Fringe Benefits

It’s the simple truth that plants don’t observe months and our passage of time and seasons; they sense the fluctuations in the environment and respond accordingly. Despite everything gardener do, they know in their hearts they are not in control of their horticultural realm. Nature is the ultimate commander-in-chief and the gardener adapts, adjusts and acquiesces.

This past weekend, while a large portion of the country got blasted by tornadoes, storms, ice and snow, here in my neck of the woods, we enjoyed spring-like temperatures of 65-68 degrees and glorious sunshine. By now, we typically have severe cold and snow accumulations on the ground so a normal January thaw is only a rise in temperature just enough to give some relief where a spike to just 50 degrees feels positively balmy.

Thus far this winter has been relatively harmless. So the 60+ temperatures is kinda alarming. Yet, what can we do about it? Enjoy it! So I did. Sitting outdoors and letting the sun hit my skin felt delicious. The landscape was stark but the atmosphere was joyous. The parks and trails were busy with hikers and bikers. Nary a glum face was to be seen. Admittedly, every now and then I felt a twinge of apprehension as though waiting for the other show to drop. Though in general, I made the most of this unexpected reprieve. Taking time to examine the leaves and grasses made iridescent in the sunshine. How they glowed in tints of ocher and russet! Basking in the warm caress of sunlight did this body and soul a lot of good.

Similarly, the ice-storm we experienced early last December was unseasonal. Too cold too early. We worried about damage to trees and other plants. Yet, in the light of day, the ice coated limbs sparkled in brilliant celebration. It was beautiful. I was filled with wonder and marveled at the icicles hanging from branches and eaves, the sculptural shapes of shrubs encased in ice, the general radiance and refraction of the sunlight on ice. Instagram abounded with Insta-worthy images of beauty bound in ice. Clearly, we were all struck by this alluring danger. For a brief period we were able to stop worrying and be present to the artistry of nature.

Last summer, we went through a hot, dry period. Desperately needed rain was not happening. The lawn started browning and the leaves of many plants began drooping. In fact, my apple trees shed much of their leaves in panic. I was torn between copiously watering in the immediacy of the situation and restraining that instinct by looking at the bigger picture of climate-change and the global shortage of water. In that pathetic scene of a raggedy looking plants, the native plants stepped up and bloomed and filled my heart. Their stoic hardiness was admirable. I had a perfect opportunity to not just take note of the flowers but to actually stop and observe their bold beauty and designs. It left me with a resolve to not only add even more natives to the gardens but to give them their due in gratitude.

While we wrestle with the climate-change happening at present and do our duty in slowing/halting its progress, it helps to find the moments that uplift and understand that nature is asking us to be attentive and appreciative no matter what. Even in adversity there is grace to be gleaned. Then perhaps, we will be in a position to rise with that phoenix as it emerges from the ashes of the global climate crisis.

From the ice-storm last December:

I didn’t take any photographs over last weekend’s Spring in January. Instead I did two quick watercolor sketches. Imagine, I got to paint outdoors in January!

From last summer’s heat wave(s):

The browning’ lawn’

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Good Time(ing)s

In general, once my garden Open Day has passed, a respite of sorts is granted. The garden looks its best, all the heavy work is over and it’s simply a matter of maintenance. Weeding, watering, deadheading, mowing – the usual tasks to keep the garden looking neat and cared for. It’s time to start relaxing and lolling about in the garden. But not this year.

I had, over this past winter, decided to go for a bigger push in the ‘meadow’. Envisioning this space as a true four season performance arena and inspired by Piet Oudolf’s matrix planting system, I ordered 18 different native plants totaling 200 plants. That’s a lot of plants. Given that the ‘meadow’ already has a range of plants and bulbs in residence, the new introductions would be a bit of a challenge. So, I sourced a nursery that would provide young plugs of the plants making it a bit easier to get into the ground between the existing plants.

This new order arrived a day before the Open Day. Needless to say, planting them had to wait. Given the need to take a little time off post-Open Day and a couple of days of inclement weather, a whole week went by. Memorial weekend it had to be. As much as I was keen on simply enjoying the long weekend with no tasks on the agenda, the plugs of plants could not be ignored. Hence, over the afternoon of Saturday to well past sunset we planted one side of the ‘meadow’. The weather was ideal but getting around the established plants was a game of Twister. Marking the spots for the plugs using bamboo stakes, making the holes ( my engineer husband/under-gardener used a drill and that made it so much better) and placing the plants took so much longer than if one were starting on a blank canvas of earth. Our sore backs and legs were testaments to the effort.

Sunday dawned and we began at 8:00am by which time it was already hot and humid. So vastly different from the day before. The bugs were out in full swing. We finally got all the planting done barely in time to start preparing for our first garden party of the season. We hadn’t as yet shopped for the event! Needless to say, it became a marathon of shopping, prepping, baking (dessert), setting up, laying the table, firing up the outdoor wood-fired oven, showering and dressing … in a matter of hours.

All was accomplished just in time for the first guests’ arrival. Whew!

Then, just as the party was nicely underway and we were considering starting on pizza making, the first raindrops dropped. Yikes! Very soon we realized it was only going to get worse. This crowd was not the kind to run indoors. Not a chance. Instead, with all hands on deck, a big tarpaulin was spread and tethered over the pergola ( with me urging them to “mind the wisteria buds!”). The pop-up tent was brought out of storage and commissioned to allow the pizza-maker/husband and guest helpers to work unfettered by the rain. And the party continued in much hilarity and good cheer. Well into the night.

Planting time, good times – it’s all in the timing. And a can-do attitude.

P.S – Aforementioned under-gardener has categorically stated that he is done with all planting for the rest of the growing season. Hmmm, we shall see about that.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Future Shock

A new year has begun. That connotes so much – new beginnings, fresh resolves, high hopes, overdue changes. The potential is high and the possibilities endless. My pulse quickens as I consider how much I want to achieve. Even while I’m aware that my ambition verges on the unrealistic, I’m still excited to indulge in dreaming big.

There is however, one thing weighing heavy on my mind. Climate change and our part in it. The evidence is undeniable and yet, not enough is being done to mitigate the circumstances. To make matters worse, policies meant to change and improve our practices have been undone and climate-change deniers are reinstating old, destructive ways. I am truly worried.

At this rate, we’re hurtling towards self-destruction. This most beautiful, blue-green home planet of ours will cease to sustain life as we know it. There will be nothing for future generations to inherit. Heck, there won’t be any future generations.

As I see it, while we await the leadership to do something positive, each of us must do our utmost to fulfill our own responsibilities. I’m fortunate to live in a far-thinking, proactive town. Our water meets and exceeds current standards, we recycle, compost and mulch, businesses no longer provide plastic shopping bags, our electricity is generated mostly from wind and solar power, our parks and preserves are responsibly maintained and as a whole, we are an environmentally conscious community. Yet, we could do more.

I’d like to see ‘quiet days’ instituted – when the use of power equipments are not permitted. Even one day a week of this would be significant. Not only in the elimination of noise and air pollution but by being a consistent practice, it would keep us aware of the need to do right by the environment.

We ought to strongly advocate the use of our school buses – if we stopped dropping our children off ourselves, imagine what a difference this would make. One can justify/make excuses about why one must take a child to and from school in a car but seriously, in the end, it is mostly about the ease and convenience. Admittedly there are exceptions but the norm ought to be to ride the bus. No one said doing the right thing would be easy.

We have got to start thinking of what’s good for the entire community and not simply our own individual selves/families. The cars we buy, our household use of energy, how we maintain our gardens, the products (and the packaging) we use at home etc., Every effort is impactful.

On my part, I’m determined to up my game.

As I reflect on the year just passed, I’ve decided on how to celebrate the lives of those dear friends I lost. I’m going to plant a native tree in honor of each of them. Considering their individual personalities, I intend to select a ‘matching’ tree and plant it somewhere appropriate. An oak for Joan, a poplar for Mike, a shad-blow for Al. Each a reminder of their exceptional lives and my good fortune in getting to know them. I’m paying it forward.

Likewise, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, for any future tool, device or gadget I purchase, a native tree or plant will be planted. So I’m either going to be a more careful shopper or I’m going to run out of place to plant anything. Either way it is a win.

Happy New Year to each of you! Here’s to collectively making a positive difference.

January
February
March
April
May
June
July
August
September
October
November
December (In New York City)

(c) 2019 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