Going Dutch

I’ve had the most restorative week in the Netherlands. The Dutch are doing many things right: particularly in regards to how we care for our home planet. Do right by Earth and you automatically do right by your life. My faith in humankind has been reaffirmed.

First and foremost, the weather was absolutely splendid. Sunshine on all but one day. Open-toe shoes. Mild temperatures. Birdsong all day. Walking and bike paths galore. Al fresco meals. What’s not to love?

The amount of avian activity I observed was unparalleled. I’ve never seen so many nests and nesting birds in any one place before. And this was not in special preserves or gardens. They were all over! In bustling towns, by highways and of course suburban areas. I walked by one townhouse that had a notice by its mailbox informing the mailman that there was nest inside so could the mail please be placed in the box provided on the ground. I regret not taking a photo of it.

Yet, that’s not to say that the number of certain bird species hasn’t dropped over time. Loss of habitat, pollution, climate change have all played a part. However, this country is taking action to remedy and restore. The citizens are more aware and responding positively to fiercely protecting their wildlife.

Recycling everything is standard practice across the country. Even compostables are collected weekly and turned into community compost. As a result, ‘gray’ refuse ( actual garbage) is much smaller.

The use of clothes dryers is low and instead, clothes are hung out to dry. Electricity is costly and as we all know, dryers guzzle energy. So, despite the typical damp weather in Holland, most folk prefer to ‘air dry’ their clothes. In general, attics and balconeys are reserved for line drying when the weather is inclement. Being conscious of cost, consumption and consequence leads to corrective courses. Knowledge is indeed power.

I liked noting that some tried and true practices are still in place. As I mentioned last week, new technology or focusing on the bottom line is not always progress or a step in the right direction. We have to question, weigh the pros and cons before we choose our action. Case in point, if you can walk or bike safely to work or shop, then why drive?

There are simple playgrounds everywhere. Wherever one lives, there is a playground near by. So families can get to them easily. No planning a special trip and piling into cars necessary.

For the most part, Dutch gardens are small. They are intensively and diversely planted. Contrary to the worldwide impression that tulips and other bulbs are ubiquitous fixtures in every corner of Holland, the private gardens are full of plants and trees that reflect the individual personalities and preferences of the gardeners.

Magnolias were at peak during my visit. The pears had just begun. Plants really thrive in the Dutch climate – makes me kinda envious. Lush, neat and green are the hallmarks of their gardens.

At the weekly, local markets, the flowers and plants available made me absolutely crazy. The huge variety, fine quality and low prices had me so frustrated that I couldn’t bring home anything.

Finally, I enjoyed a very good lunch at De Kas restaurant in Amsterdam. De Kas means greenhouse. Set in a park in an industrial part of the city, it is an oasis. They grow all their produce in a charmingly designed garden and in attached greenhouses. They have additional greenhouses thirty minutes away. Everything is organic and, but for the fish entrée, the fixed menu is vegetarian. Bursting with flavors from an innovative use of herbs and spices, the meal is interesting and satisfying. As the weather was so lovely, we sat outdoors on the terrace overlooking the garden and were witness to the flights of birds, cheers of children at play at a playground nearby and, as a real bonus we observed a pair of storks tending to their young in a nest high atop an old, brick chimney left in the park as a testimonial to the industry that used to flourish here. Eat your heart out NatGeo.

I’m already looking forward to returning to the Netherlands in summer.

Note: Mark your calenders – I’m a vendor at the PlantFest at Teatown Lake Reservation on May 11 and 12. Just in time for Mother’s Day, hostess, bridal,and wedding showers, birthdays and to spruce up your own home. Do stop by and say hello!

My garden’s Open Day cometh! Saturday May 19. 10am – 4pm.

Enjoy these photos from Holland!

At the market

Storks tending to their young

Restaurant De Kas

De Kas Garden

De Kas garden

Pear blossoms

Sheep grazing

Magnolia magic

This magnolia tree is three stories high and just as wide. Magnificent.

Nesting duck

Nests!

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Child’s Play. Part II

Curiosity is innate to children. Nature is the best classroom and the most exciting playground. So, it stands to reason that we encourage our young to spend as much time as possible outdoors. On their own, little ones will explore and observe instinctively. They learn without even being aware. Toss in a nature loving adult into their mix and the learning possibilities grow exponentially. Engaging with nature benefits mind, body and soul. For everybody.

As we step into spring today, it’s the perfect time to introduce children to the entertainment and learning that awaits in the garden. What’s coming up in the garden? Snowdrops, hellebores, crocus, scillas are blooming. The hyacinths and tulips are piercing through the earth. Let the kids look closely at the colors, shapes, distinguish between the bulbs. The birds will start house hunting soon. Show the little ones how to identify the common birds, older ones can learn to use a bird guide and spot the not so common birds. Watching birds choose nesting sites is pure entertainment. They search, converse, bicker and finally settle on the location. Then, they work cooperatively to build the nest. Once the eggs are laid, the pair takes turns to sit on them till they hatch and work together to raise their babies. After all these years, I have not tired of watching this annual ritual.

I’ll say it up front. I’m not a fan of swing-sets in the garden. Those belong in playgrounds. A simple swing from a tree is plenty for a garden. The way I see it, having a swing-set tells a child that this is why they’re in the garden – to swing and slide.

Instead, I want a child to imagine and invent. Climb trees, hide in bushes, build forts from twigs, create villages for fairies and goblins, eat berries and sugar-snaps straight from the plants, recognize birds and their songs, pick flowers for a bouquet, tend and grow a plot of anything they want and earn that sense of pride that comes with it. The garden is a place for amazing interactions.

All sorts of science happens in the garden. Chemistry, physics, biology and how each works with the other can be demonstrated clearly right here. Nothing works in isolation. The branches of mathematics are all visible in the garden. Life follows the rules of mathematics.There’s enough information on the Internet to find fun ways to instruct science from what one sees and does in the garden so I don’t have to get into specifics. Suffice to say, Fibonacci numbers frolic openly in sight, energy is converted from light to chemical all day long and birds, bees and the wind assist and demonstrate procreation in all sorts of manner.

To get started and in keeping with the season, it is seed sowing time. With Easter and Passover coming up, eggs are having their moment. So, lets combine recycling the egg shells and starting seeds. Empty egg shell halves, washed and dried, are perfect ‘pots’ to start seeds. Fill each half with soil, dampen with a spritz of water and sow the seeds. Big seeds as that of sunflowers go in one to a pot while tiny seeds like radish can be sowed in threes. The ‘pots’ sit happily in the egg carton and can be easily monitored. When the seedlings are ready to be transplanted into the ground, one merely has to lightly crush the shell and plant it still holding the seedling. The growing roots can then break free through the cracked shell and the shell itself will eventually break down and enrich the soil with calcium. FYI – tomatoes love calcium.

Similarly, broken bits or ground egg shells can be used as mulch-fertilizer. Bonus – The albumen smell has been said to repel deer. The sharp edges of the shells deter slugs and snails. However, rodents are attracted to the same odor so do not use the shells in beds too close to the house!

All year round, I toss egg shells in the compost. The compost bin itself is one (literally) hot bed of activity that can teach a child plenty.

It isn’t just science, there is art, architecture, language ( those Latin/Greek names have meanings), history, geology, literature, geography … the wonders of life and all that supports it are there to be discovered.

Let’s loudly tell our children to “go outside and play!” . Watch them conquer the world.

Mark your calendars! My garden’s 2018 Open Day is May 19. 10 am – 4 pm.

Note : The pictures below were pulled at random but all hold interest and lessons for children ( and adults):

Planting bulbs in the fall

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

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