Some Like It Hot

For the longest time I resisted hot colors in my garden. Growing up in India, I was accustomed to the gaudy oranges, reds and yellows of calendula, marigold, nasturtium, lily, canna, dahlias , salvia and such. In my mind, they were tropical colors. So, when I started gardening in my current garden in New York, those colors felt inappropriate.

Blues, pinks, purples, soft yellows and whites shone in this space. And they do look spectacular in spring. I was rather strict about it. I shunned sulfur yellow yarrow, reserved the annual, school prompted, Mother’s Day pot of orange marigold that my daughter brought home all through elementary school to a good but discreet location, selected only paler nasturtiums and made an exception for the claret red Monarda in the herb garden. I had convinced myself that those hues were wrong for this garden.

Yet, as the years passed, I was struck by the lack of summer exuberance in the garden. The pale hues were washed out in the strong sunlight. The garden lacked oomph. But, as summer was also the time I traveled for several weeks, I never made any serious attempts to change anything. Then, in 2019, a late August photo shoot was scheduled by the Garden Conservancy for the 25th Anniversary of their hugely popular Open Days Program. I returned from a long vacation to a bedraggled, lackluster garden with just a few days to whip it back into some semblance of summer splendor. The marathon weeding and trimming brought in order but there was serious lack of punch. Off I went to the nursery looking for inspiration.

True to form, the nursery was a riot of summer color – all the plants of my childhood dominated. I had a sense of comfort in seeing old plant friends. They made me happy. I brought home some canna sporting flames of red and orange. Installed into the pair of pots leading down to the potager, they instantly lit up the space. What a difference that small tweak made.

The following year, 2020, became the year the garden and gardener were transformed. I had all the time in the world and the garden was my salvation. It was a rekindling of my romance with it. Like most long term relationships, I had gotten complacent with the garden. I realized I hadn’t been giving it my all. A good partnership requires consistent effort and attention and I was resolved to do better.

With no possibility of travel and pretty much no distractions, I sought out elements that brought joy and comfort. Happy colors that shine bright as summer unfolds. I planted cardinal vines to scramble up the pergola, red and yellow hibiscus standards in the urns on the terrace, orange, red and yellow nasturtiums to ramble freely in the potager,and tumble boisterously from the big pots of bay standards, yellow calendula and saffron hued marigold in alternating rows in the bed of leafy greens, cannas again in the pots – the potager and terrace was ablaze. In the meadow, the colors were echoed by Monarda and Lobelia ( cardinal flower) punctuated by Solidago golds. Everything was so much in keeping with the season – summer became a true celebration.

And that’s how it has come to be. Sometime in June the softer shades of spring give way to the hotter hues of summer. It’s become my cue to ease up and slide into the season of kicking back and relaxing- rules, rituals and reservations. Let’s drink to that – Cheers!

Random glimpses of summer color  – 

          

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar     

 

Sizzling Into July

Both temperatures and garden are distinctly taking on summer sizzle. I don’t do well in the heat so I’ve learned to keep my time in the garden to the cooler hours of the morning and evening. I leave the hot midday to mad dogs and Englishmen.

It’s now all about balancing between letting the sounds of birds and insects lull us into a happy state of doing nothing and keeping on top of weeding, tidying and watering. The weeds are the biggest offenders – they seem to come up with an enthusiasm that I wish would rub off on the choice plants that are taking time to spread.

The season to gather with friends has commenced. I firmly believe gardens are created to be shared with others. Have you noticed how everyone instinctively inhales visibly and relaxes in nature? Entertaining outdoors is unfussy and naturally easy. The food is simple and fresh and the garden does its magic at putting everyone at ease.

I’ve had the pleasure of hosting several groups of artists in the garden this month. A garden is a perfect muse – inspires us to paint and stretch ourselves, it relieves us of inhibitions and nudges us into working more freely, exploring, experimenting, learning to see anew. Encouraged by the creative company and commiserating about the challenges of all the greenery, the whole experience is joyous. As both gardener and artist, I absolutely love to see how others view my garden. It’s the same when I see photographs taken by visitors. I learn a great deal and grow as gardener as well as artist. Quite possibly, in sharing the garden, I’m the one who gains the most!

As we head into the long weekend, here’s incentive to get stuff in the garden –

Things To Do In July

1. Weed, weed, weed! Remember, pouring boiling water over bricks and other stonework will kill  weeds growing in-between.

2. Deadhead often. Neatness matters.

3. Mulch, fertilize, water.

4. Mow regularly but keep the mower blade high.

5. Watch out for pests and/or disease. Use organic control.

6. Plant out vegetable seedlings for fall harvest.

7. Keep birdbaths filled with fresh, clean water.

8. Order fall bulbs

9. Take time to watch dragonflies by day and fireflies by night.

Happy Fourth!

Summer vibes

Veronicastrum lighting up the meadow.

Lady Slippers getting worn out

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

Specially Small

First, let me apologize for not posting last week. I was forced to lie low as I succumbed to some bug. Not Covid or the ’flu but something that knocked me out nevertheless. Took a few days but I’ve recovered well and feeling immensely grateful. Thanks so much for all the concerned inquiries – honestly, it felt good that my silence was noted!

Although I started feeling well within four days, I decided to go quiet for another week. My mind and body needed that break. The 10 days of going off the grid felt like a cleansing of sorts. No doom scrolling the news or checking Instagram. It was easier than I thought it’d be. I didn’t miss any of it. Now, I’m ready to get back to putting up my one daily Instagram post and checking the accounts I follow but with a determination to only do so for a half hour a day. That’s it.

I can use my time more productively.

As soon as I felt sufficiently better, I went down to the PHS Flower Show. It had been some years since I’d visited Philly so the trip took on the feel of a real getaway.

The Flower Show was held outdoors and the day I went was blessed with lovely weather. It had all the elements of a fair – live music, lots of people, smells of food, vendors of all kinds of wares and of course the horticultural exhibits themselves. I enjoyed Wambui Ippolito’s Aer and AMP’s Nature Amplified very much. Sadly, neither of the dynamic women were present that day. In fact, AMP had already returned to the UK. Still, I’m so glad I got to see their work.

Beyond the obvious reasons to go to a flower show like this, it was particularly joyous to just have this show take place. We’ve all been through so much that events like this are life affirming and filled with hope and optimism. Nature heals.

What I appreciated the most at the show were the plant vendors. My inherent greed for plants aside, it was special to see small nurseries being represented. These nurseries, almost always family operated, are invaluable to the horticultural world. They do what they do for the love of it. Neither lucrative nor glamorous, running a nursery is very hard work. Small nurseries are the ones that grow the unusual, the special, the rare. They preserve important plants while big box stores push the popular/trendy. If you’re looking for plants no longer found easily or fallen out of fashion, go to a small nursery. I, for one, shop exclusively in such places. Shop local, think global.

Years ago, there were several family run nurseries in my county. Each a source of great plants, knowledgeable and helpful people and each had its own unique specialty or expertise. As big box stores popped up everywhere, many of the nurseries could not compete. Customers were lured by low prices and settled for the plantes du jour. Specialty nurseries got hit hard. Today, the remaining nurseries in my area can be counted in one hand and even some of those only do wholesale. The discerning home gardener has to search hard to locate the required less popular but horticulturally valuable plants.

Back to the flower show – although I had no list or pressing need for purchasing, the sight of healthy plants was enough to break all my resolve. One nursery in particular caught my eye. At Triple Oaks Nursery, I picked up several Indian Pink plants (Spigelia marilandica) to add to my meadow. It is an uncommon native wildflower. A small fig was also obtained. Joe Kiefer the nurseryman was most helpful and full of good information. He operates in Franklinville, NJ and I cannot wait to visit him there.

If I had one suggestion to make to the organizers of the PHS Flower Show, it’d be to have even more nurseries at the show. We need to support them fully or run the risk of losing them entirely. That would be doing a huge disservice to ourselves, our gardens and to the horticultural world at large.

Small is priceless and most beautiful.

Pictures taken at the PHS Show –

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

In June’s Spell

June Jiving

June sashays in on May’s wake

Jiving to music the winged ones make

Swishing and swirling gossamer petals

In colors that flirt with summer’s sizzle.

– Shobha Vanchiswar

Do you get the feeling that it’s hard to focus on any one flower in this month? What a lovely problem to have! So many flowers and so little time to enjoy them!

The peonies and roses vie for the most attention. Both are so popular but in longevity, the roses win. Easily succumbing to rain showers and/or high temperatures that often plague June, the peony is something of a delicate darling. Before every impending thundershower I rush to harvest the peonies and bring them in to adorn every room. For a couple of days the house smells divine and looks festive. Then they start dropping petals as if they’re bored and wish to leave the party. And leave they do. That fleeting time we spend together is precious but it does leave me wishing they had more staying power.

Note: I do also pick peonies just as the color peeks through the sepals in the buds and those stick around longer as they slowly unfurl and spread their goodness. Keeping them away from direct light and in cooler areas helps too.

The roses are easier. They adorn the garden longer – even the one time bloomers. And they’re better at withstanding the weather tantrums. Truth be told, I’m quite happy to leave the roses to shine in the garden, Very few are cut for indoors. The bonus is that it allows for rose-hips to develop for fall color and to feed the birds.

The roses in various parts of the garden are exploding and are almost a cliche – roses in June and all. Though who can have any complaints? They look beautiful and there can never be enough of them.

Meanwhile, the native wisteria blooms in this month as well. Shorter racemes than its Asian cousins and not so fragrant, they still look fetching. However, just when they are at their peak and the pergola is charmingly festooned, the temperature is sure to rise and burn the delicate petals. I so loathe when that happens! Is it too much to ask for a few more weeks of cooler days? This type of wisteria will bloom a second time but never in the same abundance.

As I write this post, the perfume wafting into the house tells me to mention the climbing hydrangea also in bloom. A froth of creamy-white flowers overtakes every other perfume in the garden. On returning home from errands and such, the fragrance greets me long before I approach the property. What a welcome!

The hibiscus, marigolds and nasturtium are giving the terrace and potager a preview of summer with their hot colors of yellows and oranges. Joined by the blue comfrey and aforementioned purple wisteria, there is an exuberance that is contagious. Uplifts the viewer fo r sure.

The meadow is having its quiet time. The native anemone is in bloom and the white flowers against the vast green soothes the eyes. Which is just as well because it helps one notice the shy, diminutive lady’s slippers stepping around softly amongst the bigger plants in the meadow. They’re so easy to escape notice that I’ve placed stakes to indicate their location. It’s be such a shame to miss these flowers.

Irises and alliums are still going strong as are the baptisia rendering the front garden in lovely hues of purple and blue. Allium siculum have joined in the festivities – scattered in front and in the meadow, their bells nod dance gracefully in the breeze.

There are still pansies in pots bravely facing the rising heat but their time is coming to an end. The geraniums, pelargoniums, dwarf nicotiana, daisy topiaries, all in pots, are adding their colors to this month of June. What a month! And I’m here for it.

Note: Some beauties from the garden –

Rose. Compare to peony look alike!

Peony. Compare to the rose!

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

This, That And The Other

I can hardly keep abreast with the flowers exploding in the garden. I might be gazing adoringly at the alliums when from the corner of my eye I notice the irises gracefully unfurling themselves. The clematis on the arch tumbles in a cascade – its exuberance is contagious. In counterpoint to the rounded heads of allium, the camassia shoot up in tall cones of pale blues and cream.

The foxgloves are having their moment in the potager. Their speckled spires distract me no end. It’s hard to work in their towering presence. And just this past weekend, the native wisteria scrambling up the pergola nearby, decided to join the party. The tiny bell shaped flowers of both the common and the more unusual blue comfrey are supporting actors in this cast of performers. Their part is no less important in the tableaux. Indeed, the bees and other insects seem to prefer them to the more showy companions.

The first rose to bloom is the David Austin R.Boscobel but the others are getting ready to compete any day now. Surprisingly behind schedule, the Baptisia and Amsonia are adding their shades of blue to the late spring parade. It’s rather interesting to view them amidst a new cast of characters. They fit in rather well.

What has excited me the most is something diminutive and easy to escape notice amidst this floral carnival are the Cypripedium parviflorum – the yellow lady’s slipper. I’ve long coveted them and acquired two plants last summer at the plant sale held at Hollister House. Both were planted in two different parts of the meadow. One is currently in bloom and the other is in bud. I am so pleased.

On the other end of my excitement was the discovery of cutworms on a small, potted pine. They looked so creepy writhing around in a cluster. Already a branch had been totally denuded and the vandals were working on another. They were dealt with swiftly. Felt very satisfying.

Today, the temperatures are expected to rise to the low 90s. Just when the late spring garden is looking so glorious. Don’t you just hate that! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that no real damage is done. I went around late last evening harvesting the peonies in bloom and those just about to. The anticipated heat would burn them easily. So now, while I work in the cool indoors, I’m basking in peony perfume and beauty. That’s a pretty good upside.

Lady’s Slipper

Wisteria on the pergola

Wisteria viewed from above

Cutworm cluster

Rescued peonies before the heat wave.

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

Boning Up

I love the way the garden gets defined by the snow. Snow in its stark whiteness, highlights the bones of the garden. Even as it blankets everything, it reveals the design and lay of the land. There are highlights and low-lights that emerge to give a new understanding of the effect of the various elements in the space and their relation to each other. One hardly designs a garden for the snow but it is always gratifying to see an entirely new dimension revealed by it.

Winter is always a good time to asses the bones of the garden. Devoid of foliage, the garden is laid bare for scrutiny. Too much or too little structure, a need for some additional plantings or focal point, even what alterations or repairs are necessary. Add a coat of snow and it gets even more telling. Subtle gradients can be seen more clearly, Sunlight on the snow exposes how light hits the garden. Shadows from trees and buildings tell of the extent to which they impact the plantings. As the snow melts, the different micro-climates can be observed – where it melts first and where it remains cold longer helps the gardener plant appropriately. There is so much learned.

As an artist, when painting snow scenes, I have to observe even more closely.. Exactly how the light hits the ground, the angle of the shadows, dips and inclines, areas that are either particularly interesting or too bland and discerning colors in what seems like a very white canvas.

This observation has proven even more educational than simply taking photographs. In fact, I believe it has improved how I compose my photos as well as the garden.

Best of all,, both, painting and taking photos keep me in the moment. A valuable lesson in mindfulness.

Watercolor

Watercolor

Watercolor

Watercolor

Watercolor

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Put A Name On It!

As a scientist and a gardener, I’ve always found nomenclature to be very important. The scientific name of a living thing is full of information and not simply a tag by which they are referred. But, that is not what I want to discuss. I’m thinking more in terms of what words we choose to designate the spaces in our property.

To start, I cannot for the life of me understand why a garden is ever called a yard. A yard is for junk, trains, lumber, school, stock, barn, grave and such. A holding area. A garden is not synonymous with yard. When you hear the Y word, do you really ever envision a plot of land lush and lovely? But you do when you hear the G word. A yard does not imply a lovingly tended area but a garden definitely does. You see?

I have no doubt that what we name things matters. How we view, use and care for something is impacted by how we reference it. I’m not done. I have one other similar peeve.

Consider the deck versus terrace/patio/loggia/veranda/lanai. The deck sounds ordinary– functional and convenient. As a noun, it is also a part of a ship or a pack of cards. Not necessarily something that belongs to a garden. All the other aforementioned synonyms evoke an area distinctly designed for relaxation with a pleasing backdrop of plants and flowers. Am I right?

So, with that in mind, consider the various parts of my garden. Front garden with front porch looking on to it – an inviting, pretty place leading to the house. The espalier allée or peony walk on the side escorts you to the potager, terrace and checkerboard garden. Beyond, is the meadow that plays host to the greenhouse and tree-house. And coming up the other side one walks by the vertical garden. And there you have it. You just got a garden tour.

The alternate would be – front yard, side path, vegetable/herb plot, deck, back yard, plant

wall. Which tour would you want to take?

Be honest.

Note: Enjoy a quick tour of my garden

Front garden

Espalier Allee or Peony walk

Side porch

Potager

Potager and side porch above

Potager and terrace

Terrace

Checkerboard garden

Meadow

Vertical garden

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

January Jitters

2022 is well underway and I’m starting to feel like I’m not stepping up to it. Between the recent snow storms and the Omicron surge, I’m going through a phase of ‘out-of-sorts’. I sure hope it’s just a phase. While I’m trying to stay on course with my projects and such, it’s unsettling when so many are out of action and all sorts of events are being canceled. How does one plan for anything? Do I dare look forward to an upcoming visit/concert/class ? We’ve learned to be flexible and adapt but still, there’s that yearning for the familiar comfort of normalcy isn’t there. I catch myself feeling fearful of looking forward to things. Hate to be disappointed again. And again.

And then, a bright sunny day or a flash of cardinal red in the snow covered garden is enough to get the spirit soaring. I look around at the amaryllis blooming indoors and they give me pause to appreciate the beauty and the comfort they bring Soon, I’ll be forcing hyacinths and eagerly anticipate the flowers and fragrance. Spring would’ve arrived in my heart well before the vernal equinox.

Seeds that I’d ordered in December arrived yesterday. I’m not taking on any major seed starting – instead, I’m keeping matters simple and realistic so I can indeed take a trip or do other things should the opportunity arise. Shirley poppies to scatter towards the end of winter. Cosmos seeds will be sprinkled later on. I’m only going to start the highly dependable sunflowers. My big adventure will be growing dahlias for the first time. The tubers I’d ordered will arrive in due course and I’m excited to experience something new.

I’ve also signed up for several on-line talks/lectures. The Garden Conservancy recently announced their series on French Gardening that sounds quite interesting. Apart from learning horticultural stuff, it’ll be a bit of ‘traveling to France’. Until its safe to make an in-person trip there, I’ll make do with these talks.

Untermyer Gardens’ winter symposium should be a good one too. I thoroughly enjoyed their 2022 winter symposium. This one is on meadows – something, as you know, I’m very passionate about.

Wave Hill and NYBG have good line-ups for winter as well.

Across the pond, Fergus Garret of Great Dixter fame will be continuing his lectures on various aspects of gardening. These are always chock full of information and beautiful images.

By the time I’m through with all the talks, spring should be here for real. So, for now, I’m going to breathe deeply and plug away at my projects and goals, take comfort in the ‘early spring’ indoors, get inspired and motivated by the many talks, stay away from an overload of news and instead, focus on uplifting, life affirming nature walks and preparations for the growing season. Gardening to the rescue. As always.

Note: Things that help keep me calm and hopeful –

I’m a firm believer in enjoying my art until they get exhibited and find new homes. At present, some of my seed pods are giving me lots of pleasure.

More seed pods

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Start Me Up

Day 4 of 2022 and it is finally feeling like winter. On January 1, it was a balmy 60 degrees. Given all the ‘unprecedented’ and ‘record weather’ events, it tells me to expect more of the unexpected. And we must be prepared to pivot, remain flexible and possibly most importantly, adapt to circumstances.

Meanwhile, I’m getting on with the January garden chores. Here’s to 2022 – may we and our gardens thrive and spread goodness all around.

Things To Do In January

  1. Survey the garden after every storm or snowfall. If any damage such as broken branches or torn off protection has occurred, try to fix it as soon as possible. Likewise, large icicles hanging from roof edges pose a threat to plants below: shield the plants if the icicles cannot be removed.

  2. Take down holiday decorations. Before disposing off the Christmas tree, cut branches to spread as mulch on flower beds.

  3. Keep bird feeders full. Whenever possible, keep water available for the birds.

  4. Inspect stored tubers, corms and bulbs for signs of mold and rot. Get rid of any that don’t look healthy.

  5. This is a good time to examine the ‘bones’ of the garden. Make notes of what needs developing, changing or improving.

  6. Make icy paths safe by sprinkling sand or grit. Avoid toxic de-icing products.

  7. If ground is wet/soggy, take care to protect the sodden areas by not walking on it too much. Better yet, protect it by putting down a temporary path of wood planks.

  8. Take an inventory of garden tools. Get them repaired, replaced or sharpened.

  9. Gather up seed and plant catalogs. Start planning for the coming season.

  10. Begin forcing the bulbs kept cool since late fall. Time to start an indoor spring!

  11. Keep an eye on indoor plants ( in the house or greenhouse). Inspect carefully for signs of pests or disease. Act right away if either is detected. Organic practices only please.

  12. Still on indoor plants: water as needed, rotate for uniform light exposure, fertilize every two to four weeks. Remove dead or yellowing leaves.

  13. Enjoy the respite offered by this cold month.

Note: I have a painting in a global show online. Please do take look – it’s on Human Rights and there are some powerful works.The exhibition duration is from December 19 2021 till January 23, 2021.

If you like my work, do ‘like’ it and leave a comment. And spread the word to others! I’d love for a gallery to take note and give me the opportunity to exhibit the whole series. Your help in publicizing is much appreciated – Thank you!

Here’s what’s doing in and out of my garden –

Pumpkins saved from the fall for still life painting!

Watercolor

Amaryllis

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

Performance Review 2021

The final week of 2021. One can’t help but think about the year in review and anticipate the one to come. On my part, I’ve shifted the way I’m examining 2021 in the garden. Instead of looking at how things fared in the garden, I’m taking a hard look at my own efforts as a gardener. Instead of simply considering how weather, pollinators and pests contributed to successes and failures, I’m reviewing how my performance has impacted the garden.

In the latter part of winter, I was filled with hope and energy and got columbine seeds started. The seeds had been stratified weeks earlier and were duly sowed in starter pots. I’d hoped for a plethora of seedlings to plant in the meadow. It was a complete failure. While I’d been told by experts that starting columbines was not simple, I had not expected total defeat. Thinking back to that time, I see how I neglected to closely monitor the seed flats. I kinda let the seeds manage completely on their own as I got distracted with myriads of other seasonal tasks in the garden. Well, I shouldn’t have been surprised when not a single seed sprouted. What I’ve learned is that I shouldn’t take on something I don’t have the time/skills/conditions required. While this effort was not a big financial investment, it was a very visual reminder of my gross negligence. I’m duly shamed.

When the weather gets too warm and humid, I always retreat indoors. It’s not only very buggy and uncomfortable to be outside but, conditions are ideal for migraines to plague me. I’ve learned to be preemptive and stay inside. This year, the summer atmosphere was mostly unpleasant. We had weeks of bad weather. I barely got in the garden and endlessly complained about how the weather had created unhealthy conditions for the plants. But I took no personal ownership. I should’ve found moments in the cooler periods in the early hours of the mornings to do a pest check, some staking or a spot of weeding. I could’ve helped the beleaguered plants in pots by feeding them weekly (instead of sporadically) to counteract the loss of nutrients by the incessant rains. I admit I used the excuse (valid as it was) of migraines to conceal my laziness. Ashamed I am. Thoroughly.

On the positive side, timely pruning and trimming resulted in those plants looking healthy and happy. My foray into hot colors for the potager and terrace was very successful. Due diligence resulted in a very good grape harvest. The plants that were too vigorous and smothering their neighbors were dealt with – creating more breathing space all around. I finally addressed the wisteria that was in the wrong place and replaced it with a magnolia espalier. The wisteria is now in a friend’s garden where it has a much more suitable home.

Open Day and Digging Deeper were not only successful but brought me so much joy to once again be amidst like-minded, garden crazy people. My kind of folk.

I’ve begun taking steps for next year. Inspired by the stunning flowers I saw in other gardens this past year, I’ve ordered dahlia tubers for the first time. I’m hoping to source and order flats of native columbine seedlings for the meadow. If I can get them early enough, I will nurture them along responsibly. In the coming weeks, I plan to get organized and ready for spring. And I’m creating a game plan to mitigate my laziness.

And now, the greenhouse beckons. Some faffing and fussing is in order.

January

February

February

March

April

April

May

May. Marco Polo Stufano, Timothy Tilghman na his wife Renee visit.

June. Open Day

July

August

September

October

November. Bulb planting.

December. Gifts from the garden.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar