After The Festive Frenzy

We’re in post-Thanksgiving recovery mode. I don’t know about anyone else but, in my home, the entire long weekend is fraught with happenings. There’s the preparing first – for company and The Meal. Overnight guest quarters readied, grocery shopping done, menus planned, house put to order etc.,. Then, between the many meals (including the big one) and all the catching up and conversations, interspersed with brisk walks, raucous parlor games like Charades, excursions to see the season’s decorations and displays ( they start earlier and earlier), the four days fly by. It’s all good and yet, once over, I’m left with a desperate need for respite – a retreat to restore my energy and find my mental balance.

As much as I adore this Holiday and look forward to it as no other, I’m always ready for a breather come Monday. The quiet of the garden beckons for a moment of rest. No work, not even a tiny bit of tidy up is encouraged. Simply the welcome embrace of a most soothing calm to enjoy.

I stand in the meadow, close my eyes and inhale deeply the crisp, cool air – like a deep cleanse, all the cobwebs in my head disappear. Suddenly, I’m made more aware of where I am and the activities going on around me.

I hear the rustle of leaves still clinging to limbs like lovers reluctant to say goodbye. The birds are very much in evidence – flashes of color brightening up the mostly monochromatic brown landscape. They’re busy chattering and winging there way around on missions only they know and are actually quite loud. In my fatigue from partying all weekend, I had failed to notice them at first!

I smell wood-smoke from neighboring houses and imagine neighbors decompressing by the fireside. The sunlight warming my face eases me into a state of bliss as I scan shrubs for the vernal promise of nascent buds. I watch squirrels hurrying around like the Mad Hatter – what are they late for? Small stirrings in the leaf litter tell me of tiny critters too busy to mind my presence. My random footfall disturbs one of the resident garden snakes; he looks none too happy to be aroused and after a brief, futile attempt at looking menacing, he slithers into a pile of leaves near by.

It had rained hard overnight so, the soil is still wet and renders the grass dewy and very green. I resist the temptation to slip my shoes and socks off and feel the earth in bare feet. But, I can imagine the tickle of squelchy, cold soil. The witch-hazel in the far corner by the woods sends out tendrils of fragrance reminding me what season it really is.

Despite the untenanted appearance, the garden is very much alive with all manner of busy. There’s a plethora of movement and sound, smells and texture. I’ve only been out here for a half hour or so but in that short time, I’ve been recharged and refreshed. Ready to get on with the demands of the day. But perhaps I’ll remain a little while longer – it just feels so good to take in all the details of Nature’s seasonal offerings. Puts into perspective what really matters and how blessed I am.

Thanksgiving is not just a day. It is always.

Note: Here are some images from my visit a week ago to the NYBG. So many ideas for creating more autumn drama in our own gardens –

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Giving Thanks

The week of Thanksgiving is one I cherish deeply. It’s a call to stop all the busy-ness and use the time to appreciate the many blessings I’ve been privileged to receive. This practice gives me the right perspective as we get into the holiday season and emerge into a new year. It’s a reminder to stay focused on what really matters and to stay true to my values.

This year in particular, when the world is in so much turmoil and there is pain and misery beyond belief, it is hard to think of celebrations and festivities. But, this is exactly when we must summon the love we have in our hearts and express it by way of saying thanks, giving hugs, lending a hand, listening attentively, paying a sincere compliment, making someone smile, sharing a meal. Simple, powerful acts of kindness.

I share with you two poems I wrote for the last two Thanksgiving.

Gratitude Is A Muscle

Gratitude is a muscle

Use it or lose it

Flex it and it grows

Practice makes perfect

One reaps what one sows.

Shobha Vanchiswar


A harvest, a fruit

A forest, a tree

Abundance isn’t always

what the eyes see.

An open door, a glass of water

A sunny day, a summer shower

Simple respites

hold mighty power.

A stranger’s kindness, a child’s wave

A timely hug, a puppy’s lick

Gestures small in size

impact so big.

Love of family, support of friends

Reason to laugh, purpose to live

Immeasurable riches

sincere thanks to give.

Shobha Vanchiswar

May your Thanksgiving be rich in peace, love and laughter.

Inspiration – images from the 2023 Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden. Do go see this show in person!

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Rest And Review

I’m taking my cue from Nature and slowly easing into a state of rest. Not quite the sit back and put my feet up kind of rest – at least not yet. That comes later in late December into January. For now, I’m just taking long pauses to enjoy the last of autumn and think about this past growing season.

With most of the essential garden chores completed, these slow days are very welcome. It’s a golden opportunity to linger outside and take the time to access the garden at a leisurely pace.

With the bones of the garden clearly visible, it becomes apparent if something is amiss. What needs repair, refreshing or replacing can be easily determined. With myriad photographs to refer to, I then consider how the plants did – individually as well as in relation to its neighbors. Did everyone get along? Who were the prima donnas? Who didn’t meet expectations? Who exceeded expectations? Which members went rogue? Did colors , combinations and designs work out? What could be subtracted or added or changed? These are the questions I ask. I make notes.

This review is a sort of stock taking. No judgment, no excuses, no bias – a simple report card. I make a list of all my observances and those will be considered later in December when I am indeed on the couch, feet up, libation of choice in hand and preferably with a roaring fire near by.

Like Nature, I’m slowing my pace. From a fast Salsa I ease into a slow Waltz. The body and mind are ready for a respite of an unhurried, measured rhythm. In partnership with Earth herself, I too need the winter to rest and refresh.

Senescence in the garden –

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Act Of Faith

Bulb planting got done last weekend. All of a 1000 give or take a few. The weather cooperated beautifully. Sunny, not too windy and comfortably cool conditions made the daunting task much easier to tackle. I say daunting because it is. There are so many holes to dig, drop a bulb and then fill back whilst maneuvering ones way around myriad established perennials. In my garden, it takes two days of steady planting by a team of two minimum. One drills holes the other fills.

In the past, I did the whole thing myself. But age catches up and help is necessary – family is roped in. I’m immensely grateful for their willingness to go along with my horticultural ambitions or, as they like to call it, my craziness. This year, I’ve been handicapped by wayward knees so it has been particularly meaningful to get the support of loved ones.

Like a child of a farming family taking time from school to help with planting/harvest, my daughter drove down from her graduate school in Ithaca to do her fair share in getting the bulb planting done. I’m thinking next year, I’ll try to get her cohorts from school to join in and give my husband a break!

Despite having a direct, realistic understanding of the weather patterns and climate shifts, the loss, reduction or changes in certain flora and/or fauna of value to the ecosystem, gardeners are an optimistic lot. The very business of gardening is about the future. What I plant now will only yield in time ahead. Through all the vagaries of the weather and general circumstances, on pure faith we sow, plant, water, feed, weed and nurture. It’s going to be just fine – we feel this viscerally. It would be impossible to garden without that conviction.

When it comes to bulb planting, it takes an extra dose of faith. The bulbs look innocuous – brown, rotund, little nuggets full of the promise of a beautiful tomorrow. With the goal of celebrating the end of winter and the arrival of spring, we envision the flowers put forth by the myriad bulbs and plant. We bury the bulbs in cavities of appropriate depths scattered through beds and meadow and come away with the conviction that they will deliver. Our full trust in Nature is commendable. In our interactions with other humans we do not display quite the same degree of faith. Human nature seems so much more fickle and treacherous than Nature herself.

Currently, at a time when we cannot ignore the acts and words of so many people within our midst as well as afar that demonstrate the worst of human traits, we must seek solace somewhere. That somewhere is a garden – ones own or elsewhere. Here, we find comfort and courage to face the future. In planting a bulb, a seed or a young plant, we firmly express our faith that there will be better tomorrow. Life would simply be unbearable otherwise.

Note: I encourage those without gardens to grow something(s) in a pot. A houseplant, an amaryllis, micro-greens, anything. I promise, you will feel so much better as you watch it grow. Have faith.

Images of bulb planting this past weekend – A mix of assorted tulips, alliums, camassia, fritillaria and ornithogalums were this year’s choice.

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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November! Last Call!

November! The month of winding down the gardening, finding comfort indoors and giving thanks. A month for review and gratitude. This gift of time behooves me to use it well. As I go about the final round of garden chores, I take stock of how things went for both garden and gardener. Were expectations met? Did I do right by my covenant to do no harm? What balls were dropped? What were the successes/failures? It’s an inventory of what all has happened in the garden this passing year.

I make note of my assessments and observations. In December, I will reflect on the points. But for now I must get the remaining chores completed.

Things To Do In November

1. First and foremost, put away all Halloween decorations. Set up Thanksgiving displays – gourds, pumpkins, ornamental kales and cabbages, chrysanthemums and asters.

2. Having cut back plants and cleared debris, mulch all plant beds with fallen leaves and/or bark chips. Putting down layers of newspaper or opened up paper grocery bags over the soil and then covering with fallen leaves is a really good, eco-friendly, sustainable practice.

3. Hurry up and finish all pending tasks from last month!

4. Finish planting spring flowering bulbs.

5. Protect pots to be left outdoors, vulnerable plants such as boxwood, certain roses, and garden statuary.

6. Reinstall and fill bird feeders. Note: in my area, we are cautioned to not put up feeders due to bear sightings.

7. Be prepared for snow and ice. Keep snow shovels, grit or sand, firewood stocked and handy.

8. In case of power outage, have candles, flashlights, matches and batteries on the ready. A radio too – I have a radio that uses batteries but it can also be charged up by mechanical cranking. Came in handy when a few years ago we lost power and Internet for a whole week due to Hurricane Sandy.

9. Finish raking leaves. Remember, leaving fallen leaves in place is encouraged. I keep only the various paths and my tiny lawn clear as the former needs to be kept safe for passage and the latter risks getting smothered to death if the thick pile of leaves shed from surrounding trees are left in place. Those leaves on the lawn are raked and distributed over the adjacent beds.

10. Clean and store tools. Get appropriate ones sharpened.

11. Start setting aside seed and plant catalogs. Soon you will be planning for next year!

12. While the weather is pleasant enough, keep on weed watch!

13. In the greenhouse, be sure the heater is doing its job. Ventilation is also important to keep plants healthy.

14. Start a routine for regular watering of plants indoors. Keep vigil for early signs of pests or disease.

15. Start growing amaryllis and paperwhites for seasonal cheer. Similarly, put bulbs such as hyacinths, muscari , crocus and tulips in for cooling. (I use my refrigerator). In about fourteen to eighteen weeks, you can start forcing them and pretend it is spring indoors!

16. Enjoy a beautiful Thanksgiving. Plan for it.

Some scenes from the garden and home –

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Great Disturbances

It’s a chaotic time across the globe. Too much happening to ignore. While I escape into the garden, a book, a movie or the brushstrokes on paper, I cannot avoid being affected by what’s going on near or far. The climate, political chaos, living conditions, religious and racial disputes, wars… so much discord. No living being is untouched. As humans, we have to care, feel and respond. In ways big or small, we are each beholden to do something. Anything to make the world better.

I know I’m not alone in how overwhelming it feels. But we cannot, must not despair. I’m opting to bring out the compassionate warrior in me and fight for what I know to be right – for myself, my near and dear ones, my community, country and planet.

To start, lets just resolve to be kind to each other. Smile at people known or unknown, hold open a door for someone, pick up litter, plant a native tree or shrub, help a neighbor, pay an honest compliment, apologize without reservation, listen without judgment to an opposing viewpoint. The ripples of kindness will spread wide. We are not helpless – our humanity must triumph.

In the garden this week, I’m simply going to enjoy the season such as it is. A little clean up but mostly, appreciating this garden that gives me so much joy. In the face of so much disturbance, it cannot be taken for granted.

Seasonal Disturbance

The trees seem reluctant

to disrobe this year

Even the leaves are reticent

to reveal veins coursing

colors borne of the earth

Clouds shepherded

by the wayward wind

Gather in formations

akin to adversarial regiments

Threaten violent outcomes.

Perforce some leaves

will fall prematurely

Others sentenced to

languish and wither

On limbs too tired to care.

This moment in flux.

Feeds the uneasy heart

Anxious and uncertain

of changing climates

And changed live.

—Shobha Vanchiswar

Autumn vibes in the garden – not as dramatic as in the past but still beautiful –

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Glimmers In The Gloaming Of The Garden

At this time of year, there is an ethereal quality to the light so special that I’m moved to pause and simply bathe in it. Neither warm nor cool, it skims over my person as if to reassure me that it is real and is here to close out the days of warm weather with grace and beauty. Come late afternoon, the low slants of beams set the garden aglow. Every plant appears gilded, every wing speckled in gold dust. The golden hour of a day, a season, a year.

In the gloaming are revealed glimmers that bring so much joy, such unparalleled beauty.

Going about the myriad chores of the season, it is easy to miss the glimmers. But, I’ve learned over the years to slow down, sit down even, in order to do justice to this seasonal gift from Nature. How else would I be at liberty to observe the iridescent clusters of mason bees having one final fling with the mass of asters before the first frost claims the flowers for itself and the revelers go into hibernation.

The Amsonia scattered at various points of the garden grab the light to draw attention to themselves – their leaves having turned a bright yellow shout for attention as the rays of sunlight sets it afire. In contrast, the burgundy leaves of the oakleaf hydrangea appear like smoldering embers when back lit.

As leaves from surrounding trees silently swirl and twirl down in a bolero guided by the music of the wind only they can hear, I’m suddenly conscious of the air turning cold and pull my coat tighter. I feel privileged to have witnessed this collaborative performance of natural elements that feels both intimate and public at the same time.

In the midst of decay and senescence, my eyes stop at a tumble of rambunctious nasturtiums. The happily trailing plant still wears leaves that radiate emerald green punctuated by flowers of brilliant vermilion – as though it’s celebrating something known only to itself. I’m envious of its carefree ways.

Soon, I will harvest the leaves to make one final batch of pesto to freeze for winter meals. Memories of the growing season and dreams for the one to come will be indulged.

The hydrangea have begun to blush deeply and I take a break from some tedious chores to cut armloads of the flowers – to bring them indoors to fill big white, ironstone pitchers. They mark the season in a most graceful manner. With such a large bounty, I’m able to share it with those who enjoy them as much. Spreading the joy is a gardener’s perk.

The hydrangea perform once again at the holidays. Sprayed in gold, they light up the dark corners of the interior and chase away the melancholic shadows.

This being the time to divide plants, there are several that need to be attended in my garden. Particularly the ever exuberant asters, goldenrods and wood anemones. All beloved natives that surely every garden must welcome but they do need to be reined in periodically. All my ‘extras’ are readily accepted by friends and neighbors. It pleases me no end that a piece of my garden resides in theirs. Just as my own garden cherishes quite a few members that arrived from similar acts of generosity.

Continuing the spirit of sharing, in getting the plants ready for the greenhouse, a great deal of pruning and cutting occurs. From the rosemary and bay plants, I make little bundles of the cuttings and give them away to the keen cooks in my life. The thought that they will enjoy many winter meals perfumed by the herbs is enough to warm my heart. There really is joy in giving.

Small, subtle glimmers. Expansive, enduring bliss.

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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To Cut Or Not To Cut – That Is The Conundrum

Now that the big task of getting the many ( including some very large) plants trimmed, washed and moved into the greenhouse, I’m feeling rather relieved. It’s usually a race against time to get this job done before tender perennials and tropicals are subjected to an early frost. Not so this year – I’ve had the luxury of taking my time to give adequate attention to each plant. And I’m grateful for it. Even so, its a bit disconcerting that temperatures haven’t really dipped as expected. Wonder how fall and winter will pan out.

The task at hand is the clean up of garden beds and the meadow. There’s a great deal of direction to delay cutting back of plants till the spring. Leave them be for birds to forage and to provide winter interest. I have two problems with that. Firstly, my spring blooming bulbs are planted every fall within those areas. So, fully grown plants preclude proper bulb planting. One cannot get into the beds and plant around them – I tried it one year and it was ridiculously hard. I was left severely scratched up and had body parts complaining loudly of the torture of being subjected to contorting my way around.

Secondly, by late fall/early winter, any seed heads left on the plants are depleted of seeds. They’ve given it their all. Any foraging or sheltering to be done happens at ground level. And, after the first big snowfall, any upright plant is smothered down. No poetically charming winter interest to be had by way of swaying stalks or dramatic seed pods. Then, in spring, after the snow has melted, its all one slimy, unsightly mess. The task of clearing it up is gross and if not removed, the glorious emergence of the bulbs is spoiled.

However, since I’m a believer in providing for the critters and doing good things for the environment, I’ve hit a happy compromise. The beds of perennial plants stay up till the very day before bulb planting commences. This is usually during the second week of November. My cue to schedule Bulb Planting Days is when the shipment arrives – they send it at the appropriate time according to Hardiness Zones. All the cuttings are moved to the compost heap.
After bulb planting is completed, leaves fallen over the tiny lawn are removed and used as mulch over these beds.
Note: This week, I’ll be dividing certain perennials and replanting.

Similarly, in the meadow, the cut back happens just before the bulbs must go in. Here however, several plants are left to stand – they remain full in form and provide good hideaways for the fauna. The heavy leaf fall in the meadow is left in place as well. So there is really adequate food and shelter here as well as in the adjoining woods. Other shrubs on the property also provide for the wildlife.

The general cut back and clean up permits work that needs to get done now and also sets up the garden for a comfortable segue way to the spring season. Nothing is left too pristine or lifeless. Neat but not too neat though, to some human visitors, it is not neat enough!
Ultimately, I remain with the sense of satisfaction of doing what really works for my garden without neglecting the creatures that inhabit it. No principles need be compromised.

Such a balance is possible in every garden. It isn’t ever all or nothing. We don’t have to do everything the ‘experts’ say – just as in child rearing, a sincere gardener must take into account the data and current practices, then apply their own understanding, instinct and judgment to do what is best for their specific gardens and the environment at large. We are, after all, the privileged and benevolent custodians of our piece of land. As we are of our children. Neither truly belong to us.

A few images of goings on in the greenhouse, meadow and elsewhere in the garden:

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Overture To October

I do believe Fall is the busiest season in the garden. There is plenty to do but the weather typically makes it very pleasant to do them.

As I’d mentioned last week, I’ve already taken care of some big tasks. But those were specific to my garden. The comprehensive list below is one that should generally serve all gardens. Get cracking!

 Things To Do In October

1. Yes, weeding continues!

2. Time to plant perennials and trees. Give a good dose of compost to each. Water regularly. Perennials already in place can be divided and planted out as well.

3. Cut back all spent plants except what is needed for seasonal interest and feeding wildlife.

4. Collect seeds. Store in labeled envelopes in a cool, dry space.

5. Last call to root cuttings of geraniums, coleus, rosemary etc.,

6. Get all pots of tender perennials into clean greenhouse or other winter shelters. Wash plants and pots thoroughly first – minimizes pest infestation.

7. Plant bulbs as weather gets consistently cooler. Bulbs can be planted until soil freezes solid.

8. Rake leaves where necessary. Add to compost pile or deposit in woods. Otherwise, let fallen leaves be to provide shelter to critters and protect soil. The leaves will eventually break down to enrich the soil.

9. Give compost heap a good stir.

10 Clean out vegetable garden except for cool weather plants that are still producing. Apply several inches of compost on cleared beds. Plant green manure to enrich the soil – optional.

11. Clean and put away (or cover) outdoor furniture.

12. Check what needs repairing, repainting, replacing and get to it!

13. Lift tender bulbs, corms and tubers such dahlias, cannas etc.,. Store in dry, frost-free place. If grown in pots, simply cut down the plant and move the pots into a sheltered space like a garage or basement – water occasionally through the winter just to prevent desiccation of the tubers. In spring, bring pots outside, feed them well and kick start the growth.

14. Drain and close all outdoor water faucets. Empty rain barrel and hoses. Store.

15 Clean all equipment and tools. Store neatly. Get blades and such sharpened.

16. As temperatures plummet, protect tender shrubs and immovable  frost sensitive pots and statuary. I cover the former with burlap and for the latter, I first cover with sturdy plastic and then use burlap so it looks halfway decent.

17. Remove suckers from ornamental and fruit trees. Prune roses and wisteria. Remove dead and decaying limbs from all plants.

18. Fill up bird feeders. Keep them filled through the winter. Put up nest boxes for the spring.

19. Get into the autumnal spirit – fill window boxes and urns with seasonal plants and produce.

20. Bring in flowers like hydrangea, seed heads and foliage for seasonal themed arrangements.

21. Take time to enjoy the fall colors and beauty. This is a particularly lovely season.

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Autumn Action

Fall work in the garden is well underway. The mild weather last week belied the season change. But it actually helped me get a few big chores done – action items which can be onerous when performed in the cold. First, the espaliers of fruit trees got a good pruning. Looks much smarter now and the trees are ready to bear forth next spring. Fingers crossed.

The second big task was to completely redo the handkerchief front lawn. If you recall, this past spring, reseeding was done with Eco-Grass as a trial. This grass is hardy, sends down deep roots and expected to do better than the usual lawn grass. It is meant for slightly higher hardiness zones than mine. But, I wanted to see if I could make it work. The result was not a great success.

As you know, I am not after pristine, mono-cultured lawns. This small area needs, by design, to be a green foreground to the beds of spring bulbs and spring/summer perennials that make splashes of happy colors. ‘Weeds’ such as clover, buttercups. plantain etc., are welcome – they feed helpful creatures. However, the Eco-Grass struggled and looked ragged. So it was decided to remove all of the Eco-grass and other wild growth that had sprung up.

In order to be proper about it, a (rented) sod cutter was used to completely and thoroughly cut and lift up the grass by the roots. This is a big task but the machine really did a great job. Following this step, a good, thick layer of top soil was added on top of which was applied a healthy dose of compost. Finally, grass seeds were thickly applied to encourage a well knit growth that would give the space a lush look. A cover of straw (not hay) was applied to protect the seeds from marauding birds. We chose a blend of Fescue grasses suited to my zone and location specific conditions.

As luck would have it, the rains started just as work got completed. For three straight days it rained. By the following week, there was distinct growth visible. Now, the handkerchief sized area looks quite green and healthy. The ‘weeds’ will, I’m sure, move in soon enough. I welcome the diversity. There will be of course another seed application next spring to take care of winter damage and loss. Along with the other pertinent chores, it is so important to get the fall work done. It ensures success for the following spring.

Note: To reiterate, conventional lawns are terrible because they restrict strain biodiversity, deplete soil health, demand large amounts of water, fertilizer and pesticide/herbicides and support no pollinators. They need to be replaced with a selection of drought resistant, pollinator pleasing, low maintenance alternatives. At Cornell University, they are trialing types of oat grasses and other options to do just that. With opportunities to go up to Ithaca often, I intend to follow along closely on this project. Stay tuned!

Finally, the greenhouse has also been emptied of summer residents, given a thorough cleaning. It stands ready for the winter crowd. This week, I will be clipping, ‘power’ washing the tender plants (and their pots) and slowly start moving them into the greenhouse. I’d like it all completed before the first real frost. Too often we’ve lost some treasures due to our negligence in doing the seasonal tasks in a timely manner.

So many tasks await!

This is, in my opinion a far busier time than spring. Much has to get done before the hard stop of freezing temperatures. So it’s just as well, work in my garden has started. The big bulb planting marathon will be here before we know it! I’d like to think gardeners everywhere are preparing their gardens for the winter sleep and spring awakening. There’s much comfort in knowing we;re part of one of the best communities on earth. After all, we are the privileged custodians of earth itself.

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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