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How you tend your garden says a lot about you

We don't see seasons as pauses, as moments that can be filled with the plants that actually do bloom gloriously in the heat.

By Shylashri Shankar (Urban Living)

Published: Wed 25 Sep 2019, 10:14 PM

Last updated: Thu 26 Sep 2019, 12:15 AM

"I have never owned a plant before in my entire life. But yesterday I went and bought four plants," said Kieran, a Canadian working for an international NGO in New Delhi for a year.
Why do you think you did that, I asked.
"I wanted to reclaim some space from this city for myself. I have never lived in a city like this before where every nook and cranny is captured. I read an article somewhere that said more and more young people all over the world were filling their apartments with plants. It was to push back against the urban scene."
Why are more and more urban dwellers, young and old, gravitating towards plants? What does it say about how we experience our spaces? What do we want from these spaces?
The ability to breathe freely is definitely on top of the list. Kieran pointed out that only in Delhi, the plant's functionality was the selling point. The plant nursery owner highlighted usefulness of the palm tree - it reduces pollution. In Canada, they would talk about its ornamental value, he said.
Which brings us to the question: What exactly is the relationship between the development of aesthetic considerations by citizens and their experience of rights? Jean Jacques Rousseau said, "Buildings make a city, but citizens make la cite [the urban]."
Absolutely. Our citizenship in a city goes beyond residing in an urban space-it is also about creating an expressed ideal of what life we want to live, and what that life can be.
Some of us dream of being country folk in a city, woodlanders surrounded by nature but with the amenities of a city at our fingertips. Alas, that will remain a dream for most of us since we cannot afford to own a farmhouse so close to a city. Or will it? Perhaps the dream can be translated into something in the urban spaces we occupy.
But more often than not, we don't dwell on the nature of the space we occupy.
Why not? Is it because our relationship with nature is dependent on how we perceive our rights as citizens? Do we have to think of ourselves as deserving of beauty before developing an aesthetic sensibility? I think we do.
The definition of space as a spell of time suggests a mode of thinking about space and time that is less concerned with the 'march of time', a linear temporal movement forward.
It suggests thinking about the pause in-between.
What does such a conception of time mean for a garden? First, it means that we don't stop gardening in summer - because of the heat. Second, we allow the seasons to dictate the flowers and vegetables we grow. Third, we create the content of the pause, a content filled with how we experience ourselves and how we perceive the outside - the state, society, locality, neighbours, friends and family.
In India, we have not yet developed that sense of rights-experience. By we, I mean all strata of society. If you go to a mansion on Prithviraj Road or Vasant Vihar, in Delhi, you will find dozens of pots with chrysanthemums or dahlias or kochia grass depending on the time of the year. But these are placed in rows, like soldiers in a drill. Not stylistically arranged to evoke the sense of a beautiful garden, or as some have said, 'the spirit of the garden'. What is this elusive spirit and how to find it? The spirit is, I think, created by the stories we choose to tell in a space, in this case a garden. When one sees these rows of pots, the story that springs to mind is colonialism or imperialism, of something that will penalise if the order is disturbed.
We don't think about nature as curves, as asymmetry, as beautiful chaos. We don't see seasons as pauses, as moments that can be filled with the plants that actually do bloom gloriously in the heat. Roses for instance, were prolific in high summer on my terrace. If you were to ask most people, they would say roses bloom only in winter in Delhi. But the summer roses are smaller and just as gorgeous, with an aroma that is more intense in the heat. The Texas sage, whose bright pink flowers lounge against silvery leaves in the heat and the monsoon, the gorgeous green-leaved syngonium, the mysterious green of the pine tree thrive in the monsoon and winter. Why not fill the pause, the season, with these, and surround yourself with nature's bounty.
Should be easy to do, no? Wrong, it is the most difficult thing in the world. Toil is part of how we can create such dreams. Are you willing to put your mind and hands to the problem of amending the soil, thinking of the right root strengthening liquid mixtures, imagining how you would like to see the plants arranged, and periodically checking them for pests and ailments? You may have a gardener, but it has to be your toil (mental definitely) that creates your relationship with the space. For this, we have to first hardwire our brains to think differently about gardens and the spaces we inhabit.
- Open magazibnemagazine
Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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