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

Life In Waiting

Every morning, I look out into the garden to see whats up. Have all the crocuses bloomed? The scillas are blazing blue but when are the spring leucojum planted to contrast with them going to bloom? And the muscari paired with early daffodils? Even in the midst of reveling in the early spring flowers, I can’t help waiting for the ones to come. It’s as though my mind is trying to hurry along the season so it can get to the next one.

I thought about that yesterday and came to the realization that it’s because of this unfamiliar time we’re in. We don’t know for sure what each day is going to bring. There are predictions, projections and calculations but nothing is certain. How long the crisis is going to last is unknown. So, subconsciously, my mind is looking weeks ahead to a different, hopefully better time. When other flowers will be in bloom.

Once I understood my propensity, I determined to curb it. After all, it wasn’t getting me anywhere at all. Instead, I’m going to really stay in the present. In all its entirety – pleasant and unpleasant. I must experience this epic period in history in full. This life. My life. Only I can live it.

Instead of waiting for the next flower to bloom, for the next month to be over with, I shall take in the days with my whole self. Make each one matter.

It doesn’t mean I’m not going to look forward to future flowers and fruit, for better days. It simply implies that I will endeavor to bring my best self to each day.

In keeping myself at home, it has already become apparent how ‘being busy’ is overrated. With absolutely no place to go, what one does on a quotidian basis is revealed clearly. There’s no hiding behind ‘busy’ or ‘so much to do’. We have to do what must be done. No excuses. There is time – that commodity we’re always complaining we’re short on.

Even if or especially if one is privileged to work from home, there is now time to get other things done. Without need to commute, sans distractions of unnecessary meetings or chatty colleagues, one is free to use the time to make a meal with thought and care. To connect with family and friends for meaningful conversations. To reach out to shut-in neighbors with a phone call or a note / freshly baked muffins left at the door. To complete the house tasks we’ve been putting off. In other words, pay attention to life.

At a time of frustration in not doing enough to help a situation, I’ve come to the conclusion that first and foremost, the most effective contribution we can make is to stay at home.

While my paying work as such has slowed down or completely halted, I’m now at liberty to work on creative projects that were sitting on the back burner and, make business plans that more accurately define my philosophy and philanthropy. This mandatory time at home is a gift of sorts. I appreciate it as such. On waking each morning, I’m grateful I’m still healthy and must therefore try to be and do my best.

In working in the garden, I’m particularly aware of having the time to tackle the chores with the required attention. After all, where else do I need to go? Simply breathing in the fresh air with the sun smiling down is an endowment. Working to create a beautiful, productive garden is a high honor not to be taken for granted. Ever.

The peony supports have been placed, the circulating water system for the vertical garden has been revamped and commissioned, the lawn reseeded, pruning completed, seeds such as tomato, cool weather greens and nasturtium sown and, the birdbath stands filled. Later this week, the ferns over-wintering in the potager will be transferred to their home in the vertical garden, the potager then prepared with a good layer of compost to receive vegetable plants and, the bluebird house cleaned – please let these sweet birds find it this year. All the birds are going about their business and a few have begun building nests. I’ve already observed earthworms working the soil. The pear blossom buds will be opening within the week and I’m fully expecting to see bees make their daily visits. This is life.

Soon, with the temperatures going up, the chairs will be brought out and set up around the table on the terrace for al fresco meals to be enjoyed. This alone strikes me as so special. What has thus far not seemed unusual is now distinctly a benediction.

In preparing this garden, I’m making the world that much better and beautiful. I can’t wait to share it again with everybody. It may not be much but it’ll be my best. That’s about all one can hope.

Scilla

Everything is growing!

Window-box

Hyacinths

Hellebores

Pruning hydrangea

Epsom salts feed the roses

Spreading straw over the reseeded areas

Peony supports in place

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Naturally Fit

It’s about that time when resolutions made on the first of January start becoming a distant memory. Studies show that gym attendance falls off, diets are cheated upon, books get read less frequently etc., It is hard to stick to resolutions. Especially ones that require diligence and perseverance like exercise. It’d be vastly easier if getting fit wasn’t so much hard work. It ought to come naturally. Long, long ago, before all the conveniences borne of the Industrial Revolution, the mere act of going about ones daily business kept a person active and fit. Admittedly, it involved a lot of labor and leisure time was scarce.

These days, we have all the creature comforts and must make the effort to stay active. Ironic no? From cooking to cleaning to laundry to grocery shopping to getting to our place of work, it is so much easier than ever before. Why, many of us now work remotely from home. It’s all good. Except for that pesky keeping fit matter.

In my view, gardening is the one pleasurable yet productive activity that still demands a good degree of physical work. Provided one hasn’t out-sourced that as well. Despite the power tools available, there is much that one must do in the garden that requires actual effort. You can sit on a tractor mower (oh the horror!) but you still have to steer and guide – I suppose that counts for something. I’ve long been a devotee of the manual push reel-mower. The quiet is only interrupted by birdsong and the occasional bark of a dog. The smell of the freshly cut grass is pure reward for the effort.

As a child in India, I’d watch the hired gardeners cut the grass with scythes whilst moving on their haunches. They were so expert at this that I believed it was easy! There is absolutely no way I’d want to try that now.

Having eliminated almost all of my lawn save for a handkerchief size area, pushing my mower is barely any work. Still, it calls for some minimal walking around, a bit of trimming the edges along the walkway that divides said area and the glorious joy of being outdoors and appearing busy.

There is however no substitute for weeding, pruning, planting, deadheading and such. Carting plant material to the compost pile, filling the wheel-barrow with compost, spreading it over the beds – that’s work. While watering is not quite the labor intensive activity it used to be, the water-barrel necessitates the filling of watering cans from it and then carrying the cans to where watering is needed. In short, there is a fair amount of walking, bending, reaching, lifting and stretching involved in the pursuit of gardening. Pretty much the stuff called for in a good workout routine. The best part is that time flies in the garden. You go into it thinking you’re going to simply walk around and maybe deadhead and before you know it, you’re weeding, staking, watering …. a good hour or two have gone by.

So maybe every time you’re in the garden, one doesn’t break out into a Peloton induced sweat. But, consistent work in the garden can add up to much more than the weekly quota of 150 minutes of exercise mandated for a healthy lifestyle. Besides, there is the added benefit of nature therapy – a proven mood lifter. All this without even going into the happiness one finds in partaking of the fruits of ones labor. Literally.

But what does a gardener do in the winter you ask? Tidy out that tool shed, give the compost heap a regular stir up – it’s mighty good resistance exercise, re-pot house plants, start those seeds you’re itching to try out, prune the plants that require a winter trim. That’s not enough? How about getting to those house chores you’ve putting off because the garden needed you? I’m pretty sure there is plenty to re-organize, fix, paint or replace. That ought to keep one actively occupied. Add a routine walk outdoors and you’ve got yourself enough to stay in shape.

I can’t think of anything as beneficial for health as gardening. It’s so good for mind, body and soul – exactly what the doctor ordered.

Disclaimer – I am not in any way suggesting one stop going to the gym or give up your regular exercise regime. I myself clock in the necessary minutes of aerobic/resistance workouts just so I’m fit enough to take on the garden. All I’m saying is that as long as one is fully engaged in gardening, one is likely doing quite well in the fitness department. We all know that gardening works on those muscles you never knew you had.

Note: Some images of February blooms –

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar