“What A Wonderful World”

“I see fields of green
Red roses too … “
– Louis Armstrong

Every muscle in my body aches. Even in a state of rest, supine in bed, I feel the pain. There is no inclination whatsoever to rise and meet the day. A slight move elicits a big wince. I’m willing to forgo coffee and brushing my teeth – its simply too much effort to get up. I’m well past being embarrassed by my admission. No, I’m not unwell. I’ve been planting bulbs. Hundreds of them. One by one because they go between already established plants and other older bulbs. Every autumn I endure this ordeal. Every year I question my sanity. And every spring I am so ridiculously ecstatic to see the explosion of bulbs lighting up the garden.

There are still more bulbs to plant but for those, I’m recruiting the help of my family. They have been given no choice. Threats, guilt trips and bribery work well. I highly recommend those measures. I’m too sore to be nice. Rest assured I’ll return to nice after the body has forgotten its present trauma.

The other fall garden chores are also well underway. Cutting back and clean up, leaf raking, pruning, lawn reseeding, getting pots of tender perennials and tropicals into the greenhouse, planting new perennials and shrubs, pruning, cleaning and putting away outdoor furniture, the list goes on. Its exhaustive and exhausting. Then why do we gardeners punish ourselves repeatedly?

Because we must. It makes us happy. Keeps us in balance. It helps us make sense of this complicated, amazing world. Creating a beautiful, productive garden is our calling. As a result, other people appreciate us for our equanimity.

In post-bulb planting repose, I’ve had time to contemplate this horticultural preoccupation. Connecting so directly with nature as one does when gardening has rewards that cannot be matched by almost any other activity. Humans need green spaces. Our survival depends on it. Its not just for our food but our general well being. Since time immemorial, cultures everywhere have promoted the benefits of working or being in nature. At some level we have understood this need. There is no argument against the compulsion we have to seek our rest and recreation outdoors. It simply is.

Bad moods are banished after a turn in the garden or a walk in the park. Learning from personal experience, I’ve often dealt with the resident teenager’s age-appropriate histrionics by slyly getting her to do garden chores like weeding and watering. Her initial complaints, loud as they are, mean nothing to me. The child that returns indoors is invariably a transformed one.

I recently had to go out of town and was put up in a ‘resort’ of sorts. This place was vast – two thousand rooms, a large conference center, a full spa facility, seventeen restaurants, multiple shops, even a ‘riverboat cruise’ in a man-made ‘river’ that covered 4.5 acres. It had gardens, waterfalls and fountains. And all of this enormous complex was completely roofed over! There were well concealed vents that blew air to simulate a breeze. I found this place terribly disorienting. I was supposed to feel like I was outside but was instead in a bizarre world indoors. Most significantly, the painstakingly created gardens lacked vitality. After all, where were the sounds and activities of the birds, bees and butterflies? Where was that distinctly earthy aroma assuring me that worms and microbes were busy at work? These gardens of living, mostly tropical plants might as well have been fake. My mind and my heart could not, would not accept this make-believe world. There was no fooling them. It was a very unsettling experience. Like a newly caged bird, I got anxious and couldn’t wait to break free.

Lately, researchers have studied the benefits of green spaces. The anecdotal has moved to the scientific. More credible that way. Several studies have concluded what gardeners already knew – there is no doubt that spending some time in nature everyday considerably improves our health – mentally, physically and emotionally.

One study found that living with green spaces has a long-lasting positive influence on people’s mental well-being. Compared to the short term boost from pay rises and promotions, the positive effect from being in nature has a sustained, long term impact. Levels of anxiety and depression were reduced. The findings appear in the journal of Environmental Science and Technology. What is seen is that even after three years, mental health is still better which is unlike many of the other things that we think will make us happy.

So coming back to my current status of muscles in agony and reluctance to move, I admit that my spirits are high, my mood is upbeat and I’m already planning future projects in the garden. I’m also harboring the fantasy that the aforementioned body parts will shed fat, get toned and move like they used to twenty years ago. Thats the other thing – gardeners are huge dreamers.

Enjoy the images of New York City getting into the Halloween spirit:
NYC Halloween 1
NYC Halloween 2
NYC Halloween 3
NYC Halloween 4
NYC Halloween 5
NYC Halloween 6
NYC Halloween 7
NYC Halloween 8
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

To Hire Or Not To Hire – Part II

How often have you wished you had a cook, chauffeur or a general dogsbody to help you with the tasks of the day to day? An assistant to keep up with the paperwork. Someone to pick up the dry cleaning, getting the dog bathed or stocking up the refrigerator would be nice. Admit it, it has crossed your mind numerous times right?

The same happens in the garden. Busy schedules and/ or aging bodies could do with a little help. Keeping up with the seasonal demands in the garden whilst keeping abreast with duty calls elsewhere can be quite challenging . Recruiting the assistance of a gardener might be in order.

In suburbia, the sight of a team of men spilling out of a pick-up truck, unloading tractor mowers and powerful leaf blowers is as common as pigeons flocking in Central Park. The ‘mow, blow and go’ outfits fulfill very adequately the basic requirements of suburban living – a pristine property mostly displaying a swathe of green lawn. But a garden is more than lawn isn’t it? It has trees and shrubs, beds of flowers, vegetable plots and areas to sit and enjoy the beauty of nature. It is home to birds, butterflies, toads and other critters. A garden is a complex, diverse world, the upkeep of which involves watering, weeding, planting, fertilizing, pruning, cutting back, propping up, training, digging up, repositioning, composting, raking and a few other chores. All the while keeping it beautiful, productive and functional.

The English, who have a longstanding garden tradition, routinely employ a ‘jobbing’ gardener. This is an individual who has garden skills and can be relied on to take care of specified jobs. He/she can be hired for a few hours everyday or a couple of days every week. You tell them the job that needs doing and they do it. In the United States, such a person is not so commonly employed. People with the means tend to employ full time gardeners or the aforementioned weekly service. In my opinion, for someone who is an active gardener but needs extra hands, a jobbing gardener is a godsend. The peace of mind in knowing a task will get done correctly is invaluable. One stays involved with the garden but has the satisfaction that nothing will be neglected because attentions had to directed elsewhere.

Before you employ a gardener, consider what needs doing. These can run the gamut of chores you cannot do, don’t want to do or don’t have time to do. Depending on garden needs and available budget, a decision must be made to hire an experienced gardener or a novice. The former can pretty much do all or any of the work a garden needs without supervision while the latter will require some oversight. Your call.

Next, decide how often you need garden help. Seasonal or regular year-round or single project. Obviously, the expense of hiring depends on the level of experience the person has. How and when payments are to be made should be clear from the start.

Word of mouth is the most frequent way that gardeners get hired. Personal recommendations are best.
Self-employed individuals or a company depends again on what is required and how much you can spend. It is imperative to have trust in the person. Developing a good working relationship goes a long way in making a beautiful garden. Just like life.

More images of the season. All taken at Innisfree, Millbrook, NY this past Sunday. Hope you’re taking the time to enjoy the autumn wherever you are.
Innisfree 1
Innisfree 2
Innisfree 3
Innisfree 4
Innisfree 5
Innisfree 6
Innisfree 7
Innisfree 8
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

To Hire Or Not To Hire

Part I
With autumn being the other planting season, it presents a good opportunity to scrutinize the garden. Review the garden’s layout, begin on a new design, expand the garden, consider adding or subtracting plants or simply decide to revamp the whole. Perhaps the existing garden has become too much to maintain or lost its former appeal. Life changes might demand changes in the garden. Beginning a new garden or trying something different can be a tad overwhelming. One can use some advice and help. It might be time to work with a designer and/or employ a gardener. But how does one choose the right one or know what to look for?

Lets first consider the possibility of working with a designer.
Going on the adage that two heads are better than one, a good designer will share ideas that you may not have thought of or even known of. No matter if you are a garden veteran or a hesitant beginner, there is value in receiving an expert’s advice. Design plans must be both practical and tasteful; suited to the client’s preferences, budget, style of house, lay of the land and regional climate. A good designer will steer you towards what is appropriate and point out what is not possible or plainly not right. A complete overhaul of the garden or a redoing of a section that has become irksome will benefit from some professional input. A designer’s horticultural knowledge and aesthetic sensibility should not be underestimated. Needless to say, both client and designer must be comfortable with each other.

Before you begin with a designer, take a hard, honest look at your garden. Own up to what is wrong and appreciate what you like. Evaluate what the garden means to you. Very importantly, determine your budget. Be realistic about it. This will later help the designer prioritize the things you’d like to get done in the garden. It works to your advantage to be upfront about finances.

Designers are used to hearing – “I don’t want to spend too much money but, I’d like …”. A litany of garden wants will then follow. For whatever reason, the uncertainty of plants thriving or simply not being aware that making a garden is akin to furnishing a house, people are loathe to allow a suitable if not generous budget. A designer is not out to squander money but knowing what you can honestly afford will make the difference between nice and amazing, pretty and inspired. They know where to cut corners and where to invest. Bear in mind, any additional requests will increase the original cost. Size and complexity will affect costs. Small but sophisticated can be more expensive than large and lawn-dominated. Big garden projects can be done in stages to suit budgets. In return, the designer should be clear about their fees and other expenses. Trust goes both ways.

In order to best serve you, a designer needs to really understand you and your needs. This will happen with briefs or questionnaires requested from you as well as face to face meetings. Your style, needs, use of garden, time in garden etc are all relevant to coming up with the right designs. If your goal is to out do the neighbors or welcome more butterflies, express that as well. In the end, your garden must be a reflection of you and not the designer.

Being frank about expectations is crucial. Its vital to establish what you want and how much you will do yourself. The three typical service options are –
1. Design only which entails a drawn plan, details of plants and structures i.e. soft and hardscaping information.
2. Design and implement which means the designer will her/himself install the agreed upon plans.
3. Design and overseeing. This last one means the client will hire the required labor (or contractor if necessary) and the designer will keep an eye on progress and make sure plans are followed correctly.
Whatever service you choose must be made clear from the start.

From redoing a single flower bed to creating interesting paths to remaking the whole garden, hiring a designer can be a real asset. Ask yourself how much it means to you to have a beautiful, enjoyable garden.

Next week, in Part II, I’ll discuss the ifs and hows of hiring a gardener. “Mow, blow and go” is not your only choice!

Enjoy these images of Fall:
Autumn window-box
Still life with apples
From the window
Autumn in the garden
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Spirituality Through Astrology, Meditation and Yoga!

That proclamation was on a sign I saw alongside a highway this past weekend. It got me thinking about the times we are in. There is a growing need for something to center our hearts and settle our minds. Perhaps a quest for guidance has always prevailed amongst us humans but, in this high-speed digital age we are busier than ever. Swept in the tide of Instagrams, Facebook friends, messages confined to 144 characters, reachable via phone round the clock, we are searching for lifesavers to keep us afloat and present. Its interesting isn’t it that as our lives have increasingly adapted to all the technology, the enrollment in yoga studios has also increased? Massage and meditation are as mainstream as the live streaming we indulge in. With technology changing even as it hastens us forward, we seem to be looking to more enduring, ancient practices to keep us anchored. Time to step back and examine our course you think?

Frankly, I think the garden is the perfect place to find spirituality. And that sign could be tacked on the gate to any such place of horticulture. Patience, kindness, generosity and tolerance are cultivated here. Waiting for plants to grow, creating an environment that welcomes birds, butterflies and bees, sharing, receiving and exchanging seeds, plants and produce, working with weather patterns and pests both large and small, are all instructive. Life lessons that expose us to joy, laughter, loss, birth, regeneration, recycling are taught continuously in the garden. If you are not present, you miss the many miracles that take place in the garden every single day. Being mindful becomes the hallmark of a seasoned gardener.

The varied chores demanded in tending a garden, keep the body active. Bending, lifting, reaching are par for the course. Muscles exercised, joints kept from getting stiff, a day in the garden yields a dose of endorphins that satisfy as much and more than a workout in the gym. There’s a well conditioned body plus a garden to show for it! Of course, neither garden nor health club can guarantee a perfect body or eternal youth but then, thats life isn’t it? There are no guarantees.

If you’ve ever spent time weeding, digging or planting a bed, you know how focused you get. Paying attention forces one to tune out the chatter in the head. By the time the task is done, more than the garden has been transformed. There is certain clearing of the mind and a lifting of the mood. Thats what meditation achieves. Mindfulness creates clarity of thought and purpose.

Gardeners follow the seasons, the quotidian arc of the sun and the gravitational pull of the moon. Weather patterns influence our work as much as it affects our spirit. We apply science, folklore and an occasional dab of superstition. Astrology anyone?!

Tending the land is as ancient a practice as it can get and it is the best therapy by far. I firmly believe that if every human on earth nurtured a garden, we’d be too busy reaping the many rewards of this preoccupation to wage wars, mistreat animals, tolerate rudeness or watch bad television.
Sometimes, I wonder if gardening informs my life or if life informs my gardening.

Check out Happenings to find out about the Rocky Hills talk Oct 18 and the two art shows I’m participating in this month.

Enjoy the varied gardens below:
Musee de quai Bramley
Marco's garden
Rocky Hills
My garden
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar