Gardens Are Just Like Babies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

February Fervor

February Fervor

Golden sunsets

part leaden skies

Frost and fire

earth shifts and sighs.

 

Wild, untamed

landscapes wait

Restless slumber

at Spring’s gate.

 

Crystal snow

melts in drips

Plumping roots

greening tips.

 

Flowing sap

send hearts aflutter

Weather and emotions

soar and splutter.

  • Shobha Vanchiswar

I’m dreaming of spring! Enjoy a few of the images from late February 2017 –

(c) 2018 Shobha Shobha

Tips In The Thaw

So, from temperatures suitable to the tundra we went to spring over the weekend. On Saturday, the thermometer outside my kitchen window registered a solid 55 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s expected to creep up to 57 today. Kinda crazy but oh so welcome. Puts me in a Spring frame of mind.

While I have no idea how these impressive fluctuations in temperature will affect the plants, I’m staying optimistic. After all, it’s in the plant’s best interest to survive. However, I do fervently wish the garden pests are not that determined and succumb to the stress of the cold. What a boon that would be.

This blast of balmy weather has got my sap flowing and I’m corralling my plant catalogs, garden magazines, photographs and notes made on assorted pieces of paper. Dreams must be examined and turned into reality one hopes. New plants to source and their residency in the garden determined. At this stage of the planning, I’m naturally delusional and write up a wish list that only a garden the size of Versailles could accommodate. I’m aware of this but it’s so much fun to dream. Reality will hit all to soon and that list will ultimately fit on a Post-It.

In the UK, that mecca of gardens and gardeners, they are ahead of us by a couple of months. Some are already talking about noting emerging buds on shrubs and such. Snowdrops are in bloom! Meanwhile, here in New York, I cast my eyes around my modest, snow clad garden and there’s nary a sign of anything. Sigh. However, it’s all a matter of time. Here too spring will arrive. In any case, it’s the anticipation that truly excites. Planning at this time is the perfect way to enjoy the wait. Of course, being prepared means we can get started on the garden as soon as possible.

It is not simply about plants and designing /redesigning borders. To be honest, I’m not looking to do anything drastic or dramatic this year. Some additions, a little tweaking and a whole lot of TLC. I’m always looking to learn new, improved methods and practices. To garden smarter.

So far, I’ve come up with two tips to ease my work and still be eco-friendly. The first has to do with my vegetable bed. This is a small rectangle in the herb garden that largely supports cool weather greens as it gets only a limited amount of sunlight. Shade notwithstanding, weeds still thrive in this compost enriched area and it’s a real nuisance to keep up with them.

This year, I’m going to try the “ stale seed bed method. The area is first cultivated and then, instead of sowing right away, the bed is cultivated repeatedly – once a day for two weeks. As mine is a small space, it will not be as much work as it sounds. What this practice does is eliminate weeds whose seeds might have been embedded from the previous year and other pests like slugs. It’s starting from zero so to speak.

The second tip concerns my boxwoods. Those in the ground and the ones wintering in pots in the greenhouse will be pruned earlier than usual – in early to mid- March when fungal spores are not active. The cuttings will not be composted – instead they will be tossed away with the garbage. Keeping a bucket of a solution of vinegar handy means periodically dunking the pruners to sterilize them. Boxwood blight is a real threat and being scrupulously clean is imperative.

I will keep you posted about how these two applications work out. Should you try them yourself, please share your experience as well. Remember – we’re stronger together.

Note: As we’re dreaming of spring, here some watercolor renditions of spring blooms. The real ones will be visible soon enough! Enjoy.

FYI – some of these images are available in note cards and/or on fabric related products  ‘The Printed Garden’. Do check out shop.

Yardage is available on spoonflower.com .

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

January Jubilation

We’re already half-way into January – where did the time go?! It’s as though the new year was welcomed only yesterday. Yet, the record low temperatures we’re experiencing has made the days seem slow. Apart from a brief spike in temperature towards the end the last week, it really has been unbearably cold. On the up side, this has made me turn to the indoors. I’m reorganizing and rearranging. During the course of the years, so much in the house goes by the way side when engaged in the purpose of living. Now is the perfect time to look around and take stock of all those neglected tasks. A lick of paint, a spot of cleaning, some repair, a few replacements and a whole lot of editing. I’m cleaning up and paring down. In getting rid of anything that is no longer useful and re-purposing other items to serve me the way I now live, I’m giving my home up to my speed. Nothing dramatic or elaborate but significant to me nonetheless. Taking on this ‘project’ is infusing me with an enormous dose of enthusiasm. The sense of aligning the home space to one’s current lifestyle is pure bliss.

That doesn’t mean I’m not looking outside. I gaze at the garden in winter from the windows and whenever I’m feeling brave enough, the occasional turn in the garden itself. It is garden-dreaming season after all. The bones of the garden show up clearly in winter. And for the most part, I’m liking what I see. There is sufficient visual interest. The espalier of fruit trees takes on the role of a dominant sculpture. “Wind Song”, the sculpture seems to come alive as it reflects and fractures the light that hits it. And on windy days, it appears to mimic the swaying boughs and branches.

Viewed from the kitchen window one storey above, the potager looks as though it belongs in a cloister – orderly and graceful, waiting to serve again. Along the driveway, the vertical garden hangs as a large piece of abstract art. The whispering sounds of the now dry fronds of ferns add another experiential element in the viewing of it.

In the checkerboard garden, the smooth, white coating of snow on the squares of stone contrast beautifully with the bumpy, dark and light flecked squares of creeping phlox.

Cleared of snow, the walkway looks like a zipper running between the sheet of snow inviting passage to the shelter of the house.

Finally, lets not miss the shadows cast on the snow by the low winter sun. Oh the shapes and forms interweaving between trees and trellis! They move – growing and receding with the day. A slow, certain dance to the silent music of light.

Ah January, you offer up such quiet joy.

Note: I’ve been very inspired by the winter landscape so enjoy the photos and a couple of recent paintings!

Watercolor ‘Winter Shadows”

Watercolor – ‘Winter Pas De Deux’

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Plant Wise

After two weeks of arctic temperatures and a “bomb cyclone” thrown in for good measure, I’m feeling particularly grateful for central heating and Netflix. When it’s so cold that any time spent outdoors is nothing short of torturous, it brings to mind how easily we take our creature comforts for granted.

Too warm, there’s air-conditioning. Too cold, central heating. Too buggy, window-screens. Too much food, refrigeration. Clothes for all seasons, comfortable couches, cozy beds, running water both hot and cold, well-equipped cars, myriad choices for entertainment, constant connectivity to everything/everyone and, so it goes. And yet, we grumble.

If our basic needs of food, shelter and requisite clothing are taken care of, everything else is gravy. Really. Just look to the garden. A plant given its primary requirements of light, water and residency, thrives gloriously. It doesn’t ask for any more or any less. Satisfied, the plant does exactly as it ought. It withstands the storms, occasional neglect and unexpected variabilities in weather. Plants are resilient.

We humans are resilient too. We tend to forget that. Instead, we get angry, upset or into a panic. It helps to remind ourselves that our kind has seen just about everything through the ages. Famines, droughts, deluges, fires, earthquakes, wars, tsunamis, storms, avalanches, more wars, meteor hits, locust invasions, volcano eruptions, yet more wars – we have endured them all.

So this recent dip in temperatures is nothing in the big picture. We’re already rebounding as temperatures climb to normal this week. What we need to keep in mind is that while we make the most of good times, we must be prepared for the not so good ones. Plants store energy, they know to conserve/go dormant/set surplus seed as stressful conditions arise. They are in tune with themselves and the environment. There is now scientific evidence that should a tree come under siege, they send signals to their neighbors and even further beyond so those plants can arm themselves by producing chemicals to thwart the enemy.

Hence, taking a leaf (!) from a plant’s survival manual, we too can be prepared for most of life’s curve-balls. From stocking up on food and fuel supplies within reason ( it’s about having sufficient reserves not hoarding ) to maintaining physical and mental wellness to keeping our homes and cars energy efficient and in good running order ( think roof repairs, insurance, wills, safety measures etc., ) we get ourselves ready. Going beyond ones own needs, we think and do similarly for our communities, cities, nation and beyond. Yep, that’s it. And no whining allowed.

Typically, we look to freshen up our home at this time of year. Do check out the “Printed Garden” collection – works with any decor! Free shipping within the 48 contiguous US states!

Mark your 2018 calendar! Saturday May 18 is Open Day at my garden!

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Amaryllis Tree

A new year has begun! With it arrives new hope, new goals and, new beginnings. In the process of getting myself prepared for the year that lies ahead, I’m taking the time to review the one that just passed. The highs and the lows are both meaningful and relevant – they give me purpose and direction. My Amaryllis ‘tree’ begun this past year in December is entering the new year with grace and promise – much as I myself aspire..

The tree came into existence as an experiment of sorts. Science and art uniting to give creative aplomb to an otherwise ordinary space. Well, it has proved a success. Dubbed a pathetic variation of a ‘Charlie Brown tree’ by my oh so jaded 20 year old, it admittedly started off looking inconsequential. Even a bit odd. But, having gardened long enough, I knew this was no different from planting a new bed or hedge. Things don’t look like much at the start but, in due course they come into their own and create the very drama one envisioned all along. Very satisfying that.

So, I’m taking this tree as a foretoken of how I will approach this new year. An opportunity to experiment, think differently, try new things. Apply knowledge and understanding to create something fresh. Be bold. Believe in myself and the Universe despite certain nay-sayers. Be it small or big, let no opportunity go unexplored . Get out of the box and stretch myself. Just like the fierce, fearless, fabulous amaryllis, I have within me everything I need to bloom.

And said 20 year old has grudgingly conceded that yes, the amaryllis tree is quite stunning. I would say that’s an excellent start to the new year wouldn’t you?!

Happy New Year all around. Let’s make it the best one yet.

Note: See the Amaryllis tree for yourself. I’ve provided a neutral backdrop so the ‘tree’ shows up more clearly.

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

All I Want For Christmas, Hanukkah And The New Year

Until now, I have never made a wish-list for Christmas or written a letter to Santa. Truthfully, the very notion of focusing on wanting stuff has felt too self-centered and materialistic. Not anymore. I’ve flipped the switch and taken a different approach. For purposes of this garden related article, I’ll stick to point but it’s apparent how the same thinking can be extrapolated to other scenarios.

Here goes:

1. I wish my town would follow the initiative taken by Dobbs Ferry ( a village twenty minutes south) to remove overgrowth in various areas. To clear waterfront views, Dobbs Ferry has been loaned three goats from a farm to feast away on shrubs and even poison ivy – this not only addresses a big problem in an ecologically sound manner but saves the town mega municipal money.

I’d written about this eco-goats topic a few years ago. I think it’s time to see how to get it going in my neck of the woods.

2. I would like to see every homeowner with a plot of land, commit to planting mostly native plants. And when using non-native plants, select only non-invasive ones. Native plants attract native creatures that pollinate and protect. Nature in balance.

In a similar vein, let our parks, preserves and public gardens be shining models of native flora and fauna. We must restore and create more resilient, sustainable landscapes to support diversity and maintain a healthy ecology.

3. I wish every community would set aside one week day and one day of the weekend as ‘quiet’ days. This means no motorized garden tools allowed. At present, all through the growing seasons, on any given day one is subjected to the auditory assault of mowers, trimmers, blowers and such. Can’t you just envision the calm and peace on ‘quiet’ days when you are totally aware of the sounds of nature like birdsong, running water features, rustling of leaves, dropping of acorns, calls of tree frogs and bull frogs, cicadas … And imagine listening to music, having conversations and simply thinking in our heads without being uninterrupted by the noisy tools and appliances.

4. I wish for universal adoption of organic practices. As a nation, let’s move towards chemical-free gardens. Even in the application of organic products, let’s be judicious and prudent.

5. I wish for composting to become a routine practice in every household. It is easy, inexpensive (free) and perhaps the most useful product you can provide to your garden.

That’s it. That’s my wish list.

Small, simple shifts in habits, big positive impact on environment.

Note: The Holiday Art Show at the New York Art Students League begins December 11! I have a painting there. Do visit. This is a wonderful opportunity to see great art. Very affordable too!

Enjoy the photos of the Holiday Train Show at the NYBG. It should get you in the spirit of the season!

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Holiday Happy

Holiday season is here. However you feel about it, you cannot help being a part of it. Years ago I made peace with the over the top commercialism and chose to stop judging those who embraced it. Stepping away from the fray has been very good for my spirit. I focus instead on whatever gives me true joy. You guessed it – I immerse myself in bringing nature indoors.

With Thanksgiving over, autumnal decorations of gourds, leaves and seed-pods are either relegated to the compost pile or ( as you might have read in that NY Times article ), to the Art Student’s League to serve in still-life arrangements.

Throughout winter, bulbs come to the fore. Paperwhites and amaryllis cheer up the months of December and January. Later in January and for the rest of season, bulbs like hyacinths, crocus and muscari that have been cooling in the refrigerator, will be forced. They are my salvation through these cold, dark, interminably long days. Typically, evergreens and a tree are a part of the holidays but given the severe allergies my daughter has to pines, we’re finally doing away with the tree tradition altogether. I’m planning something more contemporary to stand-in for the tree. If we cannot have a real tree, I don’t want a look alike either. I’ll share my tree substitute when it’s created. Finally, simple roping of boxwood will replace the usual princess pine at the mantel.

I started the paperwhites and amaryllis last week. That act alone put me in a good mood. The anticipation is half the joy. Watching the progress of these bulbs gives me that much needed dose of daily cheer and optimism.

If you remember, on a trip to the Netherlands last January, I learned that amaryllis do not need to be potted up or placed in water. They come equipped with everything they need to bloom. It’s only after flowering is done and the leaves have emerged, might they be potted up and treated like any house plant. Let them spend the summer outdoors, go dormant in the fall and then restart all over again later in winter/early spring. They will not re-bloom in time for the holidays subsequently but instead at their more naturally programmed time. So, you will need to get new amaryllis bulbs for the holidays each year. I say, the more the merrier!

As the amaryllis do not need potting or water, they can be placed any which way you like. Their outer papery skin can even be gently sprayed in gold/silver/copper and arranged to look very festive and elegant. In a flower shop in Eindhoven, I even saw them covered in bright pink wax! Not quite my taste but I can certainly see the possibilities. So, uncork your creativity and enjoy. Take pictures and share with me please!

Meanwhile, create your own happiness.

Some of my potted amaryllis last January

Amaryllis unplugged! In a flower shop in the Netherlands.

Close up.

Pretty pink bottoms!

At Amsterdam’s Schipol airport. Sadly, US customs do not allow them in so I returned home emoty-handed.

My new amaryllis experiment. Looks odd now but should be quite lovely when the flowers bloom. I might add more bulbs this week.

Paperwhites. I have several such containers all over the house.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Finally Fall

Whew! The garden is finally put to bed. An unusual season of warm, dry days pushed back the fall’s must-dos till I was almost getting into a panic. Not only were we denied of a proper showing of the autumnal foliage that typically takes ones breath away, the garden itself remained green and happy that I couldn’t quite bring myself to cut back or pull out at the normal time. However, as October gave way to November and the days remained unseasonably mild, even as I took pleasure in the slow pace, I grew uneasy. A sudden, protracted cold spell would make it difficult to get all the work done or worse, make some of the tasks impossible to complete.

On the surface, delays of a couple of weeks or so don’t seem so bad. But in the grand scheme of things, it can make a big difference. Prolonged warm weather can fool plants to use up their energy by putting out new growth only to have that killed when the inevitable cold weather does arrive. Shorter winters will in turn affect growth and blooms in springs. Migrating birds might decide to linger during the extended warm weather and then find it is too late to make their long journey south – many will perish trying. There are numerous consequences to seemingly minor fluctuations in weather.

The vertical garden has been the highlight throughout. It has looked breathtakingly lush giving one a false sense of its hardiness. I’ve decided that this year, all the plants will be left in place and I’m contemplating installing a ‘flap’ of bubble-wrap to give some protection/insulation from the cold whilst still letting some air circulate so as not to cook the plants should the temperature spike suddenly or on those warm days of a January thaw.

The ‘Heritage’ rose is currently in bloom and the wisterias are only just beginning to turn yellow. A quick pruning will take place this coming weekend. We’re still picking kale and Swiss chard from the potager. Likewise, pots of herbs are seasoning our meals. I could get used to this! Some of those herbs just barely got into the greenhouse ahead of the cold weather last Friday.

The major number of plants in the greenhouse had been installed a few weeks but the door was kept open till recently. The propane heater was started only a couple of days ago.

As I’d already reported, the front lawn was de-thatched and reseeded in early October. The mild weather got the new grass growing rapidly and now it has the appearance of almost being in need of a mowing. Go figure.

The annual meadow cut-back typically happens by mid to late October. This year, it took place last week.

Outdoor furniture has finally been put away and the water hoses emptied and brought indoors. Only the winter wrapping of the large pots and setting up wind barriers for the roses remain.

The bulbs for fall planting arrived in mid-October at what is their normal time of planting. but the soil was simply too warm for them. The shipment sat patiently while I grew more anxious about running out of time to get the hundreds of bulbs into the ground. Bulb planting cannot be hurried. Making sure each variety is planted at the right depth ( three times the vertical height of the bulb) and not disturbing bulbs from previous years is a challenge. The back and legs have much to complain about after planting. It’s that singular vision of the spring garden looking spectacular with bulbs in bloom that keeps me going. The task gets harder with each passing year but I cannot imagine not having these bulbs, corms and rhizomes enriching the garden annually.

This past weekend, in bitter cold, the bulbs got planted. Hallelujah.

As anticipated, we went from the luxury of those extended days of balmy weather when only a few seasonal chores could be performed, to a frenzied state of getting everything else done in suddenly frigid temperatures. Not fun at all. But, they got done. Whew again.

In the greenhouse

The meadow showed no signs of autumn. Most plants simply died back and the rest stayed green. The cut-back was not the big deal that it usually is.

David Austen’s Heritage rose.

!!!

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Guided By Nature

Nature never ceases to amaze and impress. Sure she has her moments of rage and recalcitrance but even then she does it with unrestrained shock and awe as if to remind us that we are not the ones in charge. Subtle is not her general style. It’s no wonder that we humans learn our best life lessons by staying close to Mother Nature. Humble, respectful and optimistic.

I’ve written periodically about lessons I’ve learned from being outdoors and observing the natural world. From the virtues of being patient to letting go of the fierce need to control everything to being present in any given moment, I’m a devoted and dedicated student. I really am better off when I’ve spent time each day communing with Nature.

I don’t know about you but waking up each morning to a stream of bad news has me on edge. The ensuing sense of helplessness and hopelessness impacts me so much that I feel stressed even before I’ve begun my day. I dread checking the news and yet, I know I cannot live in blissful ignorance forever. After all, knowledge is power right? One has to be the change and all.

I’ve decided I cannot become a victim to all the negative forces out there or let matters beyond my control fester within. A plan is in motion. Each day, I stay away from catching up with the news until I’ve done a few things to bolster my spirits, my mind and my body. I’m sharing because I think if you follow my weekly posts with any regularity, you too feel as despondent as I do. Together we can do better.

First thing upon awaking, from my bed I gaze out the window and reckon with the weather and strain to hear the birds. There’s something about birdsong that I find reassuring. A rainy day of course precludes listening to any avian activity but instead, the sound of water can be soothing. However it looks outside, I determine something positive. Sunny is easy as it is cheery and invites outdoor time. Overcast – colors of flowers and foliage show up better; good for photographing. Rainy – good for plants and the water-table. Snow – pretty, provides much needed insulation for hibernating plants, has cross-country skiing or snowshoeing possibilities! Stormy – perfect day for staying cozy and grateful to be working indoors. You see? A simple switch in attitude makes a huge improvement to the mood. It’s as though we’re being given cues or nudges to take charge of ourselves and make the best of any situation. Carpe diem.

Unless forced to remain inside, I get outdoors first thing in the morning and engage in my daily communion with Nature.  I go walking and observe the trees and birds. My walk is followed by a quick tour of the garden to appreciate what’s doing. This single activity never fails to instruct my mind to rise above the mundane and seek the extraordinary. Nature’s artistry is so astoundingly beautiful that every day feels fresh and new. I stay a while longer meditating and breathing deeply.

The Japanese have a practice called shinrin-yoku or forest-bathing. The idea is simple: if a person simply visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way there are calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to be achieved. Many other cultures prescribe the equivalent of shinrin-yoku. So I’m not doing anything new or radical. I’m merely suggesting that we each reconnect with Nature purposefully. She’s right there for the taking.

By the time I get indoors, I’m upbeat, my creative juices are flowing, my body feels limber and, with fresh perspective, I’m ready for my day. I can’t quite explain it but then, I don’t need to. I merely have to allow Nature to work her magic on me. There is a sacred quality about it.

With the coffee brewing, I review my agenda and plan my tasks. Then, and only then, whilst sipping my coffee do I sit down to read the news. A half hour of that and no more. There’s work to be done. A world to make better.

At a later time, after I’ve accomplished some tasks, I can take a break and catch up further on all the news.

Some elements of my morning ‘ritual’ might seem corny and/or elementary to cynical minds but give it a shot. You have nothing to lose but a dismal outlook. Besides, solid research backs up all the stuff I do. So there.

Mark your calendars! Save the date! My garden’s 2018 Open Day has been set – it’s Saturday May 19.

Permit these photos to remind you that the world is still beautiful :

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar