Bend It Like Bakwin

My dear friend Mike Bakwin died on December 3. Since that day when I got word of the sad news, I’ve been spending a great deal of time thinking about him and our friendship.

Our mutual love of gardens and gardening brought us together about nine years ago. And then we discovered how much more we had in common. A lovely friendship flourished.

Mike was a man of great means that didn’t get in the way of relationships. I witnessed his philanthropy up close. Never for publicity or status, he got involved because he cared about the cause. He served on several boards and I was particularly aware of the ones to which I myself was connected albeit in a different capacity. At TeaTown Reservation, his concern for the environment and the imperative to preserve was apparent. As a keen fisherman, he understood the need for keeping the ecological balance and taking care of the land, water and air. At Untermyer, he genuinely believed in its restoration and what it could offer the community.

Mike’s own gardens were splendid and he was closely involved with every aspect of its creation and maintenance. This wasn’t simply an affluent person’s showpiece. It was his home – where he loved having family and friends visit and play. He shared magnanimously. He hosted fund raisers for charities and threw parties for friends. Heck, he had fruit orchards, a large caged house for soft fruit and a very big vegetable garden and donated almost all the produce.

He believed in stewardship of the land. When the property next to his came on the market, he bought it just so the land could be protected and not subdivided for development. A native plant meadow has been created there.

Speaking of friends, the man had plenty. From all walks of life. His insanely famous annual croquet party was a great testimonial to his generosity and vast army of diverse friends.

He knew how to enjoy life and make the most of every minute. I observed my friend take big bites of life and savor every chew. Always game for a get together, concert, lecture, performance or trip, he demonstrated his affection, wicked sense of humor and sharp intelligence. I could always count on him putting a person at ease when he attended my gatherings – he was sensitive, warm and kind.

Keeping up with developments and research in gardening, he’d consult me on various garden ideas and projects and I always felt truly honored and humbled that he thought so well of me. After all, the guy had access to just about all the horticultural luminaries/gods of the world. He was pragmatic and very down to earth ( no pun intended).

Mike Bakwin lived on his own terms. His love for his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren was so clear – I thought it simply wonderful. With his family and friends, he accepted each one as they were. No conditions, no hidden agendas.

I am blessed with many wonderful memories of our friendship and I miss him very much already. If I were to say just one lesson I learned from him it is this. Don’t waste any time – life is meant to be savored. With humor, curiosity and kindness.

Thank you Mike for being my friend. Your belief in me meant everything.

Note: Only four days left!

Memories –

Mike

Hanging out in my garden

Croquet award 2018

Mike was honored at Untermyer. June 2017

(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

In Someone Else’s Eden

As I mentioned last week, I’m away from home and kinda, sorta missing my garden. With all its imperfections and idiosyncrasies, it is after all my own piece of paradise. It’s where I feel most comfortable. My escape from everything – a sanctuary in the midst of quotidian chaos. Yet, here I am in Provence and I have absolutely nothing to complain about.

For all of three weeks I have the run of a home and garden that anyone with even the faintest of a heartbeat would be tripping over themselves to experience. I’m certainly making the most of it.

I’ll spare you most of the envy creating details and simply focus on the garden. It is two acres of Provencal charm. The garden doesn’t pretend to be anything but its authentic self and because of that, it not only works brilliantly but clearly requires only a minimal amount of upkeep. That is exactly what every gardener should aspire to create.

Instead of telling, I’ll show you. Enjoy. Witness its inspired simplicity and honest beauty.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Case For Windowboxes

I’ve always loved window boxes. Long before I could imagine ever having a piece of ground to cultivate, I knew I would have window-boxes. Traveling as an impoverished student and then as a newly employed but still living in rental apartments, I’d photograph all the charmingly adorned windows I came across. One day I too was going to have them.

The surest way to brighten up the facade of any house is to hang flower boxes. The sight pleases the eye and puts a smile on the face. It’s welcoming and says something positive about the occupants.

What one plants in them is up to the imagination and taste. Tasteful/ elegant/ gaudy/ showy/ seasonal/ loud/ simple/ modern/ minimalist/ cottage-y/ – it doesn’t matter. Go for it. I do however strongly suggest – only live plants please. No plastic or other faux material. Really. What’s the point of having window boxes if you’re going to put in fake plants?

They’re quite easy to maintain. I squeeze in more plants in this limited space than I would in a bed in the ground. I go for a look of abundance and exuberance. The old pillar, filler, spiller combination still holds true.

Contrary to what is widely suggested, I eschew potting soil and use top soil mixed with compost instead. While the former is deemed lighter and adequate, I find the latter much better for encouraging good, healthy growth. Water retaining crystals are sprinkled in the lower one-third of the box/pot. I fertilize once a month with an organic potion.

All this happens in sturdy box liners that fit into the boxes well. This not only makes it a snap to pot up but it also protects the wood of the boxes as it does not come in direct contact wit soil. Towards the end of a season when the boxes start looking peaky, I start the next season’s contenders in fresh, clean liners. And when I deem that the present lot is done for, the next batch of divas are waiting and ready to start performing.

The boxes are watered according to season and daily weather. In spring I can get away with just one thorough watering a week but in summer, the plants often get thirsty enough to demand a drink every other day. Access to the boxes from the inside allows convenient watering, deadheading and tidying up.

I often include fragrant plants in my mix – the perfume that wafts into the house is a real mood lifter. This past spring, the scent of the stock just bowled me over.

A few weeks ago, I was awakened by a curious sound that I could not immediately identify. On looking around the room whilst still in bed didn’t offer up any clue until from the corner of my eye I detected movement. Turning my head towards the window, I saw a hummingbird getting its early morning drink. Since then, I’ve been privileged to watch it almost every morning – so worth the early wake up call. Does my heart good knowing I’ve been of service.

This justifies everything.

Be inspired by the photos below!

My hummingbird alarm. (Picture is not clear as it was taken on my phone from my bed and through the window screen)

When there aren’t any windows …

(c) 2017 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

Budding Friends

Gardeners are a friendly bunch. But gardening itself is somewhat solitary. We look upon our plants as rather agreeable company. After all, plants make patient listeners and quiet supporters. Over time, trees and other long lasting plants become familiar friends we come to rely upon. I personally have been known to vent, confide and brainstorm with several of them as I’ve gone about weeding, pruning and planting. I’ve come to depend on their counsel and consolation. Any length of time in their presence does a world of good to my spirit and temperament.

I’ve worked out so many problems, sorted through various emotions and made sound decisions after opening up to my photosynthetic friends. Similarly, they have borne witness to the many celebrations and marked countless milestones. A gathering in my garden is an acknowledgement to the vital role its residents play in my life.

As with most gardeners, we share plants with each other. We trade, gift and covet each other’s plants freely. So when I wander through my own little Eden, those friends who gave me specific plants are also on my mind. These associations stay strong and alive forever. Some of those generous friends have passed on but their gifts remind and reassure. Their spirits are at home here. I cherish their company too.

Then there are the new friendships that come about in gardens. In my case, my garden’s open day is the ideal set up for making more friends. After all, those who come to see and appreciate the garden are typically kindred spirits. Especially the ones who brave inclement weather and/or drive fair distances to see the many gardens! I love my open days precisely because I get to meet some terrific new folk and reaffirm my fondness for those already known. I’ve learned all sorts of new stuff about plants, nifty gardening methods, new recipes, other fine gardens, obscure but terrific books and movies and, best of all, formed friendships that open more vistas in my life. My cup runneth over. I exist in a perpetual state of gratitude. Without all these friends, my life would be mind-numbingly dull.

At my most recent open day, I met a couple who, for some strange reason, felt as though I’d always known them. It felt comfortable. Well, listening to one’s instincts is good. A few days later, I was offered some lovely primula babies from their garden. Offer accepted!

This past Sunday, we had a most enjoyable visit and I came away with a rather embarrassingly generous haul of primulas from their totally charming garden. Pat and Jon, a million thanks.

You see how it works? I ended up with new plants, got to see a beautiful, new garden and gained two new friends. Budding friends indeed.

Note – All through the month of June, I will have my artwork on exhibit at the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library in North Salem. Do please go and take a look.

Now, enjoy the i-phone photos from Pat and Jon’s garden – I apologize to those reading on your phone or on Facebook as some of the images will appear upside down. On your laptops they will appear fine. Or, go directly to my website.

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The primulas!

The primulas!

Emma. Another new friend.

Emma. Another new friend.

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A charming collection of miniature hostas, geraniums and other gems.The hand is there for scale!

A charming collection of miniature hostas, geraniums and other gems.The hand is there for scale!

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(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

 

A Spring State Of Mind

Hallelujah, we’re back to more seasonal weather this week. The leaves are putting up a beautiful autumnal show, garden clean up is underway and, because gardeners are always optimistic and looking ahead, planting for spring has begun.

In my garden, all the tender perennials are tucked safely in the greenhouse which is filled to bursting. The meadow has got its annual mowing just in time for bulb planting. In the herb garden, apart from the still thriving Swiss chard, boxwoods and hellebores, the plants have been cut back. All that remains to be done here is the application of a good layer of compost mulch. The peonies along the side path have also been cut back. I have three new peonies waiting to be planted in the mix. In the front perennial beds, I’m letting the plants be for another couple of weeks. They look quite seasonal with the fading asters, the bright yellow foliage of amsonia, waving ornamental grasses and assorted seed heads.

All this work is leading up to the rather exhausting project of bulb planting. While the previously mentioned tasks signal the end of the growing season and the coming of winter, bulb planting demonstrates the certainty that spring will come again. Despite the guaranteed aches and pains that follow this annual activity, one cannot help feeling cheered by visions of happy bulbs sparkling and ushering in the spring. It is exactly such dreams that keep me going.

My order of about 700 bulbs arrived recently. The Eremurus I ordered require planting as soon as possible. The rest of the bulbs will be attended to in due course. While I absolutely crave the fox-tail lilies in my garden, my previous two attempts to grow them have been utter failures. Apparently, my garden does not meet their standards. This time will be my third and final try. I’m keeping fingers crossed tightly. I admit to a sense of desperation.

As promised last week, here are my tips for planting bulbs:

First and foremost, I order my bulbs by late June/early July. It allows me to go through the catalogs at a pleasurable pace and ensures that I get the specific bulbs I want in the quantity I want.
If you have not ordered any, local nurseries still have bulbs available. Hurry on there and get your share. No garden should be left out of a spring showing of bulbs.
Resolve to get your act together for next year’s bulb order.

When to plant : the rule of thumb is planting should happen after the soil temperature has dropped to about 55 degrees. In Europe, there is a timeline for different bulbs – snowdrops in early October, daffodils in late October, tulips in November, alliums in December etc but thankfully, here in the North-East, the various spring blooming bulbs can be done all at the same time once the temperature of the soil is suitable.

Select bulbs so that there is a sequence in the flowering. Starting with early bulbs like scillas and snowdrops to alliums and lilies into the summer.

Choose your bulbs wisely. No tulips in deer country but alliums and daffodils will do great. Similarly, don’t order small bulbs like scillas and snowdrops for areas thick with evergreen groundcover as the diminutive beauties will struggle to emerge through and gain visibility.

Plant the bulbs at the correct depths. Generally, that means three times the height of the bulb. When in doubt go deep. Except in the case of peonies and iris rhizomes – they need shallow planting or you will be rewarded with lush foliage but no flowers.

To achieve a cohesive yet dramatic look, order a larger quantity of of a few types of bulbs rather than a meager amount of a variety of them.

Invest in the right planting implements. It’ll make the work easier. Really.

The planting instructions that the bulbs arrive with are mere guidelines. I find it much more effective to plant my bulbs a bit closer than advised and in a mixed/scattered manner. In this way, I achieve a more natural, organic look.

To encourage reblooming and naturalization, after the blooms are done, let the leaves be. Do not braid them, tie them or remove them till they are completely yellow and done. Those leaves must be left to work hard to replenish the bulbs so they are fed and ready for the next time around.

When it comes to tulips, I consider them as annuals since most do not return the following year. However, I let the leaves die back and do not remove the bulbs. Every now and then, the tulips do make a comeback and gladden my heart no end. Restores my faith.

Enjoy my watercolor renditions of some favorite bulbs:

Hyacinth

Hyacinth

Tulip

Tulip

Daffodil

Daffodil

Scilla

Scilla

Crocus

Crocus

Iris reticulata

Iris reticulata

Lily

Lily

Iris

Iris

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Asters

Aster

Happy, hardy
freely clustered
Summer stars
scattered below
Butterflies gather
for astral encounters
From Peleides’ showers
till fall’s last glow.

Shobha Vanchiswar

If you have not as yet embraced asters then get going already! Robust, reliable natives that make fall shine. Low maintenance too. If I can remember, I cut back the plants by a third in July so the plants get bushy rather than leggy. Butterflies and bees of all kinds are drawn to them in droves. Every American garden ought to have asters.

The Aster is rightfully assigned as the flower for September. But oh! How it lights up October!

Note: I am participating in the Beaux shows in Dobbs Ferry, NY this week and  in White Plains, NY next week. Hope you can stop by!

Dobbs Ferry:

Dobbs Ferry Women’s Club House, 54 Clifton Place, Irvington, NY, United States

Public Viewing~Oct 14th / Reception & Awards ~Oct 16: 2PM-4PM

White Plains:

16 Annual Art Exhibit
of the
Woman’s Club of White Plains
305 Ridgeway
White Plains, NY 10605

Wednesday October 19 2-5 p.m. Exhibit Viewing
Thursday October 20 2-5 p.m. Exhibit Viewing
7 p.m.-Artists’ Reception (open to the public)

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Watercolor - Aster

Watercolor – Aster

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar