Living In The Sun

A big takeaway from the past year was that everyone rediscovered the power of nature. The visceral need we have for the open spaces rich in vegetation and fresh air was unarguably recognized. Those of us blessed with any size of land found sheltering at home less stifling than apartment dwellers. Parks and preserves saw a remarkable up-tick in visitors. Following more than a year of restrictions, how we live has become a focus.

Inside the home, we have quickly realized that our spaces are not designed for our current needs. For that matter, many homes were never set up for us to spend a great deal of time in it. With the flexibility of working at home full-time or part, office space is a necessary requirement. The family dining table can no longer do double duty. In order for any member of a household to get some time and space alone, bedrooms are now not merely for rest/sleep. Open living plans, hugely popular pre-pandemic are now regarded as unsustainable for multiple people living and working from home. Interior designers have noted the new needs and are responding with ingenuity and creativity.

Similarly, the gardens of many demand re-imagining. First and foremost, let me get a pet peeve out of the way – can we please stop calling our outdoor piece of property a ‘yard’? A yard is simply the grounds surrounding a building or a unit of measure. A yard does not evoke a beautiful space. Think about it. There are dockyards, shipyards, farmyard, junkyard, barnyard … you get the idea. Without the prefixes court- or vine-, yard by itself does not conjure up greenery. However, ‘garden’ immediately makes one see plants, grass, flowers and fruits. Somewhere pleasant. Words matter.

Gardens are not just for show. They should be designed for people to spend time in them – cultivating, meditating, socializing, playing, eating, reading, napping. That pretty much means outdoor living. Be it a balcony, a narrow strip or a bigger space, we must think about how they can serve multiple purposes aesthetically and effectively. I would add that all designs must be sustainable, eco-friendly, organic and environment conscious. In my book these requirements are non-negotiable.

A simple bench set in the garden provides a place to sit, read, converse and observe. Add a table and now you have a spot for eating, working, painting, writing, playing cards or board games. A swing under a tree or a hammock slung between two trees offers a different attractive choice. You see?

Of course, the right plants are critical. Color, texture, shapes, heights, widths, fragrance, tactility and functionality are all key attributes to consider. Native/eco-beneficial too. Good design makes a garden beautiful and functional.

Pulling together all the required elements to create a garden that suits the way one lives is perhaps most challenging. And exciting.

In my own garden, there are various places for escape, rest and activity. In the front, the two Adirondack chairs were installed to provide a place from which one could enjoy this area of the garden. It’s close enough to the street that spontaneous conversations with neighbors out for walks happen. From mid-afternoon on, the sun has moved on and one can sit in shade and read, work on the laptop, take a tea break, watch the birds, butterflies and bees.

The terrace on the side, is a lovely spot for breakfast before it is bathed in full sun till early evening. In summer, it’s too hot by noon. In cool months the sunny location is a gift. A table with chairs and an umbrella that can be tilted for requisite shade makes spending time here amidst the sweet smelling citrus and gardenia (in pots)is a rather sublime experience. Members of the household routinely hold Zoom meetings from this location. The hummingbird feeder nearby is visited often and always brings joyful distraction.

Similarly, the tree house has also stretched itself from just a cool spot to hangout (or camp out) with friends to a cool spot to work. Wi-Fi extends to this perch so what at one time was also a place to do homework, now permits all manner of work be conducted. As well as the occasional nap.

From late fall to early spring, the greenhouse, set up with a small table and single chair takes on the role of sheltering a myriad assortment of plants as well as an escape for any family member who needs a little nature therapy. Or simply needs to get away from the rest of us. This past winter, it became my husband’s corner office! He found it more enjoyable than sharing the house with the rest of us.

The table under the pergola on the terrace in the back is used in countless ways. We eat, entertain, work, read, paint, play, bird-watch and generally hangout. All day long. Adding an outdoor heater last fall has made it possible to use this area almost all year round. String lights and a chandelier keep us going well into the night. Poker nights, hysterical rounds of charades and long, lively conversations happen here frequently. Life.

There is a bench towards the back of the ‘meadow’ that serves as an escape from the madding crowd and also a restful spot from which to enjoy the flowers in bloom and observe more closely the activities of all sorts of pollinators. Seeing the meadow from a different perspective can be eye-opening.

A similar bench under the grapes on the far side of the terrace is another good location for bird-watching and catching some sun and quiet time.

The garden should be a true extension of the home. It’s meant to be lived in. Not merely viewed. It’s good for health.

Note: We’re in the midst of a heat wave. Hope these images give you some respite:

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Child’s Play. Part I

Private gardens in India are typically tended by professional gardeners. Garden owners might supervise but the real work is done by their hired help. As a child, I was given free reign in the garden where I would spend most of my waking hours. I learned a great deal simply by spending time outdoors. Observing bugs, tearing apart a flower to see its different parts, trying in vain to extract color from colorful petals ( I’d squeeze wet petals), waiting for a chrysalis to turn into a butterfly, learning from my mother to make tiny clay pots from mud, picking berries as they ripened and never leaving any for others – the list is endless.

I didn’t have any grown-ups who took it upon themselves to teach or guide me and the gardeners in the area were way too busy heeding their employers and going about their responsibilities. But, I did get to watch these gardeners from whom I undoubtedly absorbed some good gardening methods. I think I also got in their way frequently.

I’d collect pretty leaves and flowers in tins and pass many afternoons in the shade arranging and rearranging my treasures in patterns. I crushed fragrant leaves and flowers to perfume my hands and face before I learned about primitive cultures doing the same. I learned to identify edible herbs and often experimented with propagating plants from seed and cuttings. Waiting for fruits to ripen and determining that moment when they were ready to be picked was a responsibility I took seriously. Mind you, none of this was conducted scientifically. It was all play for me. I didn’t make notes or tell anybody. It was just how I enjoyed my time outdoors. Curiosity and imagination were my constant attendants.

I’d routinely get all sorts of insect bites and stings, cut my hands from handling thorny plants, scorch the soles of my feet by walking barefoot on stones made so hot by the mid-day sun, get my clothes mud-splattered and stained. Nothing kept me away from the garden – it was where I belonged. Instead, the mishaps were just as instructive as the happy discoveries. I learned to identify plants, insects and birds, treat my wounds and through trial and mostly errors, I taught myself to dye clothes with natural materials. My mother had her own opinions about some of my efforts.

Simply by spending unstructured time in the garden, my young mind learned an enormous amount of information. Children are naturally curious and the garden is the best classroom. Looking back, I see how all my subsequent choices and passions were inevitable. I was shaped by the garden. It raised me as much as all the important adults in my life. The garden is very much why and who I am today.

Based on my own history with the garden, I have many thoughts about children and the great outdoors. I will share that in Part II next week. Meanwhile, think about your own young selves and what gardens meant to you. An occasional walk down memory lane helps one gain fresh perspective.

Note –

I have some of my art works in a show at the Phyllis Harriman Gallery, NYC, the week of March 12, 2018. I hope you will visit! Reception is on Tuesday March 13 from 5:00 to 7:00 pm.

Enjoy the photos below – taken some years ago at the garden show “Play In The Garden”  in Chaumont, France:

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar