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

Snowdrops Keep Swirling In My Head

I love snowdrops. How could one not? Shy and sweet, they appear exactly when the heart is weary and needs a sign of hope that spring is imminent. Defying all odds, these diminutive beauties push through the earth quietly and seemingly overnight, they delight our eyes with their slender green blades and tiny, white bells. With the garden still in winter’s grip, these small bulbs remind me to be positive and brave – despite the challenges, go forth and conquer the day. Good things do come in small packages.

In the course of passing the winter perusing plant catalogs and garden periodicals, I’ve been coveting a myriad varieties of Galanthus. It’s astonishing how many there – double/multiple petaled, unique markings of green on the white petals, some lightly fragrant. Even as I wonder how one is supposed to lie prostrate on the still cold ground to observe these special traits, I covet them all for my garden. Never mind that nobody will notice such details, just knowing they are there seems to warrant their purchase. Perhaps this fall I will be planting a sizable quantity and variety of snowdrops. Fingers crossed – if anything, I’ve learned from these pretties that hope springs eternal.

In extended ( okay, obsessive ) readings on snowdrops, I learned a heartwarming bit of snowdrop history. During the Crimean War, which is clearly the antithesis to Brits’ Agincourt, the starving and freezing British soldiers were deeply demoralized and hopeless. Till the earth, winter-worn and thus far bare of growth but covered in piles of shot and other warfare debris came alive as early bulbs forced their way through. Masses of snowdrops, crocuses and hyacinths turned the soldiers’ morale around. They were symbols of hope and optimism. Some of them planted snowdrops around their tents and huts. Others, brought or sent home specimens of snowdrops which were planted and duly identified.

It was only later that people fully appreciated just how significant the ‘flower of consolation’ and ‘star of hope’ were to the soldiers. This led to greater quantities of bulbs being imported.

Sharing their discovery with family and friends, the soldiers directly influenced a bulb mania of sorts. The best way to preserve precious or rare plants after all, is to disperse them widely. Growers and collectors and of course the rest of us gardeners owe much to them. The dedication of those early growers is why so many early varieties of snowdrops have survived. So a big thank you to them as well.

I love this story. Not only does it once again illustrate the healing, uplifting power of flowers but it shows us a soft, very human side of tough warriors. Something to bear in mind ( and heart ) at all times.

Let the snowdrop reign.

Note: Get out of the cold and stop by the Mooney Center Gallery. Enjoy the art!

Looking forward to – 

Snowdrops



(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar


Halftime Hoopla

February 2 marks the mid-point of winter – it falls in the middle of the winter solstice and the spring equinox. That’s correct, we’ve just passed the halfway mark. It was marked by a spectacular sunset. February 2 is also called Candlemas day – that’s when, in the very old days before electricity, folks would replenish their supply of candles to illuminate the rest of the cold, dark season. The candles would be blessed at a special mass. As a secular individual, I find this tradition comforting. It unites people in the effort to pass the season well.

I’m definitely not a fan of Groundhog’s Day. In my opinion, it only serves to highlight a time when humans applied superstition and not science to drive our actions. The very thought of rudely disturbing a sleeping creature to emerge out into the still cold day strikes me as particularly cruel and archaic. If it were me instead of some vulnerable groundhog, I’d be mad as hell. Wouldn’t you?

Having emerged from a week of polar vortex shenanigans, this halftime feels really good. The temperatures on Sunday and Monday shot up to spring like numbers. While I’m not complaining ( it was delicious to feel the sun as I walked around the garden sans jacket), that spike in temperature is cause for some concern.

We’re slowly settling into more seasonable temperature. Hallelujah.

Taking advantage of the weather on Sunday, I spent some time wandering around the garden searching for signs of rebirth. Coming out of a deep freeze, there were still patches of ice in an otherwise brown, lackluster landscape. But on closer examination, I spotted some encouraging indications of the season to come. Then I noticed small bulbs lying scattered around the ‘meadow’ – the freezing and thawing had thrown them up from their comparatively shallow homes in the ground. Said ground is frozen hard at present so I cannot replace the bulbs. Instead, they shall remain in a pot of soil until the great thaw occurs. I’m a tad unhappy with this situation. Those small bulbs bloom early and are crucial to my vision of how this area rolls out the flowers so, I resent this casual tossing behavior with no regard for the investment of time, money and energy on my part. Oh well. I remain at Nature’s mercy.

The hellebores are also beginning to stir. Slowly. The new growth is still working up courage to get going. I love feeling the surge of anticipation in my veins.

In the greenhouse, the citrus are having their moment. Makes it all very cheery and leads me to pretend I have a limonaria. I even harvest the first lemon. How best to use this precious fruit is my happy dilemma. Make lemon curd? Salad dressing? Lemon pound cake? So many possibilities!

The calamondin oranges are looking quite lovely. They aren’t really edible as they’re small, very seedy and sour. But, they lend a certain sophisticated flavor when speared into a vodka martini. A branch of these oranges makes a dining table look very festive – turns a routine gathering into a party.

Indoors, the forced hyacinths are coming along nicely. This waiting is always most exciting to me. It’s like a child’s giddy expectation in the days leading up to Christmas.

I also picked up some inexpensive primroses -their flowers in crayon-box colors are so heartwarming. They are quite a contrast to the very elegant looking white orchid that’s been in bloom since early December. FYI – Orchids are really great value for the money.

Yes indeed. Halftime feels good.

February 2 sunset

The ‘meadow’ looking blah
New growth
Hellebore
Tossed up bulbs
Ice patch
Calamondin oranges
Lemon!
On a pedestal
Forcing hyacinths
Primroses

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Glacial Gifts, Tundra Tidings

We are heading into a deep, deep freeze today. It’s not pretty. Bitterly cold, icy and positively painful to endure. Obviously a natural reason to stay cozy and warm indoors. Get that fire roaring, have hot chocolate or something stronger on hand and settle in to read, dream and plan for warmer days. Spring seems far away right now but it’ll be here and I’d better be ready.

I really do appreciate the days when we’re forced to spend time within – literally and metaphorically. Time to reflect and review is the benevolence of this season. I’m no longer required to come up with excuses for lolling on the couch at odd times of the day. In fact, I’ve become something of an expert on getting cozy.

Gather those soft blankets, fuzzy socks, books, periodicals, notebook/ipad, phone, eye glasses, snack and drink. Turn on the music, light the fire and settle down on your favorite coach. Start reading, researching, make notes, plans and lists … on any subject you want. In my case, it’s the garden.

Typically, I have a hearty stew or one pot meal going in the slow cooker and I’m surrounded by forced bulbs and other flowers to set the stage for serious couch time.

I’ve been catching up on all the garden magazines and catalogs that piled up during the busy seasons. My notes are becoming extensive and I’m now desiring a space the size of a small country to implement all my ideas. I’m also following garden doings in Australia and the UK. This has on occasion got me all confused.

Since summer is in session down under, there is much talk about dahlias and roses. As a result, my mind skips over spring and starts imagining it is in August loitering amongst dahlias ( I actually don’t have any in my garden) and feeling the heat of the super hot days they’re experiencing in Australia. I get all anxious till I realize it’s very much winter here. Side note: We usually predict our flu season by observing how it was in Australia. Let’s hope their summer does not portend our own.

Meanwhile, in the UK, their hellebores, aconites and snowdrops are going gangbusters. That’s at least a couple of months ahead of us and yet, I’ve caught myself rushing out, risking frostbite and searching for signs of growth. Yes, I’m messed up.

The list of plants I’m hoping to include in the meadow is more or less finalized and I will order the plants later today. I’m now dreaming of a completely new garden feature to introduce this spring. No more will be said at present as I’m researching the feasibility of it. But, I’m having a good time plotting.

Last summer, I’d picked up Alexander Dumas’ “Black Tulip” at the Amsterdam Botanical Gardens shop. I had not been aware he’d written a book on anything botanical and this one seemed an appropriate purchase as it is set in the Netherlands. I’m reading it now. It’s not in any way hoticulturally informative and I’d forgotten that Dumas’ writing style is sort of archaic but the obsession two characters have about ‘creating’ a true black tulip is completely relatable. It is only at this period of forced lounging that such a piece of fiction does not feel like a waste of time.

There are a couple of books currently available in the UK that have me salivating. I fully intend to procure them soon. I shall report on them in due course.

And now, back to the serious work of contemplating on the couch.

Note: The ‘Personal Best’ art show at the Mooney Center Gallery in New Rochelle, NY is underway! Check it out please. I’d love feedback.

Since nothing is in bloom outside, I’m sharing some of my watercolors –

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Wistful Thinking

Winter is making her presence felt. Strongly. As my friend Julie likes to say – It is cold enough to freeze a witch’s tits!. But thus far, we haven’t had much snow in my neck of the woods. That worries me. For the most part, the garden lies exposed and dry. The mulch I spread in the fall seems hardly adequate. How are the bulbs and perennial roots doing? With no insulation from the snow, life must be hard for plants and hibernating critters alike.

Even this cold is erratic and intermittent. The temperature is predicted to rise up to 50 degrees by Thursday. Freezing and thawing off and on can be so damaging.

In recent years, there has been no familiar passage of the seasons – the old weather patterns have disappeared and the climate is in flux. Hard to predict what the conditions will be and hence hard to plan for the garden. It’s a bit disconcerting. I want the old days back!

Should I select more drought resistant plants or increase the rain loving ones? Heat tolerant or cool weather? My choices will determine the type of garden that evolves and my personal taste and style must adapt.

In the next couple of weeks, I plan to finalize the list of plants to introduce in the meadow. With the removal of the red maple last summer, I’m at liberty to select more plants that require sun. That’s exciting but I must choose wisely. I’ve already invested a great deal in this area. Certainly some native, ornamental grasses will do well but the flowering perennials pose a bit of a quandary. If only I could see into the future! Temperature and rainfall are important considerations. I could play it safe and settle for “middle of the road” but what fun would that be?

It is the challenge of realizing a certain vision that gets a gardener’s juices going. As we create, we maintain a belief that the universe will cooperate. That somehow, our special connection with nature will grant us all our wishes. If only. Time and again, my pocketbook reminds me of my quixotic dreams even as my most recent horticultural experiment falls short of expectations.

Climate uncertainties, financial limits and time constraints will be factored when I make my final plant list. But, in the end, the heart must beat faster, the spirit must soar and the hands flutter in impatience to get started. Then, and only then will I know I’m on the right track.

[ As requested by several of you, I will post my plant selections when finalized]

I HAVE POSTED ON MY RECENT VISIT TO MUKTA JIVAN ORPHANAGE. YOU CAN CLICK HERE TO READ.

NOTE: I’m excited about participating in this –

I know it is cold but this is indoors, free and, you will enjoy the art. So, get yourself there!

Some images of the meadow:
My watercolor

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Peace On Earth And All That Jazz

It’s a time of celebration this week – joy, peace, love and goodwill. Are you feeling it? I’m not. There is just too much external noise distracting me. To be honest, I’m aware of being sorta unsettled and anxious. As though I’m waiting for calamity instead of calm and quiet. This is absolutely no way to be. So I’ve decided I wont.

And I’m going about it the only way I know how. By connecting to the earth. A simple stroll in a garden or the woods channels my attention to the present. I set off with a head cluttered with the news and state of the world but as I walk, a subtle shift occurs. At the beginning, I walk briskly to get my blood flowing. As I warm up, I draw deep breaths of the fresh, cold air and I become aware that my shoulders have begun to relax. As though a weight has been lifted.

My eyes take in the surroundings, The ribbons of sunlight cascading through the fretwork of bare branches above cast a radiant glow on the forest floor. I observe the squirrels making madcap dashes in seemingly random manner – it’s no wonder they forget where they’ve stashed their nutty treasures. The birds appear more organized and chatty and I get the feeling they communicate with each other to make whatever it is they’re doing more enjoyable. I can relate to that communal spirit.

Against the present starkness of the deciduous trees, the pines and firs take on the role of chief color givers. Their shades of green range from the blue-green to the yellow-green. The blue spruces to the variegated cedars. I understand their importance in the landscape much better now. They prevent the winter from looking bleak and foreboding. And after a snowfall, they are the ones to provide us with that quintessential image of the season. Picturesque and comforting.

I become so lost in my surroundings that it comes as a surprise that I’m almost back home. I feel like a new person. Uplifted and energized, I’ve rediscovered my true north, I’m ready to embrace the demands of the moment – that of taking pleasure in the company of family and friends. Renewing and reaffirming our bonds of love and friendship. In the end, this is all one has and all one wants. The rest is just noise. Tune it out.

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar