Projects Positive

In a year rife with crises and challenges, it’s been a struggle to be positive. As I’ve said all along, the garden has singularly kept me hopeful and sane. It is impossible to tend a garden without the trust that tomorrow will be better.

With unexpected time on hand, I’ve been able to contemplate parts of the garden that are being underutilized and need work. These are not necessarily new observations but ones that have been ignored or put off due to lack of time or motivation. This year, the excuses stopped working.

Two areas needed to be addressed and I’ve called them Projects Positive – they move the garden in the right direction and align even more with my values about the environment and sustainability.

The first area needing attention was the very back of the lower garden where the ‘meadow’ dominates. This roughly 7×40 foot space along the property line buffers the meadow from the woods. Over the years, I’d added some native shrubs and an Amalanchier tree but it remained inconsequential. It had no real role to play. To make it worse, the groundcover was pachysandra that had been there for decades and was therefore very thickly established. The very thought of getting it all out had been the reason I let it remain. Until this year.

With Open Day canceled, I was at liberty to tackle spring work that typically would’ve interfered with getting the garden ‘visitor ready’. So, out went the pachysandra. That was really hard work – the growth was tight and thick and the roots ran deep. I had to get the able help of Ephraim our occasional garden assistant.

Following the pachysandra purge, layers of paper and cardboard ( recycling hack) were put down to smother any pachysandra still lurking around. The paper will eventually breakdown and supplement the soil. Over the paper, we laid down landscape fabric to act as a further deterrent.

Pachysandra can be persistent. I’m certain bit and pieces of root remain and will put out growth so vigilance is called for – pull out as soon as they poke out.

Native Chrysogonum virginianum was planted to replace the pachysandra. It seemed like the correct choice of groundcover for this shady area. The yellow flowers should brighten the area next growing season. I’ve also added to the oakleaf hydrangea, Solomon’s seal, bleeding hearts, ferns and dogwood shrubs with several Fothergilla and Ceonothum. In time, the shrubs will grow, fill out the bed to seamlessly join the meadow and provide what I imagine will be a lovely visual tapestry of shapes, hues and texture. Not only will all the plantings attract the native pollinators, Fothergilla flowers have a fragrance which I believe will invite a person (mostly me) to pause a bit at the conveniently provided stone bench and enjoy the garden from this perspective. I want every bit of the garden to matter.

Having completed the plantings, pine bark mulch was spread all over the ground to conceal the black fabric and to keep moisture in. This latter point is important as the ground can get very dry very quickly.

The second project is also in the lower garden. On either side of the path to the greenhouse, there are good sized patches that I’d left without any deliberate plantings. Over the years, they would put on a brilliant spring show of forget-me-nots, dandelions and violas. A beautiful mix of blue, yellow and white. However once that show was over, they become areas of shabbiness. Not wild and engaging. Just messy and unattractive.

I’ve taken my time trying to figure out what to do – something that was different and yet segue ways smoothly into the meadow. This past weekend, after clearing the two areas, 350 plugs of Carex appalachia have been were planted in one and later this week, 450 more will go into the other. The native sedges will be low enough so as to never block the meadow plantings beyond. They will look natural and provide movement. In addition, several types of native butterflies will welcome the presence of their favored food.

A large number of Fritillaria meleagris has been ordered to augment these areas. In my minds eye, I can see the plum colored, checkered flowers bobbing happily over the sedges in the spring. And when the vernal sun casts its gaze, the whole ‘field’ will look ethereal. A fantasy.

Now you see why gardening is full of optimism? It gives us permission to dream.

May all our projects in life be positive.

Note: If, like me, you too have been deeply saddened by the passing of our beloved Notorious RBG, then you must want to continue her work in uplifting people and making matters equal for all. When I elected to support the ACLU by donating 50% of the profits from the Printed Garden products, it was because  of RBG’s work with that organization. I make a fervent appeal to each of you to please join me in carrying on her legacy. Because,’We the people’ should include every single individual.

Project 1:

Project 2: Observe how it all looks pretty in the spring but by early summer (photo 3), the area in the right foreground looks blah.

Flats of sedge

One side all planted up

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

September To Remember

It’s the first day of September. While the distinct nip in the air is familiar, there is nothing else recognizable about this particular September. The usual end of vacation blues ( what vacation?), back to school excitement, return to work vigor ( return?) and traditional planning for the winter ahead have been replaced with uncertainty and apprehension. All I know is that I must be optimistic and find comfort in the rhythm of the everyday tending to work and home.

Until the pandemic is brought under control and we have the effective vaccines and treatments in place, we are perforce going to remain at home. Our activities will be restricted and as it gets colder, more time will be spent indoors. With that in mind, I’m planning on ways to heighten comfort and joy to offset any feelings of fear or anxiety for not only the winter but the year ahead.

I’ve learned a lot in these past 6 months. About myself, others and the world we live in. We know what we’ve missed, what has brought us joy and what we can do without. It’s been a time of reflection, reassessing, reset.

The garden has been so central during this challenging time. I truly cannot imagine how I might have coped without it. If one was not conscious before, they should be by now – to have a garden, however tiny, is a singular luxury. Lets not ever forget that.

For the most part, doing the myriad chores that gardening demands has been a godsend. It nourished mind, body and spirit like nothing else could have. But, certain tasks could be made easier or even eliminated. Since I’m counting on being able to travel by this time next year (my fingers and toes are crossed as I write), I’m eager to include in my plans more efficient methods to safeguard all the hard work I’ve put into the garden.

Going away on vacation always brings to the forefront the matter of how to keep the plants watered. The easiest is to have someone keep an eye on the garden and take care of the watering. But, unless there is a friend happy to take on this responsibility, it can be expensive to compensate an individual. Specifically, a vegetable garden demands diligent watering and more oversight. To that end, I’m looking into getting bigger, self-watering pots for the vegetables we grow in the greenhouse.

This year, the tomatoes have been targeted by the squirrels. They have been stealing the tomatoes just as they’re ready for picking! Who ever thought squirrels enjoyed this fruit! Without observing a bushy tailed thief ourselves, we could not have solved the mystery of the missing tomatoes. So, some critter-proofing is in order.

Still on the topic of squirrels, they have always been after the apples on the espalier fence. Normally, we have had to cover the whole fence in netting to protect the fruits. I have always found the netting to be unsightly. It makes this pretty feature look like a lumpy, misshapen length of darkness. I’m currently investigating fruit cages. Obviously nothing on the market answers the exact requirements but I’m hoping to come up with something that we can alter to fit our needs. I envision a feature that looks neat, practical and less offensive to the eye.

The maturation and evolution of the meadow is a long process but this year, it has finally shown its potential. I’m quite chuffed about that!

I’m contemplating the gaps to be filled and the plants that require thinning. In other adjoining areas, I’m going to introduce native sedge grasses to not only cover thus far wasted real estate but to also play a role in the overall design of the lower garden. This is always a fun project for me – I love experimenting with plants. Between the hundreds of bulbs and the large number of sedges to plant, the fall is going to be very busy. But just imagine how nice it will all look next year!

Gathering in the garden with small numbers of friends has been possible only because of the warm weather. Hoping to extend the time we can spend out in the garden, I’m researching outdoor heaters. With or without friends, my dream is to be able to sit outside for some time everyday until the winter precludes such niceties.

The outdoor lights I’d mentioned last week are now in place. They certainly make the garden look festive. Which is exactly the point. If there is anything at all this pandemic has shown us is that life is fragile. Everyday must be celebrated.

Note: With so much unrest and injustice in the nation, I’m doing my best to help make matters right. But, I need your support – please join me in raising funds for the ACLU. 50% of the profits from the sales of the Printed Garden Collection will be donated to the ACLU. I believe you will enjoy the products as much as I do!

The sphere at night – I love it!

Chelones and Heleniums in the meadow

An over view of a part of the meadow

Ready for a socially distanced dinner. Notice the string lights!

Hummingbird at rest

(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

 

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

 

The Big Flower Fight

Summer started yesterday – unofficially. Despite the sameness of our days at present, this puts one in the mood for injecting more lightheartedness into them. The daily demands of work and home continue of course but, with the heavy spring tasks in the garden all done, I’m more than ready to sit back and let the games begin so to speak. I seek lighter reading material, shows with less angst and heaviness to watch, games to play that are less about competition and more about creativity, easy recipes with seasonal ingredients and I even find myself choosing to dress more colorfully ( but still comfortable).

Based on those sentiments, I discovered a thoroughly entertaining show. ‘The Big Flower Fight’ is a competition which Netflix describes as “ten pairs of florists, sculptors and garden designers face off in a friendly floral fight to see who can build the biggest, boldest garden sculptures”. It kinda reminds one of the Great British Bake Off but not quite as polished in its production. That doesn’t matter though. The show demands out-of-the-box thinking and what each team comes up with is inevitably outstanding and unique.

To be honest, I was a little skeptical when I began watching. So many ‘face-off’ shows have teams insulting each other and even trying to sabotage their opponents’ work. It always makes me uncomfortable to watch people displaying their worst traits. But that is exactly what those shows seem to be designed for. More remarkably, they garner such huge audiences, that one has to wonder what this says about the human race. The shows become all about the individuals instead of the challenges. Not this one. Like the aforesaid baking show, the Big Flower Fight is pure fun to watch. And subtly instructive.

There is no backbiting, nastiness or plain bad behavior from the teams. The judges are fair and kind – something we need desperately in our lives today. Creativity is at the forefront. There is humor too. One doesn’t have to be a gardener or an artist of any sort to enjoy the show. But it will have you thinking about what you would create if you were participating. We get to be armchair creatives. And critics. The teams themselves have quite a few zany characters and they add to the entertainment. One warms up to all of them very quickly. Overall, it is a delightful escape.

I binge watched the eight episodes. I’m now wondering what I might have come up with for each of the challenges. No doubt, such endeavors teach something about oneself. If I find myself with more time, someone I work well with to be my co-collaborator and a source of (preferably free) supplies, it might be interesting to try my hand at creating at least a single sculpture. Any takers?

Note: A few images to give you an idea about the Big Flower Fight and some others about what’s doing in my garden.

The wall is coming along nicely

Microgreens ready for the picking!

(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

Occupying October

October. Time to get busy in the garden. Even though temperatures are higher than usual and it feels so glorious, I know that failing to get cracking on the chores will only have me full of regrets should a sudden frost arrive or worse, snow. Best not to take any chances.

The Things To Do page provides a monthly list of garden tasks and I hope it is useful. However, being human, one forgets to check in a timely fashion. So, I thought I’d start giving a reminder at the start of each month. For this month, I’m providing the whole list below just so you can see that October demands a lot.

Things To Do In October

1. Yes, weeding continues!

2. Time to plant perennials and trees. Give a good dose of compost to each. Water regularly. Perennials already in place can be divided and planted as well.

3. Cut back all spent plants except what is needed for seasonal interest.

4. Collect seeds. Store in labeled envelopes in a cool, dry space.

5. Last call to root cuttings of geraniums, coleus, rosemary etc.,

6. Get all pots of tender perennials into clean greenhouse or other winter shelters. Wash plants and pots thoroughly first – minimizes pest infestation.

7. Plant bulbs as weather gets consistently cooler. Bulbs can be planted once soil temperature gets down to 55 degrees right up to the time the soil freezes solid.

8. Rake leaves. Add to compost pile or deposit in woods.

9. Give compost heap a good stir.

10 Clean out vegetable garden except for cool weather plants that are still producing. Apply several inches of compost on cleared beds. Plant green manure to enrich the soil – optional.

11. Clean and put away (or cover) outdoor furniture.

12. Check what needs repairing, repainting, replacing and get to it!

13. Lift tender bulbs, corms and tubers. Store in dry, frost-free place.

14. Drain and close all outdoor water faucets. Empty rain barrel and hoses. Store.

15 Clean all equipment and tools. Store neatly.

16. As temperatures plummet, protect tender shrubs and immovable  frost sensitive pots and statuary. I cover the former with burlap and for the latter, I first cover with sturdy plastic and then use burlap so it looks halfway decent.

17. Remove suckers from ornamental and fruit trees. Prune roses and wisteria. Remove dead and decaying limbs from all plants.

18. Fill up bird feeders. Keep them filled through the winter. Put up nest boxes for the spring.

19. Get into the autumnal spirit – fill window boxes and urns with seasonal plants and produce.

Sincere gardeners never stop learning. On the 19th of this month, the Untermyer symposium is sure to instruct us all. Do sign up for it. While the topic is on restoring historic gardens, there will surely be plenty of ideas and advice to be picked up for ones own garden.

Join us for a symposium on different approaches to historic garden restoration. Suzanne Clary, President of the Jay Heritage Center, Howard Zar, Executive Director of Lyndhurst, and Timothy Tilghman, Head Gardener of Untermyer Gardens, will share their experiences in restoring great New York gardens and landscapes. A pictorial introduction to each garden will be followed by a discussion moderated by well-known garden blogger Shobha Vanchiswar and a tour of Untermyer Gardens by Timothy Tilghman.”

(c) 2019 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

Scaling Labyrinths

The word labyrinth comes from the Greek labyrinthos and describes any maze-like structure with a single path through it which differentiates it from an actual maze which may have multiple paths intricately linked.

Labyrinths and labyrinthine symbols have been dated to the Neolithic Age in diverse regions across the globe. They continue playing a role in modern times.

My love affair with labyrinths began at childhood. The mystery books I devoured often featured a labyrinth or maze to offer riddles and clues in ways I now realize might have been a tad bit romanticized. Over the years, while mazes remain fun and exciting in a ‘hide-and-seek’ meets treasure-hunting sort of way, labyrinths have taken on a more meaningful, sacred role. To me, mazes get you to focus exclusively on the task of finding ones way to the center and then making the return trip to get out, thereby providing a complete distraction which can be refreshing and exhilarating. Getting lost and/or confused is all part of the experience.

In traversing a labyrinth, one can ostensibly see its entire design. The center is visible at all times. Where one is trying to get to is apparent. How to do so is not as clear. It’s only by mindful walking, taking in all the turns and switchbacks, that an individual makes it to the center – itself a site for rest and reflection. Labyrinths are not meant to be challenging. Instead they gently guide the walker to move through at an easy pace whilst permitting him/her to observe, think and center the mind. In doing so, by the time one reaches the labyrinth’s center, the mind has shed itself of all other distractions and arrives prepared for deeper meditation.
In perfect silence, a well laid labyrinth teaches life lessons to all who walk it. Like the best of therapists it has us work out all our issues by ourselves.

A labyrinth sits there as a ready escape from chaos, a world gone mad, to find once again one’s true north. Typically set outdoors, it partners beautifully with nature to calm the mind and heart by purposefully removing the walker from the normal, linear understanding of time and direction. Slowly, the outside world recedes and one becomes aware of the world within ourselves. How we are feeling, what we hope for, the conflicting thoughts, the elusive solutions rise up and get understood. This active meditation leads to the deep meditation awaiting at the center. Sitting in quiet, breathing deeply and surrendering all diversionary thoughts gives one the gift of emerging clear headed and relaxed. Ready to face with clarity and acceptance that complex, noisy world we live in.

I’ve always longed to design a labyrinth. A good labyrinth has an ideal size. Too small and it fails to decompress the mind because the center is reached too quickly. Too big and it can get tedious. The amount of walking and turning must be just right. Even the width of the path must be correct – not too narrow and constricting or too wide and spacious. Creating an ideal labyrinth is not as easy as it might seem. Scale is key.
Making paths of grass or mulch bordered by stones, low growing plants or any other natural material keeps the cost quite low. The simpler the better. Yet, an ideal design and layout is a call for creativity.

The only part of my garden that could support a proper labyrinth would be where the meadow lies. However, this area is sloped and uneven and must not be leveled for reasons of water drainage and run-off. I’m thus resigned to not having this feature of my own.

Last Sunday, I was taken to an absolutely lovely labyrinth at the Priory in Weston, Vermont. Sited on an open, flat space laid with paths of grass outlined by single lines of brick set in the ground, it is beautifully simple. The size is perfect and the design takes you just long enough to get to the inviting seats in the center. Beyond the labyrinth is a vast, open meadow full of native grasses and wild flowers. Birds, butterflies, bees and other critters abound. Feeling vulnerable and humble, I walked with the sounds of nature keeping me company. The sun was bright and a light breeze kept me from getting too warm. Seated in the center, as I came out of my reflections empowered and reaffirmed, I observed the meadow with the swaying grasses woven through with seasonal blooms of milkweed, daisies, black-eyed Susans and other flowers, above them, swallowtail butterflies played tag with each other – it all seemed so tranquil despite the obvious activity going on. The whole scene serving as a reminder that “creativity flows from a quiet mind”.
As a flight of goldfinches rose up from within this meadow and made their separate ways, I too got up and purposefully followed the path to take me back to my awaiting world. Just as I left the labyrinth the priory bell was rung calling all to prayer and morning service. I did not join – I had after all just completed my worship.

The labyrinth in Weston, Vermont
The meadow beyond.
Notice the swallowtail on the milkweed at center lower half?!
A labyrinth I visited in Cape Cod some years ago. Set amidst tall trees, it gives the sense of being in a cathedral.
A labyrinth in upstate New York

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Slow Dancing With Summer

It’s July. Fireworks, fireflies, picnics, barbecues, beaches and books. In addition, for me, mosquitoes, mojitos, air-conditioning, heat, humidity and guilt. I have very mixed feelings about summer.

The light filled days promise endless hours of outdoor pleasures and the nights punctuated with bursts of firefly light and the fragrance of summer phlox and gardenias bewitch and yet, I find myself banished indoors for a good portion of the day seeking solace in air-conditioned rooms redolent with gardenia in budvases and rose-geranium infused lemonade. During the day, prone to migraines triggered by the heat and humidity, I succumb easily to those conditions. At night, the mosquitoes turn out in full force making it near impossible to sit without itching and scratching. I’m loathe to reach out for the only truly effective deterrent – a DEET spray. Using it every now and then is fine but slathering it on everyday makes me uneasy.

What works for me is to get some garden chores done in the cool, early hours of the morning. It is actually quite pleasant working at that time as the chorus of birds keep me company and the bees getting a head start to their day inspire me to get cracking with my own. At this mostly quiet period of the morning, I find myself occupied with what needs doing whilst still enjoying the garden in its rather riotous state of summer growth. A good couple of hours go by before I’m made aware that I’m hot, uncomfortable and quite ready to escape to cooler confines.

I’m certainly not inclined to deprive myself of the joys of spending summer nights watching fireflies and inhaling the sweet perfumes of flowers that I’ve grown for that very purpose. Spritzing myself with a blend of citronella and cloves I go forth into the evening. A fan is brought out to do double duty – deter all flying bugs and keep us relatively comfortable in the circulating air. The DEET spray is always on stand-by – it’s a love-hate relationship.

At a party last week, I was introduced to a new anti-mosquito gadget brought to the event for a test run by another friend. It seemed to work as I was not bitten that evening. So I’ve purchased one for my own use. Before I rush to endorse it, I shall use it a few times first. Stay tuned.

To take advantage of the warmer months, I ease up on chores and find myself slowing down my pace. More books are read, outdoor summer concerts and plays replace screen-time almost entirely. It seems only right to linger over al fresco meals and sip a cocktail or two slowly as one walks around inspecting the garden. Impromptu picnics, sunset viewings and star gazing stretch out the season. Time is taken to savor the bounty from the garden and farm stand. I love to slowly roast corn on the cob directly over the coals and then, with a sprinkling of flakes of sea salt and a dusting of cayenne pepper brightened with a splash of lime, it explodes in the mouth in a burst of sweet, salty, spicy and sour. Divine. And how about a watermelon salad tossed with fresh cherry tomatoes, feta and torn up basil? I think I even eat ice cream more slowly and mindfully in summer than at any other season.

While I’m reveling in the unhurried rhythm of summer, there is a fair amount of guilt that shadows me. The garden looks like a small child allowed to dress herself. Sweet but quite messy. I’m not keeping up with the pace the plants grow and need deadheading, staking and trimming. Weeds shoot up even as I work to keep them at bay. The tiny lawn looks ragged beseeching me for a regular feed of compost and the meadow quickly gets overrun by jewelweed smothering out less aggressive but more desirable plants. Still consumed with guilt, I’m determined to go on fully engaging with summer. It’s all too short and I know I will regret it if I have too few memories of it to keep me warm in winter.

And so I keep dancing with summer. Barefoot and guilty.

Note: Images of the neglected state of my garden – they should make you feel good about yours!

Wisteria in need of some grooming. But the geraniums divert your attention!
Wall pots straggling
Foxgloves need deadheading
Meadow could use some thinning out
Gardenia ready to be picked for indoor enjoyment
Sanguisorba ‘Alba’ having its moment
Asters waiting to be cut by one-third for better fall display
Acabthus in bloom but what’s that allium doing there?!
The pretty astilbe are being hidden by the overgrown asters.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar