Learning Extension

Heading into February and winter feels soooo long! I’m itching to get going in the garden but that’s not going to happen for another two months. So, besides dreaming and planning, what’s a gardener to do? This is what I call my time to enrich my horticultural knowledge so I can garden smarter.

The Winter Lecture Series at the New York Botanical Gardens is one I look forward to eagerly. I’ve had the pleasure of listening to some truly impressive horticultural giants and I’ve learned so much from each. Coming up next in this year’s series is Arne Maynard – I’ve followed his work for years and can’t wait to hear him in person. Tickets can go fast so book early!

Bonus – In attending these lectures, you often get to see several garden world glitterati also in attendance. See, they too value such talks.

Next, I use the winter to catch up on the pile of garden magazines for which I had no time during the growing season. Apart from our own excellent American publications, I subscribe to a few from other countries. It’s nice to keep up with research, new practices and trends all over the world.

Bonus- The gorgeous photographs will keep you excited and make you up your ante in your own garden. Nothing like a firm yet subtle nudge to reach higher.

Extra bonus for reading magazines very late – When magazines arrive, they typically offer articles pertaining to the moment/month/season at hand. While they might be inspiring, it’s too late to act on the information for the present. Frankly, despite any notes I might make, I cannot expect myself to remember to refer to them or summon the same level of enthusiasm when the next appropriate time to act comes around. Unlike fashion magazines, new developments, trends and information in gardening are not short-lived. By reading the publications in winter, I have the luxury of time to immediately research the resources, plan, design, set up appointments with professionals such as masons and tree experts and order plants, tools and such. When spring rolls up, I’m all ready to go.

Visiting public gardens and conservatories both locally and in my winter travels/escapes is still an additional way to see and learn. Taking the time to observe means I really get to understand how and why specific designs and plants work.

Bonus – Lingering in the warm, humid conservatories that are often fragrant to boot, is wonderfully therapeutic. Almost, as though I went to a spa. My mind and skin emerge nourished.

Finally, this year, I’ve decided to do something about the occupational hazards of gardening. I’m talking about those aches and pains that arise from the physical demands of the innumerable tasks in the garden. And over the years, chronic pain is a real hindrance for many gardeners. So, this past weekend, I’ve registered with my local Continuing Education center for a course in the Alexander technique which is all about un-learning the way we typically move to do routine tasks and instead re-learn how to do them so we do not keep hurting ourselves. Moving smarter.

Bonus – I’m looking forward to meeting people in this class with whom I can share stories about my aches and pains.

Now, how are you whiling away your winter?

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Tips In The Thaw

So, from temperatures suitable to the tundra we went to spring over the weekend. On Saturday, the thermometer outside my kitchen window registered a solid 55 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s expected to creep up to 57 today. Kinda crazy but oh so welcome. Puts me in a Spring frame of mind.

While I have no idea how these impressive fluctuations in temperature will affect the plants, I’m staying optimistic. After all, it’s in the plant’s best interest to survive. However, I do fervently wish the garden pests are not that determined and succumb to the stress of the cold. What a boon that would be.

This blast of balmy weather has got my sap flowing and I’m corralling my plant catalogs, garden magazines, photographs and notes made on assorted pieces of paper. Dreams must be examined and turned into reality one hopes. New plants to source and their residency in the garden determined. At this stage of the planning, I’m naturally delusional and write up a wish list that only a garden the size of Versailles could accommodate. I’m aware of this but it’s so much fun to dream. Reality will hit all to soon and that list will ultimately fit on a Post-It.

In the UK, that mecca of gardens and gardeners, they are ahead of us by a couple of months. Some are already talking about noting emerging buds on shrubs and such. Snowdrops are in bloom! Meanwhile, here in New York, I cast my eyes around my modest, snow clad garden and there’s nary a sign of anything. Sigh. However, it’s all a matter of time. Here too spring will arrive. In any case, it’s the anticipation that truly excites. Planning at this time is the perfect way to enjoy the wait. Of course, being prepared means we can get started on the garden as soon as possible.

It is not simply about plants and designing /redesigning borders. To be honest, I’m not looking to do anything drastic or dramatic this year. Some additions, a little tweaking and a whole lot of TLC. I’m always looking to learn new, improved methods and practices. To garden smarter.

So far, I’ve come up with two tips to ease my work and still be eco-friendly. The first has to do with my vegetable bed. This is a small rectangle in the herb garden that largely supports cool weather greens as it gets only a limited amount of sunlight. Shade notwithstanding, weeds still thrive in this compost enriched area and it’s a real nuisance to keep up with them.

This year, I’m going to try the “ stale seed bed method. The area is first cultivated and then, instead of sowing right away, the bed is cultivated repeatedly – once a day for two weeks. As mine is a small space, it will not be as much work as it sounds. What this practice does is eliminate weeds whose seeds might have been embedded from the previous year and other pests like slugs. It’s starting from zero so to speak.

The second tip concerns my boxwoods. Those in the ground and the ones wintering in pots in the greenhouse will be pruned earlier than usual – in early to mid- March when fungal spores are not active. The cuttings will not be composted – instead they will be tossed away with the garbage. Keeping a bucket of a solution of vinegar handy means periodically dunking the pruners to sterilize them. Boxwood blight is a real threat and being scrupulously clean is imperative.

I will keep you posted about how these two applications work out. Should you try them yourself, please share your experience as well. Remember – we’re stronger together.

Note: As we’re dreaming of spring, here some watercolor renditions of spring blooms. The real ones will be visible soon enough! Enjoy.

FYI – some of these images are available in note cards and/or on fabric related products  ‘The Printed Garden’. Do check out shop.

Yardage is available on spoonflower.com .

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

January Jubilation

We’re already half-way into January – where did the time go?! It’s as though the new year was welcomed only yesterday. Yet, the record low temperatures we’re experiencing has made the days seem slow. Apart from a brief spike in temperature towards the end the last week, it really has been unbearably cold. On the up side, this has made me turn to the indoors. I’m reorganizing and rearranging. During the course of the years, so much in the house goes by the way side when engaged in the purpose of living. Now is the perfect time to look around and take stock of all those neglected tasks. A lick of paint, a spot of cleaning, some repair, a few replacements and a whole lot of editing. I’m cleaning up and paring down. In getting rid of anything that is no longer useful and re-purposing other items to serve me the way I now live, I’m giving my home up to my speed. Nothing dramatic or elaborate but significant to me nonetheless. Taking on this ‘project’ is infusing me with an enormous dose of enthusiasm. The sense of aligning the home space to one’s current lifestyle is pure bliss.

That doesn’t mean I’m not looking outside. I gaze at the garden in winter from the windows and whenever I’m feeling brave enough, the occasional turn in the garden itself. It is garden-dreaming season after all. The bones of the garden show up clearly in winter. And for the most part, I’m liking what I see. There is sufficient visual interest. The espalier of fruit trees takes on the role of a dominant sculpture. “Wind Song”, the sculpture seems to come alive as it reflects and fractures the light that hits it. And on windy days, it appears to mimic the swaying boughs and branches.

Viewed from the kitchen window one storey above, the potager looks as though it belongs in a cloister – orderly and graceful, waiting to serve again. Along the driveway, the vertical garden hangs as a large piece of abstract art. The whispering sounds of the now dry fronds of ferns add another experiential element in the viewing of it.

In the checkerboard garden, the smooth, white coating of snow on the squares of stone contrast beautifully with the bumpy, dark and light flecked squares of creeping phlox.

Cleared of snow, the walkway looks like a zipper running between the sheet of snow inviting passage to the shelter of the house.

Finally, lets not miss the shadows cast on the snow by the low winter sun. Oh the shapes and forms interweaving between trees and trellis! They move – growing and receding with the day. A slow, certain dance to the silent music of light.

Ah January, you offer up such quiet joy.

Note: I’ve been very inspired by the winter landscape so enjoy the photos and a couple of recent paintings!

Watercolor ‘Winter Shadows”

Watercolor – ‘Winter Pas De Deux’

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Plant Wise

After two weeks of arctic temperatures and a “bomb cyclone” thrown in for good measure, I’m feeling particularly grateful for central heating and Netflix. When it’s so cold that any time spent outdoors is nothing short of torturous, it brings to mind how easily we take our creature comforts for granted.

Too warm, there’s air-conditioning. Too cold, central heating. Too buggy, window-screens. Too much food, refrigeration. Clothes for all seasons, comfortable couches, cozy beds, running water both hot and cold, well-equipped cars, myriad choices for entertainment, constant connectivity to everything/everyone and, so it goes. And yet, we grumble.

If our basic needs of food, shelter and requisite clothing are taken care of, everything else is gravy. Really. Just look to the garden. A plant given its primary requirements of light, water and residency, thrives gloriously. It doesn’t ask for any more or any less. Satisfied, the plant does exactly as it ought. It withstands the storms, occasional neglect and unexpected variabilities in weather. Plants are resilient.

We humans are resilient too. We tend to forget that. Instead, we get angry, upset or into a panic. It helps to remind ourselves that our kind has seen just about everything through the ages. Famines, droughts, deluges, fires, earthquakes, wars, tsunamis, storms, avalanches, more wars, meteor hits, locust invasions, volcano eruptions, yet more wars – we have endured them all.

So this recent dip in temperatures is nothing in the big picture. We’re already rebounding as temperatures climb to normal this week. What we need to keep in mind is that while we make the most of good times, we must be prepared for the not so good ones. Plants store energy, they know to conserve/go dormant/set surplus seed as stressful conditions arise. They are in tune with themselves and the environment. There is now scientific evidence that should a tree come under siege, they send signals to their neighbors and even further beyond so those plants can arm themselves by producing chemicals to thwart the enemy.

Hence, taking a leaf (!) from a plant’s survival manual, we too can be prepared for most of life’s curve-balls. From stocking up on food and fuel supplies within reason ( it’s about having sufficient reserves not hoarding ) to maintaining physical and mental wellness to keeping our homes and cars energy efficient and in good running order ( think roof repairs, insurance, wills, safety measures etc., ) we get ourselves ready. Going beyond ones own needs, we think and do similarly for our communities, cities, nation and beyond. Yep, that’s it. And no whining allowed.

Typically, we look to freshen up our home at this time of year. Do check out the “Printed Garden” collection – works with any decor! Free shipping within the 48 contiguous US states!

Mark your 2018 calendar! Saturday May 18 is Open Day at my garden!

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Amaryllis Tree

A new year has begun! With it arrives new hope, new goals and, new beginnings. In the process of getting myself prepared for the year that lies ahead, I’m taking the time to review the one that just passed. The highs and the lows are both meaningful and relevant – they give me purpose and direction. My Amaryllis ‘tree’ begun this past year in December is entering the new year with grace and promise – much as I myself aspire..

The tree came into existence as an experiment of sorts. Science and art uniting to give creative aplomb to an otherwise ordinary space. Well, it has proved a success. Dubbed a pathetic variation of a ‘Charlie Brown tree’ by my oh so jaded 20 year old, it admittedly started off looking inconsequential. Even a bit odd. But, having gardened long enough, I knew this was no different from planting a new bed or hedge. Things don’t look like much at the start but, in due course they come into their own and create the very drama one envisioned all along. Very satisfying that.

So, I’m taking this tree as a foretoken of how I will approach this new year. An opportunity to experiment, think differently, try new things. Apply knowledge and understanding to create something fresh. Be bold. Believe in myself and the Universe despite certain nay-sayers. Be it small or big, let no opportunity go unexplored . Get out of the box and stretch myself. Just like the fierce, fearless, fabulous amaryllis, I have within me everything I need to bloom.

And said 20 year old has grudgingly conceded that yes, the amaryllis tree is quite stunning. I would say that’s an excellent start to the new year wouldn’t you?!

Happy New Year all around. Let’s make it the best one yet.

Note: See the Amaryllis tree for yourself. I’ve provided a neutral backdrop so the ‘tree’ shows up more clearly.

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

All Is Calm, All Is Bright

The merry chaos of Christmas is over. It’s Boxing Day today and I’m loving the quiet. A day of leftovers and recovery! Let the peace of winter begin.

Of course, the mind never rests. Winter is for dreaming and planning without the distraction of chores awaiting in the garden. I’ve gathered my garden catalogs, magazines, photographs and notes taken through the year to remind me of plants I’ve coveted and areas in the garden that did well and those that did not. In the calm of the next few weeks, I will come up with a million wishes that will get whittled into a few, select, realistic plans. At this time each year, I’m determined that in the coming year, my garden is going to look better than ever before. Dream on.

Note: It was a beautiful white Christmas. Here is my garden transformed – but first,

As promised, here is my ‘modern’ tree. I believe the family has learned to appreciate it.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Rust Never Sleeps

The garden has been put to bed. Apart from greenhouse duties such as watering, refilling the propane tanks that heat it and keeping an eye out for any abnormalities in temperature and/or disease, very little needs doing in the garden. Every snowfall adds a calm beauty and it feels good to become an armchair gardener with seed catalogs, horticulture magazines and a soothing ( or stimulating) drink on hand.

Not so fast. Before ensconcing yourself in that cozy couch by the fireplace, do a bit more of garden related housekeeping. You’ll be glad you did when spring comes around. Give your garden tools some attention. A bit of timely TLC will go a long way in keeping them in good condition.

First and foremost, clean all your tools. Secateurs and loppers, trowels, spades and forks and the lawn mower all need to be wiped or washed clean with warm, soapy water. Dry them thoroughly. Get the blades sharpened either yourself or send them out. I give mine to the local hardware store and in a few weeks they are returned to me sharp and ready. Winter is a relatively slow time for hardware stores so they will not only welcome your business but can get it done in good time. Besides, you are not in any hurry at present.

Once the tools are all honed into shape, they need a thin smear of grease to protect them from any humidity and subsequent rust. As you know, rust never sleeps so, it behooves us to take preventative measures. Throughout the year, after every use, I sink the blade ends of my clean hand tools in a bucket of sand and a little motor oil. Keeps them in good condition for longer.

Whilst dealing with the tools, I also take stock of my supply of twine and ties, stakes and supports, seed starter trays, potting soil and, any organic products like dormant oil and seaweed/fish emulsion I know I will need as soon as winter shows signs of receding.

With these tasks taken care of, the bird-feeder filled regularly and, hideaways of some stacks of logs and leaf-piles left in far corners of of the garden for hibernating, garden-friendly critters, that seat by the fire is yours for the rest of winter. Enjoy.

Happy Solstice! From Dec 22 onwards, the days start getting longer. Hallelujah. I’ll be using each day’s additional minute for taking deep breaths and calming the mind. A gift to give oneself.

Since my tools are all put away, here are a couple of my watercolors instead!

 

All I Want For Christmas, Hanukkah And The New Year

Until now, I have never made a wish-list for Christmas or written a letter to Santa. Truthfully, the very notion of focusing on wanting stuff has felt too self-centered and materialistic. Not anymore. I’ve flipped the switch and taken a different approach. For purposes of this garden related article, I’ll stick to point but it’s apparent how the same thinking can be extrapolated to other scenarios.

Here goes:

1. I wish my town would follow the initiative taken by Dobbs Ferry ( a village twenty minutes south) to remove overgrowth in various areas. To clear waterfront views, Dobbs Ferry has been loaned three goats from a farm to feast away on shrubs and even poison ivy – this not only addresses a big problem in an ecologically sound manner but saves the town mega municipal money.

I’d written about this eco-goats topic a few years ago. I think it’s time to see how to get it going in my neck of the woods.

2. I would like to see every homeowner with a plot of land, commit to planting mostly native plants. And when using non-native plants, select only non-invasive ones. Native plants attract native creatures that pollinate and protect. Nature in balance.

In a similar vein, let our parks, preserves and public gardens be shining models of native flora and fauna. We must restore and create more resilient, sustainable landscapes to support diversity and maintain a healthy ecology.

3. I wish every community would set aside one week day and one day of the weekend as ‘quiet’ days. This means no motorized garden tools allowed. At present, all through the growing seasons, on any given day one is subjected to the auditory assault of mowers, trimmers, blowers and such. Can’t you just envision the calm and peace on ‘quiet’ days when you are totally aware of the sounds of nature like birdsong, running water features, rustling of leaves, dropping of acorns, calls of tree frogs and bull frogs, cicadas … And imagine listening to music, having conversations and simply thinking in our heads without being uninterrupted by the noisy tools and appliances.

4. I wish for universal adoption of organic practices. As a nation, let’s move towards chemical-free gardens. Even in the application of organic products, let’s be judicious and prudent.

5. I wish for composting to become a routine practice in every household. It is easy, inexpensive (free) and perhaps the most useful product you can provide to your garden.

That’s it. That’s my wish list.

Small, simple shifts in habits, big positive impact on environment.

Note: The Holiday Art Show at the New York Art Students League begins December 11! I have a painting there. Do visit. This is a wonderful opportunity to see great art. Very affordable too!

Enjoy the photos of the Holiday Train Show at the NYBG. It should get you in the spirit of the season!

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Holiday Happy

Holiday season is here. However you feel about it, you cannot help being a part of it. Years ago I made peace with the over the top commercialism and chose to stop judging those who embraced it. Stepping away from the fray has been very good for my spirit. I focus instead on whatever gives me true joy. You guessed it – I immerse myself in bringing nature indoors.

With Thanksgiving over, autumnal decorations of gourds, leaves and seed-pods are either relegated to the compost pile or ( as you might have read in that NY Times article ), to the Art Student’s League to serve in still-life arrangements.

Throughout winter, bulbs come to the fore. Paperwhites and amaryllis cheer up the months of December and January. Later in January and for the rest of season, bulbs like hyacinths, crocus and muscari that have been cooling in the refrigerator, will be forced. They are my salvation through these cold, dark, interminably long days. Typically, evergreens and a tree are a part of the holidays but given the severe allergies my daughter has to pines, we’re finally doing away with the tree tradition altogether. I’m planning something more contemporary to stand-in for the tree. If we cannot have a real tree, I don’t want a look alike either. I’ll share my tree substitute when it’s created. Finally, simple roping of boxwood will replace the usual princess pine at the mantel.

I started the paperwhites and amaryllis last week. That act alone put me in a good mood. The anticipation is half the joy. Watching the progress of these bulbs gives me that much needed dose of daily cheer and optimism.

If you remember, on a trip to the Netherlands last January, I learned that amaryllis do not need to be potted up or placed in water. They come equipped with everything they need to bloom. It’s only after flowering is done and the leaves have emerged, might they be potted up and treated like any house plant. Let them spend the summer outdoors, go dormant in the fall and then restart all over again later in winter/early spring. They will not re-bloom in time for the holidays subsequently but instead at their more naturally programmed time. So, you will need to get new amaryllis bulbs for the holidays each year. I say, the more the merrier!

As the amaryllis do not need potting or water, they can be placed any which way you like. Their outer papery skin can even be gently sprayed in gold/silver/copper and arranged to look very festive and elegant. In a flower shop in Eindhoven, I even saw them covered in bright pink wax! Not quite my taste but I can certainly see the possibilities. So, uncork your creativity and enjoy. Take pictures and share with me please!

Meanwhile, create your own happiness.

Some of my potted amaryllis last January

Amaryllis unplugged! In a flower shop in the Netherlands.

Close up.

Pretty pink bottoms!

At Amsterdam’s Schipol airport. Sadly, US customs do not allow them in so I returned home emoty-handed.

My new amaryllis experiment. Looks odd now but should be quite lovely when the flowers bloom. I might add more bulbs this week.

Paperwhites. I have several such containers all over the house.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Grow And Give

Stop Press! I’m in the NY Times!

Thanksgiving! I love this holiday. It elevates the concept of everyday gratitude to a national celebration. It also makes us accountable – how has the year been and how have we made the best of it? This holiday is an annual reminder that one ought to make every day matter. In doing so, we experience personal growth and consequently, have more to offer to the world.

The garden inevitably teaches me how to deal with the highs and lows. Adverse conditions like high heat, storms, drought and such might stunt or stop the plants from growing but, they take it in stride. As soon as the circumstances improve or let up they rally back and push forward. A shrub loses a good portion of itself in an ice-storm and the remaining part will compensate and thrive till the plant is restored and whole once more. A tree topples over in high winds causing some damage to the garden but the exposure to more sunlight promotes fresh plant growth and new opportunities to the gardener while the fallen tree itself enriches the soil as it decays and offers itself up to all sorts flora and fauna.

When the going is good, the garden provides an abundance that one must share. Be it inviting folk to came and enjoy the garden in full glory to taking a bunch of flowers to cheer up a neighbor or donating produce to a food bank. We give our thanks in actions.

The garden has been put to bed but accommodations have been provided for critters such as toads, butterflies, birds and bees ( and in all probability mice ) by way of the compost pile, some corners with leaf litter and/or wood piles, brambly shrubs near the woods and other sheltered hideaways.

On my part, I am grateful for so much. From monumental stuff like my family growing by the arrival of a second great-niece, launching my ‘Printed Garden’ collection, evolving in my art and participating in a record number of shows both solo and group, my poem being read at a community event, my efforts as a gardener getting recognition in the New York Times ( admittedly, I’m really kicked about this!), zip-lining over the rain-forests in Costa Rica to seemingly minor but no less significant events like vacations, reunions with family and friends, coaxing a finicky plant to flourish, reading some good books, seeing an amazing play, making new friends, discovering a new, now favorite restaurant, the list is actually endless.

That’s not to forget how much loss and suffering there has been nationally and internationally. I’m dropping off supplies for a few Thanksgiving meals at my local food pantry, shopping locally, renewing memberships to museums and botanical gardens, donating to the Red Cross, Salvation Army and to http://www.visitcalifornia.com/attraction/grateful-table . This last one helps the vineyards devastated by the fires in northern California. In giving, we grow.

A very happy, abundant Thanksgiving to each of you.

Enjoy the pictures of seasonal abundance:

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar