Homecoming

Traveling makes one modest: one sees what a tiny place one occupies in the world.”

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1830-1857

It feels good to be back home. Refreshed from my travels, I’m eager to get back in the garden. Returning after an absence always makes me approach it with some trepidation. What if something has gone terribly wrong? is a thought that hits me every single time. Thankfully, all is well. Sure the weeds have made merry, the beds are a bit messy with some plants calling it it quits for the season and, the tiny lawn is in need of a trim but in general, it’s all par for the course. The garden is transitioning into autumn.

I’d been concerned that the hummingbird feeder would run empty and thereby the birds would be denied their regular supply but it’s perplexing that after a whole two weeks, the feeder is still a third full. Have the hummingbirds moved on already? I sincerely hope nothing untoward has happened to them. I must look into understanding this before I’m consumed with worry.

The figs tree was heavy with ripe fruit that were enjoyed right away. In fact, the enthusiasm over the splendid harvest made me forget to take a photograph before they disappeared. You just have to take my word for it. The tomatoes are still going strong and I’m getting ready to make sauce for canning.

The asters are just starting to bloom and I think they’re a bit late. Usually, they’re in full swing by now. I’d actually thought I might be late to the show. The vertical garden is having its moment – looking lush and full just as so much else is waning.

The turtleheads in the meadow are growing strong. I love how dependable they are. I’ve come to the realization that the flowers of the oak-leaved hydrangea (H. quercifolia) do not last as long into fall as the my other hydrangea(H. paniculata). The former already look crisp and brown while the latter have moved from white to that soft blush that I so adore. However, the leaves of the oak-leaved have the added bonus of changing color so, I’m looking forward to that display.

All the Concord grapes have either dropped too early or the robins that nest amidst the vine have got to the fruits first. No jelly this year. So be it. Postscript -just last night I discovered that the gardeners at Hortus Arboretum and Botanical Gardens use ordinary paper lunch bags to protect their grapes. Somehow, these humble bags even survive the rain! I’ll be trying that next year.

No apples or pears either. Just as the fruit trees were in beautiful bloom in the spring, a very cold spell hit and the pollinators stayed home. The flowers spent themselves out soon after. First hand lessons in the garden. The leaves of the apples dropped off by early August and I saw that the trees at Stonecrop gardens had a similar problem but those still bore some ripening apples so, I’m a bit envious. I can only assume that the very hot months of summer took a toll and the leaves fell early.

Even in his most artificial creations, nature is the material upon which man has to work.”

— Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

It’s been a really weird summer season this year – much too hot with spells of either too much rain or complete lack thereof. Perhaps this will be the new normal and we will have to adjust what and how we garden. I’m trying to keep pace. This is after all, our future. That has to concern everyone.

In a month, I’ll be cutting and tidying in preparation for the winter. Hundreds of bulbs ordered earlier in summer will also arrive at that time for fall planting.

As the sun sets earlier and earlier, I’m determined to enjoy every available hour of daylight before I get caught up in all the busy-ness. All too soon, it’ll be winter and I want to be warmed by that sense of smugness that I had a good time while I could.

Note: I invite you to come to the “Restoring Historic Gardens” Symposium at Untermyer Gardens on Saturday October 19, 2019. I’m excited to be moderating the panel discussion that will follow after the three speakers share experiences with their respective historic gardens.

The “Walk In Our Shoes” exhibit is on till September 30. Hope you will visit this wonderful art show.

Turtleheads in the meadow
Hydrangea paniculata
Crispy flowers of the oak-leaved hydrangea
The leaves of the oak-leaved slowly changing color
Cardinal flowers still doing well
The wall
Tomatoes in the greenhouse
Figs ripening
Hot!
Pretty

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Balancing Act

For the past ten days, I’ve been enjoying down time on the barrier islands of Chincoteague and Assateague off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. It has been part of the quest for balance in life. When we plan a getaway or vacation, it is that need to counteract the everyday demands of work and other responsibilities. An opportunity to press the reset button so we maintain an even keel and thus keep perspective of what truly matters. Nothing quite as effective as a healthy dose of nature to do the job.

It is heart-achingly beautiful here. Known primarily for the wild ponies that inhabit them, these islands are the last remaining undeveloped outer banks. And remain they shall, thanks to the designation of being a National Seashore/Wildlife Refuge under the National Park Services. Like all our other National Parks, they are priceless national treasures.

It’s a fragile, ever-changing ecosystem here. Between the waves and winds of the mighty and temperamental Atlantic Ocean, the terrain,flora and fauna are in constant flux. New ‘islands’ are built, old ones shrink or grow, shorelines shift, the resilient wildlife adapt and somehow, an equilibrium is maintained. Retreating dunes mark the island’s westward move and as the water in the bays rise in response to rising ocean water, the coastlines are redrawn. New habitats are created and old ones re-adapted. Plants and animals adjust to these changes. Rich in aquatic life, the bays provide a vital ecosystem. The salt marshes, defined by the ebb and flow of the tides are yet another complex, vital ecosystem in themselves. The plants that thrive in salt marshes may be few but they shelter a diverse number of wildlife. The dunes and upper beaches are in constant motion and support a different variety of plants and animals.

Even as eel grass is tossed up by storm surges, it is turned into a substrate that enriches the soil in the marshes. Ribbed mussels have a relationship with the long water roots of salt grasses found along the edges of the marshy islands. Egrets ride on the horses to see what choice morsels they might reveal as they plod around and disturb the wet land. In turn, they help the horses by dealing with the biting insects so prevalent here. The horses feed on the salty grasses and also the poison ivy – I found that latter item quite interesting.

In an ideal situation, these parts would manage fine and life would play out naturally. It’s a real gift that we humans get to visit and observe. But yet, we manage to upset the balance. Despite all the cautions and advice from the park rangers, people often try to get too close to the horses ( selfies!) or try feeding them. The horses, as a result can get too familiar with our presence and come to expect treats to supplement their diet. These are wild animals with strong teeth and legs – their bites and kicks are fearsome. Getting too close or goading them has unfortunate consequences for man and horse. Why oh why can we not stay away from our own worst habits?!

We got very lucky with Hurricane Dorian last week. A harmless tropical storm was all we experienced. Two windy days of which one was rainy. Some localized flooding but nothing problematic. I imagine this was however, a more serious threat for the wildlife as they were deprived of their regular feeding forays and had to seek shelter to wait out the weather. For me, it was enough to be made acutely aware of how fragile life is and how much we take it for granted.

When I return home shortly, I plan to carry this awareness in my heart and strive harder to stay centered, as always, taking my cues from nature in maintaining a balance.

P.S- I also plan to increase my annual contribution to the National Parks. In recent times they have seen major budget cuts. This is nothing short of a crisis of tremendous proportion with far-reaching consequences. I beseech every single one of you to do your part in preserving our national treasure – this beautiful, majestic land of mountains and plains, lakes, rivers and coasts that we call home.

See the images below for a glimpse of Assateague/Chicoteague beauty.

Note: I’m participating in this show. I hope you will see it.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Labor-less Days

I don’t care what anybody says, summer is still three weeks from being over. There’s plenty of time to sip and savor. Sunsets to watch, fruits and vegetables to pick and eat fresh, siestas to take in the hammock, barefoot morning strolls around the dew-drenched garden, al fresco meals to be had … summer is a state of mind.

Having recently returned from a trip overseas, I did go through a bout of whipping the garden into some order. Nothing drastic. Just to have it look sufficiently fetching and looked after. Apart from the ongoing tasks of weeding and watering, this is the window to loll about before the fall frenzy begins.

While others are in the back-to-school mode and getting their own schedules and agendas in order, I take this opportunity to extend my summer bliss. There are still books to be read and friends to catch up with.

Certainly, the signs of fall are there. The sun sets earlier, leaves are slowly turning, apples are beginning to blush and there is that barest hint of cooler days approaching. All of that notwithstanding, I see the turtleheads coming into full bloom, the Joe Pyes are abuzz and aflutter with pollinators, the phlox is saturating the garden in perfume, the cardinal flowers are beacons for hummingbirds and there are yet tomatoes ripening on the vine for summer salads and sandwiches.

For now, I leave you with my stubborn hold on summer –

I’m Taking Summer With Me

I’m taking Summer with me

into frost woven days of Fall

through Winter’s frozen pall

I’ll shine on frigid faces

throw color in all the places

blow soft kisses to dry ice drop tears

bring sunny warmth and spread good cheer

When darkness creeps in early

and moods get bad and surly

I’ll eclipse away the gloomy night

with blazing fires and candle light

For the season when nothing grows

I’ll force bulbs to spite the snows

Spring shall arrive before it’s time

so Summer will follow in all her prime.

Shobha Vanchiswar

Hummingbird at the Cardinal flowers
Turtleheads

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Back In The Garden

The weather this past weekend was nothing short of stellar. It could not be beat. Bright and sparkly, low humidity, temperatures in the low 70’s. After two weeks in rain soaked Mumbai, this was quite literally a breath of fresh air. What an amazing homecoming.

Taking advantage of this gift, I visited Stonecrop Gardens in Cold Spring, NY on Saturday. If you’ve never been, you must. It was Frank Cabot’s home – yes, the man who helped found the Garden Conservancy. You can read all about this garden on their website. It’s quite a gem.

Summer’s end is not typically the best time to visit most gardens. But I was in need of it. Inspiration is always to be found and I was not disappointed. Big splashes of summer color and a seasonal untidiness abounded. I loved the fullness of the plantings everywhere. The realities of the season made apparent by burgeoning seed-heads, flamboyant flowers, plants jostling for space in their beds and a certain wildness to it all. This was Life at full throttle. In contrast, the verdant quietude found in the wisteria pavilion by the pond provided that pause to breathe deeply and free the mind from quotidian worries.

In walking around, I realized that the high point for me, was the general end-of-season mess and the sight of the ravaged leaves of kale and other plants. Critter(s) had gone to town and riddled the leaves so they looked like badly made lace antimacassars. I found that very comforting because it made me feel like my own garden was in good company. This is the reality. If you’re using organic methods, one cannot have a pristine, near perfect, neat and tidy garden at the close of the summer. Given the strange spring and summer we have had, it’s been particularly difficult to manage the garden as one has in years past. Weather fluctuations have been so erratic that my expectations were lowered sufficiently to protect my ego from too much injury.

By observing how lovely Stonecrop looked despite everything made me see my own garden with kinder eyes and appreciation.

Energized by that visit, on Sunday, I whipped the garden into better shape. A little cosmetic fiddling goes a long way. Weeding, deadheading, pruning and a general tidying up did wonders. I revamped the window-boxes and other urns and pots with a bit of tropical flair that I can only explain as the influence of my recent sojourn to India. Traveling has that impact doesn’t it?

And now, I’m set to enjoy the remaining weeks of summer with renewed enthusiasm. Salut!

Chilies in the window boxes
Pruned back espalier
Last rose(s) of summer?
Lemons
Note the banana plants standing sentry
New batch of cool weather greens
The meadow
Pink turtleheads in the meadow
Party ready

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Water, Water!

Water is in the news quite a bit these days. Too little or none at all. Too much, too soon is just as bad. Certainly this is predicted to be the biggest, most critical problem we will have to resolve in the not too distant future. Water will direct the next mass migrations of humans as they are forced to adapt to the changing weather patterns – a result of both natural and man-made acts. As a global community we will have to decide right now how we will deal with shifting populations/refugees, how we grow our food, utilize energy, reprogram our use of water and indeed our entire way of living. While government agencies and related organizations grapple with the big picture, if one has not personally begun taking steps towards this impending crisis, it is now time to start. As of this minute. I’m not being an alarmist – the snooze button to that alarm has been hit way too often already.

I’m writing this during a ten day stay in monsoon swamped Mumbai. It is wet, warm and muggy. The air feels spongy even when it isn’t raining. The dampness pervades everywhere. Without air-conditioning to lower the humidity, I’d be hard pressed to be comfortable and sleep would be impossible. This has been a particularly heavy monsoon season.

Despite so much rain, the city is still aware of the undependable nature of its water supply. It has signs all over asking her citizens to conserve, avoid waste and respect this life giving Adam’s Ale. And that got me wondering if those signs have any real impact on the mass. Does one read and/or pay attention to such ‘nudges’? As one drives through the generally thick traffic, is the mind even open to receiving any such advice? It then occurred to me that it was because of the stop and start, slow moving, thick traffic snaking along that I was able to notice the signs and ponder them. A seed, so to speak, had been sown. I can only imagine that a daily dose of ‘Don’t Waste Water’, ‘No Water, No Life’ will percolate into one’s conscience and guide the mind to the judicious use of water. Not a bad idea to have those signs put up after all. They certainly cannot hurt.

In my own garden back home, I’ve long collected rainwater to water parts of the garden. Particularly pots. To ensure that the plants do not get parched when we’re away or otherwise distracted, we have also rigged up a drip-system to routinely water the pots as some of the plants require a consistent supply. The mechanism is attached to a moisture sensor so that it will not release water if it has rained or is raining. That way, no water is unduly wasted.

Water from cooking eggs, boiling vegetables etc is also collected for watering. Often the boiling hot water is poured directly over the weeds trying to make their way through brick or flagstone paths. Kills the weeds effectively.

Still, in a particularly dry period when rain is scarce, there are areas in the garden that need a healthy splash. Thus far, it’s been okay but I worry that the time when watering our gardens whenever we see a need is coming to a close. There will be a need to shift to plants that do better in semi-dry or arid conditions. Fussy plants will have to be phased out.

It feels a bit sad. But, we gardeners are a resilient species. We will adapt. Indeed, we can lead the way. I for one have resolved to source interesting/beautiful native plants that do well under dry conditions and start introducing them into the garden. The process will be deliberate, mindful and with any luck, enjoyable. Learning is growth.

Postscript: Of the many drinks I have consumed in the many places I’ve stopped at ( fancy as well as hole-in-the-wall joints), I have not seen a single plastic straw. The only straws I’ve been served have been compostable. Often, they are elegant, colorful, sturdily constructed paper. This is what progress looks like.

Note: There’s still time to see the Inside Small art show!

Heads Up! The second annual Untermyer Symposium is scheduled for Saturday, October 19. Mark your calendars. I will be moderating the panel discussion. Stay tuned for more details.

Some images from Mumbai –

Plants for sale!
Decorative designs using flower petals, whole flowers and leaves,

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer Joy

It’s the lazy days of summer. I hope you’re making the most of the season. They will become the memories that’ll get you through the dark, cold days of winter. Ignore the to-do list and savor the pleasures of summer.

Summer Nights

Wrapped in the thick air

heavy with heat

laden with moist

Watching fireflies

mimic the stars

against black velvet

Serenaded boldly

by tree frogs

and crickets

Fanned from on high

wings of bats

on purposeful sorties

While night moths

answer service calls

of moonflowers

and gardenias

Spicy notes of phlox

rise with the night

perfumed with clove,

oil of bergamot

essence of rose

Lulled into

well being

content to remain

Greet the dew

of a new day.

– Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer Dive

Sunlight spills

brilliant diamonds

blinding ripples

shimmering winks

sliced apart

by summer’s first dive.

-Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer Joy

Summer spreads wide

a picnic blanket

of meadow flowers and green, green grass

For legs to brush against

bodies to lie back

To gaze upon

lofty images of dogs and bears and hunting giants

From dazzling day to evening glitter

Dew gathers to mist

sun-warmed faces and naked toes

Summer seems

like an endless ride

filled with ice-cream cones and fireflies

Of water fights and watermelon wedges

children’s laughter intoxicated

on improbable tales

An ephemeral age, an ephemeral time

summer passes overnight.

– Shobha Vanchiswar

Note: The Small Works exhibit is on through August. Do make time to see it!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Freedom

Liberty is the freedom to do as one ought to do. I learned this definition in fifth grade civics class – it was how we started to understand what democracy meant.

A cornerstone of a thriving civilization, freedom is all about having choices. So one can chose their actions bearing in mind one’s moral responsibility. To choose to act after discerning between right and wrong, good and evil. To do what is ethically correct for the greater good.

Keeping that in mind, I take this power very seriously. Especially in the garden where all too often a gardener is inclined to play lord and master. It’s so easy. We have at our disposal so much control and power that all too often we forget that gardening is a privilege. The very notion that I can assume ownership of a piece of earth to do as I please is astounding. Arrogant even.

While I often kid that I’m the dictator-in-chief of the garden, in reality, I feel my responsibility greatly. I’m allowed to freely design, create and play in a this space in whatever way I please. Within good reason. And that is the key. To use good reason.

My principle commandment is to do no harm. Whatever action taken must have the least negative impact – on humans, animals, plants, soil, water or air. On that basis, only organic methods are employed. But, trying to control pests organically is not without cost. These natural products are not specific to the pest. They affect the good critters as well. So judicious application is imperative.

Compost is used as fertilizer and mulch. The plants enjoy it. As do members of the animal kingdom. They too thrive because they are not harmed by compost and hence roam free and make nests and homes underground and above, destroying root systems, chomping on leaves and flowers, girdling trees, ruining lawns with tunnels and burrows etc., Constant vigilance is required so action can be taken as soon as possible. Japanese beetles, red lily beetles and such are picked off and dropped into hot, soapy water. After years of battling those red devils, I’ve stopped planting lilies but since I still grow fritillaria ( their close relative), I must continue to keep a lookout. Mice, voles and other rodents are trapped. The fruit trees must be sprayed with dormant oil only under specific weather conditions and at a particular time of year. You get the idea. It’s not always easy to do the right thing.

Rain water is collected, a manual reel- mower cuts grass, since no herbicides are used, weeds are removed by hand, native plants dominate the garden and support native fauna and so on. Every one of those methods involves more work and effort. And there are times when I’m completely frustrated. However, my conscience is clear. I’m doing my part in exercising my freedom as I ought.

This translates very well to everything else in life. Relationships, raising children, at work, being a part of the community, a town, a city, a country, the world at large. Imagine how powerful exercising our liberties as we should can be.

Note: The reception to Small Works is this Thursday, August 8. I’d love to see you there!

A few images of the challenges in the garden:

Mice attack on the espalier.
Fully girdled trees were lost and had to be replaced.
Sanguisorba attacked by Japanese beetles

Subsequent damage
Evidence of voles under the front lawn
Lily’s under siege

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Just July

Our house is taken in possession

By him, while he enjoys a rest

July, with summer air and thunder-

He is our temporary guest.

July, who scatters from his pockets

The fluff of blow-balls in a cloud,

Who enters through the open window,

Who chatters to himself aloud,

Unkempt, untidy, absent-minded,

Soaked through with smell of oil and rye,

With linden-blossom, grass and beet-leaves,

The meadow-scented month July.”

‘July’ by Boris Pasternak

July is coming to a close and what a month it has been in the garden. Hot, messy and erratic. That poem by Pasternak describes it so well.

Dictated by the weather, I’ve been negligent of my garden duties. It’s just really hard to get outside and work when merely standing still brings on the sweat and sends out irresistible invites to all the biting bugs near and far. Consequently, the chores get done in fits and starts, bits and pieces. A little weeding here, some deadheading there. The automatic watering system set up for the pots broke down and needed fixing – mercifully, the preceding days had been wet so the plants were relatively unharmed.

The heat wave put paid to the plants in the pots on the wall on the side terrace. Despite the daily watering, they simply could not take those high temperatures. I’ve decided to empty out the pots and not replant. With a very busy August schedule coming up, it’s time to simplify matters somewhat.

They say this June was the hottest one in recent history and July is turning out to match it. Who knows what August will do.

Sunflowers have appeared as happy surprises in one of the large bay standard pots. A lone sunflower grew in the vertical garden. I’d stopped planting lilies a few years ago because I lost the battle with the red lily beetles. Well, as though waking up after a long slumber, a couple of lily plants re-emerged this summer. Their leaves are ugly and chewed up but the flowers look fine and are busy perfuming the front garden.

The garden might look a bit unruly but it is fragrance heaven. Lilies in front soon to be followed by phlox, gardenias and orange-blossoms on the side and jasmine in the back. Heaven.

The meadow has been in serious need of attention. First, the jewelweed took advantage of my apathy and spread itself all over. Once they were deliberately reduced to more manageable numbers, a nettle of the sting-less variety moved in with a vengeance. It needs to be completely and ruthlessly removed all together. It’s been a real task trying to help the many new plants planted in late spring establish themselves. Fingers crossed …

The hydrangea are in bloom – they provide much needed color in the meadow right now. Elsewhere, the Echinacea in their brightness are drawing the pollinators. I really ought to plant more of these stalwarts and get rid of the fussy, finicky members of the garden. With harsh weather becoming the new normal, it behooves a gardener to rethink the plantings.

Tomato season has begun. We’re enjoying the golden cherry tomatoes and savoring the bigger varieties as they ripen. At this stage, each fruit is precious. Soon, there will be a glut and we’ll take them for granted as we make soups, salads and sauces.

It’s so easy to obsess over the disheveled state of the garden, complain about the heat in July. But, looking around, amidst the green jungle, I see heroic flowers splashing color and fragrance all over. The herbs, leafy greens and, early tomatoes grace our meals. Ripening grapes and pears hold the promise of an autumn harvest. The asters are coming up strong for a good showing to close out the summer.

Under stressful circumstances, the garden is working hard to deliver. I must move to do the same.

Note: Consider yourself invited –

My July garden –

Lilies. Note the hole-riddled leaves.
Echinacea
Late blooming clematis
Pears
Figs
Jasmine
The vertical garden with renegade sunflower
Sunflower surprise
Agapanthus
The meadow before the serious weeding happened.
Tomatoes
A harvest

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Scaling Labyrinths

The word labyrinth comes from the Greek labyrinthos and describes any maze-like structure with a single path through it which differentiates it from an actual maze which may have multiple paths intricately linked.

Labyrinths and labyrinthine symbols have been dated to the Neolithic Age in diverse regions across the globe. They continue playing a role in modern times.

My love affair with labyrinths began at childhood. The mystery books I devoured often featured a labyrinth or maze to offer riddles and clues in ways I now realize might have been a tad bit romanticized. Over the years, while mazes remain fun and exciting in a ‘hide-and-seek’ meets treasure-hunting sort of way, labyrinths have taken on a more meaningful, sacred role. To me, mazes get you to focus exclusively on the task of finding ones way to the center and then making the return trip to get out, thereby providing a complete distraction which can be refreshing and exhilarating. Getting lost and/or confused is all part of the experience.

In traversing a labyrinth, one can ostensibly see its entire design. The center is visible at all times. Where one is trying to get to is apparent. How to do so is not as clear. It’s only by mindful walking, taking in all the turns and switchbacks, that an individual makes it to the center – itself a site for rest and reflection. Labyrinths are not meant to be challenging. Instead they gently guide the walker to move through at an easy pace whilst permitting him/her to observe, think and center the mind. In doing so, by the time one reaches the labyrinth’s center, the mind has shed itself of all other distractions and arrives prepared for deeper meditation.
In perfect silence, a well laid labyrinth teaches life lessons to all who walk it. Like the best of therapists it has us work out all our issues by ourselves.

A labyrinth sits there as a ready escape from chaos, a world gone mad, to find once again one’s true north. Typically set outdoors, it partners beautifully with nature to calm the mind and heart by purposefully removing the walker from the normal, linear understanding of time and direction. Slowly, the outside world recedes and one becomes aware of the world within ourselves. How we are feeling, what we hope for, the conflicting thoughts, the elusive solutions rise up and get understood. This active meditation leads to the deep meditation awaiting at the center. Sitting in quiet, breathing deeply and surrendering all diversionary thoughts gives one the gift of emerging clear headed and relaxed. Ready to face with clarity and acceptance that complex, noisy world we live in.

I’ve always longed to design a labyrinth. A good labyrinth has an ideal size. Too small and it fails to decompress the mind because the center is reached too quickly. Too big and it can get tedious. The amount of walking and turning must be just right. Even the width of the path must be correct – not too narrow and constricting or too wide and spacious. Creating an ideal labyrinth is not as easy as it might seem. Scale is key.
Making paths of grass or mulch bordered by stones, low growing plants or any other natural material keeps the cost quite low. The simpler the better. Yet, an ideal design and layout is a call for creativity.

The only part of my garden that could support a proper labyrinth would be where the meadow lies. However, this area is sloped and uneven and must not be leveled for reasons of water drainage and run-off. I’m thus resigned to not having this feature of my own.

Last Sunday, I was taken to an absolutely lovely labyrinth at the Priory in Weston, Vermont. Sited on an open, flat space laid with paths of grass outlined by single lines of brick set in the ground, it is beautifully simple. The size is perfect and the design takes you just long enough to get to the inviting seats in the center. Beyond the labyrinth is a vast, open meadow full of native grasses and wild flowers. Birds, butterflies, bees and other critters abound. Feeling vulnerable and humble, I walked with the sounds of nature keeping me company. The sun was bright and a light breeze kept me from getting too warm. Seated in the center, as I came out of my reflections empowered and reaffirmed, I observed the meadow with the swaying grasses woven through with seasonal blooms of milkweed, daisies, black-eyed Susans and other flowers, above them, swallowtail butterflies played tag with each other – it all seemed so tranquil despite the obvious activity going on. The whole scene serving as a reminder that “creativity flows from a quiet mind”.
As a flight of goldfinches rose up from within this meadow and made their separate ways, I too got up and purposefully followed the path to take me back to my awaiting world. Just as I left the labyrinth the priory bell was rung calling all to prayer and morning service. I did not join – I had after all just completed my worship.

The labyrinth in Weston, Vermont
The meadow beyond.
Notice the swallowtail on the milkweed at center lower half?!
A labyrinth I visited in Cape Cod some years ago. Set amidst tall trees, it gives the sense of being in a cathedral.
A labyrinth in upstate New York

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Slow Dancing With Summer

It’s July. Fireworks, fireflies, picnics, barbecues, beaches and books. In addition, for me, mosquitoes, mojitos, air-conditioning, heat, humidity and guilt. I have very mixed feelings about summer.

The light filled days promise endless hours of outdoor pleasures and the nights punctuated with bursts of firefly light and the fragrance of summer phlox and gardenias bewitch and yet, I find myself banished indoors for a good portion of the day seeking solace in air-conditioned rooms redolent with gardenia in budvases and rose-geranium infused lemonade. During the day, prone to migraines triggered by the heat and humidity, I succumb easily to those conditions. At night, the mosquitoes turn out in full force making it near impossible to sit without itching and scratching. I’m loathe to reach out for the only truly effective deterrent – a DEET spray. Using it every now and then is fine but slathering it on everyday makes me uneasy.

What works for me is to get some garden chores done in the cool, early hours of the morning. It is actually quite pleasant working at that time as the chorus of birds keep me company and the bees getting a head start to their day inspire me to get cracking with my own. At this mostly quiet period of the morning, I find myself occupied with what needs doing whilst still enjoying the garden in its rather riotous state of summer growth. A good couple of hours go by before I’m made aware that I’m hot, uncomfortable and quite ready to escape to cooler confines.

I’m certainly not inclined to deprive myself of the joys of spending summer nights watching fireflies and inhaling the sweet perfumes of flowers that I’ve grown for that very purpose. Spritzing myself with a blend of citronella and cloves I go forth into the evening. A fan is brought out to do double duty – deter all flying bugs and keep us relatively comfortable in the circulating air. The DEET spray is always on stand-by – it’s a love-hate relationship.

At a party last week, I was introduced to a new anti-mosquito gadget brought to the event for a test run by another friend. It seemed to work as I was not bitten that evening. So I’ve purchased one for my own use. Before I rush to endorse it, I shall use it a few times first. Stay tuned.

To take advantage of the warmer months, I ease up on chores and find myself slowing down my pace. More books are read, outdoor summer concerts and plays replace screen-time almost entirely. It seems only right to linger over al fresco meals and sip a cocktail or two slowly as one walks around inspecting the garden. Impromptu picnics, sunset viewings and star gazing stretch out the season. Time is taken to savor the bounty from the garden and farm stand. I love to slowly roast corn on the cob directly over the coals and then, with a sprinkling of flakes of sea salt and a dusting of cayenne pepper brightened with a splash of lime, it explodes in the mouth in a burst of sweet, salty, spicy and sour. Divine. And how about a watermelon salad tossed with fresh cherry tomatoes, feta and torn up basil? I think I even eat ice cream more slowly and mindfully in summer than at any other season.

While I’m reveling in the unhurried rhythm of summer, there is a fair amount of guilt that shadows me. The garden looks like a small child allowed to dress herself. Sweet but quite messy. I’m not keeping up with the pace the plants grow and need deadheading, staking and trimming. Weeds shoot up even as I work to keep them at bay. The tiny lawn looks ragged beseeching me for a regular feed of compost and the meadow quickly gets overrun by jewelweed smothering out less aggressive but more desirable plants. Still consumed with guilt, I’m determined to go on fully engaging with summer. It’s all too short and I know I will regret it if I have too few memories of it to keep me warm in winter.

And so I keep dancing with summer. Barefoot and guilty.

Note: Images of the neglected state of my garden – they should make you feel good about yours!

Wisteria in need of some grooming. But the geraniums divert your attention!
Wall pots straggling
Foxgloves need deadheading
Meadow could use some thinning out
Gardenia ready to be picked for indoor enjoyment
Sanguisorba ‘Alba’ having its moment
Asters waiting to be cut by one-third for better fall display
Acabthus in bloom but what’s that allium doing there?!
The pretty astilbe are being hidden by the overgrown asters.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar