To Cut Or Not To Cut – That Is The Conundrum

Now that the big task of getting the many ( including some very large) plants trimmed, washed and moved into the greenhouse, I’m feeling rather relieved. It’s usually a race against time to get this job done before tender perennials and tropicals are subjected to an early frost. Not so this year – I’ve had the luxury of taking my time to give adequate attention to each plant. And I’m grateful for it. Even so, its a bit disconcerting that temperatures haven’t really dipped as expected. Wonder how fall and winter will pan out.

The task at hand is the clean up of garden beds and the meadow. There’s a great deal of direction to delay cutting back of plants till the spring. Leave them be for birds to forage and to provide winter interest. I have two problems with that. Firstly, my spring blooming bulbs are planted every fall within those areas. So, fully grown plants preclude proper bulb planting. One cannot get into the beds and plant around them – I tried it one year and it was ridiculously hard. I was left severely scratched up and had body parts complaining loudly of the torture of being subjected to contorting my way around.

Secondly, by late fall/early winter, any seed heads left on the plants are depleted of seeds. They’ve given it their all. Any foraging or sheltering to be done happens at ground level. And, after the first big snowfall, any upright plant is smothered down. No poetically charming winter interest to be had by way of swaying stalks or dramatic seed pods. Then, in spring, after the snow has melted, its all one slimy, unsightly mess. The task of clearing it up is gross and if not removed, the glorious emergence of the bulbs is spoiled.

However, since I’m a believer in providing for the critters and doing good things for the environment, I’ve hit a happy compromise. The beds of perennial plants stay up till the very day before bulb planting commences. This is usually during the second week of November. My cue to schedule Bulb Planting Days is when the shipment arrives – they send it at the appropriate time according to Hardiness Zones. All the cuttings are moved to the compost heap.
After bulb planting is completed, leaves fallen over the tiny lawn are removed and used as mulch over these beds.
Note: This week, I’ll be dividing certain perennials and replanting.

Similarly, in the meadow, the cut back happens just before the bulbs must go in. Here however, several plants are left to stand – they remain full in form and provide good hideaways for the fauna. The heavy leaf fall in the meadow is left in place as well. So there is really adequate food and shelter here as well as in the adjoining woods. Other shrubs on the property also provide for the wildlife.

The general cut back and clean up permits work that needs to get done now and also sets up the garden for a comfortable segue way to the spring season. Nothing is left too pristine or lifeless. Neat but not too neat though, to some human visitors, it is not neat enough!
Ultimately, I remain with the sense of satisfaction of doing what really works for my garden without neglecting the creatures that inhabit it. No principles need be compromised.


Such a balance is possible in every garden. It isn’t ever all or nothing. We don’t have to do everything the ‘experts’ say – just as in child rearing, a sincere gardener must take into account the data and current practices, then apply their own understanding, instinct and judgment to do what is best for their specific gardens and the environment at large. We are, after all, the privileged and benevolent custodians of our piece of land. As we are of our children. Neither truly belong to us.

A few images of goings on in the greenhouse, meadow and elsewhere in the garden:

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Overture To October

I do believe Fall is the busiest season in the garden. There is plenty to do but the weather typically makes it very pleasant to do them.

As I’d mentioned last week, I’ve already taken care of some big tasks. But those were specific to my garden. The comprehensive list below is one that should generally serve all gardens. Get cracking!

 Things To Do In October

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 out as well.

3. Cut back all spent plants except what is needed for seasonal interest and feeding wildlife.

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 where necessary. Add to compost pile or deposit in woods. Otherwise, let fallen leaves be to provide shelter to critters and protect soil. The leaves will eventually break down to enrich the soil.

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 such dahlias, cannas etc.,. Store in dry, frost-free place. If grown in pots, simply cut down the plant and move the pots into a sheltered space like a garage or basement – water occasionally through the winter just to prevent desiccation of the tubers. In spring, bring pots outside, feed them well and kick start the growth.

14. Drain and close all outdoor water faucets. Empty rain barrel and hoses. Store.

15 Clean all equipment and tools. Store neatly. Get blades and such sharpened.

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. 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.

20. Bring in flowers like hydrangea, seed heads and foliage for seasonal themed arrangements.

21. Take time to enjoy the fall colors and beauty. This is a particularly lovely season.

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Autumn Action

Fall work in the garden is well underway. The mild weather last week belied the season change. But it actually helped me get a few big chores done – action items which can be onerous when performed in the cold. First, the espaliers of fruit trees got a good pruning. Looks much smarter now and the trees are ready to bear forth next spring. Fingers crossed.

The second big task was to completely redo the handkerchief front lawn. If you recall, this past spring, reseeding was done with Eco-Grass as a trial. This grass is hardy, sends down deep roots and expected to do better than the usual lawn grass. It is meant for slightly higher hardiness zones than mine. But, I wanted to see if I could make it work. The result was not a great success.

As you know, I am not after pristine, mono-cultured lawns. This small area needs, by design, to be a green foreground to the beds of spring bulbs and spring/summer perennials that make splashes of happy colors. ‘Weeds’ such as clover, buttercups. plantain etc., are welcome – they feed helpful creatures. However, the Eco-Grass struggled and looked ragged. So it was decided to remove all of the Eco-grass and other wild growth that had sprung up.

In order to be proper about it, a (rented) sod cutter was used to completely and thoroughly cut and lift up the grass by the roots. This is a big task but the machine really did a great job. Following this step, a good, thick layer of top soil was added on top of which was applied a healthy dose of compost. Finally, grass seeds were thickly applied to encourage a well knit growth that would give the space a lush look. A cover of straw (not hay) was applied to protect the seeds from marauding birds. We chose a blend of Fescue grasses suited to my zone and location specific conditions.

As luck would have it, the rains started just as work got completed. For three straight days it rained. By the following week, there was distinct growth visible. Now, the handkerchief sized area looks quite green and healthy. The ‘weeds’ will, I’m sure, move in soon enough. I welcome the diversity. There will be of course another seed application next spring to take care of winter damage and loss. Along with the other pertinent chores, it is so important to get the fall work done. It ensures success for the following spring.

Note: To reiterate, conventional lawns are terrible because they restrict strain biodiversity, deplete soil health, demand large amounts of water, fertilizer and pesticide/herbicides and support no pollinators. They need to be replaced with a selection of drought resistant, pollinator pleasing, low maintenance alternatives. At Cornell University, they are trialing types of oat grasses and other options to do just that. With opportunities to go up to Ithaca often, I intend to follow along closely on this project. Stay tuned!

Finally, the greenhouse has also been emptied of summer residents, given a thorough cleaning. It stands ready for the winter crowd. This week, I will be clipping, ‘power’ washing the tender plants (and their pots) and slowly start moving them into the greenhouse. I’d like it all completed before the first real frost. Too often we’ve lost some treasures due to our negligence in doing the seasonal tasks in a timely manner.

So many tasks await!

This is, in my opinion a far busier time than spring. Much has to get done before the hard stop of freezing temperatures. So it’s just as well, work in my garden has started. The big bulb planting marathon will be here before we know it! I’d like to think gardeners everywhere are preparing their gardens for the winter sleep and spring awakening. There’s much comfort in knowing we;re part of one of the best communities on earth. After all, we are the privileged custodians of earth itself.

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Serving September

September feels like a fresh start. A new year at school, a return to work after a break/vacation. One naturally looks at the garden anew. There’s still so much growing that it’s easy to think Fall is a long ways away. I think of September as a ‘tween month. It can feel like summer and autumn at the same time! I’ve learned to live like it’s summer but start thinking like its fall. Best to get ready for the upcoming season while one still has time on ones side. In that spirit, here’s my list of garden chores for September.

Things To Do This Month –

1. Continue weeding.

2. Deadhead. Cut back anything that looks ragged or done for.

3. Mow the lawn less frequently. Keep the blade at a height of at least 4 inches.

4. Water judiciously.

5. Get leaf rakes, leaf bags and keep ready. Fall cometh! Remember, leaving fallen leaves in place is an eco-friendly practice except if there is too much and the thick layer is likely to smother what’s beneath or can be a place to harbor plant pathogens. I let the leaves be in the meadow and beds but clear them from paths and my tiny lawn. All gathered leaves are composted.

6. Similarly, keep bulb planting stuff like dibbler, bulb food, trowel, spade, etc., handy.

7. Continue harvesting vegetables, fruit and flowers. Remove plants that have given their all and toss on the compost heap.

8. Stir compost thoroughly.

9. Plant in cool weather vegetables.

10. Check if fall blooming plants such as asters , dahlias and chrysanthemums need staking.

11. Inspect garden for pests or disease. Take prompt action if detected.

12. Start assessing the garden – look at the plants, the design, the hardscaping.. What worked, what did not and why. What needs repair or replacement. Make notes and schedule actionable items.

13. As days get shorter, make it a point to enjoy the garden as much as possible.

Some images from the past week –

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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August Doings

Between all the heatwaves and thunderstorms, it’s been hard to take care of the garden chores I’m sure. I return home in a couple of days but as the assistant gardener has kept me in the domestic loop, I realize it has been somewhat of a challenge to get things done. As in all matters, one simply does ones best. No point in fretting and fuming over things not in ones control. From a quick glance at this week’s weather forecast, it looks favorable so, lets get a start on the August chores shall we?

What To Do In August –

1. Harvest the vegetable patch regularly. If you’re overwhelmed with the bounty, offer them to food kitchens, friends and neighbors. Also, consider canning vegetables and fruit. They are mighty handy to have on those days in winter when you crave summer fare. Not to mention the crazy times when cooking is simply not possible.

2. Keep weeding. Even though it is hot, hot, hot, weeds continue to thrive. Early hours of the morning are most enjoyable – cooler and fewer biting bugs.

3. Water as required.

4. Mow as usual. Again, do the right thing and keep blades at 3 1/2 to 4 inches high.

5. Continue to deadhead and trim back. This keeps the garden tidy. Seeds that you wish to harvest can be left on the plants till they are ripe and ready.

6. Take cuttings of plants for rooting. Doing it now will provide enough time for growth before planting in the fall or bringing indoors in winter.

7. If you’re going away, arrange to have someone water the garden and keep an eye on things.

8. Prune wisteria and anything that is overgrown.

9. Watch for pests and/or disease. Use organic treatments.

10. Keep birdbaths filled with fresh water.

11. Spend as much time as possible in the garden – autumn approaches! Eat, read, snooze, throw parties, paint, write, meditate, pay bills, enjoy the garden.

Note: More images sent to me on what’s happening in my garden

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Jiving With July

Ah July! It’s truly summer and the living is easy. Or, we wish it to be. Fourth of July festivities to kick off the month puts everyone in the mood to enjoy the season doesn’t it? Picnics, pool parties, concerts in the park, vacation travels, hosting house guests, entertaining friends in the garden, hanging out in hammocks, beach days, ice cream socials … the list of summer pleasures just goes on. I want to squeeze the season hard so as not to miss a single drop of all its enchantment.

But, in the midst of all the frolicking, garden chores await. In my case, as I’m still away, the tasks are piling up but I’m not going to dwell on them and get into a panic as to the state of my garden when I return. What will be, will be. For now, I’m making the most of my vacation. A relaxed and rested me will tackle the neglected garden in due course. Driven by guilt is one way to get things done but it never brings out the best in me. By the time I get home, I will be eager and ready to lavish the garden with much TLC. I do believe the garden will understand and appreciate that.

Here’s the July To-Do list –

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

2. Deadhead often. Neatness matters.

3. Mulch, fertilize, water.

4. Mow regularly but keep the mower blade high.

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

6. Plant out vegetable seedlings for fall harvest.

7. Keep birdbaths filled with fresh, clean water.

8. Order fall bulbs

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

Happy Fourth!

Here are some things in Provence, France that are inspiring me –

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Out Of Sight But Not Out Of Minds

Is it just me or do other gardeners feel this way – going away for anything longer than a week is not easy. First, there’s the long list of chores that must be completed in preparing the garden to survive without its caregiver. Weeding, trimming, feeding, fussing, setting up some manner of watering system, a final mowing, imagining all manner of calamities that might occur and setting up measures to mitigate every single one of them. This last one includes drought, storm, high wind, hail, snow (in summer!), heat wave, deluge, locusts, apocalypse – anything could happen in ones absence. I really believe the gardener is certain of one thing – that she can undoubtedly prevent disaster if she’s present.

And so, before getting away last week, frenzied activity ensued in the garden. Extra diligent weeding, cutting back summer perennials so they would not only look neat but grow bushy and flower in abundance, deadheading, staking, feeding generously so the plants would not starve, setting up an elaborate watering system for anything in a pot. This set up waters at regular intervals, senses when it has or is raining and therefore will not turn itself on. Quite ingenious really. I’d like something similar that will not turn on my hunger pangs when my last meal was a mere two hours ago.

I’ve arranged for my nephew to come by regularly to check that everything is in order and there’s no system failure. Most importantly, he knows to clean and refill the hummingbird feeders – I’ve made a copious amount of the sugar water and stored it in the refrigerator. And the tiny lawn will be given a cursory mowing periodically just so it looks tended to. The plants in the ground must fend for themselves – they should be fine. They are a hardy, mostly native bunch. Short of really extreme weather, they will come through without my oversight quite happily. And yet, I’m always loathe to say goodbye.

I worry. I can’t help it.

There’s also the sadness of missing out on all the beautiful riot of flowers that will go unseen, unappreciated. I’ve asked aforementioned nephew to take a million photographs. Daily. It’s been a week and not a single image has been received. I’m clinging to the idea that no news is good news.

Herewith are photos I took just before I left last week:

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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And That’s A Wrap!

I’m still enjoying the benefits of all the garden work done to get ready for Open Day. Apart from watering the pots (it has been rather dry), deadheading and routine weeding, it’s been sheer bliss to sit and enjoy the garden with family and friends. The cooler temperatures have given us a beautiful, long spring and I’m taking full advantage of it. If only days like these would last forever.

The Pleasantville Garden Club in conjunction with their local television station, have put out a short clip of my garden. Instead of writing more this week, I’m sharing the video link. Enjoy!

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Rising To The Occasion

It’s the home stretch to Open Day and all the last minute fluffing and faffing is happening. Fingers crossed – the weather looks stellar. The garden is popping with new bursts of growth and color. I’m eagerly anticipating the arrival of old faces and makng new friends. It’s my favorite part of Open Day.

In all likely hood, visitors will get to see my latest project that I vaguely alluded to last week. I was not really looking for a new ‘experiment’ but when the opportunity arose, I couldn’t resist. A self-taught lotus growing friend generously presented me with some lotus divisions. Now, bear in mind that I grew up in India where the lotus is the national flower and holds much significance in different cultures in the world. So when presented with these tubers, I could hardly resist. That’s so typical of a gardener isn’t it?

Along with the tubers, Maria gave me some good instructions on getting started. But first, I needed specific supplies. Containers, heavy soil for aquatics, fertilizer, aerator as lotus love moving water. Thankfully they were all easy to source. You-Tube was very useful in showing how to plant the tubers.

Instead of planting all the tubers together, I’ve chosen to have each in its own fabric pot. The fabric allows water in but keeps soil from moving out. It is light but sturdy and very convenient to place as a group in a larger container. Four of these fabric pots are immersed in that large container of water and a small aerator and one is sitting in the trough that runs a fountain from a lion’s head sculpture.

Selecting the right large container was important. Firstly, since this was a first attempt, I was not going to invest in anything pricey. Secondly, it needed to go with the whole garden and not stick out – I needed a team player for a container. There was only one obvious site for the sun loving lotus so, whatever I selected had to sit well there. Turned out, I had exactly the right vessel. A large-ish, shallow, antique, zinc tub that I’d brought back years ago from Provence. It was used as a pool for my daughter from baby through toddler-hood. And then it sat largely unused but too dear to get rid off.

I now have tiny leaves/pads rising sweetly above the water as lotus are wont to do. Nothing dramatic to see as yet so visitors on Open Day might not be impressed but I figure it’ll be fun to share. By way of equipment, nothing was costly and I understand that lotus are resilient so I’m hoping a few visitors might be inspired to try their own lotus experiment. The big challenge will be housing these aquatic newcomers through the cold season.

It’s so exciting to try new things and my garden has always been a laboratory. This project harks to my Indian heritage so I feel the pressure to be successful. Fingers crossed that both lotus and gardener rise to the occasion admirably.

Note: Only 3 more days to Open Day! Hope you’re coming!

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Powering Through

What a glorious weekend it was. After a week of wet, cold days, I was beginning to feel somewhat hard pressed to remain thankful for the rain that had eluded us for so long. Then Saturday arrived glowing in sunshine and temperatures that were Goldilocks perfect. The sort of day that gardeners pray for. And we made the most of it. So much got done.

Big tasks like moving large, heavy pots to their assigned positions for the rest of the growing season to smaller ones such as potting up annuals for immediate prettying up. The summer window boxes are up, boxwood and other topiaries all got a tidying trim, hummingbird feeders recommissioned, dormant oil sprayed on the fruit trees and a myriad other chores were completed. I also have an unexpected project which I will reveal in due course. Fingers crossed it’ll pan out and rise above all expectations. There’s a clue in that last line!

Open Day is less than two weeks away and things are coming together nicely. With warmer temperatures forecast this week, I expect the many plants bearing plump buds will burst forth in bloom. Timing is everything so lets hope all goes well. I really don’t want to tell visitors that they should’ve seen the garden a week earlier.

A week ago, our county,s Department of Fisheries gave out minnows for free as part of a mosquito control effort. We went and got ourselves some. They were put into the trough which could be much too small a container but certainly worth a try. Lets see. I desperately want it to work.

Regular weeding and deadheading has commenced in earnest. This really helps to stay on top of it and prevents that feeling of being overwhelmed. I’m also aiming to be more consistent with picture taking. While it seems as though I’m always taking a million photos, I often fail to capture key images and moments that will help me understand, appreciate and plan forward. Ditto making notes in my garden journal where its important to mention what tasks got done and whats in bloom each week. I generally start out well and then, about now, when it gets really busy, I procrastinate and end up giving up on journal entries all together. It’s not the worst thing to do but as one who likes keeping records, it just makes me feel bad to lapse.

And so it will go on as May 20 approaches – it’s all about getting ready for YOU. Hope to see you in my garden!

Note: This Friday and Saturday, May 12 & 13, I will be selling my notecards and products from the Printed Garden Collections at the PlantFest at TeaTpwn Lake Reservation. If you live in the area, DO NOT MISS THIS EVENT!

Also, I’m so pleased share that my painting ‘New World Symphony’ has been selected for the @katonahmuseumartistsassociation juried show ‘Rhythm, Rhyme And Harmony’. The exhibit runs from May 12 to June 9 @bethanyartsorg

All are invited to the opening reception this Friday May 12 6:00 – 8:00 pm.

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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