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

Romancing The Garden

Gardeners are romantic. I have come to realize and accept this. In making anything beautiful, it pretty much goes without saying (but I’m saying) that one must also be romantic. You aren’t convinced? Hmmm. Let me tell you how I’ve come to realize my own idealistic, sentimental nature in action in the garden. You tell me if you’ve never been similarly inclined.

I’ll start with the very poster child of romance. The rose. I love them. I have included several in my garden – all in shades of pink, profuse and preferably perfumed. The very display of roses in bloom brings to the forefront matters of the heart. You absolutely cannot see a rose and not think of love and romance. Am I right?

When I chose to place two arches and plant roses to scramble up them, I envisioned something very traditional. The arch one must go through to reach the front door was to invite and disarm the visitor. It puts one in good cheer. The subtle fragrance sends an additional message of welcome. The three different clematis weaving through this rose takes the whole to a higher level. Pure romance.

The second arch which is a gateway to the gardens in the back, has a different rose. Brighter in its rosy hue and with a stronger perfume. It makes its presence felt long before you get near it. A temptation to coax the curious to come forth.

A shrub rose I planted on the side path in early spring was chosen for its prettiness, hardiness and its scent. The whole idea being that its fragrance will waft into the house through the studio windows just above and assault my senses in the nicest possible way as I paint. I’d like to think my work can only be made better under such influences.

In truth, one can smell the roses in all the rooms on that side of the house. It makes me pause, inhale deeply and appreciate the aroma. Life feels good. Similarly, I position the pots of citrus, jasmine and gardenia on the side terrace so the night air is redolent with their strong aromas – hopefully sweetening our dreams and slumber.

In the herb garden, I included plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Lovage, rue, hyssop, comfrey, foxgloves and such. Apart from the lovage which pairs well with fish, the others merely look pretty and remind me of earlier times. Hyssop while purported to soothe sore throats, was popularly used as a spiritual bath. The hyssop bath is usually considered to be a personal ritual to remove sin and negativity in life. It has a Biblical significance. Rue means disdain or regret. Comfrey too had a role in early medicine as a poultice to treat joint pains. All so quaint and romantic right?

Even a feature like the ‘meadow’ has an element of idealism and romance. It is a place for congeniality between the native flora and fauna. Where butterflies, birds and bees pollinate and populate my corner of paradise. Life supporting life, all creatures living together in peace and all is well with the world. What a concept!

The espalier of 27 apple and 5 pear trees hark back to a time when all of this neighborhood was full of apple orchards. I like to think I’ve in some way restored something precious to this place.

The pergola in the back terrace was designed so the wisteria would grow over its top, generously providing shade under which we can gather to break bread and sip wine with friends and family as often as possible. And we do. Idyllic escapes in a world gone mad.

And so it goes. I see how in creating this garden, I have subconsciously let my inner romantic guide me. It is about beauty, history, literature, harmony, the sacred and most of all, love.

Now, how about you?

Note: Enjoy these romantic images!

View from the upstairs window boxes
Hyssop
Gardenia
Citrus

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Artful Arrangements

Art In Bloom’ the poster said. Paintings of flowers I thought. It was so much more.

Weston, a quintessentially charming Vermont town best known for the legendary Vermont Country Store and its thriving eponymous playhouse. I have, over the years, discovered that this little place has some mighty impressive events and highly energetic, innovative and generous residents. For all those of us ( my hand is up) in and close to New York City who assume everything interesting and noteworthy happens in our neck of the woods, Weston is there to say “not so fast’.

The annual antique and craft shows are world class. While the craft show is restricted to Vermont artisans only, dealers from all over the country participate in the antiques show. With none of the uber-hype and big city ‘sophistication’ getting in the way, they showcase the best of Vermont. And the best is precisely that.

This past weekend, I was in for an unexpected treat in the show ‘Art In Bloom’. Not simply art on display, it was a show of flower arrangements by members of the local garden club inspired by paintings donated by local artists. While we are all accustomed to art inspired by nature and still-life paintings of floral arrangements, it was a nice twist to see what a person could do with flowers to interpret art. And quite a challenge it was.

The art works of mostly paintings and a couple of lovely examples of fiber arts, ranged from renditions of flowers to still-lifes with flowers to landscapes and abstract art. I imagine the abstracts and some of the landscapes must’ve been particularly challenging. How does one interpret a snow scene, a covered bridge, a musical instrument or a frog? Well, the members of the Green Mountain Garden Club rose to the occasion splendidly. From the literal to the imaginative, artistic, thoughtful and creative, each arrangement interpreted its corresponding artwork handsomely. Clearly, the flower arrangers knew their flowers and plants, understood nature, had a sense of humor and appreciated the arts very well.

I had come to this exhibit out of curiosity. Having never been to such a ‘reverse’ pairing of art and flower arranging, I had no expectations. So, it wasn’t just a welcome surprise – here was a wonderful demonstration of creativity and artistry. I was taught, I was inspired, I was humbled.

I came, I saw, I ascended.

Note – I’m giving myself the challenge of creating a flower arrangement inspired by a favorite painting. Maybe you will do the same? Please share!

Depending on the device on which you’re reading this, some of the images below will appear on their side. I do not yet know how to rectify the problem. I apologize!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Weather Perfect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friends from Chicago

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

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It’s Open Season!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

There Are Gnomes In The Garden!

Gnomes. Makes you recall those all too familiar, garishly painted figures with pointy hats right? While these spirit creatures hark back to the 17th century and earlier, their presence today is viewed as somewhat naive and old-fashioned. Like gazing balls, they recall earlier times and are not commonly seen in today’s gardens. Truth be told, I myself have never been taken by them.

That is, until I recently came upon a modern take on gnomes at the Sullivan galleries in Chicago where highly talented, emerging ceramist August Brosnahan was debuting his gnome collection. And the creatures were getting a lot of attention and interest. Here is how Brosnahan describes his work –

I am interested in human interactions with objects and how objects help us relate to the world around us. Whether it be the handle of a mug or the facial expression on a figurative sculpture, these objects have unsaid and sometimes unnoticed methods of guiding us through spaces. Humans spend a tremendous amount of time interacting with clay and ceramic objects. I believe that humans have deep-seated connections with ceramics, more so than other materials, due to the rich history we share with clay. This mindset is central to the form and presentation of my work as I create intimate connections between viewers and the object.

Another element that is central to my practice is my love for walking. I have recently distanced myself from the white-walled gallery as I spend hours in forests and fields. A notable example of this is my ongoing series, “Gnomes.” I create small personified objects that preferably exist in an outdoor setting. Multiples of these objects create a community that viewers can interact with by walking through the same space that the gnomes exist in. I activate the space that the viewer is standing in rather than a space that the viewer is looking at. With my work I hope to re-invigorate the overlooked spaces of our day-to-day lives.”

I have long championed sculpture in the garden. Art in an outdoor space adds a new dimension and there is a shift in context that enriches the experience as opposed to seeing the same sculpture indoors. At this particular art show, I could clearly imagine how they might transform a garden or park. My curiosity to actually see that happen led to inviting the artist to show some of his work at my garden on Open Day.

So, five pieces were carefully packed and shipped to New York. I worked with Brosnahan on siting the gnomes in the garden and I’m really excited to share them with visitors on May 18th.

Meant for outdoor spaces, the seemingly whimsical pieces urge the viewer to consider the dynamics between all the elements in a space. The ceramic gnomes make one aware that there is an energy and presence beyond that which we can physically see or feel. They appear to blend into the background and yet, manage to surprise and be noticed. These sculptures maintain continuity in the human history of personifying natural and designed spaces. The impact is subtle and fresh. A modern twist to an old tradition.

Several weeks ago, I hinted that I was working on a new project in the garden – just for Open Day. This is it! I look forward to introducing you to the gnomes. See you in the garden on May 18.

Note: Open Day is less than two weeks away!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Garden Things

I’m in the thick of garden fever. Open Day is less than three weeks away. When I’m not actually in the garden, I’m thinking about it, perusing garden literature or talking about it. So much to consider – chores, plants, tips, new-to-me information, weather, wildlife, one’s own limitations ( physical, budget, time…), successes and failures. It’s never ending and I realize how tedious this can be for a non-gardener. A friend asked recently why gardeners always talked about the amount of work, the perils, trials and tribulations and then insisted on continuing the activity of gardening. How could I possibly convince her that those things are all part of the joy of gardening?!

It’s always exciting to learn something new and I’m happy to share. Maybe everybody is aware already but I discovered only recently that fritillaria are closely related to lilies. That in itself doesn’t make one sit up but here’s the reason to pay attention – they are just as attractive to the pretty but vile red lily beetle. Ugh. I’d all but stopped growing lilies because those horrid insects would always show up to ruthlessly decimate them. Now I have to worry about the many fritillaria I’m so happy to grow in the garden. Oy vay.

The somewhat low height ( 5 feet) at which the bluebird house is set up leaves it vulnerable to predators that can easily scramble up the metal pole to access the eggs/babies. It is worrisome and yet, the bluebirds prefer that open, low location. A coating of automotive grease along the length of the pole and over the copper covered roof helps enormously in deterring snakes, cats and squirrels. An easy solution like this always pleases me – fingers crossed it works.

All the stakes and supports are put in place before the plants are fully grown and it gets complicated to support them discretely. I also see this as a way to show the plants that I believe in their ability to reach their highest potential. Sly horticultural psychology.

Over the years, the labels marking the assorted apple and pear trees of the espalier had faded. It’s so easy to get lax about keeping things such as labels in order. At the espalier, it is particularly relevant to see which tree is bearing fruit and which is not. It might simply be an academic sort of accounting but I believe good gardening should come with a sound knowledge of what’s going on everywhere in the garden. I’ve now relabeled the fruit trees and must admit to an undeserving amount of satisfaction.

In my bid to tweak things a bit, I’ve moved around an object or two, refreshed a couple of walls with a lick of paint and replaced a feature with another. In the process, my own spirit has been tweaked and I’m in a much better frame of mind. Go figure.

And so it goes. Seemingly small investments of time, energy and resources but with nice dividends.

Note – Open Day is May 18th!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Waxing Poetic

It’s a busy, busy time in the garden but I cannot let April go by without honoring it with poetry. It is National Poetry Month after all.

Deflowering Spring

The earth blushed cherry pink

Even as the forsythia glowed yellow

From innocent fresh born

to fertile maiden

In the flutter

of butterfly wings.

Shobha Vanchiswar

Spring Cleaning

Sweep away detritus

Winter’s wild remnants

Prune roses

June’s dress code

Straighten borders

Summer edges to spill

Outside order

Inside peace

Clearing, cutting

Room to breathe deep

Opening, widening

Mind broaden fast

Plants get bigger

Spirits grow higher

Colors multiply

Senses infused

Days lengthen

Smiles brighten

Outdoor classroom

Paradise within

Shobha Vanchiswar

Colors Of Rain

It rained cherry pink today

Drenched in pleasure

I walked on rafts of petals

floating on rivers of grass.

I predict tomorrow

it’ll drizzle pear white

Washing away footprints

leaving behind confetti flowers.

Shobha Vanchiswar

Note: Open Day is May 18. My garden as well as Rocky Hills will be ready and waiting for you!

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(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

April Flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: Remember -My Open Day is May 18!

 

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

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Sunday In The Garden

Last Sunday was a gift to this impatient gardener. Bright and sunny, temperatures in the mid-60s and a garden just waiting for a do-over. No bugs trying to feed on me, no place else to be. This was heaven.

With the scillas, hellebores, early crocuses and Abeliophyllum distichum ( white forsythia) in bloom, it felt as though I had a cheering squad. The air was gently scented by the Abeliophyllum – a bonus!

So many chores got done. The front lawn was scratched up, reseeded and layered over with compost. Lets hope no destructive rains occur till the grass comes up. A daily sprinkle for about an hour would be mightily appreciated.

A trip ( the first of the season! ) to my favorite nursery resulted in a host of plant purchases. A few perennials like Jacob’s Ladder, lungwort, unusual looking ajuga, dianthus and sweet woodruff, annuals such as pansies, nemesias and lobelias, potager must-haves – beets, Swiss chard, arugula, kale, lettuce. I helped myself to herbs as well – lavender, hyssop, lovage, bronze fennel, sage, thyme, tarragon, parsley, cilantro and one that I plan to use extensively through the spring and summer – Mojito mint. Yes, that is exactly what it is called.

The spring window-boxes were put up – daffodils, tete-a-tete and pansies. Urns and planters in various locations in the garden now sport similar plants to tie in the whole look.

The new ajuga accompany two young Japanese maples (also picked up at the nursery) in a large, copper container by the front door. The plan is for it to look elegantly understated through the seasons. I also stuck in some muscari to give it an early pop of color. Nothing flashy though – the window-boxes above take care of that. The urn nearby, also on the front porch, will echo both with its mix of the pansies and muscari.

The vegetables are esconsed in their bed looking fetching in diagonal rows in hues of deep plum, bronze and greens. The herbs are in terracotta pots that will go on the ‘herb wall’ but for now, until the weather truly warms up, they sit in the greenhouse biding their time.

My cherished Anduze pots with boxwood balls were brought out of the greenhouse and placed in their appropriate sites. Should a frost be imminent, they will be easy enough to protect with fleece and burlap. Other plants in the greenhouse will be brought out in a couple of weeks.

On the vertical garden, some ferns we had overwintered in the vegetable plot under a cover of burlap were put back on the wall. Fingers crossed this experiment will prove successful. If so, it’ll be a good development in our quest to preserve the ferns through the winter.

By days end, I felt so exhilarated. Good progress under very work-friendly circumstances renders a most delicious sense of satisfaction. At the same time, my muscles were tired and the back was sore. A hot shower followed by a tall mojito ( with eponymous mint ) in the embrace of a comfortable, plush chair was well deserved. I sincerely hope that said mint can keep up with all the drink orders to come.

Note: My Open Garden Day is May 18.

The reception to the New Horizons exhibit is this Sunday, April 14.

 

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar