Real, Fake Or Alternative Facts

I’m referring to Christmas trees of course. Did something else come to mind? Ha.

The other day, I was asked for my advice about real vs fake. That led to some serious thinking.

For those amongst us who celebrate the holiday season with a tree, choosing a tree depends on a variety of matters but mostly, it is personal. And so, to change ones mind about it requires a lot of persuasion.

But I’m not out to dissuade anyone to choose one type for another. I simply think one ought to make informed decisions. Lets not be even a wee bit judgmental. Good will to all remember?

So, lets consider the real tree. It’s a long tradition for many to get a real tree. Some make it an event by going to a tree farm, selecting a tree, cutting it themselves and then bringing it home atop the family car. Others are just as happy going to the neighborhood tree lot and finding their tree of choice. A third kind likes to get a living tree to enjoy through the season and then plant it out on the property when spring comes along.

Real trees undoubtedly add a certain je ne sais quoi to any space. By virtue of being real, they are not quite perfect and that adds to their appeal. The fragrance of a pine tree in the house is pure joy. But lets face it, setting a tree up takes some effort. Get it on a stand so it stays straight and upright, water it regularly, contend with falling needles … there are some given inconveniences. In general however, I’m very partial to keeping it festive with a real tree.

It takes about ten years to grow a modest sized tree. Certainly there is the requirement of water and care but while these trees are growing, they do their part in helping the environment. Removing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere, supporting wildlife, preventing soil erosion etc., The biggest carbon footprint in this choice of tree is that made by the car that transports it. Of course, if trees are shipped in from Canada and northern USA, then that footprint just grew exponentially. So staying with local farms is preferable.

How such a tree is disposed of is another big consideration. If trees are chipped and turned into mulch then it is all good. But, if they are taken to landfills then, not only is that transport increasing the carbon footprint but a decaying tree in that site will add to the greenhouse gases by putting out methane. And that’s not good at all.

A living tree is of course the best choice of all.

Moving on to fake trees. These days, the synthetic ones can be almost lifelike. The high end models are barely distinguishable from the real stuff. They can do serious damage to the pocketbook. Cheaper fakes are often also cheap looking. In either case, the cost of manufacturing and distribution comes with a high environmental impact. While they can be reused ‘indefinitely’, when they are finally discarded they do not break down for ages and ages. Maybe never.

Fake trees are indeed very convenient to use and I’ve seen some vintage models that evoke a lovely, nostalgic time when things were seemingly ‘simpler’.

We finally come to alternative trees. Any number of things can stand in for a Christmas tree. As graduate students, my husband and I did not have funds to spare and were more than happy to decorate our three-tiered hanging planter with lights and homemade ornaments. I’ve seen ‘trees’ made of stacked books, ladders, peel and stick decals on a wall, metal ‘branches’ from whose bare limbs ornaments are easily hung and, even what seemed to me an inspired yet minimalist tree that was simply strips of brown paper placed in ascending order at equal intervals on a wall to indicate a tree. Stuck on the strips were acorns, small pine cones and bits of holly. This last version really captivated my imagination and I’m so sorry I did not take. any photos. One day, I shall aim to recreate it.

For years, we always got ourselves a real tree. Natural is after all our style. We’d cut up the tree after it had served its purpose and compost it in the woods. Our town also picks up the trees and converts them to mulch. But last year we finally stopped that practice. My daughter, who adores real Christmas trees is severely allergic to them. After years of making excuses that it was only for a few weeks, taking way too many anti-histamines and making tissue companies very wealthy, I’d had enough. It was just crazy to be so tortured for the entire duration of the holidays. It took almost two years to convince the girl that she had to give up on having a real tree.

Thus, we came to the decision that if we could not have a real tree then we’d do an alternative. I even discovered that I’d had it all along! It is a white metal pot fitted with a conical shaped tower made of chicken wire. It is intended to house a vining plant that can weave itself on the chicken wire support. What I did was to fill up the interior with strings of lights that are easily plugged in because of said chicken wire openings. Those openings are perfect for hanging ornaments on the outside.

While the ornaments get put away after the New Year is underway, the ‘light filled tree’ occupies a corner in the house and is commissioned at every celebration deserving of some flash and dash..

Frankly, I have not missed the real stuff at all and it does my heart good to see my daughter sans tissue-box, anti-histamines, distressed nose, hacking cough and boggy head.

Fa la la la.

Note:
The Art Students League

Holiday Art Sale

Opens Today! Get there before you miss out on some great art!

 

Tree in the past

Our last real tree.

The allergic one

The alternative tree in daylight

Amaryllis tree

At night

NYC

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Season Is Lit

These days, the season of lights begins at Thanksgiving when houses across the country clad in lights announce that it is so. The tree at Rockefeller Center made it official last Wednesday. Hanukkah has come early this year – the first candle on the menorah was lit this past Sunday evening. It is now left to all us laggards to get in the spirit and join in.

While I’m all for the lights and assorted expressions of festivities, it irks me that it has become such a commercial enterprise. Buy, buy, buy. It is just overwhelming. How have we come to this point? More importantly, why? I for one, cannot take the crowds and shopping frenzy. I realize shops depend on the public to spend generously but for me, quieter times are more conducive to making thoughtful purchases at my local businesses. Past experience has demonstrated that I can get carried away if I join the shopping populace at this time – I buy a myriad of stuff that are not at all what I actually want to say to those on my gift list. I’m of the belief that a gift should please and be personal. Some thought should go into gift giving and I am simply unable to think in the cacophony of commercialism right now.

Instead, I’d rather make my rounds of small businesses through the year. I can browse at leisure and select appropriate items for my loved ones. It goes without saying that I do not ever give cars sporting giant bows or jewelry worthy of a princess of even a tiny, obscure nation.

During the holiday season, I’d much rather take in all the lights. Literally. From said Rockefeller Center tree to cruising through neighborhoods known for their over-the-top holiday displays, I enjoy everything. Including the windows that quietly display lit menorahs – so beautiful and meaningful. My town had its tree lighting last Saturday and we are now officially open for the season. On December 12, Untermyer gardens will have its Grand Holiday Illumination – I plan to be there.

Last Friday, I attended the holiday concert of Chanticleer – that group of exceptional acapella singers from San Francisco. They delivered the true spirit of the season. Joy, love and peace. So I have no excuse not to do my part.

My seasonal gift giving is restricted to the homemade and home-grown. I bake cookies and cakes, make limoncello and decant into pretty bottles ( recycled of course) and distribute the jams and chutneys I made last summer.

Homegrown paperwhites and amaryllis are also what I like to give. Note: Paperwhites are only for those who are not repelled by their distinct scent. All year long I pick up interesting containers to hold the holiday bulbs. Guaranteed to please all. For those whom I know will appreciate and include in their gardens, I add small envelopes of seeds harvested from my garden.

Finally, to the extra special people, I add something from my Printed Garden collection. A pair of tea towels, a pillow, a set of placemats and napkins, a table runner – all adorned with flowers reproduced from my own artwork. I continue to be deeply touched by how much these products are loved.

So there you have it. My pared down, simplified approach to the holidays. Enjoy the lights, spread the light, be the light.

Note: The much awaited Holiday Show of the Art Students League of New York begins next week! I have a painting in it.
Show Dates
Monday, December 11 — Friday, December 22

Gallery Hours
Weekdays  9:00am–8:00pm
Weekends  9:00am–4:00pm

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Giving

Thanksgiving, Giving Tuesday, holiday gift giving – ‘tis the season. It seems to be a flurry of assorted giving. Yet, I’m always struck by the limited, ephemeral nature of it all. Come January, we all resume focusing on ourselves and those resolutions. Somewhere in the frenzy of the holidays we lose sight of the true spirit of the season – kindness and goodwill to all that lives on earth. And that spirit should persist throughout the year no?

This past Thanksgiving, while considering my many blessings, I spent a while thinking about how each of those deserved awareness and appreciation every day. The people we value, the home, food, work, pets, health etc., influence our happiness at any given time. Surely then, I must express my gratitude consistently and not simply on that fourth Thursday of November? In addition, must I not reciprocate in action wherever possible?

So, that’s what I’ve resolved – to purposefully practice giving and gratitude all through the year. Starting immediately; not waiting for January 1.

On a daily basis, connect to all I encounter. Greet, appreciate, compliment, listen. Giving voice to every positive thought is the corollary to ‘if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all’. Too often we tell others about someone’s talent, good work or looks but we fail to tell the individual herself. No more. Everybody deserves to hear kind words about themselves. Even a smile makes a difference.

Ditto for pets.

Horticulturally -In the garden, I will consciously appreciate its quotidian offerings and beauty and not merely focus on what’s wrong or needs doing.

Once a week, I will reach out to someone who lives far away. In this day of electronic communications, there is simply no excuse to let relationships lapse. I hope my life is never deemed too busy that I cannot convey a simple hello, thinking of you or how are you to a friend, family member or even a shut-in neighbor. Baking an extra batch of cookies to drop-off or mail to someone is worth the effort. Share the bounty from the garden with a city-slicker or one who can no longer garden. If I’m going to do the work anyway, it’s really easy to do a bit extra.

Horticulturally – Joining a Community Supported Agriculture program is my way of appreciating local farmers – and am I thanked in return! The beautiful, organically grown vegetables are a weekly gift to my health and happiness.

I’ve long had it set up that a monthly donation goes to my favorite charities. This not only ensures that the recipients do not get overlooked but it actually means I give more than I would if it all happened once a year. Of course, certain other causes like disaster relief arise spontaneously and will be responded to duly.

For every service I rely upon, there is a person(s) who serves. So, each month one such individual will be the beneficiary in some small but meaningful way. Hand warmers left in the mail box for the postal carrier to enjoy on a cold day. A gift card for a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop for the dry cleaner. A tray of homemade cookies for my local nursery on a very busy plant buying day ( that’s usually the Saturday before Mother’s Day!). A gift card for a manicure for my cleaning lady. Actually, so many people come to mind that I might have to commit to two individuals a month! This in no way precludes holiday bonuses/gifts.

Horticulturally – visit a public garden. While they receive my membership/support, I reap the benefits of viewing, learning and relaxing. Similarly, visit private gardens through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program. I’m a long standing member of the Garden Conservancy and several public gardens but I don’t visit as often as I ought. That frequency must be improved.

Annual memberships to institutions like public gardens, museums, public television and radio are ways to sustain not only oneself but entire communities with a healthy quality of life.

Less on-line shopping and more local, small business shopping.

In keeping with protecting and nurturing the earth, something new that I’m adding to my efforts is that for every garden or home tool/gadget I buy or replace, I will plant a native tree either in the woods behind my property or other appropriate location.

I’m determined to walk the walk rather than just talk the talk at Thanksgiving. In the end, for all that I give, I’ll be so much more wealthy in what I receive. Merci, merci, merci.

Note: Speaking of gifts – please see the ‘Printed Garden’ and ‘ Botanical Note Cards’ merchandise. 100% of the profits goes to support the children with HIV/AIDS at the Mukta Jivan orphanage in India. I’m very proud of the ‘Printed Garden’ products and totally in awe of those children.

A few things for which I’m grateful:

Amaryllis. This was my ‘Amaryllis tree’

The children at Mukta Jivan orphanage. They inspire me.

Magnolias in bloom

Painting with artist friends in my garden

The gift of another birthday

Fall in New York

Walks with family

Thanksgiving and all other celebrations with family and friends

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Springing For A Cause

It’s an incredibly busy time right now. The garden of course is taking up most of my attention. Both PlantFest and Open Day are coming up this weekend and the following Saturday respectively. With so much else also making demands on my time, it’s easy to question why I’m taking on all the work. The answer is really quite simple – to make a difference.

I started the Printed Garden line of products because I wanted to step up my game in helping children with HIV/AIDS at the Mukta Jeevan orphanage. It has been ten years since I first met the children and began my work of fund-raising for their educational needs. As they got older, their needs became bigger. Having a consistent source of funds in addition to generous donors became imperative. Using my art for the cause seemed elementary. I have the products available on-line but pop-up shop opportunities give me the added chance to engage with the public, receive feedback, make new friends and gain more support. Work that can often feel lonely needs these human interactions to reassure and reaffirm my purpose.

TeaTown is in itself a most worthy cause. If you aren’t familiar with this local treasure and its mission, do look up their website. The PlantFest marks their spring fund raiser, with myriad plants for sale, it gets the community into a gardening state of mind and kicks off the season for TeaTown’s Wildflower Island. My participation in this event is win-win all around. Definitely worth my effort.

The Open Days Program of the Garden Conservancy is one of those great ideas that pleases and informs the population at large so much that it is easy to forget that it actually serves a bigger purpose. The Conservancy’s mission is to preserve landmark gardens across America. This takes a huge amount of effort, man power and funds. The Open Days program, raises awareness and monies to that end. However, it also provides gardeners and garden lovers an opportunity to visit private gardens, learn about new or unfamiliar plants, designs and horticultural practices. Once again, like PlantFest, it brings together people in a most beautiful way. I’ve been a garden host for this event for about ten years and I’m just as honored to do so now as when I was first approached by the Conservancy about putting my garden in their Open Day program. It’s all good.

In supporting the Garden Conservancy this way, I have met and befriended some amazing people, increased my horticultural knowledge and, acquired some pretty nice plants from those generous souls. If working like a possessed person preparing my garden for its Open Day gets me new friends and plants, well then, here I am – in the thick of manic gardening.

I’ve watched friendships between garden visitors blossom and it wouldn’t surprise me if garden visiting MeetUps become the coolest thing.

So come, join me at PlantFest and in my garden to celebrate the season, life and the sheer joy of being alive.

Note: at both events you can stock up on my products – they make beautiful and functional gifts for Mother’s Day, birthdays, bridal and wedding showers, housewarmings, host/hostess, teacher appreciation, yourself. 100% of the profits go to support the children at Mukta Jeevan orphanage.

Attention! Rocky Hills’ Open Day is on May 19 as well! A not to be missed garden!

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

All Is Calm, All Is Bright

The merry chaos of Christmas is over. It’s Boxing Day today and I’m loving the quiet. A day of leftovers and recovery! Let the peace of winter begin.

Of course, the mind never rests. Winter is for dreaming and planning without the distraction of chores awaiting in the garden. I’ve gathered my garden catalogs, magazines, photographs and notes taken through the year to remind me of plants I’ve coveted and areas in the garden that did well and those that did not. In the calm of the next few weeks, I will come up with a million wishes that will get whittled into a few, select, realistic plans. At this time each year, I’m determined that in the coming year, my garden is going to look better than ever before. Dream on.

Note: It was a beautiful white Christmas. Here is my garden transformed – but first,

As promised, here is my ‘modern’ tree. I believe the family has learned to appreciate it.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

All I Want For Christmas, Hanukkah And The New Year

Until now, I have never made a wish-list for Christmas or written a letter to Santa. Truthfully, the very notion of focusing on wanting stuff has felt too self-centered and materialistic. Not anymore. I’ve flipped the switch and taken a different approach. For purposes of this garden related article, I’ll stick to point but it’s apparent how the same thinking can be extrapolated to other scenarios.

Here goes:

1. I wish my town would follow the initiative taken by Dobbs Ferry ( a village twenty minutes south) to remove overgrowth in various areas. To clear waterfront views, Dobbs Ferry has been loaned three goats from a farm to feast away on shrubs and even poison ivy – this not only addresses a big problem in an ecologically sound manner but saves the town mega municipal money.

I’d written about this eco-goats topic a few years ago. I think it’s time to see how to get it going in my neck of the woods.

2. I would like to see every homeowner with a plot of land, commit to planting mostly native plants. And when using non-native plants, select only non-invasive ones. Native plants attract native creatures that pollinate and protect. Nature in balance.

In a similar vein, let our parks, preserves and public gardens be shining models of native flora and fauna. We must restore and create more resilient, sustainable landscapes to support diversity and maintain a healthy ecology.

3. I wish every community would set aside one week day and one day of the weekend as ‘quiet’ days. This means no motorized garden tools allowed. At present, all through the growing seasons, on any given day one is subjected to the auditory assault of mowers, trimmers, blowers and such. Can’t you just envision the calm and peace on ‘quiet’ days when you are totally aware of the sounds of nature like birdsong, running water features, rustling of leaves, dropping of acorns, calls of tree frogs and bull frogs, cicadas … And imagine listening to music, having conversations and simply thinking in our heads without being uninterrupted by the noisy tools and appliances.

4. I wish for universal adoption of organic practices. As a nation, let’s move towards chemical-free gardens. Even in the application of organic products, let’s be judicious and prudent.

5. I wish for composting to become a routine practice in every household. It is easy, inexpensive (free) and perhaps the most useful product you can provide to your garden.

That’s it. That’s my wish list.

Small, simple shifts in habits, big positive impact on environment.

Note: The Holiday Art Show at the New York Art Students League begins December 11! I have a painting there. Do visit. This is a wonderful opportunity to see great art. Very affordable too!

Enjoy the photos of the Holiday Train Show at the NYBG. It should get you in the spirit of the season!

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Holiday Happy

Holiday season is here. However you feel about it, you cannot help being a part of it. Years ago I made peace with the over the top commercialism and chose to stop judging those who embraced it. Stepping away from the fray has been very good for my spirit. I focus instead on whatever gives me true joy. You guessed it – I immerse myself in bringing nature indoors.

With Thanksgiving over, autumnal decorations of gourds, leaves and seed-pods are either relegated to the compost pile or ( as you might have read in that NY Times article ), to the Art Student’s League to serve in still-life arrangements.

Throughout winter, bulbs come to the fore. Paperwhites and amaryllis cheer up the months of December and January. Later in January and for the rest of season, bulbs like hyacinths, crocus and muscari that have been cooling in the refrigerator, will be forced. They are my salvation through these cold, dark, interminably long days. Typically, evergreens and a tree are a part of the holidays but given the severe allergies my daughter has to pines, we’re finally doing away with the tree tradition altogether. I’m planning something more contemporary to stand-in for the tree. If we cannot have a real tree, I don’t want a look alike either. I’ll share my tree substitute when it’s created. Finally, simple roping of boxwood will replace the usual princess pine at the mantel.

I started the paperwhites and amaryllis last week. That act alone put me in a good mood. The anticipation is half the joy. Watching the progress of these bulbs gives me that much needed dose of daily cheer and optimism.

If you remember, on a trip to the Netherlands last January, I learned that amaryllis do not need to be potted up or placed in water. They come equipped with everything they need to bloom. It’s only after flowering is done and the leaves have emerged, might they be potted up and treated like any house plant. Let them spend the summer outdoors, go dormant in the fall and then restart all over again later in winter/early spring. They will not re-bloom in time for the holidays subsequently but instead at their more naturally programmed time. So, you will need to get new amaryllis bulbs for the holidays each year. I say, the more the merrier!

As the amaryllis do not need potting or water, they can be placed any which way you like. Their outer papery skin can even be gently sprayed in gold/silver/copper and arranged to look very festive and elegant. In a flower shop in Eindhoven, I even saw them covered in bright pink wax! Not quite my taste but I can certainly see the possibilities. So, uncork your creativity and enjoy. Take pictures and share with me please!

Meanwhile, create your own happiness.

Some of my potted amaryllis last January

Amaryllis unplugged! In a flower shop in the Netherlands.

Close up.

Pretty pink bottoms!

At Amsterdam’s Schipol airport. Sadly, US customs do not allow them in so I returned home emoty-handed.

My new amaryllis experiment. Looks odd now but should be quite lovely when the flowers bloom. I might add more bulbs this week.

Paperwhites. I have several such containers all over the house.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar