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

Marking Time In March

March has arrived like a lamb. With the temperatures in the fifties, it sure feels like spring – that’s ten to fifteen degrees higher than normal. Make what one will of this new normal but it is hard not to appreciate the weather and assume spring is here already.

The snowdrops are still going strong. With continued mild weather, I’m beginning to think that its very possible that my forced hyacinths indoors will be mirrored by the ones in the garden. The perfume of the hyacinths is my trigger to get into full spring mode. I know some folk are not much enamored with their smell but not moi, I can’t get enough.

I’m eager to get new plants right away. However, a walk around the garden reveals that I’m getting way ahead of myself. Apart from the snowdrops, nothing else seems even close to blooming. The hyacinths have just about started nosing their way through the earth. Ditto for the crocuses and daffodils. The hellebores all have buds that are getting nice and plump.

Elsewhere, I see that the wisteria and Abeliophyllum (white forsythia) are covered in tiny buds. The latter will suddenly ramp up and be in bloom ahead of most other plants. Along the side path, I can just about discern the ruby red of early peony growth. A few more weeks before I need to put in the stakes.

A stop at my favorite nursery will no doubt tell me to have a little more patience. Don’t they know me by now? I’d like to at least get the window-boxes and urns planted up. Those set the scene for spring instantly.

Yet, I know I cannot hurry up the process. Instead, I must get started on the various chores for this month. Cut back the old hellebore leaves, pick up winter debris, prune down the colorful limbs of dogwood shrubs and a myriad other things. But first, I’m going to get me some branches of pussy willow and forsythia to force.

Spring is going to be well underway indoors.

Note: Mark your calendar! My garden’s Open Day is May 16.

I’m thrilled to be participating in the art show at the Phyllis Harriman Gallery of the New York Art Students League this week. The reception is tomorrow March 4, 6-8 pm. Do stop by. It’s an amazing show!

The following images show the current state of my garden –

Rose ‘Srawberry Hill’ waking up

Daffodils

White forsythia getting ready. Any time now!

Snowdrops

Hellebore

Can you see the emerging red of peony?

The espalier walk

More snowdrops coming through

Iris

More hellebore

(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

 

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

Fringe Benefits

It’s the simple truth that plants don’t observe months and our passage of time and seasons; they sense the fluctuations in the environment and respond accordingly. Despite everything gardener do, they know in their hearts they are not in control of their horticultural realm. Nature is the ultimate commander-in-chief and the gardener adapts, adjusts and acquiesces.

This past weekend, while a large portion of the country got blasted by tornadoes, storms, ice and snow, here in my neck of the woods, we enjoyed spring-like temperatures of 65-68 degrees and glorious sunshine. By now, we typically have severe cold and snow accumulations on the ground so a normal January thaw is only a rise in temperature just enough to give some relief where a spike to just 50 degrees feels positively balmy.

Thus far this winter has been relatively harmless. So the 60+ temperatures is kinda alarming. Yet, what can we do about it? Enjoy it! So I did. Sitting outdoors and letting the sun hit my skin felt delicious. The landscape was stark but the atmosphere was joyous. The parks and trails were busy with hikers and bikers. Nary a glum face was to be seen. Admittedly, every now and then I felt a twinge of apprehension as though waiting for the other show to drop. Though in general, I made the most of this unexpected reprieve. Taking time to examine the leaves and grasses made iridescent in the sunshine. How they glowed in tints of ocher and russet! Basking in the warm caress of sunlight did this body and soul a lot of good.

Similarly, the ice-storm we experienced early last December was unseasonal. Too cold too early. We worried about damage to trees and other plants. Yet, in the light of day, the ice coated limbs sparkled in brilliant celebration. It was beautiful. I was filled with wonder and marveled at the icicles hanging from branches and eaves, the sculptural shapes of shrubs encased in ice, the general radiance and refraction of the sunlight on ice. Instagram abounded with Insta-worthy images of beauty bound in ice. Clearly, we were all struck by this alluring danger. For a brief period we were able to stop worrying and be present to the artistry of nature.

Last summer, we went through a hot, dry period. Desperately needed rain was not happening. The lawn started browning and the leaves of many plants began drooping. In fact, my apple trees shed much of their leaves in panic. I was torn between copiously watering in the immediacy of the situation and restraining that instinct by looking at the bigger picture of climate-change and the global shortage of water. In that pathetic scene of a raggedy looking plants, the native plants stepped up and bloomed and filled my heart. Their stoic hardiness was admirable. I had a perfect opportunity to not just take note of the flowers but to actually stop and observe their bold beauty and designs. It left me with a resolve to not only add even more natives to the gardens but to give them their due in gratitude.

While we wrestle with the climate-change happening at present and do our duty in slowing/halting its progress, it helps to find the moments that uplift and understand that nature is asking us to be attentive and appreciative no matter what. Even in adversity there is grace to be gleaned. Then perhaps, we will be in a position to rise with that phoenix as it emerges from the ashes of the global climate crisis.

From the ice-storm last December:

I didn’t take any photographs over last weekend’s Spring in January. Instead I did two quick watercolor sketches. Imagine, I got to paint outdoors in January!

From last summer’s heat wave(s):

The browning’ lawn’

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Seeing 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Light The Lights!

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

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

Trimming The Tree

Love hangs memories

on awaiting arms

twinkling happy thoughts

as new stories get written.

While the past is shed

the present unfolds itself

into the future.

– Shobha Vanchiswar

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

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

Wishing you all a beautiful holiday.

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

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

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

In The True Spirit Of The Season

I’m finally feeling the holiday season. Towns are decked out for it and one is greeted with holiday music any shop one steps into. Not to sound too Grinch-like but I’m a little tired of this non-stop ‘seasonal’ music as though I’d forget what season I’m in if they played something else.

I do adore the strings of white lights tracing the bare limbs of trees, the lamp posts and railings. Just as winter has officially started, the lights infuse a much needed element of cheer. At the same time, I worry about the impact the illuminations have on birds and other animals that dwell in trees and bushes. It is well documented that our street lights, neon signs and such affect the avian bio-rhythms . It stands to reason that our holiday lights must interfere as well. Imagine how you’d sleep with bright lights being turned on in your bedroom. And then how you’d feel from the poor rest night after night.

The artificial lights mimic daylight and hence cause confusion in the birds. It not only causes sleep deprivation but affects their breeding. The timing of egg laying goes out of whack and the number of eggs laid are diminished. You can understand the problem. So, it behooves us to curb our decorating enthusiasm, use the cooler (as in temperature) LED bulbs, and shorten the time the lights are on. Yes, I’m aware that LED does not have the same warm ambiance as the fluorescent bulbs but, it’s the responsible, ethical and ecological thing to do.

To decorate outdoors, preferably select bare limbed trees over the evergreens. Non-migratory birds and squirrels take shelter in those leafy trees and shrubs. Keep in mind that more is not better. We are going for tasteful not airport runway style.

Similarly, as far as possible, stick to natural materials. Particularly for outdoor decorations. Critters have the habit of eating or using the materials for their nests. Plastic, Styrofoam and other synthetic decorations look enticing and appealing. But they are dangerous if not deadly to all creatures who unfortunately, do not know this. We do. It is incumbent on us to do right by them.

In the true spirit of the season, lets spread good will to all. Human and otherwise.

Note: The popular Annual Holiday Art Show at the New York Art Student’s League is on! Art makes wonderful gifts.

The art show Fragile Waterways at TeaTown runs through this month. Support a great cause!

Some random images of the season:

Illumination at Untermyer Gardens
For allergy sufferers – an alternative ‘tree’
Another alternative.This year I’m using my bay standard as the tree.
Bouche de Noel
Paperwhites
Amaryllis ‘tree’
NYBG Holiday Train Show 2019

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar