Fall Project : Plant a Tree

With September here, Autumn is round the corner.  This is a great time to plant a tree. I would like to suggest it as an activity for grandparents to do with their grandchildren – not just because of Grandparents day. There is nothing like the planting of tree that speaks of a grandparent’s optimism for the future. You are doing something, the full result of which you may not see. A tree may take 40 years to reach its full glory. Or plant one with your children or as a memorial to someone who passed away this year. There is nothing better you can do for the environment – trees provide shade thus helping to keep the house cool.  Trees take in carbon dioxide which is good for the environment.  Trees are fun things for children and grandchildren to climb on or swing from.  Trees provide flowers in spring, fruit for us and for the birds and nuts for those pesky squirrels.

I live in a park-like setting – on over two acres, generously sprinkled with trees. Some I have planted, others I inherited. My recommendations come from living in this setting for 25 years. Central Illinois is not the easiest place to live in –for us or for the trees. Snowstorms, ice storms, tornadoes, heat, humidity, hot, dry spells and flooding are all things to expect. So it is only natural and necessary to first consider which trees have withstood these conditions the best – after all you are planting something that you hope will live for decades.

On the south side, many trees have not survived; others have struggled. The ornamental pear got knocked down one spring in 2001. The tree became fire wood – but something came back from the ground. Two saplings emerged. I did not cut any of them so they grow as one tree. This may be in their best interest because we all know the tendency to split open.  In this setting right now, as each has its own trunk, perhaps it will survive. The Buckeye gets pretty, white flowers every spring but ever since the advent of Japanese beetles in the past five years, by August, the tree has been stripped. The sugar maple which I had planted, I later learned it does not like a southern exposure. The top leaves are scorched, but it does provide welcome shade to the sunroom. The cork willow is a great addition with its whimsical, crooked wavy branches, which are very sought-after for flower arrangements but it has a huge gaping hole in it. The silver maple is huge and offers great shade, but everybody knows its disadvantages – shallow roots which get into the way of the mower and its tendency to drop branches.

Among fruit bearing trees, the Peach tree died some 23 years ago. We enjoyed the peaches for just two seasons. A sour cherry tree gets the sunscald and is not looking pretty. Its companion is already history.  A bing cherry tree planted on the northeast, lived a few years but did not survive the 9 inches of rain we received last June.  Two apple trees have not survived – I was told they are not expected to last more than 20-30 years. Among recent additions of dwarf apple and pear trees planted – three and two of them respectively – the winner is yellow delicious apple – the much touted Honey crisp gets consumed by Japanese beetles.

For the newer additions to the garden, I planted a Linden tree a few years ago, but gave up when the Japanese beetles came to town.  I even covered the young tree up one season with bridal netting! In its place, I planted a Magnolia Butterflies over a year ago. I was anxiously waiting for the pretty yellow flowers – instead the ice storm that destroyed so many trees last winter knocked off several branches– though it did leave a few. The next few years will tell if it can survive in this setting.

Finally the Ash trees – what can I say about them? Two beautiful specimens provided welcome shade to the deck. One large branch of one did break off a few winters ago. But it seemed to be doing well last season.  After this winter, one look at it was enough to confirm the worst – the emerald ash borer has taken over – they will both be history soon.

Other sides of the house the trees fare a little better – although the Austrian pines have not survived nor the Serbian spruce. So given this history, what are my recommendations?

First, for an understory trees there is not better choice than a Redbud.  An understory tree is one that grows in the shade of larger trees. The one we have was literally a twig handed out one Arbor Day at the Forest Park Nature Center – to my son. Being 10 years old and an optimist and energetic, he and his friend dug the hole, dragged over a bag of good soil and planted it. Now over a decade later, every spring we can enjoy its beautiful pink flowers and the heart-shaped leaves that follow.

For smaller spring flowering trees another winner is Crabapple Prairie fire. Having had to look at the two prominently displayed  specimens in the yard  opposite and seeing how dreadful they looked by late summer – I was very cautious, but have been won over by Prairie fire. It still has leaves in fall, berries that the birds love, and pretty spring flowers.

     Sweet Gum. This tree also had an unfortunate first few years- a summer drought when I was away and the main leader all dried up. But I let one of the adventitious buds grow and now the 20 foot tree- which is columnar, has neat star-shaped leaves all season and gorgeous fall color well worth the wait. I have not encountered any annoying fruits, which I was warned about. I suspect I was able to get one of the non-fruiting varieties, which are available.

      Honey Locust Skyline. This I planted by myself and is easily by best success. The thorn less varieties now available have no problems- no known pests. They provide good green leaves in spring offering dappled shade, and pretty yellow fall color. The leaves are so small they do not need raking.

In our area, maples and oaks are favorites and considered safe options. In our town of Washington, a recent post-tornado tree inventory found 30 percent of the trees on common areas were maples –so we like to suggest other alternatives to people. Incidently, the one tree I notice that survived the tornado amount the newly planted trees were the beeches – their ability to bend perhaps.

Among evergreens, few are able to withstand the weather conditions here. One good choice is a Colorado Blue Spruce Fat Albert is a good choice. The needles are pretty blue color and the tree does not grow too tall. It did bend over during our last ice storm but was straightened right back.

Finally another surprising winner in my park-like garden – the Walnut tree. Common in older yards one rarely finds them in nurseries. The positive aspects are the angle – the crotch between the stem and the branch – almost providing a 90 degree angle helps it withstand storms, rain and ice storms.  I have two of them – they grow slowly but are gradually providing delightful shade. I was told that the roots give out juglone, a poison for other plants but have not found that a problem. I have successfully grown both hostas and irises under them. There are several plants that do well under them.  The leaves start turning yellow in late summer itself and are small enough that they do not need raking. How about those walnuts? Well the squirrels enjoy them, and anything that can keep them away from the birdfeeders is a plus!

Just do not let this fall go by without planting a tree. Then, as you sit back and enjoy the beautiful spectacle of the falling leaves this autumn – the yellows and purples, tawny oranges and browns, you can feel good that you have done something – be it a small something to help this planet we call our home. Happy Gardening!

 

 

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A Perfect Day

 

Today was a perfect day.  Those of you who know me, might know that I do not like to use the P word. I have been known to say only God is perfect. True enough. Then I was just fortunate enough to have been given a perfect day.

In what way, you ask?  Firstly the weather was perfect- highs in the low 80s, lows in the 60s.  No wind. Less humidity. What more can one ask for in August?

Then, there was absolutely nothing I needed to do. No agenda. At all.

We got back from our east coast trip on Tuesday and ofcourse there has been so much to do.  The next four days were a flurry of activity.  It culminated in that stormy Friday with me having the mother of all migraines.  But this morning I woke up truly well- rested and checked my to-do list. Laundry? Completed, folded and put  away.  Grocery shopping? All done. Yes I did get the cleaning ladies to come on Saturday – so house cleaning, check. All mail had been taken care of. No emails to send.   Talked to all family members. Whew.

The vacation was wonderful – we met friends and family, spent quality time with them. We also did some sight- seeing – viewed Lady Liberty up close. Stood in a great big hall on Ellis Island where we understand over 12 million immigrants came through to enter this country. Attended a week-long spiritual camp. All very enjoyable and rejuvenating.  But no pain-free days yet.

So we come now to today – A Sunday, with nothing to do. It got me thinking – when I was young, having a Sunday with nothing to do was the most boring thing imaginable. Now, not having anything to do is my idea of bliss. How amazing indeed!

But the best part of all – I had no pain. The first day in forever – well since the accident, that I had no pain.  After getting back, all the doctors seem to tell me the same thing – that I am not back to baseline.  My body still is not where it was before the accident. I need another month of treatment – not an exciting prospect.

So how did the garden do in the past three weeks? I entrusted it to Mother Nature and John (our handyman) and both did their part. It appears that it was not too scorching while I was away. And it rained just enough. John took care of the mowing and pruning – so all looks very well. A couple of container plants did not survive. But the vegetables look healthy – and the first tomatoes red and juicy and ready to harvest  which I did,–along with some chilli and banana peppers. And the perennials and annuals planted just before leaving all survived.

So what did I do with my perfect day? A little cleaning, a little cooking. I read a book and took a nap.  I was able to spend two hours in the yard, pulling up two wheelbarrows full of weeds, tossed into the burn pile, and mulched two beds. I was a little stiff after that but still no pain.

I hope I am not about to jinx it. But still it’s a good place to be. I  got here not without a lot of help – a lot of work goes into this business of healing. Also not without the thoughts and prayers and best wishes of so many people. I thank you all for that.

I ended the day, watching a little Olympics action. And taking to my lovely daughter-in-law.

Then I typed this blog post.

A perfect day indeed.  Now all I have to do is multiply this day by 364.

 

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Before We leave

 

Before one leaves for a vacation, there are so many things to do. For a gardener, the list is endless. Most of us take vacations in July or August. That’s when it is HOT. And humid.  Conditions tough for most plants. One has to leave the garden to the care of Mother Nature.

Out of the endless list, I try to prioritize. First selective watering – to the vegetables, roses and hydrangeas. All are in full sun.  There will be no vegetables to harvest if the plants dry up. The roses need deep watering and will reward you with the second blush of blooms in September if they are well watered. I have also (selectively) sprayed them with insecticidal soap to keep those pesky Japanese beetles at bay. The hydrangeas will sulk if they dry out a lot. So they get preference over other perennials

I also try to mulch – again selectively. In my garden with 20 planted areas, there never is enough mulch to go around. Again I prioritize – the vegetables, rose and hydrangeas so they lose water more slowly. Add to that, new plantings.

Mid to late summer is when the nurseries (and big box stores) offer a wide selection of plants at bargain prices. If you are like me, you already have succumbed to the allure of the “late season bargain” plants. How do you get them into the ground, well-watered and settled before you leave? It is certainly a challenge.

This year’s selections were some wave petunias, a Jacob’s ladder ‘Heavenly Habit’ for the hint of blue area in the front bed. Seriously, who can resist such a name? A pink Penstemon ‘Mystica’, to be a companion to the Huskers Red I already have. And in honor of the upcoming Olympics, two roses: ‘Tournament of Roses’– pretty peachy pink roses, with a light scent.  And ‘Olympiad’ – with it bold red, velvet blossoms. The advantage of buying roses at this time is that (other than the bargain prices) many will still have a few buds and blooms so you know what you are buying.

In past years, I have done these summer plantings and some have not survived. I try to improve the odds by avoiding one mistake – improper planting. So you newby gardeners, make sure that you make the hole for the root ball big enough and deep enough so the whole of it is completely below ground. Do not plant them higher and pile a bunch of soil on the partially exposed root ball and hope the plant will sink in. A good analogy: those crop pants with the exposed ankles may look really trendy in summer – but try wearing them on a freezing day in December. Not so fun. Those exposed roots feel exactly the same way.

Now about the most tedious chore of all – weeding. It is simply not possible to get all the weeds out. I do not like using a hoe – it has rarely worked for me. I come back and find the weed has grown double in size. But it is still a good idea to cut off the tops. Then the weeds will not flower and fruit and spread their seeds before you get back from vacation.

That’s all I have time for – there are still errand to run, and packing to be done. I will try to take some photos while on vacation but do not look for selfies from me. I find the obsession somewhat narcissistic – and my eyes still look so tired.

Leaving for vacation will give my body and my mind time to heal and rest. Leaving my garden to the care of Mother Nature teaches me another lesson – not to be a control freak. I am constantly amazed when I get back – be it a few days or few weeks later – how well the garden looks. If it is night time when I get home from wherever I have gone, it is such a delightful experience next morning to jump out of bed and open the curtains to see how the garden has fared in my absence. Happy Gardening and happy vacationing!!!

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So this is it?

So this is it? The season without a garden? No plump juicy tomatoes. No bright green and red chilies hanging like Christmas lights? No crisp cucumbers that separate ever so gently from the stem at a lightest pull? No large, green, leafy Swiss Chard with their bright red stems and leaves shaped like a monsters hand? No Carnival Mix bell peppers – playing the guessing game: will this one we purple? Or red? Or orange?

Why, you ask? For starters, a car accident in spring which thankfully spared by life and my bones (but not my car) left me with soft tissue damage and intermittent and sometimes severe pain in my neck, right shoulder and hand. My only son’s wedding in late May which involved months of planning, a trip to India etc. etc.  but thanks to all went off without any glitches.

Back to life after that: clearing the house, catching up on chores. Post-accident, talking to insurance agents, damage assessors, adjusters and who knows who else.  Yes, the car was totaled.  Because of that, arranging for rental cars, discussions about who pays.  Finally a car settlement, and voila! Finally a car again! No time for a garden indeed.

Through all of this, umpteen doctor appointments, medical tests and therapies. New experiences of CT scans of head and of lungs. Other experiences of concussions and cold sweats, and nasty reactions to medicines. And sharp and persistent pain in my neck, shoulder and right arm.

Perhaps it’s just as well, I say when I finally am able to take a stroll to my garden patch. The long stretch of black plastic looks so forlorn, with a few random weeds poking through. Suddenly at the far end of the row, there it is – I start in astonishment – a volunteer tomato plant poking through in the little square, looking quite at home as if I had planted it!

Does one need any more incentive? Surely this is the goal I need, to get over the fatigue and pain. I have a few tomato seedlings (started before the accident). No ripping out the plastic and rototilling this time. I just make a hole just where I had made it last year. Fill it with manure and plonk one seedling in. The cages are close by to put around each one. Soon I have one row of tomato seedlings.

The raised bed has been cleared and accommodates a set of three sweet peppers, carnival mix, also started earlier. Soon they are joined by store-bought Banana Peppers and basil.

And the flower garden? It’s a sea of white daisies. Through them, the first blush of roses in early June – crystal fairy, honey perfume, gold medal and Queen Elizabeth, just burst out as if they just want to join the symphony. Not to speak of the roses in the new rose bed, the names of which I do not even remember. A delphinium, blue allium and blue fescue in the front garden – adding a touch of blue I have tried for years to achieve. The lavender is flowering! The stella d’ ores, flushed with yellow radiance burst out like a bouquet of flowers.

Its only early June, there is plenty of time to plant a garden. Sure enough as June ebbs away, the pain subsides, the fatigue reduces. As I stroll through the garden now, the daisies are spent – I need to get help to pull them all out. And yes, its Japanese beetle time – especially for the apple and the Buckeye. Yes, there appears to be fire blight on the pear tree.

Will there be a harvest this fall? Stay tuned. One thing is for sure – you can take me out of the garden but you cannot take the garden out of me…..

Gardeners all share three things in common; patience, imagination and hope. Almost everything you plant does not give you immediate reward – one has to wait.   For me, I realize that when I do plant, I am not planting a tomato or a pepper or even a rose. I am planting hope. And who can live without that?  I don’t have my life back yet, but I do have hope that one day very soon, I will….  Happy Gardening.

 

 

 

 

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The Time to be Happy is Now!

Every Christmas, I make it down to the basement, haul up three boxes and go about the task of decorating my home. As I unwrap the santas and snowmen, the handmade ornaments made by my son as a child, nostalgia is always a part of the process. At the bottom of one of the boxes, inevitably, I will reach one of the items most meaningful to me. As I take it gently out of its wrapping and set it on a plate stand on the shelf above my washer and dryer, I again  gaze at it and give myself the luxury of a few minutes to read and reflect on its beauty and its meaning. At the center of the decorative plate is a lovely evergreen tree, outside somewhere, with two bright red cardinals, on the branches. On either side of the tree are a little boy and a little girl happily playing, skipping around the tree.  Over the top of the plate is a saying: The Time to be Happy is Now. Below is the inscription:  Christmas 1973. I live in a town which has a bunch of antique stares around an old-fashioned Square. I found the plate at one of the shops at the Washington Square. At the time when I found it, I was in a job which totally met my qualifications and experience in every way.  And I was miserable. The reasons are too numerous to enumerate here. I was in middle management, I felt besieged, with support neither from the top nor from the staff I supervised.  On top of that, I had a young son in day care. The daycare was in my building but I could not help feeling I was short-changing him as well as feeling miserable in my job. Soon thereafter, I resigned from that position – not taking a full-time position after that for many years. Over the years, I have explored a variety of other fields. I leveraged my expertise in special needs to start a school for children with special needs in India, and a not-for profit foundation here in USA to support it.  I pursued my long-time interest in gardening, by involving myself in a local garden club and became a Master Gardener, and worked on many associated projects. I involved myself in many activities in my son’s school, and in the community. I went back to my early love and interest in writing – and, this year, finally published my first book of fiction. Would I have done all of these things, if I had not taken the step I did?  Perhaps it was not the career I had anticipated. Whether it was the best use of my time or not – I was being true to that saying and being happy in the now. Every year, at least once a year, I reflect on the saying on that plate, as I set it out for the season. I know some might say that many of us cannot afford the luxury of thinking of happiness. But truly what is the point of living any other way? The only time that each of us has is Now isn’t it? I hesitate to say this for fear that some might think I am advocating hedonism – an eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die sort of thing. That is not what I am advocating. I ask you to think of this – are you happy now? Be honest as you answer this. Perhaps you are in a relationship that is shaky. Perhaps you feel you should be spending more time with someone; your child, your mother or your significant other. What are you waiting for?  The thing about time is that it is moving for everyone. If you put this off, will there still be time for you or them tomorrow? There are no guarantees. This is a reflection about time as much as it is about happiness. There are friends who I lost touch with because I was too busy, I would catch up with them later, I thought. But later has been too late. Children cannot wait – if you wait for later, they have changed. You have lost that opportunity – that time you had which you spent on something else. As we approach the end of the year, perhaps you have a few hours or even a few minutes for yourself. As you go through your day, baking cookies, shopping for gifts and then wrapping them, I give you this little gift: The Time to Be Happy is Now! Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year !!

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On Trees

I have often gained reassurance from trees – from the first tender leaves on the trees in February, so beautiful, so vulnerable. From the leaves now deep green under the March sun – so confident in their maturity. From the fiery blossoms of a Gul Mohr tree in May, defiant and triumphant. From the cool shade under a Neem tree in June, a haven in the hot, parched earth, from the Jamun tree laden with fruit, so joyous in its fulfillment, from the bare branches of a tree in December, resigned but confident. This is not the end but the whole purpose of the beginning. Our life cycles, started a very long time ago. We cannot stop the clock; prevent the hand of time from ticking away the passing years. We can only accept nature’s law, the inevitability of it all, that life will unfold the way it always has done, that time will silver that dark hair. If we accepted that, how much more we will enjoy our moments of joy, as fulfillment of nature’s plans that we can have little control over. Living in the moment, enjoying it to the fullest – can that not be a way of life?  This was a piece written when I lived in New Delhi – perhaps sometime in the 1970s. My love for trees has continued throughout my life – now in the United States. I try to practice the wisdom of that younger self.  It’s not easy but it is certainly worth trying, don’t you think?

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Choose the Best

Do we appreciate the advantages of our age?  The choices that are now available to us? Now that we are released from blind tradition, that we can “choose” the best of each age, each culture.

I value that choice. For then, I can take what I value from each one. For me, America is not just today’s technological whizz kid. It is the pioneer America I wonder about – the spirit that made men and women leave all and try anew in a new land with naught but faith, hope and labor – the brave pioneer. I take from the British their humor and sense of the ridiculous and a certain meticulousness. From China antiquity and moderation, from Japan industry, from French “chic,” from Italians their warmth, from South East Asians their quiet poise.

And what from India? Synthesis and improvisation – there is a process that flows deeply there I can’t quite give it a name but what has kept it alive for millennium. For sheer endurance, one cannot beat India, for persisting despite all she has been put through, and that comes from flexibility; a way of incorporating the incongruous, the alien and the absurd.

What I wish today is just this – let us be open to admire and emulate the best which each culture has to offer. For none have ever known the whole truth; each has found a particular aspect and polished it up – let us take those strengths and see how they face up to today.

And then let us choose and choose well. Choose the kind of life we want and not be carried away by catch phrases such as quality of life. For while all can perhaps agree about the necessities of life no two humans could perhaps define this quality in the same way.

This is a piece I wrote many years ago in India when I was working as an Editorial Assistant for a book agency in New Delhi. It was inspired by the range of books that landed on my desk and which I had to peruse and often write a blurb for, for the dust jacket or other publicity material.

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Welcome to My Blog

It is not every day one gets to communicate with folks far and near, across the world.  The cyber medium has made that possible.  Communication is easier and yet more ephemeral. Writing – putting ink on paper was the medium used for personal communication for centuries. The invention of the printing press made it possible for the print medium. That became the way folks communicated in a formal way – in newspapers, magazines and books. These were harder to come by then personal letters but they were tangible. Once produced, the readers were able to hold them in their hands.  The tangible feeling of a book is how I remember my hours of reading – lying in a dark room on a hot, summer afternoon at my home in New Delhi, turning the pages of another book – until one’s eyes got sleepy and one dozed off for an afternoon siesta.

But this is the new age – the wonder of the 21st century that has changed all that.  First came the computer and word processing.  A word, a sentence, a paragraph can be written and rewritten so easily. Just a few taps, back and forth can change and form and blend. Now one can type ones thoughts in no particular order and then arrange them with cut and paste. Then even more wondrous – a few strokes and one can share ones thoughts with anyone over the internet, across the world.  Its quick, it’s efficient, it’s immediate. It’s ephemeral.

Nothing tangible to touch or feel. There are other consequences as well. No editor standing between journalist blogger and printed blog. That makes it up to you, the reader to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Is all this cyber material going to survive? Will it be there for posterity? Perhaps no one can answer that. For myself, this I can say. Some of what you may see in this blog came from a younger me – yes written on paper, a couple of journals and a sheaf of paper which I did salvage and brought to this country as an immigrant, a young bride.

Then there are pieces I have written over the past thirty years, here in America.  Topics may vary – they may be simple thoughts or something with some bite in it. But I hope I know enough not to underestimate your intelligence. Also I will make sure that I stay within the limits I set for myself. Be honest but be respectful. That will be my motto.

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Book Signing – An Unfortunate Accident

On a sunny March afternoon, when there was finally a hint of spring in the air, I had a Book Signing for An Unfortunate Accident at I Know You Like a Book. Located in Peoria Heights, this independent book store was a great venue for a debut novelist. An independent book store “where books and wine meet,” this is a venue worth a visit for all book-lovers.  It provided great atmosphere and, surrounded by books, I felt awed indeed to think that in some small way, I had entered the august company of published authors. I would like to extend a special thank you to friends who stopped by.

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