In The Spirit

“What day is it?” asked Pooh. “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh. – A.A. Milne

Thanksgiving has passed and has served us well. With so much conflict and concern about what is happening at home and globally, it gently brought our focus back to what matters most. Kindness, caring, celebrating life and togetherness, family and friends. Back to basics really. If we each should do our part in doing no harm, I am convinced the state of the world would instantly improve.

It has become so easy to get caught up with the social-media driven world. Between the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) and believing everything one reads without examination or thought, we have succumbed to thinking superficially and speaking in sound bites. Materialism often gains the upper-hand even as we struggle to simplify and live meaningfully.

Enter the power of nature. While we, as a society, embrace our on-line, e-world, we need to get out in the garden even more. By tending a garden, we are reminded to maintain our integrity and honest passion for the natural world. Gardeners remain at all times connected to the rhythms of nature and as a result, have a strong resistance to those not-always-helpful lures of the digital age.

In keeping with the spirit of the holiday season, we want to give attention to gifts of experience versus stuff. Memberships to museums and botanical gardens and/or conservancies, tickets to plays, concerts and other performances, trips to our National Parks and historical sites, or, making good on promises of breaking bread together. There is something for every budget and often, it can be the priceless gift of time – to take walks together, attend a community event, serve at a soup kitchen, share a meal at home, play board games, build something and, even plant a garden. Good for all ages and all personalities.

To get into the right spirit, I have the perfect activity. The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden. Whether you are child or adult, it will delight and inspire. The buildings and other structures made entirely of natural materials are positively awe inspiring. The level of creativity and skill is mighty impressive. Not to be outdone, the plantings around the buildings are just as thoughtful and brilliant. Most of all, it is pure fun.

I have been going to this show from the very first year. It never fails to cheer me. I get into the holiday mood by going to the members preview which is held the Friday before Thanksgiving. Perfect timing.

Get a group of the young and young at heart together and go!

Note: Another fabulous event to attend! The Annual Holiday Art and Book Sale starts Dec 6 at the New York Art Students League. Yes, my work is represented! Please do go – support artists and art. Good place to start or add to an art collection.

Enjoy the photos from my visit to this year’s NYBG Train Show:








(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

To Have And To Hold

This week, all across our country, families and friends will gather to celebrate my favorite holiday – Thanksgiving. To come together to express gratitude for all the blessings we have received is perhaps the highest, most noble reason to celebrate. In giving thanks, we acknowledge not just the blessings but we essentially own our responsibilities and purpose. Because, with receiving comes accountability.

When we sit at the Thanksgiving table and speak of our thankfulness for the much loved people in our lives, we are at the same time recommitting ourselves to those relationships and our roles in them. To be the best parent/spouse/sibling/friend/child and in doing so, we will not take it all for granted. If we are fortunate enough to have homes, jobs and/or lifestyles that we cherish, then we are depended upon to reciprocate with the necessary attention and diligence.

I gave this essay the title To Have And To Hold. The phrase is not reserved for just marriage vows. Every contract we enter into demands that we uphold that promise. To Have is to accept without any reservation the gifts given to us. To Hold is the pledge to value, protect, hold dear and rejoice in the gifts. These covenants are sacred. As we cherish, we must honor. This is what gives our lives meaning and significance.

My garden is high on my gratitude list. It offers me so much that I can only hope to return the favor to the best of my all too human abilities.
My piece of paradise keeps me humble and awed as it teaches me life lessons in patience, tolerance and crisis management. It is my muse for my art and writing. Its beauty inspires and enchants and in caring for it, it provides me much needed physical and psychological therapy. The garden comforts and cheers, puts life in perspective and still manages to entertain no matter what is happening with the weather, political climate or my private life.

In turn, I pledge anew to do right by my garden. To care for it to the best of my ability. Applying organic methods and a do no harm policy, I vow to protect, sustain and watch over it with love and good cheer.
After all, our health and happiness depend on each of us fulfilling our parts.

I wish each of you a Thanksgiving abundant in blessings.




(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Better Home-makers And Gardeners

The garden was put to bed last weekend. There is enormous comfort and satisfaction in bringing things to a close in a timely, attentive manner.

All tender perennials are safely ensconced in the greenhouse or let to go dormant in the basement.

The hundreds of bulbs got planted carefully and one at a time amidst the herbaceous perennials and previously established bulbs.

New native perennials were added so more beneficial insects and birds will inhabit the garden next growing season.

Plants were cut back and tidied. Dead wood was removed from shrubs and climbers. Roses and wisteria were pruned and secured. Creating breathing room and getting rid of anything that might encourage disease is so important.

A light application of compost and additional mulch of tree bark on the perennial beds should get them through the winter and in good shape to re-emerge nicely in spring.

The vast amounts of fallen leaves have been raked, gathered and added to the compost heap in the woods. Contrary to the advice of some ‘green’ experts, I do not let the leaves remain on my small lawn or in the meadow as they tend to kill the grass, smother other plants and possibly encourage snow mold which is a type of fungal disease. If I had a leaf chopper, then I’d use the chopped up matter to mulch and feed the plants.

All pots have been emptied and cleaned and put away. The very large ones stay outside well wrapped in plastic and burlap.

Likewise, outdoor furniture has been cleaned and put away.

Water hoses lie empty and coiled till required once again when the hot weather returns. The rain barrel too is given a hibernation pass.

Soon, I will get garden tools like secateurs and push mower professionally cleaned, sharpened and/or serviced. They will be eager and ready to serve as soon as the need arises.

Sundries like garden gloves, stakes, markers, hats and, supplies such as organic sprays like seaweed/fish emulsion, dormant oil will be replaced or replenished.

Fulfilling the seasonal responsibilities got me thinking about how hard we gardeners work to dream, plan, make better gardens. Although we aspire to create those better gardens, we should really be putting more effort in becoming better gardeners. The way I see it, to accomplish that takes a resolve similar to one we undertake to be better parents.

Consider how we prepare our home for our children. Clean, hygienic, tidy and welcoming.

There is room to grow and thrive. We provide the best, healthiest food our wallets can offer. Due diligence and protection is necessary so our young do not come to harm and yet have opportunities to be happy, healthy, independent and strong. When a child is unwell or in distress, we respond with alacrity and minister to their needs. With unconditional love, patience and undivided attention, we listen to what our children are saying and/or doing so we can take the appropriate measures to give them the best, most wholesome life possible. We encourage diversity, tolerance and mutual respect so our young can become vital, productive members of society.

All of those points hold true in the garden. And while I’m cognizant of them and try to apply the same parental guidelines, I know I can always do and be better. The kicker is this – it is much easier and far less guilt-inducing to be a good gardener than it is to be a good parent. After all, one’s failure in the garden can always be blamed on the weather.

Some seasonal images:





Getting ready to plant bulbs

Getting ready to plant bulbs

The vertical garden

The vertical garden

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Choosing My Candidates

I cannot pretend that this day is like any normal Tuesday. It is Election Day 2016! And this year, it cannot have arrived too soon. Yes, I know, I don’t need to explain further.

In seeking to escape the election insanity, I’ve predictably hung around the garden more than usual. Despite the demands of seasonal chores, I’ve spent time pondering over my own opinions, biases and beliefs. What conclusion I’ve arrived at explains much about how I generally operate. It appears that the criteria by which I select plants to include in my garden is pretty much how I vote in the elections. Let me explain what I look for.

Form and function. A plant must look appealing. That does not necessarily mean that it’s flowers be gorgeous. In fact, the blooms might be insignificant but other parts have attractive properties such as foliage shapes and color. From lamb’s ears to sanguisorbas to maple trees, I covet them for the beauty of their leaves. Similarly, the stems of the plant might be striking. Like the dogwood shrub ‘Red Twig’ in winter. Or the deep burgundy stems of penstemon ‘Husker Red’. The general shape, how it holds itself and what it brings to the overall appearance of a garden bears consideration. If it has stunning flowers to boot, well then, that is even better. Along with the form, function is equally relevant. Either the plant provides food for humans or supports the local fauna. If not food, perhaps the plants brings perfume to the garden and home. In other words, I need more than superficial traits.

Maintenance. No picky, fussy plants. I have neither the time, tolerance or interest in high maintenance applicants.

Cohesiveness. Plants in a bed must work together. While certain plants take center stage and others have supporting roles, all together they should grow well and let each one thrive. No bullies or thugs allowed. Ever.

Reciprocity or living up to expectations. When I select a plant, I am accepting my responsibility to give it the attention and care it requires. In other words, I’m prepared to do my duty. In return, I expect the plant to do its job well. To respond appropriately to the conditions provided and thrive. When we each understand and accept our roles, it benefits not only each of us but the entire garden. This covenant is sacred.
The corollary to this is that should either one of us fail to fulfill our promise, then the relationship is terminated. This arrangement is implicit.

Authenticity. A plant selected for it’s unique or specific qualities must run true to them. Or else, eviction notice is given. Veracity and trust are the cornerstones of a relationship.

Sense of humor. I know you’re wondering how a plant could possibly have that trait. When a plant does not take itself too seriously, it gets on well with its neighbors. When a rose permits a promiscuous clematis to use it for support, a beautiful friendship develops. When columbines playfully self-seed, they bring a certain relaxed quality to the garden and I appreciate that jokey reminder to ease up some. Nobody appreciates control freaks.

So there you have it. See how these specifications can serve well in the polling booth? Now, go forth and vote!

The images below have nothing to do with the elections. I just love their seasonality:









(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Double Vision

I have two gardens. The one in my mind’s eye is perfect and exactly how I wish it. The other is here on earth, around my house, fodder for pests and vulnerable to the vagaries of weather. Striving to get the real garden reach the ideal of the one I dream about is an eternal quest. The saving grace is that most gardeners share my struggle. No matter where we garden and what size of land we command, the yearning is the same.

Starting in the fall when planting for the next growing season is going full throttle, we are motivated by the vision where all our plans succeed. Through the winter months we plot and plan for the perfect garden. It’s what gets us through the dreary, cold days. The real problem arises if we dwell too much in fantasy land and get carried away. Practicality, patience and common sense must moderate those ambitions. Sometimes, in the eagerness to achieve beauty and form, it is easy to forget about function and balance.

A garden can look beautiful but in truth, it should also provide. It must delight, inspire, feed, comfort, educate and most importantly, do no harm to the environment. This sounds like a tall order but in simply following that last dictum, the rest will happen easily. There is nothing more fundamental to us than to create an attractive, productive, safe haven.

By choosing the right plants for the right location, selecting mostly natives that in turn will attract and support native fauna, employing organic practices, judicious use of precious resources like water and energy consuming tools and in giving diligent care, any spot of land can shine. Truly.

But that doesn’t mean it precludes indulging in dreams. If I didn’t envision a riot of spring color, I wouldn’t be torturing my body by planting hundreds of bulbs each fall. If you hanker for plants that thrive in a different climate and/or are invasive, reasonable alternatives are usually available and will satisfy your vision. Native honeysuckle instead of the Japanese variety, Rose of Sharon can be pruned to grow single or multi-trunked shrubs and are lovely substitutes for crape myrtles. (Select a sterile type so you are not burdened with digging up seedlings all the time.) Russian sage or nepeta are excellent stand-ins for lavender.

If you adore roses but cannot grow them or would like their ‘look’ throughout the growing season, I recommend ranunculus, peonies, camellias, double begonias and dahlias. Native wisteria is better behaved than the Asian types. A myriad choices of native grasses are excellent alternatives to exotic ones. There really is a way to make garden dreams come true. Within reason. You’re on your own if you insist on making your north-east garden into a tropical paradise.

Having said all this, I still dream big. Lush, impossibly wonderful dream gardens. From those wild fantasies come ideas more realizable, creative and applicable in my true, earth-bound garden. Several features that have become hallmarks in my garden came from dreaming. While I’ve learned to temper my reveries with budget constraints, physical and/or time limitations to make my real garden, I give free rein to my imagination. After all, it was Albert Einstein who said – Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination encircles the world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.
And look what he managed to contribute.

See below for some real features that came from my imaginary garden:






(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Spring State Of Mind

Hallelujah, we’re back to more seasonal weather this week. The leaves are putting up a beautiful autumnal show, garden clean up is underway and, because gardeners are always optimistic and looking ahead, planting for spring has begun.

In my garden, all the tender perennials are tucked safely in the greenhouse which is filled to bursting. The meadow has got its annual mowing just in time for bulb planting. In the herb garden, apart from the still thriving Swiss chard, boxwoods and hellebores, the plants have been cut back. All that remains to be done here is the application of a good layer of compost mulch. The peonies along the side path have also been cut back. I have three new peonies waiting to be planted in the mix. In the front perennial beds, I’m letting the plants be for another couple of weeks. They look quite seasonal with the fading asters, the bright yellow foliage of amsonia, waving ornamental grasses and assorted seed heads.

All this work is leading up to the rather exhausting project of bulb planting. While the previously mentioned tasks signal the end of the growing season and the coming of winter, bulb planting demonstrates the certainty that spring will come again. Despite the guaranteed aches and pains that follow this annual activity, one cannot help feeling cheered by visions of happy bulbs sparkling and ushering in the spring. It is exactly such dreams that keep me going.

My order of about 700 bulbs arrived recently. The Eremurus I ordered require planting as soon as possible. The rest of the bulbs will be attended to in due course. While I absolutely crave the fox-tail lilies in my garden, my previous two attempts to grow them have been utter failures. Apparently, my garden does not meet their standards. This time will be my third and final try. I’m keeping fingers crossed tightly. I admit to a sense of desperation.

As promised last week, here are my tips for planting bulbs:

First and foremost, I order my bulbs by late June/early July. It allows me to go through the catalogs at a pleasurable pace and ensures that I get the specific bulbs I want in the quantity I want.
If you have not ordered any, local nurseries still have bulbs available. Hurry on there and get your share. No garden should be left out of a spring showing of bulbs.
Resolve to get your act together for next year’s bulb order.

When to plant : the rule of thumb is planting should happen after the soil temperature has dropped to about 55 degrees. In Europe, there is a timeline for different bulbs – snowdrops in early October, daffodils in late October, tulips in November, alliums in December etc but thankfully, here in the North-East, the various spring blooming bulbs can be done all at the same time once the temperature of the soil is suitable.

Select bulbs so that there is a sequence in the flowering. Starting with early bulbs like scillas and snowdrops to alliums and lilies into the summer.

Choose your bulbs wisely. No tulips in deer country but alliums and daffodils will do great. Similarly, don’t order small bulbs like scillas and snowdrops for areas thick with evergreen groundcover as the diminutive beauties will struggle to emerge through and gain visibility.

Plant the bulbs at the correct depths. Generally, that means three times the height of the bulb. When in doubt go deep. Except in the case of peonies and iris rhizomes – they need shallow planting or you will be rewarded with lush foliage but no flowers.

To achieve a cohesive yet dramatic look, order a larger quantity of of a few types of bulbs rather than a meager amount of a variety of them.

Invest in the right planting implements. It’ll make the work easier. Really.

The planting instructions that the bulbs arrive with are mere guidelines. I find it much more effective to plant my bulbs a bit closer than advised and in a mixed/scattered manner. In this way, I achieve a more natural, organic look.

To encourage reblooming and naturalization, after the blooms are done, let the leaves be. Do not braid them, tie them or remove them till they are completely yellow and done. Those leaves must be left to work hard to replenish the bulbs so they are fed and ready for the next time around.

When it comes to tulips, I consider them as annuals since most do not return the following year. However, I let the leaves die back and do not remove the bulbs. Every now and then, the tulips do make a comeback and gladden my heart no end. Restores my faith.

Enjoy my watercolor renditions of some favorite bulbs:











Iris reticulata

Iris reticulata





(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar


Thinking Spring In Fall

Thinking spring? Heck, this week sure feels like spring! And as if to defy the actual season underway, I have an iris in bloom. This plant has not bloomed in about three years. Seems as though it is staging its own version of a spring awakening. As puzzling as it might be, I’m thrilled to see the pale lilac hued flowers. Perhaps its cousins planted alongside that had inexplicably gone AWOL as well, will also make a comeback next year. I’ve missed these beauties and was only recently wondering if I ought to give up and order their replacements. I guess I’ll hold off that shopping spree.

The standard of three intertwined hibiscus is still flowering sweetly so instead of taking it into the greenhouse, I’ve brought it down to the terrace where I can enjoy it as I go about my chores.
The Heritage and Bonica rose bushes have a few flowers in bloom. At any other time they look their best when loaded in flowers but at this time of year, the minimal look feels all the more precious.
In the potager, the Swiss chard are going strong as are the collards. They will honor our meals until the temperatures plummet and does them in. I’m hoping this does not happen till December.
The vertical garden is continuing to look quite stunning. If only it was located such that I could place a seating area near it so one could admire it at length.

My rather large shipment of bulbs is due to arrive this week. Given the mild weather, I guess I’ll have to wait at least a couple of weeks before the planting marathon commences. The soil temperature is still way too warm. It needs to be 55 degrees and below for the bulbs to know not to start sprouting. Already my mind’s eye can envision the glorious blooms to come and my heart longs for that season.

With the asters and golden rods shining bright, the ornamental kale and cabbages prettying up the pots and the display of gourds and pumpkins serenading fall, the pansies, lone iris, vertical garden etc., are representing a whole other season. My garden is displaying a most wonderful split personality. I’m revelling in its humanness.

(Next week, I’ll go over the “rules” of planting bulbs.)

 I am participating in the Beaux Art show in  in White Plains, NY this week. Hope you can stop by!

White Plains:

16 Annual Art Exhibit
of the
Woman’s Club of White Plains
305 Ridgeway
White Plains, NY 10605

Wednesday October 19 2-5 p.m. Exhibit Viewing
Thursday October 20 2-5 p.m. Exhibit Viewing
7 p.m.-Artists’ Reception (open to the public)







Swiss chard

Swiss chard





(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar



Happy, hardy
freely clustered
Summer stars
scattered below
Butterflies gather
for astral encounters
From Peleides’ showers
till fall’s last glow.

Shobha Vanchiswar

If you have not as yet embraced asters then get going already! Robust, reliable natives that make fall shine. Low maintenance too. If I can remember, I cut back the plants by a third in July so the plants get bushy rather than leggy. Butterflies and bees of all kinds are drawn to them in droves. Every American garden ought to have asters.

The Aster is rightfully assigned as the flower for September. But oh! How it lights up October!

Note: I am participating in the Beaux shows in Dobbs Ferry, NY this week and  in White Plains, NY next week. Hope you can stop by!

Dobbs Ferry:

Dobbs Ferry Women’s Club House, 54 Clifton Place, Irvington, NY, United States

Public Viewing~Oct 14th / Reception & Awards ~Oct 16: 2PM-4PM

White Plains:

16 Annual Art Exhibit
of the
Woman’s Club of White Plains
305 Ridgeway
White Plains, NY 10605

Wednesday October 19 2-5 p.m. Exhibit Viewing
Thursday October 20 2-5 p.m. Exhibit Viewing
7 p.m.-Artists’ Reception (open to the public)




Watercolor - Aster

Watercolor – Aster

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar


The Imposter In Our Midst

Can you imagine an American garden without the likes of lilacs, peonies, forsythia, mop-head/pompom/snowball hydrangea, common roses, boxwood, azaleas, rhododendrons, common foxgloves, camellias, hollyhocks, chrysanthemums, crape myrtles or even a patch of green lawn?
How about going without some fruits such as apples, peaches or citrus fruits?

Hard to think of life without any of the above right? All are very much part of our landscape and in our collective consciousness. Several states have taken the rose as their representative flower. Crape myrtles and camellias define southern pride. Georgia, the peach state is chock full of streets and sites with names starting with Peachtree. The Orange state anybody? Or the Rose Bowl? No roses perfuming June! No forsythia serenading spring. Mothers’ Day sans lilacs wouldn’t be the same.
Breakfast without OJ or a half of pink grapefruit, no mom’s apple pie or a southern meal without peach cobbler is positively horrifying! What would the Big Apple become without the apple?!

See, none of those plants are true American natives. But they are as good as. Getting rid of them and other similar stalwarts is unthinkable. We need them to feel whole and healthy. These ‘aliens’ have integrated themselves into the American landscape. In doing so, we are all enriched.

Recently, the honey-bee was placed on the United States list of endangered species. That this highly industrious and valuable creature is on this list is a tragedy in itself. It is a call to arms – we must do whatever we can to save the honey-bee. Our own health, both physical and economical, depends on it. But, here is the kicker – the honey-bee is not an American native. Wrap your mind around that.

In an example of reaching across borders, resistant root stock of grapevine from California helped to revitalize the French wine industry following the Great French Wine Blight in the 19th century. However what is usually omitted from mention is that the blight was caused by an American aphid in the first place. Puts matters in perspective right?

What it all means is that while we are taking steps to ensure the vitality of our land and safeguard all its inhabitants, we cannot have a black or white mentality. We should be mindful of the range of voices we listen to. Just as we cannot include harmful or invasive newcomers that threaten our biological balance, we cannot afford to view our own as one homogeneous, harmless population. We are but a part of the bigger world and cannot afford to be ignorant, broadly exclusionist or isolated. Lets not forget that within the great, all-American mix also exists that scourge Periplaneta americana. The American cockroach.
Not everything non-native is bad and not everything native is good.

Here are some of the non-natives I’m thrilled to have in my garden:



Double azalea

Double azalea









(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar


Finding A Balance

Ah! The pleasures of autumn! What a difference a week can make. Since this past Saturday, it feels distinctly like fall. Crisp. That word defines the essence of the season. The air is crisp and cool. Crisp apples. Crunchy, crisp leaves underfoot. Even the light has a crisp clarity. I love it all.

Now that the greenhouse is winter-ready, the plants are slowly being moved in. Trimming, picking off dead limbs, washing plant and pot is time consuming. But there is a certain comfort in the ritual as it helps the mind adjust to the inevitability of impending winter. Preparing the plants for that season also prepares me. Inside the house, I’m getting out the shawls and throws, setting up the fireplace with kindling, logs and matches, placing fresh candles, pulling out cool weather recipes, putting away summer linens and stocking up on ingredients for mulled drinks and thick, smooth cocoas. Summer’s bounty is being stored as pesto in the freezer, large canning jars of thick, roasted tomato sauce and pickled cucumbers in the pantry, loaves of zucchini bread also filling the freezer, dried herbs refreshing the spice rack and surplus fruits twinkling in jam pots.

As I trim the plants, I indulge in memories of the recent summer. These are what keep me going when the winter gets unbearably long and severe. And when I’m full of such appreciation, the chores at hand don’t seem so tedious. Sometimes, life is all about tricking the mind. A shift in attitude can make all the difference between whining and celebrating.

I’m also adding plants in the garden – this is a great time to get mature plants into the ground. They’ll settle in nicely and be ready to start growing when spring comes around. I’m expecting my rather large order of bulbs in mid-October and so, I’d like to get all the other chores done before the bulb-planting marathon.

When the weather feels so perfect with just the right combination of sun and temperature, it is hard to get work done. It seems a shame to keep plugging away instead of hanging out with family and friends on the terrace. So, I’m determined to keep a balance. All garden work must cease by Sunday noon so we can sit back under the pergola with the sunlight filtering through the yellowing leaves of the wisteria, get the outdoor oven fired up and while away the rest of the day with gourmet pizza, drink and conversation. What a civilized way to get ready for the work week ahead don’t you think?

Here are a few images of things I’ve enjoyed this past summer:

How many tiger swallowtails can you count?!

How many tiger swallowtails can you count?!

The titan-arum

The titan-arum



Love this façade in down-town NYC

Love this façade in down-town NYC

Edible window-boxes. Beautiful too.

Edible window-boxes. Beautiful too.

Roasted tomatoes.

Roasted tomatoes.

One of several memorable farm to table meals

One of several memorable farm to table meals

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar