Justly June

My heart is heavy. The pain, sadness, frustration and anger within feels constant. I’m trying my best to only focus on love and peace. In thoughts, words and action.

This past week, the garden took on even greater importance – it was the only place where I could get totally immersed in the chores, the beauty and horticultural goings on. A productive, satisfying escape. True, as all escapes go, this too doesn’t solve any current problem. It does however, keep me sane, physically active, breathing in fresh air, catching some sunshine and, gives me the satisfaction of getting required work done. I get to process thoughts, relieve pent up frustrations ( yanking out weeds!) and create some order in what feels like a completely chaotic world.

The few days of muggy, warm weather put paid to the tulips. I was sorry to see them go. However, the irises have begun dancing gracefully through the beds. Soon, the baptisia will spray blue spikes to vie with the starry amsonia that seem to have got a bit of a head start. Peonies and roses are just beginning to open and the anticipation to see their frilly fullness is keeping me in a good place.

Regular deadheading, weeding and watering have become the norm for the rest of the growing season. It’s comforting to be in that rhythm. The summer window-boxes are filling out out nicely lending charm and cheer. We’ve been harvesting micro-greens, other leafy vegetables and herbs for our meals – is it just my imagination or does the food taste better when its cooked with homegrown produce?!

The topiaries and boxwood balls got a proper haircut over the weekend. Given the present state of my own hair, they have given me a serious case of jealousy. The next time the plants receive a trimming will be just before they are returned to the greenhouse for the winter. By which time, I too ( hopefully) should be looking well groomed.

I’m loving the progressive greening of the vertical garden. Ferns unfurling their fronds, heuchera getting husky and mosses mapping out the green background. It’s like watching art in progress.

The big task that got done over the weekend was at the far back of the garden. If you recall, it’s an area that borders the west-northwest end of the meadow, right next to the woods. A couple of weeks ago, as much of the ancient pachysandra that could be pulled out was and the stubborn rest smothered with cardboard and landscape fabric. On Sunday, plugs of Chrysogonum virginianum were planted in for groundcover. Their yellow flowers should brighten up this semi-shady area. Dwarf Fothergilla shrubs were added to the existing oakleaf hydrangea and native dogwoods. A couple more oakleafs as well as a few Ceanothos americanus will round out the plantings. This project would never have taken off if it were not for the fact that we are in a state of Pause. There was simply no excuse to put it off. This time next year, when the area is brightened in yellow from the ground and the white Fothergilla flowers are wafting their fragrance, I shall remind myself to be thankful for this time.

I cannot wave a wand and make our present troubles disappear. But, I can certainly do my part in restoring some native beauty to our natural landscape, spread some optimism and possibly, just possibly emerge a stronger, better person myself.

After tackling the pachysandra and before new plantings

Another before

After the plantings. Few more shrubs yet to come!

New groundcover of golden star. The silver maple near by has shed tons of seeds. We’re letting the squirrels have their fill before we clear it all up!

The meadow right now.

Topiaries post haircut.

The vertical garden greening up.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Big Flower Fight

Summer started yesterday – unofficially. Despite the sameness of our days at present, this puts one in the mood for injecting more lightheartedness into them. The daily demands of work and home continue of course but, with the heavy spring tasks in the garden all done, I’m more than ready to sit back and let the games begin so to speak. I seek lighter reading material, shows with less angst and heaviness to watch, games to play that are less about competition and more about creativity, easy recipes with seasonal ingredients and I even find myself choosing to dress more colorfully ( but still comfortable).

Based on those sentiments, I discovered a thoroughly entertaining show. ‘The Big Flower Fight’ is a competition which Netflix describes as “ten pairs of florists, sculptors and garden designers face off in a friendly floral fight to see who can build the biggest, boldest garden sculptures”. It kinda reminds one of the Great British Bake Off but not quite as polished in its production. That doesn’t matter though. The show demands out-of-the-box thinking and what each team comes up with is inevitably outstanding and unique.

To be honest, I was a little skeptical when I began watching. So many ‘face-off’ shows have teams insulting each other and even trying to sabotage their opponents’ work. It always makes me uncomfortable to watch people displaying their worst traits. But that is exactly what those shows seem to be designed for. More remarkably, they garner such huge audiences, that one has to wonder what this says about the human race. The shows become all about the individuals instead of the challenges. Not this one. Like the aforesaid baking show, the Big Flower Fight is pure fun to watch. And subtly instructive.

There is no backbiting, nastiness or plain bad behavior from the teams. The judges are fair and kind – something we need desperately in our lives today. Creativity is at the forefront. There is humor too. One doesn’t have to be a gardener or an artist of any sort to enjoy the show. But it will have you thinking about what you would create if you were participating. We get to be armchair creatives. And critics. The teams themselves have quite a few zany characters and they add to the entertainment. One warms up to all of them very quickly. Overall, it is a delightful escape.

I binge watched the eight episodes. I’m now wondering what I might have come up with for each of the challenges. No doubt, such endeavors teach something about oneself. If I find myself with more time, someone I work well with to be my co-collaborator and a source of (preferably free) supplies, it might be interesting to try my hand at creating at least a single sculpture. Any takers?

Note: A few images to give you an idea about the Big Flower Fight and some others about what’s doing in my garden.

The wall is coming along nicely

Microgreens ready for the picking!

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Work In Progress

A week of the big push in the garden. That means getting the last of the big chores going before settling into a rhythm of general maintenance. Weeding started in earnest – a couple of days a week, I go around the whole garden looking for the thugs. That helps me stay on top of them. Deadheading regularly keeps things tidy and checks the promiscuous from self-seeding recklessly, In some cases, it encourages repeat flowering. At present, it’s the spent daffodils that are getting lopped off so the remaining leaves can do their job of fattening up the bulbs for next year. As the early tulips finish up, I deadhead them to keep things neat even though I treat tulips like annuals. I prefer not to disturb the beds by pulling them out all together. Besides, sometimes they do condescend make a comeback.

Veggies and herbs are all planted. As are several perennials. Some annuals like cleomes and cosmos were re-introduced into the garden. My daughter recalled that when she was little, we had a ‘jungle’ of cleomes and sunflowers along the side-path that made it feel exciting and magical. Now that she’s home for the foreseeable future, I thought it might be fun to do it again. We chose a different location but I let her do the planting. Any which way she liked. Sunflowers to be added very soon. It’s always a good thing to bring back happy memories and create new ones.

The garden is now pretty much set for the season. The biggest chore we decided to undertake ( because right now, there is no excuse), was to get the far end of the garden into better shape. This area has had pachysandra as a groundcover for decades. Long before we got here. So, we’re talking a really well established patch. It had given the shrubs in its midst a hard time, encroached into the ‘meadow’ and, smothered out smaller plants. It was time to smother it out in turn.

Back breaking work it was and as much as possible was dug up. Over the now bare areas of soil, we put down layers of paper ( brown paper shopping bags and flattened cardboard boxes saved for the purpose), over-layered by breathable landscaping fabric. This should asphyxiate any remaining pachysandra and other weeds. A native groundcover like goldenstar ( Chyrysogonum virginianum) will take its place. I chose this groundcover because I think its yellow flowers will brighten the dark area and bring attention to the bigger plantings. In the fall, other native shrubs will join the oakleaf hydrangea, American holly and shrub dogwoods and Amelanchier tree already there. I’d do it now but my selections are out of stock everywhere! Not because they are so popular but because nursery stocks are low in general. Darn virus!

The simple, stone bench that sits at the front edge of this area is once again accessible and I plan to keep it that way. From this bench, it is possible to merge oneself with the meadow, observe the goings on of the pollinators, listen to the birds gossip and take a wellness moment to recharge with a healthy session of nature therapy.

Without this period of Pause, I doubt this project would’ve been undertaken. The usual excuses of lack of time would’ve been made instead. Using the current situation to improve the garden has been a blessing.

What lies ahead in the months to come is unknown. The future of practically everything is uncertain. All we have is now – to work on ourselves, our gardens, our homes and our relationships. I don’t want to waste this opportunity.

Note: Last Saturday, May 16 should’ve been our Open Day. The garden truly looked lovely and I was so sorry not to share it with anyone. Here are a few photos:

Project Pachysandra underway! Note the bench.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Rain, Snow, Sunshine And Storm

We saw it all this past week. Bizarre, beautiful and bewildering weather. It was as though we were witness to a highly compressed video of the four seasons. What gives? As if the pandemic was not enough. I did a great deal of worrying all week.

The rain itself was not a problem but then, it got windy. Really windy. Tipped over pots that had never been affected before. With the soil getting so saturated with water, I fretted over seedlings in the vegetable patch getting wobbly and possibly drowning. Thankfully that did not happen but a few new worry lines have shown up on my face.

Then, we had a couple of dry days with strong wind. And sunshine. Well, that completely dried up the soil in no time so we had to water everything. Crazy no?

On one day it was almost perfect. Sunny, pleasant and totally misleading. That night, temperatures plummeted. We were back in winter and scrambled to bring some tender plants back into the greenhouse they’d vacated just last weekend. The smaller pots were all we could shelter. The big ones were too heavy to move in a hurry.

The next day it remained super cold. And poured rain for hours. At night, it snowed. Not much but enough to coat the cars. Thankfully, the snow melted as the sun rose but the temperature was still twenty degrees below normal. Go figure.

Later that same day, we experienced two squalls. Two. Snow gusted and swirled. It got dark. About twenty minutes later, all was calm and bright. The sun shone as though nothing untoward had occurred.

All this took place in a span of six days! On Sunday, we were finally blessed with a beautiful day. The pots of plants taking refuge in the greenhouse found their posts in the garden and we tethered and propped everything that had been pushed around by the wind. Not going to take chances anymore – this could be an ongoing trend in the weather. Who knows.

Making good use of the reprieve in the weather, much weeding was done. It is impressive how hardy weeds can be. Two roses were dug up and relocated. These roses were the offspring of a rose given to me by a friend. It reproduced all by itself i.e. with no help from me. I’m guessing that’s why the friend was giving away that rose rather generously. When I first saw the progeny coming up near the parent, I was delighted. But they grew fast and encroached other plants aggressively. They had to be moved. I’m going to keep a sharp eye on these roses – no more surprise babies.

Speaking of babies, my biggest source of stress during what was a trying week in the garden, was the nest of three robin babies in the wall pot by the front door. I’ve been keeping an eye on them throughout and posting photos here and on my Instagram account (@seedsofdesignllc and @shobhavanchiswar). Watching the parents care for their little ones who are growing fast has been so enjoyable. But with temperatures dropping so low, winds picking up and, snow coming down, I was totally afraid for the safety of the baby robins. Would the parents be able to keep them warm and dry when they themselves were cold? I was consumed with concern.

I expressed a desire to set up a heater in the front porch but that got shot down by the family. Mostly because we do not even have an outdoor heater. However, I didn’t much care for the lecture on how this is nature at work and I cannot go around playing God. Who says?

Of course, I know how Nature operates and the circle of life yada, yada. I worry about my garden plants and critters anyway. They are each in my care after all. But, at this particular time when we know so little about the powerful virus and are trying so hard to stay well and positive, the fact that we actually have very little control is not lost on me. Hence, tending the garden is a way of staying creative, productive, active and optimistic. Any threat to this source of therapy is distressing. All and any support and kindness from the weather-gods would be much appreciated. Is that too much to ask?

As I went about grumbling about such matters yesterday, I was also dealing with the small odd jobs in the garden. In the process, I started to relax. The sheer beauty of the flowers in bloom, the melody of bird song and the energy of life all around was having their unfailing impact on my entire being. I was now paying attention to what the garden was saying to me. The baby birds had pulled through the cold nights, the veggie plot was looking just fine, plants deemed tender had survived nicely – they had all weathered the storm so to speak. Not because of my worrying and stressing but because they applied their deep seated natural instincts. The plants bent and swayed and let the wind flow through, the robin parents instinctively did what they could to keep their young ones warm. They were all doing whatever they were capable of doing. Sure there was no guarantee of survival but each living thing was using its inherent capacities to that end. We rise above and despite the fear. That is all we can do.

Apple blossom

wall garden waking up

Alliums getting ready …

White forget-me-nots have joined the blue!

Bleeding hearts

In the ‘meadow’

Robin babies

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

May Flowering

The pear blossoms on the espalier have never looked better. I have spent an inordinate amount of time admiring the mass of luminous white flowers. Bees have been spotted making their rounds so keeping fingers crossed for a good crop of pears in September. Remember I’d mentioned I had a couple of projects planned for this year? Well, one of them is to try growing pears in bottles – to make a liqueur for those cold days in winter. The bottles ( just a few) stand clean and ready.

I’m quite excited to try this experiment as I remember when I first came across a bottle of vodka with a golden pear in it. The drink it provided had a subtle flavor of pear but I was more interested to know how the pear got in the bottle. That was revealed to me soon enough but it has taken me years to actually have the time to recall that interest and consider trying my hand at it.

After a wet, cold week, the weekend arrived like a gorgeous cake. The kind that makes you just want to gaze at it because consuming it would make it disappear. The temperatures rose, the sun shone bright and the flowers sparkled exquisitely. My heart felt it would burst with so much beauty.

In the front garden, the perennial beds are filling out with the growing plants and the tulips have started blooming. Picture perfect. With no major flowers to compete with, the tulips are enjoying their solo moment. Heck, I’m enjoying their performance. I particularly like ‘Cool Crystal’ – they look like Moulin Rouge dancers saucily kicking up their bright pink, flouncy, fringed skirts.

Currently, this front area along with the house looks somewhat chocolate-box scene-ish. Over the weekend, I was struck by how relevant a role it plays in the big picture. My daughter, a French horn player, decided she would give a concert for the neighborhood on Saturday. With everyone craving connectivity and no live entertainment to attend, it seemed like just the tonic needed. We informed a few neighbors and also invited friends and family from afar via Zoom. So on Saturday afternoon, Mira performed for a half hour. Neighbors with advance notice showed up on time, passers by and their dogs stopped to listen, a couple of friends drove from a town nearby and sat in their car like VIPs, many more watched on-line.

The concert was lovely (my completely biased opinion of course), Even more special was having friends and neighbors gathered together albeit, socially distanced.

And after the concert, I heard from several that they deliberately plan their daily walks to pass by my house for the pleasure of seeing what’s blooming in the garden. That’s exactly what a gardener loves to know. Especially now.

Like a babbling brook, white violas and blue forget-me-nots are tumbling through the ‘meadow’. The dandelions ( yes, I adore them) mingle in like splotches of sunlight. It is absolutely spectacular. Soon the camassia and alliums will pop up and it’ll be a whole other show.

The vegetable garden is all planted up with cool weather greens, We also emptied out the greenhouse and placed the plants in their spring/summer locations around the garden. After cleaning the greenhouse, we potted up tomatoes. Last year, they did very well there. Soon, zucchini plants will also take up residence in the greenhouse – we grow them only for their blossoms. Stuffed with goat cheese, then dipped in a light tempura batter and quickly fried – just yum.

At the end of a very busy weekend of gardening, tired and satisfied we sat down to relax with a pre-dinner glass of wine. At precisely that moment, we were graced with our first hummingbird sighting of the year. Flashing its iridescent green body it sipped from the feeder and flew away. I felt as though we’d just been blest.

Happy, healthy May one and all.

P.S. Do check Things To Do for a list of garden chores this month

Note: Given the current Coronavirus crisis, the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days have been cancelled through May. Sad but expected. So I’ll try to post as many photos as I can so I can still share my garden with everyone. Stay safe everybody.

Pear blossoms

Tulipa ‘Cool Crystal’

Meadow

Tomatoes in the greenhouse

Rooting cuttings

Vegetable bed

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Slow Gardening

These uncommon days have brought me to a rediscovering of the pleasures of fundamental garden work. As I mentioned last week, I, along with so many across the country (world maybe?), are getting back to basics. Seed sowing, root cuttings, composting, growing vegetables etc., It isn’t that I stopped doing any of that but now, I’m once again taking the right amount of time to do those tasks with attention, appreciation and anticipation.

Over the past dozen years or so, I’d gotten into the habit of accomplishing the tasks with a sense of urgency. Admittedly, there was the pressure of getting the garden ready for Open Day by mid-May but, that was only part of the story. So many other commitments and projects had been taken on that I was spreading myself too thin. This year, under unforeseen circumstances, I find myself doing exactly the same chores but with a renewed energy and spirit of purpose. Once more, I’m having fun sowing seeds, eagerly checking daily to see if they’ve sprouted even though I know the typical amount of days it takes to germinate.

This past weekend, the pea shoots were transplanted to the potager. I had not sown peas in years because I really felt I hadn’t the real estate to set up a trellis for them. And I didn’t want to spend the time to do so. Well, all of a sudden, I knew exactly where to plant the seedlings. Along the edge of a potager bed that borders the pergola, seven pea plants were planted. To guide them in their climb, strings were strung from the top of the pergola down to each baby seedling. Like a 7 fretted instrument, it waits for the plants to start ‘plucking’ the strings and create sweet music. As the peas grow, they will provide some welcome shade at lunchtime gatherings at the pergola. By the time the whole potager is in full growth and the wisteria ( native variety so it blooms later) on the structure is fully leafed out, the peas will be done and that ‘window’ will once again be opened up to enjoy the view of the potager. Why didn’t this idea occur to me before? Because I hadn’t paused long enough to let the garden reveal the solution to me.

I’ve also started a project of growing micro-greens. It began with a large shallow pot of peas whose shoots add a seasonal something to salads and the occasional egg salad sandwich. As soon as I obtain the seeds, broccoli shoots are going to join this project. Since the lockdown is about staying healthy, micro-greens are a good thing to bring to the dining table – they are chock full of nutrients and very easy to grow. A nice rhythm of succession planting is the plan.

I didn’t get to start the root cuttings as intended last week. Between bad weather and other garden work, that got postponed – to hopefully sometime later this week. Instead, I divided some tiarella to make several new additions to the vertical garden. Herbs got re-potted and put up on the herb ‘wall’ in the potager. Nasturtium seeds started in the greenhouse were ready for transplant – they are now underplanted in the large pots that hold the bay standards. The citrus hued flowers should look lovely spilling over the pots.

I find myself short on pots – another reason I did not do the propagation from cuttings task. By setting up all those pots with daffodils and pansies to cheer up passers-by, there aren’t enough pots for much else! The current stay-home situation has forced me to reconsider the number of trips I make to any place. One makes do with what is at hand. Or do without all together. This week, I shall make one precious foray to my local nursery. Cannot wait!

Gardening these days is so mindful and sensory. I’m taking the time to smell the earth and how it feels in my hands as I dig and plant. The aroma of geosmine that we associate with spring is so life affirming.

As I carefully wash the soil off the roots of plants for the vertical garden, I marvel at the exquisite pale roots and how strong they are despite their delicate appearance. Nature is genius.

A regular distraction is following the goings on of the avian real estate market. One afternoon, we watched a turf battle between cat birds and crows, another time, we observed a pair of cardinals touring the garden checking out suitable sites for building a home. I really hope my garden came through – as such rejections are taken very personally. The hummingbird feeder is up but I think it is still a bit too chilly for those tiny friends. The robins that built a nest in the pot on the wall by the front door, get all irate when we step out or linger on the porch. So we are limiting our passage through that door and my time on the porch is restricted to watering the various pots there. At which point, I take advantage to quickly check the status of the eggs.

These days, I’m not nearly as efficient each time I work in the garden. Diversions not withstanding, the tasks are nevertheless getting accomplished. The garden is coming along just fine. And I’m so much more relaxed and fulfilled. As we know, slow and steady … I’m re-learning. This time around, I’m a better, more mature student. I think.

Note: Mother’s Day is less than two weeks away. For lovely gift selections – take a look at botanical notecards and soft furnishings for the home. All images are from my original watercolors. Original artwork is also available at Gallery. All profits go to support HIV/AIDS orphan girls’ education. Your support means everything to this cause. Thank you!

The herb ‘wall’. Soon, the A/C unit behind will be hidden by the growing plants.

The plant waste headed for the compost pile looks like abstract art

Note the strings!

Another view of the pea trellis

Note the pea shoots planted at the base .

The ‘meadow’ getting set to burst into a floral chorus

Leucojum

Two-toned muscari

Snakeshead fritillaria in a sea of forget-me-nots

Two types of fritillaria

See the robin keeping watch from the nest behind the pansies?

Pea shoot micro-greens

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Back To Basics

Time spent in the garden has never felt more correct than right now. It is where I feel alive, useful and comforted. It is where I instinctively want to be. I’m relishing the gift of time to work in it unfettered by busy agendas and outside commitments. More than anything, I’m deeply grateful for having a garden in the first place.

As a big city girl, it was a dream come true to have a place to garden – that was 28 years ago. All too quickly, the garden became such an integral part of my life that I just took it for granted. These days, I’m acutely aware of what a privilege it is to have a piece of land to call ones own. With everyone doing their part in staying home, the inherent human need to connect to nature is not always possible for many. With several parks and public gardens closed due to the current crisis, those that are still open are getting unprecedented numbers of visitors. I worry that they too might have to be shut down if folks don’t observe distancing rules.

I’m enjoying walks whenever possible. Good weather and fewer crowds determine those opportunities. But, I always have the garden to provide immediate and consistent relief. That is a blessing I don’t think I’ll take for granted ever again.

It is not surprising that people have instinctively sought the outdoors – we are part of the natural world after all. The healing, soothing, uplifting effect of time spent in nature is both anecdotal and empirical. Even more interesting at present, is how we are rediscovering fundamental practices that we had somewhat forgotten or moved away from.

One of the first items to fly off grocery store shelves was flour and active dry yeast. All of a sudden, America is baking bread at home. Even now, more than a month after we all began staying home, flour is not easy to come by. Apparently, we Americans are actually enjoying baking our bread. Interesting no? Something that demands time and effort was one of the first items we sought to make. We see bread as a staple, a basic food. The same with pasta – more people are making their own but not quite at the same level as bread. I personally find it amusing that cooking rice is daunting to many. Something so ridiculously easy is viewed with trepidation. Yet, here we are. Mind you, I think it is terrific that homemade bread is on the rise; I’m just puzzled that it is one of the first things to be undertaken. There is no actual bread shortage in the country.

Simultaneously, everyone is into vegetable gardening, Apartment dwellers are growing tomatoes, herbs and such in pots and under gro-lights/ on balconies. Those with some property are making vegetable plots or potting up a range of vegetable plants. People are starting from scratch – seed sales have risen so dramatically that some seed companies have had to start directing their seeds to only commercial growers.

From what I’ve heard, for the most part, seeds are being sown not in fancy seed starter kits but in old tin cans, the cardboard cylinders from paper rolls, newspaper molded into pots etc., Sustainability! These are very good developments. Healthy for humans and the planet.

I have a feeling we are each growing the vegetables that hark back to our ethnic roots or childhood cuisine. We are seeking comfort in the familiar. Trying to relive fond memories of (perhaps) less complicated times.

I myself, have seeds sprouting in my tiny greenhouse and no matter how many years one has sowed seeds, the thrill of seeing new growth never gets old. I’m also getting ready to take cuttings to root them on to get more plants. Geraniums, rosemary, heuchera, bay, myrtle to mention a few. I might even give boxwood a try.

Yes, it is back to basics these days. Sowing seeds, growing ones own food, rooting cuttings, making fertilizer such as comfrey tea ( I hear rhubarb leaves work just as well) and composting are seeing an epic revival all across the country, In advance of harvest time, I’ve already corralled all the necessities for canning – jams, sauces, pickles, chutneys and pestos to stock the larder. Secateurs and the blade of the manual, push reel mower have been sharpened. Stakes, twine and trowel sit ready.

Homesteading is back in style.

Note: My garden is still primarily a flower garden so, while I’m going about dealing with the veggies and herbs for the year, I’m thoroughly enjoying the early bulbs bursting forth on a daily basis. Seeing the new growth of perennials is always exciting and reassuring. I also have a couple of fun projects I’m working on – more on those when I develop them further along. Stay tuned!

In the garden this week:

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Days Of Quarantine And Daffodils

These are strange unfamiliar. Sequestering at home lends a surreal quality to our days. Some days, nothing seems to be happening and at other times, particularly after watching/reading the news, too much is happening. Mostly, it is unsettling, anxiety ridden, heartbreaking and confusing. Those are a lot of emotions in play. It can be too much for the human heart to bear.

To offset the negative reports, the media inserts the feel good stories. Challenging times reveal heroes in our midst. Ordinary people do extraordinary things to help their community, their nation, the world. We need to know about them because it serves to teach us about ourselves. Hearing one good story makes us ask ourselves what we can do, what we are capable of doing, how far are we willing to go for the cause. The opportunity to grow and stretch is wide open.

Working in the garden these days has been my salvation – far from the madding crowd. It has also given me time to think about the times we’re in, how we’re coping and, most importantly, what are we learning from this. After all, one day, when we emerge ( and we shall) from this dark place, it is imperative that we as a people have changed for the better. I read recently, that after all this is over, what will have mattered is how we treated each other.

Amongst the myriad uplifting stories of people helping people, one in particular recently caught my attention and my heart. As a gardener, it was inevitable that it had such huge appeal and the source was my most favorite garden.

More than a week ago, whilst watching the morning news in a distracted sort of manner, I was suddenly captivated by images of daffodils cascading down a hillside. Hundreds and hundreds of yellow trumpets calling my attention. The place looked familiar and I heard the newscaster say it was Untermyer Gardens – of course! Over the past few years, they’ve been adding scores of daffodils to the hill. This year was its splashiest, happiest display to date. Sadly, in the current situation, nobody was going to see it for real. The images I saw were stunning. Oh! To actually be there!

Turns out, Stephen Byrnes ( president of the Untermyer Garden Conservancy) was thinking along the same lines. It would be such a shame to have all those flowers fade away without giving pleasure to others. In short order, Steve put together a plan – with the help of a very limited number of volunteers (social distancing in practice), all the daffodils were harvested and distributed to several area hospitals and nursing homes where they were received with much appreciation and loud cheers.

Untermyer was the first garden in the country to take this step. I have heard that since then, some others have followed suit. Floret Farms in Washington State did the same with the thousands of daffodils from their trial fields. Does this not warm your heart?

In times of crisis, one may not think of flowers as critical. But the ability of a single blossom to cheer the spirit cannot be overstated. Think about the snowdrops that uplifted the soldiers during the Crimean War. Fighting in a foreign land, they were bitter and demoralized from the failure to provide them with food and warm clothing. The winter had been brutal. Then, when they observed the first snowdrops emerging through the ground, their spirits rose. Several lifted and replanted them around their tents, one soldier even included a flower in a letter home. Eventually, some soldiers returned home with specimens of snowdrops which were carefully planted and bloomed the following year. The snowdrops were identified as G plicatus but they are simply known as the Crimean snowdrop. Just how much the ‘flower of consolation’ or ‘star of hope’ meant to the troops cannot be undermined.

Similarly, the poppy symbolizes those lost in WW II. A single flower can have a powerful role in reminding and memorializing events of great consequence in our lives.

To me personally, the daffodil has become the symbol of this particular viral war. Perhaps, in time, others will think so too. It has flowered just when we’ve been brought to our knees by a formidable, invisible foe. Those trumpets call for hope and to trust that there better times ahead. We must believe that.

Note: Below, I share with you photos taken by Jessica Norman – Jess works at Untermyer. She is a powerhouse of many talents – molecular biologist, expert gardener and ace photographer to name a few. I’m privileged to call her my friend.

I’m just as proud to know Stephen Byrnes. Through his leadership and vision, Untermyer has become one of the premier gardens to visit in these United States. Steve and his incredible team of dedicated gardeners led by head-gardener Timothy Tilghman have achieved this in a remarkably small number of years.

Volunteers are the backbone of our society and those who harvested the daffodils should not go unacknowledged. They stepped up to do the work so the Untermyer gardeners could go about their rightful duties of tending the gardens. They are –

Kathryn and Jim Buckley, Joseph Brownell, Joseph Ades, Trish Lindmann and her son Tyler, Christopher Kittle, Harris Lirtzman, Ed Sabol, James Judy.

My heartfelt thanks to them, Steve and Jess .All photos (c) 2020 Jessica Norman

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

As The World Turns

Sheltering at home and garden feels different. It is not the same as when one chooses to spend time cocooning at home. While our homes continue to offer refuge in this difficult period, we are not living out our days in quite the same way. Having to be home at all times, working from home, coordinating schedules with those we live with, no possibility of going anywhere, making do with what groceries are available at the stores, are all situations we’re adjusting to. Some things are easy and others more challenging. Still, despite all the limitations, I, for one, feel very blessed. Not in a virtuous, martyr-ish way – but simply being realistic and aware of my privilege.

I cannot possibly have any complaints. For goodness sakes, I have a garden to work in! That is a high advantage that I’m acutely aware of as increasingly, more public gardens and gardens are being closed. Far too many are restricted to small, cramped spaces in the city with only windows and, with any luck, balconies to lean out of to catch some sun and fresh air.

Once I’ve accomplished my work related and domestic tasks of the day, the garden is where I seek to pass my time. Chores that were done with the a certain degree of haste because other matters/appointments awaited, are now given due attention and time. Be it planting or fixing or watering, everything has taken on deeper meaning and connection.

I’d ordered a self-pollinating persimmon tree a while back – it was delivered last week. A couple of decades ago, I’d planted an American persimmon with intentions to train it into a candelabra style espalier against the southern wall of the house. The tree grew but failed to produce because there did not exist another persimmon anywhere in the neighborhood – no cross-pollination was possible. I blame myself for letting the seller assure me that I didn’t need another persimmon to get fruit. I should’ve known better. Instead I wanted to get on with my project so badly that I accepted what I wanted to believe.

That tree was subsequently disposed off and the whole project forgotten. Soon, a tree peony occupied its place.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago. I discovered the existence of a new Japanese-American hybrid that has the best traits of each nationality (persimmon-wise) and is truly self-pollinating. I immediately ordered it from Logee’s Greenhouse. Once the very young plant arrived, I gave it a few days to recover from its journey before giving it a permanent home.

If this were a business as usual time, the persimmon would’ve been plonked down in any open space along the fence of the lower garden. It’s sole purpose being to provide fruit. Instead, this past Saturday, the tree peony was dug up and replanted near by – its very long roots had to be trimmed a bit so fingers crossed it didn’t mind the amputation. It is after all a plant dear to my heart – Hennriette Suhr gave it to me and I love floating the heavy, multi-petaled flowers in a bowl to show-off their beauty. I will keep a watchful eye on it.

The new tree was planted in the old persimmon’s place so the espalier project is back on. All the wire guides to train the branches from years ago are still in place as though they fully expected to be called back into service.

Similarly, there were some heuchera I’d purchased on my mad plant shopping spree the same day that stay-at-home was mandated. They sat waiting while the watering system to the vertical garden was restarted and deemed functioning well. Again, I took the time to not only clean off all of the soil from the roots of each heuchera( the plants on the wall are grown hydroponically) but, I also worked to carefully divide the plants to get several more plants for the wall.

All of this might sound trivial. Even frivolous. But really, not only did the work get done with attention, thought and purpose, for the time each task took, the mind was focused and relaxed. Two things that are getting rather difficult to do during these stressful days.

With more people taking daily walks/strolls, I see many neighbors on the street. It’s been gratifying to exchange greetings and news – albeit from the required distance. We – old and new, are all being more neighborly. To give those passing my home a reason to smile, I set up a collection of pots of daffodils and pansies right by the road. After all, those flowers will disarm any grump and uplift any heart feeling the weight of the times. Even if its fleeting, every bit of cheer matters.

These days of sheltering are instructive. I’m relearning to give my garden the right amount of attention it deserves. I’m paying attention to not just what is dry but how dry before I water. This serves to conserve water as well as provide the plants with only what they need. I’d become too busy to start seeds in recent years. There are several flats of seeds sown currently – of flowers and vegetables. I’ve rediscovered the joy of this fundamental act of gardening.

Things that I might have easily replaced for lack of time, are now being fixed instead. All non-essential shopping is to be avoided after all. Over all, many more hours are whiled away working in the garden and it is mighty satisfying. Like it used to be before I got too busy. I’m sure things will not stay this way forever but I’m also sure I cannot let myself get that busy again. These days are guiding me how to strike a healthier, happier balance.

The garden provides with enough distraction that when I’m in it, my mind completely shuts out the news and fears in the world. Unlike a movie which also provides some escape, at the end of my time in the garden, I have accomplished some necessary tasks, got a bit of physical activity, relaxed my mind, soaked in some sun, breathed fresh air and allowed nature to provide much needed therapy to my spirit. Priceless.

Pots by the street

New Persimmon hybrid – Nikita’s Choice

Heuchera in the wall garden. Ferns will go in shortly.

Forced hyacinths in a ‘cage’ of pussy willow.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Life In Waiting

Every morning, I look out into the garden to see whats up. Have all the crocuses bloomed? The scillas are blazing blue but when are the spring leucojum planted to contrast with them going to bloom? And the muscari paired with early daffodils? Even in the midst of reveling in the early spring flowers, I can’t help waiting for the ones to come. It’s as though my mind is trying to hurry along the season so it can get to the next one.

I thought about that yesterday and came to the realization that it’s because of this unfamiliar time we’re in. We don’t know for sure what each day is going to bring. There are predictions, projections and calculations but nothing is certain. How long the crisis is going to last is unknown. So, subconsciously, my mind is looking weeks ahead to a different, hopefully better time. When other flowers will be in bloom.

Once I understood my propensity, I determined to curb it. After all, it wasn’t getting me anywhere at all. Instead, I’m going to really stay in the present. In all its entirety – pleasant and unpleasant. I must experience this epic period in history in full. This life. My life. Only I can live it.

Instead of waiting for the next flower to bloom, for the next month to be over with, I shall take in the days with my whole self. Make each one matter.

It doesn’t mean I’m not going to look forward to future flowers and fruit, for better days. It simply implies that I will endeavor to bring my best self to each day.

In keeping myself at home, it has already become apparent how ‘being busy’ is overrated. With absolutely no place to go, what one does on a quotidian basis is revealed clearly. There’s no hiding behind ‘busy’ or ‘so much to do’. We have to do what must be done. No excuses. There is time – that commodity we’re always complaining we’re short on.

Even if or especially if one is privileged to work from home, there is now time to get other things done. Without need to commute, sans distractions of unnecessary meetings or chatty colleagues, one is free to use the time to make a meal with thought and care. To connect with family and friends for meaningful conversations. To reach out to shut-in neighbors with a phone call or a note / freshly baked muffins left at the door. To complete the house tasks we’ve been putting off. In other words, pay attention to life.

At a time of frustration in not doing enough to help a situation, I’ve come to the conclusion that first and foremost, the most effective contribution we can make is to stay at home.

While my paying work as such has slowed down or completely halted, I’m now at liberty to work on creative projects that were sitting on the back burner and, make business plans that more accurately define my philosophy and philanthropy. This mandatory time at home is a gift of sorts. I appreciate it as such. On waking each morning, I’m grateful I’m still healthy and must therefore try to be and do my best.

In working in the garden, I’m particularly aware of having the time to tackle the chores with the required attention. After all, where else do I need to go? Simply breathing in the fresh air with the sun smiling down is an endowment. Working to create a beautiful, productive garden is a high honor not to be taken for granted. Ever.

The peony supports have been placed, the circulating water system for the vertical garden has been revamped and commissioned, the lawn reseeded, pruning completed, seeds such as tomato, cool weather greens and nasturtium sown and, the birdbath stands filled. Later this week, the ferns over-wintering in the potager will be transferred to their home in the vertical garden, the potager then prepared with a good layer of compost to receive vegetable plants and, the bluebird house cleaned – please let these sweet birds find it this year. All the birds are going about their business and a few have begun building nests. I’ve already observed earthworms working the soil. The pear blossom buds will be opening within the week and I’m fully expecting to see bees make their daily visits. This is life.

Soon, with the temperatures going up, the chairs will be brought out and set up around the table on the terrace for al fresco meals to be enjoyed. This alone strikes me as so special. What has thus far not seemed unusual is now distinctly a benediction.

In preparing this garden, I’m making the world that much better and beautiful. I can’t wait to share it again with everybody. It may not be much but it’ll be my best. That’s about all one can hope.

Scilla

Everything is growing!

Window-box

Hyacinths

Hellebores

Pruning hydrangea

Epsom salts feed the roses

Spreading straw over the reseeded areas

Peony supports in place

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar