Shared Wisdom

Gardeners are the best sharers don’t you agree? From produce and plants to cuttings and advice, we share generously. It’s no wonder then that we love being in each others company. And the longer I garden, the more there is to learn.

So this week, I’m passing on three things I learned recently.

#1 – As we well know, comfrey makes a most effective organic fertilizer. The usual method is to fill a bucket or other container with comfrey leaves, add water, cover tightly and let it sit for some weeks. Over that time, the leaves breakdown and the whole turns into rich, liquid plant food. Simple. The reason for that tight cover is to contain the odor – it stinks to high heaven. The final product is diluted as necessary to feed the plants.

I’ve just learned of another way to use comfrey. Dry the leaves, crumble them and sprinkle into pots to boost seedlings and plants. This past weekend, as I was putting the herb garden to bed, I cut back vast amounts of comfrey. I’m going to dry some of it. Towards the end of winter, the plants in the greenhouse will receive a generous serving of dry comfrey to get them ready for the move outdoors.

If there is a prolonged spell of rain during the growing season as it was this past summer, the dry comfrey will come in good use. A liquid feed on wet days would be useless.

#2 – Right after the last snowfall last winter, I sprinkled Shirley poppy seeds all over a snow covered area in the meadow where I wanted them to bloom. As the snow melted, the seeds would settle on the earth and take root. I’d heard that this very simple method worked well. Not for me. It was a total failure.

But last week, I learned of a better way. Mix the seeds in sand, sift this over the planting area. Tamp down with a brick or board. Give a misting of water. Seedlings should appear in about 3 weeks. Thin out as needed. I’m going to try this next year.

#3 – My Brugamansia did not put up a good show of flowers this year. I blamed the crazy weather. But, on reflection and remembering another tip I’d picked up a while back ( and forgotten), this plant needs very diligent feeding. So, starting next growing season, weekly doses of dry comfrey are in order. Will report back in a year!

I’d love to hear your tips – please share!

Mature common comfre

The lesser known blue flowered comfrey

Comfrey (by the sculpture) in early spring

 

Poppies

From my seedpod series – watercolor of poppy pods/heads

Watercolor of poppy

Brugamansia

My watercolor rendition

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

On A Wing And A Prayer

The great bulb planting effort continues. As the meadow got embedded with a vast mix of camassia, alliums, hyacinthoides and fritillaria, it struck me yet again how much optimism is required in the work of gardening. With no guarantee of success and so much left to the mercy of Nature, a gardener must go largely on hope and faith. One can do everything right but without the benevolence of the weather/climate gods, it can all go wrong.

Through setbacks and struggles, failure and fumbles, the true gardener persists. We learn something from every outcome, get better, get stronger and, trust that things will work out in the end. When they do, we are grateful. We don’t achieve anything alone. Our dependence on Nature is something we understand all too well.

The rotund bulbs encased in thin, papery layers look innocuous. One would hardly suspect that each will yield a plant that will transform the spring garden into a most beautiful celebration of the season. That is the promise the bulb holds within. The gardener fully believes in that promise just as she does in every seed and plant that is sowed. Both bulb and gardener, do their best and leave the rest up to the powers that be. That is pretty much all one can do. Simply do ones best and keep faith that it’ll be all right.

Hmm. It isn’t always easy to work hard when much is uncertain. Or stay positive when things go wrong. But, gardening has taught me repeatedly that if I work diligently with good intent and believe in a good outcome, most often it will. And when the results are less than ideal, to accept it with grace because all is not lost – a new opportunity to try again will come around next year. The garden keeps giving new chances.

I’ve also learned that sometimes, the fault lies within me. My expectations were unrealistic or, that I had not done my part as well as I ought. The next time around, I will do better.

That’s a life lesson well worth learning early.

Here are some images of bulbs in bloom this past spring and preparing for the spring to come:

Mix of bulbs waiting to be planted

A drill is very useful

Planting bulbs in the meadow

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Bulb-Manic Season

My mania showed this past weekend as I unpacked the shipment of bulbs. Sorting and combining the bulbs for the assigned areas is easy. Looking at the quantity at the end is hugely intimidating. What was I thinking when I placed the order way back in summer?

I was dreaming of swathes of color in myriad shapes all through the spring. Old favorites and a good measure of new choices. A few deeply coveted but pricey ones. In my mind’s eye, I saw bursts of early, minor bulbs announcing the arrival of spring. Then a wild party of loud, happy daffodils and fritillaria seeming to rise and bob from a gurgling brook of blue scillas and hyacinthoides frothing with blue and white muscari. Followed by an impressive parade of alliums and camassia accompanied by ornithogalums and nectaroscordum (now classified as Allium siculum). And that was just the meadow.

In front, a riotous mix of tulips punctuated by the dark purple/plum beauty of precious F. Perica, will be the stars of the season. Later, the irises, alliums, camassia, nectarosordums will weave their magic with the emerging perennials. That’s what I was thinking.

Confronted now by about a thousand bulbs I did pause briefly (very briefly) to question my sanity. My family, severely guilt tripped into helping with bulb planting have actually come to terms with what they recognize as a mania in me. But being long-suffering sports and wanting to avoid any more guilt I might lay on them, they went to work.

The front garden has been completed. The meadow will wait till next weekend. I also potted up a slew of bulbs – covered securely they will spend most of the winter outside in a sheltered spot and safe from curious critters. In late winter, as the bulbs awaken and start emerging, the pots will be brought inside to jump start our spring. Just in time to revive our winter weary spirits.

I put in a bunch of hyacinth bulbs for cooling a month ago – they will be ready for forcing in January. The perfect antidote to the winter blues that start setting in post-holidays. This past week, I started a fair quantity of paperwhites and amaryllis. The former should be ready for Thanksgiving and the latter will enhance the holiday atmosphere through December.

With so much joy to offer, is it any wonder that I’m completely mad about bulbs?

Note:Enjoy the images below. I’m particularly pleased with the success of my all-natural witch and cat – neighbors walking by took photos and selfies, children thoroughly bought into the display and even stroked the cat repeatedly! On Halloween, many took their family pictures with witch and cat. I absolutely loved knowing that I was able to give my neighborhood some joy and fun. After the dismal holiday last year, we all deserved a very happy Halloween.

Said witch and her pet head to the compost heap in the woods today. The pumpkins will be split open to not only help with their decomposition but many woodland creatures will be able to feed on them.

I put in my watercolor rendering of some bulbs because at this time, bulbs are growing only in pictures and my mind.

Natural born witch and cat by day.

Sorting bulbs

Potting up

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Timely Tasks

It’s been a hectic pace in the garden. I spent the weekend entirely attending to seasonal demands. The tiny greenhouse is now packed to to the gills with the tender members of the garden. Taking advantage of the extended warm weather, I took my time to carefully trim and clean all the plants (and pots) before moving them into this prime space.

With some of the clippings, I started root cuttings. A nice variety of various geraniums both fancy leaved and scented, bay, rosemary, boxwood, myrtle, plumbago (an experiment) and Dichondra. Little bundles of bouquet garni were made with more clippings of bay, rosemary and thyme – they will be used through the winter to flavor hearty stews, soups and sauces. I made several batches of nasturtium pesto to freeze and some bottles of rose-geranium lemonade.

All the snakeroot was pulled out – this native is simply too aggressive. It had spread itself all over and was choking any plant that got in its way. A true thug. With the removal, I could feel the garden give a sigh of relief.

In comparison, the ornamental raspberry seemed almost shy. Almost. That got ruthlessly edited but not eliminated. A small bit was left in the meadow and will be monitored closely so as not to let it get unruly again. In the newly opened up space, I’ll add asters and other well-behaved natives.

A weed patrol was also conducted. They too take advantage of unseasonable warmth but I’m determined to prevent any of them setting seed. I know weeds are wily things yet hope springs eternal.

As other pots are relieved of their annual contents, they are washed, dried and stored away. It’s a lot of effort but so important for plant hygiene. Come spring, I’m always thankful for the work I did in the fall. With pots clean and ready, it is so pleasurable to get them planted whilst waiting for the plants in the ground to catch up.

All the discarded potting soil,clippings and fallen leaves mean the compost pile in the woods is well fed in autumn. Each spring, it is such pleasure to get rich compost from there. If you haven’t got a composter set up, this is a good time to begin.

Finally, for fun, a pumpkin witch and her cat took up residence in the front garden. Just in time for Halloween. Already they’ve become quite popular and the subject of many photographers as they pass by. Halloween was such a sorry affair last year that I wanted to do my part in making this year much better.

Made up of pumpkins/gourds and other garden materials, they will retire in total to the compost heap after the holiday. Win-win for all.

Full disclosure – I’m also hoping to set an example by demonstrating that using natural, compostable materials is environmentally responsible and can still be fun and creative.

Note : One week to go before my PHS talk! Don’t forget to sign up!

Natural born witch and cat by day.

By night

Clipping, cleaning and washing in progress

Awaiting propagation

A load of leaves headed to the compost

Bouquet garni ready for use

Rose-geranium lemon cordial and nasturtium pesto

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

October Overdrive


In these parts, the gardener shifts into overdrive in October. Lots to be done and it is often a race against time.

We rush to safeguard tender plants before the first frost. Harvest the remaining warm weather vegetables and fruits. Gather seeds to save for next year. Cut back, clear, clean, cover. Provide protection, put away, plant anew. Divide and redistribute. Finally, dig in all the bulbs that arrive just in time. And all along, squeeze in some time to enjoy the season because all too soon, we will be spending more hours cocooned indoors.

This year, due to changing weather patterns, it feels as though the fall hasn’t quite started. Trees are still quite green and few are showing any other color. Most likely there will be no real autumn color display. The leaves are simply going to turn crisp and brown and drop to the ground. Sad, I know but, all the more reason to take climate change seriously and do our part to mitigate it as much as possible. Instead of complaining lets all collectively respond with positive, proactive efforts.

I invariably feel a bit overwhelmed at this time. There is a long list of chores. I’ve found by prioritizing and breaking down the tasks helps greatly. Starting with getting the greenhouse cleaned and ready and moving in the pots of tender plants, I move on to dividing to replant and severely thinning out overzealous residents. Then I collect seeds, cut back and clear the spent plants. While some are left to serve the birds and give some winter interest, for the most part, I cut down the perennials. This is to facilitate the bulb planting that must happen between all the perennials and, also to give the garden a head-start in the spring as the garden’s Open Day happens early to mid-May when once again the list of tasks is long and time is short.

So, off to the garden I go. No time to waste!

Here is the list of October to-Dos:

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 until 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 and secure them well. 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.

Note: On October 26, I’ll be talking to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society about how to think out of the box in a small garden with focus on espalier and vertical gardening. This is a virtual talk so everyone can attend!

Some scenes of my garden as it looks right now – wild and winsome!

Photo by @dorothydunn

Photo by @dorothydunn

Photo by @dorothydunn

Photo by @dorothydunn

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

Weather Perfect


Since last Friday, we have enjoyed some amazing weather here. Sparkling with sunshine, blue skies and just right temperatures for spending days comfortably outdoors and nights under cozy blankets but with windows wise open. It truly doesn’t get better than this. Delicious is the best word to describe how I feel.

The garden has perked up too. Despite the shift in light and temperature that hints at the change in season, the plants are not ready to give in. They continue to bloom like its still summer and even the leaves remain a vibrant green. For certain, we’re behind in the fall-color schedule. Given the unpredictable pattern of the seasons this year, I’m not complaining. Instead, I’m determined to revel in the current gift of sublime weather.

Slowly, okay reluctantly, the fall tasks are being approached. First in line is the greenhouse – it needs emptying and a thorough cleaning. Until this is done, the tender perennials in pots cannot be clipped,, cleaned and moved into it. The tomatoes in the greenhouse are still doing well so the pots have been shifted outside where they can continue to ripen. Bereft of contents, the greenhouse now awaits a thorough ablution. I actually enjoy this task. Working with water means getting wet and that prevents me from feeling hot from the exertion. There’s a certain childlike fun to be had here – splashing, spraying, scrubbing. It helps enormously to undertake this chore when the day is dry and sunny so the interior can dry completely and quickly. Working in the garden that is still looking wildly voluptuous is a beautiful bonus.

Whilst the greenhouse is drying, I start on the plants that will be residing in the greenhouse through the winter. After an elimination of all dead, weak and unsightly limbs or leaves and a general trim to restore shape, every plant and pot receives a good bath to remove dust, debris and any pesky interloper. Once dry, they are moved and arranged in their winter quarters.

This is what I’m focusing on this week. Apart from some rain today, the days are expected to meet the requirements for the task. And I’m very ready. Cleanser, water, action!

Note: The images below are some of the spaces I’ve visited in the past week:

(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

A November To Remember?

There is just so very much that’s not in our control. I’ve learned to tune out the ‘noise’ and instead focus on the things that I can manage. Having the garden has admittedly been a big reason for keeping me not just occupied but also motivated and engaged in my day to day activities. Being able to share the garden with nature starved, apartment dwelling city friends has not only been a pleasure but also reinforced my faith in the healing, restorative powers of nature.

So, heading into a winter with much of the same concerns as earlier in the year feels mighty daunting. How will I cope when its too cold to be outside in the garden? I have spent some time preparing for this season. Our overall health (mental, physical and emotional) depends on the ministry of nature.

To that end, here’s what I’ve come up with. A brisk, daily walk around my neighborhood or, time and weather permitting, in one of the many nature preserves nearby should clear the cobwebs in my head and get my blood flowing while absorbing some sunlight.

In packing the tiny greenhouse with the numerous tender plants this year, I deliberately relegated several plants to the basement just so I could carve out space for a small table and single chair in one corner. With work-from-home continuing, it will be good to have an alternate space for a family member who might crave a change of scene or some ‘green’ time during a particularly busy day.

The greenhouse is positively heavenly when the orange blossoms and jasmine bloom. I predict it will be a very popular location and I might have to institute a ‘sign-up’ for this perk so as to prevent conflicts or monopolizing. Yes, like the tree-house, the greenhouse receives WI-fi.

After a great deal of searching on the Internet, we finally scored an outdoor heater. This opens up the possibility of regularly getting outside and also having friends over to enjoy some social time with drinks and/or comforting soups. I look forward to returning from a hike and extending the time outdoors sipping hot cocoa and breaking bread. Indoor gatherings may not be possible at present but, we can still make the best of the outdoors.

Currently, the house is aglow with hibiscus and brugamansia in bloom. Both plants were heavy with buds so I brought them in – they have repaid my kindness very handsomely. When the flowers are done, they’ll be relocated to the basement to spend the winter in dormancy.

I have a whole slew of amaryllis bulbs started in the house. They will bring much cheer through the holidays and into the new year. Following that, the bulbs of hyacinths and crocuses already cooling in the refrigerator will be forced into bloom. February and March will not seem so bleak with the fragrance and color of these harbingers of spring.

Note: It’s not too late to get started on the amaryllis and bulb cooling.

The drinks ( remember the eau de Poire and rose-geranium cordial?), chutneys, jellies, sauces and pestos I made through summer will do more than perk up our winter meals. They will remind us of the good things about the year and that summer will come again. Heartwarming.

There are a few more chores still pending before the garden is truly put to bed. I’m loathe to finish up because the winter seems too long, dark and cold. So lets hope between my efforts to mitigate the anxiety and what unfolds this month, spirits are lifted and the light at the end of the tunnels shines bright. Take courage.

Note: GO VOTE!

Brugamansia in bloom

The coveted WFH location

Amaryllis in waiting

Fall beauty

  

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

The Benevolence Of Bulbs

Bulbs give an unparalleled bang for the buck. It is a simple matter of plunking them into a deep enough hole in the ground, covering them up and letting them be. Come spring, they show up in good form and raise the ante in the garden. While the perennials are slowly stirring, bulbs burst forth boldly and bring instant cheer. For the effort of digging them a decent home in the fall, the payback is big at a time when we most need the beauty and inspiration.

This past weekend was all about bulb planting. About 2000 of them. At one time, this task was accomplished by me alone but the years have taken their toll so, I had called in reinforcement by way of husband, daughter and a nephew. And the job got done. The weather cooperated perfectly, moods remained cheerful and it had the energy of a barn raising. I’m deeply grateful to my’ team’ – without their support no vision of mine could be realized.

With the planting of bulbs in autumn, we are essentially saying we have hope for the future. That we will get through the cold, dark days of winter to greet a beautiful, promise-filled spring. This seemingly simple act of faith epitomizes the very optimism it takes to move life forward.

Note: At the request of many, here is the list of bulbs that I’ve planted for a beautiful 2021 –

TULIP ANTOINETTE
TULIP COOL CRYSTAL
TULIP DON QUICHOTTE
TULIP DREAMLAND
TULIP GREENLAND
TULIP GREEN WAVE
TULIP LOUVRE
TULIP ROSALIE
TULIP SPRING GREEN
TULIP WHITE PARROT

TULIP FLAMING BALTIC

ALLIUM AFLAT. PURPLE SENSATION
CAMASSIA QUAMASH
FRITILLARIA MELEAGRIS
FRITILLARIA MICHAILOVSKYI

Final burst of roses

All bulbs sorted out

Time for a respite

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Bedding Down

As I did my chores in the garden this past week, it felt as though there’s much more to do in the fall than in the spring. In a way, this is probably true as a good deal of the work is about getting the garden ready for the spring. Clearing, cleaning up and cutting back right now makes spring so very enjoyable.

But what makes it feel pressured is that having prolonged our pleasure in the garden and delayed the tasks for as long as possible, we now have to get everything done before it gets too cold. Get the tender plants clipped, cleaned and moved indoors before the first frost. Finish harvesting the last of the vegetables and herbs for the same reason. Pull up spent annuals, empty, wash and clean pots. Once dry, put away the pots. Protect other plants and immovable features like statuary. Clean and store outdoor furniture.

Add new plants to the garden. Divide and replant others. Mulch everything. There’s removal, repair and replacement work, It feels endless!

And then there is the bulb planting. It’s a big deal in my garden and it gets harder every year. With almost 2000 bulbs to plant this coming weekend, I’ve called for reinforcements. Daughter and nephew will be joining the effort. I cannot tell you how relieved I am to have their assistance.

Finally, whatever was harvested must be dealt with. Drying, cooking, freezing, canning big time. It’s the last push before one can sit back and catch a breath. But so worth it. The flavors and fragrances of summer will infuse the winter comfortingly.

In my garden, all of this happens over about three weeks. We take on the chores in a divide and conquer kind of way. But one thing is clear – I am the project manager. I have a list, a strategy and a have very clear idea of how the jobs are to be done. Being well organized is super-important. Over the years some minor mutinies have been crushed and slipshod efforts called out.

This year, it has been so much calmer. It’s been possible to be systematic and give proper time and attention to every task. Doing something well is hugely satisfying. It’s because this year, no member of the very small team of three had a pressing social/cultural calendar! And I rediscovered why I love gardening so much – this must be what renewing ones wedding vows must feel like.

I’ve made a note to self – when the world opens up again, do not schedule anything else for the weeks of fall gardening.

The value of being present for each job cannot be overstated. It’s energizing to be so engaged. The intimacy of tending the plants is therapeutic. It’s funny how in doing what we think of as taking care of the health of the plants and the garden as a whole ends up being good for our own well-being.

Note: My painting ‘This Land Is Made OF You And Me’ is in the art show “Sunrise And Solidarity” – Art inspired by BIPOC in Westchester at the Art Closet Gallery, Chappaqua, NY in conjunction with the Town of New Castle’s Council For Race Equity. Art for social justice. The show will in part benefit Showing Up For Racial Justice Westchester Chapter. You can visit in person or on-line. Either way, please take a look!

Herb harvest for winter feasts.

Vertical garden still looking lush and lovely

Greenhouse is fully occupied

One more ‘party’ while the weather is still good.

Autumn Beauty

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar