Keeping It Natural

It’s quite wonderful that the holiday season coincides so nicely with the garden being put to bed. It makes it easier to have to retreat indoors. The festive time requires decorations and what better way to lift our spirits and spread good cheer than letting Nature dictate the theme

Given everything that has affected us this year, I’m determined to go about the holidays with thought and mindfulness.

Lets not get upset about supply chain problems, Christmas tree shortages, less than fully stocked stores or other news that increases the level of anxiety. Instead of complaining, this is a call for creativity. I’m going to do my best to stay focused on what I can actually control. In many small ways, I intend to do my part in mitigating some of the problems we face and are concerned about.

To begin with decorations, I’ve always kept it simple. Strings of LED lights and family ornaments adorn the big bay tree standard that stands-in for the traditional Christmas tree. My daughter is allergic to evergreens but honestly, we are quite happy with the bay. Similarly, the mantel will be decorated with a garland of foraged materials from the garden and woods and more strings of lights. An electric candle light at each of the windows adds a great deal of charm. Several amaryllis started a few weeks ago should be blooming through the holidays into the New Year. A lit fireplace and real candles completes the whole scene. Over the years, we’ve made pomanders with oranges and the fragrance of citrus, cloves and cinnamon just says ‘HOLIDAYS!’. And lets not forget all the yummy aromas that come from the kitchen when baking is underway. Add a good playlist and we’re done. Seriously, does one really need anything more to set the stage for celebrations?

Similarly, for the gifts, I’m giving only things where either the proceeds serve a cause I support (cozy house slippers from the World Wildlife Foundation) or are products that will introduce the recipient to living in a more sustainable, environmentally healthy manner. That’s good stuff like household detergents, dental and body hygiene products made from natural, plant-based materials and packaged in what can be easily recycled or composted. No plastics whatsoever. I also support local businesses and artists/artisans. These are some of my humble efforts to put my money where my heart is and do right by Earth and all who call it home.

Keep it simple. Keep it natural. Nature’s beauty cannot be beat.

Note: In keeping with the natural theme, I’m sharing images from this years Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Gardens. I just love this event so much and every year I’m delighted and inspired by the creativity and beauty of the display of iconic buildings and plantings.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

Shared Wisdom

Gardeners are the best sharers don’t you agree? From produce and plants to cuttings and advice, we share generously. It’s no wonder then that we love being in each others company. And the longer I garden, the more there is to learn.

So this week, I’m passing on three things I learned recently.

#1 – As we well know, comfrey makes a most effective organic fertilizer. The usual method is to fill a bucket or other container with comfrey leaves, add water, cover tightly and let it sit for some weeks. Over that time, the leaves breakdown and the whole turns into rich, liquid plant food. Simple. The reason for that tight cover is to contain the odor – it stinks to high heaven. The final product is diluted as necessary to feed the plants.

I’ve just learned of another way to use comfrey. Dry the leaves, crumble them and sprinkle into pots to boost seedlings and plants. This past weekend, as I was putting the herb garden to bed, I cut back vast amounts of comfrey. I’m going to dry some of it. Towards the end of winter, the plants in the greenhouse will receive a generous serving of dry comfrey to get them ready for the move outdoors.

If there is a prolonged spell of rain during the growing season as it was this past summer, the dry comfrey will come in good use. A liquid feed on wet days would be useless.

#2 – Right after the last snowfall last winter, I sprinkled Shirley poppy seeds all over a snow covered area in the meadow where I wanted them to bloom. As the snow melted, the seeds would settle on the earth and take root. I’d heard that this very simple method worked well. Not for me. It was a total failure.

But last week, I learned of a better way. Mix the seeds in sand, sift this over the planting area. Tamp down with a brick or board. Give a misting of water. Seedlings should appear in about 3 weeks. Thin out as needed. I’m going to try this next year.

#3 – My Brugamansia did not put up a good show of flowers this year. I blamed the crazy weather. But, on reflection and remembering another tip I’d picked up a while back ( and forgotten), this plant needs very diligent feeding. So, starting next growing season, weekly doses of dry comfrey are in order. Will report back in a year!

I’d love to hear your tips – please share!

Mature common comfre

The lesser known blue flowered comfrey

Comfrey (by the sculpture) in early spring

 

Poppies

From my seedpod series – watercolor of poppy pods/heads

Watercolor of poppy

Brugamansia

My watercolor rendition

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

On A Wing And A Prayer

The great bulb planting effort continues. As the meadow got embedded with a vast mix of camassia, alliums, hyacinthoides and fritillaria, it struck me yet again how much optimism is required in the work of gardening. With no guarantee of success and so much left to the mercy of Nature, a gardener must go largely on hope and faith. One can do everything right but without the benevolence of the weather/climate gods, it can all go wrong.

Through setbacks and struggles, failure and fumbles, the true gardener persists. We learn something from every outcome, get better, get stronger and, trust that things will work out in the end. When they do, we are grateful. We don’t achieve anything alone. Our dependence on Nature is something we understand all too well.

The rotund bulbs encased in thin, papery layers look innocuous. One would hardly suspect that each will yield a plant that will transform the spring garden into a most beautiful celebration of the season. That is the promise the bulb holds within. The gardener fully believes in that promise just as she does in every seed and plant that is sowed. Both bulb and gardener, do their best and leave the rest up to the powers that be. That is pretty much all one can do. Simply do ones best and keep faith that it’ll be all right.

Hmm. It isn’t always easy to work hard when much is uncertain. Or stay positive when things go wrong. But, gardening has taught me repeatedly that if I work diligently with good intent and believe in a good outcome, most often it will. And when the results are less than ideal, to accept it with grace because all is not lost – a new opportunity to try again will come around next year. The garden keeps giving new chances.

I’ve also learned that sometimes, the fault lies within me. My expectations were unrealistic or, that I had not done my part as well as I ought. The next time around, I will do better.

That’s a life lesson well worth learning early.

Here are some images of bulbs in bloom this past spring and preparing for the spring to come:

Mix of bulbs waiting to be planted

A drill is very useful

Planting bulbs in the meadow

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Bulb-Manic Season

My mania showed this past weekend as I unpacked the shipment of bulbs. Sorting and combining the bulbs for the assigned areas is easy. Looking at the quantity at the end is hugely intimidating. What was I thinking when I placed the order way back in summer?

I was dreaming of swathes of color in myriad shapes all through the spring. Old favorites and a good measure of new choices. A few deeply coveted but pricey ones. In my mind’s eye, I saw bursts of early, minor bulbs announcing the arrival of spring. Then a wild party of loud, happy daffodils and fritillaria seeming to rise and bob from a gurgling brook of blue scillas and hyacinthoides frothing with blue and white muscari. Followed by an impressive parade of alliums and camassia accompanied by ornithogalums and nectaroscordum (now classified as Allium siculum). And that was just the meadow.

In front, a riotous mix of tulips punctuated by the dark purple/plum beauty of precious F. Perica, will be the stars of the season. Later, the irises, alliums, camassia, nectarosordums will weave their magic with the emerging perennials. That’s what I was thinking.

Confronted now by about a thousand bulbs I did pause briefly (very briefly) to question my sanity. My family, severely guilt tripped into helping with bulb planting have actually come to terms with what they recognize as a mania in me. But being long-suffering sports and wanting to avoid any more guilt I might lay on them, they went to work.

The front garden has been completed. The meadow will wait till next weekend. I also potted up a slew of bulbs – covered securely they will spend most of the winter outside in a sheltered spot and safe from curious critters. In late winter, as the bulbs awaken and start emerging, the pots will be brought inside to jump start our spring. Just in time to revive our winter weary spirits.

I put in a bunch of hyacinth bulbs for cooling a month ago – they will be ready for forcing in January. The perfect antidote to the winter blues that start setting in post-holidays. This past week, I started a fair quantity of paperwhites and amaryllis. The former should be ready for Thanksgiving and the latter will enhance the holiday atmosphere through December.

With so much joy to offer, is it any wonder that I’m completely mad about bulbs?

Note:Enjoy the images below. I’m particularly pleased with the success of my all-natural witch and cat – neighbors walking by took photos and selfies, children thoroughly bought into the display and even stroked the cat repeatedly! On Halloween, many took their family pictures with witch and cat. I absolutely loved knowing that I was able to give my neighborhood some joy and fun. After the dismal holiday last year, we all deserved a very happy Halloween.

Said witch and her pet head to the compost heap in the woods today. The pumpkins will be split open to not only help with their decomposition but many woodland creatures will be able to feed on them.

I put in my watercolor rendering of some bulbs because at this time, bulbs are growing only in pictures and my mind.

Natural born witch and cat by day.

Sorting bulbs

Potting up

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Timely Tasks

It’s been a hectic pace in the garden. I spent the weekend entirely attending to seasonal demands. The tiny greenhouse is now packed to to the gills with the tender members of the garden. Taking advantage of the extended warm weather, I took my time to carefully trim and clean all the plants (and pots) before moving them into this prime space.

With some of the clippings, I started root cuttings. A nice variety of various geraniums both fancy leaved and scented, bay, rosemary, boxwood, myrtle, plumbago (an experiment) and Dichondra. Little bundles of bouquet garni were made with more clippings of bay, rosemary and thyme – they will be used through the winter to flavor hearty stews, soups and sauces. I made several batches of nasturtium pesto to freeze and some bottles of rose-geranium lemonade.

All the snakeroot was pulled out – this native is simply too aggressive. It had spread itself all over and was choking any plant that got in its way. A true thug. With the removal, I could feel the garden give a sigh of relief.

In comparison, the ornamental raspberry seemed almost shy. Almost. That got ruthlessly edited but not eliminated. A small bit was left in the meadow and will be monitored closely so as not to let it get unruly again. In the newly opened up space, I’ll add asters and other well-behaved natives.

A weed patrol was also conducted. They too take advantage of unseasonable warmth but I’m determined to prevent any of them setting seed. I know weeds are wily things yet hope springs eternal.

As other pots are relieved of their annual contents, they are washed, dried and stored away. It’s a lot of effort but so important for plant hygiene. Come spring, I’m always thankful for the work I did in the fall. With pots clean and ready, it is so pleasurable to get them planted whilst waiting for the plants in the ground to catch up.

All the discarded potting soil,clippings and fallen leaves mean the compost pile in the woods is well fed in autumn. Each spring, it is such pleasure to get rich compost from there. If you haven’t got a composter set up, this is a good time to begin.

Finally, for fun, a pumpkin witch and her cat took up residence in the front garden. Just in time for Halloween. Already they’ve become quite popular and the subject of many photographers as they pass by. Halloween was such a sorry affair last year that I wanted to do my part in making this year much better.

Made up of pumpkins/gourds and other garden materials, they will retire in total to the compost heap after the holiday. Win-win for all.

Full disclosure – I’m also hoping to set an example by demonstrating that using natural, compostable materials is environmentally responsible and can still be fun and creative.

Note : One week to go before my PHS talk! Don’t forget to sign up!

Natural born witch and cat by day.

By night

Clipping, cleaning and washing in progress

Awaiting propagation

A load of leaves headed to the compost

Bouquet garni ready for use

Rose-geranium lemon cordial and nasturtium pesto

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Go Forth And Propagate!

I’m propagating this week. A bit behind schedule but then so is the season. Earlier in the year, whilst giving the boxwood and myrtle topiaries a trim, I started some cuttings which have taken root and seem to be doing well. So my focus now is on doing the same with scented geraniums, rosemary and bay. I’ve had good success with them over the years – great returns for minimal effort. A piece of stem bearing a couple of leaves and cut just above a leaf node inserted into moist potting soil is all that’s required. Monitor the pot and you know roots have been set when you see new growth. While it is not absolutely necessary, just to be on the safe side, I dip the cut end in rooting hormone powder before putting it in the soil.

This year, I fell in love with Dichondra Silver ponysfoot. It seems just as easy to propagate – Dig out some pieces of stem with roots attached and replant in potting soil. Keep moist and when it shows new growth, it can be relocated wherever desired. And I do desire greatly!

Other propagation to do is by division. Some of the heirloom irises are on top of the list. They were given to me by a friend when I first started on my present garden many moons ago. Gifts from other gardeners are always so precious. There are ferns, heuchera. Echinacea and asters that also need to be divided and replanted.

Meanwhile, the ornamental raspberry, native anemone and snakeroot need to be ruthlessly thinned out. They are aggressive so I’m not sure if I should give any away or simply toss the lot onto the compost heap. The pink turtleheads have self-seeded happily so some of those young plants will be pulled out and potted to give away.

The cardinal vines and plumbago were such a joy this year that I’m looking io generate more. Should I simply cut the plants back, dig up, split up and pot up? Can cuttings be rooted? Or is starting from seeds the best? Something to learn!

Friends have already stopped by and helped themselves to various seeds straight from the plants. What remains are for the birds. I’m not saving any seeds this year as I’m relying on self-seeded surprises.

Propagation. It’s a good thing.

Note: Click here for details on my upcoming talk to the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society.

Rooting cuttings

Dichondra looking lovely

Plumbago

A bed completely overrun by snakeroot

Fall in the meadow

The ornamental raspberry in the foreground tends to eclipse its neighbors

Vertical garden has that tapestry vibe

Nasturtium looking pretty

Snakeroot (Ageratina) throttling R. Boscobel

Asters gone wild!

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

October Overdrive


In these parts, the gardener shifts into overdrive in October. Lots to be done and it is often a race against time.

We rush to safeguard tender plants before the first frost. Harvest the remaining warm weather vegetables and fruits. Gather seeds to save for next year. Cut back, clear, clean, cover. Provide protection, put away, plant anew. Divide and redistribute. Finally, dig in all the bulbs that arrive just in time. And all along, squeeze in some time to enjoy the season because all too soon, we will be spending more hours cocooned indoors.

This year, due to changing weather patterns, it feels as though the fall hasn’t quite started. Trees are still quite green and few are showing any other color. Most likely there will be no real autumn color display. The leaves are simply going to turn crisp and brown and drop to the ground. Sad, I know but, all the more reason to take climate change seriously and do our part to mitigate it as much as possible. Instead of complaining lets all collectively respond with positive, proactive efforts.

I invariably feel a bit overwhelmed at this time. There is a long list of chores. I’ve found by prioritizing and breaking down the tasks helps greatly. Starting with getting the greenhouse cleaned and ready and moving in the pots of tender plants, I move on to dividing to replant and severely thinning out overzealous residents. Then I collect seeds, cut back and clear the spent plants. While some are left to serve the birds and give some winter interest, for the most part, I cut down the perennials. This is to facilitate the bulb planting that must happen between all the perennials and, also to give the garden a head-start in the spring as the garden’s Open Day happens early to mid-May when once again the list of tasks is long and time is short.

So, off to the garden I go. No time to waste!

Here is the list of October to-Dos:

1. Yes, weeding continues!
2. Time to plant perennials and trees. Give a good dose of compost to each. Water regularly. Perennials already in place can be divided and planted as well.
3. Cut back all spent plants except what is needed for seasonal interest.
4. Collect seeds. Store in labeled envelopes in a cool, dry space.
5. Last call to root cuttings of geraniums, coleus, rosemary etc.,
6. Get all pots of tender perennials into clean greenhouse or other winter shelters. Wash plants and pots thoroughly first – minimizes pest infestation.
7. Plant bulbs as weather gets consistently cooler. Bulbs can be planted until soil freezes solid.
8. Rake leaves. Add to compost pile or deposit in woods.
9. Give compost heap a good stir.
10 Clean out vegetable garden except for cool weather plants that are still producing. Apply several inches of compost on cleared beds. Plant green manure to enrich the soil – optional.
11. Clean and put away (or cover) outdoor furniture.
12. Check what needs repairing, repainting, replacing and get to it!
13. Lift tender bulbs, corms and tubers. Store in dry, frost-free place.
14. Drain and close all outdoor water faucets. Empty rain barrel and hoses. Store.
15 Clean all equipment and tools. Store neatly.
16. As temperatures plummet, protect tender shrubs and immovable  frost sensitive pots and statuary. I cover the former with burlap and for the latter, I first cover with sturdy plastic and then use burlap so it looks halfway decent.
17. Remove suckers from ornamental and fruit trees. Prune roses and wisteria and secure them well. Remove dead and decaying limbs from all plants.
18. Fill up bird feeders. Keep them filled through the winter. Put up nest boxes for the spring.
19. Get into the autumnal spirit – fill window boxes and urns with seasonal plants and produce.

Note: On October 26, I’ll be talking to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society about how to think out of the box in a small garden with focus on espalier and vertical gardening. This is a virtual talk so everyone can attend!

Some scenes of my garden as it looks right now – wild and winsome!

Photo by @dorothydunn

Photo by @dorothydunn

Photo by @dorothydunn

Photo by @dorothydunn

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

Weather Perfect


Since last Friday, we have enjoyed some amazing weather here. Sparkling with sunshine, blue skies and just right temperatures for spending days comfortably outdoors and nights under cozy blankets but with windows wise open. It truly doesn’t get better than this. Delicious is the best word to describe how I feel.

The garden has perked up too. Despite the shift in light and temperature that hints at the change in season, the plants are not ready to give in. They continue to bloom like its still summer and even the leaves remain a vibrant green. For certain, we’re behind in the fall-color schedule. Given the unpredictable pattern of the seasons this year, I’m not complaining. Instead, I’m determined to revel in the current gift of sublime weather.

Slowly, okay reluctantly, the fall tasks are being approached. First in line is the greenhouse – it needs emptying and a thorough cleaning. Until this is done, the tender perennials in pots cannot be clipped,, cleaned and moved into it. The tomatoes in the greenhouse are still doing well so the pots have been shifted outside where they can continue to ripen. Bereft of contents, the greenhouse now awaits a thorough ablution. I actually enjoy this task. Working with water means getting wet and that prevents me from feeling hot from the exertion. There’s a certain childlike fun to be had here – splashing, spraying, scrubbing. It helps enormously to undertake this chore when the day is dry and sunny so the interior can dry completely and quickly. Working in the garden that is still looking wildly voluptuous is a beautiful bonus.

Whilst the greenhouse is drying, I start on the plants that will be residing in the greenhouse through the winter. After an elimination of all dead, weak and unsightly limbs or leaves and a general trim to restore shape, every plant and pot receives a good bath to remove dust, debris and any pesky interloper. Once dry, they are moved and arranged in their winter quarters.

This is what I’m focusing on this week. Apart from some rain today, the days are expected to meet the requirements for the task. And I’m very ready. Cleanser, water, action!

Note: The images below are some of the spaces I’ve visited in the past week:

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Press Reset

While I’ve given myself a garden hall pass this month, it doesn’t mean I’ve stopped thinking about all matters of gardening. It’s been really nice to do the bare minimum in the garden as the weather has improved – gives one the freedom to bask in the sunshine without guilt. That’s a really rare thing as gardeners are perpetually filled with guilt because there is always and forever several things wanting attention. Having decisively given myself permission to take it easy has been liberating. It’s so much more fun to be amidst the plants and observe the goings on sans reservation.

However, the mind is always working. In a good way. By letting the garden sort of do its own thing, I see how it’s quite apparent that we gardeners, need to reset our artistic expectations of our gardens. Rather than wielding a strict hand on the aesthetics, we must loosen up to work more with nature and changing climate. Our gardens should reflect an awareness of environmental and sustainable requirements, be sympathetic to the needs and habits of native flora and fauna.

I’ve often referred to my meadow as an area of controlled chaos. This is primarily because the native plants have a tendency to look wild as they are let to self-seed and edited only when a plant is trying to overpopulate itself in a thuggish manner. With the knowledge that the fittest, the ones most suited to the conditions offered here do best, I learn from the plants. As much as I might desire a more varied array of natives, and I’m willing to trial them all, I have learned to acquiesce to the workings of nature. What thrives supports a happy number of pollinators and is an ecologically beneficial environment. That is after all the whole point of what I have attempted.

On the other hand, I had originally designed the beds in the front garden to be more traditional – tidier and charming like a cottage garden. More in keeping with what might be universally appreciated by viewers from the street. This is pretty much still true through spring when the bulbs are the principal players. However, over the years, I have replaced the more demanding/cantankerous yet popular summer perennials with natives. I did so for two reasons – one was that the native plants are hardy, reliable and low maintenance. The other was to give a visitor a preview of what is to come as they gradually make their way to the meadow in the far back. Design-wise, it provided continuity instead of giving the garden a split personality. Consequently, the beds take on a wild look in summer and fall. But how they hum, buzz and flutter with pollinators! There is so much more life and movement than ever before.

Both, the front beds as well as the meadow don’t require watering except in times of severe dry spells. A dose of compost and cedar mulch keeps the front beds relatively weed free and helps the soil retain moisture longer. The meadow requires no such applications whatsoever. All in all, so much better for the environment as well as the gardener.

It’s true that many perennials peter out early. This point occurred to me every year until more recently I accepted that I must use annuals to fill in those gaps of color in certain places like the terrace and around the side porch. This is no different from the window-boxes and pots that are filled with annuals to pep up the aesthetics.

Keep in mind, those perennials that have finished blooming, continue to serve. The seed heads ripen and feed the birds and other creatures as they prepare for the cold season ahead. In addition, their intricate designs and shapes have inspired me to paint them. I have a wonderful series going!

Ultimately, the looser, wilder native plantings, respond best to the dire calls for longevity, sustainability and sound ecology while still looking beautiful. It really is time to reconsider our gardens and adapt our design sensibilities accordingly. A shift in mindset makes us winners all around.

Fall is a good time for planting native perennials – get cracking!

Note: Last Saturday, I visited the gardens at Hay Honey Farm in New Jersey. I was thrilled to see that they too have a meadow similar to mine and even the other borders have the same natural sensibilities as mine. Except, theirs are far more extensive and better maintained!

My wild show: One gardener’s paradise and anothers hell?!

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

September Self-Care

September

September slips in

quiet, unnoticed

Whispers softly

I’m here to take Summer down!”

Bit by bit the garden succumbs.

Shobha Vanchiswar

September II

September curls cool tendrils

soothing sun bright flowers

weary and worn

from a wild summer.

Shobha Vanchiswar

I’m taking it slow this month. Just the essential chores. Nothing else. After a summer that was less than stellar, I’ve decided to give myself September to be in the garden simply to enjoy everything. I want to listen to the birds and distinguish their songs, let the hum of the bees lull me into a pleasant nap, follow the butterflies as they flit from flower to flower. I’m going to use this time to examine the flowers closely as though I’ve never done it before. Observe the daily changes in the ripening seedpods and be present when they burst open to release the next generation primed for continuity. As the light grows soft and low, I will soak in as much the sunshine as the hours allow. During the day, I will paint and read and stare in the garden and, when darkness descends, I’ll remain to dance with the last of the fireflies. This is my idea of self-care. Self-Care September.

Note : Click here for garden chores in September.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar