Grow And Give

Stop Press! I’m in the NY Times!

Thanksgiving! I love this holiday. It elevates the concept of everyday gratitude to a national celebration. It also makes us accountable – how has the year been and how have we made the best of it? This holiday is an annual reminder that one ought to make every day matter. In doing so, we experience personal growth and consequently, have more to offer to the world.

The garden inevitably teaches me how to deal with the highs and lows. Adverse conditions like high heat, storms, drought and such might stunt or stop the plants from growing but, they take it in stride. As soon as the circumstances improve or let up they rally back and push forward. A shrub loses a good portion of itself in an ice-storm and the remaining part will compensate and thrive till the plant is restored and whole once more. A tree topples over in high winds causing some damage to the garden but the exposure to more sunlight promotes fresh plant growth and new opportunities to the gardener while the fallen tree itself enriches the soil as it decays and offers itself up to all sorts flora and fauna.

When the going is good, the garden provides an abundance that one must share. Be it inviting folk to came and enjoy the garden in full glory to taking a bunch of flowers to cheer up a neighbor or donating produce to a food bank. We give our thanks in actions.

The garden has been put to bed but accommodations have been provided for critters such as toads, butterflies, birds and bees ( and in all probability mice ) by way of the compost pile, some corners with leaf litter and/or wood piles, brambly shrubs near the woods and other sheltered hideaways.

On my part, I am grateful for so much. From monumental stuff like my family growing by the arrival of a second great-niece, launching my ‘Printed Garden’ collection, evolving in my art and participating in a record number of shows both solo and group, my poem being read at a community event, my efforts as a gardener getting recognition in the New York Times ( admittedly, I’m really kicked about this!), zip-lining over the rain-forests in Costa Rica to seemingly minor but no less significant events like vacations, reunions with family and friends, coaxing a finicky plant to flourish, reading some good books, seeing an amazing play, making new friends, discovering a new, now favorite restaurant, the list is actually endless.

That’s not to forget how much loss and suffering there has been nationally and internationally. I’m dropping off supplies for a few Thanksgiving meals at my local food pantry, shopping locally, renewing memberships to museums and botanical gardens, donating to the Red Cross, Salvation Army and to http://www.visitcalifornia.com/attraction/grateful-table . This last one helps the vineyards devastated by the fires in northern California. In giving, we grow.

A very happy, abundant Thanksgiving to each of you.

Enjoy the pictures of seasonal abundance:

(c) 2017 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

Community Ties

I live in a town with a strong community spirit. We care about our children and our schools, we’re avid readers and our amazing library bears testimony to it, how charming the town looks is a result of an active garden club and a Beautification Advisory board. We recycle judiciously, have a no-plastic bags policy, compost and mulch is available for the taking at our busy recycling center, much of our electricity comes from wind energy, and our water is top notch safe. Our Historical Society is well supported, the town offers senior citizens an array of activities and services and we have a deep commitment to arts and culture. We are a very inclusive, supportive, forward thinking lot – all are welcome and embraced. I realize this is beginning to sound too good to be true and you’re right. We do have our differences and disputes but given the general parameters of what makes a town good, I sincerely believe we have right here much to appreciate and cherish.

But, that is no reason to be complacent. There is always room for improvement. We can, should and must do better.

The downtown area is currently undergoing a massive face-lift. Infrastructural issues are being addressed as well matters of making the commercial/public areas more attractive and user-friendly. While we grumble about the inconveniences it is expected that the new look will be worth it. Fingers crossed.

So here is my beef. As a commuting community where a high percentage of us take the train to work, the land running along the length of the train tracks could use a makeover. Our station itself is a historical building and has been lovingly restored. A very nice restaurant operates in it. The parking lots and the station grounds are clean and groomed. But the sorry looking, scrubby mess that one views whilst waiting for the train is a real eyesore.

It’s not just about aesthetics which by itself would be a worthy thing but, I believe it could have a positive effect on the commuters. Just as any time spent in a garden/ park or a walk (however brief) in the woods is known to improve ones physical, mental and emotional well being, viewing a stretch of interesting and attractive plants in the time spent waiting for the train would certainly do much to improve a person’s mood. Subtly, sub-consciously nature works wonders on us. Why not do what we can to help ourselves be well?

A month ago, I was in the Chicago area. I used to go to grad school there so I’m quite familiar with the area. As a result, I easily notice changes in the surrounding towns and much has changed indeed! One of the things that has captivated me is the embankment area running along the train tracks in the town of Wilmette which is a suburb rather similar to my town here in New York.

At one time, this stretch of land was full of wild vegetation that received minimum care and certainly no approving viewers. No longer. Today, there is a stunning prairie garden running parallel to the tracks. I’m completely enamored by this development. As the tracks leave Wilmette the land next to the tracks reverts to the usual ho-hum of rubbish plants. The contrast is stark. But, it shows what an astounding difference it makes to go to the trouble of deliberately creating such a landscape.

In making such an appropriately prairie style garden, no doubt native fauna populations have also been revived. The benefits to the area at large is immeasurable. Upkeep demands are much lower in such spaces. The initial investments to transform this area are surely more than worthwhile. Good for the environment, good for the commuters and good for the town overall.

Certainly the wildly popular High-Line park in Manhattan also serves as a big inspiration. The very concept is genius and how it all came together is brilliant. The power of the people is formidable.

I’d like to think that the enlightened residents of my town will see the advantages of doing something similar. Thus, I’m toying with ways to put this idea to the powers that be. It’s easy to discuss the merits of such an endeavor but the costs are always what makes them balk at new proposals. I’m thinking a local version of a Go Fund Me to get the project started and then maybe an Adopt A Length Of Track plan to cover maintenance costs. Similar to the successful Adopt A Highway program in NYC.

Imagine miles and miles of splendid, native plantings soothing our souls, coloring the seasons, enriching the environment and connecting us all …

I’m open to other ideas and welcome input from anybody interested in this idea so it can be put to the Town Board in a well constructed manner. Start thinking!

Note : I present to you photos of the plantings in Wilmette and High-Line.

Wilmette along the tracks- taken at different sections –

High-Line in October and December –

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Gift Of The Ordinary

It’s been hard to get away from the news these days. Everywhere one looks there is something gone awry. Disorder, discord and destruction is seemingly the new normal. Tempers are running high while spirits are low. Between Mother Nature’s might and all the political unrest, our world feels unsettled and out of alignment. It’s an extraordinarily heartbreaking time at present. It’s overwhelming and one wonders what the point of it all might be. While I reach out to those struggling to recover from natural disasters and man-made horrors, my heart reminds me to seek solace in the gift of the ordinary.

We take ordinary for granted. In fact, we often complain about it right? Seeking excitement and the extraordinarily, we whine about the same old-same old, the mundane, the quotidian. But it’s precisely those humdrum, routine tasks that give us certain assurance. They tell us that all is as it should be. Things are normal. There is wondrous peace in that.

This past week, in trying to process all the goings on and looking for how I can be of most service, I’ve found such comfort in doing the unremarkable chores in the garden. Whilst weeding, I’ve observed the earthworms tilling the earth and the bees making their rounds. The seed pods rattling in the breeze that brings a fresh shower of leaves in colors of the sun. I’ve taken note of the slender green needles of emerging grass from the recently seeded front lawn. In tucking away the pots of tender plants into the greenhouse, I’m reassured that they will be warm and safe through the cold months. Picking Swiss chard for supper, I’m struck by how much I enjoy this vegetable and how it keeps giving well into early December. Washing out the large pots now emptied of their seasonal contents, I watch the birds raid the meadow for seeds and bugs. The low slant of the afternoon light sets aglow the asters as though reminding the butterflies and bees there remains only a few more hours before visiting hours are over. Meanwhile, in another corner, the light turns the swaying heads of ornamental grasses into feathers of polychromatic optic fibers. Cutting back the plants will have to wait another week or two – this senescence is so beautiful .

These familiar chores put my heart at ease and for one all too brief period, my fear, anxiety, anger, sorrow and frustration are forgotten. Ordinary is good.

I wrote the poem below three years ago. It expresses the same sentiments.

The Gift Of The Ordinary

The early demand

to make room

for still warm toes

and sleep tousled hair

against my languid self.

 

Sandwiched between

husband and child

Wide awake

much too hot

wouldn’t change a thing.

 

Quick kisses, rushed goodbyes

Sudden quiet amidst the dishes

Hours open

creative freedom

the comfort of home.

 

Laundry rituals, weekly menus

Deadlines, submissions

instep with

family time, date night

snatched moments of solitude.

 

Belonging, beloved

sleep deprived on a good day

Supported, cheered

trailing behind on paperwork

The gift of the ordinary.

                                             –Shobha Vanchiswar

Note: I hope you will visit one or all of the art shows I’m in this month!

Rainbow chard

Moving into the greenhouse in progress

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Weather-worn But Never Beaten

Has anybody been able to keep their minds off the weather lately? Typically, whilst on vacation, I stay away from all news. Particularly the political sort. It’s my necessary escape into an Utopia where all is well all the time. I absolutely need that state of make-believe to recharge my batteries. But with Harvey and Irma on the war path and an earthquake of epic scale hitting North America, it’s been impossible to stay unaware or worse, unconcerned. To reach out, to determine how to help is everyone’s obligation.

The concerns are grave and so many. The people injured, dispossessed, stranded or lost are our immediate focus. Followed closely by the animals in distress. How to manage the inevitable dangers of disease, hunger, destruction of the infrastructure, search and rescue are just the beginning. Then comes assessing and containing the damages, rehabilitation and finally the repair and rebuilding. And all of this happens almost concurrently. Without the help of agencies like FEMA, the National Guards, the amazing first responders, the Red Cross and Habitat For Humanity as well as the unfailing generosity of individuals and communities across the country and globe, emerging through such disasters is near impossible. So, here I am seeking to help in some manner or other.

Whilst determining where and what is needed, I’ve been thinking about food. No, not like in reaching for food in the snack section to comfort but more as in how future meals everywhere will be affected by these natural disasters. When crops are destroyed, we must pay attention. From a complete loss of certain crop yields to a scarcity of them, there are the problems of lost or endangered livelihoods for farmers and all related food industry workers from truckers to factories to grocery stores to restaurants and finally our own kitchens. Nobody is unaffected. A hurricane might be in one corner of the country but, the entire nation will feel its far reaching impact.

Here’s my resolution. Apart from immediately donating money, clothing and other imperative sundries, I’m committed to supporting our American farmers. If the citrus crop or any other produce that is a mainstay that I typically depend upon is completely lost, I am willing to do without until those farmers recover sufficiently to once again grow and harvest their crops. Because of a paucity of the produce, if prices go up, then, I shall pay without complaint. Until such time, I cannot in good conscience indulge my habits or wants by purchasing from other distant shores.

Local, seasonal produce is always my first choice. I belong to a Community Supported Agriculture Co-op. But there is plenty more that our farmers all across the country supply. We are simply so accustomed to having them readily available that we hardly ever consider the where and how.

This matter of supporting our farmers is particularly highlighted for me here in Provence where every town or village has its weekly market day. Visitors revel in these markets but the locals truly await this day of buying their food for the week. Fruits and vegetables, meats, poultry, seafood, mushrooms, honey, confitures, breads, olives and tapenades, dried herbs and spices, cheeses, wines – just about everything a French cook needs. And every single vendor is from the region. There are far fewer supermarkets in these parts. That says something doesn’t it?

True, our farmer’s markets are also local but in all honesty, they are pricey for the average consumer. Those of us who frequent these markets ( my hand is up), are privileged. My hope is that in time, demand will grow, supply will grow and then prices will drop. Together we will all eat local, support our farmers and grow healthy individually, as a community and as a nation.

Political divisions be damned.

Note: The images of the devastation caused by the storms breaks my heart. So, I’m going to focus on the positive and provide images of seasonal produce in the markets and some of the foods we’ve been enjoying as a result. A few of the photos were posted in the last couple of weeks but I think they’re worth repeating!

Making lavender wands

Tomato tart

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Postcards From Provence

It is still summer here in Provence and yet, I can sense the turning of the season. Each morning, the tinge of cool in the air lasts a bit longer. At the markets, the apples and pears have joined the peaches the melons. Pumpkins let to cure in the sun rest scattered across fields themselves glowing like miniature lanterns. The grapes hang full and heavy ready for harvest. Mushrooms marking the start of autumn emerge on menus. Like soldiers stand rows of fading sunflowers holding seeds ripe for pressing.

Despite these signs, I’m basking in long, light flooded days, plunging my teeth into plums bursting with juice, painting landscapes still lush and verdant, swimming in water that refreshes and soothes my sun-warmed skin, preparing meals of summer fruit like vine-ripened tomatoes, tender courgettes and glistening aubergines. Dessert is nothing more complicated than fresh goat cheese on plump figs from the garden drizzled with the local lavender honey. Yes, the days like the meals, are simple, slow and light. Like summer.

Figs for the picking

(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

To Stay Or Not To Stay

August means vacation time in my family. I look forward to it with such eagerness you’d think I worked in a sweatshop the rest of the year. I long for it like the child spying a slice of rainbow cake with sprinkles, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I wait for it like a wily crocodile patiently determining when to move in on its hapless prey. I make endless lists and plans. Yes indeed, I love vacations.

To travel, to explore, to decompress, to exhale, to absorb, to replenish are all reasons that fuel my need to get away. It does mind, body and spirit a world of good. To return refreshed and restored to the daily demands of everyday life is priceless.

So then, why do I feel so reluctant to leave home each time departure day approaches? In my apparent enthusiasm to get away, one would think I’d abandon house and garden with the alacrity of a rat fleeing a sinking ship but instead, I’m loathe to get my packing underway, empty the refrigerator, put mail delivery on hold, arrange for someone to check-in on the house and generally sort out all the myriad matters that need sorting before one embarks on a much needed and all too brief respite. I express my reluctance to do these tedious tasks aloud but deep inside myself I know it isn’t any of those things at all. I simply love being home as much as I love going away.

The thing that concerns me the most is the garden. How can I possibly entrust anybody else to keep an eye on it. And what amazing events might unfold in my absence. I can’t bear missing out on what will be in bloom, watching migrating Monarchs make pit stops, seeing the apples turn rosy or the grapes develop their dusty bloom as they turn a rich shade of plum. In comparison, I’ve been all together shamelessly blasé about dropping my child off at sleep-away summer camp ever since she turned the ripe age of ten.

I am presently on vacation in monsoon ravaged Mumbai where the rain is relentlessly pounding the city. The sound is deafening as though one were sitting inside the Victoria Falls. And it is warm and humid like a ship’s boiler room. Yes, I have actually been privileged to see life in this part of a ship. Which, come to think of it, is also equally noisy. To enjoy all of this, I left my home in typical grudging fashion. You might say that given that I haven’t exactly described paradise, my sentiments are understandable. But then, how would you explain my longing for home despite the fact that from here I move on quite literally to sunny, dry pastures – in Provence, France? This is where one sips rosé whilst listening to the thrum of bees frolicking amidst the lavender fields. It’s perhaps my most favorite part of the world and yet … you see? I want to stay home and I want to be elsewhere. A very fine dilemma to have.

This year, I’ve been given a reprieve of sorts. While I’m wading through the streets of Mumbai ankle deep in water, my significantly other half is still Stateside. So until he joins me in the pursuit of Gallic pleasures, I’m having him send me photos of specific areas of the garden that I know will be performing fetchingly. He doesn’t quite understand my eagerness to know about every horticultural happening but is doing his bit in complying to my pestering. On my part, I’m trying to be grateful and not criticize him for less than stellar images and even so in insufficient quantities.

One must after all, be grateful for small mercies.

Note – For a glimpse of what I’m missing in the garden at this time:

( Like I said, someone hasn’t been taking enough photos)

Pink turtleheads – Chelone obliqua. Oh how I waited and wished for these to bloom before I left!

Turtleheads in the meadow

Oak-leaf hydrangea

Echinacea and grape arbor

Vertical garden

As the 2017 Wildflower Artist of Teatown Lake Reservation, my rendition of the pink turtleheads are on their note cards for this year.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Friends With Benefits

Did the title grab your attention? I thought so.

This past week, my garden was enriched by a bunch of plants given to me by various friends. First, I received a couple of plants as a hostess gift from Marco. He’d dug up these special gems from his own rather exceptional garden. Alchemilla erythropoda and Aruncus aethusifolius – two miniature gems to beguile the side path of my garden.

Earlier in July, I was asked to identify a ‘mystery’ plant that had suddenly cropped up in numbers in friend Pat’s garden. They turned out to be the native orchid Galearis. This too is a diminutive plant. Pat offered me some of these and being the greedy gardener that I am, I readily accepted. After consulting with my orchid expert friend Bill, it was decided that the orchids are best transplanted after the flowers had finished blooming. That happened last week. Perfect additions to my native plant collection in the ‘meadow’.

On my morning walk last Friday, I stopped to chat with a neighbor who was working in her pretty garden. Suzy was dividing her Siberian irises. She generously suggested I take some and once again, I accepted with shameless alacrity. A few of my own irises have mysteriously disappeared over the years so I’m particularly pleased to get this gift.

Finally, my friend Julie offered me her Calycanthus as she is selling her house and that shrub was bought some years ago when we were having a splendid day together at a rare plant sale. She has been given unlimited visiting rights to check on her beloved plant.

Yesterday, all the gifts were planted in my garden. They will hopefully thrive and enhance it. In addition, they and so many others like them, will be endearing reminders of memorable moments, special relationships and bonds. For garden and gardener, it is win-win all the way. The very stuff that sweetens life.

Note:

I’m very pleased to be in this show. Hope you will visit!

Here are my ‘friendly benefits’:

Alchemilla erythropoda – potted up for now. Will be planted in ground in the fall.

Aruncus aethusifolius – also temporarily in a pot.

Irises

Calycanthus

So many ferns from John!

A gift from the past – Bianca rose from Henriette

Ornamental raspberry – also from Marco many moons ago.

So many ferns from John!

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar