My Big Little Garden

A few days ago, I watched the The Big Little Farm – ‘an award-winning documentary about bringing a farm back to life after years of neglect. New farmers, the Chester family, work with nature – not against it – to create a living system with biodiversity where each plant, animal and insect contributes to the health of the land’. I encourage everyone to watch it. It is inspiring, informative, life-affirming and heartwarming.

The basic principles applied in the film are easily implemented in our gardens both public and private. It is how we humans should be cultivating the land. In harmony with nature, maintaining that balance that is so fragile and yet so critical.

The day after I saw the Big Little Farm, I sat a while outside thinking about the film. I could drew a parallel with the evolution of my own garden. When we first bought our property, it was a completely neglected piece of land. The house, built in 1915 was sound and solid. It needed updating but nothing drastic. The garden however, was a total shamble. Left on its own for a few years, it had lost the the battle with the woods in the back which had started encroaching well into the property. We had to measure exactly where the property line was and then started removing all manner of invasive vegetation and debris.

To the side of the property, weeds had quite literally become trees. You couldn’t walk there let alone examine that side of the house. Just out of grad school, we were so naive that we bought the house without really knowing what condition this part was in. After we closed on the house, we had to hire a tree service to remove the “weeds” and open up the space to create a proper path connecting front to back. Mercifully, that side of the house was intact.

In front, there were sickly evergreens right up against the house. They’d grown so tall and gangly that you couldn’t quite see the house. Imagine how dark it felt inside.

Separating us from our neighbors on either side were jungle-like hedges and raggedy shrubs totally gone out of control. In general, we’d inherited a complete mess.

Slowly, we cleared and cut, waited and watched, planned and prepared. I realized I could create garden ‘rooms’ with the different levels that were naturally presented. One squarish area sat atop the old septic tank. This meant that beneath a foot and a half to two feet of soil, was a thick layer of concrete. Nothing with deep roots would do well here. I made it the potager where herbs and vegetables could grow. (The neighbor’s cedar tree was much shorter at that time – it is now huge and casts more shade than I’d like). The fact that I’ve added native wisteria and espaliered pears on two sides of this space is typical of how I’m always pushing the limits.

After the clearing and opening up happened in the front, a charming garden was envisioned. I believe I succeeded and the beds are a happy mix of bulbs and mostly native perennials that have something in bloom through three seasons. It starts off in spring looking colorful and orderly, then gradually gets looser and assertive in the summer and by the fall, it looks rather wild and rambunctious. I like it that way. As do the bees and butterflies.

The meadow in the back was my big push to eliminate all lawn and create a lush area of native plants where native wildlife could thrive and result in an ecosystem that was in balance. This is the most ambitious project in the garden. It’s still evolving but, it is certainly already the busiest area! Birds, bees, butterflies, worms, toads, garden variety snakes and a whole slew of other insects thrive here.

Right from the start, we knew we wanted to practice organic methods and began composting kitchen and garden waste. We also set up a rain barrel to water the garden. We eschewed gas powered mowers and found ourselves a manual push-reel mower that had been put out at the curb for garbage pick-up. This was in the early 1990’s. We knew nobody who was composting or using rain barrels. Gas was cheap and non-organic products were prolific. We were bucking the trend and labeled quaint or hippie-ish. This was amusing to me – I have a strong background in Microbiology and molecular biology. All I’d been doing was applying that knowledge to restore the health of the soil and ecosystem of the land. Straightforward science.

Through old-fashioned research ( pre-Google) and much trial and error, the garden is now a place of biodiversity, beauty and balance. It is a very hardworking garden and tries to serve all life forms well. As small as it is, this garden works big. I’m constantly learning and growing with it. Perhaps most significantly, it stands testament to what each of us blessed with a bit of land (or pots) can do to become a contributing part of the larger effort to keep our planet and ourselves healthy, happy and in harmony.

Note: A bit of what’s doing in the garden this week –

Some images from how the garden used to be. I wish I’d known to take more photos of the ‘Before’.

The potager/herb garden is ready for planting!

A bit of the mess on the side-path taken from indoors.

The original front garden!

Ripping up turf and compacted soil over the old septic tank

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Balancing Act

For the past ten days, I’ve been enjoying down time on the barrier islands of Chincoteague and Assateague off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. It has been part of the quest for balance in life. When we plan a getaway or vacation, it is that need to counteract the everyday demands of work and other responsibilities. An opportunity to press the reset button so we maintain an even keel and thus keep perspective of what truly matters. Nothing quite as effective as a healthy dose of nature to do the job.

It is heart-achingly beautiful here. Known primarily for the wild ponies that inhabit them, these islands are the last remaining undeveloped outer banks. And remain they shall, thanks to the designation of being a National Seashore/Wildlife Refuge under the National Park Services. Like all our other National Parks, they are priceless national treasures.

It’s a fragile, ever-changing ecosystem here. Between the waves and winds of the mighty and temperamental Atlantic Ocean, the terrain,flora and fauna are in constant flux. New ‘islands’ are built, old ones shrink or grow, shorelines shift, the resilient wildlife adapt and somehow, an equilibrium is maintained. Retreating dunes mark the island’s westward move and as the water in the bays rise in response to rising ocean water, the coastlines are redrawn. New habitats are created and old ones re-adapted. Plants and animals adjust to these changes. Rich in aquatic life, the bays provide a vital ecosystem. The salt marshes, defined by the ebb and flow of the tides are yet another complex, vital ecosystem in themselves. The plants that thrive in salt marshes may be few but they shelter a diverse number of wildlife. The dunes and upper beaches are in constant motion and support a different variety of plants and animals.

Even as eel grass is tossed up by storm surges, it is turned into a substrate that enriches the soil in the marshes. Ribbed mussels have a relationship with the long water roots of salt grasses found along the edges of the marshy islands. Egrets ride on the horses to see what choice morsels they might reveal as they plod around and disturb the wet land. In turn, they help the horses by dealing with the biting insects so prevalent here. The horses feed on the salty grasses and also the poison ivy – I found that latter item quite interesting.

In an ideal situation, these parts would manage fine and life would play out naturally. It’s a real gift that we humans get to visit and observe. But yet, we manage to upset the balance. Despite all the cautions and advice from the park rangers, people often try to get too close to the horses ( selfies!) or try feeding them. The horses, as a result can get too familiar with our presence and come to expect treats to supplement their diet. These are wild animals with strong teeth and legs – their bites and kicks are fearsome. Getting too close or goading them has unfortunate consequences for man and horse. Why oh why can we not stay away from our own worst habits?!

We got very lucky with Hurricane Dorian last week. A harmless tropical storm was all we experienced. Two windy days of which one was rainy. Some localized flooding but nothing problematic. I imagine this was however, a more serious threat for the wildlife as they were deprived of their regular feeding forays and had to seek shelter to wait out the weather. For me, it was enough to be made acutely aware of how fragile life is and how much we take it for granted.

When I return home shortly, I plan to carry this awareness in my heart and strive harder to stay centered, as always, taking my cues from nature in maintaining a balance.

P.S- I also plan to increase my annual contribution to the National Parks. In recent times they have seen major budget cuts. This is nothing short of a crisis of tremendous proportion with far-reaching consequences. I beseech every single one of you to do your part in preserving our national treasure – this beautiful, majestic land of mountains and plains, lakes, rivers and coasts that we call home.

See the images below for a glimpse of Assateague/Chicoteague beauty.

Note: I’m participating in this show. I hope you will see it.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Bird Brain

It all started whilst standing in the kitchen at the cooking range – from the corner of my eye I noticed a flurry of activity outside the kitchen window. Turning to look, there was a robin with a beak full of fine pieces of twigs hopping around on the pergola directly below. Observing more closely, I spotted the nest. As though sited for my viewing pleasure, it sat nestled in the wisteria branches atop the pergola, giving one a perfect aerial perspective. Oh joy!

Watching nesting birds is one of my favorite pastimes. Here was that chance like no other. No climbing ladders, straining awkwardly or being stealthy – all that was needed was to stand at the window and look down. The nest is barely six feet below. Needless to say, this discovery took me completely away from all intentions to get my work done.

I was so loathe to leave for my trip to the Netherlands. Throughout my flight there I obsessed about the nest. Was it sited too visibly? Is it too easy for the squirrels o find? Would the afternoon sun hit it too harshly? And how about the rain? With reports of the heavy downpours yesterday, I’m anxious to find out. Oh the worries! I’m due back in a day so thankfully, the wait won’t be too long.

My walks in the Dutch country side have taken me through farmlands where I’m privileged to see cows with calves sticking close to their mamas, sheep with lambs that resemble balls of wool for the taking. Signs are posted making the public aware the this is an area that farms in a way that protects creatures that nest at ground level. Sure enough, I’ve discerned ducks in grassy fields sitting on what must be clutches of eggs. The farmers do not cut the hay the typical three to four times of the year. Instead, they do so only once. This allows wildlife to flourish. At any given time, some fields are left uncut and other fields are cultivated. Consequently, the yield may not be as high as we have come to expect from modern practices but, it is a comfortable compromise between man and animals. In time I heard enough bird song and became aware of sufficient activity that proved how well this policy was working. Did my heart a world of good. To take up modern ways is not always progress. Certain ancient principals have held up to time. To live and let live is one of them.

As I prepare to fly back home, I take with me a fresh resolve to assiduously support the wild life I have come to appreciate and depend upon.

Notice the robin with its beak full?

The Dutch countryside:

See the nesting duck in this field?

Protected birds here

‘Ekster’ – is the Dutch name of this bird

Ekster nest

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar