Child’s Play. Part I

Private gardens in India are typically tended by professional gardeners. Garden owners might supervise but the real work is done by their hired help. As a child, I was given free reign in the garden where I would spend most of my waking hours. I learned a great deal simply by spending time outdoors. Observing bugs, tearing apart a flower to see its different parts, trying in vain to extract color from colorful petals ( I’d squeeze wet petals), waiting for a chrysalis to turn into a butterfly, learning from my mother to make tiny clay pots from mud, picking berries as they ripened and never leaving any for others – the list is endless.

I didn’t have any grown-ups who took it upon themselves to teach or guide me and the gardeners in the area were way too busy heeding their employers and going about their responsibilities. But, I did get to watch these gardeners from whom I undoubtedly absorbed some good gardening methods. I think I also got in their way frequently.

I’d collect pretty leaves and flowers in tins and pass many afternoons in the shade arranging and rearranging my treasures in patterns. I crushed fragrant leaves and flowers to perfume my hands and face before I learned about primitive cultures doing the same. I learned to identify edible herbs and often experimented with propagating plants from seed and cuttings. Waiting for fruits to ripen and determining that moment when they were ready to be picked was a responsibility I took seriously. Mind you, none of this was conducted scientifically. It was all play for me. I didn’t make notes or tell anybody. It was just how I enjoyed my time outdoors. Curiosity and imagination were my constant attendants.

I’d routinely get all sorts of insect bites and stings, cut my hands from handling thorny plants, scorch the soles of my feet by walking barefoot on stones made so hot by the mid-day sun, get my clothes mud-splattered and stained. Nothing kept me away from the garden – it was where I belonged. Instead, the mishaps were just as instructive as the happy discoveries. I learned to identify plants, insects and birds, treat my wounds and through trial and mostly errors, I taught myself to dye clothes with natural materials. My mother had her own opinions about some of my efforts.

Simply by spending unstructured time in the garden, my young mind learned an enormous amount of information. Children are naturally curious and the garden is the best classroom. Looking back, I see how all my subsequent choices and passions were inevitable. I was shaped by the garden. It raised me as much as all the important adults in my life. The garden is very much why and who I am today.

Based on my own history with the garden, I have many thoughts about children and the great outdoors. I will share that in Part II next week. Meanwhile, think about your own young selves and what gardens meant to you. An occasional walk down memory lane helps one gain fresh perspective.

Note –

I have some of my art works in a show at the Phyllis Harriman Gallery, NYC, the week of March 12, 2018. I hope you will visit! Reception is on Tuesday March 13 from 5:00 to 7:00 pm.

Enjoy the photos below – taken some years ago at the garden show “Play In The Garden”  in Chaumont, France:

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Gardens Are Just Like Babies

Time and again, it has occurred to me that our relationship to our gardens parallel those we have have with our children. As special as we hold ones progeny in our hearts, if one were to be honest, the garden’s position seems to be no less to a true gardener. Lest you protest, let me state my case. However, I do believe you already know and concur my declaration to be true.

From the onset, yearning, planning, preparing for a garden is fraught with dreams, anxiety, excitement and impatience. All along, one receives lots of unsolicited advice and cautions about the endeavor. While there is a glut of information about the hows and whys, there is no exact blueprint or handbook – the creation and ‘upbringing’ of each garden is unique. They are all special.

As a gardener embarks on this venture and forever after, she/he does so with a level of insecurity matched only by the neediness for constant approval. We are infinitely cheered by any and all praise. Even the slightest hint of criticism is met with an unduly high degree of defensiveness. Yet, a gardener is always on the look out for counsel and advice that must by necessity confirm and condone his/her own current practices.

Gardening is both exhilarating and exhausting. We seem to consistently forget how hard the work is and create them anyway. We make sacrifices with our time, energy and money, put in long hours and provide constant care and attention often at risk to ones own health and well-being.

Gardening can be expensive but we are willing to shell out – after all, only the best we can provide will do. We indulge in providing for its needs generously, While we may complain about the work, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The business of tending the garden comes with enough variety to keep matters interesting. We make excuses when the garden is not up to snuff and yet, we are inordinately proud of it. As the garden grows, the work doesn’t let up; it merely changes to keep up with the new demands. We worry about our gardens endlessly. Even whilst away from it, there is the non-stop concern about how it is faring. We are well aware that merely looking away seems to give a garden license to get itself in trouble.

How a garden flourishes is taken as a direct reflection on ourselves. It is all taken personally. When it comes to how ones garden performs or is perceived, we are an acutely sensitive lot.

We love to talk about our gardens ad nauseam and consider them better than all others. Apparently a certain selective blindness afflicts all gardeners.

We judge other gardeners by how their gardens look and at the same time, we form amongst ourselves a support system so we can vent and cheer each other on.

Finally, we draw immeasurable satisfaction from raising a garden. There is nothing else quite like it. No wait, having and raising babies is exactly like that.

Note: The photos below are the creation of a community garden I designed some years ago .

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

10 Cold, Hard Truths About Gardening

I’ve been gardening one way or other for most of my life. So it stands to reason that I’ve learned a lot, done a lot and, failed more than I care to remember. Here is what I wish someone had told me before some of those mistakes were made:

1. Set your expectations low. When you do that, everything appears as a success.

2. Max out your pots, window-boxes and urns with seasonal annuals. They will scream so much for attention that nobody will notice the perennial beds overrun with weeds and bereft of whatever was supposed to be blooming that day.

3. Beware other gardeners bearing gifts. We are notorious for sharing – mostly those plants that tend to run hog wild.

4. You are not supreme commander of your garden. The squirrels own that title. They will dig up, munch on, toss up and vandalize right before your visitors are set to arrive.

5. Never tell anybody that your magnolias/tulips/roses/peonies/lilies/irises/any other plant are about to burst into flower. As soon as you do that, an animal, child or act of nature will destroy the entire batch of buds.

6. Pets like dogs should be banned from gardens. Do not listen to anybody who says otherwise. Dogs will dig up beds, kill the lawn with their urine, chase away good creatures like birds, openly use the garden as self-appointed canine fertilizers, somehow make friends with your enemies the squirrels and deer and select your prize patch of jack-in-the-pulpits as their nap station. Please do not write saying otherwise – I will not be dissuaded. I absolutely adore dogs but refuse allow them in my garden. Period.

7. Always buy two of every tool. Keep one set hidden – that set is solely for your own use. Don’t tell anyone about it. The other set of tools are kept out for the use all ( aka those who lose and/or abuse the tools). You will look like a good sharer and will keep your sanity at the same time.

8. Invest in a good manicure and blow-out the day before you have visitors to your garden. You will look and feel good and your guests will marvel at how you create such an amazing paradise whilst looking so flawless. Smile and graciously accept all the compliments.

9. Get children to help. No, really. Their small hands can pull out emerging weeds more easily than your own large paws. Similarly, they can deadhead pretty thoroughly too. The child with the largest harvest of weeds and/or dead flowers gets an extra scoop of ice-cream. Caveat – be sure you have taught them to identify the weed or else they will remove all your nascent self-seeders like columbines, cleomes, forget-me-nots and such.

10. Gardening is bloody hard work.

Note: Do visit this show!

December 11 − December 22
Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.;
Saturday and Sunday: 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Art Students League: The Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery
Enjoy some of my December-thus-far photos:

First snow of this winter

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar