Acting Out Autumn

The autumnal equinox happened this past Saturday and with that, we’ve officially moved into the season. As if on cue, the temperatures dipped and it has been gloriously nippy. Yes, fall is in the air.

I celebrated by swapping out the summer window-boxes with autumnal ones and bringing home from the local nursery a vast array of gourds and pumpkins for adorning. These simple efforts have set the tone and I’m fully invested in getting on with the season’s activities.

With the ‘meadow’ now more opened up to light, I’m working on a list of native plants to add. I’ve ordered a few plants but the majority of the new additions will be obtained in the spring when its easier to get small plants that are not as hurtful to my pocketbook. The very large bulb order will arrive by mid-October so, before that time of planting, I intend to have the meadow cleared of the over-enthusiastic residents and with them the thuggish weeds. This is easier said than done because the wanted and unwanted plants are a jumble and sorting through will be a test of my patience and commitment.

I’m also looking sternly at the borders to see what needs to be moved/divided and what needs to be added to give them a more natural, cohesive appearance. It’s time to cut back many plants like the peonies and irises. More will be ready as the season progresses. I’m keeping an eye on the acanthus that looks ripe with seeds – I’d like to see if I can make more of them. For fun.

The drop in temperature has jolted me to the realization that the greenhouse needs to be cleaned and prepped for the plants returning to their winter residence. A frost can happen without notice and I’ll be very sorry if I lost plants due to sheer negligence. However, at present, the tomato plants are going strong in the greenhouse. There are still lots of fruit in various stages of ripeness. I’m torn between harvesting the fruit as is or waiting a bit longer. Maybe a week tops. Cannot hold up everything for the temperamental tomatoes. Yet, I’ve been enjoying eating them so much that I’m suffused with guilt for considering harsh action against the plants.

Russian and curly kale seeds have been sown afresh – they should be ready for picking well before winter truly settles in.

I’ve also got hyacinths cooling in the refrigerator – they’ll be ready for forcing in mid-January just in time to bring cheer to the post-holiday slump.

The newly seeded grass is coming up nicely and will be established by leaf raking time.

We’ve lost all our apples and pears to the vandalizing squirrels. This year, instead of covering the trees with ugly netting, I decided to experiment with the reusable bags from Japan. I’m guessing they don’t have the same hooligan squirrels that we have here. Every bag was shredded and littered all over the neighborhood. Nets will return next year.

Indoors, I’m getting ready to can tomatoes and have started to cull the recipes that call for hard-skin squashes, pumpkins and root vegetables. The sweaters and throws are coming out of closets and soon the fireplace will be called into service.

But for now, I’m still basking in the last few summer-tinged days. I want to hold on to the sounds of the birds in the morning, the perfume of the remaining roses at midday and the glow of the white phlox at sunset. Those memories will keep this gardener warm through the cold days of winter.

Note – Looking forward to seeing you at the symposium this Saturday, September 29!

At Rosedale Nurseries

Acanthus gone to seed

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Dead Heat

It’s been an unusual warm summer globally. Here in the Netherlands, I’m witness to the impact of the record heat that lasted several weeks. Being unused to such extreme weather, the average Dutch gardener didn’t quite know what to make of the high temperatures and the accompanying lack of rain. Typically it rains so consistently that one is not accustomed to watering the garden regularly. By the time many of them realized the stress the plants were under, it was already too late to save some of them. Due to regulations, farmers were not permitted to pump water from the underground aquifers. Consequently, it has led to some serious loss of crops. It goes without saying that this single summer will have a lingering effect on the environment, the economy and the general sense of well-being amongst the populace.

Where at this time, there’s usually a glut of summer blooms at their glorious peak, I see instead many gardens prematurely displaying an autumnal look with dry foliage, faded flowers and assorted seed-heads pushing for immortality. Too soon, too early! It is easy to discern the gardens that were watered during the days of heat – they are the ones looking entirely unscathed. But, there is one other category of plantings that have come through the heat admirably – the drought tolerant ones. Water being a limited resource cannot be used with abandon. Simply turning on the hose and/or sprinklers every time we are hit with a drought is not the solution. A more realistic, sustainable approach must be identified and implemented.

At present, the normal weather pattern has returned with rain and seasonal temperatures and I’m pleased to see that in several cases, the plants are valiantly attempting a full comeback. Yet, there is ample evidence of the toll taken by those hot, dry days. Damaged and dead plants remain as somber reminders that it takes just a short shift in the weather to have a long effect on the earth. Climate change is evident. What on earth are we going to do about it?

Note: Don’t forget! September 29 approaches!

Drought tolerant grass looking radiant.

New plantings to replace the ones lost to the drought.

Awaiting replacements …

Well watered

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

That Pesky Plastic Problem

I don’t know about you but, I’ve been feeling mighty unsettled of late. There is a lot going on in the world and much of it is not good. Discord is rampant. You, I’m certain, read the news as I do so, I shall not expand on what is wrong. It’s been making me sad, angry, frustrated and heartbroken. Those emotions are powerful and as such, do not feel good. However, that force generated is impetus to do something positive. However and whatever one does to change or solve a problem moves us in the right direction. Besides, just how long can anybody wallow in despair? What good comes of that anyway?

True, in most cases, a single individual cannot do much but, every solution starts with a single person and a single act.

So, I’m looking around my own little world with determination to do whatever I can. From reaching out to members of my community who might be lonely or in need of some help to signing petitions/calling my representatives in government to donating to worthy causes ( money, clothes, books, food) to putting in a few hours volunteering locally to doing my share in protecting the environment by my own practices in the garden and home. Every effort, however small is empowering. And that leads to more efforts. It becomes a mission. The sum impact is seen or felt in due course.

As gardeners, we are very aware of the environment. What impacts it positively or negatively is always on mind. We want that happy balance of flora and fauna that a healthy environment needs to thrive. There is plenty we can do in the garden that protects, revives and restores that balance. Planting native plants, applying organic practices, using sustainable materials, conserving water, composting, mulching etc.,

However, despite all the progress, one thing that still seems to be widely present is plastic. Pots, tools, furniture, ties, stakes, bags, labels, bottles, gloves – you see?

By now, our senses have been collectively shocked by the images of fish found not only with plastic waste in their stomachs but, plastic has found its way into their flesh. So, it is possible then that the seafood one consumes can contain plastic. No, I take that back – we are already eating some of the plastic we have thrown into the sea. Think what those implications are.

All too often, we are smug in the knowledge that we recycle our plastic and therefore we’re doing our part. Not so fast. 78 million tonnes of plastic packaging is produced globally every year. Of this, 14% is burned for energy recovery, another 14% is recycled but only 2% of that is actually recycled into new materials and 40% goes to landfills. We produce 20 times more plastic than we did 50 years ago and by 2050 it is estimated that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea. Imagine what the seabirds will have to eat. Consider the chain-reaction in such a situation.

Okay, so back into the garden. How many plastic pots do you have? It seems that the average gardener has 39 plastic pots hanging around in their garden. In the past, there were genuine attempts to use cardboard and/or paper pots. Whale-hide ( made of rigid pitch and fiber that resembled whale hide) pots were also developed. However all these pots fell apart soon and nurseries could not have plants sitting in stock all year round. Enter sturdy plastic that takes anywhere from 50 to 1000 years to break down. You get the idea. Shipping and stocking made easy.

Enough of the bad news. Lets think pro-actively. Start by reusing as much as possible. Case in point – bags that held soil or mulch or compost can hold garbage. Meanwhile, petition your town to institute a community composting and mulching program.

Think twice about every bit of plastic that comes into the garden. Could you make a better choice? Can you reuse it after it serves its initial purpose?

Consider getting tools with wooden or bamboo handles instead of plastic.

There are indeed products manufactured with recycled plastic. A noble effort that might be but, I fear that in buying such items, it only fosters the continued use of regular plastic with the misguided thought that it’s okay to do so simply because it can be recycled. Recall paragraph 5 above.

Buy from nurseries that use recycled or biodegradable pots. Start seeds in egg-shell halves, clean yogurt containers, make your own seed-pots from newspaper – there is a simple tool for just that.

Use metal or wooden label markers. My preferred choice is actually slate – get remnants from places that sell pavers. Slate is of course highly durable and very discreet in the garden.

You see? We can each do something. That is all that is asked of us – to do our part. Collectively we shall overcome.

Note: I’m not sharing photos of plastic! Instead, here are some images from a couple of gardens I have visited in the last week.

Papaya

Clematis scrambling over Ilex

A slate label on my espalier

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Mediation In The Meadow

The’ meadow’ in my small garden is one of my favorite spaces. Much goes on here – as the plants grow in and out of the seasons, the diverse creatures forage, hide and nest through out. Life happens here. There is a calm that that settles within whenever I spend a bit of time observing and being still in this space.

Since the meadow is really full of bulbs and mostly native plants and I have generally let it grow as it is wont to do, the work has involved only the periodic weeding of obvious thugs such as garlic mustard. In other words, I’ve been kinda lazy about it all. Over time, in my indulgence of its carefree existence, I’ve ignored the crowding that has emerged. This past weekend as I examined what plants were ready to take over from the camassia and alliums and what was emerging, I found myself searching and wondering where certain plants were. There ought to be more color present. The Chelone lyonii ( pink turtleheads) were looking strong, sturdy and preparing for summer flowering but where were the liatris that ought to start blooming about now? And what happened to the geums, echinacea, asters and ornamental grasses? The first had looked so sweet splashing their red earlier in May but were now swallowed up by more aggressive plants not all of which had been deliberately placed there. The rest were either clearly struggling to grow or had simply called it a day. A wake up call I could no longer ignore.

I see how the jewelweed has, without permission, become way too precocious. The wood anemone, drunk with the knowledge that I love it, has spread itself rather too freely. There are numerous other nondescript plants that I’m yet to identify that clearly do not belong here. Little bullies and squatters.

So my mission for the remainder of this month is to tackle the meadow. To get in there to pull out and thin out is daunting. I’m afraid to discover how many precious plants I have lost in my negligence and what critters I might be disturbing after giving them carte blanche in the meadow. Plus, I’m absolutely certain the mosquitoes will learn of my presence in no time at all. This is not going to be pleasant.

But, I must step up, own my indolence and make the necessary amends. It’s what any good, self-respecting gardener must do. Meanwhile. I’m distracting all viewers with baby robins, the roses, wisteria and emerging oak-leaf hydrangea. Even better, the climbing hydrangea is in full bloom and the fragrance is so heavenly that all thought to look at anything critically is forgotten. Perfect decoy.

Note: The images below compare the meadow in May and June. You can see how overgrown it looks in June ( with due diligence it does not have to look this way! My bad.)

May:

June:

Anemone take-over in progress

The worthy distractions:

Close-up. H. petiolaris

Climbing hydrangea

Oak-leaf hydrangea

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

May Power

It is the moment I yearn for all year long. The month of May in all her glory. Everywhere one looks there are flowers in bloom and more getting ready to join the show. The varied shades of green serve as a complex backdrop to all the other colors filling the garden. I cannot get enough of these days. Yet, all too often, as the year moves along, I find myself feeling I did not get my fill of the flowers and the garden in general.

This year, I have taken deliberate measures to give myself the time to revel in the beauty around. First off, I limited all commitments to only the essential. Then I pared down my interaction with those beloved, time-sucking electronic tools. “ Wander Where The Wi-Fi Is Weak” has become my new mantra. ( I got that from the Swedish Institute)

Those two actions alone freed me up to the point where I spent time admiring, observing and painting the flowers at leisure like I’ve never permitted myself before. It is possibly the best self-care for this or any soul in much need of temporarily and periodically escaping the horrors in the world and gaining perspective, peace and a better path to maintain balance in life.

The restorative power of time spent in nature cannot be over-emphasized or underestimated. It is free, powerful, highly palatable, immediately effective and, one cannot overdose on it. So, step into the garden and let it work its magic on you. Again and again and again.

Note: Here are some images from what’s blooming in my garden. Enjoy.

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

May Day! May Day! May Day!

I can’t believe it’s May! Looking around the garden, spring is surely here but the flowers are a few weeks behind schedule. The protracted winter kept us waiting and yearning for its end so now that the season of growth has begun, I’m not complaining. Just as long as we are given a proper length of spring. As of tomorrow, for the next three days, we are expecting the temperature to spike up to 80+ degrees. Please lets not have all the spring flowers rush to bloom all at once!

The sight of plants coming awake is so exciting. I absolutely adore this anticipation of the spectacular displays to come. With my garden Open Day a mere three weeks away and TeaTown’s PlantFest less than two weeks away, there is tons of work to do. At double time. I’m juggling other work and garden work in a frenzied sort of way. When I’m working on one thing, I’m feeling the pressure of the other pending projects. The up side is that this will not go on forever. PlantFest will happen.  Open Day will come and fingers crossed, the garden will please the visitors. I’m also doing my best to appeal to the weather gods to bless us with fabulous weather.

In the midst of addressing all the work and responsibilities, I have been completely consumed by the robin’s nest below the kitchen window. I’d become the creepy stranger lurking around spying on an expectant mother. I took pictures constantly and every task that took me away from said window was resented.

Yesterday morning, as I made coffee, I watched the mama robin sitting calmly and patiently on her clutch of four eggs. Took a picture. She turned her head, cocked an eye upwards, indicating she was aware of me.

A half-hour later in my office upstairs, I noticed a couple of large crows flying past the window in front of my desk. Something about them made me uneasy but I had to carry on with the task at hand. About an hour later, I went back down to the kitchen and peered out. It was completely empty. No mama, no eggs. I could see a piece of blue egg shell on the ground. An avian home invasion had occurred.

I’m totally heartbroken. I realize it’s nature at work but this travesty happened in my garden and somehow I cannot help feeling like I failed in protecting the robins. If only the wisteria had begun leafing out as it would’ve normally, the nest situated within its limbs would have been better hidden. Perhaps if I’d stayed at the kitchen window, I could’ve shooed away the crows. If only …

Life, I know must and will go on. But I’m taking some time to mourn this loss. To send thoughts and blessings to that mother – to stay strong and try again soon at a safer site. And for what it is worth, I’m so sorry.

Last Saturday, to help me stay on track with my work ( without being distracted by the goings on in nests and such), I had sent off for a good outdoor camera ASAP. No, pronto, toute suite. It was to be set up so it could take photos of the nest round the clock. I wouldn’t have to miss anything. Sadly, that will no longer be necessary for this occasion.

Instead, I’m going to position the camera to take a series of shots that determine a time-line of sorts of how the meadow evolves through the seasons. Perhaps it’ll be interesting. Or merely prosaic. For the time being, it’s all I can emotionally handle.

Building the nest

Still building

Both parents

Four perfect eggs

Incubating

After the home invasion.

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Bird Brain

It all started whilst standing in the kitchen at the cooking range – from the corner of my eye I noticed a flurry of activity outside the kitchen window. Turning to look, there was a robin with a beak full of fine pieces of twigs hopping around on the pergola directly below. Observing more closely, I spotted the nest. As though sited for my viewing pleasure, it sat nestled in the wisteria branches atop the pergola, giving one a perfect aerial perspective. Oh joy!

Watching nesting birds is one of my favorite pastimes. Here was that chance like no other. No climbing ladders, straining awkwardly or being stealthy – all that was needed was to stand at the window and look down. The nest is barely six feet below. Needless to say, this discovery took me completely away from all intentions to get my work done.

I was so loathe to leave for my trip to the Netherlands. Throughout my flight there I obsessed about the nest. Was it sited too visibly? Is it too easy for the squirrels o find? Would the afternoon sun hit it too harshly? And how about the rain? With reports of the heavy downpours yesterday, I’m anxious to find out. Oh the worries! I’m due back in a day so thankfully, the wait won’t be too long.

My walks in the Dutch country side have taken me through farmlands where I’m privileged to see cows with calves sticking close to their mamas, sheep with lambs that resemble balls of wool for the taking. Signs are posted making the public aware the this is an area that farms in a way that protects creatures that nest at ground level. Sure enough, I’ve discerned ducks in grassy fields sitting on what must be clutches of eggs. The farmers do not cut the hay the typical three to four times of the year. Instead, they do so only once. This allows wildlife to flourish. At any given time, some fields are left uncut and other fields are cultivated. Consequently, the yield may not be as high as we have come to expect from modern practices but, it is a comfortable compromise between man and animals. In time I heard enough bird song and became aware of sufficient activity that proved how well this policy was working. Did my heart a world of good. To take up modern ways is not always progress. Certain ancient principals have held up to time. To live and let live is one of them.

As I prepare to fly back home, I take with me a fresh resolve to assiduously support the wild life I have come to appreciate and depend upon.

Notice the robin with its beak full?

The Dutch countryside:

See the nesting duck in this field?

Protected birds here

‘Ekster’ – is the Dutch name of this bird

Ekster nest

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Coloring In Spring

April is National Poetry Month and despite the weather, it is spring. So, here you are:

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 of mist

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, buttermilk and gold

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

forage with blue coated jays

A truce of sorts reigns

Every being with singular purpose

Distinct colors fresh and new

ancient rituals timeless and true.

Shobha Vanchiswar

Note: In keeping with the season – Spring sprucing, Mother’s Day, bridal showers, weddings and parties are coming up.  Plan ahead. Check out Shop for gifts – note cards, The Printed Garden Collection of pillows, tea towels, napkins, placemats and runners. All profits help educate children with HIV at the Mukta Jivan orphanage.

Enjoy the spring images:

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Child’s Play. Part II

Curiosity is innate to children. Nature is the best classroom and the most exciting playground. So, it stands to reason that we encourage our young to spend as much time as possible outdoors. On their own, little ones will explore and observe instinctively. They learn without even being aware. Toss in a nature loving adult into their mix and the learning possibilities grow exponentially. Engaging with nature benefits mind, body and soul. For everybody.

As we step into spring today, it’s the perfect time to introduce children to the entertainment and learning that awaits in the garden. What’s coming up in the garden? Snowdrops, hellebores, crocus, scillas are blooming. The hyacinths and tulips are piercing through the earth. Let the kids look closely at the colors, shapes, distinguish between the bulbs. The birds will start house hunting soon. Show the little ones how to identify the common birds, older ones can learn to use a bird guide and spot the not so common birds. Watching birds choose nesting sites is pure entertainment. They search, converse, bicker and finally settle on the location. Then, they work cooperatively to build the nest. Once the eggs are laid, the pair takes turns to sit on them till they hatch and work together to raise their babies. After all these years, I have not tired of watching this annual ritual.

I’ll say it up front. I’m not a fan of swing-sets in the garden. Those belong in playgrounds. A simple swing from a tree is plenty for a garden. The way I see it, having a swing-set tells a child that this is why they’re in the garden – to swing and slide.

Instead, I want a child to imagine and invent. Climb trees, hide in bushes, build forts from twigs, create villages for fairies and goblins, eat berries and sugar-snaps straight from the plants, recognize birds and their songs, pick flowers for a bouquet, tend and grow a plot of anything they want and earn that sense of pride that comes with it. The garden is a place for amazing interactions.

All sorts of science happens in the garden. Chemistry, physics, biology and how each works with the other can be demonstrated clearly right here. Nothing works in isolation. The branches of mathematics are all visible in the garden. Life follows the rules of mathematics.There’s enough information on the Internet to find fun ways to instruct science from what one sees and does in the garden so I don’t have to get into specifics. Suffice to say, Fibonacci numbers frolic openly in sight, energy is converted from light to chemical all day long and birds, bees and the wind assist and demonstrate procreation in all sorts of manner.

To get started and in keeping with the season, it is seed sowing time. With Easter and Passover coming up, eggs are having their moment. So, lets combine recycling the egg shells and starting seeds. Empty egg shell halves, washed and dried, are perfect ‘pots’ to start seeds. Fill each half with soil, dampen with a spritz of water and sow the seeds. Big seeds as that of sunflowers go in one to a pot while tiny seeds like radish can be sowed in threes. The ‘pots’ sit happily in the egg carton and can be easily monitored. When the seedlings are ready to be transplanted into the ground, one merely has to lightly crush the shell and plant it still holding the seedling. The growing roots can then break free through the cracked shell and the shell itself will eventually break down and enrich the soil with calcium. FYI – tomatoes love calcium.

Similarly, broken bits or ground egg shells can be used as mulch-fertilizer. Bonus – The albumen smell has been said to repel deer. The sharp edges of the shells deter slugs and snails. However, rodents are attracted to the same odor so do not use the shells in beds too close to the house!

All year round, I toss egg shells in the compost. The compost bin itself is one (literally) hot bed of activity that can teach a child plenty.

It isn’t just science, there is art, architecture, language ( those Latin/Greek names have meanings), history, geology, literature, geography … the wonders of life and all that supports it are there to be discovered.

Let’s loudly tell our children to “go outside and play!” . Watch them conquer the world.

Mark your calendars! My garden’s 2018 Open Day is May 19. 10 am – 4 pm.

Note : The pictures below were pulled at random but all hold interest and lessons for children ( and adults):

Planting bulbs in the fall

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Child’s Play. Part I

Private gardens in India are typically tended by professional gardeners. Garden owners might supervise but the real work is done by their hired help. As a child, I was given free reign in the garden where I would spend most of my waking hours. I learned a great deal simply by spending time outdoors. Observing bugs, tearing apart a flower to see its different parts, trying in vain to extract color from colorful petals ( I’d squeeze wet petals), waiting for a chrysalis to turn into a butterfly, learning from my mother to make tiny clay pots from mud, picking berries as they ripened and never leaving any for others – the list is endless.

I didn’t have any grown-ups who took it upon themselves to teach or guide me and the gardeners in the area were way too busy heeding their employers and going about their responsibilities. But, I did get to watch these gardeners from whom I undoubtedly absorbed some good gardening methods. I think I also got in their way frequently.

I’d collect pretty leaves and flowers in tins and pass many afternoons in the shade arranging and rearranging my treasures in patterns. I crushed fragrant leaves and flowers to perfume my hands and face before I learned about primitive cultures doing the same. I learned to identify edible herbs and often experimented with propagating plants from seed and cuttings. Waiting for fruits to ripen and determining that moment when they were ready to be picked was a responsibility I took seriously. Mind you, none of this was conducted scientifically. It was all play for me. I didn’t make notes or tell anybody. It was just how I enjoyed my time outdoors. Curiosity and imagination were my constant attendants.

I’d routinely get all sorts of insect bites and stings, cut my hands from handling thorny plants, scorch the soles of my feet by walking barefoot on stones made so hot by the mid-day sun, get my clothes mud-splattered and stained. Nothing kept me away from the garden – it was where I belonged. Instead, the mishaps were just as instructive as the happy discoveries. I learned to identify plants, insects and birds, treat my wounds and through trial and mostly errors, I taught myself to dye clothes with natural materials. My mother had her own opinions about some of my efforts.

Simply by spending unstructured time in the garden, my young mind learned an enormous amount of information. Children are naturally curious and the garden is the best classroom. Looking back, I see how all my subsequent choices and passions were inevitable. I was shaped by the garden. It raised me as much as all the important adults in my life. The garden is very much why and who I am today.

Based on my own history with the garden, I have many thoughts about children and the great outdoors. I will share that in Part II next week. Meanwhile, think about your own young selves and what gardens meant to you. An occasional walk down memory lane helps one gain fresh perspective.

Note –

I have some of my art works in a show at the Phyllis Harriman Gallery, NYC, the week of March 12, 2018. I hope you will visit! Reception is on Tuesday March 13 from 5:00 to 7:00 pm.

Enjoy the photos below – taken some years ago at the garden show “Play In The Garden”  in Chaumont, France:

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar