Fresh Perspective I

I take my garden very personally. How it performs is a direct reflection of me. True, weather plays a big part in the welfare of the garden but even there I feel bad if the garden suffers – I should somehow protect it no matter what. Disease or any type of pest invasion is my fault – I should have kept better vigilance and acted sooner. Sounds absurd I know but there you have it. Often, my feelings about the garden are quite like those parents have for their children. A relationship fraught with worry and guilt whilst loving passionately and unconditionally.

Just as parents are eager to show their children in the best possible light, I have an unreasonable desire to have the garden look spectacular at all times. It is simply not possible. There are periods of lull when not much is happening by way of flower power. The best one can do is keep up with weeding and other maintenance so the garden looks neat and cared for. In reality, to achieve that is in itself a pretty decent accomplishment. Because the weather, work and life events both big and small will thwart all your best laid plans and agendas. Invariably, when visitors to the garden arrive, the gardener will mention how much better the garden looked the previous week and/or will look stunning in the near future. Somehow, the gardener is hardly ever likely to say that the present moment is the best the garden has ever looked. We are simply too close to our creation to be honestly objective or detached enough to accept the present reality.

Yet, more often than not, the visitor views the garden differently and far more kindly. They are not likely to notice the odd weed or two, the floppy lily you haven’t got around to staking or that the roses need deadheading. Instead, the visitor is looking at the garden as a whole and will in all probability be quite taken with the charm of it all. And yet, the gardener will still only focus on the flaws and make excuses …

So, this past Saturday, I was given a gift that did my own harsh perspective of my garden a marvel of good. I got to see my garden through the eyes of artists. A true privilege.

A dozen watercolorists came up from New York City to spend the day painting in the garden. Some were themselves gardeners and others had no gardening experience but they all had keenly discerning eyes and distinct styles. Their oohs and aahs as they looked around my garden were instant ego boosts and at the end of the day, their artistic efforts showed me my garden in a wholly fresh, new light. They had observed with their artistic eyes details I thought nobody would notice and captured different areas in their own uniquely talented ways. The camaraderie and collective good spirits were empowering and uplifting.

It was all giddyingly exhilarating. I am humbled and yet, so terribly proud. Painting alongside these very talented artists, I too got the chance to see and appreciate my garden anew.

Enough said. The pictures below say it all:

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The output:

IMG_1809 IMG_1808  IMG_1801IMG_1797We even had live music!

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(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Call Maintenance!

Most of life is passed doing maintenance of some sort. We devote a good deal of our time maintaining relationships. Our bonds with family, friends, coworkers and all those who play some part in our day to day activities, must necessarily be kept strong. And we go to all sorts of lengths to do so. I imagine that on any given day, at least a third of my wakening hours are given over to connecting, communicating and commiserating with people. That is a chunk of time and effort!

We are obliged to maintain our health. How and what we eat, how much we exercise or stay active, what we do for recreation, our spiritual practices, regular physicals, dental check ups and age appropriate tests – are all integral to keeping ourselves in good fighting shape. After all, some days it feels like a war zone out there.

Apart from other activities, I try to walk a few miles each week day. While I enjoy the cooler temperatures in the early hours of the summer days, observing the birds and gardens I pass by and, often get inspiration for my poetry or painting, my underlying motivation to get myself out of a very comfortable bed at what feels like an ungodly hour, is that need to keep this body in some sort of decent health.

Our homes seem to be in a never ending state of requiring maintenance. From something simple like replacing a fused light bulb to a regular dusting and vacuuming all around to needing a new appliance to repainting a room, there is always something that needs tending.

This past week alone, in my house, some bathroom tiles were replaced, a sticky door got unstuck, the furnace was serviced, water filters replaced and I haven’t yet mentioned laundry, dish washing or daily tidy up!

We keep up with finances, archiving photos, stocking the pantry, servicing the car and a myriad other matters. It can often feel like an endless conveyor belt of must-dos.

The garden is no exception. While we wax eloquent on the plants and their blooms, most garden work is all about upkeep. We mend or replace paths, fences and steps. Thin out plants that are overcrowding the beds. Staying on top of weeding, watering, staking, mowing, deadheading, composting and keeping a sustained vigilance for pests or disease are all how we keep the garden healthy and bountiful.

The frequent rains we’ve had has translated into a greater number of weeds popping up so that task demands some extra time. Likewise, the jewel-weed that seems to want to take over the meadow needed to be thinned out aggressively. It belongs here for sure but only as a part of the whole.

All of a sudden this year, the David Austin rose ‘Heritage’ put out deep red flowers in addition to its usual pale pink ones. On closer examination, I determined that the red roses were from a stem emerging from the root stock. I assume with the passage of time and water over the many years it has been in the garden, the soil has been washed away to expose more of the area below the graft line. Seeing the light of day triggered that area to start doing what it is biologically programmed to do. Since I really only want the Heritage roses, I must now cut off the limb growing from the root stock and cover it up properly with soil so it goes back to being quiet and invisible.

When one steps back and assesses all that needs doing to maintain ourselves and our lifestyles it can seems there is no time to simply smell the coffee and/or roses. But just pause with me here. Maintaining is what its all about. With all the curve balls life can toss around and create havoc, we should be so lucky that we can just focus on taking care of what matters most to us.

Note: my art show at the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library is on till the end of this month.

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David Austin Heritage rose and the red rootstock rose

David Austin Heritage rose and the red rootstock rose

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Meadow after thinning out the jewel-weed

Meadow after thinning out the jewel-weed

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Wall garden right now

Wall garden right now

Leafy greens doing well

Leafy greens doing well

Bonica roses - a gift from Henriette Suhr many years ago

Bonica roses – a gift from Henriette Suhr many years ago

Oak-leaf hydrangea beginning to bloom

Oak-leaf hydrangea beginning to bloom

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Face To Face Time

In the course of puttering around the garden for the better part of my life, I’ve come to recognize and understand a fair number of plants. To identify, know their peccadilloes and get along with them is continuously reassuring and interesting. I’ve learned those that are a tad more needy, the independent plants that prefer to be left alone, the quirky ones that like wet feet and hot heads, which ones are fussy and which are hardy and reliable.

But just like the people we encounter in our lives, we learn more and more by spending one on one time with them. What we glean can often astonish and impress. Even the plainest person/plant emerges as one with qualities of depth and interest that our opinions can be changed completely.

My penchant for painting the residents of my garden offers me exactly such an opportunity. Examining them up and close gives me pause to admire the attributes of those who never get the spotlight. We recognize easily the divas – roses, peonies, irises, sunflowers, poppies, dahlias …. but, a garden would be severely impoverished without the likes of columbines, hellebores, campanulas, lavenders, sweet woodruff, penstemons, epimediums and so many, many others. The supporting cast of plants is well worth appraising.

Too often, we are dazzled by the stars and fail to notice those who hold them up so they can shine. The fact is, we each have a role and must be given the chance to play them. No part is too small because the entire ensemble is needed to make a good performance.

While I’m awed by the beauty of the heroines of the garden, I am often struck by the quiet grace of a plant that is repeatedly dismissed as ordinary. As if years of gardening hadn’t already shown me the impressive power of nature, I’m continually amazed when I take brush to canvas or pen to paper. Looking closely reveals unparalleled virtues.

Perhaps we should do more of the same with people. It might well be the only way we can learn to get along.

I present to you my watercolor renderings of some of the more self-effacing lovelies in my garden:

Hellebore

Hellebore

Aster

Aster

Cimicifuga

Cimicifuga

Lavender

Lavender

Frittilaria meleagris

Frittilaria meleagris

Aqualegia canadensis

Aqualegia canadensis

Apple blossom

Apple blossom

Iphion

Iphion

Forsythia

Forsythia

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Changing Climates, Changing Calendars

Unless you’ve been doing time in solitary confinement in an underground bunker, the term ‘climate change’ has been the mainstay in almost all conversations this past week. Agree or not, it is worth mentioning that the global scientific community at large and ones who study the climate in particular are in consensus that the climate is not only changing but human activity has had a detrimental impact on it.

Climate change is a highly complex subject with innumerable moving parts. This makes it really difficult to understand by most minds. In addition, it is an evolving subject and consequently, there are gaps in the data. Unfortunately, these gaps are exploited by those who are inclined to deny climate change. Given the complexity of this topic, does it not behoove us to believe and trust the scientists who know so much about it? After all, if we can accept the super-complicated science in cancer research and treatment, why are we doubting their word on climate change?

Whatever one thinks, lets simply get into the garden and consider phenology. This is the science dealing with periodic biological events that are influenced by weather and climate. In other words, it is the scientific observations of changes in plants and animals to weather or climate events causing them. In the case of plants, the significant stages of its life (phenophases) such as nascence, flowering, fruiting, senescence are studied. Phenology is more colloqually called nature’s calendar.

As gardeners, we are amateur scientists of sorts. Foot soldiers so to speak. We plan for and note all the goings on in the garden. We are aware of drought conditions, excess rain, prolonged heat or cold, sudden or extreme fluctuations in temperature, a scarcity in bees or a population explosion in chipmunks. And as a result of such occurrences, we note how our plants have responded. Last spring, it warmed up slowly, the apple blossoms emerged and then it got really cold so no bees showed up. This lack of bees resulted in poor pollination and hence a lack of fruits.

This year, spring blew warm and cold so the lilacs bloomed early. Meanwhile, mid to late May bloomers like my peonies, baptisia, roses, amsonia and several other plants are only just beginning to flower. A three day blast of summer like heat in early May, hastened the alliums – the early and late flowering types all burst open together. While this loud chorus of color looked stunning, the length of the concert itself was abbreviated.

This past winter was so mild that we are now confronted with an impressive increase in the populations of ticks, chipmunks, rats, mice and other annoyances. Yet, the cooler than usual spring has contained the number of bees and butterflies. Normally, the garden is humming with their activity at this time.

The life cycles of plants and animals are inter-related. Planting and/or flowering times coincide with the emergence of pollinators. Insect problems often occur at specific stages of a plant’s life. When exactly we feed, protect or treat our plants for disease is an application of phenology. What practices and tools we use has impact on the plant and animal populations.

Working with nature allows one to see up close how intimately connected we, as in all biological forms, are to the weather and climate. We cannot ignore the inconsistencies in the climate today. The normal phenophases by which a gardener tracks the garden’s progress get moved back or forward by the vagaries of weather/climate. If you typically plant tomatoes when the dogwoods flower signaling that the threat of frost has passed, then what happens if the latter flowers early? Risk it?

Phenology itself is now being used as an indicator of climate change. It stands to reason that every gardener applies it as he/she goes about working in the garden. The question now is this – are we or are we not going to do right by the world?

I, for one, acknowledge that my choices and life style has impact on my environment. Collectively, we affect the globe. So, I will start with my number one credo – Do No Harm. And that means, being mindful, thoughtful, respectful and considerate in all my actions. This will include those that I do not enjoy or ones I oppose – from invasive plants to pests to people. I realize in many instances it will not be easy. But I’m willing to meet the challenge. Are you?

[To learn more about phenology, look up the USA National Phenological Network at usanpn.org/  ]

Note: All of this month, I have a solo show of my watercolors at the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library in North Salem, NY. I hope you will take time to go visit. Thanks!

The images below are of some of my efforts to do right by my neck of the woods:

Aquilegia canadensis in the meadow

Aquilegia canadensis in the meadow

Tiarella

Tiarella cordifolia

Cheloni lyoni - pink turtlehead

Cheloni lyoni – pink turtlehead

White and blue cammasia

White and blue cammasia

Oak leaf hydrangea

Oak leaf hydrangea

Anemone canadensis

Anemone canadensis

American robin babies in the apple espalier

American robin babies in the apple espalier

In the meadow - a melange of bulbs and native plants

In the meadow – a melange of bulbs and native plants

Amsonia

Amsonia

Native wisteria

Native wisteria

The rain barrel

The rain barrel

The vertical garden - a brilliant way to keep the building cool in summer. Water for plants is recirculated.

The vertical garden – a brilliant way to keep the building cool in summer. Water for plants is recirculated.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar