Back To Basics

Time spent in the garden has never felt more correct than right now. It is where I feel alive, useful and comforted. It is where I instinctively want to be. I’m relishing the gift of time to work in it unfettered by busy agendas and outside commitments. More than anything, I’m deeply grateful for having a garden in the first place.

As a big city girl, it was a dream come true to have a place to garden – that was 28 years ago. All too quickly, the garden became such an integral part of my life that I just took it for granted. These days, I’m acutely aware of what a privilege it is to have a piece of land to call ones own. With everyone doing their part in staying home, the inherent human need to connect to nature is not always possible for many. With several parks and public gardens closed due to the current crisis, those that are still open are getting unprecedented numbers of visitors. I worry that they too might have to be shut down if folks don’t observe distancing rules.

I’m enjoying walks whenever possible. Good weather and fewer crowds determine those opportunities. But, I always have the garden to provide immediate and consistent relief. That is a blessing I don’t think I’ll take for granted ever again.

It is not surprising that people have instinctively sought the outdoors – we are part of the natural world after all. The healing, soothing, uplifting effect of time spent in nature is both anecdotal and empirical. Even more interesting at present, is how we are rediscovering fundamental practices that we had somewhat forgotten or moved away from.

One of the first items to fly off grocery store shelves was flour and active dry yeast. All of a sudden, America is baking bread at home. Even now, more than a month after we all began staying home, flour is not easy to come by. Apparently, we Americans are actually enjoying baking our bread. Interesting no? Something that demands time and effort was one of the first items we sought to make. We see bread as a staple, a basic food. The same with pasta – more people are making their own but not quite at the same level as bread. I personally find it amusing that cooking rice is daunting to many. Something so ridiculously easy is viewed with trepidation. Yet, here we are. Mind you, I think it is terrific that homemade bread is on the rise; I’m just puzzled that it is one of the first things to be undertaken. There is no actual bread shortage in the country.

Simultaneously, everyone is into vegetable gardening, Apartment dwellers are growing tomatoes, herbs and such in pots and under gro-lights/ on balconies. Those with some property are making vegetable plots or potting up a range of vegetable plants. People are starting from scratch – seed sales have risen so dramatically that some seed companies have had to start directing their seeds to only commercial growers.

From what I’ve heard, for the most part, seeds are being sown not in fancy seed starter kits but in old tin cans, the cardboard cylinders from paper rolls, newspaper molded into pots etc., Sustainability! These are very good developments. Healthy for humans and the planet.

I have a feeling we are each growing the vegetables that hark back to our ethnic roots or childhood cuisine. We are seeking comfort in the familiar. Trying to relive fond memories of (perhaps) less complicated times.

I myself, have seeds sprouting in my tiny greenhouse and no matter how many years one has sowed seeds, the thrill of seeing new growth never gets old. I’m also getting ready to take cuttings to root them on to get more plants. Geraniums, rosemary, heuchera, bay, myrtle to mention a few. I might even give boxwood a try.

Yes, it is back to basics these days. Sowing seeds, growing ones own food, rooting cuttings, making fertilizer such as comfrey tea ( I hear rhubarb leaves work just as well) and composting are seeing an epic revival all across the country, In advance of harvest time, I’ve already corralled all the necessities for canning – jams, sauces, pickles, chutneys and pestos to stock the larder. Secateurs and the blade of the manual, push reel mower have been sharpened. Stakes, twine and trowel sit ready.

Homesteading is back in style.

Note: My garden is still primarily a flower garden so, while I’m going about dealing with the veggies and herbs for the year, I’m thoroughly enjoying the early bulbs bursting forth on a daily basis. Seeing the new growth of perennials is always exciting and reassuring. I also have a couple of fun projects I’m working on – more on those when I develop them further along. Stay tuned!

In the garden this week:

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Seeing 2020

Ah, a new year begins. So many possibilities. So much potential. Resolutions to be made, dreams to realize, wishes to make true. Yes, a clean, new canvas to begin again. Really?

Why do we put so much pressure on ourselves? Having dreams and determination to do better is just fine but must we make it so hard? How is it possible for one to turn over a new leaf almost overnight? It’s not as though you go to bed on December 31 and wake January 1 a new person. Eat better, lose weight, sleep more, exercise everyday, read a book a week, cook every meal, learn a new language, land that dream job, meet the right life-partner, reduce stress, master a new skill – the list is endless. We expect way too much from a mere twelve months. In the scope of a single year we are effectively hoping to undo all that preceding years have built up or, accomplish everything we failed to achieve in all those years.

As the years go by, I see clearly how ridiculous so many expectations from a new year is. Having given up making resolutions a long time ago, I freed myself to simply see the start of a year as a good marker to do better in whatever I am already doing. No matter what, there is always room for improvement. And certainly, it is never too late to learn/try new things. But, that doesn’t need to wait for the arrival of January 1. Every day is an opportunity. If I need to get more exercise, then there is nothing like the present to get started. If your hair looks raggedy you go get a cut as soon as possible. If you need a new car/towels/shoes/appliance or anything else, as long as budgets permit, you acquire those right away. You see? Working out, eating healthy, starting on that pile of unopened books, registering for the course in Portuguese, seafood cooking or salsa dancing, giving up smoking etc., shouldn’t have to be put off till the planets line up. Start now!

In fact, having followed this practice of getting on with what needs doing or starting on any given day, has given me that liberty to welcome the new year as one would an old flame. I’m already doing my best and own who I am. There’s nothing to hide, pretend or apologize. Showing up strong is a pretty good place to be. So there.

Having said all that, lets consider the garden and how we go forth into 2020. This year, I really tried as hard as I could, other life obligations notwithstanding. Bear in mind, flexibility is key – things will come up and the best laid plans will be foiled. Never mind, adjustments must be made. C’est la vie.

In 2020, I will continue with getting the ‘meadow’ more established with the native plantings and closer to the vision in my mind. I hope to try out some new varieties of vegetables in the potager. Having received some seeds of tropical plants, I’m keen to design new plantings in pots to make exciting splashes of bold color and shapes.

While I created this garden to be organic from the start, I have been consistently working towards more sustainable and eco-friendly practices. From improved water management, better composting, reducing the amount of plastic ( nurseries! Are you reading this?), adding more native species etc., it is an ongoing effort. The new year is merely an annual reminder to up my game.

Happy New Year one and all. Please accept my heartfelt wishes for health, happiness and harmony. Just promise yourself you will try to the best of your ability. That is all one can and should ask.

Seen on a NYC sidewalk. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
A new vase from ceramist August Brosnahan @brosnahanarts.com
Homegrown lemons! So pleased to harvest them from the greenhouse.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Light The Lights!

Whatever one believes in, celebrations are in order. Winter arrived with the solstice. Hanukkah is underway, today is Christmas Eve and Kwanzaa starts in two days. The New Year is just a week away. Best of all, we are past the shortest day of the year and slowly but surely the days are getting longer. Hallelujah!

At this time, we remember years passed and look ahead to the future. Friends and family are precious – this is a perfect time to reaffirm those bonds.

Trimming The Tree

Love hangs memories

on awaiting arms

twinkling happy thoughts

as new stories get written.

While the past is shed

the present unfolds itself

into the future.

– Shobha Vanchiswar

Before one gets caught up in the festivities, water the plants! Be they house plants or those being overwintered, they need to be kept hydrated. It’s easy to forget about them when you’re busy with so much else. Ditto for those bulbs such as paperwhites. Amaryllis bulbs do not need potting up and watering until after they finish flowering – for now, they can sit pretty anywhere you choose.

Take a turn in the garden and check if anything needs attention – broken tree limbs, plants wanting some protection, debris to clear, bird-feeders to fill and such. It’ll give you peace of mind. And the fresh air and sunshine will improve your disposition greatly.

Wishing you all a beautiful holiday.

Note: Some holiday trees through the years. Due to my daughter’s allergy, we switched from conifers to more unconventional ‘trees’.

Another alternative.This year I’m using my bay standard as the tree.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Snowdrops Keep Swirling In My Head

I love snowdrops. How could one not? Shy and sweet, they appear exactly when the heart is weary and needs a sign of hope that spring is imminent. Defying all odds, these diminutive beauties push through the earth quietly and seemingly overnight, they delight our eyes with their slender green blades and tiny, white bells. With the garden still in winter’s grip, these small bulbs remind me to be positive and brave – despite the challenges, go forth and conquer the day. Good things do come in small packages.

In the course of passing the winter perusing plant catalogs and garden periodicals, I’ve been coveting a myriad varieties of Galanthus. It’s astonishing how many there – double/multiple petaled, unique markings of green on the white petals, some lightly fragrant. Even as I wonder how one is supposed to lie prostrate on the still cold ground to observe these special traits, I covet them all for my garden. Never mind that nobody will notice such details, just knowing they are there seems to warrant their purchase. Perhaps this fall I will be planting a sizable quantity and variety of snowdrops. Fingers crossed – if anything, I’ve learned from these pretties that hope springs eternal.

In extended ( okay, obsessive ) readings on snowdrops, I learned a heartwarming bit of snowdrop history. During the Crimean War, which is clearly the antithesis to Brits’ Agincourt, the starving and freezing British soldiers were deeply demoralized and hopeless. Till the earth, winter-worn and thus far bare of growth but covered in piles of shot and other warfare debris came alive as early bulbs forced their way through. Masses of snowdrops, crocuses and hyacinths turned the soldiers’ morale around. They were symbols of hope and optimism. Some of them planted snowdrops around their tents and huts. Others, brought or sent home specimens of snowdrops which were planted and duly identified.

It was only later that people fully appreciated just how significant the ‘flower of consolation’ and ‘star of hope’ were to the soldiers. This led to greater quantities of bulbs being imported.

Sharing their discovery with family and friends, the soldiers directly influenced a bulb mania of sorts. The best way to preserve precious or rare plants after all, is to disperse them widely. Growers and collectors and of course the rest of us gardeners owe much to them. The dedication of those early growers is why so many early varieties of snowdrops have survived. So a big thank you to them as well.

I love this story. Not only does it once again illustrate the healing, uplifting power of flowers but it shows us a soft, very human side of tough warriors. Something to bear in mind ( and heart ) at all times.

Let the snowdrop reign.

Note: Get out of the cold and stop by the Mooney Center Gallery. Enjoy the art!

Looking forward to – 

Snowdrops



(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar


Peace On Earth And All That Jazz

It’s a time of celebration this week – joy, peace, love and goodwill. Are you feeling it? I’m not. There is just too much external noise distracting me. To be honest, I’m aware of being sorta unsettled and anxious. As though I’m waiting for calamity instead of calm and quiet. This is absolutely no way to be. So I’ve decided I wont.

And I’m going about it the only way I know how. By connecting to the earth. A simple stroll in a garden or the woods channels my attention to the present. I set off with a head cluttered with the news and state of the world but as I walk, a subtle shift occurs. At the beginning, I walk briskly to get my blood flowing. As I warm up, I draw deep breaths of the fresh, cold air and I become aware that my shoulders have begun to relax. As though a weight has been lifted.

My eyes take in the surroundings, The ribbons of sunlight cascading through the fretwork of bare branches above cast a radiant glow on the forest floor. I observe the squirrels making madcap dashes in seemingly random manner – it’s no wonder they forget where they’ve stashed their nutty treasures. The birds appear more organized and chatty and I get the feeling they communicate with each other to make whatever it is they’re doing more enjoyable. I can relate to that communal spirit.

Against the present starkness of the deciduous trees, the pines and firs take on the role of chief color givers. Their shades of green range from the blue-green to the yellow-green. The blue spruces to the variegated cedars. I understand their importance in the landscape much better now. They prevent the winter from looking bleak and foreboding. And after a snowfall, they are the ones to provide us with that quintessential image of the season. Picturesque and comforting.

I become so lost in my surroundings that it comes as a surprise that I’m almost back home. I feel like a new person. Uplifted and energized, I’ve rediscovered my true north, I’m ready to embrace the demands of the moment – that of taking pleasure in the company of family and friends. Renewing and reaffirming our bonds of love and friendship. In the end, this is all one has and all one wants. The rest is just noise. Tune it out.

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Real, Fake Or Alternative Facts

I’m referring to Christmas trees of course. Did something else come to mind? Ha.

The other day, I was asked for my advice about real vs fake. That led to some serious thinking.

For those amongst us who celebrate the holiday season with a tree, choosing a tree depends on a variety of matters but mostly, it is personal. And so, to change ones mind about it requires a lot of persuasion.

But I’m not out to dissuade anyone to choose one type for another. I simply think one ought to make informed decisions. Lets not be even a wee bit judgmental. Good will to all remember?

So, lets consider the real tree. It’s a long tradition for many to get a real tree. Some make it an event by going to a tree farm, selecting a tree, cutting it themselves and then bringing it home atop the family car. Others are just as happy going to the neighborhood tree lot and finding their tree of choice. A third kind likes to get a living tree to enjoy through the season and then plant it out on the property when spring comes along.

Real trees undoubtedly add a certain je ne sais quoi to any space. By virtue of being real, they are not quite perfect and that adds to their appeal. The fragrance of a pine tree in the house is pure joy. But lets face it, setting a tree up takes some effort. Get it on a stand so it stays straight and upright, water it regularly, contend with falling needles … there are some given inconveniences. In general however, I’m very partial to keeping it festive with a real tree.

It takes about ten years to grow a modest sized tree. Certainly there is the requirement of water and care but while these trees are growing, they do their part in helping the environment. Removing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere, supporting wildlife, preventing soil erosion etc., The biggest carbon footprint in this choice of tree is that made by the car that transports it. Of course, if trees are shipped in from Canada and northern USA, then that footprint just grew exponentially. So staying with local farms is preferable.

How such a tree is disposed of is another big consideration. If trees are chipped and turned into mulch then it is all good. But, if they are taken to landfills then, not only is that transport increasing the carbon footprint but a decaying tree in that site will add to the greenhouse gases by putting out methane. And that’s not good at all.

A living tree is of course the best choice of all.

Moving on to fake trees. These days, the synthetic ones can be almost lifelike. The high end models are barely distinguishable from the real stuff. They can do serious damage to the pocketbook. Cheaper fakes are often also cheap looking. In either case, the cost of manufacturing and distribution comes with a high environmental impact. While they can be reused ‘indefinitely’, when they are finally discarded they do not break down for ages and ages. Maybe never.

Fake trees are indeed very convenient to use and I’ve seen some vintage models that evoke a lovely, nostalgic time when things were seemingly ‘simpler’.

We finally come to alternative trees. Any number of things can stand in for a Christmas tree. As graduate students, my husband and I did not have funds to spare and were more than happy to decorate our three-tiered hanging planter with lights and homemade ornaments. I’ve seen ‘trees’ made of stacked books, ladders, peel and stick decals on a wall, metal ‘branches’ from whose bare limbs ornaments are easily hung and, even what seemed to me an inspired yet minimalist tree that was simply strips of brown paper placed in ascending order at equal intervals on a wall to indicate a tree. Stuck on the strips were acorns, small pine cones and bits of holly. This last version really captivated my imagination and I’m so sorry I did not take. any photos. One day, I shall aim to recreate it.

For years, we always got ourselves a real tree. Natural is after all our style. We’d cut up the tree after it had served its purpose and compost it in the woods. Our town also picks up the trees and converts them to mulch. But last year we finally stopped that practice. My daughter, who adores real Christmas trees is severely allergic to them. After years of making excuses that it was only for a few weeks, taking way too many anti-histamines and making tissue companies very wealthy, I’d had enough. It was just crazy to be so tortured for the entire duration of the holidays. It took almost two years to convince the girl that she had to give up on having a real tree.

Thus, we came to the decision that if we could not have a real tree then we’d do an alternative. I even discovered that I’d had it all along! It is a white metal pot fitted with a conical shaped tower made of chicken wire. It is intended to house a vining plant that can weave itself on the chicken wire support. What I did was to fill up the interior with strings of lights that are easily plugged in because of said chicken wire openings. Those openings are perfect for hanging ornaments on the outside.

While the ornaments get put away after the New Year is underway, the ‘light filled tree’ occupies a corner in the house and is commissioned at every celebration deserving of some flash and dash..

Frankly, I have not missed the real stuff at all and it does my heart good to see my daughter sans tissue-box, anti-histamines, distressed nose, hacking cough and boggy head.

Fa la la la.

Note:
The Art Students League

Holiday Art Sale

Opens Today! Get there before you miss out on some great art!

 

Tree in the past

Our last real tree.

The allergic one

The alternative tree in daylight

Amaryllis tree

At night

NYC

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Season Is Lit

These days, the season of lights begins at Thanksgiving when houses across the country clad in lights announce that it is so. The tree at Rockefeller Center made it official last Wednesday. Hanukkah has come early this year – the first candle on the menorah was lit this past Sunday evening. It is now left to all us laggards to get in the spirit and join in.

While I’m all for the lights and assorted expressions of festivities, it irks me that it has become such a commercial enterprise. Buy, buy, buy. It is just overwhelming. How have we come to this point? More importantly, why? I for one, cannot take the crowds and shopping frenzy. I realize shops depend on the public to spend generously but for me, quieter times are more conducive to making thoughtful purchases at my local businesses. Past experience has demonstrated that I can get carried away if I join the shopping populace at this time – I buy a myriad of stuff that are not at all what I actually want to say to those on my gift list. I’m of the belief that a gift should please and be personal. Some thought should go into gift giving and I am simply unable to think in the cacophony of commercialism right now.

Instead, I’d rather make my rounds of small businesses through the year. I can browse at leisure and select appropriate items for my loved ones. It goes without saying that I do not ever give cars sporting giant bows or jewelry worthy of a princess of even a tiny, obscure nation.

During the holiday season, I’d much rather take in all the lights. Literally. From said Rockefeller Center tree to cruising through neighborhoods known for their over-the-top holiday displays, I enjoy everything. Including the windows that quietly display lit menorahs – so beautiful and meaningful. My town had its tree lighting last Saturday and we are now officially open for the season. On December 12, Untermyer gardens will have its Grand Holiday Illumination – I plan to be there.

Last Friday, I attended the holiday concert of Chanticleer – that group of exceptional acapella singers from San Francisco. They delivered the true spirit of the season. Joy, love and peace. So I have no excuse not to do my part.

My seasonal gift giving is restricted to the homemade and home-grown. I bake cookies and cakes, make limoncello and decant into pretty bottles ( recycled of course) and distribute the jams and chutneys I made last summer.

Homegrown paperwhites and amaryllis are also what I like to give. Note: Paperwhites are only for those who are not repelled by their distinct scent. All year long I pick up interesting containers to hold the holiday bulbs. Guaranteed to please all. For those whom I know will appreciate and include in their gardens, I add small envelopes of seeds harvested from my garden.

Finally, to the extra special people, I add something from my Printed Garden collection. A pair of tea towels, a pillow, a set of placemats and napkins, a table runner – all adorned with flowers reproduced from my own artwork. I continue to be deeply touched by how much these products are loved.

So there you have it. My pared down, simplified approach to the holidays. Enjoy the lights, spread the light, be the light.

Note: The much awaited Holiday Show of the Art Students League of New York begins next week! I have a painting in it.
Show Dates
Monday, December 11 — Friday, December 22

Gallery Hours
Weekdays  9:00am–8:00pm
Weekends  9:00am–4:00pm

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving

A harvest, a fruit

A forest, a tree

Abundance isn’t always

what the eyes see.

An open door, a glass of water

A sunny day, a summer shower

Simple respites

hold mighty power.

A stranger’s kindness, a child’s wave

A timely hug, a puppy’s lick

Gestures small in size

impact so big.

Love of family, support of friends

Reason to laugh, purpose to live

Immeasurable riches

sincere thanks to give.

Shobha Vanchiswar

Wishing each of you a Thanksgiving abundant in love, laughter and simple, honest pleasures.

Note: infuse a little art into your Thanksgiving weekend and make time to see “Points Of View” and “Inside small”. Hint – Works of art make beautiful, unique gifts.

Art Has The Potential To Unify. It Can Speak In Many Different Languages Without A Translator’ – Barbara Jordan, former Texas Congressperson.

Speaking of gifts – please see the ‘Printed Garden’ merchandise. 100% of the profits goes to support the children with HIV/AIDS at the Mukta Jivan orphanage in India. I’m very proud of the ‘Printed Garden’ products and totally in awe of those children.

Some of my watercolors evoking the season –

‘From The Pumpkin Patch’

‘Still life With Apple’

‘Still Life With Pears’

‘Still Life With Garlic’

‘Autumn Aura’

‘Burnished’

A ‘Printed Garden’ teaser –

Tea towels

Napkin and placemat

Table runner and napkins

Pillows

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Holiday Happy

Holiday season is here. However you feel about it, you cannot help being a part of it. Years ago I made peace with the over the top commercialism and chose to stop judging those who embraced it. Stepping away from the fray has been very good for my spirit. I focus instead on whatever gives me true joy. You guessed it – I immerse myself in bringing nature indoors.

With Thanksgiving over, autumnal decorations of gourds, leaves and seed-pods are either relegated to the compost pile or ( as you might have read in that NY Times article ), to the Art Student’s League to serve in still-life arrangements.

Throughout winter, bulbs come to the fore. Paperwhites and amaryllis cheer up the months of December and January. Later in January and for the rest of season, bulbs like hyacinths, crocus and muscari that have been cooling in the refrigerator, will be forced. They are my salvation through these cold, dark, interminably long days. Typically, evergreens and a tree are a part of the holidays but given the severe allergies my daughter has to pines, we’re finally doing away with the tree tradition altogether. I’m planning something more contemporary to stand-in for the tree. If we cannot have a real tree, I don’t want a look alike either. I’ll share my tree substitute when it’s created. Finally, simple roping of boxwood will replace the usual princess pine at the mantel.

I started the paperwhites and amaryllis last week. That act alone put me in a good mood. The anticipation is half the joy. Watching the progress of these bulbs gives me that much needed dose of daily cheer and optimism.

If you remember, on a trip to the Netherlands last January, I learned that amaryllis do not need to be potted up or placed in water. They come equipped with everything they need to bloom. It’s only after flowering is done and the leaves have emerged, might they be potted up and treated like any house plant. Let them spend the summer outdoors, go dormant in the fall and then restart all over again later in winter/early spring. They will not re-bloom in time for the holidays subsequently but instead at their more naturally programmed time. So, you will need to get new amaryllis bulbs for the holidays each year. I say, the more the merrier!

As the amaryllis do not need potting or water, they can be placed any which way you like. Their outer papery skin can even be gently sprayed in gold/silver/copper and arranged to look very festive and elegant. In a flower shop in Eindhoven, I even saw them covered in bright pink wax! Not quite my taste but I can certainly see the possibilities. So, uncork your creativity and enjoy. Take pictures and share with me please!

Meanwhile, create your own happiness.

Some of my potted amaryllis last January

Amaryllis unplugged! In a flower shop in the Netherlands.

Close up.

Pretty pink bottoms!

At Amsterdam’s Schipol airport. Sadly, US customs do not allow them in so I returned home emoty-handed.

My new amaryllis experiment. Looks odd now but should be quite lovely when the flowers bloom. I might add more bulbs this week.

Paperwhites. I have several such containers all over the house.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar