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

Organically Certified – Enlightened Gardening #2

I’ll say it right off – keeping an organic garden is not so easy. I’m not saying it is difficult but it does require greater vigilance and prompt, timely measures. Compared to freely applying chemicals preventively and pro-actively, organic practices are somewhat more demanding. But isn’t that worth it if it means not polluting the air, soil or water? Are our children and pets not worth that effort? They should be able to play freely in the outdoors without worry of getting sick from chemicals in their environment. Preserving the health of our world is the legacy we pass on to future generations.

Last week I regaled you with the power of compost on your lawn. In truth, it is essential everywhere in the garden. I know it is hard to believe that this one ‘product’ can be fertilizer, mulch and thereby weed suppressor and water-conserver all in one. But that is only because the manufacturers of chemical/synthetic fertilizers and pesticides have done an excellent job of telling us otherwise. This is no different from baby food manufacturers who in the mid-1900’s convinced women that the factory made formulae were superior to breast milk. But we now know better don’t we? Enough said.

I use compost on lawn, flower beds, pots, vegetable plots, around fruit trees and shrubs. Literally everywhere in the garden. In the beds, I do cover the compost with a layer of cedar wood chips for both aesthetic reasons as well as to create a hindrance to the vagaries of digging critters like squirrels, dogs and cats. No other product needed.

On the few occasions when additional feeding and spraying is required as in the case of nurturing the apple and pear tree espalier fence, only organic products like seaweed and fish emulsion and dormant oil spray are used. Producing organic fruit is a particular challenge and I’ve learned to deeply respect the farmers who supply our markets.

In conjunction with maintaining an organic garden, it is imperative that the plants one selects are largely native plants. Native flora attract native fauna. These native fauna will not only pollinate cheerfully but they will also safeguard the plants from predators. Think ladybugs eating aphids, birds picking off pesky beetles and caterpillars, bats devouring mosquitoes etc., Research has shown that when a plant is attacked by pests, it does two things. First, it changes its leaves by making them less nutritious and then, it releases chemicals like jasmonic acid that act like ‘screams for help’ which are signals picked up by beneficial insects that zoom in to feed on the pests thus protecting the host plants. Even more interestingly, planting the right plants alone does not bring in the right insects. The pests must arrive first, do some harm to which the plants ‘cry out in alarm’, and only then will the predators show up. There is an implicit protocol or line of action that ensues. While we are still trying to understand these highly complex and rather impressive phenomena, we can purposefully create the correct balance of flora and fauna thereby doing right by the environment.

Whether one uses chemical or organic pesticides, we are not simply taking care of specific pests. The products are broad-based killers. So even the good guys are wiped out. It is important that we do not use any product if we can help it. For example, dormant oil spray is applied to smother the eggs of pests such as aphids, certain mites and scales. But it will also cover everything else. So, when it is sprayed is crucial. The window is small – when temperatures are above freezing for more than 24 hours but not yet too warm,when  rain is not expected for a few days and, before leaves are put out and the buds have not as yet opened. Miss that time and then don’t bother. It’s too late! Or else you risk choking the leaves so they are unable to photosynthesize properly and, coating opening buds making them unpalatable to arriving pollinators.

My general principle is to keep it simple. As few or no products. Accept that organic fruit may not look perfect. They will however taste wonderful. The sheer, unadulterated joy of biting into an apple right off the tree is priceless. Or, how about a carrot freshly pulled up from the earth and gently rinsed to get the grit off before crunching into its crisp, sweet, orange flesh? Imagine having no worries when you pluck nasturtiums and roses to add color, taste and beauty to your salads and desserts. Scented geranium leaves to perfume lemonades. Chemical-free catnip for your cat. Are you catching the organic spirit?

So first, get yourself started with a collection of native plants. ( see my article from 2 weeks ago Giving Back To The Future for sources) and organically produced vegetable seeds and/or plants which are available at any good nursery. Set up bird baths, nesting boxes and hidey-holes for beneficial fauna to take up residence. Set up your own composter and feed it garden and kitchen waste. Until you start generating your own compost, purchase it from local nurseries. Your town, like mine, might have a place to get free compost. ( For a nominal fee, they will even deliver large amounts of compost or wood-chip mulch).

Get to know your plants intimately. Learn their appearance and habits. This will prepare you to notice right away if something is amiss. Act promptly and prevent further damage.

Now you are in the organic business. Get to work!

The hyacinths inside the house have bloomed and the air is redolent with their perfume. Sheer heaven. Meanwhile outdoors, snowdrops and some hellebores are in bloom. Distinct signs of spring! Enjoy the images below:

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Lawning Ahead. Enlightened Gardening #1

Winter is entering its final quarter. Are you ready to implement all those garden plans and resolutions? You want to go organic, grow some if not all your veggies, have something in bloom all year long, create a more casual garden to reflect your lifestyle, set up the patio so you can enjoy al fresco meals as often as possible, provide the children with a space that fires their imagination and finally, it all seemed so doable in January but now, you are daunted. Am I right?

Well, you are not alone. It is quite common to feel a bit overwhelmed and not know how or where to start. I get asked about this all the time. Let me reassure anybody who has doubts that all of those goals are not only well within reach but can be achieved this very year. The only thing you need to begin is a deep desire to do what it takes. Make time in your schedule, set aside a minimum of an hour every other day ( every day is better) and a good half day of the weekend ( a whole day is better!). You might not need all that time each day but then, you can use it to just sit and enjoy the garden. I guarantee you will get hooked to puttering in your corner of paradise. It just feels so good!

After hearing from many readers, I’m happy to discuss the several tasks and habits to cultivate (!) that will get you creating the garden you want.

Lets start with the lawn. That ubiquitous green swathe that seems to be the dubious prize of most property owners. A healthy, verdant, well manicured monoculture lawn has become the unofficial American symbol of success. And the struggle to maintain said lawn is the “successful” American way of life. Really America? After all that we now know about the huge cost to the environment and wallet in the upkeep of such a feature, are we still going to continue hankering after this shallow dream? Think about that.

So, if you are keen on such a perfectly superficial and downright wasteful element in your garden, then this article is probably not for you. But, before you leave this site, just pause to ask yourself why you think you must have that pristine lawn and why you are so willing to work so hard to keep it that way. Do you truly believe that such a lawn means you ‘have arrived’? You like having the ‘pure green’ space? You enjoy spending unnecessary amounts of time, money and effort in the pursuit of such a thing? Are you at peace with yourself? Do you believe climate change is not impacted by human activities?
If you said yes to at least three of those questions, then it really is not useful for you to read on. You’re excused.

For the rest of you I have excellent news! Giving up on that perfect lawn is most liberating. You will save time, money, energy ( yours as well as natural earth resources) and at the same time create a healthy, thriving environment.

Take a look at the size of your lawn. Does it need to have those dimension or could you whittle it down? The reduced lawn will make room for more plant beds, shrubs and/or trees which will only enrich the garden. Of course, mowing will also be quicker.

After determining how small ( or big ) a lawn you are happy to live with, banish the thought of it supporting that single crop of grass. The green color that serves as counterpoint to the flowering beds can be from a diverse array of ‘lawn’ plants. Leafy jewels once considered as weeds in the conventional lawn are now free to sparkle. For the most part, this ‘new’ lawn will be a canvas of green but, every now and then, little color will spark it up. Violets, bugleweed, scilla, crocus, clover, forget-me-nots, ajuga, grape hyacinths, wood hyacinths and yes, dandelions. That last one is one of the earliest sources of nectar for bees and hummingbirds. But understandably, one doesn’t want dandelions taking over entirely. Here’s what I do – in my tiny lawn in front, I pull up all dandelion plants in the spring and then only remove the flowers the rest of the growing season. In the ‘meadow’ however, I depend on the dandelions following on the heels of the daffodils and clashing madly with the blues of the forget-me-nots and ajuga flowers. It is such a happy-making sight.
The other lawn flowers are given complete freedom.

Maintaining this type of lawn is easier than you think. I have one word – compost! Compost doubles as fertilizer and mulch. No more chemical fertilizers ever again. By supporting diversity, friendly insects will arrive and they in turn will take care of the pests. No more pesticides ever again. Mulch will restrain true weeds like crabgrass as well as stop the lawn from drying too quickly and hence the frequency and quantity of water consumed will be reduced. Finally, mowing with the blade set at a height of 4 to 6 inches, means you will not have to mow as often. Lawn clippings left on the ‘grass’ after mowing will also mulch and enrich the soil as they decompose into it. Keeping the grass a bit higher will also help in conserving the moisture in the soil. All good!

Consider how this one shift in practice will reduce the volume of chemicals polluting the water-table, save use of water, cut down on fuel use, lower air and noise pollution, create a clean, healthy area for pets and children to play and still look provide the coveted green backdrop.

A 3 inch layer of compost spread when aerating and seeding the lawn in spring will go a long way. I feed this area once again in early summer and finally after leaf raking in the fall. That is it. Imagine how freeing this process is compared to the constant demands of the old, perfect lawn! Are you game to get started?

Whatever will you do with the new found free time?!!

My tiny front lawn - hardly pristine but looks good right?!

My tiny front lawn – hardly pristine but looks good right?!

The lawn nicely complements the perennial beds on either side.

The lawn nicely complements the perennial beds on either side.

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The meadow!

The meadow!

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Giving Back To The Future

Something happens in mid-February. With the sap rising in the sugar maples, my gardening spirit goes into high gear. I get fully vested in preparing for the growing season. While I might have luxuriated in dreaming my way through seed and plant catalogs in December and January, come February and I’m raring to start doing garden things.

The amaryllis have been blooming beautifully since the New Year and I just got the hyacinth bulbs that had been cooling in the refrigerator since early to mid-November into bulb forcers.. Does this gardener’s heart a whole lot of good to see them sitting in their jewel-toned glass vases twinkling with all the promise of the spring to come.

This year, my plans for the garden are focused primarily on native wildflowers. It is very much in keeping with my continued efforts towards stewardship of land. Restoration of the landscape to a healthy, indigenous state is a critically important step. It is the only true legacy we can be proud to leave for future generations. I firmly believe that by bringing back what is native to our region is critical before we can pass on the trowel to those who will inherit it. Reinstating the flora and the fauna will follow. Balance will have been re-established.

If each gardener added regional native plants, then ‘habitat corridors’ will be created for free passage of pollinators and helpful wildlife that protect and/or support the plants. The natural symbiosis that is the foundation of a stable ecosystem.

My ‘meadow’ is the natural choice for introducing native wildflowers. However, it is not a simple matter of scattering seeds and expecting the plants to happily emerge. First of all, seeds from the wild are notoriously finicky. Probably evolved to give themselves the best chance for successful propagation, the seeds will germinate only when conditions are ideal. Often, depending on the species, they could take months or years to show signs of life. All of this might be proper for Nature’s normal habits but for a home gardener, it can be torturous waiting. And waiting..

Hence, I’ve forged a two-prong approach. To get the meadow established with plants starting this spring, I needed to procure said plants. Since this area has numerous bulbs already in place, I cannot risk destroying them by digging into the soil to put in mature plants. The solution was to source native wildflower plugs. Not so easy to come by. By discussing with fellow gardeners and researching on my own, I was delighted to come up with North Creek Nurseries. My plugs were obtainable! The additional bonus of the plugs is that they are that much easier to plant. This is a tremendous relief for my back and knees as they were dreading the labor of dealing with a large volume of grown-up plants.

Given that the meadow gets dappled sun, my selections are restricted to plants that are fine with that condition. The order has been placed. Shipment should arrive late April. Already I can ‘see’ the meadow shimmer with columbines, pink turtleheads, yellow sneezeweed, toad’s lily, wild bergamot ….

Meanwhile, the scientist in me was interested in working with seeds. I wanted seeds legitimately sourced from the wild. Plants from such seeds are quite different from their cultivated counterparts. If we are serious about restoring to our countryside and cities true native plants, then we must propagate from those seeds. Enter the Wild Seed Project. Based in Maine, its goal is to bring back the natural flora of Maine to Maine. Fortunately, those of us living in other similar regions of the country can purchase appropriate seeds from them.

Serendipitously, this past December, I was given a bunch of seed packets from Wild Seed Project. A gift of the best kind! Most of the seeds need a period in the cold after being sowed in pots. I have now done just that. My ‘babies’ wait in a sheltered part of the garden for their spring awakening. I will do my very best to attend to them as required and anticipate their germination with patience. Those who know me well are probably smiling with skepticism. Just watch. I’m going to show you a side of me you have never known. Patient and persevering. Wipe that smirk off your face!

Note: North Creek Nurseries supplies wholesale quantities – far more than the typical garden might require. So, team up with friends and neighbors, garden clubs and such, to order. The bonus will be creating native habitats in whole neighborhoods or communities. All good!

Wild Seed Project has a wonderful website and e-newsletter chock full of information and beautiful photos. Their efforts in Maine ought to be emulated in all the other states. Lets get started! I see this as a wonderful project to be taken up by towns and cities, private and public gardens, Girl and Boy Scouts, garden clubs, local Rotary clubs, schools and every other person or group that cares about what happens to our environment.

Below are a few images of the beauty of native flora and fauna:

Joe Pye

Joe Pye

Monarch butterfly on asters

Monarch butterfly on asters

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Echinacea

Echinacea

Hummingbird at work

Hummingbird at work

Bees on asters

Bees on asters

Pink turtlehead

Pink turtlehead

Closed Gentian

Closed Gentian

Sneezeweed

Sneezeweed

Yellow Lady's Slipper

Yellow Lady’s Slipper

Columbine

Columbine

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Senescence Scene

Senescence is generally defined as the condition or process of deterioration with age.
loss of a cell’s power of division and growth.

Somehow that sounds depressing. As though that is it. It’s all over folks. I doubt any living form, humans included, want their final season expressed that way. I’d like to believe that everything is valued, vital and vibrant till the very end. Yet, each year, as fall makes way for winter, senescence is a word that comes up to describe the state of affairs in the horticultural realm.

I get it. The word in itself is only meant to define a stage in life with scientific accuracy. I myself have used it often. But recently, walking around gardens and woods, I remembered that in cell biology, this definition continues by saying that although a cell in senescence is no longer capable of dividing, it is still alive and metabolically active. Now, doesn’t that instantly cheer you up?

Look around in the garden, at this time in the north-East when nothing seems to be happening and all the deciduous plants have ‘died’ back, there is in reality a wonderful undercurrent at play. The same anticipation suffused tension that is palpable when the baton is being passed in a relay race, is underway in the garden. The lack of snow and mild temperatures this season have extended the time we get to view the beauty of plants in senescence.
First, take an overview of what lies in front of you. There is an almost abstract beauty in the shapes of the plants and trees. The stands of withered plants provide seasonal interest in their sculptural forms and the palette of earth tones is an artist’s delight. Is there really that large a range of shades in the color brown?! Many of the flower heads retain their shapes and impart an ethereal loveliness in their faded hues.

The dried flower heads, curled, wrinkly leaves and mysterious seedpods evoke the imagination. But even more than that, they epitomize life. Yes, life! While most of the organic matter will get broken down by microbes and the elements to enrich the soil that will nurture plant life, the seedpods signal the very birth of life. This is not just the end but also the beginning.

Look closer at those seed-bearing forms. There is such a variety in their representations; each of which, in its exquisite design tells how its seeds are dispersed. Feathery, fluffy, papery packages are primed for air mail. The wind carries them to destinations near and far. Then, there are those that hold appeal for birds by hiding within edible fruit. Distributed after digestion is complete, the seeds set up home when and where conditions are ideal. Some plants, like mothers who cannot let go, drop their seeds right around themselves.
Seedpods are also miniature instruction manuals illustrating sound  form-follows-function design. They hint broadly at the interdisciplinary nature of art, physics, engineering and architecture. And at the very heart of it all, is the lesson in biology. The circle of life. There is no beginning without end and no end without beginning.

A tiny seed is enough to remind us of the marvels of nature. It contains all the information it needs for its life purpose and, goes about doing just that. Waiting patiently for the right time and making the most of wherever it finds itself, a seed fulfils that commitment to the very best of its ability. It shows how to live bravely and die just as bravely. There is a strong yet gentle lesson in there for us.

“To see a world in a grain of sand
and heaven in a flower
hold infinity in the palm of your hand
and eternity in an hour”
– William Blake

Lots of images below to celebrate senescence! :

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(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar

Sweet Holy Grass!

This is a good news/not so good news post. First the good news. Turns out, in the search to find powerful yet natural mosquito repellents, we need but look at one of our very own native grasses – specifically, sweet grass Hierochloe odorata. It also goes by the common but very auspicious names Holy grass, Manna grass, Mary’s grass, Peace grass, Unity grass or Vanilla grass. In north America, Hierochloe odorata occurs in southern Canada, northern Great Plains/Rocky Mountains and northwest of U.S., and New England. Not to be confused with the sweet grass Muhlenbergia filipes found in the southeastern United States.

Long used by Native Americans to deter mosquitoes, it is a sacred plant, used in peace and healing rituals. Leaves are dried and made into braids and burned as vanilla-scented incense; long leaves of sterile shoots are used by Native Americans in making baskets. The plant is showing great promise in scientific research. In laboratory tests, two sweet grass compounds drove mosquitoes away just as well as the widely-used repellent Deet. Imagine that!

One of the compounds is coumarin. Not only effective but it smells good too. Same stuff that renders Skin So Soft ( Avon’s moisturizer) as an anti-mosquito salve. The product is not advertised as such but users have long known it’s additional property. Coumarin is also a safe chemical.

Smells fine, safe to use, fends of mosquitoes – hmmm, what’s the problem then? Studies are still required to see how long the effects last. Oddly enough, coumarin is not registered or marketed as a repellent.

The second compound isolated from sweet grass is phytol. A common constituent in essential oils from plants. Phytol, similarly, is known to repel insects but is not currently sold for that purpose. Go figure.

And therein lies the not so good news. It’ll be at least two to three years before all of the research is completed to establish the efficacy, Still, I’m optimistic. I dream of summer evenings spent in the garden sans the swatting and scratching.

In the meantime, I’m seriously planning to introduce sweet grass in the garden. Hierochloe odorata is a very hardy perennial, able to grow to the Arctic Circle. Its leaves do not have rigid stems, so only grow to about 20 cm (7.9 in) in height, and then the leaves grow outward horizontally to 100 cm (39 in) long or more, by late summer. Grown in sun or partial shade, they do not like drought. Seeds are usually not viable, or if they are viable, take two to three years to develop a robust root system. So I’m guessing they will not be invasive.

I think testing out this plant near outdoor dining areas, swimming pools, children’s play areas and other spaces where humans gather, will be worth trying. I understand that the grass’ mosquito fighting property is more potent when it is dried so wearing a crown and garland of braided sweet grass might well become my go to accessories for outdoor soirées. At least until coumarin is available as a commercial product. I will check if my local nursery carries the plant or will get me some. Stay tuned!

If any of you have knowledge or experience with sweet grass, please share!

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Planning Time

I’m thoroughly enjoying this protracted autumn. While concerned thoughts of global warming and memories of last winter come to mind, I’m nevertheless taking full advantage of these magnificent, sepia-hued days.

After months of giving us its all, the garden has slowed down and retired for a much deserved rest. Now is the time to envision our plans for the ‘perfect’ garden. This quiet period is exactly when we must do the hard work of planning, preparing and executing ideas and dreams. The fullness of spring and summer do not let this happen. If you have an image in your mind/phone/camera that depicts your version of paradise, then the moment is nigh to begin making it a reality. By the time winter is making an exit, your dream garden can be well on its way to becoming a reality.

With this intent, the old pergola is being replaced by a better, bigger and sturdier one. The two wisteria that ramble all over it can at this time be safely clipped and propped to remove the existing structure from under. The slate flooring below now has the four concrete foundations poured, set and waiting to support the posts of the cedar replacement.
Not only could this task not be done in the growing seasons, it would have been difficult to actually visualize the dimensions and design of the new pergola in the midst of so much growth.
Come spring, the wisteria should be able to resume its jolly habit of sprawling and wrapping itself all over. I fully expect to be thanked for their new accommodations with prolific blooms..

Even as the hedges, trees and grasses provide the ‘bones’ of the garden, the seed heads and waning foliage offer a visually textured feast that glows in the low autumn light. I see the ‘holes in the plantings and make notes. In the next few weeks, I will select appropriate additions for these areas. Just like the seedpods, our minds are full of promises to come.

On my walks in the woods, I observe trees and plants that trigger my acquisitive habit. I return to my garden to see clearly just where I might be able to introduce the coveted ones. Given that the garden is small and already intensely planted, only a few from my wish list will make it. But I’ll keep in mind the rest as they can be placed in other gardens.

The natural undulations of the land are visible now that vegetation is either cut down or removed. This permits me to see how the flow of rain water is guided and why certain plants did well and others did not. These same crests and dips dictate to the required height specifications when introducing plants to be a part of a natural grouping or meadow. For instance, a low growing plant set on a higher point will be visible and show itself at equal stature to a mid-height plant growing in an indentation. All planting does not require a flat surface.

Similarly, decisions on fences and hedges can be made in the clarity of a garden in hibernation. Style, height and function are made apparent. Let the earth speak to you.

In the process of noting, observing and planning for the garden, I find myself filling up on creative inspiration for new art and poetry as well. Nature has that knack. She will open your mind and expand your heart every time you spend time with her. And she will give you enough work to do for a lifetime.

Announcements!:

1.For those of you following my work with the HIV/AIDS children, a new post has been added on the Lucky Ones page: the-van-den-bergs-visit-the-children-november-2015

2. Three opportunities to buy art and related products for the holidays: http://seedsofdesign.com/happenings/

I am participating in all three. Do come. Support the arts by giving art!

Enjoy the photos of late fall:

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

 

 

The New Perennial Movement

I’m quite taken with this style in garden design. It got the garden world’s attention a little over ten years ago but has become a ‘here to stay’ type of style in the US more recently. Having been a long time fan of the Dutch nurseryman and designer Piet Oudolf, I’ve followed the emergence of his concept very keenly. Piet is best known for using bold drifts of grasses and herbaceous perennials that are selected for both color and structure. Indeed, his hallmark has often been referred to as the New Dutch Perennial Movement.

The overall effect is one that looks and feels very natural. There is an easy-going, informal ambiance in these gardens. And while Piet is widely acknowledged as the father of this new movement, if one digs deeper, one finds that the ideas are really not so new but Piet perfected it, Between the North American Prairies and the German plantsman Karl Foerster style in the very early 1900’s, one can clearly see the principal influences of the current movement. It is plainly all about using rugged, hardworking perennials and grasses to create a modern, fresh look.

What I particularly like about this style is that not only does it look quite stunning and au courant, it utilizes common and largely native American perennials. The effect is harmonious and natural – which is in keeping with the move towards living more simply, organically and authentically. It is not fussy or overly structured. It feels right. Everyday plants such as Rudbeckias, Solidago, Verbena, Echinacea, Achillea, Eupotorium abound. The grasses being such a vast and diverse family, can be selected to suit taste and climate. Hence, to make such a garden is not only a matter of easily obtaining the plants but the cost can also be easy on the wallet.

The challenge lies in coming up with a planting scheme that appears to flow well and yet, bears some semblance of order. It is easy to go wrong and make it disheveled in appearance. My advice is to start simple and small. Work out the kinks and then expand the scheme. In Piet’s own garden, he brilliantly contrasts the deliberate and thoughtfully created informality with the very orderly and well trimmed green hedges that enclose the garden.

I’m moving slowly towards this style. Sort of dipping my toes in this tide. I’m beginning to feel that I’ll have to take the plunge soon. Over the years, I’ve been adding those aforementioned hardy natives. More grasses are needed – my hesitation is mostly because I’m not sure what will work for my garden and my preferences. I plan to do some major research in that area over the winter. The cool, ecologically sound factor of this type of garden beckons.

Check out Piet’s work at the NYBG and the High-Line in NYC.

I’m adding lots of photos to give a good idea of this type of design. Hope it will inspire and instruct:

In Piet’s garden in Hummelo, Netherlands:

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Posing with Piet

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Piet’s work at the NYBG:

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His work at the High-Line:

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(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar