Green Acres


No doubt with summer at an end, the garden is looking all too blah. I know mine is. It’d look even worse if the fall flowers were not doing their thing by throwing splashes of color to liven up the scene. We’ve grown so accustomed to planting for color that we’ve completely neglected that most dominant of horticultural colors. Yes, the ubiquitous green.

Green comes in so many hues and yet, we lump it as one humdrum ole’ pigment. Such a shame considering we are absolutely starving for it well before winter has called it quits. In spring, the different shades of green are all too apparent. Spring green, sap green, chartreuse green, olive green, blue-green, gray-green, pthallo green, the list goes on. And every single one of those shades is a welcome sight. So what happens as the year goes along? A lot of the plants that started out looking different seem to turn the same type of green.

It simply means one must select more carefully to create a diversity in greens. The choices are plenty. Variegated plants as well as the huge range of plants with foliage of different greens can infuse the garden with enough excitement. Toss in diverse textures and shapes and you have something truly fantastic. We know all of this but often fail to make the effort because we are too focused on other colors. Hence that humdrum look in late summer.

I got to think more on this matter these last couple of days. I’m enjoying a Tuscan vacation and the classical Italianate gardens are pretty much mostly green. And a uniform green at that. The effect is rather soothingly simple and elegant. Occasional spatters of color only serve to emphasize the minimalistic use of it. The gardens focus more on elements like pattern, perspective and positioning. The simplicity is most deceptive as much thought and skill is required to create these gardens. They are the opposite of cottage gardens where anything goes. It isn’t enough to know plants. A good knowledge of mathematics and architecture along with a heightened sense of aesthetics is required. A tall order for us average gardeners. No wonder that style is not so popular today.

But, I think we should revisit the idea that a garden must always have ‘color’. The more I visit the classical gardens in Tuscany, the more appealing they are becoming. There is something very restful and calm in them. For visual interest, think parterre or knot gardens. Not the highly stylized, hard to maintain sorts of beds but the basic patterns of squares and circles outlined in boxwood and a single shrub or tree in the middle. True, the box needs trimming but that would be just a couple of times a year. There’d be no staking or deadheading! The gravel on the paths and within the beds would make mowing and weeding an occasional necessity. The central trees/shrubs could bear flowers and/or fruit. Does this have any appeal to you?

The problem is, such gardens tend to be quite formal in appearance. A far cry from our more informal looking chateaux. But for the duration of my trip, I’m going to indulge in dreaming up an all green, super-simple, elegant garden.

The following images are of the famous Boboli gardens in Florence and one other private garden. While the low borders are of boxwood, the wall-like hedges are of bay laurel! So utterly fitting to this region – a tip of the hat to its Roman history.

I apologize for the poor quality of the photographs as I’m having some technical problems. Will post much nicer ones in future posts!

Bobo;i 1

Boboli 2

Boboli 3

Boboli 4

Villa la Vedetta

Villa la Vedetta

(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar


Weeding, Watering, Wandering

Hard to believe that September is coming to an end. The equinox today, officially declares the end of summer 2015. The weather has only just taken to hinting at autumn days ahead. The leaves, still mostly green, echo my own reluctance to let go of summer. And I’m seriously delinquent in the usual chores of the month.
My ‘Things To Do’ list for Seprember says:

1. Continue weeding.
2. Deadhead. Cut back anything that looks ragged or done for.
3. Mow the lawn less frequently.
4. Water judiciously.
5. Get leaf rakes, leaf bags and keep ready. Fall cometh!
6. Similarly, keep bulb planting stuff like dibbler, bulb food, trowel, spade, etc., handy.
7. Continue harvesting vegetables. Remove plants that have given their all and toss on the compost heap.
8. Stir compost thoroughly.
9. Plant in cool weather vegetables.
10. Check if fall blooming plants such as asters and chrysanthemums need staking.
11. Inspect garden for pests or disease. Take prompt action if detected.
12. As days get shorter, make it a point to enjoy the garden as much as possible.

Of those dozen action items, I’m only following through on #s 4 and 12 most judiciously.
All summer long we’ve bemoaned the lack of rain. Too dry too long. Not willing to see my precious garden perish from thirst, watering deliberately and daily has been de rigueur. Hence, there remains a semblance of verdancy but don’t be fooled. The plants are struggling. If this near drought situation continues, all our gardens will be in peril.

Weeding seems to be a distant memory. A heavily guilty one at that. It has been either too hot to bother or I’ve been traipsing around checking out gardens in other lands. The latter is a sound way to avoid that chore. Gives me an air of scholarly interest whilst shirking my duties. I’m hoping the weeds will simply go away. I know what you’re thinking and I agree – I’m delusional.

Coming back to # 12, I’m most certainly enjoying the garden: mine as well as several others. Doing very little has advantages. Wandering through foreign lands, admiring plants I cannot grow has renewed my appreciation of those that thrive in my neck of the woods. I’m also inspired to focus harder on supporting native plants and sustainable practices.
As for all those other to-do items, they must wait a tad longer. I have a bit more immediate wandering to do. Tuscany, here I come!

Here are some images from my summer wanderings:













(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

Parks And Recreation

This past weekend, I was in the Chicago area and came across two spaces that became the highlights of my trip. We are accustomed to visiting public gardens and learning from them ideas and plants that we can apply to our own gardens. But to see an ordinary neighborhood park or a bike/jogging trail offer up unexpected gardening lessons is nothing short of thrilling.

Driving along a very nondescript road in Skokie, I spied a large stand of bright pink cosmos waving happily to passers-by. Seeing this rather unusual display, I felt compelled to stop, get out and cross the road to catch a closer look. What a surprise awaited! This clump of cosmos was actually a whole looooong bed of cosmos that lined a bike and running path through which said road cut across. Not immediately visible from this road, the flowers were there solely to cheer on the recreational crowd. It was utterly charming.

To me, this simple, inexpensive and enchanting idea is pure genius. What better way to make a ribbon of asphalt cheery and attractive? I’m hoping to discover if other seasons are equally well served along this trail.

The second surprise I came upon is what once was a green space that provided residents of Wilmette a place for picnics, sunbathing and other downtime pursuits. While it still offers that, it now also hosts a spectacular expanse of a prairie garden as well as a thriving community/allotment garden. The former recalls the landscape indigenous to the area and subtly suggests to the residents what they too could grow, the latter draws attention to the joys and rewards of cultivating the food we put on our tables. Both gardens support a plethora of wildlife like butterflies, bees and birds and, are so vibrant in their purpose. More park-lands around the country should follow this example.

My take home was to keep it simple, native and fun. As always, travel instructs and opens the mind.

Note: The prairie garden at Wilmette’s Centennial Park is a work in progress. Started in 2010, it expects to be completely established in a few more years. I caught it at the tail end of the growing season. One can only imagine how much more colorful and rich it is in spring and early summer.







Community gardens



(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar

September Affair

It is the second week of September and doesn’t feel like it one bit. For starters, it is HOT! Sizzling, heat wave hot. And oh so dry that even the trees are gasping. Along the highways, the greenery looks so brown and parched you’d think they’d been deliberately torched. In my own garden, I’m torn between watering my plants copiously and letting nature take her course. What survives should be my guide for future plantings. But then, what about the plants I’ve paid for dearly and lovingly cherished? I’m constantly tussling with my conscience about doing the right thing. A good, thorough drenching rain would go a long way in serving my cause.

I note that the fall plants like asters and monkhood are slow to bloom this year which is not a bad thing as the hydrangea, phlox, cone flowers and Joe Pyes are still going strong. But I hope then that we do not get cheated out of a colorful autumn with an early winter.

By now, I’m usually getting the tender perennials into the freshly scrubbed greenhouse, cutting back spent plants and generally cleaning up. However, it feels too early this year and I’m kind of at a loose end. No doubt the mad rush to complete the chores will occur in due course.

As I await my shipment of bulbs for fall planting, complete my list of perennials to purchase, set up a plan to replace the gazebo that supports the wisteria and prepare to harvest fruit, I’m determined to enjoy these days of transition as both summer and fall vie for attention.

Come, enjoy the beauty of September:







(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar



Retreating From The Heat

No real gardening is happening this week. It is way too hot to spend any length of time outdoors. So I’m focusing on gardening indirectly – reading, watching films and generally pondering. Here is a sampling:

I’ve been doing a lot of travel this season and airports are becoming a rather familiar sight. And I’m rather unhappy about our New York hubs. There are hardly any sort of planned landscaping around the airports let alone nice pots of plants indoors. Given the glut of data supporting the positive effects of plants on our physical and mental healths, it would stand to reason that airports install gardens outside and within. After all, they are the very places where tensions run high, tempers flare, nervous tics develop, blood pressures soar, anxiety and panic set in and general fatigue prevails. Instead, it seems nobody told our airport powers-that-be about the enormous benefits that plants provide.

However, in Singapore, the gardens in the different terminals and the landscaping in the surrounding areas of the airport are so lovely that they are now world famous. This airport has truly taken its gardens seriously – there are vertical gardens, butterfly gardens, orchid gardens all over the place. In July, I found myself at Changi airport with a layover from midnight to 4:00 am and the only salvation I had were those gardens.

Then this past Sunday, I had to be in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport at 6:00 am. Having partied at a wedding bash the night before, I was seriously sleep deprived and a tad grumpy. But, on emerging from the taxi at the airport, my eyes saw sunflowers all along the sidewalk. Great, big, happy pots of them. How could one not smile at the sight? Put me in a better frame of mind right away. You see?


I saw a movie that I think many of you would enjoy. “A Little Chaos” is one of those mostly unheard of films with an impressive cast. Kate Winslett, Alan Rickman and Stanley Tucci to name three. It is a fictional story about a woman garden designer working with Le Notre at Versailles. While the story is more about the development of their relationship than the garden, the movie manages to combine period setting, life at that time, a glimpse of Versailles in the making to give the audience the slightly lofty feeling of watching something intellectual instead of just another romance.

On a hot day, sit back in a cool, comfortable room and watch this movie. A nice escape from the summer doldrums.


“Gardening is one of the rewards of middle age, when one is ready for an impersonal passion, a passion that demands patience, acute awareness of a world outside oneself, and the power to keep on growing through all the times of drought, through the cold snows, toward those moments of pure joy when all failures are forgotten and the plum tree flowers.”

-May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep

I came across this passage and immediately took umbrage with middle age and impersonal. For one who has been gardening long before middle age and taken my gardening work, its successes and failures very personally, this certainly did not sit well. But the rest of the quote definitely nails what gardening is all about.

After more neutral minded pondering, I concede that most gardeners are not the twenty – somethings. We are in general a slightly more mature tribe. But then again, most young adults do not have the luxury of space, time or finances to garden. Age has a few perks I suppose. But the energy of youth certainly eludes.

Children might learn the joy of growing plants but as they reach independence, the immediacy of life and its quotidian demands take over. Gardening is set aside till one ‘settles down’. Only very few continue gardening in one way or another. For myself, all through college I kept plants in my room. I struck a deal with the campus gardeners – they’d look after my plants whenever I went home and I’d help with watering a specific garden the rest of the year. And in the following years, when I lived in apartments, I convinced landlords to let me cultivate a small patch outside. You can well understand my response to the part about gardening as reward for the middle-aged. I sure took that personally!
Let me know your take on this topic.

Note: Dr. Oliver Sacks passed away on August 30. He was a big hero of mine and I’d only recently written about my last meeting with him in June. I will forever cherish that time. When I’d mentioned to him that I was going to Singapore, he immediately mentioned the vertical gardens and orchids there! Please join me in honoring Dr Sacks by staying curious about everything in this world, treating all people with compassion and understanding and staying fully engaged in life.

Something to see! For the entire month of September, some of my watercolors and photographs will be on exhibit in three windows of Sotheby’s real estate office in Chappaqua ( corner of lower Greeley Ave and King Street, across from Starbucks). I hope you will stop by and take a look. I would love your feedback!
 Please, I need your help in spreading the word! Thanks very much.

Vertical garden at Changi, Singapore

Vertical garden at Changi, Singapore

Orchids in Singapore airport

Orchids in Singapore airport

Sunflowers at Schiphol, Amsterdam

Sunflowers at Schiphol, Amsterdam


(c) 2015 Shobha Vanchiswar