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

Color Mad!

This week sure feels like spring! Colors are going to pop any moment. It is the one time of year when we’re all hungering for the entire spectrum of hues. In any mad combinations. It all looks lovely and joyous. What we’d never consider pairing in our clothing selections, look just spectacular in nature. Tasteful, subtle, elegant be damned. Give me loud, bold and gaudy. My eyes have been starved long enough, let the visual feasting begin.

Yeah, I know, the show hasn’t yet begun but this mild weather means it’ll burst upon us soon. I’m putting the brakes on my fears about too early a spring just so I’m at liberty to fully enjoy the flowers whenever they bloom. It isn’t their fault after all.

I’m going about the seasonal chores even though the temperatures give the feeling I’m somehow lagging behind. Normally, when I cut back old hellebore leaves, prune the roses etc., I’m wearing jacket and heavy gloves. Not this year. T-shirt and thin garden gloves feel just about right. Some years, I’ve even stood in several inches of snow to get the jobs done. Alas, barely any snow at all this winter. Scary for sure. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

However, that’s beside the point at present. I’m eager for color. I’ll wager you are as well. So, while we await impatiently for our gardens to start the show, I’m happy to share some pigment saturated photographs from my very recent ( two weeks ago!) trip to India.

FYI – coincidentally and appropriately, today is also the Indian festival of Holi when spring is celebrated with everybody playing and spraying color on each other with wild abandon. It is crazy fun!

Unleash your inner child’s color madness. It’ll do you a world of good. Particularly when there is so much other sort of madness whirling around out there.

Note: For your calendar – my garden’s Open Day is May 16.

Also, on July 26, through the Garden Conservancy’s Digging Deeper Program, you can learn all about espalier and vertical gardening at my garden. Register early as space is limited!

(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 Is For Loving

Some months take on a single meaning. December is for the holidays, July for the fourth, September is about school, November is Thanksgiving and February is all love. I like that as it gives some motivation to stay engaged and celebrate life’s moments.

Valentine’s day can feel a bit over-hyped, too twee and bring undue pressure on those who are single or going through a rough patch in a relationship. But these days it has become a much more inclusive day for expressing love. We include everybody in our circle – spouse/significant others, children, friends (Galentine’s day!). To that list, I add the garden as it is a living thing; it’s a good day to express some love to that which nurtures me so wholly all year round.

Since winter has been indecisive this year, I took advantage of yet another mild day last Sunday and went scanning for signs of stirring in the garden. Just a week ago, there was barely nothing to coo over. But now! Snowdrops have bashfully shown up. That set my heart aflutter. What is it about these diminutive bells that cause them to ring so loud in our psyche?

The hellebores too seem to have decided its time to awaken. One in particular made me smile – it bears near black flowers and the buds were sitting like plump berries glinting in the afternoon light. Others, in their tight, elongated forms could not compete. In a couple of weeks I will cut back the protective old leaves so the opening buds can show off their beauty.

I heard the birds go about their business as though it were normal to be so active in February. It is concerning that they might begin nesting a too early. A blast of severe winter weather could be just around the corner. Usually, I put up a nesting wreath to assist the birds – a simple circle of grapevine bearing threads of cotton or jute, pieces of moss, bits of ribbon ( natural material of course) and some twigs. Not right now though. It’s too soon. Perhaps in early March if it continues to be unseasonably mild.

Meanwhile, the Calamondin oranges are bringing some juicy color to the greenhouse. The fruits hang like pretty ornaments. Not particularly good for eating, they do add something to a cocktail of vodka with a shot of St. Germain.

So cheers! Happy Valentine’s Day everybody. Take a moment to walk around the garden with gratitude and affection in your heart. Better yet, walk with those you love.

Observe the heart shaped bay leaf amidst the normal ones!

Oh those shiny black buds!

Calamondin orange

Snowdrops

(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

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

Waxing Poetic

It’s a busy, busy time in the garden but I cannot let April go by without honoring it with poetry. It is National Poetry Month after all.

Deflowering Spring

The earth blushed cherry pink

Even as the forsythia glowed yellow

From innocent fresh born

to fertile maiden

In the flutter

of butterfly wings.

Shobha Vanchiswar

Spring Cleaning

Sweep away detritus

Winter’s wild remnants

Prune roses

June’s dress code

Straighten borders

Summer edges to spill

Outside order

Inside peace

Clearing, cutting

Room to breathe deep

Opening, widening

Mind broaden fast

Plants get bigger

Spirits grow higher

Colors multiply

Senses infused

Days lengthen

Smiles brighten

Outdoor classroom

Paradise within

Shobha Vanchiswar

Colors Of Rain

It rained cherry pink today

Drenched in pleasure

I walked on rafts of petals

floating on rivers of grass.

I predict tomorrow

it’ll drizzle pear white

Washing away footprints

leaving behind confetti flowers.

Shobha Vanchiswar

Note: Open Day is May 18. My garden as well as Rocky Hills will be ready and waiting for you!

IMG_3345.jpg

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar