Slow Gardening

These uncommon days have brought me to a rediscovering of the pleasures of fundamental garden work. As I mentioned last week, I, along with so many across the country (world maybe?), are getting back to basics. Seed sowing, root cuttings, composting, growing vegetables etc., It isn’t that I stopped doing any of that but now, I’m once again taking the right amount of time to do those tasks with attention, appreciation and anticipation.

Over the past dozen years or so, I’d gotten into the habit of accomplishing the tasks with a sense of urgency. Admittedly, there was the pressure of getting the garden ready for Open Day by mid-May but, that was only part of the story. So many other commitments and projects had been taken on that I was spreading myself too thin. This year, under unforeseen circumstances, I find myself doing exactly the same chores but with a renewed energy and spirit of purpose. Once more, I’m having fun sowing seeds, eagerly checking daily to see if they’ve sprouted even though I know the typical amount of days it takes to germinate.

This past weekend, the pea shoots were transplanted to the potager. I had not sown peas in years because I really felt I hadn’t the real estate to set up a trellis for them. And I didn’t want to spend the time to do so. Well, all of a sudden, I knew exactly where to plant the seedlings. Along the edge of a potager bed that borders the pergola, seven pea plants were planted. To guide them in their climb, strings were strung from the top of the pergola down to each baby seedling. Like a 7 fretted instrument, it waits for the plants to start ‘plucking’ the strings and create sweet music. As the peas grow, they will provide some welcome shade at lunchtime gatherings at the pergola. By the time the whole potager is in full growth and the wisteria ( native variety so it blooms later) on the structure is fully leafed out, the peas will be done and that ‘window’ will once again be opened up to enjoy the view of the potager. Why didn’t this idea occur to me before? Because I hadn’t paused long enough to let the garden reveal the solution to me.

I’ve also started a project of growing micro-greens. It began with a large shallow pot of peas whose shoots add a seasonal something to salads and the occasional egg salad sandwich. As soon as I obtain the seeds, broccoli shoots are going to join this project. Since the lockdown is about staying healthy, micro-greens are a good thing to bring to the dining table – they are chock full of nutrients and very easy to grow. A nice rhythm of succession planting is the plan.

I didn’t get to start the root cuttings as intended last week. Between bad weather and other garden work, that got postponed – to hopefully sometime later this week. Instead, I divided some tiarella to make several new additions to the vertical garden. Herbs got re-potted and put up on the herb ‘wall’ in the potager. Nasturtium seeds started in the greenhouse were ready for transplant – they are now underplanted in the large pots that hold the bay standards. The citrus hued flowers should look lovely spilling over the pots.

I find myself short on pots – another reason I did not do the propagation from cuttings task. By setting up all those pots with daffodils and pansies to cheer up passers-by, there aren’t enough pots for much else! The current stay-home situation has forced me to reconsider the number of trips I make to any place. One makes do with what is at hand. Or do without all together. This week, I shall make one precious foray to my local nursery. Cannot wait!

Gardening these days is so mindful and sensory. I’m taking the time to smell the earth and how it feels in my hands as I dig and plant. The aroma of geosmine that we associate with spring is so life affirming.

As I carefully wash the soil off the roots of plants for the vertical garden, I marvel at the exquisite pale roots and how strong they are despite their delicate appearance. Nature is genius.

A regular distraction is following the goings on of the avian real estate market. One afternoon, we watched a turf battle between cat birds and crows, another time, we observed a pair of cardinals touring the garden checking out suitable sites for building a home. I really hope my garden came through – as such rejections are taken very personally. The hummingbird feeder is up but I think it is still a bit too chilly for those tiny friends. The robins that built a nest in the pot on the wall by the front door, get all irate when we step out or linger on the porch. So we are limiting our passage through that door and my time on the porch is restricted to watering the various pots there. At which point, I take advantage to quickly check the status of the eggs.

These days, I’m not nearly as efficient each time I work in the garden. Diversions not withstanding, the tasks are nevertheless getting accomplished. The garden is coming along just fine. And I’m so much more relaxed and fulfilled. As we know, slow and steady … I’m re-learning. This time around, I’m a better, more mature student. I think.

Note: Mother’s Day is less than two weeks away. For lovely gift selections – take a look at botanical notecards and soft furnishings for the home. All images are from my original watercolors. Original artwork is also available at Gallery. All profits go to support HIV/AIDS orphan girls’ education. Your support means everything to this cause. Thank you!

The herb ‘wall’. Soon, the A/C unit behind will be hidden by the growing plants.

The plant waste headed for the compost pile looks like abstract art

Note the strings!

Another view of the pea trellis

Note the pea shoots planted at the base .

The ‘meadow’ getting set to burst into a floral chorus

Leucojum

Two-toned muscari

Snakeshead fritillaria in a sea of forget-me-nots

Two types of fritillaria

See the robin keeping watch from the nest behind the pansies?

Pea shoot micro-greens

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Days Of Quarantine And Daffodils

These are strange unfamiliar. Sequestering at home lends a surreal quality to our days. Some days, nothing seems to be happening and at other times, particularly after watching/reading the news, too much is happening. Mostly, it is unsettling, anxiety ridden, heartbreaking and confusing. Those are a lot of emotions in play. It can be too much for the human heart to bear.

To offset the negative reports, the media inserts the feel good stories. Challenging times reveal heroes in our midst. Ordinary people do extraordinary things to help their community, their nation, the world. We need to know about them because it serves to teach us about ourselves. Hearing one good story makes us ask ourselves what we can do, what we are capable of doing, how far are we willing to go for the cause. The opportunity to grow and stretch is wide open.

Working in the garden these days has been my salvation – far from the madding crowd. It has also given me time to think about the times we’re in, how we’re coping and, most importantly, what are we learning from this. After all, one day, when we emerge ( and we shall) from this dark place, it is imperative that we as a people have changed for the better. I read recently, that after all this is over, what will have mattered is how we treated each other.

Amongst the myriad uplifting stories of people helping people, one in particular recently caught my attention and my heart. As a gardener, it was inevitable that it had such huge appeal and the source was my most favorite garden.

More than a week ago, whilst watching the morning news in a distracted sort of manner, I was suddenly captivated by images of daffodils cascading down a hillside. Hundreds and hundreds of yellow trumpets calling my attention. The place looked familiar and I heard the newscaster say it was Untermyer Gardens – of course! Over the past few years, they’ve been adding scores of daffodils to the hill. This year was its splashiest, happiest display to date. Sadly, in the current situation, nobody was going to see it for real. The images I saw were stunning. Oh! To actually be there!

Turns out, Stephen Byrnes ( president of the Untermyer Garden Conservancy) was thinking along the same lines. It would be such a shame to have all those flowers fade away without giving pleasure to others. In short order, Steve put together a plan – with the help of a very limited number of volunteers (social distancing in practice), all the daffodils were harvested and distributed to several area hospitals and nursing homes where they were received with much appreciation and loud cheers.

Untermyer was the first garden in the country to take this step. I have heard that since then, some others have followed suit. Floret Farms in Washington State did the same with the thousands of daffodils from their trial fields. Does this not warm your heart?

In times of crisis, one may not think of flowers as critical. But the ability of a single blossom to cheer the spirit cannot be overstated. Think about the snowdrops that uplifted the soldiers during the Crimean War. Fighting in a foreign land, they were bitter and demoralized from the failure to provide them with food and warm clothing. The winter had been brutal. Then, when they observed the first snowdrops emerging through the ground, their spirits rose. Several lifted and replanted them around their tents, one soldier even included a flower in a letter home. Eventually, some soldiers returned home with specimens of snowdrops which were carefully planted and bloomed the following year. The snowdrops were identified as G plicatus but they are simply known as the Crimean snowdrop. Just how much the ‘flower of consolation’ or ‘star of hope’ meant to the troops cannot be undermined.

Similarly, the poppy symbolizes those lost in WW II. A single flower can have a powerful role in reminding and memorializing events of great consequence in our lives.

To me personally, the daffodil has become the symbol of this particular viral war. Perhaps, in time, others will think so too. It has flowered just when we’ve been brought to our knees by a formidable, invisible foe. Those trumpets call for hope and to trust that there better times ahead. We must believe that.

Note: Below, I share with you photos taken by Jessica Norman – Jess works at Untermyer. She is a powerhouse of many talents – molecular biologist, expert gardener and ace photographer to name a few. I’m privileged to call her my friend.

I’m just as proud to know Stephen Byrnes. Through his leadership and vision, Untermyer has become one of the premier gardens to visit in these United States. Steve and his incredible team of dedicated gardeners led by head-gardener Timothy Tilghman have achieved this in a remarkably small number of years.

Volunteers are the backbone of our society and those who harvested the daffodils should not go unacknowledged. They stepped up to do the work so the Untermyer gardeners could go about their rightful duties of tending the gardens. They are –

Kathryn and Jim Buckley, Joseph Brownell, Joseph Ades, Trish Lindmann and her son Tyler, Christopher Kittle, Harris Lirtzman, Ed Sabol, James Judy.

My heartfelt thanks to them, Steve and Jess .All photos (c) 2020 Jessica Norman

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

As The World Turns

Sheltering at home and garden feels different. It is not the same as when one chooses to spend time cocooning at home. While our homes continue to offer refuge in this difficult period, we are not living out our days in quite the same way. Having to be home at all times, working from home, coordinating schedules with those we live with, no possibility of going anywhere, making do with what groceries are available at the stores, are all situations we’re adjusting to. Some things are easy and others more challenging. Still, despite all the limitations, I, for one, feel very blessed. Not in a virtuous, martyr-ish way – but simply being realistic and aware of my privilege.

I cannot possibly have any complaints. For goodness sakes, I have a garden to work in! That is a high advantage that I’m acutely aware of as increasingly, more public gardens and gardens are being closed. Far too many are restricted to small, cramped spaces in the city with only windows and, with any luck, balconies to lean out of to catch some sun and fresh air.

Once I’ve accomplished my work related and domestic tasks of the day, the garden is where I seek to pass my time. Chores that were done with the a certain degree of haste because other matters/appointments awaited, are now given due attention and time. Be it planting or fixing or watering, everything has taken on deeper meaning and connection.

I’d ordered a self-pollinating persimmon tree a while back – it was delivered last week. A couple of decades ago, I’d planted an American persimmon with intentions to train it into a candelabra style espalier against the southern wall of the house. The tree grew but failed to produce because there did not exist another persimmon anywhere in the neighborhood – no cross-pollination was possible. I blame myself for letting the seller assure me that I didn’t need another persimmon to get fruit. I should’ve known better. Instead I wanted to get on with my project so badly that I accepted what I wanted to believe.

That tree was subsequently disposed off and the whole project forgotten. Soon, a tree peony occupied its place.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago. I discovered the existence of a new Japanese-American hybrid that has the best traits of each nationality (persimmon-wise) and is truly self-pollinating. I immediately ordered it from Logee’s Greenhouse. Once the very young plant arrived, I gave it a few days to recover from its journey before giving it a permanent home.

If this were a business as usual time, the persimmon would’ve been plonked down in any open space along the fence of the lower garden. It’s sole purpose being to provide fruit. Instead, this past Saturday, the tree peony was dug up and replanted near by – its very long roots had to be trimmed a bit so fingers crossed it didn’t mind the amputation. It is after all a plant dear to my heart – Hennriette Suhr gave it to me and I love floating the heavy, multi-petaled flowers in a bowl to show-off their beauty. I will keep a watchful eye on it.

The new tree was planted in the old persimmon’s place so the espalier project is back on. All the wire guides to train the branches from years ago are still in place as though they fully expected to be called back into service.

Similarly, there were some heuchera I’d purchased on my mad plant shopping spree the same day that stay-at-home was mandated. They sat waiting while the watering system to the vertical garden was restarted and deemed functioning well. Again, I took the time to not only clean off all of the soil from the roots of each heuchera( the plants on the wall are grown hydroponically) but, I also worked to carefully divide the plants to get several more plants for the wall.

All of this might sound trivial. Even frivolous. But really, not only did the work get done with attention, thought and purpose, for the time each task took, the mind was focused and relaxed. Two things that are getting rather difficult to do during these stressful days.

With more people taking daily walks/strolls, I see many neighbors on the street. It’s been gratifying to exchange greetings and news – albeit from the required distance. We – old and new, are all being more neighborly. To give those passing my home a reason to smile, I set up a collection of pots of daffodils and pansies right by the road. After all, those flowers will disarm any grump and uplift any heart feeling the weight of the times. Even if its fleeting, every bit of cheer matters.

These days of sheltering are instructive. I’m relearning to give my garden the right amount of attention it deserves. I’m paying attention to not just what is dry but how dry before I water. This serves to conserve water as well as provide the plants with only what they need. I’d become too busy to start seeds in recent years. There are several flats of seeds sown currently – of flowers and vegetables. I’ve rediscovered the joy of this fundamental act of gardening.

Things that I might have easily replaced for lack of time, are now being fixed instead. All non-essential shopping is to be avoided after all. Over all, many more hours are whiled away working in the garden and it is mighty satisfying. Like it used to be before I got too busy. I’m sure things will not stay this way forever but I’m also sure I cannot let myself get that busy again. These days are guiding me how to strike a healthier, happier balance.

The garden provides with enough distraction that when I’m in it, my mind completely shuts out the news and fears in the world. Unlike a movie which also provides some escape, at the end of my time in the garden, I have accomplished some necessary tasks, got a bit of physical activity, relaxed my mind, soaked in some sun, breathed fresh air and allowed nature to provide much needed therapy to my spirit. Priceless.

Pots by the street

New Persimmon hybrid – Nikita’s Choice

Heuchera in the wall garden. Ferns will go in shortly.

Forced hyacinths in a ‘cage’ of pussy willow.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Life Deconstructed

So here we are. Living our days in an unfamiliar, uncertain atmosphere. It’s not easy when so much feels well beyond our control. I’ve categorically decided to pay attention to what is in my control. Managing myself, my work, my home, my garden – oftentimes, it is all one and the same.

I listen to Governor Cuomo’s updates every morning and then stay away from the flood of news. It’s simply too much.

Gardening began in earnest last week. While it was colder than desired, working outdoors in the bright sunshine was restorative and uplifting. Birdsong and crocuses, scillas, hellebores and ipheions in bloom kept me company as I went about clearing, planting and potting up. Last Friday, I got word that nurseries were going to have to close up shop because all non-essential businesses were mandated to do so. I know what you’re thinking – but those nurseries are necessary for the garden and hence, our very sanity! All kidding aside, while I understood the ruling, it galvanized me into action. Okay, so my daughter chose to say I went into a kind of shopper’s mad frenzy.

I went to my favorite local nursery and loaded up on plants, potting soil, seeds etc., Because it is early in the season, the inventory was not large. However, I could see that we weren’t likely to have any plants to buy in the foreseeable future – I mentally changed certain design plans and picked up alternatives to try out. Taking this as a challenge of sorts, I pulled my mind out of a fixed vision and opened it up to new possibilities. After all, if things don’t turn out great, there’s a certain vicious virus I can blame.

Underlying my frenzied buying, was the fact that all inventory not sold would in all likelihood go to waste. Such a shame no? But even more heartbreaking is that the employees at the nursery, who over the years have become my dear friends would be unemployed/unpaid. I was truly emotional about this. The growers who’d been preparing all winter for the spring would also have to face colossal financial loss. How many businesses will go under is frightening to think about. Not being able to do anything but buy all that I could was frustrating. Unfortunately, there will be such casualties in practically every industry.

Having brought home more than I’d ever planned, the weekend was spent totally in the garden. With the college student home, the extra pair of hands was very welcome. The child who once groaned at being given garden chores was actually happy to do whatever was needed. She weeded, re-potted, moved things, planted, watered – all in good cheer. I think that another generation has become an avid gardener!

We raked and reseeded the tiny front lawn, fixed some hardscape stuff, added several perennials in the front beds as well as the herb garden. The very large pots were brought out of storage, filled with fresh soil and planted with pansies and daffodils – when it is warm enough, the bay standards will emerge from the greenhouse and settle into them for the growing seasons. I have to say it felt particularly life affirming and gratifying. Nature applied her healing balm on my heart.

[ Having done all that work, it snowed all of yesterday. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or scream. Eventually, I did neither. Shrugged my shoulders – what will be will be. In the grand scheme …]

On my visit to the nursery, I’d bought extra flats of pansies and very young daffodils. Sunday afternoon, I potted up combinations of those in an assortment of containers. They will be distributed to friends and neighbors who are either immnuno-compromised and/or elderly and living alone. Simply spreading some much needed spring cheer. It feels so inadequate but I know every little bit of support and help makes a difference. I want the recipients to know they matter to us, their community.

As I did my garden work, I thought about the strange time we’re in. This social distancing and staying home has opened up opportunities to connect to each other – our families, friends, neighbors and community. With no place to go we have time to listen, to observe, to share, to reach out. Each task I do, I find myself doing it mindfully – there is, after all, no rush. We’re now so much more aware of our inherent need for social bonds.

This is our moment to be our better selves. To be the person our mothers raised us to be. Or, to be the person your dog things you are.

Flowers always make people better, happier and more hopeful: they are sunshine, food and medicine to the soul.”- Botanist Luther Burbank

Note: The images are in reverse order! I’m having a small technical issue.

Most of the haul from the nursery

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Staying Calm And Staying Home

How much has changed in one week. It has been so fast paced that it’s taken me a while to really consider our shared situation and come to terms with it. These are unprecedented times and it calls for unprecedented action. Social distancing, self-isolation, preparing for ‘just-in-case’, working from home (if possible), staying home all together – all new to most of us. For myself, working from home is normal but everything else is a challenge. However, I’m resolute in rising to the occasion. There is no choice. If not now, then when?

All of a sudden, the world is no longer as we know it. From people going on shopping frenzies to hoard up on everything including the kitchen sink to price gouging on essential products, to all cultural centers and performances coming to a halt to cavalier folks who don’t care about the community risks they present, it can be a little too scary and upsetting. Take a nice, long deep breath. Exhale slowly. Keep your calm. Together, we shall overcome.

Here is how I see it. We must all do our part for the sake of our family, our neighborhood, our town, our state, our nation , our planet. This might sound trite but in reality, it is pretty much what we must do. That said, I, along with my family, are socially distancing ourselves. It’s an adjustment. To have a full house with each one needing space to work in quiet itself is not easy. When one is on a conference call, the others must remain quiet. When the musician can be practice, the dinner prepared, a workout done to motivating music and such, require thoughtful coordination. We called a family meeting and after much talk, the conclusion was that each of us promise to help, support and behave ourselves. Nothing earth shattering. Simple kindness and consideration is in high demand at home and elsewhere. A sense of humor is a bonus. Admittedly, it is easy for the humor to turn dark.

Work is all very well. But how are we going to use our down time? Right off, suggestions for movies and TV shows pour forth. And thank goodness for this entertainment option. With nowhere to go, Netflix, Hulu, Apple, Amazon Prime etc., are godsends. The big mountain of books waiting for readers can now be conquered. Board games and puzzles are on the ready.

We’ve made a list of home projects (room by room) – what, when and by whom put down. I need the element of accountability. For myself there is the all-important creativity of painting and writing projects, the drudge of paperwork, recipes to try, business ideas to flesh out. But most importantly, there is the garden.

I’m so very grateful that whatever we are all currently facing is happening right now and not at any other time of year. Spring is officially starting this Thursday and crocuses have joined the hellebores in the garden. Nothing like the sight of the flowers to lift the spirits. Just as the news got dire, the crocuses started popping up as if on cue. The white forsythia is in full bloom too. Every day is adding more color to the landscape. Hallelujah! Spring is all about hope and good things to come.

A quick visit to my favorite nursery last Saturday paid off nicely. I got what I needed to put up the spring window-boxes. The daffodils and tete-a-tetes are still very young but should be trumpeting loudly by Passover/Easter. In the meantime, the mango hued pansies will carry the ensemble nicely. That simple activity cheered me up no end.

I also pulled out the last of the hyacinths and crocuses cooling in the refrigerator and potted them up. In a couple of weeks its going to be hyacinth heaven indoors.

Some of the nursery daffodils have a separate purpose. I’m going to pot them up to drop off at friends who are living alone and/or do not dare get out into the world because of immune-compromised health. For sure they could use some flower power.

On the subject of thinking about helping ones community, I got word that there is a need in my town for Meals-On-Wheels driver/volunteers. My daughter, now home from college ( for the foreseeable future) has responded to this call. I believe that college students can play a vital role during this Covid-19 crisis. They are less vulnerable, amply capable, familiar with their towns and able to do many things that put older volunteers at risk. Just putting it out there.

Similarly, restaurants have closed but take-out and delivery is being offered. A couple of meals from such businesses per week will help those businesses – they are not just hurting but actually hemorrhaging. Our support is desperately needed.

Lets look for additional ways to help our communities, each other. Doing something that serves a cause is a guaranteed to make our days better. When I’m busy doing positive, productive things, there’s simply no time for fear, panic or boredom.

In addition to spending time working in the garden which itself is so healing, I’m determined to go walking for a minimum of 30 minutes every day. Fresh air and sunshine are proven health boosters. We all know this. But in case you’re feeling particularly attached to the couch, think about this – during the Spanish flu pandemic, patients treated outdoors (the overflow of patients in San Fransisco for example) did far better than those cared for indoors.

Explore the State and county Parks (NY has waived all entry fees) and visit our many beautiful public gardens. They are open, never overly crowded and absolutely just what our bodies, minds and spirits need.

Stay safe, be well everybody. We’re in this together.

P.S – Please feel free to reach out, share tips and ideas or, just your thoughts. Or at least a joke! We must stay connected.

Scenes from my garden at present –

More snowdrops coming through

Forcing hyacinths

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar