Perfectly Imperfect

As I get my garden ready for my Open Day (May 10!), the drive is to show its beauty. I’m not running around plonking down new plants just for appearance. I’m acutely aware that as much as being drawn by the flowers in bloom, it is the design and plan of the garden that must shine. The juxtaposition of unlikely materials such as brick against slate, the unusual solution to a common problem, the provision for outdoor celebrations, applying sustainable gardening practices, being creative and so on. In essence, a garden must teach as much as it must impress. Personally, I want my visitors to leave enriched and inspired in a way that empowers them to approach their own gardens with fresh ideas and a can-do attitude.

With the thought to instruct, it is incumbent then to be honest about what goes on. While the garden gets tidied up and the mess put away, there is no pretending that it is more than what it is. For example, given the longer than usual winter, the emergence of certain plants is slow and it makes no sense to replace it with a new, more mature versions just to create a lush effect. To try and fool a visitor would also be insulting their intelligence. The very quality of the visit is diminished.

On the same vein, the gardener too must be honest with herself. No illusions of grandeur unless of course your garden is in Versailles. Similarly, a vast formal garden should not be declared to be humble or modest. Lets just keep it real. I recall having some neighbors taking offense when I called my home a cottage. Somehow, that implied it was less than good and by extrapolation, they were jostling with the not so affluent. But in truth, my home is indeed of modest proportions and is quite accurately a cottage. It is exactly what suits me and my family. Nothing more nothing less.

A formal garden to this house would be equally pretentious. No matter that copious amounts of time, money and energy go into creating and maintaining its informal style.

The biggest stumbling block for most gardeners is the unrealistic goal for perfection. To them and to everybody caring to listen, I say – allow for imperfection. Its okay. There will always be flaws in everything. You won’t get all the weeds, bugs will find a way to make holes in the leaves of roses, organically grown fruit will have blemishes, the dry shade under the trees will always be a problem area and will never look lush, where the dog likes to hangout will forever look like where the dog likes to hangout. Its all right – it shows that life happens here.

So do your very best to clean, tidy, care for and create beauty in your garden. But at the same time don’t obsess. Think about those gorgeous Persian carpets that all have a mistake deliberately woven in. Because after all, only God can achieve perfection.

I invite you to come to my imperfect but charming garden on May 10. www.gardenconservancy.org/opendays

The cottage and part of the front garden

The cottage and part of the front garden


Bulbs in bloom

Bulbs in bloom


Wall pots in bloom
Herb garden and terrace

Herb garden and terrace


Wood burning oven and checkerboard garden

Wood burning oven and checkerboard garden


The 'meadow' and treehouse

The ‘meadow’ and treehouse


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Know Thine Enemy


Caution: the topic is important and this article is a bit long. So get yourself a drink of choice, settle into something comfortable and read.

As gardeners, we are in an age old battle with pests, marauders and acts of nature. Traps, sprays, baits, decoys and such have occupied the attention of every generation. Growers try to come up with hardier, disease resistant plants all the time. Inventors and scientists attempt to answer the besieged gardener’s prayers with new contraptions and devices while yet more scientists introduce new strains of bugs, genetically modified plants and compounds to do battle. Its always a case of trying to stay one step ahead of the enemy isn’t it?

Just as we treat our own ailments specifically, it behooves us to do the same with our gardens and crops. To truly understand the problem translates to going beyond addressing just the symptoms and targeting the causal agents themselves. General plant hygiene is a necessity. Regularly cleaned equipment and tools, uncontaminated compost, mulch, water and soil, proper air circulation are all part of good plant husbandry. Yet, despite our best efforts, disease and pests will appear. So its important to study up.

While it is beyond the scope of this site to enumerate all the problems and solutions, I want to emphasize that it is incumbent on each of us to take responsibility to learn about such matters and take the appropriate action. To that end, I’d like to summarize a talk I attended recently. Titled “Bees, Trees, and Berries: How global plant movement and change can affect our gardens” it was given by Dr. Margery Daughtery. Informative and interesting, Margery managed to convey a serious, heavy topic with humor and clarity.

To start with, the particularly hard and wild winter is some indication of the climate changes underway. It is up to us to adapt and cope. There has been the thought that the harsh winter might have helped in diminishing the presence of ‘stink bugs’ and other pests. Margery broke the news gently – not true. The pests will be slow to start but being rather well suited to the human lifestyle, they are fully capable of getting through rough times. Be warned and stay vigilant.

Microbes have the happy (for them) ability to mutate. So, as we introduce resistant plants and treatments, we can expect to see many of the pests mutate accordingly. This has been already observed in fungi that cause rust diseases. Meanwhile, something remarkable and alarming has been observed in Europe. The TRSV virus is a well recognized plant pathogen. Its genetic material is RNA. This has mutated and converted to get into the central nervous system of the honeybee. It is now thought of as a significant cause of colony collapse disorder in the European Apis mellifera. Scary right?

Regarding boxwood blight – first and foremost one must be certain the problem is indeed blight and not stress which can be due to the normal effects of winter or the heat of summer. There is a fungicide spray available to prevent the blight. Margery pointed out that it did not make ecological or economic sense to spray year round. Since spikes in the blight have been noted in certain months, it would be prudent to spray just before those periods. What is yet to be determined is exactly when would be those ideal times. Research has been slow. Stay tuned. On the up side, this disease is not wind borne and is slow to spread. Certain types of Korean boxwood appear to be more resistant. Many alternatives to boxwood exist. Let me know if any of you need more information.

Speaking of slow research, there is still no good news with the problem of powdery mildew in impatiens. For now, impatiens lovers are still advised to plant New Guinea impatiens.

The situation with the rose rosette nuisance, if a plant is affected, pull out the whole plant and dispose off with the garbage. Do not compost. Knock Out roses are observed to be more susceptible. Select hardier roses by looking up (Google) university sources whose research is the most reliable. Help steer Extension Centers like Cornell and botanical gardens by seeking and supporting their work. They really are our command central for all matters horticultural.

Planting native trees is one of the single most positive action we can take. Bringing balance to the ecology, maintaining equilibrium of the carbon-cycle and fostering the helpful fauna, forests cannot be beat. As I’ve said here many times, go forth and plant a native tree. Arbor is this Friday – observe it!

This talk was the third and final part of a series. The crux of it is that we must be vigilant about alien diseases and bugs that sneak in not only with plant material from other parts of the world but also hitch rides on palettes and crates for other imports. In my opinion, it is simple enough to say “Grow, make, buy, use American!” but much harder to implement. The world has shrunk and all countries are dependent on each other for so very much. Travel, commerce, tourism has grown. There is no turning back.But we can each do our part I should think?

In the garden, going native is much easier. These plants are naturally hardier, less fussy and more disease resistant. Plant non-invasive, well understood non-natives only. Obtain plants from reputable nurseries and growers – preferably local establishments. Keep in mind, the local places operate under the same conditions as you do. It stands to reason that their plants will do well in your garden.

It ultimately comes down to every gardener to familiarize him/herself with the problems, understand the causes and then act with intelligence and foresight. Know thine enemy indeed.

After such a serious piece, here are some cheery photos. This is why we garden! And remember – my garden is open May 10. Click on the Happenings page for details.
Osteospermum and pansies in urn
Primroses
Red tulips
Fringe tulips. Crystal Palace.
(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Coloring In Spring

Spring is finally here. After the winter we’ve had, I’m particularly appreciative of every detail and nuance that this season brings to the landscape. Nothing out of the ordinary – just the simple changes that have such extraordinary impact on ones mood and spirits. Gratitude abounds as I go about my chores in the garden. While it is easy to get singularly focused on the tasks, pausing to observe and marvel at nature enriches the experience beyond measure. Such a privilege to be part of this beautiful, complex world. Enjoy your days in the garden!

Coloring In Spring

Entering the pale, cool amber
of the early vernal light
Greeted by avian chatter
half hidden in awakening arbors
Sensing the swell of the air
coming alive once more.

Shy hellebores blushing pink
mingle with virginal snowdrops
Gently illumine the garden
lifting the veil
Revealing youth reborn
still damp with dew.

Bulbs from beneath the rich brown
nose through in sap green
Testing, feeling
if the time is ripe
Cups in amethyst, alabaster and citrine
unabashedly await visitors.

Peony spears hued in burgundy
reach upwards in slow gestures
Quick darts of cardinal red
punctuate brightening skies
Sunshine lifts the iridescence
of purple grackle feathers.

Robins in vests of rust
house-hunt with blue coated jays
A truce of sorts reigns
every being with singular purpose
Distinct colors fresh and crisp
ancient rituals timeless yet new.

Reminder- My garden Open Day is May 10!
www.gardenconservancy.org/opendays

Quick darts of cardinal red

Quick darts of cardinal red


Blushing hellebores

Blushing hellebores


Burgundy 'spears of peony

Burgundy ‘spears of peony


Alabaster cups

Alabaster cups


And amethyst

And amethyst


Sap green noses

Sap green noses


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Hickory Dickory Dock

(The clock ticks, the mice play, the gardener copes …)

Its been a very productive week in the garden. The weather took away any excuse to stay on the couch. With gardening juices flowing freely in my veins, I went at the list of chores enthusiastically. Come July, that same energy will be mighty scarce. At this point, the clock is ticking as Open Day approaches and I use it as impetus to get everything done. If you don’t have a public opening as an excuse, just set a date and send out invites to a garden party. Then see how you charge around accomplishing all the necessary to-do items on that long list. Amazingly effective.

The major task was the clean up. However diligently the garden was cutback, tidied and organized in autumn, winter manages to big mess of it. As though it had a rollicking old party where everybody proceeded to go crazy. Removing the winter debris and detritus must be how the cleaning crew feel after Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Its a good thing that once this work is done, it shows. Unlike weeding which nobody notices until you neglect to do it, clean up is hard to miss.

The ‘meadow’ in particular responds well to a good scrubbing. Twigs are picked up as in a game of pickup-sticks, leaves are carefully raked, blown and gathered so as not to disturb or damage the hundreds of emerging bulbs. The early, small bulbs such as snowdrops and crocus are already in bloom and dotting the meadow. They positively sparkle after the clean up. Relieved of the smothering effect of the fallen leaves, its as though they are breathing freely at last.

Something I finally took to task this year was the ivy. Many years ago, I had planted English ivy along one side of the back garden with the intent of quickly covering up the neighbor’s chain-link fence. This worked in some parts but over time, the ivy has been making inroads in the meadow and checkerboard garden. The plant is invasive and knowing what I know now but didn’t all those years ago, I’d never plant it again. The creeper has been ruthlessly removed from any part for which it was never intended. For the time being, it is left on the fence and will be strictly monitored so it is not permitted to stray. I do intend to replace it entirely in the not too distant future.

The front lawn has been cleared of thatch build up, reseeded and given a good layer of compost to mulch and fertilize. Already I can see that the new grass has begun to sprout.

Other assorted jobs like pruning the roses, straightening the fence posts in front, redoing the rustic fence at the far back, tidying flower beds, preparing and planting up the vegetable plot with cool weather greens have also been completed. For instant gratification, urns and window-boxes are bursting with daffodils, pansies and primroses purchased from the nursery. Makes me so happy.

Much still needs doing but at least a good start has been made. I’m loving waking up everyday to see what else is in bloom. The iris reticulata are shyly joining the hellebores, crocus and snowdrops. I see the tight scilla buds waiting in the wings. The daffodils up close to the greenhouse will open any day now. One by one the plants awaken. Soon, there will be a profusion of flowers and I’ll be in my element. This is what I live for.

Update on the mice attack on the espalier: some of the Creeping Jenny planted along the side path, had gone rogue and crept on to the ground beneath the espalier. I was well aware that there should be nothing planted beneath the fruit trees but the chartreuse creeper looked so darn charming scampering over the river-rocks that I’d let it be. Well, no more. All undergrowth has been removed. Plantings in such places, translates to havens for moles and voles.

Only once the hot weather arrives will we know which trees have been decimated by the mice. Due to reserve nutrients, they will look fine and even flower in spring. I have yet to do a little digging around to see if the mice have been nibbling at the roots. I’m still screwing up the courage to do this investigation. It is heartbreaking to see any tree suffer. For now, the espalier will be fed a root fertilizer and as a further effort to direct all energy to healing, I intend to remove all fruit buds after the flowering. This year, the espalier will be in an infirmary of sorts. Trees that are at major risk will be ‘nursed’ with a bridge-graft – something I’m only just learning about. It is apparently very effective in saving fruit trees but not at all fun or easy to do. I see this crisis as I try to see all things in life. They arrive because there is something I must learn from them.
I’m learning, I’m learning.

Reminder: My garden is open on May 10 from 10 am – 4 pm. Rocky Hills from 2 pm – 4 pm. www.gardenconservancy.org/opendays

Creeping Jenny on sidepath and beneath espalier

Creeping Jenny on sidepath and beneath espalier


So charming right? Well, all that pretty on the rocks had to go.

So charming right? Well, all that pretty on the rocks had to go.


All clear of undergrowth.

All clear of undergrowth.


Primroses with daffodils in pots
Crocus
Pansies
Early, small bulbs in the meadow.

Early, small bulbs in the meadow.


Daffodils by the greenhouse.

Daffodils by the greenhouse.


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Of Mice And Me

This past Sunday, I made the first trip of the year to my favorite nursery. The sights and smells of the plants, the benign conversations with horticultural experts/plant lovers did something magical to my mood. I was enervated, optimistic and boy, did I have energy to take on the many tasks on my to-do list. Yes, thats what being amidst all things plant related does for me. This state of elevated spirits beats the ‘induced’ kind any day. It leads to creativity and productivity, spreads good will, no hangover follows and best of all, one remembers everything.

And joyfully thus, my gardening season is underway. For instant gratification, I picked up flats of primroses and pansies that will go into assorted urns, pots and window boxes. Now, mind you, as exciting as it is, there are challenges. My garden Open Day is fast approaching ( May 10) and given the severity and length of this past winter, time is short for getting the garden ready and spectacular. But that is not the most serious problem.

Of grave concern is the fact that orchard mice have attacked several of the apple trees in the espalier fence. How much damage has been wrought is yet to be determined. I can only hope that for the most part, the trees can heal themselves nicely. To replace any tree will not be easy. To remove a tree from within such an espalier arrangement and replant with a healthy tree of appropriate maturity requires some effort. There might well be more than one damaged tree. Oy vay.

When I first noticed the tell tale signs of orchard mice activity, I was immediately inclined to panic. I had this strong urge to pour poison and decimate the rodents. But thankfully, that feeling lasted just a minute. Okay, five minutes. I breathed deep and let myself relax. Strangely, my next thought was to consider how hard the winter must have been for the mice. The apple trees had not been touched all these years so, they must have been under a fair amount of stress to turn to my precious trees. I even envisioned that some of them were fiercely protective mothers doing whatever they had to for the wellbeing of their young ones. Sigh. How could I remain outraged?

Looking at it from another creature’s point of view helped adjust my own perspective. As much of an effort and expense it might be to remedy the problem, the fact is, the situation can still be fixed. Its not the end of the world. Am I happy then? No, my time, energy and pocketbook are not limitless but I’m not unhappy or upset either. I have forgiven the mice, accepted the problem and will now try to correct it the best I can. I will be discussing the matter with an expert so I can find out more about how to deal with it properly. Any insight gained shall of course be shared with all. If anybody has had a similar experience, I’d love to hear about it.

This is once again a reminder that we humans are not in charge. Nature is. And I must defer to her.

So, with the espalier problem on one hand, I look around the garden to counter-balance the status. The bulbs are piercing through the earth. Snowdrops and hellebores are blooming. The boxwoods look a bit winter weary but otherwise seem to have fared okay. And most excitingly, the Amelanchier I said I was going to plant, was purchased and ensconced in its rightful home yesterday. It is A. canadensis ‘Glennform’ – a shrubby type that is full of buds. I cannot wait to see it in bloom. It will lead the eye nicely across the meadow when viewed from the terrace. Once it was in the ground, I welcomed it to my garden, wished it well and promised that I would do right by it. I renewed my covenant with Nature.

Many, many chores remain and the garden is yet to reveal fully what plants could not take the winter. This is particularly true of the vertical garden. It is a vulnerable area and we are still learning what works and is needed. Ferns are slow in emerging so it’ll be cutting it very close to May 10 to determine anything. The suspense is killing!

As I dive into the season and begin my work, I’m just so excited and grateful to have my own piece of paradise. At the same time, I’m apprehensive about how to make it shine for the visitors in May. I know the ones who are gardeners themselves will understand about those aspects that simply cannot be helped and are due to the vagaries of the weather. But, I also want to please those who do not garden and rightfully come expecting to be delighted and impressed. Their opinions matter as much and I enjoy their comments equally. I’ll just have to work very hard and do my best won’t I? In the end however, whilst looking beautiful, a good garden must also teach. I hope all the visitors leave my garden suitably impressed and a little bit more knowledgeable and enriched.

Too often we forget that to have a garden to tend is to be truly blessed. We never really own it. We are but the caretakers and must share it with grace. Let the gardening begin!
Have I mentioned that my garden is open this May 1 from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm?! Do come, I really would like to meet everybody and share with you this piece of my heart.www.gardenconservancy.org/opendays

Orchard mice damage

Orchard mice damage


More damage by mice
Another photo of mice damage
Removing the old, apple tree.

Removing the old, apple tree.


The new resident.  A. canadensis 'Glenform'

The new resident.
A. canadensis ‘Glenform’


Hellebores in bloom

Hellebores in bloom


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar