Art In Progress!

In past posts, I have often mentioned the role that sculpture can play in the garden. From giving it gravitas to whimsy, a garden or, for that matter, any space is much elevated by art. In my own garden, I have a few small pieces but I’ve always hankered for something dramatic and large yet one that is empathetic to the surroundings. Art that was site specific. Which of course meant having the work commissioned.

Meanwhile. I’ve had to confront the reality of losing the tree that is supporting the Paul’s Himalayan Musk rose in the meadow. The tree is quite dead. or the present, It is only a matter of time before a big storm easily brings it all down. It needs something to step in and take up the role of rose upholder. Soon.

Hmmm. Perhaps I could combine the two needs? A sculpture that will also brace the rambler would do the trick. Enter Domenico Belli. A metal sculptor and all round nice guy.

Together we’ve worked out what is needed, wanted and downright fun. A work of art that will bear the additional responsibility of taking over from the tree. And in the future, if for one reason or other the rose ceases to be, the sculpture will still be intact and relevant.

Commissioning a large work ( 8 feet high and all stainless steel) feels so grown-up and glamorous. I’m excited, nervous and impatient all at once. Domenico has begun working on it and sends me photos to keep me updated. It’s like waiting for a baby and becoming ecstatic over each ultrasound image. How amazing and what will it finally look like?!

I’m sharing with you the images and you can have a go at guessing the final design. Let me know what you think. After the piece is completed and installed, I’ll tell you more about what I envisioned, how we collaborated and still permitted Domenico to have artistic freedom.

Domenico still has lots of work to do. We are looking to install in mid-fall and I’m thrilled to keep everybody in the loop. Process in any sort of creative effort is instructive. Together we can be inspired.

Note: You can read  about my latest visit with the children at Mukta Jeevan here.

The first shipment of metal arrives at Domenico's studio

The first shipment of metal arrives at Domenico’s studio

Domenico gets started

Domenico gets started

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Bringing Summer To Her Senses

It is already week 3 of August. Summer is a hasting. Have you been making the most of it? Before another day goes by, lets promise ourselves to take in all the pleasures the season offers. High heat and humidity notwithstanding, there is much to savor and it’d be such a shame to miss out. After all, these are the memories one clings to during the seemingly endless cold days of winter.

For now, let’s think less about the chores both in the garden and out. Instead, give yourself the gift of being fully present in the garden. Soak in the the sights, sounds and smells. Absorb every exquisite detail, every last drop. Breathe deeply and inhale the season. Let all the warmth and colors course through your veins and nourish your soul. You will emerge a better version of yourself – I promise.

Enough said. Enjoy the images below. Be inspired.

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

 

 

Gardening In The Green

A gardener by occupation is simpatico with the environment. We are therefore acutely aware of what we do in the garden having a direct impact on the environment. Likewise how any change or fluctuation in the surroundings and/or climate immediately affects the garden. There is much in the hands of the gardener to do his/her part in preserving and conserving their alloted corner of Eden.

One is often told what not to do. So working from a positive attitude, lets look at a few things one should do.

Do please compost – This is perhaps the single best thing to do. Yet, I constantly encounter gardeners swearing up and down the garden path their devotion to organic, environmentally conscious practices but not composting at all. Beats me why this is so. Composting is easy.

After all, at its very simplest, it is nothing but tossing garden and kitchen waste in a pile, stirring it now and then and making sure a splash of water is periodically directed its way. Set it up some place discreet and you’re cooking. Well, the compost is cooking. Granted an open pile can look unsightly but setting up a contained area or a commercially available compost bin will eliminate that problem. I compost garden waste in the woods at the back of my property and use a small compost bin for the kitchen scraps of veggies, fruits, egg shells, tea leaves and coffee grounds. This bin occupies a corner out of direct view but is still easily accessible.

Apart from reducing the amount of weekly garbage and eliminating the need to bundle twigs or bag the leaves for pick-up, all of which makes for less work, obtaining one’s own compost to nourish the garden plants and suppress the weeds is hugely gratifying. And very kind to the wallet to boot. Applying compost to lawns, trees, shrubs, flower and vegetable beds puts paid to any need for fertilizers and herbicides.

A healthy compost bin does not smell foul. Like I mentioned, aerating and giving it some water permits the natural decomposition of the plant waste. The worms and microbes do their job quite thoroughly. There is no malodorous effect.

I have been composting for more than twenty years and have not had critters like raccoons, skunks and such raid the compost bin. I do believe they will if the composter is not kept healthy.

Compost is vital for recycling trace elements and replenishing the organic matter in the soil. So much good from so little work.

Do give up using fertilizers – this is a natural follow up to composting. All fertilizers, synthetic or organic, release some of the nitrogen into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, which has 300 times more warming potential than carbon dioxide. In addition, it takes a lot of energy to manufacture synthetic fertilizers so the carbon footprint of a garden is increased.

The run off from lands using fertilizers is full of nitrogen which has become a serious environmental issue. Nitrogen pollution threatens the health of humans and all other animals.

So, why bother with fertilizers when you can use wholesome compost? After all, like a physician who attends to all manner of human health, a gardener too takes care of the health of the earth, environment and all living creatures. So the first motto of a doctor should be the same for the gardener – Do No Harm.

Do reduce water consumption – private spaces consume more water than public parks. That is a fact. To reduce water consumption, mulch everywhere! The aforementioned compost laid over a layer of old newspaper in garden beds acts as both mulch to retain moisture, smother weeds and enrich the soil to feed the plants better. Pine needles, chips of tree bark, cocoa hulls are all useful mulches.

Installing rain barrels to catch storm water run-off will cut down on that water bill. I can’t even begin to describe how virtuous you will feel.

Drip irrigation systems should be on timers so watering is done during the cooler hours of the day. These days, systems that register rainfall and will not get turned on if it is sufficiently wet are available. What a relief to save on wasteful watering.

Do stop tilling – that’s right, do not turn over the soil. Less work again! By leaving the ground undisturbed, the earthworms get to do their God-given work of decomposing the organic matter of plants as they die and return to the soil. As a result, much of the carbon is sequestered in the soil and not released as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. By allowing the garden to become a carbon sink, i.e. removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in the ground, the gardener is doing the world good. Think local, act global.

Do change the garden tools – as much as possible get rid of gas-powered tools. According to the EPA, 800 million gallons of gasoline are used per year by the 54 million Americans mowing their lawns each weekend. Is that not shocking?
Here is another fact that ought to make you desperate to do something – one gas powered mower emits the same amount of pollutants as eight new cars driving 55mph for the same amount of time.

Instead, use battery-powered or better yet, human powered tools such as push/reel mowers, clippers, rakes and the like. Go one step further and cut down on the lawn by planting native ground covers, trees, shrubs, meadows.

There, you see, none of this is difficult. The problem of climate change demands that each of us become part of the solution. Gardeners can make a significant difference. Collectively, we have the power to make manufacturers, growers, nurseries and politicians listen. Garden by garden we can lead the way. And cover a whole lot of turf! 

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The rain barrel

The rain barrel

Another view of the barrel.

Another view of the barrel.

Groundcover

Groundcover

The only 'lawn' that gets mowed weekly by a human powered push mower.

The only ‘lawn’ that gets mowed weekly by a human powered push mower.

My meadow with natives and bulbs

My meadow with natives and bulbs

Alliums in the meadow

Alliums in the meadow

The compost bin for kitchen waste in the upper right corner. Do you see it?

The compost bin for kitchen waste in the upper right corner. Do you see it?

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Scent Of A Flower

Every now and then, there occurs an event that lifts us out of our routine, somewhat self-absorbed lives and reminds us that there is a bigger, incredibly fascinating universe of which we are just a tiny part. Events that are rare and uncommon like the aurora or polar lights, frost flowers, super cells, fire whirls in a bush fire, water spouts, ball lightening, the chance to view Haley’s comet. Or, those that recur more widely but still powerful enough to get our attention every single time such as a solar eclipse, the annual migration of the Monarch butterflies, meteor showers, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcano eruptions, forest fires, tornadoes, hurricanes. Each of those occurrences , be they breathtakingly beautiful or devastatingly powerful, brings us down to our knees.

We acknowledge forces at work mightier than ourselves. Our part in the big drama is made clear – we are not center stage.

And so, this past weekend, just such an opportunity came my way. The corpse flower or titan-arum ( Amorphophallus titanum) at the NYBG was in bloom. The plant takes years and requires considerable energy to form buds and then, once there is a bud, the flower matures quickly. It opens over a period of 36 hours and then withers away. So the window to catch it in bloom is narrow. Its characteristic aroma of rotting flesh notwithstanding, the titan-arum is a sight to behold.

I was not going to miss this event. After all who knows where I might be the next time it graces us with a flower! Standing in line along with so many others just as eager and curious as I, it occurred to me that when it comes down to it, we are all the same. Fellow humans trying to make sense of our world and in doing so, understand ourselves a little bit better. What a wonderful, diverse crowd I was privileged to be a part of as we wound our way through the conservatory and approached the guest of honor. Jockeying for a proper view, I heard a myriad of languages and I’m certain they were all saying the same thing – “ Wow! Look at that!”.

There in the reflecting pool, rose the flower of the hour. The spadix looked like a 7 foot finger pointing to the heavens above and the frilly spathe wrapped its base as elegantly as a Fortuny-pleated skirt. In green to cream ombre on the outside, the spathe opens out in a flare to reveal a deep red to maroon interior. It was not quite open when I was there. Even so, I felt quite blessed to have seen this once-in-a-long-while flower.

For the fifteen minutes of audience I had, I was oblivious to the all the news that was being reported on our political goings-on, the dreary to-do list that lingered on my phone, the quotidian worries both real and imagined that dog us all and, the twinges and aches that I woke up with that morning. For that quarter hour, I was given the gift of stillness and a deep sense of connection to every living thing on this magical, blue planet. My take home message – it is worth the hard work and time to do something extraordinary.

As for the famous odor? I hardly noticed.

At a more accessible level, we are given daily and seasonal nudges to put our lives in perspective. Sunrises, sunsets, the smile of a baby as it reaches for your embrace, the honeybee making its daily rounds in the garden, the night sky glittering messages from distant galaxies, the periodic love song of the cicadas. We are equally seduced by rainbows and the autumnal colors of the leaves announcing the close of the growing season. The thawing earth pierced through by tiny, brave crocuses, the unfurling of the summer roses, the deepening blush of the apples in October, the tranquility of the first snowfall – all reminders that miracles happen all the time. We just have to become still and notice. Every time that happens, we become better versions of ourselves.

Please follow me on Instagram @seedsofdesignllc

All of this month, some of my botanical art and poems are on exhibit at the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library in North Salem NY. I hope you will visit!

The titan-arum

The titan-arum

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Music In The Meadow Part II

The ongoing heat wave and drought like conditions that we are experiencing in my corner of the country, is a wake up call to how we use our land. Other parts of the country and indeed, the world, are also being confronted with devastatingly atypical weather. Unprecedented, destructive flooding/drought/heat – take your pick, it is happening. Gardeners must adapt to changing climates and lead the way in sound environmental practices.

That being so, creating native plant meadows is a timely subject to explore and implement.

While my own meadow project has been underway, the trend to create meadows has gained attention and dare I say it, popularity. When I first started my meadow over two decades ago, it was viewed as odd, messy and ‘hippy-like’. My compost bin and rain barrel were also tossed into that category. I even recall my attempts being described as quaint and old-fashioned. So, please pardon me if I feel vindicated now that meadows, composting and, catching rain water have not only become accepted but are official stamps of the environmental conscious. I think I’ve earned my smug face don’t you?!

In creating meadows, we are in essence, restoring a resilient landscape to support bio-diversity and creating a balance in nature. This equilibrium resists invasives, creates a healthy matrix and withstands fluctuations in the climate admirably. Native plants co-evolve with native insects and animals. Like a world class orchestra, such a meadow performs in complete harmony giving us the most uplifting, life affirming concert.

Here are the proven benefits of a native meadow –

There are fewer ticks. Out here, Lyme disease is a real and serious concern. As a result, homeowners feel justified in contractual agreements with landscaping firms to have their property routinely sprayed with chemicals to control the ticks. What they are not taking into account is that even the “organic” applications are not tick specific. All of the insect population is affected. One loses the good guys with every application. Thinking beyond the insects, the chemicals, organic and otherwise, ultimately get washed into the water table. Pets and children who play in the garden, roll on the lawn, nibble on plants are all coming in contact with any and all insecticides, pesticides and fertilizers. Shouldn’t that alone be a serious concern?
When the environment is in balance, the ticks are eaten by other insects, birds and animals. And that is how their population is well controlled.

Once established, that is as soon as the young plants are settled in, a meadow needs no further watering. Think about that.

At no point is there need of fertilizers. Not even compost. And the soil is never turned over nor is new soil introduced. The land is kept as it is. Imagine all the time, energy and dollars saved.

The meadow is cut down just once a year. Mowing becomes a non-issue. Now, traditionally, a meadow is burned annually in early spring. One needs a permit from the town and fire department because burning must be done correctly. However, if you live like I do, cheek to jowl with the neighbors, that is not an option. I do an annual mow down in the fall.
But, if you happen to live on a large enough property with neighbors at a proper distance, burning is much preferred and more effective. Weeds will be significantly reduced and even those that regrow, will be shaded out by the native grasses.
Here is an interesting fact – native plants burn well and burn gently. Those big conflagrations one envisions when we think of burning a meadow or field are created when non-native plants burn.
The dangerous forest fires that rage every year in some parts of the country are primarily in areas abundant with non-native trees and shrubs.

A thriving meadow is utterly beautiful. At every season it offers a different view. And oh the insect and bird life! Watching the wildlife is fascinating and often mesmerizing. It’s better than watching the Discovery channel!

Meadows are naturally productive and nutritious. All creatures benefit from them.

So, are you motivated to give up a part of your garden/property to a meadow? If so, start with small acreage. Learn the process.
Know your plants. Identify the natives, weedy non-natives.
Become familiar with water (rain, ground water flow) and reproductive patters, seed dispersal methods, animal habits.
Whenever one plant, native or non, appears to take over, that is a sign of imbalance.

We introduced the wrong plants, that means we can also remove them. If each of us commits to doing our part, we can restore the environmental balance. The parks, reserves and public gardens alone cannot carry the weight of safe-guarding this glorious land of ours. The responsibility rests on each of us.
We can and must do better than we have thus far.

Enjoy the photos I took recently of the meadow at Linda Horn’s in Spencertown, NY:

The native monarda is a huge draw for all sorts of pollinators

The native monarda is a huge draw for all sorts of pollinators

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Music In The Meadow. Part I

The meadow has been on my radar this year. And judging from the requests I’ve received, it seems so have many of you. Primarily, you have asked to know the full story of my meadow and what ever else I can share on that topic. Here goes!

Ever since I decided to do away with the lawn in the back garden about twenty years ago, I’ve pretty much let whatever grows remain as is. Except of course for scourges like garlic mustard. At the time, this was almost unheard of. I myself had never seen such a thing in a small, suburban garden. There was no handy literature on the subject available and it was way before Google. But I was very eager to try making a meadow ( of sorts). So I applied a dash of common sense and dab of creativity.

“ Like The Bumble-bee, What I Do Not Know Will Let Me Fly” Shobha Vanchiswar
Yes, I have often charged ahead based on that thought. Feel free to adopt it. It works.

The very idea of a meadow is romantic right? One pictures a spread of assorted wildflowers dancing in the breeze, butterflies flitting around, birds singing in chorus, the sun shining, a blue sky dotted with fluffy, blue clouds. All inviting one to run through it carefree and laughing. This is actually not far from the truth. A healthy, robust meadow is a habitat in balance. The diverse plants and animal/insect life make for a self-sustaining environment. So much more attractive than a lawn! How could I resist trying to create such a place in my corner?

Like I mentioned, I stopped mowing the lawn and simply let it go ‘natural’.It took a few years for the lawn to give itself over to new settlers. Much slower than I’d expected but I had to see what really would grow. Turns out lots of green things. Not familiar at that time with the many native, wild plants, I had no idea what was what. But I did know that for the most part, wild plants are generally not given to big, showy blooms. If one compares a wild monarda to a cultivated variety, you will see what I mean. So apart from the happy splash of dandelion yellow and ajuga blue in spring, my meadow appeared mostly green. I wanted a little more oomph.

For spring color, not wanting to inadvertantly introduce herbacious plants that could upset the natural balance, I hit upon the idea of putting in bulbs. Not given to being invasive or harming the environment but instead bringing in beauty and cheer, they are a perfect choice. I started by planting hundreds of daffodils and over the years, I have added a whole host of minor bulbs such a crocus, wood hyacinths, leucojum, scilla, iris reticulata, anemones, ornithogalum (not so minor), small frittilaria along with a slew of alliums and camassia. The ajuga, mysotis and dandelions joined in quite naturally. All of spring, this part of the garden reigns supreme.

But for the rest of the growing season until the whole area gets mowed down, it looks kinda ‘meh’. And until recent years, I was gone for a good chunk of the summer so I didn’t particularly care. Out of sight, out of mind and all that. About four years ago, I started feeling a mix of guilt and responsibility to do right by the environment as well as my garden’s appearance. While the ‘meadow’ such as it is, is not harming anything and actually supports a variety of creatures, my state of inertia was losing ground.

In my mind (okay, also my heart), a meadow is like a symphony. The myriad flora and fauna make up a full orchestra. Every meadow-member has a part to play. Nature is the artistic director and conductor. She is also the composer. The gardener is the manager. The four seasons are like the movements in a piece of music. The tempo, rhythm, mood, melody, instrument voices, expressions can all be compared to how life in the meadow plays out. The slower, quieter winter movement, the fresh, eager, excited spring movement, the loud, exuberant movement of summer, and finally, the poignant, somewhat melancholic autumnal one. Yes, kind of like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

So you can understand my restless mind – I needed to improve my own meadow so it could play a strong, empowering symphony. It had not been allowed to perform at its fullest potential thus far. Many important sections of this orchestra were missing and so, the current concert was lackluster.
With this in mind, I began researching (three cheers for the Internet), talking to those more experienced with native plants, visiting native plant gardens like those at the NY Botanical Garden, Teatown Lake and Reservation, private properties, attending talks by the likes of William Bryant Logan and Edwina von Gaal. On road trips, I braked for meadows and investigated them. Behind the ‘researching’ hides my propensity to procrastinate. It buys time before screwing up courage and launching into big projects. I took my time.

Meadows are generally seen as large open spaces blessed with sunshine. My meadow is assigned a small space in semi-shade. The word meadow is a slight stretch. But it is too open to call it woodland. So meadow it is.

Native plants that could accept being in a suburban, somewhat obscure orchestra were sought out. They might seem unambitious but their skills and ‘sounds’ are no less commendable. I had to give them a fair audition.

Given that there were already many bulbs in place, there was no question of risking losing them by digging up the ground to plant mature native plants. Bulbs are expensive and so are mature plants. I had to source native plant plugs. Being small, plugs are easier to plant and in using them, the bulbs stood to go unscathed. Perfect solution right? Well, native plugs are not so easy to find. Then, last fall, a friend with a penchant for gardens and an interest in native wildflowers shared a source he had recently obtained. That single piece of information was received with the same enthusiasm as some of my friends demonstrate for sample sales at haute couture fashion houses

Finally, this year, I introduced a number of different plants to the meadow. Given the time pressure of my annual Garden Open Day in early May, getting these new additions in was something of a scramble. But it got done. And then I turned my attention to all the other demands of the season.

Native plants are hardier and tougher than non-natives – that gave me permission to not worry about the meadow. In the frenzy of getting the garden ready for Open Day, I failed to consider that it had not rained sufficiently and young plants need some extra TLC. By the time it occurred to me, we had already had a few super-hot days in addition to the lack of rain. And given that the meadow was now thick with growth, telling the young, new plants apart from the old, was near impossible. It was a sea of green. So I’m not really sure whether some if not all of the plugs have made it or if some decided to go dormant or if all bit the dust. I have since done some intermittent watering but it feels like closing the barn door after the animals have escaped.

Still, I’m optimistic. I suspect at least some of the plants would have pulled through. Patience is called for – I must give the meadow another full year before determining anything.

Meanwhile, I’ve been investigating meadow establishment further. Stay tuned for part II next week!

Early days. May 2005

Early days. May 2005

May 20006

May 20006

June 2006

June 2006

May 2007

May 2007

June 2007

June 2007

May 2009

May 2009

May 2010

May 2010

May 2012

May 2012

Up close May 2012

Up close
May 2012

June 2012

June 2012

May 2016

May 2016

Late May 2016

Late May 2016

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Life Goes On

The early hours of summer mornings often find me puttering in the garden. I wish I could say that I’m out there staying on top of the weeding and what-nots. While I take note of the weeds and to-dos, I don’t necessarily feel moved to get busy. These moments in the garden have become my ‘centering time’. I observe what’s doing and what’s not doing. I watch the birds going about their business – the early birds really do get the worms. Listening to their different songs compels me to seek out where the singers are. Parents warning their babies to stay still in the nest because the squirrels are near by. The crows chasing a hawk away from their neighborhood. The cardinal calling its mate to a veritable feast of berries. Baby nuthatches squawking nervously as they test their wings. Much is happening in the many storeys of the garden.

I see that the columbines have finished scattering their seeds. The pods no longer rattle in the wind. The foxgloves are almost ready to do the same. Maybe in another week or two. The perennial geraniums are blooming and setting seed simultaneously. The amsonia and baptisia seed pods are still green. They will take it slow all the way to early fall. At that time, the purple-black baptisia pea-like pods are ready to be collected for posterity. The color contrasts very nicely with the ochre hued slender amsonia beans.

As seeds are being set and dried, they symbolize the springs to come. So full of promise and continuity. But as reminders to the season at hand, the mallows, echinacea and cleomes are madly livening up their corner in shades of pretty pinks. The elegant, white candelabras of cimicifuga are rising gently to cast a soft glow at dusk. The acanthus however commands everyones attention. The large, glossy, deeply cut spiny leaves and the spikes of white flowers tinted with reddish purple are so impressive. The phlox near by are yet to bloom. When they do, their fragrance will perfume the air from sunset to sunrise.

Way back at the bottom of the garden just beyond the ‘meadow’, the lone oak-leaf hydrangea is holding fort. Its white flowers are the only color against the all green in this area. The other mop-head hydrangea suffered this past winter. The old growth bearing buds for this year were destroyed. As a result there are no blooms this year. Thankfully, the plants themselves did not succumb. New growth has emerged from the base so perhaps next year I will enjoy their blue flowers. But here is an example of how the native (oak-leaf) plant does better than the non-native.

The Concord grapes look smugly expectant. The pale- green clusters, shaded by leaves grow big every day. If the birds don’t get to them first, I’ll be making delicious jam in late September. The preserve will brighten winter breakfasts and remind us that the cold weather will indeed gave way to spring.

Right here, right now the garden demonstrates that birth, growth, reproduction, death are all happening at the same time. No matter what happens, life goes on.

I get back to the house centered and ready to make my own contribution to the world.

Echinacea

Echinacea

Clematis

Clematis

White Echinacea

White Echinacea

Amsonia with bean pods

Amsonia with bean pods

Baptisia peapods

Baptisia peapods

Cimicifuga with spent foxglove.

Cimicifuga with spent foxglove.

Mallow

Mallow

Cleome

Cleome

Concord grapes

Concord grapes

Columbine

Columbine

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Pause Between Acts

Nothing much appears to be happening in the garden right now. All the spring drama has subsided and the summer madness is yet to happen. It is quiet. Given the unusual weather patterns this year, there is a sense of being somewhat out of sync. Things are not normally this quiet in July but I’m not complaining. The lack of rain has been a bigger concern.

While we have not yet declared that we are experiencing a drought, it has been a challenge to keep the plants hydrated. Finding that sweet spot where I’m comfortable with how much watering I’m doing and the minimum it takes to keep the plants happy is critical to the general well being of both garden and gardener. It’s a very fine line.

This moment of horticultural hush is the perfect occasion to take in the soft elements in the garden. The details that get easily overlooked in the fanfare of other loud bloomers. Though these plants were selected deliberately, they perform mostly as supporting characters. While the overall play of colors and textures in a bed are appreciated, these ‘minor’ actors are seldom noted as relevant. Yet, they complement the main guys immeasurably.

Case in point – Sanguisorba tenuifolia Albiflora. I purchased this plant at a rare/unusual plant fair several years ago. Struck by their finely toothed pinnate foliage, I thought they would combine well with other tall, airy, spired and whorled plants. The white, catkin-like fingers of flowers at the tips of slender stems. wave gracefully in the wind. Softened by fluffy stamens, these diminutive bottle-brush blooms are highly tactile. At night, they take on a ghostly glow.

The plant blends well in the naturalistic plantings and watching the individual flowers open top down is fascinating. Yet, if juxtaposed with brightly colored and/or large flowers like Asiatic lilies or hollyhocks, one would hardly see these pale, ethereal blooms.

This variety of Sanguisorba is Asian in origin. It was purchased long before I became conscious of planting mostly natives. As per my rule, non-natives are permitted to remain only if they are not invasive. What a relief that this charmer has not gone amok. It has grown bigger but not spread anywhere else. The foliage alone is striking and I’d miss it very much if it had proven to be a thug.

Without the attention grabbers, I’m at liberty to observe the routine machinations in the garden. The bees on the hydrangea. The birds splashing in the bird bath. The papery, pink mallow swaying in the breeze as though listening to music only it can hear.

I note the still young grapes growing bigger and then I become aware that the birds are keeping tabs on them too. The columbine seed pods are rattling – I can only imagine their seeds finding homes that will become apparent next spring. All of the columbines in my garden are essentially squatters. Yet, I love them so – they seem to know much better than I as to where they should grow.

The fans of blue-green Alchemilla leaves hold beads of rain that sparkle bright in the sun. An otherwise ordinary area suddenly gets its moment to be extraordinary. I wonder if thirsty butterflies ever stop here to get a drink.

It is these days of silent wonder that nurture the soul and set fire to the imagination. Savor them slowly.

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Sanguisorbs tanuifolia AlbifloraNote the foliage!

Sanguisorba tanuifolia Albiflora. Note the foliage!

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Sizzle, Sparkle, Celebrate!

July arrives with the gift of a long weekend. And right away, summer goes into high gear. As though on cue, one slows the normal, frenetic pace, puts down the spade and picks up the lemonade.

This is the month when there is not much new to do in the garden. It is all about maintenance. Weeding, watering, deadheading, mowing. There is something reassuring about the rhythmic pattern of the mundane chores.
Time appears to expand. The days open up to all sorts of fun possibilities. Books are read. Parties happen spontaneously and summer meals linger long. Sparkling in sunshine, the days are lulled by the call of the cicadas and sway of the hammock. The nights glow with starlight, fireflies and flickering candles. They are the what we long for all the other months.

Lets resolve to not waste a single moment of summer in July. Make that lemonade. Place the books in the porch. Commission the ice-cream machine. Clean the outdoor furniture, toss on the pillows, spread the tablecloth. Raid daily the salad patch. Count dragonflies and fireflies. Go off the electronic grid as often and as long as possible. Trade FaceTime for pool time. Turn every meal into a celebration. Let your feet rediscover the pleasure of grass.

With this in mind, I’m gearing up for the Fourth of July weekend. A large pitcher of rose geranium and ginger infused lemonade is chilling alongside other potent libations in the refrigerator. The grill on the BBQ is clean and ready. The potager will serve up fresh salads. A basket of books, a choice playlist and favorite boardgames await. Lanterns hang from trees. I’m prepared to celebrate. And I’ve even taken care of the fireworks. Check out the photos below!

Happy Fourth one and all!

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The first two photos are of Heidi and Stephen Ford’s garden in Chicago.To extend the life of the alliums, Stephen decided to spray paint the spent alliums for a fireworks display!

 Heidi reports – ” We used Rust-Oleum  spray paint ( fluorescent, and glossy enamel ) and when spraying we used newspaper to shield the surrounding flowers from the paint . We held the spray can about 6 inches from the alliums and held the newspaper behind or under as we sprayed.”

 

Photo credit - Heidi Ford

Photo credit – Heidi Ford

Photo credit - Heidi Ford

Photo credit – Heidi Ford

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My meadow is full of alliums but it is not practical to paint them in situ. So I harvested the alliums ( below). By themselves, they make a charming ‘shabby chic’ display don’t you think?

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Here they are all set for the holiday!

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Recreation of Celia Thaxter's porch at the American Impressionists exhibit at NYBG. Note the red, white and blue flowers!

Recreation of Celia Thaxter’s porch at the American Impressionists exhibit at NYBG. Note the red, white and blue flowers!

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

 

Hugelkultur Is Happening!

If you haven’t as yet heard of hugelkultur, you will soon enough. Its time has come. Which is ironic when you consider that the concept is hundreds of years old. When I learned of it, my first thought was that this harked back to agricultural practices when nothing was allowed to go to waste. Environmentally sound, sustainable and actually quite intuitive, hugelkultur makes so much sense. You’ll see.

The very first time I saw hugelkultur being implemented was on a property in southern Vermont. What I saw looked, frankly, a bit appalling. The house and its corner lot looked shabby which in itself was not awful – the kind of place I assumed the owners were either physically or financially unable to maintain it. It happens. But what looked to me as deliberately messy was the front right quadrant. It had these big compost heaps on top of which grew haphazardly some tomato and other plants. There appeared to be no attempt to have it look tidy or purposeful. I took pictures of this because I loved how plants will grow wherever they can. It was a couple of years later that I read about hugelkultur and then recalled this property. It was not the best example but clearly the gardeners knew what they were doing. Just not very attractively. But, who am I to judge? I’m the one with the wild ‘meadow’ after all.

Hügelkultur is a German word meaning mound culture or hill culture. It was practiced in German and Eastern European societies for hundreds of years.
It is a process of composting in place using raised beds built in layers of wood debris and other compostable plant biomass. The method improves soil fertility, water retention, keeps the soil warm, supports microbial life that in turn enrich the soil, Traditionally, these beds are mounds or hills. The beds can however be built up like more traditional square or rectangle raised beds. A lasagna of sorts!

At a time when we are doing our best to recycle, reuse and reduce, hugelkultur is a godsend. It is in essence a permaculture technique and the beds are raised by layering organic material. Starting with the roughest material like rotting logs, topped with layers of thin branches followed by twigs and such, then grass clippings and other compostable garden waste, and finally, a layer of top soil. As the lower levels in the bed break down, they create most suitable environments for microbes necessary for healthy soil. This in turn permits better moisture retention and slow release of nutrients.

As the materials break down, there is some settling but by adding leaf mould and compost regularly, an ideal height can be maintained.

Instead of bagging the leaves and twigs for curbside pick-up, the materials can be put to use in the garden itself. No chipping or shredding needed.
As the wood decays gradually, it becomes a constant source of nutrients for the plants. In large beds, the nutrient output could be sustained for as long as twenty years. As the composting occurs, the heat generated extends the growing season.
When the logs and branches break down, there is an increase in soil areation. Hence, this method requires no tilling or turning over of the soil.
Wood can act like sponge. Rainwater is stored in the logs and branches and released during drier periods. Apparently, after the first year, with the exception of droughts, one may never need to water again.
Hugel beds also sequester carbon in the soil.
In essence, one can start such a bed by simply starting by building the layers from the ground up on the selected site. However, it is recommended that if you are starting on sod, then cut out the sod, dig in a trench with a depth of about a foot and then place the logs. Add the thin branches, the twigs and then the cut out layer of sod face down, followed by the other materials. A bed with steep slopes is the most recommended. This increases the surface area for planting and also avoids compaction from increased pressure over time. The steep sides means higher height and so easy harvesting. Greater the mass, greater the water retention.
Types of tree wood make a difference. Hardwoods are best as they decompose slowly but softwoods can also be used. A mix is ideal.
Woods that work best: Alders, apple, aspen, birch, cottonwood, maple, oak, poplar, willow (make sure it is dead or it will sprout).
Consider woods that are naturally anti-fungal, decay resistant or produce saps and tannins only if they are already well rotted. These are cedars, juniper, yew, eucalyptus, black cherry, camphor wood, osage orange, pine/fir/spruce.

Avoid altogether – Black locust (will not decompose), black walnut (juglone toxin), old growth redwood (heartwood will not decompose and redwood compost can prevent seed germination).

At this time, my small garden has no spot for experimenting with hugelkultur. But, I’m hoping one or more of you will give it a try. Please tell me if have already or are ready to try this method. I’m so excited about hugelkultur – it could be a game changer in our efforts to restore and maintain a healthy, ecologically sound environment.

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The lot in Vermont I

The lot in Vermont I

Lot in Vermont II

Lot in Vermont II

Lot in Vermont III

Lot in Vermont III

Bonus picture! A New Dawn rose in my garden.

Bonus picture! A New Dawn rose in my garden.

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar