Life In Waiting

Every morning, I look out into the garden to see whats up. Have all the crocuses bloomed? The scillas are blazing blue but when are the spring leucojum planted to contrast with them going to bloom? And the muscari paired with early daffodils? Even in the midst of reveling in the early spring flowers, I can’t help waiting for the ones to come. It’s as though my mind is trying to hurry along the season so it can get to the next one.

I thought about that yesterday and came to the realization that it’s because of this unfamiliar time we’re in. We don’t know for sure what each day is going to bring. There are predictions, projections and calculations but nothing is certain. How long the crisis is going to last is unknown. So, subconsciously, my mind is looking weeks ahead to a different, hopefully better time. When other flowers will be in bloom.

Once I understood my propensity, I determined to curb it. After all, it wasn’t getting me anywhere at all. Instead, I’m going to really stay in the present. In all its entirety – pleasant and unpleasant. I must experience this epic period in history in full. This life. My life. Only I can live it.

Instead of waiting for the next flower to bloom, for the next month to be over with, I shall take in the days with my whole self. Make each one matter.

It doesn’t mean I’m not going to look forward to future flowers and fruit, for better days. It simply implies that I will endeavor to bring my best self to each day.

In keeping myself at home, it has already become apparent how ‘being busy’ is overrated. With absolutely no place to go, what one does on a quotidian basis is revealed clearly. There’s no hiding behind ‘busy’ or ‘so much to do’. We have to do what must be done. No excuses. There is time – that commodity we’re always complaining we’re short on.

Even if or especially if one is privileged to work from home, there is now time to get other things done. Without need to commute, sans distractions of unnecessary meetings or chatty colleagues, one is free to use the time to make a meal with thought and care. To connect with family and friends for meaningful conversations. To reach out to shut-in neighbors with a phone call or a note / freshly baked muffins left at the door. To complete the house tasks we’ve been putting off. In other words, pay attention to life.

At a time of frustration in not doing enough to help a situation, I’ve come to the conclusion that first and foremost, the most effective contribution we can make is to stay at home.

While my paying work as such has slowed down or completely halted, I’m now at liberty to work on creative projects that were sitting on the back burner and, make business plans that more accurately define my philosophy and philanthropy. This mandatory time at home is a gift of sorts. I appreciate it as such. On waking each morning, I’m grateful I’m still healthy and must therefore try to be and do my best.

In working in the garden, I’m particularly aware of having the time to tackle the chores with the required attention. After all, where else do I need to go? Simply breathing in the fresh air with the sun smiling down is an endowment. Working to create a beautiful, productive garden is a high honor not to be taken for granted. Ever.

The peony supports have been placed, the circulating water system for the vertical garden has been revamped and commissioned, the lawn reseeded, pruning completed, seeds such as tomato, cool weather greens and nasturtium sown and, the birdbath stands filled. Later this week, the ferns over-wintering in the potager will be transferred to their home in the vertical garden, the potager then prepared with a good layer of compost to receive vegetable plants and, the bluebird house cleaned – please let these sweet birds find it this year. All the birds are going about their business and a few have begun building nests. I’ve already observed earthworms working the soil. The pear blossom buds will be opening within the week and I’m fully expecting to see bees make their daily visits. This is life.

Soon, with the temperatures going up, the chairs will be brought out and set up around the table on the terrace for al fresco meals to be enjoyed. This alone strikes me as so special. What has thus far not seemed unusual is now distinctly a benediction.

In preparing this garden, I’m making the world that much better and beautiful. I can’t wait to share it again with everybody. It may not be much but it’ll be my best. That’s about all one can hope.

Scilla

Everything is growing!

Window-box

Hyacinths

Hellebores

Pruning hydrangea

Epsom salts feed the roses

Spreading straw over the reseeded areas

Peony supports in place

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Color Mad!

This week sure feels like spring! Colors are going to pop any moment. It is the one time of year when we’re all hungering for the entire spectrum of hues. In any mad combinations. It all looks lovely and joyous. What we’d never consider pairing in our clothing selections, look just spectacular in nature. Tasteful, subtle, elegant be damned. Give me loud, bold and gaudy. My eyes have been starved long enough, let the visual feasting begin.

Yeah, I know, the show hasn’t yet begun but this mild weather means it’ll burst upon us soon. I’m putting the brakes on my fears about too early a spring just so I’m at liberty to fully enjoy the flowers whenever they bloom. It isn’t their fault after all.

I’m going about the seasonal chores even though the temperatures give the feeling I’m somehow lagging behind. Normally, when I cut back old hellebore leaves, prune the roses etc., I’m wearing jacket and heavy gloves. Not this year. T-shirt and thin garden gloves feel just about right. Some years, I’ve even stood in several inches of snow to get the jobs done. Alas, barely any snow at all this winter. Scary for sure. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

However, that’s beside the point at present. I’m eager for color. I’ll wager you are as well. So, while we await impatiently for our gardens to start the show, I’m happy to share some pigment saturated photographs from my very recent ( two weeks ago!) trip to India.

FYI – coincidentally and appropriately, today is also the Indian festival of Holi when spring is celebrated with everybody playing and spraying color on each other with wild abandon. It is crazy fun!

Unleash your inner child’s color madness. It’ll do you a world of good. Particularly when there is so much other sort of madness whirling around out there.

Note: For your calendar – my garden’s Open Day is May 16.

Also, on July 26, through the Garden Conservancy’s Digging Deeper Program, you can learn all about espalier and vertical gardening at my garden. Register early as space is limited!

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

February Finale

The month is drawing to a close and I can hardly stand the anticipation for spring. Unlike other years, this has been a particularly mild winter. Franky, I’ve missed the snow and polar vortex. I miss normal. Yet, it’s hard to stay unaffected by all the early signals of spring. Makes me feel the need to fast forward the to-do list for spring garden chores. Yet, that voice of reason in my head whispers Not so fast – winter just might decide to make a big comeback with all the drama and power we know she’s capable of.

I’m doing my best to listen to that caution. List is on hand, plans are set, plants sourced, aspirations declared. Now, it is simply a matter of waiting. All in good time. I really don’t mind waiting as I worry that an early spring could be cut short by an early, protracted summer. That’s not good at all. We’d have to relearn gardening as we know it.

It might well be that, the inevitable, the unavoidable, the unthinkable has already arrived and settled in. Climate change has begun and we’d best acknowledge it. Gardeners are after all , the first responders of the horticultural world. This is a call to unite, act, impact, influence, protect. The moment is nigh.

February Fervor

Golden sunsets

part leaden skies

Frost and fire

earth shifts and sighs..

Wild, untamed

landscapes wait

Restless slumber

at Spring’s gate.

Crystal snow

melts in drips

Plumping roots

greening tips.

Flowing sap

send hearts aflutter

Weather and emotions

soar and splutter.

Shobha Vanchiswar

Note: Just to make a point, I offer no images this week. Imagine a world without flowers or fruit. No beautiful gardens. If we don’t do the right thing, that’ll become a reality.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Naturally Fit

It’s about that time when resolutions made on the first of January start becoming a distant memory. Studies show that gym attendance falls off, diets are cheated upon, books get read less frequently etc., It is hard to stick to resolutions. Especially ones that require diligence and perseverance like exercise. It’d be vastly easier if getting fit wasn’t so much hard work. It ought to come naturally. Long, long ago, before all the conveniences borne of the Industrial Revolution, the mere act of going about ones daily business kept a person active and fit. Admittedly, it involved a lot of labor and leisure time was scarce.

These days, we have all the creature comforts and must make the effort to stay active. Ironic no? From cooking to cleaning to laundry to grocery shopping to getting to our place of work, it is so much easier than ever before. Why, many of us now work remotely from home. It’s all good. Except for that pesky keeping fit matter.

In my view, gardening is the one pleasurable yet productive activity that still demands a good degree of physical work. Provided one hasn’t out-sourced that as well. Despite the power tools available, there is much that one must do in the garden that requires actual effort. You can sit on a tractor mower (oh the horror!) but you still have to steer and guide – I suppose that counts for something. I’ve long been a devotee of the manual push reel-mower. The quiet is only interrupted by birdsong and the occasional bark of a dog. The smell of the freshly cut grass is pure reward for the effort.

As a child in India, I’d watch the hired gardeners cut the grass with scythes whilst moving on their haunches. They were so expert at this that I believed it was easy! There is absolutely no way I’d want to try that now.

Having eliminated almost all of my lawn save for a handkerchief size area, pushing my mower is barely any work. Still, it calls for some minimal walking around, a bit of trimming the edges along the walkway that divides said area and the glorious joy of being outdoors and appearing busy.

There is however no substitute for weeding, pruning, planting, deadheading and such. Carting plant material to the compost pile, filling the wheel-barrow with compost, spreading it over the beds – that’s work. While watering is not quite the labor intensive activity it used to be, the water-barrel necessitates the filling of watering cans from it and then carrying the cans to where watering is needed. In short, there is a fair amount of walking, bending, reaching, lifting and stretching involved in the pursuit of gardening. Pretty much the stuff called for in a good workout routine. The best part is that time flies in the garden. You go into it thinking you’re going to simply walk around and maybe deadhead and before you know it, you’re weeding, staking, watering …. a good hour or two have gone by.

So maybe every time you’re in the garden, one doesn’t break out into a Peloton induced sweat. But, consistent work in the garden can add up to much more than the weekly quota of 150 minutes of exercise mandated for a healthy lifestyle. Besides, there is the added benefit of nature therapy – a proven mood lifter. All this without even going into the happiness one finds in partaking of the fruits of ones labor. Literally.

But what does a gardener do in the winter you ask? Tidy out that tool shed, give the compost heap a regular stir up – it’s mighty good resistance exercise, re-pot house plants, start those seeds you’re itching to try out, prune the plants that require a winter trim. That’s not enough? How about getting to those house chores you’ve putting off because the garden needed you? I’m pretty sure there is plenty to re-organize, fix, paint or replace. That ought to keep one actively occupied. Add a routine walk outdoors and you’ve got yourself enough to stay in shape.

I can’t think of anything as beneficial for health as gardening. It’s so good for mind, body and soul – exactly what the doctor ordered.

Disclaimer – I am not in any way suggesting one stop going to the gym or give up your regular exercise regime. I myself clock in the necessary minutes of aerobic/resistance workouts just so I’m fit enough to take on the garden. All I’m saying is that as long as one is fully engaged in gardening, one is likely doing quite well in the fitness department. We all know that gardening works on those muscles you never knew you had.

Note: Some images of February blooms –

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

February Feelings

Where did January go? Wasn’t it just yesterday when we welcomed in 2020? But here we are in February, just past the mid-point of winter. And yesterday, the New York metropolitan area enjoyed a spring-ish (yes, spring) day. Which, while out of place for this month, put me in a mind to start thinking about spring. That’s a mere six weeks away!

There are plans to make, tasks to schedule and things to get ready. Click here for a list of February chores. It’s a good comprehensive register and will get you on the right track.

Last Sunday, the grape vine was pruned. Typically, that chore is done later in the month but, given the atypically mild winter we’ve had thus far, it seemed prudent to do it ahead of time.

A friend is starting some seeds for me and I’m ever so grateful. My greenhouse is so crammed with overwintering plants that there’s no room for seed flats. Besides, my travel/work schedule is a bit more hectic this season so it is particularly nice to have one less thing to do.

Much to my family’s relief, the hyacinths I had cooling in the refrigerator ( taking up prime real estate) are slowly coming out for forcing. Observing the daily progress of these bulbs sustains me enormously. It’s funny how something as simple as that can have such a profoundly uplifting effect on the mood.

The charming pots of primroses at my area Whole Foods proved irresistible. I now have five of them in different crayon-box colors cheering up the kitchen.

Both, hyacinth bulbs and primroses will find a home in the garden once they’ve finished blooming.

In the garden, February can be an austere month. But really, it is a month of promise of the beauty and bounty to come. It provides that quiet window before spring bursts forth rambunctiously and all hands must be on deck to cope with the myriad garden chores.

February is that plain looking gift that waits patiently for its value to be discovered.

Grapevine -Before the pruning

(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

January Yearnings

I am a great believer in the seasons. Even here in my own world, I have no relish for sweet corn in January or strawberries in November.”

— Pearl S. Buck, My Several Worlds

January is for dreaming. About all things garden. These reveries are about the ideal horticultural scenarios. Perfect weather, perfectly well-behaved plants, perfect fruits and flowers … It’s how we envision our gardens to be. Without that fantasy, we could never find it in ourselves to garden. Gardening is risky! Weather and pests can put paid to all ones efforts. It’s the imagination that fuels a gardener’s ambitions. And an almost unhealthy dose of optimism/faith/whatever you choose to call it. Unlike farmers who are trying to feed the world, gardeners have a more selfish interest. We want the accolades – even if its only from a long-suffering spouse or neighbor.

Think about it. Aren’t we ever so proud when we hear “ that is the sweetest tomato I’ve tasted! ”, “ Such amazing roses!”, “ Such a perfect dahlia!”, “Wow! Are those tulips real?”, “ Your peonies are spectacular!”, “ This garden is a gem!”. Am I right? You can’t deny that you don’t feel mighty pleased. It’s no different from the ‘likes’ one looks for on social media. In both cases, it’s an addiction!

We constantly seek validation and approval. It’s a fact gardening-people! Just accept it.

And so, I’m doing my share of dreaming. The new plants I’m going to try – they are sure to impress. The flower arrangements that will adorn the house – bigger and better. The entire meals made from garden produce – most delicious ever. The lively garden parties perfumed by roses and jasmine – best soirées to get invited to.

There is no harm in dreaming. At the very least, it gets me through the winter blues. At best, the garden will benefit from my renewed enthusiasm and look delightful ( if not spectacular).

Start dreaming already! There are no rules or limits. And no one else needs to know.

Note: These are my current dreaming companions –

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

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