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

In Someone Else’s Eden

As I mentioned last week, I’m away from home and kinda, sorta missing my garden. With all its imperfections and idiosyncrasies, it is after all my own piece of paradise. It’s where I feel most comfortable. My escape from everything – a sanctuary in the midst of quotidian chaos. Yet, here I am in Provence and I have absolutely nothing to complain about.

For all of three weeks I have the run of a home and garden that anyone with even the faintest of a heartbeat would be tripping over themselves to experience. I’m certainly making the most of it.

I’ll spare you most of the envy creating details and simply focus on the garden. It is two acres of Provencal charm. The garden doesn’t pretend to be anything but its authentic self and because of that, it not only works brilliantly but clearly requires only a minimal amount of upkeep. That is exactly what every gardener should aspire to create.

Instead of telling, I’ll show you. Enjoy. Witness its inspired simplicity and honest beauty.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

To Stay Or Not To Stay

August means vacation time in my family. I look forward to it with such eagerness you’d think I worked in a sweatshop the rest of the year. I long for it like the child spying a slice of rainbow cake with sprinkles, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I wait for it like a wily crocodile patiently determining when to move in on its hapless prey. I make endless lists and plans. Yes indeed, I love vacations.

To travel, to explore, to decompress, to exhale, to absorb, to replenish are all reasons that fuel my need to get away. It does mind, body and spirit a world of good. To return refreshed and restored to the daily demands of everyday life is priceless.

So then, why do I feel so reluctant to leave home each time departure day approaches? In my apparent enthusiasm to get away, one would think I’d abandon house and garden with the alacrity of a rat fleeing a sinking ship but instead, I’m loathe to get my packing underway, empty the refrigerator, put mail delivery on hold, arrange for someone to check-in on the house and generally sort out all the myriad matters that need sorting before one embarks on a much needed and all too brief respite. I express my reluctance to do these tedious tasks aloud but deep inside myself I know it isn’t any of those things at all. I simply love being home as much as I love going away.

The thing that concerns me the most is the garden. How can I possibly entrust anybody else to keep an eye on it. And what amazing events might unfold in my absence. I can’t bear missing out on what will be in bloom, watching migrating Monarchs make pit stops, seeing the apples turn rosy or the grapes develop their dusty bloom as they turn a rich shade of plum. In comparison, I’ve been all together shamelessly blasé about dropping my child off at sleep-away summer camp ever since she turned the ripe age of ten.

I am presently on vacation in monsoon ravaged Mumbai where the rain is relentlessly pounding the city. The sound is deafening as though one were sitting inside the Victoria Falls. And it is warm and humid like a ship’s boiler room. Yes, I have actually been privileged to see life in this part of a ship. Which, come to think of it, is also equally noisy. To enjoy all of this, I left my home in typical grudging fashion. You might say that given that I haven’t exactly described paradise, my sentiments are understandable. But then, how would you explain my longing for home despite the fact that from here I move on quite literally to sunny, dry pastures – in Provence, France? This is where one sips rosé whilst listening to the thrum of bees frolicking amidst the lavender fields. It’s perhaps my most favorite part of the world and yet … you see? I want to stay home and I want to be elsewhere. A very fine dilemma to have.

This year, I’ve been given a reprieve of sorts. While I’m wading through the streets of Mumbai ankle deep in water, my significantly other half is still Stateside. So until he joins me in the pursuit of Gallic pleasures, I’m having him send me photos of specific areas of the garden that I know will be performing fetchingly. He doesn’t quite understand my eagerness to know about every horticultural happening but is doing his bit in complying to my pestering. On my part, I’m trying to be grateful and not criticize him for less than stellar images and even so in insufficient quantities.

One must after all, be grateful for small mercies.

Note – For a glimpse of what I’m missing in the garden at this time:

( Like I said, someone hasn’t been taking enough photos)

Pink turtleheads – Chelone obliqua. Oh how I waited and wished for these to bloom before I left!

Turtleheads in the meadow

Oak-leaf hydrangea

Echinacea and grape arbor

Vertical garden

As the 2017 Wildflower Artist of Teatown Lake Reservation, my rendition of the pink turtleheads are on their note cards for this year.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Case For Windowboxes

I’ve always loved window boxes. Long before I could imagine ever having a piece of ground to cultivate, I knew I would have window-boxes. Traveling as an impoverished student and then as a newly employed but still living in rental apartments, I’d photograph all the charmingly adorned windows I came across. One day I too was going to have them.

The surest way to brighten up the facade of any house is to hang flower boxes. The sight pleases the eye and puts a smile on the face. It’s welcoming and says something positive about the occupants.

What one plants in them is up to the imagination and taste. Tasteful/ elegant/ gaudy/ showy/ seasonal/ loud/ simple/ modern/ minimalist/ cottage-y/ – it doesn’t matter. Go for it. I do however strongly suggest – only live plants please. No plastic or other faux material. Really. What’s the point of having window boxes if you’re going to put in fake plants?

They’re quite easy to maintain. I squeeze in more plants in this limited space than I would in a bed in the ground. I go for a look of abundance and exuberance. The old pillar, filler, spiller combination still holds true.

Contrary to what is widely suggested, I eschew potting soil and use top soil mixed with compost instead. While the former is deemed lighter and adequate, I find the latter much better for encouraging good, healthy growth. Water retaining crystals are sprinkled in the lower one-third of the box/pot. I fertilize once a month with an organic potion.

All this happens in sturdy box liners that fit into the boxes well. This not only makes it a snap to pot up but it also protects the wood of the boxes as it does not come in direct contact wit soil. Towards the end of a season when the boxes start looking peaky, I start the next season’s contenders in fresh, clean liners. And when I deem that the present lot is done for, the next batch of divas are waiting and ready to start performing.

The boxes are watered according to season and daily weather. In spring I can get away with just one thorough watering a week but in summer, the plants often get thirsty enough to demand a drink every other day. Access to the boxes from the inside allows convenient watering, deadheading and tidying up.

I often include fragrant plants in my mix – the perfume that wafts into the house is a real mood lifter. This past spring, the scent of the stock just bowled me over.

A few weeks ago, I was awakened by a curious sound that I could not immediately identify. On looking around the room whilst still in bed didn’t offer up any clue until from the corner of my eye I detected movement. Turning my head towards the window, I saw a hummingbird getting its early morning drink. Since then, I’ve been privileged to watch it almost every morning – so worth the early wake up call. Does my heart good knowing I’ve been of service.

This justifies everything.

Be inspired by the photos below!

My hummingbird alarm. (Picture is not clear as it was taken on my phone from my bed and through the window screen)

When there aren’t any windows …

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Ode To Summer Nights

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

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

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

Summer Nights

Wrapped in the thick air

heavy with heat

laden with moist

Watching fireflies

mimic the stars

against black velvet

Serenaded boldly

by tree frogs

and crickets

Fanned from on high

wings of bats

on purposeful sorties

While night moths

answer service calls

of moonflowers

and gardenias

Spicy notes of phlox

rise with the night

perfume of clove,

oil of bergamot

essence of rose

Lulled into

well being

content to remain

to greet the dew

of a new day.

Shobha Vanchiswar

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

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

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar