Sizzling July

Ah! The month of pure Summer. Fireworks, fireflies and freedom from routine. Heat, humidity and bad hair days too. It is a time to slow down and savor the season. Simplify the days. I think, if we do summer correctly, we can then keep that sensibility through the other seasons. An ideal recipe for living mindfully. This year, I’m going to give Summer my best shot. Really.

In order to do that, July’s garden chores are whittled down to the essential minimum.

Things To Do In July –

1. Weed, weed, weed! Do a half hour each day and stop. It’ll all add up. Remember, pouring boiling water over bricks and other stonework will kill  weeds growing in-between. Hot water from cooking pasta, boiling eggs and such can be used.

2. Deadhead often ( unless you’re going to collect seeds from certain plants). Neatness matters and keeps the garden looking cared for. Deadheading encourages several plants to put out a second round of blooms.

3. Mulch all beds once, fertilize plants in pots weekly, water as necessary ( collect rain water and use that).

4. Mow regularly but keep the mower blade high. Leave grass clippings in place to act as mulch first and then enrich the soil as it breaks down.

5. Watch out for pests and/or disease. Use organic treatments.

6. Plant out vegetable seedlings for fall harvest. Harvest summer vegetables regularly.

7. Keep birdbaths filled with fresh, clean water.

8. Order fall bulbs

9. Take time to watch dragonflies by day and fireflies by night.

Some close ups from the garden –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Days Of Wine And Roses?

June is characteristically about roses and rosé is it not? Weddings, graduations, the start of summer – so much to celebrate! This year, it started off as expected. In fact, the first two weeks were gorgeous. Sunny, dry and very, very pleasant. Then arrived week 3. A rather hellish heat wave. Each time I stepped out I was in a sauna. Ugh. I stepped back in.

Thank goodness for air-conditioning but spending so many hours indoors had me feeling crabby. I resented not being able to spend hours in the garden. Really, I should’ve taken advantage of this house arrest situation and got caught up on books and movies/shows. Instead, I found myself getting antsy about a myriad chores pending which was all rubbish because nothing pressing was being neglected. I made lists of tasks that ran well into early winter and took to behaving as though it was a big conspiracy against me by Nature.

I was eventually able to talk myself into being more reasonable. Routine tasks could wait. Instead, venturing out in the (slightly) cooler hours were spent indulging in paying attention to what was in bloom. I observed. In doing so, I noted that there was far more happening in the meadow than one perceived. For one thing, amidst the native but thuggish wood anemones, were some long lost Indian Pinks blooming their hearts out. I’d all but given up on them because they hadn’t been seen since being planted two years ago. Their unoppressed counterparts on the other side of the meadow, were putting up a splendid show. Thrilling certainly but discovering what I thought I’d lost was even more exciting.

The pale pink candelabras of Veronicastrum were glowing pretty. Their graceful structure bring height and elegance to this somewhat wild looking space. Astilbe and Monarda were also in bloom – I’d quite forgotten that I’d added more. They too had not been observed last year. Then, it dawned on me that I was away for a whole month this time last year. Of course I’d missed this whole show. Silly me. We gardeners are so insecure. We feel abandoned by our plants way too quickly. We need to have more faith in them – they really do want to please us.

I assessed that the jewelweed was up to its old tricks of seeking to take over the meadow. Some serious thinning out is required. See? A more true and practical list was shaping up.

I noted in my necessarily slow stroll in the garden ( anything more vigorous was sweat inducing) that the persimmon and magnolia espaliers had had quite a growth spurt. Add to list – prune them back to define the patterns in which they’re being trained. The magnolia is in bud and the persimmon has developed fruit – this is immensely exciting because it’s the first time for both! The babies have grown up.

Surprisingly, I observed that the plants in the front garden are not as wild looking as they’ve been in Junes past. Perhaps, the Chelsea Chop will not be needed. An item off the list!

The front arch, the one on which the New Dawn rose had performed so well till this year because the chipmunks had munched up the roots over the winter, is making a comeback. Until 10 ten days ago, there had been no sign of any life at all. But now, one limb is leafed out and in the time I’d been hiding indoors, it had even bravely put out two buds which of course succumbed to the heat. So, I shall not replace the rose. It will be relieved of the dead limbs and given some TLC instead. So glad I hadn’t rushed to dig up the rose. Delaying action to wait and see often pays off.

The summer window boxes are looking blah and a redo of sorts is in order. The front walkway and the brick paths in the potager could use the old hot water treatment to stop those emerging weeds poking through. Get ‘em young.

General weeding and deadheading concludes the new list. Not so extensive at all. Leaves me with plenty of time to smell the roses and sip the rosé.

Some of what’s in bloom right now –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Chill In!

It’s a heat wave – all week long. We’ve had such a gloriously beautiful and long spring that it’s really hard to switch gears and confront the soaring temperatures with accompanying humidity. I shouldn’t complain but I know I will. Particularly about not spending enough time in the garden. However, it’s best not to fight common sense guidelines on how to cope in a heat wave.

First and foremost, do only the bare minimum in the garden. That really comes down to light weeding, watering as necessary and general deadheading and tidying. Do these chores in the early morning or later in the evening when the heat is somewhat tolerable. If you’re not up to doing anything at all, that’s okay. Your health is priority number one. The garden can wait – plants are resilient. When the heat wave passes, you will tend to the chores.

Lets see what useful things we can accomplish –

A non-negotiable for me are the hummingbird feeders which must be refilled more frequently. The sugar water will begin to ferment when the days are very hot and that can be very harmful to the tiny birds. Under circumstances like the present, I take the feeders down every other day to empty and wash out thoroughly. I replenish with fresh sugar water (1:4 sugar to water ratio) but I do not fill up the whole feeder. Instead, I add only a third of the volume which is about how much the birds typically consume before the next fill-up. That way, I’m not wasting too much of the nectar.

Similarly, the birdbath is kept filled with clean water for other thirsty avian friends. While you’re at it, remember to keep yourself hydrated!

This is a good time to do some simple propagation and it can be done indoors or in the shade. Lavender, rosemary, dianthus and such are prime candidates. Take 2-3 inch cuttings of non-flowering shoots from the parent plant. Strip away all lower leaves and poke the stems around the edge of a pot of gritty compost. Water and place in sheltered but still bright area. Monitor. When you can see strong, new growth, gently lift and check for good root development. Transplant each new ‘baby’ to its own appropriately sized pot.

Begonia, African violets and succulents can be multiplied from just a leaf. Stick a healthy leaf of the plant into a pot of free-draining compost or sphagnum moss. Water well. Create a greenhouse for each pot by placing it in a sealable, clear plastic bag. Close the seal properly. In a few weeks, new growth will emerge. At that time, cut off the original leaf and repot the new plant.

In the cool of the indoors, examine your wish list of plants for fall planting. Source them. Preferably from your local nurseries. Otherwise, place your orders online. Schedule delivery in time for planting.

On a similar vein, start selecting your bulbs for fall planting. It’s not too early! Popular choices get sold out fast. The orders get shipped out only at the right time for planting in your temperature zone. You also get charged only at that time. I find it hugely freeing to place my bulb order well ahead. Then I can go about the business of enjoying the season, go on vacation, harvest flowers and fruit without worrying about the likelihood of forgetting the bulb order or missing out on my favorite selections.

The heat wave is by no means a blessing but one can certainly find the silver lining in the thick of it.

Here’s what‘s doing in the garden right now –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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May Daze

At this point of the month, it hardly ever feels like it is still Spring. As if on cue, when the unofficial start of summer is declared on Memorial Weekend, the temperatures will rise, humidity will arrive and there will be a very summer-like thundershower. I deeply resent this annual phenomenon. Summer needs to stop muscling into Spring. After all, the season of rebirth and renewal still has at least three more weeks if not a month to go. And I would like to savor it fully.

Instead, Summer bullies her way in, puts paid to the late spring flowers just as they’re coming into their own. Case(s) in point – the alliums were standing tall and resplendent in their purple pompoms before the unwelcome heat and humidity quickly faded them out . They look like allium ghosts now.

The peonies in my garden start revealing their exotic beauty unfailingly at the approach of Memorial Day. And just as unfailingly, the temperatures get uncomfortable high and a heavy downpour will follow. The heat hastens the blooming and the rain madly tears out the petals leaving behind a sorry, sodden browning mess to clean up. I’ve learned to run out just before the shower and gather as many peonies to enjoy indoors. But we know well it’s just not the same. Cut peonies do not last as long and the plants outdoors look bereft. Truly sad.

The pair of native wisteria scrambling over the pergola bloom later than their Asian cousins. This is a trait I value because early Spring has so much to offer that waiting for the wisteria makes late spring more comparable. But, my joy at basking under the flower laden pergola or gazing swooningly at them from the rooms above, is short lived. The cruel heat rapidly toasts the racemes to a shade of gray causing petal fall that closely resembles the sorry, week old remnants of a ticker tape parade.

Indeed, resentful I am. But, having vented, I feel better. A tiny bit.

Note: Late May in my garden –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Why I Garden

Every now and then, but especially when I encounter events or people who are well known in the horticultural world, I reflect on my own life as a gardener. You know the sort of people, the kind who only use the Latin nomenclature and/or collect and grow mostly rare, special or exotic plants. Don’t get me wrong. As a scientist I’m very aware and respectful of scientific names of any plant, animal or thing. And as a gardener, I am thrilled to acquire an unusual or uncommon addition to my garden. I certainly understand passion or even obsession for particular plants. Unless I’m having an intellectual sort of discussion or need to be horticulturally clear or accurate in my speech, I prefer common names of plants. It then feels as though one is discussing mutual friends.

It’s the snobbery or elitism displayed by some that bothers me. When I periodically encounter such sorts of individuals, I take a step back to consider my own reasons for why or how I garden.

First and foremost, I see my role as a custodian of my little garden. It is a responsibility and privilege I take seriously and fulfill it to the best of my ability. I apply both my scientific understanding as well as my artistic skills to create and care for my garden.

Organic practices, water conservation, composting, installing mostly native plants, encouraging wildlife etc., are sound, science based principles that are fundamental to how I garden. Using shapes, forms, color, texture coming up with a design that is creative, innovative, beautiful and pleasing is where I apply artistic sensibilities. In the end, a garden must imperatively be an interactive, engaging space that appeals to our soul and all our senses. In communing with Nature, we are reaffirming our intrinsic connection to the natural world.

When I select plants, I do have fun finding unusual varieties of a well-known plant but only so it will add more to the interest and complexity of the design than to simply stand out as different or superior to the common types. There is room for the ordinary and extraordinary in the garden as it is in the world at large. It’s far more satisfying to share than show off my garden. Visitors to the garden, be they knowledgeable, experienced gardeners or novices, artists or art lovers, scientists or nature enthusiasts or city dwellers ( or a combination thereof) are all encouraged to engage however they are inclined. To sit and contemplate, walk around slowly and examine in detail, take innumerable photos of everything or just one captivating flower, make copious notes, settle down to sketch or paint, sit or stretch out to read or nap, it is all good. That’s precisely what a garden should do. At any given time, I myself gratefully indulge in any one of those activities.

Ultimately, it is to stay connected and engaged with Nature is why I garden. To understand my place in the bigger context. It really is as simple as that.

Note: Some images from the garden right now. It’s heavy on the meadow because that’s where I’m totally entranced at present!

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Universe! You Did Hear Me!

What a weekend it was – packed to the gills with events, I’m finally coming up for air. Friday and Saturday was the PlantFest at Teatown Lake Reservation where for some years now, I’ve participated as a vendor to sell my soft home furnishings. 100% of the profits are donated to deserving causes and that’s my strong motivation to do what I do – using my art to create beautiful, useful products in order to raise funds for projects I believe in. This year, the ACLU and Doctors Without Borders are my chosen causes. If anyone is interested in my products or in supporting the two causes, please use the link provided above and make your purchases on-line.

Now, at PlantFest, folks primarily come to make a beeline to the plethora of plants available from some pretty amazing growers. So to purchase anything else is not a priority. I participate because Teatown itself is a very special place of nature and deserves to be supported. PlantFest is an important fund raiser. As an opportunity to sell my products, it is less than ideal. But, every item sold helps the big purpose. I did okay. What is gratifying are the people who return every year to buy Mother’s Day gifts. That is definitive endorsement and I sure feel good about it.

On Friday, it was tough – cold and rainy weather had everybody wishing for time to fly. The thought of a hot shower tantalized relentlessly. Finally, at 7:00 pm we were able to go home. But that hot shower had to wait.

Last minute garden work awaited – that final effort to get the garden as ready as it could be for Open Day on Saturday.

So, in the drizzle and cold, I deadheaded, weeded and neatened up the garden for another hour and a half. Satisfied, I finally went in for shower, sustenance and sleep. I couldn’t dare to consider the weather for Saturday.

Well, the Universe heard my pleas – Open Day could not have asked for better weather. Sunshine! Blue skies! Warmer temperature! Not too warm but perfectly comfortable. Hallelujah! While I anticipated the visitors I reveled in the sunshine. It felt heavenly.

And the garden truly rose to the occasion. It looked so beautiful even if I say so myself. As all gardeners know, all we can do is our best and the rest is up to Nature. Over a 100 visitors came and time passed quickly. I so enjoyed meeting everybody. It never ceases to impress me that they take the trouble to come to my little garden. Some had visited a few years prior and had liked it so much to return – that cannot but touch my gardener heart. Meeting new people is invariably fun as friendships get forged this way. And boy did we gossip about plants, gardens and gardening! And maybe about certain gardeners! All in all, a perfect Open Day. Thank you all for visiting – my deepest gratitude.

The day ended with our traditional pizza party with close friends arriving after Open Day hours to get their own private viewing and to linger on into the night eating, drinking and being merry. Sublime.

Note: The baby robins in the nest above the dining table on the terrace had grown and flown in time! So we could use the table guilt-free!

Sunday was Mother’s Day. And the rain had returned but not for the entire day. While it was not really busy or hectic, it was delightfully eventful. I feel extremely blessed.

I’ve given myself a well earned break this week. No gardening. Except for the planting of seedlings. Maybe a bit of routine weeding. Keep up the deadheading. The edgers of the beds in the herb garden could use some straightening. A little re-potting. The tiny front lawn will need mowing. The lilacs look done so maybe get the pruning over with? Ha! What am I thinking? There’s simply no rest for the wicked and the good don’t need any do they?!

Note: Some pictures from Teaown’s PlantFest and my Open Day –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Decompress And Debrief

What a week it was! Busy, hectic and full of excitement. It was spent installing my art for the Lyndhurst In Bloom event. Transforming a vision to reality is a process fraught with ideas, doubt, fun, tweaking, rethinking, redoing, second guessing everything and, finally pulling it all together. A roller-coaster ride.

And then the preview night arrived – it had all come together and I was ready to enjoy the evening. Whew!

The feedback that evening and through the weekend was good and gratifying. I’m really glad I’d said ‘yes’ to this opportunity. It made me stretch and explore, dig deep and think out of the box. It was truly exciting. I’m very pleased with how the final installation looked as well the public response. I learned a lot too.

I had many requests to share as much as possible about my project from those who could not attend. So I submit here the mission statement for it and lots of photos. Lyndhurst had a professional photographer take pictures but I will receive them only later.

And now, after a day spent collecting my thoughts and decompressing, I head into the garden and onward to the garden’s Open Day!

Before Flowers, Beyond Flowers

Lyndhurst Mansion will forever be connected to the Gilded Age. A time associated with rapidly expanding industries, significant progress in science and technology and of course, opulence and excess. What is often overlooked is that this period was also when Environmentalism as a national movement got started. It was a seminal moment when Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872. The first of its kind in the world.

We are now at a similar inflection point where we must renew our covenant as protectors of the environment.

On that note,Welcome to The Gilded Age 2.0. What was the scullery has become an ode to seeds.

The very fundamental source of all life is highlighted. Every seed contains the past, present and future. Seeds hold the history, geography, science and art of life on earth. 

Yet, while there is universal agreement that seeds are important, one tends not to pay serious attention to them. Benign, diminutive, innocuous with an appearance perceived as dull, they’re easy to go unnoticed. When was the last time you deliberately examined a seed pod, capsule or head?

They are exquisite in design and each uniquely suited to its natural environment and manner of seed dispersal be it by gravity, wind, ballistic, water or animal.

The viewer is invited to take the time to examine the watercolor art works, displays of the real materials themselves, various ways to propagate – seeded paper hung like prayer flags as testaments of faith, hope and service, seed bombs to broadcast generously, seedlings started in flats/)pots for assigned places and purposes, some set aside to exchange with fellow gardeners,

A lot of gardening is focused on flowers. People don’t realize plants can be beautiful after flowering, and they cut them down before they can even see it. I look outside now and see the clematis that flowered in the summer but is more interesting now that it is showing seed heads.

If you make a four-season garden you have to learn to accept decay and see the beauty of it. It’s about the texture and shape, the seed heads and the skeletons. So instead of using the scissors you use your eyes.” Piet Oudolf

Note: The dried materials seen here were gathered from my own garden with some treasured additional contributions from Harnek Singh – @plantstani and Timothy Tilghman of @untermyergardens.

Sustainability at its best!

My garden is open to the public May 4 through the popular and highly acclaimed Open Days Program of the Garden Conservancy.

Shobha Vanchiswar

Artist, gardener, designer, environmentalist

Welcome To Before Flowers, Beyond Flowers-

A few of the other lovely installations –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Parallel Processing

Working on two deadlines at the same time is anything but dull. The pressure is on full throttle – final stretch to Lyndhurst In Bloom which happens this weekend and less than a month to my garden’s Open Day. Both are very personal to me as they speak of my philosophy, my creativity and skills. In both cases, I’m aiming to share whats important to me – the natural world that deserves to be appreciated, admired and protected at all costs. Along the way, we find joy, laughter and comfort.

In the garden, given the vagaries of the weather, it’s been slower than I’d like. Between cold and rain, I’ve had to be cautious about bringing out plants from the greenhouse and/or planting too soon. This past week, I focused on replacing groundcovers that had simply run their course. In the garden, perennial doesn’t mean forever. They come back every year but many will eventually run their course and peter out over time.

This was the case with a favorite of mine – Mazus reptans. Originally planted along the side path that connects the front and back of the garden, it had faithfully performed spectacularly. But over the last couple of years, it started losing momentum and finally, very little showed up last spring. This is a very pretty garden stalwart. Undemanding, requiring no direct sunlight it carries on. Diminutive leaves delicately scalloped around the edges form fresh mats that knit together to beautifully cover the earth. The flowers come up a bit later in spring and look like small moths charmingly speckled in purple and white. So very pretty. After the flowers, the green carpet remains and serves for rest of the growing season.

It was a joy to find them in my local nursery and plant them in on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the creeping phlox in the checkerboard garden had been challenged by moss that wanted to take over. Last years wet summer had clearly favored the moss. So much of the moss got removed and new phlox was added to the ones that remained. This garden will have to be reexamined as it is entirely possible that conditions have changed more permanently with surrounding trees and shrubs casting more shade along with all the rain we seem to be getting lately. For now, the new phlox will do. I must research some other interesting yet suitable alternatives.

Opposite from attending to spring chores, is my project on seedpods for Lyndhurst In Bloom. A wholly different season and still so very interdependent. The diversity, sheer beauty and genius designs in packaging so well suited to how the seeds are dispersed is breathtaking. I’ve learned so much through my efforts at painting them. But as I created some arrangements this past weekend, I found myself learning more about how exactly those designs functioned. Quickly meshing into a network or snagging a hold on a neighbor just to get a bit of leverage, quivering at the slightest disturbance, using its sticky seed coat to attach firmly till its safe to open and send its seeds out into the world. They all wait patiently for the rain, wind or critters to help them. Some, do it on their own via ballistic action or gravity. And in each, the circle of life carries on. Just brilliant.

In all the busyness, I’ve been mindful about taking the time to enjoy the process. Giving each task due attention is imperative. Because to have a garden to work in is a privilege. To have the opportunity to show my art is a gift. To share both garden and art is a blessing. I’m aiming to deliver with Grace.

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Spring Fever

What a week that was. From Monday through Thursday it rained continually. The brief breaks permitted only quick walks to get the blood flowing. No garden work was possible. Then, come Friday, the sun shone bright and we were surprised by that earthquake – no damages but it was certainly scary to feel the house and all its contents shake and shudder. And funnily enough, a solitary snakeshead Fritillaria popped up. I’m convincing myself that the tremors jolted it awake. An after shock was felt in the early evening. All very unsettling.

Still on the subject of out of the ordinary happenings, the much anticipated North American Solar Eclipse happened yesterday. We got up to 90% of totality in our area. Unlike other prime viewing locations, we were not hindered by clouds until after. There’s something special about the shared experience of entire groups/communities gathered to experience an event well beyond their control and devoid of all the differences so rampant these days. Together we acknowledged not only our humanity but also our humble place in the mighty, magical, wondrous and ever-expanding cosmic universe. That’s extraordinary.

The past weekend was thankfully dry and even had periods of sunshine. But it was cold and windy. Felt more like March of the old days. There is no new normal as yet. However, some garden work got down. New plants to replace lost ones got planted, the watering system for the vertical garden was turned on after the whole apparatus was cleaned and serviced and, the peony rings were put in placed. Other tasks that were on my agenda had to be tabled as it was simply too cold. Inevitably, when chores get delayed, I start feeling the pressure of falling behind. Especially with Open Day less than a month away. There’s plenty to do. At the same time, I’m working on my installation for Lyndhurst In Bloom coming up in less than 2 weeks. Exciting and anxiety ridden.

The poem below, written some years ago, sums up what the gardener experiences every year –

Spring Cleaning

Sweep away detritus

Winter’s wild remnants

Prune roses

June’s dress code

Straighten borders

Summer edges to spill

Outside order

Inside peace

Clearing, cutting

Room to breathe deep

Opening, widening

Minds broaden fast

Plants get bigger

Spirits grow higher

Colors multiply

Senses infused

Days lengthen

Smiles brighten

Outdoor classroom

Paradise within.

-Shobha Vanchiswar

Note: While I’ve been very focused on meeting project deadlines, it has been wonderful to take walking breaks in my neighborhood. The images below are from this morning –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Spring Up!

Happy Spring! The first day of the season and as if on cue, the daffodils have begun the celebration. I cannot recall the last time there was so much early growth on this day. Despite the uneasiness, I can’t help but feel eager to see what’s popped up overnight. And this year, the season has hit the road running. The snowdrops are done but the Hellebore. Crocus and Scilla have been dancing gaily for several days already. The Daffodils have just joined in. The party has begun. Even the birds are raucously going about their business of disturbing the morning quiet earlier in the season than ever before. Note to self – clean out the birdhouses so new tenants can move in!

Feeling cautiously optimistic, this past weekend, we began the seasonal chores in earnest. The arrival of 5 young ( two years old) apple trees to replace ones we’d lost over recent years in the espalier spurred us into action. The weather was mild enough, the soil quite pliable to plant and so it seemed foolish to wait.

This in turn led to chores like digging up some boxwood that had been struggling the last few years. While new replacements will be procured, the evicted plants will be given a go with some TLC and cossetting in pots to see if they might come around. I do hate just tossing plants away.

The large pots were dragged out of winter storage, positioned in their rightful locations and filled with fresh soil and compost. They will be duly planted up next weekend. It’s best to work systematically and mindfully. I’ve learned not to rush. Though all of a sudden I’m beginning to feel the pressure of the myriad tasks that must get done ahead of the garden’s Open Day on May 11. The work of getting ready for my installation at Lyndhurst In Bloom is also underway. The weekend of April 20 is only a month away!

The juggling act requires not only a good deal of organizational skills but a good sense of humor to boot. Admittedly, it’s all exciting.

As I schedule out my chores, I imagine gardeners everywhere doing the same. Making lists, trips to the local nursery, extensive searches online for plants and such, examining the garden closely. But mostly, I allow myself to feel a sense of camaraderie where, in the guise of gardening, we indulge in the sheer joy of once again being out in the garden. It is our happy place.

Together, lets make this a very happy, healthy and productive Spring.

This week in my garden:

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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