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

 

Art In Progress!

In past posts, I have often mentioned the role that sculpture can play in the garden. From giving it gravitas to whimsy, a garden or, for that matter, any space is much elevated by art. In my own garden, I have a few small pieces but I’ve always hankered for something dramatic and large yet one that is empathetic to the surroundings. Art that was site specific. Which of course meant having the work commissioned.

Meanwhile. I’ve had to confront the reality of losing the tree that is supporting the Paul’s Himalayan Musk rose in the meadow. The tree is quite dead. or the present, It is only a matter of time before a big storm easily brings it all down. It needs something to step in and take up the role of rose upholder. Soon.

Hmmm. Perhaps I could combine the two needs? A sculpture that will also brace the rambler would do the trick. Enter Domenico Belli. A metal sculptor and all round nice guy.

Together we’ve worked out what is needed, wanted and downright fun. A work of art that will bear the additional responsibility of taking over from the tree. And in the future, if for one reason or other the rose ceases to be, the sculpture will still be intact and relevant.

Commissioning a large work ( 8 feet high and all stainless steel) feels so grown-up and glamorous. I’m excited, nervous and impatient all at once. Domenico has begun working on it and sends me photos to keep me updated. It’s like waiting for a baby and becoming ecstatic over each ultrasound image. How amazing and what will it finally look like?!

I’m sharing with you the images and you can have a go at guessing the final design. Let me know what you think. After the piece is completed and installed, I’ll tell you more about what I envisioned, how we collaborated and still permitted Domenico to have artistic freedom.

Domenico still has lots of work to do. We are looking to install in mid-fall and I’m thrilled to keep everybody in the loop. Process in any sort of creative effort is instructive. Together we can be inspired.

Note: You can read  about my latest visit with the children at Mukta Jeevan here.

The first shipment of metal arrives at Domenico's studio

The first shipment of metal arrives at Domenico’s studio

Domenico gets started

Domenico gets started

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Music In The Meadow Part II

The ongoing heat wave and drought like conditions that we are experiencing in my corner of the country, is a wake up call to how we use our land. Other parts of the country and indeed, the world, are also being confronted with devastatingly atypical weather. Unprecedented, destructive flooding/drought/heat – take your pick, it is happening. Gardeners must adapt to changing climates and lead the way in sound environmental practices.

That being so, creating native plant meadows is a timely subject to explore and implement.

While my own meadow project has been underway, the trend to create meadows has gained attention and dare I say it, popularity. When I first started my meadow over two decades ago, it was viewed as odd, messy and ‘hippy-like’. My compost bin and rain barrel were also tossed into that category. I even recall my attempts being described as quaint and old-fashioned. So, please pardon me if I feel vindicated now that meadows, composting and, catching rain water have not only become accepted but are official stamps of the environmental conscious. I think I’ve earned my smug face don’t you?!

In creating meadows, we are in essence, restoring a resilient landscape to support bio-diversity and creating a balance in nature. This equilibrium resists invasives, creates a healthy matrix and withstands fluctuations in the climate admirably. Native plants co-evolve with native insects and animals. Like a world class orchestra, such a meadow performs in complete harmony giving us the most uplifting, life affirming concert.

Here are the proven benefits of a native meadow –

There are fewer ticks. Out here, Lyme disease is a real and serious concern. As a result, homeowners feel justified in contractual agreements with landscaping firms to have their property routinely sprayed with chemicals to control the ticks. What they are not taking into account is that even the “organic” applications are not tick specific. All of the insect population is affected. One loses the good guys with every application. Thinking beyond the insects, the chemicals, organic and otherwise, ultimately get washed into the water table. Pets and children who play in the garden, roll on the lawn, nibble on plants are all coming in contact with any and all insecticides, pesticides and fertilizers. Shouldn’t that alone be a serious concern?
When the environment is in balance, the ticks are eaten by other insects, birds and animals. And that is how their population is well controlled.

Once established, that is as soon as the young plants are settled in, a meadow needs no further watering. Think about that.

At no point is there need of fertilizers. Not even compost. And the soil is never turned over nor is new soil introduced. The land is kept as it is. Imagine all the time, energy and dollars saved.

The meadow is cut down just once a year. Mowing becomes a non-issue. Now, traditionally, a meadow is burned annually in early spring. One needs a permit from the town and fire department because burning must be done correctly. However, if you live like I do, cheek to jowl with the neighbors, that is not an option. I do an annual mow down in the fall.
But, if you happen to live on a large enough property with neighbors at a proper distance, burning is much preferred and more effective. Weeds will be significantly reduced and even those that regrow, will be shaded out by the native grasses.
Here is an interesting fact – native plants burn well and burn gently. Those big conflagrations one envisions when we think of burning a meadow or field are created when non-native plants burn.
The dangerous forest fires that rage every year in some parts of the country are primarily in areas abundant with non-native trees and shrubs.

A thriving meadow is utterly beautiful. At every season it offers a different view. And oh the insect and bird life! Watching the wildlife is fascinating and often mesmerizing. It’s better than watching the Discovery channel!

Meadows are naturally productive and nutritious. All creatures benefit from them.

So, are you motivated to give up a part of your garden/property to a meadow? If so, start with small acreage. Learn the process.
Know your plants. Identify the natives, weedy non-natives.
Become familiar with water (rain, ground water flow) and reproductive patters, seed dispersal methods, animal habits.
Whenever one plant, native or non, appears to take over, that is a sign of imbalance.

We introduced the wrong plants, that means we can also remove them. If each of us commits to doing our part, we can restore the environmental balance. The parks, reserves and public gardens alone cannot carry the weight of safe-guarding this glorious land of ours. The responsibility rests on each of us.
We can and must do better than we have thus far.

Enjoy the photos I took recently of the meadow at Linda Horn’s in Spencertown, NY:

The native monarda is a huge draw for all sorts of pollinators

The native monarda is a huge draw for all sorts of pollinators

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Music In The Meadow. Part I

The meadow has been on my radar this year. And judging from the requests I’ve received, it seems so have many of you. Primarily, you have asked to know the full story of my meadow and what ever else I can share on that topic. Here goes!

Ever since I decided to do away with the lawn in the back garden about twenty years ago, I’ve pretty much let whatever grows remain as is. Except of course for scourges like garlic mustard. At the time, this was almost unheard of. I myself had never seen such a thing in a small, suburban garden. There was no handy literature on the subject available and it was way before Google. But I was very eager to try making a meadow ( of sorts). So I applied a dash of common sense and dab of creativity.

“ Like The Bumble-bee, What I Do Not Know Will Let Me Fly” Shobha Vanchiswar
Yes, I have often charged ahead based on that thought. Feel free to adopt it. It works.

The very idea of a meadow is romantic right? One pictures a spread of assorted wildflowers dancing in the breeze, butterflies flitting around, birds singing in chorus, the sun shining, a blue sky dotted with fluffy, blue clouds. All inviting one to run through it carefree and laughing. This is actually not far from the truth. A healthy, robust meadow is a habitat in balance. The diverse plants and animal/insect life make for a self-sustaining environment. So much more attractive than a lawn! How could I resist trying to create such a place in my corner?

Like I mentioned, I stopped mowing the lawn and simply let it go ‘natural’.It took a few years for the lawn to give itself over to new settlers. Much slower than I’d expected but I had to see what really would grow. Turns out lots of green things. Not familiar at that time with the many native, wild plants, I had no idea what was what. But I did know that for the most part, wild plants are generally not given to big, showy blooms. If one compares a wild monarda to a cultivated variety, you will see what I mean. So apart from the happy splash of dandelion yellow and ajuga blue in spring, my meadow appeared mostly green. I wanted a little more oomph.

For spring color, not wanting to inadvertantly introduce herbacious plants that could upset the natural balance, I hit upon the idea of putting in bulbs. Not given to being invasive or harming the environment but instead bringing in beauty and cheer, they are a perfect choice. I started by planting hundreds of daffodils and over the years, I have added a whole host of minor bulbs such a crocus, wood hyacinths, leucojum, scilla, iris reticulata, anemones, ornithogalum (not so minor), small frittilaria along with a slew of alliums and camassia. The ajuga, mysotis and dandelions joined in quite naturally. All of spring, this part of the garden reigns supreme.

But for the rest of the growing season until the whole area gets mowed down, it looks kinda ‘meh’. And until recent years, I was gone for a good chunk of the summer so I didn’t particularly care. Out of sight, out of mind and all that. About four years ago, I started feeling a mix of guilt and responsibility to do right by the environment as well as my garden’s appearance. While the ‘meadow’ such as it is, is not harming anything and actually supports a variety of creatures, my state of inertia was losing ground.

In my mind (okay, also my heart), a meadow is like a symphony. The myriad flora and fauna make up a full orchestra. Every meadow-member has a part to play. Nature is the artistic director and conductor. She is also the composer. The gardener is the manager. The four seasons are like the movements in a piece of music. The tempo, rhythm, mood, melody, instrument voices, expressions can all be compared to how life in the meadow plays out. The slower, quieter winter movement, the fresh, eager, excited spring movement, the loud, exuberant movement of summer, and finally, the poignant, somewhat melancholic autumnal one. Yes, kind of like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

So you can understand my restless mind – I needed to improve my own meadow so it could play a strong, empowering symphony. It had not been allowed to perform at its fullest potential thus far. Many important sections of this orchestra were missing and so, the current concert was lackluster.
With this in mind, I began researching (three cheers for the Internet), talking to those more experienced with native plants, visiting native plant gardens like those at the NY Botanical Garden, Teatown Lake and Reservation, private properties, attending talks by the likes of William Bryant Logan and Edwina von Gaal. On road trips, I braked for meadows and investigated them. Behind the ‘researching’ hides my propensity to procrastinate. It buys time before screwing up courage and launching into big projects. I took my time.

Meadows are generally seen as large open spaces blessed with sunshine. My meadow is assigned a small space in semi-shade. The word meadow is a slight stretch. But it is too open to call it woodland. So meadow it is.

Native plants that could accept being in a suburban, somewhat obscure orchestra were sought out. They might seem unambitious but their skills and ‘sounds’ are no less commendable. I had to give them a fair audition.

Given that there were already many bulbs in place, there was no question of risking losing them by digging up the ground to plant mature native plants. Bulbs are expensive and so are mature plants. I had to source native plant plugs. Being small, plugs are easier to plant and in using them, the bulbs stood to go unscathed. Perfect solution right? Well, native plugs are not so easy to find. Then, last fall, a friend with a penchant for gardens and an interest in native wildflowers shared a source he had recently obtained. That single piece of information was received with the same enthusiasm as some of my friends demonstrate for sample sales at haute couture fashion houses

Finally, this year, I introduced a number of different plants to the meadow. Given the time pressure of my annual Garden Open Day in early May, getting these new additions in was something of a scramble. But it got done. And then I turned my attention to all the other demands of the season.

Native plants are hardier and tougher than non-natives – that gave me permission to not worry about the meadow. In the frenzy of getting the garden ready for Open Day, I failed to consider that it had not rained sufficiently and young plants need some extra TLC. By the time it occurred to me, we had already had a few super-hot days in addition to the lack of rain. And given that the meadow was now thick with growth, telling the young, new plants apart from the old, was near impossible. It was a sea of green. So I’m not really sure whether some if not all of the plugs have made it or if some decided to go dormant or if all bit the dust. I have since done some intermittent watering but it feels like closing the barn door after the animals have escaped.

Still, I’m optimistic. I suspect at least some of the plants would have pulled through. Patience is called for – I must give the meadow another full year before determining anything.

Meanwhile, I’ve been investigating meadow establishment further. Stay tuned for part II next week!

Early days. May 2005

Early days. May 2005

May 20006

May 20006

June 2006

June 2006

May 2007

May 2007

June 2007

June 2007

May 2009

May 2009

May 2010

May 2010

May 2012

May 2012

Up close May 2012

Up close
May 2012

June 2012

June 2012

May 2016

May 2016

Late May 2016

Late May 2016

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Hugelkultur Is Happening!

If you haven’t as yet heard of hugelkultur, you will soon enough. Its time has come. Which is ironic when you consider that the concept is hundreds of years old. When I learned of it, my first thought was that this harked back to agricultural practices when nothing was allowed to go to waste. Environmentally sound, sustainable and actually quite intuitive, hugelkultur makes so much sense. You’ll see.

The very first time I saw hugelkultur being implemented was on a property in southern Vermont. What I saw looked, frankly, a bit appalling. The house and its corner lot looked shabby which in itself was not awful – the kind of place I assumed the owners were either physically or financially unable to maintain it. It happens. But what looked to me as deliberately messy was the front right quadrant. It had these big compost heaps on top of which grew haphazardly some tomato and other plants. There appeared to be no attempt to have it look tidy or purposeful. I took pictures of this because I loved how plants will grow wherever they can. It was a couple of years later that I read about hugelkultur and then recalled this property. It was not the best example but clearly the gardeners knew what they were doing. Just not very attractively. But, who am I to judge? I’m the one with the wild ‘meadow’ after all.

Hügelkultur is a German word meaning mound culture or hill culture. It was practiced in German and Eastern European societies for hundreds of years.
It is a process of composting in place using raised beds built in layers of wood debris and other compostable plant biomass. The method improves soil fertility, water retention, keeps the soil warm, supports microbial life that in turn enrich the soil, Traditionally, these beds are mounds or hills. The beds can however be built up like more traditional square or rectangle raised beds. A lasagna of sorts!

At a time when we are doing our best to recycle, reuse and reduce, hugelkultur is a godsend. It is in essence a permaculture technique and the beds are raised by layering organic material. Starting with the roughest material like rotting logs, topped with layers of thin branches followed by twigs and such, then grass clippings and other compostable garden waste, and finally, a layer of top soil. As the lower levels in the bed break down, they create most suitable environments for microbes necessary for healthy soil. This in turn permits better moisture retention and slow release of nutrients.

As the materials break down, there is some settling but by adding leaf mould and compost regularly, an ideal height can be maintained.

Instead of bagging the leaves and twigs for curbside pick-up, the materials can be put to use in the garden itself. No chipping or shredding needed.
As the wood decays gradually, it becomes a constant source of nutrients for the plants. In large beds, the nutrient output could be sustained for as long as twenty years. As the composting occurs, the heat generated extends the growing season.
When the logs and branches break down, there is an increase in soil areation. Hence, this method requires no tilling or turning over of the soil.
Wood can act like sponge. Rainwater is stored in the logs and branches and released during drier periods. Apparently, after the first year, with the exception of droughts, one may never need to water again.
Hugel beds also sequester carbon in the soil.
In essence, one can start such a bed by simply starting by building the layers from the ground up on the selected site. However, it is recommended that if you are starting on sod, then cut out the sod, dig in a trench with a depth of about a foot and then place the logs. Add the thin branches, the twigs and then the cut out layer of sod face down, followed by the other materials. A bed with steep slopes is the most recommended. This increases the surface area for planting and also avoids compaction from increased pressure over time. The steep sides means higher height and so easy harvesting. Greater the mass, greater the water retention.
Types of tree wood make a difference. Hardwoods are best as they decompose slowly but softwoods can also be used. A mix is ideal.
Woods that work best: Alders, apple, aspen, birch, cottonwood, maple, oak, poplar, willow (make sure it is dead or it will sprout).
Consider woods that are naturally anti-fungal, decay resistant or produce saps and tannins only if they are already well rotted. These are cedars, juniper, yew, eucalyptus, black cherry, camphor wood, osage orange, pine/fir/spruce.

Avoid altogether – Black locust (will not decompose), black walnut (juglone toxin), old growth redwood (heartwood will not decompose and redwood compost can prevent seed germination).

At this time, my small garden has no spot for experimenting with hugelkultur. But, I’m hoping one or more of you will give it a try. Please tell me if have already or are ready to try this method. I’m so excited about hugelkultur – it could be a game changer in our efforts to restore and maintain a healthy, ecologically sound environment.

Don’t forget – you can follow me on Instagram seedsofdesignllc

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The lot in Vermont I

The lot in Vermont I

Lot in Vermont II

Lot in Vermont II

Lot in Vermont III

Lot in Vermont III

Bonus picture! A New Dawn rose in my garden.

Bonus picture! A New Dawn rose in my garden.

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Debunk, Demystify, Disguise. Part II

In coming up with solutions to problems or changing unsuitable conditions inorder to create a better, more beautiful garden, I find it particularly gratifying if I can meet the challenge in the simplest yet, most creative manner. Given unlimited funds, one can easily vanquish all sorts of impediments. But make new, buy new is too easy. And not always the road to thinking out of the box. I absolutely enjoy stretching my mind to find the least complicated answers. It is also pure fun.

While there are myriad such applications in the garden, for the purposes of brevity, I’m focusing on what I think are the most instructive ones.

Taking it from last week, we continue on the path past the espalier and peonies. This path links the front and back gardens. So, to imply that one is entering a new space, I placed another rose arch at the end of the walk just before one steps down to the herb garden and potager. In placing elements like arches, varying height levels of garden spaces and using low walls to separate the different areas, the small garden gives the illusion of a much larger one.

My herb garden is located over the concrete top of the old septic tank. As a result, the soil here is only about two feet deep. No deep rooted shrubs could grow here. By making it an herb and vegetable garden, it seems natural as the terrace/outdoor dining area is right by. Picking salad fixings for al fresco meals and adding herbs to liven up pizzas and other dishes that get cooked in the outdoor oven is not only a romantic image but a reality.

When I first got this property, apart from the weedy jungle that had taken over, this space had two distinct elements that had to be dealt with. The first was a basketball hoop and stand. Since there are no basketball players in my family, the hoop had to go. In attempting to remove it, I found that only the top two-thirds could be lifted off. The lower third was a steel pole set in the concrete of the aforementioned septic tank. To get rid of it would be a huge project. So, I left it in place and topped it with a birdbath. A simple solution that the birds have happily endorsed. It is used by them constantly. Oh the responsibility of keeping it filled!

The second element was the old depository for the garbage pickup. It is a lidded bin also made of steel and also set in concrete. The ‘dustman’ would pick up the garbage bag from here. The solid container kept out rodents and other inquisitive critters. Again, I was not about to embark on eliminating it. Hence the artichoke sculpture that sits atop the lid. Surrounded by lily-of-the-valley, most of the garbage is hidden and the patinated copper artichoke looks quite well placed and comfortable. In keeping with the potager theme too!

An ugly railing set in the retaining wall at the end of the driveway always bothered me. The railing itself is a necessity and I could have considered cutting the railing off and placing a more attractive one. But I thought that kind of money would be better spent on plants, outdoor furniture etc., Instead, I’ve been wrapping the railing with grapevine prunings. Easy to do each spring after the grapes have been pruned. And couldn’t be cheaper! Eventually, the climbing hydrangea that currently grows over a fourth of the railing will cover the whole.

The last significant feature in the garden is also one that draws all sorts of reactions. (Thankfully, all good ones!) This is the vertical garden of course. For all it’s interest and visual drama, this wall garden conceals a really dreary stretch of cement wall. Sitting right alongside the driveway, there is no room to hide it with pots of plants or any sculpture. The moss and lichen covered, fern and heuchera sprouting wall is one gorgeous cover-up. Ingenious. Even if I say so myself.

The meadow right now! I love it so.

The meadow right now! I love it so.

The path

The path

See how the peony plant now blends well with the grapevine covered support

See how the peony plant now blends well with the grapevine covered support

Arch leading into the herb garden

Arch leading into the herb garden

Herb garden

Herb garden

Birdbath on steel pole

Birdbath on steel pole

The grand artichoke

The grand artichoke

The railing wrapped in grapevine.

The railing wrapped in grapevine.

See how the railing is barely noticeable? Note the climbing hydrangea that will eventually billow out all over the railing.

See how the railing is barely noticeable?
Note the climbing hydrangea that will eventually billow out all over the railing.

The wall garden

The wall garden

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Debunk, Demystify, Disguise. Part I

Okay, I’m going to tell secrets. I didn’t think I had any but apparently, some seem to think I do. I generally go on the assumption that do what I think is right by the environment and goes with my sense of aesthetics. Once I explain certain features or reasons for their existence in my garden, they have been rendered anything from “cheap” to “ingenious”. What I thought was solving a problem in my particular garden appears to have more widespread appeal. After my most recent garden day and noting the most frequently asked questions or features most photographed, I thought I’d simply put down all the whys and hows. By doing so, if it helps any other gardener, then I’ll consider myself honored.

Lets start with my front fence. Since the garden starts right at the street, there is a tendency for people to step on to it without observing that there is a bed of early bulbs and a nice spread of vinca defining it. Clearly, something to ward off such wayward wanderings was called for. A fence was the obvious answer but I wanted it to look friendly and attractive. So I came up with the post and rope design. Solves the problem, defines the garden and still blends well with it. Easy to maintain too.

The walkway used to be a boring band of concrete. Really dull looking. Given the short distance from street to house, a winding or curving path was out of the question. Would be ridiculous and pretentious all at the same time. Simply replacing the concrete with another material would still just be a wide band. Better but no oomph. Then, inspiration hit and you see what I came up with. This feature is one most frequently commented on, photographed and has made it on Pinterest boards and real estate publications.. The manual, reel mower is all that is needed to keep it looking neat. Boiling water over the bricks puts paid to weeds creeping inbetween.

Again, playing on the very small size of the front garden, I thought it needed something to make one distinctly feel they were stepping away from the garden to enter the house. Easily served by the rose and clematis arch. It gives one pause to view the front garden before stepping forward towards the door. As a bonus, in June, covered with roses, the arch softens the heart and puts a smile on every face. All who enter the house do so in a better state of mind. Sly move right?!
I’ve been asked why I chose a rose that is not an all season bloomer. Personally, I think having an annual showing gives one opportunity to anticipate, appreciate and then archive into the memory banks. It compels me to live in the moment. If the arch was in bloom all the time, I ( and you) probably wouldn’t notice it as much. The special-ness of the display in June is exactly that. Special.

Before we started on the espalier of fruit trees separating my property from our neighbor’s, there used to be a rather wild, untidy hedge of privet, hibiscus (Rose of Sharon), several nondescript, unknown plants and autumn clematis. Not the worst looking hedge but still quite unattractive and leggy. No amount of trimming and grooming improved the appearance.

While I mulled on what to replace this hedge with, trips to Belgium and France exposed me to the elegant yet practical tradition of espaliered trees. Started around the 13th century, this practice allows one to have more trees than would otherwise be possible in a limited space. Additionally, by restricting the height, it is easier to prune the branches and pick the fruit. I desperately wanted to have my own espalier. The Belgian fence style specifically.

Voila! The perfect solution for replacing problem hedge as well as satisfying my espalier craving was born.

I believe in concealing the ‘mechanics’. Just as one wouldn’t want to expose the pins and potions that put a hair coif together or flaunt the underpinnings of an outfit, the elements that support or make a certain garden look happen ought to be hidden. Showing them detracts from what we want one to see.

That said, the peonies that line the right side of the ‘espalier’ path always need to be propped up. The weight of their blooms would otherwise cause the plants to flop down. It is fairly routine to place peony supports/cages just as the shoots emerge in spring. The plants grow through the cages and stay upright. However, the tops of the metal supports are invariably visible. To hide them and at the same time give an organic appearance, I decided years ago to weave the prunings from the grapevine all through the tops of the cages and across the entire length of the peonies. When the plants are fully grown, no metalwork shows and the grapevine blends in nicely. Because my open day is in early soring before the peonies are mature, this design element is visible to visitors. Never fails to be noticed, noted and photographed for copy!

I do think this article is long enough for now and I’ll reserve the rest of the features for next week. There is more so stay tuned!

Here are images of the aforementioned features. I’ve also included a photo of my booth at the Surtex expo that I just participated in. It was new grounds to me and a big deal. I’ll report on it another time:

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Warming Up To April

Apart from that best forgotten April Fool’s Day of 70 degree weather, thus far this month, the days have been very much like winter. Snow, sleet, bone chilling winds and temperatures below freezing. I was not pleased but did my best to maintain a good attitude. I am chomping at the bit to get going in the garden.

Since it was too cold to bring plants out of the greenhouse or to get the young vegetable plugs into the potager, my focus has been on the three ‘R’s. Repairing, replacing and repositioning. Considering that the winter was relatively mild, there is surprisingly plenty to do to re-establish order. Admittedly, things age and then finally one notices that a structure needs urgent attention. The roping on the ‘fence’ that borders the front of the property had to be replaced and the posts straightened up. Easy enough.
(On the subject of fences, my neighbor’s fence that marks one side of the meadow has totally fallen apart. I’m hoping desperately that it is taken care of very soon. With equanimity and understanding.)

However, the stairs leading to the garden from the side porch were in bad shape. The whole structure had to be replaced. Much more work but this time, we were able to match the wood to the red cedar of the espalier and front fence posts as well as the new pergola in the back. Neither of those existed when the stairs were put in soon after we bought the house. At that time, we knew very little about thinking ahead. The effort to make it all cohesive has been successful – there is nothing to jar the eye and as a result, the plantings can take center stage.
This past weekend, the task got completed. The resident mechanical engineer came through with flying colors. I really am grateful.

There are still other areas to attend. Such as remedy the erosion in the area leading to the meadow. The water runs off here after heavy rainstorms and carries away soil. Similarly, paving stones leading to the greenhouse need to be reset. Water is such a powerful creator and destroyer.

The hold-up in garden work has also permitted me to plan more for the pop-up shop I intend to have on May 7, As this was an idea that came to me only recently, I have plenty of details to work out. But, I’m excited. It’ll be so much fun to share some of my garden inspired creations. Make sure you visit!

Taking advantage of Sunday’s rise in temperature, I got the potager and large pots planted up. It was such an unadulterated pleasure to finally feel the soil in my hands. This week promises to be more seasonal so, I expect to do more clean up, get the peony supports in place, start moving plants out of the greenhouse and generally spruce up the garden.

I have yet to assess how all the perennials have fared through the winter. The delay in warming up has slowed the greening of the garden. But, already it is obvious that four of the espalier trees need to be replaced. Fortunately, three of those were some of last year’s introductions so they are young enough to be easily removed. And, as if to comfort me and keep my spirits up, the ‘minor’ bulbs continue to bravely make their entrance. Taking over from the crocuses, the Muscari and Anemone blanda (grape hyacinths and Grecian windflowers) are now in bloom. The true hyacinths have also started flowering and perfuming the air. Pure heaven. And on Sunday, I spied the first of the early-blooming tulips. Makes me so happy.

With less than a month to Open Day, the pace of getting the chores done is frenzied. I’m keeping fingers tightly crossed that the return to normal April conditions continues and the plants look magnificent. Much rain is predicted this week so those showers had better deliver on the May flowers. Or else ….

Note: This should be fascinating!

Please come to the upcoming Rocky Hills Environmental Lecture by Edwina von Gal

Turning PRFCT: The Evolution and Adventures
of a Rational Naturalist

Wednesday, April 27, at 7:30 p.m.
Chappaqua Library
195 South Greeley Avenue
Chappaqua, NY

Admission free. No registration is required.

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Nesting Instincts. Enlightened Gardening #3.

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Awwww! Right?!

Nothing like the sight of babies of any species to turn us into mush. It simply cannot be helped. I never tire of seeing the homes the assorted garden creatures make. Bird nests are of course the most obvious. But solid looking adobe-like bee hives, papery nests of wasps, the large, messily put together squirrel abodes, the perfectly spherical beads of butterfly eggs on leaves of select plant, the cottony casings through which are visible the growing baby spiders are all the result of parents no less dedicated or anxious than we humans. In the role of parent, across genus and species, we can understand each other with total clarity and empathy. Is that not marvelous in itself?

A healthy garden will support all sorts of beneficial creatures. Any gardener worth her salt will do everything in her power to do right by her garden. Which brings us to part 3 of our goal to creating gardens with a conscience. Enlightened Gardening. Given all that we now know about the delicate balance in Nature, our role in impacting the environment and, how each living thing is connected to every other, it becomes imperative and urgent to do our part and do it well.

Imagine entering a garden that is lush with flowers, neatly clipped hedges. Even some clever topiary. Mature trees. Green lawns. Exquisite statuary. Sounds lovely so far? But now notice the quiet. No hum or buzz or shriek or trill or hurried rustle. Dead silence. Begins to feel strange? Then notice the absence of all animal life. No sign of movement but for a passing wind. Nothing flitting, flying, scurrying or hopping. I can already sense my panic. Like a child in an Halloween haunted house. Something bad is about to happen!

And that is what animals bring to our gardens, our world. Not only do they perform basic necessaries like pollination and pest control but they bring in the full spectrum of life itself. We could not function without them. Our spirit would be lost.

So, starting with including indigenous plants, a garden must offer a safe haven for beneficial creatures. Thickets and brambly shrubs for certain types of bird nests and other insects to find shelter and avoid discovery by their predators, Trees for other birds and squirrels. Discrete piles of fallen branches and upturned pots to give safe harbor to toads and garden snakes. Bird houses, nesting boxes, bat houses, bundles of narrow, hollow cylinders of wood or bamboo to encourage bees to take up residence.

Just like humans, other creatures also look for the ‘right’ neighborhoods. If you’ve ever watched birds check out possible nest building sites or houses already in place, you’ll know how carefully they consider the options. Safety, privacy, availability and access to food, light and wind exposure are factors uppermost on every animals mind. Sound familiar?!

It is in the interest of all concerned parties that the gardener does her bit to create the appropriate environments for the valued creatures. If we want them to grace us with their presence, then we must do the needful. Apart from a choice of housing locations, there must be available water and food. A water-bath, a fountain or a pond will suffice. Appropriate and diverse plants for food. Birds are good at scouting out where to get bugs and worms as well. If the garden is organic, then the food and water will be naturally clean. For us and for our fellow residents.
In very early spring, I put up a ‘nesting wreath’. A bunch of grapevine clippings are woven into a circle. To this I loosely attach natural fibres like cotton, jute or wool, feathers, twigs, hair, ribbons of colorful paper, dried flowers and leaves, moss and such. A little reservoir of nest building supplies to encourage the avians.

We provide a healthy place for them to live and raise their babies and they return the favor. No doubt we also provide each other a certain amount of entertainment in the bargain. Isn’t this how life is best lived?

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This bluebird house is not in the ideal location but I'm optimistic. It hosted wrens last year. Maybe this year I'll try to move it to a more appropriate location.

This bluebird house is not in the ideal location but I’m optimistic. It hosted wrens last year. Maybe this year I’ll try to move it to a more appropriate site.

The meadow is a veritable smorgasbord - nectar, worms, other bugs ... At the same time, it is a safe haven for some creatures.

The meadow is a veritable smorgasbord – nectar, worms, other bugs …
At the same time, it is a safe haven for some creatures.

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar