Egos, Ethics, Ethos

As Thanksgiving draws near, the mind, almost on cue, starts thinking about its significance. I appreciate this clear annual reminder to pause and give thanks for all the gifts I’ve received through the year. From kind words that spoke to my heart to thoughtful assistance in the garden, every little or big gesture is reason to celebrate. It all adds up to a rich, bountiful year.

It’s also a time to review what I have given of myself to make a difference. Did I do enough? Opportunities to serve come by all the time – sometimes we don’t notice them till it’s too late, at other times we are so consumed with out own issues that we cannot find it in ourselves to reach out and then there are those times when we are forced to make choices. It’s not always possible to say yes every time.

I frequently wonder whether I am doing all that I can. In the garden for example, I am certainly working hard to serve the earth with care and kindness. Ethical, ecological and environmental concerns guide my work. In doing no harm, I strive to leave this piece of earth a better place than when I started. Yet, there are occasions when I ‘cheat’. For instance, when a photo-shoot for a national publication to come out next summer was scheduled this past September, I had to scramble to make the garden look ready for its close-up.

I’d just returned from a month long trip and the place required major weeding and tidying. More than that, it needed some serious prettying up. Typically, by this time, I’m sort of slacking off and not worrying too much about the garden being tip-top.

The front lawn was looking raggedy and exhausted. Tiny as it is, it is very much a vital part of that making-a-good-first-impression feature. So, on went the watering schedule – every day leading to the big day. I wince thinking of the amount of water used. While most other chores were more about physical labor, knowing that I was compromising my own principle on conserving water, had pangs of guilt keeping me awake at night.

I did get lovely annuals to lend some seasonal charm and by the time of the photo-shoot, the grass looked lush and green, the weeding and general primping were duly dealt with and the whole place was up to snuff. The photographer was wonderful – she made me feel mighty pleased with my garden. And with myself.

And so it goes, one sacrifices beliefs and rules when it suits. I ask myself what I will and will not give in to. How strong can I be in tough and/or unexpected circumstances? It’s so easy when all is well but the true test is staying on even keel in a storm. Those are the times when we discover something significant about ourselves.

And that’s how I found out that I’m frightfully vain about my garden. And proud. And entirely human. Alas.

Note: I’m re-posting images of art work by artists who painted in my garden this past June. How others see my garden is always exciting and eye-opening.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Calming Down

Boy, am I glad the bulbs were planted the previous weekend. It got pretty frosty by last Friday. A good portion of the country is being hit with record cold this week. Too early I say! However, looking at the crazy seasons we’ve been experiencing, this is not too surprising. I believe we’re in a flux of sorts. There is something unsettling going on as climate change is underway. The new normal is not here as yet.

With most of the fall chores frenetically completed in the garden, I take November as a time to reflect on life, the world at large and my place in it. The garden offers a quiet place to restore equilibrium in these uncertain times. The basic act of tending a garden is grounding in that it makes us aware of how interconnected we all are – to nature and to each other. Making and caring for a garden is an optimistic sign as it implies we are invested in the future. There is a contentment to be discovered in garden work that few other projects can provide.

I look back on the successes and failures, the challenges and surprises through the year. It was a great year for the bulbs and many of the perennials. The clematis particularly shone. The vegetables did well too. With a sudden freeze in early spring, the fruit trees struggled. As did the wisteria. The meadow was a large part of my focus but I dropped the ball a few times in staying on top of the weeding and watering so the new, young additions could thrive. Life happens. I will do better next year.

Through the year, as I wrestled with matters unfolding on the national and global stages, the garden has provided purpose and practice. When events seemed intolerable, incendiary, confusing or conflicted, the garden presented me with opportunity to take immediate action and make something better in my little world. It reminds me to stay positive. That the sun will always emerge through the dark. The seed will become a flower.

While I alone cannot bring the world to calm down, I am in a position to create something beautiful and nurturing to give respite to myself and all others who come my way. Every garden has this transformative capability. It stands to reason that now more than ever, we need our gardens and parks.

For me personally, gardening has kept me sane, balanced. Be it a single pot, a window-box, a collection of African violets in a stand indoors or, a garden of any size, the very act of tending to plants will make you feel better. I promise.

Note: The ‘Colors Of Fall ‘ art show is on for two more weeks! Do please visit.

This week, I give you just two images to focus on. One is a photograph and the other a watercolor I did. Immerse yourself in them.Take deep breaths, allow the mind and body to relax. Let nature calm and comfort you.

‘Breathing Space’

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Cover-Ups, Concealment And Cutbacks

Yeah, it’s not what you think. Get your mind back into the garden! Winter has arrived – a little too early. Fall is not quite done! On Halloween night, the temperature was in the low 70’s and by the following night, we had a hard frost.

With the tender perennials already ensconced in the greenhouse, I wasn’t too worried about the sudden cold. However, the greenhouse heater is being cantankerous and is yet to kick in. The engineer in residence needs to get it working soon. Or else.

The great bulb cover-upping happened on Sunday. All 700 plus bulbs. With snow expected on Thursday, I didn’t want to take the risk of doing the project in stages. It’s all done now. The assortment of little brown packages are now under their winter blankets of earth and mulch. In my mind’s eye I can see them in splendiferous bloom. Spring cannot come soon enough. Wait, I take that back. Given how erratic the weather/seasons have been, I’m willing to be patient and wait till the appropriate time for spring.

The fallen leaves in the meadow are let to remain to give some cover to the plants and also enrich the soil subsequently. This area does not receive any additional fertilizer so Mother Nature’s free-falling bounty is the one we depend upon. Similarly, other shrubs and all the roses are provided a pile of leaves at their feet to keep cozy. In time, the roses will also acquire a windbreak of burlap for additional protection.

The large pots that stay outdoors all through the year are shielded in the winter. First, they get fully concealed in plastic and then given a more aesthetic looking wrapping of burlap. Throughout the winter they look like big packages left by some careless delivery person.

The perennials have been cut back and it always makes me a bit sad to see the garden so bare. Despite the lingering colors of autumn, the long, dark days of winter loom ahead.

To combat the seasonal sadness, I’ve started setting aside all those gardening magazines I hadn’t got around to reading in the busy months. Soon, the seed and plant catalogs will begin to arrive and they too will join the pile. Since October, the refrigerator has been cooling bulbs for forcing – they’re sure to cheer up January and February nicely. For now, paperwhites are coming up and I’m counting on them to pretty up Thanksgiving. Firewood has been stacked, fresh candles placed in the candlesticks, snuggly blankets rest temptingly on all the couches, jars of pesto, tomato sauce and jellies await impromptu gatherings for board-games and Charades, the list of shows to binge watch is on hand as are novels picked up throughout the year. Winter is suddenly looking mighty attractive.

Note: Be sure to look at the list of garden tasks for November.

The ‘Colors Of Fall’ art show is on till the end of this month. Do visit!

Getting ready for bulb planting.
Rain barrel upturned and left to empty itself before being put away
Ferns from the vertical garden take up residence in the vegetable bed for winter. They too will be covered with a blanket of burlap shortly.
The perennial beds all cut back, bulbs planted and awaiting a layer of mulch.
Fall color still going strong

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Yet Another Aha! Moment

Gardening is just what I do. What and how I do it feels like second nature. While I’ve undoubtedly learned much from my garden, I’m not always conscious of it. It’s only when I pause to think or appreciate the garden that I become aware of how much it teaches and guides me. As one goes about the day to day chores and demands of life, it’s easy to be caught up in the immediate without being mindful. Over the years, I’ve come to understand and depend upon the garden to open my mind and heart, to take instruction, seek counsel, solace and refuge, feel grateful, compassionate and a general sense of wellbeing. The garden continues to impart wisdom and I keep receiving. Yet, I’m guilty of taking it for granted. Till something occurs to nudge me out of my complacency.

I was talking to a group recently, when the topic of bulb planting came up. I tend to assume that everyone knows what I know. Especially if they belong to a garden club or similar organization. So, there I was saying that 700+ bulbs await planting in my garden, when I was asked about the details of this task. When they get put into the ground, how deep, where etc., It dawned on me that without the basic information, any task can be intimidating.

We spoke then of getting the bulbs, making selections, quantities, the process of planting and such. When it came to the necessity of a cooling period, I had my own Aha! moment. Over the course of this year, I’ve been working on a business project with a philanthropic purpose. Not being naturally business minded, the process is slow and the learning is tedious and frustrating. I’m impatient and want things to be straightforward. But business has many moving parts, it is not simple. There are deadlines and delays. I can deal with the former but the latter drives me crazy because it’s mostly out of my control. I have to depend on different parties to do the needful and they each have their own agendas and processes. Needless to say, it is slow going. Very slow.

I’m not complaining because I do appreciate the learning, other people’s skills and expertise blow my mind and the pleasure I get with each step forward. I just have a ways to go and I’d recently hit a roadblock. A detour is required and I must find it. Realistically, I’m looking at coming up with a different path altogether. It is all the usual ups and downs but for someone not schooled in business and marketing, it is annoying, upsetting and disheartening. Doing something for good should not be this hard!

In this state of mind, I was ripe for a lesson from nature. In speaking about bulb planting, I received my own lesson. Firstly, I was reminded that there is a correct season for everything. Then, given all the right conditions, taking care to do all the steps correctly, all I can do is step back and wait for matters to take their course and hopefully, produce the results one hopes for. Just as the bulbs, so full of promise, must be healthy, planted at the right time, to the right depth, in the right places and then given their optimum cooling or rest period to get properly ready for growing and blooming in the spring. I am not in control of everything. I must simply do my best and wait it out. Everything in its time. Preparation, perseverance, patience, perspective.

Note: The ‘Colors Of Fall’ art show is open! Do go take a look.

Enjoy the watercolor images of bulbs to look forward to next spring. Some of these watercolors are available in notecards and soft furnishings for the home. They make lovely gifts. All profits go to educate HIV girls at Mukta Jivan orphanage.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Endings And Beginnings

Fall in the garden is such a time of contradiction. It is as much about endings as it is about beginnings. Hope and despair. Plants are in senescence or going into dormancy – but they do so with panache. The colors of autumn are unparalleled.

The gardening season is coming to a close – the frenzied activity is winding down. Outdoor furnishings are getting put away and the retreat to the indoors has become final.

Yet, this is the time to look ahead, plan for the future. New trees are planted. Perennials are divided and replanted for fuller or new beds and borders next year. Hundreds of bulbs are planted with the intent to make a brighter, more beautiful spring. Fallen leaves are gathered to make new mulch to enrich the soil in times ahead. The spent plants pulled up and tossed return as compost to feed the garden a few seasons later.

It’s a time of farewells so we can we say hello again.

Last weekend, the big cut back and clearing commenced in my garden. I always feel a bit sad at this time as I recall the the joy of the spring and summer just passed. The high expectations with which I greeted the new growth. The celebrations held amidst the beauty of the garden. The bounty that graced the table. Sweet memories were made. It feels bittersweet.

But very quickly, with a sense of deep gratitude, I’m planning madly for the next year. In the myriad bulbs I plant and the new plants I select to add to the perennial beds. The fresh resolve to be more dutiful in my care and stewardship, stay on top of chores and make even more time to simply enjoy the garden. Already, I’m giddy with anticipation.

That’s the very heart and soul of the garden – it unfailingly provides us with so many life lessons. To stay optimistic, take chances, own failures, be responsible, work is its own reward, forgiveness is important and so much more. But right at this moment, the big take home is this – we get yet another chance to do better next year. Everybody deserves that.

Note: I have two paintings in the ‘Colors Of Fall’ art show at the Blue Door Gallery. You are invited!

Cycle of life:

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Clean-up Conundrum

The fall clean-up is underway. It always feels a little bit too early because the garden still looks as though it is not fully done with the season. Like a popular party girl reluctant to call it a night – hair now sexily disheveled, clothes sorta fetchingly rumpled, looking a bit tired but still enthusiastic and frankly, should be heading for bed before she embarrasses herself and passes out. I hold back on the drastic chop-down for as long as the weather will permit.

As much as I think it is nice to leave a good portion alone for winter visual interest and food for birds, I’ve found it to be a bit impractical. For access to plant the hundreds of bulbs amidst all the perennials, there needs to be serious cut back and clean up. Experience has shown that whatever is let to remain invariably gets smothered with the first snowfall.

At the end of it all, I’m left to bring everything to order in a hurry as the garden must get ready for Open Day in spring. It’s invariably a short window for planting and gussying up. Compelled to wait for the snow to melt, means the ground is too mushy and there’s danger of trampling over emerging growth. Besides, so much else needs doing and time is at a premium.

I do leave some ornamental grasses untouched just to ease my mind. In reality, the shrubs and trees around the property provide the birds with adequate shelter and whatever they enjoy foraging. The woods in the back are certainly a winter resort for all critters. The bird feeder merely supplements their diet. That is to say, the birds are well provided.

Visual interest in winter is actually provided by other elements in the garden. In the front, the perennial beds might be bare but the espalier owns the focus. Its geometrical design looks good throughout and a dusting of snow highlights it beautifully. The shadows that hit the ground in the low winter light is so extra – ephemeral art.

In the back, the grid design of the potager/herb garden looks fine at all times but it really steps up its game in the snow – especially as it is viewed from the house at a height. Ditto the checkerboard garden.

And in the meadow – this is a hub of avian layovers and flight paths. At any given time, there is some sort of activity going on – one just needs to slow down and watch.

The sculpture ‘Wind Song’ is a major presence all through the year but once the meadow has been given its annual clean up, it literally shines. The reflections and scattering of the sunlight and the shadows it casts make it a quiet performance art. I should have a camera set up to capture it throughout the cold months. Hmmm, this year, maybe I will.

Despite popular advice to keep plants untouched, I’m really quite comfortable to do the big clean-up in fall. There’s enough left in the garden for both birds and gardener to pass the winter peacefully. And, when springs comes around, I have a bit of a head start.

Note: The Untermyer Symposium ‘Restoring Historic Gardens’ is this Saturday, October 19. Hope you are coming!

The walkway
Note the shadows!
Herb garden
Checkerboard garden
“Wind Song”

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Balancing Act

For the past ten days, I’ve been enjoying down time on the barrier islands of Chincoteague and Assateague off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. It has been part of the quest for balance in life. When we plan a getaway or vacation, it is that need to counteract the everyday demands of work and other responsibilities. An opportunity to press the reset button so we maintain an even keel and thus keep perspective of what truly matters. Nothing quite as effective as a healthy dose of nature to do the job.

It is heart-achingly beautiful here. Known primarily for the wild ponies that inhabit them, these islands are the last remaining undeveloped outer banks. And remain they shall, thanks to the designation of being a National Seashore/Wildlife Refuge under the National Park Services. Like all our other National Parks, they are priceless national treasures.

It’s a fragile, ever-changing ecosystem here. Between the waves and winds of the mighty and temperamental Atlantic Ocean, the terrain,flora and fauna are in constant flux. New ‘islands’ are built, old ones shrink or grow, shorelines shift, the resilient wildlife adapt and somehow, an equilibrium is maintained. Retreating dunes mark the island’s westward move and as the water in the bays rise in response to rising ocean water, the coastlines are redrawn. New habitats are created and old ones re-adapted. Plants and animals adjust to these changes. Rich in aquatic life, the bays provide a vital ecosystem. The salt marshes, defined by the ebb and flow of the tides are yet another complex, vital ecosystem in themselves. The plants that thrive in salt marshes may be few but they shelter a diverse number of wildlife. The dunes and upper beaches are in constant motion and support a different variety of plants and animals.

Even as eel grass is tossed up by storm surges, it is turned into a substrate that enriches the soil in the marshes. Ribbed mussels have a relationship with the long water roots of salt grasses found along the edges of the marshy islands. Egrets ride on the horses to see what choice morsels they might reveal as they plod around and disturb the wet land. In turn, they help the horses by dealing with the biting insects so prevalent here. The horses feed on the salty grasses and also the poison ivy – I found that latter item quite interesting.

In an ideal situation, these parts would manage fine and life would play out naturally. It’s a real gift that we humans get to visit and observe. But yet, we manage to upset the balance. Despite all the cautions and advice from the park rangers, people often try to get too close to the horses ( selfies!) or try feeding them. The horses, as a result can get too familiar with our presence and come to expect treats to supplement their diet. These are wild animals with strong teeth and legs – their bites and kicks are fearsome. Getting too close or goading them has unfortunate consequences for man and horse. Why oh why can we not stay away from our own worst habits?!

We got very lucky with Hurricane Dorian last week. A harmless tropical storm was all we experienced. Two windy days of which one was rainy. Some localized flooding but nothing problematic. I imagine this was however, a more serious threat for the wildlife as they were deprived of their regular feeding forays and had to seek shelter to wait out the weather. For me, it was enough to be made acutely aware of how fragile life is and how much we take it for granted.

When I return home shortly, I plan to carry this awareness in my heart and strive harder to stay centered, as always, taking my cues from nature in maintaining a balance.

P.S- I also plan to increase my annual contribution to the National Parks. In recent times they have seen major budget cuts. This is nothing short of a crisis of tremendous proportion with far-reaching consequences. I beseech every single one of you to do your part in preserving our national treasure – this beautiful, majestic land of mountains and plains, lakes, rivers and coasts that we call home.

See the images below for a glimpse of Assateague/Chicoteague beauty.

Note: I’m participating in this show. I hope you will see it.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Labor-less Days

I don’t care what anybody says, summer is still three weeks from being over. There’s plenty of time to sip and savor. Sunsets to watch, fruits and vegetables to pick and eat fresh, siestas to take in the hammock, barefoot morning strolls around the dew-drenched garden, al fresco meals to be had … summer is a state of mind.

Having recently returned from a trip overseas, I did go through a bout of whipping the garden into some order. Nothing drastic. Just to have it look sufficiently fetching and looked after. Apart from the ongoing tasks of weeding and watering, this is the window to loll about before the fall frenzy begins.

While others are in the back-to-school mode and getting their own schedules and agendas in order, I take this opportunity to extend my summer bliss. There are still books to be read and friends to catch up with.

Certainly, the signs of fall are there. The sun sets earlier, leaves are slowly turning, apples are beginning to blush and there is that barest hint of cooler days approaching. All of that notwithstanding, I see the turtleheads coming into full bloom, the Joe Pyes are abuzz and aflutter with pollinators, the phlox is saturating the garden in perfume, the cardinal flowers are beacons for hummingbirds and there are yet tomatoes ripening on the vine for summer salads and sandwiches.

For now, I leave you with my stubborn hold on summer –

I’m Taking Summer With Me

I’m taking Summer with me

into frost woven days of Fall

through Winter’s frozen pall

I’ll shine on frigid faces

throw color in all the places

blow soft kisses to dry ice drop tears

bring sunny warmth and spread good cheer

When darkness creeps in early

and moods get bad and surly

I’ll eclipse away the gloomy night

with blazing fires and candle light

For the season when nothing grows

I’ll force bulbs to spite the snows

Spring shall arrive before it’s time

so Summer will follow in all her prime.

Shobha Vanchiswar

Hummingbird at the Cardinal flowers
Turtleheads

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Water, Water!

Water is in the news quite a bit these days. Too little or none at all. Too much, too soon is just as bad. Certainly this is predicted to be the biggest, most critical problem we will have to resolve in the not too distant future. Water will direct the next mass migrations of humans as they are forced to adapt to the changing weather patterns – a result of both natural and man-made acts. As a global community we will have to decide right now how we will deal with shifting populations/refugees, how we grow our food, utilize energy, reprogram our use of water and indeed our entire way of living. While government agencies and related organizations grapple with the big picture, if one has not personally begun taking steps towards this impending crisis, it is now time to start. As of this minute. I’m not being an alarmist – the snooze button to that alarm has been hit way too often already.

I’m writing this during a ten day stay in monsoon swamped Mumbai. It is wet, warm and muggy. The air feels spongy even when it isn’t raining. The dampness pervades everywhere. Without air-conditioning to lower the humidity, I’d be hard pressed to be comfortable and sleep would be impossible. This has been a particularly heavy monsoon season.

Despite so much rain, the city is still aware of the undependable nature of its water supply. It has signs all over asking her citizens to conserve, avoid waste and respect this life giving Adam’s Ale. And that got me wondering if those signs have any real impact on the mass. Does one read and/or pay attention to such ‘nudges’? As one drives through the generally thick traffic, is the mind even open to receiving any such advice? It then occurred to me that it was because of the stop and start, slow moving, thick traffic snaking along that I was able to notice the signs and ponder them. A seed, so to speak, had been sown. I can only imagine that a daily dose of ‘Don’t Waste Water’, ‘No Water, No Life’ will percolate into one’s conscience and guide the mind to the judicious use of water. Not a bad idea to have those signs put up after all. They certainly cannot hurt.

In my own garden back home, I’ve long collected rainwater to water parts of the garden. Particularly pots. To ensure that the plants do not get parched when we’re away or otherwise distracted, we have also rigged up a drip-system to routinely water the pots as some of the plants require a consistent supply. The mechanism is attached to a moisture sensor so that it will not release water if it has rained or is raining. That way, no water is unduly wasted.

Water from cooking eggs, boiling vegetables etc is also collected for watering. Often the boiling hot water is poured directly over the weeds trying to make their way through brick or flagstone paths. Kills the weeds effectively.

Still, in a particularly dry period when rain is scarce, there are areas in the garden that need a healthy splash. Thus far, it’s been okay but I worry that the time when watering our gardens whenever we see a need is coming to a close. There will be a need to shift to plants that do better in semi-dry or arid conditions. Fussy plants will have to be phased out.

It feels a bit sad. But, we gardeners are a resilient species. We will adapt. Indeed, we can lead the way. I for one have resolved to source interesting/beautiful native plants that do well under dry conditions and start introducing them into the garden. The process will be deliberate, mindful and with any luck, enjoyable. Learning is growth.

Postscript: Of the many drinks I have consumed in the many places I’ve stopped at ( fancy as well as hole-in-the-wall joints), I have not seen a single plastic straw. The only straws I’ve been served have been compostable. Often, they are elegant, colorful, sturdily constructed paper. This is what progress looks like.

Note: There’s still time to see the Inside Small art show!

Heads Up! The second annual Untermyer Symposium is scheduled for Saturday, October 19. Mark your calendars. I will be moderating the panel discussion. Stay tuned for more details.

Some images from Mumbai –

Plants for sale!
Decorative designs using flower petals, whole flowers and leaves,

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer Joy

It’s the lazy days of summer. I hope you’re making the most of the season. They will become the memories that’ll get you through the dark, cold days of winter. Ignore the to-do list and savor the pleasures of summer.

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

perfumed with clove,

oil of bergamot

essence of rose

Lulled into

well being

content to remain

Greet the dew

of a new day.

– Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer Dive

Sunlight spills

brilliant diamonds

blinding ripples

shimmering winks

sliced apart

by summer’s first dive.

-Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer Joy

Summer spreads wide

a picnic blanket

of meadow flowers and green, green grass

For legs to brush against

bodies to lie back

To gaze upon

lofty images of dogs and bears and hunting giants

From dazzling day to evening glitter

Dew gathers to mist

sun-warmed faces and naked toes

Summer seems

like an endless ride

filled with ice-cream cones and fireflies

Of water fights and watermelon wedges

children’s laughter intoxicated

on improbable tales

An ephemeral age, an ephemeral time

summer passes overnight.

– Shobha Vanchiswar

Note: The Small Works exhibit is on through August. Do make time to see it!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar