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

Friends With Benefits

Did the title grab your attention? I thought so.

This past week, my garden was enriched by a bunch of plants given to me by various friends. First, I received a couple of plants as a hostess gift from Marco. He’d dug up these special gems from his own rather exceptional garden. Alchemilla erythropoda and Aruncus aethusifolius – two miniature gems to beguile the side path of my garden.

Earlier in July, I was asked to identify a ‘mystery’ plant that had suddenly cropped up in numbers in friend Pat’s garden. They turned out to be the native orchid Galearis. This too is a diminutive plant. Pat offered me some of these and being the greedy gardener that I am, I readily accepted. After consulting with my orchid expert friend Bill, it was decided that the orchids are best transplanted after the flowers had finished blooming. That happened last week. Perfect additions to my native plant collection in the ‘meadow’.

On my morning walk last Friday, I stopped to chat with a neighbor who was working in her pretty garden. Suzy was dividing her Siberian irises. She generously suggested I take some and once again, I accepted with shameless alacrity. A few of my own irises have mysteriously disappeared over the years so I’m particularly pleased to get this gift.

Finally, my friend Julie offered me her Calycanthus as she is selling her house and that shrub was bought some years ago when we were having a splendid day together at a rare plant sale. She has been given unlimited visiting rights to check on her beloved plant.

Yesterday, all the gifts were planted in my garden. They will hopefully thrive and enhance it. In addition, they and so many others like them, will be endearing reminders of memorable moments, special relationships and bonds. For garden and gardener, it is win-win all the way. The very stuff that sweetens life.

Note:

I’m very pleased to be in this show. Hope you will visit!

Here are my ‘friendly benefits’:

Alchemilla erythropoda – potted up for now. Will be planted in ground in the fall.

Aruncus aethusifolius – also temporarily in a pot.

Irises

Calycanthus

So many ferns from John!

A gift from the past – Bianca rose from Henriette

Ornamental raspberry – also from Marco many moons ago.

So many ferns from John!

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Ode To Summer Nights

It’s been a looong week. We’ve finally emerged from a rather wretched heat wave. Forget about tending to the garden, simply sitting in it felt as though one were inside a furnace. Needless to say, I spent most of my waking hours indoors – keeping cool and staying on top of which summer drink tasted best. My top choice – watermelon lemonade. Spritzed or spiked depending on company and/or time of day.

It is precisely at this point in the season one becomes more appreciative of the nights. Usually a tad cooler and considerably more enjoyable as one can no longer see the sad state of the untended garden. Perfect.

With that in mind, I hereby give you permission to knock off working too hard outside. It really is unhealthy to do so during a heat wave. Summer is meant to be about slower, relaxed schedules. Immerse yourself into the pleasures of the season so you can remember these days – the memories will get you through the icy cold days of winter. As in Game Of Thrones, winter is coming.

Summer Nights

Wrapped in the thick air

heavy with heat

laden with moist

Watching fireflies

mimic the stars

against black velvet

Serenaded boldly

by tree frogs

and crickets

Fanned from on high

wings of bats

on purposeful sorties

While night moths

answer service calls

of moonflowers

and gardenias

Spicy notes of phlox

rise with the night

perfume of clove,

oil of bergamot

essence of rose

Lulled into

well being

content to remain

to greet the dew

of a new day.

Shobha Vanchiswar

Note: ( I’m SO excited to be in this!) You are cordially invited to attend the opening reception of the art show on Thursday August 3rd from 5-7pm. The Manhattan Borough President’s Offices are on the 19th Floor at 1 Center Street, NYC. If you can come, please send me your names for the list that will be supplied to the security desk by Tuesday August 1 at 4pm. You will need to check in with picture ID at the security desk in the lobby.
The show continues until Thursday, August 31. Visitor hours are Monday through Friday, 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. 

And now, I unapologetically present to you the current state of my garden –

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Foresight

Fear is the mother of foresight’ – Thomas Hardy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alors, ce n’etait rien.

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

Tomatoes

Veggies in rows

My vegetable plot

Will definitely be ordering more of these alliums!

Freshly made lavender wands.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Fresh Perspective II

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

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

You can check out Jeremiah’s website here.

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

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

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

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Jeremiah’s images:

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Fresh Perspective I

I take my garden very personally. How it performs is a direct reflection of me. True, weather plays a big part in the welfare of the garden but even there I feel bad if the garden suffers – I should somehow protect it no matter what. Disease or any type of pest invasion is my fault – I should have kept better vigilance and acted sooner. Sounds absurd I know but there you have it. Often, my feelings about the garden are quite like those parents have for their children. A relationship fraught with worry and guilt whilst loving passionately and unconditionally.

Just as parents are eager to show their children in the best possible light, I have an unreasonable desire to have the garden look spectacular at all times. It is simply not possible. There are periods of lull when not much is happening by way of flower power. The best one can do is keep up with weeding and other maintenance so the garden looks neat and cared for. In reality, to achieve that is in itself a pretty decent accomplishment. Because the weather, work and life events both big and small will thwart all your best laid plans and agendas. Invariably, when visitors to the garden arrive, the gardener will mention how much better the garden looked the previous week and/or will look stunning in the near future. Somehow, the gardener is hardly ever likely to say that the present moment is the best the garden has ever looked. We are simply too close to our creation to be honestly objective or detached enough to accept the present reality.

Yet, more often than not, the visitor views the garden differently and far more kindly. They are not likely to notice the odd weed or two, the floppy lily you haven’t got around to staking or that the roses need deadheading. Instead, the visitor is looking at the garden as a whole and will in all probability be quite taken with the charm of it all. And yet, the gardener will still only focus on the flaws and make excuses …

So, this past Saturday, I was given a gift that did my own harsh perspective of my garden a marvel of good. I got to see my garden through the eyes of artists. A true privilege.

A dozen watercolorists came up from New York City to spend the day painting in the garden. Some were themselves gardeners and others had no gardening experience but they all had keenly discerning eyes and distinct styles. Their oohs and aahs as they looked around my garden were instant ego boosts and at the end of the day, their artistic efforts showed me my garden in a wholly fresh, new light. They had observed with their artistic eyes details I thought nobody would notice and captured different areas in their own uniquely talented ways. The camaraderie and collective good spirits were empowering and uplifting.

It was all giddyingly exhilarating. I am humbled and yet, so terribly proud. Painting alongside these very talented artists, I too got the chance to see and appreciate my garden anew.

Enough said. The pictures below say it all:

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The output:

IMG_1809 IMG_1808  IMG_1801IMG_1797We even had live music!

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(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Face To Face Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hellebore

Hellebore

Aster

Aster

Cimicifuga

Cimicifuga

Lavender

Lavender

Frittilaria meleagris

Frittilaria meleagris

Aqualegia canadensis

Aqualegia canadensis

Apple blossom

Apple blossom

Iphion

Iphion

Forsythia

Forsythia

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Changing Climates, Changing Calendars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aquilegia canadensis in the meadow

Aquilegia canadensis in the meadow

Tiarella

Tiarella cordifolia

Cheloni lyoni - pink turtlehead

Cheloni lyoni – pink turtlehead

White and blue cammasia

White and blue cammasia

Oak leaf hydrangea

Oak leaf hydrangea

Anemone canadensis

Anemone canadensis

American robin babies in the apple espalier

American robin babies in the apple espalier

In the meadow - a melange of bulbs and native plants

In the meadow – a melange of bulbs and native plants

Amsonia

Amsonia

Native wisteria

Native wisteria

The rain barrel

The rain barrel

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

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

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Budding Friends

Gardeners are a friendly bunch. But gardening itself is somewhat solitary. We look upon our plants as rather agreeable company. After all, plants make patient listeners and quiet supporters. Over time, trees and other long lasting plants become familiar friends we come to rely upon. I personally have been known to vent, confide and brainstorm with several of them as I’ve gone about weeding, pruning and planting. I’ve come to depend on their counsel and consolation. Any length of time in their presence does a world of good to my spirit and temperament.

I’ve worked out so many problems, sorted through various emotions and made sound decisions after opening up to my photosynthetic friends. Similarly, they have borne witness to the many celebrations and marked countless milestones. A gathering in my garden is an acknowledgement to the vital role its residents play in my life.

As with most gardeners, we share plants with each other. We trade, gift and covet each other’s plants freely. So when I wander through my own little Eden, those friends who gave me specific plants are also on my mind. These associations stay strong and alive forever. Some of those generous friends have passed on but their gifts remind and reassure. Their spirits are at home here. I cherish their company too.

Then there are the new friendships that come about in gardens. In my case, my garden’s open day is the ideal set up for making more friends. After all, those who come to see and appreciate the garden are typically kindred spirits. Especially the ones who brave inclement weather and/or drive fair distances to see the many gardens! I love my open days precisely because I get to meet some terrific new folk and reaffirm my fondness for those already known. I’ve learned all sorts of new stuff about plants, nifty gardening methods, new recipes, other fine gardens, obscure but terrific books and movies and, best of all, formed friendships that open more vistas in my life. My cup runneth over. I exist in a perpetual state of gratitude. Without all these friends, my life would be mind-numbingly dull.

At my most recent open day, I met a couple who, for some strange reason, felt as though I’d always known them. It felt comfortable. Well, listening to one’s instincts is good. A few days later, I was offered some lovely primula babies from their garden. Offer accepted!

This past Sunday, we had a most enjoyable visit and I came away with a rather embarrassingly generous haul of primulas from their totally charming garden. Pat and Jon, a million thanks.

You see how it works? I ended up with new plants, got to see a beautiful, new garden and gained two new friends. Budding friends indeed.

Note – All through the month of June, I will have my artwork on exhibit at the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library in North Salem. Do please go and take a look.

Now, enjoy the i-phone photos from Pat and Jon’s garden – I apologize to those reading on your phone or on Facebook as some of the images will appear upside down. On your laptops they will appear fine. Or, go directly to my website.

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The primulas!

The primulas!

Emma. Another new friend.

Emma. Another new friend.

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A charming collection of miniature hostas, geraniums and other gems.The hand is there for scale!

A charming collection of miniature hostas, geraniums and other gems.The hand is there for scale!

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(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar