Finally Fall

Whew! The garden is finally put to bed. An unusual season of warm, dry days pushed back the fall’s must-dos till I was almost getting into a panic. Not only were we denied of a proper showing of the autumnal foliage that typically takes ones breath away, the garden itself remained green and happy that I couldn’t quite bring myself to cut back or pull out at the normal time. However, as October gave way to November and the days remained unseasonably mild, even as I took pleasure in the slow pace, I grew uneasy. A sudden, protracted cold spell would make it difficult to get all the work done or worse, make some of the tasks impossible to complete.

On the surface, delays of a couple of weeks or so don’t seem so bad. But in the grand scheme of things, it can make a big difference. Prolonged warm weather can fool plants to use up their energy by putting out new growth only to have that killed when the inevitable cold weather does arrive. Shorter winters will in turn affect growth and blooms in springs. Migrating birds might decide to linger during the extended warm weather and then find it is too late to make their long journey south – many will perish trying. There are numerous consequences to seemingly minor fluctuations in weather.

The vertical garden has been the highlight throughout. It has looked breathtakingly lush giving one a false sense of its hardiness. I’ve decided that this year, all the plants will be left in place and I’m contemplating installing a ‘flap’ of bubble-wrap to give some protection/insulation from the cold whilst still letting some air circulate so as not to cook the plants should the temperature spike suddenly or on those warm days of a January thaw.

The ‘Heritage’ rose is currently in bloom and the wisterias are only just beginning to turn yellow. A quick pruning will take place this coming weekend. We’re still picking kale and Swiss chard from the potager. Likewise, pots of herbs are seasoning our meals. I could get used to this! Some of those herbs just barely got into the greenhouse ahead of the cold weather last Friday.

The major number of plants in the greenhouse had been installed a few weeks but the door was kept open till recently. The propane heater was started only a couple of days ago.

As I’d already reported, the front lawn was de-thatched and reseeded in early October. The mild weather got the new grass growing rapidly and now it has the appearance of almost being in need of a mowing. Go figure.

The annual meadow cut-back typically happens by mid to late October. This year, it took place last week.

Outdoor furniture has finally been put away and the water hoses emptied and brought indoors. Only the winter wrapping of the large pots and setting up wind barriers for the roses remain.

The bulbs for fall planting arrived in mid-October at what is their normal time of planting. but the soil was simply too warm for them. The shipment sat patiently while I grew more anxious about running out of time to get the hundreds of bulbs into the ground. Bulb planting cannot be hurried. Making sure each variety is planted at the right depth ( three times the vertical height of the bulb) and not disturbing bulbs from previous years is a challenge. The back and legs have much to complain about after planting. It’s that singular vision of the spring garden looking spectacular with bulbs in bloom that keeps me going. The task gets harder with each passing year but I cannot imagine not having these bulbs, corms and rhizomes enriching the garden annually.

This past weekend, in bitter cold, the bulbs got planted. Hallelujah.

As anticipated, we went from the luxury of those extended days of balmy weather when only a few seasonal chores could be performed, to a frenzied state of getting everything else done in suddenly frigid temperatures. Not fun at all. But, they got done. Whew again.

In the greenhouse

The meadow showed no signs of autumn. Most plants simply died back and the rest stayed green. The cut-back was not the big deal that it usually is.

David Austen’s Heritage rose.

!!!

(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

Changing Forecast, Forecasting Change

It never hurts to keep looking for sunshine” – Eeyore ( Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne)

There are signs of this season of senescence everywhere and yet, in this final stretch of October, it seems as though a great number of trees are stubbornly holding on to their still-green leaves. Usually by this time, the fall foliage has peaked setting the world aglow like a virtual bonfire. I notice that the squirrels do not seem as madcap busy as they typically are at this time of year. Even the weather has been more like summer. It feels quite odd to be taking care of tasks that put the garden to bed when the days seem as though autumn is still weeks away.

Because the meadow is still quite green, I’ve delayed it’s annual mow-down by three weeks. However, elsewhere I have cut back my perennials leaving only some ornamental grasses as they look so ethereal in the afternoon sun. The greenhouse is filled up with the tender plants as one never knows when that first major frost will arrive, the espalier fruit trees have been pruned so a snowstorm won’t harm the limbs, and pots are cleaned and put away so a freeze-thaw cannot break them. Contrarily, I’m keeping the terrace on the ready for al fresco meals as long as the weather will permit.

The hundreds of bulbs I ordered in July have arrived. But the ground is way too warm for planting. I’m hoping I’ll get the all-clear from the weather gods and can begin this task in a couple of weeks.

In the front lawn, the newly seeded grass has come up nicely. If the mild days continue, it’ll need a mowing!

It’s not like I’m complaining because doing chores in the garden is infinitely better when sweaters and gloves are not required. Still, I’m a little concerned. Whilst reveling in the surprisingly gorgeous weather, we are in dire need of rain. What price will we pay for these beautiful days? How will this change in climate affect the flora and fauna? From budding to flowering, to putting out fruit and seeds, the plants must adapt. Likewise, for the animals, migratory patterns, hibernating periods, mating and reproductive times will need adjusting. All the flora and fauna must coordinate these changes in-order to serve each other as they always have. Their survival depends on it. Our own species depends on it. Perhaps the short term effects will be minimal but the long term impact can be big. I have the distinct impression that we ought to be buckling up. There’s a bumpy ride ahead.

Normally, the wisteria is a bright yellow in counterpoint to the rosy hues of the red male.

Trees have either dropped their leaves in a hurry or are reluctant to turn color.

The new lawn looks spring ready!

I love how the espalier turns sculptural. Just in time for winter visual interest.

The last roses are still looking beautiful

Grasses add such interest in the garden.

(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

Autumnal Acts

Despite my reluctance to come out of summer-vacation mode, it’s been impossible to ignore the spectacular weather these past few days. Perfect fall days of cool nights, crisp mornings melting into sun-warmed days. Reveling in the glorious colors of the season, I’ve been inspired to take on the garden tasks – it’s so much easier to work in an atmosphere of such beauty and delight.

The big tasks addressed this past Sunday were the front lawn and the cleaning of the greenhouse. In the case of the lawn, it took a bit longer as wild strawberry had taken up residence and ousted the grass, clover and any other sweet greens that make up my ‘lawn’. It’d only be a matter of time before the runners of this thug made inroads into the perennial beds. So instead of the usual raking to de-thatch the grass and simply remove the matted debris, more effort was applied to completely eliminate the intruder. This was followed by reseeding with grass and finally applying a thick layer of compost over the entire area. All that’s left to do now is to water daily until the seeds sprout and the new grass establishes. Some gentle rain showers would be of great help.

Mind you, in the spring, a similar servicing of the lawn is required but it will not have to be anywhere so drastic. It actually makes a big difference to deal with the lawn in the fall.

The greenhouse cleaning is de rigeur as one wants to provide a hygienic environment for the plants. So the slate floor was vacuumed and glass panels washed thoroughly. Keeping the glass clean also means more light comes through to the plants. Once the glass is dry, we line the interior side with bubble-wrap which serves as insulation whilst still letting in sunlight. This last task is not as fun but very necessary unless one wants to squander money on whatever energy is used to heat the greenhouse in winter.

Every plant moved into the greenhouse is trimmed, washed with a smart spray of water which displaces any pest or detritus clinging on either it or the pot, freed of all weeds that might be trying to sneak in and only then is it ready for its winter residence.

Understandably, preparing the pots takes time so thus far, only the big bay standards, citruses like kumquat and Meyer lemon, gardenia, olive and scented geraniums have been placed inside. By and by the other tender perennials will follow. Presently, some of those including two small standards of rose are looking rather fetching and I’d like to enjoy them in the garden a little bit longer. I’m hoping for a few more al fresco meals before it gets too cold.

For pure fun lest I start feeling sorry for myself for working so hard, I put up the fall window-boxes with a mix of ornamental cabbages, kale and pansies. And, I got myself a lovely collection of pumpkins and gourds to display by the front door.

That’s right, I’ve jumped into fall. Goodbye summer.

Note: Art shows I’m in this month –

‘Figures’ at the Mount Kisco Public Library, 100 Main Street, Mount Kisco, NY. October 6 – 31.

‘Methods And Melody’ at the Chappaqua Performing Arts Center, 480, N. Bedford Road, Chappaqua, NY. October 14 – Nov 21

Beaux Arts Show of the Woman’s Club of Dobbs Ferry, 54, Clinton Avenue, Dobbs Ferry, NY. October 13 – 15.

Beaux Arts Show of the Woman’s Club of White Plains, 305, Ridgeway, White Plains, NY. October 16 – 20.

I plant young plants in the pots and window boxes so they have room to grow. In a couple of weeks, they’ll fill out nicely.

Newly seeded lawn.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Turncoat!

Turncoat!

My eyes open and there you are

on the other side of the window

shining gold in the sunlight

enticing your tribe to do the same

Turncoat!

Yellow ocher, russet, sienna, plum

you’ve painted yourself anew

discarding all the serenity of greens

olive, sap, chartreuse, moss

Turncoat!

Outdoing summer’s brights

you’ve set the world aflame

no word you’re abandoning ship

you simply switched loyalty

Turncoat!

I’m loathe to see the change

yet, I’m awed by your brilliance

I feel cheated, betrayed

Though I’ve always known what you are

Turncoat!

Shobha Vanchiswar

I’m happily back from my travels and slowly adjusting to ‘business as usual’. The garden is a riot of color and disarray. As it should be since I’ve been away all of six long weeks. The apples were harvested from the espalier fence yesterday. A very fall-like activity and yet, the weather feels like high summer. Having missed a chunk of the warm season here, I’m really not ready for autumn. It’s oddly disorienting actually. I’m sensing a bit of resentment within when I notice the trees turning color and fallen leaves carpeting the ground.

I’m not quite prepared to tackle that long list of October chores. Harvest fruit, collect seeds, cut back, rake leaves, plant new additions, annual mowing of meadow, reseed front ‘lawn’, clean up, put away, move tender perennials in pots into the greenhouse, clean greenhouse first and then, when the ground is cool enough, plant the hundreds of bulbs which will be arriving imminently. Clearly, no rest for the wicked.

Indeed, I adore fall. After spring it is my favorite season. But that does not mean I cannot be irrational about missing so much of summer despite the fact I had a perfectly great time elsewhere. Go figure. I simply want my cake and eat it too.

Note: Heads Up! In October, I will be participating in four art shows in the Westchester area. Details will be posted next week. I do hope you will make time to visit the shows. Your support and feedback is invaluable.

The vertical still looks lovely

Grossly neglected perennial beds. Yet, their wildness has a certain appeal.

Apples on the espalier

Turtleheads still in bloom in the meadow

 

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

Postcards From Provence

It is still summer here in Provence and yet, I can sense the turning of the season. Each morning, the tinge of cool in the air lasts a bit longer. At the markets, the apples and pears have joined the peaches the melons. Pumpkins let to cure in the sun rest scattered across fields themselves glowing like miniature lanterns. The grapes hang full and heavy ready for harvest. Mushrooms marking the start of autumn emerge on menus. Like soldiers stand rows of fading sunflowers holding seeds ripe for pressing.

Despite these signs, I’m basking in long, light flooded days, plunging my teeth into plums bursting with juice, painting landscapes still lush and verdant, swimming in water that refreshes and soothes my sun-warmed skin, preparing meals of summer fruit like vine-ripened tomatoes, tender courgettes and glistening aubergines. Dessert is nothing more complicated than fresh goat cheese on plump figs from the garden drizzled with the local lavender honey. Yes, the days like the meals, are simple, slow and light. Like summer.

Figs for the picking

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

To Stay Or Not To Stay

August means vacation time in my family. I look forward to it with such eagerness you’d think I worked in a sweatshop the rest of the year. I long for it like the child spying a slice of rainbow cake with sprinkles, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. I wait for it like a wily crocodile patiently determining when to move in on its hapless prey. I make endless lists and plans. Yes indeed, I love vacations.

To travel, to explore, to decompress, to exhale, to absorb, to replenish are all reasons that fuel my need to get away. It does mind, body and spirit a world of good. To return refreshed and restored to the daily demands of everyday life is priceless.

So then, why do I feel so reluctant to leave home each time departure day approaches? In my apparent enthusiasm to get away, one would think I’d abandon house and garden with the alacrity of a rat fleeing a sinking ship but instead, I’m loathe to get my packing underway, empty the refrigerator, put mail delivery on hold, arrange for someone to check-in on the house and generally sort out all the myriad matters that need sorting before one embarks on a much needed and all too brief respite. I express my reluctance to do these tedious tasks aloud but deep inside myself I know it isn’t any of those things at all. I simply love being home as much as I love going away.

The thing that concerns me the most is the garden. How can I possibly entrust anybody else to keep an eye on it. And what amazing events might unfold in my absence. I can’t bear missing out on what will be in bloom, watching migrating Monarchs make pit stops, seeing the apples turn rosy or the grapes develop their dusty bloom as they turn a rich shade of plum. In comparison, I’ve been all together shamelessly blasé about dropping my child off at sleep-away summer camp ever since she turned the ripe age of ten.

I am presently on vacation in monsoon ravaged Mumbai where the rain is relentlessly pounding the city. The sound is deafening as though one were sitting inside the Victoria Falls. And it is warm and humid like a ship’s boiler room. Yes, I have actually been privileged to see life in this part of a ship. Which, come to think of it, is also equally noisy. To enjoy all of this, I left my home in typical grudging fashion. You might say that given that I haven’t exactly described paradise, my sentiments are understandable. But then, how would you explain my longing for home despite the fact that from here I move on quite literally to sunny, dry pastures – in Provence, France? This is where one sips rosé whilst listening to the thrum of bees frolicking amidst the lavender fields. It’s perhaps my most favorite part of the world and yet … you see? I want to stay home and I want to be elsewhere. A very fine dilemma to have.

This year, I’ve been given a reprieve of sorts. While I’m wading through the streets of Mumbai ankle deep in water, my significantly other half is still Stateside. So until he joins me in the pursuit of Gallic pleasures, I’m having him send me photos of specific areas of the garden that I know will be performing fetchingly. He doesn’t quite understand my eagerness to know about every horticultural happening but is doing his bit in complying to my pestering. On my part, I’m trying to be grateful and not criticize him for less than stellar images and even so in insufficient quantities.

One must after all, be grateful for small mercies.

Note – For a glimpse of what I’m missing in the garden at this time:

( Like I said, someone hasn’t been taking enough photos)

Pink turtleheads – Chelone obliqua. Oh how I waited and wished for these to bloom before I left!

Turtleheads in the meadow

Oak-leaf hydrangea

Echinacea and grape arbor

Vertical garden

As the 2017 Wildflower Artist of Teatown Lake Reservation, my rendition of the pink turtleheads are on their note cards for this year.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Case For Windowboxes

I’ve always loved window boxes. Long before I could imagine ever having a piece of ground to cultivate, I knew I would have window-boxes. Traveling as an impoverished student and then as a newly employed but still living in rental apartments, I’d photograph all the charmingly adorned windows I came across. One day I too was going to have them.

The surest way to brighten up the facade of any house is to hang flower boxes. The sight pleases the eye and puts a smile on the face. It’s welcoming and says something positive about the occupants.

What one plants in them is up to the imagination and taste. Tasteful/ elegant/ gaudy/ showy/ seasonal/ loud/ simple/ modern/ minimalist/ cottage-y/ – it doesn’t matter. Go for it. I do however strongly suggest – only live plants please. No plastic or other faux material. Really. What’s the point of having window boxes if you’re going to put in fake plants?

They’re quite easy to maintain. I squeeze in more plants in this limited space than I would in a bed in the ground. I go for a look of abundance and exuberance. The old pillar, filler, spiller combination still holds true.

Contrary to what is widely suggested, I eschew potting soil and use top soil mixed with compost instead. While the former is deemed lighter and adequate, I find the latter much better for encouraging good, healthy growth. Water retaining crystals are sprinkled in the lower one-third of the box/pot. I fertilize once a month with an organic potion.

All this happens in sturdy box liners that fit into the boxes well. This not only makes it a snap to pot up but it also protects the wood of the boxes as it does not come in direct contact wit soil. Towards the end of a season when the boxes start looking peaky, I start the next season’s contenders in fresh, clean liners. And when I deem that the present lot is done for, the next batch of divas are waiting and ready to start performing.

The boxes are watered according to season and daily weather. In spring I can get away with just one thorough watering a week but in summer, the plants often get thirsty enough to demand a drink every other day. Access to the boxes from the inside allows convenient watering, deadheading and tidying up.

I often include fragrant plants in my mix – the perfume that wafts into the house is a real mood lifter. This past spring, the scent of the stock just bowled me over.

A few weeks ago, I was awakened by a curious sound that I could not immediately identify. On looking around the room whilst still in bed didn’t offer up any clue until from the corner of my eye I detected movement. Turning my head towards the window, I saw a hummingbird getting its early morning drink. Since then, I’ve been privileged to watch it almost every morning – so worth the early wake up call. Does my heart good knowing I’ve been of service.

This justifies everything.

Be inspired by the photos below!

My hummingbird alarm. (Picture is not clear as it was taken on my phone from my bed and through the window screen)

When there aren’t any windows …

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar