Solarium Magic

The son came and tugged me to the newly opened section in our local library. His eyes were shining as he said, “Come on! I found something that you’re going to love!” I cannot deny that I love it when something like this happens, and smiled. Off we went, climbing two stairs at a time. Christened ‘The Solarium’, it nestles in a sunlit section of the building – like a mini glass house, it basks there in the warmth of the Californian sun, and doing the good quiet work that is hardest of them all- converting sunlight to food. The area is dedicated to making gardeners of us all – there are seedling packets with instructions on how to sow and grow the seeds given to us. There are books on gardening nearby.  Feeble attempts to capture the glory and wonder of the real work.

I admit it, it has since become one of my favorite places in the library. I am in awe of gardeners – true magicians of the Earth I call them. My own feeble attempts at coaxing life to take root and thrive, only reiterate the power of the simple garden. I was talking to the son as to how we must all learn to grow our own food, make our own food, learn to sew and stitch out clothes etc. More and more, we live in a world where these simple things are becoming separated by layers of machinations and supply chain mechanics. 

When we were in Epcot (Disney World, Florida) a few years ago, I remember the children seeing the plants from which their beloved tomatoes and eggplants grew with awe. City children typically do not see these marvels of nature slowly doing their work, conscientiously and relentlessly.

Epcot green house

It was probably propitious that I should have found the book, The Blue Book of Nebo by Manon Steffan Ros, just then in the new fiction shelf. The book is set in a time after a nuclear war, and how very very few people have survived the disaster. The mother-son duo manage to grow food for themselves in a glass house, and learn to thrive on their own. It is a fascinating read. It is by no means unique, but the narrative style is appealing and slowly draws you in. It is also something that I am sure everyone thinks of occasionally – the sad aftermath of an apocalypse. What would we do? Who would survive and how will they live? So many of our solutions depend on power. 

Mulling over these things early one morning, is when I heard about the ProtoVillage from one of my friends. 

Protovillage.org

  • Grow your own food, 
  • Make your own food
  • Weave your own clothes
  • Build your own home 

Inspired, I emptied the seeds from the Solarium, into a moist patch of mud in the backyard and watched as slowly, a few weeks later, little shoots and leaves sprouted from the Earth. I may have danced a jig.

“Nature never hurries, yet accomplishes everything.”

Lao Tzu

Time in the Garden

Regular readers know how much I enjoy nature and gardens. It is one of life’s ironies that my plants only thrive despite my loving care, and  many is the time I have made bloomers in the little patch I tend to. However, never one to shy away from blooming from the bloomers, I picked up this book, Life in the Garden, By Penelope Lively. 

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Lively begins by examining the gardens in Literature starting with the Garden of Eden, and working  her way through other fantastical gardens in the books, The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland and the beloved gardens of dear, absent-minded Lord Emsworth’s at Blandings castle. 

She examines the writing and finds out which of the writers are gardeners themselves and which of them have merely picked up the scenery from a gardening catalog. She teases the co-ordination of colors, the seasonality of the plants themselves in the landscapes and has given me an entirely different appreciation of gardens. 

Some passages are especially endearing and made me want to read them again. Especially her meditations on time, the gardener and the garden itself. 

I quote from her book: 

“To garden is to elide past, present and future; it is a defiance of time. You garden today for tomorrow; the garden mutates from season to season, always the same, but always different. … In autumn, I plant up a pot of “Tete-a-Tete” daffodils, seeing in the minds eye what they will look like in February. We are always gardening for a future we are supposing, assuming, a future. I am doing that at eighty-three; the hydrangea paniculata “Limelight” I have just put in will outlast me, in all probability, but I am requiring it to perform while I can still enjoy it.”

“The great defiance of time is our capacity to remember – the power of memory. Time streams away behind us, and beyond, but individual memory shapes for each of us, a known place. We own a particular piece of time; I was there then, I did this, saw tear, felt thus.”

She goes on to say, 

“A garden is never just now; it suggests yesterday, and tomorrow; it does not allow time its steady progress. “

Certainly, for me, part of the appeal of gardening is this ambivalent relationship with time; the garden performs in cycles, it reflects the seasons, but it also remembers and anticipates, and in so doing takes the gardener with it.”

As I look out the window at my clover-filled backyard with some foxgloves looking happy amidst the narcissi blossoms and the newly sprouted cherry leaves after their spectacular show of cherry blossoms, and the rose buds ready to burst forth in a few weeks,I cannot help feel the lessons nature is teaching us. Be forward looking – always, nurture what is important, and enjoy the passage of time. One moment at a time. Every flower has its chance to bloom and fade.

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Gardens are enduring lessons in hope. I cannot tell you the number of times, I have planted something in October and been surprised when they bloom in April, or the number of times, I have been pleasantly surprised that something  thrived  at all. 

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all – 

Emily Dickinson – Hope

I am lackadaisical at best with my gardening and it shows. I have a minuscule patch that seriously  has more air-time on the blog than the square feet it occupies. Yet, it gives me immense pleasure, peace and calm. Spurred on by the book, I went outside to take a more active role in the tending of my plants. I have been admiring the sweet peas plants that have sprouted in the garden. Some time ago, I got a packet of sweet  pea seeds from our local library. Thrilled at finding them, I scattered them by the apricot tree and forgot about them. The plants are thriving now, quite tall, and seem to be sagging. So, I went – “Coming dears! Here I am to take care  of you!”, I said, in my best nurturing voice and tried to prop up the plants as best as I could, in the process, breaking off one of the plants’ main stems.

If the plants in my patch could talk, they would’ve chorused – “Go inside – we know you  love us, just let us thrive! Breaking off our stems indeed!”

Do-Nothing Cooking

It was a mild and breezy week-end morning. “Yeah! We are going to work in the garden today! In the garden! In the garden!” I heard the song gain in strength as the gardeners thumped upstairs. “Get up amma!”, they called. I was lingering on in bed, savoring the warmth of the summer quilt.

“What is this?” I asked a little later. The husband was back from somewhere brandishing several sinusoidal wave-like sticks of blue. Could they be fancy walking sticks?

“No – silly. These are for the tomatoes.”

“Yes – don’t you want large tomatoes from the plants? Look, they are already sagging outside.”, said the father-in-law pointing to his pride and joy in the garden. “The rasam can be even tastier with these tomatoes.”, he said with a sly grin on his face.

“Can you make rasam without tomatoes? I just don’t like tomatoes but I like the rasam otherwise.” said the daughter.

This I-Don’t-Like-Tomatoes theme was getting a bit tiring. I rolled my eyes, and stamped my foot in exasperation. “I do not know how to make tomato rasam without tomatoes! Let me know when you make it. ”

“Okay okay! Sheesh kababs! No need to get all cranky if you don’t know how to cook something.” she said and made off to the garden dragging her little brother with her to help her grandfather.

“Make rasam without tomatoes indeed!” I muttered to myself as I gathered the garlic, cumin, pepper, tamarind and tomatoes for rasam. Once the rasam was comfortably simmering, I went back and forth from the kitchen to the garden. Every now and then I was beset upon to give directions and suggestions for the garden. I asked for an old rose plant and the star jasmine creeper to be pruned.

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“But they are poonchedis ” said the father-in-law reluctant to cut flowering plants. South Indians have this strange, but endearing affection with flowering plants. I assured him pruning was good.

The children were busy discussing how to plant the other little flowers and herbs in the garden. The son was looking mighty impressed with himself for he was patted with admiration by his elder sister on the gardening tip he had provided.

“If you put a garlic in the herb garden, then nothing will happen – you know? Nothing. Yes. Ms Lara told us that. No insects will come.”

“Really? We can do that.”

“What?! Do we have garlic in the house? I didn’t know that!”

“Of course we have garlic in the house! How else do you think we can do any Indian cooking you little diddle gump?”, said the chef, who wanted to make tomato rasam without tomatoes.

The little brother was suitably impressed and a few frozen cloves of garlic made its way to the patch containing the Thai basil leaves.

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I looked at the father-in-law. He was tackling the unruly star jasmine creeper with energy. The jasmine had crept up the adjoining fir and cherry trees and was busy making its way past the garden fence. I saw the intense concentration on his face, and surveyed the garden. He must have taken lessons from the barber in the best army in a past life, for the trees had an efficient crewcut demeanor when he was done with them.

The whole scene reminded me of a short story, Annamalai, by R.K.Narayan in The Grandmother’s Tales. The story is about a gardener who had stopped on with him. The gardeners horticultural knowledge and classifications are simple. All flowering plants were ‘poonchedis’ while non-flowering plants were ‘not poonchedis’. The story writes of his taking charge of the garden and how sometimes he would go on a rampage and prune everything in sight, and the garden wore a threadbare, forlorn look for a few days afterward. At other times, he let things be, and the garden flourished anyway. It is a beautiful story that transports you to a little garden in South India almost instantly.

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I smiled thinking of the story. My horticultural knowledge is as woeful as that gardener’s, and my father-in-law’s botanical classification was equally simple. However, I hope our garden too thrives. Maybe we will become the best advocates of the Do-Nothing farming that Farmer Fukuoka speaks so highly of in the Biomimicry book by Janine Benyus.

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Quote from Biomimicry book:

A young man named Masonobu Fukuouka took a walk that would change his life. As he strolled along a rural road, he spotted a rice plant in a ditch, a volunteer growing not from a clean slate of soil but from a tangle of fallen rice stalks.

This proved an inspiration for the young boy : how a grain thrived without the need for coddling and soaking in water canals and so on.

Over the years Fukuoka would turn this secret into a system called Do-Nothing farming because it requires almost no labor on his part and yet his yields are among the highest in Japan. His recipe, fine tuned through trial and error, mimics nature’s trick of succession and soil covering . “It took me 30 years to develop such simplicity” says Fukuoka.

Instead of working harder, he whittled away unnecessary agricultural practices one by one, asking what he could stop doing rather than what he could do.

A sizzling sound alerted me to the rasam simmering over its sides. I charged into the kitchen wondering how to better the Do-Nothing cooking technique.

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