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

Field Trip

Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” Seneca

All too often, I get so caught up in the demands of life that my time with plants is mostly spent in my own garden. But the truth is, I absolutely adore visiting other gardens. Both public and private. Seeing a different garden is like entering a new country. Crossing new borders is always an adventure ( pun intended!).

One discovers differences and similarities, new likes or dislikes, new plants are identified, familiar plants to use in interesting, fresh ways and, hardscaping details that inspire. At the end of every journey, one learns something about oneself.

About ten days ago, I had the opportunity that was the ultimate in garden visits. My friend and garden wizard Marco Polo Stufano offered to take me and a couple of friends around Untermyer gardens, Wave Hill gardens and his own garden. Now, I’ve seen all three several times before but to go around Untermyer and Wave Hill with Marco as our personal guide was my idea of winning the lottery. Wave Hill in particular was a rare treat – after all, Marco created it and put it on the map. His own garden is a jewel box – it is the best representation of knowledge, aesthetics and passion.

I learned, I saw anew, I was totally in bliss. We walked, talked and laughed. I was enjoying myself so much that the heat and humidity that usually does me in, left me unfazed. It was quite simply a truly transcendent experience.

The two public gardens are at the height of their summer glory – go see for yourself!

I took pictures but it was my senses that absorbed the gardens a great deal more. No doubt I will do things in my garden as a result of that and many of those ideas will seem as though they were all mine but I’ll know in my heart that I had so much inspiration and guidance that I couldn’t have done it any other way.

And that’s why one gets out and explores other worlds. To grow.

Note:‘City Views’, an exhibition of works by 88 League artists celebrating New York City.  The show, showcases the wide diversity and remarkable quality of art being made by League students and members.

‘City Views’ is at the Manhattan Borough President‘s office at 1 Centre Street and is open through the end of August. If you can’t make it in person, you can view most of the works here.  They are for sale with prices starting at around $100.  On line purchasing is open.

Enjoy the images from my field trip!

Untermyer:

Wave Hill:

Marco and Louis – two generations of Wave Hill directors.

Still-life for the compost heap

Marco’s garden:

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Foresight

Fear is the mother of foresight’ – Thomas Hardy

I can’t recall in what context or even in which novel Hardy wrote those words but they’ve stuck with me since my high-school years. The phrase seemed to run parallel with necessity being the mother of invention. We humans apparently need to be nudged to get things done for our own good.

As a gardener, the possibility (okay, fear) of any type of harm coming to the plants is ever present. And therefore, we protect, prevent, plan and propagate. All our to-do lists by the months and seasons whilst aiming to make a beautiful, bountiful garden, are really a matter of said precautions. Like good generals we prepare for all contingencies with foresight and forbearance.

With this in mind, I offer you a few helpful, timely suggestions –

Since tomatoes are the stars of the vegetable garden right now, water the plants in the morning as wet foliage in the evening encourages tomato blight.

Still on the subject of tomatoes – rather than tossing away the side shoots of tomato plants, root them as one would any plant cuttings and bring them on to bear fruit. Since you’re rooting cuttings anyway, now would be the time to propagate lavender and rosemary. Scented and fancy geraniums too.

Speaking of lavender, pick them when the scent is strongest – early on a dry morning after the dew has dried.

This next tip will be particularly useful for those of us who do not label our plants and pretend to remember everything. When planting parsnips or any other vegetable with a long growing time, start radishes in the same row. This way, when you quickly start enjoying radi-sandwiches ( bread, butter, thin slices of radish and seas salt), you will remember exactly where you planted the parsnips.

Something to remember for next year – if you are ambitious enough to plant strawberries dreaming of pies and shortcake, don’t plant them near a path. The fruits will disappear as soon as they are ripe and ready. Figure that out.

At a time when children are becoming more removed from the natural world ( think I-pads, I-phones, X-boxes, Game of Thrones, ticks on the war path, a sometimes unwarranted fear of all things bugs and beetles, etc.,) comes a book filled with fun, imaginative ideas to bring children and nature together. Born To Be Wild by Hattie Garlick will help you make that happen.

I think we can all agree that connecting with the great outdoors is one of the best, most powerful ways to stay healthy and human.

Finally, looking to next spring ( yes, already), start perusing the bulb catalogs, make your wish list, then whittle that list to one that actually suits your budget and order your bulbs this month. You will be guaranteed your selections and quantities. In addition, by ordering from the bulb houses, your choices will be much greater and you can be the happy gardener with some uncommon bulb

ous beauties. The bulbs get shipped in time for planting in your specific temperature zone and you will be billed only at that time.

Alors, ce n’etait rien.

Note: Due to technical glitches, my article last week got posted on my website but didn’t get emailed or broadcast on Facebook and Twitter. My sincere apologies. I hope you will read that article Fresh Perspective II – scroll down if you are reading on the site or, go to the site at seedsofdesign.com

Tomatoes

Veggies in rows

My vegetable plot

Will definitely be ordering more of these alliums!

Freshly made lavender wands.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Fresh Perspective II

I’ve become so accustomed to seeing my garden that I’ve come to the realization that in order to do more than simply tweak it, I need to look at it differently. With that intent in mind, this past May, I asked a talented, young photographer friend to take pictures of my garden as he saw fit. He is very familiar with my garden. Jeremiah Chikota is in college, does not garden but has a good eye. I figured his take on what he thought noteworthy would be the first of several approaches to inform myself of diverse perspectives.

I was right. You can see for yourself in the first slide-show below.

You can check out Jeremiah’s website here.

The second slide-show comes by way of my fellow artist and friend Rosemarie Turk who is not only very talented but fairly plant savvy. This was her second visit to the garden.

I’m really enjoying viewing my garden anew. I don’t necessarily have to act on anything in response. But being made aware sharpens, clarifies and sometimes, even changes my own thoughts and plans. In fact, it will probably be worth applying the same approach to subjects in which I have more trouble accepting differing opinions and/or practices. With greater knowledge will come understanding and harmony. One can only hope.

Having reviewed my own photos all of these years, I think you too will appreciate how another’s perspective can give new insight.

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Jeremiah’s images:

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Foxtails and Fireworks, Alliums and Allumettes!

It’s kinda quiet in the garden right now. Spring flowers are totally done and summer is yet to make her big splash. At this time, there are only a few dabs of color amidst a mostly green canvas. To some it means I haven’t planned well enough to maintain a continuous display of blooms. They are probably right. But I really don’t mind this lull – it coincides with my own switch to a summer state of mind and so my attention is taken up by planning for pool time, picnics, reading escapes, outdoor concerts, catching up with friends over dinners under the stars, vacation prep, siestas and numerous other vital seasonal pleasures. After all, we wait all year for this – a time when slowing down and sipping a tall afternoon drink of something potent is perfectly acceptable. One hardly needs the distraction of a garden shouting for attention right?

So, I’m quite happy to do just the basic chores of weeding, watering and deadheading and get on with finding my summer groove. Once firmly ensconced in the rhythm of the season and comfortably balancing to-dos with want-to-dos, I’m ready for some petal power to add zip to my days. Only then can I duly admire the flowers and not hurt their feelings. See? My not so great planning actually suits me. Stop rolling your eyes.

Anyway, gazing at the flowers that are in bloom including those almost on their way out, I’m struck by the similarities between them and the fireworks I so enjoyed yesterday. Yes, summer gives you permission to spend time cogitating upon such matters. Look it up. It’s in the fine print.

If you don’t believe my inspired comparison, use your imagination and check out the photos below:

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Alliums

Alliums

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Cranesbill geranium and allium

Cranesbill geranium and allium

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Astilbe and geranium

Astilbe and geranium

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Bergamot

Bergamot

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Echinacea

Echinacea

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Foxtail lily

Foxtail lily

Foxtail lily

Foxtail lily

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Face To Face Time

In the course of puttering around the garden for the better part of my life, I’ve come to recognize and understand a fair number of plants. To identify, know their peccadilloes and get along with them is continuously reassuring and interesting. I’ve learned those that are a tad more needy, the independent plants that prefer to be left alone, the quirky ones that like wet feet and hot heads, which ones are fussy and which are hardy and reliable.

But just like the people we encounter in our lives, we learn more and more by spending one on one time with them. What we glean can often astonish and impress. Even the plainest person/plant emerges as one with qualities of depth and interest that our opinions can be changed completely.

My penchant for painting the residents of my garden offers me exactly such an opportunity. Examining them up and close gives me pause to admire the attributes of those who never get the spotlight. We recognize easily the divas – roses, peonies, irises, sunflowers, poppies, dahlias …. but, a garden would be severely impoverished without the likes of columbines, hellebores, campanulas, lavenders, sweet woodruff, penstemons, epimediums and so many, many others. The supporting cast of plants is well worth appraising.

Too often, we are dazzled by the stars and fail to notice those who hold them up so they can shine. The fact is, we each have a role and must be given the chance to play them. No part is too small because the entire ensemble is needed to make a good performance.

While I’m awed by the beauty of the heroines of the garden, I am often struck by the quiet grace of a plant that is repeatedly dismissed as ordinary. As if years of gardening hadn’t already shown me the impressive power of nature, I’m continually amazed when I take brush to canvas or pen to paper. Looking closely reveals unparalleled virtues.

Perhaps we should do more of the same with people. It might well be the only way we can learn to get along.

I present to you my watercolor renderings of some of the more self-effacing lovelies in my garden:

Hellebore

Hellebore

Aster

Aster

Cimicifuga

Cimicifuga

Lavender

Lavender

Frittilaria meleagris

Frittilaria meleagris

Aqualegia canadensis

Aqualegia canadensis

Apple blossom

Apple blossom

Iphion

Iphion

Forsythia

Forsythia

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Changing Climates, Changing Calendars

Unless you’ve been doing time in solitary confinement in an underground bunker, the term ‘climate change’ has been the mainstay in almost all conversations this past week. Agree or not, it is worth mentioning that the global scientific community at large and ones who study the climate in particular are in consensus that the climate is not only changing but human activity has had a detrimental impact on it.

Climate change is a highly complex subject with innumerable moving parts. This makes it really difficult to understand by most minds. In addition, it is an evolving subject and consequently, there are gaps in the data. Unfortunately, these gaps are exploited by those who are inclined to deny climate change. Given the complexity of this topic, does it not behoove us to believe and trust the scientists who know so much about it? After all, if we can accept the super-complicated science in cancer research and treatment, why are we doubting their word on climate change?

Whatever one thinks, lets simply get into the garden and consider phenology. This is the science dealing with periodic biological events that are influenced by weather and climate. In other words, it is the scientific observations of changes in plants and animals to weather or climate events causing them. In the case of plants, the significant stages of its life (phenophases) such as nascence, flowering, fruiting, senescence are studied. Phenology is more colloqually called nature’s calendar.

As gardeners, we are amateur scientists of sorts. Foot soldiers so to speak. We plan for and note all the goings on in the garden. We are aware of drought conditions, excess rain, prolonged heat or cold, sudden or extreme fluctuations in temperature, a scarcity in bees or a population explosion in chipmunks. And as a result of such occurrences, we note how our plants have responded. Last spring, it warmed up slowly, the apple blossoms emerged and then it got really cold so no bees showed up. This lack of bees resulted in poor pollination and hence a lack of fruits.

This year, spring blew warm and cold so the lilacs bloomed early. Meanwhile, mid to late May bloomers like my peonies, baptisia, roses, amsonia and several other plants are only just beginning to flower. A three day blast of summer like heat in early May, hastened the alliums – the early and late flowering types all burst open together. While this loud chorus of color looked stunning, the length of the concert itself was abbreviated.

This past winter was so mild that we are now confronted with an impressive increase in the populations of ticks, chipmunks, rats, mice and other annoyances. Yet, the cooler than usual spring has contained the number of bees and butterflies. Normally, the garden is humming with their activity at this time.

The life cycles of plants and animals are inter-related. Planting and/or flowering times coincide with the emergence of pollinators. Insect problems often occur at specific stages of a plant’s life. When exactly we feed, protect or treat our plants for disease is an application of phenology. What practices and tools we use has impact on the plant and animal populations.

Working with nature allows one to see up close how intimately connected we, as in all biological forms, are to the weather and climate. We cannot ignore the inconsistencies in the climate today. The normal phenophases by which a gardener tracks the garden’s progress get moved back or forward by the vagaries of weather/climate. If you typically plant tomatoes when the dogwoods flower signaling that the threat of frost has passed, then what happens if the latter flowers early? Risk it?

Phenology itself is now being used as an indicator of climate change. It stands to reason that every gardener applies it as he/she goes about working in the garden. The question now is this – are we or are we not going to do right by the world?

I, for one, acknowledge that my choices and life style has impact on my environment. Collectively, we affect the globe. So, I will start with my number one credo – Do No Harm. And that means, being mindful, thoughtful, respectful and considerate in all my actions. This will include those that I do not enjoy or ones I oppose – from invasive plants to pests to people. I realize in many instances it will not be easy. But I’m willing to meet the challenge. Are you?

[To learn more about phenology, look up the USA National Phenological Network at usanpn.org/  ]

Note: All of this month, I have a solo show of my watercolors at the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library in North Salem, NY. I hope you will take time to go visit. Thanks!

The images below are of some of my efforts to do right by my neck of the woods:

Aquilegia canadensis in the meadow

Aquilegia canadensis in the meadow

Tiarella

Tiarella cordifolia

Cheloni lyoni - pink turtlehead

Cheloni lyoni – pink turtlehead

White and blue cammasia

White and blue cammasia

Oak leaf hydrangea

Oak leaf hydrangea

Anemone canadensis

Anemone canadensis

American robin babies in the apple espalier

American robin babies in the apple espalier

In the meadow - a melange of bulbs and native plants

In the meadow – a melange of bulbs and native plants

Amsonia

Amsonia

Native wisteria

Native wisteria

The rain barrel

The rain barrel

The vertical garden - a brilliant way to keep the building cool in summer. Water for plants is recirculated.

The vertical garden – a brilliant way to keep the building cool in summer. Water for plants is recirculated.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Rekindling, Renewing, Reviving

It’s in the trumpeting of the daffodils

The chorus awakening the sun

In the untwisting of pink cherry-buds

That hibernating hearts comes undone.”

– Shobha

In leaps and bounds – that’s how the garden is coming along. It never fails to astonish how much growth happens in a single day. Naturally, keeping up with the work in the garden is a real challenge. All too often, being so focused on getting the various to-do list items checked off, one fails to appreciate what and why we garden. Not this year. No matter how much needs doing or what goes wrong in the garden, I’m determined to pause, step back and bask in the myriad miracles that occur in the garden on any given day. In this season of rebirth and renewal, my love and reason to garden is reaffirmed and rekindled.

So, join me. Take a few minutes to enjoy the photos below. See what I see. I just know that you too will agree that the world is a most wondrous place to be.

But first, indulge me. I’m so proud to be a part of this:

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Here you go:

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The best reasons to be in the garden

The best reasons to be in the garden

(c) 2017 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

Weathering The Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because, in the end, this too will pass.

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

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

The greenhouse

The greenhouse

In the greenhouse

In the greenhouse

Camellia in bud in the greenhouse

Camellia in bud in the greenhouse

In my friend and orchid guru Bill Smiles' greenhouse

In my friend and orchid guru Bill Smiles’ greenhouse

Inside the house

Inside the house

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar