The Trip to the Nursery

A busy day - collage by Helen Cain

Tree of Life nursery has a beautiful adobe bookshop

A budget was alloted for the plants. I was elated. True, it could only buy tiny 1-gallon containers of twigs, but give these a year or two – and viola! A lush habitat awaits in thin plastic pots. The problem was – out of so many choices, what to get finally? Sure, I had a planting plan (see first post).

But I had redone it several times. In a small space (not even 700 sq feet), it is very difficult to choose the right plant or the right spot. My garden faces north, and part of it lies in the shadow of the house. So, the chosen plants would have to function in dry conditions, be native, do well in part-shade conditions, provide habitat for winged creatures, be non-poisoinous, be showy, and look presentable in a small front-yard (read – not grow into 10 ft tall monsters when your back is turned). Let’s see how many plants you come up with. I had dozens on my list.

Habitat awaits

Nettle Lupine

I could only plant 10-12 reasonably without choking them all out of air and soil – hence, the redoing of the plan. One day, cheery Mimulus auranticus would be on my list. Next day, sturdy Epilobium californica would have knocked it off, only to be replaced by the glamorous Ribes indecorum. If you have a big yard, then your planting dreams will be easier to accomodate. In a small space, the mistakes show easily, and faults of an experimental gardener are more difficult to hide. Greed is mine. I had to really put a leash on my dreams and with a pounding heart slay plants off my list. Adieu, my sweet Salvia apiana. We shall meet again in another garden….

Cart-wheel rests against the adobe house

On a sunny, hot Californian winter’s day we set off (the day before New Years eve) to the nursery. I had gone over the list several times already, and was ready with my final one. We sat in the parking lot for a few minutes to drink water for the hot dry sun can really sap the energy, plus my heart was fluttering with nervousness. This was it. My final selection. I sought the help of one of the nursery staffers to locate the plants. The staffer read my list and said nonchalantly – “We don’t have a lot of these in stock”.

A path leads to further delights

I should have had a heart-attack, a list I had edited and redited for months – the list was no-good. I quelled by bad feelings, and said with a half-hearted smile – “No problem”. I could work with alternatives. So, even with the final plan, there were some very last minute changes. The experimental gardener takes change in stride. In fact, the element of surprise was nice, because I added a couple of things that were recommended by the nursery people, which were not on my list. And removed one because I realized it was poisonous, a big no-no with the baby and dog around (I took off Solanum hindisianum as the berries are poisonous).

Overhead net provided for the shade-needy plants

So, in a way, the change of the ‘list’ worked out really well. Plus, my husband added a plant to the cart that I had overlooked in my list – Manzanita ‘Lester Rowntree’. One was planted by the adobe house and was blooming with clusters of pink flowers, it’s deep red boughs sculpted by the wind and sun. Now, it holds primo real-estate in the front garden. Manzanitas can be fussy divas – they need good drainage, and just-so sun and water. We placed some gravel at the bottom of the hole we dug for the Manzanita in hopes it would provide good drainage. It’s in part-shade. We promise not to over-water it.

Manzanita 'Lester Rowntree'

All in all, a very nice day. Tree of Life nursery is located in the town of San Juan Capistrano (on the way to San Diego) – with its beautiful mission and lovely brass bell (I’ve rung it once). Definitely merits a separate trip by itself. But that day, we ate a quick lunch, and hurried off home with the bounty. I may return to the nursery in spring. They were out of Trichostema lanatum (wooly blue curls) – such a popular item with gardners that they have to limit 2 per customer. If you have seen these grow when in flower – you will understand the strong passion it commands in the beating breasts of hot-blooded gardeners. I have saved a spot for one of these already….

Trichostema lanatum (wooly blue curls)

My cart is brimming...

How to Travel in Delhi While Pregnant – Shopping, Eating and Sight-seeing.

Dilli - The City of Poets

I was recovering from a very tiring first trimester and feeling more energetic than I had in months. “We should travel,” I told my husband.
“Sure, where to?”
“Uhm, I don’t know…”
“It’ll be fine,” I said, “Let’s see how much the tickets are.” We researched online for the cheapest fare. February is a good month to travel to India. It is off-season (December prices are exhorbitant) and flights not as crowded. I was 5 months pregnant with my first baby when we went on a vacation to India. I knew the flight was long, 20 hours from Los Angeles to New Delhi – not counting the 4 hours lay-over in Dubai.

I was not rash about the decision to travel however. The decision to go on a vacation was made quickly, but we prepared for the vacation with care. I was 34 at the time, had no medical complications – yet wanted to take no chances. I made sure to get the green flag from my doctor. He said it was fine to travel with precautions in the second trimester, after checking out ok medically. Here’s a few things I was to keep in mind:
– Always drink lots of water (even though it meant frequent trips to the bathroom)
– Stretch and walk every hour on the flight to avoid clotting
– Eat well and rest as much as you can. Avoid street food.

Choice of fresh poultry

Eat seasonal fruit from the bazaar

Make the choice of what you eat and where you eat carefully

Here’s some more tips to the pregnant traveller in India:
– Avoid ice at all cost
– Drink bottled water from well-known brands, and make sure the cap is not tampered with
– Avoid fresh vegetables (such as salad), and make sure the fruit you eat is washed thoroughly and peeled
– Eat mostly well-cooked vegetarian food (Indian cuisine has wonderful vegetarian choices), and if you have to delve into chicken or goat dishes(such as kebabs or kormas), please dine at reputable, well-known restaurants. In Delhi, the choice is sky-high for excellent restaurants that fits all kinds of budgets. I’ll have a list of the places I dined at in a subsequent post.
– Avoid street food – leave it to the locals who have a more resistant immune system than you.
– Make sure your hotel/home stay is not located near a river or a water canal to avoid mosquitoes. Our home is in Green Park, which is at least 15 miles away from the Yamuna river and its tributaries – this meant no mosquitoes bothering us at night. Carry an insect repellant, just in case.
– Always make sure to carry the following items in your purse at all times: anti-bacterial gel to clean hands (use frequently when travelling), anti-bacterial wipes, toilet-paper (most public bathrooms have no toilet paper), protein bar or a bag of trail mix, and bottled water.

Lajpat Nagar - local shopping

Indian roads can be dangerous for pedestrians because traffic is quite chaotic. Watch where you are going and avoid crossing major streets (use underpasses or pedestrian bridges where you can). Shop at safe pedestrian places. Sidewalks are either non-existent or broken, and piled with random debris. Watch your step carefully. I shopped at bazaars where bargains could be found, were safe to walk about, and had great eating joints. The bazaars also had good public bathrooms (these can be used for a small fee – carry change). Here are a few of my favorite shopping and eating spots:
1) Greater Kailash Market – Part 1 (both M and N blocks) – my favorite spots for shopping and eating.
2) South Extension Market – Part 1 and 2 (Bengali Sweets shop has yummy vegetarian food and snacks)
3) Lajpat Nagar Market (try the Haldirams snack shop here – excellent vegetarian munchies)
4) Cottage Emporiums – Connaught Place (Rajasthan Cottage Emporium is very good – great to pick up gifts
5) Janpath (watch your step on the broken side-walk, and prepare to bargain like mad)
6) Dilli Haat – good handicrafts from each of the 28 states, please bargain (down to half of what they quote). Bathrooms are good. Do Not Eat here. My husband did – and fell sick.
7) Khan Market – very chic. Love ‘Anokhi’ shop for cotton kurtas and scarves. The roof-top coffee shops and restaurants are so much fun. Good book-shops. We picked up some maps and historical books of Delhi from one of the book-shops.

Watch your step

New Delhi malls offer brand names – but since I can find these in the US, I wasn’t very interested. I did visit the Sky Walk Mall in Saket though – it had wonderful restaurant choices. The mall also had an Indian T-shirt shop called Tantra (very funny prints) – where my husband picked up twenty t-shirts, mostly for gifts. Well-made t-shirts at affordable prices. I think for us we had to buy bigger sizes because as Americans we are bigger than average Indians. 🙂

Seek daily serenity in the Delhi parks and gardens

Do take time to indulge in a daily (yes, I said daily) manicure, pedicure, facials, hair-oil massage and shampoo at good, affordable prices. Plus, I enjoy the Indian service and hospitality. Do one of each every day (I recommend face-packs and/or scalp massage for everyday). Best bazaar for this: Green Park market. Also has vegetarian Evergreen restaurant – worth a try. The Indo-Chinese restaurant – ‘Drums of Heaven’ is one of my personal favorites.

New Delhi residential streets

Do not over-tire yourself. Do only one or two things per day. Go at a leisurely pace and try some self-indulgence. Be in bed early (I was asleep at 8 pm everyday, mostly on relatives’ sofa while waiting for dinner). If you are invited to people’s homes, remember that dinner is served around 9 pm. It got very tiring for me sometimes – so I would nap a bit before dinner. No one minded.

Family dinners

Local coffee shops such as Barista, Coffee Cafe Day are clean and good. I was allowed a cup of coffee a day, and I made the most of it. Several cups of chai at friends’ and families’ homes notwithstanding (avoiding my husband’s censorious glances) – but those tiny cups of chai are so refreshing after a day in Delhi, I simply couldn’t refuse.

Auto-rickshaws are very jolty - avoid if pregnant

I avoided travelling about in Delhi on auto-rickshaws while pregnant. Though they are zippy and fast, the shaky movement can be dangerous to the baby. We opted for the safer car-taxis, which can be hired for the day with the driver. The car-taxis are good options if you are going to be trapezing all over town. We used to hire ours from the taxi-stand in Green Park market every morning. We soon settled on our favorite driver. He was calm and middle-aged, and a seasoned driver. He did not blast the horn every minute like the others. Delhi traffic is obnoxius because most people do not drive their own cars, but hire village boys to do the driving for a pittance. The village boys, who till yesterday were sitting askew on a camel, are now barrelling down in their owner’s car – it’s beyond their sugar-cane dreams. This is why Indian traffic is so horrendous. It is being driven about by village boys who view driving as a thrilling arcade game, the louder the better – viewing other cars and pedestrians as monster-attackers from Mars – fair game to be subdued and cut-off to save face and country. Eeesh.

I do want to say that we made the choice of travelling India in order to visit family and friends, and I am comfortable being there. Make the choice of ‘pregnant’ travelling to a place that you feel comfortable in – this is not the time to add the extra stress of visiting a country that is entirely unknown to you.

In case you are wondering, we did do sight-seeing. We made a list of all the monuments and gardens to go to. And we went to only one each day to avoid exhaustion (some we didn’t make it to in the end, but we’ll do those on another trip). More on that later…

‘Remembrance of Things Past’ – the dreamscape

This morning I woke up with the flavor of “Remembrance of Things Past” swirling in my dreams. Marcel Proust wrote this book before the first World War. I read an excellent translation years ago by Montcrieff. Swann’s Way and the Within the Budding Grove still haunt me. It is written as if in a waking dream, of a man lost in memories of people and places long ago. The writing is delicious, detailed with minute remembrances of the sound of a blue muslin dress, the flower garden in the summer (with their ‘balls of blossoms’), the yearning of a mother’s kiss….

The descriptions of bygone lamp-lit Paris, treacherous Venice and fecund French countryside, with mannerisms and traditions long since blown away like gray ash. Places and time so strange and yet so familiar to us.

At night I too sometimes dream of a home and people that I have left behind, of a past life, of past mannerisms and traditions gone forever, their loss catches me unawares and presses a sweaty palm across my eyes.

“Remembrance” is a trilogy, and written in an era where time walked at a slower pace, where there was leisure to discover and express one’s thoughts (within decorum). The mahogany chairs covered with green velvet (they are uncomfortable), a shivering Duchess covered by a coat of white ermine, the loss of Albertine (a love within reach, but never to be found)….

Such is life in the remembrance of things past.

But my baby had a smile for me this morning, and I soon forgot the book till now. I wanted to capture that fleeting moment of past places and time, that will revisit again.

Glorious past - Looking at Taj Mahal from the window of a new restaurant

Jaipur 2011 – Always inspiring

First sight

I travelled to India when I was pregnant. This is not foolhardy if you take extra-precautions. I was extra careful about water (drinking only bottled water), eating only cooked vegetables, absolutely no ice, and eating chicken dishes only at home or at reputable restaurants.

One of the cities we visited during February (a lovely month to visit India) – was the royal city of Jaipur. This is one of my favorite cities, and not too far from my home-town of Delhi.

We stayed for a couple of nights at a haveli – the Shahpura House. Jaipur is teeming with havelis (former royal or aristocratic mansions), palaces and forts that have been converted by the owners into B&Bs. These are so grand and lovely, and the service impeccable. I would recommend that visitors try staying at a haveli for the local hospitality, rather than a typical corporate hotel. We found ours online here:
Some images of the Shahpura House:

Inside the Shahpura House

There are so many things to do and see in Jaipur. We visited the Jaipur Palace. Most striking are the intricately painted doors, depicting Indian seasons (winter, spring, summer, monsoon):

Spring door

Monsoon door

Jaipur Fort’s gardens and lake are inspiring, and the golden sandstone glows during sunsets.

Courtyard formal garden inside the Jaipur Fort

Intricately cut stone forms the bris-a-sol

Looking up at the Fort

Entry to the Fort

Another view

You can see out, but cannot be seen from without - perfect for the Palace ladies

Old beauty

Animals and people seem comfortable sharing space.

The ubiquitous snake charmer

Dog and monkey play together

Before we had SUVs


The cow owns the space

People, animals, birds and Americans relax by the lake

Shopping is amazing. Jaipur is the gem city of the world, and the variety of its handicrafts is astonishing.


Food is unique, fresh and flavorful.

Pile it on my plate, please

Can’t wait to go back….

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Are all lawns rubbish?

“Are all lawns rubbish?”

And, my answer is:
Of course not

Lawns are good in their place. If you have plenty of water and no run-off issue, can devote time to keeping them healthy (please, no chemicals) – maintain them.

They are good for picnicking on, sunbathing, playing, sitting, kicking around a ball, reading, al fresco meals… the list goes on.

Aah yeah

But, if it’s just a dead space in front of your house, where you cannot imagine sitting down with a plate of kebabs and chilled beer, barefoot and in your burry Sunday sweats, then by all means – take the turf out. And replace with plants that either attract local butterflies, bees and birds or plants that you can eat – in-season vegetables and fruit trees (or perhaps, a mix of both the habitat plants and veggies). Some plants do the function of both – create habitat and are edible to boot.

Use the space. Dead space is a waste. It could’ve been of use to someone else.

All work and no play - take a break humans, and nap on the lawn