Planting for the future

Starting Seeds
Young seedlings
People often ask: why go to the trouble to plant seeds? Plant plugs are available in nurseries and big box stores. Yet there are reasons to plant. The most common one is that you can then grow varieties that you otherwise would not get. Recently, heirloom seeds have become really popular. Heirlooms often have unique qualities that make them desirable. Last year, I tried the variety Brandywine Pink which turned out to be a winner – pinkish skin but deep red, juicy flesh, large and prolific too.

Many plants are simply not easily available in stores. I enjoy growing Swiss Chard for its ornamental leaves that do well in salads and cooked in stir fry’s or soups – these are rarely available in stores and are so easy to grow from seed.

What do you need?
Once your seeds have arrived, all you need is seed starting containers and seed starting mix. You can use a seed starting tray, or any other container – food take-out containers and egg cartons come to mind. The seed starting mix is preferred rather than potting soil because it is finer. First make sure to dampen it – at least an hour before you plan to use it. Then fill the tray, make a little dent in the soil, drop your seeds in and cover. The seed should be placed at a depth double its size. Do remember to spritz with water and cover. Many seeds need light for germination, so cover with something that lets light in. Place just inches below a source of light. Many folks use the lights in their kitchens under cabinets, if you do not want to set up a light source. Check every few days – most seeds take 1-3 weeks to germinate.

The truly best part of this endeavor is seeing young sprouts. The germination of seeds reveals again the magic that a little soil, water and light can do. As soon as seeds sprout, you need to remove the cover. The young seedlings need light. Make sure the source of light is just very close to the sprouts.

Wait for the leaves to be visible and strong before transplanting. Fill small pots with potting soil. Make sure to dampen well. Make a hole in the medium with a pencil or small stick. Gently pick up the seedling, using a pencil or small stick. I use the sharp end of the plastic label. Drop seedling into the hole and gently firm soil around. Spitz with water. Make sure seedling stay damp but not wet. Too much water encourages damping off which can decimate your seedlings. Damping off is caused by fungi which like cool and wet conditions.
As the seedlings grow, you can fertilize with water soluble fertilizer but only at half strength. Make sure the light source is just a few inches above seedlings all along for optimal growth. Another tip; hold the seedling by its leaves. If you lose a leaf, another one can grow – but a plant has only one stalk!

Hardening off
Seedlings need to be transitioned gradually to the outdoors. So before planting outside, on a still day, take the seedlings tray out to the garden and place under a tree. Bring them back indoors at night. Do this for a week. This makes them ready for the outdoors.

Planting Time
Whether planting in the ground or in a container, prepare the site well. Plant the seedling to the right depth – the depth that it was in its pot. Firm around and water well. Soon you will have the flowers or vegetables or fruits of your labor – and you can be proud that you started from scratch – from just a tiny seed.

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Seeds of Change…Seeds for a Change

There is a fresh sprinkling of snow on the frozen ground that just fell the past few hours. But for an avid gardener like me, it is an exciting time of year. It’s time to order the seeds. The catalogs arrived in the beginning of the year, just after the holiday greeting cards. The number of catalogs have been reduced to a sprinkle now that online catalogs are available. I enjoy both of them. The online ones change the sale coupons every week, while the mail-order catalogs have only one. For me it means double the fun. After hours of perusing, I set out to actually plan by garden.

First, I need to inventory my existing seeds. I pore through them all, throw out the empty seed packets. After looking through them, it is time to make some decisions.  I finally settle on which seeds I will be using this year.

Now, back to the catalogs.  I first look through them to find the new offerings. Truly whoever gets the task of naming seeds has a very fun job. This year, one that catches my attention – ‘Strawberry Blonde,’ the name of a new marigold. Most of us are familiar with marigolds that are yellow, orange or red. Try to imagine a blossom with a mix of all three colors. I can’t wait to see this one.

Every year, I also look out for a few heirloom varieties to add to the basket. The scientist in me does so to ensure the preservation of genetic diversity.  But for the other part of me, it is the quirkiness of them that attracts.

It is of course important not to be totally taken by the eye candy of the attractive pictures. Yet, some offerings do surprise. I was curious about the Celosia ‘Dracula’ but its strong, dark purplish colored leaves and beautiful burgundy blossoms were truly spectacular. Some years ago the petunia with the intriguing name’ Pretty as Picaso’ did not disappoint – with its purple-maroon trumpet-shaped blossoms with a lacy, lime green edging.

Another aspect I might look for is which seeds have been designated All American Selection Winners. These are new varieties that have been tested in trial grounds across the country that have been designated winners. Judges are horticulturists who volunteer their time and compare the growth of the new varieties to existing ones. Trials are conducted in 80 trial sites throughout the country. One trial site is just in our backyard so to speak at the Illinois Central Garden. It is a way for us home gardeners to find the new varieties that are most likely to succeed in our gardens.

After carefully perusing the descriptions, selections are made based on the plan for this year – at the Demonstration garden at ICC (which I am involved with as a Master Gardener) and for my home garden. The advantage of starting from seed is that one can try out varieties not available in the nurseries. One year, I tried several varieties of Rudbeckia – and was happy to see the range of blossoms available in these daisy-like flowers.

Once the decisions are made, it takes just a few more minutes to fill out the order forms – either online or on the mail-order form. The advantage of the mail-order form is that it settles me. It is as if the lines define the task and restrict me. Regardless, the selections are made and the orders are completed. Then its days or weeks of anticipation until the package arrives.

As you remove the seed packets from the cardboard box and handle them, the wonder hits you. It is truly the magic of nature that these tiny seeds – mere specks- given the right conditions of soil, sun and water will, in a few weeks transform into what?  This small round seed will grow into the thick, red stems and large dark green leaves of Swiss Chard ‘Bright Lights.’  These slivers – black and straw-colored, sprinkled on to a pot will unfurl feathery leaves and those strawberry blonde blossoms.

So I encourage you to try some seeds this year.  Burpees, Johnny Selected Seeds and Gurney’s are all sites I have frequented.  Whether you follow my example and check out the catalogs, or pick out a few packets from your local store, don’t hesitate to try starting some seeds this year. It is an inexpensive experiment – and may turn out to be a very satisfying one.

With the growing season around the corner, this is the first of a series of blogs that I am starting for this year on Gardening. Comments, questions and suggestions are welcome. Happy Gardening!

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Sun and Sands – in January

Winters in the Midwest can be grueling – as anyone who has lived here knows. Few seasons have been more severe than this one. So a few days away in a warmer place seemed like a very good idea. And, a conference that my husband wanted to attend in California provided the excuse.

So our plan to spend a week in sunny California materialized. An initial glitch – freezing rain and ice here – delayed our get-away for one day. But that actually helped because the rain storm in CA had ended – three days of rain which caused its own devastation further north. When we get there – first to Los Angeles and then to San Diego – the sun was out to welcome us.

You get off the airplane and the sun smiles on you and warms your body – suddenly the layers come off, one at a time. The morning can be a little chilly but by 10 in the morning, it is warm enough for a brisk walk outside with just a light sweater.

After staring at our winter wonderland for weeks, it was a lovely change to walk in the sun. A night spent at the picturesque Gaslamp quarter in San Diego was followed by a walk along Harbor Drive to the San Diego bay, with the Naval Station to the left and the tourist boat rides to the right. The sun is warm, and the water in the bay is a deep, clear blue. You forget it is still January, when you see folks in ocean beach cities enjoying music and good food – outdoors.

A few hours spent across the border in Tijuana – the sun is still the same – takes me back to India. Just like there, you can actually meet the person who made the leather purse you are admiring, a skill he learned from his grandfather. Bustling with tourists, the little shops have their knick-knacks – tiles, leather goods and dolls –splayed out on the sidewalks, enticing a curious tourist – what is this fascination of dolls with skeleton faces? Another curiosity is a man standing at a corner with a Mexican donkey-  it looks like a cross between a zebra and a donkey – _painted that way apparently.   Want to take your picture with it?  he asks.

In Southern California, there are the miles of sand on beaches which offer another sensual pleasure –walking on sand and then later dipping my feet into the chilly Pacific Ocean. So Cal being what it is – we enjoyed a walk on a doggy beach – one of the areas where dogs are allowed and the dog I am with enjoyed visiting with other dogs.

I was also able to indulge in another favorite pastime, as at every beach I go – picking a few shells.  Being aware of the stash I have at home, I only pick a few – just a souvenir to commemorate another beach visit. Perhaps what draw me to beaches is memories of my early years back in India, in Madras (now Chennai) as a child, building sand castles and decorating them with shells.

Other highlights of our getaway are visiting with family and friends, meeting the babies who are the next generation of the family (my great-nieces) and starting the growing season by helping my sister-in-law plant the first seeds of the season.

I know it is not possible for all of us – but I strongly recommend that if you can, make a trip to a sunny spot in winter.  It does not have to be an expensive cruise or hours spent sun bathing on a beach – even a few days away can be refreshing, recharging ones batteries. Then it is back to the January thaw- and another two months of winter.


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A Holiday Wreath

My Santolina Wreath is a new twist on the holiday season. I started with an inexpensive grape vine wreath form from the dollar store. Then I thrust springs of Santolina, each about a foot long and wrapped them with green wire and embellished it with a couple of springs of berries. I finished the wreath with a candy-striped red and white bow – recycled from a previous year and there it was – an easy, new wreath.

If you are wondering what it is, Santolina Santolina chamaecyparissus, commonly called lavender cotton or gray santolina, is a small, semi-woody, tender sub-shrub with aromatic, evergreen, silver-gray foliage. It typically grows in a mound to 2′ tall spreading to 3′ wide. It is native to the Mediterranean area.  It like limey, dry soil. In my yard, it appreciated the later cool and dry part of the season by burgeoning in size into a small shrub.  I had planted it a year ago. Santolina may need to be cut back severely every year or it becomes long and woody – another reason to cut springs for a wreath.

I don’t know if you do this at this time of year – amuse yourself by looking at the Better Homes and Gardens online fancy new wreaths.  Most times, I enjoy looking at them and find them for the most part eye candy which I would not try making. So this project really made me feel good. I’m not exactly a domestic diva ala Martha Stewart, but just someone who gets a creative urge once in a while.





On another note, if you like to curl up with a book, I’d like to suggest my book, An Unfortunate Accident. It could also be an easy gift to any reader on your list. This is not why I did it – but it has none of the topics many find “objectionable” nowadays. It’s just a story because I like telling them. You can get a physical book or an electronic one.

Another reason I brought it up is because I’m hoping my next book will come out next year – it’s in the oven so to speak and it does include some of the characters in this book.  Happy Holidays!



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Successes in the Garden

Late summer is a good time to reflect on the past growing season. To sit back and catch your breath before fall’s bounty of leaves – scarlet, golden, plum, brown covers the garden almost overnight. So to me it seemed a good time for some reflections – why not look for once at the successes?

Gardeners will tell you they are always looking for something special. For me, the quest has been for the perfect rose. I also need to define what perfections means to me. I recognize that good blooms with great form are the key for roses. But for me there is something almost more important – perfume. It seems to me that everyone wants blooms on tall stems but no one seems to care about perfume. While for me the fragrance of a rose is indeed what makes it the queen of flowers.

So in one of my wanderings through garden places, I was delighted  to come across Fragrant Cloud. While I read the information on it, I was also skeptical – the eye candy pictures and accompanying description can often be quit misleading. But I decided to go ahead and give it a try. I found the right location, did my due diligence of watering, maintaining and the like and waited. When a bud appeared I was quite excited and a few days later I had a blossom     A rainy day followed so I decided to cut it and take it indoors.

Suffice it to say, this rose exceeded all my expectations – color was orange- scarlet. The leaves were a deep green – the fragrance was out of this world – and totally indescribable. It has been indoors for almost a week now  but still I bury my nose in it and it makes my day every time. I wish I could send the fragrance along with the picture but  our technology does not make that possible yet.

Gardening is a unique occupation because every season is unique – rain, temperature humidity; all of these are variables affecting plants. So each season has a particular flavor. This summer had many, many cool days and some rainy spells separated by dry spells. Whatever the reason, the Coleus did amazing this season. I had planted them in the ground where they sulked through rainy spring. Transplanting to containers by my front door, they have put on an enthralling show. Other than a few sprinkles of slow-release fertilizer and watering when I water everything else, they need no more help. The beauty of the coleus is that it’s a daily show – no need to deadhead except a quick snip of any blossoms that pop up. And better still neither the chipmunks of rabbits care for them – and neither apparently do any of the insects flying through my yard.

For some reason this year, the Dinner Plate Dahlias also did amazingly well – I have seen them in many gardens. They can sulk sometimes and not blossom well. But they continue to bloom their hearts out even today.

In the vegetable garden, the cucumbers did amazingly well because of the cool summer – Now they have ended their bounty after months of delicious fruit. Among tomatoes, the winner for this year for me was Brandywine Pink, an heirloom variety. I knew in advance that they can be late – but the cool spell again made them grow slowly. Truly I have never had such tomatoes – the size is huge, the color slightly pink, very juicy with very little peel and really low-acid. Another heirloom I have enjoyed this year are the yellow pear. They started easily from seed, and the fruit look like little jewel lights hanging from the stems.

You can see I had an enjoyable season, with much to appreciate.  The biggest blessing of all was the weather – while other parts of the country dealt with searing heat, fires, hurricanes and humidity, we enjoyed a lovely summer – cool enough to sit on a deck or patio with a glass of lemonade.  Happy Gardening!

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On The First Spring Day

Today is the day – it is March 17th, Saint Patrick’s Day.  I get into the car and make by way to tackle my first chore with the promise of spring in the air – starting seeds at the ICC Green house. The seedlings are used for plantings in the Demonstration Garden that the Master Gardeners like me take care of.   I check my speed – I am going at 55 miles per hour, well under the 65 on that stretch of road. As I approach the turn on into the college, I know I am slowing down, as my mind goes back to that day 11 months ago. That was when on an April evening, I was headed to this very same place when out of the blue an SUV pulled out of  a side street and crashed into me – I was probably going more like 55 than 45 as I earlier thought.  That started the ordeal but how lucky was I indeed that I had my life, no broken bones, just shock and bruises and pains that persisted –  till this day as I will soon be having my last physical therapy appointment.

As I park and walk into the building, I am asked who I was – I identify myself as a Master Gardener. As I set my box down and set up for seed-starting, I suddenly feel close to tears. Not only is it a milestone for me being here for the first time since last April, it is different in another way. No Genny Gibbs in her office.  She is away still recovering from some very serious surgery.  I can hardly stop myself from feeling suddenly vulnerable – is it age that is doing this?

There is a certain bravado we have when we are young – nothing will ever happen to me. The majority of us hang on blithely to that feeling unchallenged. But decades later, it is no longer possible to be so sanguine about the future. I would not have thought even for a second last year that I would not be able to get to the greenhouse then or for the rest of the growing season. Would Genny have thought the same thing? Probably not.

I enjoy the ritual of planting about a dozen kinds of seeds in a seed tray and then set them in the greenhouse, after misting. As I collect my things preparing to leave, I wonder again at the delicate nature of life. A well-known sage in India put it succinctly Life is like a drop of water on a lotus leaf.

I have no idea what Saint Patrick would really think about how he is remembered today. For me his day embodies the promise of Spring. His color is green too.  A reminder of how precious life is – and how ephemeral. Happy St Patrick’s Day! Happy Spring !!

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Let’s Not Pretend Anymore

After her recent loss in the election, Hillary Clinton appeared in public sans make-up. When questioned, she said she is done with hiding – behind makeup, hiding her feelings, her thoughts, her emotions. And who could blame her? Her opponent won after saying the most hurtful things to people of all stripes, insulting every group except his fan club – white males. The white women, also insulted still voted for him, shrugging off his insults as “boy talk”. Hillary, having thrown down the gauntlet, has issued a challenge to many – in fact her message is resonating with women in a way that her campaign speeches did not. For the first time, a lot of us are feeling an affinity to her greater then we felt throughout the year-long campaign. Can it be that finally we can say what we really feel? Can we finally stand up and say – it is not acceptable to comment on a women’s appearance. Ask a male colleague or friend: How would they like it if they received comments like “I don’t like your tie – you’ve put on weight since I say you last. Your hair looks terrible” etc etc. Are we then saying then no more social niceties? No, just that we want our appearance not to be part of the conversation all the time. We all know there are days when you feel like dressing up for your morning walk, and others when you want to be in your most comfortable clothes all day long. What is wrong with these choices? Women who never step out without makeup are reevaluating – do I really need to do this. Perhaps women, in asking for equality have to step up the game – it’s not a matter of equal pay alone, or respect for ourselves as individuals. It is also the right to be treated with respect and not commented upon at every stage.  Commenting to a female colleague “You look nice in that outfit” is out:  “Your comments at the meeting were insightful” is in. Women won the right to be in the workplace but it looks like we have not yet won the right to be treated as an equal- a contributing, able, productive colleague. In other settings, it is time to finally stand up to the catcalls, comments and innuendo. We don’t need that anymore.  It was not acceptable to be groped in a DTC bus in Delhi in the 1970s. It is not acceptable to have to brush away unwanted advances today either. We know when someone is being genuinely complimentary. Male or female, it is not ok to say “You have put on weight since I saw you last” to a friend.  Unless your friend is recovering from chemotherapy and is on the road to recovery. And to all the folks who think this is political correctness – no it is not. Before making a comment just follow this simple rule “Would I like someone to say that to me?” The Golden Rule is still a good one to go by. About women and their clothing. Have we gone too far? With baring bodies, with so-called fashionable clothes? How can we be taken seriously if all we do is draw attention to our appearance?  And yet our choices should not always be fair game. If someone chooses or does not choose to wear a bra, how is it anyone’s business – as long as she is covered? Let us give ourselves the freedom to make choices – not be bound by what everyone else might say. Clothes that are too tight or too short – seriously do you feel comfortable in them? Who has decided that it is ok to be uncomfortable, yet grit your teeth and smile? Wear 6-8 inch heels which kill your feet? We got rid corsets and stockings. How about going all the way? Yes and to bikins as well – are they really comfortable? Don’t they bite into you at all the wrong places? Try a more comfortable two-piece or one piece. Who has decreed that women have to be uncomfortable – and that is ok? There is a medium between too tight clothes and sweat pants – that’s the one maybe we should embrace. Even in our pretend play – let’s make it ok for little girls to not be little princesses all the time. Let them pretend to be kickass soccer players or swashbuckling pirates. Let’s update our children’s pretend play along with everything else. If this is the message of Hillary post- election, perhaps it is something to heed. Hillary – the smart Midwestern women who had to first change her appearance to be acceptable as first lady of a southern state. Hillary, who as first lady was first reviled for her health care plan – instead of being admired for her efforts, even if misguided . Hillary, who faced the humiliation when her husband the President was impeached – who stood up for her then? Would it have not been nice if she could have said, “What the President did was wrong – if he had done it as a private citizen, it would only have hurt his family. When he did it as a President, he hurt the presidency – it was an insult to the American people.” Wouldn’t it be nice if in the twenty-first century, a first lady does not have to dismiss her husband’s behavior as boy talk but hold him to a higher standard? Wouldn’t it be good if we all held each other to a higher standard? What is the use of calling ourselves educated and civilized if we cannot treat each other with respect? That’s a New Year resolution we can all make; a little thoughtful reflection and a resolve to watch our behavior and hold ourselves to a higher standard. It would certainly make 2017 brighter for all of us and make civil discourse a lot more pleasant.

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A Week to Fitness

Some of you know about my accident earlier in the year. For most immigrants who come here, its holiday time to meet with family and friends.  For me this time it is purposeful – and one of the purposes was to get treatment here for the residual effects of the accident.

So after the wedding, I’m down for a visit to my ayurvedic doctor. She gives me some medicines and then prescribes 7 days of special massage.  The first session which I schedule for 4.30 in the afternoon turns out to be a bad choice. The session starts off well with a drink of warm water and s check of blood pressure. My therapist is a smiling young lady.   First it is on to my stomach for a massage with warm oil. Then half an hour of navzil –  being rubbed down with  warm medicated rice in a pouch.  Unfortunately, I do not know the girl yet so I don’t tell her that the pressure she is using and being on my stomach for an hour does not agree with me. I finish the session and get home to an extremely queasy stomach which soon decides it does not want to hold on to the still undigested lunch. Dinner is half an idli followed by a sleepless night.

The next day session had been schedule for 7.30 am because it is my therapists off day and she only has a morning session slot. What follows is a sleepless night and queasy stomach. So I have to cancel the next appointment. Another consultation with my doctor and I realize all the things that I did wrong. So start again. Therapy at 11 am. Light breakfast. Spent half the session – neck and shoulders sitting up and only lie down for the lower back. My therapist is very apologetic.  I reassure her In regard to the pain I myself did not know my arm was still in such a bad shape. It hurts like it did 5 months ago! At USA, we had worked on my neck a lot so it was doing fine. My shoulder, arm and lower back however still need work.

The theory in the ayurvedic treatment is to allow the heat of the treatment to enter in and help reduce the inflammation and relax the muscles. Anju is amazed that at every session, I come up with a new spot to work on. It is like all the spots are waiting for their turn in the limelight. Each session ends with a warm water bath to remove the residues of the treatment.

So here I am one week later – whole and complete – I know there are still things I need to take care of in order to keep myself in good shape. Lessons learned. Thank you therapists and all. What a profession to be in – when your job is to reduce another’s pain. God bless you.

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