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

Frumps, Fogies, Failures

So, I’m back stateside but not quite home as yet. That happens this coming weekend. However, reality is beginning to set in as my mind goes over the tasks awaiting. Bills, unpacking, laundry, grocery shopping are the usual back-to-the-routine activities that facilitate the reentry into ‘normal’.

Given that this is already the third week into September, it’s also that time of year when I review the garden. Fall planting is about to commence and one needs to know what has worked and what has not. Each year I’m tempted to be bold and rip out entire sections to experiment with improbably ambitious dreams but then common sense gets in the way and tries to curb my enthusiasm. I’m not entirely comfortable with being just ‘sensible’ or the garden remaining as is. All gardens need to evolve and, I need to have a bit of a challenge – an experiment of sorts to push beyond my comfort zone. After all that’s how the ‘meadow’, espalier and vertical garden were conceived. Each of which give me great joy and inspiration.

Last fall saw the installation of the big sculpture Wind Song. This year however, with numerous other projects demanding my time and energy, I’m not planning on anything ambitious. I’ll certainly be planting hundreds of bulbs as usual but otherwise, I’m only going to examine the garden in terms of which plants I’m unhappy, bored or downright out of love with. They will have to go. More happy-making and/or edgy replacements will be found.

Here is my list thus far –

Frumps – ‘firebird’ geraniums. I had thought it would be fun with its fringed edged flowers but instead, it has looked rather dowdy. Did absolutely nothing except sit in the window-boxes. No pizazz at all. I will replace ( actually, revert) with my much loved and briefly neglected ivy-leaved geraniums. I’m also hoping to source Geranium phaem ‘Samobar’ and Papaver cambricum for the meadow – they appear rather elegant and airy. Precisely the look I myself aspire to achieve some day.

Fogies – Blue lobelia. I’m still fond of them but they tend to succumb to summer heat very quickly and start looking brown and crispy. They’ve been a ho-hum mainstay too long. Instead, I’m going to try a blue Streptocarpus. Although they are usually seen as indoor plants, I saw them in pots and window-boxes at a friend’s garden earlier this year and thought they were lovely.

Failures – Eremurus! This was my third attempt with the fox-tail lilies. Only one out of six bulbs planted emerged and bloomed. I’m done with them. Too expensive and too picky. Next year, I’m going to delight myself with a host of sunflowers in that same spot – dependable and downright brilliant. It is impossible to look at sunflowers and not smile.

No doubt, as I get over jet-lag I will come up with more candidates to vote out. A trip to the nursery will surely give more inspiration. Stay tuned!

Doesn’t this a whole lot better than …

…this?

The lone, pathetic eremurus.

Don’t you feel uplifted looking at this instead?

(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

Ode To Summer Nights

It’s been a looong week. We’ve finally emerged from a rather wretched heat wave. Forget about tending to the garden, simply sitting in it felt as though one were inside a furnace. Needless to say, I spent most of my waking hours indoors – keeping cool and staying on top of which summer drink tasted best. My top choice – watermelon lemonade. Spritzed or spiked depending on company and/or time of day.

It is precisely at this point in the season one becomes more appreciative of the nights. Usually a tad cooler and considerably more enjoyable as one can no longer see the sad state of the untended garden. Perfect.

With that in mind, I hereby give you permission to knock off working too hard outside. It really is unhealthy to do so during a heat wave. Summer is meant to be about slower, relaxed schedules. Immerse yourself into the pleasures of the season so you can remember these days – the memories will get you through the icy cold days of winter. As in Game Of Thrones, winter is coming.

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

perfume of clove,

oil of bergamot

essence of rose

Lulled into

well being

content to remain

to greet the dew

of a new day.

Shobha Vanchiswar

Note: ( I’m SO excited to be in this!) You are cordially invited to attend the opening reception of the art show on Thursday August 3rd from 5-7pm. The Manhattan Borough President’s Offices are on the 19th Floor at 1 Center Street, NYC. If you can come, please send me your names for the list that will be supplied to the security desk by Tuesday August 1 at 4pm. You will need to check in with picture ID at the security desk in the lobby.
The show continues until Thursday, August 31. Visitor hours are Monday through Friday, 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. 

And now, I unapologetically present to you the current state of my garden –

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar