On The Pesky Matter Of Illegal Aliens. Part I

I have very strong feelings about allowing in illegal aliens. I think it is a matter of cultural integrity and maintening ones special, exclusive status. Border control must be seriously tightened and constant vigilence is in order. How else can we preserve the integrity of our land? Have I made you feel a little uncomfortable? A tad unsure about where this is going? Worry not, I’m talking about a different type of illegal alien – an unsavory assortment lumped into one abhorrent group under the banner Weeds. Have I got you on my side now?!

Anything not desired in certain parts of the garden is a weed. In my garden, what is strictly not allowed in one area is permitted to run rampant in another. I’m fickle that way. See, its a case of behavior and purpose. While a plant is well-behaved where it is controlled by not-so-perfect conditions, it can run riot elsewhere when given all that it enjoys. Case in point are the hellebores. Given an extra dose of daily sunlight and a thicker layer of mulch in the perennial beds, they do not selfseed as prolifically as they do in semi-shade. I can only vouch for this in my own garden. And it suits me fine. Providing less than perfect conditions is a way to exercise some control over plants that are, in general, well liked and welcome.

But this practical approach has not the slightest impact on true weeds such as chick weed, crab grass, pigweed, curly dock, horsetail, bindweed and so many others. Those are the ones that are not to be tolerated any where. They behave like thugs, gang members and, murderers. Some are super sneaky and go unnoticed by blending in while others grow so fiercely that they can be mistaken for a genuine stalwart of my garden. The very nerve.

Now that we’re well into summer and the horrid, humid heat is on high, the weeds are about the only group of plants that are completely unfazed. Requiring absolutely nothing from me and my numerous horticultural services, they thrive in abundance. I find this quite unfair and take it as a personal affront. After all, I permit just about anything in my ‘meadow’. (Garlic mustard and other invasives are of course forbidden). Even in my handkerchief size front lawn, I’m not going for pristine. Clover, burdock and anything that is green participate in giving me the desired verdant counterpoint to the perennial beds. Between the two areas they must make up at least half the size of my garden. I feel I’m being mighty generous and accomodating to the weeds. But no, they are greedy. They want to trample all over the flower beds, paths and any place restricted. I work so hard to discourage them. Composting and mulching to suppress their residency. Patrolling regularly and pulling them out ruthlessly (and rootfully!). It is plainly an unending chore.

Interestingly, charmers like the rambuctious and strong-willed Mysotis and Ajuga that bloom so beautifully with the daffodils in the meadow know they are not to show up elsewhere and therefore do not do so. Why can’t the weeds learn from example?

Needless to say, I’m a tad miffed. It is just not fun spending so much of the cooler hours of the day in the tiresome pursuit of ridding the cutivated areas of these cunning interlopers. But there it is. No other way around it. Rather grudgingly I admire their persistence and resilience. Someone ought to locate and isolate those specific genes and put them into the plants we love but are ever so fastidious and/or delicate. For the time being, I accept this as the price I must pay for my organic corner of Paradise.

Next week, I shall continue on the subject of weeds and dazzle you with some nuggets of handy information. Wait with bated breath!

A charming quartet in the meadow - daffodils, dandelions, ajuga and forget-me-nots.

A charming quartet in the meadow – daffodils, dandelions, ajuga and forget-me-nots.


The much maligned dandelion is made very welcome in my meadow.

The much maligned dandelion is made very welcome in my meadow.


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Closing Our Borders

Over the years, I’ve expressed my opinions and thoughts about increasing our usage of native plants, supporting native flora and fauna, being environmentally conscious in the garden and in general applying organic, ecologically responsible methods. I’ve often mentioned the name Douglas Tallamy as the authority on this subject. Having read his book Bringing Nature Home when it came out several years ago, followed his work and on occasion corresponded with him, it was with particular eagerness that I went to hear him speak at the Greenwich, CT Audubon Society a couple of weeks ago.

An unassuming, affable man, Tallamy is a powerhouse of knowledge and understanding of all things in the sphere of entomology and wildlife ecology. I’m summarizing his talk and I hope the information I give will make you sit up and do something.

Ecosystems perform locally. Biodiversity equals ecosystem services. We have degraded 60% of earth’s ecosystem services. Given that 80 – 90% of plants are propagated by animals not wind, we have effectively sterilized our neighborhoods. As Tallamy puts it, we have demonized it! We are living with ‘nature deficit disorder’. Plants literally allow all living things to eat sunlight. So when there are fewer plants, there is less to eat and therefore less support for all animals.

The United States is a human dominated ecosystem. We uphold our lawns as a major status symbol. To date, we boast 72, 500 square miles of suburban lawn. That is eight times the state of New Jersey! And growing. Given that lawns barely sustain any living creature, it stands to reason that we’re seriously impacting our local ecology. Simply thinking our parks and preserves can do the job is ridiculous. They are too small, fragmented and isolated. A contiguous space of diverse plantings is critical to support our birds and butterflies. With that will come all other valuable critters.

To do this, we must not only introduce many plants but we must select more native plants. This is because not all plants support the food web. Natives do. Whilst alien species aggressively replace natives, they support insects very poorly. Five times more insects (think caterpillars) can feed on native species. Native plants and insects share an evolutionary history. Indigenous insects are not adapted to eat alien plants. Take the Monarch butterfly for example – it depends on specific native plants and in a way, this specialization is its curse because with disappearing natural habitats, we are in danger of losing this valued butterfly. With fewer and fewer insects available, think what this will do to our native birds. 96 % of reproducing birds eat insects. Insects provide the high levels of protein and nutrients needed by these birds.

A world without insects is a world without biodiversity. Birds forage close to their nests. Alien plants will not provide them the local supply of the food web. We’ve come to view plants only for their beauty and not their ecological role. But if we understood the number of caterpillars or other insects supported by native trees and shrubs, we’d realize how imperative it is to plant them. We must create corridors connecting natural areas. This can be done easily if each of us filled our gardens with the right plants.

Lawns are biological deserts. They demand a high amount of fertilizers, weed and pest killers to keep our lawns pristine. Add to this the pollution created by gas powered mowers, water table contamination by use of aforementioned assorted chemicals and you have the ideal recipe for a green wasteland. Reduce the area of lawn and begin the transition from alien ornamentals to native ornamentals. Those all too familiar albeit pretty, Bradbury pears or crape myrtles lining our streets and dotting our front lawns do virtually nothing for sustaining the food web. How about replacing them with our own Amelanchiers or Cornus alternifolia? Create meadows, plant more native trees and shrubs, do away with as many ‘miracle’ products. ( To this I say –This is not hard people!)

With native plantings in place, we can set the calender by what is in bloom and what insects and birds are observed. We fill our lives with surprise, anticipation and entertainment. Just think, a mere fifteen minutes spent in nature each day has measurable medical benefits. It is within our power to make those minutes the most amazing ever.

Admittedly, it feels awfully good to have an authority such as Tallamy give credibility to my own all too frequent passionate calls to pay more attention and take more responsibility for protecting our natural environment. Lets just get to it shall we?

Please, please get yourself a copy of the recently updated and expanded Bringing Nature Home by Dr. Douglas Tallamy. I cannot recommend it enough.

This just in! I had alerted Dr. Tallamy on this post of mine and asked him for feedback. Here is his response “Hi Shobha,
Nice job! You were on the money complete. Nothing to add at this end. Thanks for your support.
Doug”

Swallowtail caterpillar

Swallowtail caterpillar


Red Admiral

Red Admiral


Tiger Swallowtail

Tiger Swallowtail


Great Spangled Fritiilary

Great Spangled Fritiilary


White Admiral

White Admiral


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

On Your Mark, Get Set …

Its February and we’ve just crossed the halfway mark through winter. Hurray! It has been a particularly brutal season and although it still feels like we’re in Antartica, spring will be here in some weeks. And when it does, we’re going to be ready. Right?

Okay, lets get organized. Gather your garden journal, laptop/tablet, paper and pen, garden photos from last year, seed and plant catalogs, the telephone and your drink of choice. Get cracking! Review, revise, make lists, draw plans, place orders, chart out schedules. Have a vision and act accordingly. Time spent planning and preparing is never a waste.

As I’d mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m planting a shadblow tree this spring. I will order it from my local nursery now so they can get it for me as early as possible. Likewise, all the plants I intend to get into the garden this year. I have the pressure of getting my garden ready for its Open Day (May 10)!Seeds will be started soon – vegetables and annuals. In addition to the usual seed flats started in the greenhouse, I’m going to try out the method suggested here: http://www.gardendesign.com/seed-sowing-snow
Go on, experiment along with me. Lets see what we learn.

Sorting through photos and notes, I’ll consider what worked and what did not. Successes and failures are great teachers. I’ll revise plans and see what improvements and additions are required. Each task will be prioritized and scheduled. This includes repairs and rearrangements. Tools will be sharpened, cleaned or replaced as necessary. Supplies such as stakes, ties, Epsom salts, dormant oil, fish and seaweed emulsion etc., will be restocked. The big calender will be filled with all the chores – daily, weekly, monthly etc., Vacation weeks will be factored in. As precise as all of this sounds, I always keep it flexible as weather and life have a way of messing up plans. After all, this exercise in preparation is meant to make gardening pleasurable. Lets keep it that way.

To help with tracking what needs to be done when, do refer to the Things To Do page on this website. Depending on your location and type of property and specific garden design, you can add or alter as per your needs. Whilst we go about gardening in relative solitude, there is a deep comfort in knowing one is part of a like-minded tribe of caretakers of this beautiful, generous Earth.

A friend sent me this link and I think it has great potential. Do check it out:
http://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/01/16/technology/personaltech/review-parrot-flower-power-plant-sensor.html
I’d love to get feedback from those who try this.

With so much to do, February will seem shorter than it is! Soon after that, the snowdrops will be awakening. Will you be ready?

Some good news: My photo of a milkweed seed pod opening to release seeds made it into the BBC ‘Your Pictures’! Check out link below. I’m very kicked! < http://www.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr/-/news/in-pictures-25942841 >

Garden journals and notebooks

Garden journals and notebooks

 

Ready to be transplanted!

Ready to be transplanted!

 

Root cuttings of hydrangea, myrtles and scented geraniums

Root cuttings of hydrangea, myrtles and scented geraniums

 

Making raised beds

Making raised beds

 

Popular gourd in India but exotic here!

Popular gourd in India but exotic here!

 

Patty-pans for the gourmet

Patty-pans for the gourmet

(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Democracy Rules – Except In The Garden

I am all for democracy. I support peaceful efforts to achieve it in other parts of the world. I take my right to vote very seriously. That we each have equal rights and are to be treated as such has my wholehearted endorsement. I believe every living creature deserves respect and kindness. Heck, I could be the poster child for democracy. Except in my garden.

It has occurred to me that in the confines of my little garden, democracy does not exist. Autocracy rules. I assume complete authority. It is rather scary how closely my behavior in the garden resembles descriptions of Mussolini , Quaddafi and others. Please tell me I’m not alone in this personality transformation!

Consider these factors and maybe, just maybe, you will recognize yourself:
I happily discriminate amongst the plants. Selecting only certain ones and dismissing others as weak or unimpressive. I’m even known to cruelly put down specific plants.
Plants that do not perform as expected are ruthlessly eliminated.
My vision is the only vision. If a plant attempts to change the design by creeping into forbidden places then off with its head! Barricades are placed to deter just such dissension or defection.
When anybody admires the garden, I take all the credit with no consideration to the contributions of my hardworking botanical subjects.
I aim for absolute control and expect total obedience. Dissenters are not treated well. At all.

Any of the above sound familiar? I was shocked when I realized this about myself. Pushy, bossy, aggressive are traits I have confessed to. But autocratic? Would never have thought myself capable of it. Yet, where is my shame or guilt? I worry that this says something about what each of us is capable of when the right ( okay, wrong) circumstances come along. It bears some close examination.

But then, how else can one create a garden? The very idea of a garden opposes the wild behavior of plants. We attempt to tame nature.In a way, it mimics what humans do to ourselves. We attempt to be civilized instead of giving in to baser tendencies. And it is hard to do without being minded. We’ve even put in place policing agencies. The fact is, without the watchful eyes of others in society many would disregard what is good for the whole and simply do as they please for themselves. Mayhem and murder would ensue. I suppose then, it comes down to how we govern ourselves. Democracy, communism, dictatorship, military rule, monarchy – the world is still working it all out.

So, back to the garden. Looking at the big picture, I no longer feel alarmed about my authoritative influence. I think I’m really a benevolent parent. Strict, demanding the best, willing to express tough love but at the same time guiding the plants to realize their highest potential.

Yes, that’s more like it. I can live with that. It is all in the perspective one chooses to employ. So, what rule exists in your garden – parental, anarchy, democracy, oligarchy or dictatorship?
Take a look at some examples that dare to defy me:

Creeping Jenny and mazus compete to take over the path.

Creeping Jenny and mazus compete to take over the path.

 

Squatters

Squatters

 

New Dawn roses running riot

New Dawn roses running riot

 

The fig (in pot) that refuses to stand straight

The fig (in pot) that refuses to stand straight

 

The wisteria that resists taming

The wisteria that resists taming

 

Forget-me-nots that self-seed with no restraint.

Forget-me-nots that self-seed with no restraint.

Don’t forget that my garden is open this May 25! Check ‘Happenings’ page for details.
(c) 2013 Shobha Vanchiswar

March Musings

Goodbye winter weary February, hello March! Coming alive with all the trappings of hope and optimism is the theme of the month. Look around. The evidence is everywhere. Bulbs determinedly pushing their way through the frozen earth, the willow trees turning an ocher yellow soon to be replaced by sap green, forsythia bushes studded with fattening buds of burnt sienna. I go on treasure hunts of my own – Spot the Snowdrops and Unhide the Hellebores.

This past Friday, in celebration of it being the first of March, I went on a reconnaissance of my garden. In the midst of patches of grass left exposed by the last snow melt, I spied the earliest of the snowdrops! A sight that never ceases to thrill. I rushed to check the hellebores. Sure enough, sweetly nestled beneath the protective mantle of last year’s leaves were buds galore. Firm assurance that spring was well on its way.

In the greenhouse, the primroses brought inside in pots last fall, have begun putting forth flowers in colors that could only have been chosen by a child. Deep red, fuchsia pink, egg yolk yellow sit happily on rosettes of cushiony, kelly green leaves. They’ll be moved into the house to provide instant cheer.

Heralding the hyacinths still breaking through the ground, are the ones being forced indoors. I have placed the forcing vases and pots where not only I, but others will be sure to notice the daily magical transformations. Idealistically I imagine that such gems will improve our moods and outlooks. They do.

The annual orchid show of the New York Botanical Garden started this past weekend. Like a pilgrim, I went with fervor and faith in my heart. At this time of year, I’d go to just about any floral exhibit. Never mind that the flower shows are not entirely realistic. The sight of a gazillion flowers in bloom is the perfect ticket to banish all traces of the winter doldrums. The more gaudy the splashes of color the better. I am now brimming with renewed energy and desire to serve my garden. As soon as it gets bearable to work outside, I’ll be pruning the roses.

The gardens at the NYBG are always a couple or so weeks ahead of my garden. Surveying the swathes of blooming snowdrops and eranthis, the fully open hellebores and even a few daring crocus, I had a very satisfying preview of the pleasures to come. Is there anything more sublime?

Even the light has changed. The soft, pale amber of winter has turned a distinct shade brighter. After we move the hour hand forward on the tenth, we’ll be waking to sun burnished mornings. I cannot wait. I too have awoken from my hibernation.

Hyacinth 'nosing' through

Hyacinth ‘nosing’ through


Daffodil leaves up and growing

Daffodil leaves up and growing


More evidence that spring is imminent.

More evidence that spring is imminent.


My first snowdrops

My first snowdrops


Early crocus at NYBG

Early crocus at NYBG


Snowdrops at the NYBG

Snowdrops at the NYBG


Eranthis at the NYBG

Eranthis at the NYBG


NYBG

NYBG


Orchid show

Orchid show


More orchids

More orchids


Hyacinth in bud

Hyacinth in bud


More hyacinths in vases

More hyacinths in vases


Hyacinths and muscari

Hyacinths and muscari


(c) 2013 Shobha Vanchiswar