Carpe Diem

It’s finally looking like February is supposed to. Crisp and cold with a thick quilt of snow spread over the ground. It’s been a week of brisk, bracing walks, fireside conversations and a return to dreams of the perfect growing season ahead. This is the February I’m familiar with and it’s mighty comforting even though I know the climate is changing and it will not always be so.

The weekend before the first great snow fall, it was definitively spring weather. 50 degrees! The garden beckoned with a siren call and I was lured into it eager and excited. The grapevine got pruned and the trimmings were stored for future projects in and outside the garden. Similarly, the roses received a fair bit of cutting and shaping. The rose hips were collected on lengths of stem. They look so pretty in hues of orange tinted with blush pink. All the plants left to serve the birds and bring seasonal interest with their varied designs of seed heads and warm, earthy colors were also cut back. And yes, all of those trimmings are also safely stored away. Why?

Because, come April, they will be the stars of a public project in which I am thrilled to participate. I’m not saying any more for now! All will be revealed in due course.

As I gathered the cuttings, the color palette itself was so beautiful. Browns, golds, reds and everything in-between. And the many textures and shapes! Truly, the sight rivaled any opulent bouquet of fresh flowers. Plants in senescence are so very under-appreciated. Yet, they serve at this stage to ensure the future health and wealth of the land. Surely, we ought to pay these humble yet noble members more attention, admiration and esteem.

And thus, it was a very satisfying two days of cutting and tidying. Timely work got done (and a new project got underway!). If I’d put off this task, the 12 inches of snow that fell two days later would’ve put paid to the beautiful ‘harvest’. The plants would have all been pushed down and broken apart. Seizing the day was a very good thing!

Note: Because the snow was expected, I left the old leaves of the hellebores uncut so they could protect the emerging buds from any snow and cold damage.

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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When Less Is More

February is a perfect time to get ready for the growing season ahead. Schedule seed starting and gather appropriate supplies ready – seed packets, seed sowing trays, growing medium etc.,

Similarly, have tools cleaned, sharpened and readily visible and accessible.

Soil, mulch, compost made available – either homemade or purchased. Plants to be obtained listed for that trip to the nursery or ordered. Other supplies such as labels, pens, stakes, twine, gloves, sunscreen, bug spray, rubbing alcohol, first-aid kit, etc,.- have them all on hand. When Spring arrives, you will be racing out of the gate ready and raring to go.

But February is also the time to commit to doing less. You read correct – do less! The fact is, to garden using organic, sustainable, environment friendly and ecologically sound practices, one actually does less. Hear me out.

Lets begin with the ubiquitous lawn. Less lawn = less work. Less area to mow. Mowing less frequently. Apply compost to fertilize as well as mulch and you’re weeding less and have eliminated all other applications of fertilizers and weed killers. Finally, less watering. You see?

No dig gardening – it has been proven that not turning over the soil is healthier for the earth. One less task to do! Instead, simply amend the soil as needed.

By planting a minimum of 70% native plants in our gardens, by increasing the number of pollinators and other beneficial creatures we increase the health of the garden. And, because the native plants are more hardy and resilient, there’s less turnover of plants and less maintenance of fuss pot plants.

In the beds, as in the lawns, compost and/or additional tree bark/cardboard/newspaper mulch reduces the need to weed. Imagine, less weeding! There’s also less watering and no application of other chemicals to fertilize or feed. In case of pest infestation, there will be some organic products to apply – both to prevent as well as treat.

Trying to be less tidy might be a bit hard to accept but it’s time to do so. Allow self-seeders to find their sweet spots – they add sparkle and sass to a garden. I’m not suggesting we allow rampant proliferation but merely some easing up of control freak-like behavior. The shabby chic garden is in. I like it.

I hope I’ve persuaded you to do less. With the time freed up, what ever will you do?! I’m busy making plans.

We’re finally having a real snow day. It’s been a couple of years and I’m so thrilled! This feels like February as I know it. Here are some images :

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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February Therapy

With no snow on the ground and temperatures hovering above freezing, February doesn’t quite feel normal don’t you agree? I fret about the well-being of the garden and the environment at large. How is Mother Nature coping with the changing climate? How will I cope? I try however, to not dwell on gloom and doom. We will deal with the situation as it unfolds.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of the fact that my daily turns around the garden have been given a jump-start, I’m delighting in all the things happening in it. What’s coming up, what’s looking good, what tasks typically done after snow melt can be done right now. The play of light and shadows that pattern the space, the micro-environments within the garden displaying their individual responses to the weather are some of the compelling sights that speak volumes about the lay of the land and the ‘bones’ of the garden. I’m currently obsessed with tracking down exactly where the hummingbirds and cardinals had built their nests last year – the bare trees and shrubs reveal those secrets. There’s so much to see and know!

But don’t just stop and stare. Chores await!

Things To Do –

(Much of the items in the January list are applicable here. Do check that list) 

  1. Stay on top of effects of snow and storms. Take quick action.
  2. Keep bird feeders full. Whenever possible provide water.
  3. Get garden plans and designs ready.
  4. Check garden supplies. Does the hose need repair or replacing? Is there enough soil, organic fertilizer, twine, stakes etc.,? Make a list and do what is needed.
  5. Towards the end of the month, prune roses, wisteria, grape vines and fruit trees.
  6. Cut back ivy on walls and fences before birds start nesting. Brightly colored stems of Salix and Cornus should be cut back to about 6 to 10 inches from ground. This will encourage brighter color next spring.
  7. Prepare for seed sowing. Get seed flats clean and ready. Check if there’s enough seed growing medium.
  8. Order seeds. Once seeds arrive, write labels and clip to each pocket. This saves time later when there is so much else to do.
  9. If there is not much snow, cut back old leaves on Hellebores. New growth and flowers will be emerging. Cut back other perennials that were skipped in autumn.
  10. Attend to indoor plants.
  11. The New York Botanical Garden’s annual orchid show opens in March. Do reserve your tickets and go! It’ll banish winter blues and get you inspired.
  12. Renew ( or join) your membership to the Garden Conservancy. Place your order for the Open Days directory. Once you receive it you can start scheduling visits to beautiful gardens near and far. Inspiration is only a garden visit away!

Whats doing in the garden right now –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Wild Thing! You Make My Heart Sing

Rewilding is the buzz these days. Le mot du jour. But what does that really mean? And how wild is one to go and still have a garden to speak of? Wildness is sort of an ambiguous word – it can mean different things to different people. Wildness typically means an area that does not have humans impacting it. We humans are tamers historically. So, loosening our control on our gardens and letting Nature take over runs counter to what a gardener (human) does. Not to mention, a garden by its very existence is a managed space. It is created by human effort. So why all the current hype about leaving well enough alone?

Rewilding is, as I see it, a pendulum-like swing from the over-cultivated, heavily manipulated, high maintenance gardens that were more for show and less about sustainability or conservation. After all, simply letting nature take over would not be good. It would result in woodlands emerging all over the space. While the woods are delightful and come with their own special and diverse flora and fauna, it could hardly be a garden. Besides, more important ly, the better part of pollinators would have no place to exist. Most woodland flowers bloom in spring and the rest of the year, blooms are scarce. Pollinators require sustenance during the other seasons as well.

This naturally means open spaces such as meadows and more to the point, gardens. A range of habitats are required to support diverse wildlife. Every kind of space has a specific purpose and fosters different wildlife leading to healthy ecosystems and environments that are in balance.

In the case of our gardens, it does not mean we hang up our trowels and say goodbye to doing the fulfilling work of transforming our spaces. As I see it, gardens can play very vital roles in the context of keeping the environment healthy as well as bridging the countrysides, farmlands, woodlands and waterways to support the diverse plants and wildlife.

The variety of habitats will support the myriad wildlife most individually suited to them. How we make our gardens rich in wildlife is determined by how we choose to garden.

First and foremost, reduce the area of lawn. They are detrimental to the environment. The cost in terms of money, time, labor and resources in order to keep a pristine, green lawn is prohibitive and ultimately, it does not encourage any pollinator or other wildlife to thrive. Instead, create areas for native grasses and plants. If space permits, add a few native trees, shrubs and groundcovers.

With whatever lawn that remains, mow less, keep the height of the mower blade high to protect the soil from drying up. Leave the grass clippings in place to go back to enriching the soil. Electric or manual reel mowers are preferred over gas mowers.

Allow wild flowers to emerge in the lawns. ‘Weeds’ such a dandelions, buttercups, clover and plantain are greatly loved by pollinators, So leave them alone! Use compost to feed the lawn – a single application in spring is sufficient. Compost does double duty as a mulch. Unless there is a drought, let the lawns and plants cope without watering. Native plants are hardy and adapt best to changing climates. Permit the plants to express themselves -there’s much to be said for the organic beauty of seeing where self-seeders pop up. My garden has several columbines and not a single one grows where they were originally planted. They have independently found the sites they grow best.

My meadow, the most wild part of my garden, is all native plants competing for space and pollinators. Whatever thrives is just fine. Sometimes, I need to run interference when a member gets too thuggish and ever so often I will introduce something new in the hope it’ll make it. Apart from that, the meadow is let to do its own thing. No watering or feeding. It gets a partial cutback in late fall when hundreds of spring bulbs are planted. That’s it.

This part of the garden is so full of life that I could sit and observe the goings on endlessly.

Elsewhere, the more structured parts are also full of native plants so there is continuity in design as well as in the wildlife they support. Fruit trees, water features, the vertical garden and adjoining woods, keep my garden rich in both flora and fauna. As regards the non-native members in my garden – they are non-invasive and ecologically beneficial.

In the final analysis, go a bit wild. Free yourself to let nature work with you. I promise, your heart will sing.

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Coming Home

As much as I enjoy travel, nothing quite feels as comforting as coming back home. Refreshed from time spent away from the usual routines and inspired by all the new experiences and encounters, there’s an eagerness to settle back down and reboot life anew. Not a new life but the same one infused with new energy and ideas. It feels exciting and rich with possibilities.

In the familiar confines of home, surrounded by all the things that provide joy and/or motivation, I sit with a head full of thoughts and schemes. I look at innumerable photos and a slew of cryptic notes made hurriedly during my travels. Unlikely color combinations, creative products, newly discovered foods, ancient customs witnessed, styles and patterns of traditional clothing, architecture, music, gardens, home décor – everything is fodder for creativity. How to best implement what I’ve seen and learned in my garden, home, art and personal life is a thrilling challenge. As my eyes wander around home and garden, I see the results of what past travels have inspired. To others the connections may not be clearly apparent but its all there. Just with my own twist or interpretation.

Key features in my garden such as the espaliered fence of fruit trees, the lush vertical garden, the pergola with native wisteria sprawled over it are obvious examples but adapted to suit the location and climate. The checkerboard garden came from seeing a huge chess board installed in a garden in France – not directly related. The design of the walkway was inspired by a pattern of piping in a blouse worn by a woman selling fruit at a market in Sweden.

In recent years, the colors of the tulips that bring great cheer in the spring, are inspired by art works in various museums. The color choices have evolved over the years. No doubt they will continue to do so.

It is similar in the house. Colors, furnishings, meals and music stand testimony to how travel opens the mind and enriches lives.

My own art is influenced more subtly – I’m not always aware until much later how I’ve been influenced by the light, colors and styles of the landscapes seen.

Unlike how it is when I come home from a summer trip, a winter homecoming is a gift of time. No pressing garden chores await. While the garden is asleep, I have the luxury to take my time to think, plan, design, source, schedule, create.

I returned very early Tuesday morning just as the snow had begun falling. The drive home was slow as the roads were already icy. Now, with unpacking done, accumulated mail sorted, laundry completed, I’m at leisure to harvest what inspirations I’ve picked up from my trip.

As the garden lies coated in white, the bones are sharply visible – my imagination has free rein to think about new plants to introduce, edits to make, colors to experiment and, revel in a most spectacular garden that lives for the moment only in my mind.

Everything is possible.

I present my ‘blank canvas’ –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Resolving January

Having reviewed in November, reflected in December, January is when it’s time to resolve. Resolve ideas and/or problems, resolve to do and make better. It is after all, the month when the world works on resolutions is it not?

As I go through my notes of observations, thoughts, wishes and wants in the garden, I’m generally struck by two things. The length of the musings and the sheer ambition of the gardener. Its laughable at first glance. But then, on reexamination, several things require the same action, a few items are quick fixes, some matters need a bit of tweaking while a couple are mere suggestions for pondering, others are long term projects and the remaining are simply pipe dreams.

Once triage, troubleshooting and targets have been sorted out, things look so much more manageable. Seed starting is scheduled, ditto for repairs and replacements. I break down bigger projects into doable sections and plan accordingly – taking into account seasons, my own work/personal calendar, time required and the possible need for additional manpower. Plants to be added are sourced and ordered – preferably from local nurseries. When and where to plant them determined.

Naturally, it all depends on the various circumstances, availability of what is needed, my budget and how easily I can obtain the necessary plants and/or structures. I have learned that no matter how well I’ve planned and prepped, it pays to stay flexible. Mother Nature has a habit of tossing out curve balls just for fun. My best effort is to have a plan, a commitment to execute it to the best of my ability and always allow for the Universe to intervene. Because, for better or worse, it will.

I’m still away from my garden and reveling in warmer climes but Nature continues to be my Muse –my recent watercolors –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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A New Year, A Fresh Start

A very happy New Year! May this be the year our gardens outdo our expectations and show us how to be our best selves.

A light warm-up of garden to-dos for this first month of 2024 –

  1. Take down holiday decorations. Before disposing off the Christmas tree, cut branches to spread as mulch on flower beds.
  2. Keep bird feeders full. Whenever possible, keep water available for the birds.
  3. Inspect stored tubers, corms and bulbs for signs of mold and rot. Get rid of any that don’t look healthy.
  4. This is a good time to examine the ‘bones’ of the garden. Make notes of what needs developing, changing or improving.
  5. Make icy paths safe by sprinkling sand or grit. Avoid toxic de-icing products.
  6. If ground is wet/soggy, take care to protect the sodden areas by not walking on it too much. Better yet, protect it by putting down a temporary path of wood planks.
  7. Take an inventory of garden tools. Get them repaired, replaced or sharpened.
  8. Gather up seed and plant catalogs. Start planning for the coming season.
  9. Begin forcing the bulbs kept cool since late fall. Time to start an indoor spring!
  10. Keep an eye on indoor plants ( in the house or greenhouse). Inspect carefully for signs of pests or disease. Act right away if either is detected. Organic practices only please.
  11. Still on indoor plants: water as needed, rotate for uniform light exposure, fertilize every two to four weeks. Remove dead or yellowing leaves.
  12. Survey the garden after every storm or snowfall. If any damage such as broken branches or torn off protection has occurred, try to fix it as soon as possible. Likewise, large icicles hanging from roof edges pose a threat to plants below: shield the plants if the icicles cannot be removed.
  13. Enjoy the quiet respite offered by this first month.

Some images from my recent stay in Bali to give you a little escape from the cold clutches of winter. Bali is where the the sacred and sublime mingle seamlessly with the hustle and bustle of commerce and tourism –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Giving Thanks

The week of Thanksgiving is one I cherish deeply. It’s a call to stop all the busy-ness and use the time to appreciate the many blessings I’ve been privileged to receive. This practice gives me the right perspective as we get into the holiday season and emerge into a new year. It’s a reminder to stay focused on what really matters and to stay true to my values.

This year in particular, when the world is in so much turmoil and there is pain and misery beyond belief, it is hard to think of celebrations and festivities. But, this is exactly when we must summon the love we have in our hearts and express it by way of saying thanks, giving hugs, lending a hand, listening attentively, paying a sincere compliment, making someone smile, sharing a meal. Simple, powerful acts of kindness.

I share with you two poems I wrote for the last two Thanksgiving.

Gratitude Is A Muscle

Gratitude is a muscle

Use it or lose it

Flex it and it grows

Practice makes perfect

One reaps what one sows.

Shobha Vanchiswar

Thanksgiving

A harvest, a fruit

A forest, a tree

Abundance isn’t always

what the eyes see.

An open door, a glass of water

A sunny day, a summer shower

Simple respites

hold mighty power.

A stranger’s kindness, a child’s wave

A timely hug, a puppy’s lick

Gestures small in size

impact so big.

Love of family, support of friends

Reason to laugh, purpose to live

Immeasurable riches

sincere thanks to give.

Shobha Vanchiswar

May your Thanksgiving be rich in peace, love and laughter.

Inspiration – images from the 2023 Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden. Do go see this show in person!

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Act Of Faith

Bulb planting got done last weekend. All of a 1000 give or take a few. The weather cooperated beautifully. Sunny, not too windy and comfortably cool conditions made the daunting task much easier to tackle. I say daunting because it is. There are so many holes to dig, drop a bulb and then fill back whilst maneuvering ones way around myriad established perennials. In my garden, it takes two days of steady planting by a team of two minimum. One drills holes the other fills.

In the past, I did the whole thing myself. But age catches up and help is necessary – family is roped in. I’m immensely grateful for their willingness to go along with my horticultural ambitions or, as they like to call it, my craziness. This year, I’ve been handicapped by wayward knees so it has been particularly meaningful to get the support of loved ones.

Like a child of a farming family taking time from school to help with planting/harvest, my daughter drove down from her graduate school in Ithaca to do her fair share in getting the bulb planting done. I’m thinking next year, I’ll try to get her cohorts from school to join in and give my husband a break!

Despite having a direct, realistic understanding of the weather patterns and climate shifts, the loss, reduction or changes in certain flora and/or fauna of value to the ecosystem, gardeners are an optimistic lot. The very business of gardening is about the future. What I plant now will only yield in time ahead. Through all the vagaries of the weather and general circumstances, on pure faith we sow, plant, water, feed, weed and nurture. It’s going to be just fine – we feel this viscerally. It would be impossible to garden without that conviction.

When it comes to bulb planting, it takes an extra dose of faith. The bulbs look innocuous – brown, rotund, little nuggets full of the promise of a beautiful tomorrow. With the goal of celebrating the end of winter and the arrival of spring, we envision the flowers put forth by the myriad bulbs and plant. We bury the bulbs in cavities of appropriate depths scattered through beds and meadow and come away with the conviction that they will deliver. Our full trust in Nature is commendable. In our interactions with other humans we do not display quite the same degree of faith. Human nature seems so much more fickle and treacherous than Nature herself.

Currently, at a time when we cannot ignore the acts and words of so many people within our midst as well as afar that demonstrate the worst of human traits, we must seek solace somewhere. That somewhere is a garden – ones own or elsewhere. Here, we find comfort and courage to face the future. In planting a bulb, a seed or a young plant, we firmly express our faith that there will be better tomorrow. Life would simply be unbearable otherwise.

Note: I encourage those without gardens to grow something(s) in a pot. A houseplant, an amaryllis, micro-greens, anything. I promise, you will feel so much better as you watch it grow. Have faith.

Images of bulb planting this past weekend – A mix of assorted tulips, alliums, camassia, fritillaria and ornithogalums were this year’s choice.

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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November! Last Call!

November! The month of winding down the gardening, finding comfort indoors and giving thanks. A month for review and gratitude. This gift of time behooves me to use it well. As I go about the final round of garden chores, I take stock of how things went for both garden and gardener. Were expectations met? Did I do right by my covenant to do no harm? What balls were dropped? What were the successes/failures? It’s an inventory of what all has happened in the garden this passing year.

I make note of my assessments and observations. In December, I will reflect on the points. But for now I must get the remaining chores completed.

Things To Do In November

1. First and foremost, put away all Halloween decorations. Set up Thanksgiving displays – gourds, pumpkins, ornamental kales and cabbages, chrysanthemums and asters.

2. Having cut back plants and cleared debris, mulch all plant beds with fallen leaves and/or bark chips. Putting down layers of newspaper or opened up paper grocery bags over the soil and then covering with fallen leaves is a really good, eco-friendly, sustainable practice.

3. Hurry up and finish all pending tasks from last month!

4. Finish planting spring flowering bulbs.

5. Protect pots to be left outdoors, vulnerable plants such as boxwood, certain roses, and garden statuary.

6. Reinstall and fill bird feeders. Note: in my area, we are cautioned to not put up feeders due to bear sightings.

7. Be prepared for snow and ice. Keep snow shovels, grit or sand, firewood stocked and handy.

8. In case of power outage, have candles, flashlights, matches and batteries on the ready. A radio too – I have a radio that uses batteries but it can also be charged up by mechanical cranking. Came in handy when a few years ago we lost power and Internet for a whole week due to Hurricane Sandy.

9. Finish raking leaves. Remember, leaving fallen leaves in place is encouraged. I keep only the various paths and my tiny lawn clear as the former needs to be kept safe for passage and the latter risks getting smothered to death if the thick pile of leaves shed from surrounding trees are left in place. Those leaves on the lawn are raked and distributed over the adjacent beds.

10. Clean and store tools. Get appropriate ones sharpened.

11. Start setting aside seed and plant catalogs. Soon you will be planning for next year!

12. While the weather is pleasant enough, keep on weed watch!

13. In the greenhouse, be sure the heater is doing its job. Ventilation is also important to keep plants healthy.

14. Start a routine for regular watering of plants indoors. Keep vigil for early signs of pests or disease.

15. Start growing amaryllis and paperwhites for seasonal cheer. Similarly, put bulbs such as hyacinths, muscari , crocus and tulips in for cooling. (I use my refrigerator). In about fourteen to eighteen weeks, you can start forcing them and pretend it is spring indoors!

16. Enjoy a beautiful Thanksgiving. Plan for it.

Some scenes from the garden and home –

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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