Inside Out

About a week ago, I had an experience that set my heart racing and seriously tied up my tongue. I met Dr. Oliver Sacks.
It was actually my second encounter with him. The first was very brief. But then, even if I met him a million times I’d be reduced to a blathering idiot – he has that effect on me. I have such a deep respect and reverence for the man.

Having read his many books and articles, attended some of his talks, listened to podcasts, avidly followed his newsletters and generally admired him for decades, I hold him responsible for affecting how I live. The word live is the key. Dr. Oliver Sacks is fully engaged in living. His curiosity and thirst to examine every aspect of this big, beautiful world is hard to match.

He observes and examines. He tries to understand or work out the mechanics of how things/people function. Then, he explains what he has learned or thought out to the rest of us, in language that is clear and easy to comprehend. His writings are seasoned with a wit that elicits laughter even as one learns a complex topic. Dr. Sacks is brilliant at exposing us to our own humanity and telling us that no matter what, it is all right to be just as we are. Reading him makes me feel smart. At least for a while.

For years I knew of Dr. Sacks as a neuroscientist but then I read his book the Oaxaca Journal. This was about going on a fern hunting expedition. Ferns? Turns out Dr. Sacks is passionate about them. Interestingly, that expedition was led by Dr. John Mickel, he who is godfather to my vertical garden. John once told me that whilst on that trip, every time the team took a break, Oliver Sacks sat by himself and wrote in his journal. He was shy and quiet. Soon after they got home and before John had written up his scientific papers on the discoveries made on the expedition, a package was delivered to him. It was the manuscript to Oaxaca Journal in which Dr. Sacks expounds on not just ferns but related topics like chocolate, culture and other earthly wonders in that part of the world! John jokes that he needn’t have bothered writing his own papers.
Just goes to show once again that great minds are invariably naturalists and/or plantsmen as well. Galileo, Darwin, Sacks …

Dr. Sacks takes big bites of life and chews each mouthful thoroughly. No matter what he does, he does so with almost an obsession. Then he tells us all about it. How our brains work explains how we feel and behave. What goes on inside manifests on the outside. This is true for anything.

The current status of his health is well known. The great man has terminal cancer. But, he does not ask for pity or even empathy. Instead, he shows us how to keep living. He is still writing, visiting friends and doing all that he can and wants to do. He continues to make visible the unseen and unknown.

So how has he affected my life? I’ve learned to remain curious about everything. To stay present, to pay attention and learn all that life teaches. In the garden, in relationships, in work both creative and mundane, in the ordinary, in the different, in the new and in the old. Nowhere am I more cognizant of Dr. Sacks’ instruction as in the garden when I’m always confronting the familiar in novel, new ways.

He presented me with a personally signed copy of his latest book Moving On – a memoir. It will be treasured for life. I’m about to embark on a journey into Oliver Sacks’ life and I’m tightening my belt. It promises to be a bumpy, glorious ride.

On the heels of meeting my hero, I saw the movie Inside Out – an absolutely wonderful film about our emotions. It is on neuroscience if you will! Coincidence? I think not. I do wonder if Dr. Sacks has seen it and what he has to say about it. I highly recommend you go see it!
For a neuroscientist’s take on the movie, click here.

To read about Dr. Oliver Sacks, his books and his blog, click here.

My first meeting with Dr. Oliver Sacks

My first meeting with Dr. Oliver Sacks

A collection of ferns at Dr. Mickels' garden

A collection of ferns at Dr. Mickels’ garden

My vertical garden of ferns and heuchera

My vertical garden of ferns and heuchera

My most recent encounter

My most recent encounter


(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar


Saving Face

Do you ever have that intense desire to completely do over an entire part of the garden? But before you can give in to this extreme act, sound reason gilded with just a trace of lethargy steps in? I hope you know what I’m alluding to because I’d hate to think I’m alone in madcap thoughts.

Each year about now when spring is transiting to summer and again, when fall is barely edging out summer, I can’t stand the front perennial beds. They look kinda meh! if you get my drift. The blooms of printemp that shone so gaily are dimming their lights but the flowers of summer have yet to hear their cue. There is no doubt a lush greenness present but the oomph is missing. In the broadcast world this would be described as dead air and something to avoid at all costs. In the garden design world this is not quite as serious but still a situation to prevent. If possible.

The problem is, nature has a mind of her own. No amount of careful planning will entirely eliminate the problem. In fact, my careful orchestration is happily ignored all too often. This year being no exception. Nothing followed anticipated patterns. It worked out okay except for now – unhappily, true to form, the perennial beds are pretty much doing nothing for my morale. I could use some annuals and maybe I will but, I’d still prefer to rely mostly on perennials.

I had high hopes for the rose on the front arch. Being late to bloom this season, for once, I guaranteed myself a seamless transition to summer. The arch would carry us till the phlox and acanthus made their appearance. But recent thunderstorms put paid to that dream. The cascade of soft pink roses now hang limp and tired, shedding petals resembling bits of brown paper.

Back to square one. There is nothing to hold ones attention in the front garden. The window boxes are trying but it is unfair to think they must carry the whole front. Clearly, something for this specific time is required. I’m flummoxed because in the past, everything I have planted for this purpose has turned traitor. They have all chosen an earlier or later time to bloom in my garden.

But, I’m not ready to surrender. I think I’m being challenged. If the garden has taught me anything, it is to never give up. As long as there is life, there is hope. A trip to the nursery is in short order. Stay tuned.

Perhaps I’ll run into some of you there?

The window boxes

The window boxes


The beds are just all green. You see?

The beds are just all green. You see?

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Playing Cat And Mouse

The other day, just as I stepped out with the noble intention of tackling the weeds, I knew something was afoot. The birds were chattering at high decibels and appeared agitated. Just as I began to feel personally affronted, I spotted the neighborhood cat quietly making its way through the meadow to the stone bench where it likes to warm itself and observe the realm at the same time. Aha!

This black cat makes good use of its coloring. It lurks in the areas of dappled light making it difficult to notice. Clever. I don’t know who owns this feline and in principal have no strong objection to it trespassing on my property. I take the occasional dead mouse found around as its payment for entry. Quite appropriate.

Yet, I resent the way the cats presence upsets the birds. Its true that some of them don’t use any common sense and choose their nesting sites very foolishly. There are at the present, to my knowledge, at least four different pairs of birds tending to their young in the garden. Nature at work, circle of life and whatever else is all very well but the very thought of the eggs or babies in the nest coming under attack really bothers me. I’m irrational that way.

I got to thinking about the matter as I settled down to weed. Always a good activity to get the mind pondering on heavy topics like that. The conclusion is that I’m pretty much the prowling cat when it comes to hunting down the mousy weeds. For all I know, they too shriek at the sight of me. Obviously at a wavelength not perceived by my delicate human ears.

Given that there really isn’t anything natural about gardening and the whole endeavor is contrived, makes me, the gardener, the biggest bully of all. It is all about imposing my will. I exercise my dominance ruthlessly and the result is the garden I’m proud to call my own. Maybe using only organic measures and increasing the native plant population makes me a tyrant with a conscience but a tyrant nevertheless.

So coming back to the cat, I’m resolved to let it be. Live and let live. I hope it feels the same way.

Can you see the black cat in the garden?

Can you see the black cat in the garden?

Babies in a nest

Babies in a nest

IMG_3912(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Rain Giveth And The Rain Taketh Away

We need rain! I’ll wager you said that at least once this season. Despite all that snow in winter, thus far, it has been an all too dry spring. Hence watering the garden has been a chore that took precedence in my neck of the woods. The emerging growth needed hydration if they were expected to put on any kind of show in the fullness of time. On the days we were blessed with rain, were happy ones – nothing like a good soak to replenish the spirit of the place. The plants really did look much better

The rain barrel took a while to get filled and is now fulfilling its purpose handily. As grateful as I was for rain, I must admit that while the foxgloves looked stunning, I secretly didn’t want any rain to beat them down. It was kinder to water them at the base with the hose.

And then, my early peonies which by the way, were late this year, began to bloom. I just knew right then we were in for thundershowers. It never fails. Peonies poised to look spectacular, time to literally rain on their parade. The result is invariably a miserable, soggy mess. So once again, I dutifully ran out to cut all the flowers in bloom before the skies lashed out.

The house looked rather festive with masses of blooms all over. Smelled good too. For perhaps three days. Then came the great fall out. I could hear the petals being shed. It’s a messy business and one I dislike attending to. The flowers last much longer on the plants. Yes, I do flame the fresh cut stem ends but it only seems to extend the bloom by a day or so. In my experience, if one wants peonies indoors, better to bring in buds that are just starting to flower – watch them slowly open and then linger on a bit once fully bloomed.

The American wisteria began blooming on time and the roses were rather late. So there emergence has coincided and the effect is quite delightful. But of course, just as I’m contemplating a day of painting under the wisteria covered gazebo, it has to ….. wait for it, … rain!

And so the cycle goes. Rain to make the plants grow. Rain to spoil the floral show. Sigh.






'Heritage' rose

‘Heritage’ rose


Bonica rose

Bonica rose

Gathering peonies before the storm

Gathering peonies before the storm

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Walk On The Wild Side

Last week, I took a walk that was all pleasure and wonder at every step. If ever there was a way to escape the world and still be completely present in the world, this was it. I was treated to a guided tour of Wildflower Island at the Teatown Lake Reservation in Ossining, NY. Guided by Leah Waybright Kennell, the curator of this magical isle, I learned how much there is to see and delight in if only one knew where and how to look.

As gardeners, we tend to focus on the showy and/or dramatic. All too often, we forget that beauty also resides in the diminutive and shy. Tiny flowers expressing their enthusiasm on ground hugging stems of Canadian Mayflower. Or bashful Chrysogonum virginianum permitting sweet glimpses of its sulphur yellow blooms.

Walking to the accompaniment of a rich chorus of birds, I saw yellow lady’s slippers skipping around while their more rare pink cousins tip-toed quietly. Hummingbird columbines shone like small flames and red Silene virginica darted in and out of the spring growth that spread all around.

Leah pointed out so many plants that I was not familiar with. Wonderful natives that ought to be included in our gardens and woodlands. Her love and passion for the plants in her care is infectious and her knowledge of them is plain impressive. I’m inspired and determined to get to know more of these plants and invite them into my garden.

My ‘meadow’ is perfect for Hypoxis hirsuta, Zizia aurea and several more of the wildflowers. I already have Anemone canadensis, Arisaema triphyllum, Rubus odoratus, Myosotis sylvatica, Taraxacum officinale, Camassia quamash and some others. Adding the aforementioned will prolong bloom time in this part of my garden. As such, along with the myriad bulbs in its midst, the meadow only blooms through spring. I would love to have summer and fall blooming plants here to properly sustain all the wild life it draws.

My meadow also supports Ajuga and Viola odoratus. Two rather attractive but invasive aliens. To be rid of them is near impossible and frankly, I’d miss them. They add a real dose of brilliance to the spring show. I have been somewhat successful in containing them to only this part of the property. Any such plant found elsewhere is ruthlessly removed.

If you live in the Tri-state area, I strongly encourage a visit to Teatown. A tour of Wildflower Island is possible only by appointment and you get a highly knowledgeable guide to lead your eyes to all the gems that are nurtured there. It is a comfortable walk and takes only however long it takes you to get your fill of the beauty and variety of our unsung, wild natives. There are always things to see but spring and the second half of summer have the most in bloom. I expect to walk with Leah many times this year!

This ramble was one of the best hour and a half I ever spent. A mindful meditation like no other.

Note: I’ve used the botanically correct names mostly because many of the common names are the same as some non-native species. I did not want to confuse those looking to get the native plants.

Yellow lady's slipper. Cypripedium acaule.

Yellow lady’s slipper. Cypripedium acaule.


Pink Lady's Slippers. C. calceolus

Pink Lady’s Slippers.
C. calceolus

Zizia aurea

Zizia aurea

Hypoxis hirsuta

Hypoxis hirsuta

Hummingbird columbine

Hummingbird columbine

Silene virginicum

Silene virginicum

Chrysogonum virginianam

Chrysogonum virginianum

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

What Does Your Front Garden Say About You?

More to the point, what would you like it to say? Warm and welcoming / too busy to care / overwhelmed by life / trying hard / sweet and simple / minimalist / eclectic / modern / unimaginative / look at me world! / creative / lively and joyous / high maintenance / pretentious / well kept and groomed/ stiff and formal? Have you at one time or other given it much thought?

My town’s annual front garden contest has begun. I’m the judge. So at this time of year, I’m prone to pondering this matter. With all the investments one makes in a house and property, the front garden seems to get the short end of the deal. The focus tends to lie in creating an expanse of lawn. Never mind the overwhelming shade, uneven terrain or plainly boring rectangle and the sheer waste of time, energy and expense, the accepted belief that an emerald green lawn is de rigueur is held on to fervently. I cannot fathom why. A little lawn to complement the plantings is fine but even that need not be purely grass. Just as long as it provides a green relief.

Given the futility of such an endeavor and the abundant more suitable alternatives, why on earth would any body want to hold on to this golf-turf dream? Then, upon failing to achieve such status, the whole project is reduced to a stoic persistence in mowing and copious watering and fertilizing as though if done long enough one will triumph. On occasion, such failures are taken with the view that nothing will grow and the whole front garden thing is abandoned. We spend our time in the backyard anyway. So why bother with the front? is the prevailing attitude. So much attention is lavished in the back – patios, pool, flower beds and such. Thats like taking the trouble to wear silk and lace underwear only to then put on a dress made up of burlap.

Really? Do you not wash and wax your car periodically or any time it looks muddy? Why concern yourself with that when all you need it for is to get from one place to another? You do so because otherwise, it makes you look like a slob right? The same way you choose to wear clean, unwrinkled clothes. Stylish and pricey even. The well presented hairstyle, the immaculately made up face, the manicured nails are all testimonials to how much we care about ourselves and how much it matters how others see us.

So why not the front garden? Make it say something meaningful and honest. Curbside appeal is important. I’m not alluding to property values but to your own esteem. What appearance is presented by your property informs the viewer of who and what you are.

Stop making excuses and own that front garden. Too busy to tend flower beds? Then, keep it simple by planting interesting trees and shrubs suitable to the conditions present. Sun, shade, free- draining or clay soil, east facing or otherwise, even or sloped ground etc., Use hard-working ground covers like creeping myrtle or even pachysandra ( yes, pachysandra! It is better than a raggedy ‘lawn’). A four season tree like our own Amelanchier is wonderful. Large properties could have oaks, red maples and redbuds.

Ground too stony and unable to sustain plants? Gravel up the area and install large pots to fill with a myriad colorful annuals.

The point is, do something. Make that front garden say something good about you. All year round. Your neighbors and visitors are forming opinions … And if you live in my town, I’m wandering around looking and judging.

Review the photographs below and see for yourself how quickly you begin to form opinions:

My front garden






IMG_8421(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Case For Camassia

Have you introduced camassias into your garden? No? Why not? I guess you haven’t taken me seriously when I’ve recommended that you start planting these good bulbs of North America. I promise you will be glad to have these natives in your garden.

Blooming in mid-spring, camassias bridge that transition from the early bulbs to late spring blooms beautifully. They come in shades of blue as well as a creamy white. A grouping of them is quite handsome but they also blend well with a mix of other plants. I particularly like how they mingle with the alliums, tulips, amsonia, baptisia and columbines in my perennial beds. The spires contrast well with the roundness of the alliums and the star bursts of amsonia.

In the meadow, camassia join the sea of blue created by ajuga and mysotis. The overall appearance is one of such gentle beauty that it is hard to imagine that so much activity happens in the meadow. The place teems with life. Butterflies and bees busy themselves here all day long. Parent birds forage for juicy morsels to carry back to their ever hungry babies. Toads await unsuspecting insects. Rabbits nibble on whatever greens suits them but never seem to do any visible damage. A neighborhood cat often suns itself on the stone bench kept warm by the morning sun. No doubt hoping to get at targets I’d rather not think about. The occasional garden snake rustles about quietly; its presence noted only by the hushed movements of the low-growing grass. I could sit here all day and watch the goings on.

But back to camassias. They naturalize well and do not beg for coddling. Suitable for both formal and informal gardens, they are in my opinion a no-brainer. Get them this year for fall planting. Don’t make me tell you again.


True blue natives
for food and form
Echoing colors
of seas and skies
Spreading nicely
from forest shade
to open prairies
to rocky ties.

From quivers of green
shoot Indian arrows
Piercing early
verdant blankets
Sustaining tribes
across western fronts
These bulbous offerings
make a banquet.


Camassia 1

Camassia 2Camassia 3

Camassia 4

Sea of blue

Sea of blue

Camassia 6

Camassia 7(c)2015 Shobha Vanchiswar


And The Music Played On …

There is a God after all! One who listens to me! How else can I explain Open Day in my garden last Saturday?

First we had that now legendary winter – looooong and harsh. Then, spring showed up kinda confused. It was either too cold or too warm. The plants were flummoxed as they couldn’t tell if it was safe to start growing. Some decided to risk it and others remained cautious. Which left me wondering what on earth would there be for visitors to see. The three days leading up to Open Day felt too much and too soon like summer but they were exactly the push the garden needed to get going. Who knew!

Saturday was perfect. It started out on the cool side. The sky was mildly overcast. The sort of condition that makes the colors pop. Precisely what the flowers required – like models at a photo shoot, they ‘talked’ to the camera. Sports Illustrated, eat your heart out. These beauties dazzled.
Later, it got shyly sunny and comfortably warmer. As the youngest of the three bears would’ve said Just right.

Never mind that the amsonia and camassia designed to bloom in complement to the tulips were yet to open their buds. Or, that the replacements to the espalier trees lost to the rodents two winters ago arrived only the day before and could not be planted in time. The columbines, alliums, frittilaria, comfrey and, countless other flowers were also late. Nobody noticed because the tulips, hellebores, foxgloves, apple and pear blossoms, creeping phlox, daffodils, leucojums, ajuga, mysotis and yes, dandelions blazed bright. The vertical garden had progressed enough in its growth to look like a beautiful work of abstract art. I had absolutely nothing to complain or lament.

The visitors, both friends and those about to become my friends, arrived in a steady stream. A pace that is just right for me to have time to talk with anybody who has questions, comments or simply engage in conversation. It is the most enjoyable activity for me. To see my garden through another’s eyes is so fun.

If you can believe it, the day got even better. Musician friends dropped by to see the garden and they arrived carrying their instruments. Oh joy! Up they climbed to the tree house and gave a sweet concert. Just like that, the garden event turned sublime.
Only after they had entertained the all too appreciative crowd, did the minstrels tour the garden. Now that’s real service.

The garden closed to the public at the appointed hour but friends lingered on and soon the outdoor brick oven was fired up, wine poured, gourmet pizzas and tandoori chicken made and consumed, desserts brought by our chef extraordinaire friend completely demolished and still we all stayed on and basked in the magic of the moment.

This day had been offered to us with unconditional generosity and I think we accepted it with the grace it deserved. I could neither plan it nor recreate it just so again.

My gratitude to every person, plant, garden creature and weather gods who gave me this day is boundless. Thank you.

Pretty maidsin a row

Pretty maids all in a row





Can you see the violist in the tree house?

Can you see the violist in the tree house?

IMG_5461(c)2015 Shobha Vanchiswar




Hellebore Heaven

IMG_1688I’ve waxed eloquent on the topic of hellebores in the past but I think it bears revisiting. It appears that while I’ve assumed everybody knows and loves these rugged plants, many are not at all familiar with them. Clearly, I haven’t done a decent job of spreading this good plants virtues.

My own love affair with Hellebores started over fifteen years ago. I saw a plant in bloom one very cold day in March when winter had barely relaxed her chilly grip. I simply had to get to know this brave soul. So, I rushed to my local nursery and bought two. They settled into the garden quite easily and grew well. The following year, they repaid my kindness with a plethora of flowers that bloomed well into summer. I had barely paid attention to them all year and here I was being so handsomely rewarded. This was my kind of plant partner – independent, reliable, good-looking, low maintenance, loyal and hard working. Wish I knew more humans with all those traits.

I now have somewhere between fifteen to twenty hellebores in various semi-shady parts of the garden. They do better with a bit more sun than shade. I have them in the perennial beds, under shrubs and, bordering the meadow. At each site, the flowers add valuable color and beauty at a time when these elements are scarce. They are notorious self seeders but because I mulch heavily each spring, the seedlings get smothered and do not thrive. When required, I pot up some seedlings to give away and then spread the mulch.

Hellebore leaves are best not cut back in the fall. They are left on to provide protection to the emerging buds that nestle shyly beneath. Once the snow has melted and spring is just about to start, I remove the old leaves making way for the new growth.

Hellebores are not so palatable to deer and other pests as many varieties are poisonous. The leathery, serrated leaves keep away the curious. The flowers, oh, the flowers! They are show stoppers. Coming in a range of creams, buff, pale green and all shades of rose, a mature plant is spectacular in bloom. They do not scream but gently draw your eyes to their beauty. And then you cannot look away.

The plants are drought tolerant but do best in moist, well-drained soil. Most hellebores can be planted in zones 5a to 8. A few even tolerate zone 9. Reaching only heights of a foot and a half, these relatives of the ranunculus, are perfectly suited to that place between the low growing plants and the taller ones. The plant peaks just when you are weary of the bleak winter scene and impatient for the large bulbs to start their performance. They nicely bridge winter gaps with their evergreen leaves. In my opinion, no garden should be without hellebores. Ever.

So, have I convinced you?

My garden is open this Saturday May 9 from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm. See here for details. Please do visit!

Also, thanks so much to those who came to my art show reception last Saturday. You made my day! For those who missed it, the exhibit is on all of May – at Teatown Lake Reservation in Ossining, New York. Hope you’ll get to it. Let me know what you think!

Enjoy these images of hellebores:

This one is actually named 'Dark And Handsome'!

This one is actually named ‘Dark And Handsome’!




My own rendition

My own rendition

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Waiting For Spring

In ten days and some hours, my garden opens to the public. That’s May 9 from 10 am to 4 pm. But where is Spring in all her regalia? There is a vague warm up act going on but I’m beginning to wonder if the star acts have fallen asleep backstage. They are well overdue.

There have been years when it has seemed that spring was in a hurry and I’ve been concerned about flowers blooming too early. Not this year. As a friend mentioned recently, I might have to consider putting heaters outdoors to get the plants going. Mind you, given the pressure of getting visitor ready, I didn’t think that suggestion was as funny as intended. My sense of humor is being seriously tested.

I have absolutely no idea what will be in flower on Open Day. I can only hope that between today and that Saturday deadline, the weather will coax many of the bulbs and other perennials to display themselves in full glory. And then, bless us all with perfect garden-visiting weather for after all, what good will it do to have a somewhat wet or chilly climate on that day? The event will be held rain or shine but we all know that visitors like shine. I’d like shine too for if I must await the friendly crowd, I’d like to do so when everything sparkles. When the flowers are the main attraction, my other transgressions in the garden will be happily overlooked.

Like an events planner, I’m working at a madcap pace. Winters overextended stay delayed all garden work by weeks. That is a major handicap. Big tasks, minor to-dos, difference making details, have me constantly reviewing my endless list of chores. I don’t want to drop the ball on anything. A couple of items cannot be accomplished in this time crunch and must wait till after open day – I hope no one will notice. And I’m not telling because then you will notice!

Instead, I’m going to put my intentions and wishes out into the Universe and have faith that I will be heard. It shouldn’t be hard to do because gardening in itself is an act of pure faith.
However, as extra insurance, I ask that you help me out by asking the weather gods to be kind and most importantly, I’d like to see you in my garden on Open Day. Please come.

For details, click here.

While you’re marking your calender (for my Open Day of course), do make note of this other event. I’d love to see you there:

Postcard_1IMG_5149IMG_5143IMG_5158(c)2015 Shobha Vanchiswar