Balancing Act

For the past ten days, I’ve been enjoying down time on the barrier islands of Chincoteague and Assateague off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia. It has been part of the quest for balance in life. When we plan a getaway or vacation, it is that need to counteract the everyday demands of work and other responsibilities. An opportunity to press the reset button so we maintain an even keel and thus keep perspective of what truly matters. Nothing quite as effective as a healthy dose of nature to do the job.

It is heart-achingly beautiful here. Known primarily for the wild ponies that inhabit them, these islands are the last remaining undeveloped outer banks. And remain they shall, thanks to the designation of being a National Seashore/Wildlife Refuge under the National Park Services. Like all our other National Parks, they are priceless national treasures.

It’s a fragile, ever-changing ecosystem here. Between the waves and winds of the mighty and temperamental Atlantic Ocean, the terrain,flora and fauna are in constant flux. New ‘islands’ are built, old ones shrink or grow, shorelines shift, the resilient wildlife adapt and somehow, an equilibrium is maintained. Retreating dunes mark the island’s westward move and as the water in the bays rise in response to rising ocean water, the coastlines are redrawn. New habitats are created and old ones re-adapted. Plants and animals adjust to these changes. Rich in aquatic life, the bays provide a vital ecosystem. The salt marshes, defined by the ebb and flow of the tides are yet another complex, vital ecosystem in themselves. The plants that thrive in salt marshes may be few but they shelter a diverse number of wildlife. The dunes and upper beaches are in constant motion and support a different variety of plants and animals.

Even as eel grass is tossed up by storm surges, it is turned into a substrate that enriches the soil in the marshes. Ribbed mussels have a relationship with the long water roots of salt grasses found along the edges of the marshy islands. Egrets ride on the horses to see what choice morsels they might reveal as they plod around and disturb the wet land. In turn, they help the horses by dealing with the biting insects so prevalent here. The horses feed on the salty grasses and also the poison ivy – I found that latter item quite interesting.

In an ideal situation, these parts would manage fine and life would play out naturally. It’s a real gift that we humans get to visit and observe. But yet, we manage to upset the balance. Despite all the cautions and advice from the park rangers, people often try to get too close to the horses ( selfies!) or try feeding them. The horses, as a result can get too familiar with our presence and come to expect treats to supplement their diet. These are wild animals with strong teeth and legs – their bites and kicks are fearsome. Getting too close or goading them has unfortunate consequences for man and horse. Why oh why can we not stay away from our own worst habits?!

We got very lucky with Hurricane Dorian last week. A harmless tropical storm was all we experienced. Two windy days of which one was rainy. Some localized flooding but nothing problematic. I imagine this was however, a more serious threat for the wildlife as they were deprived of their regular feeding forays and had to seek shelter to wait out the weather. For me, it was enough to be made acutely aware of how fragile life is and how much we take it for granted.

When I return home shortly, I plan to carry this awareness in my heart and strive harder to stay centered, as always, taking my cues from nature in maintaining a balance.

P.S- I also plan to increase my annual contribution to the National Parks. In recent times they have seen major budget cuts. This is nothing short of a crisis of tremendous proportion with far-reaching consequences. I beseech every single one of you to do your part in preserving our national treasure – this beautiful, majestic land of mountains and plains, lakes, rivers and coasts that we call home.

See the images below for a glimpse of Assateague/Chicoteague beauty.

Note: I’m participating in this show. I hope you will see it.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer Joy

It’s the lazy days of summer. I hope you’re making the most of the season. They will become the memories that’ll get you through the dark, cold days of winter. Ignore the to-do list and savor the pleasures of summer.

Summer Nights

Wrapped in the thick air

heavy with heat

laden with moist

Watching fireflies

mimic the stars

against black velvet

Serenaded boldly

by tree frogs

and crickets

Fanned from on high

wings of bats

on purposeful sorties

While night moths

answer service calls

of moonflowers

and gardenias

Spicy notes of phlox

rise with the night

perfumed with clove,

oil of bergamot

essence of rose

Lulled into

well being

content to remain

Greet the dew

of a new day.

– Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer Dive

Sunlight spills

brilliant diamonds

blinding ripples

shimmering winks

sliced apart

by summer’s first dive.

-Shobha Vanchiswar

Summer Joy

Summer spreads wide

a picnic blanket

of meadow flowers and green, green grass

For legs to brush against

bodies to lie back

To gaze upon

lofty images of dogs and bears and hunting giants

From dazzling day to evening glitter

Dew gathers to mist

sun-warmed faces and naked toes

Summer seems

like an endless ride

filled with ice-cream cones and fireflies

Of water fights and watermelon wedges

children’s laughter intoxicated

on improbable tales

An ephemeral age, an ephemeral time

summer passes overnight.

– Shobha Vanchiswar

Note: The Small Works exhibit is on through August. Do make time to see it!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Just July

Our house is taken in possession

By him, while he enjoys a rest

July, with summer air and thunder-

He is our temporary guest.

July, who scatters from his pockets

The fluff of blow-balls in a cloud,

Who enters through the open window,

Who chatters to himself aloud,

Unkempt, untidy, absent-minded,

Soaked through with smell of oil and rye,

With linden-blossom, grass and beet-leaves,

The meadow-scented month July.”

‘July’ by Boris Pasternak

July is coming to a close and what a month it has been in the garden. Hot, messy and erratic. That poem by Pasternak describes it so well.

Dictated by the weather, I’ve been negligent of my garden duties. It’s just really hard to get outside and work when merely standing still brings on the sweat and sends out irresistible invites to all the biting bugs near and far. Consequently, the chores get done in fits and starts, bits and pieces. A little weeding here, some deadheading there. The automatic watering system set up for the pots broke down and needed fixing – mercifully, the preceding days had been wet so the plants were relatively unharmed.

The heat wave put paid to the plants in the pots on the wall on the side terrace. Despite the daily watering, they simply could not take those high temperatures. I’ve decided to empty out the pots and not replant. With a very busy August schedule coming up, it’s time to simplify matters somewhat.

They say this June was the hottest one in recent history and July is turning out to match it. Who knows what August will do.

Sunflowers have appeared as happy surprises in one of the large bay standard pots. A lone sunflower grew in the vertical garden. I’d stopped planting lilies a few years ago because I lost the battle with the red lily beetles. Well, as though waking up after a long slumber, a couple of lily plants re-emerged this summer. Their leaves are ugly and chewed up but the flowers look fine and are busy perfuming the front garden.

The garden might look a bit unruly but it is fragrance heaven. Lilies in front soon to be followed by phlox, gardenias and orange-blossoms on the side and jasmine in the back. Heaven.

The meadow has been in serious need of attention. First, the jewelweed took advantage of my apathy and spread itself all over. Once they were deliberately reduced to more manageable numbers, a nettle of the sting-less variety moved in with a vengeance. It needs to be completely and ruthlessly removed all together. It’s been a real task trying to help the many new plants planted in late spring establish themselves. Fingers crossed …

The hydrangea are in bloom – they provide much needed color in the meadow right now. Elsewhere, the Echinacea in their brightness are drawing the pollinators. I really ought to plant more of these stalwarts and get rid of the fussy, finicky members of the garden. With harsh weather becoming the new normal, it behooves a gardener to rethink the plantings.

Tomato season has begun. We’re enjoying the golden cherry tomatoes and savoring the bigger varieties as they ripen. At this stage, each fruit is precious. Soon, there will be a glut and we’ll take them for granted as we make soups, salads and sauces.

It’s so easy to obsess over the disheveled state of the garden, complain about the heat in July. But, looking around, amidst the green jungle, I see heroic flowers splashing color and fragrance all over. The herbs, leafy greens and, early tomatoes grace our meals. Ripening grapes and pears hold the promise of an autumn harvest. The asters are coming up strong for a good showing to close out the summer.

Under stressful circumstances, the garden is working hard to deliver. I must move to do the same.

Note: Consider yourself invited –

My July garden –

Lilies. Note the hole-riddled leaves.
Echinacea
Late blooming clematis
Pears
Figs
Jasmine
The vertical garden with renegade sunflower
Sunflower surprise
Agapanthus
The meadow before the serious weeding happened.
Tomatoes
A harvest

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Good Time(ing)s

In general, once my garden Open Day has passed, a respite of sorts is granted. The garden looks its best, all the heavy work is over and it’s simply a matter of maintenance. Weeding, watering, deadheading, mowing – the usual tasks to keep the garden looking neat and cared for. It’s time to start relaxing and lolling about in the garden. But not this year.

I had, over this past winter, decided to go for a bigger push in the ‘meadow’. Envisioning this space as a true four season performance arena and inspired by Piet Oudolf’s matrix planting system, I ordered 18 different native plants totaling 200 plants. That’s a lot of plants. Given that the ‘meadow’ already has a range of plants and bulbs in residence, the new introductions would be a bit of a challenge. So, I sourced a nursery that would provide young plugs of the plants making it a bit easier to get into the ground between the existing plants.

This new order arrived a day before the Open Day. Needless to say, planting them had to wait. Given the need to take a little time off post-Open Day and a couple of days of inclement weather, a whole week went by. Memorial weekend it had to be. As much as I was keen on simply enjoying the long weekend with no tasks on the agenda, the plugs of plants could not be ignored. Hence, over the afternoon of Saturday to well past sunset we planted one side of the ‘meadow’. The weather was ideal but getting around the established plants was a game of Twister. Marking the spots for the plugs using bamboo stakes, making the holes ( my engineer husband/under-gardener used a drill and that made it so much better) and placing the plants took so much longer than if one were starting on a blank canvas of earth. Our sore backs and legs were testaments to the effort.

Sunday dawned and we began at 8:00am by which time it was already hot and humid. So vastly different from the day before. The bugs were out in full swing. We finally got all the planting done barely in time to start preparing for our first garden party of the season. We hadn’t as yet shopped for the event! Needless to say, it became a marathon of shopping, prepping, baking (dessert), setting up, laying the table, firing up the outdoor wood-fired oven, showering and dressing … in a matter of hours.

All was accomplished just in time for the first guests’ arrival. Whew!

Then, just as the party was nicely underway and we were considering starting on pizza making, the first raindrops dropped. Yikes! Very soon we realized it was only going to get worse. This crowd was not the kind to run indoors. Not a chance. Instead, with all hands on deck, a big tarpaulin was spread and tethered over the pergola ( with me urging them to “mind the wisteria buds!”). The pop-up tent was brought out of storage and commissioned to allow the pizza-maker/husband and guest helpers to work unfettered by the rain. And the party continued in much hilarity and good cheer. Well into the night.

Planting time, good times – it’s all in the timing. And a can-do attitude.

P.S – Aforementioned under-gardener has categorically stated that he is done with all planting for the rest of the growing season. Hmmm, we shall see about that.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Weather Perfect

A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves.” Marcel Proust

Ah, Open Day has come and gone leaving me with a sense of relief, well-being and satisfaction. The weather was perfect. After three straight years of cold, wind and rain on Open Day, this exquisite day was well overdue.

The sun shone bright, the air was dry, the temperature was ideal – not hot, not cold, a gentle breeze prevailed and the garden was filled with the buzz, tweets and hums of bees, birds and butterflies. The flowers rose to the occasion and shone bright and beautiful. I could not have asked for any better.

It is almost impossible not to respond positively to weather such as that. There is an imperceptible yet powerful shift in one’s mood and outlook. For myself, it felt as though a new energy had moved into my body. Being outside in the garden felt so right. There was no other place to be. No bugs biting, no jackets weighing me down, no sweat to wipe off and, best of all, no chores to do. This was as good as it gets.

It was the perfect weather to share the garden. And the garden looked its best despite the cold and rain it had endured thus far this spring. Several plants were lagging in their bloom time but the others stepped up admirably. Every visitor arrived with happy spirits and curious minds. Of the 100 or so visitors, I did not encounter a single person with the slightest hint of negativity.

As much as I love sharing my garden, I adore meeting other gardeners and garden lovers. I learn so much. This time, I picked up on a new-for-me nursery to check out, a few gardens I must visit, a book to add to my summer reading, enjoyed several good laughs, received feedback on my own garden and made new partners in horticultural-crime. At the end of the day, I was so much the richer – in heart and head.

Under such ideal conditions, it was inevitable that the best conversations ensued, strangers became friends, and for the one brief day, all was well with the world. Marcel Proust was so right.

A heartfelt thank you to all who made this Open Day a resounding success. Visitors, volunteers, friends and family – nothing is possible without you.

Note: Here are lots of photos for all those of you who failed to show up!

IMG_1343

Friends from Chicago

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Real, Fake Or Alternative Facts

I’m referring to Christmas trees of course. Did something else come to mind? Ha.

The other day, I was asked for my advice about real vs fake. That led to some serious thinking.

For those amongst us who celebrate the holiday season with a tree, choosing a tree depends on a variety of matters but mostly, it is personal. And so, to change ones mind about it requires a lot of persuasion.

But I’m not out to dissuade anyone to choose one type for another. I simply think one ought to make informed decisions. Lets not be even a wee bit judgmental. Good will to all remember?

So, lets consider the real tree. It’s a long tradition for many to get a real tree. Some make it an event by going to a tree farm, selecting a tree, cutting it themselves and then bringing it home atop the family car. Others are just as happy going to the neighborhood tree lot and finding their tree of choice. A third kind likes to get a living tree to enjoy through the season and then plant it out on the property when spring comes along.

Real trees undoubtedly add a certain je ne sais quoi to any space. By virtue of being real, they are not quite perfect and that adds to their appeal. The fragrance of a pine tree in the house is pure joy. But lets face it, setting a tree up takes some effort. Get it on a stand so it stays straight and upright, water it regularly, contend with falling needles … there are some given inconveniences. In general however, I’m very partial to keeping it festive with a real tree.

It takes about ten years to grow a modest sized tree. Certainly there is the requirement of water and care but while these trees are growing, they do their part in helping the environment. Removing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen into the atmosphere, supporting wildlife, preventing soil erosion etc., The biggest carbon footprint in this choice of tree is that made by the car that transports it. Of course, if trees are shipped in from Canada and northern USA, then that footprint just grew exponentially. So staying with local farms is preferable.

How such a tree is disposed of is another big consideration. If trees are chipped and turned into mulch then it is all good. But, if they are taken to landfills then, not only is that transport increasing the carbon footprint but a decaying tree in that site will add to the greenhouse gases by putting out methane. And that’s not good at all.

A living tree is of course the best choice of all.

Moving on to fake trees. These days, the synthetic ones can be almost lifelike. The high end models are barely distinguishable from the real stuff. They can do serious damage to the pocketbook. Cheaper fakes are often also cheap looking. In either case, the cost of manufacturing and distribution comes with a high environmental impact. While they can be reused ‘indefinitely’, when they are finally discarded they do not break down for ages and ages. Maybe never.

Fake trees are indeed very convenient to use and I’ve seen some vintage models that evoke a lovely, nostalgic time when things were seemingly ‘simpler’.

We finally come to alternative trees. Any number of things can stand in for a Christmas tree. As graduate students, my husband and I did not have funds to spare and were more than happy to decorate our three-tiered hanging planter with lights and homemade ornaments. I’ve seen ‘trees’ made of stacked books, ladders, peel and stick decals on a wall, metal ‘branches’ from whose bare limbs ornaments are easily hung and, even what seemed to me an inspired yet minimalist tree that was simply strips of brown paper placed in ascending order at equal intervals on a wall to indicate a tree. Stuck on the strips were acorns, small pine cones and bits of holly. This last version really captivated my imagination and I’m so sorry I did not take. any photos. One day, I shall aim to recreate it.

For years, we always got ourselves a real tree. Natural is after all our style. We’d cut up the tree after it had served its purpose and compost it in the woods. Our town also picks up the trees and converts them to mulch. But last year we finally stopped that practice. My daughter, who adores real Christmas trees is severely allergic to them. After years of making excuses that it was only for a few weeks, taking way too many anti-histamines and making tissue companies very wealthy, I’d had enough. It was just crazy to be so tortured for the entire duration of the holidays. It took almost two years to convince the girl that she had to give up on having a real tree.

Thus, we came to the decision that if we could not have a real tree then we’d do an alternative. I even discovered that I’d had it all along! It is a white metal pot fitted with a conical shaped tower made of chicken wire. It is intended to house a vining plant that can weave itself on the chicken wire support. What I did was to fill up the interior with strings of lights that are easily plugged in because of said chicken wire openings. Those openings are perfect for hanging ornaments on the outside.

While the ornaments get put away after the New Year is underway, the ‘light filled tree’ occupies a corner in the house and is commissioned at every celebration deserving of some flash and dash..

Frankly, I have not missed the real stuff at all and it does my heart good to see my daughter sans tissue-box, anti-histamines, distressed nose, hacking cough and boggy head.

Fa la la la.

Note:
The Art Students League

Holiday Art Sale

Opens Today! Get there before you miss out on some great art!

 

Tree in the past

Our last real tree.

The allergic one

The alternative tree in daylight

Amaryllis tree

At night

NYC

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

November Nuances

It finally feels like November. Fall is on the way out and winter is moving in. Blustery cold days with a definitive crispness in the air, enough trees in now muted colors rendering the days with an understated, autumnal elegance all highlighted by that clear sunshine so particular to this time of year. The transition to winter is happening. Things are slowing down. November, a month of progression, people power and prayerful thanks.

Most of the fall garden chores are done. But for another round or two of leaf raking and covering the large pots with their winter protection of plastic tarp and burlap, little else is called for. After the ground is well and truly frozen, a layer of mulch will be applied to all the beds. Doing it too early invites rodents to make homes beneath the mulch. Besides, until the ground is frozen hard, there is the threat of freezing and thawing which can displace the mulch.

Before Thanksgiving, I’ll make another inspection to confirm that the limbs of climbers and vines are secured properly and all movable furniture put away. The greenhouse heater is giving trouble so we’re keeping an eye on it. Should it fail to kick-in, the plants will suffer or worse. Hoping it doesn’t need replacing – good heaters don’t come cheap.

In this period of down time, I’ve been making it a point to enjoy the foliage which has been spectacular this year. We were fortunate to have days bright with sunshine this past long weekend. So while temperatures dipped and the wind whipped up the fallen leaves, brisk, energetic walks were in order. Got the blood flowing and spirits raised for sure. The fall colors are fading but there’s still plenty to observe and enjoy. Yellow ocher is having its moment. I’m taking my wardrobe cues from nature’s current palette. I too would like to look understated and elegant.

The joyous displays of chrysanthemums and pumpkins in front of so many homes remind me that Thanksgiving is fast approaching. I wish I’d brought in more hydrangea to make big arrangements for the mantel. But my timing was off and now the blooms on the plants are all brown and shriveled. Still, outdoors, they continue to make a visual impact. I’m loving the earthy hues. There is so much beauty in senescence.

That is true of humans as well.

Note: Points Of View” is still on. Do check it out!

Also: I have a painting here –

 

Some images I’ve enjoyed this month:

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Foliage, Flowers, Freedom

Fall has finally peaked. It’s late but oh my, it’s been worth the wait. It is firelicious. Don’t look up the word – I made it up. The colors are so brilliant and gaudy it feels like I’m in a mad artist’s palette. So this past Sunday, we drove around simply to take in the fall foliage. With no plans or destination in mind, we took side roads and parkways pausing frequently to observe and admire. The weather was perfect – mild temperatures, a backdrop of clear blue skies, sunlight glancing off the colors creating ephemeral moments of sparkle and glow, I couldn’t get enough of the gorgeous hues. Can’t believe how blessed I am to live here.

Autumn

The sun lives on earth these days

I tread on glowing embers

Walking amidst flames of leaves

My world’s ablaze in hothouse colors.

– Shobha

The bulbs are all planted. Fingers crossed that we do not revert suddenly to summer temperatures anytime before spring. I’m already envisioning the bold splashes of color that will rejuvenate our spirits and gardens so tired of winter’s tedium. Flowers work such powerful magic.

The icing on the cake was that during the entire afternoon spent admiring the foliage, I never once got distracted by thoughts of all the turmoil and tension in the country. The anger, fear and uncertainty is palpable everywhere. Well today, we get to make things better. We vote. That’s how we preserve our freedoms and this democracy. Whatever else you might have on your to-do list today, make sure you cast your vote. That right was hard-earned and hard-fought. Don’t let yourself or your nation down.

Note: Thank you everyone who came to the reception of ‘Point Of View’! Your support and presence meant the world to me. For those who couldn’t make it, the exhibit is on through the month of November. Don’t forget to sign the guest book!

@walonlewis

Started the foliage viewing from my own backyard

A glimpse of ‘Points Of View’

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Hope Is Alive And Well

The shipment of bulbs finally arrived last Friday. The bulb houses ship the orders in time for planting at their final destinations. Given how erratic our weather has been this year, the bulbs are unsurprisingly later than usual. With no certainty on my part, I’ve decided to take the bulb companies to heart – maybe they know something I don’t. Hence, I began the planting on Sunday. Getting 1000 bulbs planted will take a while.

What can be more optimistic than planting bulbs? These rotund packages large and small, hold within their brown, plain bodies the promise of a beautiful spring as reward for enduring the dark, cold days of winter. Given recent happenings in our country, the days already feel dark, forbidding and scary. So planting the bulbs serves as both a distraction and an act of faith. Tomorrow will be brighter and better. Without that inherent belief, gardeners would cease to exist.

In performing this ritual of investing in the future, I’m encouraged that beauty on earth will persist. When the flowers emerge next spring, they will bring joy to all who see them. At that time, I will particularly remember those we lost at the time of planting. They didn’t go in vain.

I believe that we cannot give up or give in to the threats that loom – good will always triumph over evil, light will eliminate the dark, love will conquer hate. Otherwise, there’d be no point to anything.

Note: ‘Points Of View” opens this week. Do stop for a look!

This year’s bulb order.

Fall in miniature

Glimpses of last spring –

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Control Freaks!

We gardeners, under the guise of lovers of the earth, actually thrive on playing God. We are gods that are often battling the Creator. Think about it, we are constantly fighting nature to create our own version of paradise.

We hybridize and graft, water and fertilize, trim and prune, evict and select just to get the garden we see fit. Determined to grow plants totally unsuitable to our climate, we go to great lengths and expense to nurture the ‘aliens’. Even in our native plant choices, we include only what pleases us personally.

The very concept of a garden is one of manipulation. Nature is being coerced, cajoled and curtailed to the gardener’s dictates. As much as we are seen as preservers and conservers, we do so selectively. We only do what suits us. Yep, it’s true. Before you get your gardener gander up and attempt to protest, consider it carefully.

Do you permit only certain plants in your garden? Are some of those plants ‘special’ and require extra attention? Do you have a lawn? If a plant doesn’t perform to your liking, do you toss it out? As soon as a dry and/or hot spell prevails do you start worrying and turn on the hose and sprinklers more often? At the threat of a sudden frost or cold temperatures, do you cover plants or move them to shelter? Do you keep vigil for weeds? How about measures taken to thwart marauders like deer, rabbits, birds and squirrels that undo your efforts to grow beloved fruits, vegetables and flowers? Do you train climbers and stake floppers? Are the roaming tendencies of plants contained by edgers and fences in borders? You see? We are all guilty. If you garden, you engineer.

We aren’t really working with nature. We are doing our best to manipulate it. We are in charge – the lord of our horticultural lair. Goddess of the garden.

So, lets own it. Gardeners are control freaks and proud of it. Appropriating the 3M motto – we don’t create nature, we just make it better. How about that?

Note: Don’t forget! Coming up next week on November 2 – the reception to “Points Of View”.

Also, I have a painting in another show in Piermont, NY coming up later in November. That reception is on November 25 so mark your calendar!. Details will follow in due course.

Enjoy the images below –  examples of my manipulations –

The ‘orchard’ – fruit trees trained to create a Belgian espalier fence.

The ‘meadow’

Beds and borders

Lines and squares

A garden on a wall!

‘Training’ wisteria

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar