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

Cover-Ups, Concealment And Cutbacks

Yeah, it’s not what you think. Get your mind back into the garden! Winter has arrived – a little too early. Fall is not quite done! On Halloween night, the temperature was in the low 70’s and by the following night, we had a hard frost.

With the tender perennials already ensconced in the greenhouse, I wasn’t too worried about the sudden cold. However, the greenhouse heater is being cantankerous and is yet to kick in. The engineer in residence needs to get it working soon. Or else.

The great bulb cover-upping happened on Sunday. All 700 plus bulbs. With snow expected on Thursday, I didn’t want to take the risk of doing the project in stages. It’s all done now. The assortment of little brown packages are now under their winter blankets of earth and mulch. In my mind’s eye I can see them in splendiferous bloom. Spring cannot come soon enough. Wait, I take that back. Given how erratic the weather/seasons have been, I’m willing to be patient and wait till the appropriate time for spring.

The fallen leaves in the meadow are let to remain to give some cover to the plants and also enrich the soil subsequently. This area does not receive any additional fertilizer so Mother Nature’s free-falling bounty is the one we depend upon. Similarly, other shrubs and all the roses are provided a pile of leaves at their feet to keep cozy. In time, the roses will also acquire a windbreak of burlap for additional protection.

The large pots that stay outdoors all through the year are shielded in the winter. First, they get fully concealed in plastic and then given a more aesthetic looking wrapping of burlap. Throughout the winter they look like big packages left by some careless delivery person.

The perennials have been cut back and it always makes me a bit sad to see the garden so bare. Despite the lingering colors of autumn, the long, dark days of winter loom ahead.

To combat the seasonal sadness, I’ve started setting aside all those gardening magazines I hadn’t got around to reading in the busy months. Soon, the seed and plant catalogs will begin to arrive and they too will join the pile. Since October, the refrigerator has been cooling bulbs for forcing – they’re sure to cheer up January and February nicely. For now, paperwhites are coming up and I’m counting on them to pretty up Thanksgiving. Firewood has been stacked, fresh candles placed in the candlesticks, snuggly blankets rest temptingly on all the couches, jars of pesto, tomato sauce and jellies await impromptu gatherings for board-games and Charades, the list of shows to binge watch is on hand as are novels picked up throughout the year. Winter is suddenly looking mighty attractive.

Note: Be sure to look at the list of garden tasks for November.

The ‘Colors Of Fall’ art show is on till the end of this month. Do visit!

Getting ready for bulb planting.
Rain barrel upturned and left to empty itself before being put away
Ferns from the vertical garden take up residence in the vegetable bed for winter. They too will be covered with a blanket of burlap shortly.
The perennial beds all cut back, bulbs planted and awaiting a layer of mulch.
Fall color still going strong

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Yet Another Aha! Moment

Gardening is just what I do. What and how I do it feels like second nature. While I’ve undoubtedly learned much from my garden, I’m not always conscious of it. It’s only when I pause to think or appreciate the garden that I become aware of how much it teaches and guides me. As one goes about the day to day chores and demands of life, it’s easy to be caught up in the immediate without being mindful. Over the years, I’ve come to understand and depend upon the garden to open my mind and heart, to take instruction, seek counsel, solace and refuge, feel grateful, compassionate and a general sense of wellbeing. The garden continues to impart wisdom and I keep receiving. Yet, I’m guilty of taking it for granted. Till something occurs to nudge me out of my complacency.

I was talking to a group recently, when the topic of bulb planting came up. I tend to assume that everyone knows what I know. Especially if they belong to a garden club or similar organization. So, there I was saying that 700+ bulbs await planting in my garden, when I was asked about the details of this task. When they get put into the ground, how deep, where etc., It dawned on me that without the basic information, any task can be intimidating.

We spoke then of getting the bulbs, making selections, quantities, the process of planting and such. When it came to the necessity of a cooling period, I had my own Aha! moment. Over the course of this year, I’ve been working on a business project with a philanthropic purpose. Not being naturally business minded, the process is slow and the learning is tedious and frustrating. I’m impatient and want things to be straightforward. But business has many moving parts, it is not simple. There are deadlines and delays. I can deal with the former but the latter drives me crazy because it’s mostly out of my control. I have to depend on different parties to do the needful and they each have their own agendas and processes. Needless to say, it is slow going. Very slow.

I’m not complaining because I do appreciate the learning, other people’s skills and expertise blow my mind and the pleasure I get with each step forward. I just have a ways to go and I’d recently hit a roadblock. A detour is required and I must find it. Realistically, I’m looking at coming up with a different path altogether. It is all the usual ups and downs but for someone not schooled in business and marketing, it is annoying, upsetting and disheartening. Doing something for good should not be this hard!

In this state of mind, I was ripe for a lesson from nature. In speaking about bulb planting, I received my own lesson. Firstly, I was reminded that there is a correct season for everything. Then, given all the right conditions, taking care to do all the steps correctly, all I can do is step back and wait for matters to take their course and hopefully, produce the results one hopes for. Just as the bulbs, so full of promise, must be healthy, planted at the right time, to the right depth, in the right places and then given their optimum cooling or rest period to get properly ready for growing and blooming in the spring. I am not in control of everything. I must simply do my best and wait it out. Everything in its time. Preparation, perseverance, patience, perspective.

Note: The ‘Colors Of Fall’ art show is open! Do go take a look.

Enjoy the watercolor images of bulbs to look forward to next spring. Some of these watercolors are available in notecards and soft furnishings for the home. They make lovely gifts. All profits go to educate HIV girls at Mukta Jivan orphanage.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Guided By Nature

Nature never ceases to amaze and impress. Sure she has her moments of rage and recalcitrance but even then she does it with unrestrained shock and awe as if to remind us that we are not the ones in charge. Subtle is not her general style. It’s no wonder that we humans learn our best life lessons by staying close to Mother Nature. Humble, respectful and optimistic.

I’ve written periodically about lessons I’ve learned from being outdoors and observing the natural world. From the virtues of being patient to letting go of the fierce need to control everything to being present in any given moment, I’m a devoted and dedicated student. I really am better off when I’ve spent time each day communing with Nature.

I don’t know about you but waking up each morning to a stream of bad news has me on edge. The ensuing sense of helplessness and hopelessness impacts me so much that I feel stressed even before I’ve begun my day. I dread checking the news and yet, I know I cannot live in blissful ignorance forever. After all, knowledge is power right? One has to be the change and all.

I’ve decided I cannot become a victim to all the negative forces out there or let matters beyond my control fester within. A plan is in motion. Each day, I stay away from catching up with the news until I’ve done a few things to bolster my spirits, my mind and my body. I’m sharing because I think if you follow my weekly posts with any regularity, you too feel as despondent as I do. Together we can do better.

First thing upon awaking, from my bed I gaze out the window and reckon with the weather and strain to hear the birds. There’s something about birdsong that I find reassuring. A rainy day of course precludes listening to any avian activity but instead, the sound of water can be soothing. However it looks outside, I determine something positive. Sunny is easy as it is cheery and invites outdoor time. Overcast – colors of flowers and foliage show up better; good for photographing. Rainy – good for plants and the water-table. Snow – pretty, provides much needed insulation for hibernating plants, has cross-country skiing or snowshoeing possibilities! Stormy – perfect day for staying cozy and grateful to be working indoors. You see? A simple switch in attitude makes a huge improvement to the mood. It’s as though we’re being given cues or nudges to take charge of ourselves and make the best of any situation. Carpe diem.

Unless forced to remain inside, I get outdoors first thing in the morning and engage in my daily communion with Nature.  I go walking and observe the trees and birds. My walk is followed by a quick tour of the garden to appreciate what’s doing. This single activity never fails to instruct my mind to rise above the mundane and seek the extraordinary. Nature’s artistry is so astoundingly beautiful that every day feels fresh and new. I stay a while longer meditating and breathing deeply.

The Japanese have a practice called shinrin-yoku or forest-bathing. The idea is simple: if a person simply visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way there are calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to be achieved. Many other cultures prescribe the equivalent of shinrin-yoku. So I’m not doing anything new or radical. I’m merely suggesting that we each reconnect with Nature purposefully. She’s right there for the taking.

By the time I get indoors, I’m upbeat, my creative juices are flowing, my body feels limber and, with fresh perspective, I’m ready for my day. I can’t quite explain it but then, I don’t need to. I merely have to allow Nature to work her magic on me. There is a sacred quality about it.

With the coffee brewing, I review my agenda and plan my tasks. Then, and only then, whilst sipping my coffee do I sit down to read the news. A half hour of that and no more. There’s work to be done. A world to make better.

At a later time, after I’ve accomplished some tasks, I can take a break and catch up further on all the news.

Some elements of my morning ‘ritual’ might seem corny and/or elementary to cynical minds but give it a shot. You have nothing to lose but a dismal outlook. Besides, solid research backs up all the stuff I do. So there.

Mark your calendars! Save the date! My garden’s 2018 Open Day has been set – it’s Saturday May 19.

Permit these photos to remind you that the world is still beautiful :

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar