Sizzle, Sparkle, Celebrate!

July arrives with the gift of a long weekend. And right away, summer goes into high gear. As though on cue, one slows the normal, frenetic pace, puts down the spade and picks up the lemonade.

This is the month when there is not much new to do in the garden. It is all about maintenance. Weeding, watering, deadheading, mowing. There is something reassuring about the rhythmic pattern of the mundane chores.
Time appears to expand. The days open up to all sorts of fun possibilities. Books are read. Parties happen spontaneously and summer meals linger long. Sparkling in sunshine, the days are lulled by the call of the cicadas and sway of the hammock. The nights glow with starlight, fireflies and flickering candles. They are the what we long for all the other months.

Lets resolve to not waste a single moment of summer in July. Make that lemonade. Place the books in the porch. Commission the ice-cream machine. Clean the outdoor furniture, toss on the pillows, spread the tablecloth. Raid daily the salad patch. Count dragonflies and fireflies. Go off the electronic grid as often and as long as possible. Trade FaceTime for pool time. Turn every meal into a celebration. Let your feet rediscover the pleasure of grass.

With this in mind, I’m gearing up for the Fourth of July weekend. A large pitcher of rose geranium and ginger infused lemonade is chilling alongside other potent libations in the refrigerator. The grill on the BBQ is clean and ready. The potager will serve up fresh salads. A basket of books, a choice playlist and favorite boardgames await. Lanterns hang from trees. I’m prepared to celebrate. And I’ve even taken care of the fireworks. Check out the photos below!

Happy Fourth one and all!

Follow me on Instagram seedsofdesignllc

The first two photos are of Heidi and Stephen Ford’s garden in Chicago.To extend the life of the alliums, Stephen decided to spray paint the spent alliums for a fireworks display!

 Heidi reports – ” We used Rust-Oleum  spray paint ( fluorescent, and glossy enamel ) and when spraying we used newspaper to shield the surrounding flowers from the paint . We held the spray can about 6 inches from the alliums and held the newspaper behind or under as we sprayed.”


Photo credit - Heidi Ford

Photo credit – Heidi Ford

Photo credit - Heidi Ford

Photo credit – Heidi Ford


My meadow is full of alliums but it is not practical to paint them in situ. So I harvested the alliums ( below). By themselves, they make a charming ‘shabby chic’ display don’t you think?


Here they are all set for the holiday!




Recreation of Celia Thaxter's porch at the American Impressionists exhibit at NYBG. Note the red, white and blue flowers!

Recreation of Celia Thaxter’s porch at the American Impressionists exhibit at NYBG. Note the red, white and blue flowers!

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar




Hugelkultur Is Happening!

If you haven’t as yet heard of hugelkultur, you will soon enough. Its time has come. Which is ironic when you consider that the concept is hundreds of years old. When I learned of it, my first thought was that this harked back to agricultural practices when nothing was allowed to go to waste. Environmentally sound, sustainable and actually quite intuitive, hugelkultur makes so much sense. You’ll see.

The very first time I saw hugelkultur being implemented was on a property in southern Vermont. What I saw looked, frankly, a bit appalling. The house and its corner lot looked shabby which in itself was not awful – the kind of place I assumed the owners were either physically or financially unable to maintain it. It happens. But what looked to me as deliberately messy was the front right quadrant. It had these big compost heaps on top of which grew haphazardly some tomato and other plants. There appeared to be no attempt to have it look tidy or purposeful. I took pictures of this because I loved how plants will grow wherever they can. It was a couple of years later that I read about hugelkultur and then recalled this property. It was not the best example but clearly the gardeners knew what they were doing. Just not very attractively. But, who am I to judge? I’m the one with the wild ‘meadow’ after all.

Hügelkultur is a German word meaning mound culture or hill culture. It was practiced in German and Eastern European societies for hundreds of years.
It is a process of composting in place using raised beds built in layers of wood debris and other compostable plant biomass. The method improves soil fertility, water retention, keeps the soil warm, supports microbial life that in turn enrich the soil, Traditionally, these beds are mounds or hills. The beds can however be built up like more traditional square or rectangle raised beds. A lasagna of sorts!

At a time when we are doing our best to recycle, reuse and reduce, hugelkultur is a godsend. It is in essence a permaculture technique and the beds are raised by layering organic material. Starting with the roughest material like rotting logs, topped with layers of thin branches followed by twigs and such, then grass clippings and other compostable garden waste, and finally, a layer of top soil. As the lower levels in the bed break down, they create most suitable environments for microbes necessary for healthy soil. This in turn permits better moisture retention and slow release of nutrients.

As the materials break down, there is some settling but by adding leaf mould and compost regularly, an ideal height can be maintained.

Instead of bagging the leaves and twigs for curbside pick-up, the materials can be put to use in the garden itself. No chipping or shredding needed.
As the wood decays gradually, it becomes a constant source of nutrients for the plants. In large beds, the nutrient output could be sustained for as long as twenty years. As the composting occurs, the heat generated extends the growing season.
When the logs and branches break down, there is an increase in soil areation. Hence, this method requires no tilling or turning over of the soil.
Wood can act like sponge. Rainwater is stored in the logs and branches and released during drier periods. Apparently, after the first year, with the exception of droughts, one may never need to water again.
Hugel beds also sequester carbon in the soil.
In essence, one can start such a bed by simply starting by building the layers from the ground up on the selected site. However, it is recommended that if you are starting on sod, then cut out the sod, dig in a trench with a depth of about a foot and then place the logs. Add the thin branches, the twigs and then the cut out layer of sod face down, followed by the other materials. A bed with steep slopes is the most recommended. This increases the surface area for planting and also avoids compaction from increased pressure over time. The steep sides means higher height and so easy harvesting. Greater the mass, greater the water retention.
Types of tree wood make a difference. Hardwoods are best as they decompose slowly but softwoods can also be used. A mix is ideal.
Woods that work best: Alders, apple, aspen, birch, cottonwood, maple, oak, poplar, willow (make sure it is dead or it will sprout).
Consider woods that are naturally anti-fungal, decay resistant or produce saps and tannins only if they are already well rotted. These are cedars, juniper, yew, eucalyptus, black cherry, camphor wood, osage orange, pine/fir/spruce.

Avoid altogether – Black locust (will not decompose), black walnut (juglone toxin), old growth redwood (heartwood will not decompose and redwood compost can prevent seed germination).

At this time, my small garden has no spot for experimenting with hugelkultur. But, I’m hoping one or more of you will give it a try. Please tell me if have already or are ready to try this method. I’m so excited about hugelkultur – it could be a game changer in our efforts to restore and maintain a healthy, ecologically sound environment.

Don’t forget – you can follow me on Instagram seedsofdesignllc

The lot in Vermont I

The lot in Vermont I

Lot in Vermont II

Lot in Vermont II

Lot in Vermont III

Lot in Vermont III

Bonus picture! A New Dawn rose in my garden.

Bonus picture! A New Dawn rose in my garden.

(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar


Growing Peace

You must be the change you wish to see in the world -Mahatma Gandhi
I had been thinking of a very different topic to write this week but, the tragedy in Orlando has channeled all thoughts to what we can do to heal our hearts and become whole again. This being a space for garden related matters, I don’t usually speak on other topics but this horrific event affects us all. It must affect us. I refuse to believe that mass shootings and other expressions of hate and intolerance have become the new normal.
And yes, gardens do indeed have a positive role to play.

We appear to have lost our way in this busy world. Somewhere along the line, we have become disconnected with each other. As much as we have more ways than ever to stay in contact, we are actually more distant than ever before. Is it really more satisfying to communicate via texts and tweets than taking the time to talk in person? Is FaceTime preferable to face-to-face time? Admittedly, these digital, electronic modes of communications are marvels and they certainly have a place in the big scheme. However, in no way do they replace the effectiveness of personal contact.

One could very well derive satisfaction from having a vast numbers of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’. But what does that really mean? Being a friend or a follower has responsibilities in both the real and digital world. What we say or do has impact. Does one not need to actually get to know people well before calling them friends? How do we become followers so readily and easily when we know nothing much about those we choose to follow? I seriously believe we have permitted ourselves to dull our innate instincts and social cues by the virtual ‘community’ that we have created.

Think about this hypothetical situation – you send a text or email to a friend asking how she is doing. She replies she is fine. And your day goes on its course. Later you hear that said friend has moved and you, while surprised, think nothing much of it. Weeks or more go by before you learn that your friend now resides in a halfway house and has lost custody of her kids. What? But her texts sounded fine! You feel terrible but how could you have known! We’re all guilty of similar lapses on our part – when we failed to do better.

So I ask, would it have been different if you had actually met? Looking into her eyes, reading her face might have indicated something was amiss. Her physical appearance could have said all was not well. Her tone of voice, her slowness to smile, the state of her hair or nails might have alerted you. Noting such details is only possible when we actually see the person. If we cannot make the effort to know the true state of our real friends, how then can we possibly gauge the state of the world around us?

It’s kind of like checking the health of the garden from the kitchen window. Until you go out into the garden and walk the paths around beds and borders, you cannot see the weeds, the pest damage, the growing buds, the emerging fruit or smell the roses. All might look well from afar but only on close examination can the ‘dis-ease‘ be observed.

I am convinced that while it can be daunting for any one of us to solve a crisis, if each of us just did our small part in tending to our neighbors, neighborhoods and participating as a community on a daily basis, we’d be making a real difference in the big picture. If we talk to our neighbors regularly, gather with family and friends often, volunteer weekly in community events, then we’d have a finger on the pulse of our surroundings. Any type of change will not only be noted but appropriate action can be taken as soon as possible. In the same token, we can share in each others good fortune. To celebrate the joys of those we care about enriches everybody.

While we cannot presume to remove or solve all the problems plaguing the world, there is a great deal to be achieved by our own small endeavors to make the world more beautiful and peaceful. If we want kindness, love, harmony and laughter in the world, then lets start by living more deliberately as kind, loving people. Live and let live.

While you’re at it, grow gardens of peace. An organically cultivated space free of toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers, rich in flora and fauna, brimming with beauty and life affirming bounty can only improve the world. These gardens should not be restricted to our own private retreats. Imagine such thriving loveliness in our parks, playgrounds, traffic islands, median strips on highways, once abandoned land, anywhere that could use a dose of plant power. Gardens draw people to itself. They are meeting grounds. Just as it has been proven that by addressing the ‘broken window’ syndrome to decrease the crime in a neighborhood, making gardens in otherwise neglected areas serve to uplift a community. As communities get healthier and happier, the world gets healthier and happier. But, it must start with you and me.

Note: I’ve included images of the five flowers that are symbols of peace. My garden grows four of them. I’m now looking for white poppies to plant …

Apple Blossom

Apple Blossom


Basil in pots

Basil in pots




White Poppy


(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar


June Showers, Arbors And Super-Towers

The peonies are coming into their own. So, thundershowers cannot be far away. It is inevitable. Just when the peonies in my garden froth over in pinks and whites, the weather turns ugly. First, temperatures will rise ‘unseasonably’. As this happens every year, I seriously question the weatherman’s idea of unseasonal. Then, the days portend thundershowers. Humidity rises, skies stay overcast. Should I or shouldn’t I? As much as I love seeing the garden glow in peonies, I know the rains will finish them off. Not only will the flowers be destroyed, they will make a real mess. Brown, slimy masses of petals will cling to the plants and more will mat the ground. Ugh.

The question is, how long can I let the garden keep itself pretty in peonies? If I harvest too early then there is that sense of depriving oneself of the show. If I wait till the first fat drops of rain hit, I might not be in time to get all the flowers. And while it is so deliciously decadent to have bowls and bowls of peonies on every surface in the house, the blooms don’t live on as long as they do on the plants themselves. All dilemmas should be this superficial! Still, I suffer. Briefly.

The roses have begun taking center stage. Soft shades of pink cascade on the two arbors. Like vain beauties they appear to beckon passing photographers but I’m all they’ve got. The white Paul’s Himalayan Musk roses form a spectacular canopy on the old apple tree in the meadow. The heavenly scent of this rose is lost on the myriad birds sheltering within. But the very notion of living under a bower of roses appeals enormously to my sentimental side and so I allow myself to think that my feathered friends appreciate their prime real estate. They had better because, the apple tree is now dead, its structure is on its last legs and I am trying to come up with a solution to keep this rose bedecked aviary securely held up. Something functional and tasteful. A sculpture with a purpose.

Meanwhile, the alliums are going strong. Taller than most other plants, they are having their fifteen minutes of fame. Like exclamation points they bring a degree of mirth to the spring garden. Even after they are done, their seed heads command a certain stature. But, I’ve found that if I let them stay on, the alliums do not come back the following year. So I’ve taken to cutting them down once flowering is over. If any of you have other suggestions, please do pass on your tips.

The foxgloves in the herb garden are stunning. They are bigger and taller here than anywhere else. A different variety whose name I must hunt down. The spires keep getting taller and presently I’m concerned they will be toppled by the fierce rain.

Oh the petty worries that plague! We gardeners thrive on tormenting ourselves over stuff like this. One should always be so blessed.



Before the storm

Before the storm



Paul's Himalayan Musk

Paul’s Himalayan Musk






(c) 2016 Shobha Vanchiswar