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.

Note:

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

 

Code Rush

All winter long I look forward to spring. But I kinda need the winter. As much as spring is full of new life and milder weather, it is a really busy time. There is so much to get done that one needs to work at double pace. Winter provides the necessary time to plan and prepare for that frenetic activity to come. It’s not only the requirement of physical fitness but the mental readiness as well. In December, I totally chill out. I’m very grateful for the time to get cozy and lazy. In January, I start dreaming and planning for what I want to do in the garden. In February, I’m slowly getting myself ready but mostly, I spend the month complaining about the cold and harsh weather. In March, tired of grumbling, I eagerly start looking for signs of spring in the garden and towards the latter part of the month, I gently ease into the work of clean-up and repair. In April, work is in full swing.

This year however, February has let me down. It has been much milder than usual. My snowdrops have been out for two weeks already, the red maple is in full bud and it’s been feeling more like late March. I feel cheated. Without the usual February grace period, I’m sensing unease and uncertainty. It’s as though spring is trying to rush up to me simply to knock me down. March might still bring snow and ice to undo the efforts of plants that responded to the mild days thus far. What is a gardener to do?

Well, this gardener is going to rise to the occasion. Against my baser need to whine and vent, I’m challenging myself to be mature and wise. I cannot really pretend I have the power to do anything about the weather. Instead, while the temperatures are mild, I’m checking for what things need repair, reworking or replacing. Edgers to be realigned, a few pavers to be repositioned, posts straightened etc., Clean up can begin – cut back plants that were let to provide winter interest, lightly prune fruit trees, pick up winter debris. The front lawn needs some attention too. Because of how wet it has been in recent days, I’m going to wait for it to dry out somewhat. Walking on wet ground and lawn can be damaging so it is best to avoid doing so. I’ll use the time to check on supplies like stakes, twine, Epsom salts ( for the roses and tired feet), sharpness of tools and such. The compost heap can be given a good stir so it knows its services will be called upon shortly.

I still feel a bit rushed but I think it’ll be okay. As long as I remember to breathe deeply and pause every now and then to simply revel in being in the garden. That much I know I can do.

Heads Up! 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!

(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

Learning Extension

Heading into February and winter feels soooo long! I’m itching to get going in the garden but that’s not going to happen for another two months. So, besides dreaming and planning, what’s a gardener to do? This is what I call my time to enrich my horticultural knowledge so I can garden smarter.

The Winter Lecture Series at the New York Botanical Gardens is one I look forward to eagerly. I’ve had the pleasure of listening to some truly impressive horticultural giants and I’ve learned so much from each. Coming up next in this year’s series is Arne Maynard – I’ve followed his work for years and can’t wait to hear him in person. Tickets can go fast so book early!

Bonus – In attending these lectures, you often get to see several garden world glitterati also in attendance. See, they too value such talks.

Next, I use the winter to catch up on the pile of garden magazines for which I had no time during the growing season. Apart from our own excellent American publications, I subscribe to a few from other countries. It’s nice to keep up with research, new practices and trends all over the world.

Bonus- The gorgeous photographs will keep you excited and make you up your ante in your own garden. Nothing like a firm yet subtle nudge to reach higher.

Extra bonus for reading magazines very late – When magazines arrive, they typically offer articles pertaining to the moment/month/season at hand. While they might be inspiring, it’s too late to act on the information for the present. Frankly, despite any notes I might make, I cannot expect myself to remember to refer to them or summon the same level of enthusiasm when the next appropriate time to act comes around. Unlike fashion magazines, new developments, trends and information in gardening are not short-lived. By reading the publications in winter, I have the luxury of time to immediately research the resources, plan, design, set up appointments with professionals such as masons and tree experts and order plants, tools and such. When spring rolls up, I’m all ready to go.

Visiting public gardens and conservatories both locally and in my winter travels/escapes is still an additional way to see and learn. Taking the time to observe means I really get to understand how and why specific designs and plants work.

Bonus – Lingering in the warm, humid conservatories that are often fragrant to boot, is wonderfully therapeutic. Almost, as though I went to a spa. My mind and skin emerge nourished.

Finally, this year, I’ve decided to do something about the occupational hazards of gardening. I’m talking about those aches and pains that arise from the physical demands of the innumerable tasks in the garden. And over the years, chronic pain is a real hindrance for many gardeners. So, this past weekend, I’ve registered with my local Continuing Education center for a course in the Alexander technique which is all about un-learning the way we typically move to do routine tasks and instead re-learn how to do them so we do not keep hurting ourselves. Moving smarter.

Bonus – I’m looking forward to meeting people in this class with whom I can share stories about my aches and pains.

Now, how are you whiling away your winter?

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

January Jubilation

We’re already half-way into January – where did the time go?! It’s as though the new year was welcomed only yesterday. Yet, the record low temperatures we’re experiencing has made the days seem slow. Apart from a brief spike in temperature towards the end the last week, it really has been unbearably cold. On the up side, this has made me turn to the indoors. I’m reorganizing and rearranging. During the course of the years, so much in the house goes by the way side when engaged in the purpose of living. Now is the perfect time to look around and take stock of all those neglected tasks. A lick of paint, a spot of cleaning, some repair, a few replacements and a whole lot of editing. I’m cleaning up and paring down. In getting rid of anything that is no longer useful and re-purposing other items to serve me the way I now live, I’m giving my home up to my speed. Nothing dramatic or elaborate but significant to me nonetheless. Taking on this ‘project’ is infusing me with an enormous dose of enthusiasm. The sense of aligning the home space to one’s current lifestyle is pure bliss.

That doesn’t mean I’m not looking outside. I gaze at the garden in winter from the windows and whenever I’m feeling brave enough, the occasional turn in the garden itself. It is garden-dreaming season after all. The bones of the garden show up clearly in winter. And for the most part, I’m liking what I see. There is sufficient visual interest. The espalier of fruit trees takes on the role of a dominant sculpture. “Wind Song”, the sculpture seems to come alive as it reflects and fractures the light that hits it. And on windy days, it appears to mimic the swaying boughs and branches.

Viewed from the kitchen window one storey above, the potager looks as though it belongs in a cloister – orderly and graceful, waiting to serve again. Along the driveway, the vertical garden hangs as a large piece of abstract art. The whispering sounds of the now dry fronds of ferns add another experiential element in the viewing of it.

In the checkerboard garden, the smooth, white coating of snow on the squares of stone contrast beautifully with the bumpy, dark and light flecked squares of creeping phlox.

Cleared of snow, the walkway looks like a zipper running between the sheet of snow inviting passage to the shelter of the house.

Finally, lets not miss the shadows cast on the snow by the low winter sun. Oh the shapes and forms interweaving between trees and trellis! They move – growing and receding with the day. A slow, certain dance to the silent music of light.

Ah January, you offer up such quiet joy.

Note: I’ve been very inspired by the winter landscape so enjoy the photos and a couple of recent paintings!

Watercolor ‘Winter Shadows”

Watercolor – ‘Winter Pas De Deux’

(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

In Someone Else’s Eden

As I mentioned last week, I’m away from home and kinda, sorta missing my garden. With all its imperfections and idiosyncrasies, it is after all my own piece of paradise. It’s where I feel most comfortable. My escape from everything – a sanctuary in the midst of quotidian chaos. Yet, here I am in Provence and I have absolutely nothing to complain about.

For all of three weeks I have the run of a home and garden that anyone with even the faintest of a heartbeat would be tripping over themselves to experience. I’m certainly making the most of it.

I’ll spare you most of the envy creating details and simply focus on the garden. It is two acres of Provencal charm. The garden doesn’t pretend to be anything but its authentic self and because of that, it not only works brilliantly but clearly requires only a minimal amount of upkeep. That is exactly what every gardener should aspire to create.

Instead of telling, I’ll show you. Enjoy. Witness its inspired simplicity and honest beauty.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar