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

The Lion Roared

March arrived baring teeth, roaring madly and with claws unsheathed. High winds and heavy snow wreaked havoc along the Northeast. Trees toppled like skittles bringing down power lines and making many roads impassable. There was widespread loss of power. At present, thousands are still without electricity.

Trying to make the most of the circumstances is a challenge. Sadly, storms have become more frequent and more fierce. We should be more prepared. Still, no matter how ready one is, it is never easy to reconcile with the destruction. When old giants lay uprooted it is always reason to mourn. Having homes damaged is particularly hard.

Given the mild month of February when plants were jolted out of their winter slumber and then assaulted by the recent storm, it’s hard to know what to expect this growing season. Weather-wise, we are apparently 20 days ahead of schedule. That is insane! Clearly, we are being called to pay heed and adapt accordingly. How precisely to do so needs serious consideration. Action needs to be swift. From amping up our environmentally conscious, sustainable practices to adjusting our planting and harvesting schedules, we must act. The evidence is clear and there is ample data to support climate change. So lets get smart about what we do.

Whilst still trying to recover from last Friday’s storm, another big one is expected tonight. Heavy snow is predicted. At this point, it is difficult to simply admire the beauty of the snowy landscapes. I feel for the flora and fauna that are vulnerable to all the climactic confusion. There will be a chain reaction and finally, we humans will feel the impact. Big time.

I don’t claim to know the solution. Is there a simple solution? I think not. But, this much I do know – we cannot maintain this status quo. Every single one of us must rise to the occasion. We each have a part to play. Becoming aware is a start. There’s plenty we can do – small changes and big ones too.

By now, we assume recycling, reusing and reducing waste is routine but unfortunately, that not true. I’m consistently shocked by the number of places I visit ( residential and public) where this easy principle is not implemented.

Eating what is seasonal, being mindful of carbon footprints, packaging and processing are other things we can adopt effortlessly.

Planting, growing and literally greening our properties is doable and satisfying. Be it planting trees or growing herbs in pots, every attempt is a step in the right direction.

But, lets think bigger. Stewardship of the land. Yes. I’m suggesting that we make our moves by looking ahead. Way ahead. Rather than plan our gardens for our own immediate and near future enjoyment, lets give future generations something truly valuable. A world in good health.

For those who lost trees and shrubs in the storm, view this as a new opportunity. By no means am I trivializing the loss. It hurts emotionally and financially to have such damages. Recognize and accept the pain. Every type of loss deserves a mourning of sorts. Whenever I had to bid goodbye to a tree, I’ve taken a bit of time and thanked it for its faithful service and wished it well. It is my way of reconciling with the loss and moving on.

Replace a tree with one that is native, deep rooted and appropriate in size and shape for the location. Deep rooted generally means it is also a slow grower. You may not be around to see it mature and majestic. No matter. A subsequent generation will benefit. And think of the many other creatures this tree will support and nurture.

Fast growing trees are typically shallow rooted and come down easily in storms. In nature, instant gratification is not a wise option.

If possible, plant more trees than you lost. Sometimes, the trees that fall have outgrown their location so, while losing them is sad, it can open up the garden to other planting possibilities. The area is now sunny and new beds can be installed. That’s exciting. A long harbored garden dream can come true!

It bears repeating that fallen trees can be re-purposed, they continue to serve well beyond their lifetime – think mulch, firewood, pavers, swing seats, benches and stump-tables. If location permits, leave the tree as is on the ground and let it become a haven for all sorts of creatures. A micro-habitat that results in eventually enriching the earth.

Go organic. Our children and their children do not need chemical laden soil. Organic treatments require due diligence and more effort than non-organic ones. But so worth it. Even with organic, one should be judicious. All treatments are non-specific so good bugs are affected as well. Therefore, in conjunction with organic practices, planting mostly native plants will be the correct thing to do. It’ll promote a healthy, robust garden.

Native plants are not as fussy or greedy about water and fertilizer. Less watering is good all around right? Right? And reduce the lawn size while you’re at it. Lawns guzzle water, fertilizer and pesticides to look pristine and lush. Lawns are the divas of the garden – everybody might admire her but nobody enjoys her needs and demands. Instead, let the lawn support a mix of other low-growing plants like clover and ajuga. Use only compost ( preferably homemade) to feed and mulch the lawn. This, along with maintaining the height of the grass at about 4 inches or higher will reduce the watering needs of the lawn.

All of these points are effective and achievable. Really.

When each of us honors our responsibilities,we make progress as a whole.

I might well be preaching to the choir here but perhaps saying what might seem obvious over and over will reverberate and be felt far and wide, This is after all the only home planet we have. We must protect and preserve if we are to prosper.


I will have some of my art works in a show at the Phyllis Harriman Mason 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.

Here are some of my favorite photos of trees:

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar


Scratching The Itch

Whatever happened to ‘Frigid February’? The ups and downs in temperature are making me worry. Especially because the ups are way too up. It’s too darn early! I want February as it is supposed to be – cold and merciless. It’s only redeeming quality should be its shorter length. I like complaining about this months cold as it makes March that much more welcome. I cannot imagine how confused the slumbering roots and bulbs underground must be – is it or is it not time to wake up? I imagine it must feel like being awoken by an alarm clock with a stuck snooze button. No actual sleep to be had; just a sense of deprivation and lethargy.

This week’s temperatures are predicted to make one feel as though winter is beating a hasty retreat. Say it is not so! That would not be good at various levels. Mostly because neither garden nor gardener is prepared – it is simply not the right time. Besides, even if we got going as though spring had indeed arrived, what guarantee is there that winter might not return? Confusion, indecision, anxiety and havoc seem imminent. Climate change is a very cruel curse.

Still, I cannot shake off the typical eagerness for spring that overcomes me at this time of the year. So close and yet so far away… I absolutely adore the shiver of anticipation. I’m itching to see the bulbs nose their way through the earth, smell the wet soil and walk amidst the stirring plants. To keep me happy until such time, I’ve potted up the bulbs I had cooling in the refrigerator. The mere sight of them coming awake quickens my pulse. They sit now in containers with the promise of giving me a perfect preview of all the vernal pleasures to come. Spring dreams.

Note – Two announcements –  The first is that I have posted an account of my latest visit to the children at Mukta Jeevan Ashram. Please read!

Secondly, you can catch me in a podcast “Beyond 6 Seconds” where I speak to host Carolyn Kiel about my work with the children of Mukta Jeevan. I hope you will listen. Comments are welcome.

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar