Life In Waiting

Every morning, I look out into the garden to see whats up. Have all the crocuses bloomed? The scillas are blazing blue but when are the spring leucojum planted to contrast with them going to bloom? And the muscari paired with early daffodils? Even in the midst of reveling in the early spring flowers, I can’t help waiting for the ones to come. It’s as though my mind is trying to hurry along the season so it can get to the next one.

I thought about that yesterday and came to the realization that it’s because of this unfamiliar time we’re in. We don’t know for sure what each day is going to bring. There are predictions, projections and calculations but nothing is certain. How long the crisis is going to last is unknown. So, subconsciously, my mind is looking weeks ahead to a different, hopefully better time. When other flowers will be in bloom.

Once I understood my propensity, I determined to curb it. After all, it wasn’t getting me anywhere at all. Instead, I’m going to really stay in the present. In all its entirety – pleasant and unpleasant. I must experience this epic period in history in full. This life. My life. Only I can live it.

Instead of waiting for the next flower to bloom, for the next month to be over with, I shall take in the days with my whole self. Make each one matter.

It doesn’t mean I’m not going to look forward to future flowers and fruit, for better days. It simply implies that I will endeavor to bring my best self to each day.

In keeping myself at home, it has already become apparent how ‘being busy’ is overrated. With absolutely no place to go, what one does on a quotidian basis is revealed clearly. There’s no hiding behind ‘busy’ or ‘so much to do’. We have to do what must be done. No excuses. There is time – that commodity we’re always complaining we’re short on.

Even if or especially if one is privileged to work from home, there is now time to get other things done. Without need to commute, sans distractions of unnecessary meetings or chatty colleagues, one is free to use the time to make a meal with thought and care. To connect with family and friends for meaningful conversations. To reach out to shut-in neighbors with a phone call or a note / freshly baked muffins left at the door. To complete the house tasks we’ve been putting off. In other words, pay attention to life.

At a time of frustration in not doing enough to help a situation, I’ve come to the conclusion that first and foremost, the most effective contribution we can make is to stay at home.

While my paying work as such has slowed down or completely halted, I’m now at liberty to work on creative projects that were sitting on the back burner and, make business plans that more accurately define my philosophy and philanthropy. This mandatory time at home is a gift of sorts. I appreciate it as such. On waking each morning, I’m grateful I’m still healthy and must therefore try to be and do my best.

In working in the garden, I’m particularly aware of having the time to tackle the chores with the required attention. After all, where else do I need to go? Simply breathing in the fresh air with the sun smiling down is an endowment. Working to create a beautiful, productive garden is a high honor not to be taken for granted. Ever.

The peony supports have been placed, the circulating water system for the vertical garden has been revamped and commissioned, the lawn reseeded, pruning completed, seeds such as tomato, cool weather greens and nasturtium sown and, the birdbath stands filled. Later this week, the ferns over-wintering in the potager will be transferred to their home in the vertical garden, the potager then prepared with a good layer of compost to receive vegetable plants and, the bluebird house cleaned – please let these sweet birds find it this year. All the birds are going about their business and a few have begun building nests. I’ve already observed earthworms working the soil. The pear blossom buds will be opening within the week and I’m fully expecting to see bees make their daily visits. This is life.

Soon, with the temperatures going up, the chairs will be brought out and set up around the table on the terrace for al fresco meals to be enjoyed. This alone strikes me as so special. What has thus far not seemed unusual is now distinctly a benediction.

In preparing this garden, I’m making the world that much better and beautiful. I can’t wait to share it again with everybody. It may not be much but it’ll be my best. That’s about all one can hope.

Scilla

Everything is growing!

Window-box

Hyacinths

Hellebores

Pruning hydrangea

Epsom salts feed the roses

Spreading straw over the reseeded areas

Peony supports in place

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Staying Calm And Staying Home

How much has changed in one week. It has been so fast paced that it’s taken me a while to really consider our shared situation and come to terms with it. These are unprecedented times and it calls for unprecedented action. Social distancing, self-isolation, preparing for ‘just-in-case’, working from home (if possible), staying home all together – all new to most of us. For myself, working from home is normal but everything else is a challenge. However, I’m resolute in rising to the occasion. There is no choice. If not now, then when?

All of a sudden, the world is no longer as we know it. From people going on shopping frenzies to hoard up on everything including the kitchen sink to price gouging on essential products, to all cultural centers and performances coming to a halt to cavalier folks who don’t care about the community risks they present, it can be a little too scary and upsetting. Take a nice, long deep breath. Exhale slowly. Keep your calm. Together, we shall overcome.

Here is how I see it. We must all do our part for the sake of our family, our neighborhood, our town, our state, our nation , our planet. This might sound trite but in reality, it is pretty much what we must do. That said, I, along with my family, are socially distancing ourselves. It’s an adjustment. To have a full house with each one needing space to work in quiet itself is not easy. When one is on a conference call, the others must remain quiet. When the musician can be practice, the dinner prepared, a workout done to motivating music and such, require thoughtful coordination. We called a family meeting and after much talk, the conclusion was that each of us promise to help, support and behave ourselves. Nothing earth shattering. Simple kindness and consideration is in high demand at home and elsewhere. A sense of humor is a bonus. Admittedly, it is easy for the humor to turn dark.

Work is all very well. But how are we going to use our down time? Right off, suggestions for movies and TV shows pour forth. And thank goodness for this entertainment option. With nowhere to go, Netflix, Hulu, Apple, Amazon Prime etc., are godsends. The big mountain of books waiting for readers can now be conquered. Board games and puzzles are on the ready.

We’ve made a list of home projects (room by room) – what, when and by whom put down. I need the element of accountability. For myself there is the all-important creativity of painting and writing projects, the drudge of paperwork, recipes to try, business ideas to flesh out. But most importantly, there is the garden.

I’m so very grateful that whatever we are all currently facing is happening right now and not at any other time of year. Spring is officially starting this Thursday and crocuses have joined the hellebores in the garden. Nothing like the sight of the flowers to lift the spirits. Just as the news got dire, the crocuses started popping up as if on cue. The white forsythia is in full bloom too. Every day is adding more color to the landscape. Hallelujah! Spring is all about hope and good things to come.

A quick visit to my favorite nursery last Saturday paid off nicely. I got what I needed to put up the spring window-boxes. The daffodils and tete-a-tetes are still very young but should be trumpeting loudly by Passover/Easter. In the meantime, the mango hued pansies will carry the ensemble nicely. That simple activity cheered me up no end.

I also pulled out the last of the hyacinths and crocuses cooling in the refrigerator and potted them up. In a couple of weeks its going to be hyacinth heaven indoors.

Some of the nursery daffodils have a separate purpose. I’m going to pot them up to drop off at friends who are living alone and/or do not dare get out into the world because of immune-compromised health. For sure they could use some flower power.

On the subject of thinking about helping ones community, I got word that there is a need in my town for Meals-On-Wheels driver/volunteers. My daughter, now home from college ( for the foreseeable future) has responded to this call. I believe that college students can play a vital role during this Covid-19 crisis. They are less vulnerable, amply capable, familiar with their towns and able to do many things that put older volunteers at risk. Just putting it out there.

Similarly, restaurants have closed but take-out and delivery is being offered. A couple of meals from such businesses per week will help those businesses – they are not just hurting but actually hemorrhaging. Our support is desperately needed.

Lets look for additional ways to help our communities, each other. Doing something that serves a cause is a guaranteed to make our days better. When I’m busy doing positive, productive things, there’s simply no time for fear, panic or boredom.

In addition to spending time working in the garden which itself is so healing, I’m determined to go walking for a minimum of 30 minutes every day. Fresh air and sunshine are proven health boosters. We all know this. But in case you’re feeling particularly attached to the couch, think about this – during the Spanish flu pandemic, patients treated outdoors (the overflow of patients in San Fransisco for example) did far better than those cared for indoors.

Explore the State and county Parks (NY has waived all entry fees) and visit our many beautiful public gardens. They are open, never overly crowded and absolutely just what our bodies, minds and spirits need.

Stay safe, be well everybody. We’re in this together.

P.S – Please feel free to reach out, share tips and ideas or, just your thoughts. Or at least a joke! We must stay connected.

Scenes from my garden at present –

More snowdrops coming through

Forcing hyacinths

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Color Mad!

This week sure feels like spring! Colors are going to pop any moment. It is the one time of year when we’re all hungering for the entire spectrum of hues. In any mad combinations. It all looks lovely and joyous. What we’d never consider pairing in our clothing selections, look just spectacular in nature. Tasteful, subtle, elegant be damned. Give me loud, bold and gaudy. My eyes have been starved long enough, let the visual feasting begin.

Yeah, I know, the show hasn’t yet begun but this mild weather means it’ll burst upon us soon. I’m putting the brakes on my fears about too early a spring just so I’m at liberty to fully enjoy the flowers whenever they bloom. It isn’t their fault after all.

I’m going about the seasonal chores even though the temperatures give the feeling I’m somehow lagging behind. Normally, when I cut back old hellebore leaves, prune the roses etc., I’m wearing jacket and heavy gloves. Not this year. T-shirt and thin garden gloves feel just about right. Some years, I’ve even stood in several inches of snow to get the jobs done. Alas, barely any snow at all this winter. Scary for sure. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

However, that’s beside the point at present. I’m eager for color. I’ll wager you are as well. So, while we await impatiently for our gardens to start the show, I’m happy to share some pigment saturated photographs from my very recent ( two weeks ago!) trip to India.

FYI – coincidentally and appropriately, today is also the Indian festival of Holi when spring is celebrated with everybody playing and spraying color on each other with wild abandon. It is crazy fun!

Unleash your inner child’s color madness. It’ll do you a world of good. Particularly when there is so much other sort of madness whirling around out there.

Note: For your calendar – my garden’s Open Day is May 16.

Also, on July 26, through the Garden Conservancy’s Digging Deeper Program, you can learn all about espalier and vertical gardening at my garden. Register early as space is limited!

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Seeing 2020

Ah, a new year begins. So many possibilities. So much potential. Resolutions to be made, dreams to realize, wishes to make true. Yes, a clean, new canvas to begin again. Really?

Why do we put so much pressure on ourselves? Having dreams and determination to do better is just fine but must we make it so hard? How is it possible for one to turn over a new leaf almost overnight? It’s not as though you go to bed on December 31 and wake January 1 a new person. Eat better, lose weight, sleep more, exercise everyday, read a book a week, cook every meal, learn a new language, land that dream job, meet the right life-partner, reduce stress, master a new skill – the list is endless. We expect way too much from a mere twelve months. In the scope of a single year we are effectively hoping to undo all that preceding years have built up or, accomplish everything we failed to achieve in all those years.

As the years go by, I see clearly how ridiculous so many expectations from a new year is. Having given up making resolutions a long time ago, I freed myself to simply see the start of a year as a good marker to do better in whatever I am already doing. No matter what, there is always room for improvement. And certainly, it is never too late to learn/try new things. But, that doesn’t need to wait for the arrival of January 1. Every day is an opportunity. If I need to get more exercise, then there is nothing like the present to get started. If your hair looks raggedy you go get a cut as soon as possible. If you need a new car/towels/shoes/appliance or anything else, as long as budgets permit, you acquire those right away. You see? Working out, eating healthy, starting on that pile of unopened books, registering for the course in Portuguese, seafood cooking or salsa dancing, giving up smoking etc., shouldn’t have to be put off till the planets line up. Start now!

In fact, having followed this practice of getting on with what needs doing or starting on any given day, has given me that liberty to welcome the new year as one would an old flame. I’m already doing my best and own who I am. There’s nothing to hide, pretend or apologize. Showing up strong is a pretty good place to be. So there.

Having said all that, lets consider the garden and how we go forth into 2020. This year, I really tried as hard as I could, other life obligations notwithstanding. Bear in mind, flexibility is key – things will come up and the best laid plans will be foiled. Never mind, adjustments must be made. C’est la vie.

In 2020, I will continue with getting the ‘meadow’ more established with the native plantings and closer to the vision in my mind. I hope to try out some new varieties of vegetables in the potager. Having received some seeds of tropical plants, I’m keen to design new plantings in pots to make exciting splashes of bold color and shapes.

While I created this garden to be organic from the start, I have been consistently working towards more sustainable and eco-friendly practices. From improved water management, better composting, reducing the amount of plastic ( nurseries! Are you reading this?), adding more native species etc., it is an ongoing effort. The new year is merely an annual reminder to up my game.

Happy New Year one and all. Please accept my heartfelt wishes for health, happiness and harmony. Just promise yourself you will try to the best of your ability. That is all one can and should ask.

Seen on a NYC sidewalk. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
A new vase from ceramist August Brosnahan @brosnahanarts.com
Homegrown lemons! So pleased to harvest them from the greenhouse.

(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

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

Plant Power

Humans have always known the importance of being connected to the natural world. Not simply for the obvious – food, shelter ( caves, construction materials), fuel and, medicine. We are inherently aware that there is a deeper, spiritual relationship between us and the plant kingdom. From using flowers/plants to mark every significant event in our lives, returning our spent bodies to the embrace of the earth, to adorning and anointing ourselves with flowers, leaves, bark and roots for their perfume, cosmetic properties in a bid to enhance our looks, the horticultural world is intrinsic to our human-ness.

There is a plethora of anecdotal and scientific evidence to support the positive effect of time spent outdoors. Garden therapy is an accepted and valued method to heal all sorts of human conditions – physical and mental. Be it a stroll in the park, a hike in the woods, puttering in the garden or just sitting quietly amidst some greenery, a positive effect is palpably felt. Lifting ones mood, being physically energized after a stint out in nature is something every one of us can relate to. Gardening is empowering. To create something useful and beautiful is transforming. There is even a ‘Gardens Without Borders’ effort to help refugees in camps and war zones cope with their circumstances. That’s plant power.

Humans generally go about assuming their position at the very top of the living world. I’m not certain how we got to possess such hubris because in my experience, nothing is more humbling than observing nature closely as one does in gardening. Before one assumes what we do outsideis the principal effector, consider the plant community itself. What do we truly know about the kingdom of plants?

We have generally assessed plants from a very human perspective – how do they serve us? We regard plants as being there for our specific purposes. And we are in charge. Their very separation from us and all animals to a kingdom of their own shows how we think about plants. They are totally unlike us. But, are they really?

This past Saturday, I attended two highly interesting talks/panel discussions. Both were events made possible by the World Science Festival. The WSF takes place at this time of year in New York City – five days chock full of talks and discussions on all sorts of scientific topics. Leading scientists from different parts of the world participate in these talks and enlighten auditoriums packed with people thirsting for answers and understanding the issues currently affecting our lives. From cancer research to cosmic riddles to climate change to contemplating the cerebrum as we know it. I’ve been going to the WSF since it began about 11 years ago. I get positively giddy with excitement going through the line-up of talks and making my choices for the ones I’m most eager to attend.

This year, I chose two events that were so closely related that I believe they should’ve been proposed as a double feature. ‘Rethinking Thinking’ and ‘ Intelligence Without Brain’ were my picks. Both were so interesting and certainly enlightening. The take home is having a brain and neurons is only one way to think and navigating life. And humans are not special at all – we are just one form of life. Given my own background in molecular biology, this was not surprising or hard to accept.

It was fascinating to learn that even stuff like fungi and slime mold are capable of communication, problem solving and decision making. More so than one can imagine. In the animal kingdom, there is’ intelligence’ that parallels humans – only in ways more suited to their own genus and/or species. And when it comes to plants, they do so much more than we ever thought possible!

In recent years, we have learned that plants communicate by sending out chemical messages to warn, commiserate about disease and other life conditions. On Saturday, I found out that they make sounds via their roots! They have voices. At this time, we don’t know the how or why. It’s possible they can ‘talk’ above ground as well – we just don’t know how to test/hear them. Yet. Cogitate on that.

Going further, there is now data that plants can reason and remember. Yes, that’s right. This is all cutting edge scientific research and terribly thrilling. I won’t go into details and you don’t have to take my word for it as all the talks can be accessed at worldsciencefestival.com

So, circling back to my original commentary about how we are healed and invigorated by just being in the presence of plants. Perhaps, plants ‘silently’ comfort and/or treat our wounded selves in ways we are yet to determine or measure. They have after all been around so much longer than we humans and get this – the plant kingdom is 99% of all living forms found on earth. Surely then, it stands to reason that they know more than us. Stay tuned!

Here are some feel good images from the garden. Enjoy –

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Seasonal Parallax

Thanks to Instagram and my backlog of horticultural periodicals, I’m in a state of seasonal flux. In catching up with my reading, I’m perusing articles about gardens in summer and fall. It’s easy to get caught up in all those well-written descriptions and I’m right there weaving in and out of dahlias blazing through August heat and a riot of autumnal colors of leaves and grasses. In parallel, the Australian gardens I follow on Instagram are spilling over in summer glory in real time. How can I not start believing its all happening to me?

While I’m eagerly anticipating spring and enjoying my forced hyacinths and tulips in the cozy confines of home, I’m keeping up with the current progress of spring across the pond in the UK. Swathes of Eranthis, carpets of Galanthus have me covetous and impatient all at once. I imagine my own garden having the same glorious features heralding the season. I can see this! And I feel the thrill of it all. It seems so true. And then, I look outside and consider the reality. Snow, bare limbs … blah.

It appears that at any time of any given day I’m likely to believe I’m in any one of the four seasons. It’s plainly disorienting and yet, just as a child keeps aiming for ice-cream induced brain freeze, I’m hooked to following the seasons evolve in far flung corners of the earth. That’s because it’s also exciting, hopeful and inspiring. It’s got my juices flowing and I’m madly making notes and lists and ordering up plants.

The Internet/social media has conflated the seasons and shrunk the globe for this gardener’s pleasure and perplexity. Just wait till my wallet wises up to these goings on. All this wild exploration might be leading up to pandemonium in penury.

Join me! Follow me on Instagram @shobhavanchiswar and @seedsofdesignllc

Enjoy these seasonally mixed-up images:

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar