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

Gardens Are Just Like Babies

Time and again, it has occurred to me that our relationship to our gardens parallel those we have have with our children. As special as we hold ones progeny in our hearts, if one were to be honest, the garden’s position seems to be no less to a true gardener. Lest you protest, let me state my case. However, I do believe you already know and concur my declaration to be true.

From the onset, yearning, planning, preparing for a garden is fraught with dreams, anxiety, excitement and impatience. All along, one receives lots of unsolicited advice and cautions about the endeavor. While there is a glut of information about the hows and whys, there is no exact blueprint or handbook – the creation and ‘upbringing’ of each garden is unique. They are all special.

As a gardener embarks on this venture and forever after, she/he does so with a level of insecurity matched only by the neediness for constant approval. We are infinitely cheered by any and all praise. Even the slightest hint of criticism is met with an unduly high degree of defensiveness. Yet, a gardener is always on the look out for counsel and advice that must by necessity confirm and condone his/her own current practices.

Gardening is both exhilarating and exhausting. We seem to consistently forget how hard the work is and create them anyway. We make sacrifices with our time, energy and money, put in long hours and provide constant care and attention often at risk to ones own health and well-being.

Gardening can be expensive but we are willing to shell out – after all, only the best we can provide will do. We indulge in providing for its needs generously, While we may complain about the work, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The business of tending the garden comes with enough variety to keep matters interesting. We make excuses when the garden is not up to snuff and yet, we are inordinately proud of it. As the garden grows, the work doesn’t let up; it merely changes to keep up with the new demands. We worry about our gardens endlessly. Even whilst away from it, there is the non-stop concern about how it is faring. We are well aware that merely looking away seems to give a garden license to get itself in trouble.

How a garden flourishes is taken as a direct reflection on ourselves. It is all taken personally. When it comes to how ones garden performs or is perceived, we are an acutely sensitive lot.

We love to talk about our gardens ad nauseam and consider them better than all others. Apparently a certain selective blindness afflicts all gardeners.

We judge other gardeners by how their gardens look and at the same time, we form amongst ourselves a support system so we can vent and cheer each other on.

Finally, we draw immeasurable satisfaction from raising a garden. There is nothing else quite like it. No wait, having and raising babies is exactly like that.

Note: The photos below are the creation of a community garden I designed some years ago .

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

February Fervor

February Fervor

Golden sunsets

part leaden skies

Frost and fire

earth shifts and sighs.

 

Wild, untamed

landscapes wait

Restless slumber

at Spring’s gate.

 

Crystal snow

melts in drips

Plumping roots

greening tips.

 

Flowing sap

send hearts aflutter

Weather and emotions

soar and splutter.

  • Shobha Vanchiswar

I’m dreaming of spring! Enjoy a few of the images from late February 2017 –

(c) 2018 Shobha Shobha

Learning Extension

Heading into February and winter feels soooo long! I’m itching to get going in the garden but that’s not going to happen for another two months. So, besides dreaming and planning, what’s a gardener to do? This is what I call my time to enrich my horticultural knowledge so I can garden smarter.

The Winter Lecture Series at the New York Botanical Gardens is one I look forward to eagerly. I’ve had the pleasure of listening to some truly impressive horticultural giants and I’ve learned so much from each. Coming up next in this year’s series is Arne Maynard – I’ve followed his work for years and can’t wait to hear him in person. Tickets can go fast so book early!

Bonus – In attending these lectures, you often get to see several garden world glitterati also in attendance. See, they too value such talks.

Next, I use the winter to catch up on the pile of garden magazines for which I had no time during the growing season. Apart from our own excellent American publications, I subscribe to a few from other countries. It’s nice to keep up with research, new practices and trends all over the world.

Bonus- The gorgeous photographs will keep you excited and make you up your ante in your own garden. Nothing like a firm yet subtle nudge to reach higher.

Extra bonus for reading magazines very late – When magazines arrive, they typically offer articles pertaining to the moment/month/season at hand. While they might be inspiring, it’s too late to act on the information for the present. Frankly, despite any notes I might make, I cannot expect myself to remember to refer to them or summon the same level of enthusiasm when the next appropriate time to act comes around. Unlike fashion magazines, new developments, trends and information in gardening are not short-lived. By reading the publications in winter, I have the luxury of time to immediately research the resources, plan, design, set up appointments with professionals such as masons and tree experts and order plants, tools and such. When spring rolls up, I’m all ready to go.

Visiting public gardens and conservatories both locally and in my winter travels/escapes is still an additional way to see and learn. Taking the time to observe means I really get to understand how and why specific designs and plants work.

Bonus – Lingering in the warm, humid conservatories that are often fragrant to boot, is wonderfully therapeutic. Almost, as though I went to a spa. My mind and skin emerge nourished.

Finally, this year, I’ve decided to do something about the occupational hazards of gardening. I’m talking about those aches and pains that arise from the physical demands of the innumerable tasks in the garden. And over the years, chronic pain is a real hindrance for many gardeners. So, this past weekend, I’ve registered with my local Continuing Education center for a course in the Alexander technique which is all about un-learning the way we typically move to do routine tasks and instead re-learn how to do them so we do not keep hurting ourselves. Moving smarter.

Bonus – I’m looking forward to meeting people in this class with whom I can share stories about my aches and pains.

Now, how are you whiling away your winter?

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Tips In The Thaw

So, from temperatures suitable to the tundra we went to spring over the weekend. On Saturday, the thermometer outside my kitchen window registered a solid 55 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s expected to creep up to 57 today. Kinda crazy but oh so welcome. Puts me in a Spring frame of mind.

While I have no idea how these impressive fluctuations in temperature will affect the plants, I’m staying optimistic. After all, it’s in the plant’s best interest to survive. However, I do fervently wish the garden pests are not that determined and succumb to the stress of the cold. What a boon that would be.

This blast of balmy weather has got my sap flowing and I’m corralling my plant catalogs, garden magazines, photographs and notes made on assorted pieces of paper. Dreams must be examined and turned into reality one hopes. New plants to source and their residency in the garden determined. At this stage of the planning, I’m naturally delusional and write up a wish list that only a garden the size of Versailles could accommodate. I’m aware of this but it’s so much fun to dream. Reality will hit all to soon and that list will ultimately fit on a Post-It.

In the UK, that mecca of gardens and gardeners, they are ahead of us by a couple of months. Some are already talking about noting emerging buds on shrubs and such. Snowdrops are in bloom! Meanwhile, here in New York, I cast my eyes around my modest, snow clad garden and there’s nary a sign of anything. Sigh. However, it’s all a matter of time. Here too spring will arrive. In any case, it’s the anticipation that truly excites. Planning at this time is the perfect way to enjoy the wait. Of course, being prepared means we can get started on the garden as soon as possible.

It is not simply about plants and designing /redesigning borders. To be honest, I’m not looking to do anything drastic or dramatic this year. Some additions, a little tweaking and a whole lot of TLC. I’m always looking to learn new, improved methods and practices. To garden smarter.

So far, I’ve come up with two tips to ease my work and still be eco-friendly. The first has to do with my vegetable bed. This is a small rectangle in the herb garden that largely supports cool weather greens as it gets only a limited amount of sunlight. Shade notwithstanding, weeds still thrive in this compost enriched area and it’s a real nuisance to keep up with them.

This year, I’m going to try the “ stale seed bed method. The area is first cultivated and then, instead of sowing right away, the bed is cultivated repeatedly – once a day for two weeks. As mine is a small space, it will not be as much work as it sounds. What this practice does is eliminate weeds whose seeds might have been embedded from the previous year and other pests like slugs. It’s starting from zero so to speak.

The second tip concerns my boxwoods. Those in the ground and the ones wintering in pots in the greenhouse will be pruned earlier than usual – in early to mid- March when fungal spores are not active. The cuttings will not be composted – instead they will be tossed away with the garbage. Keeping a bucket of a solution of vinegar handy means periodically dunking the pruners to sterilize them. Boxwood blight is a real threat and being scrupulously clean is imperative.

I will keep you posted about how these two applications work out. Should you try them yourself, please share your experience as well. Remember – we’re stronger together.

Note: As we’re dreaming of spring, here some watercolor renditions of spring blooms. The real ones will be visible soon enough! Enjoy.

FYI – some of these images are available in note cards and/or on fabric related products  ‘The Printed Garden’. Do check out shop.

Yardage is available on spoonflower.com .

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

January Jubilation

We’re already half-way into January – where did the time go?! It’s as though the new year was welcomed only yesterday. Yet, the record low temperatures we’re experiencing has made the days seem slow. Apart from a brief spike in temperature towards the end the last week, it really has been unbearably cold. On the up side, this has made me turn to the indoors. I’m reorganizing and rearranging. During the course of the years, so much in the house goes by the way side when engaged in the purpose of living. Now is the perfect time to look around and take stock of all those neglected tasks. A lick of paint, a spot of cleaning, some repair, a few replacements and a whole lot of editing. I’m cleaning up and paring down. In getting rid of anything that is no longer useful and re-purposing other items to serve me the way I now live, I’m giving my home up to my speed. Nothing dramatic or elaborate but significant to me nonetheless. Taking on this ‘project’ is infusing me with an enormous dose of enthusiasm. The sense of aligning the home space to one’s current lifestyle is pure bliss.

That doesn’t mean I’m not looking outside. I gaze at the garden in winter from the windows and whenever I’m feeling brave enough, the occasional turn in the garden itself. It is garden-dreaming season after all. The bones of the garden show up clearly in winter. And for the most part, I’m liking what I see. There is sufficient visual interest. The espalier of fruit trees takes on the role of a dominant sculpture. “Wind Song”, the sculpture seems to come alive as it reflects and fractures the light that hits it. And on windy days, it appears to mimic the swaying boughs and branches.

Viewed from the kitchen window one storey above, the potager looks as though it belongs in a cloister – orderly and graceful, waiting to serve again. Along the driveway, the vertical garden hangs as a large piece of abstract art. The whispering sounds of the now dry fronds of ferns add another experiential element in the viewing of it.

In the checkerboard garden, the smooth, white coating of snow on the squares of stone contrast beautifully with the bumpy, dark and light flecked squares of creeping phlox.

Cleared of snow, the walkway looks like a zipper running between the sheet of snow inviting passage to the shelter of the house.

Finally, lets not miss the shadows cast on the snow by the low winter sun. Oh the shapes and forms interweaving between trees and trellis! They move – growing and receding with the day. A slow, certain dance to the silent music of light.

Ah January, you offer up such quiet joy.

Note: I’ve been very inspired by the winter landscape so enjoy the photos and a couple of recent paintings!

Watercolor ‘Winter Shadows”

Watercolor – ‘Winter Pas De Deux’

(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

10 Cold, Hard Truths About Gardening

I’ve been gardening one way or other for most of my life. So it stands to reason that I’ve learned a lot, done a lot and, failed more than I care to remember. Here is what I wish someone had told me before some of those mistakes were made:

1. Set your expectations low. When you do that, everything appears as a success.

2. Max out your pots, window-boxes and urns with seasonal annuals. They will scream so much for attention that nobody will notice the perennial beds overrun with weeds and bereft of whatever was supposed to be blooming that day.

3. Beware other gardeners bearing gifts. We are notorious for sharing – mostly those plants that tend to run hog wild.

4. You are not supreme commander of your garden. The squirrels own that title. They will dig up, munch on, toss up and vandalize right before your visitors are set to arrive.

5. Never tell anybody that your magnolias/tulips/roses/peonies/lilies/irises/any other plant are about to burst into flower. As soon as you do that, an animal, child or act of nature will destroy the entire batch of buds.

6. Pets like dogs should be banned from gardens. Do not listen to anybody who says otherwise. Dogs will dig up beds, kill the lawn with their urine, chase away good creatures like birds, openly use the garden as self-appointed canine fertilizers, somehow make friends with your enemies the squirrels and deer and select your prize patch of jack-in-the-pulpits as their nap station. Please do not write saying otherwise – I will not be dissuaded. I absolutely adore dogs but refuse allow them in my garden. Period.

7. Always buy two of every tool. Keep one set hidden – that set is solely for your own use. Don’t tell anyone about it. The other set of tools are kept out for the use all ( aka those who lose and/or abuse the tools). You will look like a good sharer and will keep your sanity at the same time.

8. Invest in a good manicure and blow-out the day before you have visitors to your garden. You will look and feel good and your guests will marvel at how you create such an amazing paradise whilst looking so flawless. Smile and graciously accept all the compliments.

9. Get children to help. No, really. Their small hands can pull out emerging weeds more easily than your own large paws. Similarly, they can deadhead pretty thoroughly too. The child with the largest harvest of weeds and/or dead flowers gets an extra scoop of ice-cream. Caveat – be sure you have taught them to identify the weed or else they will remove all your nascent self-seeders like columbines, cleomes, forget-me-nots and such.

10. Gardening is bloody hard work.

Note: Do visit this show!

December 11 − December 22
Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.;
Saturday and Sunday: 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Art Students League: The Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery
 
Enjoy some of my December-thus-far photos:

First snow of this winter

(c) 2017 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

Grow And Give

Stop Press! I’m in the NY Times!

Thanksgiving! I love this holiday. It elevates the concept of everyday gratitude to a national celebration. It also makes us accountable – how has the year been and how have we made the best of it? This holiday is an annual reminder that one ought to make every day matter. In doing so, we experience personal growth and consequently, have more to offer to the world.

The garden inevitably teaches me how to deal with the highs and lows. Adverse conditions like high heat, storms, drought and such might stunt or stop the plants from growing but, they take it in stride. As soon as the circumstances improve or let up they rally back and push forward. A shrub loses a good portion of itself in an ice-storm and the remaining part will compensate and thrive till the plant is restored and whole once more. A tree topples over in high winds causing some damage to the garden but the exposure to more sunlight promotes fresh plant growth and new opportunities to the gardener while the fallen tree itself enriches the soil as it decays and offers itself up to all sorts flora and fauna.

When the going is good, the garden provides an abundance that one must share. Be it inviting folk to came and enjoy the garden in full glory to taking a bunch of flowers to cheer up a neighbor or donating produce to a food bank. We give our thanks in actions.

The garden has been put to bed but accommodations have been provided for critters such as toads, butterflies, birds and bees ( and in all probability mice ) by way of the compost pile, some corners with leaf litter and/or wood piles, brambly shrubs near the woods and other sheltered hideaways.

On my part, I am grateful for so much. From monumental stuff like my family growing by the arrival of a second great-niece, launching my ‘Printed Garden’ collection, evolving in my art and participating in a record number of shows both solo and group, my poem being read at a community event, my efforts as a gardener getting recognition in the New York Times ( admittedly, I’m really kicked about this!), zip-lining over the rain-forests in Costa Rica to seemingly minor but no less significant events like vacations, reunions with family and friends, coaxing a finicky plant to flourish, reading some good books, seeing an amazing play, making new friends, discovering a new, now favorite restaurant, the list is actually endless.

That’s not to forget how much loss and suffering there has been nationally and internationally. I’m dropping off supplies for a few Thanksgiving meals at my local food pantry, shopping locally, renewing memberships to museums and botanical gardens, donating to the Red Cross, Salvation Army and to http://www.visitcalifornia.com/attraction/grateful-table . This last one helps the vineyards devastated by the fires in northern California. In giving, we grow.

A very happy, abundant Thanksgiving to each of you.

Enjoy the pictures of seasonal abundance:

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar