Thought For Food

A significant upside to the lock-down is that more people are gardening. This makes me so happy. Of all the things one could resort to during this uncertain, scary time, gardening is perhaps one of the best activities to do. You and I both know all the benefits so I shall not reiterate them but for myself, working in my garden has been my salvation.

Vegetable gardening is what most have taken up. There is something fundamental and inherent about that. Historically, how and what we eat dictates how well we survive. In good times and bad. An unprecedented crisis such as this pandemic had us naturally look to our basic need. Subconsciously, food is always ( okay, maybe mostly) on our minds. This threat, being a challenge to our health got us to think about keeping us in good, robust condition. Growing and preparing owns own food is the obvious solution. It gives one a sense of taking charge and doing something positive. All good I say. It reminds me of the Victory gardens that proliferated during WW II.

While seed companies were suddenly faced with a run on their stock, people were (re-)discovering the joys of gardening. Friends living in tiny city apartments were growing herbs, radish and tomatoes on their window-sills and balconies. Some have been training peas and beans around their windows. A quick search on the Internet reveals a plethora of innovations for apartment gardening. I’m quite blown away by what cool stuff is available.

Others who already had a yard, have gotten busy making all manner of vegetable gardens. Raised beds, French potagers, English kitchen gardens, vegetables ‘plots’ solely comprised of pots – it’s been exciting to learn of all the activity. Even better, swathes of lawn have been turned over to rows of vegetable plants, pollinators have been encouraged with the addition of native flowering plants, organic practices have been adopted, composting has become routine – my goodness! We are already doing better.

I myself upped my veggie game this year. For the first time, I started growing peas and micro-greens, increased the number of tomato and zucchini plants and added more herbs. In the fruit department, a long desired persimmon tree joined the apple, pear and fig trees already in residence. FYI – While we get a nice amount of produce, the garden in no way covers all our vegetable needs as we follow a mostly plant based diet.

More significantly for me, I widened the usage of the plants and have been trying new recipes. The repertoire of family meals has grown substantially and we’re thoroughly enjoying the experience. I suspect that we have each become even more particular about where and what we select when we eventually dine out. The bar has been raised.

The CSA ( Community Supported Agriculture) Co-Op I belong to started up their 2020 weekly deliveries a couple of weeks ago. It’s a joy to get the produce from a local farm instead of the supermarket. And we’re continuing to try new recipes.

I’ve received several recipe requests so I thought I’d share a couple of old, tried and true family recipes as well as a couple of new ones that I’ve tried recently..

Cilantro Chutney – Most people think of chutneys as a sweet-salty-spicy mix but in Indian cooking, chutneys are not always sweet. This one is not sweet but is great on sandwiches, brushed on roasted vegetables, meats, fish and anything needing a little oomph.

This recipe is from my mother-in-law who was a highly gifted cook.

Jaya Mani’s Cilantro Chutney

1.

2 T oil

2 T urad dal (white lentil)

1 T fenugreek seeds  — optional

1 pinch hing (asofoetida powder)  — optional

1 large dry red chilli

 (2)

1 t black mustard

 (3)

1 medium bunch cilantro washed and drained (including stems)

Salt to taste

Fry (1) together until lentils are toasted – light brown. Strain but save the oil. Add strained mixture (1) to blender. Add (3), some water and grind to a paste. Remove chutney paste from blender. Add (2) to drained oil and fry until mustard starts to pop. Add (2) to chutney  and mix well. Use within 2-3 days or freeze.

 Suggested servings:

  • Sandwiches with thinly sliced white bread, butter, chutney, thinly sliced coriander

  • Chutney with cooked  rice

  • Chapati/paratha roll with scrambled egg and chutney

  • Crackers, chutney and cheese

Rose geranium syrup over roasted figs – This combines two things from my garden. It’s a very simple but elegant dish. Add a few rose-geranium leaves when making a sugar syrup. Once the syrup has cooked down to desired thickness, remove the leaves. Let cool.

Roast figs – Cut fresh figs in half and arrange cut side up on a baking sheet. Drizzle some extra-virgin oil over them. Roast in oven at 425 degrees for 10 minutes or until they bubble.

Serve figs with syrup dribbled over them. Add a dollop of plain Greek yogurt on the side. You feel healthy that way. To up the ante, decorate the plate with a few rose-geranium flowers.

Strawberry-Basil Ice Cream – When I came across this recipe, I was intrigued. Basil in a dessert! It is delicious and so refreshing.

Ribs with rhubarb glaze and radish-rhubarb salad – I wanted to use rhubarb in more than the usual crisp or compote. This recipe from Bon Appetit turned out well.

Strawberry-basil ice cream

Khao Soi by @miravanchiswar Recipe from dear friend @sonal.nair. Cilantro from the garden

Basil pesto

Dolma using leaves from my Concord grapevine by @muralimani

Sandwiches using the cilantro chutney

Rhubarb cake

Chive quiche @miravanchiswar

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Kind Of Hush

It was an important week. My daughter graduated college – a virtual ceremony. No pomp nor circumstance but to be fair, given present state of affairs, it was as good as it could get. One can feel bad about what the fresh graduates have missed but lets face it – this is a historic time and they now have stories to relate that will outmatch previous generations!

Then, there was not only the summer solstice but a total solar eclipse to go with it. While we don’t ourselves have anything to do with the phenomenon, it just feels like the earth and it’s principle star have been busy. Quietly.

In all honesty, I’ve really appreciated the quiet that has resulted in the lockdown. The lack of vehicular traffic heightened our awareness of the sounds of nature. The birds didn’t get louder, they could be heard better. Likewise the peepers, the bees, even the breeze rustling through the leaves. With less outside distractions, I’ve observed the sounds, activities, colors and smells in the garden. It’s been nurturing, inspiring, healing and grounding. A gift.

At this time of year, another sort of quiet creeps into the garden. A lull of sorts. The spring hoopla slows down and the summer soirée is yet to begin. The garden right now is mostly shades of green punctuated with the hues of minor players like cranesbill geraniums, evening primrose, yarrow, borage, woodland anemone and such. One could see this as poor planning on my part. I should think about adding more late June flowering plants. On the other hand, I’m happy giving attention to these less flashy members of the garden. They are so valuable in serving the pollinators. Plus, as an artist, I’m able to admire their forms more closely. They’re easy to overlook when the roses and peonies dominate.

The summer asks for none of the frenzied work that spring demands. From now on, it’s all maintenance – deadheading, weeding, feeding and watering. On each day of the week, one of those tasks is tackled – Weeding Wednesday, Feeding Friday, Trimming Tuesday, Thirsty Thursday, Mowing Monday. You get the idea. The days settle into a comfortable rhythm. There’s time to simply enjoy the garden because doing the daily tasks regularly means I’m not spending long hours doing them. After all, Summer is for Sitting Back. Am I right?

Meanwhile, the first peas have been consumed right off the plants. Two batches of basil pesto made last week sit in the freezer in anticipation of winter meals. A third batch has already contributed to a delightful pasta dinner. The Mojito mint has been called into service and I’m thoroughly enjoying fresh cilantro, rosemary, thyme and oregano sparking up our meals. The lettuce and Swiss chard are also being harvested regularly. All of which contributes to a sense of quiet satisfaction.

No doubt about it. There’s a kind of hush. All over my world.

 

Tomato flowers

Washed basil

Pesto

 

Peas

Stevia for sweetening tea

Cilantro for chutney

Mojito mint

Herb ‘wall’

Yarrow

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

This Land

Last Sunday, June 14 was Flag Day. I decided to get in the spirit. It wasn’t a spontaneous decision – I’d had red, white and blue on my mind for some days. Remember when I mentioned that I’d harvested all the spent alliums? It was done primarily to give the bulbs the opportunity to fatten up for next year but the allium stems and their spherical umbels have a sculptural presence even in senescence. So, re-purposing them seemed a natural thing to do. Simply by themselves they look rather good in a vase but to me, they resemble sparklers and star bursts. Given the pandemic restrictions and the desire to have something fun to do, I got the family involved in ‘painting’ a good number of allium heads red, white and blue. When the paint had dried, they got topped with a coat of glow-in-the-dark paint.

The allium sculpture now placed in the front walkway in plain view of passersby and from inside the house is cause to smile and be reminded that it is summer – Fourth of July, picnics and fireworks. At nightfall, they do glow! FYI – I bring it indoors if rain is expected.

This whimsical project has pleased me more than you’d think.

The remaining half of the alliums will be coated gold for the holidays in December. Yes, I’m planning well ahead. Why ever not! Gardeners are nothing if not optimists.

While the big show in the garden is dominated by peonies and roses right now, I’m more enchanted with the native plants that are starting to make their presence felt. The native wisteria comes into bloom in mid-June – not as splashy or fragrant as its Asian counterparts, it blooms after leafing out. I appreciate the timing as there’s something so lovely about the green and purple display scrambling over the pergola. It’s also generally warm enough by this time for al fresco meals – can you imagine a prettier setting? The native wisteria will put out a second flush of blooms later in summer as though rewarding the gardener for taking a chance and giving it a home.

In the meadow, the allium have passed the baton to the native plants. The columbines, geums and zizia kept the alliums company but now, the geranium, woodland anemone and ornamental raspberry are taking over. It’s all less dramatic than the the bulbs but there’s a quiet comfort in observing nature in action in the meadow. The swallowtail and silver spotted skipper butterflies have been dancing madly all over the plants. The bees have gone into high gear – the hum can be loud! I watch numerous birds picking up meals for their young all day long – it must be far more exhausting to be an avian parent than a human one.

I’ve occasionally seen a garden snake in the meadow. While it is harmless, I’m always a bit skittish when Severus slithers along. Still, I wish him well – eat all the rodents please!

Its hugely exciting to see the oakleaf hydrangea covered in emerging inflorescences. Likewise, the turtleheads, cardinal flowers, Echinacea, Monarda, milkweed and other summer bloomers. With them will come more butterflies and activity. This is not only exciting, it’s also gratifying. These are all flora and fauna that belong here. This land belongs to them. I am merely the privileged steward.

Note: I am thrilled to share two things – first, each weekk, the Garden Conservancy is including news from my garden in their In My Garden – a visual diary series. If you are a GC member, it’ll be showing up in your email  in-box each week. If you are not a member, I highly recommend that you remedy that! Until such time, you can see it here.

The other news is that this is the Garden Conservancy’s 25th anniversary of the their Open Days Program. Accompanying their Annual Report, is a companion book #OpenDays25 in which, I am one of the 25 featured gardeners. I am truly honored to be in some very illustrious company! The book is full of wonderful images by the super-talented Christine Ashburn, @christine_ashburn_photography. I hope you will check out her work as well as the book when it comes out very soon this month. I’m presenting my ‘profile’ below.

Allium fireworks!

Silver spotted skippers visiting native wisteria

Geum

Woodland anemone

Ornamental raspberry

Cranesbill geranium

Intersectional peony whose name eludes me

R.leda

David Austin R. ‘Boscobel’

David Austin R. ‘ Strawberry Hills’

Bonica rose

R. New Dawn

An oakleaf hydrangea in bud

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

 

Masterclass

Growth is a process. Every gardener understands this. Yet, applying that to life outside the garden is not always easy. We know it takes not only time to grow from seed to plant to flower to fruit but there is need of the right conditions – temperature, light, nutrients, pollinators, good health, space. Nothing happens all by itself. A network of ‘helpers’ make growth possible.

When I say that the garden offers me an escape, a place of solace, it isn’t that it becomes somewhere to pretend that all is well. Instead, it is where I go to get away from the noise that drowns out the music. As I go about tending to my plants, I observe, I think, I listen, I learn. The garden is full of lessons and ideas.

Right off, an examination of a garden reveals that diversity is key. Shapes, colors, textures and, fragrances from diverse sources come together to create beauty. Every plant has a part to play. There are no insignificant roles. While some players might have loud/large visibility, they could not shine without the less obvious ones propping them up.

The sweet-peas have put out their first flowers. I’m looking forward to harvest time already! Their delicate tendrils stretching and reaching along the string tell me that we all need support to make progress, reach our goals.

The native wisteria over the pergola is in bloom. It flowers later than its Asian counterparts and the racemes are much shorter. I appreciate the timing because I’m invariably so overwhelmed by May’s full on blast of blooms that I’m not duly appreciative of the individual beauty of each type of flower. Besides, there’s also a lot of garden work to do at that time. The shorter racemes may not be as dramatic as the longer ones but they are still lovely and, they show up twice. So there. Being different is just fine. An asset even.

Watching the birds, butterflies and bees is better than anything on television. That by itself is an astounding feat. However, they make a couple of important points. First, all of life is interdependent. Across species and genus. We need each other.

Second, no matter who or what one is, our goals are universal – survival and providing for family and community. We have more in common than we think.

It’s fundamental. By striving to be my best self, I am able to connect with the world with empathy, understanding and purpose. But, just as I know from gardening, the garden is never done. There is always plenty of work to do. Growth. It’s a process.

David Austin’s R. boscobel

Native wisteria

Brugamansia

Baby robins

Native wisteria

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Justly June

My heart is heavy. The pain, sadness, frustration and anger within feels constant. I’m trying my best to only focus on love and peace. In thoughts, words and action.

This past week, the garden took on even greater importance – it was the only place where I could get totally immersed in the chores, the beauty and horticultural goings on. A productive, satisfying escape. True, as all escapes go, this too doesn’t solve any current problem. It does however, keep me sane, physically active, breathing in fresh air, catching some sunshine and, gives me the satisfaction of getting required work done. I get to process thoughts, relieve pent up frustrations ( yanking out weeds!) and create some order in what feels like a completely chaotic world.

The few days of muggy, warm weather put paid to the tulips. I was sorry to see them go. However, the irises have begun dancing gracefully through the beds. Soon, the baptisia will spray blue spikes to vie with the starry amsonia that seem to have got a bit of a head start. Peonies and roses are just beginning to open and the anticipation to see their frilly fullness is keeping me in a good place.

Regular deadheading, weeding and watering have become the norm for the rest of the growing season. It’s comforting to be in that rhythm. The summer window-boxes are filling out out nicely lending charm and cheer. We’ve been harvesting micro-greens, other leafy vegetables and herbs for our meals – is it just my imagination or does the food taste better when its cooked with homegrown produce?!

The topiaries and boxwood balls got a proper haircut over the weekend. Given the present state of my own hair, they have given me a serious case of jealousy. The next time the plants receive a trimming will be just before they are returned to the greenhouse for the winter. By which time, I too ( hopefully) should be looking well groomed.

I’m loving the progressive greening of the vertical garden. Ferns unfurling their fronds, heuchera getting husky and mosses mapping out the green background. It’s like watching art in progress.

The big task that got done over the weekend was at the far back of the garden. If you recall, it’s an area that borders the west-northwest end of the meadow, right next to the woods. A couple of weeks ago, as much of the ancient pachysandra that could be pulled out was and the stubborn rest smothered with cardboard and landscape fabric. On Sunday, plugs of Chrysogonum virginianum were planted in for groundcover. Their yellow flowers should brighten up this semi-shady area. Dwarf Fothergilla shrubs were added to the existing oakleaf hydrangea and native dogwoods. A couple more oakleafs as well as a few Ceanothos americanus will round out the plantings. This project would never have taken off if it were not for the fact that we are in a state of Pause. There was simply no excuse to put it off. This time next year, when the area is brightened in yellow from the ground and the white Fothergilla flowers are wafting their fragrance, I shall remind myself to be thankful for this time.

I cannot wave a wand and make our present troubles disappear. But, I can certainly do my part in restoring some native beauty to our natural landscape, spread some optimism and possibly, just possibly emerge a stronger, better person myself.

After tackling the pachysandra and before new plantings

Another before

After the plantings. Few more shrubs yet to come!

New groundcover of golden star. The silver maple near by has shed tons of seeds. We’re letting the squirrels have their fill before we clear it all up!

The meadow right now.

Topiaries post haircut.

The vertical garden greening up.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Work In Progress

A week of the big push in the garden. That means getting the last of the big chores going before settling into a rhythm of general maintenance. Weeding started in earnest – a couple of days a week, I go around the whole garden looking for the thugs. That helps me stay on top of them. Deadheading regularly keeps things tidy and checks the promiscuous from self-seeding recklessly, In some cases, it encourages repeat flowering. At present, it’s the spent daffodils that are getting lopped off so the remaining leaves can do their job of fattening up the bulbs for next year. As the early tulips finish up, I deadhead them to keep things neat even though I treat tulips like annuals. I prefer not to disturb the beds by pulling them out all together. Besides, sometimes they do condescend make a comeback.

Veggies and herbs are all planted. As are several perennials. Some annuals like cleomes and cosmos were re-introduced into the garden. My daughter recalled that when she was little, we had a ‘jungle’ of cleomes and sunflowers along the side-path that made it feel exciting and magical. Now that she’s home for the foreseeable future, I thought it might be fun to do it again. We chose a different location but I let her do the planting. Any which way she liked. Sunflowers to be added very soon. It’s always a good thing to bring back happy memories and create new ones.

The garden is now pretty much set for the season. The biggest chore we decided to undertake ( because right now, there is no excuse), was to get the far end of the garden into better shape. This area has had pachysandra as a groundcover for decades. Long before we got here. So, we’re talking a really well established patch. It had given the shrubs in its midst a hard time, encroached into the ‘meadow’ and, smothered out smaller plants. It was time to smother it out in turn.

Back breaking work it was and as much as possible was dug up. Over the now bare areas of soil, we put down layers of paper ( brown paper shopping bags and flattened cardboard boxes saved for the purpose), over-layered by breathable landscaping fabric. This should asphyxiate any remaining pachysandra and other weeds. A native groundcover like goldenstar ( Chyrysogonum virginianum) will take its place. I chose this groundcover because I think its yellow flowers will brighten the dark area and bring attention to the bigger plantings. In the fall, other native shrubs will join the oakleaf hydrangea, American holly and shrub dogwoods and Amelanchier tree already there. I’d do it now but my selections are out of stock everywhere! Not because they are so popular but because nursery stocks are low in general. Darn virus!

The simple, stone bench that sits at the front edge of this area is once again accessible and I plan to keep it that way. From this bench, it is possible to merge oneself with the meadow, observe the goings on of the pollinators, listen to the birds gossip and take a wellness moment to recharge with a healthy session of nature therapy.

Without this period of Pause, I doubt this project would’ve been undertaken. The usual excuses of lack of time would’ve been made instead. Using the current situation to improve the garden has been a blessing.

What lies ahead in the months to come is unknown. The future of practically everything is uncertain. All we have is now – to work on ourselves, our gardens, our homes and our relationships. I don’t want to waste this opportunity.

Note: Last Saturday, May 16 should’ve been our Open Day. The garden truly looked lovely and I was so sorry not to share it with anyone. Here are a few photos:

Project Pachysandra underway! Note the bench.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Rain, Snow, Sunshine And Storm

We saw it all this past week. Bizarre, beautiful and bewildering weather. It was as though we were witness to a highly compressed video of the four seasons. What gives? As if the pandemic was not enough. I did a great deal of worrying all week.

The rain itself was not a problem but then, it got windy. Really windy. Tipped over pots that had never been affected before. With the soil getting so saturated with water, I fretted over seedlings in the vegetable patch getting wobbly and possibly drowning. Thankfully that did not happen but a few new worry lines have shown up on my face.

Then, we had a couple of dry days with strong wind. And sunshine. Well, that completely dried up the soil in no time so we had to water everything. Crazy no?

On one day it was almost perfect. Sunny, pleasant and totally misleading. That night, temperatures plummeted. We were back in winter and scrambled to bring some tender plants back into the greenhouse they’d vacated just last weekend. The smaller pots were all we could shelter. The big ones were too heavy to move in a hurry.

The next day it remained super cold. And poured rain for hours. At night, it snowed. Not much but enough to coat the cars. Thankfully, the snow melted as the sun rose but the temperature was still twenty degrees below normal. Go figure.

Later that same day, we experienced two squalls. Two. Snow gusted and swirled. It got dark. About twenty minutes later, all was calm and bright. The sun shone as though nothing untoward had occurred.

All this took place in a span of six days! On Sunday, we were finally blessed with a beautiful day. The pots of plants taking refuge in the greenhouse found their posts in the garden and we tethered and propped everything that had been pushed around by the wind. Not going to take chances anymore – this could be an ongoing trend in the weather. Who knows.

Making good use of the reprieve in the weather, much weeding was done. It is impressive how hardy weeds can be. Two roses were dug up and relocated. These roses were the offspring of a rose given to me by a friend. It reproduced all by itself i.e. with no help from me. I’m guessing that’s why the friend was giving away that rose rather generously. When I first saw the progeny coming up near the parent, I was delighted. But they grew fast and encroached other plants aggressively. They had to be moved. I’m going to keep a sharp eye on these roses – no more surprise babies.

Speaking of babies, my biggest source of stress during what was a trying week in the garden, was the nest of three robin babies in the wall pot by the front door. I’ve been keeping an eye on them throughout and posting photos here and on my Instagram account (@seedsofdesignllc and @shobhavanchiswar). Watching the parents care for their little ones who are growing fast has been so enjoyable. But with temperatures dropping so low, winds picking up and, snow coming down, I was totally afraid for the safety of the baby robins. Would the parents be able to keep them warm and dry when they themselves were cold? I was consumed with concern.

I expressed a desire to set up a heater in the front porch but that got shot down by the family. Mostly because we do not even have an outdoor heater. However, I didn’t much care for the lecture on how this is nature at work and I cannot go around playing God. Who says?

Of course, I know how Nature operates and the circle of life yada, yada. I worry about my garden plants and critters anyway. They are each in my care after all. But, at this particular time when we know so little about the powerful virus and are trying so hard to stay well and positive, the fact that we actually have very little control is not lost on me. Hence, tending the garden is a way of staying creative, productive, active and optimistic. Any threat to this source of therapy is distressing. All and any support and kindness from the weather-gods would be much appreciated. Is that too much to ask?

As I went about grumbling about such matters yesterday, I was also dealing with the small odd jobs in the garden. In the process, I started to relax. The sheer beauty of the flowers in bloom, the melody of bird song and the energy of life all around was having their unfailing impact on my entire being. I was now paying attention to what the garden was saying to me. The baby birds had pulled through the cold nights, the veggie plot was looking just fine, plants deemed tender had survived nicely – they had all weathered the storm so to speak. Not because of my worrying and stressing but because they applied their deep seated natural instincts. The plants bent and swayed and let the wind flow through, the robin parents instinctively did what they could to keep their young ones warm. They were all doing whatever they were capable of doing. Sure there was no guarantee of survival but each living thing was using its inherent capacities to that end. We rise above and despite the fear. That is all we can do.

Apple blossom

wall garden waking up

Alliums getting ready …

White forget-me-nots have joined the blue!

Bleeding hearts

In the ‘meadow’

Robin babies

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Slow Gardening

These uncommon days have brought me to a rediscovering of the pleasures of fundamental garden work. As I mentioned last week, I, along with so many across the country (world maybe?), are getting back to basics. Seed sowing, root cuttings, composting, growing vegetables etc., It isn’t that I stopped doing any of that but now, I’m once again taking the right amount of time to do those tasks with attention, appreciation and anticipation.

Over the past dozen years or so, I’d gotten into the habit of accomplishing the tasks with a sense of urgency. Admittedly, there was the pressure of getting the garden ready for Open Day by mid-May but, that was only part of the story. So many other commitments and projects had been taken on that I was spreading myself too thin. This year, under unforeseen circumstances, I find myself doing exactly the same chores but with a renewed energy and spirit of purpose. Once more, I’m having fun sowing seeds, eagerly checking daily to see if they’ve sprouted even though I know the typical amount of days it takes to germinate.

This past weekend, the pea shoots were transplanted to the potager. I had not sown peas in years because I really felt I hadn’t the real estate to set up a trellis for them. And I didn’t want to spend the time to do so. Well, all of a sudden, I knew exactly where to plant the seedlings. Along the edge of a potager bed that borders the pergola, seven pea plants were planted. To guide them in their climb, strings were strung from the top of the pergola down to each baby seedling. Like a 7 fretted instrument, it waits for the plants to start ‘plucking’ the strings and create sweet music. As the peas grow, they will provide some welcome shade at lunchtime gatherings at the pergola. By the time the whole potager is in full growth and the wisteria ( native variety so it blooms later) on the structure is fully leafed out, the peas will be done and that ‘window’ will once again be opened up to enjoy the view of the potager. Why didn’t this idea occur to me before? Because I hadn’t paused long enough to let the garden reveal the solution to me.

I’ve also started a project of growing micro-greens. It began with a large shallow pot of peas whose shoots add a seasonal something to salads and the occasional egg salad sandwich. As soon as I obtain the seeds, broccoli shoots are going to join this project. Since the lockdown is about staying healthy, micro-greens are a good thing to bring to the dining table – they are chock full of nutrients and very easy to grow. A nice rhythm of succession planting is the plan.

I didn’t get to start the root cuttings as intended last week. Between bad weather and other garden work, that got postponed – to hopefully sometime later this week. Instead, I divided some tiarella to make several new additions to the vertical garden. Herbs got re-potted and put up on the herb ‘wall’ in the potager. Nasturtium seeds started in the greenhouse were ready for transplant – they are now underplanted in the large pots that hold the bay standards. The citrus hued flowers should look lovely spilling over the pots.

I find myself short on pots – another reason I did not do the propagation from cuttings task. By setting up all those pots with daffodils and pansies to cheer up passers-by, there aren’t enough pots for much else! The current stay-home situation has forced me to reconsider the number of trips I make to any place. One makes do with what is at hand. Or do without all together. This week, I shall make one precious foray to my local nursery. Cannot wait!

Gardening these days is so mindful and sensory. I’m taking the time to smell the earth and how it feels in my hands as I dig and plant. The aroma of geosmine that we associate with spring is so life affirming.

As I carefully wash the soil off the roots of plants for the vertical garden, I marvel at the exquisite pale roots and how strong they are despite their delicate appearance. Nature is genius.

A regular distraction is following the goings on of the avian real estate market. One afternoon, we watched a turf battle between cat birds and crows, another time, we observed a pair of cardinals touring the garden checking out suitable sites for building a home. I really hope my garden came through – as such rejections are taken very personally. The hummingbird feeder is up but I think it is still a bit too chilly for those tiny friends. The robins that built a nest in the pot on the wall by the front door, get all irate when we step out or linger on the porch. So we are limiting our passage through that door and my time on the porch is restricted to watering the various pots there. At which point, I take advantage to quickly check the status of the eggs.

These days, I’m not nearly as efficient each time I work in the garden. Diversions not withstanding, the tasks are nevertheless getting accomplished. The garden is coming along just fine. And I’m so much more relaxed and fulfilled. As we know, slow and steady … I’m re-learning. This time around, I’m a better, more mature student. I think.

Note: Mother’s Day is less than two weeks away. For lovely gift selections – take a look at botanical notecards and soft furnishings for the home. All images are from my original watercolors. Original artwork is also available at Gallery. All profits go to support HIV/AIDS orphan girls’ education. Your support means everything to this cause. Thank you!

The herb ‘wall’. Soon, the A/C unit behind will be hidden by the growing plants.

The plant waste headed for the compost pile looks like abstract art

Note the strings!

Another view of the pea trellis

Note the pea shoots planted at the base .

The ‘meadow’ getting set to burst into a floral chorus

Leucojum

Two-toned muscari

Snakeshead fritillaria in a sea of forget-me-nots

Two types of fritillaria

See the robin keeping watch from the nest behind the pansies?

Pea shoot micro-greens

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Back To Basics

Time spent in the garden has never felt more correct than right now. It is where I feel alive, useful and comforted. It is where I instinctively want to be. I’m relishing the gift of time to work in it unfettered by busy agendas and outside commitments. More than anything, I’m deeply grateful for having a garden in the first place.

As a big city girl, it was a dream come true to have a place to garden – that was 28 years ago. All too quickly, the garden became such an integral part of my life that I just took it for granted. These days, I’m acutely aware of what a privilege it is to have a piece of land to call ones own. With everyone doing their part in staying home, the inherent human need to connect to nature is not always possible for many. With several parks and public gardens closed due to the current crisis, those that are still open are getting unprecedented numbers of visitors. I worry that they too might have to be shut down if folks don’t observe distancing rules.

I’m enjoying walks whenever possible. Good weather and fewer crowds determine those opportunities. But, I always have the garden to provide immediate and consistent relief. That is a blessing I don’t think I’ll take for granted ever again.

It is not surprising that people have instinctively sought the outdoors – we are part of the natural world after all. The healing, soothing, uplifting effect of time spent in nature is both anecdotal and empirical. Even more interesting at present, is how we are rediscovering fundamental practices that we had somewhat forgotten or moved away from.

One of the first items to fly off grocery store shelves was flour and active dry yeast. All of a sudden, America is baking bread at home. Even now, more than a month after we all began staying home, flour is not easy to come by. Apparently, we Americans are actually enjoying baking our bread. Interesting no? Something that demands time and effort was one of the first items we sought to make. We see bread as a staple, a basic food. The same with pasta – more people are making their own but not quite at the same level as bread. I personally find it amusing that cooking rice is daunting to many. Something so ridiculously easy is viewed with trepidation. Yet, here we are. Mind you, I think it is terrific that homemade bread is on the rise; I’m just puzzled that it is one of the first things to be undertaken. There is no actual bread shortage in the country.

Simultaneously, everyone is into vegetable gardening, Apartment dwellers are growing tomatoes, herbs and such in pots and under gro-lights/ on balconies. Those with some property are making vegetable plots or potting up a range of vegetable plants. People are starting from scratch – seed sales have risen so dramatically that some seed companies have had to start directing their seeds to only commercial growers.

From what I’ve heard, for the most part, seeds are being sown not in fancy seed starter kits but in old tin cans, the cardboard cylinders from paper rolls, newspaper molded into pots etc., Sustainability! These are very good developments. Healthy for humans and the planet.

I have a feeling we are each growing the vegetables that hark back to our ethnic roots or childhood cuisine. We are seeking comfort in the familiar. Trying to relive fond memories of (perhaps) less complicated times.

I myself, have seeds sprouting in my tiny greenhouse and no matter how many years one has sowed seeds, the thrill of seeing new growth never gets old. I’m also getting ready to take cuttings to root them on to get more plants. Geraniums, rosemary, heuchera, bay, myrtle to mention a few. I might even give boxwood a try.

Yes, it is back to basics these days. Sowing seeds, growing ones own food, rooting cuttings, making fertilizer such as comfrey tea ( I hear rhubarb leaves work just as well) and composting are seeing an epic revival all across the country, In advance of harvest time, I’ve already corralled all the necessities for canning – jams, sauces, pickles, chutneys and pestos to stock the larder. Secateurs and the blade of the manual, push reel mower have been sharpened. Stakes, twine and trowel sit ready.

Homesteading is back in style.

Note: My garden is still primarily a flower garden so, while I’m going about dealing with the veggies and herbs for the year, I’m thoroughly enjoying the early bulbs bursting forth on a daily basis. Seeing the new growth of perennials is always exciting and reassuring. I also have a couple of fun projects I’m working on – more on those when I develop them further along. Stay tuned!

In the garden this week:

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Days Of Quarantine And Daffodils

These are strange unfamiliar. Sequestering at home lends a surreal quality to our days. Some days, nothing seems to be happening and at other times, particularly after watching/reading the news, too much is happening. Mostly, it is unsettling, anxiety ridden, heartbreaking and confusing. Those are a lot of emotions in play. It can be too much for the human heart to bear.

To offset the negative reports, the media inserts the feel good stories. Challenging times reveal heroes in our midst. Ordinary people do extraordinary things to help their community, their nation, the world. We need to know about them because it serves to teach us about ourselves. Hearing one good story makes us ask ourselves what we can do, what we are capable of doing, how far are we willing to go for the cause. The opportunity to grow and stretch is wide open.

Working in the garden these days has been my salvation – far from the madding crowd. It has also given me time to think about the times we’re in, how we’re coping and, most importantly, what are we learning from this. After all, one day, when we emerge ( and we shall) from this dark place, it is imperative that we as a people have changed for the better. I read recently, that after all this is over, what will have mattered is how we treated each other.

Amongst the myriad uplifting stories of people helping people, one in particular recently caught my attention and my heart. As a gardener, it was inevitable that it had such huge appeal and the source was my most favorite garden.

More than a week ago, whilst watching the morning news in a distracted sort of manner, I was suddenly captivated by images of daffodils cascading down a hillside. Hundreds and hundreds of yellow trumpets calling my attention. The place looked familiar and I heard the newscaster say it was Untermyer Gardens – of course! Over the past few years, they’ve been adding scores of daffodils to the hill. This year was its splashiest, happiest display to date. Sadly, in the current situation, nobody was going to see it for real. The images I saw were stunning. Oh! To actually be there!

Turns out, Stephen Byrnes ( president of the Untermyer Garden Conservancy) was thinking along the same lines. It would be such a shame to have all those flowers fade away without giving pleasure to others. In short order, Steve put together a plan – with the help of a very limited number of volunteers (social distancing in practice), all the daffodils were harvested and distributed to several area hospitals and nursing homes where they were received with much appreciation and loud cheers.

Untermyer was the first garden in the country to take this step. I have heard that since then, some others have followed suit. Floret Farms in Washington State did the same with the thousands of daffodils from their trial fields. Does this not warm your heart?

In times of crisis, one may not think of flowers as critical. But the ability of a single blossom to cheer the spirit cannot be overstated. Think about the snowdrops that uplifted the soldiers during the Crimean War. Fighting in a foreign land, they were bitter and demoralized from the failure to provide them with food and warm clothing. The winter had been brutal. Then, when they observed the first snowdrops emerging through the ground, their spirits rose. Several lifted and replanted them around their tents, one soldier even included a flower in a letter home. Eventually, some soldiers returned home with specimens of snowdrops which were carefully planted and bloomed the following year. The snowdrops were identified as G plicatus but they are simply known as the Crimean snowdrop. Just how much the ‘flower of consolation’ or ‘star of hope’ meant to the troops cannot be undermined.

Similarly, the poppy symbolizes those lost in WW II. A single flower can have a powerful role in reminding and memorializing events of great consequence in our lives.

To me personally, the daffodil has become the symbol of this particular viral war. Perhaps, in time, others will think so too. It has flowered just when we’ve been brought to our knees by a formidable, invisible foe. Those trumpets call for hope and to trust that there better times ahead. We must believe that.

Note: Below, I share with you photos taken by Jessica Norman – Jess works at Untermyer. She is a powerhouse of many talents – molecular biologist, expert gardener and ace photographer to name a few. I’m privileged to call her my friend.

I’m just as proud to know Stephen Byrnes. Through his leadership and vision, Untermyer has become one of the premier gardens to visit in these United States. Steve and his incredible team of dedicated gardeners led by head-gardener Timothy Tilghman have achieved this in a remarkably small number of years.

Volunteers are the backbone of our society and those who harvested the daffodils should not go unacknowledged. They stepped up to do the work so the Untermyer gardeners could go about their rightful duties of tending the gardens. They are –

Kathryn and Jim Buckley, Joseph Brownell, Joseph Ades, Trish Lindmann and her son Tyler, Christopher Kittle, Harris Lirtzman, Ed Sabol, James Judy.

My heartfelt thanks to them, Steve and Jess .All photos (c) 2020 Jessica Norman

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar