Growing Minds

No matter where we find ourselves, gardeners are always gardeners. We notice plants that are minding their own business by the side of a street, rush to examine what’s pushing its way through walls of ancient ruins, insist on stopping the car on busy roads to see exactly what flowers are blooming in the wild, quiz farmers and produce vendors at the local market about the hows and whats of growing fruits and vegetables, cajole chefs to share recipes of unusual, out of the box presentations of vegetables ( a mille-feuille or Napoleon using thin layers of crisp eggplant instead of pastry anyone?), going out of the way to visit both famous as well as secret gardens. I’m guilty of all of the aforementioned traits – curiosity of the natural world sustains me endlessly. I know I’m not alone.

That said, here are some things I’ve noticed/learned/enjoyed on this current visit to Provence. Which is by the way, a place very close to my heart. I’ve been coming here for over 25 years and I’m still always experiencing new stuff. This region never ceases to inspire.

Provence is famous for its lavender. All those beautiful pictures of swathes of lavender are true. It really is stunning to see the fields and fields of this herb in bloom. I’ve known that the type that grows in lower altitude is widely used in household products (soaps, detergents and such) and the higher altitude lavender is the fine variety that is used in the perfume industry. The former is pollinated by insects like the honey bee while the latter is wind pollinated. There is also a hybrid type. Even small changes in altitude will influence the quality of any of the varieties.

Last week, I learned that despite France being the luxury perfume capital of the world, lavender is the only product that is truly French. Other flowers and industry components were and still are from former French colonies. Iris from Egypt for example. The region of Grasse, where the top perfume houses have their headquarters was simply selected because of its location – a port easily accessed from other parts of the world serving the perfume industry. One might see an occasional field of roses or some other flower in Grasse but that is hardly what is supplying the industry. Lavender however is a pure homegrown product and yet, its mostly treated like the stepchild of the business. Go figure.

This years olive harvest is being watched closely. Olives are wind pollinated. So when the small white flowers bloom, they depend quite literally on how the wind blows. This year, Provence received an usual amount of ill-timed rains which caused many olive trees to drop a good amount of the flowers. Consequently, it is expected that the harvest will be lower than usual. Quel domage.

I noticed for the first time how well jasmine grows in this region. While I’d been here before in lavender season which extends over a few weeks, I’d not had the pleasure until now to see and inhale the jasmines in bloom. Many home gardens have these plants scrambling up sides of the stones walls to make rather fetching images. Old walls of local stone softened by bright green vines tracing their way around makes for easy design solutions.

On a walk along a nondescript road in the middle of an old village, I noticed a tree bearing fruit amidst a random group of overgrown weeds and shrubs. It was not immediately clear what sort of fruiting tree I was looking at. Starting out yellow and then turning a pink-orange, these almost heart shaped fruits were larger than cherries but much smaller than plums. I picked a ripe fruit, a dried up drupe and a set of leaves and brought them back to the house. The PlantSnap app was no help at all. I still don’t exactly know what it is but on cutting the fruit, the pit looks to me that it is a type of plum. My research continues. Maybe like crab apples, this is a ‘crab plum’.

I’ve also been enjoying interesting creations where vegetables are being used in desserts. Chocolate and cream of artichoke hearts gateaux, popsicles of sugar snap and vanilla bean ice cream covered in a coating of white chocolate blended with peas. And lets not forget that mille-feuille of eggplant instead of pastry. I’ve had sweet horseradish sorbet accompanying a main course. A beet infused potato sliced so fine that it is transparent and somehow made crisp and flecked with blue petals of chicory accompanying an amuse-bouche. Every single one of these and other such dishes was truly delicious. And visually beautiful to boot. I’m now inspired to try my hand at coming up with my own unusual creations. If I succeed in ‘inventing’ even one dish, I’ll be rather chuffed!

And so it goes, the world is a great big classroom and a gardener is its eternal student.

Note: No apologies for the many lavender images! I simply cannot get enough!

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Travel Takes

The best sort of travel is when one can take a proper break from routine to explore and soak in the surroundings, refresh the mind and fill the heart with a sense of awe and gratitude. That’s exactly what I’m doing here in Provence. I come here because its my happy place. All my senses are engaged and the joy I feel every time is pure bliss.

It is lavender season at the moment so this is when Provence shines at her brightest and looks her very best. Although, I’m told that the poppies gave strong competition till a few weeks ago. It has apparently been a particularly good year for them. They are well on their way out but what glimpses I’ve had of them, I can well imagine the stunning scenes I’ve just missed. Perhaps another year I’ll come in time for les coquelicot.

To see fields and fields of purple rows of lavender is nothing short of breathtaking. Up close, the thrum of bees purposefully making their rounds of the flowers is almost deafening. The butterflies add further color and movement while the birds compete in song. It is simply marvelous.

Lavender aside, there are other wildflowers in bloom. Geraniums, Spanish broom, chicory, scabiosa, verbascum, poppies, oxeye daisies and several others, some of which that I’m yet to identify are running riot in the meadows, hill sides, along the roads and even amongst some of the lavender. And since they’ve had more rain than usual, there is a green lushness I haven’t seen before. I’m smitten.

I’m able to see how these plants grow naturally, the sort of conditions they like best, the surprising color combinations we don’t typically try in our gardens ( sulfur yellow and pale pink?) – so much inspiration. Simple, common flowers doing a bang up job in beautifying the countryside.

The gardens in my temporary home are also looking lovely. The jasmine is in bloom and sends out a heady fragrance in the afternoon after the sun has warmed the air sufficiently. The small lavender ‘field’ is getting ready to burst into bloom – soon. I’ll have my very own purple haze to enjoy. It should look quite stunning against the soft, gray-green of the olive grove alongside.

And so it goes. Travel opens the mind – to take in new pleasures and often, learn from the old.

Here are some images from my wanderings in Provence –

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Out Of Sight But Not Out Of Minds

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

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

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

I worry. I can’t help it.

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

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

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Ensemble!

A garden is a performance art – the success of which is incumbent on the ensemble that makes it all happen. A cast of plants, gardener (s), soil, sunshine, clouds, rain, temperature, birds, bees, butterflies, worms and a host of other critters come together to create a garden. Each part is crucial and if even one member falters, the entire production is compromised. And, in the actual viewing or surveying of a garden at its best, no single character must stand out or dominate. Each complements the whole.

When a visitors experience a garden, they must feel inspired, comforted, and/or enthralled such that while different aspects or elements may strike a chord, provoke an emotion, recall a memory or, enlighten the mind, its the whole encounter that resonates.

This is true of almost every good experience. Often, when we say it was lovely or powerful, credit is given to something obvious. A flamboyant plant or a gregarious person but, we don’t think about the subtle elements that go into making it sublime overall.

This past week, a special event brought this truth to mind. It was the annual gala at Lyndhurst Mansion at Tarrytown, NY. Lyndhurst is described as a “majestic estate on the Hudson River with architectural tours, historical exhibits and, a relaxing landscape to explore”. Indeed, the grounds looked quite bucolic and their famous rose garden was enchantingly and abundantly in flower.

After three days of being blanketed in smoke from the Canadian wildfires, the air cleared, the sky was visible, the evening sun shone and the temperature remained very pleasant. All of which had the well attired guests in a most agreeable mood. We mingled and struck up conversations with new faces and some familiar ones, sipped wine and nibbled on an array of small bites which appeared in most timely fashion. One could not help but be in a good frame of mind.

‘Unlocking Lyndhurst’, the new exhibit was on preview for the guests. Learning the stories about the pieces beyond their aesthetic or historic significance was enlightening. It is a small but quite fascinating show.

And then, it was time for dinner. We found ourselves at a table of strangers who quickly became friends. Sharing much conversation and laughter, we enjoyed the meal, the live music and, the fund raising auction with a most entertaining auctioneer. All in all a wonderful evening.

But, that wasn’t all of it. It was how the space under a capacious tent felt- inviting and intimate but not crowded, the attentive wait staff and, the floral arrangements all around. Each table had a unique display that was simple ( a group of glass bowls each holding ferns or other greenery), creatively quirky ( branches of cherry tomatoes), elegant ( clematis vines gracefully climbing a support), charmingly wild (a mass of sweet peas and tiny bells of clematis), exotic (orchids) or sumptuous (lavishly filled urns near the stage). The floral works of art were the silent cast members of the ensemble that made the evening such a success. None shrieked ‘look at me’ or competed with another. Each arrangement held its own and together they contributed quiet beauty to the whole event. Kudos to floral designer and entrepreneur Sylvia of Cape Lily Flowers in Tarrytown, NY

Working harmoniously together is what its all about.

Note: If you live in the area, I encourage you to visit Lyndhurst Mansion. Better yet become a member and you’ll be privy to all sorts of events and exhibits. And the 67 acres of grounds with a fantastic view of the Hudson River will be available for your indulge all year round.

A few images from “unlocking Lyndhurst”:

Some of the flowers:

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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POV

This past Sunday and the Monday prior, groups of artists have come to paint in my garden. As I truly believe that gardens are best enjoyed when shared with others, it gives me enormous pleasure to see people enjoy my garden. When something that gives me comfort and inspiration does the same for others, we become connected at a deeper level I think. The shared experience fosters a bond for sure.

I’m always curious to understand how others experience and perceive anything I create. Be it a poem, a painting, a meal or my garden, receiving feedback is an important factor in my growth as an artist, poet, gardener or cook. Going a step further, its how I grow as a creative individual. But one doesn’t always get to know what others experience since not everyone feels compelled to share their thoughts. Of course, most folk readily say kind, complimentary things and only a few will offer honest, constructive criticism. How well I accept the latter depends naturally on who is speaking. A person who’s opinion I value or somebody who simply says something from ignorance or misguided intent – it makes a difference.

But when it comes to artists in my garden, what they choose to paint and their resultant works says it all. No words required. So many points of view and interpretations helps me see my garden anew each time. This is valuable as, for my part, I get to see my garden from different perspectives which then helps me develop or evolve certain areas further or maintain other spaces as it is for now. For certain, I learn much in seeingthe garden through the eyes of others and that gives me a deeper understanding of my own creative process. It’s also a testament to how successful (or not) my design efforts are. Those paintings are a bit like performance reports. I pay attention and then take from each what either helps me grow creatively or validates what I’ve done. What elements, plants or areas caught an artists attention informs me on whether my work with the design, shadows, shapes, colors, play of light, use of negative space have been noted and appreciated. Every now and then, I get to see something so familiar to me in a completely different manner. That’s big.

In any case, every artists’ work matters to me. Simply knowing they are in my garden by choice does my gardener and artist heart a world of good. I am humbled and deeply grateful.

Here are images from two different days of artists in the garden and their resulting works. It’s interesting to note where and what each decided to paint –

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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And That’s A Wrap!

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

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

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Afterglow

It rained. The days leading up to Open Day were idyllic. Dry, sunny and oh so comfortable. But wouldn’t you know it, on the big day, it rained. Cool and wet all day. From drizzle to downpour it took turns. But yet, they came – hardy, undaunted folk. Hallelujah.

The garden was ready – lush with greenery and bedecked in flowers. It truly came through for the visitors. I was in my element. To chat with other gardeners/garden lovers about all things garden is just immensely enjoyable. To share information, opinions and experiences is what I look forward to most on this day. The rain simply ceased to matter.

Would I have wished it to not rain? Absolutely. But here we were and we made the most it. There were repeat visitors which warmed my heart immensely. Friends who know my garden well came especially to support the Garden Conservancy, new neighbors arrived out of curiosity and eagerness to befriend and so many first time visitors came from near and far. One couple was visiting NYC from Australia – they took the train and came up just to see my garden. That blew me away.

That people come at all is something so gratifying and humbling. I garden because I love to do it. I experiment and learn as a scientist, satisfy my curiosity, design as an artist to create something I and my family can enjoy all year round. That others notice and appreciate my work is heartening. I am deeply grateful.

So this week, I’m just going to indulge in spending time in the garden and do no work at all. Really. Maybe water when the pots look thirsty but do nothing else. This time off is well earned don’t you think? Afterglow feels good.

Some pictures from Open Day

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Rising To The Occasion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Powering Through

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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May Power – Showers And Flowers

May is truly a frenzy of flowers is it not! And a turbine of tasks! We finally got some much needed rain this past week and it’s making planting that much easier.

I recently learned that the wild varieties of native plants like bergamot, coneflowers, milkweed and such tend to disappear in 3 to 4 years and therefore need to be replanted regularly. While I’d always known that the wild varieties are what attract the native pollinators, I was not aware that they need to be replaced so often. Plants and pollinators have co-evolved so all those fancier, more colorful new varieties of plants one finds these days are not recognized by their pollinators and hence, do not serve the purpose at all. The wild plants do not look as splashy but they’re the ones we must include in our gardens. So that’s what I’m re-planting in the meadow – I’d noticed a reduction of some of the plants last year and had wondered what had happened. Very glad to have been enlightened to correct the deficiency.

Here is the list of garden chores for this month –

 Things To Do In May:

  1. Weed regularly if you want to keep the thugs in check.
  2. Put stakes in place so as plants grow it’ll be easy to secure them.
  3. Deadhead spent blooms for a neat look. Some plants will reward you with a second wave of blooms. Of course, if you want to collect seeds, do not deadhead.
  4. Water as necessary. Add a splash of compost tea to fertilize – about every 2-3 weeks.
  5. Plant in summer vegetables, summer bulbs and tubers and, annuals.
  6. Keep bird baths filled with clean water. Use safe, organic mosquito ‘dunks’ to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. The same goes for fountains.
  7. Start mowing lawns but do the right thing by keeping the mower blade high at about four inches. Leave clippings in place to replenish the soil.
  8. Make sure all beds, shrubs and trees are mulched to retain moisture and keep weeds from proliferating.
  9. To take care of weeds in areas that are paved or bricked, pour boiling hot water over them. The weeds will be killed and no chemicals were used! (It’s how I dispose off water used to cook pasta, boil eggs etc.,)
  10. Stay vigilant for pests or disease. The earlier you catch a problem, the easier it is to treat them. Always employ organic methods. Be judicious.
  11. Stir the compost heap regularly. Keep adding in kitchen and garden waste.
  12. Take time every day to simply enjoy the garden.
  13. Visit other gardens through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program. You will be vastly instructed and inspired. Www.gardenconservancy.org

It’s now a mad dash to get the garden ready for my Open Day. Hope you’re coming!

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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