January Jubilation

We’re already half-way into January – where did the time go?! It’s as though the new year was welcomed only yesterday. Yet, the record low temperatures we’re experiencing has made the days seem slow. Apart from a brief spike in temperature towards the end the last week, it really has been unbearably cold. On the up side, this has made me turn to the indoors. I’m reorganizing and rearranging. During the course of the years, so much in the house goes by the way side when engaged in the purpose of living. Now is the perfect time to look around and take stock of all those neglected tasks. A lick of paint, a spot of cleaning, some repair, a few replacements and a whole lot of editing. I’m cleaning up and paring down. In getting rid of anything that is no longer useful and re-purposing other items to serve me the way I now live, I’m giving my home up to my speed. Nothing dramatic or elaborate but significant to me nonetheless. Taking on this ‘project’ is infusing me with an enormous dose of enthusiasm. The sense of aligning the home space to one’s current lifestyle is pure bliss.

That doesn’t mean I’m not looking outside. I gaze at the garden in winter from the windows and whenever I’m feeling brave enough, the occasional turn in the garden itself. It is garden-dreaming season after all. The bones of the garden show up clearly in winter. And for the most part, I’m liking what I see. There is sufficient visual interest. The espalier of fruit trees takes on the role of a dominant sculpture. “Wind Song”, the sculpture seems to come alive as it reflects and fractures the light that hits it. And on windy days, it appears to mimic the swaying boughs and branches.

Viewed from the kitchen window one storey above, the potager looks as though it belongs in a cloister – orderly and graceful, waiting to serve again. Along the driveway, the vertical garden hangs as a large piece of abstract art. The whispering sounds of the now dry fronds of ferns add another experiential element in the viewing of it.

In the checkerboard garden, the smooth, white coating of snow on the squares of stone contrast beautifully with the bumpy, dark and light flecked squares of creeping phlox.

Cleared of snow, the walkway looks like a zipper running between the sheet of snow inviting passage to the shelter of the house.

Finally, lets not miss the shadows cast on the snow by the low winter sun. Oh the shapes and forms interweaving between trees and trellis! They move – growing and receding with the day. A slow, certain dance to the silent music of light.

Ah January, you offer up such quiet joy.

Note: I’ve been very inspired by the winter landscape so enjoy the photos and a couple of recent paintings!

Watercolor ‘Winter Shadows”

Watercolor – ‘Winter Pas De Deux’

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Plant Wise

After two weeks of arctic temperatures and a “bomb cyclone” thrown in for good measure, I’m feeling particularly grateful for central heating and Netflix. When it’s so cold that any time spent outdoors is nothing short of torturous, it brings to mind how easily we take our creature comforts for granted.

Too warm, there’s air-conditioning. Too cold, central heating. Too buggy, window-screens. Too much food, refrigeration. Clothes for all seasons, comfortable couches, cozy beds, running water both hot and cold, well-equipped cars, myriad choices for entertainment, constant connectivity to everything/everyone and, so it goes. And yet, we grumble.

If our basic needs of food, shelter and requisite clothing are taken care of, everything else is gravy. Really. Just look to the garden. A plant given its primary requirements of light, water and residency, thrives gloriously. It doesn’t ask for any more or any less. Satisfied, the plant does exactly as it ought. It withstands the storms, occasional neglect and unexpected variabilities in weather. Plants are resilient.

We humans are resilient too. We tend to forget that. Instead, we get angry, upset or into a panic. It helps to remind ourselves that our kind has seen just about everything through the ages. Famines, droughts, deluges, fires, earthquakes, wars, tsunamis, storms, avalanches, more wars, meteor hits, locust invasions, volcano eruptions, yet more wars – we have endured them all.

So this recent dip in temperatures is nothing in the big picture. We’re already rebounding as temperatures climb to normal this week. What we need to keep in mind is that while we make the most of good times, we must be prepared for the not so good ones. Plants store energy, they know to conserve/go dormant/set surplus seed as stressful conditions arise. They are in tune with themselves and the environment. There is now scientific evidence that should a tree come under siege, they send signals to their neighbors and even further beyond so those plants can arm themselves by producing chemicals to thwart the enemy.

Hence, taking a leaf (!) from a plant’s survival manual, we too can be prepared for most of life’s curve-balls. From stocking up on food and fuel supplies within reason ( it’s about having sufficient reserves not hoarding ) to maintaining physical and mental wellness to keeping our homes and cars energy efficient and in good running order ( think roof repairs, insurance, wills, safety measures etc., ) we get ourselves ready. Going beyond ones own needs, we think and do similarly for our communities, cities, nation and beyond. Yep, that’s it. And no whining allowed.

Typically, we look to freshen up our home at this time of year. Do check out the “Printed Garden” collection – works with any decor! Free shipping within the 48 contiguous US states!

Mark your 2018 calendar! Saturday May 18 is Open Day at my garden!

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Amaryllis Tree

A new year has begun! With it arrives new hope, new goals and, new beginnings. In the process of getting myself prepared for the year that lies ahead, I’m taking the time to review the one that just passed. The highs and the lows are both meaningful and relevant – they give me purpose and direction. My Amaryllis ‘tree’ begun this past year in December is entering the new year with grace and promise – much as I myself aspire..

The tree came into existence as an experiment of sorts. Science and art uniting to give creative aplomb to an otherwise ordinary space. Well, it has proved a success. Dubbed a pathetic variation of a ‘Charlie Brown tree’ by my oh so jaded 20 year old, it admittedly started off looking inconsequential. Even a bit odd. But, having gardened long enough, I knew this was no different from planting a new bed or hedge. Things don’t look like much at the start but, in due course they come into their own and create the very drama one envisioned all along. Very satisfying that.

So, I’m taking this tree as a foretoken of how I will approach this new year. An opportunity to experiment, think differently, try new things. Apply knowledge and understanding to create something fresh. Be bold. Believe in myself and the Universe despite certain nay-sayers. Be it small or big, let no opportunity go unexplored . Get out of the box and stretch myself. Just like the fierce, fearless, fabulous amaryllis, I have within me everything I need to bloom.

And said 20 year old has grudgingly conceded that yes, the amaryllis tree is quite stunning. I would say that’s an excellent start to the new year wouldn’t you?!

Happy New Year all around. Let’s make it the best one yet.

Note: See the Amaryllis tree for yourself. I’ve provided a neutral backdrop so the ‘tree’ shows up more clearly.

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

All Is Calm, All Is Bright

The merry chaos of Christmas is over. It’s Boxing Day today and I’m loving the quiet. A day of leftovers and recovery! Let the peace of winter begin.

Of course, the mind never rests. Winter is for dreaming and planning without the distraction of chores awaiting in the garden. I’ve gathered my garden catalogs, magazines, photographs and notes taken through the year to remind me of plants I’ve coveted and areas in the garden that did well and those that did not. In the calm of the next few weeks, I will come up with a million wishes that will get whittled into a few, select, realistic plans. At this time each year, I’m determined that in the coming year, my garden is going to look better than ever before. Dream on.

Note: It was a beautiful white Christmas. Here is my garden transformed – but first,

As promised, here is my ‘modern’ tree. I believe the family has learned to appreciate it.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Rust Never Sleeps

The garden has been put to bed. Apart from greenhouse duties such as watering, refilling the propane tanks that heat it and keeping an eye out for any abnormalities in temperature and/or disease, very little needs doing in the garden. Every snowfall adds a calm beauty and it feels good to become an armchair gardener with seed catalogs, horticulture magazines and a soothing ( or stimulating) drink on hand.

Not so fast. Before ensconcing yourself in that cozy couch by the fireplace, do a bit more of garden related housekeeping. You’ll be glad you did when spring comes around. Give your garden tools some attention. A bit of timely TLC will go a long way in keeping them in good condition.

First and foremost, clean all your tools. Secateurs and loppers, trowels, spades and forks and the lawn mower all need to be wiped or washed clean with warm, soapy water. Dry them thoroughly. Get the blades sharpened either yourself or send them out. I give mine to the local hardware store and in a few weeks they are returned to me sharp and ready. Winter is a relatively slow time for hardware stores so they will not only welcome your business but can get it done in good time. Besides, you are not in any hurry at present.

Once the tools are all honed into shape, they need a thin smear of grease to protect them from any humidity and subsequent rust. As you know, rust never sleeps so, it behooves us to take preventative measures. Throughout the year, after every use, I sink the blade ends of my clean hand tools in a bucket of sand and a little motor oil. Keeps them in good condition for longer.

Whilst dealing with the tools, I also take stock of my supply of twine and ties, stakes and supports, seed starter trays, potting soil and, any organic products like dormant oil and seaweed/fish emulsion I know I will need as soon as winter shows signs of receding.

With these tasks taken care of, the bird-feeder filled regularly and, hideaways of some stacks of logs and leaf-piles left in far corners of of the garden for hibernating, garden-friendly critters, that seat by the fire is yours for the rest of winter. Enjoy.

Happy Solstice! From Dec 22 onwards, the days start getting longer. Hallelujah. I’ll be using each day’s additional minute for taking deep breaths and calming the mind. A gift to give oneself.

Since my tools are all put away, here are a couple of my watercolors instead!

 

10 Cold, Hard Truths About Gardening

I’ve been gardening one way or other for most of my life. So it stands to reason that I’ve learned a lot, done a lot and, failed more than I care to remember. Here is what I wish someone had told me before some of those mistakes were made:

1. Set your expectations low. When you do that, everything appears as a success.

2. Max out your pots, window-boxes and urns with seasonal annuals. They will scream so much for attention that nobody will notice the perennial beds overrun with weeds and bereft of whatever was supposed to be blooming that day.

3. Beware other gardeners bearing gifts. We are notorious for sharing – mostly those plants that tend to run hog wild.

4. You are not supreme commander of your garden. The squirrels own that title. They will dig up, munch on, toss up and vandalize right before your visitors are set to arrive.

5. Never tell anybody that your magnolias/tulips/roses/peonies/lilies/irises/any other plant are about to burst into flower. As soon as you do that, an animal, child or act of nature will destroy the entire batch of buds.

6. Pets like dogs should be banned from gardens. Do not listen to anybody who says otherwise. Dogs will dig up beds, kill the lawn with their urine, chase away good creatures like birds, openly use the garden as self-appointed canine fertilizers, somehow make friends with your enemies the squirrels and deer and select your prize patch of jack-in-the-pulpits as their nap station. Please do not write saying otherwise – I will not be dissuaded. I absolutely adore dogs but refuse allow them in my garden. Period.

7. Always buy two of every tool. Keep one set hidden – that set is solely for your own use. Don’t tell anyone about it. The other set of tools are kept out for the use all ( aka those who lose and/or abuse the tools). You will look like a good sharer and will keep your sanity at the same time.

8. Invest in a good manicure and blow-out the day before you have visitors to your garden. You will look and feel good and your guests will marvel at how you create such an amazing paradise whilst looking so flawless. Smile and graciously accept all the compliments.

9. Get children to help. No, really. Their small hands can pull out emerging weeds more easily than your own large paws. Similarly, they can deadhead pretty thoroughly too. The child with the largest harvest of weeds and/or dead flowers gets an extra scoop of ice-cream. Caveat – be sure you have taught them to identify the weed or else they will remove all your nascent self-seeders like columbines, cleomes, forget-me-nots and such.

10. Gardening is bloody hard work.

Note: Do visit this show!

December 11 − December 22
Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.;
Saturday and Sunday: 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Art Students League: The Phyllis Harriman Mason Gallery
 
Enjoy some of my December-thus-far photos:

First snow of this winter

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Grow And Give

Stop Press! I’m in the NY Times!

Thanksgiving! I love this holiday. It elevates the concept of everyday gratitude to a national celebration. It also makes us accountable – how has the year been and how have we made the best of it? This holiday is an annual reminder that one ought to make every day matter. In doing so, we experience personal growth and consequently, have more to offer to the world.

The garden inevitably teaches me how to deal with the highs and lows. Adverse conditions like high heat, storms, drought and such might stunt or stop the plants from growing but, they take it in stride. As soon as the circumstances improve or let up they rally back and push forward. A shrub loses a good portion of itself in an ice-storm and the remaining part will compensate and thrive till the plant is restored and whole once more. A tree topples over in high winds causing some damage to the garden but the exposure to more sunlight promotes fresh plant growth and new opportunities to the gardener while the fallen tree itself enriches the soil as it decays and offers itself up to all sorts flora and fauna.

When the going is good, the garden provides an abundance that one must share. Be it inviting folk to came and enjoy the garden in full glory to taking a bunch of flowers to cheer up a neighbor or donating produce to a food bank. We give our thanks in actions.

The garden has been put to bed but accommodations have been provided for critters such as toads, butterflies, birds and bees ( and in all probability mice ) by way of the compost pile, some corners with leaf litter and/or wood piles, brambly shrubs near the woods and other sheltered hideaways.

On my part, I am grateful for so much. From monumental stuff like my family growing by the arrival of a second great-niece, launching my ‘Printed Garden’ collection, evolving in my art and participating in a record number of shows both solo and group, my poem being read at a community event, my efforts as a gardener getting recognition in the New York Times ( admittedly, I’m really kicked about this!), zip-lining over the rain-forests in Costa Rica to seemingly minor but no less significant events like vacations, reunions with family and friends, coaxing a finicky plant to flourish, reading some good books, seeing an amazing play, making new friends, discovering a new, now favorite restaurant, the list is actually endless.

That’s not to forget how much loss and suffering there has been nationally and internationally. I’m dropping off supplies for a few Thanksgiving meals at my local food pantry, shopping locally, renewing memberships to museums and botanical gardens, donating to the Red Cross, Salvation Army and to http://www.visitcalifornia.com/attraction/grateful-table . This last one helps the vineyards devastated by the fires in northern California. In giving, we grow.

A very happy, abundant Thanksgiving to each of you.

Enjoy the pictures of seasonal abundance:

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Guided By Nature

Nature never ceases to amaze and impress. Sure she has her moments of rage and recalcitrance but even then she does it with unrestrained shock and awe as if to remind us that we are not the ones in charge. Subtle is not her general style. It’s no wonder that we humans learn our best life lessons by staying close to Mother Nature. Humble, respectful and optimistic.

I’ve written periodically about lessons I’ve learned from being outdoors and observing the natural world. From the virtues of being patient to letting go of the fierce need to control everything to being present in any given moment, I’m a devoted and dedicated student. I really am better off when I’ve spent time each day communing with Nature.

I don’t know about you but waking up each morning to a stream of bad news has me on edge. The ensuing sense of helplessness and hopelessness impacts me so much that I feel stressed even before I’ve begun my day. I dread checking the news and yet, I know I cannot live in blissful ignorance forever. After all, knowledge is power right? One has to be the change and all.

I’ve decided I cannot become a victim to all the negative forces out there or let matters beyond my control fester within. A plan is in motion. Each day, I stay away from catching up with the news until I’ve done a few things to bolster my spirits, my mind and my body. I’m sharing because I think if you follow my weekly posts with any regularity, you too feel as despondent as I do. Together we can do better.

First thing upon awaking, from my bed I gaze out the window and reckon with the weather and strain to hear the birds. There’s something about birdsong that I find reassuring. A rainy day of course precludes listening to any avian activity but instead, the sound of water can be soothing. However it looks outside, I determine something positive. Sunny is easy as it is cheery and invites outdoor time. Overcast – colors of flowers and foliage show up better; good for photographing. Rainy – good for plants and the water-table. Snow – pretty, provides much needed insulation for hibernating plants, has cross-country skiing or snowshoeing possibilities! Stormy – perfect day for staying cozy and grateful to be working indoors. You see? A simple switch in attitude makes a huge improvement to the mood. It’s as though we’re being given cues or nudges to take charge of ourselves and make the best of any situation. Carpe diem.

Unless forced to remain inside, I get outdoors first thing in the morning and engage in my daily communion with Nature.  I go walking and observe the trees and birds. My walk is followed by a quick tour of the garden to appreciate what’s doing. This single activity never fails to instruct my mind to rise above the mundane and seek the extraordinary. Nature’s artistry is so astoundingly beautiful that every day feels fresh and new. I stay a while longer meditating and breathing deeply.

The Japanese have a practice called shinrin-yoku or forest-bathing. The idea is simple: if a person simply visits a natural area and walks in a relaxed way there are calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits to be achieved. Many other cultures prescribe the equivalent of shinrin-yoku. So I’m not doing anything new or radical. I’m merely suggesting that we each reconnect with Nature purposefully. She’s right there for the taking.

By the time I get indoors, I’m upbeat, my creative juices are flowing, my body feels limber and, with fresh perspective, I’m ready for my day. I can’t quite explain it but then, I don’t need to. I merely have to allow Nature to work her magic on me. There is a sacred quality about it.

With the coffee brewing, I review my agenda and plan my tasks. Then, and only then, whilst sipping my coffee do I sit down to read the news. A half hour of that and no more. There’s work to be done. A world to make better.

At a later time, after I’ve accomplished some tasks, I can take a break and catch up further on all the news.

Some elements of my morning ‘ritual’ might seem corny and/or elementary to cynical minds but give it a shot. You have nothing to lose but a dismal outlook. Besides, solid research backs up all the stuff I do. So there.

Mark your calendars! Save the date! My garden’s 2018 Open Day has been set – it’s Saturday May 19.

Permit these photos to remind you that the world is still beautiful :

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Community Ties

I live in a town with a strong community spirit. We care about our children and our schools, we’re avid readers and our amazing library bears testimony to it, how charming the town looks is a result of an active garden club and a Beautification Advisory board. We recycle judiciously, have a no-plastic bags policy, compost and mulch is available for the taking at our busy recycling center, much of our electricity comes from wind energy, and our water is top notch safe. Our Historical Society is well supported, the town offers senior citizens an array of activities and services and we have a deep commitment to arts and culture. We are a very inclusive, supportive, forward thinking lot – all are welcome and embraced. I realize this is beginning to sound too good to be true and you’re right. We do have our differences and disputes but given the general parameters of what makes a town good, I sincerely believe we have right here much to appreciate and cherish.

But, that is no reason to be complacent. There is always room for improvement. We can, should and must do better.

The downtown area is currently undergoing a massive face-lift. Infrastructural issues are being addressed as well matters of making the commercial/public areas more attractive and user-friendly. While we grumble about the inconveniences it is expected that the new look will be worth it. Fingers crossed.

So here is my beef. As a commuting community where a high percentage of us take the train to work, the land running along the length of the train tracks could use a makeover. Our station itself is a historical building and has been lovingly restored. A very nice restaurant operates in it. The parking lots and the station grounds are clean and groomed. But the sorry looking, scrubby mess that one views whilst waiting for the train is a real eyesore.

It’s not just about aesthetics which by itself would be a worthy thing but, I believe it could have a positive effect on the commuters. Just as any time spent in a garden/ park or a walk (however brief) in the woods is known to improve ones physical, mental and emotional well being, viewing a stretch of interesting and attractive plants in the time spent waiting for the train would certainly do much to improve a person’s mood. Subtly, sub-consciously nature works wonders on us. Why not do what we can to help ourselves be well?

A month ago, I was in the Chicago area. I used to go to grad school there so I’m quite familiar with the area. As a result, I easily notice changes in the surrounding towns and much has changed indeed! One of the things that has captivated me is the embankment area running along the train tracks in the town of Wilmette which is a suburb rather similar to my town here in New York.

At one time, this stretch of land was full of wild vegetation that received minimum care and certainly no approving viewers. No longer. Today, there is a stunning prairie garden running parallel to the tracks. I’m completely enamored by this development. As the tracks leave Wilmette the land next to the tracks reverts to the usual ho-hum of rubbish plants. The contrast is stark. But, it shows what an astounding difference it makes to go to the trouble of deliberately creating such a landscape.

In making such an appropriately prairie style garden, no doubt native fauna populations have also been revived. The benefits to the area at large is immeasurable. Upkeep demands are much lower in such spaces. The initial investments to transform this area are surely more than worthwhile. Good for the environment, good for the commuters and good for the town overall.

Certainly the wildly popular High-Line park in Manhattan also serves as a big inspiration. The very concept is genius and how it all came together is brilliant. The power of the people is formidable.

I’d like to think that the enlightened residents of my town will see the advantages of doing something similar. Thus, I’m toying with ways to put this idea to the powers that be. It’s easy to discuss the merits of such an endeavor but the costs are always what makes them balk at new proposals. I’m thinking a local version of a Go Fund Me to get the project started and then maybe an Adopt A Length Of Track plan to cover maintenance costs. Similar to the successful Adopt A Highway program in NYC.

Imagine miles and miles of splendid, native plantings soothing our souls, coloring the seasons, enriching the environment and connecting us all …

I’m open to other ideas and welcome input from anybody interested in this idea so it can be put to the Town Board in a well constructed manner. Start thinking!

Note : I present to you photos of the plantings in Wilmette and High-Line.

Wilmette along the tracks- taken at different sections –

High-Line in October and December –

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Gift Of The Ordinary

It’s been hard to get away from the news these days. Everywhere one looks there is something gone awry. Disorder, discord and destruction is seemingly the new normal. Tempers are running high while spirits are low. Between Mother Nature’s might and all the political unrest, our world feels unsettled and out of alignment. It’s an extraordinarily heartbreaking time at present. It’s overwhelming and one wonders what the point of it all might be. While I reach out to those struggling to recover from natural disasters and man-made horrors, my heart reminds me to seek solace in the gift of the ordinary.

We take ordinary for granted. In fact, we often complain about it right? Seeking excitement and the extraordinarily, we whine about the same old-same old, the mundane, the quotidian. But it’s precisely those humdrum, routine tasks that give us certain assurance. They tell us that all is as it should be. Things are normal. There is wondrous peace in that.

This past week, in trying to process all the goings on and looking for how I can be of most service, I’ve found such comfort in doing the unremarkable chores in the garden. Whilst weeding, I’ve observed the earthworms tilling the earth and the bees making their rounds. The seed pods rattling in the breeze that brings a fresh shower of leaves in colors of the sun. I’ve taken note of the slender green needles of emerging grass from the recently seeded front lawn. In tucking away the pots of tender plants into the greenhouse, I’m reassured that they will be warm and safe through the cold months. Picking Swiss chard for supper, I’m struck by how much I enjoy this vegetable and how it keeps giving well into early December. Washing out the large pots now emptied of their seasonal contents, I watch the birds raid the meadow for seeds and bugs. The low slant of the afternoon light sets aglow the asters as though reminding the butterflies and bees there remains only a few more hours before visiting hours are over. Meanwhile, in another corner, the light turns the swaying heads of ornamental grasses into feathers of polychromatic optic fibers. Cutting back the plants will have to wait another week or two – this senescence is so beautiful .

These familiar chores put my heart at ease and for one all too brief period, my fear, anxiety, anger, sorrow and frustration are forgotten. Ordinary is good.

I wrote the poem below three years ago. It expresses the same sentiments.

The Gift Of The Ordinary

The early demand

to make room

for still warm toes

and sleep tousled hair

against my languid self.

 

Sandwiched between

husband and child

Wide awake

much too hot

wouldn’t change a thing.

 

Quick kisses, rushed goodbyes

Sudden quiet amidst the dishes

Hours open

creative freedom

the comfort of home.

 

Laundry rituals, weekly menus

Deadlines, submissions

instep with

family time, date night

snatched moments of solitude.

 

Belonging, beloved

sleep deprived on a good day

Supported, cheered

trailing behind on paperwork

The gift of the ordinary.

                                             –Shobha Vanchiswar

Note: I hope you will visit one or all of the art shows I’m in this month!

Rainbow chard

Moving into the greenhouse in progress

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar