Sharp And Smart

This week, I’m taking advantage of the January lull and getting organized with my garden tools and accessories. I love gadgets and tend to want every new and improved contraption that comes my way. Over the years however, I’ve wised up to myself and don’t give in to every temptation. The tools I actually use over and over and cannot do without are a small selection of tried and true implements.

I’m conscientious about keeping tools clean and easily accessible. It’s my co-gardener who tends to create disorder by not putting things back in their rightful places. It drives me crazy to have to search for simple things like secateurs and trowels. Worse, he always denies such travesties. This pattern is clearly not going to change. Instead, I make sure to have multiple secateurs and trowels available and I hide my very favorite ones. Yes, I resort to such devious practices because they not only safeguard my own trusty tools but also preserve domestic peace. That latter bit is high priority – one cannot let petty problems sabotage the harmony at home.

After a year of extensive use, most blades and edges lose their sharpness. It’s not only frustrating to deal with tools that do not work well but, they can cause harm to plants by tearing and fraying them at the cut. So, I’ve rounded up the mower blade from the push reel-mower, different pruning shears, sawtooth knives, shovels and such to drop off at the local hardware store for professional sharpening.

The hand-held secateurs and scissors are given the once over and kept in good working condition by using them to cut up different grades of sandpaper. This is an easy, effective method to sharpen them at home.

It pays to start with good quality instruments. But taking care of them is a commitment that will ensure a good many years if not a lifetime of devoted service. Clean after use, put back in place, sharpen and/or lubricate regularly, be thankful for having them. That’s my mantra.

I use the tool sharpening trip to the hardware store to stock up on twine, stakes and other necessary accessories. Replace worn-out gloves perhaps?

In a couple of weeks, the roses and grapevines will need pruning. While it isn’t fun to do this task in the cold, the job gets done quickly with well sharpened tools. And soon enough, it’ll be time to mow and dig, trim and train. I shall be ready!

Note: The Open Day for my garden through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program has been scheduled for Saturday, May 22. When the Conservancy determines the new Covid-safe protocols, I’ll keep you posted. Mark your calendar and keep fingers crossed!

Here are some early March images from last year –

The newest addition to my tool kit.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Transitions And Traditions

Transition : the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.

Tradition : the handing down of information, beliefs, or customs from one generation to another.

Over the weekend, the cutting back, clearing and mulching got started. The leaves were raked and added to the compost pile. There are sufficient ‘safe harbors’ in the garden for all manner of critters that the general clean up does not make the garden inhospitable. While it is necessary to provide shelter for birds and such, it is also important to get ready for the next growing season. Equilibrium

The big in-ground bulb planting took place a couple of weeks ago. But I also wanted bulbs to pot up so I went to my local nursery and got myself the leftovers from their bulb stock. While one has a very small variety to select from this late in the season, it is actually fun for me to not have too much choice. The combinations can be unusual and quite lovely. The bonus is that the prices are highly discounted. I also picked up a bag of 10 hyacinths marked ‘assorted’ – it was added to the bulbs already cooling in the refrigerator. I’m so curious to see just what colors those hyacinths will be!

I started many paperwhites as well. For me, they start off the winter – watching them grow and bloom never fails to thrill. I love how the green and white cheer up the rooms in the house. By the time they are finished, the amaryllis have begun growing. The cooling bulbs follow the amaryllis and then the potted up bulbs. It’s a progression I absolutely need to get me through the winter.

At this time, the work in the garden is all about transition. Closing out one season and moving into the next. What we do now determines the future. When we cut back and clean up, we are getting rid of debris and potential disease. We are making space ready for new growth. Seeds are collected to ensure a continuity in succession and hence our own supply of flowers and food.

As I wash, dry and put away pots and tools, I’m conscious that my effort now means I get a good start in the spring. What needs repair or replacement, I address at this time. It is reassuring to know that everything is ready and in good order. I am prepared.

Gardeners follow traditions and wisdom handed down from those who gardened before them. None of what we do is new. It’s been happening through the ages. How we do them might’ve changed. New inventions and understandings drive us forward but in essence, we are still practicing a well known sequence of chores and order.

At this current time of uncertainty, it’s easy to feel frustrated and/or anxious. It seems so outside ones control. However, I believe there are things we can do in our own immediate spheres that will collectively impact the big world. As gardeners we already have a role in making the world beautiful, bountiful and healthy. Our gardens are havens for all manner of living beings. We are but custodians of this precious earth. So it follows that we conduct ourselves responsibly and with thoughtful attention.

In turn, we are setting an example for the next generation of gardeners. The tradition of gardening and caring for the world, the knowledge of lessons learned, the gain of progress and innovation so when the time comes the trowel is passed smoothly and with grace.

Perennial bed 1 before cut back and mulching

Perennial bed 2 . Before.

Bed 1. After

Bed 2. After.

Pots with bulbs ready to winter over.

The urn getting prepared

Paperwhites

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

A November To Remember?

There is just so very much that’s not in our control. I’ve learned to tune out the ‘noise’ and instead focus on the things that I can manage. Having the garden has admittedly been a big reason for keeping me not just occupied but also motivated and engaged in my day to day activities. Being able to share the garden with nature starved, apartment dwelling city friends has not only been a pleasure but also reinforced my faith in the healing, restorative powers of nature.

So, heading into a winter with much of the same concerns as earlier in the year feels mighty daunting. How will I cope when its too cold to be outside in the garden? I have spent some time preparing for this season. Our overall health (mental, physical and emotional) depends on the ministry of nature.

To that end, here’s what I’ve come up with. A brisk, daily walk around my neighborhood or, time and weather permitting, in one of the many nature preserves nearby should clear the cobwebs in my head and get my blood flowing while absorbing some sunlight.

In packing the tiny greenhouse with the numerous tender plants this year, I deliberately relegated several plants to the basement just so I could carve out space for a small table and single chair in one corner. With work-from-home continuing, it will be good to have an alternate space for a family member who might crave a change of scene or some ‘green’ time during a particularly busy day.

The greenhouse is positively heavenly when the orange blossoms and jasmine bloom. I predict it will be a very popular location and I might have to institute a ‘sign-up’ for this perk so as to prevent conflicts or monopolizing. Yes, like the tree-house, the greenhouse receives WI-fi.

After a great deal of searching on the Internet, we finally scored an outdoor heater. This opens up the possibility of regularly getting outside and also having friends over to enjoy some social time with drinks and/or comforting soups. I look forward to returning from a hike and extending the time outdoors sipping hot cocoa and breaking bread. Indoor gatherings may not be possible at present but, we can still make the best of the outdoors.

Currently, the house is aglow with hibiscus and brugamansia in bloom. Both plants were heavy with buds so I brought them in – they have repaid my kindness very handsomely. When the flowers are done, they’ll be relocated to the basement to spend the winter in dormancy.

I have a whole slew of amaryllis bulbs started in the house. They will bring much cheer through the holidays and into the new year. Following that, the bulbs of hyacinths and crocuses already cooling in the refrigerator will be forced into bloom. February and March will not seem so bleak with the fragrance and color of these harbingers of spring.

Note: It’s not too late to get started on the amaryllis and bulb cooling.

The drinks ( remember the eau de Poire and rose-geranium cordial?), chutneys, jellies, sauces and pestos I made through summer will do more than perk up our winter meals. They will remind us of the good things about the year and that summer will come again. Heartwarming.

There are a few more chores still pending before the garden is truly put to bed. I’m loathe to finish up because the winter seems too long, dark and cold. So lets hope between my efforts to mitigate the anxiety and what unfolds this month, spirits are lifted and the light at the end of the tunnels shines bright. Take courage.

Note: GO VOTE!

Brugamansia in bloom

The coveted WFH location

Amaryllis in waiting

Fall beauty

  

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Bedding Down

As I did my chores in the garden this past week, it felt as though there’s much more to do in the fall than in the spring. In a way, this is probably true as a good deal of the work is about getting the garden ready for the spring. Clearing, cleaning up and cutting back right now makes spring so very enjoyable.

But what makes it feel pressured is that having prolonged our pleasure in the garden and delayed the tasks for as long as possible, we now have to get everything done before it gets too cold. Get the tender plants clipped, cleaned and moved indoors before the first frost. Finish harvesting the last of the vegetables and herbs for the same reason. Pull up spent annuals, empty, wash and clean pots. Once dry, put away the pots. Protect other plants and immovable features like statuary. Clean and store outdoor furniture.

Add new plants to the garden. Divide and replant others. Mulch everything. There’s removal, repair and replacement work, It feels endless!

And then there is the bulb planting. It’s a big deal in my garden and it gets harder every year. With almost 2000 bulbs to plant this coming weekend, I’ve called for reinforcements. Daughter and nephew will be joining the effort. I cannot tell you how relieved I am to have their assistance.

Finally, whatever was harvested must be dealt with. Drying, cooking, freezing, canning big time. It’s the last push before one can sit back and catch a breath. But so worth it. The flavors and fragrances of summer will infuse the winter comfortingly.

In my garden, all of this happens over about three weeks. We take on the chores in a divide and conquer kind of way. But one thing is clear – I am the project manager. I have a list, a strategy and a have very clear idea of how the jobs are to be done. Being well organized is super-important. Over the years some minor mutinies have been crushed and slipshod efforts called out.

This year, it has been so much calmer. It’s been possible to be systematic and give proper time and attention to every task. Doing something well is hugely satisfying. It’s because this year, no member of the very small team of three had a pressing social/cultural calendar! And I rediscovered why I love gardening so much – this must be what renewing ones wedding vows must feel like.

I’ve made a note to self – when the world opens up again, do not schedule anything else for the weeks of fall gardening.

The value of being present for each job cannot be overstated. It’s energizing to be so engaged. The intimacy of tending the plants is therapeutic. It’s funny how in doing what we think of as taking care of the health of the plants and the garden as a whole ends up being good for our own well-being.

Note: My painting ‘This Land Is Made OF You And Me’ is in the art show “Sunrise And Solidarity” – Art inspired by BIPOC in Westchester at the Art Closet Gallery, Chappaqua, NY in conjunction with the Town of New Castle’s Council For Race Equity. Art for social justice. The show will in part benefit Showing Up For Racial Justice Westchester Chapter. You can visit in person or on-line. Either way, please take a look!

Herb harvest for winter feasts.

Vertical garden still looking lush and lovely

Greenhouse is fully occupied

One more ‘party’ while the weather is still good.

Autumn Beauty

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Gift Of Timeout

It is such a busy time in the garden. Putting the garden to bed involves many chores and it feels as though one needs to rush before the weather gets really cold. Personally, over the years, I’d taken to doing the fall chores in a state of frenzy. There were always additional commitments demanding attention. But not this year.

This fall, all my free time can be spent in the garden. And for the most part, weekends are wide open for seasonal chores. This is a gift. For the first time in many years, I’m able to give the necessary focus to the tasks. This awareness was foremost on my mind over the weekend. During the previous week, the greenhouse was cleaned inside and out, the heater and fan serviced and set up. The pots of tender plants could be moved in. But first, in the interest of good hygiene, every plant must be clipped back and cleaned thoroughly. This is a process.

I reveled in this chore on Sunday. The weather was perfect too. With nowhere else to be, the whole day lay in front of me like an invitation to play endlessly. A gardener’s dream.

I clipped and trimmed the many standards of boxwoods, bays, roses and myrtles. In taking my time, I was able to identify any damage, disease or abnormality and take appropriate action. The top of the soil in the pots often play host to weeds and roly-polies (wood lice) so it’s always prudent to weed the pots and apply garlic spray to any take care of any bugs.

Once the trimming and checking is done, both, plants and post are ‘power-washed’ to get rid of dirt, debris and any tiny critters hiding around. And only then are the plants moved into the greenhouse. It takes some hours to get it completed. In the greenhouse, arranging the pots so each gets enough light and adequate space for good airflow can be tricky – much shifting and rearranging occurs. Given the size and weight of many of the pots, it is also physically tiring. However, given enough time, it is much less challenging.

For the most part, the really big plants have made the shift. The mid-size plants such as the rosemary, citruses and jasmines along with the many smaller topiaries will be given their check-up during the week – a task that actually serves very nicely as a method of decompressing after a long work day. Come the weekend, the greenhouse will be full.

This year, I’m relegating the Brugamansia, hibiscus and fancy/scented pelargoniums to the basement where the agapanthus and figs have always spent the winter. I’m hoping that this frees up some space in the greenhouse for a small table and chair. Given that we will still be observing current pandemic guidelines and continue working from home, having the opportunity to get a little change of scene in the warm greenhouse will be a very welcome relief. Spending even a short time amidst the plants with the fragrance of boxwood/orange blossoms/jasmines in bloom can make all the difference to one’s disposition.

I have a feeling I’ll have to set up a sign-up sheet so we don’t waste time arguing over who gets to enjoy the greenhouse at any given hour. Yes, the Wi-Fi extends to the greenhouse as well as the tree-house. Now you see where our priorities lie!

Note: Before being moved to the basement, the aforementioned plants will be cut back and cleaned as well. They will spend the winter in dormancy.

Also over the weekend, the espalier of fruit trees was pruned, fallen leaves everywhere were raked and deposited in the woods, a new quince tree was planted in the lower garden. The quince will be espaliered to form a nice feature in what was thus far an unexceptional spot.

I now have a basket full of bay leaves for friends to come by and stock up for winter cooking and fragrant tea. Turns out bay leaf tea has some good health value. I also brought in a nice bunch of rose scented pelargonium leaves to make a few bottles of cordial – I came across a recipe recently that I’m eager to try. Seems like a good way to make any day feel festive.

Several pots of annuals were emptied and washed before being put away for the winter. I gathered up all the nasturtium leaves for more of that delicious, lemony-peppery pesto.

Memories of summer evoked in our winter meals is one way of getting through the cold days in a good mood.

Thinking ahead, root-cuttings of some of the clippings of boxwood, bays etc have been started – by spring there should be new plants to train into topiaries and add to the collection.

So much got done in a day. It was singularly satisfying – something only the luxury of time could make happen. I did not hurry, skip opportunities to start root cuttings or set aside ingredients to try new recipes.

There is still plenty to do but instead of feeling the pressure, I’m looking forward to getting the job done right – with my full attention and presence.

Note: While we’re in the throes of getting our homes ready for the winter and in a state of anxiety about the national unrest and injustices, do take a look at my Printed Garden Collection for the home. Beautiful products to cheer up the home AND support the ACLU. Every effort to improve matters makes an impact.

The vertical garden looks stunning right now!

Rosehips in the sunlight

Beautyberry.

‘Wind Song’ rising above a froth of asters

A few of the pots awaiting clipping and cleaning

Root cuttings

Bay and rose geranium cuttings

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

October, Oh My!

Last week was wild if anything. Full of the unexpected, shocks, surprises and pivots. We are all trying to process the events. It’s made me that much more aware of how fragile life is and how much we need to step back, regroup, reassess and reevaluate the hows, whys and whats of ourselves. It’s an ongoing effort to be and do better.

That’s pretty much the same in the garden. October is an excellent time to consider our gardens. How, why and what we do in them has far reaching effects. Now is the season to divide, remove, plant and reconfigure. Make the garden a haven for all – a place of refuge, relief and reflection. I firmly believe that a garden should mirror ones own personality and philosophy in life.

In my garden this week it’s about beating the retreat. All the tender perennials will start making their way back indoors to the greenhouse, basement or living quarters of the house. The greenhouse has been washed and cleaned. Before the plants get moved to their winter residence, they are clipped and trimmed, washed well to remove dust, debris and any bugs hanging around. It’s a real process and best done with attention and patience. Hygiene matters.

While it is easy to get caught up in the chores, I’m determined to take the time to appreciate the uniquely stunning beauty of October. The last of the summer flowers mingling with autumn blooms, the butterflies and bees making their rounds before long migratory journeys or months of hibernation, leaves turning colors that make the garden glow, strikingly beautiful seed heads and pods revealing future potential and possibilities, harvesting fruits and vegetables sweetened by the crisp chill. Nature offers up gifts all the time but none more varied and bountiful than at this time of year.

Taking the time to pause and absorb the natural beauty all around is unquestionably the best medicine during these particularly turbulent times.

Note: I hope you have registered to vote and have obtained the necessary information and/or materials to vote by mail/ early in person/ on election day.

Here are some images of what I’m enjoying in the garden:

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Projects Positive

In a year rife with crises and challenges, it’s been a struggle to be positive. As I’ve said all along, the garden has singularly kept me hopeful and sane. It is impossible to tend a garden without the trust that tomorrow will be better.

With unexpected time on hand, I’ve been able to contemplate parts of the garden that are being underutilized and need work. These are not necessarily new observations but ones that have been ignored or put off due to lack of time or motivation. This year, the excuses stopped working.

Two areas needed to be addressed and I’ve called them Projects Positive – they move the garden in the right direction and align even more with my values about the environment and sustainability.

The first area needing attention was the very back of the lower garden where the ‘meadow’ dominates. This roughly 7×40 foot space along the property line buffers the meadow from the woods. Over the years, I’d added some native shrubs and an Amalanchier tree but it remained inconsequential. It had no real role to play. To make it worse, the groundcover was pachysandra that had been there for decades and was therefore very thickly established. The very thought of getting it all out had been the reason I let it remain. Until this year.

With Open Day canceled, I was at liberty to tackle spring work that typically would’ve interfered with getting the garden ‘visitor ready’. So, out went the pachysandra. That was really hard work – the growth was tight and thick and the roots ran deep. I had to get the able help of Ephraim our occasional garden assistant.

Following the pachysandra purge, layers of paper and cardboard ( recycling hack) were put down to smother any pachysandra still lurking around. The paper will eventually breakdown and supplement the soil. Over the paper, we laid down landscape fabric to act as a further deterrent.

Pachysandra can be persistent. I’m certain bit and pieces of root remain and will put out growth so vigilance is called for – pull out as soon as they poke out.

Native Chrysogonum virginianum was planted to replace the pachysandra. It seemed like the correct choice of groundcover for this shady area. The yellow flowers should brighten the area next growing season. I’ve also added to the oakleaf hydrangea, Solomon’s seal, bleeding hearts, ferns and dogwood shrubs with several Fothergilla and Ceonothum. In time, the shrubs will grow, fill out the bed to seamlessly join the meadow and provide what I imagine will be a lovely visual tapestry of shapes, hues and texture. Not only will all the plantings attract the native pollinators, Fothergilla flowers have a fragrance which I believe will invite a person (mostly me) to pause a bit at the conveniently provided stone bench and enjoy the garden from this perspective. I want every bit of the garden to matter.

Having completed the plantings, pine bark mulch was spread all over the ground to conceal the black fabric and to keep moisture in. This latter point is important as the ground can get very dry very quickly.

The second project is also in the lower garden. On either side of the path to the greenhouse, there are good sized patches that I’d left without any deliberate plantings. Over the years, they would put on a brilliant spring show of forget-me-nots, dandelions and violas. A beautiful mix of blue, yellow and white. However once that show was over, they become areas of shabbiness. Not wild and engaging. Just messy and unattractive.

I’ve taken my time trying to figure out what to do – something that was different and yet segue ways smoothly into the meadow. This past weekend, after clearing the two areas, 350 plugs of Carex appalachia have been were planted in one and later this week, 450 more will go into the other. The native sedges will be low enough so as to never block the meadow plantings beyond. They will look natural and provide movement. In addition, several types of native butterflies will welcome the presence of their favored food.

A large number of Fritillaria meleagris has been ordered to augment these areas. In my minds eye, I can see the plum colored, checkered flowers bobbing happily over the sedges in the spring. And when the vernal sun casts its gaze, the whole ‘field’ will look ethereal. A fantasy.

Now you see why gardening is full of optimism? It gives us permission to dream.

May all our projects in life be positive.

Note: If, like me, you too have been deeply saddened by the passing of our beloved Notorious RBG, then you must want to continue her work in uplifting people and making matters equal for all. When I elected to support the ACLU by donating 50% of the profits from the Printed Garden products, it was because  of RBG’s work with that organization. I make a fervent appeal to each of you to please join me in carrying on her legacy. Because,’We the people’ should include every single individual.

Project 1:

Project 2: Observe how it all looks pretty in the spring but by early summer (photo 3), the area in the right foreground looks blah.

Flats of sedge

One side all planted up

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

Stock And Bond

Summer is winding down and frankly, I’m eager for cooler temperatures. Between the heat, humidity and biting critters, it’s made gardening less than pleasant. Simply being in the garden is uncomfortable. Given the current paucity of options for visiting, socializing and entertainment, not being able to spend enough time in my garden has been quite frustrating,

However, taking the lessons learned from the lockdown, I’m determined to be positive and make the best of the situation. Typically, I’m away for most of August only to return to a garden in desperate need of care. Forced to stay in place this year has been an opportunity to review and reset the garden. In addition, staying on top of the weeding, feeding and general maintenance is satisfying.

Right off, I finally got around to addressing the Sanguisorba alba conundrum. This plant, obtained at a ‘rare and unusual plant’ event, has the prettiest of leaves. Serrated edged ovals of bluish green foliage gave reason to covet. And I did. After a rain shower, the beads of water sit like diamonds on the leaves. Even more reason to love it.

However, the fuzzy, white flowers are less than stellar. They look like albino woolly worms which quickly turn a sad shade of brown in the heat of the sun.

I’d just cut off the blooms so as to allow the foliage to be the real draw. But, there was always something that made even that impossible. Something that obviously agreed with me on the plant’s beauty. Japanese beetles! Every year, a whole army of the loathsome creatures would devour the leaves rendering them skeletal and unsightly. Still, I was too enchanted with the plants and just a tad too stubborn to admit they were a mistake. Till this summer.

The Sanguisorba were unhesitatingly dug up and disposed off. In their place, were planted Echinacea. Native, attractive, butterfly and bee friendly and happily hardy. I think that both, garden and gardener breathed a big sigh of relief to be rid of the burden of trying to support an inappropriate, high maintenance member. Now, there is so much more harmony in the grouping of Echinacea, Eupotorium, Asters, Solidago and Rudbeckia (the paler yellow sweet coneflower variety) and phlox/stock. The pollinators have certainly endorsed my action.

This year, I have derived so much pleasure from watching the birds in the garden, that I’ve ordered another bluebird/wren house to install in the front garden. I look forward to observing more avian activity from the comfort of the porch preferably with a drink of choice in hand. I also expect to have the increased number of birds patrol this area for bugs and such. A mutual sense of kinship I hope.

Keeping in mind that we expect to spend more time in the garden from now on, I’ve had time to consider more carefully the places and times we hangout in the garden and plan on improving these sites. More comfortable cushions for the daybed in the tree house – it’s my husband’s ‘office’ on good weather days. Better, eco-friendly (solar powered, LED) string lights for the terrace to make it festive and pretty – we are, after all, spending so much time here.

Better systems for protecting the fruit trees from marauding squirrels are under consideration. Similarly, I’m going to re-do the way we are growing tomatoes and squash in the greenhouse but keeping it under wraps till a proper plan is ready before revealing it to my husband who sees this particular growing operation as his realm. Ha.

While the weather is too hot and humid to physically do much in the garden, my mind is working overtime to improve it. For ourselves and the environment.

Note: With so many events of injustice and unrest in the news these days, there is great need to do what we can to help the victims. Please join me in supporting the American Civil Liberties Union – 50% of the profits from the sale my Printed Garden collection of soft home furnishings will be donated to the ACLU. I’m very proud of these products and I believe you will enjoy having them in your home. Together, we can do our part to make things right. Your support means so much. Stronger together.

The wall right now

Japanese beetles on the Sanguisorba

After the attack

With the removal of the Sanguisorba, the bed is reset.

Phlox

Sweet Coneflower

Bees all over the Joe Pye

Echinacea

Hibiscus

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Creature Comforts

There’s no doubt that I’ve been able to manage my concerns during this pandemic, economic crisis and national unrest because of the garden. Every single one of us has been impacted – some far more than others. How we cope has also been a matter of individual circumstances. To find myself with a garden to tend and enjoy has been nothing short of a blessing. A huge blessing.

Spending time in nature is now a scientifically established prescription for ones wellness and wellbeing. To nurture a garden has the added bonus of taking oneself out of ones own headspace to focus on doing, creating and making something beautiful and healthy. That therapy is priceless.

In having the luxury to spend more time than usual in the garden, I’ve reconnected with it in ways that I’d forgotten. In the early years, everything was new and exciting. I was creating a garden from scratch. The learning itself was exhilarating. As my vision was being realized, my other responsibilities and commitments increased. My leisure time in the garden dropped significantly. The chores got done but it became more about efficiency and completion rather than mindfulness and enjoying the process.

With the mandated ‘pause’, I have once again regained the joy and curiosity that gardening permits. Going forward, I’m determined to keep to a schedule that always provides for more hours in the garden than anywhere else. I’m so much better off that way.

One of the most rewarding benefits of hanging out in the garden is observing the other creatures also hanging out with me. The dance of yellow swallowtail butterflies floating gracefully over the meadow before they alight on their respectively chosen flowers. How quickly the butterfly moves away if a bee or wasp gets close.

There is a pair of ruby throated hummingbirds that frequent the feeder at the potager. If I sit in a particular spot under the pergola, I get a very good view of them sipping. The female makes more visits than the male. I find it even more gratifying when I notice them at the flowers in the garden. That’s why I planted them after all.

Something I haven’t yet been able to fathom is the remarkable attraction the agapanthus has for all the different pollinators. More than the lovely native plants in bloom, the pot with the agapanthus bearing large inflorescences of pretty blue flowers is, at any given time humming with bees, butterflies and hummingbird. I wonder if it is the color that has such a draw. At present, it is the only blue amidst a sea of white, pink, yellow, red and orange. Are cool colors preferred? Definitely needs further investigation.

There has been an overall paucity of butterflies this year. I hope this is due to a cyclical process and not a red flag being raised. Fingers crossed.

With this concern in mind, coming upon a mating pair of Monarch butterflies last week made me delirious with joy. I’m really eager to see their caterpillars maraud the milkweed planted just for them.

Thus far, I’ve come across two garden snakes. An urgent, telepathic request for them to have their fill of all the rodent types scurrying around and causing damage above and underground has been sent. Not sure what can be done with the surplus in chipmunks though. They have taken to behaving as if they rule the place. I simply cannot allow that and yet, I don’t know how to stop them. No nasty chemicals permitted of course. Occasionally, there is a neighbor’s cat that prowls through – I sincerely hope it is paying its passage by culling the mice.

The variety of birds that I spy on a daily basis marks my hours as well spent. This past spring, there have been three nests of robins successfully raised. I’ve also noticed fledglings of cardinals, wrens and blue jays. I know there are gold finches, downy and red bellied woodpeckers residing in the trees because I see them foraging freely in the meadow. A red tailed hawk lives somewhere in the area and paid us a visit earlier in the spring. That was an unusual yet remarkable sight.

To share the garden with them and other creatures is this gardener’s wish come true. Because, for all the effort and time I put into it, nothing would work out if not for their part in it. Though, I could do without their gifts of seeds from other parts – a certain porcelain berry trying to invade the meadow comes to mind. Birds will be birds notwithstanding.

Witnessing these natural interactions reminds me of how all living things are closely connected and responsible for maintaining the health of the environment. Their well-being is my well-being. Life is all about balance.

Black swallowtail

Mating Monarchs

Pollination in action

Hummingbird at the agapanthus

Hummingbird at feeder

Yellow swallowtail

Bee on the milkweed

Cardinal fledgling

Feeding time at the Wrens’

Robin eggs

Feeding time at the Robins’

Red Tail hawk visit

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Topiary Tableaux

I have a real weakness for topiaries. Looking around my garden, there are roughly, well over 30 of them and about another dozen in training. Okay, so maybe its more likely an addiction but, in the grand scheme of things, I could do worse. No guilt whatsoever.

To many, the word topiary conjures up images of old, elaborate gardens belonging to châteaux and villas and manors. Gardens that require a retinue of gardeners and very large coffers. Not any more. Unless of course you have the means and inclination to manage those traditional and sometimes pretentious gardens. Today, plants shaped into balls, pyramids and quirky creatures play a more understated role in our contemporary gardens. While such plants still bring a valued design feature to a garden, they do not dominate. Topiaries of today are team players not soloists.

What is it about a topiary that makes it so attractive? That they look like diminutive trees? The more creative shapes add an element of whimsy? Their neatly clipped appearance brings a sense of order and design? That a topiary can lend an air of gravitas and legitimize a green space as a garden? Yes! It’s ALL of the above. I love everything about them and how they make my garden look.

My collection (I’m a collector!) is a mix of topiaries both purchased and homegrown. They are not difficult to train but do require patience and diligence. All the bay standards in the garden were started from cuttings. As are a couple of boxwoods and myrtles. I’m currently training some rosemaries that I’d rooted earlier in the spring. Several coleus and variegated boxwood cuttings are being monitored for rooting – they too will be coaxed into standards. If I’m feeling ambitious, some might make it as double sphered beauties. A couple of young jasmines have been earmarked for training into heart shapes.

A couple of weeks ago, I made a visit to Atlock Farms which specializes in topiaries. It is king of the entire tri-state area. They create topiary magic with an impressive array of plants in a variety of sizes. It was a big adventure for me that day – my first ‘border crossing’ since the lockdown started way back in March! So leaving New York to enter New Jersey felt like a big deal. At Atlock, the vast array of gorgeous, green topiaries drove me crazy – I wanted everything. Thankfully, my family restrained my enthusiasm and I did not break the bank. I returned home with only about a dozen small beauties and a very contented heart.

Maintaining the standards or any other shape is easy. They get fed organic fertilizer every few weeks. Watering as dictated by the weather – since the pots are all terracotta, during the summer heat a daily drink is required. Depending on the type of plant, they are placed in sun or part shade. A regular trimming keeps them looking tidy and stylish.

While my big bays and myrtle are used as specific design elements in the garden, the smaller ones get to provide drama collectively – I call them my three tableaux. They are stand-alone points of interest. Situated in areas that are otherwise not particularly compelling, the groupings bring transformation. They spark curiosity and delight.

Even a single good size topiary can make a strong statement in any space. I strongly urge everyone to get themselves one. Or two. Or many.

Since my well-coiffed plants are in pots, they endure the winters in the greenhouse. I have a feeling that this year, some will find themselves in the main house. My collection has grown exponentially while the greenhouse has remained small.

Time spent tending to my topiaries is invariably calming. Not physically demanding at all. Re-staking and tying, trimming and clipping, re-potting as the plants grow, serve to release any tensions and forget about the bigger dramas going on in the world. At the end of which, they sit pretty – order restored. If only it were that simple with those other matters outside the garden. Sigh.

Note; The response to the Printed Garden products has been heartwarming. Thank you! Please check it out if you haven’t thus far. 50% of the profits donated to the ACLU.

In the images below, how many topiary forms can you see? This is a test! Don’t miss the three tableaux.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar