Blowing Hot, Blowing Cold AND Stinky Stats

Stella blows into town tonight. Boy! Has she got us all talking and preparing for her arrival! Events and agendas have been canceled and cleared. Pantries and refrigerators stocked. Fireplaces made ready. Blankets and sweaters on hand for cozy times once Stella is here. She should be so honored that 50 million people are anticipating her visit. With anxiety and apprehension. Stella is after all the bomb. A glorious, whoppingly impactful snow storm of a girl. And it is predicted that she will undergo bombogenesis ( it’s a real word) which means conditions are right for snow to accumulate up to 4 inches an hour with high winds and possible thundersnow. We are therefore expecting 18 to 24 inches of snow. Let’s hope we do not lose power.

It is already mid-March and after a dismally weak-spirited winter, it just feels too much too late no? Besides, what about all those days in February and just last week when the temperatures were cheerfully spring like? If the weather was a person, a shrink would have a clear and conclusive diagnosis of its rather confusing behavior.

So, as it stands, one must do what one must to safeguard the garden. Protect shrubs with buds and other vulnerable plants with plastic or wooden ‘tents’, Wind rope around shrubs to give them a compact stability against breaking and splaying due to the weight of huge amounts of snow. Pour sand and grit on walkways and driveways to give traction to tires and shoes.  Have flashlights, matches, candles, bottled water on hand. Keep shovels accessible. Fill up bird feeders. Likewise, fill car gas tank. Get out those board games and books. Bring in a good supply of firewood. Stock up on groceries – don’t forget the fixings for hot cocoa and s’mores. Place blankets wherever cozying-up is a possibility.Charge up phones and laptops. During the storm, try and check up on elderly neighbors. Have your camera close by – snow storms can provide great photo ops!

I’m getting a bit tired of this hot and cold treatment. Enough already. Can we please just get back to safely predictable, ‘normal’ seasonable weather?

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Stink Bug Update

There is finally some hope in getting rid of the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB). Since their invasion into the US in the 1990s, they have destroyed fruit and vegetable crops and grossed out everyone who has been finding them in their homes. My method of action has been to capture them in toilet tissue and flush them down. Yes, I have probably wasted a good deal of water in this warfare. The guilt has been getting to me so, I’m more than relieved that a solution is in sight.

Scientists at Cornell University have discovered a tiny wasp that lays its eggs in the BMSB and thereby kills off potential bug babies. The Samurai Wasp Trissolcus japonicus, is thus far the only effective BMSB predator we know.

The wasp itself is an alien species so its own long term impact on our native flora and fauna is unknown. Hence applying it to combat the stink bug has to be done thoughtfully. The university and USDA scientists are collaborating on a project to create a map of the areas impacted by the bug. They want all of us to get involved – a National Citizen Science Project.

To participate is simple. Once you find a stink bug, ascertain that it is indeed a BMSB and not any other bug. Take a photo of it and report the finding on the EDDMaps.website. The live link is for New York state but that site can help you find the link to all other states.

Next, every day through March to April 31, count all the BMSBs you find in the home or garden. Enter that data online. That’s it.

After April 31, all the data will be collated and a BMSB distribution map will be created. Scientists will release the Samurai wasps in a controlled manner in the affected areas and help establish the wasps there so they can begin lowering the stink bug populations. At the same time, the scientists will be closely monitoring the presence of the wasp and how it might affect non-target insects. After all, we do not want another alien creature going rogue. At this point, the aim is to use the wasp for the single purpose of eradicating the BMSB.

So, lets all get started. A common enemy to unite us all!

Note: The date for my garden’s Open Day through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Day Program is set! Mark your calendars! Saturday May 13 from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. No excuses. Be there!

Protective tents on the ready

Protective tents on the ready

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Icicles

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Adult female Brown Marmorated Stink Bug ( photo – https://njaes.rutgers.edu/stinkbug/identify.asp)

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

March Madness

From the first of this month till today, we have gone from balmy, 60 degree temperatures to stormy, highly windy to, extremely cold and dry and now back to spring like conditions. That is in the span of exactly one week. Craayzeeee!

The snowdrops are practically done for. They shone all too briefly. There must be utter confusion underground. I imagine the assorted bulbs talking all at once in a state of panic trying to decide if it’s time to get going yet. The snowdrops are probably saying – “It’s madness up there guys! I wouldn’t risk it just yet.” And I’ll bet the scillas are hesitantly wondering if they ought to listen or just take their chances. No doubt the hyacinths are flexing their muscles and scornful of their more delicate cousin. Meanwhile, the irises are shrugging their corms and listening to the ensuing chaos happy in the knowledge that they do not need to decide anything this early. They get to snooze a few weeks longer.

I’m kind of glad I am a bit behind schedule in trimming back the old foliage on the hellebores. The emerging flowers ought have enjoyed the protection this past weekend. I intend to remove those leaves tomorrow.

Typically, at this time of year, I’m already looking into acquiring pansies and primroses to set the stage for spring. The spring window-boxes are put up a week before the vernal Equinox. Perhaps that will happen this weekend. It really is time to start on the spring clean up and schedule plantings and sowing.

After the barely-there winter, the feeling of spring is almost anti-climactic. There is none of the usual dramatic shift from frigid and bare to pleasant and green. It’s as though spring has been creeping in slowly for a while and appears to have made some sort of cohabitation deal with winter. I personally find this frustrating. Are we done with winter or not? Is she going to drag her feet? I’d like to know one way or other. I have plenty of work to do but the weather doesn’t seem to care one whit about that. It is clearly having a blast tormenting gardeners all around.

So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m starting with the hellebores. Then, I shall begin cleaning up in earnest. Next, set up the window-boxes. This should clearly be a declaration that this garden is spring-ready. And by that time, we ought to know if winter is finally letting go of her hold on us.

In these unpredictable, unsettling times, I really need to get started in the garden – my sanity depends on it.

I hope you enjoy my watercolor rendition and poem below:

Snowdrop. watercolor

Snowdrop. watercolor

Snowdrop

Diminutive cousin of Amaryllis

emerging from Eurasian roots

Harking back to Winter’s white

Alluding to Springs chartreuse.

Visiting just long enough

to reassure seasons change

Never overstaying her welcome

Her departure prearranged.

Sweet bells hang low

So ants can hear them ring

calling to come feast

Depart with seeds to fling

Homer’s magical herb moly

disarms all human hearts

When small can be mighty

and staying humble is an art.

Shobha Vanchiswar

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Indian Summer

No, not that kind of Indian summer. I’m talking about summer in India. Okay, so it is still February and not actually called summer in India but it is 90 degrees in Mumbai and definitely feels like summer. So there.

Strange as it feels to bask in this heat having only just left New York in the throes of winter ( which apparently is currently simulating spring), I’m instantly transported to the summers of my early childhood. The scene here is actually nothing like those memories – hot and dusty, it already looks parched and eager for the monsoon rains. The trees and shrubs while appearing to be robust impart an air of exhaustion from the layer of dust choking the leaves. As though newly arrived from great journeys, they hang like weary travelers in need of food, drink and a long shower.

The air is drier than usual. Mumbai being an island in the Arabian Sea, is prone to the humidity characteristic of all coastal regions. I’m not missing the humidity however. The dry heat is much more tolerable. At the markets, ‘winter’ fruits are still found. Grapes and citrus mostly. Guavas are just beginning to emerge on the fruit sellers carts. I see lots of tomatoes which feels kind of odd as I’ve grown accustomed to them flavoring my summers back home but, certainly not unusual for these climes to have tomatoes all year round. It is simply a bit confusing for my jet-lagged mind.

But reverting to my childhood summers, I feel a sense of nostalgia. No doubt the years since have cast a romantic hue on those memories. I might even be mixing up the plants. Still, I remember the hot reds and oranges of the canna flowers punching the white hot days. The bright sunlight sent us kids to seek the shade of porches and trees. Too hot for physical play, we resorted to old-fashioned games with stones and shells that tested our hand-motor skills and did not require much exertion. The sounds of cicadas and other insects provided a back drop of discordant music that was well suited to our own rather unchecked vocals. The birds only bothered to sing in the early morning.

I remember lobbing stones to knock down still green mangoes from their tall trees. Some of those trees did not belong to any of us children but, that never hampered our ambitions. The tart-sweet flesh sprinkled with salt and red chili powder made a most heavenly snack. Ditto for the tamarind fruit. Come to think of it, these were remarkably natural, healthy foods that somehow fooled us into thinking we were indulging in something terribly naughty. Of course, too much of even these resulted in tummy aches and maternal scoldings.

What I recall most intensely were the aromas of the season. During the day, the high temperatures dissipated any smells. But come dusk as the heat abated, the perfume of frangipani competed mightily with the evening jasmine. The roses had a fragrance so strong that I was prone to coveting them. So much so that I’d actually eat the petals as though wanting to contain their power within my body. Gardenias were not as common but whenever they were present, even a single flower in bloom would perfume the air for miles around. There was no getting away from scents those evenings. Almost everything had a smell but the ones that chose to be subtle got overlooked.

It has been many moons since those summers of my youth but memories are strong. It takes only a wave of Mumbai heat to trigger them. And for a spell, I’m transported to my time in the gardens that gave me my life long love for nature. A gift every child should be so blessed to receive.

Note: As I don’t have images of those memorable gardens of my past, I’m offering up some of my watercolor renditions of warm weather flowers. Enjoy! May they evoke your own set of memories and dreams.

And do go see the exhibit I’m in at the ASL this week.

Cleome

Cleome

Nasturtium

Nasturtium

Rose

Rose

Sunflower

Sunflower

Orchid

Orchid

Monarda

Monarda

Lily

Lily

Hollyhock

Hollyhock

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Feeling February

After a rather mediocre rendition of winter from December and January, February has come on fierce! Snow, ice, freezing rain, high winds, black ice – you name it, we’re getting it. This I recognize. It was beginning to feel a bit unsettling when there were so many above normal temperature days. So now, as inconvenient as it might be, I’m comfortable with the more seasonal weather . Do I like risking life and limb every time I step outside? Absolutely not. My eyes label every dark patch as black ice and my feet begin walking so gingerly that I’ve turned into a poster child for the paranoid.

Still, the mass of snow protecting the garden is heartwarming. I suffered thinking of the plants left exposed to the cold and wind. And I fretted that the milder days might fool the hibernating bulbs into thinking it was time to awaken. So yes, this typical blast of real winter is making me feel better.

It’s funny how we long for sojourns to the tropics when we are in the throes of winter weather and moan about the treachery of traversing the icy roads. Summer cannot come to soon right? Yet, even a slight shift in the climate is cause for alarm. It can bring about big changes quite quickly leaving inadequate time for both flora and fauna to adapt. This then affects everything else. A sudden snowfall in Florida puts paid to the citrus harvest. A mild winter in the North lowers the water table, adversely affects towns reliant on winter sports and related businesses, plants requiring a proper period of cold begin to struggle when the growing season restarts and so on and so forth. As I write, the winds are gusting hard. Fallen trees are blocking off roads and even delaying train service, schools were delayed this morning due to black ice on bus routes and, power outages are spreading. There is no question, our lives are intimately entwined with nature.

Time spent in nature is critical to our mental, physical and spiritual well-being. Mankind has known that from ancient times. Science has confirmed that belief. It is now up to us to oversee that which is so important to our health.

We owe it to ourselves, future generations and all of life to preserve, protect and enjoy this beautiful, bountiful planet.

Recommended reading while you’re cozying up to the fireplace and the wind is howling outside:

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative. By Florence Williams

Happy Valentine’s Day one and all!

Note:

February 20 – 25 I have some paintings in NYC group show. Please visit!

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Enjoy these images apropos Valentine’s Day:

Stone hearts

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Heart in the snow

Ooty Bot garden

Dried leaf heart

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

Spring Will Come. I Promise.

I just returned from an all too brief visit to the Netherlands. Despite the cold, the flower shops there are already in full spring mode. I cannot even begin to express my joy at the sight of spring bulbs displayed in the storefronts. For that period of time, all felt well in the world.

So, instead of belaboring on just how much plants can uplift our spirits and remind us that life goes on, I offer you some of the images that filled my heart with optimism. Let them fill yours.

Remember, no matter how dark our days are right now, spring is on its way. I promise. Stay hopeful, be helpful.

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Weathering The Storm

I’m writing a day ahead of when I usually do because I’m traveling tomorrow. Presently, while other parts of the country are already hit by bad weather, we in the Northeast are bracing ourselves for a Nor’easter. It’s funny how the knowledge of impending storms alerts our flight or fight responses. At once we gauge how prepared we are to face the ‘enemy’.

The wind has picked up, the skies are overcast and the temperatures have dropped. The birds are nowhere to be seen – they have all sought safe havens. Right away I check if everything outdoors is tethered/secured/put away. Still, I know the winds can tear through trees breaking off limbs and even uprooting them all together. Which in turn, can create further damage. This is of course beyond my control so, I hope for the best. Presumably, the pruning and cutting-back done in the fall will have paid off.

The greenhouse has been fired up and the plants are watered. Short of a truly unpredictably devastating storm, it should be fine.

Indoors, flashlights and candles are on the ready for potential power outages. There is food in the larder and wood in the fireplace. Books and boardgames picked out. Have I missed anything?

News of an impending storm should be less of a call to action and more of an opportunity to up my energy and resolve to do what is right, assess my performance so to speak – to take stock of myself, my home and all that I hold dear. Do I have what’s needed? Are things in good shape? Am I doing all I can to protect and preserve? An ongoing checklist is one way I keep myself organized and accountable. I definitely don’t want to be caught sleeping on the job.

And that’s what it comes down to – preparation. It’s easy to sit back when all is fine but having a plan, keeping necessaries in store and information available in case of conditions worsening is vital. Otherwise, it’ll feel really bad when we’re hit.

When the signs of an approaching storm are all there, it does not pay to sit back. Instead, confront with knowledge and readiness. In place of panic, may calm, resilient , wise minds prevail.

Because, in the end, this too will pass.

My friend Julie's garden after a storm.  Changed her woodland garden some.

My friend Julie’s garden after a storm. Changed her woodland garden some.

The greenhouse

The greenhouse

In the greenhouse

In the greenhouse

Camellia in bud in the greenhouse

Camellia in bud in the greenhouse

In my friend and orchid guru Bill Smiles' greenhouse

In my friend and orchid guru Bill Smiles’ greenhouse

Inside the house

Inside the house

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Doing Right The Old-Fashioned Way

So, here we are in the third week of January. A strange January at many levels but I’ll stick to the weather. Every day of seasonal weather, has been counter-pointed with a not so seasonal day. What is one to make of this irregularity with regard to the garden? Beats me!

While we, as a world community come to grips with climate change and pressure our leaders to implement policies to deal with it, I am doing my level best to do my part in my own little piece of earth. I have no control of the weather itself but I do have the power to make informed, intelligent choices.

From the start, when we bought our house a good 24 years ago, I made a conscious decision to go organic. At that time, it was not so simple or even popular to be organic. It made me seem like a throwback to the ‘60s. A hippie-flower child wanna be. Nurseries did not carry many organic pest-control products, compost was barely understood. This being the years before the Internet or Google, I had to do my research the ‘old-fashioned’ way. That took a fair amount of time but I actually ended up learning more than a search permits today. When specific information can be conjured up instantly, there is no opportunity for detours into related and not so related topics.

I mail ordered my composter and when I excitedly announced its arrival, I was met with responses that ranged from puzzled to amused smiles and told I was so ‘quaint’, a ‘modern hippie’ or ‘trés new age-y’. Re-purposing an oak wine barrel to a water butt elicited similar reactions. Ditto for the manual, push-reel mower that I had such a hard time finding. When I began introducing native plants in the garden, I was told more than once that I was growing ‘very common’ plants. Some pronounced them ‘weeds’.

I sourced neem oil, seaweed and fish emulsion, lady bugs, Bacillus thuringiensis, nitrogen fixing microbes and made other products like comfrey ‘tea’ (best fertilizer!) at home. Those were the good old days!

Today, almost everything is available at my local nursery and what isn’t can be ordered super-easily on-line. Instead of the calender reminding me when to do what and physically making the effort to monitor temperatures and precipitation, I have apps and digital gadgets that have simplified everything. While these have freed me up for other matters and provide a certain peace of mind, they also push me away from my garden to a certain extent. I do not have to actually be in the garden quite as much. I realized this a couple of years ago and missed my 100% hands on approach. So now, although I enjoy the benefits of modern technology, I consciously putter around the garden no matter what. My physical, mental and spiritual well-being depends on it.

I still have the same composter and rain barrel. The mower was upgraded to a lighter, better manual model – there is now a choice! All the organic products are readily available. Towns offer free compost and mulch to their residents. Nurseries now proudly carry numerous native plants and some even have a whole section devoted to them. In fact, in current parlance, organic, native and ecologically sound practices are trending. Our forefathers would no doubt be highly amused by our ‘modern and progressive’ ways.

Meanwhile, I’m determined to plug away ethically, with integrity and, put up with whatever the weather blows my way. There is absolutely no excuse for anybody to do otherwise.

Note: Enjoy my watercolor renderings of a few of the natives that grow in my garden. Do they look common or weedy to you?!

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

All Present And Accounted For

At last it feels like winter. This past weekend brought bitter cold and a decent dose of snow. With the wild fluctuations in temperature and precipitation all through the past year, it has been hard to predict how the garden will fare. There have been many moments of anxiety for sure. The welfare of every single plant matters to a gardener. While we’re learning to adapt and adjust, a degree of stress underlies those efforts. So, when it snowed for the first time this year, I was elated. It felt normal.

Finally, there was enough snow to play. Toboggans, X-country skies and walking poles came out in full measure and local parks were alive with winter activities. Normal!

I personally, reveled in the normalcy in the garden. To see the snow cover spread across the ground felt good. The hibernating plants were now cozy and insulated. As well they ought. It was comforting and reassuring. Two factors that have been rather elusive lately.

I’m resolved to enjoy this gift. I’m aware that at present, 49 of the 50 states have snow on the ground which means this is not normal for several. The unpredictability of the weather or anything else is disconcerting. Hence, when we are given a slice of business as usual, we need to savor it.

As such, our own winter conditions here are headed for a dramatic change later in the week. So, I am determined to cherish what I have today.

The way the snow emphasizes all the undulations in the garden, the shadows that contrast so starkly with the pristine white, how the sunlight chisels the snow and makes it shimmer, the clear footprints telling of intrepid birds and squirrels are all a thrill. What gets defined and what gets masked changes the usual landscape to something new and interesting. I’m so fortunate to witness this ephemeral show.

Who knows what tomorrow will unfold. But for now, I’m content. This moment matters.

Enjoy these garden snow scenes:

Breathe slow and deep. Calm the mind and just be.

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

A New Year, A New Day

A brand new year. A clean slate. I look forward to it just as I used to approach a new notebook in grade school. The crisp, blank pages. The smell of new paper. Full of opportunities. Another chance to do better. I was for sure going to write more carefully and thoughtfully. Fewer mistakes, neater writing, top notch work. I could almost see my resolve come true.

On the cover, I’d write my name slowly and deliberately. I was owning this book which was potentially going to be my best effort yet. As I opened to that first page on the right side, I invariably felt a tiny shiver of excitement. The untouched right side of the book always felt better than the left. I usually started well. And then came my first writing error to spoil it all. No amount of careful erasing or scratching out could make it perfect again. Now I was free to go back to my old, careless ways. They felt more comfortable and familiar. Besides, who cared? What difference did it make? I’d console myself that it was no big deal and not worth all that extra effort. It was back to business as usual. Until the next new notebook.

Over the decades, I’ve learned to simply resolve to do better. Not only at the start of a new year but more particularly, as I begin each new day. Every day is a fresh chance to reach my highest potential and be fully engaged in life. This approach allows me to accept and forgive myself for mistakes and at the same time provides me with continued opportunities to improve myself. Scarlett O’Hara was right. Tomorrow is another day.

In the garden, I shall put in this practice of everyday mindfulness with greater determination. It is all too easy to get caught up in the busy-ness of life and neglect to observe key goings on in the garden. On looking back through last year, all the things I failed to notice or do are blatantly apparent and yet, at that time, in the throes of whatever seemingly more pressing activity, I was oblivious to them. Sometimes, the oversight is understandable but often it is not. I want to change that. My garden is my muse after all.

To that end, I’m going to do three things related to the garden. A daily tour of the garden where I take in all the happenings. What is in bloom, how the plants look, the insects and birds going about their business and, what needs attention besides the alternate days of weeding and deadheading.

Then, that very day, I will address whatever can be taken care of. It could be a plant needing staking or trimming, applying an organic control at the first sign of disease or pest or, scheduling a task that requires more time or the help of a professional.

Finally, to spend time simply enjoying the garden and being grateful for what it bring to my life. It might mean painting quick watercolor sketches, taking photographs, writing a poem, observing insect or avian activity, studying the beauty of a peony or breathing in deeply the clove scented perfume of the phlox. To see, hear and feel the garden is to truly know the garden.

Both garden and gardener have everything to gain and nothing to lose with this plan.

May 2017 be all that you wish it to be.

I offer you a painting, a short poem and a photograph:

A watercolor of Hollyhock

A watercolor of Hollyhock

 

 Somewhere

Somewhere it is already spring
Someplace the hyacinth has stretched awake
Somehow my soul is sure.

Today's rain on yesterday's ornamental cabbage

Today’s rain on yesterday’s ornamental cabbage

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Looking Back, Looking Forward

The last week of 2016. I typically spend some of these last days to reflect upon the year that’s drawing to a close and plan for the incoming one. It has been a year fraught with every emotion imaginable. It will be interesting to see what 2017 brings. Fingers crossed.

As I review how the garden and I performed over the past twelve months, I’m struck by how much actually worked out well. Invariably, the things that did not do well or what I failed to take care of appear to be outdone by what did go well. It seems one tends to give a disproportionate amount of attention to the failures without giving enough mind to all the successes. As I go over the year’s garden photos, I’m pleased to see that both garden and gardener get a reasonably good report card.

In the spirit of staying hopeful and optimistic, I offer up images from each of the months of 2016. Lets focus on the joys and beauty that nature unfailingly provides. Allow them to serve as reminders that even in the darkest hours, there is always the certainty that the sun will rise again. Together, we can and will make the best of 2017.

Happy New Year one and all!

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar