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

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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.

Camassia

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.

Shobha

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

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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’!

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My own rendition

My own rendition

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar