To Lulu With Love

My friend Lulu has an amazing garden with a stellar view of the Hudson river. Set on the side of a
steep hill, it was a complete mess of overgrowth when she bought the land fifteen years ago. Six landscape designers shied away from helping her so she did it by herself. She has created a marvel. I’ll share more of her garden in the future but for now, I want to show you her impressive tree peony collection.

When Lulu sends out the call to come and see the tree peonies in the spring, one races to do so. It is a rare, ephemeral treat. True to Chinese tradition, the plants are protected from the heat of the sun by strategically placed umbrellas. The parasol shaded flowers look like Victorian women strolling the park eager to notice and be noticed. The scene is utterly charming. See for yourself.

Ladies and gentlemen, witness the Many Moods Of Lulu’s Tree Peonies:

Lulu

Lulu


The grand staircase

The grand staircase


The ladies and their parasols

The ladies and their parasols


A - 3
A - 4
Bashful

Bashful


Blushing

Blushing


Bold

Bold


Come hither

Come hither


Confident

Confident


Coquettish

Coquettish


Courageous

Courageous


Coy

Coy


Demure

Demure


Flirty

Flirty


Hesitant

Hesitant


Innocent

Innocent


Open

Open


Secretive

Secretive


Shameless

Shameless


Shy

Shy


Spent

Spent


Tired

Tired


Voluptuous

Voluptuous


Youthful

Youthful


Psst – I suspect there is a bit of all of those moods in Lulu herself!

(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer Of Bliss

With the solstice this past Saturday, summer is officially open. Happy Summer to all!
Much of the hard work in the garden is done. Its all maintenance now. Weeding and dead heading, judicious mowing and watering, harvesting. We’re in the sweet spot of the growing season. Just enough to do so we feel useful but not too much to feel sorry for ourselves. Getting into a rhythm with the upkeep, allows plenty of time to relax and enjoy the summer. You promised yourself that this year you were going to truly revel in the season didn’t you? I did. And I’m determined to stick with that plan.

My to-do approach: get to the garden early and finish chores in the cool hours of the day. Spread the work so only one task is required per day. Then spend the rest of the day doing whatever the heart desires.
True, other responsibilities like jobs, laundry, bills and the like will show up but with enough forethought, I intend to maximize on the free time.

I want to be sure I enjoy my days with fewer responsibilities – more art, poetry, reading, swimming, gathering with friends, staying barefoot, tracking the stars, eating ice cream, count butterflies by day and fireflies by starlight, laugh loudly, … everyday. Are you with me?

And, when autumn arrives, I want to plunge into it because I’ve had my fill of summer. No regrets.

Update on my Robin family:
Six weeks after the nest was built, the babies have flown away! I watched, I waited, I waxed eloquent and then, I waved goodbye to this beautiful event that I was privileged to witness. Took lots of picture. Here are a few:

Nest built in terrace chandelier

Nest built in terrace chandelier


Notice - outdoor dining has been shifted to outside the gazebo so nest is left in peace.

Notice – outdoor dining has been shifted to outside the gazebo so nest is left in peace.


Eggs laid

Eggs laid


Perfect location and timing - under the wisteria in bloom.

Perfect location and timing – under the wisteria in bloom.


Hungry mouths

Hungry mouths


Feeding time

Feeding time


Growing babies

Growing babies


And growing

And growing


And the wisteria grows as well.

And the wisteria grows as well.


Crowded nest

Crowded nest


And more crowded

And more crowded


Empty nest!

Empty nest!


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Closing Our Borders

Over the years, I’ve expressed my opinions and thoughts about increasing our usage of native plants, supporting native flora and fauna, being environmentally conscious in the garden and in general applying organic, ecologically responsible methods. I’ve often mentioned the name Douglas Tallamy as the authority on this subject. Having read his book Bringing Nature Home when it came out several years ago, followed his work and on occasion corresponded with him, it was with particular eagerness that I went to hear him speak at the Greenwich, CT Audubon Society a couple of weeks ago.

An unassuming, affable man, Tallamy is a powerhouse of knowledge and understanding of all things in the sphere of entomology and wildlife ecology. I’m summarizing his talk and I hope the information I give will make you sit up and do something.

Ecosystems perform locally. Biodiversity equals ecosystem services. We have degraded 60% of earth’s ecosystem services. Given that 80 – 90% of plants are propagated by animals not wind, we have effectively sterilized our neighborhoods. As Tallamy puts it, we have demonized it! We are living with ‘nature deficit disorder’. Plants literally allow all living things to eat sunlight. So when there are fewer plants, there is less to eat and therefore less support for all animals.

The United States is a human dominated ecosystem. We uphold our lawns as a major status symbol. To date, we boast 72, 500 square miles of suburban lawn. That is eight times the state of New Jersey! And growing. Given that lawns barely sustain any living creature, it stands to reason that we’re seriously impacting our local ecology. Simply thinking our parks and preserves can do the job is ridiculous. They are too small, fragmented and isolated. A contiguous space of diverse plantings is critical to support our birds and butterflies. With that will come all other valuable critters.

To do this, we must not only introduce many plants but we must select more native plants. This is because not all plants support the food web. Natives do. Whilst alien species aggressively replace natives, they support insects very poorly. Five times more insects (think caterpillars) can feed on native species. Native plants and insects share an evolutionary history. Indigenous insects are not adapted to eat alien plants. Take the Monarch butterfly for example – it depends on specific native plants and in a way, this specialization is its curse because with disappearing natural habitats, we are in danger of losing this valued butterfly. With fewer and fewer insects available, think what this will do to our native birds. 96 % of reproducing birds eat insects. Insects provide the high levels of protein and nutrients needed by these birds.

A world without insects is a world without biodiversity. Birds forage close to their nests. Alien plants will not provide them the local supply of the food web. We’ve come to view plants only for their beauty and not their ecological role. But if we understood the number of caterpillars or other insects supported by native trees and shrubs, we’d realize how imperative it is to plant them. We must create corridors connecting natural areas. This can be done easily if each of us filled our gardens with the right plants.

Lawns are biological deserts. They demand a high amount of fertilizers, weed and pest killers to keep our lawns pristine. Add to this the pollution created by gas powered mowers, water table contamination by use of aforementioned assorted chemicals and you have the ideal recipe for a green wasteland. Reduce the area of lawn and begin the transition from alien ornamentals to native ornamentals. Those all too familiar albeit pretty, Bradbury pears or crape myrtles lining our streets and dotting our front lawns do virtually nothing for sustaining the food web. How about replacing them with our own Amelanchiers or Cornus alternifolia? Create meadows, plant more native trees and shrubs, do away with as many ‘miracle’ products. ( To this I say –This is not hard people!)

With native plantings in place, we can set the calender by what is in bloom and what insects and birds are observed. We fill our lives with surprise, anticipation and entertainment. Just think, a mere fifteen minutes spent in nature each day has measurable medical benefits. It is within our power to make those minutes the most amazing ever.

Admittedly, it feels awfully good to have an authority such as Tallamy give credibility to my own all too frequent passionate calls to pay more attention and take more responsibility for protecting our natural environment. Lets just get to it shall we?

Please, please get yourself a copy of the recently updated and expanded Bringing Nature Home by Dr. Douglas Tallamy. I cannot recommend it enough.

This just in! I had alerted Dr. Tallamy on this post of mine and asked him for feedback. Here is his response “Hi Shobha,
Nice job! You were on the money complete. Nothing to add at this end. Thanks for your support.
Doug”

Swallowtail caterpillar

Swallowtail caterpillar


Red Admiral

Red Admiral


Tiger Swallowtail

Tiger Swallowtail


Great Spangled Fritiilary

Great Spangled Fritiilary


White Admiral

White Admiral


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

Go Tell It To The Birds!

]I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. ~John Muir (1838–1914)

Have you noticed that there is much going on in the avian world these days? Early morning chatter, frequent worm hunting sorties, nests in all sorts of places, noisy cheeps of constantly hungry babies – its absolutely delightful to watch their antics. An “Ivy-Leaved” education for a naturalist awaits.

Whilst very occupied with non-gardening projects this past week, I’ve been getting my down time at the end of each day by just sitting in the garden and observing the goings on. Even a few minutes at this has been enough to restore and refresh my mind. So I thought I’d encourage you to do the same. We could all use some daily soothing of nerves and spirit. Enjoy the world around you and let it do its magic.


The Nest

The nest from last summer
survived the harsh winter
Couched now amidst
awakening limbs of rose
it sits patiently, purposefully.

In the clear light
of the mid-morning sun
the sparrow alights
to look over this time tested
weather-honed, empty cradle.

Are there signs that say
ready-made housing
immediate occupancy
solid construction
impeccable neighborhood?

It matters not to the sparrow
that the robins lived here before
nor is there avian concern
for blockbusting practices
An empty house waits ready
offering equal opportunity
Sans gates, sans pretension.

I'm hungry!

I’m hungry!


Cardinal

Cardinal checking out the neighborhood at Paul’s Himalayan Musk


Cardinal nest amidst the limbs of Paul's Himalayan Musk.  I know its not a good picture but its the closest I could get to it without the thorns tearing into my skin.

Cardinal nest amidst the limbs of the rose Paul’s Himalayan Musk.
I know its not a good picture but its the closest I could get to it without the thorns tearing into my skin.


Wren's nest with eggs

Wren’s nest with eggs


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

How Does My Garden Grow?

Thus far its been a confusing spring. Late to start and lingeringly cold with the odd day of unseasonable heat, its been downright disorienting to me. It is not as though I’m averse to the new and unusual but, I do look forward to the reassuring rhythm of the seasons. The unfolding of the seasons is the backdrop to my activities. I like knowing what to expect when. Like lily-of-the-valley in early to mid May, early peonies and roses for Memorial Day, lilacs in bloom for Mothers Day, dogwoods for Fathers Day and so forth.

Not this year. Matters are a bit topsy-turvy. I didn’t mind that the tulips began a little late because they then lingered long enough to hangout with the alliums and camassias. But where were the baptisia and amsonia to bring their blues into the palette? The roses should be making their debut by now; so what happened? Meanwhile, the dogwoods in my neighborhood have long finished blooming. Its disconcerting to say the least. Even more bizarre was the firefly that flitted around inside my house last night. Out of place and time. This has me totally perplexed. As we confront climate change, there is certainly going to be much to adjust, discover and learn anew.

The one tree peony in my garden usually has top heavy flowers in early May. This year, its only just in bloom. Because they are weighty double petaled beauties, they hang down. The best way to gaze at their magnificence is to cut them and bring them indoors. The added bonus is that they have a spicy fragrance that greets me each time I pass them them by. Makes me pause and take notice which is just enough to remind me to breathe, relax my body and then carry on with the daily busy-ness. This plant , which I think is a Paeonia ‘Hakuo-Jisi or a ‘Souvenir de Maxime Cornu’, was a gift from Henriette Suhr of Rocky Hills. So its compelling call to literally “smell the peony” always reminds me of our cherished friendship.

A majority of the hydrangea did not leaf out on their stems as they normally do. Instead, leaves have emerged from the base of the shrub while the limbs have remained looking like dry sticks. I think the severe, long winter affected the stems but the roots were still strong. The new growth should come up nicely and all is not lost. I’ve cut back all the old, leafless stems. It’ll be interesting to see if these hydrangea bloom this year. I have sadly lost a few other shrubs that did not do as well as the hydrangea. If they will be replaced by the same type or something completely different is yet to be determined. I think a graceful period of mourning is in order.

The good news is that, for the most part, the plants are all coming up well. However slowly. The amsonia and baptisia are just beginning to display their moody blues. The roses have lots of buds so I’m guessing they will open in another week or so. The early peonies have begun their frothy show. And the clematis! They look particularly fetching this year. The alliums have lasted longer than usual in both the perennial beds as well as the meadow so, I cannot complain. There are even a couple of tulips still going strong – as though reluctant to leave the party.

The American wisteria is bud heavy and as always, I’m giddy with anticipation. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the weather does not heat up too soon. This would do in the buds and there’ll be a very sorry performance. No ticket reimbursement for this one.

I’m once again enjoying the pleasure of picking salad greens from the potager and serving up a delicious melange of lettuces, baby spinach, arugula and mustard greens with a sprinkling of chopped fennel and parsley. With toasted nuts, sliced strawberries, shavings of Parmesan and a balsamic dressing, its the perfect lunch to celebrate the season. Add a glass of crisp white and its a special event.

In the end, despite the not so normal pattern of growth in the garden, I’m learning to simply enjoy what unfolds. To be present for whatever reveals itself and learn to appreciate the new combinations of color that are really quite lovely. There is change afoot for sure. Perhaps its natures way of reminding me that She is the ultimate artist, gardener and teacher. I stand humbled.

Tulips with alliums

Tulips with alliums


Camassias in the mix

Camassias in the mix


Sea of blue in meadow

Sea of blue in meadow


Clematis

Clematis


Peony - Festiva maxima. Unfolding itself.

Peony – Festiva maxima.
Unfolding itself.


Clematis #2

Clematis #2


Buds in waiting. American wiisteria.

Buds in waiting. American wiisteria.


The frothy splendor of my tree peony.

The frothy splendor of my tree peony.


Amsonia awakening

Amsonia awakening


Baptisia just beginning to bloom

Baptisia just beginning to bloom


(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar