As The World Turns

Sheltering at home and garden feels different. It is not the same as when one chooses to spend time cocooning at home. While our homes continue to offer refuge in this difficult period, we are not living out our days in quite the same way. Having to be home at all times, working from home, coordinating schedules with those we live with, no possibility of going anywhere, making do with what groceries are available at the stores, are all situations we’re adjusting to. Some things are easy and others more challenging. Still, despite all the limitations, I, for one, feel very blessed. Not in a virtuous, martyr-ish way – but simply being realistic and aware of my privilege.

I cannot possibly have any complaints. For goodness sakes, I have a garden to work in! That is a high advantage that I’m acutely aware of as increasingly, more public gardens and gardens are being closed. Far too many are restricted to small, cramped spaces in the city with only windows and, with any luck, balconies to lean out of to catch some sun and fresh air.

Once I’ve accomplished my work related and domestic tasks of the day, the garden is where I seek to pass my time. Chores that were done with the a certain degree of haste because other matters/appointments awaited, are now given due attention and time. Be it planting or fixing or watering, everything has taken on deeper meaning and connection.

I’d ordered a self-pollinating persimmon tree a while back – it was delivered last week. A couple of decades ago, I’d planted an American persimmon with intentions to train it into a candelabra style espalier against the southern wall of the house. The tree grew but failed to produce because there did not exist another persimmon anywhere in the neighborhood – no cross-pollination was possible. I blame myself for letting the seller assure me that I didn’t need another persimmon to get fruit. I should’ve known better. Instead I wanted to get on with my project so badly that I accepted what I wanted to believe.

That tree was subsequently disposed off and the whole project forgotten. Soon, a tree peony occupied its place.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago. I discovered the existence of a new Japanese-American hybrid that has the best traits of each nationality (persimmon-wise) and is truly self-pollinating. I immediately ordered it from Logee’s Greenhouse. Once the very young plant arrived, I gave it a few days to recover from its journey before giving it a permanent home.

If this were a business as usual time, the persimmon would’ve been plonked down in any open space along the fence of the lower garden. It’s sole purpose being to provide fruit. Instead, this past Saturday, the tree peony was dug up and replanted near by – its very long roots had to be trimmed a bit so fingers crossed it didn’t mind the amputation. It is after all a plant dear to my heart – Hennriette Suhr gave it to me and I love floating the heavy, multi-petaled flowers in a bowl to show-off their beauty. I will keep a watchful eye on it.

The new tree was planted in the old persimmon’s place so the espalier project is back on. All the wire guides to train the branches from years ago are still in place as though they fully expected to be called back into service.

Similarly, there were some heuchera I’d purchased on my mad plant shopping spree the same day that stay-at-home was mandated. They sat waiting while the watering system to the vertical garden was restarted and deemed functioning well. Again, I took the time to not only clean off all of the soil from the roots of each heuchera( the plants on the wall are grown hydroponically) but, I also worked to carefully divide the plants to get several more plants for the wall.

All of this might sound trivial. Even frivolous. But really, not only did the work get done with attention, thought and purpose, for the time each task took, the mind was focused and relaxed. Two things that are getting rather difficult to do during these stressful days.

With more people taking daily walks/strolls, I see many neighbors on the street. It’s been gratifying to exchange greetings and news – albeit from the required distance. We – old and new, are all being more neighborly. To give those passing my home a reason to smile, I set up a collection of pots of daffodils and pansies right by the road. After all, those flowers will disarm any grump and uplift any heart feeling the weight of the times. Even if its fleeting, every bit of cheer matters.

These days of sheltering are instructive. I’m relearning to give my garden the right amount of attention it deserves. I’m paying attention to not just what is dry but how dry before I water. This serves to conserve water as well as provide the plants with only what they need. I’d become too busy to start seeds in recent years. There are several flats of seeds sown currently – of flowers and vegetables. I’ve rediscovered the joy of this fundamental act of gardening.

Things that I might have easily replaced for lack of time, are now being fixed instead. All non-essential shopping is to be avoided after all. Over all, many more hours are whiled away working in the garden and it is mighty satisfying. Like it used to be before I got too busy. I’m sure things will not stay this way forever but I’m also sure I cannot let myself get that busy again. These days are guiding me how to strike a healthier, happier balance.

The garden provides with enough distraction that when I’m in it, my mind completely shuts out the news and fears in the world. Unlike a movie which also provides some escape, at the end of my time in the garden, I have accomplished some necessary tasks, got a bit of physical activity, relaxed my mind, soaked in some sun, breathed fresh air and allowed nature to provide much needed therapy to my spirit. Priceless.

Pots by the street

New Persimmon hybrid – Nikita’s Choice

Heuchera in the wall garden. Ferns will go in shortly.

Forced hyacinths in a ‘cage’ of pussy willow.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Life Deconstructed

So here we are. Living our days in an unfamiliar, uncertain atmosphere. It’s not easy when so much feels well beyond our control. I’ve categorically decided to pay attention to what is in my control. Managing myself, my work, my home, my garden – oftentimes, it is all one and the same.

I listen to Governor Cuomo’s updates every morning and then stay away from the flood of news. It’s simply too much.

Gardening began in earnest last week. While it was colder than desired, working outdoors in the bright sunshine was restorative and uplifting. Birdsong and crocuses, scillas, hellebores and ipheions in bloom kept me company as I went about clearing, planting and potting up. Last Friday, I got word that nurseries were going to have to close up shop because all non-essential businesses were mandated to do so. I know what you’re thinking – but those nurseries are necessary for the garden and hence, our very sanity! All kidding aside, while I understood the ruling, it galvanized me into action. Okay, so my daughter chose to say I went into a kind of shopper’s mad frenzy.

I went to my favorite local nursery and loaded up on plants, potting soil, seeds etc., Because it is early in the season, the inventory was not large. However, I could see that we weren’t likely to have any plants to buy in the foreseeable future – I mentally changed certain design plans and picked up alternatives to try out. Taking this as a challenge of sorts, I pulled my mind out of a fixed vision and opened it up to new possibilities. After all, if things don’t turn out great, there’s a certain vicious virus I can blame.

Underlying my frenzied buying, was the fact that all inventory not sold would in all likelihood go to waste. Such a shame no? But even more heartbreaking is that the employees at the nursery, who over the years have become my dear friends would be unemployed/unpaid. I was truly emotional about this. The growers who’d been preparing all winter for the spring would also have to face colossal financial loss. How many businesses will go under is frightening to think about. Not being able to do anything but buy all that I could was frustrating. Unfortunately, there will be such casualties in practically every industry.

Having brought home more than I’d ever planned, the weekend was spent totally in the garden. With the college student home, the extra pair of hands was very welcome. The child who once groaned at being given garden chores was actually happy to do whatever was needed. She weeded, re-potted, moved things, planted, watered – all in good cheer. I think that another generation has become an avid gardener!

We raked and reseeded the tiny front lawn, fixed some hardscape stuff, added several perennials in the front beds as well as the herb garden. The very large pots were brought out of storage, filled with fresh soil and planted with pansies and daffodils – when it is warm enough, the bay standards will emerge from the greenhouse and settle into them for the growing seasons. I have to say it felt particularly life affirming and gratifying. Nature applied her healing balm on my heart.

[ Having done all that work, it snowed all of yesterday. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or scream. Eventually, I did neither. Shrugged my shoulders – what will be will be. In the grand scheme …]

On my visit to the nursery, I’d bought extra flats of pansies and very young daffodils. Sunday afternoon, I potted up combinations of those in an assortment of containers. They will be distributed to friends and neighbors who are either immnuno-compromised and/or elderly and living alone. Simply spreading some much needed spring cheer. It feels so inadequate but I know every little bit of support and help makes a difference. I want the recipients to know they matter to us, their community.

As I did my garden work, I thought about the strange time we’re in. This social distancing and staying home has opened up opportunities to connect to each other – our families, friends, neighbors and community. With no place to go we have time to listen, to observe, to share, to reach out. Each task I do, I find myself doing it mindfully – there is, after all, no rush. We’re now so much more aware of our inherent need for social bonds.

This is our moment to be our better selves. To be the person our mothers raised us to be. Or, to be the person your dog things you are.

Flowers always make people better, happier and more hopeful: they are sunshine, food and medicine to the soul.”- Botanist Luther Burbank

Note: The images are in reverse order! I’m having a small technical issue.

Most of the haul from the nursery

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Staying Calm And Staying Home

How much has changed in one week. It has been so fast paced that it’s taken me a while to really consider our shared situation and come to terms with it. These are unprecedented times and it calls for unprecedented action. Social distancing, self-isolation, preparing for ‘just-in-case’, working from home (if possible), staying home all together – all new to most of us. For myself, working from home is normal but everything else is a challenge. However, I’m resolute in rising to the occasion. There is no choice. If not now, then when?

All of a sudden, the world is no longer as we know it. From people going on shopping frenzies to hoard up on everything including the kitchen sink to price gouging on essential products, to all cultural centers and performances coming to a halt to cavalier folks who don’t care about the community risks they present, it can be a little too scary and upsetting. Take a nice, long deep breath. Exhale slowly. Keep your calm. Together, we shall overcome.

Here is how I see it. We must all do our part for the sake of our family, our neighborhood, our town, our state, our nation , our planet. This might sound trite but in reality, it is pretty much what we must do. That said, I, along with my family, are socially distancing ourselves. It’s an adjustment. To have a full house with each one needing space to work in quiet itself is not easy. When one is on a conference call, the others must remain quiet. When the musician can be practice, the dinner prepared, a workout done to motivating music and such, require thoughtful coordination. We called a family meeting and after much talk, the conclusion was that each of us promise to help, support and behave ourselves. Nothing earth shattering. Simple kindness and consideration is in high demand at home and elsewhere. A sense of humor is a bonus. Admittedly, it is easy for the humor to turn dark.

Work is all very well. But how are we going to use our down time? Right off, suggestions for movies and TV shows pour forth. And thank goodness for this entertainment option. With nowhere to go, Netflix, Hulu, Apple, Amazon Prime etc., are godsends. The big mountain of books waiting for readers can now be conquered. Board games and puzzles are on the ready.

We’ve made a list of home projects (room by room) – what, when and by whom put down. I need the element of accountability. For myself there is the all-important creativity of painting and writing projects, the drudge of paperwork, recipes to try, business ideas to flesh out. But most importantly, there is the garden.

I’m so very grateful that whatever we are all currently facing is happening right now and not at any other time of year. Spring is officially starting this Thursday and crocuses have joined the hellebores in the garden. Nothing like the sight of the flowers to lift the spirits. Just as the news got dire, the crocuses started popping up as if on cue. The white forsythia is in full bloom too. Every day is adding more color to the landscape. Hallelujah! Spring is all about hope and good things to come.

A quick visit to my favorite nursery last Saturday paid off nicely. I got what I needed to put up the spring window-boxes. The daffodils and tete-a-tetes are still very young but should be trumpeting loudly by Passover/Easter. In the meantime, the mango hued pansies will carry the ensemble nicely. That simple activity cheered me up no end.

I also pulled out the last of the hyacinths and crocuses cooling in the refrigerator and potted them up. In a couple of weeks its going to be hyacinth heaven indoors.

Some of the nursery daffodils have a separate purpose. I’m going to pot them up to drop off at friends who are living alone and/or do not dare get out into the world because of immune-compromised health. For sure they could use some flower power.

On the subject of thinking about helping ones community, I got word that there is a need in my town for Meals-On-Wheels driver/volunteers. My daughter, now home from college ( for the foreseeable future) has responded to this call. I believe that college students can play a vital role during this Covid-19 crisis. They are less vulnerable, amply capable, familiar with their towns and able to do many things that put older volunteers at risk. Just putting it out there.

Similarly, restaurants have closed but take-out and delivery is being offered. A couple of meals from such businesses per week will help those businesses – they are not just hurting but actually hemorrhaging. Our support is desperately needed.

Lets look for additional ways to help our communities, each other. Doing something that serves a cause is a guaranteed to make our days better. When I’m busy doing positive, productive things, there’s simply no time for fear, panic or boredom.

In addition to spending time working in the garden which itself is so healing, I’m determined to go walking for a minimum of 30 minutes every day. Fresh air and sunshine are proven health boosters. We all know this. But in case you’re feeling particularly attached to the couch, think about this – during the Spanish flu pandemic, patients treated outdoors (the overflow of patients in San Fransisco for example) did far better than those cared for indoors.

Explore the State and county Parks (NY has waived all entry fees) and visit our many beautiful public gardens. They are open, never overly crowded and absolutely just what our bodies, minds and spirits need.

Stay safe, be well everybody. We’re in this together.

P.S – Please feel free to reach out, share tips and ideas or, just your thoughts. Or at least a joke! We must stay connected.

Scenes from my garden at present –

More snowdrops coming through

Forcing hyacinths

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Color Mad!

This week sure feels like spring! Colors are going to pop any moment. It is the one time of year when we’re all hungering for the entire spectrum of hues. In any mad combinations. It all looks lovely and joyous. What we’d never consider pairing in our clothing selections, look just spectacular in nature. Tasteful, subtle, elegant be damned. Give me loud, bold and gaudy. My eyes have been starved long enough, let the visual feasting begin.

Yeah, I know, the show hasn’t yet begun but this mild weather means it’ll burst upon us soon. I’m putting the brakes on my fears about too early a spring just so I’m at liberty to fully enjoy the flowers whenever they bloom. It isn’t their fault after all.

I’m going about the seasonal chores even though the temperatures give the feeling I’m somehow lagging behind. Normally, when I cut back old hellebore leaves, prune the roses etc., I’m wearing jacket and heavy gloves. Not this year. T-shirt and thin garden gloves feel just about right. Some years, I’ve even stood in several inches of snow to get the jobs done. Alas, barely any snow at all this winter. Scary for sure. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

However, that’s beside the point at present. I’m eager for color. I’ll wager you are as well. So, while we await impatiently for our gardens to start the show, I’m happy to share some pigment saturated photographs from my very recent ( two weeks ago!) trip to India.

FYI – coincidentally and appropriately, today is also the Indian festival of Holi when spring is celebrated with everybody playing and spraying color on each other with wild abandon. It is crazy fun!

Unleash your inner child’s color madness. It’ll do you a world of good. Particularly when there is so much other sort of madness whirling around out there.

Note: For your calendar – my garden’s Open Day is May 16.

Also, on July 26, through the Garden Conservancy’s Digging Deeper Program, you can learn all about espalier and vertical gardening at my garden. Register early as space is limited!

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

February Finale

The month is drawing to a close and I can hardly stand the anticipation for spring. Unlike other years, this has been a particularly mild winter. Franky, I’ve missed the snow and polar vortex. I miss normal. Yet, it’s hard to stay unaffected by all the early signals of spring. Makes me feel the need to fast forward the to-do list for spring garden chores. Yet, that voice of reason in my head whispers Not so fast – winter just might decide to make a big comeback with all the drama and power we know she’s capable of.

I’m doing my best to listen to that caution. List is on hand, plans are set, plants sourced, aspirations declared. Now, it is simply a matter of waiting. All in good time. I really don’t mind waiting as I worry that an early spring could be cut short by an early, protracted summer. That’s not good at all. We’d have to relearn gardening as we know it.

It might well be that, the inevitable, the unavoidable, the unthinkable has already arrived and settled in. Climate change has begun and we’d best acknowledge it. Gardeners are after all , the first responders of the horticultural world. This is a call to unite, act, impact, influence, protect. The moment is nigh.

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

Note: Just to make a point, I offer no images this week. Imagine a world without flowers or fruit. No beautiful gardens. If we don’t do the right thing, that’ll become a reality.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Nesting Instinct

It is officially Fall. Despite my attempts to be in summer mode, I’ve begun the retreat – preparing the nest for cold, short days and long nights ahead. As though in response to a primeval instinct, it happens naturally.

It began with a huge harvest of arugula. Adding the leaves in salads alone wouldn’t be the best use so I decided to make pesto. Lacking in pine nuts, I used cashews and it turned out that they tempered the bitterness of the arugula just perfectly. Goes well with pasta, sandwiches, soups and anything that needs a little oomph. I made enough to freeze a couple of jars for the winter.

This week, I’m harvesting all the basil. So there will be plenty of basil pesto to freeze as well.

Unable to resist the peaches from a farm stand, I bought a whole bushel. Several disappeared on the drive home. A couple of pies got made and consumed with impressive alacrity. At present, a few jars of freshly made preserves sit twinkling like jewels. Flavored with Pinot Noir and cinnamon, they are a notch above the usual jam I make. Sounds rather posh and grown-up right? I’m already looking forward to Sunday breakfasts of toast slathered with butter and this preserve with strong hot coffee while I gaze at the winter landscape outside.

In a couple of weeks, I’m anticipating making and canning sauce with the last of the tomatoes. This comes in handy for so many meals. Knowing the fruit and herbs come from the garden always gets me planning for the next growing season.

I stopped at my favorite local nursery last Saturday because I’d got word that the shipment of fall pumpkins and gourds had just arrived. What a display greeted the customers! I had such fun making my selections.

I also picked up a whole bunch of hyacinth bulbs for cooling – they will be ready for forcing just ahead of the new year. In another couple of weeks, I intend to get some more to keep the show of indoor hyacinths going through the bleak days of February. That month always needs serious brightening and I want to be ready.

A box of paperwhites sat looking pretty right by the cashier so, I picked up some of those as well. They will soon be in bloom to herald the retreat to the indoors. The chill in the morning says those days are not too far off.

Over the weekend, I brought in a huge amount of hydrangea flowers from the garden. Just turning a rosy blush, they sit resplendent in an urn where I can enjoy them as they dry.

And then, last Sunday, in the shadow of the sculpture ‘Wavehenge’ that marks the solstices and equinoxes, I participated in an event to celebrate the Autumnal Equinox at Riverside Park in New York City. I was one of three poets invited to read poems associated with the season. A definitive acknowledgement of summer’s end.

Yes, fall has arrived and I am embracing it. But, just like the bees and butterflies still working in the garden, I’m not totally done with summer. I’m just content knowing my nest awaits in readiness.

Note: I hope you’ve bought your tickets to the Untermyer Symposium’ Restoring Gardens’. I’d love to see you there.

The ‘Walk In Our Shoes’ art show is on till September 30. Do stop by and see!

“Wavehenge” at Riverside Park North at 145th, NYC
Reading my poem
Pumpkins and gourds galore at Rosedale Nurseries in Thornwood, NY
My selection
My haul of hyacinths for forcing
Paperwhites in place
Monarch butterfly gracing the asters
Hydrangea heaven
Peach preserves

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Back In The Garden

The weather this past weekend was nothing short of stellar. It could not be beat. Bright and sparkly, low humidity, temperatures in the low 70’s. After two weeks in rain soaked Mumbai, this was quite literally a breath of fresh air. What an amazing homecoming.

Taking advantage of this gift, I visited Stonecrop Gardens in Cold Spring, NY on Saturday. If you’ve never been, you must. It was Frank Cabot’s home – yes, the man who helped found the Garden Conservancy. You can read all about this garden on their website. It’s quite a gem.

Summer’s end is not typically the best time to visit most gardens. But I was in need of it. Inspiration is always to be found and I was not disappointed. Big splashes of summer color and a seasonal untidiness abounded. I loved the fullness of the plantings everywhere. The realities of the season made apparent by burgeoning seed-heads, flamboyant flowers, plants jostling for space in their beds and a certain wildness to it all. This was Life at full throttle. In contrast, the verdant quietude found in the wisteria pavilion by the pond provided that pause to breathe deeply and free the mind from quotidian worries.

In walking around, I realized that the high point for me, was the general end-of-season mess and the sight of the ravaged leaves of kale and other plants. Critter(s) had gone to town and riddled the leaves so they looked like badly made lace antimacassars. I found that very comforting because it made me feel like my own garden was in good company. This is the reality. If you’re using organic methods, one cannot have a pristine, near perfect, neat and tidy garden at the close of the summer. Given the strange spring and summer we have had, it’s been particularly difficult to manage the garden as one has in years past. Weather fluctuations have been so erratic that my expectations were lowered sufficiently to protect my ego from too much injury.

By observing how lovely Stonecrop looked despite everything made me see my own garden with kinder eyes and appreciation.

Energized by that visit, on Sunday, I whipped the garden into better shape. A little cosmetic fiddling goes a long way. Weeding, deadheading, pruning and a general tidying up did wonders. I revamped the window-boxes and other urns and pots with a bit of tropical flair that I can only explain as the influence of my recent sojourn to India. Traveling has that impact doesn’t it?

And now, I’m set to enjoy the remaining weeks of summer with renewed enthusiasm. Salut!

Chilies in the window boxes
Pruned back espalier
Last rose(s) of summer?
Lemons
Note the banana plants standing sentry
New batch of cool weather greens
The meadow
Pink turtleheads in the meadow
Party ready

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Just July

Our house is taken in possession

By him, while he enjoys a rest

July, with summer air and thunder-

He is our temporary guest.

July, who scatters from his pockets

The fluff of blow-balls in a cloud,

Who enters through the open window,

Who chatters to himself aloud,

Unkempt, untidy, absent-minded,

Soaked through with smell of oil and rye,

With linden-blossom, grass and beet-leaves,

The meadow-scented month July.”

‘July’ by Boris Pasternak

July is coming to a close and what a month it has been in the garden. Hot, messy and erratic. That poem by Pasternak describes it so well.

Dictated by the weather, I’ve been negligent of my garden duties. It’s just really hard to get outside and work when merely standing still brings on the sweat and sends out irresistible invites to all the biting bugs near and far. Consequently, the chores get done in fits and starts, bits and pieces. A little weeding here, some deadheading there. The automatic watering system set up for the pots broke down and needed fixing – mercifully, the preceding days had been wet so the plants were relatively unharmed.

The heat wave put paid to the plants in the pots on the wall on the side terrace. Despite the daily watering, they simply could not take those high temperatures. I’ve decided to empty out the pots and not replant. With a very busy August schedule coming up, it’s time to simplify matters somewhat.

They say this June was the hottest one in recent history and July is turning out to match it. Who knows what August will do.

Sunflowers have appeared as happy surprises in one of the large bay standard pots. A lone sunflower grew in the vertical garden. I’d stopped planting lilies a few years ago because I lost the battle with the red lily beetles. Well, as though waking up after a long slumber, a couple of lily plants re-emerged this summer. Their leaves are ugly and chewed up but the flowers look fine and are busy perfuming the front garden.

The garden might look a bit unruly but it is fragrance heaven. Lilies in front soon to be followed by phlox, gardenias and orange-blossoms on the side and jasmine in the back. Heaven.

The meadow has been in serious need of attention. First, the jewelweed took advantage of my apathy and spread itself all over. Once they were deliberately reduced to more manageable numbers, a nettle of the sting-less variety moved in with a vengeance. It needs to be completely and ruthlessly removed all together. It’s been a real task trying to help the many new plants planted in late spring establish themselves. Fingers crossed …

The hydrangea are in bloom – they provide much needed color in the meadow right now. Elsewhere, the Echinacea in their brightness are drawing the pollinators. I really ought to plant more of these stalwarts and get rid of the fussy, finicky members of the garden. With harsh weather becoming the new normal, it behooves a gardener to rethink the plantings.

Tomato season has begun. We’re enjoying the golden cherry tomatoes and savoring the bigger varieties as they ripen. At this stage, each fruit is precious. Soon, there will be a glut and we’ll take them for granted as we make soups, salads and sauces.

It’s so easy to obsess over the disheveled state of the garden, complain about the heat in July. But, looking around, amidst the green jungle, I see heroic flowers splashing color and fragrance all over. The herbs, leafy greens and, early tomatoes grace our meals. Ripening grapes and pears hold the promise of an autumn harvest. The asters are coming up strong for a good showing to close out the summer.

Under stressful circumstances, the garden is working hard to deliver. I must move to do the same.

Note: Consider yourself invited –

My July garden –

Lilies. Note the hole-riddled leaves.
Echinacea
Late blooming clematis
Pears
Figs
Jasmine
The vertical garden with renegade sunflower
Sunflower surprise
Agapanthus
The meadow before the serious weeding happened.
Tomatoes
A harvest

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Hot Topic

We’re just emerging from a brutal heatwave. Whew. This one was fierce. If it weren’t for air-conditioning I’d be a blob of melted flesh in migraine hell. I’m acutely aware of how heat affects me and I’m so grateful for everything that allows me to keep cool.

This got me to thinking about how the garden must cope when subjected to the stress of a heatwave. Do they sense when the temperatures are going to spike? I imagine they’re in better shape to deal with it if up until that time they’re provided with adequate water and decent soil conditions. Just as in humans, all other living things must face adversity better when they’re healthy. So, I figured my garden ought to at least be grateful for all the tender, loving care it receives all year round. Well, except when I’m on vacation, unwell, in the thick of other work or, being lazy. In general, the garden this year has little to complain about its human carers.

A timely thundershower just ahead of the heatwave saturated the ground handsomely. The roots must’ve plumped out and fed their above ground parts nicely. I was glad I’d deadheaded and cut back some vigorous growers recently. A round of weeding was accomplished as well. Therefore, at the end of the first super hot day, things did not look too bad. Some plants such as the Joe Pye appeared to droop but by late evening they perked up. I wonder if the roots slow down and measure out the water/nutrient supply when conditions are adverse. Then, when they sense that temperatures have dropped below the dangerous numbers, do they speeds up in damage control mode? Or, like me, do the plants have poor appetites when it is so hot? Perhaps when I’ve overcome my own heat related ennui I will research this matter – surely some laboratory must be studying the subject. The results could potentially help us deal with weather related challenges better.

I noticed that during the heatwave, there wasn’t much critter activity. I didn’t see many bees or butterflies and the birds seemed to be limiting their flights and singing. The heat brought on a quiet that seemed appropriate. I too was not inclined to exert much energy. The languor connected us all.

The potted plants received water daily. The high humidity kept the ground from drying out but, the soil in the pots dried out. Those plants must have been stressed so much more than their counterparts in the ground. A friend had dropped off two pots of sizable hibiscus a couple of days prior to the heatwave. Until now, they had always been kept indoors so the fact that they were suddenly out in the open must’ve been a shock. Despite being watered, within a day, the leaves on top were wiped out – they got totally dry. So ahead of the canicular days, they were given a cut back and moved to shadier quarters resembling the indoors they were familiar with. Fingers-crossed they will toughen up in due course. After all, they hail originally from warmer climes.

Given water regularly, the vertical garden and tropicals ( in pots) like the jasmine, gardenia and citrus seem unscathed by the high heat. The perfume of the flowers of the jasmine and gardenia are almost overpowering at the beginning and end of day. The lemons are coming along nicely. The pelargoniums have also come through very well. Ditto the tomatoes – we enjoyed the first crop of cherry tomatoes over the weekend. And the meadow looks none the worse for wear.

Any long term effect of the heatwave will no doubt make itself known. I’m hoping there won’t be any. And with any luck there will not be any more heatwaves either. But, I’m not holding my breath.

Note: I would love to see you at the reception to Small Works at The Stable Gallery, Ridgefield, NJ on August 8. 7:00 – 9:00pm. The show runs August 2 – 29.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Scaling Labyrinths

The word labyrinth comes from the Greek labyrinthos and describes any maze-like structure with a single path through it which differentiates it from an actual maze which may have multiple paths intricately linked.

Labyrinths and labyrinthine symbols have been dated to the Neolithic Age in diverse regions across the globe. They continue playing a role in modern times.

My love affair with labyrinths began at childhood. The mystery books I devoured often featured a labyrinth or maze to offer riddles and clues in ways I now realize might have been a tad bit romanticized. Over the years, while mazes remain fun and exciting in a ‘hide-and-seek’ meets treasure-hunting sort of way, labyrinths have taken on a more meaningful, sacred role. To me, mazes get you to focus exclusively on the task of finding ones way to the center and then making the return trip to get out, thereby providing a complete distraction which can be refreshing and exhilarating. Getting lost and/or confused is all part of the experience.

In traversing a labyrinth, one can ostensibly see its entire design. The center is visible at all times. Where one is trying to get to is apparent. How to do so is not as clear. It’s only by mindful walking, taking in all the turns and switchbacks, that an individual makes it to the center – itself a site for rest and reflection. Labyrinths are not meant to be challenging. Instead they gently guide the walker to move through at an easy pace whilst permitting him/her to observe, think and center the mind. In doing so, by the time one reaches the labyrinth’s center, the mind has shed itself of all other distractions and arrives prepared for deeper meditation.
In perfect silence, a well laid labyrinth teaches life lessons to all who walk it. Like the best of therapists it has us work out all our issues by ourselves.

A labyrinth sits there as a ready escape from chaos, a world gone mad, to find once again one’s true north. Typically set outdoors, it partners beautifully with nature to calm the mind and heart by purposefully removing the walker from the normal, linear understanding of time and direction. Slowly, the outside world recedes and one becomes aware of the world within ourselves. How we are feeling, what we hope for, the conflicting thoughts, the elusive solutions rise up and get understood. This active meditation leads to the deep meditation awaiting at the center. Sitting in quiet, breathing deeply and surrendering all diversionary thoughts gives one the gift of emerging clear headed and relaxed. Ready to face with clarity and acceptance that complex, noisy world we live in.

I’ve always longed to design a labyrinth. A good labyrinth has an ideal size. Too small and it fails to decompress the mind because the center is reached too quickly. Too big and it can get tedious. The amount of walking and turning must be just right. Even the width of the path must be correct – not too narrow and constricting or too wide and spacious. Creating an ideal labyrinth is not as easy as it might seem. Scale is key.
Making paths of grass or mulch bordered by stones, low growing plants or any other natural material keeps the cost quite low. The simpler the better. Yet, an ideal design and layout is a call for creativity.

The only part of my garden that could support a proper labyrinth would be where the meadow lies. However, this area is sloped and uneven and must not be leveled for reasons of water drainage and run-off. I’m thus resigned to not having this feature of my own.

Last Sunday, I was taken to an absolutely lovely labyrinth at the Priory in Weston, Vermont. Sited on an open, flat space laid with paths of grass outlined by single lines of brick set in the ground, it is beautifully simple. The size is perfect and the design takes you just long enough to get to the inviting seats in the center. Beyond the labyrinth is a vast, open meadow full of native grasses and wild flowers. Birds, butterflies, bees and other critters abound. Feeling vulnerable and humble, I walked with the sounds of nature keeping me company. The sun was bright and a light breeze kept me from getting too warm. Seated in the center, as I came out of my reflections empowered and reaffirmed, I observed the meadow with the swaying grasses woven through with seasonal blooms of milkweed, daisies, black-eyed Susans and other flowers, above them, swallowtail butterflies played tag with each other – it all seemed so tranquil despite the obvious activity going on. The whole scene serving as a reminder that “creativity flows from a quiet mind”.
As a flight of goldfinches rose up from within this meadow and made their separate ways, I too got up and purposefully followed the path to take me back to my awaiting world. Just as I left the labyrinth the priory bell was rung calling all to prayer and morning service. I did not join – I had after all just completed my worship.

The labyrinth in Weston, Vermont
The meadow beyond.
Notice the swallowtail on the milkweed at center lower half?!
A labyrinth I visited in Cape Cod some years ago. Set amidst tall trees, it gives the sense of being in a cathedral.
A labyrinth in upstate New York

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar