Bloomin’ Onions And Sweet Quamash!

It is already beginning to feel like fall. While the cooler temperatures seem a tad premature, the gardener is already in the season to come. The asters in my garden are popping and the bees seem very happy as they congregate all over the flowers. This year, I remembered to pinch back the asters in July. Their height right now is much more pleasing and less likely to flop over.

The dusky pink flower heads of sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ appear to echo the eupatoriums that blazed all summer long. Although this was not deliberately planned, I like the continuity of color and shape. It has taught me to think along those lines with other plant choices for the various seasons.

The hydrangea are going strong as are the Russian sage and Solidago. In the potager, we continue to harvest herbs, swiss chard and kale. Apples, pears and figs are rounding off meals very satisfactorily. So in the midst of all this bounty, its easy to disregard the signs of autumn. But, we know better don’t we?!

I’m already anticipating the upcoming chores and sourcing plants to add to the boundary of the meadow. Under consideration is a change of plantings in the checkerboard garden but cost might put a damper on that plan. This past weekend, we cleaned and installed each pane of glass in the greenhouse that now stands on a new foundation. My hands have numerous minute cuts from handling all that glass. War wounds to be proud of. When frost threatens, and it will, the tender perennials shall be safely ensconced in the greenhouse.

All the big tasks of cutting back, cleaning up and putting away are best done before the Big Bulb Planting. I’m eagerly anticipating the arrival of my greed driven order of bulbs in early to mid-October.
If you haven’t placed an order or hadn’t really thought about bulbs, consider yourself duly admonished. Imagine that I have looked at you with a mix of shock and derision. And along with, I have verbally expressed matching sentiments. Now, get yourself to a local nursery or go on-line and shop for bulbs.

I personally cannot envision a spring without bulbs. They influence a garden with so much expression and aplomb that it is inconceivable to go without. Given that more is better when planting bulbs, I’m aware that the price of bulbs can scare some timid minds and the faint of heart. Which is exactly why it helps to order in advance from bulb houses. Their prices are best. By the time one purchases at a nursery, the cost has gone up, choices are limited to what is most popular and it feels really prohibitive to buy in quantity. Like a Christmas account, it also helps to put a little bit away each month. I kid you not – I’m that serious about planting bulbs.

However, I do understand that for whatever reasons, one must limit oneself. If you must narrow your selections, go for alliums and camassias. There is plenty going on in early spring. Simply seeing new growth after a long, hard winter is joyous. But later in the season, it is particular nice to see more deliberate drama. Enter the alliums. There is enough of a selection of these members of the onion family to really put in the ‘wow’ factor to any flower bed. Tall, mid-height, short. Big, impressive, ball or dome shaped umbels to smaller, twee ones. Tightly clustered or loose and airy. In hues of pink, blue, mauve, white and the occasional yellow. Alliums are just stunning. Like exploding fireworks.

Camassias are not quite as dramatic but their poker shapes in shades of blue and creamy white punctuate the flower beds rather stylishly. They naturalize easily too.

Both, alliums and camassias are deer resistant. They work well together, enhance indoor flower arrangements and they are at home in formal gardens as well as more naturalistic planting schemes. I have them in my front perennial beds and also in the meadow. In each, they lend a most desirable and yet different impact.

If I haven’t succeeded in convincing your skeptical mind, just go on-line and browse the websites of bulb houses. The luscious images of all the different bulbs will. Fair warning – you will weaken and want far more than you could possibly imagine.
I’ve been shopping at John Scheepers and their wholesale sister Van Engelen for well over a decade. www.johnscheepers.com and www.vanengelen.com. By all means check out other sellers as well. There are indeed several reliable vendors. Prices are all comparable. It is a matter of bulb quality and size and, customer service.

Good news! I’ve responded to the request made by several of you and set up ‘shop’ to sell my botanical note cards. Please check out the page marked Shop. I’ll be adding more collections by and by. Would appreciate your feedback.

Camassia, alliums and tulips

Camassia, alliums and tulips


Allium 'Purple Sensation'

Allium ‘Purple Sensation’


Camassias and alliums

Camassias and alliums



Camassia and myosotis 'blue' up the meadow

Camassia and myosotis ‘blue’ up the meadow


Late May - in the meadow

Late May – in the meadow


IMG_2331
Nectaroscordum - a type of allium

Nectaroscordum – a type of allium


White camassia

White camassia


(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Still In Love!

Almost two years ago, I fell in love with Untermyer Gardens. See Love At First Sight for an account of that visit. I’d been intending to go back but somehow, busy schedules and events got in the way until this past Saturday. To say I was excited about returning to Untermyer would be a gross understatement. Still, a part of me bore some trepidation. Would I be just as enchanted?

This year, the gardens have received some mega-watt press coverage – well deserved due recognition. I am privileged to call head horticulturist, gardener extraordinaire and just downright nice guy Timothy Tilghman a dear friend. So I tend to follow closely all commentaries made about his work.

By arriving a couple of hours before sunset, the light, in my opinion, was just right for viewing and photographing. Predicted rain storms were nowhere in sight. The temperatures had dropped so it was no longer unbearably hot as it had been earlier in the day. All in all, perfect conditions for wandering in the gardens. Timothy awaited our small group with an eagerness only one who genuinely loves his job can muster at the end of a long work day.

As is customary, one begins with the pièce de résistance – the walled garden. Approaching the tall doorway, one immediately spies the main axis of the Indo-Persian design of the garden. And your breath catches. The canal of flowing water glimmers with the fractured reflections of the colors of a brilliant sunset. But these hues are not from the sky. They are from the riot of marigolds growing exuberantly on either side of the canal’s length. Imagine, marigolds! That lowly, gas-station staple was given center stage in this important space. Interspersed by Japanese holly and off set to the sides with rectangles of green lawn, the marigolds shone bright. Positively sophisticated. The juxtaposition of the ordinary flowers within the formality of the design was a stroke of artistic genius. Timothy and Marco Polo Stufano (of Wave Hill Gardens fame and my hero plantsman) had come up with the idea of marigolds – inexpensive, hardworking, effective and true to the required Indian provenance.

Marigolds are widely used in India – one sees them in abundance. Edging garden borders, filling up pots, fat garlands adorning temples, wedding halls, new cars, new houses and, anywhere a celebration is taking place. Growing up, I never paid much attention to the marigold. It was so ubiquitous. The fragrance of the plant is imprinted in my olfactory memory. In my garden in the northeastern US, it has never crossed my mind to plant marigolds. Too out of place and definitely not the right colors.

Now, here they were. Thousands of flowers used in a different way all together. Similarly colored cannas in pots continued the theme. Arrangements of other potted tropicals distinctive in their foliage added to the whole composition. The perennial borders along the perimeter of the gardens contrast beautifully with the annual display. Here one ( okay, me) picks up many ideas for plants to add to one’s own garden. Not as flamboyant but just as expressive, the plants strike a very nice chord.

I could’ve spent all my time in this garden alone. I was feeling my roots! But Timothy had much to show us. Future plans and projects were discussed and pointed out as we hiked the property, exploring ruins of past gardens, lingering in the Temple Of Love and envisioning the waterfalls flowing once again, imagining the thousands of daffodils on the ‘hill’. Pausing now and then to gaze at the Hudson river and the Palisades across. I was even more convinced of the importance of bringing all of the Untermyer gardens to life. Not simply restored but renewed. In keeping with history but also giving it voice to make more history. Timothy and his small team are more than up to the monumental task, its the funding that eludes. Sigh.

We remained till the sun set. Watching it, I was struck by our visit, just as I’d been two years ago – it had been magical. I felt a deep sense of gratitude to Timothy for giving the world this marigold summer. How utterly enriched we are.

As you look at the images below, I hope you will make it a point to visit Untermyer Gardens, Yonkers, NY. Free to the public! If you see Timothy, tell him I sent you. I can’t wait to see what annuals he will choose next year.

The Walled Garden

The Walled Garden


View from the entrance

View from the entrance


Untermyer 3
Untermyer 4
Untermyer 5
View towards entrance from amphitheater

View towards entrance from amphitheater


A sample of the many mosaics

A sample of the many mosaics


Untermyer 8
Untermyer 9
Untermyer 10
Untermyer 11
Out of the Walled-Garden!

Out of the Walled-Garden!


Untermyer 13
Looking back up.

Looking back up.


The Temple Of Love

The Temple Of Love


(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

In Nature’s Grace

Every once in a while, we have all experienced something that has felt extraordinary and surreal. Most often, these moments occur unexpectedly and yet, seem so fitting. Like omens or signs that inform us of the good and beauty in our lives and inspire us to do better. A spectacular sunset at the end of a long, hard day, a rainbow following a storm, the first time your baby’s fingers curl around your own. This past Saturday, I was graced with just such a serendipitous event.

There we were, a small group, enjoying the good weather in a friend’s beautiful garden. Over cocktails and small bites, summer trips and other doings were shared. Amidst much laughter and a general sense of well-being, we were in a blissful state of mind. This moment was as good as it gets. And then, the moment got exalted. A hummingbird chose to join us.

It flitted mostly between two pots of pink petunias situated quite close to where we were seated. Apparently unconcerned by our proximity, it permitted us to observe up close. I was in awe of how intimately I could watch it. Normally so quick to move and with fast beating wings blurring one’s vision, hummingbirds, have in the past, proved rather elusive. This was magical.

Not quite able to believe my good fortune, I went crazy with my camera. And still had time to simply watch and admire. That dainty, jewel toned bird hung around for very long. It then surprised us even further as it alighted on one particular member of our group. Twice. Whether it was because her pink pants or white shirt looked like the nearby petunias, who is to know. It still seemed as though she had been specifically anointed.

A little research later on explained that hummingbirds are not afraid of humans and. But I cannot think that what I’d been witness to was so ordinary. For a while there, we forgot ourselves and marveled at one of nature’s ethereal wonders. Our universal delight connected us together even further. Suddenly, we opened up more and got to discussing more personal philosophies. Each of us felt the value of the experience and were a bit transformed for the better. I was reminded once again that I’m divinely privileged to share this Earth with so many wondrous species. We are constantly surrounded by beauty but every now and then, Nature nudges us to truly pay attention. Life is fleeting, be present.

In my research, I came across this: Hummingbirds symbolize great courage, determination, flexibility and adaptability.
Those who have the hummingbird as a totem are invited to enjoy the sweetness of life, lift up negativity wherever it creeps in and express love more fully in their daily endeavors.

I have no idea what my totems are but, I’m perfectly willing to take up the above invitation. Only good can come of doing so.

It is my hope that in sharing the images below, the same good feelings and intentions are passed on to you:
Hummingbird 1
Hummingbird 2
Hummingbird 3
Hummingbird 4
Hummingbird 5
Hummingbird 6
Hummingbird  7
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

No Summer Whine Served Here

We are in the last week of August and although the official end of summer is still a few weeks away, these days before school reopens seems like the last call of the season. Sigh. One feels the tug of reality and the obligation to get back to serious, grown-up life. The most carefree months of the year are over.

The days are getting shorter and the early morning air carries with it a sharp, cool edge. Nature is in the process of a wardrobe change for her next gig. She gives herself time to move from one to another. Time to decompress and time to get ready. I take my cue from her and go into transition mode. I’m using this week to get myself centered. Its been a good summer. Not because the garden looked spectacular but because I paid attention and learned from it. I let go of trying to be in control and allowed matters to evolve as they may. I spent more time being present in the garden and enjoying its beauteous bounty than I did tending to the myriad chores. With or without my efforts, the garden went about growing, blooming, fruiting. So things were far from impeccable but who noticed? There was enough to delight the senses and distract any critical mind.

This year, I am satisfied with my own engagement with the season. I managed to strike a good balance between working in the garden and playing in it. And I collected abundant good memories along the way. So, now that autumn is right around the corner, I’m getting set to transit. While the weeding is addressed and plans are being drawn up in preparation for fall tasks, I’m still getting immense pleasure in the way the white hydrangeas glow at dusk. As I bite into a freshly picked fig and my fingers get sticky from its sweet syrup, I block off days in October for bulb planting. My bare feet caress the mosses carpeting the ground shaded by the tree house even as I make a list of plants to introduce in the meadow before the cold sets in.

The fruit will be harvested, the last of the vegetables consumed, newly made jams and sauces canned. But for now, I’ll recall the highlights of my summer and relive the moments of wonder and laughter. Thats plenty. More than one dares to ask for oneself. And then, I’ll be ready to move into fall. Will you?
Here are some glimpses of my summer – away from the garden:

Eryngium outside a restaurant in Vermont

Eryngium outside a restaurant in Vermont


Hints of autumn - end of July in Vermont

Hints of autumn – end of July in Vermont


Birding in Ooty, India

Red-whiskered Bulbul – Birding in Ooty, India


Trumpet vine on a wall - Nilgris, India

Trumpet vine on a wall – Nilgris, India


Brugamansia growing wild - Nilgris in India. This was taken at night. Oh the fragrance!

Brugamansia growing wild – Nilgris in India. This was taken at night. Oh the fragrance!


A clearer but not as romantic shot with the flash turned on

A clearer but not as romantic shot with the flash turned on


Terraced farming - Nilgris, India

Terraced farming – Nilgris, India


Tea plantation - Conoor, India

Tea plantation – Conoor, India


Langur monkey - Modhumalai preserve, India.

Langur monkey – Modhumalai preserve, India.


Mama with baby. Modhumalai, India

Mama with baby. Modhumalai, India


Peacock

Peacock


Lantana growing wild in the forest - Modhumalai.

Lantana growing wild in the forest – Modhumalai.


(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer School

I adore discovering new and surprising information on perfectly ordinary subjects. Since the fabric of life is mostly woven with the routine and the mundane, learning something fresh on a regular basis is what keeps it interesting and exciting. I particularly enjoy facts that remind me that I am part of a much bigger, mysterious, absolutely astounding universe. No doubt you feel the same. Right?

Nature provides an endless source of knowledge and anybody who spends time in it cannot fail to acquire some wisdom. There is gain in every encounter with nature. As part of my Mid-point review (scroll down to see the article from two weeks ago) and my ongoing quest to learn something new everyday, I came up with what I learned since the start of summer. Personal observations, further investigations/research and input from others has kept things around here quite interesting.

I observed that hummingbirds do not like to share. Unlike many birds that feed together at a feeder filled with seeds, these tiny avians prefer to dine solo. A feeder with sugar solution invites them to stop by quite effectively but just watch – while there is plenty of room and libation for all, the bird who is there first will aggressively try to shoo off any other bird also wanting a drink. They spend more time sparring than sipping.

Spiders really do make their webs only in fair weather. IF they continue working during rain, it will be a short storm. You have a better way to predict the weather?

I’ve always known the perfume of flowers is stronger as temperatures rise but now I’ve learned that the fragrance is stronger just before a storm when the air pressure is low. I’ll use that as a reminder to cut flowers to bring indoors before the storm smashes them down.

There is a growing body of scientific evidence establishing a link between urban green spaces and a positive impact on human well-being. Unlike the short lived happiness of pay rises, promotions, purchases or that slice of cheesecake, the positive effect of time spent in nature is sustained for long periods. Reason to get outside and enjoy the green as much as possible. Its no wonder one can come in hot, weary and sore from working in the garden and still feel really invigorated.

Amongst many types of birds, the way to a female’s heart is through her stomach. A male bird will ply his object of affection with juicy morsels of worms and bugs. Charming!

The eggshells of wild birds may act like “sunblock”, scientists in the UK have said. A range of birds’ eggs showed adaptations in pigment concentration and thickness to allow the right amount of sun to reach the embryos. No doubt this information will lead to useful applications amongst us sun loving humans.

We are always wondering if there is life on other planets. But if there is, those life forms must be wondering the same right? If ‘people’ on a planet 65 million light years looked at Earth, they’d see dinosaurs not humans. Imagine that. For now, lets do right by our assigned planet. Because eventually, the time will come when the alien ‘people’ from all those 65 million light years of distance, will see us humans. And we’d better look our best.

As a biologist, I’ve known this next fact but when I mentioned it to some others, they were surprised. So I thought I’d share. Fireflies are not flies. They are beetles. Chemical energy is converted to light energy in a ‘cold’ reaction. This is unusual. Most energy conversions use or generate heat. Thus, fireflies are the exceptions that prove the rule. Huge scientific contribution from a very little guy.

Finally, something to ruminate over: Cows do not naturally eat corn – so why is ‘corn-fed’ beef touted to be superior?

Being curious keeps one engaged and connected to the world around us. There is a comforting reassurance in that. We are all part of the grand web – the spiders as well as the flies. Understanding the seemingly ordinary opens the mind, enriches the spirit. We get a sense of who we are and our place in the large scheme. Q.E.D.

Hummingbird at feeder

Hummingbird at feeder


Hummingbird

Hummingbird


Eggs of a dove.

Eggs of a dove.


Empty spider web in the rain.

Empty spider web in the rain.


#SummerSchool
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Shaping Up

Its August, its summer, its time to ease up and chill. In my book, that means doing less in the garden. I cover only the bare minimum of required tasks. The fact that I go off on vacation this month does not help matters. As a result, my garden looks distinctly blah at this time. Shabby, shoddy and sad are how I’d describe certain areas.

It occurs to me that I really ought to follow my own advice and prepare in advance for precisely such eventualities. Grumbling around, I find I’m not alone. So, I’ve given the matter some thought and come next August, I’m determined that we present the world with much improved gardens

First and foremost, there is the watering. My policy of watering only the pots and not the beds works effectively for most of the garden. Except the two perennial beds in front. The very beds that are the first to be seen by anybody who approaches the house. The beds look very attractive all spring, and reasonably okay in early summer. But, by mid-summer, when temperatures have soared and rain is erratic, they start to look ragged and unruly. Its taken me a while to admit to myself that I’ve been much too rigid in my no-watering rule. I’ve been expecting too much from these hard working plants. They do indeed grow without extra watering but they simply cannot look lush and bloom prolifically which is what is needed in a flower bed. Mind you, the plants placed here for summer display are mostly native choices. Which is why they can survive okay. However, to thrive, even natives must be provided better conditions. While it does not matter how they do in the wild, within a contrived space like a garden, it does. Hence, my decision to water these beds more regularly. As much as possible, I’ll use rain water from the barrel and when that supply runs low, I’ll use the hose. I shy away from automation because I feel it disconnects me from the plants and leaves me unaware of their needs and progress.

Deadheading and weeding regularly will of course go a long way. Mulching well will reduce the time required for the latter considerably.

The remaining tasks need to be done in advance of summer:

Herbaceous plants need dividing every few years to keep healthy. Otherwise, they stop blooming well.
To do this, the plant is dug up and divided by prising roots apart. New growth from the edges are replanted and the tired, center of the clump is discarded. Fall is a good time to divide plants. Feed with compost. Water well till established.

Borders with many, established plants require staking to stop them from drooping or flopping. Placing the stakes as plants begin to emerge makes the task easier. Natural materials like twigs and bamboo blend into the background very nicely. This practice gives the beds a neat and cared for appearance.

Hedges, certain edging plants like boxwood, topiaries, rambling roses and other climbers need taming. Prune, trim, pin back or tie back as needed. Again, this tidies up the look of the garden.

Voila! The garden looks infinitely better.

I’m sharing images of gardens that look vastly better than mine at this time of year:
IMG_6794
IMG_6797
IMG_6846
IMG_6852
IMG_9229
IMG_9248
#summerplans#shapingup
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Mid-point

The seventh of August roughly marks the mid-point of summer. The season is half over and how has your garden fared? This period can be extrapolated to the year. Mid-points are a good time to take stock. Enough time has passed to give a decent assessment on any project and enough time remains to catch up, do over or start to do. Its a good place to pause and take stock.

Unlike end of season or year end reviews, when its too late to change or rectify, a mid-point review gives one a chance to remedy or recharge. Like a benediction if you will – its a moment to invoke some guidance and wisdom to bless a project’s progress.

I had promised myself this year that I’d cut myself some slack and not get upset about neglected weeding and other chores. I’ve done well thus far. Mostly because taking it easy comes very naturally to me. However, despite the weeds having grown happily, matters have been just fine with my lessened vigilance. It was time well spent connecting with friends over lemonade and salads of freshly picked greens. The tall stack of beckoning books got a bit shorter while my literary appetite was increasingly satisfied. Creative output was given a freedom that only a relaxation of rules and agendas could achieve. I learned to identify the call of barred owls and taught someone how to compost. I spent hours in pursuit of photographing hummingbirds and harvested enough basil to make several batches of pesto which now rest in the freezer till called upon to perk up winter feasts. Loaves of delicious zucchini bread were made and given to friends or frozen for posterity while scoops of ice-cream were indulged daily. Night skies were gazed at and unfamiliar constellations identified right in step with discovering that a splash of lime juice in a 1:3 mix of St. Germain elderflower liqueur and club soda with lots of ice makes for a rather addictive summer drink.

Yet, advances were made in the garden – the foundation of the greenhouse was rebuilt, I designed a chandelier to be suspended from a tree and am now putting it together, plans to improve the meadow and checkerboard garden were drawn up, the watering system for the vertical garden was made more efficient, replacements for the lost apple trees in the espalier fence have been ordered, likewise, the bulbs for fall planting, ideas to make the perennial beds more attractive are under consideration and every now and then, the weeds have been given attention.

What about failures or lapses? I’ve realized that the front perennial beds do not look great in summer because of my reluctance to water any plants in the ground. Going on the conviction that they must be able to cope without help has not always been the best. When the weather has proven extreme, they do indeed need some kindness in the form of water. I have been negligent in keeping the walkway free of weeds and as a result, it looks shabby. For the rest of the season, this must be taken care of every couple of weeks. In the potager, several salad greens have bolted because they have not been harvested in timely fashion. That is wasteful. In future, I must either pick the leaves often or not plant as manygreens. Lastly, several plants need to be repositioned to make room for new introductions – this is not quite a lapse on my part but has come about due to an idea I have for the checkerboard garden. The to-do list keeps growing in any season.

Overall, I think the mid-point review has been useful and I’m not at all dis[leased. I’m just not sure if this is due to reasonable diligence or general low standards.
How have you come through?

January

January


February

February


March

March


April

April


May

May


June

June


July

July


#Mid-point #summerreview
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Bulb mania And Other Sins

July is at an end and I have no idea where the time has gone. What I have to show for it is my order of spring bulbs for fall planting. I was rather pleased with the results of last year’s selections so I’ve mostly kept to the same list and substituted and/or added just a few. ‘Few’ being a relative perception.

Poring over the bulb catalogs is a time consuming activity that I enjoy thoroughly. Having visited the tulip fields in Holland and attended the “Bulb Stock Market”, I fantasize about my selections in their birth place, growing in thousands and brokers bidding heatedly for them. I imagine my choices to be the best and most prized. It doesn’t take much to transport me to the times of Tulip mania. No doubt I am the most manic of the lot. As it is, when I make up my annual order, I lose all sense of budget and other practical matters like how much time and energy will be required for planting. I’m lustful, avaricious, extravagant and gluttonous. How many Deadly Sins was that? I’m pretty sure I cover the remaining along the way.

In my pursuit for bulb happiness, I pay no mind to others who have thus far willingly put up with me under the roof we share. Their thoughts, interests and time are of absolutely no consequence. I assume they will be assisting me in getting the rotund treasures in the ground. And I’m prepared to threaten and bully. I’m also fully aware that afterwards, I will be contrite and win them over with my best, most loving behavior and reasonably good baking skills.

Some, okay several, bulbs are squirreled away for forcing – they are provided prime real estate in the family refrigerator where they slumber peacefully for the better part of four cold months. Foods considered non-essential or merely indulgent are refused space. Grumpy faces are studiously ignored.

I think this behavior has pretty much nixed my chances of an entry through the Pearly Gates. Then why am I presently feeling so smug and self-satisfied?

Note: Get your bulb orders in now! Then you can forget about them and get on with your summer. They’ll arrive at the right planting time for your zone.
I’m sharing images of bulbs rendered by me in watercolor. Because right now, spring is only in the imagination.

Hyacinth

Hyacinth


Tulip

Tulip


Scilla

Scilla


Crocus

Crocus


Iris reticulata

Iris reticulata


Lily

Lily


Bulb catalogs. I've ordered from John Scheepers for many years.

Bulb catalogs. I’ve ordered from John Scheepers for many years.


#SeedsDesignBulbs
(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer – A Seasonal Paean Or Pain?

Swelter, scorch, steam, sizzle,
Burn, blister, boil, broil
Frizzle, fried, feverish, fiery
Humid, hazy, hellish, hot
Summer is here
Winter is not.

To be perfectly honest, for the most part, I can skip summer. Its true. I succumb very easily to the heat and humidity and scurry to cool interiors faster than a New York cockroach can hide. The idea of summer is enormously appealing. Long days, slower pace, birds and bees in high gear, flowers exploding, fruits ripening, outdoor parties, picnics, bare feet, pool pleasures, lemonade, vacations and so much more. All good and much enjoyed. Yet, I spend a great deal of time longing for cooler, drier weather. Like spring or autumn.

My energy plummets severely in summer. I used to think I was just lazy. That always kept me in a heightened state of guilt which understandably was not happy making. It dawned on me only a few years ago that some people are not summer people. This is no different from those who cannot tolerate winter. They too, no doubt, relish the cozy times by the fire, the hearty stews, the warming drinks and the vigorous snow activities and in the end, be willing to by-pass the dark season all together.

If only one could choose the seasons one wants to enjoy. I know, I know – just move to wherever our preferences lie. Thats easier said than done isn’t it? Jobs don’t appear at will and more importantly, loved ones don’t necessarily want the same seasons. So what are hapless souls like me to do?

For a start, we plan our gardens for when we enjoy them most. In my case that is spring and then fall. In doing so, I’m not investing heavily for a time when I’m not around so much. Then, happily accompanied by birdsong and/or the trills of crickets, I spend only early morning and evening hours outdoors. The cooler times of day. Garden chores, moments of solitude and gatherings with friends and family all occur when the temperatures are tolerable.

The sounds made by the small fountain on the terrace soothes the over-heated mind and evokes images of crisp, verdant spaces by brooks and streams. Well sited benches and places for pause provide respite in shade whilst still offering choice garden views. As a matter of personal taste, my garden contains cooler colors like blues, whites and pinks. This too psyches my mind to think cool.

The part of my garden that is instantly refreshing and serene is the vertical garden. Deep burgundy heuchera contrasting with the soft greens of feathery ferns on a rich background of velvety mosses has the same uplifting effect on my spirit as the sight of the first honeybee on a still frost laced, early spring morning.

And what do I do when I’m seeking refuge indoors? I peruse spring bulb catalogs. Hence, there is a part of my mind that is in that season of rebirth as I imagine and plan. Once I place my order that will be sure to shock me at planting time, I’m already excited with anticipation. A good state to be in.

In creating a more supportive garden and atmosphere I find I’m so much better off. Removing any guilt for spending afternoons in air-conditioned comfort has not only been good for my mental and physical well-being but has considerably improved the quality of my life. And I still get to thoroughly partake in the many joys of summer.

As I always say – attitude is everything.

Young Echinacea opening.

Young Echinacea opening.


The vertical garden

The vertical garden


Close-up of heuchera against a backdrop of moss.

Close-up of heuchera against a backdrop of moss.


Summer pleasure

Summer pleasure


Astilbe and a White Admiral

Astilbe and a White Admiral


A place to pause

A place to pause


#gardenDesignSummer
(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Part II – On The Pesky Matter of Illegal Aliens.

Its been tough getting around to the weeds this time of year. The moment I step outside, I feel the heat heavy with moisture as though anointing and wrapping me up to send me into a state of torpor. Mostly, it succeeds. Its so much easier to simply give up and find solace in a cool drink and hot book. But the gardener in me is stubborn and cannot succumb to such temptation. At least not all the time. Snatching time in the transiently shady areas I do a bit at a time. This works somewhat as by the time the sun has made its quotidian circuit, a goodly portion of the garden has been weeded. It leaves me feeling smug and accomplished. Until I make the mistake of visiting gardens tended by obsessively compulsive friends. My own efforts look distinctly shabby.

To top it all, I’ve spied an army of Japanese beetles in the front perennial beds. War has been declared. Armed with a tub of soap solution, the enemy is picked off and tossed into it. I accept that each day is a battle to be won.

Back to the weeds. The reason weeds are so much more resilient and hardy is that the seeds of many species can survive for an incredibly long time (think decades) in the soil. When conditions are favorable, the seeds sprout. In addition, each weed plant produces hundreds of seeds. You do the math.
I did promise to impart some choice nuggets of wisdom and I realize that might well be a matter of opinion. So here goes.

The tip I give out most often and one that is universally liked is the simplest method for getting rid of weeds that show up in areas with flagstones, bricks or gravel. Its hard to tackle weeds in the spaces between. All too often, the chemical control is used. Instead, on a day when rain is not forecast, pour boiling hot water on the weeds. It will do the trick. Thats it. I’ve been doing this quite effectively for years. Frequently, the water from boiling eggs or vegetables is taken outside right away and dumped on the brick walkway just to take care of any weed contemplating a visit.

This next one is a preventative measure – Within a flower or vegetable bed, once the plants have been planted, cover the soil with a good four inches of newspaper. Conceal the newsprint with a layer of dark wood bark mulch. Please refrain from the red mulch as it not only looks like the landscaping in some industrial/commercial properties but it’ll draw the eye to itself rather than the plantings.
The newspaper will suppress weeds, retain moisture and eventually breakdown and integrate into the soil. Compost can also be used for the same purpose. I use newspaper in flower beds and compost in vegetable beds, lawn and other open spaces. The idea of recycling/re-purposing something is both boon and bonus.

In hot weather, weeding is best done in the cooler hours of the morning. This practice gives me enormous satisfaction as it keeps me motivated for the rest of the day. Weeding every other day keeps one on top of the problem and as a result the time required each day is considerably shortened. This is perhaps the strongest and most effective form of weed control. I cannot emphasize it enough. Research shows that being consistent and diligent with weeding, will, over time, reduce the number of viable seeds in the soil. So, fewer weeds and more time to enjoy the hammock and stack of books.

Finally, if you can’t get rid of them, eat them! Okay, maybe not all weeds are edible but many are. Combine young, blanched dandelion leaves, the smallest and most tender sorrel leaves in equal proportion. Dress lightly with lemon, olive oil, sea salt and pepper. Add roast chicken and you have a simple yet lovely meal. To blanch dandelions – upturn a flower pot over a whole dandelion plant in the ground. Without sunlight the leaves grow paler, longer and sweeter. In a bit over a week, the whole head of the plant will bear such leaves. Pick, wash and dry thoroughly.
Another way to eat this plant is to take two blanched heads, washed and dried. Put in warm bowl. The bowl is warmed so fat does not congeal. Fry up thin strips of bacon till crisp. Add bacon and fat to dandelions. The warmth of the bowl and heat of the fat will wilt the leaves. Quickly deglaze pan with a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and tip the hot liquid over the salad. Serve right away with good crusty bread.
A friend of mine used to make wine from young dandelion leaves. It was not half bad.

In Greece, a variety of early spring leaves like chard, sorrel, parsley, mallow, dandelion, nettle tops, poppy tops and rocket are thoroughly cleaned and then boiled in salted water for five minutes. All the water is drained and squeezed out from the wilted greens. Dress with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Serve.

A common weed like purslane adds a nice, sour green note to a salad and cuts the bitterness imparted by arugula (rocket) or dandelion.

Through the ages, in many cultures all over the world, a number of what we, today, might call weeds were commonly used for food and/or medicine. They still are. Case in point is the Plantain weed or Plantago Major. Unless you use awful chemicals, and I have faith that you don’t, you have it growing in your garden somewhere. It is native to Europe and parts of Asia, but introduced to North America when the settlers came. The leaves are actually edible and somewhat similar to spinach, though slightly more bitter. They can be used in salads or other culinary uses. Medicinally, the leaves can be made into a tea or tincture, and this is said to help with indigestion, heartburn and ulcers when taking internally. Externally, Plantain has been used for insect and snake bites, and as a remedy for rashes and cuts which we use as a natural antibiotic ointment on cuts and bruises. The natural antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of plantain leaf make it great for healing wounds, and for itching or pain associated with skin problems. A tea made from Plantain leaf can be sprayed on mosquito bites to ease the itch.

Thus, you see, its all in our perception. What we choose to include, what we’d rather not encourage and how we view them all is relative. So lets not sweat over the small stuff, theres a summer to be enjoyed.

Disclaimer: Please do not go on my word alone and ingest any weed I’ve mentioned. Personal immunities, allergies and tastes are subjective. Just as foraging for mushrooms in the wild assumes a certain risk, the same goes for plants not routinely cultivated. Do your research and really understand the plants and their properties before nibbling.
As I do not have photos of weeds, I thought you might instead enjoy some photos I took this past week.

This frog looked rather alert -  ready for the unsuspecting fly.

This frog looked rather alert – ready for the unsuspecting fly.


The pattern of the Echinacea 'cone' fascinates me.

The pattern of the Echinacea ‘cone’ fascinates me.


Fern in vertical garden. Such a cooling sight.

Fern in vertical garden. Such a cooling sight.


And what is July without fireworks?!

And what is July without fireworks?!


(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar