Overture To Spring

Contrary to the saying, March is going out like a lion. Rain and high winds are escorting its exit. It seems as though we’re getting days of such strong winds more frequently. And it would not be remiss to plan for this pattern going forward. This of course means the soil will dry out more quickly which then could imply more watering. I’m also giving serious consideration to securing various climbers and planters more firmly. Ditto for furniture and other movable structures. In the right circumstances, even a small object can become a powerful projectile. I’m not trying to cause panic – just being more aware and proactive.

A couple of warm days last week coaxed the garden fully awake. Each day, the canvas of earth is rendered with more and more colorful splashes. The early bulbs have a very short window to shine before they’re overshadowed by their bigger, flamboyant cousins. I relish this time with them – so diminutive and so exquisite. Even more gratifying is to spy hungry insects quenching themselves on these tiny flowers. The give and take in nature is perhaps one of the most beautiful, life-affirming exchanges one can witness.

A much longed for trip to the nursery had me happily potting up the window-boxes and other pots/urns over the weekend. They set the stage for the season’s drama yet to unfold. The fence post in front was replaced and the whole fence got new roping – it all looks quite smart and ready for duty. I got a few plants to add to the front beds and with any luck, they will be planted imminently. Once the tiny lawn is raked over and reseeded, the entire front garden will be properly spruced up for the season.

In the meadow, the ivy invading from the neighbor’s yard has become my daughter’s number one target. When I asked her to cut it back, I had no idea she’d find the job so satisfying – I’m pleasantly surprised the way things have worked out. She even discovered the pathetic state of the Dutchman’s Pipe I’d planted a couple of years ago to replace the ivy. I’d written it off when I couldn’t see it on a cursory examination last summer. The poor plant was being strangled by that invasive thug. Once relieved of its oppressor, a good feeding was given and I’m determined to keep an eye on it so it can do the job its been assigned to do. I have a feeling the under-gardener is even more determined but I’m not going to say anything lest I jinx her gradual evolution into a first rate gardener ( it’s happening despite all her early protests as a child).

The birds are very busy house hunting and the morning chorus can be deafening. But oh so welcome! I’m keeping my eye on a pair of cardinals near the grapevine. Out front, the robins are involved in what seems to me a bidding war for the rose arbor. Fingers crossed the new birdhouse will be claimed by bluebirds. Wrens usually commandeer the one in the meadow.

Last Saturday’s warm weather brought everyone including the garden snakes outside to enjoy some sun and fresh air. One was unabashedly sunbathing on a flagstone by the greenhouse. I fully expect it (and the rest of its family) to do their job of keeping all the rodent forms under control. They’ve been negligent some years and I don’t take kindly to such laziness.

And so the season is in full swing. Let there be beauty, growth and grace.

Hellebore

Fence all fixed up

New birdhouse ready and waiting

Plants awaiting planting

Slytherin the snake

Window box potted up

They don’t look like much at present but soon they will be shouting SPRING! – anticipation is half the fun.

First crocus. More have quickly followed.

First daffodils

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Quick March!

Last week was as though Winter had dug in her heels and wasn’t going to budge and then the weekend arrived with Spring at full throttle. It was glorious. Galvanized me into action.

During that wintry spell, I spent my time in the garden doing clean up work. Area by area, each day I helped the garden shed itself of winter debris – twigs and broken branches scattered around, bits of paper and plastic blown in. Half the garden looks so much neater now. Still have the other half to go. I’ve told myself to remember the lessons from Lockdown 2020 – take the time to work mindfully. It was such a pleasure to do the chores last year without time pressure. Both, the garden and I, benefited enormously.

I’ve been hardening off the sweetpea seedlings and this week I shall plant them out. Bulbs planted in pots and wintered over in a sheltered spot have been moved to where they can be viewed – they are coming along nicely. I feel the quickening of my pulse knowing I’ll be seeing the pots in bloom well before their counterparts in the ground.

The stratified columbines sown in seed pots are yet to show any sign of awakening but I’m hopeful. Patience not being a virtue of mine makes me check on them way too often. Later this week, I’ll get the nasturtium and micro-greens going.

Over the weekend, I pruned the roses and secured the limbs of the climbers. While the oak-leaf hydrangea do not get pruned in spring since the flowers are borne on old wood, they’d suffered significant snow damage. Several limbs had been broken and a trimming, tidying up was performed. The H. paniculata however, was given a severe pruning. Until now I’d been giving it a little trim but felt emboldened this year to do a good chop. Lets hope the plant rewards the torture with a splendid showing of blooms.

On cleaning out the birdhouse in this area, it was so interesting to see how the nest was built and what materials were chosen. I wonder if the sparrows that moved in after the wrens made any changes as we humans tend to do when we move into new quarters.

I want to emphasize that one must wear a good mask when doing this task as it is possible to breathe in particulates and microbes that can cause serious lung disease.

In cleaning up in the meadow, we noticed the ivy from the neighbors property had made great progress in here. That was dealt with but clearly this will be an ongoing job.

Along the side pathway, the peony rings were put in place since the grapevine prunings were awaiting re-purposing in being wound around the rings as I cannot permit the mechanics to show and distract from the flowers. I use the grapevine prunings to conceal the ugliness of a pipe railing that is set into a retaining wall as well.

Routine repair work on the front fence was begun – it’ll be in tip-top shape by the coming weekend. There are of course other things needing fixing in the wings but I’m just glad to be doing the jobs systematically. Slowly but surely.

A mason bee house was put up near the fruit espalier and I cannot express how fervently I’m praying for it to be duly occupied. Having the bees around when the apple and pear blossoms open is so critical.

The new bird house for the front garden goes up this week. It’s all about getting ready for the birds and the bees!

To be working in the garden once again, is not only life affirming but there is a profound sense of gratitude. After the year gone by, being present to witness this spring fills me with unparalleled joy and humility. I’m sure you agree.

Note: Due to Covid restrictions, the Garden Conservancy has moved my garden’s Open Day to June 5. Mark your calendars!

Mother’s Day is coming up. Do shop from the beautiful selections in the Printed Garden Collection. 50% of the profits go to the ACLU – an organization working very hard to right so many wrongs across the country. They really need all the support they can get.

Old nest in the birdhouse

Bulbs potted up in November 2020

Bee house on the ready

Grapevine after the pruning

Awaiting the sweetpeas. This reminds me of a natural looking harp!

Grid showing where I planted sedge last fall

Tidied up front beds

Snowdrops coming up everywhere

(c) Shobha Vanchiswar

Marching Orders

So typical of March to arrive with in the guise of winter, abruptly show us what spring could feel like and then, just as quickly go back to winter again. Last week’s mild weather had me realize that my sabbatical from the garden was over. It’s funny how from December on, I’m in a state of anticipating and planning for spring. And then, with the first days of mild weather, I feel unprepared and already behind schedule.

I promptly got my master list ready – this is a detailed inventory of every task to be done to get the garden in good growing shape. The checklist is divided by each sector of the garden. It allows me to easily see what is immediate and what can wait a bit. I’ve found that it prevents me from feeling overwhelmed. While a good many chores are pretty much standard, additional ones get added after a walk around the garden to take note of how things look. What has taken a beating through the winter and needs repair or replacement invariably shows up. A broken fencepost, displaced stepping stones, a worrisome hole in the middle of a flower bed – there’s much to contend with.

Over the weekend, I got started. The columbine seeds I’d stratified got sown indoors. I’ve never done this before but finding myself in need of many native columbines, it seemed time to grow my own. I’m so curious to see how it’ll work out. Fingers crossed!

I started the hardening off of the sweetpeas sown in mid-Feb. A daily dose of some hours outdoors helps acclimatize them. The trellis to support them was also restored so all is ready for when the seedlings will be planted in another week or so.

Last Friday, I sprinkled Shirley poppy seeds over the snow in a certain part of the meadow. Today, no snow remains so I’m fervently hoping the seeds have ensconced themselves in the earth and stirring about to begin the gradual process of sprouting. It’s supposed to rain hard this Thursday so lets hope the seeds don’t get washed away.

This week, I’ll prune the roses – cut away dead or wayward limbs. A light shaping too. Climbers will be re-secured as the winter somehow manages to loosen them out of the ties. A dose of compost and Epsom salts will be welcomed by the roots as they begin their work in earnest.

Likewise, a pruning and a compost feed for the grapes and fruit espalier is in order. Now is the time to spray dormant oil to smother any pest eggs.

The grapevine cuttings will be put to use in concealing the peony supports and other unsightly mechanics.

The new bee and bird houses will be put up by the weekend. Old bird house cleaned and made ready. I often make ‘nesting’ wreaths and hang them nearby to give the birds a little assistance as they make their nests. Simple wreaths of grapevine decorated with natural materials like moss, tiny pine cones, bits of straw, lichen, jute and cotton string. The wreaths look festive and seasonal and have been repeatedly endorsed by discerning homemakers. I get a special thrill when I come upon a nest decorated with my offerings.

If I do a bit of clean up every day, the garden will look greatly improved by the weekend. As much as the chore doesn’t sound fun, it actually gives me an opportunity to observe whats coming up and get excited about each returning old friend and some unexpected new ones.

Materials for repair have been noted and shall be purchased during the week so no time is wasted over the coming weekend. Lots to do!

Something I did last week when the warm weather lured us out, was to take note of the progression of the snow melt. This is the ideal time to see which parts of the garden get more (or less) sunlight. It can be quite surprising. Areas you think should be similar are often not. Things can change as trees grow or get taken down, new construction happens along next door etc., Knowing about the assorted micro-climates serves to make better decisions about what to plant and when to expect their bloom. Or even what to change.

There you have it – I’ve received my marching orders – get off the couch by the fireplace and into the garden. And hop to it. Yes ma’am.

Note that disc of snow on top of the pot!

I love seeing the meadow emerge as the snow melts.

Poppies sprinkled last week

First snowdrops – happens where the snow melts first!

Forced hyacinths – Spring has sprung indoor

Day 1 of last week’s warm weather

Day 3 of warm weather

Grapevine awaiting pruning

Snow melt pattern in potager

Lower end of side path. The middle melts first, then the bottom and finally the top end. Which is surprising because the top looks most exposed but the neighbor’s tree actually casts a shadow just long enough in the day so the snow remains longer.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

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

May Flowering

The pear blossoms on the espalier have never looked better. I have spent an inordinate amount of time admiring the mass of luminous white flowers. Bees have been spotted making their rounds so keeping fingers crossed for a good crop of pears in September. Remember I’d mentioned I had a couple of projects planned for this year? Well, one of them is to try growing pears in bottles – to make a liqueur for those cold days in winter. The bottles ( just a few) stand clean and ready.

I’m quite excited to try this experiment as I remember when I first came across a bottle of vodka with a golden pear in it. The drink it provided had a subtle flavor of pear but I was more interested to know how the pear got in the bottle. That was revealed to me soon enough but it has taken me years to actually have the time to recall that interest and consider trying my hand at it.

After a wet, cold week, the weekend arrived like a gorgeous cake. The kind that makes you just want to gaze at it because consuming it would make it disappear. The temperatures rose, the sun shone bright and the flowers sparkled exquisitely. My heart felt it would burst with so much beauty.

In the front garden, the perennial beds are filling out with the growing plants and the tulips have started blooming. Picture perfect. With no major flowers to compete with, the tulips are enjoying their solo moment. Heck, I’m enjoying their performance. I particularly like ‘Cool Crystal’ – they look like Moulin Rouge dancers saucily kicking up their bright pink, flouncy, fringed skirts.

Currently, this front area along with the house looks somewhat chocolate-box scene-ish. Over the weekend, I was struck by how relevant a role it plays in the big picture. My daughter, a French horn player, decided she would give a concert for the neighborhood on Saturday. With everyone craving connectivity and no live entertainment to attend, it seemed like just the tonic needed. We informed a few neighbors and also invited friends and family from afar via Zoom. So on Saturday afternoon, Mira performed for a half hour. Neighbors with advance notice showed up on time, passers by and their dogs stopped to listen, a couple of friends drove from a town nearby and sat in their car like VIPs, many more watched on-line.

The concert was lovely (my completely biased opinion of course), Even more special was having friends and neighbors gathered together albeit, socially distanced.

And after the concert, I heard from several that they deliberately plan their daily walks to pass by my house for the pleasure of seeing what’s blooming in the garden. That’s exactly what a gardener loves to know. Especially now.

Like a babbling brook, white violas and blue forget-me-nots are tumbling through the ‘meadow’. The dandelions ( yes, I adore them) mingle in like splotches of sunlight. It is absolutely spectacular. Soon the camassia and alliums will pop up and it’ll be a whole other show.

The vegetable garden is all planted up with cool weather greens, We also emptied out the greenhouse and placed the plants in their spring/summer locations around the garden. After cleaning the greenhouse, we potted up tomatoes. Last year, they did very well there. Soon, zucchini plants will also take up residence in the greenhouse – we grow them only for their blossoms. Stuffed with goat cheese, then dipped in a light tempura batter and quickly fried – just yum.

At the end of a very busy weekend of gardening, tired and satisfied we sat down to relax with a pre-dinner glass of wine. At precisely that moment, we were graced with our first hummingbird sighting of the year. Flashing its iridescent green body it sipped from the feeder and flew away. I felt as though we’d just been blest.

Happy, healthy May one and all.

P.S. Do check Things To Do for a list of garden chores this month

Note: Given the current Coronavirus crisis, the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days have been cancelled through May. Sad but expected. So I’ll try to post as many photos as I can so I can still share my garden with everyone. Stay safe everybody.

Pear blossoms

Tulipa ‘Cool Crystal’

Meadow

Tomatoes in the greenhouse

Rooting cuttings

Vegetable bed

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar