Gardens Are Just Like Babies

Time and again, it has occurred to me that our relationship to our gardens parallel those we have have with our children. As special as we hold ones progeny in our hearts, if one were to be honest, the garden’s position seems to be no less to a true gardener. Lest you protest, let me state my case. However, I do believe you already know and concur my declaration to be true.

From the onset, yearning, planning, preparing for a garden is fraught with dreams, anxiety, excitement and impatience. All along, one receives lots of unsolicited advice and cautions about the endeavor. While there is a glut of information about the hows and whys, there is no exact blueprint or handbook – the creation and ‘upbringing’ of each garden is unique. They are all special.

As a gardener embarks on this venture and forever after, she/he does so with a level of insecurity matched only by the neediness for constant approval. We are infinitely cheered by any and all praise. Even the slightest hint of criticism is met with an unduly high degree of defensiveness. Yet, a gardener is always on the look out for counsel and advice that must by necessity confirm and condone his/her own current practices.

Gardening is both exhilarating and exhausting. We seem to consistently forget how hard the work is and create them anyway. We make sacrifices with our time, energy and money, put in long hours and provide constant care and attention often at risk to ones own health and well-being.

Gardening can be expensive but we are willing to shell out – after all, only the best we can provide will do. We indulge in providing for its needs generously, While we may complain about the work, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The business of tending the garden comes with enough variety to keep matters interesting. We make excuses when the garden is not up to snuff and yet, we are inordinately proud of it. As the garden grows, the work doesn’t let up; it merely changes to keep up with the new demands. We worry about our gardens endlessly. Even whilst away from it, there is the non-stop concern about how it is faring. We are well aware that merely looking away seems to give a garden license to get itself in trouble.

How a garden flourishes is taken as a direct reflection on ourselves. It is all taken personally. When it comes to how ones garden performs or is perceived, we are an acutely sensitive lot.

We love to talk about our gardens ad nauseam and consider them better than all others. Apparently a certain selective blindness afflicts all gardeners.

We judge other gardeners by how their gardens look and at the same time, we form amongst ourselves a support system so we can vent and cheer each other on.

Finally, we draw immeasurable satisfaction from raising a garden. There is nothing else quite like it. No wait, having and raising babies is exactly like that.

Note: The photos below are the creation of a community garden I designed some years ago .

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

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

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

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!

 

10 Cold, Hard Truths About Gardening

I’ve been gardening one way or other for most of my life. So it stands to reason that I’ve learned a lot, done a lot and, failed more than I care to remember. Here is what I wish someone had told me before some of those mistakes were made:

1. Set your expectations low. When you do that, everything appears as a success.

2. Max out your pots, window-boxes and urns with seasonal annuals. They will scream so much for attention that nobody will notice the perennial beds overrun with weeds and bereft of whatever was supposed to be blooming that day.

3. Beware other gardeners bearing gifts. We are notorious for sharing – mostly those plants that tend to run hog wild.

4. You are not supreme commander of your garden. The squirrels own that title. They will dig up, munch on, toss up and vandalize right before your visitors are set to arrive.

5. Never tell anybody that your magnolias/tulips/roses/peonies/lilies/irises/any other plant are about to burst into flower. As soon as you do that, an animal, child or act of nature will destroy the entire batch of buds.

6. Pets like dogs should be banned from gardens. Do not listen to anybody who says otherwise. Dogs will dig up beds, kill the lawn with their urine, chase away good creatures like birds, openly use the garden as self-appointed canine fertilizers, somehow make friends with your enemies the squirrels and deer and select your prize patch of jack-in-the-pulpits as their nap station. Please do not write saying otherwise – I will not be dissuaded. I absolutely adore dogs but refuse allow them in my garden. Period.

7. Always buy two of every tool. Keep one set hidden – that set is solely for your own use. Don’t tell anyone about it. The other set of tools are kept out for the use all ( aka those who lose and/or abuse the tools). You will look like a good sharer and will keep your sanity at the same time.

8. Invest in a good manicure and blow-out the day before you have visitors to your garden. You will look and feel good and your guests will marvel at how you create such an amazing paradise whilst looking so flawless. Smile and graciously accept all the compliments.

9. Get children to help. No, really. Their small hands can pull out emerging weeds more easily than your own large paws. Similarly, they can deadhead pretty thoroughly too. The child with the largest harvest of weeds and/or dead flowers gets an extra scoop of ice-cream. Caveat – be sure you have taught them to identify the weed or else they will remove all your nascent self-seeders like columbines, cleomes, forget-me-nots and such.

10. Gardening is bloody hard work.

Note: Do visit this show!

December 11 − December 22
Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.;
Saturday and Sunday: 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Art Students League: The Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery
 
Enjoy some of my December-thus-far photos:

First snow of this winter

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Welcome To The “Printed Garden”

Disclaimer! This week’s article is not exactly about gardening. It is however about how my garden and my art have converged to birth a new venture in keeping with my efforts to help a group of HIV girls with their education.

Lately, I’ve been equal parts excited and nervous. In November (that’s tomorrow!), I officially launch “ The Printed Garden”my new line of soft furnishing products. It’s taken me exactly a year to get to this point. The learning curve has been steep. I’m just fine with the creative aspect but dealing with production and now the marketing has been rather humbling. I came into it knowing virtually nothing. I still have tons to learn but at least I’m beginning to get the hang of it.

The idea of using my botanical watercolors for note cards and giclee prints was sparked by my friend Heidi several years ago. She had a clear vision of the potential of the botanicals. In fact, she printed up the first batch of the cards herself. We are now many, many sets and collections from that initial start and there are more designs in the pipeline. What felt like a novel product to me at that time, feels so natural now. Merci beaucoup Heidi!

From that point, suggestions to get the botanical images on other items kept coming. T-shirts, totes, pillows, table linens, upholstery, dresses, wallpaper, wrapping paper, dinnerware etc., I could see the potential but the work to get any product made was daunting. So, a couple of years back, I began with getting some designs on spoonflower.com. This company gets your designs printed on fabric, wallpaper and wrapping paper on demand. Anybody looking for designs for their own projects can select a design and fabric and then order whatever quantity they require. The choices of fabrics are many and the quality of the cloths as well as the prints are excellent. This got my feet wet in the business. I was still only the creative force and had effectively got Spoonflower to do all the other work.

The next step was to get my own products made and keep manufacturing as well as retail costs reasonable. I needed to be a part of the entire process so the final products would not only be what I could be proud of but would use in my own home. After much research and frustration, I found the company that could print up and make the soft furnishings to my specifications. Production and shipping involve mind-boggling logistics so the first time around takes more time than one imagines. I’m working on the marketing for the long range but currently, I’m in possession of the first shipment of products and I’ll be selling them on-line and at certain private events in November. It’s the kind of market research I can handle. The response thus far has been quite encouraging. I have so many ideas for the future!

So, without further ado, I introduce to you “ The Printed Garden “. That name was suggested by my clever friend Julie. Merci Julie! There are nine botanical images applied to napkins, place-mats, table runners, pillows and guest/tea towels. I’m really pleased with how they look and feel. Many more designs will be forthcoming – I’ve painted so many, many flowers!

Here’s the best part for me – 15% of the profits will be donated to help with the education of the HIV children at the Mukta Jeevan orphanage in India. The better the Printed Garden does, the more the girls will benefit. They are my heart.

I’m sharing some photographs here but will be uploading more images and details to the Shop page in the next couple of days so you can order the products directly from me. They bring a fresh, vibrant aesthetic and will enhance any space – traditional or contemporary. Perfect gifts for weddings, bridal showers, birthdays, host/hostess, housewarmings, holidays, special occasions, no special reason or simply for yourself.

Your feedback is really important because I trust your thoughts. Please send me your comments/suggestions. Do go to the Shop page to get details and more information on the products – it’ll all be there by Thursday November 2, 2017.Thank you!

These are the nine botanicals in this collection.

Table runner.

Napkins and Place mats.

Guest/tea towels.

Pillows – only six of the botanicals. No pansy, hellebore or liatris. Yet!

(c) 2017 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

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