Coloring In Spring

Spring is finally here. After the winter we’ve had, I’m particularly appreciative of every detail and nuance that this season brings to the landscape. Nothing out of the ordinary – just the simple changes that have such extraordinary impact on ones mood and spirits. Gratitude abounds as I go about my chores in the garden. While it is easy to get singularly focused on the tasks, pausing to observe and marvel at nature enriches the experience beyond measure. Such a privilege to be part of this beautiful, complex world. Enjoy your days in the garden!

Coloring In Spring

Entering the pale, cool amber
of the early vernal light
Greeted by avian chatter
half hidden in awakening arbors
Sensing the swell of the air
coming alive once more.

Shy hellebores blushing pink
mingle with virginal snowdrops
Gently illumine the garden
lifting the veil
Revealing youth reborn
still damp with dew.

Bulbs from beneath the rich brown
nose through in sap green
Testing, feeling
if the time is ripe
Cups in amethyst, alabaster and citrine
unabashedly await visitors.

Peony spears hued in burgundy
reach upwards in slow gestures
Quick darts of cardinal red
punctuate brightening skies
Sunshine lifts the iridescence
of purple grackle feathers.

Robins in vests of rust
house-hunt with blue coated jays
A truce of sorts reigns
every being with singular purpose
Distinct colors fresh and crisp
ancient rituals timeless yet new.

Reminder- My garden Open Day is May 10!
www.gardenconservancy.org/opendays

Quick darts of cardinal red

Quick darts of cardinal red


Blushing hellebores

Blushing hellebores


Burgundy 'spears of peony

Burgundy ‘spears of peony


Alabaster cups

Alabaster cups


And amethyst

And amethyst


Sap green noses

Sap green noses


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Hickory Dickory Dock

(The clock ticks, the mice play, the gardener copes …)

Its been a very productive week in the garden. The weather took away any excuse to stay on the couch. With gardening juices flowing freely in my veins, I went at the list of chores enthusiastically. Come July, that same energy will be mighty scarce. At this point, the clock is ticking as Open Day approaches and I use it as impetus to get everything done. If you don’t have a public opening as an excuse, just set a date and send out invites to a garden party. Then see how you charge around accomplishing all the necessary to-do items on that long list. Amazingly effective.

The major task was the clean up. However diligently the garden was cutback, tidied and organized in autumn, winter manages to big mess of it. As though it had a rollicking old party where everybody proceeded to go crazy. Removing the winter debris and detritus must be how the cleaning crew feel after Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Its a good thing that once this work is done, it shows. Unlike weeding which nobody notices until you neglect to do it, clean up is hard to miss.

The ‘meadow’ in particular responds well to a good scrubbing. Twigs are picked up as in a game of pickup-sticks, leaves are carefully raked, blown and gathered so as not to disturb or damage the hundreds of emerging bulbs. The early, small bulbs such as snowdrops and crocus are already in bloom and dotting the meadow. They positively sparkle after the clean up. Relieved of the smothering effect of the fallen leaves, its as though they are breathing freely at last.

Something I finally took to task this year was the ivy. Many years ago, I had planted English ivy along one side of the back garden with the intent of quickly covering up the neighbor’s chain-link fence. This worked in some parts but over time, the ivy has been making inroads in the meadow and checkerboard garden. The plant is invasive and knowing what I know now but didn’t all those years ago, I’d never plant it again. The creeper has been ruthlessly removed from any part for which it was never intended. For the time being, it is left on the fence and will be strictly monitored so it is not permitted to stray. I do intend to replace it entirely in the not too distant future.

The front lawn has been cleared of thatch build up, reseeded and given a good layer of compost to mulch and fertilize. Already I can see that the new grass has begun to sprout.

Other assorted jobs like pruning the roses, straightening the fence posts in front, redoing the rustic fence at the far back, tidying flower beds, preparing and planting up the vegetable plot with cool weather greens have also been completed. For instant gratification, urns and window-boxes are bursting with daffodils, pansies and primroses purchased from the nursery. Makes me so happy.

Much still needs doing but at least a good start has been made. I’m loving waking up everyday to see what else is in bloom. The iris reticulata are shyly joining the hellebores, crocus and snowdrops. I see the tight scilla buds waiting in the wings. The daffodils up close to the greenhouse will open any day now. One by one the plants awaken. Soon, there will be a profusion of flowers and I’ll be in my element. This is what I live for.

Update on the mice attack on the espalier: some of the Creeping Jenny planted along the side path, had gone rogue and crept on to the ground beneath the espalier. I was well aware that there should be nothing planted beneath the fruit trees but the chartreuse creeper looked so darn charming scampering over the river-rocks that I’d let it be. Well, no more. All undergrowth has been removed. Plantings in such places, translates to havens for moles and voles.

Only once the hot weather arrives will we know which trees have been decimated by the mice. Due to reserve nutrients, they will look fine and even flower in spring. I have yet to do a little digging around to see if the mice have been nibbling at the roots. I’m still screwing up the courage to do this investigation. It is heartbreaking to see any tree suffer. For now, the espalier will be fed a root fertilizer and as a further effort to direct all energy to healing, I intend to remove all fruit buds after the flowering. This year, the espalier will be in an infirmary of sorts. Trees that are at major risk will be ‘nursed’ with a bridge-graft – something I’m only just learning about. It is apparently very effective in saving fruit trees but not at all fun or easy to do. I see this crisis as I try to see all things in life. They arrive because there is something I must learn from them.
I’m learning, I’m learning.

Reminder: My garden is open on May 10 from 10 am – 4 pm. Rocky Hills from 2 pm – 4 pm. www.gardenconservancy.org/opendays

Creeping Jenny on sidepath and beneath espalier

Creeping Jenny on sidepath and beneath espalier


So charming right? Well, all that pretty on the rocks had to go.

So charming right? Well, all that pretty on the rocks had to go.


All clear of undergrowth.

All clear of undergrowth.


Primroses with daffodils in pots
Crocus
Pansies
Early, small bulbs in the meadow.

Early, small bulbs in the meadow.


Daffodils by the greenhouse.

Daffodils by the greenhouse.


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Of Mice And Me

This past Sunday, I made the first trip of the year to my favorite nursery. The sights and smells of the plants, the benign conversations with horticultural experts/plant lovers did something magical to my mood. I was enervated, optimistic and boy, did I have energy to take on the many tasks on my to-do list. Yes, thats what being amidst all things plant related does for me. This state of elevated spirits beats the ‘induced’ kind any day. It leads to creativity and productivity, spreads good will, no hangover follows and best of all, one remembers everything.

And joyfully thus, my gardening season is underway. For instant gratification, I picked up flats of primroses and pansies that will go into assorted urns, pots and window boxes. Now, mind you, as exciting as it is, there are challenges. My garden Open Day is fast approaching ( May 10) and given the severity and length of this past winter, time is short for getting the garden ready and spectacular. But that is not the most serious problem.

Of grave concern is the fact that orchard mice have attacked several of the apple trees in the espalier fence. How much damage has been wrought is yet to be determined. I can only hope that for the most part, the trees can heal themselves nicely. To replace any tree will not be easy. To remove a tree from within such an espalier arrangement and replant with a healthy tree of appropriate maturity requires some effort. There might well be more than one damaged tree. Oy vay.

When I first noticed the tell tale signs of orchard mice activity, I was immediately inclined to panic. I had this strong urge to pour poison and decimate the rodents. But thankfully, that feeling lasted just a minute. Okay, five minutes. I breathed deep and let myself relax. Strangely, my next thought was to consider how hard the winter must have been for the mice. The apple trees had not been touched all these years so, they must have been under a fair amount of stress to turn to my precious trees. I even envisioned that some of them were fiercely protective mothers doing whatever they had to for the wellbeing of their young ones. Sigh. How could I remain outraged?

Looking at it from another creature’s point of view helped adjust my own perspective. As much of an effort and expense it might be to remedy the problem, the fact is, the situation can still be fixed. Its not the end of the world. Am I happy then? No, my time, energy and pocketbook are not limitless but I’m not unhappy or upset either. I have forgiven the mice, accepted the problem and will now try to correct it the best I can. I will be discussing the matter with an expert so I can find out more about how to deal with it properly. Any insight gained shall of course be shared with all. If anybody has had a similar experience, I’d love to hear about it.

This is once again a reminder that we humans are not in charge. Nature is. And I must defer to her.

So, with the espalier problem on one hand, I look around the garden to counter-balance the status. The bulbs are piercing through the earth. Snowdrops and hellebores are blooming. The boxwoods look a bit winter weary but otherwise seem to have fared okay. And most excitingly, the Amelanchier I said I was going to plant, was purchased and ensconced in its rightful home yesterday. It is A. canadensis ‘Glennform’ – a shrubby type that is full of buds. I cannot wait to see it in bloom. It will lead the eye nicely across the meadow when viewed from the terrace. Once it was in the ground, I welcomed it to my garden, wished it well and promised that I would do right by it. I renewed my covenant with Nature.

Many, many chores remain and the garden is yet to reveal fully what plants could not take the winter. This is particularly true of the vertical garden. It is a vulnerable area and we are still learning what works and is needed. Ferns are slow in emerging so it’ll be cutting it very close to May 10 to determine anything. The suspense is killing!

As I dive into the season and begin my work, I’m just so excited and grateful to have my own piece of paradise. At the same time, I’m apprehensive about how to make it shine for the visitors in May. I know the ones who are gardeners themselves will understand about those aspects that simply cannot be helped and are due to the vagaries of the weather. But, I also want to please those who do not garden and rightfully come expecting to be delighted and impressed. Their opinions matter as much and I enjoy their comments equally. I’ll just have to work very hard and do my best won’t I? In the end however, whilst looking beautiful, a good garden must also teach. I hope all the visitors leave my garden suitably impressed and a little bit more knowledgeable and enriched.

Too often we forget that to have a garden to tend is to be truly blessed. We never really own it. We are but the caretakers and must share it with grace. Let the gardening begin!
Have I mentioned that my garden is open this May 1 from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm?! Do come, I really would like to meet everybody and share with you this piece of my heart.www.gardenconservancy.org/opendays

Orchard mice damage

Orchard mice damage


More damage by mice
Another photo of mice damage
Removing the old, apple tree.

Removing the old, apple tree.


The new resident.  A. canadensis 'Glenform'

The new resident.
A. canadensis ‘Glenform’


Hellebores in bloom

Hellebores in bloom


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Going Back To The Future

When I was growing up in urban India some decades ago, plastic, other synthetics or processed were not mainstream. Shopping bags were made of cloth and we took our own to the shops. Toys were mostly made of wood, paper, cloth or metal. The clothes we wore were of natural fibers such as cotton, linen, silk or wool. Food was stored in glass or metal containers. Meals were prepared from scratch with fresh, seasonal, local produce purchased from vendors in the neighborhood. Water, electricity and fuel were judiciously used. Paper, metal, cloth and glass were recycled after they’d first been thoroughly used and reused, composting was commonly practiced and walking was the most common means of getting to places in the neighborhood. Pure coconut oil was used to keep hair and skin soft and silky, face-packs of plain yogurt and chickpea flour made faces glow while body scrubs of sugar, lemon juice and coconut oil effectively and safely exfoliated our skin. No worries about parabens, artificial coloring or perfumes. The leitmotif that played through our lives was simple, organic, natural.

Fast forward to 2014 USA. We are being coaxed, cajoled and convinced to rethink our current habits and move to, wait for it, simple-organic-natural. What was old is new again. Only this time, there is ample scientific/medical/sociological data to corroborate the advice. Somewhere between the years of my youth and middle-age, we were seduced by products and methods that were brilliantly touted as convenient, time saving and less expensive. We know now that much of this has come at great cost to both the health of our planet as well as our own physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. But this is not about slamming all things new. Certainly, great progress in understanding and helping our needs has been made. I’m grateful for many modern conveniences and necessities and would not consider turning back the clock all together.

That said, there are several things from yesteryears that we have already adopted back into our lives. Recycling, composting, going organic, energy conservation, avoiding processed foods, shopping local are some of the those. But, it wouldn’t hurt to consider more of the old ways in our gardens and by extension, the earth at large. It is not a matter of whether or not one believes in climate change. It is elementary that every action results in an equal and opposite reaction. So each time we do something to the land or the atmosphere, we are creating a shift in the balance. That, will naturally have consequences.

It stands to reason that we examine and revive some forgotten, yet correct practices. From re-establishing windbreaks of trees to protect the soil and crops to encouraging open pollination, the time is ripe. Looking to the past would be very instructive in how we not only protect the earth but in controlling the damage we have already wrought. Our very survival depends on this.

Take the case of trees. We are either denuding entire forests for purposes of construction or drilling or we are hugging trees and cannot, will not allow any cutting down at all. In both cases, it is misguided and short-sighted. Let me explain with two examples.

The first is the ancient craft of coppicing. This the regular cutting of trees and shrubs to ground level. On the face of it, it might sound destructive but there are clear environmental benefits to be reaped. This cutting down permits light to reach the forest floor which in turn encourages a rich variety of flora and fauna to thrive whilst providing a renewable timber source from the strong re-growth from the coppiced trees or stools. Many trees make new growth from the stump or roots when cut down. Hence, regular coppicing is a sustainable way for to get timber for various uses. Without the filtered light, many plants would never grow. Consequently, the creatures that seek such plants would not venture to these parts. You get the picture.

The forest or woodland is harvested in sections on a rotation basis. This means there is a crop ready each year somewhere in the woods. This traditional method of woodland management is beneficial for great biodiversity. It also maintains trees at a juvenile stage which means coppiced trees will never die of old age.

The second example concerns the Aborigines of Australia. For millenia, they managed the continent like a garden. By effectively using controlled fires they kept the flora in check. The grasslands that resulted from this practice attracted animals which could be hunted to feed the Aborigines and at the same time, they provided huge firebreaks that prevented the devastating fires that are today becoming increasingly common.

With the arrival of Europeans, many new plant species were introduced and the native people were displaced. Without these indigenous caretakers, the plantings went wild. A practice perfected over tens of thousands of years was effectively stopped almost overnight. Experts on fire prevention and environmental preservation are now calling for a return to the old ways. Ironically, there are conservation groups against the use of this ancient method. Their heart is in the right place but they need to understand the obvious science behind it. It really comes down to each of us taking the responsibility of becoming knowledgeable and using that knowledge correctly.

There is plenty we can learn from old, time-tested ways of maintaining our land and our lives. Everything from the past is not bad, naive or based on ignorance. After all, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The ancients already gave that to us.

Love the peeling bark. It positively glows in sunlight.

Love the peeling bark. It positively glows in sunlight.


Tree
Tree
Tree
Daffodils in woodlands

Daffodils in woodlands


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Different Kind Of Community Garden

Romano cauliflower

Romano cauliflower


With spring officially starting this week, my mind is singularly focused on the garden. I’m anxious, okay, downright worried about what havoc this particularly brutal winter has wrought. With my garden’s Open Day approaching on May 10, I’m feeling the pressure. Thats less than two months away! There is still a fair amount of snow over places I need to get to inorder to prune the roses, plant a tree, spray the espalier (dormant oil and fish emulsion) and so much else. Take a deep breath! I tell myself. And I do. To panic is pointless and I know not to fight nature. I’ll just stick to getting organized and approach the task of getting the garden in shape systematically and with mindful presence. Aaah! Already that feels better.

With gardening foremost in mind, I’ve taken to observing the various community gardens in the city (NYC). Over the years, more and more of them have been created. I’m in the city a great deal and as I walk around, the diversity and uniqueness of these gardens is apparent even when nothing is growing at the moment. The layout of the gardens, the types of paths, the ‘décor’ with statuary and other whimsies and even the shapes of the beds say a great deal about the gardeners and the neighborhoods. I just love it all. This year, I plan to stop by as many of the gardens during the growing season. With any luck, I’ll get to meet and learn from some of the gardeners.

Back in suburbia, community gardens are less common. With most folk residing in houses with adjoining property and lack of land for communal use, their proliferation is naturally restricted. However, the practice is catching on as more people are becoming keen to grow their own produce and towns and certain private organizations are permitting the use of their land for very little or no fees.
Having heard from many about lack of time, not having enough suitable space for a proper potager on their own property, reluctance to be gardening ‘far off’ from home, I’ve been toying with the idea of an alternative sort of community garden.

What if within a neighborhood, each home grows just one sort of vegetable or fruit that then can be shared with the others? Depending on the conditions available – semi-shade, full sun, protected or open areas, arbor space, I would guess that a fair amount of produce can be grown. With attention and time to just one type of plant, the gardener can easily include their cultivation in busy schedules. Case in point – in my own garden, I don’t have the type of light and space to grow a wide range of veggies. So, I concentrate on leafy greens – assorted lettuces, arugula, Swiss chard, mustard and plenty of herbs which do very well. Tomatoes, cruciferous vegetables, eggplants, gourds etc are simply not worth the struggle. Not to mention, a waste of time and energy. Its like cultivating the $40 tomato. But somebody else’s garden might happily support a crop of squash or tomatoes. You get the idea? Once a week, all produce can be brought in to a central location and distributed equally. A block party of sorts! Every year, each gardener tries a different yet suitable vegetable to maintain soil strength. With everybody receiving a fair share, the neighborhood gets to eat better but even more importantly, it grows a better community. Each home is vitally connected to the others. Instead of Facebook time we now have face-to-face time.

Of course, like any project, this requires some leadership but that can be taken on a rotation basis. What practices (organic of course!) are acceptable, the selection of vegetables that suit all, how much to grow, vacation schedules, are some of the points to be duly considered ahead of time and by consensus. Those unable to garden due to disabilities, age, or lack of garden space can help in the harvesting, sorting, communications etc., The success of such an endeavor is incumbent on close cooperation of all members but it is so very doable. As in life, keeping a sense of humor is essential. As much as it is a serious business to grow crops, this should be fun. After all, if we cannot come together to grow and share our food, how on earth can we expect peace talks to succeed in different parts of the world? Imagine the valuable lessons children will gain from this experience. I see this undertaking as one that promotes health and well-being at many different levels.

A neighborhood that “comes to table” together,thrives together.

Building a community garden

Building a community garden


Ready for picking

Ready for picking


Vegetables to share

Vegetables to share


More veggies
Row of tomatoes

Row of tomatoes


NYC community garden Signage of community garden
(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar
Mark your calender – Open Day at my garden is Saturday May 10, 10:00 am – 4:00 pm.

Naturally Good

What does ‘natural’ really mean? Women go natural and that could indicate they go sans make-up or more often, give the illusion of having no make-up on. It could also indicate one who does not shave her underarms or legs. Florists work hard to make arrangements appear natural and less contrived. We are told to be our natural selves but it is implicit that we conform to socially accepted guidelines. Foods ranging from raw nuts to processed, sweetened cereals are labeled natural and wholesome. Natural athletes and musicians work hard to prove and maintain their prowess. Natural looking gardens have been carefully planted to look that way. So, what exactly do we mean by natural?

Natural is that which has not been touched or manipulated. Left in its original form, intact with inherent properties. In reality, we have conflicting ideas about the word. This is because, it is assumed that healthy or good is synonymous with natural. Lets remember that tobacco is a natural plant product. Natural is also not the same as organic. Cotton is a heavily sprayed crop. Hence, while cotton is a natural fabric, only organically grown cotton is actually healthy. A natural food can contain genetically modified elements, sprayed with chemicals and supplemented with other questionable components.

In the garden, most of us have been misled to think that we are being environmentally correct when we use sacks or boxes of ‘natural’ products to fertilize, control pests, encourage blooms and suppress weeds. Not so. But don’t blame yourself – the marketing skills of the manufacturers are at play here. Using vocabulary that is misleading or ambiguous, they have convinced multitudes to purchase and liberally use their products. It is time however for us to take personal responsibility and to do our own research and thinking. By this, I don’t mean we hit the reference section in the library and pore over scientific papers. No, it is much, much simpler than that.

Think minimal. Less processed or manufactured. The operative word is ‘organic’. Case in point, ordinary, banal compost. Converted from garden waste such as grass and leaf clippings, vegetable and fruit peelings and leftovers from the kitchen, this wonder product is the best mulch, fertilizer and weed suppressant ever. Look what the sun, rain and indigenous microbes can do! Does it get any more natural than that?

We have already embraced organic foods, cosmetics and cleaning products. It is time to do the same in our gardens. Can we all just make this upcoming season in the garden the start of a sincere commitment to go completely organic in the garden? Yes, it is doable and yes, you can.

Resolve to start composting. Until you can begin using your own compost, obtain it from your local recycling center. Ditto for mulch. Leave grass clippings to integrate back into the soil. Collect rain water to decrease the amount of water used from the tap. Add more native plants and work up to having them outnumber the non-natives. Reduce lawn size and consider using push mowers.

If all this sounds drastic, it isn’t. These practices are time-tested and true. Even better, they are particularly kind to the pocketbook. At the most, a bit more sweat equity is required but then, that could mean giving up that expensive gym membership. Exercising in nature is much more satisfying! Heck, if you have no neighbors to shock, you could even go au naturel. I won’t tell. Or look.

Concord grape harvest. Go ahead, eat it straight from the vine - its organic!

Concord grape harvest.
Go ahead, eat it straight from the vine – its organic!


Ditto the apples and pears.

Ditto the apples and pears.


The lettuce bed enriched with compost.

The lettuce bed enriched with compost.


The meadow. Mowed just once a year except for the path that runs through it. Never fertilized or sprayed.

The meadow. Mowed just once a year except for the path that runs through it. Never fertilized or sprayed.


Organic angelica to feast upon for this swallowtail caterpiller.

Organic angelica to feast upon for this swallowtail caterpiller.


New Dawn roses

New Dawn roses


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Wising Up On Wisteria

Is there any sight more stunning than wisteria in bloom? The pendulous racemes in shades of purple or a pearly white never fail to take the viewers breath away. For the rest of the growing season, the composite leaves provide dense, green backdrops for other, less dramatic but more colorful blooms. Even in winter, the wisteria adds keen interest to the barren landscape, The twists and turns of the denuded gray-brown vine bark are pure calligraphy. Its no wonder then that this hardy plant has been a long time resident of gardens everywhere.

Yet, as in all living beings, perfection is a myth. This beautiful vine can be something of a garden bully. Its vigorous growth has been known to push out other plants and has been positively invasive somewhat frequently. As a result, many gardeners have banished it from their properties. Which is a crying shame.

However, I come bearing some heartening news. Go native! Yes, there is an American variety of wisteria – Wisteria frutescens. While its Asian cousins are the ones we know well, the native wisteria has been sadly overlooked. With the clamor for bigger and better, the ‘foreigners’ won out. I think it is time to bring this surprisingly modest, American stalwart to the forefront.

For the most part, Wisteria frutescens is much like its Asian counterparts. The general appearance is the same and it winds around its supports in a clockwise manner. It is however, not invasive, the pre-bloom seed pods are smooth not furry, and, it is not given to overly exuberant, jungle-like growth. So far so good? Its the racemes that don’t compete quite so well. Atypical to the American stereotype, they are only about half the length of the Chinese or Japanese wisteria. Yes, it is not bigger! But, that does not mean it is not better. Given all the other attributes, in my opinion, this is the wisteria to plant in our gardens. And wait, let me sweeten the deal – it blooms twice. Once in late spring ( well after the Asian varieties) and again in summer when it is in full leaf. I love that.

A few years ago, I planted a pair of W. frutescens so they could scramble up the metal gazebo and form a natural canopy. They have faithfully bloomed from year one and are now quite fetchingly sprawled over the gazebo. At this point, I’m not sure if the gazebo is supporting the vine. Looks like its the other way around.
I prefer the late blooming nature of W. frutescens. In early spring there are plenty of bulbs and other early blooming perennials in flower. But, later in the season, just as the big drama is easing up, it is very nice to have this wisteria add extra oomph to the garden.
The Asian variety that I have elsewhere in the garden is cantankerous, far too vigorous and has not bloomed since the first year. I have had horticultural experts look at it and nobody can figure out why it does not reward me with fabulous flowers. Needless to say, its days with me are numbered.
If you have a non-native wisteria and you are well-satisfied with it, keep it!

Wisteria is genuinely one of my favorite vines. It offers something all through the year. A true four season winner. The twisting, rope like vines are strikingly sculptural in winter. In leaf, the wisteria is the answer to a stunning canopy. But of course, the wisteria flowers are the show stoppers. In our climate, wisteria require full sun, strong support and space for good air circulation. Keep protected in windy areas. Young plants need to be well fertilized and watered. Once established, they do not need to be pampered. There are some straightforward pruning techniques that enable good flowering.

How to prune wisteria to make it bloom (keep in mind my own failure with the one delinquent):

In February, select a few strong side shoots to train horizontally and cut all remaining shoots back to two buds from old wood. Repeat this process to extend the spread of wisteria. New side shoots will grow from the horizontal stems and these side shoots should in turn be cut back to two buds in February.
After flowering, side shoots will start growing out and can be cut back close to main stem. Do this two to three times in summer. If you fail to do this, then your work in February will be intimidating! Occasionally, this practice stimulates a second flowering.
Sometimes, failure to flower can be due to the flower buds succumbing to the intense cold. This would then indicate a need for some protection in the future.

Go forth and plant W. frutescens in your garden this year. Just make sure you provide it the sturdy support it needs.
Enjoy the photos of my W. frutescens:
IMG_6309
W. frutescens
IMG_6306
IMG_8968
IMG_8987
IMG_9032
IMG_9029
IMG_3807
Note: I have added a new page ‘The Vertical Garden’. Do check it out.
(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Deliberate Garden

At this time of looking towards spring and planning our gardens, we must examine precisely how we want to garden. I’ve often mentioned that just as we make our homes reflect our personalities and philosophies, the gardens we create ought to do the same. The very act of gardening is a matter of exercising control over nature. Even the most natural looking garden has been contrived to look just so. It follows then to be conscious of the kind of control we use. What exactly do we want our gardens to say about ourselves? Are our ethics and ideals expressed? Is the garden an honest statement of who we are? Does the design of the garden and its plantings clearly demonstrate ones appreciation and respect for the environment?

These questions are relevant. The environment, left just as is, informs and instructs no matter what. Designing our surroundings with deliberation and purpose puts out the message that has meaning to us and enriches all who come into this space. Instead of leaving things to chance, here is the rare opportunity to get your say in a larger, more substantial way. If each of us gardened to state our values, the world would be in much better shape. Every one has the power to make a lasting impact on the environment. Lets make sure we make it a positive one.

With that in mind, here is my run down of what to take into account when gardening with presence and purpose.
Core values and abiding philosophies in protecting the environment – organic practices, native plantings outnumbering the non-native, shelters for wild life, compost bins, small lawn size and large areas of plantings.
User friendly and approachable – paths comfortable to walk on, places to sit, to play. Herbs and vegetables within easy reach so the cook does not have to make a trek to get the produce. Access to different areas should not require special effort or feel dangerous.
Easily connecting to nature by offering seasonal views, inviting birds, bees and other creatures.
A sense of humor – add elements of fun with sculpture, paths that create mystery, water features a cool tree house, plants that arouse curiosity, add color or look odd. The idea is to not take oneself too seriously.
Add interest – mix flowers and vegetables. Make a vertical wall garden. Convert a lawn into a meadow or a labyrinth. Create an orchard of espaliered fruit trees. Start a collection of specific plants.
Beauty and harmony – include trees, shrubs and flowering plants that are known for their stunning forms, shapes, variegated foliage and/or colors. Blend colors that please and complement. Strike the right balance so the garden is neither over nor under planted. Good hardscaping is very important but the plants should be the stars.
Flexibility – as you evolve, allow for the garden to evolve. When trees reach maturity and create more shade, change the plantings in its shadow accordingly. If health precludes certain chores, simplify those needs in the garden. Life is not static.

How a garden created with thought, passion and intelligence affects the world cannot be quantified. It is not tangible. Yet, it colors our thoughts, influences our habits, guides our choices and determines our wellbeing.
The deliberate garden reminds us that it is an honor and privilege to be alive.

Rain barrel to conserve water

Rain barrel to conserve water

 

Herbs on a 'fence' to conceal airconditioning as well staying handy  for the chef.

Herbs on a ‘fence’ to conceal airconditioning as well as staying handy for the chef.

 

Tree house in the meadow

Tree house in the meadow

 

Stone books

Stone books

 

Walkway

Walkway

 

Meadow with spring bulbs in bloom

Meadow with spring bulbs in bloom

 

Checkerboard garden

Checkerboard garden

 

Close-up of allium

Close-up of allium

 

Close-up of tree peony

Close-up of tree peony

(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

In The Beginning …

With the landscape entirely blanketed in white, one can only stare so much at it before the risk of getting snow-blind becomes a distinct possibility. The way it looks right now, it might be eons before the snow melts away and we catch our first glimpse of lovely, sodden, rich brown soil. I can almost smell that earthy aroma – an uplifting fragrance from an improbable mix of humus and nascent leaves. Aaah – the heart remembers.

I turn away to rest my eyes and open my mind to contemplate the creating of a garden. Its a task thats been given to me by a reader who, in making lifestyle changes is ready to become a gardener. I’m particularly taken with this because I cannot recall ever making a conscious decision to become a gardener. It is something I’ve always done. In one form or other. Just like I cannot say when I began speaking each of the languages I’m fluent in. I suspect this is true for most of us. Over the years, we have acquired skills and knowledge along with bad habits and some firmly held superstitions. Suddenly, this looks like an excellent opportunity for everybody to review their gardening philosophies, methods and even their gardens. Whether one is an old hand or a novice at working the soil, it never hurts to periodically examine our intent and how we go about pursuing it.

Why does one garden at all? These days, the only reason ( the one that I believe that matters the most) to make a garden oneself is because there is a compelling desire to do so. Following a trend, protecting the pocket-book, trying to prove something are never adequate reasons – like anything else, if the heart is not in it then it will not be sustained or successful. Gardening is the happy nexus of science and art and is bloody hard work. Physical work that gets one sweaty and stained. It can thoroughly consume your time and bank balance if you let it. Non-gardeners will summarily dismiss the gravitas and value in gardening. The weather will play havoc with your efforts whenever it can. So, are you still interested?

Having established that garden we must, how we garden changes over time. Our needs, tastes, physical abilities and financial status changes over time and pretty much determine the evolution of the garden. The important factor here is – Know Thy Self. Know your tastes and preferences, understand your budget as gardening can be very costly if you don’t pay attention, be realistic about how much time you actually have to pursue it, acknowledge your limitations – gardens must be created according to what and how much one can do and finally, be very certain that this is what you really want to do. Half-hearted attempts will yield gardens with no style or spirit.

The best advice I can give is to keep it simple. To be creative requires dreaming big but ruthless editing. Creative ideas need room to grow and breathe.
Be practical and realistic. Plan and prepare thoroughly for maintenance well into the future. Think it through. Visit as many gardens as you can – for this, we are very fortunate to have the garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program to take advantage of. Plan your visits – https://www.gardenconservancy.org/opendays. Talk to the gardeners, take notes and photographs. As much as you will be inspired, you will also learn what you do not like or should not do. In the end, have fun and take pride – in the doing, the learning and the end results.
Snowscape
Snowscape
Snowscape

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(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Love Will Keep Us Together

Even amongst those of us too jaded to get caught up in the much hyped Valentines Day observance, one cannot help being a little disarmed by the expression of a genuine ‘I love you‘. Am I right? I believe the positive response to any source of affection is integral to every living being.To love and be loved makes one secure and happy. No doubt all sorts of good compounds are generated in the biological systems and the result is an individual who functions better. One observes this clearly between humans, humans and their pets, amongst animals. Matters are not as obvious in the plant kingdom.

Love among plants? Sounds a bit far-fetched for you? That plants compete with each other for space, light and other resources is well known. The fittest (often the thug) survive. But, we don’t consider that perhaps, plants have a way to cooperate with each other that is yet to be fully understood by man. Empirical evidence of this abounds. Consider the fact that wherever grows poison ivy, there grows jewelweed. Now, that cannot be for human benefit can it? The fact that the nasty, itchy inflammation caused by poison ivy is effectively counteracted by the juice from the stem of jewelweed is incidental. I present to you instead – jewelweed attracts bees, hummingbirds and other such pollinators. While the birds are around they get to feast on the drupe-like fruit of the nearby poison ivy. Seeds of the ivy pass through the digestive tracts and and find themselves dispersed wherever the birds travel. Poison ivy flowers are inconspicuous and could not on their own attract the birds. In turn, the poison ivy keeps humans at a distance thus keeping the jewelweed safe and intact. It is win-win for the plants in question. Mind you, I have not found any research that has come up with an explanation for why these two plants live near each other. My own reasoning brings me ample satisfaction.

Okay, so ‘love’ might be too strong a word but there is definitely a detectable level of affection n’est pas? They seem to know how to thrive if they stay together. There are other examples of plants having mutually beneficial relationships. It was by studying such conditions that gave man the idea of companion planting. Case in point – the three ‘sisters’ of America. Corn grows well in sunshine but needs the ground weed free and mulched which is handsomely addressed by squash that contentedly scrambles all over the ground under the shade of the corn. Meanwhile, pole beans climb up the sturdy corn plants whilst fixing nitrogen in the soil.

Any natural woodland contains a vast assortment of plants. The upper-story and under-story specimens provide conditions that sustain each other. The same occurs in meadows and prairies. Together with the wildlife, there is more to be found growing together in nature than anything we could ever recreate on our own.

The point is, in nature, polyculture which is a more cerebral term for companion planting, is the norm. Diversity is key. It allows for a symbiotic relationship between plants, insects, wildlife, and ultimately our palates. Natural combinations of plants fend off pests and disease, make the best use of space, protects the soil, increase flower and fruit production and generally make a space more beautiful and interesting. This very same method works when applied in our own gardens. It works in vegetable, fruit and, flower gardens. In truth, we have yet to fully understand the entire science of how plants ‘know’ who their friends are and how to create the healthiest horticultural neighborhood.

For now, in my opinion, we know enough to extend that cooperative living to our own society. A little kindness and help, some closeness and yet enough space will be good for all. We’ll grow well, fend off enemies, celebrate differences, use our strengths, compensate for weaknesses, support each other and live in peace. Isn’t that what love is all about?

Happy Valentines Day everybody! May every day be filled with love.
Heart shaped stones
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(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar