, petition your town to institute a community composting and mulching program.

Think twice about every bit of plastic that comes into the garden. Could you make a better choice? Can you reuse it after it serves its initial purpose?

Consider getting tools with wooden or bamboo handles instead of plastic.

There are indeed products manufactured with recycled plastic. A noble effort that might be but, I fear that in buying such items, it only fosters the continued use of regular plastic with the misguided thought that it’s okay to do so simply because it can be recycled. Recall paragraph 5 above.

Buy from nurseries that use recycled or biodegradable pots. Start seeds in egg-shell halves, clean yogurt containers, make your own seed-pots from newspaper – there is a simple tool for just that.

Use metal or wooden label markers. My preferred choice is actually slate – get remnants from places that sell pavers. Slate is of course highly durable and very discreet in the garden.

You see? We can each do something. That is all that is asked of us – to do our part. Collectively we shall overcome.

Note: I’m not sharing photos of plastic! Instead, here are some images from a couple of gardens I have visited in the last week.

Papaya

Clematis scrambling over Ilex

A slate label on my espalier

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Mediation In The Meadow

The’ meadow’ in my small garden is one of my favorite spaces. Much goes on here – as the plants grow in and out of the seasons, the diverse creatures forage, hide and nest through out. Life happens here. There is a calm that that settles within whenever I spend a bit of time observing and being still in this space.

Since the meadow is really full of bulbs and mostly native plants and I have generally let it grow as it is wont to do, the work has involved only the periodic weeding of obvious thugs such as garlic mustard. In other words, I’ve been kinda lazy about it all. Over time, in my indulgence of its carefree existence, I’ve ignored the crowding that has emerged. This past weekend as I examined what plants were ready to take over from the camassia and alliums and what was emerging, I found myself searching and wondering where certain plants were. There ought to be more color present. The Chelone lyonii ( pink turtleheads) were looking strong, sturdy and preparing for summer flowering but where were the liatris that ought to start blooming about now? And what happened to the geums, echinacea, asters and ornamental grasses? The first had looked so sweet splashing their red earlier in May but were now swallowed up by more aggressive plants not all of which had been deliberately placed there. The rest were either clearly struggling to grow or had simply called it a day. A wake up call I could no longer ignore.

I see how the jewelweed has, without permission, become way too precocious. The wood anemone, drunk with the knowledge that I love it, has spread itself rather too freely. There are numerous other nondescript plants that I’m yet to identify that clearly do not belong here. Little bullies and squatters.

So my mission for the remainder of this month is to tackle the meadow. To get in there to pull out and thin out is daunting. I’m afraid to discover how many precious plants I have lost in my negligence and what critters I might be disturbing after giving them carte blanche in the meadow. Plus, I’m absolutely certain the mosquitoes will learn of my presence in no time at all. This is not going to be pleasant.

But, I must step up, own my indolence and make the necessary amends. It’s what any good, self-respecting gardener must do. Meanwhile. I’m distracting all viewers with baby robins, the roses, wisteria and emerging oak-leaf hydrangea. Even better, the climbing hydrangea is in full bloom and the fragrance is so heavenly that all thought to look at anything critically is forgotten. Perfect decoy.

Note: The images below compare the meadow in May and June. You can see how overgrown it looks in June ( with due diligence it does not have to look this way! My bad.)

May:

June:

Anemone take-over in progress

The worthy distractions:

Close-up. H. petiolaris

Climbing hydrangea

Oak-leaf hydrangea

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Having My Flowers And Eating Them Too

As a child, I’d spend endless hours in the garden. Amidst playing and puttering, I made discoveries and learned so much about plants and bugs. One of my most pleasant pastimes was to find the tasty treats that the garden served. Beyond the usual berries, fruits and vegetables.

I was familiar with the common herbs like mint, holy basil and cilantro. Nibbling on them I’d imagine I was in the forest hiding from wicked witches or, I was Mowgli from the Jungle Book savvy in the ways of jungle living. It felt more special to eat the flowers of the herbs than their leaves.

I’d pick roses and savor the petals one at a time. I learned to eat only the young flowers as the older ones tasted a tad bitter. On the other hand, hibiscus petals provided a tangy flavor. Nasturtiums were peppery but the leaves were not so tasty to my young palate.

I knew to suck the long tubular ends of certain flowers and savor the sweet nectar.

In my curiosity, I recall taste testing other flowers and leaves – some were terribly bitter. It never occurred to me that I could get sick from such experimentation. It was fortunate I didn’t come to any harm. Since I never really discussed my doings in the garden, nobody knew to stop this line of risky inquiry.

Fast forward to present day. It is now quite common to include plants with edible flowers in the garden. Adding to the roster of the aforementioned rose, hibiscus and nasturtiums, are pansies, calendula, borage, zucchini blossoms, purple tops of chives, white flowers of garlic, yellow dill heads, lavender, elderflower and more. It does one good to have these plants in your garden. Beautiful and edible – a winning combination. Of course, make sure the flowers come from organically grown plants. Pesticide and chemical free.

Note – A bonus to picking flowers is that it encourages most plants to produce more. I always leave some flowers so the plants continue to look good and allowed to set seed.

Now that we’re in the season of eating light and fresh, using flowers in our recipes adds an extra pizazz to the presentation. Flowers make everything a celebration.

So, I’m sharing with you a few simple recipes to get you started on a season of celebrations.

1. Summer = cold drinks. Add flowers to your ice-trays and right away you have elevated your drinks to a higher level. Violas and borage suspended in ice are my favorites.

2. Top salads with freshly picked nasturtiums, calendula and sunflower petals, pansies, borage or chive flowers. They make the salad look pretty and add subtle flavor to it. Nasturtiums have a peppery punch that I love. Borage has a mild cucumber flavor and pansies taste like lettuce.

3. Add pea or bean flowers to rice or couscous for a delicate flavor. Caution – Leave plenty of flowers on the plant or you won’t get any beans or peas!

4. Decorate a simple olive oil cake with whole fresh roses and you’ve now got an Instagram worthy dessert.

5. Stick a sprig of lavender in a sugar bowl. Next time you sweeten your tea or lemonade, there will be a hint of lavender to bring a smile to your lips.

6. Crystallized petals of roses and whole pansies look sensational on cakes. Here’s a link on how to crystallize.

7. Cool off with a watermelon and rose granita – scoop the de-seeded flesh of half a large watermelon ( about 2 and ½ Lbs of flesh) and put in blender with 4 oz sugar, juice of 1 large lemon and ½ teaspoon rose water. Blend till smooth and strain. Pour liquid into shallow, wide container and freeze for 30 minutes. Break up crystals with a fork and return to freezer. Repeat this process two more times till granita has formed ice crystals and there is no slush. Takes about 3 hours in total. Serve in chilled glasses. Top with a rose bud or a thin spiral of lemon peel. Fancy.

For Homemade Rosewater:

  1. Remove petals from about 7 large roses and run them under luke-warm water to remove any residue.
  2. Add petals to a large pot and top with enough distilled water ( about a quart and a half) to just cover (no more or you’ll dilute your rosewater).
  3. Over medium-low heat bring the water to a simmer and cover.
  4. Let simmer for 20-30 minutes or until petals have lost their color and are pale.
  5. Strain the mixture to separate the petals from the water.
  6. Discard petals and place water in a glass jar to store.The rosewater can be kept in a well-sealed bottle in the refrigerator all season. It can also flavor lemonade, ice-cream and other desserts.

Get started and have yourself a healthy, celebratory summer!

Note: Do peruse shop to get your gifts for all occasions. 100% of the profits goes to support the education of children with HIV/AIDS.

Enjoy the photos of edible flowers in the garden:

Nasturtium

Pansies in pots

Violas

Zucchini blossoms

Sunflowers

Serving up zucchini flowers!

Merry marigolds!

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar