Saturday, December 8, 2018

Winter warmth

It's winter. The entire garden (not just the north slopes) are covered with a crackly layer of frost every morning, the bird bath has a layer of ice on it, and the chickens have morphed into little plant-destroying terrors. But here is the surprisingly warm round up of what's happening:
1. Strawberry! The first fruit on our alpine strawberries. Hopefully, this spring will bring many more.

2. Cotoneaster. This is not in my garden. This is along a path the dogs and I walk often. I have tried taking cuttings indoors and outdoors, in winter and the monsoon, hardwood and softwood, and failed each time. This winter, I plan to sneak down and take a plant. A crime, I know. But look at it!

3. Tilling. The winter is the time when I resist local ecological knowledge. The thing to do here is have nicely tilled beds around fruit trees and in the kitchen garden. So every year, G hires minions to dig up the terraces. To me, it is a waste of topsoil and microorganisms to expose the soil to the frost. And so, after they are done tilling, I go around the garden like an evil gnome undoing all their stellar work and dumping leaves and sticks (to keep the leaves from blowing away) around the plants. Why do I not use compost instead? One, I do not have that much compost and two, the chickens will eat it all.

4. Wildlife refuge. I do not cut back my salvia and chrysanthemums all winter. They do look a mess, but I am rewarded when I walk out in the mornings and see the little thrushes that roost there. So the mess stays.

5. On the other end of the scale, this bare and sad dug up patch will be a new garden soon. It is in the square courtyard near Mian's bakery where the Kiwi trellis is. And I want a yellow and white garden here. The area is very shady and so the rose will be happier moved. There I will plant ferns and the lovely Hedychium spicatum which grows wild here. But first comes the adding compost and the mulching.

 6. Mullein: My seed scattering experiments failed this summer. (Or maybe they didn't. Maybe I just need to wait till spring). But now I am eager to try taking root cuttings. Gardener's World, to which I have become a trifle addicted during these long winter evenings, assures me that nothing could be easier. Well, let's see.

As always, Six-on-Saturday is hosted by the very talented Propagator. Do head on over to his blog and check out the other gardens!

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Honey, I strained the wax

The last time Mian and I processed our honey, we did it the hard way by squeezing the combs through a ricer. Not only was it a very difficult and messy process, but we also lost a lot of honey.

This time, I asked G how people here managed it. "I have never done it", he replied. "But my father just boils it all together and then removes the wax."

Genius! And that is what I did.
Here are our combs

And here they are being gently melted down using a double-boiler setup.
Once it was all melted down, I put the bowl into the fridge overnight. In the morning, the wax and sludge had risen to the top, with fairly clean honey at the bottom.
Here it is:
What was left was some very sticky wax with honey in it. I put that out, along with the bowl and spatula.
The bees seemed happy to reclaim atleast some of what had been stolen from them.Here are closeups

Monday, November 26, 2018


It started when G came and told us his hive had yielded 4kg of honey. So far, our total yield over the last few years has been 200 gms. We would check our bees, we decided.

I spent the morning sewing a veil onto my sun hat. The next day, G came over with some clay to seal up the hive again, we cut up a cotton towel to burn for smoke, and gathered our bee-broom and knife.

G opened the hive as Mian and I hovered anxiously by. The first feeling was disappointment, the comb in front of us was empty.
 The second was concern. The back of the door was covered in what we thought was water but turned out to be some sort of transparent slime. Does anyone know what it is? I tasted it (not a good idea with an unknown substance, please don't do as I do) and it was tasteless. Will it harm the bees? Is it a mould?

and then of course, it was decision time. To take the honey or not? G sliced off the first two empty combs as I held the smoker, a plate, and a torch. The remaining combs did have honey.

We took two, and had a debate whether to take another one or not. Not, we decided and left the bees with three combs to tide them over the winter (I also feed them jaggery once all the flowers are gone).

Once that was done, G sealed up the hive again while I trundled back and forth carrying the bees that were trapped in the window to the porch.

Once that was done, I went to begin straining the honey and was startled by a rhythmic movement in the bowl. Part of the combs were brood combs. Now that was awkward. And very upsetting.

Too late to undo that.

Here is our harvest-
The honey combs
 And the unfortunate 'waste'
I will render the empty combs we removed down to beeswax and make some Christmas gifts, but the brood comb is too difficult (and yucky) to clarify properly. I will just throw those away, I am afraid.
After I separated the brood comb from the honey comb, I began to clarify the honey. And that is another story. 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

A mixed bag on Saturday

Winter is supposed to be a time of rest. Instead, Mian and I find ourselves Red-Queening our way through the days, scrambling to not fall too far behind. We were travelling for the last two weeks and returned to find the persimmons clamouring for attention.And the 50Kg of Malta we had ordered arrived.  So I am now back to the relentless peeling, pulping, boiling, bottling that means winter to me.
But here is what is going on in my garden:
1. Veggies: Miraculously, we are still eating quite a bit from our garden. True, radishes seem to make up a rather large part of our diet, but did you see anything as simultaneously summery and christmassy as these tomatoes?

2. Raat Rani: Or the night-flowering jasmine. I tried and killed two plants before this one survived in a frost-protected spot. The first blossom is out, and I am in love.

3. Dianthus 'sooty': The jasmine is a surprise, the dianthus is an old reliable. It never has too many flowers, but always manages to produce a scent-filled jewel or two throughout the winter

4. Aphids: Otherwise known as the bane of my existence. I presently have them on my strawberries and my star jasmine. I spray with a mixture of soap water and neem oil, but it is another Red Queen struggle. Does anyone have any other suggestions?

5. Decisions: Here is the view from our patio where we spend most of our afternoons. I am undecided what to do about the suckers around the persimmon. One option is to remove them, of course. Then I get an open view (but lose privacy) and the tree looks pretty. The other is to just thin them out to maybe a half dozen stems and then in a few years remove the tree so that I get a multi-stemmed short persimmon tree which will be easy to harvest. What do you think? And please excuse the poor beheaded plum on the left- that was before my time, and I don't have the heart to take it out entirely

6. Dianthus Imperialis: This is the fortnight of it's glory. And what glory it is! My oldest bunch is now five years old, and for the last three years, I have been planting a stem or two every year. All for this joy.

Please do go on over to The Propagator's blog to visit other Six-on-Saturdayers!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Six things I am grateful for

I don't regret my mother's passing; she was in so much discomfort at the end that it would have been selfish to want her to stay longer. And she made it clear to her children, "Don't be angry if I leave now, I am very tired."
I regret very much not telling her enough just how central a part of my life she was, and continues to be. Nearly all my woolens have been knitted by her. And of those, there are two that are the definition of winter. Winter begins when I pull them out of the bag in which they have been carefully stored and it ends when I wash them, sun them, and  pack them away for the next seven months. And all through the cold months, they keep me feeling warm and loved.
The first is a wheat-coloured cardigan, warm and well-fitting and in a lovely colour. My knitting friends have praised it for the accuracy of its neckline (my friends give very precise compliments) but she valued it so lightly that when Madhu chewed a hole in it, Amma repaired the sweater with purple thread. Nevertheless, I wear it all day.
And then there is the bedjacket. Knowing my love for old Hollywood, Amma made this for me from a 1930s pattern. It is lacy, fluffy and exactly the sort of thing Hedy Lamarr might have worn to bed (if she had a mother who knitted). It's only after taking the photos that I realised that the camera was in black and white mode, but I kept it that way- it seems fitting.

I always told her when I wore them; but I don't think she realised just how much all the things she gave me or taught me shaped my life. I wish I had spoken my appreciation more.

And that brings me to the garden. My garden is shaped by the many many gifts friends have given me. And I tell them often, but I  have now realised that it is never often enough.
So here we go
1. Ganesh: At the four corners of our house are four honeysuckle creepers. And they give us more joy than we ever thought possible. All started from cuttings from Ganesh's house.
Besides this, he has given me cuttings of his hydrangeas, and his night jasmine.

2. Lakshmiji: When I first moved in, I praised her garden and lamented that I have a garden but nothing to fill it with. She gave me plastic shopping bags full of vinca, mexican sage, goldenrod, iris, and phlox. "These will take over your garden quickly", she said. "Don't complain when you get tired of them!" I have not reached that point yet.

3. Deepa: The first friend I made when I came here, and still the closest. It is she who gave me her lavender and her succulents, and a glorious salmon-pink rose.

4. Ann: When I grow up, I want to be her. And the many many plants she has given me remind me of that.  Here are my star jasmine and my magnolia, just to name two.

5. Michael: When we visited him in Nagaland, Michael noticed me helping myself to the grape tomatoes that grew so abundantly in his village. The day we left, he gave me a strip of cloth on which he had saved some seeds. Four years later, the Naga tomatoes are going strong and have become the tomato of choice for several homes in our village. Here they are, ripening well into winter.

6. Beth: I cannot grow basil. I don't know what it is I do, but my seeds rarely germinate. The few times they do, they bolt immediately. Beth however is our resident winter gardening genius. Ever since she learnt of my basil woes she has been supplying me with a couple of plants every year. As you see, they are still chugging along.

So many friends, so much love. Mian and I are fortunate. And I mean to tell my friends so. Much more often.

Linking this to Six-on-Saturday on The Propagator's blog. Another source of wonderful friends, support, and appreciation.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Missing Amma

When I was a child, my job before every festival was to wash and clean our little puja shelf. I loved that task; it was just like playing with dolls, but with the added sense of being virtuous. Moving all the idols and paraphernalia out, washing them, washing the shelf, and placing everything back was fun!

And then I went off to college and no longer came back in time for every festival. I grew to adulthood and questioned the concept of religion and rituals. Amma never said anything, but continued to do the rituals on her own.

Today, after decades, I sat down to clean out all her gods, and wonder why I did not do such a simple task for her. There were reasons of course, and some even sound valid. I would come for a small number of days, and focus on the 'important' things- cleaning out the fridge, checking the groceries and medicines, cleaning the cupboards. In the last few years, she probably did not even trust me to treat her gods with the proper reverence. But it was such a small thing..

Amma passed away yesterday. I am cleaning out her puja corner because in ten days, our relatives will come to do the 12th day rituals and I do not want anyone to comment on the state of things. I should have done it earlier for the better motivation of pleasing her. There are far too many such opportunities I missed.

She was generous as usual even towards the end. Just two days before she passed away, she gave my sister and I the gift of a tender, love filled goodbye. As we sat on either side of her hospital bed, she talked to us.
"Please don't mind if I leave now. I am tired and want to sleep."
"Thank you for everything."
"Give me a kiss"

She made it very clear to us that we were completely loved and completely forgiven. That she was ready to go. That she was not afraid any more. After that night, she never really spoke again. That was our goodbye.

I know that at the end, she was not disappointed or angry with us. She gave us that one last gift, more precious than all the other things she had given us. And yet, I am sitting here and crying wishing I had cleaned those idols, been more respectful towards the things that mattered to her.

Here we are, our little family of three

Saturday, June 30, 2018

One rose, six deaths

"I thought what an interesting case I must be from a medical point of view, what an acquisition I should be to a class!  Students would have no need to “walk the hospitals,” if they had me.  I was a hospital in myself.  All they need do would be to walk round me, and, after that, take their diploma."

So  said Jerome K. Jerome in 'Three Men in a Boat'.

So says my Edward rose today.

It's that time of the year, when finally finally my garden is waking up and thriving. And that includes the various fungi, bugs, and bacteria that also call the garden home. As always, none are worse hit than my venerable  Edward rose bushes which manage to attract every disease, pest, and affliction around. Here is what is presently affecting just one of them, in alphabetical order.

1. Aphids. I have been spraying with my soap solution, but they just laugh. Will now make a garlic-chile mixture, but that takes a week to mature.

2. Black spot. I spray with a bordeaux mixture every winter. Should I do it again? Does cinnamon powder work? Help! Right now, am just taking off the leaves and burning them (as much as possible, I don't get them all)
See the white stuff on the tips of the leaves? that's from the dust storm, hasn't been washed off yet.

3. Canker. I don't know what to do about this, other than cut off the stems and burn.
4. Caterpillar.
caterpillar meal
  He leaves me hostess gifts in exchange for the fine meals he's getting. But I have not found him yet. 
caterpillar gift
 In the photo above, do you see the smaller droppings on the leaves in the background? That's yet another being.
5. Mildew

6. Whosthisguy. I have no idea. Remember the little droppings in the caterpillar evidence shot? They are from this

Does anyone recognise this?

And in the interest of Science, here's a comparison:

Why grow the Edward Rose at all? Why not just replace it with other cultivars that are just as fragrant, have better colours and are disease resistant? Why not, even, treat myself to 'Claire Austin' or 'Jude the Obscure' both of whom I have been lusting after?  Because classic fragrance and childhood memories.

Do go on to The Propagator's blog for other Six on Saturday posts. They are far less dismal- we even have flowers!