Freedom

Liberty is the freedom to do as one ought to do. I learned this definition in fifth grade civics class – it was how we started to understand what democracy meant.

A cornerstone of a thriving civilization, freedom is all about having choices. So one can chose their actions bearing in mind one’s moral responsibility. To choose to act after discerning between right and wrong, good and evil. To do what is ethically correct for the greater good.

Keeping that in mind, I take this power very seriously. Especially in the garden where all too often a gardener is inclined to play lord and master. It’s so easy. We have at our disposal so much control and power that all too often we forget that gardening is a privilege. The very notion that I can assume ownership of a piece of earth to do as I please is astounding. Arrogant even.

While I often kid that I’m the dictator-in-chief of the garden, in reality, I feel my responsibility greatly. I’m allowed to freely design, create and play in a this space in whatever way I please. Within good reason. And that is the key. To use good reason.

My principle commandment is to do no harm. Whatever action taken must have the least negative impact – on humans, animals, plants, soil, water or air. On that basis, only organic methods are employed. But, trying to control pests organically is not without cost. These natural products are not specific to the pest. They affect the good critters as well. So judicious application is imperative.

Compost is used as fertilizer and mulch. The plants enjoy it. As do members of the animal kingdom. They too thrive because they are not harmed by compost and hence roam free and make nests and homes underground and above, destroying root systems, chomping on leaves and flowers, girdling trees, ruining lawns with tunnels and burrows etc., Constant vigilance is required so action can be taken as soon as possible. Japanese beetles, red lily beetles and such are picked off and dropped into hot, soapy water. After years of battling those red devils, I’ve stopped planting lilies but since I still grow fritillaria ( their close relative), I must continue to keep a lookout. Mice, voles and other rodents are trapped. The fruit trees must be sprayed with dormant oil only under specific weather conditions and at a particular time of year. You get the idea. It’s not always easy to do the right thing.

Rain water is collected, a manual reel- mower cuts grass, since no herbicides are used, weeds are removed by hand, native plants dominate the garden and support native fauna and so on. Every one of those methods involves more work and effort. And there are times when I’m completely frustrated. However, my conscience is clear. I’m doing my part in exercising my freedom as I ought.

This translates very well to everything else in life. Relationships, raising children, at work, being a part of the community, a town, a city, a country, the world at large. Imagine how powerful exercising our liberties as we should can be.

Note: The reception to Small Works is this Thursday, August 8. I’d love to see you there!

A few images of the challenges in the garden:

Mice attack on the espalier.
Fully girdled trees were lost and had to be replaced.
Sanguisorba attacked by Japanese beetles

Subsequent damage
Evidence of voles under the front lawn
Lily’s under siege

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Just July

Our house is taken in possession

By him, while he enjoys a rest

July, with summer air and thunder-

He is our temporary guest.

July, who scatters from his pockets

The fluff of blow-balls in a cloud,

Who enters through the open window,

Who chatters to himself aloud,

Unkempt, untidy, absent-minded,

Soaked through with smell of oil and rye,

With linden-blossom, grass and beet-leaves,

The meadow-scented month July.”

‘July’ by Boris Pasternak

July is coming to a close and what a month it has been in the garden. Hot, messy and erratic. That poem by Pasternak describes it so well.

Dictated by the weather, I’ve been negligent of my garden duties. It’s just really hard to get outside and work when merely standing still brings on the sweat and sends out irresistible invites to all the biting bugs near and far. Consequently, the chores get done in fits and starts, bits and pieces. A little weeding here, some deadheading there. The automatic watering system set up for the pots broke down and needed fixing – mercifully, the preceding days had been wet so the plants were relatively unharmed.

The heat wave put paid to the plants in the pots on the wall on the side terrace. Despite the daily watering, they simply could not take those high temperatures. I’ve decided to empty out the pots and not replant. With a very busy August schedule coming up, it’s time to simplify matters somewhat.

They say this June was the hottest one in recent history and July is turning out to match it. Who knows what August will do.

Sunflowers have appeared as happy surprises in one of the large bay standard pots. A lone sunflower grew in the vertical garden. I’d stopped planting lilies a few years ago because I lost the battle with the red lily beetles. Well, as though waking up after a long slumber, a couple of lily plants re-emerged this summer. Their leaves are ugly and chewed up but the flowers look fine and are busy perfuming the front garden.

The garden might look a bit unruly but it is fragrance heaven. Lilies in front soon to be followed by phlox, gardenias and orange-blossoms on the side and jasmine in the back. Heaven.

The meadow has been in serious need of attention. First, the jewelweed took advantage of my apathy and spread itself all over. Once they were deliberately reduced to more manageable numbers, a nettle of the sting-less variety moved in with a vengeance. It needs to be completely and ruthlessly removed all together. It’s been a real task trying to help the many new plants planted in late spring establish themselves. Fingers crossed …

The hydrangea are in bloom – they provide much needed color in the meadow right now. Elsewhere, the Echinacea in their brightness are drawing the pollinators. I really ought to plant more of these stalwarts and get rid of the fussy, finicky members of the garden. With harsh weather becoming the new normal, it behooves a gardener to rethink the plantings.

Tomato season has begun. We’re enjoying the golden cherry tomatoes and savoring the bigger varieties as they ripen. At this stage, each fruit is precious. Soon, there will be a glut and we’ll take them for granted as we make soups, salads and sauces.

It’s so easy to obsess over the disheveled state of the garden, complain about the heat in July. But, looking around, amidst the green jungle, I see heroic flowers splashing color and fragrance all over. The herbs, leafy greens and, early tomatoes grace our meals. Ripening grapes and pears hold the promise of an autumn harvest. The asters are coming up strong for a good showing to close out the summer.

Under stressful circumstances, the garden is working hard to deliver. I must move to do the same.

Note: Consider yourself invited –

My July garden –

Lilies. Note the hole-riddled leaves.
Echinacea
Late blooming clematis
Pears
Figs
Jasmine
The vertical garden with renegade sunflower
Sunflower surprise
Agapanthus
The meadow before the serious weeding happened.
Tomatoes
A harvest

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Hot Topic

We’re just emerging from a brutal heatwave. Whew. This one was fierce. If it weren’t for air-conditioning I’d be a blob of melted flesh in migraine hell. I’m acutely aware of how heat affects me and I’m so grateful for everything that allows me to keep cool.

This got me to thinking about how the garden must cope when subjected to the stress of a heatwave. Do they sense when the temperatures are going to spike? I imagine they’re in better shape to deal with it if up until that time they’re provided with adequate water and decent soil conditions. Just as in humans, all other living things must face adversity better when they’re healthy. So, I figured my garden ought to at least be grateful for all the tender, loving care it receives all year round. Well, except when I’m on vacation, unwell, in the thick of other work or, being lazy. In general, the garden this year has little to complain about its human carers.

A timely thundershower just ahead of the heatwave saturated the ground handsomely. The roots must’ve plumped out and fed their above ground parts nicely. I was glad I’d deadheaded and cut back some vigorous growers recently. A round of weeding was accomplished as well. Therefore, at the end of the first super hot day, things did not look too bad. Some plants such as the Joe Pye appeared to droop but by late evening they perked up. I wonder if the roots slow down and measure out the water/nutrient supply when conditions are adverse. Then, when they sense that temperatures have dropped below the dangerous numbers, do they speeds up in damage control mode? Or, like me, do the plants have poor appetites when it is so hot? Perhaps when I’ve overcome my own heat related ennui I will research this matter – surely some laboratory must be studying the subject. The results could potentially help us deal with weather related challenges better.

I noticed that during the heatwave, there wasn’t much critter activity. I didn’t see many bees or butterflies and the birds seemed to be limiting their flights and singing. The heat brought on a quiet that seemed appropriate. I too was not inclined to exert much energy. The languor connected us all.

The potted plants received water daily. The high humidity kept the ground from drying out but, the soil in the pots dried out. Those plants must have been stressed so much more than their counterparts in the ground. A friend had dropped off two pots of sizable hibiscus a couple of days prior to the heatwave. Until now, they had always been kept indoors so the fact that they were suddenly out in the open must’ve been a shock. Despite being watered, within a day, the leaves on top were wiped out – they got totally dry. So ahead of the canicular days, they were given a cut back and moved to shadier quarters resembling the indoors they were familiar with. Fingers-crossed they will toughen up in due course. After all, they hail originally from warmer climes.

Given water regularly, the vertical garden and tropicals ( in pots) like the jasmine, gardenia and citrus seem unscathed by the high heat. The perfume of the flowers of the jasmine and gardenia are almost overpowering at the beginning and end of day. The lemons are coming along nicely. The pelargoniums have also come through very well. Ditto the tomatoes – we enjoyed the first crop of cherry tomatoes over the weekend. And the meadow looks none the worse for wear.

Any long term effect of the heatwave will no doubt make itself known. I’m hoping there won’t be any. And with any luck there will not be any more heatwaves either. But, I’m not holding my breath.

Note: I would love to see you at the reception to Small Works at The Stable Gallery, Ridgefield, NJ on August 8. 7:00 – 9:00pm. The show runs August 2 – 29.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Midsummer Musings

The slow, sultry sway of summer has taken over and it is sweeeet. I’ve taken my cues from the season and slowed my pace, lightened my load and simplified my days. I get work done but no new projects are started. Meals focus on fresh, easy to put together ingredients. Garden chores are limited to only what is needed – weekly weeding, watering as required and deadheading only what’s obvious. The garden seems to be enjoying doing its own thing – free-spirited, alive and lush. Kinda bohemian. I appreciate that. Heck, I aspire to it.

I finally got around to cutting back the asters and other fall blooming perennials by one-third and more so they will be fuller and less leggy at that time. During the cut back, I noticed that the Sanguisorba was under attack by Japanese beetles and there was also a general over-presence of slugs. All the beetles I could see were picked off and dumped into a hot soap solution and then a neem oil spray treatment was applied to the plants right after. It’s been a few years since I’ve had to deal with Japanese beetles. Let’s hope the neem does the trick.

An unexpected positive outcome – the allium sphaerocephalon were completely hidden until the asters were cut back. Now, their deep maroon-purple heads lend bursts of color amidst an otherwise overwhelmingly green bed.

Speaking of color, that maroon-purple hue is having a moment in the front perennial beds. The echinacea, alliums, acanthus, butterfly bushes and geraniums are all in variations of that shade. Soon the Eupatorium will join in. It looks like I planned it that way but no, I cannot take that credit. One of those happy accidents of nature that I’ve come to rely on.

The Swiss chard is showing up frequently at meals. Easy to cook and so delicious. The first cherry tomatoes and figs have been savored and now I’m impatient for a regular supply. Zucchini blossoms are the current favorite. Stuffed with mildly seasoned ricotta and fried tempura style, they are just soooo good. Using the flowers also prevents having the inevitable surplus of zucchini to contend with later in the season. We leave only a small number to reach fruition. Just enough for a few ratatouille meals and several loaves of tasty breads to sweeten winter mornings (the bread freezes well).

I made a big batch of arugula pesto last week. There was an abundance of the leaves and it seemed a good thing to make. I froze a large portion and refrigerated some of the pesto to use this week in pasta and also in sandwiches. With all the outdoor concerts and plays we’re attending, picnic meals need to be put together. Sandwiches of arugula or basil pesto with sun-dried tomatoes with or without fresh mozzarella elevate the repast.

And yes, the mojito mint is thriving and being put to good use! FYI – the leaves also make for an appetizing Indian chutney that we use in sandwiches and as a condiment to pair with crackers, samosas and such.

Watching the butterflies and bees make their rounds has become my go-to method for decompressing. It’s very effective – I highly recommend it. Ditto for spending some time taking in the show of fireflies at night.

Before you get lulled into taking it too easy, this is the time to order bulbs for fall planting. It might feel strange to think about next spring right now but take my word – you will miss out on bagging some special and/or unusual bulbs if you wait too long. It’s a nice thing to do when you’re indoors in air-conditioned comfort on a sweltering hot day. You will only be charged when the bulbs are shipped in the fall at the appropriate planting time for your zone. So just get it done!

Now, back to my summer reading and a tall glass of lemonade …

Note: I’m participating in two upcoming art shows in August and September. Do please mark your calendars to check them out.

Enjoy the images of my summer thus far –

Keeping it fresh and light.
Acanthus
Eupatorium getting ready to bloom
Echinacea
Arugula salad with shavings of black truffle.
Swiss chard.
Allium sphaerocephalon
The wall garden. Don’t miss that lone sunflower – a true maverick.
Young pears
Butterfly bush
Ricotta stuffed zucchini fritters with baby courgette attached.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Scaling Labyrinths

The word labyrinth comes from the Greek labyrinthos and describes any maze-like structure with a single path through it which differentiates it from an actual maze which may have multiple paths intricately linked.

Labyrinths and labyrinthine symbols have been dated to the Neolithic Age in diverse regions across the globe. They continue playing a role in modern times.

My love affair with labyrinths began at childhood. The mystery books I devoured often featured a labyrinth or maze to offer riddles and clues in ways I now realize might have been a tad bit romanticized. Over the years, while mazes remain fun and exciting in a ‘hide-and-seek’ meets treasure-hunting sort of way, labyrinths have taken on a more meaningful, sacred role. To me, mazes get you to focus exclusively on the task of finding ones way to the center and then making the return trip to get out, thereby providing a complete distraction which can be refreshing and exhilarating. Getting lost and/or confused is all part of the experience.

In traversing a labyrinth, one can ostensibly see its entire design. The center is visible at all times. Where one is trying to get to is apparent. How to do so is not as clear. It’s only by mindful walking, taking in all the turns and switchbacks, that an individual makes it to the center – itself a site for rest and reflection. Labyrinths are not meant to be challenging. Instead they gently guide the walker to move through at an easy pace whilst permitting him/her to observe, think and center the mind. In doing so, by the time one reaches the labyrinth’s center, the mind has shed itself of all other distractions and arrives prepared for deeper meditation.
In perfect silence, a well laid labyrinth teaches life lessons to all who walk it. Like the best of therapists it has us work out all our issues by ourselves.

A labyrinth sits there as a ready escape from chaos, a world gone mad, to find once again one’s true north. Typically set outdoors, it partners beautifully with nature to calm the mind and heart by purposefully removing the walker from the normal, linear understanding of time and direction. Slowly, the outside world recedes and one becomes aware of the world within ourselves. How we are feeling, what we hope for, the conflicting thoughts, the elusive solutions rise up and get understood. This active meditation leads to the deep meditation awaiting at the center. Sitting in quiet, breathing deeply and surrendering all diversionary thoughts gives one the gift of emerging clear headed and relaxed. Ready to face with clarity and acceptance that complex, noisy world we live in.

I’ve always longed to design a labyrinth. A good labyrinth has an ideal size. Too small and it fails to decompress the mind because the center is reached too quickly. Too big and it can get tedious. The amount of walking and turning must be just right. Even the width of the path must be correct – not too narrow and constricting or too wide and spacious. Creating an ideal labyrinth is not as easy as it might seem. Scale is key.
Making paths of grass or mulch bordered by stones, low growing plants or any other natural material keeps the cost quite low. The simpler the better. Yet, an ideal design and layout is a call for creativity.

The only part of my garden that could support a proper labyrinth would be where the meadow lies. However, this area is sloped and uneven and must not be leveled for reasons of water drainage and run-off. I’m thus resigned to not having this feature of my own.

Last Sunday, I was taken to an absolutely lovely labyrinth at the Priory in Weston, Vermont. Sited on an open, flat space laid with paths of grass outlined by single lines of brick set in the ground, it is beautifully simple. The size is perfect and the design takes you just long enough to get to the inviting seats in the center. Beyond the labyrinth is a vast, open meadow full of native grasses and wild flowers. Birds, butterflies, bees and other critters abound. Feeling vulnerable and humble, I walked with the sounds of nature keeping me company. The sun was bright and a light breeze kept me from getting too warm. Seated in the center, as I came out of my reflections empowered and reaffirmed, I observed the meadow with the swaying grasses woven through with seasonal blooms of milkweed, daisies, black-eyed Susans and other flowers, above them, swallowtail butterflies played tag with each other – it all seemed so tranquil despite the obvious activity going on. The whole scene serving as a reminder that “creativity flows from a quiet mind”.
As a flight of goldfinches rose up from within this meadow and made their separate ways, I too got up and purposefully followed the path to take me back to my awaiting world. Just as I left the labyrinth the priory bell was rung calling all to prayer and morning service. I did not join – I had after all just completed my worship.

The labyrinth in Weston, Vermont
The meadow beyond.
Notice the swallowtail on the milkweed at center lower half?!
A labyrinth I visited in Cape Cod some years ago. Set amidst tall trees, it gives the sense of being in a cathedral.
A labyrinth in upstate New York

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Slow Dancing With Summer

It’s July. Fireworks, fireflies, picnics, barbecues, beaches and books. In addition, for me, mosquitoes, mojitos, air-conditioning, heat, humidity and guilt. I have very mixed feelings about summer.

The light filled days promise endless hours of outdoor pleasures and the nights punctuated with bursts of firefly light and the fragrance of summer phlox and gardenias bewitch and yet, I find myself banished indoors for a good portion of the day seeking solace in air-conditioned rooms redolent with gardenia in budvases and rose-geranium infused lemonade. During the day, prone to migraines triggered by the heat and humidity, I succumb easily to those conditions. At night, the mosquitoes turn out in full force making it near impossible to sit without itching and scratching. I’m loathe to reach out for the only truly effective deterrent – a DEET spray. Using it every now and then is fine but slathering it on everyday makes me uneasy.

What works for me is to get some garden chores done in the cool, early hours of the morning. It is actually quite pleasant working at that time as the chorus of birds keep me company and the bees getting a head start to their day inspire me to get cracking with my own. At this mostly quiet period of the morning, I find myself occupied with what needs doing whilst still enjoying the garden in its rather riotous state of summer growth. A good couple of hours go by before I’m made aware that I’m hot, uncomfortable and quite ready to escape to cooler confines.

I’m certainly not inclined to deprive myself of the joys of spending summer nights watching fireflies and inhaling the sweet perfumes of flowers that I’ve grown for that very purpose. Spritzing myself with a blend of citronella and cloves I go forth into the evening. A fan is brought out to do double duty – deter all flying bugs and keep us relatively comfortable in the circulating air. The DEET spray is always on stand-by – it’s a love-hate relationship.

At a party last week, I was introduced to a new anti-mosquito gadget brought to the event for a test run by another friend. It seemed to work as I was not bitten that evening. So I’ve purchased one for my own use. Before I rush to endorse it, I shall use it a few times first. Stay tuned.

To take advantage of the warmer months, I ease up on chores and find myself slowing down my pace. More books are read, outdoor summer concerts and plays replace screen-time almost entirely. It seems only right to linger over al fresco meals and sip a cocktail or two slowly as one walks around inspecting the garden. Impromptu picnics, sunset viewings and star gazing stretch out the season. Time is taken to savor the bounty from the garden and farm stand. I love to slowly roast corn on the cob directly over the coals and then, with a sprinkling of flakes of sea salt and a dusting of cayenne pepper brightened with a splash of lime, it explodes in the mouth in a burst of sweet, salty, spicy and sour. Divine. And how about a watermelon salad tossed with fresh cherry tomatoes, feta and torn up basil? I think I even eat ice cream more slowly and mindfully in summer than at any other season.

While I’m reveling in the unhurried rhythm of summer, there is a fair amount of guilt that shadows me. The garden looks like a small child allowed to dress herself. Sweet but quite messy. I’m not keeping up with the pace the plants grow and need deadheading, staking and trimming. Weeds shoot up even as I work to keep them at bay. The tiny lawn looks ragged beseeching me for a regular feed of compost and the meadow quickly gets overrun by jewelweed smothering out less aggressive but more desirable plants. Still consumed with guilt, I’m determined to go on fully engaging with summer. It’s all too short and I know I will regret it if I have too few memories of it to keep me warm in winter.

And so I keep dancing with summer. Barefoot and guilty.

Note: Images of the neglected state of my garden – they should make you feel good about yours!

Wisteria in need of some grooming. But the geraniums divert your attention!
Wall pots straggling
Foxgloves need deadheading
Meadow could use some thinning out
Gardenia ready to be picked for indoor enjoyment
Sanguisorba ‘Alba’ having its moment
Asters waiting to be cut by one-third for better fall display
Acabthus in bloom but what’s that allium doing there?!
The pretty astilbe are being hidden by the overgrown asters.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Romancing The Garden

Gardeners are romantic. I have come to realize and accept this. In making anything beautiful, it pretty much goes without saying (but I’m saying) that one must also be romantic. You aren’t convinced? Hmmm. Let me tell you how I’ve come to realize my own idealistic, sentimental nature in action in the garden. You tell me if you’ve never been similarly inclined.

I’ll start with the very poster child of romance. The rose. I love them. I have included several in my garden – all in shades of pink, profuse and preferably perfumed. The very display of roses in bloom brings to the forefront matters of the heart. You absolutely cannot see a rose and not think of love and romance. Am I right?

When I chose to place two arches and plant roses to scramble up them, I envisioned something very traditional. The arch one must go through to reach the front door was to invite and disarm the visitor. It puts one in good cheer. The subtle fragrance sends an additional message of welcome. The three different clematis weaving through this rose takes the whole to a higher level. Pure romance.

The second arch which is a gateway to the gardens in the back, has a different rose. Brighter in its rosy hue and with a stronger perfume. It makes its presence felt long before you get near it. A temptation to coax the curious to come forth.

A shrub rose I planted on the side path in early spring was chosen for its prettiness, hardiness and its scent. The whole idea being that its fragrance will waft into the house through the studio windows just above and assault my senses in the nicest possible way as I paint. I’d like to think my work can only be made better under such influences.

In truth, one can smell the roses in all the rooms on that side of the house. It makes me pause, inhale deeply and appreciate the aroma. Life feels good. Similarly, I position the pots of citrus, jasmine and gardenia on the side terrace so the night air is redolent with their strong aromas – hopefully sweetening our dreams and slumber.

In the herb garden, I included plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Lovage, rue, hyssop, comfrey, foxgloves and such. Apart from the lovage which pairs well with fish, the others merely look pretty and remind me of earlier times. Hyssop while purported to soothe sore throats, was popularly used as a spiritual bath. The hyssop bath is usually considered to be a personal ritual to remove sin and negativity in life. It has a Biblical significance. Rue means disdain or regret. Comfrey too had a role in early medicine as a poultice to treat joint pains. All so quaint and romantic right?

Even a feature like the ‘meadow’ has an element of idealism and romance. It is a place for congeniality between the native flora and fauna. Where butterflies, birds and bees pollinate and populate my corner of paradise. Life supporting life, all creatures living together in peace and all is well with the world. What a concept!

The espalier of 27 apple and 5 pear trees hark back to a time when all of this neighborhood was full of apple orchards. I like to think I’ve in some way restored something precious to this place.

The pergola in the back terrace was designed so the wisteria would grow over its top, generously providing shade under which we can gather to break bread and sip wine with friends and family as often as possible. And we do. Idyllic escapes in a world gone mad.

And so it goes. I see how in creating this garden, I have subconsciously let my inner romantic guide me. It is about beauty, history, literature, harmony, the sacred and most of all, love.

Now, how about you?

Note: Enjoy these romantic images!

View from the upstairs window boxes
Hyssop
Gardenia
Citrus

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Artful Arrangements

Art In Bloom’ the poster said. Paintings of flowers I thought. It was so much more.

Weston, a quintessentially charming Vermont town best known for the legendary Vermont Country Store and its thriving eponymous playhouse. I have, over the years, discovered that this little place has some mighty impressive events and highly energetic, innovative and generous residents. For all those of us ( my hand is up) in and close to New York City who assume everything interesting and noteworthy happens in our neck of the woods, Weston is there to say “not so fast’.

The annual antique and craft shows are world class. While the craft show is restricted to Vermont artisans only, dealers from all over the country participate in the antiques show. With none of the uber-hype and big city ‘sophistication’ getting in the way, they showcase the best of Vermont. And the best is precisely that.

This past weekend, I was in for an unexpected treat in the show ‘Art In Bloom’. Not simply art on display, it was a show of flower arrangements by members of the local garden club inspired by paintings donated by local artists. While we are all accustomed to art inspired by nature and still-life paintings of floral arrangements, it was a nice twist to see what a person could do with flowers to interpret art. And quite a challenge it was.

The art works of mostly paintings and a couple of lovely examples of fiber arts, ranged from renditions of flowers to still-lifes with flowers to landscapes and abstract art. I imagine the abstracts and some of the landscapes must’ve been particularly challenging. How does one interpret a snow scene, a covered bridge, a musical instrument or a frog? Well, the members of the Green Mountain Garden Club rose to the occasion splendidly. From the literal to the imaginative, artistic, thoughtful and creative, each arrangement interpreted its corresponding artwork handsomely. Clearly, the flower arrangers knew their flowers and plants, understood nature, had a sense of humor and appreciated the arts very well.

I had come to this exhibit out of curiosity. Having never been to such a ‘reverse’ pairing of art and flower arranging, I had no expectations. So, it wasn’t just a welcome surprise – here was a wonderful demonstration of creativity and artistry. I was taught, I was inspired, I was humbled.

I came, I saw, I ascended.

Note – I’m giving myself the challenge of creating a flower arrangement inspired by a favorite painting. Maybe you will do the same? Please share!

Depending on the device on which you’re reading this, some of the images below will appear on their side. I do not yet know how to rectify the problem. I apologize!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Painting In The Plantings

All Gardening Is Landscape Painting’ – Alexander Pope

It’s become something of a tradition to have a group of artist friends spend a day in June painting and bonding in my little garden. This year, it happened last Saturday. The weather was perfect. Neither hot nor cold in temperature, the air was dry, sunny with a few white clouds … like I said, perfect.

I have often said that the garden is my muse. My painting, poetry and all other writing is inspired by the garden. How and what I choose to cook, the décor of my home and much of my taste in clothes is influenced by nature – her seasons and colors. Heck, even books or movies set in a garden or about one stand a good chance of being picked up by me. So, it’s always exciting when others are inspired to create in my garden.

All the artists come up from New York city so, they notice the air quality, the clarity of light, the colors that abound, the sounds of myriad birds, the fragrances swirling around – everything. Things that I’m so used to and often take for granted are newly appreciated as I observe their responses and delight.

From the hues of fallen petals to the shapes of flowers to the patterns of leaves to the shifting shadows to the juxtaposition of stone and plant, I see it all through their eyes. As an artist myself, I appreciate the way they see my garden. As a gardener, I’m humbled by their appreciation and sensitivity to the thought and design of my horticultural creation. After all, the garden itself is my personal, never ending, forever evolving work of art. Having the artists here is a valuable critique session of sorts.

What view or plantings each of them selects to paint and how they interpret what they see is eye-opening and exciting. It feels to me I’m learning to see my own garden in a whole new way. Remarkably, this happens to me every year! A reboot. It is gratifying and instructive.

Through good gardening, we reconnect with nature and remedy some of the harm we humans cause to our natural environment. In the process, the gardener hopes to create something beautiful and useful. Artists have always observed, studied and imitated Nature. They give astute commentary to what is going on in the world.

I am the happy beneficiary of feedback from gardeners and garden lovers on my Open Day and then again from artists ( a few are gardeners as well) on Painting Day. Taken together, I am the one most enriched – making me a better gardener and artist. That’s priceless.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Plant Power

Humans have always known the importance of being connected to the natural world. Not simply for the obvious – food, shelter ( caves, construction materials), fuel and, medicine. We are inherently aware that there is a deeper, spiritual relationship between us and the plant kingdom. From using flowers/plants to mark every significant event in our lives, returning our spent bodies to the embrace of the earth, to adorning and anointing ourselves with flowers, leaves, bark and roots for their perfume, cosmetic properties in a bid to enhance our looks, the horticultural world is intrinsic to our human-ness.

There is a plethora of anecdotal and scientific evidence to support the positive effect of time spent outdoors. Garden therapy is an accepted and valued method to heal all sorts of human conditions – physical and mental. Be it a stroll in the park, a hike in the woods, puttering in the garden or just sitting quietly amidst some greenery, a positive effect is palpably felt. Lifting ones mood, being physically energized after a stint out in nature is something every one of us can relate to. Gardening is empowering. To create something useful and beautiful is transforming. There is even a ‘Gardens Without Borders’ effort to help refugees in camps and war zones cope with their circumstances. That’s plant power.

Humans generally go about assuming their position at the very top of the living world. I’m not certain how we got to possess such hubris because in my experience, nothing is more humbling than observing nature closely as one does in gardening. Before one assumes what we do outsideis the principal effector, consider the plant community itself. What do we truly know about the kingdom of plants?

We have generally assessed plants from a very human perspective – how do they serve us? We regard plants as being there for our specific purposes. And we are in charge. Their very separation from us and all animals to a kingdom of their own shows how we think about plants. They are totally unlike us. But, are they really?

This past Saturday, I attended two highly interesting talks/panel discussions. Both were events made possible by the World Science Festival. The WSF takes place at this time of year in New York City – five days chock full of talks and discussions on all sorts of scientific topics. Leading scientists from different parts of the world participate in these talks and enlighten auditoriums packed with people thirsting for answers and understanding the issues currently affecting our lives. From cancer research to cosmic riddles to climate change to contemplating the cerebrum as we know it. I’ve been going to the WSF since it began about 11 years ago. I get positively giddy with excitement going through the line-up of talks and making my choices for the ones I’m most eager to attend.

This year, I chose two events that were so closely related that I believe they should’ve been proposed as a double feature. ‘Rethinking Thinking’ and ‘ Intelligence Without Brain’ were my picks. Both were so interesting and certainly enlightening. The take home is having a brain and neurons is only one way to think and navigating life. And humans are not special at all – we are just one form of life. Given my own background in molecular biology, this was not surprising or hard to accept.

It was fascinating to learn that even stuff like fungi and slime mold are capable of communication, problem solving and decision making. More so than one can imagine. In the animal kingdom, there is’ intelligence’ that parallels humans – only in ways more suited to their own genus and/or species. And when it comes to plants, they do so much more than we ever thought possible!

In recent years, we have learned that plants communicate by sending out chemical messages to warn, commiserate about disease and other life conditions. On Saturday, I found out that they make sounds via their roots! They have voices. At this time, we don’t know the how or why. It’s possible they can ‘talk’ above ground as well – we just don’t know how to test/hear them. Yet. Cogitate on that.

Going further, there is now data that plants can reason and remember. Yes, that’s right. This is all cutting edge scientific research and terribly thrilling. I won’t go into details and you don’t have to take my word for it as all the talks can be accessed at worldsciencefestival.com

So, circling back to my original commentary about how we are healed and invigorated by just being in the presence of plants. Perhaps, plants ‘silently’ comfort and/or treat our wounded selves in ways we are yet to determine or measure. They have after all been around so much longer than we humans and get this – the plant kingdom is 99% of all living forms found on earth. Surely then, it stands to reason that they know more than us. Stay tuned!

Here are some feel good images from the garden. Enjoy –

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar