Press Reset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Plant Perspective

Last Sunday was most wonderful. The day sparkled in September sunlight with comfortable temperatures and a promise of fun to come. I was scheduled to attend the plant sale at Hollister House in Washington. CT. Following a gap of almost two years, the anticipatory thrill felt new and yet, oh, so familiar!

This was no ordinary plant sale. You were not going to find the most trendy or popular plants. Small growers in the Northeast who specialize in the less common, the special, some rare and others just less known. Many native plants. Most importantly to me, for the most part, they’re grown in the open so they are proven to be hardy in this region. I had missed these plant sales and chatting with the growers themselves. Nothing like firsthand knowledge. For those who’re familiar with these purchasing opportunities know exactly how wonderful they are. So friendly, helpful and modest about their valuable work.

I went with no list or plan about buying anything. Honestly, I simply needed to be in the midst of such an event once again. However, knowing myself and certain that I’d come upon irresistible plants, I went armed with cash, checkbook and credit card. Sensible shoes too. I was not disappointed.

Note: not all vendors accept credit cards.

The sheer joy of being in a spectacular garden, seeing familiar faces and confronting the myriad plant possibilities made me giddy. Having a glass of wine in hand elevated the experience to sublime.

Chat and purchase I did. I bought some must-haves and some cannot-live-withouts. Heaven!

To get really serious for a moment, it is of the highest importance to champion our regional growers. Locally grown plants do better. Supporting these nurseries also means supporting the economy of where we live. Often, they grow plants that could be at risk of being lost or forgotten but are valuable to the preservation of native fauna and flora. I purchased two yellow Slipper orchids – they are hard to source so I was very pleased to find them here.

Many growers also offer interesting, special non-native treasures. Bear in mind, as long as about 70% of the plants in your garden are native/eco-beneficial, it is perfectly fine to have some non-native, non-invasive treasures. Case in point, I bought a new-to-me peony – P. obovata Japanese Pink. Take a look at their bright seedpods in the image below.

Simply put, these folk are vital to how and why we create gardens. Support them – they’re heroes. Look for similar plant sales or visit them directly. You will not regret it.

A word about Hollister House. It is a most wonderful garden that appeals to all the senses. The painterly color combinations, textures, fragrance, shapes, sounds of water and pollinators and, designs of the many rooms cannot fail to delight and instruct. My daughter who grew up being taken ( dragged she says) to many, many famous, fabulous, unique and also not so well-known gardens, declares Hollister House as the best garden she’s ever visited. Do check out their website and plan a visit.

Now, I must get into the garden to install my cache of new plants.

Some nurseries to check out:

McCueGardens – 47, Hartford Avenue, Weathersfield, CT 06109

Broken Arrow Nursery – www.brokenarrownursery.com

Cricket Hill Garden – www.crickethillgarden.com

Falls Village Flower Farm – www.fallsvillageflowerfarm.com

Note: Some images of the gardens at Hollister House and plant growers –

Seedpod of P odovata

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Exposing True Colors

My Digging Deeper event ‘Wilding Walls And Fruiting Fences’ took place last Sunday. The weather cooperated beautifully and I was more than ready to welcome the folk who’d signed up. That they were willing to spend their Sunday morning in my garden felt very special. I was in my happy place – a chance to be with gardeners/garden lovers exchanging garden ideas, information and experiences is my favorite pastime. I was not disappointed – this was a wonderful group of friendly, curious and intelligent individuals. Such a pleasure.

I’m used to sharing my garden with the public through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program – which is normally in May. Mid-Spring is when it looks most beautiful. And winter weary visitors are particularly complimentary on seeing plants fresh in their new growth, flaunting bright colors.

Late summer however, is not when my garden is at its best. Typically, there is a certain fatigue that sets in as summer is drawing to an end and fall isn’t quite ready to take over. Additionally, I’m most often away on vacation at this time so, the garden has that neglected appearance that makes any self-respecting gardener cringe. This year, while I am very much present, the weather was seriously disagreeable that things did not look much improved. As such, how the garden appeals is pretty much up to the beholder.

In front, the beds that look fetching in a parade of bulbs and early perennials through spring, become boisterous as summer perennials take over. Likewise, the meadow moves from a space of happy bulbs frolicking around to a space thick in all manner of native plants jockeying for space and attention. To those who are accustomed to a garden being well contained and tidy, this can come as bit of a shock. If one spends a little time in the garden however, they’d become aware of the life that this garden supports. Birds, butterflies, bees and all manner of other insects abound. This is exactly what I intended for my piece of paradise.

To please a traditionalist, short of giving my garden complete re-constructive surgery, there isn’t much I can do. Not that I really expect to please everyone at any time.

The garden had taken a beating this year because we’ve had really bad weather. First a spring that was mostly too cold and dry and then a very hot and wet summer. Extremely challenging. Plants struggled, many bloomed but the flowers could barely last. Things were early or late but not particularly on time. Some plants simply gave up trying.

A visitor was going to witness a rather wild looking, not so conventional garden. I know it is not everybody’s cup of tea. As I prepared for the big day doing the usual weeding and tidying up, I was acutely conscious of all that was not right. The flaws glared at me. In addition, certain matters that I kept meaning to address but did not because I am freshly returned from a trip and short on time, were now plainly obvious to me. Why hadn’t I taken care of trimming my side of the neighbors hedge? And what about those annuals I intended to plant to ignite the color palette in the beds and meadow? Why did I let the thuggish (but loved) members to spread unchecked? Honestly, all I could see was everything that was not right.

On behalf of my garden, I felt very vulnerable and exposed.

On the morning of my Digging Deeper, I had my fingers crossed for kind, understanding eyes to be cast on the garden. I needn’t have worried. The visitors were ever so generous in their observations. They noticed the flowers and many features and commented enthusiastically. On spying hummingbirds, there were such expressions of joy. And when it came to the focus of the event, I had a rapt audience eager to understand the art and science of espalier and vertical gardening.

Suddenly, I was seeing my garden through their eyes. They appreciated the variety of native flowers in bloom – not splashy but nevertheless pretty. A couple of people had seen my garden in spring on past Open Days. They too were taken by the summer display – something that I feared was less than best. I realized then, they were gardeners – they understood the vagaries of the weather, the vanity of the gardener and the wonder contained in all gardens.

By letting others tour my garden in all its authentic reality, without any pretension, I had freed myself to share my own experiences and knowledge in exactly the same way. In turn, I gained a new found appreciation of my humble garden and the people who choose to visit it.

Here are some images from my Digging Deeper morning –

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Climate Control

What a weekend it was! Hurricane Henri had a good portion of the Northeast in a heightened state of alert. A fair bit inland, my corner was told to expect a tropical storm. High winds and heavy rains. So, we got down to getting necessary garden chores done. Tethering some pots, laying others down on their sides, harvesting ripened grapes so they couldn’t be tossed off in the wind, bringing in certain things that had no business sitting outside in a storm, hanging pots set on the ground, you get the idea.

Needless to say, the scheduled Digging Deeper event for Sunday was canceled. That was so disappointing as I’d been looking forward to having fellow gardeners to share, commiserate and exchange stories and lessons.

As it turned out, we got lucky. Henri was down graded to a tropical storm and our area missed the predicted winds. It did rain though – all of Sunday and well into Monday. But not quite as fierce as feared. I’m truly grateful. It is now time to shift focus on more usual matters in the garden.

I’ve been taking note of plants that did well this year and those that have not. The weather this year has been so erratic and uncharacteristic that it is not really a matter of selecting or rejecting any specific plants but more about simply observing. This is the sort of information that is useful as one plans ahead. The climate is changing and so must our gardens. Certain plants that rely on colder winters will not do well as my planting zone moves slowly into a warmer one. On the other hand, plants that I’ve coveted over the years but could not survive harsh winters might now take up residence in my garden. It is a very bittersweet reality.

Last week, I learned that our fall this year will be warmer and temperatures will not drop significantly till the end of November. Hmmm. Does this mean that planting spring bulbs should not happen on time? Typically, I plant bulbs at the very end of October into early November. Will the bulb houses know to ship them out accordingly? How much later will be ideal? Nearer Thanksgiving? A more definitive directive is required as I need to plan accordingly! Bulbs are a huge investment for me and I cannot afford to risk any loss. They are such a favorite that without them, I cannot imagine spring. Here’s hoping it all gets sorted out and the situation is not as dire as indicated. As a gardener, optimism is a mainstay.

A few weeks ago, I placed my bulb order. I was a bit later than usual. Just by a couple of weeks. And yet, a couple of choices were sold out. I urge all fellow bulb maniacs to get their orders done ASAP.

Keeping in mind the way the weather directed the time line of the bulb show this year, I tweaked my list with a few more late season bloomers. I also added more of the stalwarts like hyacinthoides, camassia and select alliums. For a little indulgence, I splurged ( just a bit) on the more expensive Frittilaria – imperialis and persica. They are really pricey so I ordered only a few. When I win the lottery, you can bet I will go crazy. Finally, to kick things up in early spring, I ordered a batch of a new-to-me crocus – C olivieri ‘Orange Monarch’ and yes, it is a golden orange with garnet-merlot striations. That should really punch up the usual purple, white and yellow mix. Most folk will not see this particular show. But I will and that’s what matters. Because in the end, I garden for me.

Note: Since it’s not bulb season and we’re only dreaming/planning for it, I’m sharing a few watercolor images of them.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Homecoming

One of the first things I do on my return home from a trip, be it a few days or some weeks, is to get out into the garden and poke around. What’s in bloom, what’s not, assess the status of how things have withstood my absence and lack of care. I do this with a mixture of trepidation and excitement.

This past Friday was no different. As luck would have it, an early morning flight arrival meant there was plenty of time to unpack, put away, get settled and go survey the garden at leisure. With jet lag being the default gift of a long journey, it really helps to spend time outdoors getting some light and nature therapy.

The sight of the flowers in bloom is uplifting for sure. It gives the immediate reassurance that things are fine. But very quickly, the rampant growth of the plants has me alarmed – the garden has slowly morphed into a jungle! There’s a wildness to it that can only happen when there has been a great deal of rain, high temperature and lack of due diligence.

As I begin my methodical tour of inspection, I note the messiness of the unchecked growth. The aggressive members are stifling the more timid ones. It’ looks like a banner year for slugs – they’re ALL over the place. Ugh.

The persistently high humidity has encouraged mildew and black spot to move in with gusto. I observe a level of tiredness in some plants – as though they’ve been fighting less than ideal conditions for too long. Having myself just endured three weeks of unrelenting monsoon rains and high temperatures, I can totally empathize.

There’s much damage control to be done. Quite frankly, it’s a bit overwhelming. First order of business over the weekend, was to get the weeding done. It just feels good to know something positive has been initiated.

I’m now going to break up the long list of chores into smaller segments and then go about it systematically. There’s much to cut back, thin out, dig up, clean up and tidy. And, I have a deadline.

On August 22, I’m doing a Digger Deeper event for the Garden Conservancy. This is a masterclass of sorts. Informing and instructing, demystifying and sharing certain elements of gardening. In this case, espaliering and vertical gardening will be the two things that will be covered ( or is that uncovered?!).

As we all know, weather wise, it’s been a strange, unpredictable year. Things in the garden have not proceeded according to expectations. That’s something I cannot change. However, I can do everything else to make the attendees have a good experience in the most pleasing, agreeable surroundings.

So without further ado, I’m off to get started. Wish me luck please!

Note: If interested, you can still sign up for this Digging Deeper event. I understand there are a couple of tickets left.

The immediate survey on my return –

Cardinal vine has made it to the top of the pergola and mingling with the wisteria. Hope the hummingbirds are happy!

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

August Aura

August Aurum

Rays so radiant, burnished bright

Sunflower faces beaming high

Solidago spreading yellow light

Peaches ripening as branches sigh

Flickering flames of Monarch flights

     Mantled in gold is August.

– Shobha Vanchiswar

Joy and gratitude in reuniting with my father notwithstanding, I miss my garden. The flowers that showed up and left, the butterflies that visited, imbibed and moved on, the nests that were built and occupied. Being cooped up in a city apartment has revealed most clearly just how much my garden contributes to my well-being. Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely no remorse in coming to Mumbai at such a difficult, scary time. My heart could simply not bear the forced separation from my father any longer. He and I needed this visit equally. It’s been fraught with emotion and that’s exactly why I miss my garden. The monsoons rains prevent me from seeking a temporary sanctuary in a park or public garden. In fact, the sun has graced us on just two brief occasions over the course of almost 3 weeks!

Being in my little botanical paradise gives me perspective and balance. A daily dose of time in the garden admiring the flowers, being entertained by the wildlife, tending to chores provides the much needed time to muse over whats happening in my life and work out solutions, make immediate and long-term plans and often, take stock of all the many blessings I’m given – in essence, one gains perspective and clarity. It is the therapy so priceless and valuable that I miss it no matter where I am for any length of time.

As I wrestle with future actions to keep my father safe, happy, engaged and comfortable in these uncertain times, I wish I had access to my garden. It would help me make good, wise decisions. As always.

The images below are from last July/August –

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

July Ripples

July

July comes in many waves

surges first in stars and stripes

then butterflies surf garden sites

spilling over in swells and sprays

as heated rollers collapse the days.

Shobha Vanchiswar

The past week has been trying. The heat wave followed by heavy rains pretty much kept me indoors. In the beginning, it was kind of fun to have legitimate reason to loll in air-conditioned comfort and read at leisure. But after a couple of days, I started fretting over the garden. When I finally ventured out, as expected, the weeds had made great strides. A few days without vigilance and the hooligans had gone to town. What weeding could be done between rain showers was done. But that’s it. It just wasn’t possible to do more.

This week is once again fraught with erratic weather but I think I can no longer take it easy. There’s more weeding, plenty of deadheading and cutting back awaiting. The spice bush and climbing hydrangea are being strangled by Virginia creeper that somehow escaped notice till now. And the ornamental raspberry is threatening to overrun the meadow. The bees love it so, thus far, I’ve been reluctant to disturb their bliss. It’s going to be quite a job to pull out a substantial chunk of this hardy plant but I cannot afford to delay– several other plants in the vicinity are being smothered.

Meanwhile, with all the warmth and humidity, the snail and slug populations have exploded. A real bumper crop. Aaaargh!

The list of chores grows and the weather refuses to cooperate. So I’m left with no choice but to get out and get on. Sigh. My pile of summer reading must wait.

Note: Some images of whats doing in my garden at present –

Milkweed

Ornamental raspberry

Coneflowers

Nasturtium

Canna

Gardenia

First fig

Day lily

R. strawberry hills

Astilbe

Acanthus rising

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Living In The Sun

A big takeaway from the past year was that everyone rediscovered the power of nature. The visceral need we have for the open spaces rich in vegetation and fresh air was unarguably recognized. Those of us blessed with any size of land found sheltering at home less stifling than apartment dwellers. Parks and preserves saw a remarkable up-tick in visitors. Following more than a year of restrictions, how we live has become a focus.

Inside the home, we have quickly realized that our spaces are not designed for our current needs. For that matter, many homes were never set up for us to spend a great deal of time in it. With the flexibility of working at home full-time or part, office space is a necessary requirement. The family dining table can no longer do double duty. In order for any member of a household to get some time and space alone, bedrooms are now not merely for rest/sleep. Open living plans, hugely popular pre-pandemic are now regarded as unsustainable for multiple people living and working from home. Interior designers have noted the new needs and are responding with ingenuity and creativity.

Similarly, the gardens of many demand re-imagining. First and foremost, let me get a pet peeve out of the way – can we please stop calling our outdoor piece of property a ‘yard’? A yard is simply the grounds surrounding a building or a unit of measure. A yard does not evoke a beautiful space. Think about it. There are dockyards, shipyards, farmyard, junkyard, barnyard … you get the idea. Without the prefixes court- or vine-, yard by itself does not conjure up greenery. However, ‘garden’ immediately makes one see plants, grass, flowers and fruits. Somewhere pleasant. Words matter.

Gardens are not just for show. They should be designed for people to spend time in them – cultivating, meditating, socializing, playing, eating, reading, napping. That pretty much means outdoor living. Be it a balcony, a narrow strip or a bigger space, we must think about how they can serve multiple purposes aesthetically and effectively. I would add that all designs must be sustainable, eco-friendly, organic and environment conscious. In my book these requirements are non-negotiable.

A simple bench set in the garden provides a place to sit, read, converse and observe. Add a table and now you have a spot for eating, working, painting, writing, playing cards or board games. A swing under a tree or a hammock slung between two trees offers a different attractive choice. You see?

Of course, the right plants are critical. Color, texture, shapes, heights, widths, fragrance, tactility and functionality are all key attributes to consider. Native/eco-beneficial too. Good design makes a garden beautiful and functional.

Pulling together all the required elements to create a garden that suits the way one lives is perhaps most challenging. And exciting.

In my own garden, there are various places for escape, rest and activity. In the front, the two Adirondack chairs were installed to provide a place from which one could enjoy this area of the garden. It’s close enough to the street that spontaneous conversations with neighbors out for walks happen. From mid-afternoon on, the sun has moved on and one can sit in shade and read, work on the laptop, take a tea break, watch the birds, butterflies and bees.

The terrace on the side, is a lovely spot for breakfast before it is bathed in full sun till early evening. In summer, it’s too hot by noon. In cool months the sunny location is a gift. A table with chairs and an umbrella that can be tilted for requisite shade makes spending time here amidst the sweet smelling citrus and gardenia (in pots)is a rather sublime experience. Members of the household routinely hold Zoom meetings from this location. The hummingbird feeder nearby is visited often and always brings joyful distraction.

Similarly, the tree house has also stretched itself from just a cool spot to hangout (or camp out) with friends to a cool spot to work. Wi-Fi extends to this perch so what at one time was also a place to do homework, now permits all manner of work be conducted. As well as the occasional nap.

From late fall to early spring, the greenhouse, set up with a small table and single chair takes on the role of sheltering a myriad assortment of plants as well as an escape for any family member who needs a little nature therapy. Or simply needs to get away from the rest of us. This past winter, it became my husband’s corner office! He found it more enjoyable than sharing the house with the rest of us.

The table under the pergola on the terrace in the back is used in countless ways. We eat, entertain, work, read, paint, play, bird-watch and generally hangout. All day long. Adding an outdoor heater last fall has made it possible to use this area almost all year round. String lights and a chandelier keep us going well into the night. Poker nights, hysterical rounds of charades and long, lively conversations happen here frequently. Life.

There is a bench towards the back of the ‘meadow’ that serves as an escape from the madding crowd and also a restful spot from which to enjoy the flowers in bloom and observe more closely the activities of all sorts of pollinators. Seeing the meadow from a different perspective can be eye-opening.

A similar bench under the grapes on the far side of the terrace is another good location for bird-watching and catching some sun and quiet time.

The garden should be a true extension of the home. It’s meant to be lived in. Not merely viewed. It’s good for health.

Note: We’re in the midst of a heat wave. Hope these images give you some respite:

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Nurturing Nature?

This past weekend, we finally took a mini-vacation. A long weekend at the beach – a much craved change of scene. After staying home for so long, it felt strange to be packing and yet, so familiar. Our eagerness to be in the sun, sand and water brought back memories of other beaches around the world when it all felt so accessible. Yet, here we were going to a beach house within the state and it felt surreal to be going anywhere at all. Clearly, returning to ‘normal’ is a process.

The one response that came back without hesitation was my worry about the garden. For as long as I can remember I’m loathe to leave my garden for any length of time. What if it got too hot/ too windy/too cold/too wet? What if pests take over? Will the weeds take over? Without deadheading, plants that should bloom longer will set seed! How to make sure the mowing ( of a very tiny ‘lawn’) gets done? An endless list of potential problems plague me.

Despite all the trips made over the decades and the garden surviving each time, I fret about the garden and miss it even before I’ve left. Crazy. I know.

It felt even harder to get away this time. After all, the garden has been the mainstay through all the months we’ve had to be sheltering at home. Without it I’d have found life during the pandemic so much more difficult. Caring for the garden was my salvation. And now I was being called to let it go. Albeit very temporarily. I still found it challenging.

This got me thinking about all the things we do for our gardens that might well be viewed as unnecessary. Even a bit too much. I cannot help myself. It’s who I am. Please tell me I’m not alone as I recount some of the stuff I’ve done to safeguard my piece of paradise.

Years ago, the morning of the day of my departure to a destination overseas, two little baby robins fell from a nest high up in a tree. Obviously, I could not get them back to the nest. I could not stand sentry over them myself as I was going away. The thought of predators coming for these birds made me very anxious. I put the little ones in a shoe box lined with leaves and grass and set it where I hoped the robin parents would find and feed them. And instead of packing and doing the numerous things that needed doing for the trip, I spent the better part of the day calling all sorts of agencies to see if they could advice or help in any way. No luck. They mostly thought I was unduly concerned. But I did find out that should a domestic cat kill a bird on my property, I could sue the owner of the murderous cat. Really? Punishment for a cat doing what is in its very nature? Even I, in my heightened state of worry could see the absurdity of this law.

I finally conceded that I’d done my best and frantically moved to finish packing and dash to the airport.

The following year, because the eggs in the nest that sat nestled amidst the branches of the climbing rose that scrambled over the arbor leading to the front door had hatched and we were once again headed out on vacation, I slung a child size hammock beneath so if the babies fell, they would land safely in it and the parents could still tend to them. This arrangement effectively precluded access to the front door but who cared!

On my return, the hammock looked unused and the nest was empty and intact. Presumably all had gone well. Whew. Having to explain to neighbors this strange arrangement without coming across as batty was however a different matter.

Last week, we netted the espaliered fruit trees to protect the pears from marauding squirrels. The evening before going away for aforesaid weekend to the beach, it occurred to me that one of the hummingbird feeders sat too close to the netting and I was concerned the diminutive drinkers could get entangled n the net if they didn’t pay attention. I had to most certainly move the feeder to a safer spot nearby. My husband kidded me about imagining ‘drunken’ hummingbirds leaving the bar and getting entangled but I was not to be dissuaded. Feeder was not only moved but I waited till I saw that the initially confused hummingbirds discovered the new location and resumed their drinking activity.

Just having/hiring someone come by to check on the garden to water and weed is not enough. I need someone who is very familiar with my garden and also loves it. Okay, at least really likes it. Person must be kind and caring in general. I’m happy to report that I’ve found just such a person. A nephew who lives 20 minutes away and is willing to indulge his eccentric aunt. Dedicated garden–sitters are true godsends and I have no doubt there’s a special place in heaven for such people.

But please, please tell me I’m not the only gardener obsessing about how to keep the garden cared for whilst one is away. After all the ribbing about babying the garden that comes my way, I need some serious validation. Help.

P.S. In case you’re wondering, the weekend away was lovely. Weather cooperated and the beach was just wonderful. I watched a gull pick clams from the water, fly up high and drop the clams so they opened on impact and the bird could easily access the contents.

I got yelled at for coming too close to the roost by a nesting osprey. It was at least 20 feet above ground and had nothing to worry about. But then, who am I to talk about worrying.

I was entranced by a flotilla of ducks guiding their babies ashore to settle down for the night and great egrets parading around nonchalantly like they were too cool for school.

Dog roses were in full bloom along the beaches. And in the gardens I passed by were other roses, hydrangea, yellow baptisia, magnolia and Montauk daisies looking quite spectacular. I also noted deer and rabbits in good numbers. I wonder what sort of compromise they’ve reached with the gardeners.

Note: Enjoy the images of nature that made my weekend so rewarding:

Swan

Going ashore for the night

Duck flotilla

Osprey

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

My Big Little Garden

A few days ago, I watched the The Big Little Farm – ‘an award-winning documentary about bringing a farm back to life after years of neglect. New farmers, the Chester family, work with nature – not against it – to create a living system with biodiversity where each plant, animal and insect contributes to the health of the land’. I encourage everyone to watch it. It is inspiring, informative, life-affirming and heartwarming.

The basic principles applied in the film are easily implemented in our gardens both public and private. It is how we humans should be cultivating the land. In harmony with nature, maintaining that balance that is so fragile and yet so critical.

The day after I saw the Big Little Farm, I sat a while outside thinking about the film. I could drew a parallel with the evolution of my own garden. When we first bought our property, it was a completely neglected piece of land. The house, built in 1915 was sound and solid. It needed updating but nothing drastic. The garden however, was a total shamble. Left on its own for a few years, it had lost the the battle with the woods in the back which had started encroaching well into the property. We had to measure exactly where the property line was and then started removing all manner of invasive vegetation and debris.

To the side of the property, weeds had quite literally become trees. You couldn’t walk there let alone examine that side of the house. Just out of grad school, we were so naive that we bought the house without really knowing what condition this part was in. After we closed on the house, we had to hire a tree service to remove the “weeds” and open up the space to create a proper path connecting front to back. Mercifully, that side of the house was intact.

In front, there were sickly evergreens right up against the house. They’d grown so tall and gangly that you couldn’t quite see the house. Imagine how dark it felt inside.

Separating us from our neighbors on either side were jungle-like hedges and raggedy shrubs totally gone out of control. In general, we’d inherited a complete mess.

Slowly, we cleared and cut, waited and watched, planned and prepared. I realized I could create garden ‘rooms’ with the different levels that were naturally presented. One squarish area sat atop the old septic tank. This meant that beneath a foot and a half to two feet of soil, was a thick layer of concrete. Nothing with deep roots would do well here. I made it the potager where herbs and vegetables could grow. (The neighbor’s cedar tree was much shorter at that time – it is now huge and casts more shade than I’d like). The fact that I’ve added native wisteria and espaliered pears on two sides of this space is typical of how I’m always pushing the limits.

After the clearing and opening up happened in the front, a charming garden was envisioned. I believe I succeeded and the beds are a happy mix of bulbs and mostly native perennials that have something in bloom through three seasons. It starts off in spring looking colorful and orderly, then gradually gets looser and assertive in the summer and by the fall, it looks rather wild and rambunctious. I like it that way. As do the bees and butterflies.

The meadow in the back was my big push to eliminate all lawn and create a lush area of native plants where native wildlife could thrive and result in an ecosystem that was in balance. This is the most ambitious project in the garden. It’s still evolving but, it is certainly already the busiest area! Birds, bees, butterflies, worms, toads, garden variety snakes and a whole slew of other insects thrive here.

Right from the start, we knew we wanted to practice organic methods and began composting kitchen and garden waste. We also set up a rain barrel to water the garden. We eschewed gas powered mowers and found ourselves a manual push-reel mower that had been put out at the curb for garbage pick-up. This was in the early 1990’s. We knew nobody who was composting or using rain barrels. Gas was cheap and non-organic products were prolific. We were bucking the trend and labeled quaint or hippie-ish. This was amusing to me – I have a strong background in Microbiology and molecular biology. All I’d been doing was applying that knowledge to restore the health of the soil and ecosystem of the land. Straightforward science.

Through old-fashioned research ( pre-Google) and much trial and error, the garden is now a place of biodiversity, beauty and balance. It is a very hardworking garden and tries to serve all life forms well. As small as it is, this garden works big. I’m constantly learning and growing with it. Perhaps most significantly, it stands testament to what each of us blessed with a bit of land (or pots) can do to become a contributing part of the larger effort to keep our planet and ourselves healthy, happy and in harmony.

Note: A bit of what’s doing in the garden this week –

Some images from how the garden used to be. I wish I’d known to take more photos of the ‘Before’.

The potager/herb garden is ready for planting!

A bit of the mess on the side-path taken from indoors.

The original front garden!

Ripping up turf and compacted soil over the old septic tank

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar