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

Second Sight

We are suffering through a horrid heat wave at present. It’s been five days of 90 + temperatures and given the dew point, it feels above 100. The weather authorities are trying to keep our spirits up by assuring us that by weeks’ end there’ll be a break. One can only hope.

It’s too hot to do anything outdoors. It’s too hot to even be in the garden. I’m spending my time mostly holed up in cool interiors catching up on reading and binge-watching TV shows. So I cannot really complain. At least I’m getting up to speed on The Bridge, Master Of None and How To Get Away With Murder. When I’m all caught up, I think I’ll check out the new attraction A Very English Scandal. Imagine how erudite and on trend I shall be at the myriad social events this season.

But, back to the garden where even the bees are not too busy. I do believe every living thing is struggling to conserve energy and keep cool. Apart from watering the plants in pots, no work has been attempted by me. Weeding just has to wait. I was hoping to cut the asters and other fall blooming plants this week to nudge them to get fuller and more floriferous but that task too must wait till the heat wave passes.

I’m gearing up to seriously rethink the plants in the meadow. First off, a major thinning out has to happen. Then, instead of trying to have too many types of native plants, I’m going to focus on maybe a dozen only. The ‘immigrant’ bulbs and primulas will remain to give that extra oomph in spring but each season will showcase perhaps just 2-4 types of natives. Columbines and geums to grace mid to late spring with their light splashes of color for example. As I work on this project, I’ll report back here.

There is need for editing and refocusing in many parts of the garden. It’s now reasonably mature and things are looking a bit unkempt – some effort to bring back my original vision is called for. Plants I want to emphasize are being overshadowed by the supporting cast, some candidates are not working out at all and, it’s time to introduce a few new plants to infuse a bit of horticultural energy in the mix.

When assessing ones garden in this way, a gardener can always use an objective eye to give counsel. This can be tricky. Advice can often be mistaken for criticism and we gardeners can be somewhat sensitive. But, I’ve got the perfect solution. Have a bunch of talented artists paint in the garden.

Artists naturally edit and compose as they work. They see subjects with the view to enhancing certain areas, blurring others and ultimately giving the essence of a place. Atmosphere, light, shapes and color are all elements that come through in good art and in good gardens.

This past Saturday, heat and humidity notwithstanding, a group of my studio-mates from the Art Students League of New York came to paint in my garden. They painted all day and how prolific they were! I’m never surprised by how amazing the paintings are but I am always inspired and impressed. A very talented, interesting and fun group that I’m privileged to call my friends.

Here’s the best part – the resulting paintings give me insight to my garden. The artists’ editing, focusing, different perspectives are all giving me fresh ways to review and plan on what I myself want to address in the garden. So sneaky right?!

Note 1: Don’t forget! Art show reception this Thursday, July 5 –

Note 2: Go to Shop for great gifts! 100 % of the profits supports orphan children with HIV/AIDS

And now, enjoy the photos of the artists and their work –

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar