Freedom

Liberty is the freedom to do as one ought to do. I learned this definition in fifth grade civics class – it was how we started to understand what democracy meant.

A cornerstone of a thriving civilization, freedom is all about having choices. So one can chose their actions bearing in mind one’s moral responsibility. To choose to act after discerning between right and wrong, good and evil. To do what is ethically correct for the greater good.

Keeping that in mind, I take this power very seriously. Especially in the garden where all too often a gardener is inclined to play lord and master. It’s so easy. We have at our disposal so much control and power that all too often we forget that gardening is a privilege. The very notion that I can assume ownership of a piece of earth to do as I please is astounding. Arrogant even.

While I often kid that I’m the dictator-in-chief of the garden, in reality, I feel my responsibility greatly. I’m allowed to freely design, create and play in a this space in whatever way I please. Within good reason. And that is the key. To use good reason.

My principle commandment is to do no harm. Whatever action taken must have the least negative impact – on humans, animals, plants, soil, water or air. On that basis, only organic methods are employed. But, trying to control pests organically is not without cost. These natural products are not specific to the pest. They affect the good critters as well. So judicious application is imperative.

Compost is used as fertilizer and mulch. The plants enjoy it. As do members of the animal kingdom. They too thrive because they are not harmed by compost and hence roam free and make nests and homes underground and above, destroying root systems, chomping on leaves and flowers, girdling trees, ruining lawns with tunnels and burrows etc., Constant vigilance is required so action can be taken as soon as possible. Japanese beetles, red lily beetles and such are picked off and dropped into hot, soapy water. After years of battling those red devils, I’ve stopped planting lilies but since I still grow fritillaria ( their close relative), I must continue to keep a lookout. Mice, voles and other rodents are trapped. The fruit trees must be sprayed with dormant oil only under specific weather conditions and at a particular time of year. You get the idea. It’s not always easy to do the right thing.

Rain water is collected, a manual reel- mower cuts grass, since no herbicides are used, weeds are removed by hand, native plants dominate the garden and support native fauna and so on. Every one of those methods involves more work and effort. And there are times when I’m completely frustrated. However, my conscience is clear. I’m doing my part in exercising my freedom as I ought.

This translates very well to everything else in life. Relationships, raising children, at work, being a part of the community, a town, a city, a country, the world at large. Imagine how powerful exercising our liberties as we should can be.

Note: The reception to Small Works is this Thursday, August 8. I’d love to see you there!

A few images of the challenges in the garden:

Mice attack on the espalier.
Fully girdled trees were lost and had to be replaced.
Sanguisorba attacked by Japanese beetles

Subsequent damage
Evidence of voles under the front lawn
Lily’s under siege

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Anti-Inflammatory Measures

Turmeric is trending. The It (spice)girl of the moment. Like me, turmeric originates from India/the sub-continent. Growing up, its ubiquitous bright yellow presence in Indian cuisine was unremarkable and yet, it was unthinkable to omit it in a recipe.

It was only as a freshman in college, during a microbiology course, I learned about its bactericidal properties and its role consequently in food preservation and cosmetics. Suddenly, I understood how significant a spice this was. That my ancestors had discerned its importance so long ago was remarkable.

I shall not expound on the many superpowers attributed to turmeric because all that info is out there on the Internet. I myself use it regularly in cooking. It is a vital ingredient in my go-to tonic whenever I need to fortify myself – a strong, hot infusion of turmeric and fresh ginger. An ancient remedy but oh so au courant. Ha, I’m trendy by default.

Because of its brilliant hue, turmeric is easily adulterated. It therefore pays to be cautious about where one obtains it. Additionally, look for organically grown sources.

On my visit to the Mukta Jivan Orphanage this past Christmas day, I was given a bag of turmeric root. The rhizomes had been cleaned, boiled and dried. What remained was the grinding and sifting. At MJ, turmeric and all other produce are grown organically. It is for their own consumption and not commercial distribution.

I brought the bag of innocuous looking bits of dried roots to my father’s cook/culinary wizard Indira. She knew exactly what to do. Over the span of a morning, she ground up the roots, sifted carefully and produced a sizable bowl of vivid gold powder along with a pair of deeply stained hands. The aroma of turmeric is not overpowering but it is distinct. Such an amazing sight.

Whilst in Mumbai, I had the opportunity to visit a gated community of sorts. Located a couple of hours away from the city, it is a development of homes designed to be either second homes or retirement residences for the upper middle-class. This is a growing trend. Little oases in the midst of rugged, rural terrain. As contrived as they are, they are quite lovely once you’re inside those high walls. Attractive, large homes surrounded by well designed, well maintained lush greenery. An escape for the harried city dweller at many levels.

The one I visited is mindful of the environment and applies only organic methods. Water for the plants comes from a rain catchment. All the produce from the large, enclosed vegetable garden and the assorted orchards ( papaya, banana, almonds etc.,) are shared by the residents. I think this could be a good blueprint for communities everywhere and all new developments ought to incorporate such a plan. At a time when families are pressed for time and find it hard to fit in all the responsibilities of keeping a vegetable garden, shared or allotment gardens would be ideal. It will no doubt foster a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common philosophies, practices and produce. Children will learn about where their food comes from and enjoy the benefits of nature and an active community.

I wished I’d had more time to engage with the gardeners and learn further about their methods, challenges and such. Next time I will.

Back home in New York, I’m facing the reality of January. Cold and more cold. Possibility of snow later in the week. To bolster my spirits, the hyacinth bulbs cooling in the refrigerator since October’18, have been potted up. Watching the bulbs grow and anticipating the fragrant flowers will keep me in a positive state of mind. One cannot ask for more.

Turmeric!

Turmeric plants. The vegetable garden in the gated community.

The vegetable garden

Note the papaya trees just outside the fence.
A gourd left in the sun for the seeds to ripen

Banana grove

A residential garden

The terrain beyond
My hyacinths

NOTE: My participation in “Winter In America” at Gallery 114 continues. If you’re in the area, please visit!

(c) 2019 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