Name Game

I understand the importance of nomenclature. Names matter. Working in a biological science, it is incumbent on one to know the scientific name of a microbe or any other living subject – so critical to ones understanding. Yet, as a gardener, I have been less than diligent.

This lapse is due to some laziness on my part. While I’m good with knowing the Genus, I haven’t tried very hard on the species or variety. If I know them, it is really because it came to me without effort. But for a large number of plants, I tend to rely on my archive of plant labels to recall the exact type. I know, that is inexcusable.

The other reason is that all too often, we gardeners use common and botanical names interchangeably. Common names are fine as long as one restricts their use regionally. The colloquial titles can change across the country. I like common names of plants because they’re typically on point in description as in ‘coneflower’ or ‘lady’s mantle’ or, in purpose/usage as in ‘bee balm’ or ‘butterfly weed’. Either way, they are easy to identify. Frankly, common names are charming and often amusing.

Fun fact: Sometimes, the common names of herbs are downright macabre. According to author Sabrina Jeffries, this was so herbalists and healers could conceal their recipes for medicinal potions and lotions from their clients. For example, ‘eye of newt’ as in the witches brew in Macbeth, is actually mustard seed! Similarly, ‘toe of frog’ is buttercup and ‘tooth of wolf’ is monkshood. By giving ominous titles, a mystery or secret was maintained.

Botanical labels are more tricky. While still mostly descriptive, they are generally in Latin or Greek. So unless one is, at the very least, passingly fluent in them and can therefore interpret the names, it means the scientific designations must be memorized. Easier said than done.

Once out of the regional area, the easiest way to speak with other gardeners is by way of the proper names of plants. All over the world, this is the agency of communication. After all, botany is a science. That fact is often overlooked because unlike other sciences that require work in laboratories and under specific conditions and procedures, gardening is possible anywhere and by just about anybody. The garden itself is perhaps the oldest laboratory. Humans have been working the soil from time immemorial. We learned what worked and what didn’t as we went along. And we labeled the plants as we saw fit. Until Linnaeus came along and created order in the chaos of common names. Thank goodness.

As I pottered around my garden over the past weekend, I was appalled over how few of the species names I remembered. It’s mostly because I’ve simply not taken the trouble to commit them to memory. ‘If I can look it up, why bother memorizing?’ Well, the truth is, I don’t often look up the entire names unless I have to. This is despite the fact that I’ve long admired my gardener friends and mentors who not only use only the scientific names but also remember them without effort. Some of these friends are my seniors by several years if not a decade or two. So age is not an excuse I can make for my ignorance or forgetfulness.

I’m resolved to do better. Just like it is not cool to say one is bad at remembering names of people, it is equally uncool to ignore plant names. No buts about it. As a gardener worth my soil, I pledge to step up my game. It’ll be a process as I’m still a work in progress. But then, so is my garden.

Note: Don’t miss out on contributing to the ACLU whilst acquiring something beautiful for your home or somebody else’s! Stock is limited. Your support is needed. Thank you!

Some flowers currently in bloom:

Echinacea purpurea/purple coneflower with yellow swallowtail

Agapanthus/Lily Of The Nile with yellowswallowtail

Helenium autumnale/sneezeweed

Monarda fistulis/wild bergamot

Lobelia cardinalis/Cardinal flower

Asclepias incarnata/Rose milkweed

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Green, Greener, Greenest

July is lull time in the garden. The rapid fire blooming of spring is over and summer exuberance is yet to happen. This is the calm, green space between. Calm but with the promise of excitement to come. I have finally learned to appreciate this phase.

Looking around the garden, it appears overwhelmingly green. The splashes of any other color are far and few between. In the perennial beds out front, only the acanthus and astilbe are in bloom. Their shades of pink understated and subtle. The Cimicifuga, Joe Pye weed, Phox, Solidago and other summer flowers haven’t yet to make an appearance. They will be in full bloom in August. Until that time, these beds don’t look like much and I’ve often been tempted to rip it all up and do something different. Maybe I will someday. But not this year.

Along the side path, the peonies finished a while back and the only bits of color are from the Echinacea at the head of the path and the clump of day lilies in the middle. The roses are taking a break as it is much too hot and humid for them. Unripe figs hang from the tree near the roses but in my mind, I can already taste their sweet, honey flavored flesh. The espalier across from these plants are thick with leaves sheltering fruit still green and empty robin’s nests.

The side terrace however, has become a Mediterranean–tropical refuge. The jasmines and gardenias have started blooming and send their perfume to all parts of the garden. The citrus are bearing fruit too – the Calamondin oranges are hanging like Christmas ornaments and the Myer lemons are growing plump. They will keep growing well into the fall and after they’re brought back into the greenhouse. Late fall/early winter will be brightened by the ripe, sunshine yellow fruits and memories of summer will be relived as we savor lemon tarts, marmalade and evening cocktails.

For now, I’m content with the quiet assurance of the green fruit.

The herb garden/potager has the most color. The yarrow’s sulfur yellow flowers hoot and holler, late foxgloves toss out pink and white splotches, the Monarda bursts in red, the pelargoniums sport hot pink and the borage beams in blue. The colors clash wildly and it feels festive and noisy. Yet, it’s all relative – green still dominates.

In the meadow, some of the milkweed has begun to bloom and I can’t help but look impatiently for the butterflies. The white flowers of the oakleaf hydrangea are turning rosy as if the summer heat has got to them. But largely, the whole space is a vast mass of green. The pink turtleheads, asters, rest of the milkweeds and other plants are nowhere ready to bloom. I’m eagerly awaiting that time when this will be a very busy place full of color and visiting insects.

The vertical garden is the greenest. It was always meant to be so. As calm and cool the greenness is, it still feels ebullient and cheerful. A reminder that green is more than we think it is.

And that’s the whole point in this period of lull. Now is the time to appreciate plants for themselves. The variety of shapes in their growth, the different types of leaves, the many shades of green. A gardener must design for this time as well. Use the green forms, texture and hues to provide the visual interest. Without benefit of other colors to distract, this is a real challenge. I’m still struggling with it.

So, while its easy to congratulate oneself in the spring, July is really the test of my skill in design. Thus far, I am duly humbled by green.

FYI – as an artist, green is equally challenging. But still I try …

Note: Do please check out the Printed Garden – cheer up your ( or someone else’s) home and support the ACLU at the same time. Thank you! Those of you who have already purchased some items, please accept my heartfelt gratitude. I hope you are enjoying your ‘flowers’!

Front bed of perennials. So much green!

The other bed in front

Acanthus in front

Astilbe in the perennial bed

Butterflyweed in front bed

Echinacea at the top of the side path

Overview of the herb/potager

Yarrow and Monarda

In the checkerboard garden.

The meadow mid-July

Milkweed starting to bloom

Texture and shapes in the meadow

Oakleaf hydrangea blushing

Sparks of orange nasturtium and blue nemesia

The wall

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Kind Of Hush

It was an important week. My daughter graduated college – a virtual ceremony. No pomp nor circumstance but to be fair, given present state of affairs, it was as good as it could get. One can feel bad about what the fresh graduates have missed but lets face it – this is a historic time and they now have stories to relate that will outmatch previous generations!

Then, there was not only the summer solstice but a total solar eclipse to go with it. While we don’t ourselves have anything to do with the phenomenon, it just feels like the earth and it’s principle star have been busy. Quietly.

In all honesty, I’ve really appreciated the quiet that has resulted in the lockdown. The lack of vehicular traffic heightened our awareness of the sounds of nature. The birds didn’t get louder, they could be heard better. Likewise the peepers, the bees, even the breeze rustling through the leaves. With less outside distractions, I’ve observed the sounds, activities, colors and smells in the garden. It’s been nurturing, inspiring, healing and grounding. A gift.

At this time of year, another sort of quiet creeps into the garden. A lull of sorts. The spring hoopla slows down and the summer soirée is yet to begin. The garden right now is mostly shades of green punctuated with the hues of minor players like cranesbill geraniums, evening primrose, yarrow, borage, woodland anemone and such. One could see this as poor planning on my part. I should think about adding more late June flowering plants. On the other hand, I’m happy giving attention to these less flashy members of the garden. They are so valuable in serving the pollinators. Plus, as an artist, I’m able to admire their forms more closely. They’re easy to overlook when the roses and peonies dominate.

The summer asks for none of the frenzied work that spring demands. From now on, it’s all maintenance – deadheading, weeding, feeding and watering. On each day of the week, one of those tasks is tackled – Weeding Wednesday, Feeding Friday, Trimming Tuesday, Thirsty Thursday, Mowing Monday. You get the idea. The days settle into a comfortable rhythm. There’s time to simply enjoy the garden because doing the daily tasks regularly means I’m not spending long hours doing them. After all, Summer is for Sitting Back. Am I right?

Meanwhile, the first peas have been consumed right off the plants. Two batches of basil pesto made last week sit in the freezer in anticipation of winter meals. A third batch has already contributed to a delightful pasta dinner. The Mojito mint has been called into service and I’m thoroughly enjoying fresh cilantro, rosemary, thyme and oregano sparking up our meals. The lettuce and Swiss chard are also being harvested regularly. All of which contributes to a sense of quiet satisfaction.

No doubt about it. There’s a kind of hush. All over my world.

 

Tomato flowers

Washed basil

Pesto

 

Peas

Stevia for sweetening tea

Cilantro for chutney

Mojito mint

Herb ‘wall’

Yarrow

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Work In Progress

A week of the big push in the garden. That means getting the last of the big chores going before settling into a rhythm of general maintenance. Weeding started in earnest – a couple of days a week, I go around the whole garden looking for the thugs. That helps me stay on top of them. Deadheading regularly keeps things tidy and checks the promiscuous from self-seeding recklessly, In some cases, it encourages repeat flowering. At present, it’s the spent daffodils that are getting lopped off so the remaining leaves can do their job of fattening up the bulbs for next year. As the early tulips finish up, I deadhead them to keep things neat even though I treat tulips like annuals. I prefer not to disturb the beds by pulling them out all together. Besides, sometimes they do condescend make a comeback.

Veggies and herbs are all planted. As are several perennials. Some annuals like cleomes and cosmos were re-introduced into the garden. My daughter recalled that when she was little, we had a ‘jungle’ of cleomes and sunflowers along the side-path that made it feel exciting and magical. Now that she’s home for the foreseeable future, I thought it might be fun to do it again. We chose a different location but I let her do the planting. Any which way she liked. Sunflowers to be added very soon. It’s always a good thing to bring back happy memories and create new ones.

The garden is now pretty much set for the season. The biggest chore we decided to undertake ( because right now, there is no excuse), was to get the far end of the garden into better shape. This area has had pachysandra as a groundcover for decades. Long before we got here. So, we’re talking a really well established patch. It had given the shrubs in its midst a hard time, encroached into the ‘meadow’ and, smothered out smaller plants. It was time to smother it out in turn.

Back breaking work it was and as much as possible was dug up. Over the now bare areas of soil, we put down layers of paper ( brown paper shopping bags and flattened cardboard boxes saved for the purpose), over-layered by breathable landscaping fabric. This should asphyxiate any remaining pachysandra and other weeds. A native groundcover like goldenstar ( Chyrysogonum virginianum) will take its place. I chose this groundcover because I think its yellow flowers will brighten the dark area and bring attention to the bigger plantings. In the fall, other native shrubs will join the oakleaf hydrangea, American holly and shrub dogwoods and Amelanchier tree already there. I’d do it now but my selections are out of stock everywhere! Not because they are so popular but because nursery stocks are low in general. Darn virus!

The simple, stone bench that sits at the front edge of this area is once again accessible and I plan to keep it that way. From this bench, it is possible to merge oneself with the meadow, observe the goings on of the pollinators, listen to the birds gossip and take a wellness moment to recharge with a healthy session of nature therapy.

Without this period of Pause, I doubt this project would’ve been undertaken. The usual excuses of lack of time would’ve been made instead. Using the current situation to improve the garden has been a blessing.

What lies ahead in the months to come is unknown. The future of practically everything is uncertain. All we have is now – to work on ourselves, our gardens, our homes and our relationships. I don’t want to waste this opportunity.

Note: Last Saturday, May 16 should’ve been our Open Day. The garden truly looked lovely and I was so sorry not to share it with anyone. Here are a few photos:

Project Pachysandra underway! Note the bench.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Slow Gardening

These uncommon days have brought me to a rediscovering of the pleasures of fundamental garden work. As I mentioned last week, I, along with so many across the country (world maybe?), are getting back to basics. Seed sowing, root cuttings, composting, growing vegetables etc., It isn’t that I stopped doing any of that but now, I’m once again taking the right amount of time to do those tasks with attention, appreciation and anticipation.

Over the past dozen years or so, I’d gotten into the habit of accomplishing the tasks with a sense of urgency. Admittedly, there was the pressure of getting the garden ready for Open Day by mid-May but, that was only part of the story. So many other commitments and projects had been taken on that I was spreading myself too thin. This year, under unforeseen circumstances, I find myself doing exactly the same chores but with a renewed energy and spirit of purpose. Once more, I’m having fun sowing seeds, eagerly checking daily to see if they’ve sprouted even though I know the typical amount of days it takes to germinate.

This past weekend, the pea shoots were transplanted to the potager. I had not sown peas in years because I really felt I hadn’t the real estate to set up a trellis for them. And I didn’t want to spend the time to do so. Well, all of a sudden, I knew exactly where to plant the seedlings. Along the edge of a potager bed that borders the pergola, seven pea plants were planted. To guide them in their climb, strings were strung from the top of the pergola down to each baby seedling. Like a 7 fretted instrument, it waits for the plants to start ‘plucking’ the strings and create sweet music. As the peas grow, they will provide some welcome shade at lunchtime gatherings at the pergola. By the time the whole potager is in full growth and the wisteria ( native variety so it blooms later) on the structure is fully leafed out, the peas will be done and that ‘window’ will once again be opened up to enjoy the view of the potager. Why didn’t this idea occur to me before? Because I hadn’t paused long enough to let the garden reveal the solution to me.

I’ve also started a project of growing micro-greens. It began with a large shallow pot of peas whose shoots add a seasonal something to salads and the occasional egg salad sandwich. As soon as I obtain the seeds, broccoli shoots are going to join this project. Since the lockdown is about staying healthy, micro-greens are a good thing to bring to the dining table – they are chock full of nutrients and very easy to grow. A nice rhythm of succession planting is the plan.

I didn’t get to start the root cuttings as intended last week. Between bad weather and other garden work, that got postponed – to hopefully sometime later this week. Instead, I divided some tiarella to make several new additions to the vertical garden. Herbs got re-potted and put up on the herb ‘wall’ in the potager. Nasturtium seeds started in the greenhouse were ready for transplant – they are now underplanted in the large pots that hold the bay standards. The citrus hued flowers should look lovely spilling over the pots.

I find myself short on pots – another reason I did not do the propagation from cuttings task. By setting up all those pots with daffodils and pansies to cheer up passers-by, there aren’t enough pots for much else! The current stay-home situation has forced me to reconsider the number of trips I make to any place. One makes do with what is at hand. Or do without all together. This week, I shall make one precious foray to my local nursery. Cannot wait!

Gardening these days is so mindful and sensory. I’m taking the time to smell the earth and how it feels in my hands as I dig and plant. The aroma of geosmine that we associate with spring is so life affirming.

As I carefully wash the soil off the roots of plants for the vertical garden, I marvel at the exquisite pale roots and how strong they are despite their delicate appearance. Nature is genius.

A regular distraction is following the goings on of the avian real estate market. One afternoon, we watched a turf battle between cat birds and crows, another time, we observed a pair of cardinals touring the garden checking out suitable sites for building a home. I really hope my garden came through – as such rejections are taken very personally. The hummingbird feeder is up but I think it is still a bit too chilly for those tiny friends. The robins that built a nest in the pot on the wall by the front door, get all irate when we step out or linger on the porch. So we are limiting our passage through that door and my time on the porch is restricted to watering the various pots there. At which point, I take advantage to quickly check the status of the eggs.

These days, I’m not nearly as efficient each time I work in the garden. Diversions not withstanding, the tasks are nevertheless getting accomplished. The garden is coming along just fine. And I’m so much more relaxed and fulfilled. As we know, slow and steady … I’m re-learning. This time around, I’m a better, more mature student. I think.

Note: Mother’s Day is less than two weeks away. For lovely gift selections – take a look at botanical notecards and soft furnishings for the home. All images are from my original watercolors. Original artwork is also available at Gallery. All profits go to support HIV/AIDS orphan girls’ education. Your support means everything to this cause. Thank you!

The herb ‘wall’. Soon, the A/C unit behind will be hidden by the growing plants.

The plant waste headed for the compost pile looks like abstract art

Note the strings!

Another view of the pea trellis

Note the pea shoots planted at the base .

The ‘meadow’ getting set to burst into a floral chorus

Leucojum

Two-toned muscari

Snakeshead fritillaria in a sea of forget-me-nots

Two types of fritillaria

See the robin keeping watch from the nest behind the pansies?

Pea shoot micro-greens

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Back To Basics

Time spent in the garden has never felt more correct than right now. It is where I feel alive, useful and comforted. It is where I instinctively want to be. I’m relishing the gift of time to work in it unfettered by busy agendas and outside commitments. More than anything, I’m deeply grateful for having a garden in the first place.

As a big city girl, it was a dream come true to have a place to garden – that was 28 years ago. All too quickly, the garden became such an integral part of my life that I just took it for granted. These days, I’m acutely aware of what a privilege it is to have a piece of land to call ones own. With everyone doing their part in staying home, the inherent human need to connect to nature is not always possible for many. With several parks and public gardens closed due to the current crisis, those that are still open are getting unprecedented numbers of visitors. I worry that they too might have to be shut down if folks don’t observe distancing rules.

I’m enjoying walks whenever possible. Good weather and fewer crowds determine those opportunities. But, I always have the garden to provide immediate and consistent relief. That is a blessing I don’t think I’ll take for granted ever again.

It is not surprising that people have instinctively sought the outdoors – we are part of the natural world after all. The healing, soothing, uplifting effect of time spent in nature is both anecdotal and empirical. Even more interesting at present, is how we are rediscovering fundamental practices that we had somewhat forgotten or moved away from.

One of the first items to fly off grocery store shelves was flour and active dry yeast. All of a sudden, America is baking bread at home. Even now, more than a month after we all began staying home, flour is not easy to come by. Apparently, we Americans are actually enjoying baking our bread. Interesting no? Something that demands time and effort was one of the first items we sought to make. We see bread as a staple, a basic food. The same with pasta – more people are making their own but not quite at the same level as bread. I personally find it amusing that cooking rice is daunting to many. Something so ridiculously easy is viewed with trepidation. Yet, here we are. Mind you, I think it is terrific that homemade bread is on the rise; I’m just puzzled that it is one of the first things to be undertaken. There is no actual bread shortage in the country.

Simultaneously, everyone is into vegetable gardening, Apartment dwellers are growing tomatoes, herbs and such in pots and under gro-lights/ on balconies. Those with some property are making vegetable plots or potting up a range of vegetable plants. People are starting from scratch – seed sales have risen so dramatically that some seed companies have had to start directing their seeds to only commercial growers.

From what I’ve heard, for the most part, seeds are being sown not in fancy seed starter kits but in old tin cans, the cardboard cylinders from paper rolls, newspaper molded into pots etc., Sustainability! These are very good developments. Healthy for humans and the planet.

I have a feeling we are each growing the vegetables that hark back to our ethnic roots or childhood cuisine. We are seeking comfort in the familiar. Trying to relive fond memories of (perhaps) less complicated times.

I myself, have seeds sprouting in my tiny greenhouse and no matter how many years one has sowed seeds, the thrill of seeing new growth never gets old. I’m also getting ready to take cuttings to root them on to get more plants. Geraniums, rosemary, heuchera, bay, myrtle to mention a few. I might even give boxwood a try.

Yes, it is back to basics these days. Sowing seeds, growing ones own food, rooting cuttings, making fertilizer such as comfrey tea ( I hear rhubarb leaves work just as well) and composting are seeing an epic revival all across the country, In advance of harvest time, I’ve already corralled all the necessities for canning – jams, sauces, pickles, chutneys and pestos to stock the larder. Secateurs and the blade of the manual, push reel mower have been sharpened. Stakes, twine and trowel sit ready.

Homesteading is back in style.

Note: My garden is still primarily a flower garden so, while I’m going about dealing with the veggies and herbs for the year, I’m thoroughly enjoying the early bulbs bursting forth on a daily basis. Seeing the new growth of perennials is always exciting and reassuring. I also have a couple of fun projects I’m working on – more on those when I develop them further along. Stay tuned!

In the garden this week:

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Naturally Fit

It’s about that time when resolutions made on the first of January start becoming a distant memory. Studies show that gym attendance falls off, diets are cheated upon, books get read less frequently etc., It is hard to stick to resolutions. Especially ones that require diligence and perseverance like exercise. It’d be vastly easier if getting fit wasn’t so much hard work. It ought to come naturally. Long, long ago, before all the conveniences borne of the Industrial Revolution, the mere act of going about ones daily business kept a person active and fit. Admittedly, it involved a lot of labor and leisure time was scarce.

These days, we have all the creature comforts and must make the effort to stay active. Ironic no? From cooking to cleaning to laundry to grocery shopping to getting to our place of work, it is so much easier than ever before. Why, many of us now work remotely from home. It’s all good. Except for that pesky keeping fit matter.

In my view, gardening is the one pleasurable yet productive activity that still demands a good degree of physical work. Provided one hasn’t out-sourced that as well. Despite the power tools available, there is much that one must do in the garden that requires actual effort. You can sit on a tractor mower (oh the horror!) but you still have to steer and guide – I suppose that counts for something. I’ve long been a devotee of the manual push reel-mower. The quiet is only interrupted by birdsong and the occasional bark of a dog. The smell of the freshly cut grass is pure reward for the effort.

As a child in India, I’d watch the hired gardeners cut the grass with scythes whilst moving on their haunches. They were so expert at this that I believed it was easy! There is absolutely no way I’d want to try that now.

Having eliminated almost all of my lawn save for a handkerchief size area, pushing my mower is barely any work. Still, it calls for some minimal walking around, a bit of trimming the edges along the walkway that divides said area and the glorious joy of being outdoors and appearing busy.

There is however no substitute for weeding, pruning, planting, deadheading and such. Carting plant material to the compost pile, filling the wheel-barrow with compost, spreading it over the beds – that’s work. While watering is not quite the labor intensive activity it used to be, the water-barrel necessitates the filling of watering cans from it and then carrying the cans to where watering is needed. In short, there is a fair amount of walking, bending, reaching, lifting and stretching involved in the pursuit of gardening. Pretty much the stuff called for in a good workout routine. The best part is that time flies in the garden. You go into it thinking you’re going to simply walk around and maybe deadhead and before you know it, you’re weeding, staking, watering …. a good hour or two have gone by.

So maybe every time you’re in the garden, one doesn’t break out into a Peloton induced sweat. But, consistent work in the garden can add up to much more than the weekly quota of 150 minutes of exercise mandated for a healthy lifestyle. Besides, there is the added benefit of nature therapy – a proven mood lifter. All this without even going into the happiness one finds in partaking of the fruits of ones labor. Literally.

But what does a gardener do in the winter you ask? Tidy out that tool shed, give the compost heap a regular stir up – it’s mighty good resistance exercise, re-pot house plants, start those seeds you’re itching to try out, prune the plants that require a winter trim. That’s not enough? How about getting to those house chores you’ve putting off because the garden needed you? I’m pretty sure there is plenty to re-organize, fix, paint or replace. That ought to keep one actively occupied. Add a routine walk outdoors and you’ve got yourself enough to stay in shape.

I can’t think of anything as beneficial for health as gardening. It’s so good for mind, body and soul – exactly what the doctor ordered.

Disclaimer – I am not in any way suggesting one stop going to the gym or give up your regular exercise regime. I myself clock in the necessary minutes of aerobic/resistance workouts just so I’m fit enough to take on the garden. All I’m saying is that as long as one is fully engaged in gardening, one is likely doing quite well in the fitness department. We all know that gardening works on those muscles you never knew you had.

Note: Some images of February blooms –

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

February Is For Loving

Some months take on a single meaning. December is for the holidays, July for the fourth, September is about school, November is Thanksgiving and February is all love. I like that as it gives some motivation to stay engaged and celebrate life’s moments.

Valentine’s day can feel a bit over-hyped, too twee and bring undue pressure on those who are single or going through a rough patch in a relationship. But these days it has become a much more inclusive day for expressing love. We include everybody in our circle – spouse/significant others, children, friends (Galentine’s day!). To that list, I add the garden as it is a living thing; it’s a good day to express some love to that which nurtures me so wholly all year round.

Since winter has been indecisive this year, I took advantage of yet another mild day last Sunday and went scanning for signs of stirring in the garden. Just a week ago, there was barely nothing to coo over. But now! Snowdrops have bashfully shown up. That set my heart aflutter. What is it about these diminutive bells that cause them to ring so loud in our psyche?

The hellebores too seem to have decided its time to awaken. One in particular made me smile – it bears near black flowers and the buds were sitting like plump berries glinting in the afternoon light. Others, in their tight, elongated forms could not compete. In a couple of weeks I will cut back the protective old leaves so the opening buds can show off their beauty.

I heard the birds go about their business as though it were normal to be so active in February. It is concerning that they might begin nesting a too early. A blast of severe winter weather could be just around the corner. Usually, I put up a nesting wreath to assist the birds – a simple circle of grapevine bearing threads of cotton or jute, pieces of moss, bits of ribbon ( natural material of course) and some twigs. Not right now though. It’s too soon. Perhaps in early March if it continues to be unseasonably mild.

Meanwhile, the Calamondin oranges are bringing some juicy color to the greenhouse. The fruits hang like pretty ornaments. Not particularly good for eating, they do add something to a cocktail of vodka with a shot of St. Germain.

So cheers! Happy Valentine’s Day everybody. Take a moment to walk around the garden with gratitude and affection in your heart. Better yet, walk with those you love.

Observe the heart shaped bay leaf amidst the normal ones!

Oh those shiny black buds!

Calamondin orange

Snowdrops

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

February Feelings

Where did January go? Wasn’t it just yesterday when we welcomed in 2020? But here we are in February, just past the mid-point of winter. And yesterday, the New York metropolitan area enjoyed a spring-ish (yes, spring) day. Which, while out of place for this month, put me in a mind to start thinking about spring. That’s a mere six weeks away!

There are plans to make, tasks to schedule and things to get ready. Click here for a list of February chores. It’s a good comprehensive register and will get you on the right track.

Last Sunday, the grape vine was pruned. Typically, that chore is done later in the month but, given the atypically mild winter we’ve had thus far, it seemed prudent to do it ahead of time.

A friend is starting some seeds for me and I’m ever so grateful. My greenhouse is so crammed with overwintering plants that there’s no room for seed flats. Besides, my travel/work schedule is a bit more hectic this season so it is particularly nice to have one less thing to do.

Much to my family’s relief, the hyacinths I had cooling in the refrigerator ( taking up prime real estate) are slowly coming out for forcing. Observing the daily progress of these bulbs sustains me enormously. It’s funny how something as simple as that can have such a profoundly uplifting effect on the mood.

The charming pots of primroses at my area Whole Foods proved irresistible. I now have five of them in different crayon-box colors cheering up the kitchen.

Both, hyacinth bulbs and primroses will find a home in the garden once they’ve finished blooming.

In the garden, February can be an austere month. But really, it is a month of promise of the beauty and bounty to come. It provides that quiet window before spring bursts forth rambunctiously and all hands must be on deck to cope with the myriad garden chores.

February is that plain looking gift that waits patiently for its value to be discovered.

Grapevine -Before the pruning

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Seeking Signs And Symbols

Instagram can play with this gardener’s heart. It’s bad enough that I’m confronted with lush summer gardens from down under and sure signs of spring from across the pond but, now there are images of early bulbs from my region. Spurred on by reports of snowdrop sightings and hellebore hunts, I decided to scan my own garden.

It’s funny how excited one can be at the thought of seeing those first signals hat the season is going to change. Yet, I was not that eager to actually find any blooms. It is way too early! We are still in January and frankly, any bulb in flower right now is not a good sign. Already, this winter is ringing alarm bells. With several days of above average temperatures and barely any snow, it’s hard to imagine what is to become of the seasons as we know them. Consequently, what, if at all, will flower and fruit is anybody’s guess. It’s all very unsettling.

A week ago, I’d come across a woolly worm. Folklore says that if the rusty brown band is wide, then it will be a mild winter. The more black there is, the more severe the winter. This one had a broad brown band. So there you have it.

Still, I ventured on my search. Nothing was blooming I’m kinda glad to report. No snowdrops or Iris reticulata. I peered around the hellebores still protected by leaf mulch and last years leaves. The buds are tightly closed but they’re emerging. That’s exactly how they should be!

Here’s a useful thing I recently learned about hellebore harvesting. You know how sometimes when you incorporate cut hellebore flowers in a floral arrangement, they go limp almost right away and yet at other times they stay bright and upright for as long as you like them? Turns out it is all in the timing of when you cut them. Erin Benzakein, the It girl of the flower world and owner of Florets, says to wait till the stamens have dropped and the seed pods are starting to set. Cut them at that moment and you’ve got yourself some nice, long lasting hellebores. I’m quite pleased to learn this nugget of wisdom.

The American wisteria and climbing hydrangea are showing the tiniest buds. So much promise in such minuscule packages.

These glimpses of what is yet to come was enough to make me optimistic. Thus far, there is no need to be worried about any premature activity. Fingers crossed, we will see a more familiar February.

The heart shaped stones I collect reminded me that hearts will be aflutter in February. Always a sweet tradition to express love to all who mean so much. And this brought me to Entada gigas. Otherwise known as Sea hearts/ sea bean/monkey ladder. I’d picked up a couple of seed packets on one of my trips. What attracted me to them were the large heart-shaped seeds that spread throughout the entire world via the sea currents and originate from the Amazon. One of the most special seed varieties in the world. The undisputed record for the longest bean pod is the sea heart.

I thought simply having the large, shapely seeds as decorative objects would be nice. But curious to see how they grow, I’ve given them to a gardener friend to get them started. Drew is experimenting with lots of unusual plants for annual arrangements in large pots and is willing to try out my contributions. So good to have him as my partner in horticultural high jinks. Love of all things plants is a sure sign of a friendship worth nurturing.

Woolly worm with broad, brown band

No sign of anything

Hardy sempervivum

Hellebores

Emerging hellebore buds

Climbing hydrangea buds. Still very tiny and tight.

Heart stones

Wall-in-waiting

Wall ferns being over-wintered in the potager

Sea hearts

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar