Carpe Diem

It’s finally looking like February is supposed to. Crisp and cold with a thick quilt of snow spread over the ground. It’s been a week of brisk, bracing walks, fireside conversations and a return to dreams of the perfect growing season ahead. This is the February I’m familiar with and it’s mighty comforting even though I know the climate is changing and it will not always be so.

The weekend before the first great snow fall, it was definitively spring weather. 50 degrees! The garden beckoned with a siren call and I was lured into it eager and excited. The grapevine got pruned and the trimmings were stored for future projects in and outside the garden. Similarly, the roses received a fair bit of cutting and shaping. The rose hips were collected on lengths of stem. They look so pretty in hues of orange tinted with blush pink. All the plants left to serve the birds and bring seasonal interest with their varied designs of seed heads and warm, earthy colors were also cut back. And yes, all of those trimmings are also safely stored away. Why?

Because, come April, they will be the stars of a public project in which I am thrilled to participate. I’m not saying any more for now! All will be revealed in due course.

As I gathered the cuttings, the color palette itself was so beautiful. Browns, golds, reds and everything in-between. And the many textures and shapes! Truly, the sight rivaled any opulent bouquet of fresh flowers. Plants in senescence are so very under-appreciated. Yet, they serve at this stage to ensure the future health and wealth of the land. Surely, we ought to pay these humble yet noble members more attention, admiration and esteem.

And thus, it was a very satisfying two days of cutting and tidying. Timely work got done (and a new project got underway!). If I’d put off this task, the 12 inches of snow that fell two days later would’ve put paid to the beautiful ‘harvest’. The plants would have all been pushed down and broken apart. Seizing the day was a very good thing!

Note: Because the snow was expected, I left the old leaves of the hellebores uncut so they could protect the emerging buds from any snow and cold damage.

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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February Therapy

With no snow on the ground and temperatures hovering above freezing, February doesn’t quite feel normal don’t you agree? I fret about the well-being of the garden and the environment at large. How is Mother Nature coping with the changing climate? How will I cope? I try however, to not dwell on gloom and doom. We will deal with the situation as it unfolds.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of the fact that my daily turns around the garden have been given a jump-start, I’m delighting in all the things happening in it. What’s coming up, what’s looking good, what tasks typically done after snow melt can be done right now. The play of light and shadows that pattern the space, the micro-environments within the garden displaying their individual responses to the weather are some of the compelling sights that speak volumes about the lay of the land and the ‘bones’ of the garden. I’m currently obsessed with tracking down exactly where the hummingbirds and cardinals had built their nests last year – the bare trees and shrubs reveal those secrets. There’s so much to see and know!

But don’t just stop and stare. Chores await!

Things To Do –

(Much of the items in the January list are applicable here. Do check that list) 

  1. Stay on top of effects of snow and storms. Take quick action.
  2. Keep bird feeders full. Whenever possible provide water.
  3. Get garden plans and designs ready.
  4. Check garden supplies. Does the hose need repair or replacing? Is there enough soil, organic fertilizer, twine, stakes etc.,? Make a list and do what is needed.
  5. Towards the end of the month, prune roses, wisteria, grape vines and fruit trees.
  6. Cut back ivy on walls and fences before birds start nesting. Brightly colored stems of Salix and Cornus should be cut back to about 6 to 10 inches from ground. This will encourage brighter color next spring.
  7. Prepare for seed sowing. Get seed flats clean and ready. Check if there’s enough seed growing medium.
  8. Order seeds. Once seeds arrive, write labels and clip to each pocket. This saves time later when there is so much else to do.
  9. If there is not much snow, cut back old leaves on Hellebores. New growth and flowers will be emerging. Cut back other perennials that were skipped in autumn.
  10. Attend to indoor plants.
  11. The New York Botanical Garden’s annual orchid show opens in March. Do reserve your tickets and go! It’ll banish winter blues and get you inspired.
  12. Renew ( or join) your membership to the Garden Conservancy. Place your order for the Open Days directory. Once you receive it you can start scheduling visits to beautiful gardens near and far. Inspiration is only a garden visit away!

Whats doing in the garden right now –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Wild Thing! You Make My Heart Sing

Rewilding is the buzz these days. Le mot du jour. But what does that really mean? And how wild is one to go and still have a garden to speak of? Wildness is sort of an ambiguous word – it can mean different things to different people. Wildness typically means an area that does not have humans impacting it. We humans are tamers historically. So, loosening our control on our gardens and letting Nature take over runs counter to what a gardener (human) does. Not to mention, a garden by its very existence is a managed space. It is created by human effort. So why all the current hype about leaving well enough alone?

Rewilding is, as I see it, a pendulum-like swing from the over-cultivated, heavily manipulated, high maintenance gardens that were more for show and less about sustainability or conservation. After all, simply letting nature take over would not be good. It would result in woodlands emerging all over the space. While the woods are delightful and come with their own special and diverse flora and fauna, it could hardly be a garden. Besides, more important ly, the better part of pollinators would have no place to exist. Most woodland flowers bloom in spring and the rest of the year, blooms are scarce. Pollinators require sustenance during the other seasons as well.

This naturally means open spaces such as meadows and more to the point, gardens. A range of habitats are required to support diverse wildlife. Every kind of space has a specific purpose and fosters different wildlife leading to healthy ecosystems and environments that are in balance.

In the case of our gardens, it does not mean we hang up our trowels and say goodbye to doing the fulfilling work of transforming our spaces. As I see it, gardens can play very vital roles in the context of keeping the environment healthy as well as bridging the countrysides, farmlands, woodlands and waterways to support the diverse plants and wildlife.

The variety of habitats will support the myriad wildlife most individually suited to them. How we make our gardens rich in wildlife is determined by how we choose to garden.

First and foremost, reduce the area of lawn. They are detrimental to the environment. The cost in terms of money, time, labor and resources in order to keep a pristine, green lawn is prohibitive and ultimately, it does not encourage any pollinator or other wildlife to thrive. Instead, create areas for native grasses and plants. If space permits, add a few native trees, shrubs and groundcovers.

With whatever lawn that remains, mow less, keep the height of the mower blade high to protect the soil from drying up. Leave the grass clippings in place to go back to enriching the soil. Electric or manual reel mowers are preferred over gas mowers.

Allow wild flowers to emerge in the lawns. ‘Weeds’ such a dandelions, buttercups, clover and plantain are greatly loved by pollinators, So leave them alone! Use compost to feed the lawn – a single application in spring is sufficient. Compost does double duty as a mulch. Unless there is a drought, let the lawns and plants cope without watering. Native plants are hardy and adapt best to changing climates. Permit the plants to express themselves -there’s much to be said for the organic beauty of seeing where self-seeders pop up. My garden has several columbines and not a single one grows where they were originally planted. They have independently found the sites they grow best.

My meadow, the most wild part of my garden, is all native plants competing for space and pollinators. Whatever thrives is just fine. Sometimes, I need to run interference when a member gets too thuggish and ever so often I will introduce something new in the hope it’ll make it. Apart from that, the meadow is let to do its own thing. No watering or feeding. It gets a partial cutback in late fall when hundreds of spring bulbs are planted. That’s it.

This part of the garden is so full of life that I could sit and observe the goings on endlessly.

Elsewhere, the more structured parts are also full of native plants so there is continuity in design as well as in the wildlife they support. Fruit trees, water features, the vertical garden and adjoining woods, keep my garden rich in both flora and fauna. As regards the non-native members in my garden – they are non-invasive and ecologically beneficial.

In the final analysis, go a bit wild. Free yourself to let nature work with you. I promise, your heart will sing.

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Getting Started

This week, I’m beginning in earnest to stay on track with the gardening to-do list. Like in everything else, January offers a chance to start anew – eating healthy, working out, sleeping better are arguably on everybody’s list. As they should be. I don’t actually put those on my resolutions – they are simply a mainstay in my life. I try my best because they’re so important. Some days I’m more successful than others. C’est la vie.

Staying on target with time sensitive stuff is what I find more difficult. I begin with sincere intent but life invariably gets in the way and before I know it, I’m dangerously close to missing a deadline or I’ve missed the window to get a task done or I need to hustle madly. I know I’m not alone when this happens but that is hardly any comfort. But, over time, I’ve learned a few things to minimize such situations. The most important one is to be super-organized. I’m often asked how I do that so I thought I’d explain.

Every January 2nd, I sit with paper (used sheets typed on one side and ready to be discarded are perfect as I can write on the reverse side), pen, new calendar (can be a hard copy or digital). Note: I find it very satisfying to actually write rather than type my lists into the computer. Physical writing helps me slow down and stay present. An Excel Spreadsheet might work better for you.

Each sheet of paper is assigned one topic – Home, Personal, Garden, Family, Art, Writing, Website, Business etc.. Then, under each go in all the items that need doing. In the interest of this column, lets consider ‘Garden’.

I already have digital master lists for each season.’s chores These are standard chores that simply get plugged into appropriate dates/days/months. I take into account already scheduled to-do items in other areas so there isn’t a clash of jobs or too much to do on any given day. Flexibility is also important.

For instance, spraying the fruit trees is not only time sensitive but temperature dependent as well because the organic treatments demand it. So, a specific week for this task is first assigned. Then, depending on the weather forecast for possible rain, wind conditions and/or temperature dips or spikes, a day is selected. Alternative days are also penciled in just in case either the forecast was inaccurate or something unexpected comes up. And on the day of spraying, stuff like window cleaning won’t be assigned. Windows get cleaned only after!

You see? I helps to have an overall understanding of what happens when.

I assign practically every single task. During the week, which days I’ll be weeding – shorter sessions done every other day work better for me as opposed to long hours of weeding. Reminders of when to feed plants in pots, hang up hummingbird feeders, prune different shrubs/trees, deadhead spent blooms, which seeds get started when, everything is marked down. Friday is my ‘overflow’ day – where stuff I couldn’t get around to on the assigned day in the week get addressed. It truly helps me stay on schedule.

Having already listed and sourced plants I need to purchase, I schedule the ordering online or checking with my local nursery for availability and reserving my selections in advance. What is required for each task is checked/cleaned and kept ready. For instance, in the case of starting seeds indoors, I make sure I have cleaned the seed trays, growing medium available, mister, labels, markers etc., are all on hand.

I consider costs of plants, new replacement tools, repairs or other purchases and work it into my budget – this is crucial because as we’re all too aware, we gardeners can lose all commonsense in our bid to acquire things for the garden.

Similar,ly how long big tasks will take are estimated and accommodated. The goal is to avoid unwelcome surprises, preventable delays and unrealistic expectations. Holidays and vacation plans must be factored!There’s enough in the course of gardening over which one has absolutely no control so, lets take charge of everything else that we can.

If you’re thinking all of this is too tedious or too much effort, it is absolutely not! This is the time when your dreams are all possible. You are the gardener you aspire to be, the weather is always perfect, all the plants grow and bloom as you wish and the garden is its most spectacular best. Indulge yourself in some joyous planning and prepping.

Now, lets get started.

Note: Since we’re in the planning and getting ready stage of the gardening season and the garden itself is under snow, I’m sharing a few of my garden related watercolors

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Coming Home

As much as I enjoy travel, nothing quite feels as comforting as coming back home. Refreshed from time spent away from the usual routines and inspired by all the new experiences and encounters, there’s an eagerness to settle back down and reboot life anew. Not a new life but the same one infused with new energy and ideas. It feels exciting and rich with possibilities.

In the familiar confines of home, surrounded by all the things that provide joy and/or motivation, I sit with a head full of thoughts and schemes. I look at innumerable photos and a slew of cryptic notes made hurriedly during my travels. Unlikely color combinations, creative products, newly discovered foods, ancient customs witnessed, styles and patterns of traditional clothing, architecture, music, gardens, home décor – everything is fodder for creativity. How to best implement what I’ve seen and learned in my garden, home, art and personal life is a thrilling challenge. As my eyes wander around home and garden, I see the results of what past travels have inspired. To others the connections may not be clearly apparent but its all there. Just with my own twist or interpretation.

Key features in my garden such as the espaliered fence of fruit trees, the lush vertical garden, the pergola with native wisteria sprawled over it are obvious examples but adapted to suit the location and climate. The checkerboard garden came from seeing a huge chess board installed in a garden in France – not directly related. The design of the walkway was inspired by a pattern of piping in a blouse worn by a woman selling fruit at a market in Sweden.

In recent years, the colors of the tulips that bring great cheer in the spring, are inspired by art works in various museums. The color choices have evolved over the years. No doubt they will continue to do so.

It is similar in the house. Colors, furnishings, meals and music stand testimony to how travel opens the mind and enriches lives.

My own art is influenced more subtly – I’m not always aware until much later how I’ve been influenced by the light, colors and styles of the landscapes seen.

Unlike how it is when I come home from a summer trip, a winter homecoming is a gift of time. No pressing garden chores await. While the garden is asleep, I have the luxury to take my time to think, plan, design, source, schedule, create.

I returned very early Tuesday morning just as the snow had begun falling. The drive home was slow as the roads were already icy. Now, with unpacking done, accumulated mail sorted, laundry completed, I’m at leisure to harvest what inspirations I’ve picked up from my trip.

As the garden lies coated in white, the bones are sharply visible – my imagination has free rein to think about new plants to introduce, edits to make, colors to experiment and, revel in a most spectacular garden that lives for the moment only in my mind.

Everything is possible.

I present my ‘blank canvas’ –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Resolving January

Having reviewed in November, reflected in December, January is when it’s time to resolve. Resolve ideas and/or problems, resolve to do and make better. It is after all, the month when the world works on resolutions is it not?

As I go through my notes of observations, thoughts, wishes and wants in the garden, I’m generally struck by two things. The length of the musings and the sheer ambition of the gardener. Its laughable at first glance. But then, on reexamination, several things require the same action, a few items are quick fixes, some matters need a bit of tweaking while a couple are mere suggestions for pondering, others are long term projects and the remaining are simply pipe dreams.

Once triage, troubleshooting and targets have been sorted out, things look so much more manageable. Seed starting is scheduled, ditto for repairs and replacements. I break down bigger projects into doable sections and plan accordingly – taking into account seasons, my own work/personal calendar, time required and the possible need for additional manpower. Plants to be added are sourced and ordered – preferably from local nurseries. When and where to plant them determined.

Naturally, it all depends on the various circumstances, availability of what is needed, my budget and how easily I can obtain the necessary plants and/or structures. I have learned that no matter how well I’ve planned and prepped, it pays to stay flexible. Mother Nature has a habit of tossing out curve balls just for fun. My best effort is to have a plan, a commitment to execute it to the best of my ability and always allow for the Universe to intervene. Because, for better or worse, it will.

I’m still away from my garden and reveling in warmer climes but Nature continues to be my Muse –my recent watercolors –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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A New Year, A Fresh Start

A very happy New Year! May this be the year our gardens outdo our expectations and show us how to be our best selves.

A light warm-up of garden to-dos for this first month of 2024 –

  1. Take down holiday decorations. Before disposing off the Christmas tree, cut branches to spread as mulch on flower beds.
  2. Keep bird feeders full. Whenever possible, keep water available for the birds.
  3. Inspect stored tubers, corms and bulbs for signs of mold and rot. Get rid of any that don’t look healthy.
  4. This is a good time to examine the ‘bones’ of the garden. Make notes of what needs developing, changing or improving.
  5. Make icy paths safe by sprinkling sand or grit. Avoid toxic de-icing products.
  6. If ground is wet/soggy, take care to protect the sodden areas by not walking on it too much. Better yet, protect it by putting down a temporary path of wood planks.
  7. Take an inventory of garden tools. Get them repaired, replaced or sharpened.
  8. Gather up seed and plant catalogs. Start planning for the coming season.
  9. Begin forcing the bulbs kept cool since late fall. Time to start an indoor spring!
  10. Keep an eye on indoor plants ( in the house or greenhouse). Inspect carefully for signs of pests or disease. Act right away if either is detected. Organic practices only please.
  11. Still on indoor plants: water as needed, rotate for uniform light exposure, fertilize every two to four weeks. Remove dead or yellowing leaves.
  12. Survey the garden after every storm or snowfall. If any damage such as broken branches or torn off protection has occurred, try to fix it as soon as possible. Likewise, large icicles hanging from roof edges pose a threat to plants below: shield the plants if the icicles cannot be removed.
  13. Enjoy the quiet respite offered by this first month.

Some images from my recent stay in Bali to give you a little escape from the cold clutches of winter. Bali is where the the sacred and sublime mingle seamlessly with the hustle and bustle of commerce and tourism –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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December Decisions

I’m far away from my garden at present. For the past week, I’ve been in the very lush, very green city-state of Singapore. It’s also very warm and humid. While I’m enamored with the natural beauty of the dense plantings, it’s been challenging to spend long hours wandering outdoors. Still, one cannot but revel in a country that has chosen to invest significantly in environmental sustainability. The rest of us would do well to emulate this example.

So, not withstanding the joy of visiting with family and partaking of the myriad culinary offerings that Singapore is renowned for, I’ve been inspired by all the plantings to think about my own garden and how I can do better.

As I’d indicated last month, November is when I review how the garden performed through the year. Just observations, no judgments or justifications. Simply things of significance to note. December is when I reflect on those notes. The hows and whys are considered.

The strange, wet summer resulted in several plants doing poorly. Some failed to bear flower or fruit. Others struggled to grow and still others thrived. How and why did this happen? Rain prevented timely pollination, plants in areas that got water logged were unhappy, others on higher ground loved the rain. This tells me if I need to relocate or replace certain plants – that’s something within my power. However, I cannot control shifting weather patterns and its impact on pollination. I check the plants who showed resilience – perhaps more of those should be introduced in the garden. Edit the members that do not have the staying power of a changing climate.

I reflect on how my designs fared. The success or failure of color schemes. My choices of plants need adjusting and adapting all the time. How can to do better is a constant quest. I learn all the time. My focus is to grow mostly native plants most adapted to my area. Within this lot, I look for form and function – they must look good, integrate well with the whole design, attract pollinators, provide color/shape/texture/movement/structure/flowers and/or fruit. Staying power through all the seasons is a bonus.

This is the time to think about what is lacking, where the gaps are. I take into account soil conditions, surrounding tree growth that has changed an area from sunny to more shady and, other growth requirements.

Similarly, I go over my notes, if any, from November about the hardscape. Did the wet summer rot a fence post or was it carpenter bees making too many holes in it? That factor would need me to consider if a simple replacement is sufficient or must I change the choice of the material of all the posts. Faded or peeling paint of structures or outdoor furniture, a pathways that isn’t quite intuitive – does it need tweaking or a whole relaying.

I make notes and then depending on the answers to all the questions, I do the necessary research to eliminate problems, introduce new plants or more of old ones, take out or bring in a special feature, plan a wholly different section. December provides a gardener with the luxury of time to really think about all the minutiae. Stuff that easily gets overlooked at other times but contributes enormously to the success of gardening.

Personally, I find this exercise a wonderful antidote to all the hustle and bustle of the Holiday season. It provides a mental escape and the satisfaction of knowing at the end of which awaits a proper plan of action to start the New Year on the right footing.

Happy Holidays one and all. I’ll be back in the New Year. And now, I return to enjoying my time in equatorial Singapore.

Note: Some scenes from Singapore – Horticulture, art, street scenes and such.

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Final stretch of 2023. With the weather getting colder and the garden put to bed, what is still there to do? Well, not so much if you’ve been diligent about doing things in a timely manner. Otherwise, here’s the nudge –

Things To Do In December

1. Hurry up and finish any pending plant protecting tasks! Ditto for statuary and other articles left outdoors.

2. Complete mulching all plants.

3. Drain out all outdoor water pipes. Store hoses properly.

4. Keep bird feeders filled.

5. Keep on top of watering plants in greenhouse and house. Stay vigilant for signs of pests or disease.

6. Set aside seed and plant catalogs for making plans for next year’s growing seasons.

7. Archive garden photos taken through this year. They will come in handy when you plan and design for next year.

8. Forage the garden to decorate the home for the festivities.

9. Enjoy paperwhites and amaryllis bulbs blooming indoors. Didn’t start any? Get some orchids instead. Long lasting, they will look fabulous right through the holidays.

10. Make use of this down time and relax!

Note: Some inspiration from past Decembers

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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After The Festive Frenzy

We’re in post-Thanksgiving recovery mode. I don’t know about anyone else but, in my home, the entire long weekend is fraught with happenings. There’s the preparing first – for company and The Meal. Overnight guest quarters readied, grocery shopping done, menus planned, house put to order etc.,. Then, between the many meals (including the big one) and all the catching up and conversations, interspersed with brisk walks, raucous parlor games like Charades, excursions to see the season’s decorations and displays ( they start earlier and earlier), the four days fly by. It’s all good and yet, once over, I’m left with a desperate need for respite – a retreat to restore my energy and find my mental balance.

As much as I adore this Holiday and look forward to it as no other, I’m always ready for a breather come Monday. The quiet of the garden beckons for a moment of rest. No work, not even a tiny bit of tidy up is encouraged. Simply the welcome embrace of a most soothing calm to enjoy.

I stand in the meadow, close my eyes and inhale deeply the crisp, cool air – like a deep cleanse, all the cobwebs in my head disappear. Suddenly, I’m made more aware of where I am and the activities going on around me.

I hear the rustle of leaves still clinging to limbs like lovers reluctant to say goodbye. The birds are very much in evidence – flashes of color brightening up the mostly monochromatic brown landscape. They’re busy chattering and winging there way around on missions only they know and are actually quite loud. In my fatigue from partying all weekend, I had failed to notice them at first!

I smell wood-smoke from neighboring houses and imagine neighbors decompressing by the fireside. The sunlight warming my face eases me into a state of bliss as I scan shrubs for the vernal promise of nascent buds. I watch squirrels hurrying around like the Mad Hatter – what are they late for? Small stirrings in the leaf litter tell me of tiny critters too busy to mind my presence. My random footfall disturbs one of the resident garden snakes; he looks none too happy to be aroused and after a brief, futile attempt at looking menacing, he slithers into a pile of leaves near by.

It had rained hard overnight so, the soil is still wet and renders the grass dewy and very green. I resist the temptation to slip my shoes and socks off and feel the earth in bare feet. But, I can imagine the tickle of squelchy, cold soil. The witch-hazel in the far corner by the woods sends out tendrils of fragrance reminding me what season it really is.

Despite the untenanted appearance, the garden is very much alive with all manner of busy. There’s a plethora of movement and sound, smells and texture. I’ve only been out here for a half hour or so but in that short time, I’ve been recharged and refreshed. Ready to get on with the demands of the day. But perhaps I’ll remain a little while longer – it just feels so good to take in all the details of Nature’s seasonal offerings. Puts into perspective what really matters and how blessed I am.

Thanksgiving is not just a day. It is always.

Note: Here are some images from my visit a week ago to the NYBG. So many ideas for creating more autumn drama in our own gardens –

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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