Painting In The Plantings

All Gardening Is Landscape Painting’ – Alexander Pope

It’s become something of a tradition to have a group of artist friends spend a day in June painting and bonding in my little garden. This year, it happened last Saturday. The weather was perfect. Neither hot nor cold in temperature, the air was dry, sunny with a few white clouds … like I said, perfect.

I have often said that the garden is my muse. My painting, poetry and all other writing is inspired by the garden. How and what I choose to cook, the décor of my home and much of my taste in clothes is influenced by nature – her seasons and colors. Heck, even books or movies set in a garden or about one stand a good chance of being picked up by me. So, it’s always exciting when others are inspired to create in my garden.

All the artists come up from New York city so, they notice the air quality, the clarity of light, the colors that abound, the sounds of myriad birds, the fragrances swirling around – everything. Things that I’m so used to and often take for granted are newly appreciated as I observe their responses and delight.

From the hues of fallen petals to the shapes of flowers to the patterns of leaves to the shifting shadows to the juxtaposition of stone and plant, I see it all through their eyes. As an artist myself, I appreciate the way they see my garden. As a gardener, I’m humbled by their appreciation and sensitivity to the thought and design of my horticultural creation. After all, the garden itself is my personal, never ending, forever evolving work of art. Having the artists here is a valuable critique session of sorts.

What view or plantings each of them selects to paint and how they interpret what they see is eye-opening and exciting. It feels to me I’m learning to see my own garden in a whole new way. Remarkably, this happens to me every year! A reboot. It is gratifying and instructive.

Through good gardening, we reconnect with nature and remedy some of the harm we humans cause to our natural environment. In the process, the gardener hopes to create something beautiful and useful. Artists have always observed, studied and imitated Nature. They give astute commentary to what is going on in the world.

I am the happy beneficiary of feedback from gardeners and garden lovers on my Open Day and then again from artists ( a few are gardeners as well) on Painting Day. Taken together, I am the one most enriched – making me a better gardener and artist. That’s priceless.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Plant Power

Humans have always known the importance of being connected to the natural world. Not simply for the obvious – food, shelter ( caves, construction materials), fuel and, medicine. We are inherently aware that there is a deeper, spiritual relationship between us and the plant kingdom. From using flowers/plants to mark every significant event in our lives, returning our spent bodies to the embrace of the earth, to adorning and anointing ourselves with flowers, leaves, bark and roots for their perfume, cosmetic properties in a bid to enhance our looks, the horticultural world is intrinsic to our human-ness.

There is a plethora of anecdotal and scientific evidence to support the positive effect of time spent outdoors. Garden therapy is an accepted and valued method to heal all sorts of human conditions – physical and mental. Be it a stroll in the park, a hike in the woods, puttering in the garden or just sitting quietly amidst some greenery, a positive effect is palpably felt. Lifting ones mood, being physically energized after a stint out in nature is something every one of us can relate to. Gardening is empowering. To create something useful and beautiful is transforming. There is even a ‘Gardens Without Borders’ effort to help refugees in camps and war zones cope with their circumstances. That’s plant power.

Humans generally go about assuming their position at the very top of the living world. I’m not certain how we got to possess such hubris because in my experience, nothing is more humbling than observing nature closely as one does in gardening. Before one assumes what we do outsideis the principal effector, consider the plant community itself. What do we truly know about the kingdom of plants?

We have generally assessed plants from a very human perspective – how do they serve us? We regard plants as being there for our specific purposes. And we are in charge. Their very separation from us and all animals to a kingdom of their own shows how we think about plants. They are totally unlike us. But, are they really?

This past Saturday, I attended two highly interesting talks/panel discussions. Both were events made possible by the World Science Festival. The WSF takes place at this time of year in New York City – five days chock full of talks and discussions on all sorts of scientific topics. Leading scientists from different parts of the world participate in these talks and enlighten auditoriums packed with people thirsting for answers and understanding the issues currently affecting our lives. From cancer research to cosmic riddles to climate change to contemplating the cerebrum as we know it. I’ve been going to the WSF since it began about 11 years ago. I get positively giddy with excitement going through the line-up of talks and making my choices for the ones I’m most eager to attend.

This year, I chose two events that were so closely related that I believe they should’ve been proposed as a double feature. ‘Rethinking Thinking’ and ‘ Intelligence Without Brain’ were my picks. Both were so interesting and certainly enlightening. The take home is having a brain and neurons is only one way to think and navigating life. And humans are not special at all – we are just one form of life. Given my own background in molecular biology, this was not surprising or hard to accept.

It was fascinating to learn that even stuff like fungi and slime mold are capable of communication, problem solving and decision making. More so than one can imagine. In the animal kingdom, there is’ intelligence’ that parallels humans – only in ways more suited to their own genus and/or species. And when it comes to plants, they do so much more than we ever thought possible!

In recent years, we have learned that plants communicate by sending out chemical messages to warn, commiserate about disease and other life conditions. On Saturday, I found out that they make sounds via their roots! They have voices. At this time, we don’t know the how or why. It’s possible they can ‘talk’ above ground as well – we just don’t know how to test/hear them. Yet. Cogitate on that.

Going further, there is now data that plants can reason and remember. Yes, that’s right. This is all cutting edge scientific research and terribly thrilling. I won’t go into details and you don’t have to take my word for it as all the talks can be accessed at worldsciencefestival.com

So, circling back to my original commentary about how we are healed and invigorated by just being in the presence of plants. Perhaps, plants ‘silently’ comfort and/or treat our wounded selves in ways we are yet to determine or measure. They have after all been around so much longer than we humans and get this – the plant kingdom is 99% of all living forms found on earth. Surely then, it stands to reason that they know more than us. Stay tuned!

Here are some feel good images from the garden. Enjoy –

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Good Time(ing)s

In general, once my garden Open Day has passed, a respite of sorts is granted. The garden looks its best, all the heavy work is over and it’s simply a matter of maintenance. Weeding, watering, deadheading, mowing – the usual tasks to keep the garden looking neat and cared for. It’s time to start relaxing and lolling about in the garden. But not this year.

I had, over this past winter, decided to go for a bigger push in the ‘meadow’. Envisioning this space as a true four season performance arena and inspired by Piet Oudolf’s matrix planting system, I ordered 18 different native plants totaling 200 plants. That’s a lot of plants. Given that the ‘meadow’ already has a range of plants and bulbs in residence, the new introductions would be a bit of a challenge. So, I sourced a nursery that would provide young plugs of the plants making it a bit easier to get into the ground between the existing plants.

This new order arrived a day before the Open Day. Needless to say, planting them had to wait. Given the need to take a little time off post-Open Day and a couple of days of inclement weather, a whole week went by. Memorial weekend it had to be. As much as I was keen on simply enjoying the long weekend with no tasks on the agenda, the plugs of plants could not be ignored. Hence, over the afternoon of Saturday to well past sunset we planted one side of the ‘meadow’. The weather was ideal but getting around the established plants was a game of Twister. Marking the spots for the plugs using bamboo stakes, making the holes ( my engineer husband/under-gardener used a drill and that made it so much better) and placing the plants took so much longer than if one were starting on a blank canvas of earth. Our sore backs and legs were testaments to the effort.

Sunday dawned and we began at 8:00am by which time it was already hot and humid. So vastly different from the day before. The bugs were out in full swing. We finally got all the planting done barely in time to start preparing for our first garden party of the season. We hadn’t as yet shopped for the event! Needless to say, it became a marathon of shopping, prepping, baking (dessert), setting up, laying the table, firing up the outdoor wood-fired oven, showering and dressing … in a matter of hours.

All was accomplished just in time for the first guests’ arrival. Whew!

Then, just as the party was nicely underway and we were considering starting on pizza making, the first raindrops dropped. Yikes! Very soon we realized it was only going to get worse. This crowd was not the kind to run indoors. Not a chance. Instead, with all hands on deck, a big tarpaulin was spread and tethered over the pergola ( with me urging them to “mind the wisteria buds!”). The pop-up tent was brought out of storage and commissioned to allow the pizza-maker/husband and guest helpers to work unfettered by the rain. And the party continued in much hilarity and good cheer. Well into the night.

Planting time, good times – it’s all in the timing. And a can-do attitude.

P.S – Aforementioned under-gardener has categorically stated that he is done with all planting for the rest of the growing season. Hmmm, we shall see about that.

(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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Springing Into Action

March left like a lamb. April showers came a day early. Work in the garden has commenced. And boy, does it feel good!

The snowdrops are setting the tone that it’s time to get up and get busy. With the other bulbs pushing their way up and the hellebores unfurling their petals, I’m following their cue and forging ahead with my to-do list. This past weekend provided the perfect weather to do so.

On Saturday, it was sunny and warm. The first opportunity thus far to get outside and remain there. It was glorious.

The large pots have been freed of their winter wrap of plastic and burlap and now stand ready to serve.

The peonies are barely poking through but the supports are already in place – once they start, the growth is rapid and knowing the cages are there frees me up to focus on other time-sensitive work.

The winter had loosened up some of the copper caps off the front fence posts so those got tended to.

The outdoor furniture was brought out making possible spontaneous al fresco meals and generally marking porch time every time the opportunity presents itself. It’s so exciting to think about the warmer months stretching ahead.

The gentle rain on Sunday morning was ideal to plant in the just-arrived buddleia ( Buddleia davidii Buzz ‘Soft Pink’) in the perennial beds. Got the two hellebores I’d received as a gift planted as well. Spent hyacinth bulbs that I’d forced for winter pleasure, were put in the ground – in unobtrusive areas where their floppy, yellowing leaves will not detract the eyes from enjoying the spring flowers coming into bloom.

A house for bluebirds was put up – I really want them in my garden. Fingers crossed. I’m hoping the native plants in the open space of the meadow will do the trick.

The entire circulating system for watering the vertical garden was flushed, cleaned and restarted. It feels like the proper signal to start the gardening season.

Two roses were pulled out. One, a climber, had been killed off by the winter before last but I kept it just in case it revived – not so. The other, a David Austin ‘Heritage’, seems to have reverted to its root-stock variety and was also doing poorly. Their replacements arrive this week. I’m excited to see how the new varieties will do.

From now on there is much to be done. Something(s) or other will need doing every day and occasionally it feels daunting. But, this is what a gardener dreams of all through the winter – it’s now time to make those visions and plans a reality. Plus, I have a hard deadline of May 18 – Open Day. So, there’s no time to waste and lets hope the weather cooperates. I am however determined to devote some time every day enjoying the garden. The sights, the smells, the sounds. After all, to have a garden might be a big responsibility but it is also a mighty big privilege. Lets not take it for granted.

Note – The New Horizons art show at the Greenwich Botanical Center Gallery starts today! It continues through April. Reception is on April 14, 2 – 4 pm. I hope you will stop by.

Here are images of what’s doing in my garden right now :

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Unfurling hellebores

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First daffodils –

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Bulbs pushing through in the meadow –

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RIP to the roses the garden is losing – the Heritage rose and the New Dawn. They served this garden very well –

 

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar