Spring Breaks!

When I left New York eight days ago, there was a foot of snow on the ground. What a difference a week makes. Not only has all the snow disappeared, but signs of spring abound. It is positively thrilling. This anticipation of my favorite season sends shivers through my body. I’m giddy with spring fever.

After traveling for almost a whole day, enduring cramped quarters, stale air, airline food, blocked ears and total lack of sleep, I needed a real shot of nature to banish the fatigue. So directly from the airport, I went to the New York Botanical Gardens. The Orchid Show was on and I was in desperate need of flower power.

The sunshine and open space felt healing as I made my way to the conservatory. My tradition is to go through the perennial gardens and as I did so, I spied the first snowdrops of the year. Oh joy! Early crocuses stood poised to imminently open their diminutive goblets while the hellebores, as usual, had heralded the parade. They were in full bloom mode. Stems of shrubs still denuded of foliage had begun showing color as though they were slowly sipping from underground vats of dye. Taking in all these signs of rebirth and renewal made me feel so alive.

And with that shot in the arm, I stepped into the conservatory. The theme of the orchid show this year is Thailand. And it delivered beautifully. The natural humidity and warmth of the conservatory lent a very appropriate element to set the stage. The background music, the bright colors, the elephant motifs, the shrines and the very flowers themselves transported one to another place. For one just released from an airplane, this felt ideal. If only real travel could be this blissfully simple.

At such a show, it didn’t matter if the orchids on display were all originally from Thailand or not. It was the overall atmosphere they conveyed that mattered. I enjoyed it thoroughly. It is the perfect antidote to all kinds of fatigue – from winter blues, to daily news of hate crimes and divisiveness, to rising anxiety to long journeys. A little respite, an brief escape, a shift in perspective can work wonders.

Do go to this show or, if you do not live anywhere near the NYBG, go to the nearest botanical garden as most have a conservatory with a collection that is sure to delight. And if you do not have even that option, get yourself an orchid or two from the local nursery, make or order in a Thai meal (or any exotic cuisine of your choice), dress for the occasion in something colorful, get a playlist of suitable music piped in and take yourself on a fun trip of your own. I promise you’ll have a great time. Spring is breaking out!

Note: I’ve written about my most recent visit with the children at Mukta Jeevan. They are my reason to hope, serve and make a difference. You can read about the visit here.

And now, enjoy the photos of orchids and all things spring!

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Hellebores

Hellebores

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Snowdrops

Snowdrops

Eranthis - like scattered gold

Eranthis – like scattered gold

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(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

 

 

Amaryllis Unplugged

I’ve been doing it all wrong. All these years I’ve grown amaryllis by planting them two-thirds their height in a slightly constraining container of soil, watering once a week and keeping them in a cool-ish, somewhat bright location in the house. Alternatively, I’ve also grown these bulbs in just water. Both methods have been quite effective. No doubt, you too have handled amaryllis the same way. Yes? Am I right? Or is it just me?

Well, come to find out on my recent sojourn to the Netherlands that, none of those efforts are necessary. Sure they may be potted up if you like but in truth, they do not need anything to bloom. That’s right, nothing. No water, no food, no container even. This bit of understanding has blown my mind.

Lingering at the store fronts of the charming flower shops, I noticed that inside one shop, there was a stunning display of white amaryllis on a vertically suspended length of tree branch. The branch had sinuous curves with interesting outgrowths. The bulbs were nestled in crooks and crannies – held in place with ties. But that was it. No soil. They just sat where placed. Each bulb had a stalk or two trumpeting beautiful white flowers. My first thought was the bulbs weren’t real. Wrong. Then I figured it was meant to be a very temporary display. Wrong.

On talking with the florist/owner Oda Schoffelmeer, I learned that amaryllis bulbs bought each season need no help from us. They do not even require a preliminary soaking in water to wake up their roots. The fat, firm bulbs come with everything they need to bloom. It is only when blooming is completed and leaves are put out that they need to be planted in soil and watered – to replenish their depleted stores. Is this not simply amazing? Consider the decorating possibilities!

The bulbs can be also be dipped in wax and placed just about anywhere to bloom. Pick the wax color of your choice! Or, the bulbs can be coated in a thin (non-toxic I imagine) paint. Gold, silver, bronze anyone?!

Needless to say, I am as excited about my new discovery as a puppy in a basket of laundry. I’m off to see if there are still some amaryllis to be had at my local nursery.

My take away – travel really does open minds and it is never too late to learn new things. I’m boarding a plane again in two weeks. Can’t wait to see what’s in store.

Enjoy the images below. And, mark your calenders – I’m in a group exhibit in NYC Feb 20-25.

I apologize in advance to my Facebook readers for the images not being upright. When the photos are taken a certain way, they show up on FB on their sides and I have not figured out how to correct this problem. When I post the article on my website, they go automatically on FB and Twitter. Please let me know if any of you can resolve my dilemma.

The amaryllis display as seen from outside the Bergflora shop in Eindhoven, NL

ca The amaryllis display as seen from outside the Bergflora shop in Eindhoven, NL

The amaryllis placed on the branch

The amaryllis placed on the branch

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Bulbs dipped in hot pink wax. Just sitting there and preparing to bloom.

Bulbs dipped in hot pink wax. Just sitting there and preparing to bloom.

My own amaryllis grown the 'old' way. But, I stopped watering them 10 days ago when I returned from Holland.

My own amaryllis grown the ‘old’ way. But, I stopped watering them 10 days ago when I returned from Holland.

Another view. It is a stunning display even if I say so myself.

Another view. It is a stunning display even if I say so myself.

(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

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

 

Reflections In The Garden

In less than three weeks, a new year will be here. Our annual opportunity to do-over, makeover, grow, stretch and overcome. For myself, I welcome this time to reflect as it serves as the perfect foil to the commercial madness that comes with the holiday season. Instead of getting carried away with the media-hype, time spent thinking about what really matters keeps my focus on what is truly important to me. This not only serves to prepare me for the new year with resolve and purpose, it also guides me to give holiday gifts from my heart.

I begin with giving myself a report card of sorts. The different areas/roles/projects in my life are the subjects or courses and I evaluate how I’ve performed in each one of them. Since these ‘grades’ are not for public knowledge, I allow myself to be brutally honest. There’d be no point in this exercise if I glossed over my misdemeanors. Holding the mirror to myself is not easy. All the flaws show up prominently. Knowing how far I fell short of my full potential and how many opportunities I missed can be quite demoralizing. But I’ve learned to not judge, berate or make excuses. I stay on track to acknowledge, accept and determine improvement or change. One must move forward. But how does one get started? In the garden of course.

I don’t know about you, but how I garden is a direct reflection on where I am in my head/day/life. Whatever is happening in my life translates to my actions in the garden. No doubt I can also identify similar traits in my poetry and paintings but those are not as clear to track and interpret because I don’t necessarily write or paint immediately after I’m affected by an event. But the garden needs consistent effort and attention and therefore, my enthusiasm or neglect is apparent and has long term effects. For instance, if I was overly absorbed in a particular project and failed to maintain a balance in the other areas of my responsibilities, then, the garden reveals that in beds overrun with weeds and struggling plants or, my lack of oversight resulted in shriveled plants that ought to have been watered during a particularly dry spell. You see?

My goal is to try to stay balanced. Indeed every now and then there will be events that stir up the waters and toss me for a loop but if I’m adequately prepared, I should be able to get back in balance as soon as possible.

Let me elaborate:

Following the rather dry winter with erratic temperature fluctuations, all but the oak-leaved hydrangea took a beating. That native plants are the most hardy is not news but too often, one forgets that point. So, this fall, I replaced all the non-native hydrangea with a variety of oak-leaved ones. The exiled plants were donated to friends and did not end up on the compost heap.

My personal resolve – stay true to self. That’s how one does best.

In the spring, I planted a slew of native plant plugs in the meadow. The plants would attract the insects and birds. My plan was to have three-seasons of entertainment with native flora and fauna. I could envision this thriving paradise clearly. Well, I got distracted by a couple of other projects and completely failed to take note of the lack of rain. So I did not water the new plugs and when I looked for the plants in summer, hardly any were visible. I feel terrible about this. I not only wasted time and money but, I truly neglected my duty to the plants.

I now have a new order of plants that will be introduced in the meadow next spring and I will be sure to take care of them properly.

My personal resolve – don’t take on too much and always determine that every task or project can be fully attended to.

I had resisted removing a dead apple tree because it was supporting a rose and the whole canopy was a center of avian activity. And I’d planned to provide it with more permanent support. But, before anything could be done, strong winds pushed the tree down. Thankfully, the tree fell in the direction that did no damage to anything.

The rose has been relocated and the space that opened up where the tree used to be is actually going to be a good thing for plants already in place and the newly installed sculpture is owning that area very nicely.

My personal resolve – sometimes, good intentions can block one from seeing the reality. And, change can be good. Also, don’t wait too long to take action.

For the last few years, my irises had not bothered to show up. So this summer, I’d wondered if I ought to get new irises. For reasons I do not recall, I did not order them along with my other bulbs for fall planting. Wouldn’t you know! In October, out of season and character, as if to tell me something, one of the irises shot up and bloomed regally. So, I’m giving these old rhizomes another year. Let’s just wait and see.

My personal resolve – be patient. Don’t give up in haste. Everything needs to be given a fair chance ( or chances). Matters do not have to follow my agenda or schedule; sometimes, a laid back attitude is best.

And so, with my garden guiding me, I make preparations to go forth into 2017 with optimism, confidence and humility.

Don’t forget! The Holiday Art Sale is still on at the ASL! Lots of really good art to be had! Just for one more week.

Hope the images below put a smile on your face:

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

In The Spirit

“What day is it?” asked Pooh. “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh. – A.A. Milne

Thanksgiving has passed and has served us well. With so much conflict and concern about what is happening at home and globally, it gently brought our focus back to what matters most. Kindness, caring, celebrating life and togetherness, family and friends. Back to basics really. If we each should do our part in doing no harm, I am convinced the state of the world would instantly improve.

It has become so easy to get caught up with the social-media driven world. Between the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) and believing everything one reads without examination or thought, we have succumbed to thinking superficially and speaking in sound bites. Materialism often gains the upper-hand even as we struggle to simplify and live meaningfully.

Enter the power of nature. While we, as a society, embrace our on-line, e-world, we need to get out in the garden even more. By tending a garden, we are reminded to maintain our integrity and honest passion for the natural world. Gardeners remain at all times connected to the rhythms of nature and as a result, have a strong resistance to those not-always-helpful lures of the digital age.

In keeping with the spirit of the holiday season, we want to give attention to gifts of experience versus stuff. Memberships to museums and botanical gardens and/or conservancies, tickets to plays, concerts and other performances, trips to our National Parks and historical sites, or, making good on promises of breaking bread together. There is something for every budget and often, it can be the priceless gift of time – to take walks together, attend a community event, serve at a soup kitchen, share a meal at home, play board games, build something and, even plant a garden. Good for all ages and all personalities.

To get into the right spirit, I have the perfect activity. The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden. Whether you are child or adult, it will delight and inspire. The buildings and other structures made entirely of natural materials are positively awe inspiring. The level of creativity and skill is mighty impressive. Not to be outdone, the plantings around the buildings are just as thoughtful and brilliant. Most of all, it is pure fun.

I have been going to this show from the very first year. It never fails to cheer me. I get into the holiday mood by going to the members preview which is held the Friday before Thanksgiving. Perfect timing.

Get a group of the young and young at heart together and go!

Note: Another fabulous event to attend! The Annual Holiday Art and Book Sale starts Dec 6 at the New York Art Students League. Yes, my work is represented! Please do go – support artists and art. Good place to start or add to an art collection.

Enjoy the photos from my visit to this year’s NYBG Train Show:

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar