Community Ties

I live in a town with a strong community spirit. We care about our children and our schools, we’re avid readers and our amazing library bears testimony to it, how charming the town looks is a result of an active garden club and a Beautification Advisory board. We recycle judiciously, have a no-plastic bags policy, compost and mulch is available for the taking at our busy recycling center, much of our electricity comes from wind energy, and our water is top notch safe. Our Historical Society is well supported, the town offers senior citizens an array of activities and services and we have a deep commitment to arts and culture. We are a very inclusive, supportive, forward thinking lot – all are welcome and embraced. I realize this is beginning to sound too good to be true and you’re right. We do have our differences and disputes but given the general parameters of what makes a town good, I sincerely believe we have right here much to appreciate and cherish.

But, that is no reason to be complacent. There is always room for improvement. We can, should and must do better.

The downtown area is currently undergoing a massive face-lift. Infrastructural issues are being addressed as well matters of making the commercial/public areas more attractive and user-friendly. While we grumble about the inconveniences it is expected that the new look will be worth it. Fingers crossed.

So here is my beef. As a commuting community where a high percentage of us take the train to work, the land running along the length of the train tracks could use a makeover. Our station itself is a historical building and has been lovingly restored. A very nice restaurant operates in it. The parking lots and the station grounds are clean and groomed. But the sorry looking, scrubby mess that one views whilst waiting for the train is a real eyesore.

It’s not just about aesthetics which by itself would be a worthy thing but, I believe it could have a positive effect on the commuters. Just as any time spent in a garden/ park or a walk (however brief) in the woods is known to improve ones physical, mental and emotional well being, viewing a stretch of interesting and attractive plants in the time spent waiting for the train would certainly do much to improve a person’s mood. Subtly, sub-consciously nature works wonders on us. Why not do what we can to help ourselves be well?

A month ago, I was in the Chicago area. I used to go to grad school there so I’m quite familiar with the area. As a result, I easily notice changes in the surrounding towns and much has changed indeed! One of the things that has captivated me is the embankment area running along the train tracks in the town of Wilmette which is a suburb rather similar to my town here in New York.

At one time, this stretch of land was full of wild vegetation that received minimum care and certainly no approving viewers. No longer. Today, there is a stunning prairie garden running parallel to the tracks. I’m completely enamored by this development. As the tracks leave Wilmette the land next to the tracks reverts to the usual ho-hum of rubbish plants. The contrast is stark. But, it shows what an astounding difference it makes to go to the trouble of deliberately creating such a landscape.

In making such an appropriately prairie style garden, no doubt native fauna populations have also been revived. The benefits to the area at large is immeasurable. Upkeep demands are much lower in such spaces. The initial investments to transform this area are surely more than worthwhile. Good for the environment, good for the commuters and good for the town overall.

Certainly the wildly popular High-Line park in Manhattan also serves as a big inspiration. The very concept is genius and how it all came together is brilliant. The power of the people is formidable.

I’d like to think that the enlightened residents of my town will see the advantages of doing something similar. Thus, I’m toying with ways to put this idea to the powers that be. It’s easy to discuss the merits of such an endeavor but the costs are always what makes them balk at new proposals. I’m thinking a local version of a Go Fund Me to get the project started and then maybe an Adopt A Length Of Track plan to cover maintenance costs. Similar to the successful Adopt A Highway program in NYC.

Imagine miles and miles of splendid, native plantings soothing our souls, coloring the seasons, enriching the environment and connecting us all …

I’m open to other ideas and welcome input from anybody interested in this idea so it can be put to the Town Board in a well constructed manner. Start thinking!

Note : I present to you photos of the plantings in Wilmette and High-Line.

Wilmette along the tracks- taken at different sections –

High-Line in October and December –

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Gift Of The Ordinary

It’s been hard to get away from the news these days. Everywhere one looks there is something gone awry. Disorder, discord and destruction is seemingly the new normal. Tempers are running high while spirits are low. Between Mother Nature’s might and all the political unrest, our world feels unsettled and out of alignment. It’s an extraordinarily heartbreaking time at present. It’s overwhelming and one wonders what the point of it all might be. While I reach out to those struggling to recover from natural disasters and man-made horrors, my heart reminds me to seek solace in the gift of the ordinary.

We take ordinary for granted. In fact, we often complain about it right? Seeking excitement and the extraordinarily, we whine about the same old-same old, the mundane, the quotidian. But it’s precisely those humdrum, routine tasks that give us certain assurance. They tell us that all is as it should be. Things are normal. There is wondrous peace in that.

This past week, in trying to process all the goings on and looking for how I can be of most service, I’ve found such comfort in doing the unremarkable chores in the garden. Whilst weeding, I’ve observed the earthworms tilling the earth and the bees making their rounds. The seed pods rattling in the breeze that brings a fresh shower of leaves in colors of the sun. I’ve taken note of the slender green needles of emerging grass from the recently seeded front lawn. In tucking away the pots of tender plants into the greenhouse, I’m reassured that they will be warm and safe through the cold months. Picking Swiss chard for supper, I’m struck by how much I enjoy this vegetable and how it keeps giving well into early December. Washing out the large pots now emptied of their seasonal contents, I watch the birds raid the meadow for seeds and bugs. The low slant of the afternoon light sets aglow the asters as though reminding the butterflies and bees there remains only a few more hours before visiting hours are over. Meanwhile, in another corner, the light turns the swaying heads of ornamental grasses into feathers of polychromatic optic fibers. Cutting back the plants will have to wait another week or two – this senescence is so beautiful .

These familiar chores put my heart at ease and for one all too brief period, my fear, anxiety, anger, sorrow and frustration are forgotten. Ordinary is good.

I wrote the poem below three years ago. It expresses the same sentiments.

The Gift Of The Ordinary

The early demand

to make room

for still warm toes

and sleep tousled hair

against my languid self.

 

Sandwiched between

husband and child

Wide awake

much too hot

wouldn’t change a thing.

 

Quick kisses, rushed goodbyes

Sudden quiet amidst the dishes

Hours open

creative freedom

the comfort of home.

 

Laundry rituals, weekly menus

Deadlines, submissions

instep with

family time, date night

snatched moments of solitude.

 

Belonging, beloved

sleep deprived on a good day

Supported, cheered

trailing behind on paperwork

The gift of the ordinary.

                                             –Shobha Vanchiswar

Note: I hope you will visit one or all of the art shows I’m in this month!

Rainbow chard

Moving into the greenhouse in progress

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Autumnal Acts

Despite my reluctance to come out of summer-vacation mode, it’s been impossible to ignore the spectacular weather these past few days. Perfect fall days of cool nights, crisp mornings melting into sun-warmed days. Reveling in the glorious colors of the season, I’ve been inspired to take on the garden tasks – it’s so much easier to work in an atmosphere of such beauty and delight.

The big tasks addressed this past Sunday were the front lawn and the cleaning of the greenhouse. In the case of the lawn, it took a bit longer as wild strawberry had taken up residence and ousted the grass, clover and any other sweet greens that make up my ‘lawn’. It’d only be a matter of time before the runners of this thug made inroads into the perennial beds. So instead of the usual raking to de-thatch the grass and simply remove the matted debris, more effort was applied to completely eliminate the intruder. This was followed by reseeding with grass and finally applying a thick layer of compost over the entire area. All that’s left to do now is to water daily until the seeds sprout and the new grass establishes. Some gentle rain showers would be of great help.

Mind you, in the spring, a similar servicing of the lawn is required but it will not have to be anywhere so drastic. It actually makes a big difference to deal with the lawn in the fall.

The greenhouse cleaning is de rigeur as one wants to provide a hygienic environment for the plants. So the slate floor was vacuumed and glass panels washed thoroughly. Keeping the glass clean also means more light comes through to the plants. Once the glass is dry, we line the interior side with bubble-wrap which serves as insulation whilst still letting in sunlight. This last task is not as fun but very necessary unless one wants to squander money on whatever energy is used to heat the greenhouse in winter.

Every plant moved into the greenhouse is trimmed, washed with a smart spray of water which displaces any pest or detritus clinging on either it or the pot, freed of all weeds that might be trying to sneak in and only then is it ready for its winter residence.

Understandably, preparing the pots takes time so thus far, only the big bay standards, citruses like kumquat and Meyer lemon, gardenia, olive and scented geraniums have been placed inside. By and by the other tender perennials will follow. Presently, some of those including two small standards of rose are looking rather fetching and I’d like to enjoy them in the garden a little bit longer. I’m hoping for a few more al fresco meals before it gets too cold.

For pure fun lest I start feeling sorry for myself for working so hard, I put up the fall window-boxes with a mix of ornamental cabbages, kale and pansies. And, I got myself a lovely collection of pumpkins and gourds to display by the front door.

That’s right, I’ve jumped into fall. Goodbye summer.

Note: Art shows I’m in this month –

‘Figures’ at the Mount Kisco Public Library, 100 Main Street, Mount Kisco, NY. October 6 – 31.

‘Methods And Melody’ at the Chappaqua Performing Arts Center, 480, N. Bedford Road, Chappaqua, NY. October 14 – Nov 21

Beaux Arts Show of the Woman’s Club of Dobbs Ferry, 54, Clinton Avenue, Dobbs Ferry, NY. October 13 – 15.

Beaux Arts Show of the Woman’s Club of White Plains, 305, Ridgeway, White Plains, NY. October 16 – 20.

I plant young plants in the pots and window boxes so they have room to grow. In a couple of weeks, they’ll fill out nicely.

Newly seeded lawn.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

In Someone Else’s Eden

As I mentioned last week, I’m away from home and kinda, sorta missing my garden. With all its imperfections and idiosyncrasies, it is after all my own piece of paradise. It’s where I feel most comfortable. My escape from everything – a sanctuary in the midst of quotidian chaos. Yet, here I am in Provence and I have absolutely nothing to complain about.

For all of three weeks I have the run of a home and garden that anyone with even the faintest of a heartbeat would be tripping over themselves to experience. I’m certainly making the most of it.

I’ll spare you most of the envy creating details and simply focus on the garden. It is two acres of Provencal charm. The garden doesn’t pretend to be anything but its authentic self and because of that, it not only works brilliantly but clearly requires only a minimal amount of upkeep. That is exactly what every gardener should aspire to create.

Instead of telling, I’ll show you. Enjoy. Witness its inspired simplicity and honest beauty.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

To Stay Or Not To Stay

August means vacation time in my family. I look forward to it with such eagerness you’d think I worked in a sweatshop the rest of the year. I long for it like the child spying a slice of rainbow cake with sprinkles, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I wait for it like a wily crocodile patiently determining when to move in on its hapless prey. I make endless lists and plans. Yes indeed, I love vacations.

To travel, to explore, to decompress, to exhale, to absorb, to replenish are all reasons that fuel my need to get away. It does mind, body and spirit a world of good. To return refreshed and restored to the daily demands of everyday life is priceless.

So then, why do I feel so reluctant to leave home each time departure day approaches? In my apparent enthusiasm to get away, one would think I’d abandon house and garden with the alacrity of a rat fleeing a sinking ship but instead, I’m loathe to get my packing underway, empty the refrigerator, put mail delivery on hold, arrange for someone to check-in on the house and generally sort out all the myriad matters that need sorting before one embarks on a much needed and all too brief respite. I express my reluctance to do these tedious tasks aloud but deep inside myself I know it isn’t any of those things at all. I simply love being home as much as I love going away.

The thing that concerns me the most is the garden. How can I possibly entrust anybody else to keep an eye on it. And what amazing events might unfold in my absence. I can’t bear missing out on what will be in bloom, watching migrating Monarchs make pit stops, seeing the apples turn rosy or the grapes develop their dusty bloom as they turn a rich shade of plum. In comparison, I’ve been all together shamelessly blasé about dropping my child off at sleep-away summer camp ever since she turned the ripe age of ten.

I am presently on vacation in monsoon ravaged Mumbai where the rain is relentlessly pounding the city. The sound is deafening as though one were sitting inside the Victoria Falls. And it is warm and humid like a ship’s boiler room. Yes, I have actually been privileged to see life in this part of a ship. Which, come to think of it, is also equally noisy. To enjoy all of this, I left my home in typical grudging fashion. You might say that given that I haven’t exactly described paradise, my sentiments are understandable. But then, how would you explain my longing for home despite the fact that from here I move on quite literally to sunny, dry pastures – in Provence, France? This is where one sips rosé whilst listening to the thrum of bees frolicking amidst the lavender fields. It’s perhaps my most favorite part of the world and yet … you see? I want to stay home and I want to be elsewhere. A very fine dilemma to have.

This year, I’ve been given a reprieve of sorts. While I’m wading through the streets of Mumbai ankle deep in water, my significantly other half is still Stateside. So until he joins me in the pursuit of Gallic pleasures, I’m having him send me photos of specific areas of the garden that I know will be performing fetchingly. He doesn’t quite understand my eagerness to know about every horticultural happening but is doing his bit in complying to my pestering. On my part, I’m trying to be grateful and not criticize him for less than stellar images and even so in insufficient quantities.

One must after all, be grateful for small mercies.

Note – For a glimpse of what I’m missing in the garden at this time:

( Like I said, someone hasn’t been taking enough photos)

Pink turtleheads – Chelone obliqua. Oh how I waited and wished for these to bloom before I left!

Turtleheads in the meadow

Oak-leaf hydrangea

Echinacea and grape arbor

Vertical garden

As the 2017 Wildflower Artist of Teatown Lake Reservation, my rendition of the pink turtleheads are on their note cards for this year.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Case For Windowboxes

I’ve always loved window boxes. Long before I could imagine ever having a piece of ground to cultivate, I knew I would have window-boxes. Traveling as an impoverished student and then as a newly employed but still living in rental apartments, I’d photograph all the charmingly adorned windows I came across. One day I too was going to have them.

The surest way to brighten up the facade of any house is to hang flower boxes. The sight pleases the eye and puts a smile on the face. It’s welcoming and says something positive about the occupants.

What one plants in them is up to the imagination and taste. Tasteful/ elegant/ gaudy/ showy/ seasonal/ loud/ simple/ modern/ minimalist/ cottage-y/ – it doesn’t matter. Go for it. I do however strongly suggest – only live plants please. No plastic or other faux material. Really. What’s the point of having window boxes if you’re going to put in fake plants?

They’re quite easy to maintain. I squeeze in more plants in this limited space than I would in a bed in the ground. I go for a look of abundance and exuberance. The old pillar, filler, spiller combination still holds true.

Contrary to what is widely suggested, I eschew potting soil and use top soil mixed with compost instead. While the former is deemed lighter and adequate, I find the latter much better for encouraging good, healthy growth. Water retaining crystals are sprinkled in the lower one-third of the box/pot. I fertilize once a month with an organic potion.

All this happens in sturdy box liners that fit into the boxes well. This not only makes it a snap to pot up but it also protects the wood of the boxes as it does not come in direct contact wit soil. Towards the end of a season when the boxes start looking peaky, I start the next season’s contenders in fresh, clean liners. And when I deem that the present lot is done for, the next batch of divas are waiting and ready to start performing.

The boxes are watered according to season and daily weather. In spring I can get away with just one thorough watering a week but in summer, the plants often get thirsty enough to demand a drink every other day. Access to the boxes from the inside allows convenient watering, deadheading and tidying up.

I often include fragrant plants in my mix – the perfume that wafts into the house is a real mood lifter. This past spring, the scent of the stock just bowled me over.

A few weeks ago, I was awakened by a curious sound that I could not immediately identify. On looking around the room whilst still in bed didn’t offer up any clue until from the corner of my eye I detected movement. Turning my head towards the window, I saw a hummingbird getting its early morning drink. Since then, I’ve been privileged to watch it almost every morning – so worth the early wake up call. Does my heart good knowing I’ve been of service.

This justifies everything.

Be inspired by the photos below!

My hummingbird alarm. (Picture is not clear as it was taken on my phone from my bed and through the window screen)

When there aren’t any windows …

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Field Trip

Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” Seneca

All too often, I get so caught up in the demands of life that my time with plants is mostly spent in my own garden. But the truth is, I absolutely adore visiting other gardens. Both public and private. Seeing a different garden is like entering a new country. Crossing new borders is always an adventure ( pun intended!).

One discovers differences and similarities, new likes or dislikes, new plants are identified, familiar plants to use in interesting, fresh ways and, hardscaping details that inspire. At the end of every journey, one learns something about oneself.

About ten days ago, I had the opportunity that was the ultimate in garden visits. My friend and garden wizard Marco Polo Stufano offered to take me and a couple of friends around Untermyer gardens, Wave Hill gardens and his own garden. Now, I’ve seen all three several times before but to go around Untermyer and Wave Hill with Marco as our personal guide was my idea of winning the lottery. Wave Hill in particular was a rare treat – after all, Marco created it and put it on the map. His own garden is a jewel box – it is the best representation of knowledge, aesthetics and passion.

I learned, I saw anew, I was totally in bliss. We walked, talked and laughed. I was enjoying myself so much that the heat and humidity that usually does me in, left me unfazed. It was quite simply a truly transcendent experience.

The two public gardens are at the height of their summer glory – go see for yourself!

I took pictures but it was my senses that absorbed the gardens a great deal more. No doubt I will do things in my garden as a result of that and many of those ideas will seem as though they were all mine but I’ll know in my heart that I had so much inspiration and guidance that I couldn’t have done it any other way.

And that’s why one gets out and explores other worlds. To grow.

Note:‘City Views’, an exhibition of works by 88 League artists celebrating New York City.  The show, showcases the wide diversity and remarkable quality of art being made by League students and members.

‘City Views’ is at the Manhattan Borough President‘s office at 1 Centre Street and is open through the end of August. If you can’t make it in person, you can view most of the works here.  They are for sale with prices starting at around $100.  On line purchasing is open.

Enjoy the images from my field trip!

Untermyer:

Wave Hill:

Marco and Louis – two generations of Wave Hill directors.

Still-life for the compost heap

Marco’s garden:

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar