May Be, May Be Not

From unseasonable days of April-cool. we’re now in a week that promises to feel more like June. As a result, I have lost track of what exactly to expect for my Open Day on June 5. ( Have you made your reservation to visit yet?). It will be what will be.

This past week, the tulips have shone brilliantly. I’m not at all happy to have this rise in temperatures as it means a hasty end to my tulip season. Another cool week would be so nice. But, as if to assure me that the fun will continue, the alliums are bursting open everywhere and one cannot help being cheered up. In the checkerboard garden, the creeping phlox is rippling in bloom. I wait all year for this brief but effervescent presentation. Its habit of growing with merry abandonment makes this plant a personal favorite. But, just to make note – the alliums are a bit early and the phlox a bit late. Thats how May rolls this year. Unpredictable.

The peonies and roses show buds ripening but nothing to see as yet. Fingers crossed, they will perform in time for visitors on Open Day.

With the sudden realization that I have less than three weeks to get the garden visitor-ready, I’m armed with a very long list of things that must absolutely get done by then. In trying to delegate some of those chores to my in-house labor force, I’m being met with some reluctance to hop to it. Worse, both, spouse and daughter have the audacity to tell me that there are certain other tasks I’ve overlooked. So, I have issued an all-hands-on-deck order and I have become the uber task mistress. My facial expression and general body language has been set to Don’t Mess With Me.

With the warming days, there’s been the reassuring sight of bees busy in the garden. And the birds are going about madly building nests and singing loudly as they do so. Butterflies sightings are increasing too. Stuff like this never gets boring.

Now that the possibility of frost is no longer a threat, it’s time to get some tropicals installed in pots to add a bit of drama. I’m looking forward to a trip to my nursery – the anticipation alone is thrilling. For me, nothing beats horticultural retail therapy.

With all the iffy-ness of this May weather, I find myself frequently wondering about things like, will the climbing hydrangea bloom in a week or so? The roses? The peonies? Will the alliums and camassia last long enough?

The pressure is on! There’s no telling what will be shining in the garden on June 5. Please do come and find out! .

Note: Just to reiterate – Open Days tickets must be purchased on-line. The link is not live as yet but please check here to get up to date information.

Now that we are slowly getting back to gathering with family and friends, its fun to plan and decorate for the occasion. Select from the Printed Garden collection for pretty and practical (machine washable) decorative pillows, tea towels, napkins and such.They make good gifts too!

Here’s some of what is blooming in the garden at present –

Amsonia twinkling brightly

Any day now!

First clematis of the season

Alliums in the meadow

Phlox in the checkerboard garden.

Tulip heaven

Quince in flower

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Benevolence Of Bulbs

Bulbs give an unparalleled bang for the buck. It is a simple matter of plunking them into a deep enough hole in the ground, covering them up and letting them be. Come spring, they show up in good form and raise the ante in the garden. While the perennials are slowly stirring, bulbs burst forth boldly and bring instant cheer. For the effort of digging them a decent home in the fall, the payback is big at a time when we most need the beauty and inspiration.

This past weekend was all about bulb planting. About 2000 of them. At one time, this task was accomplished by me alone but the years have taken their toll so, I had called in reinforcement by way of husband, daughter and a nephew. And the job got done. The weather cooperated perfectly, moods remained cheerful and it had the energy of a barn raising. I’m deeply grateful to my’ team’ – without their support no vision of mine could be realized.

With the planting of bulbs in autumn, we are essentially saying we have hope for the future. That we will get through the cold, dark days of winter to greet a beautiful, promise-filled spring. This seemingly simple act of faith epitomizes the very optimism it takes to move life forward.

Note: At the request of many, here is the list of bulbs that I’ve planted for a beautiful 2021 –

TULIP ANTOINETTE
TULIP COOL CRYSTAL
TULIP DON QUICHOTTE
TULIP DREAMLAND
TULIP GREENLAND
TULIP GREEN WAVE
TULIP LOUVRE
TULIP ROSALIE
TULIP SPRING GREEN
TULIP WHITE PARROT

TULIP FLAMING BALTIC

ALLIUM AFLAT. PURPLE SENSATION
CAMASSIA QUAMASH
FRITILLARIA MELEAGRIS
FRITILLARIA MICHAILOVSKYI

Final burst of roses

All bulbs sorted out

Time for a respite

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Buds, Blooms, Babies

From the first buds of spring, the pulse quickens in expectation of the blooms to come. And all through the growing seasons, the natural sequence of flowering carries one through in a state of excitement. Plants just about to burst into bloom are one of the few things that brings forth an almost childlike thrill in us. It never gets old.

This week, the Monarda and Echinacea opened up to the bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. So gratifying. The milkweed in the meadow are getting ready and I’m eager to see the butterflies flock to them. The native wisteria is similarly studded with buds – this is the second flush. It’s the first time this second round looks as abundant as the first and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this week’s heat and humidity do not do them in. Typical of the greedy gardener, I’m over the moon when plants that are generally not from here do well – case in point, the agapanthus I covet and grow in a pot, has put out three fat buds. It’s absurd how elated I am. As though the plant is telling me that I did a good job. Oh the hubris!

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been doing a great deal of bird watching in the garden. Three different robins nests have resulted in no less than 10 fledglings. The bluebird house hosted a family of wrens, followed by sparrows and is now once again occupied by wrens. I watched a tiny wren fledgling last evening making short test flights. I couldn’t capture it with my camera as it was never still.

This past Saturday, I noticed a small bird sitting on an electrical wire that runs near the maple tree in front of the property. Viewed from the back, it looked like no bird I could recognize. As it turned its head, I saw its orange beak and it dawned on me that it was young female cardinal! This was the first time I’ve seen a cardinal baby. While I observe cardinals regularly all over the garden, I’ve never been privileged to see their nests or young ones. My joy was immeasurable – simple pleasures.

This past week, I finally launched the second collection in my line of soft furnishings The Printed Garden. I’m really proud of these beautiful, useful products and hope you will check them out.

50% of the profits from any and all purchases will be donated to the ACLU ( American Civil Liberties Union). Your support is deeply appreciated. Note: Due to the pandemic, stock is limited and future production is uncertain.

And there you have it. Buds, babies and blooms. Life.

Native wisteria preparing for a second flush

Cardinal fledgling

The herb garden from above

Agapanthus in bud

Monarda and yarrow

Milkweed about to open

The white oakleaf hydrangea taking on a rosy hue

Echinacea

Concord grapes coming along.

A peek into the the Printed Garden collection 2

Tea towels

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

May Flowering

The pear blossoms on the espalier have never looked better. I have spent an inordinate amount of time admiring the mass of luminous white flowers. Bees have been spotted making their rounds so keeping fingers crossed for a good crop of pears in September. Remember I’d mentioned I had a couple of projects planned for this year? Well, one of them is to try growing pears in bottles – to make a liqueur for those cold days in winter. The bottles ( just a few) stand clean and ready.

I’m quite excited to try this experiment as I remember when I first came across a bottle of vodka with a golden pear in it. The drink it provided had a subtle flavor of pear but I was more interested to know how the pear got in the bottle. That was revealed to me soon enough but it has taken me years to actually have the time to recall that interest and consider trying my hand at it.

After a wet, cold week, the weekend arrived like a gorgeous cake. The kind that makes you just want to gaze at it because consuming it would make it disappear. The temperatures rose, the sun shone bright and the flowers sparkled exquisitely. My heart felt it would burst with so much beauty.

In the front garden, the perennial beds are filling out with the growing plants and the tulips have started blooming. Picture perfect. With no major flowers to compete with, the tulips are enjoying their solo moment. Heck, I’m enjoying their performance. I particularly like ‘Cool Crystal’ – they look like Moulin Rouge dancers saucily kicking up their bright pink, flouncy, fringed skirts.

Currently, this front area along with the house looks somewhat chocolate-box scene-ish. Over the weekend, I was struck by how relevant a role it plays in the big picture. My daughter, a French horn player, decided she would give a concert for the neighborhood on Saturday. With everyone craving connectivity and no live entertainment to attend, it seemed like just the tonic needed. We informed a few neighbors and also invited friends and family from afar via Zoom. So on Saturday afternoon, Mira performed for a half hour. Neighbors with advance notice showed up on time, passers by and their dogs stopped to listen, a couple of friends drove from a town nearby and sat in their car like VIPs, many more watched on-line.

The concert was lovely (my completely biased opinion of course), Even more special was having friends and neighbors gathered together albeit, socially distanced.

And after the concert, I heard from several that they deliberately plan their daily walks to pass by my house for the pleasure of seeing what’s blooming in the garden. That’s exactly what a gardener loves to know. Especially now.

Like a babbling brook, white violas and blue forget-me-nots are tumbling through the ‘meadow’. The dandelions ( yes, I adore them) mingle in like splotches of sunlight. It is absolutely spectacular. Soon the camassia and alliums will pop up and it’ll be a whole other show.

The vegetable garden is all planted up with cool weather greens, We also emptied out the greenhouse and placed the plants in their spring/summer locations around the garden. After cleaning the greenhouse, we potted up tomatoes. Last year, they did very well there. Soon, zucchini plants will also take up residence in the greenhouse – we grow them only for their blossoms. Stuffed with goat cheese, then dipped in a light tempura batter and quickly fried – just yum.

At the end of a very busy weekend of gardening, tired and satisfied we sat down to relax with a pre-dinner glass of wine. At precisely that moment, we were graced with our first hummingbird sighting of the year. Flashing its iridescent green body it sipped from the feeder and flew away. I felt as though we’d just been blest.

Happy, healthy May one and all.

P.S. Do check Things To Do for a list of garden chores this month

Note: Given the current Coronavirus crisis, the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days have been cancelled through May. Sad but expected. So I’ll try to post as many photos as I can so I can still share my garden with everyone. Stay safe everybody.

Pear blossoms

Tulipa ‘Cool Crystal’

Meadow

Tomatoes in the greenhouse

Rooting cuttings

Vegetable bed

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

It’s Open Season!

My garden’s Open Day is this Saturday, May 18. I’m hard at work primping and propping the garden to get it looking it’s best for you. So, cancel everything else and come on over. I’d love to see you here!

I was in Evanston, Illinois this past weekend and even though part of that time it was cold and wet, I was struck by how much horticultural effort is put into making the heart of the city look attractive. Tulips waved madly in bright colors on traffic islands, pocket parks and around trees along the streets. So cheery and seasonal. And very easy to do. I’m eager to see what the next plantings of annuals will be.

But beyond the show of annuals, I observed that there is a thoughtful approach to infusing seasonal color and fragrance in the landscape through the use of perennials. A small park dividing a busy road, is bordered with hedges of viburnum. I smelled the park before I noticed it! The viburnums were in full bloom and the fragrance wafted far and wide. Pure heaven. As though reminding pedestrians to pause a moment and refresh the spirit – be present. What a lovely idea. Flower beds within the park abounded in tulips but there were many perennials emerging through. Three benches and a single sculpture completed this perfect oasis.

Swathes of Virginia bluebells carpeted several other green spaces for the public to enjoy and under many hedges I noticed abundant lily-of-the-valley leaves unfurling in readiness for the sweet bells of white to perfume the days ahead – subliminally cheering the outlooks of passers-by.

I had hoped to visit Millennial Park in Chicago and take in the plantings but my schedule did not permit it. Instead, I got to experience the glorious efforts of a much smaller city that could match its big neighbor handily. My well is full.

Note : Enjoy some images of plantings in Evanston. I look forward to seeing you in my garden this Saturday!

Depending on which device you are reading this, some images appear on their side. I have no idea how to fix it. My apologies! Also, the pocket park appears expansive in the photos – it isn’t in reality!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Hanging Out With Hellebores

Spring! It’s definitely staging a comeback. Where I reside, it’s not quite so obvious but the signs are there. The snowdrops are up. However, one has to look a bit harder to notice that the witch hazel is quietly gracing the garden with its tassels of flowers and characteristic fragrance. Bulbs like daffodils and hyacinths are fearlessly pushing through the still crusty earth and slender spears of crocus appear as though they were secretly planted in the cover of night. The climbing hydrangea is studded with fattening buds. I hear birdsong more clearly; it’s only a matter of time before feathered couples will begin house hunting. Everywhere, one can observe nature coming alive.

Which brings me to hellebores. In my opinion, no garden should be without them. They live to serve the gardener. Starting from that time of year when you know winter is still in session but you cannot help look for some signal that spring is on its way, one need only check carefully at the base of the hellebores. Nestled close to the ground, safely tucked under the canopy of large leaves of the previous year, the shy buds have silently emerged. Long before anything else is stirring, the hellebore gives a sweet heads up for spring. This singular sight is reassuring and exactly what an impatient gardener needs.

Soon after, it’s time to cut back the old leaves and unleash the new growth. Stands of upright stems extravagantly displaying cup-shaped flowers nodding in the garden are sure sights of spring. Single, semi-double or double, the hellebore flowers appear as though painted in watercolor. Translucent and soft, the hues range from dark, almost black to deep pink to rose to cream to yellow. Some new varieties sport petals gently edged in a complementary color recalling finely hand-painted porcelain cups of another era.

There are today a variety and color that would suit every taste or situation. The flowers last a very long time – often through summer. The colors may fade or deepen and turn less showy as the season progresses but I still love their look. Hellebores self seed very easily and some gardeners complain about it but in my experience, if you mulch diligently, then it is not a problem at all. The mulch suppresses the seeds from germinating. I typically get only a few seedlings that I often pot up to give away or plant elsewhere in the garden.

Hellebores prefer deep soil rich in hummus, moist but not soggy. They do not require regular feeding. I find that an annual application of compost topped with the mulch of wood chips is sufficient. The plants do best in cool, semi-shaded locations. At a full height of about 18 to 24 inches and a spread of the same, they are ideal in border fronts. The large leaves will shade out more diminutive neighbors so plant accordingly. In the fall, I let the leaves remain to protect the following season’s young buds and remove them only around late March. Hellebores are slow growing and do not get too big so it is best to not divide them. To grow your collection, get new plants or start from seed.

In pots – Because of their extensive root system, they require large pots to allow for growth. A nurseryman friend recently presented me with a couple of hellebores in bloom potted up splendidly in a French zinc pot. While I adore how beautiful it looks on my dining table, I think the plants are displaying a restlessness as though they want to be planted in the ground. As soon as the thaw happens, I will do exactly that.

Hardy, low-maintenance, easy to grow and oh so dependable, hellebores are a mainstay in my garden. Bonus – deer generally stay away from them.

Hanging out with hellebores is indeed a very good thing.

Note: I’m in the upcoming New Horizons art show in Cos Cob, Greenwich, CT. Do stop by to take a look! April 2 – 28. Click here for details.

Mark your calendar – my garden Open Day is May 18, 2019.

Here are images of some of the hellebores I hang out with:

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Anti-Inflammatory Measures

Turmeric is trending. The It (spice)girl of the moment. Like me, turmeric originates from India/the sub-continent. Growing up, its ubiquitous bright yellow presence in Indian cuisine was unremarkable and yet, it was unthinkable to omit it in a recipe.

It was only as a freshman in college, during a microbiology course, I learned about its bactericidal properties and its role consequently in food preservation and cosmetics. Suddenly, I understood how significant a spice this was. That my ancestors had discerned its importance so long ago was remarkable.

I shall not expound on the many superpowers attributed to turmeric because all that info is out there on the Internet. I myself use it regularly in cooking. It is a vital ingredient in my go-to tonic whenever I need to fortify myself – a strong, hot infusion of turmeric and fresh ginger. An ancient remedy but oh so au courant. Ha, I’m trendy by default.

Because of its brilliant hue, turmeric is easily adulterated. It therefore pays to be cautious about where one obtains it. Additionally, look for organically grown sources.

On my visit to the Mukta Jivan Orphanage this past Christmas day, I was given a bag of turmeric root. The rhizomes had been cleaned, boiled and dried. What remained was the grinding and sifting. At MJ, turmeric and all other produce are grown organically. It is for their own consumption and not commercial distribution.

I brought the bag of innocuous looking bits of dried roots to my father’s cook/culinary wizard Indira. She knew exactly what to do. Over the span of a morning, she ground up the roots, sifted carefully and produced a sizable bowl of vivid gold powder along with a pair of deeply stained hands. The aroma of turmeric is not overpowering but it is distinct. Such an amazing sight.

Whilst in Mumbai, I had the opportunity to visit a gated community of sorts. Located a couple of hours away from the city, it is a development of homes designed to be either second homes or retirement residences for the upper middle-class. This is a growing trend. Little oases in the midst of rugged, rural terrain. As contrived as they are, they are quite lovely once you’re inside those high walls. Attractive, large homes surrounded by well designed, well maintained lush greenery. An escape for the harried city dweller at many levels.

The one I visited is mindful of the environment and applies only organic methods. Water for the plants comes from a rain catchment. All the produce from the large, enclosed vegetable garden and the assorted orchards ( papaya, banana, almonds etc.,) are shared by the residents. I think this could be a good blueprint for communities everywhere and all new developments ought to incorporate such a plan. At a time when families are pressed for time and find it hard to fit in all the responsibilities of keeping a vegetable garden, shared or allotment gardens would be ideal. It will no doubt foster a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common philosophies, practices and produce. Children will learn about where their food comes from and enjoy the benefits of nature and an active community.

I wished I’d had more time to engage with the gardeners and learn further about their methods, challenges and such. Next time I will.

Back home in New York, I’m facing the reality of January. Cold and more cold. Possibility of snow later in the week. To bolster my spirits, the hyacinth bulbs cooling in the refrigerator since October’18, have been potted up. Watching the bulbs grow and anticipating the fragrant flowers will keep me in a positive state of mind. One cannot ask for more.

Turmeric!

Turmeric plants. The vegetable garden in the gated community.

The vegetable garden

Note the papaya trees just outside the fence.
A gourd left in the sun for the seeds to ripen

Banana grove

A residential garden

The terrain beyond
My hyacinths

NOTE: My participation in “Winter In America” at Gallery 114 continues. If you’re in the area, please visit!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar




Bend It Like Bakwin

My dear friend Mike Bakwin died on December 3. Since that day when I got word of the sad news, I’ve been spending a great deal of time thinking about him and our friendship.

Our mutual love of gardens and gardening brought us together about nine years ago. And then we discovered how much more we had in common. A lovely friendship flourished.

Mike was a man of great means that didn’t get in the way of relationships. I witnessed his philanthropy up close. Never for publicity or status, he got involved because he cared about the cause. He served on several boards and I was particularly aware of the ones to which I myself was connected albeit in a different capacity. At TeaTown Reservation, his concern for the environment and the imperative to preserve was apparent. As a keen fisherman, he understood the need for keeping the ecological balance and taking care of the land, water and air. At Untermyer, he genuinely believed in its restoration and what it could offer the community.

Mike’s own gardens were splendid and he was closely involved with every aspect of its creation and maintenance. This wasn’t simply an affluent person’s showpiece. It was his home – where he loved having family and friends visit and play. He shared magnanimously. He hosted fund raisers for charities and threw parties for friends. Heck, he had fruit orchards, a large caged house for soft fruit and a very big vegetable garden and donated almost all the produce.

He believed in stewardship of the land. When the property next to his came on the market, he bought it just so the land could be protected and not subdivided for development. A native plant meadow has been created there.

Speaking of friends, the man had plenty. From all walks of life. His insanely famous annual croquet party was a great testimonial to his generosity and vast army of diverse friends.

He knew how to enjoy life and make the most of every minute. I observed my friend take big bites of life and savor every chew. Always game for a get together, concert, lecture, performance or trip, he demonstrated his affection, wicked sense of humor and sharp intelligence. I could always count on him putting a person at ease when he attended my gatherings – he was sensitive, warm and kind.

Keeping up with developments and research in gardening, he’d consult me on various garden ideas and projects and I always felt truly honored and humbled that he thought so well of me. After all, the guy had access to just about all the horticultural luminaries/gods of the world. He was pragmatic and very down to earth ( no pun intended).

Mike Bakwin lived on his own terms. His love for his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren was so clear – I thought it simply wonderful. With his family and friends, he accepted each one as they were. No conditions, no hidden agendas.

I am blessed with many wonderful memories of our friendship and I miss him very much already. If I were to say just one lesson I learned from him it is this. Don’t waste any time – life is meant to be savored. With humor, curiosity and kindness.

Thank you Mike for being my friend. Your belief in me meant everything.

Note: Only four days left!

Memories –

Mike

Hanging out in my garden

Croquet award 2018

Mike was honored at Untermyer. June 2017

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

Bird Brain

It all started whilst standing in the kitchen at the cooking range – from the corner of my eye I noticed a flurry of activity outside the kitchen window. Turning to look, there was a robin with a beak full of fine pieces of twigs hopping around on the pergola directly below. Observing more closely, I spotted the nest. As though sited for my viewing pleasure, it sat nestled in the wisteria branches atop the pergola, giving one a perfect aerial perspective. Oh joy!

Watching nesting birds is one of my favorite pastimes. Here was that chance like no other. No climbing ladders, straining awkwardly or being stealthy – all that was needed was to stand at the window and look down. The nest is barely six feet below. Needless to say, this discovery took me completely away from all intentions to get my work done.

I was so loathe to leave for my trip to the Netherlands. Throughout my flight there I obsessed about the nest. Was it sited too visibly? Is it too easy for the squirrels o find? Would the afternoon sun hit it too harshly? And how about the rain? With reports of the heavy downpours yesterday, I’m anxious to find out. Oh the worries! I’m due back in a day so thankfully, the wait won’t be too long.

My walks in the Dutch country side have taken me through farmlands where I’m privileged to see cows with calves sticking close to their mamas, sheep with lambs that resemble balls of wool for the taking. Signs are posted making the public aware the this is an area that farms in a way that protects creatures that nest at ground level. Sure enough, I’ve discerned ducks in grassy fields sitting on what must be clutches of eggs. The farmers do not cut the hay the typical three to four times of the year. Instead, they do so only once. This allows wildlife to flourish. At any given time, some fields are left uncut and other fields are cultivated. Consequently, the yield may not be as high as we have come to expect from modern practices but, it is a comfortable compromise between man and animals. In time I heard enough bird song and became aware of sufficient activity that proved how well this policy was working. Did my heart a world of good. To take up modern ways is not always progress. Certain ancient principals have held up to time. To live and let live is one of them.

As I prepare to fly back home, I take with me a fresh resolve to assiduously support the wild life I have come to appreciate and depend upon.

Notice the robin with its beak full?

The Dutch countryside:

See the nesting duck in this field?

Protected birds here

‘Ekster’ – is the Dutch name of this bird

Ekster nest

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar

In Someone Else’s Eden

As I mentioned last week, I’m away from home and kinda, sorta missing my garden. With all its imperfections and idiosyncrasies, it is after all my own piece of paradise. It’s where I feel most comfortable. My escape from everything – a sanctuary in the midst of quotidian chaos. Yet, here I am in Provence and I have absolutely nothing to complain about.

For all of three weeks I have the run of a home and garden that anyone with even the faintest of a heartbeat would be tripping over themselves to experience. I’m certainly making the most of it.

I’ll spare you most of the envy creating details and simply focus on the garden. It is two acres of Provencal charm. The garden doesn’t pretend to be anything but its authentic self and because of that, it not only works brilliantly but clearly requires only a minimal amount of upkeep. That is exactly what every gardener should aspire to create.

Instead of telling, I’ll show you. Enjoy. Witness its inspired simplicity and honest beauty.

(c) 2017 Shobha Vanchiswar