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

January Yearnings

I am a great believer in the seasons. Even here in my own world, I have no relish for sweet corn in January or strawberries in November.”

— Pearl S. Buck, My Several Worlds

January is for dreaming. About all things garden. These reveries are about the ideal horticultural scenarios. Perfect weather, perfectly well-behaved plants, perfect fruits and flowers … It’s how we envision our gardens to be. Without that fantasy, we could never find it in ourselves to garden. Gardening is risky! Weather and pests can put paid to all ones efforts. It’s the imagination that fuels a gardener’s ambitions. And an almost unhealthy dose of optimism/faith/whatever you choose to call it. Unlike farmers who are trying to feed the world, gardeners have a more selfish interest. We want the accolades – even if its only from a long-suffering spouse or neighbor.

Think about it. Aren’t we ever so proud when we hear “ that is the sweetest tomato I’ve tasted! ”, “ Such amazing roses!”, “ Such a perfect dahlia!”, “Wow! Are those tulips real?”, “ Your peonies are spectacular!”, “ This garden is a gem!”. Am I right? You can’t deny that you don’t feel mighty pleased. It’s no different from the ‘likes’ one looks for on social media. In both cases, it’s an addiction!

We constantly seek validation and approval. It’s a fact gardening-people! Just accept it.

And so, I’m doing my share of dreaming. The new plants I’m going to try – they are sure to impress. The flower arrangements that will adorn the house – bigger and better. The entire meals made from garden produce – most delicious ever. The lively garden parties perfumed by roses and jasmine – best soirées to get invited to.

There is no harm in dreaming. At the very least, it gets me through the winter blues. At best, the garden will benefit from my renewed enthusiasm and look delightful ( if not spectacular).

Start dreaming already! There are no rules or limits. And no one else needs to know.

Note: These are my current dreaming companions –

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

In The True Spirit Of The Season

I’m finally feeling the holiday season. Towns are decked out for it and one is greeted with holiday music any shop one steps into. Not to sound too Grinch-like but I’m a little tired of this non-stop ‘seasonal’ music as though I’d forget what season I’m in if they played something else.

I do adore the strings of white lights tracing the bare limbs of trees, the lamp posts and railings. Just as winter has officially started, the lights infuse a much needed element of cheer. At the same time, I worry about the impact the illuminations have on birds and other animals that dwell in trees and bushes. It is well documented that our street lights, neon signs and such affect the avian bio-rhythms . It stands to reason that our holiday lights must interfere as well. Imagine how you’d sleep with bright lights being turned on in your bedroom. And then how you’d feel from the poor rest night after night.

The artificial lights mimic daylight and hence cause confusion in the birds. It not only causes sleep deprivation but affects their breeding. The timing of egg laying goes out of whack and the number of eggs laid are diminished. You can understand the problem. So, it behooves us to curb our decorating enthusiasm, use the cooler (as in temperature) LED bulbs, and shorten the time the lights are on. Yes, I’m aware that LED does not have the same warm ambiance as the fluorescent bulbs but, it’s the responsible, ethical and ecological thing to do.

To decorate outdoors, preferably select bare limbed trees over the evergreens. Non-migratory birds and squirrels take shelter in those leafy trees and shrubs. Keep in mind that more is not better. We are going for tasteful not airport runway style.

Similarly, as far as possible, stick to natural materials. Particularly for outdoor decorations. Critters have the habit of eating or using the materials for their nests. Plastic, Styrofoam and other synthetic decorations look enticing and appealing. But they are dangerous if not deadly to all creatures who unfortunately, do not know this. We do. It is incumbent on us to do right by them.

In the true spirit of the season, lets spread good will to all. Human and otherwise.

Note: The popular Annual Holiday Art Show at the New York Art Student’s League is on! Art makes wonderful gifts.

The art show Fragile Waterways at TeaTown runs through this month. Support a great cause!

Some random images of the season:

Illumination at Untermyer Gardens
For allergy sufferers – an alternative ‘tree’
Another alternative.This year I’m using my bay standard as the tree.
Bouche de Noel
Paperwhites
Amaryllis ‘tree’
NYBG Holiday Train Show 2019

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Calming Down

Boy, am I glad the bulbs were planted the previous weekend. It got pretty frosty by last Friday. A good portion of the country is being hit with record cold this week. Too early I say! However, looking at the crazy seasons we’ve been experiencing, this is not too surprising. I believe we’re in a flux of sorts. There is something unsettling going on as climate change is underway. The new normal is not here as yet.

With most of the fall chores frenetically completed in the garden, I take November as a time to reflect on life, the world at large and my place in it. The garden offers a quiet place to restore equilibrium in these uncertain times. The basic act of tending a garden is grounding in that it makes us aware of how interconnected we all are – to nature and to each other. Making and caring for a garden is an optimistic sign as it implies we are invested in the future. There is a contentment to be discovered in garden work that few other projects can provide.

I look back on the successes and failures, the challenges and surprises through the year. It was a great year for the bulbs and many of the perennials. The clematis particularly shone. The vegetables did well too. With a sudden freeze in early spring, the fruit trees struggled. As did the wisteria. The meadow was a large part of my focus but I dropped the ball a few times in staying on top of the weeding and watering so the new, young additions could thrive. Life happens. I will do better next year.

Through the year, as I wrestled with matters unfolding on the national and global stages, the garden has provided purpose and practice. When events seemed intolerable, incendiary, confusing or conflicted, the garden presented me with opportunity to take immediate action and make something better in my little world. It reminds me to stay positive. That the sun will always emerge through the dark. The seed will become a flower.

While I alone cannot bring the world to calm down, I am in a position to create something beautiful and nurturing to give respite to myself and all others who come my way. Every garden has this transformative capability. It stands to reason that now more than ever, we need our gardens and parks.

For me personally, gardening has kept me sane, balanced. Be it a single pot, a window-box, a collection of African violets in a stand indoors or, a garden of any size, the very act of tending to plants will make you feel better. I promise.

Note: The ‘Colors Of Fall ‘ art show is on for two more weeks! Do please visit.

This week, I give you just two images to focus on. One is a photograph and the other a watercolor I did. Immerse yourself in them.Take deep breaths, allow the mind and body to relax. Let nature calm and comfort you.

‘Breathing Space’

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Cover-Ups, Concealment And Cutbacks

Yeah, it’s not what you think. Get your mind back into the garden! Winter has arrived – a little too early. Fall is not quite done! On Halloween night, the temperature was in the low 70’s and by the following night, we had a hard frost.

With the tender perennials already ensconced in the greenhouse, I wasn’t too worried about the sudden cold. However, the greenhouse heater is being cantankerous and is yet to kick in. The engineer in residence needs to get it working soon. Or else.

The great bulb cover-upping happened on Sunday. All 700 plus bulbs. With snow expected on Thursday, I didn’t want to take the risk of doing the project in stages. It’s all done now. The assortment of little brown packages are now under their winter blankets of earth and mulch. In my mind’s eye I can see them in splendiferous bloom. Spring cannot come soon enough. Wait, I take that back. Given how erratic the weather/seasons have been, I’m willing to be patient and wait till the appropriate time for spring.

The fallen leaves in the meadow are let to remain to give some cover to the plants and also enrich the soil subsequently. This area does not receive any additional fertilizer so Mother Nature’s free-falling bounty is the one we depend upon. Similarly, other shrubs and all the roses are provided a pile of leaves at their feet to keep cozy. In time, the roses will also acquire a windbreak of burlap for additional protection.

The large pots that stay outdoors all through the year are shielded in the winter. First, they get fully concealed in plastic and then given a more aesthetic looking wrapping of burlap. Throughout the winter they look like big packages left by some careless delivery person.

The perennials have been cut back and it always makes me a bit sad to see the garden so bare. Despite the lingering colors of autumn, the long, dark days of winter loom ahead.

To combat the seasonal sadness, I’ve started setting aside all those gardening magazines I hadn’t got around to reading in the busy months. Soon, the seed and plant catalogs will begin to arrive and they too will join the pile. Since October, the refrigerator has been cooling bulbs for forcing – they’re sure to cheer up January and February nicely. For now, paperwhites are coming up and I’m counting on them to pretty up Thanksgiving. Firewood has been stacked, fresh candles placed in the candlesticks, snuggly blankets rest temptingly on all the couches, jars of pesto, tomato sauce and jellies await impromptu gatherings for board-games and Charades, the list of shows to binge watch is on hand as are novels picked up throughout the year. Winter is suddenly looking mighty attractive.

Note: Be sure to look at the list of garden tasks for November.

The ‘Colors Of Fall’ art show is on till the end of this month. Do visit!

Getting ready for bulb planting.
Rain barrel upturned and left to empty itself before being put away
Ferns from the vertical garden take up residence in the vegetable bed for winter. They too will be covered with a blanket of burlap shortly.
The perennial beds all cut back, bulbs planted and awaiting a layer of mulch.
Fall color still going strong

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Clean-up Conundrum

The fall clean-up is underway. It always feels a little bit too early because the garden still looks as though it is not fully done with the season. Like a popular party girl reluctant to call it a night – hair now sexily disheveled, clothes sorta fetchingly rumpled, looking a bit tired but still enthusiastic and frankly, should be heading for bed before she embarrasses herself and passes out. I hold back on the drastic chop-down for as long as the weather will permit.

As much as I think it is nice to leave a good portion alone for winter visual interest and food for birds, I’ve found it to be a bit impractical. For access to plant the hundreds of bulbs amidst all the perennials, there needs to be serious cut back and clean up. Experience has shown that whatever is let to remain invariably gets smothered with the first snowfall.

At the end of it all, I’m left to bring everything to order in a hurry as the garden must get ready for Open Day in spring. It’s invariably a short window for planting and gussying up. Compelled to wait for the snow to melt, means the ground is too mushy and there’s danger of trampling over emerging growth. Besides, so much else needs doing and time is at a premium.

I do leave some ornamental grasses untouched just to ease my mind. In reality, the shrubs and trees around the property provide the birds with adequate shelter and whatever they enjoy foraging. The woods in the back are certainly a winter resort for all critters. The bird feeder merely supplements their diet. That is to say, the birds are well provided.

Visual interest in winter is actually provided by other elements in the garden. In the front, the perennial beds might be bare but the espalier owns the focus. Its geometrical design looks good throughout and a dusting of snow highlights it beautifully. The shadows that hit the ground in the low winter light is so extra – ephemeral art.

In the back, the grid design of the potager/herb garden looks fine at all times but it really steps up its game in the snow – especially as it is viewed from the house at a height. Ditto the checkerboard garden.

And in the meadow – this is a hub of avian layovers and flight paths. At any given time, there is some sort of activity going on – one just needs to slow down and watch.

The sculpture ‘Wind Song’ is a major presence all through the year but once the meadow has been given its annual clean up, it literally shines. The reflections and scattering of the sunlight and the shadows it casts make it a quiet performance art. I should have a camera set up to capture it throughout the cold months. Hmmm, this year, maybe I will.

Despite popular advice to keep plants untouched, I’m really quite comfortable to do the big clean-up in fall. There’s enough left in the garden for both birds and gardener to pass the winter peacefully. And, when springs comes around, I have a bit of a head start.

Note: The Untermyer Symposium ‘Restoring Historic Gardens’ is this Saturday, October 19. Hope you are coming!

The walkway
Note the shadows!
Herb garden
Checkerboard garden
“Wind Song”

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Keep It Simple

I can feel the quickening. We turned the clock forward last Sunday. The temperature got close to 50 degrees yesterday. While its back to the 40s today, Friday looks promising – it could get as high as 60 degrees! Yes, I can sense winter’s grip loosening.

With that comes an almost overwhelming awareness that much needs doing in the garden. Especially if there is an upcoming occasion for which it must look tip-top. My garden Open Day is looming large. May 18 might still seem a bit far off but given the myriad tasks involved, the uncertainty of the weather and most significantly, my other commitments both personal and professional, that available time is shrinking. Between project deadlines and celebratory occasions, I must squeeze in the garden work. I’m feeling excited and apprehensive all at the same time. It’s a good problem to have.

To mitigate unnecessary stress and frustration, my focus is to simplify. I have nothing to prove. I don’t have to pretend to be super-anybody. I decided to skip starting plants from seed – my schedule just doesn’t have the time to tend to them this year. Instead, I’m getting young plugs of native plants to add to the meadow and vegetable plot. Even for that I was beginning to get anxious about getting them all planted before open Day till I thought more calmly and realized that the plants for summer and fall can most assuredly wait till after that day.

The bones or hardscaping of the garden are already in place. So, there is a sense of order and flow to the design. Some features are focal points and others are backdrops to the plantings which are the true stars. To shine that light on the plants, I’m sticking to a less is more attitude. Less variety, more numbers of the plants. Taking my cue from those stunning swathes of snowdrops or fields of poppies one sees in Europe, I’m going to plant in larger groups and have these groups complement each other. This should highlight forms, colors and texture to the meadow giving it a cohesive and distinct character. I hope.

Spatial identity for the garden is important and by keeping it simple and timeless, the different areas remain unique yet work together as a whole.

Keeping it simple, does not mean bland or generic. This is where details matter. Sculptures, pots and other features like fountains, troughs and seating bring style and personality. These can change or evolve as one desires. There is a certain feature I’m working on for this year – I’m hoping it will all come together in time for May 18. If not, it will be by next year. I’m not going to stress myself out. However, my fingers are crossed.

In the early years, I prided myself on doing as much if not all the work by myself. I had fewer responsibilities and obligations. And a whole lot more youthful energy. These days, I’m happy to bring in some help. What the English refer to as a jobbing gardener – someone who comes in when extra chores or heavy work needs doing during the season. It has made my life so much more manageable. Now, if I’m in the throes of meetings and appointments, I can still get those time sensitive garden jobs addressed. Such a relief. No sense in trying to do too much in too little time. I just wish I’d understood that much earlier instead of all the pressure I used to put on myself to act as though I was superwoman.

As Isaac Newton put it – Nature is pleased with simplicity. And nature is no dummy. And now, neither am I.

Note:  I’m currently busy with my second collection of the Printed Garden products. I’m sharing with you some of the pillow samples. The square pillows are 18×18 inches and the rectangular ones are 14×20. I would love to hear your thoughts ( favorites?) about them. So please drop a line or two in the comments column! Thank you!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Orchid Go For Some Spring Right Now Couldn’t You?

Yeah, I know. I’m feeling goofy. Happens about this time every year when I can almost feel spring making her way. It’s part imagination, part will, part reality. Spring’s official arrival is four weeks away. I’m weary of winter and my head space is full of garden plans and to-dos. I’m frustrated, excited and impatient all at once. Some diversion is desperately needed.

As though sensing my state, the NYBG always comes to the rescue with the annual Orchid Show. Ah! Just the cheery lift I need. Surrounded by the lovely plants vying for attention, it’s impossible to remain glum. The colors and forms of the orchid flowers are incredible. I also love the way other plants are combined in the displays to expand and elevate the palette. It’s not just about the flowers; the inspired use of foliage should not be overlooked. Good horticultural design instruction right there.

Admittedly, beyond the basics that I already know I learn very little about orchids at the show. But if one can set aside the need for such shows to be properly educational, such an exhibit can be a very positive experience. It uplifts the winter-worn spirit and entertains the senses. That, I believe is precisely what is required right now. A chance to simply feel good and get lost in the beauty of flowers. After a visit, one comes away pleased and positive of mind.

Flower power can never be underestimated.

This year, the theme of the show is Singapore – the mecca of orchids. Having had the privilege of visiting that city-state’s orchid collection, my NYBG visit this past Friday not only did the job of putting me in a happy mood but it also reminded me of that very pleasant vacation. Now I have spring fever and the travel bug. Go figure.

P.S. Wandering through the garden on my way to the Orchid Show in the conservatory, I noticed the pointed tips of bulbs pushing their way through and yes, the snowdrops have started blooming. Joy!

That typically means my own garden will begin to stir in a couple of weeks. More joy.

Note:Check out the art at the Phyllis Harriman Gallery at the New York Art Student’s League, March 4 – 9. I have four paintings in the show.

Enjoy the images below :

Yellow fever

snowdrops!
Hellebores

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar