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

Romancing The Garden

Gardeners are romantic. I have come to realize and accept this. In making anything beautiful, it pretty much goes without saying (but I’m saying) that one must also be romantic. You aren’t convinced? Hmmm. Let me tell you how I’ve come to realize my own idealistic, sentimental nature in action in the garden. You tell me if you’ve never been similarly inclined.

I’ll start with the very poster child of romance. The rose. I love them. I have included several in my garden – all in shades of pink, profuse and preferably perfumed. The very display of roses in bloom brings to the forefront matters of the heart. You absolutely cannot see a rose and not think of love and romance. Am I right?

When I chose to place two arches and plant roses to scramble up them, I envisioned something very traditional. The arch one must go through to reach the front door was to invite and disarm the visitor. It puts one in good cheer. The subtle fragrance sends an additional message of welcome. The three different clematis weaving through this rose takes the whole to a higher level. Pure romance.

The second arch which is a gateway to the gardens in the back, has a different rose. Brighter in its rosy hue and with a stronger perfume. It makes its presence felt long before you get near it. A temptation to coax the curious to come forth.

A shrub rose I planted on the side path in early spring was chosen for its prettiness, hardiness and its scent. The whole idea being that its fragrance will waft into the house through the studio windows just above and assault my senses in the nicest possible way as I paint. I’d like to think my work can only be made better under such influences.

In truth, one can smell the roses in all the rooms on that side of the house. It makes me pause, inhale deeply and appreciate the aroma. Life feels good. Similarly, I position the pots of citrus, jasmine and gardenia on the side terrace so the night air is redolent with their strong aromas – hopefully sweetening our dreams and slumber.

In the herb garden, I included plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Lovage, rue, hyssop, comfrey, foxgloves and such. Apart from the lovage which pairs well with fish, the others merely look pretty and remind me of earlier times. Hyssop while purported to soothe sore throats, was popularly used as a spiritual bath. The hyssop bath is usually considered to be a personal ritual to remove sin and negativity in life. It has a Biblical significance. Rue means disdain or regret. Comfrey too had a role in early medicine as a poultice to treat joint pains. All so quaint and romantic right?

Even a feature like the ‘meadow’ has an element of idealism and romance. It is a place for congeniality between the native flora and fauna. Where butterflies, birds and bees pollinate and populate my corner of paradise. Life supporting life, all creatures living together in peace and all is well with the world. What a concept!

The espalier of 27 apple and 5 pear trees hark back to a time when all of this neighborhood was full of apple orchards. I like to think I’ve in some way restored something precious to this place.

The pergola in the back terrace was designed so the wisteria would grow over its top, generously providing shade under which we can gather to break bread and sip wine with friends and family as often as possible. And we do. Idyllic escapes in a world gone mad.

And so it goes. I see how in creating this garden, I have subconsciously let my inner romantic guide me. It is about beauty, history, literature, harmony, the sacred and most of all, love.

Now, how about you?

Note: Enjoy these romantic images!

View from the upstairs window boxes
Hyssop
Gardenia
Citrus

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Artful Arrangements

Art In Bloom’ the poster said. Paintings of flowers I thought. It was so much more.

Weston, a quintessentially charming Vermont town best known for the legendary Vermont Country Store and its thriving eponymous playhouse. I have, over the years, discovered that this little place has some mighty impressive events and highly energetic, innovative and generous residents. For all those of us ( my hand is up) in and close to New York City who assume everything interesting and noteworthy happens in our neck of the woods, Weston is there to say “not so fast’.

The annual antique and craft shows are world class. While the craft show is restricted to Vermont artisans only, dealers from all over the country participate in the antiques show. With none of the uber-hype and big city ‘sophistication’ getting in the way, they showcase the best of Vermont. And the best is precisely that.

This past weekend, I was in for an unexpected treat in the show ‘Art In Bloom’. Not simply art on display, it was a show of flower arrangements by members of the local garden club inspired by paintings donated by local artists. While we are all accustomed to art inspired by nature and still-life paintings of floral arrangements, it was a nice twist to see what a person could do with flowers to interpret art. And quite a challenge it was.

The art works of mostly paintings and a couple of lovely examples of fiber arts, ranged from renditions of flowers to still-lifes with flowers to landscapes and abstract art. I imagine the abstracts and some of the landscapes must’ve been particularly challenging. How does one interpret a snow scene, a covered bridge, a musical instrument or a frog? Well, the members of the Green Mountain Garden Club rose to the occasion splendidly. From the literal to the imaginative, artistic, thoughtful and creative, each arrangement interpreted its corresponding artwork handsomely. Clearly, the flower arrangers knew their flowers and plants, understood nature, had a sense of humor and appreciated the arts very well.

I had come to this exhibit out of curiosity. Having never been to such a ‘reverse’ pairing of art and flower arranging, I had no expectations. So, it wasn’t just a welcome surprise – here was a wonderful demonstration of creativity and artistry. I was taught, I was inspired, I was humbled.

I came, I saw, I ascended.

Note – I’m giving myself the challenge of creating a flower arrangement inspired by a favorite painting. Maybe you will do the same? Please share!

Depending on the device on which you’re reading this, some of the images below will appear on their side. I do not yet know how to rectify the problem. I apologize!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Painting In The Plantings

All Gardening Is Landscape Painting’ – Alexander Pope

It’s become something of a tradition to have a group of artist friends spend a day in June painting and bonding in my little garden. This year, it happened last Saturday. The weather was perfect. Neither hot nor cold in temperature, the air was dry, sunny with a few white clouds … like I said, perfect.

I have often said that the garden is my muse. My painting, poetry and all other writing is inspired by the garden. How and what I choose to cook, the décor of my home and much of my taste in clothes is influenced by nature – her seasons and colors. Heck, even books or movies set in a garden or about one stand a good chance of being picked up by me. So, it’s always exciting when others are inspired to create in my garden.

All the artists come up from New York city so, they notice the air quality, the clarity of light, the colors that abound, the sounds of myriad birds, the fragrances swirling around – everything. Things that I’m so used to and often take for granted are newly appreciated as I observe their responses and delight.

From the hues of fallen petals to the shapes of flowers to the patterns of leaves to the shifting shadows to the juxtaposition of stone and plant, I see it all through their eyes. As an artist myself, I appreciate the way they see my garden. As a gardener, I’m humbled by their appreciation and sensitivity to the thought and design of my horticultural creation. After all, the garden itself is my personal, never ending, forever evolving work of art. Having the artists here is a valuable critique session of sorts.

What view or plantings each of them selects to paint and how they interpret what they see is eye-opening and exciting. It feels to me I’m learning to see my own garden in a whole new way. Remarkably, this happens to me every year! A reboot. It is gratifying and instructive.

Through good gardening, we reconnect with nature and remedy some of the harm we humans cause to our natural environment. In the process, the gardener hopes to create something beautiful and useful. Artists have always observed, studied and imitated Nature. They give astute commentary to what is going on in the world.

I am the happy beneficiary of feedback from gardeners and garden lovers on my Open Day and then again from artists ( a few are gardeners as well) on Painting Day. Taken together, I am the one most enriched – making me a better gardener and artist. That’s priceless.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Plant Power

Humans have always known the importance of being connected to the natural world. Not simply for the obvious – food, shelter ( caves, construction materials), fuel and, medicine. We are inherently aware that there is a deeper, spiritual relationship between us and the plant kingdom. From using flowers/plants to mark every significant event in our lives, returning our spent bodies to the embrace of the earth, to adorning and anointing ourselves with flowers, leaves, bark and roots for their perfume, cosmetic properties in a bid to enhance our looks, the horticultural world is intrinsic to our human-ness.

There is a plethora of anecdotal and scientific evidence to support the positive effect of time spent outdoors. Garden therapy is an accepted and valued method to heal all sorts of human conditions – physical and mental. Be it a stroll in the park, a hike in the woods, puttering in the garden or just sitting quietly amidst some greenery, a positive effect is palpably felt. Lifting ones mood, being physically energized after a stint out in nature is something every one of us can relate to. Gardening is empowering. To create something useful and beautiful is transforming. There is even a ‘Gardens Without Borders’ effort to help refugees in camps and war zones cope with their circumstances. That’s plant power.

Humans generally go about assuming their position at the very top of the living world. I’m not certain how we got to possess such hubris because in my experience, nothing is more humbling than observing nature closely as one does in gardening. Before one assumes what we do outsideis the principal effector, consider the plant community itself. What do we truly know about the kingdom of plants?

We have generally assessed plants from a very human perspective – how do they serve us? We regard plants as being there for our specific purposes. And we are in charge. Their very separation from us and all animals to a kingdom of their own shows how we think about plants. They are totally unlike us. But, are they really?

This past Saturday, I attended two highly interesting talks/panel discussions. Both were events made possible by the World Science Festival. The WSF takes place at this time of year in New York City – five days chock full of talks and discussions on all sorts of scientific topics. Leading scientists from different parts of the world participate in these talks and enlighten auditoriums packed with people thirsting for answers and understanding the issues currently affecting our lives. From cancer research to cosmic riddles to climate change to contemplating the cerebrum as we know it. I’ve been going to the WSF since it began about 11 years ago. I get positively giddy with excitement going through the line-up of talks and making my choices for the ones I’m most eager to attend.

This year, I chose two events that were so closely related that I believe they should’ve been proposed as a double feature. ‘Rethinking Thinking’ and ‘ Intelligence Without Brain’ were my picks. Both were so interesting and certainly enlightening. The take home is having a brain and neurons is only one way to think and navigating life. And humans are not special at all – we are just one form of life. Given my own background in molecular biology, this was not surprising or hard to accept.

It was fascinating to learn that even stuff like fungi and slime mold are capable of communication, problem solving and decision making. More so than one can imagine. In the animal kingdom, there is’ intelligence’ that parallels humans – only in ways more suited to their own genus and/or species. And when it comes to plants, they do so much more than we ever thought possible!

In recent years, we have learned that plants communicate by sending out chemical messages to warn, commiserate about disease and other life conditions. On Saturday, I found out that they make sounds via their roots! They have voices. At this time, we don’t know the how or why. It’s possible they can ‘talk’ above ground as well – we just don’t know how to test/hear them. Yet. Cogitate on that.

Going further, there is now data that plants can reason and remember. Yes, that’s right. This is all cutting edge scientific research and terribly thrilling. I won’t go into details and you don’t have to take my word for it as all the talks can be accessed at worldsciencefestival.com

So, circling back to my original commentary about how we are healed and invigorated by just being in the presence of plants. Perhaps, plants ‘silently’ comfort and/or treat our wounded selves in ways we are yet to determine or measure. They have after all been around so much longer than we humans and get this – the plant kingdom is 99% of all living forms found on earth. Surely then, it stands to reason that they know more than us. Stay tuned!

Here are some feel good images from the garden. Enjoy –

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Weather Perfect

A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves.” Marcel Proust

Ah, Open Day has come and gone leaving me with a sense of relief, well-being and satisfaction. The weather was perfect. After three straight years of cold, wind and rain on Open Day, this exquisite day was well overdue.

The sun shone bright, the air was dry, the temperature was ideal – not hot, not cold, a gentle breeze prevailed and the garden was filled with the buzz, tweets and hums of bees, birds and butterflies. The flowers rose to the occasion and shone bright and beautiful. I could not have asked for any better.

It is almost impossible not to respond positively to weather such as that. There is an imperceptible yet powerful shift in one’s mood and outlook. For myself, it felt as though a new energy had moved into my body. Being outside in the garden felt so right. There was no other place to be. No bugs biting, no jackets weighing me down, no sweat to wipe off and, best of all, no chores to do. This was as good as it gets.

It was the perfect weather to share the garden. And the garden looked its best despite the cold and rain it had endured thus far this spring. Several plants were lagging in their bloom time but the others stepped up admirably. Every visitor arrived with happy spirits and curious minds. Of the 100 or so visitors, I did not encounter a single person with the slightest hint of negativity.

As much as I love sharing my garden, I adore meeting other gardeners and garden lovers. I learn so much. This time, I picked up on a new-for-me nursery to check out, a few gardens I must visit, a book to add to my summer reading, enjoyed several good laughs, received feedback on my own garden and made new partners in horticultural-crime. At the end of the day, I was so much the richer – in heart and head.

Under such ideal conditions, it was inevitable that the best conversations ensued, strangers became friends, and for the one brief day, all was well with the world. Marcel Proust was so right.

A heartfelt thank you to all who made this Open Day a resounding success. Visitors, volunteers, friends and family – nothing is possible without you.

Note: Here are lots of photos for all those of you who failed to show up!

IMG_1343

Friends from Chicago

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

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It’s Open Season!

My garden’s Open Day is this Saturday, May 18. I’m hard at work primping and propping the garden to get it looking it’s best for you. So, cancel everything else and come on over. I’d love to see you here!

I was in Evanston, Illinois this past weekend and even though part of that time it was cold and wet, I was struck by how much horticultural effort is put into making the heart of the city look attractive. Tulips waved madly in bright colors on traffic islands, pocket parks and around trees along the streets. So cheery and seasonal. And very easy to do. I’m eager to see what the next plantings of annuals will be.

But beyond the show of annuals, I observed that there is a thoughtful approach to infusing seasonal color and fragrance in the landscape through the use of perennials. A small park dividing a busy road, is bordered with hedges of viburnum. I smelled the park before I noticed it! The viburnums were in full bloom and the fragrance wafted far and wide. Pure heaven. As though reminding pedestrians to pause a moment and refresh the spirit – be present. What a lovely idea. Flower beds within the park abounded in tulips but there were many perennials emerging through. Three benches and a single sculpture completed this perfect oasis.

Swathes of Virginia bluebells carpeted several other green spaces for the public to enjoy and under many hedges I noticed abundant lily-of-the-valley leaves unfurling in readiness for the sweet bells of white to perfume the days ahead – subliminally cheering the outlooks of passers-by.

I had hoped to visit Millennial Park in Chicago and take in the plantings but my schedule did not permit it. Instead, I got to experience the glorious efforts of a much smaller city that could match its big neighbor handily. My well is full.

Note : Enjoy some images of plantings in Evanston. I look forward to seeing you in my garden this Saturday!

Depending on which device you are reading this, some images appear on their side. I have no idea how to fix it. My apologies! Also, the pocket park appears expansive in the photos – it isn’t in reality!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

There Are Gnomes In The Garden!

Gnomes. Makes you recall those all too familiar, garishly painted figures with pointy hats right? While these spirit creatures hark back to the 17th century and earlier, their presence today is viewed as somewhat naive and old-fashioned. Like gazing balls, they recall earlier times and are not commonly seen in today’s gardens. Truth be told, I myself have never been taken by them.

That is, until I recently came upon a modern take on gnomes at the Sullivan galleries in Chicago where highly talented, emerging ceramist August Brosnahan was debuting his gnome collection. And the creatures were getting a lot of attention and interest. Here is how Brosnahan describes his work –

I am interested in human interactions with objects and how objects help us relate to the world around us. Whether it be the handle of a mug or the facial expression on a figurative sculpture, these objects have unsaid and sometimes unnoticed methods of guiding us through spaces. Humans spend a tremendous amount of time interacting with clay and ceramic objects. I believe that humans have deep-seated connections with ceramics, more so than other materials, due to the rich history we share with clay. This mindset is central to the form and presentation of my work as I create intimate connections between viewers and the object.

Another element that is central to my practice is my love for walking. I have recently distanced myself from the white-walled gallery as I spend hours in forests and fields. A notable example of this is my ongoing series, “Gnomes.” I create small personified objects that preferably exist in an outdoor setting. Multiples of these objects create a community that viewers can interact with by walking through the same space that the gnomes exist in. I activate the space that the viewer is standing in rather than a space that the viewer is looking at. With my work I hope to re-invigorate the overlooked spaces of our day-to-day lives.”

I have long championed sculpture in the garden. Art in an outdoor space adds a new dimension and there is a shift in context that enriches the experience as opposed to seeing the same sculpture indoors. At this particular art show, I could clearly imagine how they might transform a garden or park. My curiosity to actually see that happen led to inviting the artist to show some of his work at my garden on Open Day.

So, five pieces were carefully packed and shipped to New York. I worked with Brosnahan on siting the gnomes in the garden and I’m really excited to share them with visitors on May 18th.

Meant for outdoor spaces, the seemingly whimsical pieces urge the viewer to consider the dynamics between all the elements in a space. The ceramic gnomes make one aware that there is an energy and presence beyond that which we can physically see or feel. They appear to blend into the background and yet, manage to surprise and be noticed. These sculptures maintain continuity in the human history of personifying natural and designed spaces. The impact is subtle and fresh. A modern twist to an old tradition.

Several weeks ago, I hinted that I was working on a new project in the garden – just for Open Day. This is it! I look forward to introducing you to the gnomes. See you in the garden on May 18.

Note: Open Day is less than two weeks away!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Garden Things

I’m in the thick of garden fever. Open Day is less than three weeks away. When I’m not actually in the garden, I’m thinking about it, perusing garden literature or talking about it. So much to consider – chores, plants, tips, new-to-me information, weather, wildlife, one’s own limitations ( physical, budget, time…), successes and failures. It’s never ending and I realize how tedious this can be for a non-gardener. A friend asked recently why gardeners always talked about the amount of work, the perils, trials and tribulations and then insisted on continuing the activity of gardening. How could I possibly convince her that those things are all part of the joy of gardening?!

It’s always exciting to learn something new and I’m happy to share. Maybe everybody is aware already but I discovered only recently that fritillaria are closely related to lilies. That in itself doesn’t make one sit up but here’s the reason to pay attention – they are just as attractive to the pretty but vile red lily beetle. Ugh. I’d all but stopped growing lilies because those horrid insects would always show up to ruthlessly decimate them. Now I have to worry about the many fritillaria I’m so happy to grow in the garden. Oy vay.

The somewhat low height ( 5 feet) at which the bluebird house is set up leaves it vulnerable to predators that can easily scramble up the metal pole to access the eggs/babies. It is worrisome and yet, the bluebirds prefer that open, low location. A coating of automotive grease along the length of the pole and over the copper covered roof helps enormously in deterring snakes, cats and squirrels. An easy solution like this always pleases me – fingers crossed it works.

All the stakes and supports are put in place before the plants are fully grown and it gets complicated to support them discretely. I also see this as a way to show the plants that I believe in their ability to reach their highest potential. Sly horticultural psychology.

Over the years, the labels marking the assorted apple and pear trees of the espalier had faded. It’s so easy to get lax about keeping things such as labels in order. At the espalier, it is particularly relevant to see which tree is bearing fruit and which is not. It might simply be an academic sort of accounting but I believe good gardening should come with a sound knowledge of what’s going on everywhere in the garden. I’ve now relabeled the fruit trees and must admit to an undeserving amount of satisfaction.

In my bid to tweak things a bit, I’ve moved around an object or two, refreshed a couple of walls with a lick of paint and replaced a feature with another. In the process, my own spirit has been tweaked and I’m in a much better frame of mind. Go figure.

And so it goes. Seemingly small investments of time, energy and resources but with nice dividends.

Note – Open Day is May 18th!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Waxing Poetic

It’s a busy, busy time in the garden but I cannot let April go by without honoring it with poetry. It is National Poetry Month after all.

Deflowering Spring

The earth blushed cherry pink

Even as the forsythia glowed yellow

From innocent fresh born

to fertile maiden

In the flutter

of butterfly wings.

Shobha Vanchiswar

Spring Cleaning

Sweep away detritus

Winter’s wild remnants

Prune roses

June’s dress code

Straighten borders

Summer edges to spill

Outside order

Inside peace

Clearing, cutting

Room to breathe deep

Opening, widening

Mind broaden fast

Plants get bigger

Spirits grow higher

Colors multiply

Senses infused

Days lengthen

Smiles brighten

Outdoor classroom

Paradise within

Shobha Vanchiswar

Colors Of Rain

It rained cherry pink today

Drenched in pleasure

I walked on rafts of petals

floating on rivers of grass.

I predict tomorrow

it’ll drizzle pear white

Washing away footprints

leaving behind confetti flowers.

Shobha Vanchiswar

Note: Open Day is May 18. My garden as well as Rocky Hills will be ready and waiting for you!

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(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar