Homecoming

Traveling makes one modest: one sees what a tiny place one occupies in the world.”

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1830-1857

It feels good to be back home. Refreshed from my travels, I’m eager to get back in the garden. Returning after an absence always makes me approach it with some trepidation. What if something has gone terribly wrong? is a thought that hits me every single time. Thankfully, all is well. Sure the weeds have made merry, the beds are a bit messy with some plants calling it it quits for the season and, the tiny lawn is in need of a trim but in general, it’s all par for the course. The garden is transitioning into autumn.

I’d been concerned that the hummingbird feeder would run empty and thereby the birds would be denied their regular supply but it’s perplexing that after a whole two weeks, the feeder is still a third full. Have the hummingbirds moved on already? I sincerely hope nothing untoward has happened to them. I must look into understanding this before I’m consumed with worry.

The figs tree was heavy with ripe fruit that were enjoyed right away. In fact, the enthusiasm over the splendid harvest made me forget to take a photograph before they disappeared. You just have to take my word for it. The tomatoes are still going strong and I’m getting ready to make sauce for canning.

The asters are just starting to bloom and I think they’re a bit late. Usually, they’re in full swing by now. I’d actually thought I might be late to the show. The vertical garden is having its moment – looking lush and full just as so much else is waning.

The turtleheads in the meadow are growing strong. I love how dependable they are. I’ve come to the realization that the flowers of the oak-leaved hydrangea (H. quercifolia) do not last as long into fall as the my other hydrangea(H. paniculata). The former already look crisp and brown while the latter have moved from white to that soft blush that I so adore. However, the leaves of the oak-leaved have the added bonus of changing color so, I’m looking forward to that display.

All the Concord grapes have either dropped too early or the robins that nest amidst the vine have got to the fruits first. No jelly this year. So be it. Postscript -just last night I discovered that the gardeners at Hortus Arboretum and Botanical Gardens use ordinary paper lunch bags to protect their grapes. Somehow, these humble bags even survive the rain! I’ll be trying that next year.

No apples or pears either. Just as the fruit trees were in beautiful bloom in the spring, a very cold spell hit and the pollinators stayed home. The flowers spent themselves out soon after. First hand lessons in the garden. The leaves of the apples dropped off by early August and I saw that the trees at Stonecrop gardens had a similar problem but those still bore some ripening apples so, I’m a bit envious. I can only assume that the very hot months of summer took a toll and the leaves fell early.

Even in his most artificial creations, nature is the material upon which man has to work.”

— Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

It’s been a really weird summer season this year – much too hot with spells of either too much rain or complete lack thereof. Perhaps this will be the new normal and we will have to adjust what and how we garden. I’m trying to keep pace. This is after all, our future. That has to concern everyone.

In a month, I’ll be cutting and tidying in preparation for the winter. Hundreds of bulbs ordered earlier in summer will also arrive at that time for fall planting.

As the sun sets earlier and earlier, I’m determined to enjoy every available hour of daylight before I get caught up in all the busy-ness. All too soon, it’ll be winter and I want to be warmed by that sense of smugness that I had a good time while I could.

Note: I invite you to come to the “Restoring Historic Gardens” Symposium at Untermyer Gardens on Saturday October 19, 2019. I’m excited to be moderating the panel discussion that will follow after the three speakers share experiences with their respective historic gardens.

The “Walk In Our Shoes” exhibit is on till September 30. Hope you will visit this wonderful art show.

Turtleheads in the meadow
Hydrangea paniculata
Crispy flowers of the oak-leaved hydrangea
The leaves of the oak-leaved slowly changing color
Cardinal flowers still doing well
The wall
Tomatoes in the greenhouse
Figs ripening
Hot!
Pretty

(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

Back In The Garden

The weather this past weekend was nothing short of stellar. It could not be beat. Bright and sparkly, low humidity, temperatures in the low 70’s. After two weeks in rain soaked Mumbai, this was quite literally a breath of fresh air. What an amazing homecoming.

Taking advantage of this gift, I visited Stonecrop Gardens in Cold Spring, NY on Saturday. If you’ve never been, you must. It was Frank Cabot’s home – yes, the man who helped found the Garden Conservancy. You can read all about this garden on their website. It’s quite a gem.

Summer’s end is not typically the best time to visit most gardens. But I was in need of it. Inspiration is always to be found and I was not disappointed. Big splashes of summer color and a seasonal untidiness abounded. I loved the fullness of the plantings everywhere. The realities of the season made apparent by burgeoning seed-heads, flamboyant flowers, plants jostling for space in their beds and a certain wildness to it all. This was Life at full throttle. In contrast, the verdant quietude found in the wisteria pavilion by the pond provided that pause to breathe deeply and free the mind from quotidian worries.

In walking around, I realized that the high point for me, was the general end-of-season mess and the sight of the ravaged leaves of kale and other plants. Critter(s) had gone to town and riddled the leaves so they looked like badly made lace antimacassars. I found that very comforting because it made me feel like my own garden was in good company. This is the reality. If you’re using organic methods, one cannot have a pristine, near perfect, neat and tidy garden at the close of the summer. Given the strange spring and summer we have had, it’s been particularly difficult to manage the garden as one has in years past. Weather fluctuations have been so erratic that my expectations were lowered sufficiently to protect my ego from too much injury.

By observing how lovely Stonecrop looked despite everything made me see my own garden with kinder eyes and appreciation.

Energized by that visit, on Sunday, I whipped the garden into better shape. A little cosmetic fiddling goes a long way. Weeding, deadheading, pruning and a general tidying up did wonders. I revamped the window-boxes and other urns and pots with a bit of tropical flair that I can only explain as the influence of my recent sojourn to India. Traveling has that impact doesn’t it?

And now, I’m set to enjoy the remaining weeks of summer with renewed enthusiasm. Salut!

Chilies in the window boxes
Pruned back espalier
Last rose(s) of summer?
Lemons
Note the banana plants standing sentry
New batch of cool weather greens
The meadow
Pink turtleheads in the meadow
Party ready

(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

Slow Dancing With Summer

It’s July. Fireworks, fireflies, picnics, barbecues, beaches and books. In addition, for me, mosquitoes, mojitos, air-conditioning, heat, humidity and guilt. I have very mixed feelings about summer.

The light filled days promise endless hours of outdoor pleasures and the nights punctuated with bursts of firefly light and the fragrance of summer phlox and gardenias bewitch and yet, I find myself banished indoors for a good portion of the day seeking solace in air-conditioned rooms redolent with gardenia in budvases and rose-geranium infused lemonade. During the day, prone to migraines triggered by the heat and humidity, I succumb easily to those conditions. At night, the mosquitoes turn out in full force making it near impossible to sit without itching and scratching. I’m loathe to reach out for the only truly effective deterrent – a DEET spray. Using it every now and then is fine but slathering it on everyday makes me uneasy.

What works for me is to get some garden chores done in the cool, early hours of the morning. It is actually quite pleasant working at that time as the chorus of birds keep me company and the bees getting a head start to their day inspire me to get cracking with my own. At this mostly quiet period of the morning, I find myself occupied with what needs doing whilst still enjoying the garden in its rather riotous state of summer growth. A good couple of hours go by before I’m made aware that I’m hot, uncomfortable and quite ready to escape to cooler confines.

I’m certainly not inclined to deprive myself of the joys of spending summer nights watching fireflies and inhaling the sweet perfumes of flowers that I’ve grown for that very purpose. Spritzing myself with a blend of citronella and cloves I go forth into the evening. A fan is brought out to do double duty – deter all flying bugs and keep us relatively comfortable in the circulating air. The DEET spray is always on stand-by – it’s a love-hate relationship.

At a party last week, I was introduced to a new anti-mosquito gadget brought to the event for a test run by another friend. It seemed to work as I was not bitten that evening. So I’ve purchased one for my own use. Before I rush to endorse it, I shall use it a few times first. Stay tuned.

To take advantage of the warmer months, I ease up on chores and find myself slowing down my pace. More books are read, outdoor summer concerts and plays replace screen-time almost entirely. It seems only right to linger over al fresco meals and sip a cocktail or two slowly as one walks around inspecting the garden. Impromptu picnics, sunset viewings and star gazing stretch out the season. Time is taken to savor the bounty from the garden and farm stand. I love to slowly roast corn on the cob directly over the coals and then, with a sprinkling of flakes of sea salt and a dusting of cayenne pepper brightened with a splash of lime, it explodes in the mouth in a burst of sweet, salty, spicy and sour. Divine. And how about a watermelon salad tossed with fresh cherry tomatoes, feta and torn up basil? I think I even eat ice cream more slowly and mindfully in summer than at any other season.

While I’m reveling in the unhurried rhythm of summer, there is a fair amount of guilt that shadows me. The garden looks like a small child allowed to dress herself. Sweet but quite messy. I’m not keeping up with the pace the plants grow and need deadheading, staking and trimming. Weeds shoot up even as I work to keep them at bay. The tiny lawn looks ragged beseeching me for a regular feed of compost and the meadow quickly gets overrun by jewelweed smothering out less aggressive but more desirable plants. Still consumed with guilt, I’m determined to go on fully engaging with summer. It’s all too short and I know I will regret it if I have too few memories of it to keep me warm in winter.

And so I keep dancing with summer. Barefoot and guilty.

Note: Images of the neglected state of my garden – they should make you feel good about yours!

Wisteria in need of some grooming. But the geraniums divert your attention!
Wall pots straggling
Foxgloves need deadheading
Meadow could use some thinning out
Gardenia ready to be picked for indoor enjoyment
Sanguisorba ‘Alba’ having its moment
Asters waiting to be cut by one-third for better fall display
Acabthus in bloom but what’s that allium doing there?!
The pretty astilbe are being hidden by the overgrown asters.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Good Time(ing)s

In general, once my garden Open Day has passed, a respite of sorts is granted. The garden looks its best, all the heavy work is over and it’s simply a matter of maintenance. Weeding, watering, deadheading, mowing – the usual tasks to keep the garden looking neat and cared for. It’s time to start relaxing and lolling about in the garden. But not this year.

I had, over this past winter, decided to go for a bigger push in the ‘meadow’. Envisioning this space as a true four season performance arena and inspired by Piet Oudolf’s matrix planting system, I ordered 18 different native plants totaling 200 plants. That’s a lot of plants. Given that the ‘meadow’ already has a range of plants and bulbs in residence, the new introductions would be a bit of a challenge. So, I sourced a nursery that would provide young plugs of the plants making it a bit easier to get into the ground between the existing plants.

This new order arrived a day before the Open Day. Needless to say, planting them had to wait. Given the need to take a little time off post-Open Day and a couple of days of inclement weather, a whole week went by. Memorial weekend it had to be. As much as I was keen on simply enjoying the long weekend with no tasks on the agenda, the plugs of plants could not be ignored. Hence, over the afternoon of Saturday to well past sunset we planted one side of the ‘meadow’. The weather was ideal but getting around the established plants was a game of Twister. Marking the spots for the plugs using bamboo stakes, making the holes ( my engineer husband/under-gardener used a drill and that made it so much better) and placing the plants took so much longer than if one were starting on a blank canvas of earth. Our sore backs and legs were testaments to the effort.

Sunday dawned and we began at 8:00am by which time it was already hot and humid. So vastly different from the day before. The bugs were out in full swing. We finally got all the planting done barely in time to start preparing for our first garden party of the season. We hadn’t as yet shopped for the event! Needless to say, it became a marathon of shopping, prepping, baking (dessert), setting up, laying the table, firing up the outdoor wood-fired oven, showering and dressing … in a matter of hours.

All was accomplished just in time for the first guests’ arrival. Whew!

Then, just as the party was nicely underway and we were considering starting on pizza making, the first raindrops dropped. Yikes! Very soon we realized it was only going to get worse. This crowd was not the kind to run indoors. Not a chance. Instead, with all hands on deck, a big tarpaulin was spread and tethered over the pergola ( with me urging them to “mind the wisteria buds!”). The pop-up tent was brought out of storage and commissioned to allow the pizza-maker/husband and guest helpers to work unfettered by the rain. And the party continued in much hilarity and good cheer. Well into the night.

Planting time, good times – it’s all in the timing. And a can-do attitude.

P.S – Aforementioned under-gardener has categorically stated that he is done with all planting for the rest of the growing season. Hmmm, we shall see about that.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Weather Perfect

A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves.” Marcel Proust

Ah, Open Day has come and gone leaving me with a sense of relief, well-being and satisfaction. The weather was perfect. After three straight years of cold, wind and rain on Open Day, this exquisite day was well overdue.

The sun shone bright, the air was dry, the temperature was ideal – not hot, not cold, a gentle breeze prevailed and the garden was filled with the buzz, tweets and hums of bees, birds and butterflies. The flowers rose to the occasion and shone bright and beautiful. I could not have asked for any better.

It is almost impossible not to respond positively to weather such as that. There is an imperceptible yet powerful shift in one’s mood and outlook. For myself, it felt as though a new energy had moved into my body. Being outside in the garden felt so right. There was no other place to be. No bugs biting, no jackets weighing me down, no sweat to wipe off and, best of all, no chores to do. This was as good as it gets.

It was the perfect weather to share the garden. And the garden looked its best despite the cold and rain it had endured thus far this spring. Several plants were lagging in their bloom time but the others stepped up admirably. Every visitor arrived with happy spirits and curious minds. Of the 100 or so visitors, I did not encounter a single person with the slightest hint of negativity.

As much as I love sharing my garden, I adore meeting other gardeners and garden lovers. I learn so much. This time, I picked up on a new-for-me nursery to check out, a few gardens I must visit, a book to add to my summer reading, enjoyed several good laughs, received feedback on my own garden and made new partners in horticultural-crime. At the end of the day, I was so much the richer – in heart and head.

Under such ideal conditions, it was inevitable that the best conversations ensued, strangers became friends, and for the one brief day, all was well with the world. Marcel Proust was so right.

A heartfelt thank you to all who made this Open Day a resounding success. Visitors, volunteers, friends and family – nothing is possible without you.

Note: Here are lots of photos for all those of you who failed to show up!

IMG_1343

Friends from Chicago

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

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It’s Open Season!

My garden’s Open Day is this Saturday, May 18. I’m hard at work primping and propping the garden to get it looking it’s best for you. So, cancel everything else and come on over. I’d love to see you here!

I was in Evanston, Illinois this past weekend and even though part of that time it was cold and wet, I was struck by how much horticultural effort is put into making the heart of the city look attractive. Tulips waved madly in bright colors on traffic islands, pocket parks and around trees along the streets. So cheery and seasonal. And very easy to do. I’m eager to see what the next plantings of annuals will be.

But beyond the show of annuals, I observed that there is a thoughtful approach to infusing seasonal color and fragrance in the landscape through the use of perennials. A small park dividing a busy road, is bordered with hedges of viburnum. I smelled the park before I noticed it! The viburnums were in full bloom and the fragrance wafted far and wide. Pure heaven. As though reminding pedestrians to pause a moment and refresh the spirit – be present. What a lovely idea. Flower beds within the park abounded in tulips but there were many perennials emerging through. Three benches and a single sculpture completed this perfect oasis.

Swathes of Virginia bluebells carpeted several other green spaces for the public to enjoy and under many hedges I noticed abundant lily-of-the-valley leaves unfurling in readiness for the sweet bells of white to perfume the days ahead – subliminally cheering the outlooks of passers-by.

I had hoped to visit Millennial Park in Chicago and take in the plantings but my schedule did not permit it. Instead, I got to experience the glorious efforts of a much smaller city that could match its big neighbor handily. My well is full.

Note : Enjoy some images of plantings in Evanston. I look forward to seeing you in my garden this Saturday!

Depending on which device you are reading this, some images appear on their side. I have no idea how to fix it. My apologies! Also, the pocket park appears expansive in the photos – it isn’t in reality!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

There Are Gnomes In The Garden!

Gnomes. Makes you recall those all too familiar, garishly painted figures with pointy hats right? While these spirit creatures hark back to the 17th century and earlier, their presence today is viewed as somewhat naive and old-fashioned. Like gazing balls, they recall earlier times and are not commonly seen in today’s gardens. Truth be told, I myself have never been taken by them.

That is, until I recently came upon a modern take on gnomes at the Sullivan galleries in Chicago where highly talented, emerging ceramist August Brosnahan was debuting his gnome collection. And the creatures were getting a lot of attention and interest. Here is how Brosnahan describes his work –

I am interested in human interactions with objects and how objects help us relate to the world around us. Whether it be the handle of a mug or the facial expression on a figurative sculpture, these objects have unsaid and sometimes unnoticed methods of guiding us through spaces. Humans spend a tremendous amount of time interacting with clay and ceramic objects. I believe that humans have deep-seated connections with ceramics, more so than other materials, due to the rich history we share with clay. This mindset is central to the form and presentation of my work as I create intimate connections between viewers and the object.

Another element that is central to my practice is my love for walking. I have recently distanced myself from the white-walled gallery as I spend hours in forests and fields. A notable example of this is my ongoing series, “Gnomes.” I create small personified objects that preferably exist in an outdoor setting. Multiples of these objects create a community that viewers can interact with by walking through the same space that the gnomes exist in. I activate the space that the viewer is standing in rather than a space that the viewer is looking at. With my work I hope to re-invigorate the overlooked spaces of our day-to-day lives.”

I have long championed sculpture in the garden. Art in an outdoor space adds a new dimension and there is a shift in context that enriches the experience as opposed to seeing the same sculpture indoors. At this particular art show, I could clearly imagine how they might transform a garden or park. My curiosity to actually see that happen led to inviting the artist to show some of his work at my garden on Open Day.

So, five pieces were carefully packed and shipped to New York. I worked with Brosnahan on siting the gnomes in the garden and I’m really excited to share them with visitors on May 18th.

Meant for outdoor spaces, the seemingly whimsical pieces urge the viewer to consider the dynamics between all the elements in a space. The ceramic gnomes make one aware that there is an energy and presence beyond that which we can physically see or feel. They appear to blend into the background and yet, manage to surprise and be noticed. These sculptures maintain continuity in the human history of personifying natural and designed spaces. The impact is subtle and fresh. A modern twist to an old tradition.

Several weeks ago, I hinted that I was working on a new project in the garden – just for Open Day. This is it! I look forward to introducing you to the gnomes. See you in the garden on May 18.

Note: Open Day is less than two weeks away!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Garden Things

I’m in the thick of garden fever. Open Day is less than three weeks away. When I’m not actually in the garden, I’m thinking about it, perusing garden literature or talking about it. So much to consider – chores, plants, tips, new-to-me information, weather, wildlife, one’s own limitations ( physical, budget, time…), successes and failures. It’s never ending and I realize how tedious this can be for a non-gardener. A friend asked recently why gardeners always talked about the amount of work, the perils, trials and tribulations and then insisted on continuing the activity of gardening. How could I possibly convince her that those things are all part of the joy of gardening?!

It’s always exciting to learn something new and I’m happy to share. Maybe everybody is aware already but I discovered only recently that fritillaria are closely related to lilies. That in itself doesn’t make one sit up but here’s the reason to pay attention – they are just as attractive to the pretty but vile red lily beetle. Ugh. I’d all but stopped growing lilies because those horrid insects would always show up to ruthlessly decimate them. Now I have to worry about the many fritillaria I’m so happy to grow in the garden. Oy vay.

The somewhat low height ( 5 feet) at which the bluebird house is set up leaves it vulnerable to predators that can easily scramble up the metal pole to access the eggs/babies. It is worrisome and yet, the bluebirds prefer that open, low location. A coating of automotive grease along the length of the pole and over the copper covered roof helps enormously in deterring snakes, cats and squirrels. An easy solution like this always pleases me – fingers crossed it works.

All the stakes and supports are put in place before the plants are fully grown and it gets complicated to support them discretely. I also see this as a way to show the plants that I believe in their ability to reach their highest potential. Sly horticultural psychology.

Over the years, the labels marking the assorted apple and pear trees of the espalier had faded. It’s so easy to get lax about keeping things such as labels in order. At the espalier, it is particularly relevant to see which tree is bearing fruit and which is not. It might simply be an academic sort of accounting but I believe good gardening should come with a sound knowledge of what’s going on everywhere in the garden. I’ve now relabeled the fruit trees and must admit to an undeserving amount of satisfaction.

In my bid to tweak things a bit, I’ve moved around an object or two, refreshed a couple of walls with a lick of paint and replaced a feature with another. In the process, my own spirit has been tweaked and I’m in a much better frame of mind. Go figure.

And so it goes. Seemingly small investments of time, energy and resources but with nice dividends.

Note – Open Day is May 18th!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar