Resolving Resolutions!

It’s what everybody talks about this time of year. Even those who don’t make resolutions. I fall into that category. Sort of. Let me explain.


With age, has come some wisdom. I know not to set myself up for broken resolutions. Isn’t that what happens to most resolves? So I got tired of the guilt and sense of falling short of my expectations. I do indeed want to cultivate healthy habits, be a better person etc., but those, I decided, are life long goals. Each day I try to eat well, exercise, be positive, make a difference, be loving and so on. Some days are more successful than others. I don’t beat myself up on the not so great days. Every sunrise opens a new day to try again.


At the start of a new year, I review my big goals. Then I resolve to keep the ball rolling forward in each of those areas. Each day I move ahead in the right direction. On some days only inches are gained and on others, leaps are made. It’s all positive. And every degree of effort matters.


For purposes of this column, I’ll stick to gardening resolutions. In truth, as always, everything can be extrapolated to other areas of life.


Review the past year in the garden. What was successful and what was not. And why it was so. Knowing the reason is important if you want to learn. Think about what work was enjoyable, doable, difficult or neglected. How the tasks are perceived will explain a great deal about the garden itself. If you don’t remember to deadhead then naturally, the plants were a bit messy looking and went to seed quickly. Ditto for weeding.


Having done this, ask yourself if you’re reasonably satisfied with the overall performance. Yours as well as that of the garden. An honest answer will quite naturally point you to the appropriate approach for the ensuing year. Often you can be well satisfied even if there are areas you know that need rethinking or improvement. Again, that’s in the garden and yourself. Garden and gardener are usually evaluated together.


Things that failed are often more valuable in teaching us. With successes, one has a tendency to bask in it and simply repeat the same action. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, taking the time to understand the why of the success is neglected. After all, if it ain’t broke why fix it right? Failure on the other hand forces a confrontation. Which then leads to enlightenment. In the end, it is precisely that which makes us become better gardeners. Information gained in one project will be found useful elsewhere as well.


Let me give an example. A couple of years ago, I designed two almost identical perennial beds for a client. They were to give symmetry to an ordinary level path that led to the terrace. The new beds looked lovely. Having all the same growing conditions, the two beds were expected to thrive equally. And they did in the first year. However, from the second season on, one bed began to struggle for no apparent reason. The shrubs in particular were having a hard time. We tried replacing with new, healthy ones but again, they did not do well. With all things being equal, this was puzzling. The client even suggested we take out all the ‘failures’ and go with just the successes. That would’ve been easy. But I couldn’t let it rest at that. There was a reason for the problem and I had to find it.

Poring over old and new plans of the property, I saw that one bed was above a very old, long forgotten septic tank. The path separating the beds was a boundary of sorts. The reason the shrubs were unable to grow was because their roots quickly hit the concrete roof of the tank thus stunting their growth.


So instead of identical beds, we went for dissimilar ones. This actually proved to be even more striking in appearance than the first design. You see?


To sum up, there are no garden failures. Instead, think of everything as a lesson. Some are just harder than others. And as for the new year’s resolutions, plan on learning a whole lot more this year, do something useful in the garden every day, be accountable and keep moving forward.


I wish each and every one of you a happy, healthy and peaceful 2013.


(c) Shobha Vanchiswar 2013

As The Year Comes To An End



With the winter solstice having just passed and the new year approaching, there’s a sense of reflection and renewal. It is that time when one looks at the year gone by and moves to the one ahead. In that vein, I offer you this poem:


Minute By Minute


Light lingers

minute by minute

Hope grows

minute by minute


As seasons pass

through birth and death

The cycle closes

And then starts again


Earth warms

minute by minute

Sun climbs

minute by minute


Calenders marked

with future plans

Days to meet

And then look back upon


Live purposefully

minute by minute

Make it matter

minute by minute.

(c) Shobha Vanchiswar 2012

Just In Time For Gift Giving – Book Review

The Unexpected Houseplant by Tovah Martin

In the interest of full disclosure, I have, for a couple of decades at least, been a fan of Ms. Martin’s writings. I have a deep respect for her work. Tovah and I have met. She wrote a wonderful article about my garden in Westchester magazine in 2010 (Less Is More by Tovah Martin). So, by no means is this an unbiased review. However, since nobody asked me to write about this book, I had no reason to do so if I didn’t actually like it. I purchased the book because I’ve appreciated Martin’s previous books. Then I went through it. Now I want to shout from the roof top – Go get a hold of this book! It is sumptuous. Pretty and practical, making it a must read. Give a copy to a friend.

Tovah is a lyrical writer. She liberally and cleverly sprinkles Latin names of plants as though that’s how everybody speaks, and sneaks in horticultural wisdom in the guise of anecdotal stories.The reader emerges feeling not only smarter but quite inspired to follow her ideas and suggestions.

The Unexpected Houseplant really is about the unexpected. To dig up something from the garden and bring it in to cheer up the dark winter days might not be novel. But, did it ever occur to you to bring in a clump of euphorbia? That certainly never occurred to me. The very vision of the chartreuse green bracts punching up the winter’s gray is delightful. Similarly, one is encouraged to try other perennials indoors. Just for the season. Using the garden as a sort of horticultural lending library appeals to me enormously.

How best to show the plants off is demonstrated beautifully in the photographs. The right container makes all the difference. Each plant specimen is treated as an individual, and placed in what serves it uniquely. Much artistic thought has gone into this. I’m left feeling a bit envious of Martin’s collection. Yet, I’m sure if I looked around my house, I’m likely to find unexpected, imaginative planters.

With lots of advice and information, this is a good book to learn about enjoying plants in the house. It takes a fresh look on the subject. I’m all set to add to my indoor plant collection and get through the winter with patience, joy and grace.

IMG_7890(c) Shobha Vanchiswar 2013


Surreptitious Solitude

Have you been collecting all the seed and plant catalogs arriving in the mail? Printing out ideas you come across while surfing the web? And tearing out pages from magazines that display your dream gardens? I have. They all go into a folder where they await temptingly. That is what I like to call my fantasy folder. Typically, I save it till mid to late January just when winter seems to drag on and on.

In this digital age when almost everything I do is on-line, I prefer the actual paper collection of material. I find it easier to lay out the pages or parts thereof to get a full design. Marking ideas or comments aids me in how I create. I like spreading things out to think things through. But if you’d much rather have everything on your gadget of choice, then by all means do so. Whatever works. I myself get too distracted when on the Internet. I find it too easy to get side tracked. Then before I know it, a whole lot of time has gone wasted.

What I’ve discovered is that the catalogs are perfect escapes when one is caught up in the frenetic and stressful pace of December. Even those of us who are more simple in our approach to the holidays, feel the pressure of the season. Baking, cards, gifts, recitals, parties, decorating, year end reviews, tips and bonuses …. the list goes on. Taking a breather is easier said than done.

So I’ve come up with a way to escape mentally even as I’m surrounded by the merry madness. I carry a couple of seed/plant catalog with me. I go through them whenever I have to wait in line or for an appointment, in the train/plane, before a child’s recital or any place I need some quite time. To others I look like I’m shopping for gifts. Very apropos don’t you think?

As I thumb through the pages, I have taken myself to a different season and sometimes to a different place altogether. I imagine perfect gardens. I dream of growing plants that wouldn’t survive where I actually live. I lose myself in fantastical horticultural pursuits. Then, suddenly the lights in the auditorium dim and I’m back in the moment feeling nicely refreshed. And that’s not all. I have actually made a few notes, started a list, ear marked certain pages for more leisurely and realistic planning. Progress has been made. And no one’s the wiser about my unseasonal anti-social behavior.

Time very well spent I’d say.

Enjoy the photographs that bring spring to mind:


Hellebores – harbingers of spring


Early spring plantings in potager

A “garden” chair

Meyer lemons in the greenhouse

(c) Shobha Vanchiswar 2012

To Forgive Is Divine. And To Forget?

As I’ve said many times before, the garden is my teacher. A life coach of the highest order. On par with any TED talk and that is giving high praise indeed. Gardening keeps me on the straight and narrow. It’s how I communicate and stay connected to the Universe.

Following on the heels of Thanksgiving when gratitude was very much acknowledged, I’ve been thinking a great deal about forgiveness. Mostly because it is something I struggle with. The minor, petty annoyances are easy to forgive but it’s the hurt caused by those who matter to me that demand that in which I find myself sadly deficient. I’d like to think all of us are born this way because there is comfort in not being alone. Yet, it’s up to each of us to learn to forgive routinely and in our own unique way. To some, pardoning comes with an enviable grace. The Amish community that immediately forgave the shooter who killed several of their dear ones comes to mind. To others it does not seem to be of much importance whatsoever. Those are the same ones who are perfectly comfortable stopping at a soup kitchen because the food is free and then proceed to the movies in a cab. And then there are those like me who must consciously and deliberately work to conquer their baser instincts.

There is well documented evidence that the act of forgiving lowers the blood pressure as well as the heart rate. That in itself is good motivation. However, it is so much more beneficial than that. By getting rid of negative emotions and grudges, life can be lived to it’s fullest. By shedding oneself of such energy saboteurs, we are at liberty to move forward and achieve amazing things. Like everything else in my life, I’ve turned to the garden to provide guidance. It teaches by example. Does that sound absurd to you? It did to a friend to whom I’d mentioned it. But, the garden did not let me down.

In this situation, I became acutely aware of how often my botanical haven has forgiven my own transgressions. When I’ve failed in providing adequate water during a particularly brutal summer, it did not die on me. Instead, it slowed its growth and still managed to reward me with flowers and food.
Each year when I go away on vacation, the weeds exploit my absence. They crowd out young plants, suffocate others and prevent still others from receiving enough sunlight. So much so that on my return home, I venture into the garden with a good degree of trepidation. What I never fail to be amazed by is how valiantly the legitimate plants have coped. Once I start removing the offending weeds, the plants waste no time in returning to the business of productivity. There is no sulking, no tantrum or recrimination.

When I inadvertently trample on a plant and render it decapitated, there is no reproach. Quietly it senses that my guilt is enough punishment and patiently strives to grow anew. I have made so many horticultural mistakes and caused so much harm over the years and still the garden has been steadfast as teacher and friend. I’ve received gifts of such value that no price can be placed. Its as though the care I’ve tried to give over the years is remembered and appreciated while past misadventures are forgotten. So if all my abuse, albeit unintended, can be forgiven, surely I too can try and pay that lesson forward?

It’s always harder to do whats right or good. Applying organic practices is more time consuming. Eating healthy is more expensive. A diet that is largely plant based requires more preparatory work.Trying to do good is fraught with hurdles. Ever noticed that? Composting takes more effort than tossing everything in the garbage. Recycling has one cleaning and removing labels first. To think kindly of a difficult person is a real effort and its easier to think bad. Likewise being environmentally conscious. I’ve often wondered if it’s the Universe’s way of testing us to see how earnest we are in our intentions. That’s why it is so hard to get folk to do whats right consistently. Think about it. Turning the other cheek is easier said than done.

Therefore, I’m really going to take my cues from my forgiving garden. My first step was to take a big deep breath and as I exhaled, I forgave the rascally squirrels that ate every single fruit in the garden this year. I will no longer question their motive in knocking down unripe fruit and barely taking a nibble. You know what? It actually lightened my mood. Letting go of grudges is hugely freeing. It opened up spaces within as though my heart just got bigger. I’m working on the Japanese beetles that decimated several plants as well as a couple of humans who behaved no better with me.

In this feel good season of gratitude and kindness, do give forgiveness a try. It’ll be a rather nice way to ease into the new year. A proper fresh start in many ways. Please do tell me about your experiences and how and what works for you. I really want to know.

Will I now forget as well? Lets not get carried away. One self-improvement at a time please.

Lilies 2011 or Lillies BJB (Before Japanese Beetles)

Lilies 2012 or Lilies ABJ (After Japanese Beetles)

Echinacea 2011 or Echinacea BBJ

Echinacea 2012 ABJ

Foliar damage by Japanese Beetles

Apples BS (Before Squirrels). There’s no AS!!

Pears BS.

(c) Shobha Vanchiswar 2012