Noting Le Notre

In a bid to distract oneself from the northeast’s own version of 50 shades of gray, I went with a friend to the New York Botanical Gardens for a lecture. If you are fortunate to have a botanical garden near by, take full advantage. In the frozen, bleak depths of winter, it will offer respite with lectures on gardens and gardening, exhibits and displays in conservatories and a shop to provide retail therapy. These escapes will preserve your sanity and uplift your mood. You have my word.

This particular lecture was given by Alexandre De Vogue on Vaux le Viscomte: From Le Notre to Today. To be honest, I went without caring what the talk would be about. I desperately needed to see pretty garden pictures, hear about them and feel the good vibes from fellow attendees – all garden lovers. I craved this comfort zone.

The lecture was quite interesting. I’ve yet to visit Vaux le Viscomte and it has been on my list for a while. To get a first hand recount from a member of the family that undertook its restoration made it decidedly better. There are several good books on this famous garden so I won’t bother waxing eloquent about it. I do however highly recommend that you discover this garden for yourself.

As the garden that formally launched the classical French garden style, it was necessary to learn something about its designer Andre Le Notre. Yes, he of Versailles fame.

Learning that this illustrious man was not only schooled in horticulture but, also in painting and perspective, sculpture as well as architecture was not surprising. His gardens are testaments to his knowledge and artistry. It turns out the gentleman also had an exceptional memory, a strong sense of proportion and space, was a visionary able to juggle with space, volume and distance. His personal reading encompassed subjects such as geography and mathematics. Even more impressive right?
Sitting in the presence of todays horticultural giants such as Marco Polo Stufano and feeling a bit beaten by the protracted, tundra-like winter it got me feeling as though my own aspirations for my garden were a lost cause. A why bother kind of consciousness crept in.

Then, it got me thinking why the heck not? As Monsieur De Vogue talked about the restoration and then about the current challenges, I realized that he had the same garden problems as the rest of us. Only much larger and more costly. He is battling blight and other diseases with his boxwoods, finding replacements for his sick elms and trying to make environmentally sound decisions just like us. And he too has financial worries.

All of a sudden, the playground was even. We were really all alike. A bunch of passionate gardeners doing our best to create beauty and purpose in assorted places. To each garden we bring our knowledge and experience and put our unique stamp on it. We too apply history, art, science, mathematics, geography, architecture and so much else learned from living our lives. Some are given special places to express their creativity and some more humble plots. Some get paid for their expertise and others do not. Ultimately, it does not matter where or why we garden. We just do because we must. Our hearts dictate to us that working the soil is how we love to live.

In a moment of enlightenment, I realized that Le Notre was just like us! I strongly suspect he’d be the first to agree.

Having said all of the above, I feel compelled to share a few nuggets of wisdom from the great gardener himself:
The eye creates perspective, walking makes it alive.
Create a garden so one must go in to fully experience it.
Be wary of your own beliefs. Things are not always what they seem. Be flexible.
Let the sky enter into your composition. Use water to mirror the sky. Think ponds, rills and canals.
Open the garden towards the landscape beyond. Expand the view and illusion.

FYI – At Vaux le Vicomte:
Ilex crenata is being considered as replacement for boxwood.
Hornbeams and linden trees will take the place of elms.

Wanted to share the four different amaryllis I’m currently enjoying:
White amaryllis
Pink amaryllis
Salmon and white double amaryllis
Orange amaryllis

The Valentine's 'card' I made this year. The white canvas of snow was irresistable.

The Valentine’s ‘card’ I made this year. The white canvas of snow was irresistable.

(c)2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Spring Dreams

It is SO cold in the northeast! A banner winter. Today, the streets are sparsely populated because who in their right mind would venture out without very good reason? Even the birds are laying low. Somewhere safe and cozy I hope. As the wind blows the snow into a mad frenzy, my housebound self is working to keep calm with visions of spring.

The hyacinth bulbs cooling in the refrigerator since early November, have been brought out. Sitting pretty in their jewel-hued glass forcing vases, they’re a sight to please anybody. Each day I glimpse a teensy bit more of the sap green, arrow-like tips emerging. Does my heart a world of good.
Meanwhile, the assorted amaryllis are still going strong. They are so well worth the investment I made last fall. Since late December, I’ve been enjoying their blooms and they are not even close to being done yet. Apart from keeping me in good spirits, their exuberance often serves as muse to my art.
It isn’t only the flowers that bring so much joy. The very anticipation of them as I observe daily the emerging buds and leaves is absolutely life affirming. So full of promise and beauty. I sincerely hope you too are celebrating your days with such living treasures.

Feeling buoyed by the springlike atmosphere indoors, my thoughts naturally drift to the possibilities outside. Nothing big is planned as other non-horticultural happenings take priority this year. The modestly sized garden is already intensively planted but as we all know, there is always room for a few more. So, I’ve ordered a blueberry bush that seems perfect for my plot. It is the variety BrazelBerries Blueberry Glaze. Only 2-3 feet tall with glossy, dark green leaves and pink flowers in the spring, it already appeals to me. The bush can be clipped like boxwood so one foresees uses for it in more formal locations. The berries are supposed to have an intense flavor – I can almost taste them over Sunday pancakes and yogurt parfaits in the summer. I’m looking forward to getting to know this future resident in my garden.

I’m now contemplating ordering a pink lilac that reblooms. This too is compact in size. Only 4-5 feet tall. Its pink, heavily scented flowers bloom in May and then intermittently till fall. I’m pretty sure I can squeeze this gem in somewhere bordering the meadow. Pink Perfume belongs to the Boomerang family of reblooming lilacs.

Creeping phlox (P. subulata) to replace the aging, straggly ones in the checkerboard garden have already been ordered from my local nursery. As are the replacement ferns and heuchera for the vertical garden. Vegetable and flower seed packets are looking attractive in their tray on the dining table as they await my attention in mid-March. They remind me that no matter what, life goes on and spring is on its way.

What are your dreams for the garden? I’d love to hear about them. Please share any suggestions, ideas or thoughts!

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Winter Weary

Are we all in agreement that this winter has tested our patience, endurance and good will? Snow, ice, high winds, freakishly low temperatures – you name it, we got it. Cabin fever has set in. Expressly manifested with bouts of grumpiness.

I’ve heard from many that they’re going stir crazy as even winter walks are hampered by dangerous terrains of ice and bitterly cold temperatures. So what’s a person to do? Take heart.

For one thing, we are past the half-way point of the season. Doesn’t sound encouraging enough? Observe how the days are lengthening – the sun is setting later every day. The light at the end of the long winter tunnel is distinctly visible. We are headed towards it!

At the beginning of winter didn’t you have a list of sorts of all the things you hoped to do in the ‘quiet’ months? I did. Well? How has it been going? Not as well I’d hoped. I started off okay but then I allowed a certain apathy to set in and did not accomplish as much. With just about six weeks to go till we officially transit to spring, I am determined shake off the lethargy.

A week ago, I placed my plant order at my local nursery. This is only necessary if one needs a large number of a particular plant or something very special. Otherwise, just keep a list going and purchase as soon as the nurseries are ready with their season’s inventory. But get that list done! Right away.

Seed orders can be placed now. Peruse the catalogs and websites. Decide what you’d like to try out this year, plan on repeat favorites too. While you’re at it, get all the supplies you need for seed starting. Growth medium, seed trays, Gro-lights etc., Have tools sharpened. Replace lost or broken ones. Draw up plans and designs for new beds and gardens. Take note of all the steps needed to make them a reality. In other words get yourself as ready as you can. Once the thaw occurs, you will be prepared to move into the garden at once.

How about the reading you thought you’d get done by the fireside? It’s not too late. I’ve started making inroads into the stack of tomes I’d set aside as well as the few scientific papers I thought would be interesting. Nothing like emerging from the depths of winter feeling a bit smarter. Consider all the impressive pearls of wisdom one could drop at summer soirées.

You did say you were going to eat healthy this year right? Maybe grow some of your own veggies? What are you waiting for? Work out plans for a potager – start simple. Maybe just salad greens, Swiss chard and herbs. Research and try out recipes. Focus on a few for each season so you are eating in rhythm with nature. Use the snowbound days to get into this habit. There are plenty of delicious, healthy, easy recipes available on the Internet.

Looking ahead to events and deadlines for projects, this is an excellent period to tackle all the small details that often get overlooked in the rush that occurs nearer those dates. Vacation plans and reservations, graduation/anniversary celebrations, upcoming lecture and exhibit commitments ( think slides to choose to present, making archival prints to offer at the exhibit, contact list for publicity, new business cards), subscription and membership renewals to organizations that enrich our lives, schedule meetings and appointments for ongoing projects, potential projects, physicals and other routine check ups, research big purchases to be made in the near future such as cars, appliances and homes, get a head start on taxes. See? There is plenty to keep one fully occupied! And super-organized at the end. Don’t forget to thank me at that time.

So as the snow continues to come down soft and furious, I’m deeply grateful for this span of weeks to do the things I complain I never have the time to do right. Watch out spring, here I come!

NYC spokesperson

NYC spokesperson

(c)2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Is It Time Yet?

I recently read an article on Horologium Florae or Flower Clocks. It is a concept that began with Carl Linnaeus – to design a clock in the ground with plants whose flowers open at specific times of day. By observing which flower was open or closed, one could ostensibly tell what hour was at hand.

It is a charming concept. In theory, it should work beautifully. Pumpkin blossoms open at 6 am, rose mallow between 9 and 11 am, goat’s beard close its flowers at noon, evening primrose shine after sunset and close at noon of the following day. You get the picture. In reality, it has never been truly accomplished. That’s not to say attempts haven’t been made – too many variabilities have prevented any success. On cloudy days, the evening primrose might stay open all day.

Latitude, temperature, sunny/cloudy days, rain, changing length of day/night, light intensity, humidity, preferred pollinators all play important roles in determining exactly when or if a flower opens or closes. For example, a flower that opens at night, does so to attract pollinators like the sphinx moth. However, when conditions change, it either stays open too long into the next day so, day pollinators get to the flowers thus making the flower too depleted for its natural pollinator. Or, the flowers may not open at all so once again, the moth cannot play its designated role.

Growing up, I recall coming across a few attempts at flower clocks in public gardens. Already familiar with traits of common plants, I’d observe how poorly the flowers told time. I remember thinking that if I went by such a clock, I’d become the Mad Hatter and rush about saying I’m late, I’m late. The friend who had sent the article that started me thinking about this subject said that from now on, she was not going to apologize for being late. Instead, she’d say she was on flower time. To which I responded that people would think she’d been smoking the flowers.

Personally, I prefer the idea of becoming so familiar with one’s immediate outdoors that a general sense of time can be kept quite accurately and organically. Birdsong is one way to understand time of day.
It is common for different species to do their dawn singing at different times. The dawn chorus can start as early as 2am! And it progresses sequentially by type of bird. The romantic in me would like to determine parts of my day by listening for favored birds like cardinals, chickadees and blackcaps.
As a child, we lived quite close to the local zoo. Early each morning just before sunrise, the white peacocks would fly out to settle in the tall mango trees in my neighborhood. The birds would remain there all day and leave at sunset. They would spend their time gossiping loudly. The sound was not particularly pleasing but it amused me no end to imagine visitors coming away never having seen the white peacocks, the pride of the zoo.

In the summer, when the sun burnishes the lower half of the Heritage rose on the path outside my studio, I know it is about 6 pm. Time to cease all work and settle down to appreciate the garden. Preferably with a cool drink in hand.

In the early weeks of spring, the tulips close by 4 pm. Tea time. The roses waft their fragrance most strongly just after the sun reaches its zenith. Time to go back into the house, open the windows to draw in the perfume and cool off. The clove-like scent of summer phlox at dusk call one to linger in the garden for a little while longer. Time to just be.

Gardeners are more likely to tell the course of time by the progress of a season; as when a fruit is ripe. Or certain flowers are in bloom. As soon as summer starts losing heat, my Concord grapes will be ready for harvest. The lilacs burst open all of a sudden just in time for Mothers Day. A week after the cherry blossoms drop off, the pear trees put on their show. Closely followed by the apples. When the ornamental grasses in the front of the house glow gold in the evening light, there is just about an hour left of daylight to finish all outdoor chores.

I have a dream that one day, I will be so in tune with nature that I will know the hour by the subtle movements of the leaves, by specific bird calls, by the order in which different flowers are visited daily by the bees, by the degree of warmth of the grass beneath my bare feet. I want to know time by the tilt of the sunflower heads, the moment the first dew drops form on the leaves of the lady’s mantle, when the squirrels emerge from their nests in the dawn, when the robins call it a day.

When Einstein said – The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once, I do believe he was in a garden.

The images below are for you to contemplate your own horologium florae.

In case you are interested in reading the article that started me off on this article, – click here
(c)2015 Shobha Vanchiswar