Yet Another Aha! Moment

Gardening is just what I do. What and how I do it feels like second nature. While I’ve undoubtedly learned much from my garden, I’m not always conscious of it. It’s only when I pause to think or appreciate the garden that I become aware of how much it teaches and guides me. As one goes about the day to day chores and demands of life, it’s easy to be caught up in the immediate without being mindful. Over the years, I’ve come to understand and depend upon the garden to open my mind and heart, to take instruction, seek counsel, solace and refuge, feel grateful, compassionate and a general sense of wellbeing. The garden continues to impart wisdom and I keep receiving. Yet, I’m guilty of taking it for granted. Till something occurs to nudge me out of my complacency.

I was talking to a group recently, when the topic of bulb planting came up. I tend to assume that everyone knows what I know. Especially if they belong to a garden club or similar organization. So, there I was saying that 700+ bulbs await planting in my garden, when I was asked about the details of this task. When they get put into the ground, how deep, where etc., It dawned on me that without the basic information, any task can be intimidating.

We spoke then of getting the bulbs, making selections, quantities, the process of planting and such. When it came to the necessity of a cooling period, I had my own Aha! moment. Over the course of this year, I’ve been working on a business project with a philanthropic purpose. Not being naturally business minded, the process is slow and the learning is tedious and frustrating. I’m impatient and want things to be straightforward. But business has many moving parts, it is not simple. There are deadlines and delays. I can deal with the former but the latter drives me crazy because it’s mostly out of my control. I have to depend on different parties to do the needful and they each have their own agendas and processes. Needless to say, it is slow going. Very slow.

I’m not complaining because I do appreciate the learning, other people’s skills and expertise blow my mind and the pleasure I get with each step forward. I just have a ways to go and I’d recently hit a roadblock. A detour is required and I must find it. Realistically, I’m looking at coming up with a different path altogether. It is all the usual ups and downs but for someone not schooled in business and marketing, it is annoying, upsetting and disheartening. Doing something for good should not be this hard!

In this state of mind, I was ripe for a lesson from nature. In speaking about bulb planting, I received my own lesson. Firstly, I was reminded that there is a correct season for everything. Then, given all the right conditions, taking care to do all the steps correctly, all I can do is step back and wait for matters to take their course and hopefully, produce the results one hopes for. Just as the bulbs, so full of promise, must be healthy, planted at the right time, to the right depth, in the right places and then given their optimum cooling or rest period to get properly ready for growing and blooming in the spring. I am not in control of everything. I must simply do my best and wait it out. Everything in its time. Preparation, perseverance, patience, perspective.

Note: The ‘Colors Of Fall’ art show is open! Do go take a look.

Enjoy the watercolor images of bulbs to look forward to next spring. Some of these watercolors are available in notecards and soft furnishings for the home. They make lovely gifts. All profits go to educate HIV girls at Mukta Jivan orphanage.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer Joy

It’s the lazy days of summer. I hope you’re making the most of the season. They will become the memories that’ll get you through the dark, cold days of winter. Ignore the to-do list and savor the pleasures of summer.

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

perfumed with clove,

oil of bergamot

essence of rose

Lulled into

well being

content to remain

Greet the dew

of a new day.

– Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer Dive

Sunlight spills

brilliant diamonds

blinding ripples

shimmering winks

sliced apart

by summer’s first dive.

-Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer Joy

Summer spreads wide

a picnic blanket

of meadow flowers and green, green grass

For legs to brush against

bodies to lie back

To gaze upon

lofty images of dogs and bears and hunting giants

From dazzling day to evening glitter

Dew gathers to mist

sun-warmed faces and naked toes

Summer seems

like an endless ride

filled with ice-cream cones and fireflies

Of water fights and watermelon wedges

children’s laughter intoxicated

on improbable tales

An ephemeral age, an ephemeral time

summer passes overnight.

– Shobha Vanchiswar

Note: The Small Works exhibit is on through August. Do make time to see it!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

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

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

Good Time(ing)s

In general, once my garden Open Day has passed, a respite of sorts is granted. The garden looks its best, all the heavy work is over and it’s simply a matter of maintenance. Weeding, watering, deadheading, mowing – the usual tasks to keep the garden looking neat and cared for. It’s time to start relaxing and lolling about in the garden. But not this year.

I had, over this past winter, decided to go for a bigger push in the ‘meadow’. Envisioning this space as a true four season performance arena and inspired by Piet Oudolf’s matrix planting system, I ordered 18 different native plants totaling 200 plants. That’s a lot of plants. Given that the ‘meadow’ already has a range of plants and bulbs in residence, the new introductions would be a bit of a challenge. So, I sourced a nursery that would provide young plugs of the plants making it a bit easier to get into the ground between the existing plants.

This new order arrived a day before the Open Day. Needless to say, planting them had to wait. Given the need to take a little time off post-Open Day and a couple of days of inclement weather, a whole week went by. Memorial weekend it had to be. As much as I was keen on simply enjoying the long weekend with no tasks on the agenda, the plugs of plants could not be ignored. Hence, over the afternoon of Saturday to well past sunset we planted one side of the ‘meadow’. The weather was ideal but getting around the established plants was a game of Twister. Marking the spots for the plugs using bamboo stakes, making the holes ( my engineer husband/under-gardener used a drill and that made it so much better) and placing the plants took so much longer than if one were starting on a blank canvas of earth. Our sore backs and legs were testaments to the effort.

Sunday dawned and we began at 8:00am by which time it was already hot and humid. So vastly different from the day before. The bugs were out in full swing. We finally got all the planting done barely in time to start preparing for our first garden party of the season. We hadn’t as yet shopped for the event! Needless to say, it became a marathon of shopping, prepping, baking (dessert), setting up, laying the table, firing up the outdoor wood-fired oven, showering and dressing … in a matter of hours.

All was accomplished just in time for the first guests’ arrival. Whew!

Then, just as the party was nicely underway and we were considering starting on pizza making, the first raindrops dropped. Yikes! Very soon we realized it was only going to get worse. This crowd was not the kind to run indoors. Not a chance. Instead, with all hands on deck, a big tarpaulin was spread and tethered over the pergola ( with me urging them to “mind the wisteria buds!”). The pop-up tent was brought out of storage and commissioned to allow the pizza-maker/husband and guest helpers to work unfettered by the rain. And the party continued in much hilarity and good cheer. Well into the night.

Planting time, good times – it’s all in the timing. And a can-do attitude.

P.S – Aforementioned under-gardener has categorically stated that he is done with all planting for the rest of the growing season. Hmmm, we shall see about that.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Weather Perfect

A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves.” Marcel Proust

Ah, Open Day has come and gone leaving me with a sense of relief, well-being and satisfaction. The weather was perfect. After three straight years of cold, wind and rain on Open Day, this exquisite day was well overdue.

The sun shone bright, the air was dry, the temperature was ideal – not hot, not cold, a gentle breeze prevailed and the garden was filled with the buzz, tweets and hums of bees, birds and butterflies. The flowers rose to the occasion and shone bright and beautiful. I could not have asked for any better.

It is almost impossible not to respond positively to weather such as that. There is an imperceptible yet powerful shift in one’s mood and outlook. For myself, it felt as though a new energy had moved into my body. Being outside in the garden felt so right. There was no other place to be. No bugs biting, no jackets weighing me down, no sweat to wipe off and, best of all, no chores to do. This was as good as it gets.

It was the perfect weather to share the garden. And the garden looked its best despite the cold and rain it had endured thus far this spring. Several plants were lagging in their bloom time but the others stepped up admirably. Every visitor arrived with happy spirits and curious minds. Of the 100 or so visitors, I did not encounter a single person with the slightest hint of negativity.

As much as I love sharing my garden, I adore meeting other gardeners and garden lovers. I learn so much. This time, I picked up on a new-for-me nursery to check out, a few gardens I must visit, a book to add to my summer reading, enjoyed several good laughs, received feedback on my own garden and made new partners in horticultural-crime. At the end of the day, I was so much the richer – in heart and head.

Under such ideal conditions, it was inevitable that the best conversations ensued, strangers became friends, and for the one brief day, all was well with the world. Marcel Proust was so right.

A heartfelt thank you to all who made this Open Day a resounding success. Visitors, volunteers, friends and family – nothing is possible without you.

Note: Here are lots of photos for all those of you who failed to show up!

IMG_1343

Friends from Chicago

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

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It’s Open Season!

My garden’s Open Day is this Saturday, May 18. I’m hard at work primping and propping the garden to get it looking it’s best for you. So, cancel everything else and come on over. I’d love to see you here!

I was in Evanston, Illinois this past weekend and even though part of that time it was cold and wet, I was struck by how much horticultural effort is put into making the heart of the city look attractive. Tulips waved madly in bright colors on traffic islands, pocket parks and around trees along the streets. So cheery and seasonal. And very easy to do. I’m eager to see what the next plantings of annuals will be.

But beyond the show of annuals, I observed that there is a thoughtful approach to infusing seasonal color and fragrance in the landscape through the use of perennials. A small park dividing a busy road, is bordered with hedges of viburnum. I smelled the park before I noticed it! The viburnums were in full bloom and the fragrance wafted far and wide. Pure heaven. As though reminding pedestrians to pause a moment and refresh the spirit – be present. What a lovely idea. Flower beds within the park abounded in tulips but there were many perennials emerging through. Three benches and a single sculpture completed this perfect oasis.

Swathes of Virginia bluebells carpeted several other green spaces for the public to enjoy and under many hedges I noticed abundant lily-of-the-valley leaves unfurling in readiness for the sweet bells of white to perfume the days ahead – subliminally cheering the outlooks of passers-by.

I had hoped to visit Millennial Park in Chicago and take in the plantings but my schedule did not permit it. Instead, I got to experience the glorious efforts of a much smaller city that could match its big neighbor handily. My well is full.

Note : Enjoy some images of plantings in Evanston. I look forward to seeing you in my garden this Saturday!

Depending on which device you are reading this, some images appear on their side. I have no idea how to fix it. My apologies! Also, the pocket park appears expansive in the photos – it isn’t in reality!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

April Flowers

Almost overnight there’s been an explosion of blooms in these parts. The forsythia are having their spectacular moment with the magnolias keeping up rather impressively. And oh! the cherry blossoms! Taking the back roads to get around might be slow but the views of what’s doing in the countryside and private gardens are so worth it. I’m now about two inches taller from pausing to crane my neck to see more of what’s blooming over walls and fences. Undoubtedly, my car’s license number has been noted as it crawled suspiciously and even halted in front of some very grand homes with majestic gates and grounds. It must’ve looked like I was casing the neighborhood. I did stop short of taking photos lest they called the cops. All those gorgeous sights are now only in my head. Sigh.

About forsythia – in my humble opinion, they should never be neatly trimmed. They look their best when the sprays of flowers are naturally free and artistically unruly. The bohemians of the season.

Back in my own Eden, the hellebores continue to shine. The meadow is beginning to come alive with the minor bulbs. The snowdrops are fading but the scillas, crocuses and hyacinthoides are gently taking over. Early daffodils are in bloom and that shot of gold through the landscape is pure joy. Each day brings new bounty.

The freshly planted pansies have the sweetest faces – one cannot help but smile in response. In short order the primroses will be vying for attention. I’m also anticipating a blue-ing in the meadow – grape hyacinths, forget-me-nots, ajuga, iris reticulata … with white violas, and yellow daffodils and dandelions as counterpoint. That’s right, I said dandelions – they are not weeds in my meadow. Instead, they not only look like diminutive suns but they are some of the earliest sources of nectar for hummingbirds. So, get over your bias people!

Last Saturday was unseasonably mild and by Sunday, all sorts of plants had greened up and flowers popped open. It’s lovely to be given this chance to closely examine the beauties – all too soon, there will be such a profusion that it’ll be hard to keep up with the chores and linger around gazing at the blooms.

For now, I’m happily basking in the glow of early spring. With an occasional mojito in hand. Simple pleasures.

Note: Remember -My Open Day is May 18!

 

That last photo was taken at the NYBG last Saturday. It’s usually about 10 days ahead of my garden.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Orchid Go For Some Spring Right Now Couldn’t You?

Yeah, I know. I’m feeling goofy. Happens about this time every year when I can almost feel spring making her way. It’s part imagination, part will, part reality. Spring’s official arrival is four weeks away. I’m weary of winter and my head space is full of garden plans and to-dos. I’m frustrated, excited and impatient all at once. Some diversion is desperately needed.

As though sensing my state, the NYBG always comes to the rescue with the annual Orchid Show. Ah! Just the cheery lift I need. Surrounded by the lovely plants vying for attention, it’s impossible to remain glum. The colors and forms of the orchid flowers are incredible. I also love the way other plants are combined in the displays to expand and elevate the palette. It’s not just about the flowers; the inspired use of foliage should not be overlooked. Good horticultural design instruction right there.

Admittedly, beyond the basics that I already know I learn very little about orchids at the show. But if one can set aside the need for such shows to be properly educational, such an exhibit can be a very positive experience. It uplifts the winter-worn spirit and entertains the senses. That, I believe is precisely what is required right now. A chance to simply feel good and get lost in the beauty of flowers. After a visit, one comes away pleased and positive of mind.

Flower power can never be underestimated.

This year, the theme of the show is Singapore – the mecca of orchids. Having had the privilege of visiting that city-state’s orchid collection, my NYBG visit this past Friday not only did the job of putting me in a happy mood but it also reminded me of that very pleasant vacation. Now I have spring fever and the travel bug. Go figure.

P.S. Wandering through the garden on my way to the Orchid Show in the conservatory, I noticed the pointed tips of bulbs pushing their way through and yes, the snowdrops have started blooming. Joy!

That typically means my own garden will begin to stir in a couple of weeks. More joy.

Note:Check out the art at the Phyllis Harriman Gallery at the New York Art Student’s League, March 4 – 9. I have four paintings in the show.

Enjoy the images below :

Yellow fever

snowdrops!
Hellebores

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Anti-Inflammatory Measures

Turmeric is trending. The It (spice)girl of the moment. Like me, turmeric originates from India/the sub-continent. Growing up, its ubiquitous bright yellow presence in Indian cuisine was unremarkable and yet, it was unthinkable to omit it in a recipe.

It was only as a freshman in college, during a microbiology course, I learned about its bactericidal properties and its role consequently in food preservation and cosmetics. Suddenly, I understood how significant a spice this was. That my ancestors had discerned its importance so long ago was remarkable.

I shall not expound on the many superpowers attributed to turmeric because all that info is out there on the Internet. I myself use it regularly in cooking. It is a vital ingredient in my go-to tonic whenever I need to fortify myself – a strong, hot infusion of turmeric and fresh ginger. An ancient remedy but oh so au courant. Ha, I’m trendy by default.

Because of its brilliant hue, turmeric is easily adulterated. It therefore pays to be cautious about where one obtains it. Additionally, look for organically grown sources.

On my visit to the Mukta Jivan Orphanage this past Christmas day, I was given a bag of turmeric root. The rhizomes had been cleaned, boiled and dried. What remained was the grinding and sifting. At MJ, turmeric and all other produce are grown organically. It is for their own consumption and not commercial distribution.

I brought the bag of innocuous looking bits of dried roots to my father’s cook/culinary wizard Indira. She knew exactly what to do. Over the span of a morning, she ground up the roots, sifted carefully and produced a sizable bowl of vivid gold powder along with a pair of deeply stained hands. The aroma of turmeric is not overpowering but it is distinct. Such an amazing sight.

Whilst in Mumbai, I had the opportunity to visit a gated community of sorts. Located a couple of hours away from the city, it is a development of homes designed to be either second homes or retirement residences for the upper middle-class. This is a growing trend. Little oases in the midst of rugged, rural terrain. As contrived as they are, they are quite lovely once you’re inside those high walls. Attractive, large homes surrounded by well designed, well maintained lush greenery. An escape for the harried city dweller at many levels.

The one I visited is mindful of the environment and applies only organic methods. Water for the plants comes from a rain catchment. All the produce from the large, enclosed vegetable garden and the assorted orchards ( papaya, banana, almonds etc.,) are shared by the residents. I think this could be a good blueprint for communities everywhere and all new developments ought to incorporate such a plan. At a time when families are pressed for time and find it hard to fit in all the responsibilities of keeping a vegetable garden, shared or allotment gardens would be ideal. It will no doubt foster a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common philosophies, practices and produce. Children will learn about where their food comes from and enjoy the benefits of nature and an active community.

I wished I’d had more time to engage with the gardeners and learn further about their methods, challenges and such. Next time I will.

Back home in New York, I’m facing the reality of January. Cold and more cold. Possibility of snow later in the week. To bolster my spirits, the hyacinth bulbs cooling in the refrigerator since October’18, have been potted up. Watching the bulbs grow and anticipating the fragrant flowers will keep me in a positive state of mind. One cannot ask for more.

Turmeric!

Turmeric plants. The vegetable garden in the gated community.

The vegetable garden

Note the papaya trees just outside the fence.
A gourd left in the sun for the seeds to ripen

Banana grove

A residential garden

The terrain beyond
My hyacinths

NOTE: My participation in “Winter In America” at Gallery 114 continues. If you’re in the area, please visit!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar