Creature Comforts

There’s no doubt that I’ve been able to manage my concerns during this pandemic, economic crisis and national unrest because of the garden. Every single one of us has been impacted – some far more than others. How we cope has also been a matter of individual circumstances. To find myself with a garden to tend and enjoy has been nothing short of a blessing. A huge blessing.

Spending time in nature is now a scientifically established prescription for ones wellness and wellbeing. To nurture a garden has the added bonus of taking oneself out of ones own headspace to focus on doing, creating and making something beautiful and healthy. That therapy is priceless.

In having the luxury to spend more time than usual in the garden, I’ve reconnected with it in ways that I’d forgotten. In the early years, everything was new and exciting. I was creating a garden from scratch. The learning itself was exhilarating. As my vision was being realized, my other responsibilities and commitments increased. My leisure time in the garden dropped significantly. The chores got done but it became more about efficiency and completion rather than mindfulness and enjoying the process.

With the mandated ‘pause’, I have once again regained the joy and curiosity that gardening permits. Going forward, I’m determined to keep to a schedule that always provides for more hours in the garden than anywhere else. I’m so much better off that way.

One of the most rewarding benefits of hanging out in the garden is observing the other creatures also hanging out with me. The dance of yellow swallowtail butterflies floating gracefully over the meadow before they alight on their respectively chosen flowers. How quickly the butterfly moves away if a bee or wasp gets close.

There is a pair of ruby throated hummingbirds that frequent the feeder at the potager. If I sit in a particular spot under the pergola, I get a very good view of them sipping. The female makes more visits than the male. I find it even more gratifying when I notice them at the flowers in the garden. That’s why I planted them after all.

Something I haven’t yet been able to fathom is the remarkable attraction the agapanthus has for all the different pollinators. More than the lovely native plants in bloom, the pot with the agapanthus bearing large inflorescences of pretty blue flowers is, at any given time humming with bees, butterflies and hummingbird. I wonder if it is the color that has such a draw. At present, it is the only blue amidst a sea of white, pink, yellow, red and orange. Are cool colors preferred? Definitely needs further investigation.

There has been an overall paucity of butterflies this year. I hope this is due to a cyclical process and not a red flag being raised. Fingers crossed.

With this concern in mind, coming upon a mating pair of Monarch butterflies last week made me delirious with joy. I’m really eager to see their caterpillars maraud the milkweed planted just for them.

Thus far, I’ve come across two garden snakes. An urgent, telepathic request for them to have their fill of all the rodent types scurrying around and causing damage above and underground has been sent. Not sure what can be done with the surplus in chipmunks though. They have taken to behaving as if they rule the place. I simply cannot allow that and yet, I don’t know how to stop them. No nasty chemicals permitted of course. Occasionally, there is a neighbor’s cat that prowls through – I sincerely hope it is paying its passage by culling the mice.

The variety of birds that I spy on a daily basis marks my hours as well spent. This past spring, there have been three nests of robins successfully raised. I’ve also noticed fledglings of cardinals, wrens and blue jays. I know there are gold finches, downy and red bellied woodpeckers residing in the trees because I see them foraging freely in the meadow. A red tailed hawk lives somewhere in the area and paid us a visit earlier in the spring. That was an unusual yet remarkable sight.

To share the garden with them and other creatures is this gardener’s wish come true. Because, for all the effort and time I put into it, nothing would work out if not for their part in it. Though, I could do without their gifts of seeds from other parts – a certain porcelain berry trying to invade the meadow comes to mind. Birds will be birds notwithstanding.

Witnessing these natural interactions reminds me of how all living things are closely connected and responsible for maintaining the health of the environment. Their well-being is my well-being. Life is all about balance.

Black swallowtail

Mating Monarchs

Pollination in action

Hummingbird at the agapanthus

Hummingbird at feeder

Yellow swallowtail

Bee on the milkweed

Cardinal fledgling

Feeding time at the Wrens’

Robin eggs

Feeding time at the Robins’

Red Tail hawk visit

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Topiary Tableaux

I have a real weakness for topiaries. Looking around my garden, there are roughly, well over 30 of them and about another dozen in training. Okay, so maybe its more likely an addiction but, in the grand scheme of things, I could do worse. No guilt whatsoever.

To many, the word topiary conjures up images of old, elaborate gardens belonging to châteaux and villas and manors. Gardens that require a retinue of gardeners and very large coffers. Not any more. Unless of course you have the means and inclination to manage those traditional and sometimes pretentious gardens. Today, plants shaped into balls, pyramids and quirky creatures play a more understated role in our contemporary gardens. While such plants still bring a valued design feature to a garden, they do not dominate. Topiaries of today are team players not soloists.

What is it about a topiary that makes it so attractive? That they look like diminutive trees? The more creative shapes add an element of whimsy? Their neatly clipped appearance brings a sense of order and design? That a topiary can lend an air of gravitas and legitimize a green space as a garden? Yes! It’s ALL of the above. I love everything about them and how they make my garden look.

My collection (I’m a collector!) is a mix of topiaries both purchased and homegrown. They are not difficult to train but do require patience and diligence. All the bay standards in the garden were started from cuttings. As are a couple of boxwoods and myrtles. I’m currently training some rosemaries that I’d rooted earlier in the spring. Several coleus and variegated boxwood cuttings are being monitored for rooting – they too will be coaxed into standards. If I’m feeling ambitious, some might make it as double sphered beauties. A couple of young jasmines have been earmarked for training into heart shapes.

A couple of weeks ago, I made a visit to Atlock Farms which specializes in topiaries. It is king of the entire tri-state area. They create topiary magic with an impressive array of plants in a variety of sizes. It was a big adventure for me that day – my first ‘border crossing’ since the lockdown started way back in March! So leaving New York to enter New Jersey felt like a big deal. At Atlock, the vast array of gorgeous, green topiaries drove me crazy – I wanted everything. Thankfully, my family restrained my enthusiasm and I did not break the bank. I returned home with only about a dozen small beauties and a very contented heart.

Maintaining the standards or any other shape is easy. They get fed organic fertilizer every few weeks. Watering as dictated by the weather – since the pots are all terracotta, during the summer heat a daily drink is required. Depending on the type of plant, they are placed in sun or part shade. A regular trimming keeps them looking tidy and stylish.

While my big bays and myrtle are used as specific design elements in the garden, the smaller ones get to provide drama collectively – I call them my three tableaux. They are stand-alone points of interest. Situated in areas that are otherwise not particularly compelling, the groupings bring transformation. They spark curiosity and delight.

Even a single good size topiary can make a strong statement in any space. I strongly urge everyone to get themselves one. Or two. Or many.

Since my well-coiffed plants are in pots, they endure the winters in the greenhouse. I have a feeling that this year, some will find themselves in the main house. My collection has grown exponentially while the greenhouse has remained small.

Time spent tending to my topiaries is invariably calming. Not physically demanding at all. Re-staking and tying, trimming and clipping, re-potting as the plants grow, serve to release any tensions and forget about the bigger dramas going on in the world. At the end of which, they sit pretty – order restored. If only it were that simple with those other matters outside the garden. Sigh.

Note; The response to the Printed Garden products has been heartwarming. Thank you! Please check it out if you haven’t thus far. 50% of the profits donated to the ACLU.

In the images below, how many topiary forms can you see? This is a test! Don’t miss the three tableaux.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Name Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some flowers currently in bloom:

Echinacea purpurea/purple coneflower with yellow swallowtail

Agapanthus/Lily Of The Nile with yellowswallowtail

Helenium autumnale/sneezeweed

Monarda fistulis/wild bergamot

Lobelia cardinalis/Cardinal flower

Asclepias incarnata/Rose milkweed

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Masked And Muzzled?

The garden looks and feels different these days. Mostly because I’m spending more time in it than I ever have. It’s a privilege to be privy to all the routine goings on in the garden. It feels more intimate.

My garden has always been an extension of our home. Apart from the actual time spent gardening, it is where we enjoy gathering for meals with or without friends, spend time reading in a shady corner or take a snooze. When my daughter was little, she’d play in the garden endlessly and nap in a hammock while I went about my weeding and planting chores.

But, these months, the garden has taken on a greater importance. It’s the go to place. For everything. Starting in the spring when lockdown was mandated, the only way to get some sense of normalcy was in the garden. Sunlight, fresh air, new growth – all life affirming and reassuring. To me, it was as though the world was telling me that it was going to be all right. When the news was scary and we were all getting anxious about the unfamiliar, formidable virus, stepping out in the garden and communing with nature was the sanity-keeping elixir.

Very quickly we each found ourselves in the garden for all sorts of things. My daughter finished up college from home. She attended her Zoom classes in the garden. My husband made the tree house his office. Phone calls were taken as he walked around the garden. I too brought my work out to the terrace – writing, planning, designing, painting. We Zoomed, FaceTimed and Skyped with family in far flung places and friends living much closer. We shared our garden with many. Virtually.

All along, we enthusiastically did all the necessary seasonal tasks required and savored the opportunity to watch it gradually grow and transform itself into a beautiful sanctuary. Our shelter from the stormy world.

Right now, as one looks around my garden, you get the feeling the garden itself is in compliance of the New York State mask mandate. The grapes, apples and most of the pears have been covered in bags. To protect them from pests and critters.

This year, I decided to try something I’d been wanting to do for years – growing pears in bottles. Of the original four bottles, two are doing well. I’m hoping the current heatwave does not harm them. The two other pears broke off from their stalk very early. It’s a simple project but it’s a thrill watching the fruit grow in their glass ‘muzzles’. I can totally envision the bottles in October –sitting pretty with a full pear. Ready to be filled up with pear brandy. For those cold winter nights up ahead.

These days, the garden is where we can meet our friends – safely and comfortably. We share meals and drinks at a distance. Play games. Easter, birthdays and a graduation were duly celebrated in the garden. Very small parties but party nevertheless. Quality over quantity.

We meet our visitors masked and distanced. But we meet – that means everything to us.

And speaking of celebrations, absolutely every good thing, big or small, is honored. The first sighting of a Monarch butterfly, the first fig or tomato of the season, a clean bill of health for a friend who has emerged safely from chemotherapy, the success of growing topiaries from root cuttings, a positive review of a poem or a sale of a painting, spying hummingbirds feasting at the cardinal flowers in the meadow, a handwritten note from a long ago friend, fresh flowers from the garden.The list is endless!

We’ve all come to know how fragile the world we’d come to take for granted truly is. Never again. The pandemic unmasked our hubris. Now, humbled and openly vulnerable, we relearn how to care. For ourselves, each other and our planet. In time, the physical masks we must now wear will come off but until then, they’re a small price to pay for our well-being.

Note: Sprucing up your home? Need gifts for brides/ newlyweds, housewarmings, hosts, birthdays? Do check out The Printed Garden collections. You will be supporting the ACLU at the same time!

Bagged grapes

Bagged pear

Coming along!

Photo shoot of the Collection 2 of The Printed Garden

Haircut in the garden

Graduation parade

Cheers!

Nephew helps with allium project

Setting up for a music video

Keeping masks on the ready!

Masked and distanced audience

Concert in the garden

Painting in the garden

Zoom class in progress

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Blowing Hot

We’re in the midst of a heatwave here in the Northeast. And I’ve retreated indoors. This is the reason summer is my least favorite season. Spring and fall are no-brainers. What’s not to love about them? Winter can be brutal but it is still possible to get outside if properly bundled up. But summer – when there is much going on in the garden, the heat starts soaring, humidity hits a high and the mosquitoes takeover the airspace. It gets virtually impossible to spend a length of time outdoors without risking heat exhaustion and/or being eaten alive. Whatever is a gardener to do?

I’ve developed ways to cope with my least favorite season. First and foremost, embrace bug-spray. Without that, I simply cannot remain outdoors for any length of time. Yesterday, my bare limbs were under siege within seconds of stepping out in the garden until I remembered my ammunition in a can. The sticky feel of the repellent is not great but it is the only way to working without bites.

Do the work really early. Or as late as possible. Those are the only hours with remotely tolerable temperatures. I’m not a morning person but for years I’d reluctantly get started early in the garden. Admittedly, once I was up and busy, I felt great. The birdsong for company and the sense of accomplishing the chores early is undoubtedly wonderful. But, I didn’t like the pressure of having to get up early.

Now, I’ve made it easier by giving myself the option of working later in the evening. It is still light outside and the temperature is equally amenable. The bees and butterflies are still busy as are the birds. At this time of day, the hummingbirds always visit the feeder in the herb garden so I make it a point to loiter around for a bit just so I can watch them. The joy of observing these diminutive wonders never gets old.

And so the work gets done. After a day of doing more sedentary work indoors, it actually feels restorative to get outside and be more active. Most evenings, I end up lingering into the night watching fireflies and letting the perfumes of jasmine, phlox, gardenia and brugamansia gently ease me into calm and gratitude. Ending the day in a state of grace.

A word on mosquito repellent – The most effective ones contain DEET. I don’t like using it all the time. I’ve learned that the only effective plant based repellent is oil of lemon eucalyptus from its namesake tree and NOT to be confused with lemon-eucalyptus oil. Tested by the EPA and found to be effective up to 6 hours. Choose one with at least 30 percent of the ingredient. Other plant based repellents might work but for very little time.

Note: Create an indoor garden with my Printed Garden collection! Support the ACLU at the same time!

Can you spot the hummingbird?

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Green, Greener, Greenest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Front bed of perennials. So much green!

The other bed in front

Acanthus in front

Astilbe in the perennial bed

Butterflyweed in front bed

Echinacea at the top of the side path

Overview of the herb/potager

Yarrow and Monarda

In the checkerboard garden.

The meadow mid-July

Milkweed starting to bloom

Texture and shapes in the meadow

Oakleaf hydrangea blushing

Sparks of orange nasturtium and blue nemesia

The wall

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Buds, Blooms, Babies

From the first buds of spring, the pulse quickens in expectation of the blooms to come. And all through the growing seasons, the natural sequence of flowering carries one through in a state of excitement. Plants just about to burst into bloom are one of the few things that brings forth an almost childlike thrill in us. It never gets old.

This week, the Monarda and Echinacea opened up to the bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. So gratifying. The milkweed in the meadow are getting ready and I’m eager to see the butterflies flock to them. The native wisteria is similarly studded with buds – this is the second flush. It’s the first time this second round looks as abundant as the first and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this week’s heat and humidity do not do them in. Typical of the greedy gardener, I’m over the moon when plants that are generally not from here do well – case in point, the agapanthus I covet and grow in a pot, has put out three fat buds. It’s absurd how elated I am. As though the plant is telling me that I did a good job. Oh the hubris!

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been doing a great deal of bird watching in the garden. Three different robins nests have resulted in no less than 10 fledglings. The bluebird house hosted a family of wrens, followed by sparrows and is now once again occupied by wrens. I watched a tiny wren fledgling last evening making short test flights. I couldn’t capture it with my camera as it was never still.

This past Saturday, I noticed a small bird sitting on an electrical wire that runs near the maple tree in front of the property. Viewed from the back, it looked like no bird I could recognize. As it turned its head, I saw its orange beak and it dawned on me that it was young female cardinal! This was the first time I’ve seen a cardinal baby. While I observe cardinals regularly all over the garden, I’ve never been privileged to see their nests or young ones. My joy was immeasurable – simple pleasures.

This past week, I finally launched the second collection in my line of soft furnishings The Printed Garden. I’m really proud of these beautiful, useful products and hope you will check them out.

50% of the profits from any and all purchases will be donated to the ACLU ( American Civil Liberties Union). Your support is deeply appreciated. Note: Due to the pandemic, stock is limited and future production is uncertain.

And there you have it. Buds, babies and blooms. Life.

Native wisteria preparing for a second flush

Cardinal fledgling

The herb garden from above

Agapanthus in bud

Monarda and yarrow

Milkweed about to open

The white oakleaf hydrangea taking on a rosy hue

Echinacea

Concord grapes coming along.

A peek into the the Printed Garden collection 2

Tea towels

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Thought For Food

A significant upside to the lock-down is that more people are gardening. This makes me so happy. Of all the things one could resort to during this uncertain, scary time, gardening is perhaps one of the best activities to do. You and I both know all the benefits so I shall not reiterate them but for myself, working in my garden has been my salvation.

Vegetable gardening is what most have taken up. There is something fundamental and inherent about that. Historically, how and what we eat dictates how well we survive. In good times and bad. An unprecedented crisis such as this pandemic had us naturally look to our basic need. Subconsciously, food is always ( okay, maybe mostly) on our minds. This threat, being a challenge to our health got us to think about keeping us in good, robust condition. Growing and preparing owns own food is the obvious solution. It gives one a sense of taking charge and doing something positive. All good I say. It reminds me of the Victory gardens that proliferated during WW II.

While seed companies were suddenly faced with a run on their stock, people were (re-)discovering the joys of gardening. Friends living in tiny city apartments were growing herbs, radish and tomatoes on their window-sills and balconies. Some have been training peas and beans around their windows. A quick search on the Internet reveals a plethora of innovations for apartment gardening. I’m quite blown away by what cool stuff is available.

Others who already had a yard, have gotten busy making all manner of vegetable gardens. Raised beds, French potagers, English kitchen gardens, vegetables ‘plots’ solely comprised of pots – it’s been exciting to learn of all the activity. Even better, swathes of lawn have been turned over to rows of vegetable plants, pollinators have been encouraged with the addition of native flowering plants, organic practices have been adopted, composting has become routine – my goodness! We are already doing better.

I myself upped my veggie game this year. For the first time, I started growing peas and micro-greens, increased the number of tomato and zucchini plants and added more herbs. In the fruit department, a long desired persimmon tree joined the apple, pear and fig trees already in residence. FYI – While we get a nice amount of produce, the garden in no way covers all our vegetable needs as we follow a mostly plant based diet.

More significantly for me, I widened the usage of the plants and have been trying new recipes. The repertoire of family meals has grown substantially and we’re thoroughly enjoying the experience. I suspect that we have each become even more particular about where and what we select when we eventually dine out. The bar has been raised.

The CSA ( Community Supported Agriculture) Co-Op I belong to started up their 2020 weekly deliveries a couple of weeks ago. It’s a joy to get the produce from a local farm instead of the supermarket. And we’re continuing to try new recipes.

I’ve received several recipe requests so I thought I’d share a couple of old, tried and true family recipes as well as a couple of new ones that I’ve tried recently..

Cilantro Chutney – Most people think of chutneys as a sweet-salty-spicy mix but in Indian cooking, chutneys are not always sweet. This one is not sweet but is great on sandwiches, brushed on roasted vegetables, meats, fish and anything needing a little oomph.

This recipe is from my mother-in-law who was a highly gifted cook.

Jaya Mani’s Cilantro Chutney

1.

2 T oil

2 T urad dal (white lentil)

1 T fenugreek seeds  — optional

1 pinch hing (asofoetida powder)  — optional

1 large dry red chilli

 (2)

1 t black mustard

 (3)

1 medium bunch cilantro washed and drained (including stems)

Salt to taste

Fry (1) together until lentils are toasted – light brown. Strain but save the oil. Add strained mixture (1) to blender. Add (3), some water and grind to a paste. Remove chutney paste from blender. Add (2) to drained oil and fry until mustard starts to pop. Add (2) to chutney  and mix well. Use within 2-3 days or freeze.

 Suggested servings:

  • Sandwiches with thinly sliced white bread, butter, chutney, thinly sliced coriander

  • Chutney with cooked  rice

  • Chapati/paratha roll with scrambled egg and chutney

  • Crackers, chutney and cheese

Rose geranium syrup over roasted figs – This combines two things from my garden. It’s a very simple but elegant dish. Add a few rose-geranium leaves when making a sugar syrup. Once the syrup has cooked down to desired thickness, remove the leaves. Let cool.

Roast figs – Cut fresh figs in half and arrange cut side up on a baking sheet. Drizzle some extra-virgin oil over them. Roast in oven at 425 degrees for 10 minutes or until they bubble.

Serve figs with syrup dribbled over them. Add a dollop of plain Greek yogurt on the side. You feel healthy that way. To up the ante, decorate the plate with a few rose-geranium flowers.

Strawberry-Basil Ice Cream – When I came across this recipe, I was intrigued. Basil in a dessert! It is delicious and so refreshing.

Ribs with rhubarb glaze and radish-rhubarb salad – I wanted to use rhubarb in more than the usual crisp or compote. This recipe from Bon Appetit turned out well.

Strawberry-basil ice cream

Khao Soi by @miravanchiswar Recipe from dear friend @sonal.nair. Cilantro from the garden

Basil pesto

Dolma using leaves from my Concord grapevine by @muralimani

Sandwiches using the cilantro chutney

Rhubarb cake

Chive quiche @miravanchiswar

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Kind Of Hush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tomato flowers

Washed basil

Pesto

 

Peas

Stevia for sweetening tea

Cilantro for chutney

Mojito mint

Herb ‘wall’

Yarrow

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

This Land

Last Sunday, June 14 was Flag Day. I decided to get in the spirit. It wasn’t a spontaneous decision – I’d had red, white and blue on my mind for some days. Remember when I mentioned that I’d harvested all the spent alliums? It was done primarily to give the bulbs the opportunity to fatten up for next year but the allium stems and their spherical umbels have a sculptural presence even in senescence. So, re-purposing them seemed a natural thing to do. Simply by themselves they look rather good in a vase but to me, they resemble sparklers and star bursts. Given the pandemic restrictions and the desire to have something fun to do, I got the family involved in ‘painting’ a good number of allium heads red, white and blue. When the paint had dried, they got topped with a coat of glow-in-the-dark paint.

The allium sculpture now placed in the front walkway in plain view of passersby and from inside the house is cause to smile and be reminded that it is summer – Fourth of July, picnics and fireworks. At nightfall, they do glow! FYI – I bring it indoors if rain is expected.

This whimsical project has pleased me more than you’d think.

The remaining half of the alliums will be coated gold for the holidays in December. Yes, I’m planning well ahead. Why ever not! Gardeners are nothing if not optimists.

While the big show in the garden is dominated by peonies and roses right now, I’m more enchanted with the native plants that are starting to make their presence felt. The native wisteria comes into bloom in mid-June – not as splashy or fragrant as its Asian counterparts, it blooms after leafing out. I appreciate the timing as there’s something so lovely about the green and purple display scrambling over the pergola. It’s also generally warm enough by this time for al fresco meals – can you imagine a prettier setting? The native wisteria will put out a second flush of blooms later in summer as though rewarding the gardener for taking a chance and giving it a home.

In the meadow, the allium have passed the baton to the native plants. The columbines, geums and zizia kept the alliums company but now, the geranium, woodland anemone and ornamental raspberry are taking over. It’s all less dramatic than the the bulbs but there’s a quiet comfort in observing nature in action in the meadow. The swallowtail and silver spotted skipper butterflies have been dancing madly all over the plants. The bees have gone into high gear – the hum can be loud! I watch numerous birds picking up meals for their young all day long – it must be far more exhausting to be an avian parent than a human one.

I’ve occasionally seen a garden snake in the meadow. While it is harmless, I’m always a bit skittish when Severus slithers along. Still, I wish him well – eat all the rodents please!

Its hugely exciting to see the oakleaf hydrangea covered in emerging inflorescences. Likewise, the turtleheads, cardinal flowers, Echinacea, Monarda, milkweed and other summer bloomers. With them will come more butterflies and activity. This is not only exciting, it’s also gratifying. These are all flora and fauna that belong here. This land belongs to them. I am merely the privileged steward.

Note: I am thrilled to share two things – first, each weekk, the Garden Conservancy is including news from my garden in their In My Garden – a visual diary series. If you are a GC member, it’ll be showing up in your email  in-box each week. If you are not a member, I highly recommend that you remedy that! Until such time, you can see it here.

The other news is that this is the Garden Conservancy’s 25th anniversary of the their Open Days Program. Accompanying their Annual Report, is a companion book #OpenDays25 in which, I am one of the 25 featured gardeners. I am truly honored to be in some very illustrious company! The book is full of wonderful images by the super-talented Christine Ashburn, @christine_ashburn_photography. I hope you will check out her work as well as the book when it comes out very soon this month. I’m presenting my ‘profile’ below.

Allium fireworks!

Silver spotted skippers visiting native wisteria

Geum

Woodland anemone

Ornamental raspberry

Cranesbill geranium

Intersectional peony whose name eludes me

R.leda

David Austin R. ‘Boscobel’

David Austin R. ‘ Strawberry Hills’

Bonica rose

R. New Dawn

An oakleaf hydrangea in bud

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar