Code Rush

All winter long I look forward to spring. But I kinda need the winter. As much as spring is full of new life and milder weather, it is a really busy time. There is so much to get done that one needs to work at double pace. Winter provides the necessary time to plan and prepare for that frenetic activity to come. It’s not only the requirement of physical fitness but the mental readiness as well. In December, I totally chill out. I’m very grateful for the time to get cozy and lazy. In January, I start dreaming and planning for what I want to do in the garden. In February, I’m slowly getting myself ready but mostly, I spend the month complaining about the cold and harsh weather. In March, tired of grumbling, I eagerly start looking for signs of spring in the garden and towards the latter part of the month, I gently ease into the work of clean-up and repair. In April, work is in full swing.

This year however, February has let me down. It has been much milder than usual. My snowdrops have been out for two weeks already, the red maple is in full bud and it’s been feeling more like late March. I feel cheated. Without the usual February grace period, I’m sensing unease and uncertainty. It’s as though spring is trying to rush up to me simply to knock me down. March might still bring snow and ice to undo the efforts of plants that responded to the mild days thus far. What is a gardener to do?

Well, this gardener is going to rise to the occasion. Against my baser need to whine and vent, I’m challenging myself to be mature and wise. I cannot really pretend I have the power to do anything about the weather. Instead, while the temperatures are mild, I’m checking for what things need repair, reworking or replacing. Edgers to be realigned, a few pavers to be repositioned, posts straightened etc., Clean up can begin – cut back plants that were let to provide winter interest, lightly prune fruit trees, pick up winter debris. The front lawn needs some attention too. Because of how wet it has been in recent days, I’m going to wait for it to dry out somewhat. Walking on wet ground and lawn can be damaging so it is best to avoid doing so. I’ll use the time to check on supplies like stakes, twine, Epsom salts ( for the roses and tired feet), sharpness of tools and such. The compost heap can be given a good stir so it knows its services will be called upon shortly.

I still feel a bit rushed but I think it’ll be okay. As long as I remember to breathe deeply and pause every now and then to simply revel in being in the garden. That much I know I can do.

Heads Up! I will have some of my art works in a show at the Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery, NYC, the week of March 12, 2018. I hope you will visit!

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Scratching The Itch

Whatever happened to ‘Frigid February’? The ups and downs in temperature are making me worry. Especially because the ups are way too up. It’s too darn early! I want February as it is supposed to be – cold and merciless. It’s only redeeming quality should be its shorter length. I like complaining about this months cold as it makes March that much more welcome. I cannot imagine how confused the slumbering roots and bulbs underground must be – is it or is it not time to wake up? I imagine it must feel like being awoken by an alarm clock with a stuck snooze button. No actual sleep to be had; just a sense of deprivation and lethargy.

This week’s temperatures are predicted to make one feel as though winter is beating a hasty retreat. Say it is not so! That would not be good at various levels. Mostly because neither garden nor gardener is prepared – it is simply not the right time. Besides, even if we got going as though spring had indeed arrived, what guarantee is there that winter might not return? Confusion, indecision, anxiety and havoc seem imminent. Climate change is a very cruel curse.

Still, I cannot shake off the typical eagerness for spring that overcomes me at this time of the year. So close and yet so far away… I absolutely adore the shiver of anticipation. I’m itching to see the bulbs nose their way through the earth, smell the wet soil and walk amidst the stirring plants. To keep me happy until such time, I’ve potted up the bulbs I had cooling in the refrigerator. The mere sight of them coming awake quickens my pulse. They sit now in containers with the promise of giving me a perfect preview of all the vernal pleasures to come. Spring dreams.

Note – Two announcements –  The first is that I have posted an account of my latest visit to the children at Mukta Jeevan Ashram. Please read!

Secondly, you can catch me in a podcast “Beyond 6 Seconds” where I speak to host Carolyn Kiel about my work with the children of Mukta Jeevan. I hope you will listen. Comments are welcome.

(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

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

Changing Forecast, Forecasting Change

It never hurts to keep looking for sunshine” – Eeyore ( Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne)

There are signs of this season of senescence everywhere and yet, in this final stretch of October, it seems as though a great number of trees are stubbornly holding on to their still-green leaves. Usually by this time, the fall foliage has peaked setting the world aglow like a virtual bonfire. I notice that the squirrels do not seem as madcap busy as they typically are at this time of year. Even the weather has been more like summer. It feels quite odd to be taking care of tasks that put the garden to bed when the days seem as though autumn is still weeks away.

Because the meadow is still quite green, I’ve delayed it’s annual mow-down by three weeks. However, elsewhere I have cut back my perennials leaving only some ornamental grasses as they look so ethereal in the afternoon sun. The greenhouse is filled up with the tender plants as one never knows when that first major frost will arrive, the espalier fruit trees have been pruned so a snowstorm won’t harm the limbs, and pots are cleaned and put away so a freeze-thaw cannot break them. Contrarily, I’m keeping the terrace on the ready for al fresco meals as long as the weather will permit.

The hundreds of bulbs I ordered in July have arrived. But the ground is way too warm for planting. I’m hoping I’ll get the all-clear from the weather gods and can begin this task in a couple of weeks.

In the front lawn, the newly seeded grass has come up nicely. If the mild days continue, it’ll need a mowing!

It’s not like I’m complaining because doing chores in the garden is infinitely better when sweaters and gloves are not required. Still, I’m a little concerned. Whilst reveling in the surprisingly gorgeous weather, we are in dire need of rain. What price will we pay for these beautiful days? How will this change in climate affect the flora and fauna? From budding to flowering, to putting out fruit and seeds, the plants must adapt. Likewise, for the animals, migratory patterns, hibernating periods, mating and reproductive times will need adjusting. All the flora and fauna must coordinate these changes in-order to serve each other as they always have. Their survival depends on it. Our own species depends on it. Perhaps the short term effects will be minimal but the long term impact can be big. I have the distinct impression that we ought to be buckling up. There’s a bumpy ride ahead.

Normally, the wisteria is a bright yellow in counterpoint to the rosy hues of the red male.

Trees have either dropped their leaves in a hurry or are reluctant to turn color.

The new lawn looks spring ready!

I love how the espalier turns sculptural. Just in time for winter visual interest.

The last roses are still looking beautiful

Grasses add such interest in the 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