Weathering The Storm

I’m writing a day ahead of when I usually do because I’m traveling tomorrow. Presently, while other parts of the country are already hit by bad weather, we in the Northeast are bracing ourselves for a Nor’easter. It’s funny how the knowledge of impending storms alerts our flight or fight responses. At once we gauge how prepared we are to face the ‘enemy’.

The wind has picked up, the skies are overcast and the temperatures have dropped. The birds are nowhere to be seen – they have all sought safe havens. Right away I check if everything outdoors is tethered/secured/put away. Still, I know the winds can tear through trees breaking off limbs and even uprooting them all together. Which in turn, can create further damage. This is of course beyond my control so, I hope for the best. Presumably, the pruning and cutting-back done in the fall will have paid off.

The greenhouse has been fired up and the plants are watered. Short of a truly unpredictably devastating storm, it should be fine.

Indoors, flashlights and candles are on the ready for potential power outages. There is food in the larder and wood in the fireplace. Books and boardgames picked out. Have I missed anything?

News of an impending storm should be less of a call to action and more of an opportunity to up my energy and resolve to do what is right, assess my performance so to speak – to take stock of myself, my home and all that I hold dear. Do I have what’s needed? Are things in good shape? Am I doing all I can to protect and preserve? An ongoing checklist is one way I keep myself organized and accountable. I definitely don’t want to be caught sleeping on the job.

And that’s what it comes down to – preparation. It’s easy to sit back when all is fine but having a plan, keeping necessaries in store and information available in case of conditions worsening is vital. Otherwise, it’ll feel really bad when we’re hit.

When the signs of an approaching storm are all there, it does not pay to sit back. Instead, confront with knowledge and readiness. In place of panic, may calm, resilient , wise minds prevail.

Because, in the end, this too will pass.

My friend Julie's garden after a storm.  Changed her woodland garden some.

My friend Julie’s garden after a storm. Changed her woodland garden some.

The greenhouse

The greenhouse

In the greenhouse

In the greenhouse

Camellia in bud in the greenhouse

Camellia in bud in the greenhouse

In my friend and orchid guru Bill Smiles' greenhouse

In my friend and orchid guru Bill Smiles’ greenhouse

Inside the house

Inside the house

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Doing Right The Old-Fashioned Way

So, here we are in the third week of January. A strange January at many levels but I’ll stick to the weather. Every day of seasonal weather, has been counter-pointed with a not so seasonal day. What is one to make of this irregularity with regard to the garden? Beats me!

While we, as a world community come to grips with climate change and pressure our leaders to implement policies to deal with it, I am doing my level best to do my part in my own little piece of earth. I have no control of the weather itself but I do have the power to make informed, intelligent choices.

From the start, when we bought our house a good 24 years ago, I made a conscious decision to go organic. At that time, it was not so simple or even popular to be organic. It made me seem like a throwback to the ‘60s. A hippie-flower child wanna be. Nurseries did not carry many organic pest-control products, compost was barely understood. This being the years before the Internet or Google, I had to do my research the ‘old-fashioned’ way. That took a fair amount of time but I actually ended up learning more than a search permits today. When specific information can be conjured up instantly, there is no opportunity for detours into related and not so related topics.

I mail ordered my composter and when I excitedly announced its arrival, I was met with responses that ranged from puzzled to amused smiles and told I was so ‘quaint’, a ‘modern hippie’ or ‘trés new age-y’. Re-purposing an oak wine barrel to a water butt elicited similar reactions. Ditto for the manual, push-reel mower that I had such a hard time finding. When I began introducing native plants in the garden, I was told more than once that I was growing ‘very common’ plants. Some pronounced them ‘weeds’.

I sourced neem oil, seaweed and fish emulsion, lady bugs, Bacillus thuringiensis, nitrogen fixing microbes and made other products like comfrey ‘tea’ (best fertilizer!) at home. Those were the good old days!

Today, almost everything is available at my local nursery and what isn’t can be ordered super-easily on-line. Instead of the calender reminding me when to do what and physically making the effort to monitor temperatures and precipitation, I have apps and digital gadgets that have simplified everything. While these have freed me up for other matters and provide a certain peace of mind, they also push me away from my garden to a certain extent. I do not have to actually be in the garden quite as much. I realized this a couple of years ago and missed my 100% hands on approach. So now, although I enjoy the benefits of modern technology, I consciously putter around the garden no matter what. My physical, mental and spiritual well-being depends on it.

I still have the same composter and rain barrel. The mower was upgraded to a lighter, better manual model – there is now a choice! All the organic products are readily available. Towns offer free compost and mulch to their residents. Nurseries now proudly carry numerous native plants and some even have a whole section devoted to them. In fact, in current parlance, organic, native and ecologically sound practices are trending. Our forefathers would no doubt be highly amused by our ‘modern and progressive’ ways.

Meanwhile, I’m determined to plug away ethically, with integrity and, put up with whatever the weather blows my way. There is absolutely no excuse for anybody to do otherwise.

Note: Enjoy my watercolor renderings of a few of the natives that grow in my garden. Do they look common or weedy to you?!

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

All Present And Accounted For

At last it feels like winter. This past weekend brought bitter cold and a decent dose of snow. With the wild fluctuations in temperature and precipitation all through the past year, it has been hard to predict how the garden will fare. There have been many moments of anxiety for sure. The welfare of every single plant matters to a gardener. While we’re learning to adapt and adjust, a degree of stress underlies those efforts. So, when it snowed for the first time this year, I was elated. It felt normal.

Finally, there was enough snow to play. Toboggans, X-country skies and walking poles came out in full measure and local parks were alive with winter activities. Normal!

I personally, reveled in the normalcy in the garden. To see the snow cover spread across the ground felt good. The hibernating plants were now cozy and insulated. As well they ought. It was comforting and reassuring. Two factors that have been rather elusive lately.

I’m resolved to enjoy this gift. I’m aware that at present, 49 of the 50 states have snow on the ground which means this is not normal for several. The unpredictability of the weather or anything else is disconcerting. Hence, when we are given a slice of business as usual, we need to savor it.

As such, our own winter conditions here are headed for a dramatic change later in the week. So, I am determined to cherish what I have today.

The way the snow emphasizes all the undulations in the garden, the shadows that contrast so starkly with the pristine white, how the sunlight chisels the snow and makes it shimmer, the clear footprints telling of intrepid birds and squirrels are all a thrill. What gets defined and what gets masked changes the usual landscape to something new and interesting. I’m so fortunate to witness this ephemeral show.

Who knows what tomorrow will unfold. But for now, I’m content. This moment matters.

Enjoy these garden snow scenes:

Breathe slow and deep. Calm the mind and just be.

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

A New Year, A New Day

A brand new year. A clean slate. I look forward to it just as I used to approach a new notebook in grade school. The crisp, blank pages. The smell of new paper. Full of opportunities. Another chance to do better. I was for sure going to write more carefully and thoughtfully. Fewer mistakes, neater writing, top notch work. I could almost see my resolve come true.

On the cover, I’d write my name slowly and deliberately. I was owning this book which was potentially going to be my best effort yet. As I opened to that first page on the right side, I invariably felt a tiny shiver of excitement. The untouched right side of the book always felt better than the left. I usually started well. And then came my first writing error to spoil it all. No amount of careful erasing or scratching out could make it perfect again. Now I was free to go back to my old, careless ways. They felt more comfortable and familiar. Besides, who cared? What difference did it make? I’d console myself that it was no big deal and not worth all that extra effort. It was back to business as usual. Until the next new notebook.

Over the decades, I’ve learned to simply resolve to do better. Not only at the start of a new year but more particularly, as I begin each new day. Every day is a fresh chance to reach my highest potential and be fully engaged in life. This approach allows me to accept and forgive myself for mistakes and at the same time provides me with continued opportunities to improve myself. Scarlett O’Hara was right. Tomorrow is another day.

In the garden, I shall put in this practice of everyday mindfulness with greater determination. It is all too easy to get caught up in the busy-ness of life and neglect to observe key goings on in the garden. On looking back through last year, all the things I failed to notice or do are blatantly apparent and yet, at that time, in the throes of whatever seemingly more pressing activity, I was oblivious to them. Sometimes, the oversight is understandable but often it is not. I want to change that. My garden is my muse after all.

To that end, I’m going to do three things related to the garden. A daily tour of the garden where I take in all the happenings. What is in bloom, how the plants look, the insects and birds going about their business and, what needs attention besides the alternate days of weeding and deadheading.

Then, that very day, I will address whatever can be taken care of. It could be a plant needing staking or trimming, applying an organic control at the first sign of disease or pest or, scheduling a task that requires more time or the help of a professional.

Finally, to spend time simply enjoying the garden and being grateful for what it bring to my life. It might mean painting quick watercolor sketches, taking photographs, writing a poem, observing insect or avian activity, studying the beauty of a peony or breathing in deeply the clove scented perfume of the phlox. To see, hear and feel the garden is to truly know the garden.

Both garden and gardener have everything to gain and nothing to lose with this plan.

May 2017 be all that you wish it to be.

I offer you a painting, a short poem and a photograph:

A watercolor of Hollyhock

A watercolor of Hollyhock

 

 Somewhere

Somewhere it is already spring
Someplace the hyacinth has stretched awake
Somehow my soul is sure.

Today's rain on yesterday's ornamental cabbage

Today’s rain on yesterday’s ornamental cabbage

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Looking Back, Looking Forward

The last week of 2016. I typically spend some of these last days to reflect upon the year that’s drawing to a close and plan for the incoming one. It has been a year fraught with every emotion imaginable. It will be interesting to see what 2017 brings. Fingers crossed.

As I review how the garden and I performed over the past twelve months, I’m struck by how much actually worked out well. Invariably, the things that did not do well or what I failed to take care of appear to be outdone by what did go well. It seems one tends to give a disproportionate amount of attention to the failures without giving enough mind to all the successes. As I go over the year’s garden photos, I’m pleased to see that both garden and gardener get a reasonably good report card.

In the spirit of staying hopeful and optimistic, I offer up images from each of the months of 2016. Lets focus on the joys and beauty that nature unfailingly provides. Allow them to serve as reminders that even in the darkest hours, there is always the certainty that the sun will rise again. Together, we can and will make the best of 2017.

Happy New Year one and all!

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Reflections In The Garden

In less than three weeks, a new year will be here. Our annual opportunity to do-over, makeover, grow, stretch and overcome. For myself, I welcome this time to reflect as it serves as the perfect foil to the commercial madness that comes with the holiday season. Instead of getting carried away with the media-hype, time spent thinking about what really matters keeps my focus on what is truly important to me. This not only serves to prepare me for the new year with resolve and purpose, it also guides me to give holiday gifts from my heart.

I begin with giving myself a report card of sorts. The different areas/roles/projects in my life are the subjects or courses and I evaluate how I’ve performed in each one of them. Since these ‘grades’ are not for public knowledge, I allow myself to be brutally honest. There’d be no point in this exercise if I glossed over my misdemeanors. Holding the mirror to myself is not easy. All the flaws show up prominently. Knowing how far I fell short of my full potential and how many opportunities I missed can be quite demoralizing. But I’ve learned to not judge, berate or make excuses. I stay on track to acknowledge, accept and determine improvement or change. One must move forward. But how does one get started? In the garden of course.

I don’t know about you, but how I garden is a direct reflection on where I am in my head/day/life. Whatever is happening in my life translates to my actions in the garden. No doubt I can also identify similar traits in my poetry and paintings but those are not as clear to track and interpret because I don’t necessarily write or paint immediately after I’m affected by an event. But the garden needs consistent effort and attention and therefore, my enthusiasm or neglect is apparent and has long term effects. For instance, if I was overly absorbed in a particular project and failed to maintain a balance in the other areas of my responsibilities, then, the garden reveals that in beds overrun with weeds and struggling plants or, my lack of oversight resulted in shriveled plants that ought to have been watered during a particularly dry spell. You see?

My goal is to try to stay balanced. Indeed every now and then there will be events that stir up the waters and toss me for a loop but if I’m adequately prepared, I should be able to get back in balance as soon as possible.

Let me elaborate:

Following the rather dry winter with erratic temperature fluctuations, all but the oak-leaved hydrangea took a beating. That native plants are the most hardy is not news but too often, one forgets that point. So, this fall, I replaced all the non-native hydrangea with a variety of oak-leaved ones. The exiled plants were donated to friends and did not end up on the compost heap.

My personal resolve – stay true to self. That’s how one does best.

In the spring, I planted a slew of native plant plugs in the meadow. The plants would attract the insects and birds. My plan was to have three-seasons of entertainment with native flora and fauna. I could envision this thriving paradise clearly. Well, I got distracted by a couple of other projects and completely failed to take note of the lack of rain. So I did not water the new plugs and when I looked for the plants in summer, hardly any were visible. I feel terrible about this. I not only wasted time and money but, I truly neglected my duty to the plants.

I now have a new order of plants that will be introduced in the meadow next spring and I will be sure to take care of them properly.

My personal resolve – don’t take on too much and always determine that every task or project can be fully attended to.

I had resisted removing a dead apple tree because it was supporting a rose and the whole canopy was a center of avian activity. And I’d planned to provide it with more permanent support. But, before anything could be done, strong winds pushed the tree down. Thankfully, the tree fell in the direction that did no damage to anything.

The rose has been relocated and the space that opened up where the tree used to be is actually going to be a good thing for plants already in place and the newly installed sculpture is owning that area very nicely.

My personal resolve – sometimes, good intentions can block one from seeing the reality. And, change can be good. Also, don’t wait too long to take action.

For the last few years, my irises had not bothered to show up. So this summer, I’d wondered if I ought to get new irises. For reasons I do not recall, I did not order them along with my other bulbs for fall planting. Wouldn’t you know! In October, out of season and character, as if to tell me something, one of the irises shot up and bloomed regally. So, I’m giving these old rhizomes another year. Let’s just wait and see.

My personal resolve – be patient. Don’t give up in haste. Everything needs to be given a fair chance ( or chances). Matters do not have to follow my agenda or schedule; sometimes, a laid back attitude is best.

And so, with my garden guiding me, I make preparations to go forth into 2017 with optimism, confidence and humility.

Don’t forget! The Holiday Art Sale is still on at the ASL! Lots of really good art to be had! Just for one more week.

Hope the images below put a smile on your face:

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Gone With The Wind

Way back this past September, I wrote about the outdoor sculpture I had commissioned. It has been exciting following its evolution from conception to realization. A few weeks ago, it was installed and I’m so pleased with how it looks.

If you remember, I had planned for the sculpture to be positioned near the old apple tree heavily draped in Paul’s Himalayan musk rose. Since the tree was really gasping its last breaths, the plan was to have a support structure at the very top of the sculpture that would hold up the canopy of rose limbs. Said structure would be nicely concealed by the thorny mesh of the rose and not take anything away from the sculpture itself.
The rose canopy is a haven for birds and I really couldn’t bear the thought of losing it once the tree completely bought it. While both sculptor and husband were not sold on my desire to save the rose, they agreed to indulge me.

After the sculpture was set in place, the idea was to create the support in situ just after Thanksgiving. Well, if you recall, the weekend before Thanksgiving we experienced four full days of fierce winds. Really fierce. And cold. On the morning of windy day #3, I awoke to see tree and rose lying on the ground. The tree had lost its fight. Totally broke my heart.

We had to wait for the weather to calm down before checking the state of the rose. The main limb had been stressed and twisted so it is hard to say if it can be revived. For now, it has been moved to a location beyond the meadow near a maple which can be a good support should the plant survive. There is more light in the place where the apple tree used to be. And I’m sure there are plants in the meadow that will welcome the expanded breathing space. Still, I worry that I’ve let the birds down. I plan on making amends by planting several shrubs. Given that the neighbor’s rather unattractive chain-link fence is now more visible, the shrubs will do double duty. Conceal and shelter.
I’m hoping to afford mature, native plants so they can get to work ASAP.

Admittedly, without the presence/shade of the tree/rose, the sculpture displays better. Deservedly so. I’m thoroughly enjoying the way the metal surfaces reflect the environment in a wavy, trance-like manner, how the sunlight strikes it at the different hours, the negative space created between and around the shapes and the moods of the weather echoed.
I have a strong suspicion this was divine intervention. My elaborate, well intended bid to save the rose with a complicated support was not deemed worthwhile. It was time to let go. Thankfully, neither husband nor sculptor have said I told you so.

P.S. I’m going to name the sculpture and I’ve whittled my choices down to ‘Wind Song’ or ‘Tango’.
Which one has your vote? I’d love to know!

Note: Don’t forget to check out the much anticipated Annual Holiday Art and Book Sale at the New York Art Students League.

Enjoy the images of my new sculpture! (Sculptor Domenico Belli)

The sculpture when installed.

The sculpture when installed.

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Wind blown

Wind blown

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By itself

By itself

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

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:

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(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.

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(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:

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Getting ready to plant bulbs

Getting ready to plant bulbs

The vertical garden

The vertical garden

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar