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

Guided By Nature

Nature never ceases to amaze and impress. Sure she has her moments of rage and recalcitrance but even then she does it with unrestrained shock and awe as if to remind us that we are not the ones in charge. Subtle is not her general style. It’s no wonder that we humans learn our best life lessons by staying close to Mother Nature. Humble, respectful and optimistic.

I’ve written periodically about lessons I’ve learned from being outdoors and observing the natural world. From the virtues of being patient to letting go of the fierce need to control everything to being present in any given moment, I’m a devoted and dedicated student. I really am better off when I’ve spent time each day communing with Nature.

I don’t know about you but waking up each morning to a stream of bad news has me on edge. The ensuing sense of helplessness and hopelessness impacts me so much that I feel stressed even before I’ve begun my day. I dread checking the news and yet, I know I cannot live in blissful ignorance forever. After all, knowledge is power right? One has to be the change and all.

I’ve decided I cannot become a victim to all the negative forces out there or let matters beyond my control fester within. A plan is in motion. Each day, I stay away from catching up with the news until I’ve done a few things to bolster my spirits, my mind and my body. I’m sharing because I think if you follow my weekly posts with any regularity, you too feel as despondent as I do. Together we can do better.

First thing upon awaking, from my bed I gaze out the window and reckon with the weather and strain to hear the birds. There’s something about birdsong that I find reassuring. A rainy day of course precludes listening to any avian activity but instead, the sound of water can be soothing. However it looks outside, I determine something positive. Sunny is easy as it is cheery and invites outdoor time. Overcast – colors of flowers and foliage show up better; good for photographing. Rainy – good for plants and the water-table. Snow – pretty, provides much needed insulation for hibernating plants, has cross-country skiing or snowshoeing possibilities! Stormy – perfect day for staying cozy and grateful to be working indoors. You see? A simple switch in attitude makes a huge improvement to the mood. It’s as though we’re being given cues or nudges to take charge of ourselves and make the best of any situation. Carpe diem.

Unless forced to remain inside, I get outdoors first thing in the morning and engage in my daily communion with Nature.  I go walking and observe the trees and birds. My walk is followed by a quick tour of the garden to appreciate what’s doing. This single activity never fails to instruct my mind to rise above the mundane and seek the extraordinary. Nature’s artistry is so astoundingly beautiful that every day feels fresh and new. I stay a while longer meditating and breathing deeply.

The Japanese have a practice called shinrin-yoku or forest-bathing. The idea is simple: if a person simply visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way there are calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to be achieved. Many other cultures prescribe the equivalent of shinrin-yoku. So I’m not doing anything new or radical. I’m merely suggesting that we each reconnect with Nature purposefully. She’s right there for the taking.

By the time I get indoors, I’m upbeat, my creative juices are flowing, my body feels limber and, with fresh perspective, I’m ready for my day. I can’t quite explain it but then, I don’t need to. I merely have to allow Nature to work her magic on me. There is a sacred quality about it.

With the coffee brewing, I review my agenda and plan my tasks. Then, and only then, whilst sipping my coffee do I sit down to read the news. A half hour of that and no more. There’s work to be done. A world to make better.

At a later time, after I’ve accomplished some tasks, I can take a break and catch up further on all the news.

Some elements of my morning ‘ritual’ might seem corny and/or elementary to cynical minds but give it a shot. You have nothing to lose but a dismal outlook. Besides, solid research backs up all the stuff I do. So there.

Mark your calendars! Save the date! My garden’s 2018 Open Day has been set – it’s Saturday May 19.

Permit these photos to remind you that the world is still beautiful :

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Changing Forecast, Forecasting Change

It never hurts to keep looking for sunshine” – Eeyore ( Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne)

There are signs of this season of senescence everywhere and yet, in this final stretch of October, it seems as though a great number of trees are stubbornly holding on to their still-green leaves. Usually by this time, the fall foliage has peaked setting the world aglow like a virtual bonfire. I notice that the squirrels do not seem as madcap busy as they typically are at this time of year. Even the weather has been more like summer. It feels quite odd to be taking care of tasks that put the garden to bed when the days seem as though autumn is still weeks away.

Because the meadow is still quite green, I’ve delayed it’s annual mow-down by three weeks. However, elsewhere I have cut back my perennials leaving only some ornamental grasses as they look so ethereal in the afternoon sun. The greenhouse is filled up with the tender plants as one never knows when that first major frost will arrive, the espalier fruit trees have been pruned so a snowstorm won’t harm the limbs, and pots are cleaned and put away so a freeze-thaw cannot break them. Contrarily, I’m keeping the terrace on the ready for al fresco meals as long as the weather will permit.

The hundreds of bulbs I ordered in July have arrived. But the ground is way too warm for planting. I’m hoping I’ll get the all-clear from the weather gods and can begin this task in a couple of weeks.

In the front lawn, the newly seeded grass has come up nicely. If the mild days continue, it’ll need a mowing!

It’s not like I’m complaining because doing chores in the garden is infinitely better when sweaters and gloves are not required. Still, I’m a little concerned. Whilst reveling in the surprisingly gorgeous weather, we are in dire need of rain. What price will we pay for these beautiful days? How will this change in climate affect the flora and fauna? From budding to flowering, to putting out fruit and seeds, the plants must adapt. Likewise, for the animals, migratory patterns, hibernating periods, mating and reproductive times will need adjusting. All the flora and fauna must coordinate these changes in-order to serve each other as they always have. Their survival depends on it. Our own species depends on it. Perhaps the short term effects will be minimal but the long term impact can be big. I have the distinct impression that we ought to be buckling up. There’s a bumpy ride ahead.

Normally, the wisteria is a bright yellow in counterpoint to the rosy hues of the red male.

Trees have either dropped their leaves in a hurry or are reluctant to turn color.

The new lawn looks spring ready!

I love how the espalier turns sculptural. Just in time for winter visual interest.

The last roses are still looking beautiful

Grasses add such interest in the garden.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Autumnal Acts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: Art shows I’m in this month –

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

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

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

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

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

Newly seeded lawn.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Frumps, Fogies, Failures

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

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

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

Here is my list thus far –

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

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

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

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

Doesn’t this a whole lot better than …

…this?

The lone, pathetic eremurus.

Don’t you feel uplifted looking at this instead?

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Weather-worn But Never Beaten

Has anybody been able to keep their minds off the weather lately? Typically, whilst on vacation, I stay away from all news. Particularly the political sort. It’s my necessary escape into an Utopia where all is well all the time. I absolutely need that state of make-believe to recharge my batteries. But with Harvey and Irma on the war path and an earthquake of epic scale hitting North America, it’s been impossible to stay unaware or worse, unconcerned. To reach out, to determine how to help is everyone’s obligation.

The concerns are grave and so many. The people injured, dispossessed, stranded or lost are our immediate focus. Followed closely by the animals in distress. How to manage the inevitable dangers of disease, hunger, destruction of the infrastructure, search and rescue are just the beginning. Then comes assessing and containing the damages, rehabilitation and finally the repair and rebuilding. And all of this happens almost concurrently. Without the help of agencies like FEMA, the National Guards, the amazing first responders, the Red Cross and Habitat For Humanity as well as the unfailing generosity of individuals and communities across the country and globe, emerging through such disasters is near impossible. So, here I am seeking to help in some manner or other.

Whilst determining where and what is needed, I’ve been thinking about food. No, not like in reaching for food in the snack section to comfort but more as in how future meals everywhere will be affected by these natural disasters. When crops are destroyed, we must pay attention. From a complete loss of certain crop yields to a scarcity of them, there are the problems of lost or endangered livelihoods for farmers and all related food industry workers from truckers to factories to grocery stores to restaurants and finally our own kitchens. Nobody is unaffected. A hurricane might be in one corner of the country but, the entire nation will feel its far reaching impact.

Here’s my resolution. Apart from immediately donating money, clothing and other imperative sundries, I’m committed to supporting our American farmers. If the citrus crop or any other produce that is a mainstay that I typically depend upon is completely lost, I am willing to do without until those farmers recover sufficiently to once again grow and harvest their crops. Because of a paucity of the produce, if prices go up, then, I shall pay without complaint. Until such time, I cannot in good conscience indulge my habits or wants by purchasing from other distant shores.

Local, seasonal produce is always my first choice. I belong to a Community Supported Agriculture Co-op. But there is plenty more that our farmers all across the country supply. We are simply so accustomed to having them readily available that we hardly ever consider the where and how.

This matter of supporting our farmers is particularly highlighted for me here in Provence where every town or village has its weekly market day. Visitors revel in these markets but the locals truly await this day of buying their food for the week. Fruits and vegetables, meats, poultry, seafood, mushrooms, honey, confitures, breads, olives and tapenades, dried herbs and spices, cheeses, wines – just about everything a French cook needs. And every single vendor is from the region. There are far fewer supermarkets in these parts. That says something doesn’t it?

True, our farmer’s markets are also local but in all honesty, they are pricey for the average consumer. Those of us who frequent these markets ( my hand is up), are privileged. My hope is that in time, demand will grow, supply will grow and then prices will drop. Together we will all eat local, support our farmers and grow healthy individually, as a community and as a nation.

Political divisions be damned.

Note: The images of the devastation caused by the storms breaks my heart. So, I’m going to focus on the positive and provide images of seasonal produce in the markets and some of the foods we’ve been enjoying as a result. A few of the photos were posted in the last couple of weeks but I think they’re worth repeating!

Making lavender wands

Tomato tart

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Postcards From Provence

It is still summer here in Provence and yet, I can sense the turning of the season. Each morning, the tinge of cool in the air lasts a bit longer. At the markets, the apples and pears have joined the peaches the melons. Pumpkins let to cure in the sun rest scattered across fields themselves glowing like miniature lanterns. The grapes hang full and heavy ready for harvest. Mushrooms marking the start of autumn emerge on menus. Like soldiers stand rows of fading sunflowers holding seeds ripe for pressing.

Despite these signs, I’m basking in long, light flooded days, plunging my teeth into plums bursting with juice, painting landscapes still lush and verdant, swimming in water that refreshes and soothes my sun-warmed skin, preparing meals of summer fruit like vine-ripened tomatoes, tender courgettes and glistening aubergines. Dessert is nothing more complicated than fresh goat cheese on plump figs from the garden drizzled with the local lavender honey. Yes, the days like the meals, are simple, slow and light. Like summer.

Figs for the picking

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar