Some Like It Hot

For the longest time I resisted hot colors in my garden. Growing up in India, I was accustomed to the gaudy oranges, reds and yellows of calendula, marigold, nasturtium, lily, canna, dahlias , salvia and such. In my mind, they were tropical colors. So, when I started gardening in my current garden in New York, those colors felt inappropriate.

Blues, pinks, purples, soft yellows and whites shone in this space. And they do look spectacular in spring. I was rather strict about it. I shunned sulfur yellow yarrow, reserved the annual, school prompted, Mother’s Day pot of orange marigold that my daughter brought home all through elementary school to a good but discreet location, selected only paler nasturtiums and made an exception for the claret red Monarda in the herb garden. I had convinced myself that those hues were wrong for this garden.

Yet, as the years passed, I was struck by the lack of summer exuberance in the garden. The pale hues were washed out in the strong sunlight. The garden lacked oomph. But, as summer was also the time I traveled for several weeks, I never made any serious attempts to change anything. Then, in 2019, a late August photo shoot was scheduled by the Garden Conservancy for the 25th Anniversary of their hugely popular Open Days Program. I returned from a long vacation to a bedraggled, lackluster garden with just a few days to whip it back into some semblance of summer splendor. The marathon weeding and trimming brought in order but there was serious lack of punch. Off I went to the nursery looking for inspiration.

True to form, the nursery was a riot of summer color – all the plants of my childhood dominated. I had a sense of comfort in seeing old plant friends. They made me happy. I brought home some canna sporting flames of red and orange. Installed into the pair of pots leading down to the potager, they instantly lit up the space. What a difference that small tweak made.

The following year, 2020, became the year the garden and gardener were transformed. I had all the time in the world and the garden was my salvation. It was a rekindling of my romance with it. Like most long term relationships, I had gotten complacent with the garden. I realized I hadn’t been giving it my all. A good partnership requires consistent effort and attention and I was resolved to do better.

With no possibility of travel and pretty much no distractions, I sought out elements that brought joy and comfort. Happy colors that shine bright as summer unfolds. I planted cardinal vines to scramble up the pergola, red and yellow hibiscus standards in the urns on the terrace, orange, red and yellow nasturtiums to ramble freely in the potager,and tumble boisterously from the big pots of bay standards, yellow calendula and saffron hued marigold in alternating rows in the bed of leafy greens, cannas again in the pots – the potager and terrace was ablaze. In the meadow, the colors were echoed by Monarda and Lobelia ( cardinal flower) punctuated by Solidago golds. Everything was so much in keeping with the season – summer became a true celebration.

And that’s how it has come to be. Sometime in June the softer shades of spring give way to the hotter hues of summer. It’s become my cue to ease up and slide into the season of kicking back and relaxing- rules, rituals and reservations. Let’s drink to that – Cheers!

Random glimpses of summer color  – 

          

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar     

 

Sizzling Into July

Both temperatures and garden are distinctly taking on summer sizzle. I don’t do well in the heat so I’ve learned to keep my time in the garden to the cooler hours of the morning and evening. I leave the hot midday to mad dogs and Englishmen.

It’s now all about balancing between letting the sounds of birds and insects lull us into a happy state of doing nothing and keeping on top of weeding, tidying and watering. The weeds are the biggest offenders – they seem to come up with an enthusiasm that I wish would rub off on the choice plants that are taking time to spread.

The season to gather with friends has commenced. I firmly believe gardens are created to be shared with others. Have you noticed how everyone instinctively inhales visibly and relaxes in nature? Entertaining outdoors is unfussy and naturally easy. The food is simple and fresh and the garden does its magic at putting everyone at ease.

I’ve had the pleasure of hosting several groups of artists in the garden this month. A garden is a perfect muse – inspires us to paint and stretch ourselves, it relieves us of inhibitions and nudges us into working more freely, exploring, experimenting, learning to see anew. Encouraged by the creative company and commiserating about the challenges of all the greenery, the whole experience is joyous. As both gardener and artist, I absolutely love to see how others view my garden. It’s the same when I see photographs taken by visitors. I learn a great deal and grow as gardener as well as artist. Quite possibly, in sharing the garden, I’m the one who gains the most!

As we head into the long weekend, here’s incentive to get stuff in the garden –

Things To Do In July

1. Weed, weed, weed! Remember, pouring boiling water over bricks and other stonework will kill  weeds growing in-between.

2. Deadhead often. Neatness matters.

3. Mulch, fertilize, water.

4. Mow regularly but keep the mower blade high.

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

6. Plant out vegetable seedlings for fall harvest.

7. Keep birdbaths filled with fresh, clean water.

8. Order fall bulbs

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

Happy Fourth!

Summer vibes

Veronicastrum lighting up the meadow.

Lady Slippers getting worn out

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

Specially Small

First, let me apologize for not posting last week. I was forced to lie low as I succumbed to some bug. Not Covid or the ’flu but something that knocked me out nevertheless. Took a few days but I’ve recovered well and feeling immensely grateful. Thanks so much for all the concerned inquiries – honestly, it felt good that my silence was noted!

Although I started feeling well within four days, I decided to go quiet for another week. My mind and body needed that break. The 10 days of going off the grid felt like a cleansing of sorts. No doom scrolling the news or checking Instagram. It was easier than I thought it’d be. I didn’t miss any of it. Now, I’m ready to get back to putting up my one daily Instagram post and checking the accounts I follow but with a determination to only do so for a half hour a day. That’s it.

I can use my time more productively.

As soon as I felt sufficiently better, I went down to the PHS Flower Show. It had been some years since I’d visited Philly so the trip took on the feel of a real getaway.

The Flower Show was held outdoors and the day I went was blessed with lovely weather. It had all the elements of a fair – live music, lots of people, smells of food, vendors of all kinds of wares and of course the horticultural exhibits themselves. I enjoyed Wambui Ippolito’s Aer and AMP’s Nature Amplified very much. Sadly, neither of the dynamic women were present that day. In fact, AMP had already returned to the UK. Still, I’m so glad I got to see their work.

Beyond the obvious reasons to go to a flower show like this, it was particularly joyous to just have this show take place. We’ve all been through so much that events like this are life affirming and filled with hope and optimism. Nature heals.

What I appreciated the most at the show were the plant vendors. My inherent greed for plants aside, it was special to see small nurseries being represented. These nurseries, almost always family operated, are invaluable to the horticultural world. They do what they do for the love of it. Neither lucrative nor glamorous, running a nursery is very hard work. Small nurseries are the ones that grow the unusual, the special, the rare. They preserve important plants while big box stores push the popular/trendy. If you’re looking for plants no longer found easily or fallen out of fashion, go to a small nursery. I, for one, shop exclusively in such places. Shop local, think global.

Years ago, there were several family run nurseries in my county. Each a source of great plants, knowledgeable and helpful people and each had its own unique specialty or expertise. As big box stores popped up everywhere, many of the nurseries could not compete. Customers were lured by low prices and settled for the plantes du jour. Specialty nurseries got hit hard. Today, the remaining nurseries in my area can be counted in one hand and even some of those only do wholesale. The discerning home gardener has to search hard to locate the required less popular but horticulturally valuable plants.

Back to the flower show – although I had no list or pressing need for purchasing, the sight of healthy plants was enough to break all my resolve. One nursery in particular caught my eye. At Triple Oaks Nursery, I picked up several Indian Pink plants (Spigelia marilandica) to add to my meadow. It is an uncommon native wildflower. A small fig was also obtained. Joe Kiefer the nurseryman was most helpful and full of good information. He operates in Franklinville, NJ and I cannot wait to visit him there.

If I had one suggestion to make to the organizers of the PHS Flower Show, it’d be to have even more nurseries at the show. We need to support them fully or run the risk of losing them entirely. That would be doing a huge disservice to ourselves, our gardens and to the horticultural world at large.

Small is priceless and most beautiful.

Pictures taken at the PHS Show –

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

This, That And The Other

I can hardly keep abreast with the flowers exploding in the garden. I might be gazing adoringly at the alliums when from the corner of my eye I notice the irises gracefully unfurling themselves. The clematis on the arch tumbles in a cascade – its exuberance is contagious. In counterpoint to the rounded heads of allium, the camassia shoot up in tall cones of pale blues and cream.

The foxgloves are having their moment in the potager. Their speckled spires distract me no end. It’s hard to work in their towering presence. And just this past weekend, the native wisteria scrambling up the pergola nearby, decided to join the party. The tiny bell shaped flowers of both the common and the more unusual blue comfrey are supporting actors in this cast of performers. Their part is no less important in the tableaux. Indeed, the bees and other insects seem to prefer them to the more showy companions.

The first rose to bloom is the David Austin R.Boscobel but the others are getting ready to compete any day now. Surprisingly behind schedule, the Baptisia and Amsonia are adding their shades of blue to the late spring parade. It’s rather interesting to view them amidst a new cast of characters. They fit in rather well.

What has excited me the most is something diminutive and easy to escape notice amidst this floral carnival are the Cypripedium parviflorum – the yellow lady’s slipper. I’ve long coveted them and acquired two plants last summer at the plant sale held at Hollister House. Both were planted in two different parts of the meadow. One is currently in bloom and the other is in bud. I am so pleased.

On the other end of my excitement was the discovery of cutworms on a small, potted pine. They looked so creepy writhing around in a cluster. Already a branch had been totally denuded and the vandals were working on another. They were dealt with swiftly. Felt very satisfying.

Today, the temperatures are expected to rise to the low 90s. Just when the late spring garden is looking so glorious. Don’t you just hate that! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that no real damage is done. I went around late last evening harvesting the peonies in bloom and those just about to. The anticipated heat would burn them easily. So now, while I work in the cool indoors, I’m basking in peony perfume and beauty. That’s a pretty good upside.

Lady’s Slipper

Wisteria on the pergola

Wisteria viewed from above

Cutworm cluster

Rescued peonies before the heat wave.

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

Opining On Open Day

What a glorious Open Day it came to be! The weather was perfect – cloudy (colors show up better), cool and very pleasant. The sun peered out occasionally but mostly, it stayed hidden. The previous day had been so humid and muggy that I feared for what might be on the big day. Clearly, the weather Gods heard my plea and decided to be kind.

And the visitors arrived – a steady flow all day. In fact, it felt so comfortably paced that it was only at the end of the day that I realized that we’d had about 150 people explore my small garden. I’ve said it before and I say it again – gardeners and garden lovers are the nicest people. Curious, eager, observant and enthusiastic. They notice everything and are generous with compliments and good insight. It is such fun to share ideas, inspiration and experiences.

Visitors came from near and far. Whether local or from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut or Long Island, I an humbled and so very grateful that they took the time to come to my little patch of earth. What lovely conversations I had with so many. I shared, I learned and together we celebrated our passion for gardening. Could anything be better?

I remember the first time my garden was opened and how nervous I was. That was 14 years ago. I worried how a seasoned gardener would view my seat-of-the-pants gardening style. What I learned then and it has proven true is that nobody makes all the effort and time to visit with the intent to criticize or be judgmental. As a group, we gardeners understand the trials and tribulations of working with nature. So we know to appreciate it all. And we learn constantly – in the doing and in the sharing.

Over the years, I’ve grown eager for Open Day because it acts like a tonic to rejuvenate my gardening passion. By being privy to how others view my garden, I get to see it through fresh eyes. And always I’m struck by what and how they notice the various elements be it color, plants and the plantings, the overall design and solutions to universal problems. I gain so much from how others view my work.Truly, I am renewed and refreshed at the end of the day. The exhaustion from getting the garden ready is totally worth it!

I send out deep thanks to all who came this past Saturday. You may not be aware of how how much your visit and feedback means to me – it honestly helps me be a better gardener.

Now, for the rest of the growing season, I’m ready to do my share of visiting gardens near and far. No doubt I’ll be delighted, inspired and duly instructed. Perfect.

Note: The Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program is invaluable. Do take advantage of it. Better yet, become a member – you’ll get informed on not just the gardens that are open but also the interesting talks, study tours and symposiums on tap. Members get discounts and first dibs.

Glimpses of Open Day 2022 –

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

When Old Is New Again

The hummingbirds are back! The feeders were optimistically put up two week ago when it was still cold. It has remained pretty much below normal temperatures since but the sugar solution was duly refreshed. Yesterday morning, just as more seasonable weather arrived, the tiny birds showed up as well. I’m taking that as a good sign for the season.

Humans have always relied on signals and sightings in nature as guides for when to do things and what to expect. A glut of acorns in the the fall means a consequent increase in mice, squirrel and deer populations as well as an emergence of new oak trees. And vice versa.

A cold spring means reduced pollination and lower production of fruit and future plants.

The timing of when the leaves fall in autumn is recognized as a good predictor – too early means mild fall and winter, too late indicates a colder winter and if leave shrivel up on the branches before dropping, then expect a very severe winter. I’m going to pay attention more to this autumn!

Similarly, it’s said that the wider the woolly bear caterpillar’s brown band is, the milder the winter will be. When birds migrate or returns are foretellings. Dandelions, tulips, chickweed and such fold their petals prior to rain.

While there is some evidence that some of these signals are accurate, for the most part, they are anecdotal. On my part, I’m happy to know them and tend to believe only if they predict something I desire. Selective is what I am. Ha.

However, there are old gardening practices that are very sound and good for all of nature. When I began creating this garden about 25 years ago, I resolved to do my best to do no harm. That right away meant organic methods. This was in part driven by my own childhood where I watched gardeners do their work sans chemicals. As a scientist, I learned the harm chemicals can do – long lasting harm. So organic it was. What was good through time is good for the present and future. ( A word of caution – even organic pest control should be applied judiciously. They might knock off pests but they also kill the good bugs. They are not specific to pests.)

Compost was known to be beneficial but, it was not a general practice at the time I got started on this garden.I knew enough soil microbiology to understand how effective this natural product was. While one could buy bags of compost, people did not make their own compost. At least not in the cities and suburbs. I was hard pressed to find a company that sold composters suitable to suburban homes – something that offered protection from curious critters (think raccoon) unlike open compost bins often seen in large estates and rural properties. I did eventually find one that is ideal for kitchen waste. The woods that back my property take care of all garden waste.

Next came my quest to collect rain water. No water butts or barrels to be found. Why? Because most people were not thinking about water shortages at that time. Even though the evidence was already pointing to water becoming a global crisis in the not too distant future. Now, collecting rain water is a very old practice. Not just because of shortage concerns but also because it saved drawing it from the well water or fetching from the river. It simply made sense. We converted an old wine barrel to do the job.

Native plants encouraged native fauna and the ecosystem was kept in balance. Companion planting, crop rotation, diligent observation to thwart disease are all time tested methods for a healthy garden and gardener. Our ancestors learned the hard way and have passed on that wisdom. We strayed but now, we’re returning to those lessons. And that’s a very good thing. Admittedly, not everything our forebearers did was good but we know enough now to know the difference.

To think, my approach to gardening was called ‘quaint’ at the time. Now, 25 plus years on, I’m trendy. I’m having my moment!!

Note: Last call to pre-register for my Open Day!

The greening of the wall

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

May Flowers

It’s finally looking and feeling like spring. After last week’s cool, windy days, the weekend arrived bright, sunny and warm. A gift! It’s now a mad dash to get the garden in ship-shape for its May 14 Open Day. Lots got done over the weekend – aching muscles bear testimony. Still more remains. Because of the unprecedentedly cold weather, we’re running behind schedule. But, that’s life in the garden. Nature is always in charge. However hard we gardeners work, we are not in control. Ever. That is a good lesson to take to heart – do your best, stay humble, be resilient and work with Nature not against.

Our relationship with Nature, whilst seemingly collaborative, is an unequal one. It is best to accept that. Leave the ego outside the garden or else it’ll be shredded ruthlessly in no time. And in the end, when the garden looks gorgeous, graciously accept your part in it but know in your heart who really had the last word.

So, I’m keeping my head down and focusing on getting the work done. I’m also beseeching the powers that be to be kind and generous to send good weather, get the plants blooming and bring in many happy visitors.

Here’s the general To-Do list for May –

Things To Do In May

  1. Weed regularly if you want to keep the thugs in check.

  2. Put stakes in place so as plants grow it’ll be easy to secure them.

  3. Deadhead spent blooms for a neat look. Some plants will reward you with a second wave of blooms. Of course, if you want to collect seeds, do not deadhead.

  4. Water as necessary. Add a splash of compost tea to fertilize – about every 2-3 weeks.

  5. Plant in summer vegetables, summer bulbs and tubers and, annuals.

  6. Keep bird baths filled with clean water. Use mosquito ‘dunks’ to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. The same goes for fountains.

  7. Start mowing lawns but do the right thing by keeping the mower blade high at about four inches. Leave clippings in place to replenish the soil.

  8. Make sure all beds, shrubs and trees are mulched to retain moisture and keep weeds from proliferating.

  9. To take care of weeds in areas that are paved or bricked, pour boiling hot water over them. The weeds will be killed and no chemicals were used!

  10. Stay vigilant for pests or disease. The earlier you catch a problem, the easier it is to treat them. Always employ organic methods.

  11. Stir the compost heap regularly. Keep adding in kitchen and garden waste.

  12. Take time every day to simply enjoy the garden.

  13. Visit other gardens through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program. You will be vastly instructed and inspired. Www.gardenconservancy.org/opendays

Note: I’ll be at Teatown Lake Reservation’s eagerly awaited and hugely popular PlantFest May 6 &7. Look for my Seeds Of Design booth – items from my Printed Garden Collection will be available. Beautiful gifts for Mother’s Day, teachers, hostess, brides , birthdays and yourself. All profits donated.

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

April Disarray Brings May Open Day

For the past 14 years, this time of year is somewhat frenetic in my garden. With Open Day in mid-May, everything needs to get done in double time pace. None of the deliberate, systematic course of action. Instead, I must approach the various tasks all at once.

The upside is that it’s pretty much all the necessary work that gets completed – tasks that need to get done anyway. However, it can be physically punishing doing so much in a short time. And then, there is the weather. Some years, it’s too wet and prevents working in the garden. Other years, it gets warm too soon which means the best of plans can be thwarted when expected flowerings are over and done by the time Open Day rolls up. It’s not like I can simply rush out and buy replacements to stick into the beds. That would lose the whole point of Open Day – folks are coming to see my garden as it is meant to be. Authentic and bearing my personal stamp. In a way, my garden is my soul laid bare.

But I’m always reminded of the I Love Lucy show when Lucy enters the garden club contest and accidentally mows down her tulips. With mere hours left for the judges to arrive, she replaces the tulips with wax ones. Which of course proceed to melt in the sun.

This year, it has been much cooler than usual so the unfolding of flowers is behind schedule. I’ll take it. While it means some annuals are still unavailable at the nurseries and several plants cannot be brought out of the greenhouse, it’s so much easier to get the heavy work done.

As a result, much of the chores are being done in timely fashion. Am I aching and creaking? Yes! But it is enormously gratifying to be on track. With the birds singing as they go about their business of house hunting and building and spring bulbs in bloom, it’s a very congenial atmosphere to do my work. With husband and daughter willingly doing their share, I really cannot complain.

There are bags of soil, water hoses, assortment of tools and pots and plants all over. It looks somewhat messy but truly, it’s coming together! As this year’s experiment with dahlias is on tap, I’ve got the bed for them ready – it meant digging up a mature witch-hazel and relocating it, moving a few other plants, weeding and loosening the compacted soil. This week, I’ll add a good topping of compost and next week, the tubers will be planted. A layer of mulch will follow and then we wait. I’ve already got some tubers started in pots – they’re staying warm in the greenhouse and should be up and running well ahead of their cousins in the ground.

Pruning, placing supports and other mechanical elements have been completed. The hummingbird feeders are up. The veg bed is planted up with cool weather candidates and the herb wall is up. The vertical garden is greening up as the moss comes back to life and the ferns and heuchera are peering out cautiously. Lots of other tasks were done this past weekend. The tulips have just started blooming so perhaps the weather will permit a showing on Open Day.

Slowly, more order than disorder is becoming apparent. There is still plenty to do till the very last minute but in all honesty, I love getting the garden ready to welcome old friends and new. I hope you’re all registered and we can see each other on May 14.

Note: I’ll be at Teatown Lake Reservation’s eagerly awaited and hugely popular PlantFest May 6 &7. Look for my Seeds Of Design booth – items from my Printed Garden Collection will be available. Beautiful gifts for Mother’s Day, teachers, hostess, brides , birthdays and yourself. All profits donated.

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

April Antics

April

Starts as a joke

Teases with the weather

Dresses in shades of green

Giggles in daffodils

-Shobha Vanchiswar

I wrote that verse early in the month. At this point, April has carried its joke all the way through. From an 80 degree day last week, snow showers on Easter Sunday and a Nor’easter last night, it’s been a riot. Not. However, there is greening up happening and the daffodils along with other flowers are giggling. Or they just shivering?!!

I’m getting on with the tasks – I have less than 4 weeks to get ready for Open Day! Lots to do but hopefully, the garden will be ready for its close up come May 14.

Hope you’re coming! Remember – registration is required.

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

As The World Turns

Through the ages, gardens have been extolled as places that nourish ( literally and figuratively), comfort, heal, soothe, instruct, delight and nurture. The one who gardens gets the most from the garden. There is a sacred intimacy that exists between garden and gardener. Yet, as in any relationship, discord can creep in.

The gardener can one day come to the realization that he/she has become disenchanted. The act of gardener starts feeling like more work and far less pleasure. As soon as one becomes aware of this, it is time to pause and reassess. A shift has taken place to cause an imbalance. Best to understand why, what and how before the situation gets worse.

Often, the simple answer is one’s health or age or both. Loathe to confess to oneself that things have become difficult, a gardener keeps persevering but the joy that he once derived is diminished. It’s not fun anymore and it’s not easy to admit it.

This came to light at a recent discussion with some fellow gardeners. While lack of time to work to ones hearts content in the garden was a much repeated refrain, probing further revealed obvious health setbacks but even more relevant ,was the toll the natural passage of aging takes. And that’s tough to accept. After all, one isn’t feeling old. The fact is that in either case, health or age, the mind is willing but the flesh is weak. So it got me thinking about it and the evolution of our relationship with our gardens

Evolution. That is an important process that includes both garden and gardener. The two must evolve with time – to remain static is not natural. How we make a garden changes as we understand more about the science of horticulture, the invention and discovery of new tools, practices and methods. With shifting weather patterns, we must respond by way of what we choose to plant, how we use water and commit to organic practices. We invite in more wildlife to restore a healthy balance of native flora and fauna. I see this as encouraging nature to call the shots and respond with nurture only as necessary and appropriate.

With time, the gardener must adapt to aging. Growing old is inevitable but that in no way means we cease to do that which we deeply love. It merely requires a shift in attitude and a willingness to accept certain inevitable developments. From less energy and/or strength to the challenges of arthritis or other ailments, it is hard to do what one could when younger. That is A okay. We don’t need to garden harder. Instead, we garden smarter.

For starters, native and ecologically beneficial plants are hardy and far less demanding. They bring in the native fauna. Installing water baths and bird, bee and bat houses also helps. This natural pest control means the gardener, whilst remaining vigilant, needs to do less. Similarly, mulching with compost and bark chips translates to less watering and weeding and, no other fertilizer application.

Raised beds are a good solution for those who can no longer kneel or bend comfortably. Replacing or reducing expanses of lawn with more plants or other appropriate native groundcover is not just a way to reduce the upkeep but is vastly healthier for the environment. There are now available ergonomic tools to make it easier on the hands and back.

Finally, it is perfectly okay to delegate tasks that have become difficult to perform. Ego or plain stubbornness has no place in the gardener’s attitude – by now, he/she should have learned humility from mother nature.

In the end, we gardeners and our gardens will grow old gracefully together. It’s a beautiful thing.

Notice how all the measures stated will also free up some time? Those who complain about lack of time have no excuse anymore!

Reminder! Have you pre-registered for my Open Day? Do it soon – numbers are limited. Thanks!

Note: My garden is springing awake!

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar