Put A Name On It!

As a scientist and a gardener, I’ve always found nomenclature to be very important. The scientific name of a living thing is full of information and not simply a tag by which they are referred. But, that is not what I want to discuss. I’m thinking more in terms of what words we choose to designate the spaces in our property.

To start, I cannot for the life of me understand why a garden is ever called a yard. A yard is for junk, trains, lumber, school, stock, barn, grave and such. A holding area. A garden is not synonymous with yard. When you hear the Y word, do you really ever envision a plot of land lush and lovely? But you do when you hear the G word. A yard does not imply a lovingly tended area but a garden definitely does. You see?

I have no doubt that what we name things matters. How we view, use and care for something is impacted by how we reference it. I’m not done. I have one other similar peeve.

Consider the deck versus terrace/patio/loggia/veranda/lanai. The deck sounds ordinary– functional and convenient. As a noun, it is also a part of a ship or a pack of cards. Not necessarily something that belongs to a garden. All the other aforementioned synonyms evoke an area distinctly designed for relaxation with a pleasing backdrop of plants and flowers. Am I right?

So, with that in mind, consider the various parts of my garden. Front garden with front porch looking on to it – an inviting, pretty place leading to the house. The espalier allée or peony walk on the side escorts you to the potager, terrace and checkerboard garden. Beyond, is the meadow that plays host to the greenhouse and tree-house. And coming up the other side one walks by the vertical garden. And there you have it. You just got a garden tour.

The alternate would be – front yard, side path, vegetable/herb plot, deck, back yard, plant

wall. Which tour would you want to take?

Be honest.

Note: Enjoy a quick tour of my garden

Front garden

Espalier Allee or Peony walk

Side porch

Potager

Potager and side porch above

Potager and terrace

Terrace

Checkerboard garden

Meadow

Vertical garden

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

Start Me Up

Day 4 of 2022 and it is finally feeling like winter. On January 1, it was a balmy 60 degrees. Given all the ‘unprecedented’ and ‘record weather’ events, it tells me to expect more of the unexpected. And we must be prepared to pivot, remain flexible and possibly most importantly, adapt to circumstances.

Meanwhile, I’m getting on with the January garden chores. Here’s to 2022 – may we and our gardens thrive and spread goodness all around.

Things To Do In January

  1. Survey the garden after every storm or snowfall. If any damage such as broken branches or torn off protection has occurred, try to fix it as soon as possible. Likewise, large icicles hanging from roof edges pose a threat to plants below: shield the plants if the icicles cannot be removed.

  2. Take down holiday decorations. Before disposing off the Christmas tree, cut branches to spread as mulch on flower beds.

  3. Keep bird feeders full. Whenever possible, keep water available for the birds.

  4. Inspect stored tubers, corms and bulbs for signs of mold and rot. Get rid of any that don’t look healthy.

  5. This is a good time to examine the ‘bones’ of the garden. Make notes of what needs developing, changing or improving.

  6. Make icy paths safe by sprinkling sand or grit. Avoid toxic de-icing products.

  7. If ground is wet/soggy, take care to protect the sodden areas by not walking on it too much. Better yet, protect it by putting down a temporary path of wood planks.

  8. Take an inventory of garden tools. Get them repaired, replaced or sharpened.

  9. Gather up seed and plant catalogs. Start planning for the coming season.

  10. Begin forcing the bulbs kept cool since late fall. Time to start an indoor spring!

  11. Keep an eye on indoor plants ( in the house or greenhouse). Inspect carefully for signs of pests or disease. Act right away if either is detected. Organic practices only please.

  12. Still on indoor plants: water as needed, rotate for uniform light exposure, fertilize every two to four weeks. Remove dead or yellowing leaves.

  13. Enjoy the respite offered by this cold month.

Note: I have a painting in a global show online. Please do take look – it’s on Human Rights and there are some powerful works.The exhibition duration is from December 19 2021 till January 23, 2021.

If you like my work, do ‘like’ it and leave a comment. And spread the word to others! I’d love for a gallery to take note and give me the opportunity to exhibit the whole series. Your help in publicizing is much appreciated – Thank you!

Here’s what’s doing in and out of my garden –

Pumpkins saved from the fall for still life painting!

Watercolor

Amaryllis

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

Performance Review 2021

The final week of 2021. One can’t help but think about the year in review and anticipate the one to come. On my part, I’ve shifted the way I’m examining 2021 in the garden. Instead of looking at how things fared in the garden, I’m taking a hard look at my own efforts as a gardener. Instead of simply considering how weather, pollinators and pests contributed to successes and failures, I’m reviewing how my performance has impacted the garden.

In the latter part of winter, I was filled with hope and energy and got columbine seeds started. The seeds had been stratified weeks earlier and were duly sowed in starter pots. I’d hoped for a plethora of seedlings to plant in the meadow. It was a complete failure. While I’d been told by experts that starting columbines was not simple, I had not expected total defeat. Thinking back to that time, I see how I neglected to closely monitor the seed flats. I kinda let the seeds manage completely on their own as I got distracted with myriads of other seasonal tasks in the garden. Well, I shouldn’t have been surprised when not a single seed sprouted. What I’ve learned is that I shouldn’t take on something I don’t have the time/skills/conditions required. While this effort was not a big financial investment, it was a very visual reminder of my gross negligence. I’m duly shamed.

When the weather gets too warm and humid, I always retreat indoors. It’s not only very buggy and uncomfortable to be outside but, conditions are ideal for migraines to plague me. I’ve learned to be preemptive and stay inside. This year, the summer atmosphere was mostly unpleasant. We had weeks of bad weather. I barely got in the garden and endlessly complained about how the weather had created unhealthy conditions for the plants. But I took no personal ownership. I should’ve found moments in the cooler periods in the early hours of the mornings to do a pest check, some staking or a spot of weeding. I could’ve helped the beleaguered plants in pots by feeding them weekly (instead of sporadically) to counteract the loss of nutrients by the incessant rains. I admit I used the excuse (valid as it was) of migraines to conceal my laziness. Ashamed I am. Thoroughly.

On the positive side, timely pruning and trimming resulted in those plants looking healthy and happy. My foray into hot colors for the potager and terrace was very successful. Due diligence resulted in a very good grape harvest. The plants that were too vigorous and smothering their neighbors were dealt with – creating more breathing space all around. I finally addressed the wisteria that was in the wrong place and replaced it with a magnolia espalier. The wisteria is now in a friend’s garden where it has a much more suitable home.

Open Day and Digging Deeper were not only successful but brought me so much joy to once again be amidst like-minded, garden crazy people. My kind of folk.

I’ve begun taking steps for next year. Inspired by the stunning flowers I saw in other gardens this past year, I’ve ordered dahlia tubers for the first time. I’m hoping to source and order flats of native columbine seedlings for the meadow. If I can get them early enough, I will nurture them along responsibly. In the coming weeks, I plan to get organized and ready for spring. And I’m creating a game plan to mitigate my laziness.

And now, the greenhouse beckons. Some faffing and fussing is in order.

January

February

February

March

April

April

May

May. Marco Polo Stufano, Timothy Tilghman na his wife Renee visit.

June. Open Day

July

August

September

October

November. Bulb planting.

December. Gifts from the garden.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

December Deals

The garden is finally put to bed. All the clean up and cut back is done. The biggest pots and oak water barrel are cozily wrapped in plastic topped with burlap – they sit like packages waiting to be discovered. The meadow had its annual cutback and now lies with a nice covering of fallen leaves that offer all manner of sustenance and refuge to wildlife. The surrounding shrubs remain uncut – they lend some winter interest but more importantly, they too provide shelter and some more food for active critters.

The tiny greenhouse is home to so many tender perennials and tropicals that the small table and chair placed in for WFH respite is a very tight squeeze. Still, it’s always wonderful to spend time in there. The lemons were harvested over the weekend. They sit looking so beautiful – orbs of captured sunshine. I’ve set aside time to make a big batch of lemon marmalade tomorrow. That stuff gets consumed so rapidly that I might have to restrict it to ‘Sunday breakfast only’. No doubt , it’d lead to a mutiny!

Similarly, the many jars of basil and nasturtium pesto, pear brandy and limoncello, Concord grape jelly and vegetable stock made from the bounty from the garden through the fall, will bring great pleasure to many winter meals.

What remains to be done are maintenance chores like getting tools with blades sharpened, restocking on twine, stakes and such, bringing back order to the garden workbenches and shelves, checking what needs replacing or repairing and acting accordingly. I have the hyacinth forcing vases cleaned and ready for action for when the time is right to get the cooling bulbs out of the refrigerator.

Making our holiday decorations from materials found in the garden and woods gives me a wonderful sense of comfort and joy. The garden provides through all the seasons. That is the best deal of all.

Amaryllis coming along

Lemons!

Meadow under cover of leaves

Greenhouse

Greenhouse

Sedum seed heads

Echinacea seed heads

Rose geranium lemonade and nasturtium pesto

Bundles of bouquet garni – to flavor soups and sauces.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Gratitude Attitude

Finishing the job of putting the garden to bed generally coincides with Thanksgiving. It’s natural then that my mind, already in the throes of reviewing the past year ,takes on a more grateful outlook. All too often, whilst cleaning up and cutting down, I’m thinking about the problems and failures that occurred. What failed to thrive, pests that destroyed plants, weather related challenges, paucity of butterflies and/or bees, lack of time in the garden because of a bumper crop of mosquitoes … so many garden trials. And then, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, just as most of the chores are completed, my attitude shifts. I’m in a state of gratitude for almost the very things that I was lamenting.

Just when the apple trees were poised to bloom in spring, a sudden drop in temperature pretty much closed down that show. I was really frustrated. No flowers meant no pollination and therefore no fruit. A real bummer. On recent reflection, I see how this setback made me that much more diligent in my care of the trees. I trimmed and pruned, fed and watered, checked for pests far more regularly than I had in recent years. I carefully nurtured the few apples that did develop. I’m determined to be prepared for unexpected cold spells next spring so I can protect the buds and give them a fair chance to flower.

We observed that this year there was a drop in numbers of butterflies in our region. I missed their usual company sorely. So, mid-bulb-planting, I made a dash to the nursery and picked up several butterfly/caterpillar friendly, native plants to add to the ones already in the garden. With so much to do both in and out of the garden, I probably would’ve let this action slide by unattended and simply continued to complain about the drop in butterfly population. Now, I can look forward to even more blooms in the garden and feel good about taking some positive action to help attract and nurture the winged dancers.

The heat and high humidity last summer made it quite unbearable to enjoy the outdoors. But the amount of bugs waiting to eat one alive, pretty much had us mostly stay indoors. I felt cheated and was very resentful. While going about my fall chores, I kept thinking about that. And then, I stopped. For next year, I have a good supply of an effective, natural bug spray to slather on and a couple of electric fans to keep me cool and bug free. It will not do at all to let another year go by without living in the garden as much as possible.

There are many other instances but you get the idea. The garden has given me a quick refresher course in how important it is to be patient, positive, resilient, understanding, accepting, pro-active, empathetic and most importantly, grateful.

Wishing everyone a beautiful Thanksgiving. May it be one of peace, love, blessings and fellowship.

Sharing a few favorite photos of the company I keep –

(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

On Retrospection

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks going through 18 years worth of photos of my garden. That’s thousands of images. I was doing this to select my images for the talk I’m giving tonight. At times, my eyes would glaze over and I’d have to take a break to look at things that were entirely unrelated to plants. But, overall, it was a very good experience.

Seeing the timeline of how my garden has evolved was revealing in many ways. For one, I recognized how I have grown as a gardener – beliefs and principles that I started out with were strengthened. I matured so I got bold and authentic to create something that is genuinely reflective of who I am.

The garden has transformed slowly to emerge as a place where lots goes on and yet offers ample opportunities for calm and respite.

In looking through the photos year by year and month by month, I could see clearly how weather and climate have a direct impact. The amount of exposure to light has changed as surrounding trees have grown or been lost. With experience, my own tastes have been refined. I’ve learned so much.

And with age, I’ve developed strong opinions for those who garden without regard to the environment and climate change. My garden has developed into one that is vibrant, playful, beautiful, a bit wild and conveys an eco-concious sensibility.

Along with all the highs that the photos showed me, I was also reminded of the mistakes, failures, calamities. Some were mine and some were Mother Nature’s. These are what taught me the most. I’m no longer concerned about something failing or about how that failure will be viewed by others. I’m willing to try things out, experiment and see how it goes. As long as one’s intentions are to support the environment with sensitivity and care, a gardener is free to express herself honestly. That means we shouldn’t be gardening to impress, suppress or transgress. Instead, garden to make progress.

Word play aside, gardeners have an obligation to do right.

Back to my retrospection.

At the end of each gardening season, like most gardeners, I review what worked and what didn’t that year. And I resolve to do better the following year.

Looking through almost two decades of gardening, I saw how developments in my own (personal and professional) life influenced matters. As I got busy with things outside the garden, I neglected due diligence on pest management. Since only organic measures are practiced here, this is more significant than it sounds. It’s not merely a casual oversight when timely services are skipped. This could allow pests to thrive or plants to struggle depending on what was not done. Case in point, the time and temperature sensitive treatments that are required by the fruit trees. Along with good weather and ideal pollinator populations, these trees need to be fed and protected correctly. A lapse on my part can make trouble for them. And on certain years it has.

Confronting and owning my dereliction of duty has been humbling. I see how easily I blamed the weather instead. I’m resolved to doing better – by slowing down the hectic pace, simplifying things so I’m functioning with purpose and clarity and reintroducing myself to what used to give me such joy in managing my garden.

I believe we are all overdue for a proper dose of retrospection. In all areas of life.

I’m sharing just two pairs of photographs to show  some of the transformation that has occurred in my garden:

1992

1992

2021

2021

(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