Dealing With December

Things To Do This Month

  1. Finish mulching garden beds, shrubs and trees.
  2. Clean up vegetable garden. I clear away the plants and put down a layer of compost topped with hay. This should mulch and fertilize the beds and have them ready for planting in the spring. In the past, instead of hay, I’ve usually planted ‘green manure’ which is a cover crop of wheat grass or clover. But given the wild weather pattern, I’m not sure the seeds will have a fair chance to sprout. Hence the hay.
  3. Tie back climbers like roses, clematis. Be sure the plants as well as the supports on which they grow are secure.
  4. If a heavy snowfall tends to push apart and damage certain shrubs, tie them up with several turns of string all along it’s length. This will give the shrub more ‘solidity’ and keep it from falling apart with the weight of snow.
  5. Keep shovels and sand /grit on the ready. Salt damages plants so I don’t use it to melt the ice on paths, driveways and steps.
  6. Create burlap fences to act as wind breaks around vulnerable plants. I do this for all the roses.
  7. Protect all outdoor statuary and pots. I cover mine with thick sheets of plastic and then cover that with burlap. The latter is just for aesthetic effect.
  8. Remember to always keep bird feeders filled. If temperature is above freezing, provide some water as well.
  9. Pay attention to indoor plants. Water as needed, fertilize monthly, turn pots around so all sides of the plants receives sunlight. Try not to get the air too dry or the room too hot or too cold. In addition, stay vigilant for early signs of disease, stress or infestation.
  10. Hope you have paperwhites and amaryllis growing in the house right now. I cannot imagine getting through the month without these bulbs. Creates instant cheer. Watching the bulbs send out leaves and buds all the way till the flowers open is one big, happy making experience. And who doesn’t need more happy?

Looking Ahead

December is almost here but lets face it, once Thanksgiving is over, November feels pretty much done. December is fraught with to-do lists and commitments. Shopping, writing and mailing greeting cards, children’s holiday recitals and concerts, parties, decorating for the season, possibly a trip and that which goes with it, and then, the holidays themselves. In theory, all of this is supposed to be fun but, in actuality, there is some fun mixed in with a fair amount of stress and anxiety. How unfortunate that we should bring this upon ourselves. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just stop for a bit. Hear me out. This could make all the difference.

Think global and act local. Arm yourself with your list of giftees. Beside each name, note down a couple of their interests. Now, make another list of charities and organizations that you think are worthy of consideration. Match up the two lists. By this I mean, assign a charity, museum or botanical garden membership, concert subscription to each person who has an interest in that cause. Make a donation or purchase in that individual’s name.

Next, take that list of people, and go into your local business district. For each person buy them something from the shops that depend on your patronage. With each of these gifts, add the card that informs about the donation/subscription/membership made in their name. Your budget will of course determine how much you can spend and you will make selections accordingly. If money is very tight then think of gifts that you can make or bake, skills you can use to teach or help out like baby sitting, weeding, planting, painting etc.,

The recipients will not only get something they like but your thoughtfulness will be appreciated. The local businesses, charities and organizations benefiting from this will also be grateful. Oh the good karma points you would have racked up!

Buy the food for your party from local stores, purchase cards that provide funds to UNICEF and other such invaluable groups. It’ll be well worth the time gained in not driving all over the place and by saving on gas, the environment too has been protected.

A shopping jaunt in your own community will have you meeting friends, making friends and generally feeling all warm and fuzzy inside. Add that to the good feelings that are generated from the donations and support you have provided and your December will be the best month ever. Now you have the time to enjoy the parties and recitals. Write cards by the fireplace where family and music can keep you company. You are right where you need to be. In the moment.

Just keep it simple and focus on what is truly important. Its not about the cost or size of the present. It’s the thought and time you’ve given to each person. Those are priceless.

My personal list of charities and organizations:

  1. Mukta Jeevan orphanage for children with HIV and AIDS. It’s outside Mumbai, India
  2. The Garden Conservancy.
  3. The New York Botanical Garden.
  4. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden.
  5. Wave Hill Gardens.
  6. Untermyer Garden.
  7. UNICEF.
  8. American Heart Association.
  9. American Cancer Association.
  10.  Friends of the Chappaqua Library.
  11. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  12. New York Philharmonic.
  13. Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
  14. Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.
  15. The Clinton Foundation.
  16. Ars Antiqua.

Burlap clad pot

New Dawn rose in burlap

Star on the ground

Amaryllis in pot

Amaryllis in bloom

(c) Shobha Vanchiswar 2012


Thanksgiving is my all time favorite holiday. Primarily because that is all it is about. No presents, cards or commercial hoopla. Just gathering with family and/or friends to break bread and be appreciative of each other and life in general. Nothing more, nothing less. To give thanks is to be aware of what is going on in one’s life. To be present and mindful of everything that is happening, be they wonderful or difficult, gives perspective to where we are, how we got here and where we might choose to go. For this we are thankful.

For myself, working in the garden, being close to nature offers constant guidance to staying mindful. The seemingly small miracles teach big lessons. Diligent work such as regular weeding and tidying not only cleans up the garden but the labor also weeds out the negative thoughts and feelings I might have felt at the outset. The sowing of seeds and planting of bulbs remind me that it takes just a little worthwhile effort to create beauty in the world. The help I receive from the birds and insects to grow this garden teaches me that we achieve great things when we work together. The risks a bird takes to raise her young tell me that despite the naysayers I too can take that leap of faith to do what I believe is right.

Through gardening I know that it is okay to make mistakes and the universe always gives more than one chance to make things right. The past is over, how I live today is up to me and that will determine the future. Events such as the squirrels devouring all the fruit or the weather ruining expectations serve to keep me humble with the knowledge that forces greater than me are in control. What choices I make in how and what I use to make this garden thrive, directly affect how I thrive. In essence, nature is my ever abiding teacher that keeps me centered and points me to my true north.
For this invaluable gift I am forever grateful.

My wish for you is that you always have plenty to be thankful.

Response to a much asked query:

Who is responsible when a tree belonging to one person falls and/or damages the property of another?

Given recent events, this has been a dilemma faced by many.
The matter is complicated. By law, as I understand it, the tree owner is liable only if he/she was negligent. That is, the tree posed a clear danger, was diseased and therefore weak in health, was warned about the likelihood of it falling etc., but the owner failed to follow up. Otherwise, the person on whose property the tree fell is responsible for tree removal and any damage caused. It was simply “an act of God” type of incident.
This clearly does not seem very fair and it is because the law was set when we were still a mostly rural country. As we got more urbanized and houses were built in closer proximity, the problem is not so easily addressed.
The insurance carrier might be called and, depending on the circumstances, they might pay a part of the expenses. However, when a natural disaster places them in a very costly situation, pressing them for certain things puts the policy holder in a position of either not having the policy renewed or having the deductible raised in the future.
Litigation might seem like a natural course of action for some people. But really? Does one truly want to have conflict with the neighbor next door? Is this the best we can do? What happens if the law that favors the tree owner is upheld? There are always big consequences to suing anybody.
In my view, the best approach is for both parties to split the cost of tree removal and repairs. I’m not saying this is simple. After all, it might not be within a person’s means to shell out what can be a large sum of money. But I have confidence that if one keeps an open mind, is non-judgmental and willing to negotiate, then both parties can come to an amicable solution. Calm and rationale must prevail. It can be an excellent teaching moment for the next generation as well as other neighbors.
I know of two neighbors who came up with a creative answer. One paid the whole bill while the other tutored the first one’s twins in math for a whole year.
If we can resolve such problems in an intelligent, considerate and cooperative way, maybe then we can really think that world peace is a realistic possibility.

A visiting Tom.

(c) Shobha Vanchiswar 2012





We The People

When mighty trees lie strewn like fallen heroes, it unsettles our minds, shocks our senses and disrupts our lives. We mourn their demise and our loss. Amongst the non-humans dearest to us,trees are perhaps only second to pets.

The question I’ve been asking myself most since hurricane Sandy passed this way has been – what more could we have done? With no power, heat, phone or Internet to distract me, I’ve had a lot of time to ask questions and think about such matters. Several days worth of time.

It was all very well to wait for the necessary people to come and set things right, to rail at the powers that be for not getting my life back in order and complain about the hardship of being cold even under several layers of fleece to anyone even remotely willing to listen but what could I have done to lessen the impact of such an event?

First and foremost, let me tell you what I did do. I took care of all pending chores in the garden. Okay, not all by myself. I did have family doing their fair share. In the end, the huge number of bulbs got planted, leaves were raked, perennials cut back, beds mulched, outdoor furniture put away, tender plants moved into the greenhouse, wayward limbs of roses secured, espalier pruned and window box plants (in liners) brought in. Anything that had the potential of becoming airborne was either weighted down or put away. The list seemed endless and the work was done at a somewhat frenetic pace. It got done because I had a list of what needed doing. So do forgive me if I sound somewhat smug. Nobody else (read that as certain people who live with me) has given me any credit for being organized. I don’t do things for accolades but an occasional gold star wouldn’t hurt. However, I remain optimistic.

Fortunately, except for some small branches and twigs, no harm was done to home or garden. I’m immensely grateful for that. Others did not fare so well. When you sit back to assess the damages, the majority of cases were the result of fallen branches and whole trees. Almost all those power losses were directly due to the lines being brought down by trees. How might we have changed this outcome?

We all agree that trees are priceless. Their uses are numerous not the least of which is preventing soil erosion that can become a serious problem in storms and heavy rains. So it’s not a matter of whether we need trees. It’s a matter of which trees to plant and where to plant them.

In a bid for instant gratification, so many ‘fast growing’ trees are planted that nurseries are full of them. I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again, fast growing means shallow roots. These are the first trees to come down in a storm. It does not take much of a storm to accomplish that. Look around and you’ll see that most of the trees strewn all over are of that fast growing class.

Whatever happened to stewardship of the land? Our founding fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson, exemplified that practice. Are we not obligated to do our bit? Or are we to think of that instant ‘privacy screen’ of evergreen trees as more important? Or how about that charming and impulsive idea of buying live Christmas trees and planting them each year in an orderly row at the edge of the property up close to the street and well below the power lines– they look so cute and evoke warm memories of holidays past. Those trees grow tall and stop looking so cute very quickly. Especially when one or more are tipped over by the likes of hurricane Sandy, or Floyd or Katrina or Hugo or Irene. Down come power lines with those trees. The rest you know. If privacy from the street or neighbor is needed, think instead about clipped hedges or Belgian espalier fences. Maintained at a height of six to eight feet either will serve the purpose handsomely. Or consider trees that don’t grow so tall. There are in addition, dwarf varieties of several favourites.

So okay, we stop planting shallow rooted, fast growing trees close to houses and other buildings and stay clear of power lines. What next?

We now consider the American oaks both red and white, river birchs, yellow poplars, sycamores, elms, red maples and similar stalwarts of this continent. These are the trees to plant! For posterity and majesty. Future generations will thank us as they linger in their shade, play on a swing suspended from one of the sturdy branches, picnic beneath their canopy or simply sit back against a wide trunk and feel content. Again, these too do not belong near houses or power lines because they get too big and their branches can cause harm should they break. Place them where they can rise tall and proud with limbs that spread wide like a giant embrace. Where you can watch them grow and where your children and eventually grandchildren can see them at their best.

A very critical factor in choosing a tree is the height and breadth to which it will finally grow. Tall, wide trees are fine as long as they do not overpower its surroundings. Keep it in balance. Think about the other plants, shrubs, vines and surrounding structures. They must relate to each other.

Trees make shade and therefore shade loving plants get planted around it. If you like the morning sun streaming into your kitchen then, don’t place a big tree on that side. Smaller trees like dogwood or dwarf fruit trees might be more appropriate. Harsh afternoon heat can be dissipated by well positioned trees on the southern side of the property. These same trees if deciduous, will permit warming light in winter when all the leaves are gone. You see? There are indeed right and wrong places for trees.

Trees are not maintenance free. They need water, nutrients and space to grow strong and healthy. Sometimes, they require cabling to give proper stability. Like us, trees age. So it’s important to periodically examine the health of the trees. Rot and disease are not always apparent so the best way to do this is to get a tree expert. He/she will know to read early signs in a dying or diseased tree and prescribe the appropriate action. If several neighbors got together and hired such an expert, it would be very cost effective. A tree in my neighborhood took down power lines in the previous two storms. The branches broke each time. Finally, Sandy uprooted the tree entirely and its now been many days without electricity, heat, phone and Internet. If the owners to whom the tree belonged had had the tree seen by a tree expert after the first storm, then perhaps we would have been spared the frustration we felt. I bear no malice to the owners. We are all guilty of such oversights. But perhaps this can be a valuable lesson for the future.

Finally, in preparation for the next storm, and it will come, can we make a concerted effort to scan our properties and neighborhood to identify all the potential problems? And in true community spirit, lets help each other trim, prune, cut down and clean up. Then perhaps we can look forward to fewer loss of trees and power and maybe less casting of blame on elected officials, power companies and tree services. Personal responsibility goes a long way in making for a thriving, successful democracy. Its for the people, of the people and by the people remember? Besides, raise your hand if you’d like to stop hearing your children whining about yet another day without heat, television, phone and Internet.

I’m not absolving local, state or federal authorities of their responsibilities. But, we get to vote them in or out of office. There is nobody checking on our own responsibilities. Except our conscience. And that fallen icon whose fate was sealed the day it was planted.

Dwarf apple trees

An old cedar

Clipped hedges in Piet Oudolf’s garden.

An ancient olive.

A study in white.

History on record.

Wood and stone.

(c) Shobha Vanchiswar 2012


Where Do Butterflies Go When It Rains? Who Goes Around And Tucks In The Trains?

That refrain from a song by the Carpenters played in my head all through the time Hurricane Sandy was doing her worst. Apart from the understandable concern for the safety of family, friends and property, I could not help thinking, okay obsessing, about how the birds, bees and butterflies coped in the storm. In the big picture, those little creature matter mightily. Consider how much has has been impacted by the drastic decrease in the number of honey bees due to colony collapse disorder. Enough said.

Of course, unlike us humans who need the whirring of assorted machines to predict a change in weather, birds are finely tuned to barometric pressure shifts. They will then flee, seek shelter or actually move into the eye of the storm where all is quiet. This last option can carry them long distances and depending on the duration of the storm, they will remain without food or water which if prolonged will ultimately do them in. Most birds find old nests, tree cavities, dense shrubbery where they can ride out the storm.
No doubt, severe hurricanes and storms cause a rise in avian mortality be it due to starvation, exhaustion, habitat destruction, exposure to pounding rain or wind.

Butterflies are also able to read a drop in barometric pressure and know to seek safe locations. Under leaves, in piles of leaves, thickets and such.

Bees on the other hand, have it down to a science. Contrary to the supposition that they swarm before a storm, these smart creatures do not leave the hive if temperatures fall below 57 degrees Fahrenheit or if the wind speed is more than 12 mph. And of course, they have each other to huddle and keep cozy inside the hive.

Common to all of the creatures mentioned above is what is called ‘communal roosting’. Which just means getting close together sharing warmth and having safety in numbers. Sound familiar?

In times of adversity, the tradition of coming together to do what’s good for the whole seems to prevail across the species. For us humans, it means sharing and giving. For the most part, we are at our best in times of crises. Our pets get included in all the camaraderie.. Their safety is given high priority as well it should. But, what are we doing about those birds, bees and butterflies? Given how important they are to the health of our gardens, farms, forests, park lands and, consequently our own health, surely some attention on our part is required.

True, its not as though one can round up all these vital beings and give them a form of public shelter but perhaps we can provide conditions that lend some level of security in their natural habitats. Obviously, the unnecessary clearing of woods and forests is to be avoided. But it is really what we can do to support the creatures closer to home and farm that will be of direct use. Setting up bird, bat, butterfly houses, ensuring a source of water, growing plants, shrubs and trees that offer both shelter and food will go a long way. At the same time, doing away with toxic fertilizers, insecticides and weed killers should be mandatory. Safe and effective organic alternatives exist so please lets all adopt them. However much one is a neat freak, find it within yourself to keep one corner, a far spot not so easy to view if you prefer, a little wild. By that I don’t mean it should be unsightly. Instead, group together some assorted shrubs to form a thicket. Toss in a thorny bush or two into the mix of deciduous and evergreen plants. Select shrubs that are the natural food sources for the refugees. Situate these shrubs at some distance to allow for some privacy and sense of security. And following a storm, replenish bird feeders and water baths. None of this is so hard to do right?

There will of course be some casualties from each storm but staying tuned to nature and doing whatever is within our abilities would be doing right by ourselves and this earth to which we all belong.

When Sandy was blowing at alarming, ear piercing speeds, it must have been absolutely terrifying for those poor souls. I’d like to think they sensed and were reassured by the positive energy I was sending their way. Please don’t attempt to disillusion me.

Things To Do This Month

1 Clean up debris left by the storm. Rake leaves, pick up branches and twigs, cut away broken or dead tree and shrub limbs.
2. Check stability of supports, fences, gates, paths, steps and such. Fix what needs fixing.
3. Finish planting bulbs and perennials. The ground is still pliable. But hurry!
4. Cut back perennials, remove annuals and generally tidy up.
5. Put away all outdoor furniture and smaller pots.
6. Protect outdoor statuary and large pots.
7. Get amaryllis started so they will be in bloom at the holidays.
8. Fill bird feeders.
9. Keep sand or kitty litter and snow shovels handy.

Birds at the feeder in winter.

Gold finch in the butterfly bush.

Tom turkey visits

Red Admiral on allium

Red, white and blue!

Yet another butterfly – Tiger Swallowtail

(c) 2012 Shobha Vanchiswar