As The World Turns

Sheltering at home and garden feels different. It is not the same as when one chooses to spend time cocooning at home. While our homes continue to offer refuge in this difficult period, we are not living out our days in quite the same way. Having to be home at all times, working from home, coordinating schedules with those we live with, no possibility of going anywhere, making do with what groceries are available at the stores, are all situations we’re adjusting to. Some things are easy and others more challenging. Still, despite all the limitations, I, for one, feel very blessed. Not in a virtuous, martyr-ish way – but simply being realistic and aware of my privilege.

I cannot possibly have any complaints. For goodness sakes, I have a garden to work in! That is a high advantage that I’m acutely aware of as increasingly, more public gardens and gardens are being closed. Far too many are restricted to small, cramped spaces in the city with only windows and, with any luck, balconies to lean out of to catch some sun and fresh air.

Once I’ve accomplished my work related and domestic tasks of the day, the garden is where I seek to pass my time. Chores that were done with the a certain degree of haste because other matters/appointments awaited, are now given due attention and time. Be it planting or fixing or watering, everything has taken on deeper meaning and connection.

I’d ordered a self-pollinating persimmon tree a while back – it was delivered last week. A couple of decades ago, I’d planted an American persimmon with intentions to train it into a candelabra style espalier against the southern wall of the house. The tree grew but failed to produce because there did not exist another persimmon anywhere in the neighborhood – no cross-pollination was possible. I blame myself for letting the seller assure me that I didn’t need another persimmon to get fruit. I should’ve known better. Instead I wanted to get on with my project so badly that I accepted what I wanted to believe.

That tree was subsequently disposed off and the whole project forgotten. Soon, a tree peony occupied its place.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago. I discovered the existence of a new Japanese-American hybrid that has the best traits of each nationality (persimmon-wise) and is truly self-pollinating. I immediately ordered it from Logee’s Greenhouse. Once the very young plant arrived, I gave it a few days to recover from its journey before giving it a permanent home.

If this were a business as usual time, the persimmon would’ve been plonked down in any open space along the fence of the lower garden. It’s sole purpose being to provide fruit. Instead, this past Saturday, the tree peony was dug up and replanted near by – its very long roots had to be trimmed a bit so fingers crossed it didn’t mind the amputation. It is after all a plant dear to my heart – Hennriette Suhr gave it to me and I love floating the heavy, multi-petaled flowers in a bowl to show-off their beauty. I will keep a watchful eye on it.

The new tree was planted in the old persimmon’s place so the espalier project is back on. All the wire guides to train the branches from years ago are still in place as though they fully expected to be called back into service.

Similarly, there were some heuchera I’d purchased on my mad plant shopping spree the same day that stay-at-home was mandated. They sat waiting while the watering system to the vertical garden was restarted and deemed functioning well. Again, I took the time to not only clean off all of the soil from the roots of each heuchera( the plants on the wall are grown hydroponically) but, I also worked to carefully divide the plants to get several more plants for the wall.

All of this might sound trivial. Even frivolous. But really, not only did the work get done with attention, thought and purpose, for the time each task took, the mind was focused and relaxed. Two things that are getting rather difficult to do during these stressful days.

With more people taking daily walks/strolls, I see many neighbors on the street. It’s been gratifying to exchange greetings and news – albeit from the required distance. We – old and new, are all being more neighborly. To give those passing my home a reason to smile, I set up a collection of pots of daffodils and pansies right by the road. After all, those flowers will disarm any grump and uplift any heart feeling the weight of the times. Even if its fleeting, every bit of cheer matters.

These days of sheltering are instructive. I’m relearning to give my garden the right amount of attention it deserves. I’m paying attention to not just what is dry but how dry before I water. This serves to conserve water as well as provide the plants with only what they need. I’d become too busy to start seeds in recent years. There are several flats of seeds sown currently – of flowers and vegetables. I’ve rediscovered the joy of this fundamental act of gardening.

Things that I might have easily replaced for lack of time, are now being fixed instead. All non-essential shopping is to be avoided after all. Over all, many more hours are whiled away working in the garden and it is mighty satisfying. Like it used to be before I got too busy. I’m sure things will not stay this way forever but I’m also sure I cannot let myself get that busy again. These days are guiding me how to strike a healthier, happier balance.

The garden provides with enough distraction that when I’m in it, my mind completely shuts out the news and fears in the world. Unlike a movie which also provides some escape, at the end of my time in the garden, I have accomplished some necessary tasks, got a bit of physical activity, relaxed my mind, soaked in some sun, breathed fresh air and allowed nature to provide much needed therapy to my spirit. Priceless.

Pots by the street

New Persimmon hybrid – Nikita’s Choice

Heuchera in the wall garden. Ferns will go in shortly.

Forced hyacinths in a ‘cage’ of pussy willow.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Life In Waiting

Every morning, I look out into the garden to see whats up. Have all the crocuses bloomed? The scillas are blazing blue but when are the spring leucojum planted to contrast with them going to bloom? And the muscari paired with early daffodils? Even in the midst of reveling in the early spring flowers, I can’t help waiting for the ones to come. It’s as though my mind is trying to hurry along the season so it can get to the next one.

I thought about that yesterday and came to the realization that it’s because of this unfamiliar time we’re in. We don’t know for sure what each day is going to bring. There are predictions, projections and calculations but nothing is certain. How long the crisis is going to last is unknown. So, subconsciously, my mind is looking weeks ahead to a different, hopefully better time. When other flowers will be in bloom.

Once I understood my propensity, I determined to curb it. After all, it wasn’t getting me anywhere at all. Instead, I’m going to really stay in the present. In all its entirety – pleasant and unpleasant. I must experience this epic period in history in full. This life. My life. Only I can live it.

Instead of waiting for the next flower to bloom, for the next month to be over with, I shall take in the days with my whole self. Make each one matter.

It doesn’t mean I’m not going to look forward to future flowers and fruit, for better days. It simply implies that I will endeavor to bring my best self to each day.

In keeping myself at home, it has already become apparent how ‘being busy’ is overrated. With absolutely no place to go, what one does on a quotidian basis is revealed clearly. There’s no hiding behind ‘busy’ or ‘so much to do’. We have to do what must be done. No excuses. There is time – that commodity we’re always complaining we’re short on.

Even if or especially if one is privileged to work from home, there is now time to get other things done. Without need to commute, sans distractions of unnecessary meetings or chatty colleagues, one is free to use the time to make a meal with thought and care. To connect with family and friends for meaningful conversations. To reach out to shut-in neighbors with a phone call or a note / freshly baked muffins left at the door. To complete the house tasks we’ve been putting off. In other words, pay attention to life.

At a time of frustration in not doing enough to help a situation, I’ve come to the conclusion that first and foremost, the most effective contribution we can make is to stay at home.

While my paying work as such has slowed down or completely halted, I’m now at liberty to work on creative projects that were sitting on the back burner and, make business plans that more accurately define my philosophy and philanthropy. This mandatory time at home is a gift of sorts. I appreciate it as such. On waking each morning, I’m grateful I’m still healthy and must therefore try to be and do my best.

In working in the garden, I’m particularly aware of having the time to tackle the chores with the required attention. After all, where else do I need to go? Simply breathing in the fresh air with the sun smiling down is an endowment. Working to create a beautiful, productive garden is a high honor not to be taken for granted. Ever.

The peony supports have been placed, the circulating water system for the vertical garden has been revamped and commissioned, the lawn reseeded, pruning completed, seeds such as tomato, cool weather greens and nasturtium sown and, the birdbath stands filled. Later this week, the ferns over-wintering in the potager will be transferred to their home in the vertical garden, the potager then prepared with a good layer of compost to receive vegetable plants and, the bluebird house cleaned – please let these sweet birds find it this year. All the birds are going about their business and a few have begun building nests. I’ve already observed earthworms working the soil. The pear blossom buds will be opening within the week and I’m fully expecting to see bees make their daily visits. This is life.

Soon, with the temperatures going up, the chairs will be brought out and set up around the table on the terrace for al fresco meals to be enjoyed. This alone strikes me as so special. What has thus far not seemed unusual is now distinctly a benediction.

In preparing this garden, I’m making the world that much better and beautiful. I can’t wait to share it again with everybody. It may not be much but it’ll be my best. That’s about all one can hope.

Scilla

Everything is growing!

Window-box

Hyacinths

Hellebores

Pruning hydrangea

Epsom salts feed the roses

Spreading straw over the reseeded areas

Peony supports in place

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Life Deconstructed

So here we are. Living our days in an unfamiliar, uncertain atmosphere. It’s not easy when so much feels well beyond our control. I’ve categorically decided to pay attention to what is in my control. Managing myself, my work, my home, my garden – oftentimes, it is all one and the same.

I listen to Governor Cuomo’s updates every morning and then stay away from the flood of news. It’s simply too much.

Gardening began in earnest last week. While it was colder than desired, working outdoors in the bright sunshine was restorative and uplifting. Birdsong and crocuses, scillas, hellebores and ipheions in bloom kept me company as I went about clearing, planting and potting up. Last Friday, I got word that nurseries were going to have to close up shop because all non-essential businesses were mandated to do so. I know what you’re thinking – but those nurseries are necessary for the garden and hence, our very sanity! All kidding aside, while I understood the ruling, it galvanized me into action. Okay, so my daughter chose to say I went into a kind of shopper’s mad frenzy.

I went to my favorite local nursery and loaded up on plants, potting soil, seeds etc., Because it is early in the season, the inventory was not large. However, I could see that we weren’t likely to have any plants to buy in the foreseeable future – I mentally changed certain design plans and picked up alternatives to try out. Taking this as a challenge of sorts, I pulled my mind out of a fixed vision and opened it up to new possibilities. After all, if things don’t turn out great, there’s a certain vicious virus I can blame.

Underlying my frenzied buying, was the fact that all inventory not sold would in all likelihood go to waste. Such a shame no? But even more heartbreaking is that the employees at the nursery, who over the years have become my dear friends would be unemployed/unpaid. I was truly emotional about this. The growers who’d been preparing all winter for the spring would also have to face colossal financial loss. How many businesses will go under is frightening to think about. Not being able to do anything but buy all that I could was frustrating. Unfortunately, there will be such casualties in practically every industry.

Having brought home more than I’d ever planned, the weekend was spent totally in the garden. With the college student home, the extra pair of hands was very welcome. The child who once groaned at being given garden chores was actually happy to do whatever was needed. She weeded, re-potted, moved things, planted, watered – all in good cheer. I think that another generation has become an avid gardener!

We raked and reseeded the tiny front lawn, fixed some hardscape stuff, added several perennials in the front beds as well as the herb garden. The very large pots were brought out of storage, filled with fresh soil and planted with pansies and daffodils – when it is warm enough, the bay standards will emerge from the greenhouse and settle into them for the growing seasons. I have to say it felt particularly life affirming and gratifying. Nature applied her healing balm on my heart.

[ Having done all that work, it snowed all of yesterday. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or scream. Eventually, I did neither. Shrugged my shoulders – what will be will be. In the grand scheme …]

On my visit to the nursery, I’d bought extra flats of pansies and very young daffodils. Sunday afternoon, I potted up combinations of those in an assortment of containers. They will be distributed to friends and neighbors who are either immnuno-compromised and/or elderly and living alone. Simply spreading some much needed spring cheer. It feels so inadequate but I know every little bit of support and help makes a difference. I want the recipients to know they matter to us, their community.

As I did my garden work, I thought about the strange time we’re in. This social distancing and staying home has opened up opportunities to connect to each other – our families, friends, neighbors and community. With no place to go we have time to listen, to observe, to share, to reach out. Each task I do, I find myself doing it mindfully – there is, after all, no rush. We’re now so much more aware of our inherent need for social bonds.

This is our moment to be our better selves. To be the person our mothers raised us to be. Or, to be the person your dog things you are.

Flowers always make people better, happier and more hopeful: they are sunshine, food and medicine to the soul.”- Botanist Luther Burbank

Note: The images are in reverse order! I’m having a small technical issue.

Most of the haul from the nursery

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Naturally Fit

It’s about that time when resolutions made on the first of January start becoming a distant memory. Studies show that gym attendance falls off, diets are cheated upon, books get read less frequently etc., It is hard to stick to resolutions. Especially ones that require diligence and perseverance like exercise. It’d be vastly easier if getting fit wasn’t so much hard work. It ought to come naturally. Long, long ago, before all the conveniences borne of the Industrial Revolution, the mere act of going about ones daily business kept a person active and fit. Admittedly, it involved a lot of labor and leisure time was scarce.

These days, we have all the creature comforts and must make the effort to stay active. Ironic no? From cooking to cleaning to laundry to grocery shopping to getting to our place of work, it is so much easier than ever before. Why, many of us now work remotely from home. It’s all good. Except for that pesky keeping fit matter.

In my view, gardening is the one pleasurable yet productive activity that still demands a good degree of physical work. Provided one hasn’t out-sourced that as well. Despite the power tools available, there is much that one must do in the garden that requires actual effort. You can sit on a tractor mower (oh the horror!) but you still have to steer and guide – I suppose that counts for something. I’ve long been a devotee of the manual push reel-mower. The quiet is only interrupted by birdsong and the occasional bark of a dog. The smell of the freshly cut grass is pure reward for the effort.

As a child in India, I’d watch the hired gardeners cut the grass with scythes whilst moving on their haunches. They were so expert at this that I believed it was easy! There is absolutely no way I’d want to try that now.

Having eliminated almost all of my lawn save for a handkerchief size area, pushing my mower is barely any work. Still, it calls for some minimal walking around, a bit of trimming the edges along the walkway that divides said area and the glorious joy of being outdoors and appearing busy.

There is however no substitute for weeding, pruning, planting, deadheading and such. Carting plant material to the compost pile, filling the wheel-barrow with compost, spreading it over the beds – that’s work. While watering is not quite the labor intensive activity it used to be, the water-barrel necessitates the filling of watering cans from it and then carrying the cans to where watering is needed. In short, there is a fair amount of walking, bending, reaching, lifting and stretching involved in the pursuit of gardening. Pretty much the stuff called for in a good workout routine. The best part is that time flies in the garden. You go into it thinking you’re going to simply walk around and maybe deadhead and before you know it, you’re weeding, staking, watering …. a good hour or two have gone by.

So maybe every time you’re in the garden, one doesn’t break out into a Peloton induced sweat. But, consistent work in the garden can add up to much more than the weekly quota of 150 minutes of exercise mandated for a healthy lifestyle. Besides, there is the added benefit of nature therapy – a proven mood lifter. All this without even going into the happiness one finds in partaking of the fruits of ones labor. Literally.

But what does a gardener do in the winter you ask? Tidy out that tool shed, give the compost heap a regular stir up – it’s mighty good resistance exercise, re-pot house plants, start those seeds you’re itching to try out, prune the plants that require a winter trim. That’s not enough? How about getting to those house chores you’ve putting off because the garden needed you? I’m pretty sure there is plenty to re-organize, fix, paint or replace. That ought to keep one actively occupied. Add a routine walk outdoors and you’ve got yourself enough to stay in shape.

I can’t think of anything as beneficial for health as gardening. It’s so good for mind, body and soul – exactly what the doctor ordered.

Disclaimer – I am not in any way suggesting one stop going to the gym or give up your regular exercise regime. I myself clock in the necessary minutes of aerobic/resistance workouts just so I’m fit enough to take on the garden. All I’m saying is that as long as one is fully engaged in gardening, one is likely doing quite well in the fitness department. We all know that gardening works on those muscles you never knew you had.

Note: Some images of February blooms –

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Freedom

Liberty is the freedom to do as one ought to do. I learned this definition in fifth grade civics class – it was how we started to understand what democracy meant.

A cornerstone of a thriving civilization, freedom is all about having choices. So one can chose their actions bearing in mind one’s moral responsibility. To choose to act after discerning between right and wrong, good and evil. To do what is ethically correct for the greater good.

Keeping that in mind, I take this power very seriously. Especially in the garden where all too often a gardener is inclined to play lord and master. It’s so easy. We have at our disposal so much control and power that all too often we forget that gardening is a privilege. The very notion that I can assume ownership of a piece of earth to do as I please is astounding. Arrogant even.

While I often kid that I’m the dictator-in-chief of the garden, in reality, I feel my responsibility greatly. I’m allowed to freely design, create and play in a this space in whatever way I please. Within good reason. And that is the key. To use good reason.

My principle commandment is to do no harm. Whatever action taken must have the least negative impact – on humans, animals, plants, soil, water or air. On that basis, only organic methods are employed. But, trying to control pests organically is not without cost. These natural products are not specific to the pest. They affect the good critters as well. So judicious application is imperative.

Compost is used as fertilizer and mulch. The plants enjoy it. As do members of the animal kingdom. They too thrive because they are not harmed by compost and hence roam free and make nests and homes underground and above, destroying root systems, chomping on leaves and flowers, girdling trees, ruining lawns with tunnels and burrows etc., Constant vigilance is required so action can be taken as soon as possible. Japanese beetles, red lily beetles and such are picked off and dropped into hot, soapy water. After years of battling those red devils, I’ve stopped planting lilies but since I still grow fritillaria ( their close relative), I must continue to keep a lookout. Mice, voles and other rodents are trapped. The fruit trees must be sprayed with dormant oil only under specific weather conditions and at a particular time of year. You get the idea. It’s not always easy to do the right thing.

Rain water is collected, a manual reel- mower cuts grass, since no herbicides are used, weeds are removed by hand, native plants dominate the garden and support native fauna and so on. Every one of those methods involves more work and effort. And there are times when I’m completely frustrated. However, my conscience is clear. I’m doing my part in exercising my freedom as I ought.

This translates very well to everything else in life. Relationships, raising children, at work, being a part of the community, a town, a city, a country, the world at large. Imagine how powerful exercising our liberties as we should can be.

Note: The reception to Small Works is this Thursday, August 8. I’d love to see you there!

A few images of the challenges in the garden:

Mice attack on the espalier.
Fully girdled trees were lost and had to be replaced.
Sanguisorba attacked by Japanese beetles

Subsequent damage
Evidence of voles under the front lawn
Lily’s under siege

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar