April Awakening

April

Starts as a joke

Teases with the weather

Dresses in shades of green

Giggles in daffodils.

– Shobha Vanchiswar

April’s joke this year was to give us a winter blast. It was not funny at all. I was concerned for the emerging buds on the trees and shrubs. The star magnolias in the neighborhood were looking beautiful and then, overnight, they succumbed to the cold and all the petals turned limp and brown. Don’t you just hate when that happens? A real shame. A reminder that life is ephemeral, make the most of the moments.

The weekend however was gorgeous. The early bulbs bloomed confidently in the warmth of the brilliant sunshine. Spreading out across the ground so casually as though they know exactly how cool they are. I adore the days when the scillas, crocuses and hyacinthoides are having their moment. Before the rambunctious daffodils commandeer my attention. The minor bulbs are like an exquisite, sweetly simple overture to an epic symphony full of drama and crescendos.

While it was too cold to do much last week, the weekend permitted a fair amount of organizing and clean up. I potted up urns and such with pansies and daffodils and immediately they made the garden look smart and ready. Cosmetic elements for sure but so transformative.

The first proper garden celebration in over a year also took place on Sunday. What a joy to be with beloved friends once again. Fully vaccinated feels very good!

The early morning choir of birds have begun chiding me for lingering in bed too long. They are incredibly loud and I might have to start rising with them. The guilt is overwhelming. As much as I am loathe to get out of bed early, I know that I’ll feel wonderful once I’m up. And so much gets done that it leaves more time at the other end to sit back in contentment.

It’s tempting to bring out the plants from the greenhouse but the weather can be capricious. Perhaps in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, there is other work to do – seeds to start, new plants to get and install, the tiny lawn to de-thatch, aerate and reseed. The list is long as always. But, I’m going to enjoy the garden as it ought – make time to watch the birds and other critters, closely observe the plants, feel the garden soothe my soul. Otherwise, what exactly would’ve been the point of it all?

What I’m enjoying in the garden at present –

 

Set to celebrate.
For Table linens

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Transitions And Traditions

Transition : the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.

Tradition : the handing down of information, beliefs, or customs from one generation to another.

Over the weekend, the cutting back, clearing and mulching got started. The leaves were raked and added to the compost pile. There are sufficient ‘safe harbors’ in the garden for all manner of critters that the general clean up does not make the garden inhospitable. While it is necessary to provide shelter for birds and such, it is also important to get ready for the next growing season. Equilibrium

The big in-ground bulb planting took place a couple of weeks ago. But I also wanted bulbs to pot up so I went to my local nursery and got myself the leftovers from their bulb stock. While one has a very small variety to select from this late in the season, it is actually fun for me to not have too much choice. The combinations can be unusual and quite lovely. The bonus is that the prices are highly discounted. I also picked up a bag of 10 hyacinths marked ‘assorted’ – it was added to the bulbs already cooling in the refrigerator. I’m so curious to see just what colors those hyacinths will be!

I started many paperwhites as well. For me, they start off the winter – watching them grow and bloom never fails to thrill. I love how the green and white cheer up the rooms in the house. By the time they are finished, the amaryllis have begun growing. The cooling bulbs follow the amaryllis and then the potted up bulbs. It’s a progression I absolutely need to get me through the winter.

At this time, the work in the garden is all about transition. Closing out one season and moving into the next. What we do now determines the future. When we cut back and clean up, we are getting rid of debris and potential disease. We are making space ready for new growth. Seeds are collected to ensure a continuity in succession and hence our own supply of flowers and food.

As I wash, dry and put away pots and tools, I’m conscious that my effort now means I get a good start in the spring. What needs repair or replacement, I address at this time. It is reassuring to know that everything is ready and in good order. I am prepared.

Gardeners follow traditions and wisdom handed down from those who gardened before them. None of what we do is new. It’s been happening through the ages. How we do them might’ve changed. New inventions and understandings drive us forward but in essence, we are still practicing a well known sequence of chores and order.

At this current time of uncertainty, it’s easy to feel frustrated and/or anxious. It seems so outside ones control. However, I believe there are things we can do in our own immediate spheres that will collectively impact the big world. As gardeners we already have a role in making the world beautiful, bountiful and healthy. Our gardens are havens for all manner of living beings. We are but custodians of this precious earth. So it follows that we conduct ourselves responsibly and with thoughtful attention.

In turn, we are setting an example for the next generation of gardeners. The tradition of gardening and caring for the world, the knowledge of lessons learned, the gain of progress and innovation so when the time comes the trowel is passed smoothly and with grace.

Perennial bed 1 before cut back and mulching

Perennial bed 2 . Before.

Bed 1. After

Bed 2. After.

Pots with bulbs ready to winter over.

The urn getting prepared

Paperwhites

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

October, Oh My!

Last week was wild if anything. Full of the unexpected, shocks, surprises and pivots. We are all trying to process the events. It’s made me that much more aware of how fragile life is and how much we need to step back, regroup, reassess and reevaluate the hows, whys and whats of ourselves. It’s an ongoing effort to be and do better.

That’s pretty much the same in the garden. October is an excellent time to consider our gardens. How, why and what we do in them has far reaching effects. Now is the season to divide, remove, plant and reconfigure. Make the garden a haven for all – a place of refuge, relief and reflection. I firmly believe that a garden should mirror ones own personality and philosophy in life.

In my garden this week it’s about beating the retreat. All the tender perennials will start making their way back indoors to the greenhouse, basement or living quarters of the house. The greenhouse has been washed and cleaned. Before the plants get moved to their winter residence, they are clipped and trimmed, washed well to remove dust, debris and any bugs hanging around. It’s a real process and best done with attention and patience. Hygiene matters.

While it is easy to get caught up in the chores, I’m determined to take the time to appreciate the uniquely stunning beauty of October. The last of the summer flowers mingling with autumn blooms, the butterflies and bees making their rounds before long migratory journeys or months of hibernation, leaves turning colors that make the garden glow, strikingly beautiful seed heads and pods revealing future potential and possibilities, harvesting fruits and vegetables sweetened by the crisp chill. Nature offers up gifts all the time but none more varied and bountiful than at this time of year.

Taking the time to pause and absorb the natural beauty all around is unquestionably the best medicine during these particularly turbulent times.

Note: I hope you have registered to vote and have obtained the necessary information and/or materials to vote by mail/ early in person/ on election day.

Here are some images of what I’m enjoying in the garden:

(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

Color Mad!

This week sure feels like spring! Colors are going to pop any moment. It is the one time of year when we’re all hungering for the entire spectrum of hues. In any mad combinations. It all looks lovely and joyous. What we’d never consider pairing in our clothing selections, look just spectacular in nature. Tasteful, subtle, elegant be damned. Give me loud, bold and gaudy. My eyes have been starved long enough, let the visual feasting begin.

Yeah, I know, the show hasn’t yet begun but this mild weather means it’ll burst upon us soon. I’m putting the brakes on my fears about too early a spring just so I’m at liberty to fully enjoy the flowers whenever they bloom. It isn’t their fault after all.

I’m going about the seasonal chores even though the temperatures give the feeling I’m somehow lagging behind. Normally, when I cut back old hellebore leaves, prune the roses etc., I’m wearing jacket and heavy gloves. Not this year. T-shirt and thin garden gloves feel just about right. Some years, I’ve even stood in several inches of snow to get the jobs done. Alas, barely any snow at all this winter. Scary for sure. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

However, that’s beside the point at present. I’m eager for color. I’ll wager you are as well. So, while we await impatiently for our gardens to start the show, I’m happy to share some pigment saturated photographs from my very recent ( two weeks ago!) trip to India.

FYI – coincidentally and appropriately, today is also the Indian festival of Holi when spring is celebrated with everybody playing and spraying color on each other with wild abandon. It is crazy fun!

Unleash your inner child’s color madness. It’ll do you a world of good. Particularly when there is so much other sort of madness whirling around out there.

Note: For your calendar – my garden’s Open Day is May 16.

Also, on July 26, through the Garden Conservancy’s Digging Deeper Program, you can learn all about espalier and vertical gardening at my garden. Register early as space is limited!

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Back In The Garden

The weather this past weekend was nothing short of stellar. It could not be beat. Bright and sparkly, low humidity, temperatures in the low 70’s. After two weeks in rain soaked Mumbai, this was quite literally a breath of fresh air. What an amazing homecoming.

Taking advantage of this gift, I visited Stonecrop Gardens in Cold Spring, NY on Saturday. If you’ve never been, you must. It was Frank Cabot’s home – yes, the man who helped found the Garden Conservancy. You can read all about this garden on their website. It’s quite a gem.

Summer’s end is not typically the best time to visit most gardens. But I was in need of it. Inspiration is always to be found and I was not disappointed. Big splashes of summer color and a seasonal untidiness abounded. I loved the fullness of the plantings everywhere. The realities of the season made apparent by burgeoning seed-heads, flamboyant flowers, plants jostling for space in their beds and a certain wildness to it all. This was Life at full throttle. In contrast, the verdant quietude found in the wisteria pavilion by the pond provided that pause to breathe deeply and free the mind from quotidian worries.

In walking around, I realized that the high point for me, was the general end-of-season mess and the sight of the ravaged leaves of kale and other plants. Critter(s) had gone to town and riddled the leaves so they looked like badly made lace antimacassars. I found that very comforting because it made me feel like my own garden was in good company. This is the reality. If you’re using organic methods, one cannot have a pristine, near perfect, neat and tidy garden at the close of the summer. Given the strange spring and summer we have had, it’s been particularly difficult to manage the garden as one has in years past. Weather fluctuations have been so erratic that my expectations were lowered sufficiently to protect my ego from too much injury.

By observing how lovely Stonecrop looked despite everything made me see my own garden with kinder eyes and appreciation.

Energized by that visit, on Sunday, I whipped the garden into better shape. A little cosmetic fiddling goes a long way. Weeding, deadheading, pruning and a general tidying up did wonders. I revamped the window-boxes and other urns and pots with a bit of tropical flair that I can only explain as the influence of my recent sojourn to India. Traveling has that impact doesn’t it?

And now, I’m set to enjoy the remaining weeks of summer with renewed enthusiasm. Salut!

Chilies in the window boxes
Pruned back espalier
Last rose(s) of summer?
Lemons
Note the banana plants standing sentry
New batch of cool weather greens
The meadow
Pink turtleheads in the meadow
Party ready

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Midsummer Musings

The slow, sultry sway of summer has taken over and it is sweeeet. I’ve taken my cues from the season and slowed my pace, lightened my load and simplified my days. I get work done but no new projects are started. Meals focus on fresh, easy to put together ingredients. Garden chores are limited to only what is needed – weekly weeding, watering as required and deadheading only what’s obvious. The garden seems to be enjoying doing its own thing – free-spirited, alive and lush. Kinda bohemian. I appreciate that. Heck, I aspire to it.

I finally got around to cutting back the asters and other fall blooming perennials by one-third and more so they will be fuller and less leggy at that time. During the cut back, I noticed that the Sanguisorba was under attack by Japanese beetles and there was also a general over-presence of slugs. All the beetles I could see were picked off and dumped into a hot soap solution and then a neem oil spray treatment was applied to the plants right after. It’s been a few years since I’ve had to deal with Japanese beetles. Let’s hope the neem does the trick.

An unexpected positive outcome – the allium sphaerocephalon were completely hidden until the asters were cut back. Now, their deep maroon-purple heads lend bursts of color amidst an otherwise overwhelmingly green bed.

Speaking of color, that maroon-purple hue is having a moment in the front perennial beds. The echinacea, alliums, acanthus, butterfly bushes and geraniums are all in variations of that shade. Soon the Eupatorium will join in. It looks like I planned it that way but no, I cannot take that credit. One of those happy accidents of nature that I’ve come to rely on.

The Swiss chard is showing up frequently at meals. Easy to cook and so delicious. The first cherry tomatoes and figs have been savored and now I’m impatient for a regular supply. Zucchini blossoms are the current favorite. Stuffed with mildly seasoned ricotta and fried tempura style, they are just soooo good. Using the flowers also prevents having the inevitable surplus of zucchini to contend with later in the season. We leave only a small number to reach fruition. Just enough for a few ratatouille meals and several loaves of tasty breads to sweeten winter mornings (the bread freezes well).

I made a big batch of arugula pesto last week. There was an abundance of the leaves and it seemed a good thing to make. I froze a large portion and refrigerated some of the pesto to use this week in pasta and also in sandwiches. With all the outdoor concerts and plays we’re attending, picnic meals need to be put together. Sandwiches of arugula or basil pesto with sun-dried tomatoes with or without fresh mozzarella elevate the repast.

And yes, the mojito mint is thriving and being put to good use! FYI – the leaves also make for an appetizing Indian chutney that we use in sandwiches and as a condiment to pair with crackers, samosas and such.

Watching the butterflies and bees make their rounds has become my go-to method for decompressing. It’s very effective – I highly recommend it. Ditto for spending some time taking in the show of fireflies at night.

Before you get lulled into taking it too easy, this is the time to order bulbs for fall planting. It might feel strange to think about next spring right now but take my word – you will miss out on bagging some special and/or unusual bulbs if you wait too long. It’s a nice thing to do when you’re indoors in air-conditioned comfort on a sweltering hot day. You will only be charged when the bulbs are shipped in the fall at the appropriate planting time for your zone. So just get it done!

Now, back to my summer reading and a tall glass of lemonade …

Note: I’m participating in two upcoming art shows in August and September. Do please mark your calendars to check them out.

Enjoy the images of my summer thus far –

Keeping it fresh and light.
Acanthus
Eupatorium getting ready to bloom
Echinacea
Arugula salad with shavings of black truffle.
Swiss chard.
Allium sphaerocephalon
The wall garden. Don’t miss that lone sunflower – a true maverick.
Young pears
Butterfly bush
Ricotta stuffed zucchini fritters with baby courgette attached.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Romancing The Garden

Gardeners are romantic. I have come to realize and accept this. In making anything beautiful, it pretty much goes without saying (but I’m saying) that one must also be romantic. You aren’t convinced? Hmmm. Let me tell you how I’ve come to realize my own idealistic, sentimental nature in action in the garden. You tell me if you’ve never been similarly inclined.

I’ll start with the very poster child of romance. The rose. I love them. I have included several in my garden – all in shades of pink, profuse and preferably perfumed. The very display of roses in bloom brings to the forefront matters of the heart. You absolutely cannot see a rose and not think of love and romance. Am I right?

When I chose to place two arches and plant roses to scramble up them, I envisioned something very traditional. The arch one must go through to reach the front door was to invite and disarm the visitor. It puts one in good cheer. The subtle fragrance sends an additional message of welcome. The three different clematis weaving through this rose takes the whole to a higher level. Pure romance.

The second arch which is a gateway to the gardens in the back, has a different rose. Brighter in its rosy hue and with a stronger perfume. It makes its presence felt long before you get near it. A temptation to coax the curious to come forth.

A shrub rose I planted on the side path in early spring was chosen for its prettiness, hardiness and its scent. The whole idea being that its fragrance will waft into the house through the studio windows just above and assault my senses in the nicest possible way as I paint. I’d like to think my work can only be made better under such influences.

In truth, one can smell the roses in all the rooms on that side of the house. It makes me pause, inhale deeply and appreciate the aroma. Life feels good. Similarly, I position the pots of citrus, jasmine and gardenia on the side terrace so the night air is redolent with their strong aromas – hopefully sweetening our dreams and slumber.

In the herb garden, I included plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. Lovage, rue, hyssop, comfrey, foxgloves and such. Apart from the lovage which pairs well with fish, the others merely look pretty and remind me of earlier times. Hyssop while purported to soothe sore throats, was popularly used as a spiritual bath. The hyssop bath is usually considered to be a personal ritual to remove sin and negativity in life. It has a Biblical significance. Rue means disdain or regret. Comfrey too had a role in early medicine as a poultice to treat joint pains. All so quaint and romantic right?

Even a feature like the ‘meadow’ has an element of idealism and romance. It is a place for congeniality between the native flora and fauna. Where butterflies, birds and bees pollinate and populate my corner of paradise. Life supporting life, all creatures living together in peace and all is well with the world. What a concept!

The espalier of 27 apple and 5 pear trees hark back to a time when all of this neighborhood was full of apple orchards. I like to think I’ve in some way restored something precious to this place.

The pergola in the back terrace was designed so the wisteria would grow over its top, generously providing shade under which we can gather to break bread and sip wine with friends and family as often as possible. And we do. Idyllic escapes in a world gone mad.

And so it goes. I see how in creating this garden, I have subconsciously let my inner romantic guide me. It is about beauty, history, literature, harmony, the sacred and most of all, love.

Now, how about you?

Note: Enjoy these romantic images!

View from the upstairs window boxes
Hyssop
Gardenia
Citrus

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Weather Perfect

A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves.” Marcel Proust

Ah, Open Day has come and gone leaving me with a sense of relief, well-being and satisfaction. The weather was perfect. After three straight years of cold, wind and rain on Open Day, this exquisite day was well overdue.

The sun shone bright, the air was dry, the temperature was ideal – not hot, not cold, a gentle breeze prevailed and the garden was filled with the buzz, tweets and hums of bees, birds and butterflies. The flowers rose to the occasion and shone bright and beautiful. I could not have asked for any better.

It is almost impossible not to respond positively to weather such as that. There is an imperceptible yet powerful shift in one’s mood and outlook. For myself, it felt as though a new energy had moved into my body. Being outside in the garden felt so right. There was no other place to be. No bugs biting, no jackets weighing me down, no sweat to wipe off and, best of all, no chores to do. This was as good as it gets.

It was the perfect weather to share the garden. And the garden looked its best despite the cold and rain it had endured thus far this spring. Several plants were lagging in their bloom time but the others stepped up admirably. Every visitor arrived with happy spirits and curious minds. Of the 100 or so visitors, I did not encounter a single person with the slightest hint of negativity.

As much as I love sharing my garden, I adore meeting other gardeners and garden lovers. I learn so much. This time, I picked up on a new-for-me nursery to check out, a few gardens I must visit, a book to add to my summer reading, enjoyed several good laughs, received feedback on my own garden and made new partners in horticultural-crime. At the end of the day, I was so much the richer – in heart and head.

Under such ideal conditions, it was inevitable that the best conversations ensued, strangers became friends, and for the one brief day, all was well with the world. Marcel Proust was so right.

A heartfelt thank you to all who made this Open Day a resounding success. Visitors, volunteers, friends and family – nothing is possible without you.

Note: Here are lots of photos for all those of you who failed to show up!

IMG_1343

Friends from Chicago

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

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It’s Open Season!

My garden’s Open Day is this Saturday, May 18. I’m hard at work primping and propping the garden to get it looking it’s best for you. So, cancel everything else and come on over. I’d love to see you here!

I was in Evanston, Illinois this past weekend and even though part of that time it was cold and wet, I was struck by how much horticultural effort is put into making the heart of the city look attractive. Tulips waved madly in bright colors on traffic islands, pocket parks and around trees along the streets. So cheery and seasonal. And very easy to do. I’m eager to see what the next plantings of annuals will be.

But beyond the show of annuals, I observed that there is a thoughtful approach to infusing seasonal color and fragrance in the landscape through the use of perennials. A small park dividing a busy road, is bordered with hedges of viburnum. I smelled the park before I noticed it! The viburnums were in full bloom and the fragrance wafted far and wide. Pure heaven. As though reminding pedestrians to pause a moment and refresh the spirit – be present. What a lovely idea. Flower beds within the park abounded in tulips but there were many perennials emerging through. Three benches and a single sculpture completed this perfect oasis.

Swathes of Virginia bluebells carpeted several other green spaces for the public to enjoy and under many hedges I noticed abundant lily-of-the-valley leaves unfurling in readiness for the sweet bells of white to perfume the days ahead – subliminally cheering the outlooks of passers-by.

I had hoped to visit Millennial Park in Chicago and take in the plantings but my schedule did not permit it. Instead, I got to experience the glorious efforts of a much smaller city that could match its big neighbor handily. My well is full.

Note : Enjoy some images of plantings in Evanston. I look forward to seeing you in my garden this Saturday!

Depending on which device you are reading this, some images appear on their side. I have no idea how to fix it. My apologies! Also, the pocket park appears expansive in the photos – it isn’t in reality!

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar