Acting Out Autumn

The autumnal equinox happened this past Saturday and with that, we’ve officially moved into the season. As if on cue, the temperatures dipped and it has been gloriously nippy. Yes, fall is in the air.

I celebrated by swapping out the summer window-boxes with autumnal ones and bringing home from the local nursery a vast array of gourds and pumpkins for adorning. These simple efforts have set the tone and I’m fully invested in getting on with the season’s activities.

With the ‘meadow’ now more opened up to light, I’m working on a list of native plants to add. I’ve ordered a few plants but the majority of the new additions will be obtained in the spring when its easier to get small plants that are not as hurtful to my pocketbook. The very large bulb order will arrive by mid-October so, before that time of planting, I intend to have the meadow cleared of the over-enthusiastic residents and with them the thuggish weeds. This is easier said than done because the wanted and unwanted plants are a jumble and sorting through will be a test of my patience and commitment.

I’m also looking sternly at the borders to see what needs to be moved/divided and what needs to be added to give them a more natural, cohesive appearance. It’s time to cut back many plants like the peonies and irises. More will be ready as the season progresses. I’m keeping an eye on the acanthus that looks ripe with seeds – I’d like to see if I can make more of them. For fun.

The drop in temperature has jolted me to the realization that the greenhouse needs to be cleaned and prepped for the plants returning to their winter residence. A frost can happen without notice and I’ll be very sorry if I lost plants due to sheer negligence. However, at present, the tomato plants are going strong in the greenhouse. There are still lots of fruit in various stages of ripeness. I’m torn between harvesting the fruit as is or waiting a bit longer. Maybe a week tops. Cannot hold up everything for the temperamental tomatoes. Yet, I’ve been enjoying eating them so much that I’m suffused with guilt for considering harsh action against the plants.

Russian and curly kale seeds have been sown afresh – they should be ready for picking well before winter truly settles in.

I’ve also got hyacinths cooling in the refrigerator – they’ll be ready for forcing in mid-January just in time to bring cheer to the post-holiday slump.

The newly seeded grass is coming up nicely and will be established by leaf raking time.

We’ve lost all our apples and pears to the vandalizing squirrels. This year, instead of covering the trees with ugly netting, I decided to experiment with the reusable bags from Japan. I’m guessing they don’t have the same hooligan squirrels that we have here. Every bag was shredded and littered all over the neighborhood. Nets will return next year.

Indoors, I’m getting ready to can tomatoes and have started to cull the recipes that call for hard-skin squashes, pumpkins and root vegetables. The sweaters and throws are coming out of closets and soon the fireplace will be called into service.

But for now, I’m still basking in the last few summer-tinged days. I want to hold on to the sounds of the birds in the morning, the perfume of the remaining roses at midday and the glow of the white phlox at sunset. Those memories will keep this gardener warm through the cold days of winter.

Note – Looking forward to seeing you at the symposium this Saturday, September 29!

At Rosedale Nurseries

Acanthus gone to seed

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Growing The Future

“ Screen time” is a hot button issue. As adults, we’re all guilty of wasting ( yes, I said wasting ) far too much time on our digital devices. And being an adult, means we should know better and do better. The choice is simple – get away from whatever electronic devise you’ve developed an unseemly attachment to and do something useful, creative and meaningful instead.

But when it comes to our children, it’s become a true dilemma. I’m not going to elaborate into this because we’re all aware of the problem. There are enough data out there confirming that the young are exposed daily to far too much screen time. Recently, the American Association of Pediatrics put out new recommendations on this topic.

Recommendations are all very well but good, fun alternatives must be offered as well. New interests and hobbies are key. As parents/caregivers/teachers, it starts with setting a good examples ourselves. Needless to say, our own passions and pastimes serve the cause best. So, what are you doing with your time?

Given that outdoor activities are unanimously extolled as antidotes to boredom, stress, anger, poor physical and mental health, I am unsurprisingly making a solid case for children taking up gardening. It is instructive in responsibility and time-management, educational in the sciences, physically demanding, therapeutic, creative, useful and, best of all, hugely rewarding. Exposing a child to the powers and wonders of nature is perhaps one of the single most gratifying experiences. We’re putting at their disposal a toolbox for life-management. Something they can use consistently for the rest of their lives.

I’ve written previously about getting children involved in the garden and, it bears reaffirming the ways to do so. Here goes –

Give them a plot of their own. A patch in the sun, amended with compost ( another lesson to teach!) for a child to work on freely. If space is at a premium, a big planter or a raised bed on a terrace will do just fine. Here, a young one can learn all the lessons of tending a garden. And you, the adult will have no worries about other parts of the garden being accidentally dug up or trampled upon.

Give them the right tools. Not toy tools! Invest in a good set of gardening tools designed for small hands. The right size will make all the difference in both their morale and in their work. Toss in a small wheelbarrow as well!

Provide some early gratification. Patience is not a virtue found in children. Let them begin with quick growing crops like radishes, arugula and other salad leaves. From seed sowing to harvest, these will take about four weeks. Starting with young plants that will flower or fruit quickly are also good options. Let the child have a say in what they want to grow. They will be so proud to provide to the family table and flower vases. In time, they can have fun growing watermelon radish, purple carrots, zebra tomatoes, lemon cucumbers – stuff that is attractively different and not commonly found in the supermarket. Same with flowers – black pansies, green zinnias, giant sunflowers in colors of gaudy sunsets …

Offer extras. Build with them butterfly, bird and bug houses. Create butterfly gardens full of native wildflowers. Set up a birdbaths and bird-feeders. Permit specialization – they can develop collections of whatever plants they like most. From succulents to dahlias to tomatoes, a young gardener can become an expert on any particular plant. Give them bulbs to plant in the fall – their eager anticipation for the spring and sheer delight at observing the bulbs emerge and bloom will get them hooked to gardening. Even jaded teenagers will get weak-kneed at the sight of a bed of daffodils trumpeting open. Mark my words.

Let them grow further. Show them how to learn about what they see. Bird watching, butterfly spotting – identifying and creating an electronic log book could well give them lifelong hobbies to pursue. Show them how to take photos and/or make drawings, sketches or paintings of their gardens, the creatures that visit and finally, of their produce. Developing their creativity gives more meaning to their efforts in the garden.

Tie it all in. To show that you’re not being a Luddite or fuddy-duddy, encourage them to blog or vlog about their gardening life through the seasons. Posting on Instagram their own fabulous, homegrown flowers and vegetables will be exciting. After all, you want them to know that you aren’t anti-technology. You just want them to be well-balanced individuals. Just like you n/est pas?

Note: Exciting news! Mark your calendars! Get your tickets! Click here to find out!

There is still time to see the ‘Waterfront’ show in which I have a painting. Don’t miss the views of the city from the windows there!

Here are some photos taken over the years –

Getting May baskets ready

Bulb planting

Making music in the tree-house. Garden Open Day 2011

Harvesting apples from the espalier orchard

There’s always time for play

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Having My Flowers And Eating Them Too

As a child, I’d spend endless hours in the garden. Amidst playing and puttering, I made discoveries and learned so much about plants and bugs. One of my most pleasant pastimes was to find the tasty treats that the garden served. Beyond the usual berries, fruits and vegetables.

I was familiar with the common herbs like mint, holy basil and cilantro. Nibbling on them I’d imagine I was in the forest hiding from wicked witches or, I was Mowgli from the Jungle Book savvy in the ways of jungle living. It felt more special to eat the flowers of the herbs than their leaves.

I’d pick roses and savor the petals one at a time. I learned to eat only the young flowers as the older ones tasted a tad bitter. On the other hand, hibiscus petals provided a tangy flavor. Nasturtiums were peppery but the leaves were not so tasty to my young palate.

I knew to suck the long tubular ends of certain flowers and savor the sweet nectar.

In my curiosity, I recall taste testing other flowers and leaves – some were terribly bitter. It never occurred to me that I could get sick from such experimentation. It was fortunate I didn’t come to any harm. Since I never really discussed my doings in the garden, nobody knew to stop this line of risky inquiry.

Fast forward to present day. It is now quite common to include plants with edible flowers in the garden. Adding to the roster of the aforementioned rose, hibiscus and nasturtiums, are pansies, calendula, borage, zucchini blossoms, purple tops of chives, white flowers of garlic, yellow dill heads, lavender, elderflower and more. It does one good to have these plants in your garden. Beautiful and edible – a winning combination. Of course, make sure the flowers come from organically grown plants. Pesticide and chemical free.

Note – A bonus to picking flowers is that it encourages most plants to produce more. I always leave some flowers so the plants continue to look good and allowed to set seed.

Now that we’re in the season of eating light and fresh, using flowers in our recipes adds an extra pizazz to the presentation. Flowers make everything a celebration.

So, I’m sharing with you a few simple recipes to get you started on a season of celebrations.

1. Summer = cold drinks. Add flowers to your ice-trays and right away you have elevated your drinks to a higher level. Violas and borage suspended in ice are my favorites.

2. Top salads with freshly picked nasturtiums, calendula and sunflower petals, pansies, borage or chive flowers. They make the salad look pretty and add subtle flavor to it. Nasturtiums have a peppery punch that I love. Borage has a mild cucumber flavor and pansies taste like lettuce.

3. Add pea or bean flowers to rice or couscous for a delicate flavor. Caution – Leave plenty of flowers on the plant or you won’t get any beans or peas!

4. Decorate a simple olive oil cake with whole fresh roses and you’ve now got an Instagram worthy dessert.

5. Stick a sprig of lavender in a sugar bowl. Next time you sweeten your tea or lemonade, there will be a hint of lavender to bring a smile to your lips.

6. Crystallized petals of roses and whole pansies look sensational on cakes. Here’s a link on how to crystallize.

7. Cool off with a watermelon and rose granita – scoop the de-seeded flesh of half a large watermelon ( about 2 and ½ Lbs of flesh) and put in blender with 4 oz sugar, juice of 1 large lemon and ½ teaspoon rose water. Blend till smooth and strain. Pour liquid into shallow, wide container and freeze for 30 minutes. Break up crystals with a fork and return to freezer. Repeat this process two more times till granita has formed ice crystals and there is no slush. Takes about 3 hours in total. Serve in chilled glasses. Top with a rose bud or a thin spiral of lemon peel. Fancy.

For Homemade Rosewater:

  1. Remove petals from about 7 large roses and run them under luke-warm water to remove any residue.
  2. Add petals to a large pot and top with enough distilled water ( about a quart and a half) to just cover (no more or you’ll dilute your rosewater).
  3. Over medium-low heat bring the water to a simmer and cover.
  4. Let simmer for 20-30 minutes or until petals have lost their color and are pale.
  5. Strain the mixture to separate the petals from the water.
  6. Discard petals and place water in a glass jar to store.The rosewater can be kept in a well-sealed bottle in the refrigerator all season. It can also flavor lemonade, ice-cream and other desserts.

Get started and have yourself a healthy, celebratory summer!

Note: Do peruse shop to get your gifts for all occasions. 100% of the profits goes to support the education of children with HIV/AIDS.

Enjoy the photos of edible flowers in the garden:

Nasturtium

Pansies in pots

Violas

Zucchini blossoms

Sunflowers

Serving up zucchini flowers!

Merry marigolds!

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Springing For A Cause

It’s an incredibly busy time right now. The garden of course is taking up most of my attention. Both PlantFest and Open Day are coming up this weekend and the following Saturday respectively. With so much else also making demands on my time, it’s easy to question why I’m taking on all the work. The answer is really quite simple – to make a difference.

I started the Printed Garden line of products because I wanted to step up my game in helping children with HIV/AIDS at the Mukta Jeevan orphanage. It has been ten years since I first met the children and began my work of fund-raising for their educational needs. As they got older, their needs became bigger. Having a consistent source of funds in addition to generous donors became imperative. Using my art for the cause seemed elementary. I have the products available on-line but pop-up shop opportunities give me the added chance to engage with the public, receive feedback, make new friends and gain more support. Work that can often feel lonely needs these human interactions to reassure and reaffirm my purpose.

TeaTown is in itself a most worthy cause. If you aren’t familiar with this local treasure and its mission, do look up their website. The PlantFest marks their spring fund raiser, with myriad plants for sale, it gets the community into a gardening state of mind and kicks off the season for TeaTown’s Wildflower Island. My participation in this event is win-win all around. Definitely worth my effort.

The Open Days Program of the Garden Conservancy is one of those great ideas that pleases and informs the population at large so much that it is easy to forget that it actually serves a bigger purpose. The Conservancy’s mission is to preserve landmark gardens across America. This takes a huge amount of effort, man power and funds. The Open Days program, raises awareness and monies to that end. However, it also provides gardeners and garden lovers an opportunity to visit private gardens, learn about new or unfamiliar plants, designs and horticultural practices. Once again, like PlantFest, it brings together people in a most beautiful way. I’ve been a garden host for this event for about ten years and I’m just as honored to do so now as when I was first approached by the Conservancy about putting my garden in their Open Day program. It’s all good.

In supporting the Garden Conservancy this way, I have met and befriended some amazing people, increased my horticultural knowledge and, acquired some pretty nice plants from those generous souls. If working like a possessed person preparing my garden for its Open Day gets me new friends and plants, well then, here I am – in the thick of manic gardening.

I’ve watched friendships between garden visitors blossom and it wouldn’t surprise me if garden visiting MeetUps become the coolest thing.

So come, join me at PlantFest and in my garden to celebrate the season, life and the sheer joy of being alive.

Note: at both events you can stock up on my products – they make beautiful and functional gifts for Mother’s Day, birthdays, bridal and wedding showers, housewarmings, host/hostess, teacher appreciation, yourself. 100% of the profits go to support the children at Mukta Jeevan orphanage.

Attention! Rocky Hills’ Open Day is on May 19 as well! A not to be missed garden!

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Springloading

It’s finally feeling like spring. A bit. There’s a light mix of snow and rain today but a prediction of sunshine and 70 degrees by Friday. Go figure. At this point, I’ll take it all.

Earlier last week, I tricked myself into spring mode by setting up the window-boxes. That feature alone cheered up the garden considerably. At ground level, it’s coming up bulbs! Scillas and crocus have joined the snowdrops and hellebores adding their splash of color that can only be described as celestial. The greening of the earth must be one of the most uplifting events in life. The other bulbs have pierced and pushed through setting themselves up for a chorus of flowers in due course. Pure joy.

The pruning and dormant oil treatment has been completed. The ‘lawn’ in front was reseeded wherever it looked winter weary and the whole area has been indulged with a layer of compost this past Sunday. The vegetable plot was also fed with compost and planted up with young leafy greens. It feels so good to be gardening again.

While many other tasks remain to be done, the progress made thus far has buoyed my spirits. It never fails to amaze me how even a little time spent working in the garden can effect such a positive outlook. Very soon we’ll be working overtime and at double-speed to catch up on all the chores. Remember, Open Day cometh May 19!

In a couple of days, I’m off to the Netherlands for a quick visit. It’s hard to go away right now because I’m loathe to miss even a moment as my garden awakens but, it’s high tulip season there so I expect to be delighted and inspired. Already I can’t wait to return home full of ideas and creativity.

(c) 2018 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

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