To Hire Or Not To Hire – Part II

How often have you wished you had a cook, chauffeur or a general dogsbody to help you with the tasks of the day to day? An assistant to keep up with the paperwork. Someone to pick up the dry cleaning, getting the dog bathed or stocking up the refrigerator would be nice. Admit it, it has crossed your mind numerous times right?

The same happens in the garden. Busy schedules and/ or aging bodies could do with a little help. Keeping up with the seasonal demands in the garden whilst keeping abreast with duty calls elsewhere can be quite challenging . Recruiting the assistance of a gardener might be in order.

In suburbia, the sight of a team of men spilling out of a pick-up truck, unloading tractor mowers and powerful leaf blowers is as common as pigeons flocking in Central Park. The ‘mow, blow and go’ outfits fulfill very adequately the basic requirements of suburban living – a pristine property mostly displaying a swathe of green lawn. But a garden is more than lawn isn’t it? It has trees and shrubs, beds of flowers, vegetable plots and areas to sit and enjoy the beauty of nature. It is home to birds, butterflies, toads and other critters. A garden is a complex, diverse world, the upkeep of which involves watering, weeding, planting, fertilizing, pruning, cutting back, propping up, training, digging up, repositioning, composting, raking and a few other chores. All the while keeping it beautiful, productive and functional.

The English, who have a longstanding garden tradition, routinely employ a ‘jobbing’ gardener. This is an individual who has garden skills and can be relied on to take care of specified jobs. He/she can be hired for a few hours everyday or a couple of days every week. You tell them the job that needs doing and they do it. In the United States, such a person is not so commonly employed. People with the means tend to employ full time gardeners or the aforementioned weekly service. In my opinion, for someone who is an active gardener but needs extra hands, a jobbing gardener is a godsend. The peace of mind in knowing a task will get done correctly is invaluable. One stays involved with the garden but has the satisfaction that nothing will be neglected because attentions had to directed elsewhere.

Before you employ a gardener, consider what needs doing. These can run the gamut of chores you cannot do, don’t want to do or don’t have time to do. Depending on garden needs and available budget, a decision must be made to hire an experienced gardener or a novice. The former can pretty much do all or any of the work a garden needs without supervision while the latter will require some oversight. Your call.

Next, decide how often you need garden help. Seasonal or regular year-round or single project. Obviously, the expense of hiring depends on the level of experience the person has. How and when payments are to be made should be clear from the start.

Word of mouth is the most frequent way that gardeners get hired. Personal recommendations are best.
Self-employed individuals or a company depends again on what is required and how much you can spend. It is imperative to have trust in the person. Developing a good working relationship goes a long way in making a beautiful garden. Just like life.

More images of the season. All taken at Innisfree, Millbrook, NY this past Sunday. Hope you’re taking the time to enjoy the autumn wherever you are.
Innisfree 1
Innisfree 2
Innisfree 3
Innisfree 4
Innisfree 5
Innisfree 6
Innisfree 7
Innisfree 8
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

To Hire Or Not To Hire

Part I
With autumn being the other planting season, it presents a good opportunity to scrutinize the garden. Review the garden’s layout, begin on a new design, expand the garden, consider adding or subtracting plants or simply decide to revamp the whole. Perhaps the existing garden has become too much to maintain or lost its former appeal. Life changes might demand changes in the garden. Beginning a new garden or trying something different can be a tad overwhelming. One can use some advice and help. It might be time to work with a designer and/or employ a gardener. But how does one choose the right one or know what to look for?

Lets first consider the possibility of working with a designer.
Going on the adage that two heads are better than one, a good designer will share ideas that you may not have thought of or even known of. No matter if you are a garden veteran or a hesitant beginner, there is value in receiving an expert’s advice. Design plans must be both practical and tasteful; suited to the client’s preferences, budget, style of house, lay of the land and regional climate. A good designer will steer you towards what is appropriate and point out what is not possible or plainly not right. A complete overhaul of the garden or a redoing of a section that has become irksome will benefit from some professional input. A designer’s horticultural knowledge and aesthetic sensibility should not be underestimated. Needless to say, both client and designer must be comfortable with each other.

Before you begin with a designer, take a hard, honest look at your garden. Own up to what is wrong and appreciate what you like. Evaluate what the garden means to you. Very importantly, determine your budget. Be realistic about it. This will later help the designer prioritize the things you’d like to get done in the garden. It works to your advantage to be upfront about finances.

Designers are used to hearing – “I don’t want to spend too much money but, I’d like …”. A litany of garden wants will then follow. For whatever reason, the uncertainty of plants thriving or simply not being aware that making a garden is akin to furnishing a house, people are loathe to allow a suitable if not generous budget. A designer is not out to squander money but knowing what you can honestly afford will make the difference between nice and amazing, pretty and inspired. They know where to cut corners and where to invest. Bear in mind, any additional requests will increase the original cost. Size and complexity will affect costs. Small but sophisticated can be more expensive than large and lawn-dominated. Big garden projects can be done in stages to suit budgets. In return, the designer should be clear about their fees and other expenses. Trust goes both ways.

In order to best serve you, a designer needs to really understand you and your needs. This will happen with briefs or questionnaires requested from you as well as face to face meetings. Your style, needs, use of garden, time in garden etc are all relevant to coming up with the right designs. If your goal is to out do the neighbors or welcome more butterflies, express that as well. In the end, your garden must be a reflection of you and not the designer.

Being frank about expectations is crucial. Its vital to establish what you want and how much you will do yourself. The three typical service options are –
1. Design only which entails a drawn plan, details of plants and structures i.e. soft and hardscaping information.
2. Design and implement which means the designer will her/himself install the agreed upon plans.
3. Design and overseeing. This last one means the client will hire the required labor (or contractor if necessary) and the designer will keep an eye on progress and make sure plans are followed correctly.
Whatever service you choose must be made clear from the start.

From redoing a single flower bed to creating interesting paths to remaking the whole garden, hiring a designer can be a real asset. Ask yourself how much it means to you to have a beautiful, enjoyable garden.

Next week, in Part II, I’ll discuss the ifs and hows of hiring a gardener. “Mow, blow and go” is not your only choice!

Enjoy these images of Fall:
Autumn window-box
Still life with apples
From the window
Autumn in the garden
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Spirituality Through Astrology, Meditation and Yoga!

That proclamation was on a sign I saw alongside a highway this past weekend. It got me thinking about the times we are in. There is a growing need for something to center our hearts and settle our minds. Perhaps a quest for guidance has always prevailed amongst us humans but, in this high-speed digital age we are busier than ever. Swept in the tide of Instagrams, Facebook friends, messages confined to 144 characters, reachable via phone round the clock, we are searching for lifesavers to keep us afloat and present. Its interesting isn’t it that as our lives have increasingly adapted to all the technology, the enrollment in yoga studios has also increased? Massage and meditation are as mainstream as the live streaming we indulge in. With technology changing even as it hastens us forward, we seem to be looking to more enduring, ancient practices to keep us anchored. Time to step back and examine our course you think?

Frankly, I think the garden is the perfect place to find spirituality. And that sign could be tacked on the gate to any such place of horticulture. Patience, kindness, generosity and tolerance are cultivated here. Waiting for plants to grow, creating an environment that welcomes birds, butterflies and bees, sharing, receiving and exchanging seeds, plants and produce, working with weather patterns and pests both large and small, are all instructive. Life lessons that expose us to joy, laughter, loss, birth, regeneration, recycling are taught continuously in the garden. If you are not present, you miss the many miracles that take place in the garden every single day. Being mindful becomes the hallmark of a seasoned gardener.

The varied chores demanded in tending a garden, keep the body active. Bending, lifting, reaching are par for the course. Muscles exercised, joints kept from getting stiff, a day in the garden yields a dose of endorphins that satisfy as much and more than a workout in the gym. There’s a well conditioned body plus a garden to show for it! Of course, neither garden nor health club can guarantee a perfect body or eternal youth but then, thats life isn’t it? There are no guarantees.

If you’ve ever spent time weeding, digging or planting a bed, you know how focused you get. Paying attention forces one to tune out the chatter in the head. By the time the task is done, more than the garden has been transformed. There is certain clearing of the mind and a lifting of the mood. Thats what meditation achieves. Mindfulness creates clarity of thought and purpose.

Gardeners follow the seasons, the quotidian arc of the sun and the gravitational pull of the moon. Weather patterns influence our work as much as it affects our spirit. We apply science, folklore and an occasional dab of superstition. Astrology anyone?!

Tending the land is as ancient a practice as it can get and it is the best therapy by far. I firmly believe that if every human on earth nurtured a garden, we’d be too busy reaping the many rewards of this preoccupation to wage wars, mistreat animals, tolerate rudeness or watch bad television.
Sometimes, I wonder if gardening informs my life or if life informs my gardening.

Check out Happenings to find out about the Rocky Hills talk Oct 18 and the two art shows I’m participating in this month.

Enjoy the varied gardens below:
Musee de quai Bramley
Marco's garden
Rocky Hills
My garden
(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Plants That Live In Glass Houses …

The Great Migration has begun. It started this past Sunday. On what felt like a distinctly mild day in summer, preparations for the imminent cold began. Moving plants into the greenhouse. Its a good prompt for the season. Unlike general chores on the to-do list, this effort is clear in its prerequisites and requisites. It is finite, at which point there is something to show for it.

Don’t let the fact that I’m talking about something most folk do not possess, stop you from paying attention. I think the fundamentals of this effort benefit one and all.

In the interest of plant health and hygiene it is imperative that all residents be cleaned and inspected before entry. This forces me to examine the plants carefully and note what needs repotting, additional organic treatment for simple ailments and, dealing with possible/potential pest infestations. In doing so, I’m taking care of matters that are easily overlooked.

There is only just so much space in a greenhouse. Crowding is achieved rather quickly. Again, this is unhealthy. So, decisions are made about what deserves the prime real estate. With a little thought to the general garden design, hardy plants like boxwood can be situated into the ground. I have two this year that do not look so happy. They’ve been in pots for years and it is is possible that they will recover much better in the ground. I will consider where to plant them and that will make space for more needy candidates seeking shelter.

Plants that are neither hardy nor doing well are tossed. The cost in terms of space and attention is too high for such losers. Its taken me some years to get ruthless.

Those that are selected are given the once over for the space they will require. Good time to cut off dead wood and prune back in general. Height is a major consideration as the highest point in the green house is a mere six feet. Lopping off vertical as well as side growth makes me pretend I’m a big time hairdresser. The end result should look suitably attractive. I wonder if there is a market in the plant world for the ‘Fawcett” or the ‘Anniston’ or the ‘Dorothy Hamill’ or the more likely ‘Einstein’. The more compact size is also advantageous as the energy demand on the plant is reduced. There is less for the roots to feed under less than ideal conditions.

Since I’m pruning anyway, this becomes the time for me to root cuttings of scented geranium, rosemary and bay. And while I’m at it, I may as well propagate some hydrangea. Come spring, there will be several young plants to add to the garden and/or give away. Big dividends for effortless yet, useful work.

In the course of filling the greenhouse, I find myself giving the whole garden the same degree of attention. By starting early enough (but not too early), there is time to do so. Reviewing, editing, deleting, adding, replacing, critiquing are all valuable tasks that are often neglected once the busy-ness of the season takes over. It allows for planning more efficiently and satisfyingly for the next season. I’m made significantly aware of the needs and possibilities. It permits a deeper engagement with the evolution of the garden.

My greenhouse is 12 x 8 sq. feet. By most standards, it is very small. For me, it is a necessary luxury. Heating it for the winter is not cheap. It must be kept clean and well ventilated. Weekly and sometimes bi-weekly watering is required. With plants growing in close proximity, it is crucial to stay vigilant for disease and pests. These ground rules notwithstanding, this glass house is very dear to me. Treasured botanical friends are kept safe here. Several have been in my company for many years. Spring can be jump started because seeds are germinated and nurtured in this warm space while still anticipating the snow melt. Amidst this green sanctuary, I can escape the winter blahs for a while. A soul-lifting, sanity preserving experience. When the jasmine or Brugamansia bloom, they are brought into the house to perfume the nights. Similarly, the primroses in pots display their crayon colors well before their counterparts in the ground outside. Set on a table in the living room, they bring smiles to winter weary countenances. You can see how well this hothouse serves me.

Note: The same approach holds for plants being brought into the house.

Getting ready to root cuttings

Getting ready to root cuttings

Dipping cutting in rooting hormone

Dipping cutting in rooting hormone

Only a bit of the end needs to be covered in the powder

Only a bit of the end needs to be covered in the powder

All ready! Now we wait.

All ready! Now we wait.

Bill Smiles' greenhouse. Mostly orchids because he is the orchid man!

Bill Smiles’ greenhouse. Mostly orchids because he is the orchid man!

Filling up my greenhouse

Filling up my greenhouse

The residents should be well protected when it looks like this!

The residents should be well protected when it looks like this!

(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Fall – The Other Busy Season

Thats right, fall is officially here. Observe the hues of titian and saffron tingeing the trees. By the time all the trees are in full autumnal regalia, the gardener had better be well into the season’s chores. Lets get busy!

Make a list or look up Things To Do and see what tasks must be tackled in September/October. Schedule what needs doing by you, helpful family/friends, hired services. Getting organized cannot be overemphasized.

While you do that, here are some things that I thought you might want to know or be reminded of:

Instead of being annoyed at how early stores are displaying Halloween paraphernalia, consider it a reminder to collect material from the garden to make natural fall arrangements for indoor displays. Think wreaths and table-top centerpieces of pine cones, acorns, pretty fallen leaves, seedpods, dried roses, hydrangea etc., Look for fallen twigs that resemble skeletal hands, thorny rose or bramble stems to wind around monsters and ghosts hanging out in your porch. You have the luxury of time to get creative. Wait a few weeks and you will be scrambling.

It is well worth the effort to dry hydrangeas. Cut the flowers early in the day. Keep the stems long and remove the leaves. Place the flowers in in vases with an inch or two of water. Keep in a cool, dry space and away from direct sunlight. The flowers will dry in about a week. The water would’ve evaporated and the colors of the hydrangeas will be softly faded. They are ready for any arrangements you have in mind.

More news to encourage more green walls. Studies have shown that vertical gardens improve a building’s energy efficiency by 270 percent. At the University of Sheffield, research has found that plants have a considerable capacity for cooling buildings. Walls screened with cherry laurel were found to be 10 degree Centigrade cooler than bare walls. Stachys byzantina ( Lamb’s Ears) proved very effective, partly because its silver leaves help to reflect light away from the wall.
Start thinking about how you too can create a vertical garden. Expand your garden while cutting down on energy bills. Check out my Vertical Garden page to learn more but remember, you can keep it simple by making it a garden only for the warm months.

As we face more unusual weather by way of unprecedented storms and subsequent damage, planting trees strategically can and should be part of long-term measures to deal with flooding. The practice is a cost effective effort that can complement man-made structures for flood prevention and handling. Trees not only work against erosion but help to slow the rate at which rain reaches the ground. So, the falling water is ‘managed’ better. In our gardens, adding trees and shrubs will make a difference. But, lets put pressure on local governments to do the same. This is the season to plant!

You still need to keep weeding. As one final effort to tackle the weeds peering through stone and brick work, pour boiling water over them. Make sure the leaves wilt and collapse completely. This will put paid to any seeds that would’ve been on stand-by to burst forth first thing next spring.

Collect seeds from choice flowers vegetables. Keep in mind seeds from hybrids will not produce plants true to their parents. Save only heirlooms and open-pollinated types. Seeds should be mature and dry on the plants before you collect them. Label and store in a cool, dry and dark place.

Just some food for thought and action. The weather here this week is perfect for getting garden chores done. Lets get on with them!

Do please check out Shop to see my botanical note cards. I’ll be adding more soon.

Hydrangea adorn a table set for an autumnal repast.

Hydrangea adorn a table set for an autumnal repast.

Hydrangea in September

Hydrangea in September

My Vertical Garden

My Vertical Garden

Baptisia seedpods. For seed collecting and/or decorations

Baptisia seedpods. For seed collecting and/or decorations

Autumnal view

Autumnal view

(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

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. and 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

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



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



Eggs of a dove.

Eggs of a dove.

Empty spider web in the rain.

Empty spider web in the rain.

(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar