February Is For Loving

Some months take on a single meaning. December is for the holidays, July for the fourth, September is about school, November is Thanksgiving and February is all love. I like that as it gives some motivation to stay engaged and celebrate life’s moments.

Valentine’s day can feel a bit over-hyped, too twee and bring undue pressure on those who are single or going through a rough patch in a relationship. But these days it has become a much more inclusive day for expressing love. We include everybody in our circle – spouse/significant others, children, friends (Galentine’s day!). To that list, I add the garden as it is a living thing; it’s a good day to express some love to that which nurtures me so wholly all year round.

Since winter has been indecisive this year, I took advantage of yet another mild day last Sunday and went scanning for signs of stirring in the garden. Just a week ago, there was barely nothing to coo over. But now! Snowdrops have bashfully shown up. That set my heart aflutter. What is it about these diminutive bells that cause them to ring so loud in our psyche?

The hellebores too seem to have decided its time to awaken. One in particular made me smile – it bears near black flowers and the buds were sitting like plump berries glinting in the afternoon light. Others, in their tight, elongated forms could not compete. In a couple of weeks I will cut back the protective old leaves so the opening buds can show off their beauty.

I heard the birds go about their business as though it were normal to be so active in February. It is concerning that they might begin nesting a too early. A blast of severe winter weather could be just around the corner. Usually, I put up a nesting wreath to assist the birds – a simple circle of grapevine bearing threads of cotton or jute, pieces of moss, bits of ribbon ( natural material of course) and some twigs. Not right now though. It’s too soon. Perhaps in early March if it continues to be unseasonably mild.

Meanwhile, the Calamondin oranges are bringing some juicy color to the greenhouse. The fruits hang like pretty ornaments. Not particularly good for eating, they do add something to a cocktail of vodka with a shot of St. Germain.

So cheers! Happy Valentine’s Day everybody. Take a moment to walk around the garden with gratitude and affection in your heart. Better yet, walk with those you love.

Observe the heart shaped bay leaf amidst the normal ones!

Oh those shiny black buds!

Calamondin orange

Snowdrops

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Seeking Signs And Symbols

Instagram can play with this gardener’s heart. It’s bad enough that I’m confronted with lush summer gardens from down under and sure signs of spring from across the pond but, now there are images of early bulbs from my region. Spurred on by reports of snowdrop sightings and hellebore hunts, I decided to scan my own garden.

It’s funny how excited one can be at the thought of seeing those first signals hat the season is going to change. Yet, I was not that eager to actually find any blooms. It is way too early! We are still in January and frankly, any bulb in flower right now is not a good sign. Already, this winter is ringing alarm bells. With several days of above average temperatures and barely any snow, it’s hard to imagine what is to become of the seasons as we know them. Consequently, what, if at all, will flower and fruit is anybody’s guess. It’s all very unsettling.

A week ago, I’d come across a woolly worm. Folklore says that if the rusty brown band is wide, then it will be a mild winter. The more black there is, the more severe the winter. This one had a broad brown band. So there you have it.

Still, I ventured on my search. Nothing was blooming I’m kinda glad to report. No snowdrops or Iris reticulata. I peered around the hellebores still protected by leaf mulch and last years leaves. The buds are tightly closed but they’re emerging. That’s exactly how they should be!

Here’s a useful thing I recently learned about hellebore harvesting. You know how sometimes when you incorporate cut hellebore flowers in a floral arrangement, they go limp almost right away and yet at other times they stay bright and upright for as long as you like them? Turns out it is all in the timing of when you cut them. Erin Benzakein, the It girl of the flower world and owner of Florets, says to wait till the stamens have dropped and the seed pods are starting to set. Cut them at that moment and you’ve got yourself some nice, long lasting hellebores. I’m quite pleased to learn this nugget of wisdom.

The American wisteria and climbing hydrangea are showing the tiniest buds. So much promise in such minuscule packages.

These glimpses of what is yet to come was enough to make me optimistic. Thus far, there is no need to be worried about any premature activity. Fingers crossed, we will see a more familiar February.

The heart shaped stones I collect reminded me that hearts will be aflutter in February. Always a sweet tradition to express love to all who mean so much. And this brought me to Entada gigas. Otherwise known as Sea hearts/ sea bean/monkey ladder. I’d picked up a couple of seed packets on one of my trips. What attracted me to them were the large heart-shaped seeds that spread throughout the entire world via the sea currents and originate from the Amazon. One of the most special seed varieties in the world. The undisputed record for the longest bean pod is the sea heart.

I thought simply having the large, shapely seeds as decorative objects would be nice. But curious to see how they grow, I’ve given them to a gardener friend to get them started. Drew is experimenting with lots of unusual plants for annual arrangements in large pots and is willing to try out my contributions. So good to have him as my partner in horticultural high jinks. Love of all things plants is a sure sign of a friendship worth nurturing.

Woolly worm with broad, brown band

No sign of anything

Hardy sempervivum

Hellebores

Emerging hellebore buds

Climbing hydrangea buds. Still very tiny and tight.

Heart stones

Wall-in-waiting

Wall ferns being over-wintered in the potager

Sea hearts

(c) 2020 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

 

 

 

 

Hanging Out With Hellebores

Spring! It’s definitely staging a comeback. Where I reside, it’s not quite so obvious but the signs are there. The snowdrops are up. However, one has to look a bit harder to notice that the witch hazel is quietly gracing the garden with its tassels of flowers and characteristic fragrance. Bulbs like daffodils and hyacinths are fearlessly pushing through the still crusty earth and slender spears of crocus appear as though they were secretly planted in the cover of night. The climbing hydrangea is studded with fattening buds. I hear birdsong more clearly; it’s only a matter of time before feathered couples will begin house hunting. Everywhere, one can observe nature coming alive.

Which brings me to hellebores. In my opinion, no garden should be without them. They live to serve the gardener. Starting from that time of year when you know winter is still in session but you cannot help look for some signal that spring is on its way, one need only check carefully at the base of the hellebores. Nestled close to the ground, safely tucked under the canopy of large leaves of the previous year, the shy buds have silently emerged. Long before anything else is stirring, the hellebore gives a sweet heads up for spring. This singular sight is reassuring and exactly what an impatient gardener needs.

Soon after, it’s time to cut back the old leaves and unleash the new growth. Stands of upright stems extravagantly displaying cup-shaped flowers nodding in the garden are sure sights of spring. Single, semi-double or double, the hellebore flowers appear as though painted in watercolor. Translucent and soft, the hues range from dark, almost black to deep pink to rose to cream to yellow. Some new varieties sport petals gently edged in a complementary color recalling finely hand-painted porcelain cups of another era.

There are today a variety and color that would suit every taste or situation. The flowers last a very long time – often through summer. The colors may fade or deepen and turn less showy as the season progresses but I still love their look. Hellebores self seed very easily and some gardeners complain about it but in my experience, if you mulch diligently, then it is not a problem at all. The mulch suppresses the seeds from germinating. I typically get only a few seedlings that I often pot up to give away or plant elsewhere in the garden.

Hellebores prefer deep soil rich in hummus, moist but not soggy. They do not require regular feeding. I find that an annual application of compost topped with the mulch of wood chips is sufficient. The plants do best in cool, semi-shaded locations. At a full height of about 18 to 24 inches and a spread of the same, they are ideal in border fronts. The large leaves will shade out more diminutive neighbors so plant accordingly. In the fall, I let the leaves remain to protect the following season’s young buds and remove them only around late March. Hellebores are slow growing and do not get too big so it is best to not divide them. To grow your collection, get new plants or start from seed.

In pots – Because of their extensive root system, they require large pots to allow for growth. A nurseryman friend recently presented me with a couple of hellebores in bloom potted up splendidly in a French zinc pot. While I adore how beautiful it looks on my dining table, I think the plants are displaying a restlessness as though they want to be planted in the ground. As soon as the thaw happens, I will do exactly that.

Hardy, low-maintenance, easy to grow and oh so dependable, hellebores are a mainstay in my garden. Bonus – deer generally stay away from them.

Hanging out with hellebores is indeed a very good thing.

Note: I’m in the upcoming New Horizons art show in Cos Cob, Greenwich, CT. Do stop by to take a look! April 2 – 28. Click here for details.

Mark your calendar – my garden Open Day is May 18, 2019.

Here are images of some of the hellebores I hang out with:

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Halftime Hoopla

February 2 marks the mid-point of winter – it falls in the middle of the winter solstice and the spring equinox. That’s correct, we’ve just passed the halfway mark. It was marked by a spectacular sunset. February 2 is also called Candlemas day – that’s when, in the very old days before electricity, folks would replenish their supply of candles to illuminate the rest of the cold, dark season. The candles would be blessed at a special mass. As a secular individual, I find this tradition comforting. It unites people in the effort to pass the season well.

I’m definitely not a fan of Groundhog’s Day. In my opinion, it only serves to highlight a time when humans applied superstition and not science to drive our actions. The very thought of rudely disturbing a sleeping creature to emerge out into the still cold day strikes me as particularly cruel and archaic. If it were me instead of some vulnerable groundhog, I’d be mad as hell. Wouldn’t you?

Having emerged from a week of polar vortex shenanigans, this halftime feels really good. The temperatures on Sunday and Monday shot up to spring like numbers. While I’m not complaining ( it was delicious to feel the sun as I walked around the garden sans jacket), that spike in temperature is cause for some concern.

We’re slowly settling into more seasonable temperature. Hallelujah.

Taking advantage of the weather on Sunday, I spent some time wandering around the garden searching for signs of rebirth. Coming out of a deep freeze, there were still patches of ice in an otherwise brown, lackluster landscape. But on closer examination, I spotted some encouraging indications of the season to come. Then I noticed small bulbs lying scattered around the ‘meadow’ – the freezing and thawing had thrown them up from their comparatively shallow homes in the ground. Said ground is frozen hard at present so I cannot replace the bulbs. Instead, they shall remain in a pot of soil until the great thaw occurs. I’m a tad unhappy with this situation. Those small bulbs bloom early and are crucial to my vision of how this area rolls out the flowers so, I resent this casual tossing behavior with no regard for the investment of time, money and energy on my part. Oh well. I remain at Nature’s mercy.

The hellebores are also beginning to stir. Slowly. The new growth is still working up courage to get going. I love feeling the surge of anticipation in my veins.

In the greenhouse, the citrus are having their moment. Makes it all very cheery and leads me to pretend I have a limonaria. I even harvest the first lemon. How best to use this precious fruit is my happy dilemma. Make lemon curd? Salad dressing? Lemon pound cake? So many possibilities!

The calamondin oranges are looking quite lovely. They aren’t really edible as they’re small, very seedy and sour. But, they lend a certain sophisticated flavor when speared into a vodka martini. A branch of these oranges makes a dining table look very festive – turns a routine gathering into a party.

Indoors, the forced hyacinths are coming along nicely. This waiting is always most exciting to me. It’s like a child’s giddy expectation in the days leading up to Christmas.

I also picked up some inexpensive primroses -their flowers in crayon-box colors are so heartwarming. They are quite a contrast to the very elegant looking white orchid that’s been in bloom since early December. FYI – Orchids are really great value for the money.

Yes indeed. Halftime feels good.

February 2 sunset

The ‘meadow’ looking blah
New growth
Hellebore
Tossed up bulbs
Ice patch
Calamondin oranges
Lemon!
On a pedestal
Forcing hyacinths
Primroses

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar