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

Water, Water!

Water is in the news quite a bit these days. Too little or none at all. Too much, too soon is just as bad. Certainly this is predicted to be the biggest, most critical problem we will have to resolve in the not too distant future. Water will direct the next mass migrations of humans as they are forced to adapt to the changing weather patterns – a result of both natural and man-made acts. As a global community we will have to decide right now how we will deal with shifting populations/refugees, how we grow our food, utilize energy, reprogram our use of water and indeed our entire way of living. While government agencies and related organizations grapple with the big picture, if one has not personally begun taking steps towards this impending crisis, it is now time to start. As of this minute. I’m not being an alarmist – the snooze button to that alarm has been hit way too often already.

I’m writing this during a ten day stay in monsoon swamped Mumbai. It is wet, warm and muggy. The air feels spongy even when it isn’t raining. The dampness pervades everywhere. Without air-conditioning to lower the humidity, I’d be hard pressed to be comfortable and sleep would be impossible. This has been a particularly heavy monsoon season.

Despite so much rain, the city is still aware of the undependable nature of its water supply. It has signs all over asking her citizens to conserve, avoid waste and respect this life giving Adam’s Ale. And that got me wondering if those signs have any real impact on the mass. Does one read and/or pay attention to such ‘nudges’? As one drives through the generally thick traffic, is the mind even open to receiving any such advice? It then occurred to me that it was because of the stop and start, slow moving, thick traffic snaking along that I was able to notice the signs and ponder them. A seed, so to speak, had been sown. I can only imagine that a daily dose of ‘Don’t Waste Water’, ‘No Water, No Life’ will percolate into one’s conscience and guide the mind to the judicious use of water. Not a bad idea to have those signs put up after all. They certainly cannot hurt.

In my own garden back home, I’ve long collected rainwater to water parts of the garden. Particularly pots. To ensure that the plants do not get parched when we’re away or otherwise distracted, we have also rigged up a drip-system to routinely water the pots as some of the plants require a consistent supply. The mechanism is attached to a moisture sensor so that it will not release water if it has rained or is raining. That way, no water is unduly wasted.

Water from cooking eggs, boiling vegetables etc is also collected for watering. Often the boiling hot water is poured directly over the weeds trying to make their way through brick or flagstone paths. Kills the weeds effectively.

Still, in a particularly dry period when rain is scarce, there are areas in the garden that need a healthy splash. Thus far, it’s been okay but I worry that the time when watering our gardens whenever we see a need is coming to a close. There will be a need to shift to plants that do better in semi-dry or arid conditions. Fussy plants will have to be phased out.

It feels a bit sad. But, we gardeners are a resilient species. We will adapt. Indeed, we can lead the way. I for one have resolved to source interesting/beautiful native plants that do well under dry conditions and start introducing them into the garden. The process will be deliberate, mindful and with any luck, enjoyable. Learning is growth.

Postscript: Of the many drinks I have consumed in the many places I’ve stopped at ( fancy as well as hole-in-the-wall joints), I have not seen a single plastic straw. The only straws I’ve been served have been compostable. Often, they are elegant, colorful, sturdily constructed paper. This is what progress looks like.

Note: There’s still time to see the Inside Small art show!

Heads Up! The second annual Untermyer Symposium is scheduled for Saturday, October 19. Mark your calendars. I will be moderating the panel discussion. Stay tuned for more details.

Some images from Mumbai –

Plants for sale!
Decorative designs using flower petals, whole flowers and leaves,

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Dead Heat

It’s been an unusual warm summer globally. Here in the Netherlands, I’m witness to the impact of the record heat that lasted several weeks. Being unused to such extreme weather, the average Dutch gardener didn’t quite know what to make of the high temperatures and the accompanying lack of rain. Typically it rains so consistently that one is not accustomed to watering the garden regularly. By the time many of them realized the stress the plants were under, it was already too late to save some of them. Due to regulations, farmers were not permitted to pump water from the underground aquifers. Consequently, it has led to some serious loss of crops. It goes without saying that this single summer will have a lingering effect on the environment, the economy and the general sense of well-being amongst the populace.

Where at this time, there’s usually a glut of summer blooms at their glorious peak, I see instead many gardens prematurely displaying an autumnal look with dry foliage, faded flowers and assorted seed-heads pushing for immortality. Too soon, too early! It is easy to discern the gardens that were watered during the days of heat – they are the ones looking entirely unscathed. But, there is one other category of plantings that have come through the heat admirably – the drought tolerant ones. Water being a limited resource cannot be used with abandon. Simply turning on the hose and/or sprinklers every time we are hit with a drought is not the solution. A more realistic, sustainable approach must be identified and implemented.

At present, the normal weather pattern has returned with rain and seasonal temperatures and I’m pleased to see that in several cases, the plants are valiantly attempting a full comeback. Yet, there is ample evidence of the toll taken by those hot, dry days. Damaged and dead plants remain as somber reminders that it takes just a short shift in the weather to have a long effect on the earth. Climate change is evident. What on earth are we going to do about it?

Note: Don’t forget! September 29 approaches!

Drought tolerant grass looking radiant.

New plantings to replace the ones lost to the drought.

Awaiting replacements …

Well watered

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar