January Jottings

January In The Garden

Feels lazy

Days spent

in waiting

wanting

wishing

Nothing done.

                                                                           – Shobha Vanchiswar

The final week of January. Things feel lighter and brighter. The sun is setting past 5:00pm – this singular fact is mood improving is it not? It might still be very cold with little to get excited about in the garden but the anticipation of the sap rising imminently buoys me up.

I’m currently reading and tremendously enjoying Page Dickey’s book ‘Uprooted’. It reads like a beautiful prose poem on starting anew. I’ve been noting down several plant varieties she mentions and I’m beginning to think I’m going to need more acreage to accommodate them all!

Some years ago, Page gave me a ‘Leda’ rose and an Abeliophyllum ( white forsythia). The latter blooms very early in spring and the rose pinks up the summer. These reminders of a valued mentor keep me in state of gratitude, contentment and humility. Despite how it appears, one doesn’t truly garden alone. There are always the teachers, the helpers, the cheerleaders keeping us company.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of Uprooted. It’ll inspire, instruct and inform in a most gentle, supportive manner.

On my sojourns outdoors, there’s great fun in listening to the birds as they go about their business seemingly unbothered by the cold. This coming weekend, I hope to put up the new bluebird house somewhere in the front garden that suits the potential residents as well as the landlord – I’d like to watch their antics and be entertained whenever I’m in this part of the property. The birdhouse in the meadow in the back has proven its purpose rather successfully. The house is being set up early so as to be ready and available as soon as avian house hunting season commences.

Similarly, the hummingbird feeder in the herb garden is a huge source of joy. Over the holidays, I received by mail a hand-blown glass feeder. It is a beautiful work of art. Oddly, there was no note with this package and I’m still trying to find out who the thoughtful sender might be. I’m appreciating the happy dilemma of finding the most appropriate site for it.

And so January is coming to a close. We’re half way to Spring!

January things:

Enjoying the sunset from indoors as its too cold outside!

Amaryllis

First snow of the new year

Get this book!

January recollections:

Goldfinch on coneflower

Hummingbird hovering just above the agapanthus on left

At the feeder

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

In The Beginning …

The first week of a brand new year. Much hope and expectations rests on it. Everything will be better, bigger, brighter. Gardeners have a bit of an edge here. We are after all, an optimistic lot. Practical too. Never mind the countless plants that died on our watch, the misdemeanors of the weather that put paid to plans and designs or, the times pests took control away from us. We not only carry on but our determination to succeed gets stronger. It’s not because we simply repeat our efforts but that we are good learners.

Gardeners are students of life. We observe, experiment, record, research all the time. We share information freely, heed advice from the experienced. We are constantly collecting and collating information (not on paper but mostly in our heads ). And then, we boldly go and garden our hearts out.

At the start of a new year, in the icy grip of winter, I’m grateful for the time to look back at the past year, review what was successful and what was not. Importantly, I note why. If something I specifically did to make it go either way, I learn what I must change. If however a cool spell kept pollinators away and the apple blossoms went unpollinated and so couldn’t bear fruit, I just accept that it was not in my control.

However, I also dream big at this time. This year, I tell myself , my garden will be brilliant. I will be brilliant. Seeds will be ordered and started on time. Planting, weeding, digging, pruning, deadheading, dividing, watering – every task will be done properly and regularly. And I’m going to do them all perfectly. I can see this amazing garden so clearly! Thriving through the seasons, blooming exuberantly and on time, providing fruit and vegetables in abundance, free of pests, weeds and bad weather.

I know at the same time that I’m merely dreaming of the impossible, reaching for the unreachable. Life is never that straightforward. I’ll get in my own way, the weather will not cooperate and the unpredictable will necessarily disrupt plans. The beauty of this is that, no matter what, the garden will still grow and do its best. And as a good learner, so must I.

In that spirit, I’m beginning the year by getting my gardening calendar organized. For years I had a new year’s day ritual of filling out a physical calendar – obviously started in a time before electronic devices. I realized last year, that I missed my old calendar where I could readily see what chores were scheduled every day. I’m unable to say exactly why I feel the need to revert but I am. I’m now armed with all my garden chores and plans listed and scheduled both on the calendar sent by the Nature Conservancy as well as the ones on my laptop and phone.

Some seed packets have arrived and I await a few more. Seed starting pots, trays and medium are ready and waiting. I’d written about acquiring self-watering pots for tomatoes and other veggies – it’s been done! Three of them arrived last week. Later in the week, I’ll home in on other plants to purchase and source and order them from my favorite local or specialist nursery in time for spring planting. Tools will be sharpened, stakes, ties and twine stocked, leaky watering hoses and cans replaced. To be prepared is half the victory.

Indeed, in the beginning, hope and resolve reign.

Note: While we continue in anxiety filled circumstances, let’s remember that we’re all in this together. As we work in the garden, we will dig ourselves out of these times and emerge stronger. But first, lets be there for each other.

I share with you a few of my recent watercolors of seed heads and pods. They are full of promise for a future full of potential, possibilities and prosperity.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

No Challenge, No Change

The final days of a year give pause to reflect and reassess on how we did, what we’ve experienced and learned. The new year is full of expectations and anticipation. We hope it will be the best year yet.

2020 has been a most challenging year. I doubt if there is even a single person who was not had to face some kind of test in the past ten months. At best, it’s been a struggle for most of us. Devastating for many. 2020 has not been easy.

We have had to adjust, change and rethink so much. How we work, live, shop, communicate, entertain and connect to others and the environment. But, we’ve done it – we humans are resilient. We grow from our problems. We adapt.

I’m giving plenty of thought to how I’ve handled 2020. Undoubtedly, my garden got me through. Like everyone else, I’ve dealt with fears, anxiety, confusion, loss, disappointments and setbacks. Through it all, the garden kept me engaged and busy. I was consoled by it’s beauty, comforted by its bounty, kept productive by the many tasks. Somehow, even easy, uncomplicated tasks like watering the plants, managed to calm the mind and lift the spirit.

So much joy was experienced in the garden. Birthdays, graduation, new jobs, small gatherings were celebrated in the midst of flora and fauna. I found time to do the varied chores with attention and appreciation. Equally, there were plenty of opportunities to sit back and enjoy the artistry of the plants. Beguiled by the antics of the numerous birds and butterflies, my resolve to ensure their continued residency in my garden was reaffirmed over and over.

What I’ve learned is that I need to slow down so I can immerse myself in what truly fulfills me. Short changing the garden by giving the tasks limited time or a rushed effort results in shortchanging my own joy and well-being. Devoting a good amount of time taking care of chores, listening to the birds chatter as they go about their own business, inhaling the perfumes of flowers and aromatics, reveling in the beauty of the plants, watching the bees and butterflies making their rounds has kept me in a state of equilibrium at a time when the world seemed to be torn asunder.

As if to reward my attention, the garden was brilliant all through the seasons. It filled cup repeatedly. And I couldn’t get enough. My only regret is that I was unable to share it with everyone. After all, gardens should be shared and lived in.

Reviewing the year, I understand that the garden recognized where I was coming from and comforted me accordingly. It gently revealed to me that I’d been stretching myself too thin, got involved with too many things and how far I’d moved away from my true north. Not any more.

While a good amount of the global challenges from 2020 will carry over into 2021, I feel better about the coping skills I’ve acquired from under the tutelage of the garden. I now have a clearer , cleaner vision for myself. Simplify, streamline and then full steam ahead. In the garden and in life.

From the bottom of my heart I send each of you the warmest of wishes – health, hope and happiness for the New Year. May 2021 bring peace, joy, love and laughter to all.

Note: Looking backwards –

December

November

October

October

September

August

August

August

July

June

May

May

May

April

March

February

January

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Wander To Wonder

But for the odd pot or furniture to put away, the garden has been put to bed. As I gaze out the window slowly sipping my coffee and contemplating the day, it looks very subdued and quiet out there. I’m planning on going into the garden a bit later in the day. Spend some time getting the benefit of the outdoors. Sunshine notwithstanding, it looks cold. I’m tempted to make excuses and stay in. I know that once I’ve made it outside, I’ll be totally fine. It is getting past the inertia that is the hardest.

After a morning of work, I’m ready for a break. I require some diversion to get my mind ready for the next tasks that must be completed. I pull on warm layers kept on the ready, grab my winter gear and step out. The sharp edge of the cold hits me as I squint in the bright sunlight. Right away I feel more awake and my body adjusts to the temperature. It’s not so bad at all.

Instinctively my eyes start surveying the perennial beds on either side of where I stand. I look down at the hellebores left uncut so the emerging buds are protected. Gently lifting a couple of the leaves, I note the tiny buds nestled at the base. In my minds eye, I see the flowers in bloom. Hellebores are so dependable. I cannot have enough of them. The rest of the beds look tidy and flat with the plants cut back. They and the bulbs are nicely tucked away for the winter under a thick layer of mulch. Staring a bit longer, I detect the slightest growth – slender tips spearing through. Crocus or snowdrops awakening way too early? There had been a few days of mild temperatures a couple of weeks ago. Could that have triggered some bulbs? I fervently hope not. There’s not much I can do about it so I tell myself to let it be.

Leaving the front garden, I walk past the vertical garden – a length that looks so devoid of any growth, that one would be hard-pressed to imagine the lush greenery that is a hallmark of this space in the growing season. My heart feels a twinge – I miss the wall garden. It surprises me to realize just how much I love this feature. I wonder if the mosses looking barely present in their dormancy miss their fern companions now ensconced safely in the emptied vegetable bed in the potager.

Standing at the top of the steps that lead down to meadow, I marvel at the filigree of tree branches above. Denuded of leaves, like a loosely knit scarf the patterns trace through the air against the backdrop of a clear blue sky. Below, I become aware of birds hopping around as they forage for food. It’s only in being still that I am able to detect the many sounds in the garden. What at first felt quiet is in reality humming with activity.

The rustle of small creatures in bushes, the scratching of the birds as they avail themselves of worms and scattered seeds, distinct birdsong punctuates the air and I begin to watch the various singers at different locations of the garden. Each time a gust of wind come through, I hear the creak of branches swaying. Airlifted leaves perform balletic dances before settling down again on the ground. The sunlight glancing off the metal sculpture brings into focus the moire pattern on its surface. Reminds me of eddies of water in a stream. I watch a hawk high on a tree of a neighbor’s property – it is feasting on something newly caught. I don’t want to know what its eating. Nearby, I watch a spider hard at work – a web is such a marvel. I wonder if the spider does it instinctively or has some forethought directed the strategy. As an artist, I know both factors come into play when I create.

Before I know it, an hour has passed. My body feels so alive and filled with inspiration. Wandering around the garden, has quieted my mind and prepared it for the work that lies ahead. I return indoors refreshed, relaxed and motivated.

Tomorrow, I will get to do it all over again. The daily gift of Nature.

Note: I’m very pleased to have my series of 6 paintings on “The Women Of India” at the International Art Show Of Raleigh on the Arts Of India. Do please take a look!

Hellebore leaves shielding new growth

Buds peeking through

All bedded down

Up close and personal with dormant mosses

The winter wall garden

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Giving Thanks

For a year replete with so much dissidence and despair, I find myself overcome with gratitude as never before. With Thanksgiving two days away, it is not the meal that is uppermost on my mind but the simple fact that I’m present and accounted for. Everything that has brought me through the months up to this point has my deep, sincere thanks. Every single thing.

Ups and downs, good and bad, sad and happy, birth and death have all been experienced. What a year! As I look back, it’s painful to recall some events but, there have been celebrations as well. If anything, 2020 has exposed the raw reality of life. Nothing glossed over. All the trimmings of how we live have been stripped away to reveal exactly who we are. And that I see is the gift.

The’ pause’ button was pressed and a ‘reset’ was initiated. A new way of living was begun.

To arrive at this realization, I give full credit to the garden. I rediscovered my joy of gardening and paying attention to the lessons it teaches. With so many other plans and projects canceled or postponed, I had no need to rush to be elsewhere. I approached each garden task with the unfettered willingness to do it properly. I even had the luxury of time to take satisfaction in completing each achievement and fully appreciate every chore the garden provided. What I did in all other aspects of my life paralleled what I did in the garden.

As I pruned and cut back wayward branches, I reduced the personal to-do list to only what was essential. Nurturing the plants with a layer of rich, homemade compost directed me to make delicious yet healthy new meals for the family. I took the time to pay mind to the process of creating them. Vegetables, flowers and fruits from the garden were no longer assumed as given; they were admired and prized. I started appreciating my own near and dear ones anew instead of taking them for granted.

Finishing a big task in the garden invariably caused my body to express itself by way of aches and soreness. Rather than complain about the demands of the garden, I noticed how much more energy I had, how my strength had improved and how my mood was uplifted. I took to valuing my physical self instead of grumbling about its decline with each passing year.

In spending more time in the garden, I became acutely aware of the wildlife that enjoyed it with me. Stopping to watch a pair of wrens checking the bird house or a robin foraging for worms to feed its babies, had me breathing deeply and relaxing my muscles. I chuckled at the butterflies and bees vying for a drink from the same flowers. Noting a toad hopping around and then staying completely still once it felt my presence made me stand still as well. A few minutes observing its markings and cuteness instantly put me in a good frame of mind.

I spent many hours watching the birds – right here in my own garden, there are so many different kinds. Over the years, I’d forgotten how pleasurable it is to be in their company. Chipmunks flourished this year – while I was not elated about their presence, I couldn’t help being amused by their antics. A live and let live policy seemed to be good for us all.

All sorts of problems and conundrums got resolved when I weeded and watered. Lines for new poems came to me, I found the correct approach to responding to difficult emails, ideas for gifts or celebrations, resolutions to conflicts, working through worries were some of the personal benefits from these chores. I mourned, adjusted to new circumstances, celebrated, commiserated, vented and worked out dilemmas in the garden. A lot of joy, fears, sorrow, tears, laughter and anger have found expression in this beautiful space.

To garden is to live in hope. That tomorrow will come and it will be bountiful. This, I believe with all my heart.

The more time I had, the more I spent it in simply appreciating the garden. After all the years of being too overwhelmed, I was finally ready to paint my garden. Not simply individual flowers but actual parts of the garden. It was as though I had been liberated. Nay, I had liberated myself. The garden had, very quietly and gently, coaxed me to shed my doubts and uncertainties. I was free to create as I pleased and exactly how I saw it.

I’ve so enjoyed the day by day changes in the garden. I’ve learned as much about myself this year as I have about my garden. It’s an intimate relationship. Together we have grown to be more authentic, articulate and expressive. For which, my gratitude knows no bounds.

I sincerely wish each of you a safe, healthy, meaningful Thanksgiving. It might look and feel different this year but celebrate it we must. Gratitude begets happiness.

Note: Here is a collection of my garden paintings since the pandemic started. I will share the ones done in the autumn (and potentially this winter) another time.

Daffodils

The Light By The Woods

The Embrace

F meleagris

Tree peony

Remembering Spring

The phlox garden

Vertical Garden 1

Vertical Garden 2

A Peek Into The Potager

The Side Path

Nasturtium

Beauty In Passing. Hydrangea

Summer Collapsing Into fall

Amaryllis Social Distancing

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

October, Oh My!

Last week was wild if anything. Full of the unexpected, shocks, surprises and pivots. We are all trying to process the events. It’s made me that much more aware of how fragile life is and how much we need to step back, regroup, reassess and reevaluate the hows, whys and whats of ourselves. It’s an ongoing effort to be and do better.

That’s pretty much the same in the garden. October is an excellent time to consider our gardens. How, why and what we do in them has far reaching effects. Now is the season to divide, remove, plant and reconfigure. Make the garden a haven for all – a place of refuge, relief and reflection. I firmly believe that a garden should mirror ones own personality and philosophy in life.

In my garden this week it’s about beating the retreat. All the tender perennials will start making their way back indoors to the greenhouse, basement or living quarters of the house. The greenhouse has been washed and cleaned. Before the plants get moved to their winter residence, they are clipped and trimmed, washed well to remove dust, debris and any bugs hanging around. It’s a real process and best done with attention and patience. Hygiene matters.

While it is easy to get caught up in the chores, I’m determined to take the time to appreciate the uniquely stunning beauty of October. The last of the summer flowers mingling with autumn blooms, the butterflies and bees making their rounds before long migratory journeys or months of hibernation, leaves turning colors that make the garden glow, strikingly beautiful seed heads and pods revealing future potential and possibilities, harvesting fruits and vegetables sweetened by the crisp chill. Nature offers up gifts all the time but none more varied and bountiful than at this time of year.

Taking the time to pause and absorb the natural beauty all around is unquestionably the best medicine during these particularly turbulent times.

Note: I hope you have registered to vote and have obtained the necessary information and/or materials to vote by mail/ early in person/ on election day.

Here are some images of what I’m enjoying in the garden:

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Projects Positive

In a year rife with crises and challenges, it’s been a struggle to be positive. As I’ve said all along, the garden has singularly kept me hopeful and sane. It is impossible to tend a garden without the trust that tomorrow will be better.

With unexpected time on hand, I’ve been able to contemplate parts of the garden that are being underutilized and need work. These are not necessarily new observations but ones that have been ignored or put off due to lack of time or motivation. This year, the excuses stopped working.

Two areas needed to be addressed and I’ve called them Projects Positive – they move the garden in the right direction and align even more with my values about the environment and sustainability.

The first area needing attention was the very back of the lower garden where the ‘meadow’ dominates. This roughly 7×40 foot space along the property line buffers the meadow from the woods. Over the years, I’d added some native shrubs and an Amalanchier tree but it remained inconsequential. It had no real role to play. To make it worse, the groundcover was pachysandra that had been there for decades and was therefore very thickly established. The very thought of getting it all out had been the reason I let it remain. Until this year.

With Open Day canceled, I was at liberty to tackle spring work that typically would’ve interfered with getting the garden ‘visitor ready’. So, out went the pachysandra. That was really hard work – the growth was tight and thick and the roots ran deep. I had to get the able help of Ephraim our occasional garden assistant.

Following the pachysandra purge, layers of paper and cardboard ( recycling hack) were put down to smother any pachysandra still lurking around. The paper will eventually breakdown and supplement the soil. Over the paper, we laid down landscape fabric to act as a further deterrent.

Pachysandra can be persistent. I’m certain bit and pieces of root remain and will put out growth so vigilance is called for – pull out as soon as they poke out.

Native Chrysogonum virginianum was planted to replace the pachysandra. It seemed like the correct choice of groundcover for this shady area. The yellow flowers should brighten the area next growing season. I’ve also added to the oakleaf hydrangea, Solomon’s seal, bleeding hearts, ferns and dogwood shrubs with several Fothergilla and Ceonothum. In time, the shrubs will grow, fill out the bed to seamlessly join the meadow and provide what I imagine will be a lovely visual tapestry of shapes, hues and texture. Not only will all the plantings attract the native pollinators, Fothergilla flowers have a fragrance which I believe will invite a person (mostly me) to pause a bit at the conveniently provided stone bench and enjoy the garden from this perspective. I want every bit of the garden to matter.

Having completed the plantings, pine bark mulch was spread all over the ground to conceal the black fabric and to keep moisture in. This latter point is important as the ground can get very dry very quickly.

The second project is also in the lower garden. On either side of the path to the greenhouse, there are good sized patches that I’d left without any deliberate plantings. Over the years, they would put on a brilliant spring show of forget-me-nots, dandelions and violas. A beautiful mix of blue, yellow and white. However once that show was over, they become areas of shabbiness. Not wild and engaging. Just messy and unattractive.

I’ve taken my time trying to figure out what to do – something that was different and yet segue ways smoothly into the meadow. This past weekend, after clearing the two areas, 350 plugs of Carex appalachia have been were planted in one and later this week, 450 more will go into the other. The native sedges will be low enough so as to never block the meadow plantings beyond. They will look natural and provide movement. In addition, several types of native butterflies will welcome the presence of their favored food.

A large number of Fritillaria meleagris has been ordered to augment these areas. In my minds eye, I can see the plum colored, checkered flowers bobbing happily over the sedges in the spring. And when the vernal sun casts its gaze, the whole ‘field’ will look ethereal. A fantasy.

Now you see why gardening is full of optimism? It gives us permission to dream.

May all our projects in life be positive.

Note: If, like me, you too have been deeply saddened by the passing of our beloved Notorious RBG, then you must want to continue her work in uplifting people and making matters equal for all. When I elected to support the ACLU by donating 50% of the profits from the Printed Garden products, it was because  of RBG’s work with that organization. I make a fervent appeal to each of you to please join me in carrying on her legacy. Because,’We the people’ should include every single individual.

Project 1:

Project 2: Observe how it all looks pretty in the spring but by early summer (photo 3), the area in the right foreground looks blah.

Flats of sedge

One side all planted up

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

Laborless Days

So much of gardening is seen as a series of plans, lists and chores. Endless chores. And that’s mostly true. But there are ample rewards – life lessons, inspiration, nature therapy, health benefits, food, beauty, sanctuary and a general sense of well-being.

This week, I’m going to do the bare minimum in the garden – watering as needed mostly. The rest of the time, I’m simply going to enjoy being in the garden. No list in hand. I want to hold on to as many memories of enjoying the garden. Once we are sequestered indoors in the winter, those memories will assure me that I took every opportunity to revel in the garden when I could. No regrets.

For now, the myriad chores can wait.

When Does Fall …

When does fall

feel like fall?

When does one stop

dancing at summer’s ball?

Swirling confetti

Brilliant fireworks

Who pauses to see

the season’s perks?

Rushing to clean up

erasing the summer

Readying for winter

planning next year

What would happen

if we could stay

amidst the leaf piles

in endless play?

– Shobha Vanchiswar

The meadow right now –

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

 

 

Creature Comforts

There’s no doubt that I’ve been able to manage my concerns during this pandemic, economic crisis and national unrest because of the garden. Every single one of us has been impacted – some far more than others. How we cope has also been a matter of individual circumstances. To find myself with a garden to tend and enjoy has been nothing short of a blessing. A huge blessing.

Spending time in nature is now a scientifically established prescription for ones wellness and wellbeing. To nurture a garden has the added bonus of taking oneself out of ones own headspace to focus on doing, creating and making something beautiful and healthy. That therapy is priceless.

In having the luxury to spend more time than usual in the garden, I’ve reconnected with it in ways that I’d forgotten. In the early years, everything was new and exciting. I was creating a garden from scratch. The learning itself was exhilarating. As my vision was being realized, my other responsibilities and commitments increased. My leisure time in the garden dropped significantly. The chores got done but it became more about efficiency and completion rather than mindfulness and enjoying the process.

With the mandated ‘pause’, I have once again regained the joy and curiosity that gardening permits. Going forward, I’m determined to keep to a schedule that always provides for more hours in the garden than anywhere else. I’m so much better off that way.

One of the most rewarding benefits of hanging out in the garden is observing the other creatures also hanging out with me. The dance of yellow swallowtail butterflies floating gracefully over the meadow before they alight on their respectively chosen flowers. How quickly the butterfly moves away if a bee or wasp gets close.

There is a pair of ruby throated hummingbirds that frequent the feeder at the potager. If I sit in a particular spot under the pergola, I get a very good view of them sipping. The female makes more visits than the male. I find it even more gratifying when I notice them at the flowers in the garden. That’s why I planted them after all.

Something I haven’t yet been able to fathom is the remarkable attraction the agapanthus has for all the different pollinators. More than the lovely native plants in bloom, the pot with the agapanthus bearing large inflorescences of pretty blue flowers is, at any given time humming with bees, butterflies and hummingbird. I wonder if it is the color that has such a draw. At present, it is the only blue amidst a sea of white, pink, yellow, red and orange. Are cool colors preferred? Definitely needs further investigation.

There has been an overall paucity of butterflies this year. I hope this is due to a cyclical process and not a red flag being raised. Fingers crossed.

With this concern in mind, coming upon a mating pair of Monarch butterflies last week made me delirious with joy. I’m really eager to see their caterpillars maraud the milkweed planted just for them.

Thus far, I’ve come across two garden snakes. An urgent, telepathic request for them to have their fill of all the rodent types scurrying around and causing damage above and underground has been sent. Not sure what can be done with the surplus in chipmunks though. They have taken to behaving as if they rule the place. I simply cannot allow that and yet, I don’t know how to stop them. No nasty chemicals permitted of course. Occasionally, there is a neighbor’s cat that prowls through – I sincerely hope it is paying its passage by culling the mice.

The variety of birds that I spy on a daily basis marks my hours as well spent. This past spring, there have been three nests of robins successfully raised. I’ve also noticed fledglings of cardinals, wrens and blue jays. I know there are gold finches, downy and red bellied woodpeckers residing in the trees because I see them foraging freely in the meadow. A red tailed hawk lives somewhere in the area and paid us a visit earlier in the spring. That was an unusual yet remarkable sight.

To share the garden with them and other creatures is this gardener’s wish come true. Because, for all the effort and time I put into it, nothing would work out if not for their part in it. Though, I could do without their gifts of seeds from other parts – a certain porcelain berry trying to invade the meadow comes to mind. Birds will be birds notwithstanding.

Witnessing these natural interactions reminds me of how all living things are closely connected and responsible for maintaining the health of the environment. Their well-being is my well-being. Life is all about balance.

Black swallowtail

Mating Monarchs

Pollination in action

Hummingbird at the agapanthus

Hummingbird at feeder

Yellow swallowtail

Bee on the milkweed

Cardinal fledgling

Feeding time at the Wrens’

Robin eggs

Feeding time at the Robins’

Red Tail hawk visit

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Name Game

I understand the importance of nomenclature. Names matter. Working in a biological science, it is incumbent on one to know the scientific name of a microbe or any other living subject – so critical to ones understanding. Yet, as a gardener, I have been less than diligent.

This lapse is due to some laziness on my part. While I’m good with knowing the Genus, I haven’t tried very hard on the species or variety. If I know them, it is really because it came to me without effort. But for a large number of plants, I tend to rely on my archive of plant labels to recall the exact type. I know, that is inexcusable.

The other reason is that all too often, we gardeners use common and botanical names interchangeably. Common names are fine as long as one restricts their use regionally. The colloquial titles can change across the country. I like common names of plants because they’re typically on point in description as in ‘coneflower’ or ‘lady’s mantle’ or, in purpose/usage as in ‘bee balm’ or ‘butterfly weed’. Either way, they are easy to identify. Frankly, common names are charming and often amusing.

Fun fact: Sometimes, the common names of herbs are downright macabre. According to author Sabrina Jeffries, this was so herbalists and healers could conceal their recipes for medicinal potions and lotions from their clients. For example, ‘eye of newt’ as in the witches brew in Macbeth, is actually mustard seed! Similarly, ‘toe of frog’ is buttercup and ‘tooth of wolf’ is monkshood. By giving ominous titles, a mystery or secret was maintained.

Botanical labels are more tricky. While still mostly descriptive, they are generally in Latin or Greek. So unless one is, at the very least, passingly fluent in them and can therefore interpret the names, it means the scientific designations must be memorized. Easier said than done.

Once out of the regional area, the easiest way to speak with other gardeners is by way of the proper names of plants. All over the world, this is the agency of communication. After all, botany is a science. That fact is often overlooked because unlike other sciences that require work in laboratories and under specific conditions and procedures, gardening is possible anywhere and by just about anybody. The garden itself is perhaps the oldest laboratory. Humans have been working the soil from time immemorial. We learned what worked and what didn’t as we went along. And we labeled the plants as we saw fit. Until Linnaeus came along and created order in the chaos of common names. Thank goodness.

As I pottered around my garden over the past weekend, I was appalled over how few of the species names I remembered. It’s mostly because I’ve simply not taken the trouble to commit them to memory. ‘If I can look it up, why bother memorizing?’ Well, the truth is, I don’t often look up the entire names unless I have to. This is despite the fact that I’ve long admired my gardener friends and mentors who not only use only the scientific names but also remember them without effort. Some of these friends are my seniors by several years if not a decade or two. So age is not an excuse I can make for my ignorance or forgetfulness.

I’m resolved to do better. Just like it is not cool to say one is bad at remembering names of people, it is equally uncool to ignore plant names. No buts about it. As a gardener worth my soil, I pledge to step up my game. It’ll be a process as I’m still a work in progress. But then, so is my garden.

Note: Don’t miss out on contributing to the ACLU whilst acquiring something beautiful for your home or somebody else’s! Stock is limited. Your support is needed. Thank you!

Some flowers currently in bloom:

Echinacea purpurea/purple coneflower with yellow swallowtail

Agapanthus/Lily Of The Nile with yellowswallowtail

Helenium autumnale/sneezeweed

Monarda fistulis/wild bergamot

Lobelia cardinalis/Cardinal flower

Asclepias incarnata/Rose milkweed

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar