Hanging Out With Hellebores

Spring! It’s definitely staging a comeback. Where I reside, it’s not quite so obvious but the signs are there. The snowdrops are up. However, one has to look a bit harder to notice that the witch hazel is quietly gracing the garden with its tassels of flowers and characteristic fragrance. Bulbs like daffodils and hyacinths are fearlessly pushing through the still crusty earth and slender spears of crocus appear as though they were secretly planted in the cover of night. The climbing hydrangea is studded with fattening buds. I hear birdsong more clearly; it’s only a matter of time before feathered couples will begin house hunting. Everywhere, one can observe nature coming alive.

Which brings me to hellebores. In my opinion, no garden should be without them. They live to serve the gardener. Starting from that time of year when you know winter is still in session but you cannot help look for some signal that spring is on its way, one need only check carefully at the base of the hellebores. Nestled close to the ground, safely tucked under the canopy of large leaves of the previous year, the shy buds have silently emerged. Long before anything else is stirring, the hellebore gives a sweet heads up for spring. This singular sight is reassuring and exactly what an impatient gardener needs.

Soon after, it’s time to cut back the old leaves and unleash the new growth. Stands of upright stems extravagantly displaying cup-shaped flowers nodding in the garden are sure sights of spring. Single, semi-double or double, the hellebore flowers appear as though painted in watercolor. Translucent and soft, the hues range from dark, almost black to deep pink to rose to cream to yellow. Some new varieties sport petals gently edged in a complementary color recalling finely hand-painted porcelain cups of another era.

There are today a variety and color that would suit every taste or situation. The flowers last a very long time – often through summer. The colors may fade or deepen and turn less showy as the season progresses but I still love their look. Hellebores self seed very easily and some gardeners complain about it but in my experience, if you mulch diligently, then it is not a problem at all. The mulch suppresses the seeds from germinating. I typically get only a few seedlings that I often pot up to give away or plant elsewhere in the garden.

Hellebores prefer deep soil rich in hummus, moist but not soggy. They do not require regular feeding. I find that an annual application of compost topped with the mulch of wood chips is sufficient. The plants do best in cool, semi-shaded locations. At a full height of about 18 to 24 inches and a spread of the same, they are ideal in border fronts. The large leaves will shade out more diminutive neighbors so plant accordingly. In the fall, I let the leaves remain to protect the following season’s young buds and remove them only around late March. Hellebores are slow growing and do not get too big so it is best to not divide them. To grow your collection, get new plants or start from seed.

In pots – Because of their extensive root system, they require large pots to allow for growth. A nurseryman friend recently presented me with a couple of hellebores in bloom potted up splendidly in a French zinc pot. While I adore how beautiful it looks on my dining table, I think the plants are displaying a restlessness as though they want to be planted in the ground. As soon as the thaw happens, I will do exactly that.

Hardy, low-maintenance, easy to grow and oh so dependable, hellebores are a mainstay in my garden. Bonus – deer generally stay away from them.

Hanging out with hellebores is indeed a very good thing.

Note: I’m in the upcoming New Horizons art show in Cos Cob, Greenwich, CT. Do stop by to take a look! April 2 – 28. Click here for details.

Mark your calendar – my garden Open Day is May 18, 2019.

Here are images of some of the hellebores I hang out with:

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Friends With Benefits

Did the title grab your attention? I thought so.

This past week, my garden was enriched by a bunch of plants given to me by various friends. First, I received a couple of plants as a hostess gift from Marco. He’d dug up these special gems from his own rather exceptional garden. Alchemilla erythropoda and Aruncus aethusifolius – two miniature gems to beguile the side path of my garden.

Earlier in July, I was asked to identify a ‘mystery’ plant that had suddenly cropped up in numbers in friend Pat’s garden. They turned out to be the native orchid Galearis. This too is a diminutive plant. Pat offered me some of these and being the greedy gardener that I am, I readily accepted. After consulting with my orchid expert friend Bill, it was decided that the orchids are best transplanted after the flowers had finished blooming. That happened last week. Perfect additions to my native plant collection in the ‘meadow’.

On my morning walk last Friday, I stopped to chat with a neighbor who was working in her pretty garden. Suzy was dividing her Siberian irises. She generously suggested I take some and once again, I accepted with shameless alacrity. A few of my own irises have mysteriously disappeared over the years so I’m particularly pleased to get this gift.

Finally, my friend Julie offered me her Calycanthus as she is selling her house and that shrub was bought some years ago when we were having a splendid day together at a rare plant sale. She has been given unlimited visiting rights to check on her beloved plant.

Yesterday, all the gifts were planted in my garden. They will hopefully thrive and enhance it. In addition, they and so many others like them, will be endearing reminders of memorable moments, special relationships and bonds. For garden and gardener, it is win-win all the way. The very stuff that sweetens life.

Note:

I’m very pleased to be in this show. Hope you will visit!

Here are my ‘friendly benefits’:

Alchemilla erythropoda – potted up for now. Will be planted in ground in the fall.

Aruncus aethusifolius – also temporarily in a pot.

Irises

Calycanthus

So many ferns from John!

A gift from the past – Bianca rose from Henriette

Ornamental raspberry – also from Marco many moons ago.

So many ferns from John!

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Rocky Hills Reboot!

Two years ago, when Henriette Suhr died, the fate of her beloved and spectacular gardens at Rocky Hills was uncertain. After all, who knew when the property would sell, who would buy it and would they be interested in maintaining the gardens. That the public would get to visit Rocky Hills again was understandably somewhat remote. But, one could hope for the best.

Well, the powers that be must’ve felt the powerful energy beseeching them to safeguard Rocky Hills. Exactly a year ago, Barbara and Rick Romeo became the new owners and a force 10 sigh of relief was felt amidst the members of the Rocky Hills devotees. The Romeos are the ideal couple to step into the ownership of RH.

They have lived in the area for a long time, are pillars of the community, gotten to know and appreciate RH, and were friends with Henriette. Barbara is a talented, knowledgeable and thoughtful gardener in her own right. RH couldn’t be in better hands.

There is no doubt that Henriette is truly resting in peace.

I am thrilled to say that this coming Saturday, May 20, from 10 am to 4 pm, Rocky Hills will be open to the public once more. I beg you to not miss this event!

Gardens are never meant to be static. They must evolve over time and rightfully get transformed as different gardeners and different times make their mark. It’ll be exciting to see how RH thrives with the Romeos. And thrive it surely will.

While my heart is indelibly marked with the most wonderful memories of RH, I’m so eager to see how it develops and changes. Henriette would be the first person to say that revisions and innovations are the hallmarks of any healthy garden.

Assuredly, the Romeos have the daunting responsibility of a legendary garden but they are more than up to the challenge. I, for one, wish them the very best. Their generosity in sharing this garden is a true gift to all of us.

May Rocky Hills live long and prosper.

Please enjoy these images of RH taken over the years:

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Henriette in my garden

Henriette in my garden

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(c) 2017 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

 

Gone With The Wind

Way back this past September, I wrote about the outdoor sculpture I had commissioned. It has been exciting following its evolution from conception to realization. A few weeks ago, it was installed and I’m so pleased with how it looks.

If you remember, I had planned for the sculpture to be positioned near the old apple tree heavily draped in Paul’s Himalayan musk rose. Since the tree was really gasping its last breaths, the plan was to have a support structure at the very top of the sculpture that would hold up the canopy of rose limbs. Said structure would be nicely concealed by the thorny mesh of the rose and not take anything away from the sculpture itself.
The rose canopy is a haven for birds and I really couldn’t bear the thought of losing it once the tree completely bought it. While both sculptor and husband were not sold on my desire to save the rose, they agreed to indulge me.

After the sculpture was set in place, the idea was to create the support in situ just after Thanksgiving. Well, if you recall, the weekend before Thanksgiving we experienced four full days of fierce winds. Really fierce. And cold. On the morning of windy day #3, I awoke to see tree and rose lying on the ground. The tree had lost its fight. Totally broke my heart.

We had to wait for the weather to calm down before checking the state of the rose. The main limb had been stressed and twisted so it is hard to say if it can be revived. For now, it has been moved to a location beyond the meadow near a maple which can be a good support should the plant survive. There is more light in the place where the apple tree used to be. And I’m sure there are plants in the meadow that will welcome the expanded breathing space. Still, I worry that I’ve let the birds down. I plan on making amends by planting several shrubs. Given that the neighbor’s rather unattractive chain-link fence is now more visible, the shrubs will do double duty. Conceal and shelter.
I’m hoping to afford mature, native plants so they can get to work ASAP.

Admittedly, without the presence/shade of the tree/rose, the sculpture displays better. Deservedly so. I’m thoroughly enjoying the way the metal surfaces reflect the environment in a wavy, trance-like manner, how the sunlight strikes it at the different hours, the negative space created between and around the shapes and the moods of the weather echoed.
I have a strong suspicion this was divine intervention. My elaborate, well intended bid to save the rose with a complicated support was not deemed worthwhile. It was time to let go. Thankfully, neither husband nor sculptor have said I told you so.

P.S. I’m going to name the sculpture and I’ve whittled my choices down to ‘Wind Song’ or ‘Tango’.
Which one has your vote? I’d love to know!

Note: Don’t forget to check out the much anticipated Annual Holiday Art and Book Sale at the New York Art Students League.

Enjoy the images of my new sculpture! (Sculptor Domenico Belli)

The sculpture when installed.

The sculpture when installed.

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Wind blown

Wind blown

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By itself

By itself

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

To Have And To Hold

This week, all across our country, families and friends will gather to celebrate my favorite holiday – Thanksgiving. To come together to express gratitude for all the blessings we have received is perhaps the highest, most noble reason to celebrate. In giving thanks, we acknowledge not just the blessings but we essentially own our responsibilities and purpose. Because, with receiving comes accountability.

When we sit at the Thanksgiving table and speak of our thankfulness for the much loved people in our lives, we are at the same time recommitting ourselves to those relationships and our roles in them. To be the best parent/spouse/sibling/friend/child and in doing so, we will not take it all for granted. If we are fortunate enough to have homes, jobs and/or lifestyles that we cherish, then we are depended upon to reciprocate with the necessary attention and diligence.

I gave this essay the title To Have And To Hold. The phrase is not reserved for just marriage vows. Every contract we enter into demands that we uphold that promise. To Have is to accept without any reservation the gifts given to us. To Hold is the pledge to value, protect, hold dear and rejoice in the gifts. These covenants are sacred. As we cherish, we must honor. This is what gives our lives meaning and significance.

My garden is high on my gratitude list. It offers me so much that I can only hope to return the favor to the best of my all too human abilities.
My piece of paradise keeps me humble and awed as it teaches me life lessons in patience, tolerance and crisis management. It is my muse for my art and writing. Its beauty inspires and enchants and in caring for it, it provides me much needed physical and psychological therapy. The garden comforts and cheers, puts life in perspective and still manages to entertain no matter what is happening with the weather, political climate or my private life.

In turn, I pledge anew to do right by my garden. To care for it to the best of my ability. Applying organic methods and a do no harm policy, I vow to protect, sustain and watch over it with love and good cheer.
After all, our health and happiness depend on each of us fulfilling our parts.

I wish each of you a Thanksgiving abundant in blessings.

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Still In Love!

Almost two years ago, I fell in love with Untermyer Gardens. See Love At First Sight for an account of that visit. I’d been intending to go back but somehow, busy schedules and events got in the way until this past Saturday. To say I was excited about returning to Untermyer would be a gross understatement. Still, a part of me bore some trepidation. Would I be just as enchanted?

This year, the gardens have received some mega-watt press coverage – well deserved due recognition. I am privileged to call head horticulturist, gardener extraordinaire and just downright nice guy Timothy Tilghman a dear friend. So I tend to follow closely all commentaries made about his work.

By arriving a couple of hours before sunset, the light, in my opinion, was just right for viewing and photographing. Predicted rain storms were nowhere in sight. The temperatures had dropped so it was no longer unbearably hot as it had been earlier in the day. All in all, perfect conditions for wandering in the gardens. Timothy awaited our small group with an eagerness only one who genuinely loves his job can muster at the end of a long work day.

As is customary, one begins with the pièce de résistance – the walled garden. Approaching the tall doorway, one immediately spies the main axis of the Indo-Persian design of the garden. And your breath catches. The canal of flowing water glimmers with the fractured reflections of the colors of a brilliant sunset. But these hues are not from the sky. They are from the riot of marigolds growing exuberantly on either side of the canal’s length. Imagine, marigolds! That lowly, gas-station staple was given center stage in this important space. Interspersed by Japanese holly and off set to the sides with rectangles of green lawn, the marigolds shone bright. Positively sophisticated. The juxtaposition of the ordinary flowers within the formality of the design was a stroke of artistic genius. Timothy and Marco Polo Stufano (of Wave Hill Gardens fame and my hero plantsman) had come up with the idea of marigolds – inexpensive, hardworking, effective and true to the required Indian provenance.

Marigolds are widely used in India – one sees them in abundance. Edging garden borders, filling up pots, fat garlands adorning temples, wedding halls, new cars, new houses and, anywhere a celebration is taking place. Growing up, I never paid much attention to the marigold. It was so ubiquitous. The fragrance of the plant is imprinted in my olfactory memory. In my garden in the northeastern US, it has never crossed my mind to plant marigolds. Too out of place and definitely not the right colors.

Now, here they were. Thousands of flowers used in a different way all together. Similarly colored cannas in pots continued the theme. Arrangements of other potted tropicals distinctive in their foliage added to the whole composition. The perennial borders along the perimeter of the gardens contrast beautifully with the annual display. Here one ( okay, me) picks up many ideas for plants to add to one’s own garden. Not as flamboyant but just as expressive, the plants strike a very nice chord.

I could’ve spent all my time in this garden alone. I was feeling my roots! But Timothy had much to show us. Future plans and projects were discussed and pointed out as we hiked the property, exploring ruins of past gardens, lingering in the Temple Of Love and envisioning the waterfalls flowing once again, imagining the thousands of daffodils on the ‘hill’. Pausing now and then to gaze at the Hudson river and the Palisades across. I was even more convinced of the importance of bringing all of the Untermyer gardens to life. Not simply restored but renewed. In keeping with history but also giving it voice to make more history. Timothy and his small team are more than up to the monumental task, its the funding that eludes. Sigh.

We remained till the sun set. Watching it, I was struck by our visit, just as I’d been two years ago – it had been magical. I felt a deep sense of gratitude to Timothy for giving the world this marigold summer. How utterly enriched we are.

As you look at the images below, I hope you will make it a point to visit Untermyer Gardens, Yonkers, NY. Free to the public! If you see Timothy, tell him I sent you. I can’t wait to see what annuals he will choose next year.

The Walled Garden

The Walled Garden


View from the entrance

View from the entrance


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View towards entrance from amphitheater

View towards entrance from amphitheater


A sample of the many mosaics

A sample of the many mosaics


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Out of the Walled-Garden!

Out of the Walled-Garden!


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Looking back up.

Looking back up.


The Temple Of Love

The Temple Of Love


(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

To Dream The Impossible Dream

Every February I dream a big dream. As I peruse garden books, magazines, seed and plant catalogs, I start envisioning new designs and projects for my garden. Never mind that many of them are impossibly large for my modestly sized Eden or prohibitively expensive or totally inappropriate for this climate. All is permissible in dreams. So let me be.

In my dream, the weather is invariably perfect. Days of sunshine and nights of steady drizzle. Temperatures are just this side of cool in spring and appropriately warm in summer. Humidity levels are most comfortable every day – where the sweat on the brow dries fast but not too fast.

There are no pests in my dream. None whatsoever. Birds, bees and butterflies thrive. Pollination is rampant and nests are happily built and occupied.

Healthy, happy plants abound. Following my exact designs, they grow to the right heights and shapes, in their assigned spaces. Chosen for color, texture, form and function, they perform precisely as envisioned.

And the flowers! They are blooming on cue and in right succession. The garden is awash in painterly hues all through the seasons. The combinations selected and arranged with care are mightily stunning.
Brilliant testimonials to the creative gardener.

This paradise is not without work. After all, getting my hands dirty and tending to chores will be highly rewarding in such a place. The weeds which are not too abundant come up with just a quick tug. The soil is rich and friable. Deadheading, staking, pruning and mowing keep me happily busy. Yet, I’m left with ample time to sit and enjoy my horticultural masterpiece.

What a dream! Please, let me indulge. It’ll get me through the winter.
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(c) 2013 Shobha Vanchiswar

In the garden 2011-06-24