Thought For Food

A significant upside to the lock-down is that more people are gardening. This makes me so happy. Of all the things one could resort to during this uncertain, scary time, gardening is perhaps one of the best activities to do. You and I both know all the benefits so I shall not reiterate them but for myself, working in my garden has been my salvation.

Vegetable gardening is what most have taken up. There is something fundamental and inherent about that. Historically, how and what we eat dictates how well we survive. In good times and bad. An unprecedented crisis such as this pandemic had us naturally look to our basic need. Subconsciously, food is always ( okay, maybe mostly) on our minds. This threat, being a challenge to our health got us to think about keeping us in good, robust condition. Growing and preparing owns own food is the obvious solution. It gives one a sense of taking charge and doing something positive. All good I say. It reminds me of the Victory gardens that proliferated during WW II.

While seed companies were suddenly faced with a run on their stock, people were (re-)discovering the joys of gardening. Friends living in tiny city apartments were growing herbs, radish and tomatoes on their window-sills and balconies. Some have been training peas and beans around their windows. A quick search on the Internet reveals a plethora of innovations for apartment gardening. I’m quite blown away by what cool stuff is available.

Others who already had a yard, have gotten busy making all manner of vegetable gardens. Raised beds, French potagers, English kitchen gardens, vegetables ‘plots’ solely comprised of pots – it’s been exciting to learn of all the activity. Even better, swathes of lawn have been turned over to rows of vegetable plants, pollinators have been encouraged with the addition of native flowering plants, organic practices have been adopted, composting has become routine – my goodness! We are already doing better.

I myself upped my veggie game this year. For the first time, I started growing peas and micro-greens, increased the number of tomato and zucchini plants and added more herbs. In the fruit department, a long desired persimmon tree joined the apple, pear and fig trees already in residence. FYI – While we get a nice amount of produce, the garden in no way covers all our vegetable needs as we follow a mostly plant based diet.

More significantly for me, I widened the usage of the plants and have been trying new recipes. The repertoire of family meals has grown substantially and we’re thoroughly enjoying the experience. I suspect that we have each become even more particular about where and what we select when we eventually dine out. The bar has been raised.

The CSA ( Community Supported Agriculture) Co-Op I belong to started up their 2020 weekly deliveries a couple of weeks ago. It’s a joy to get the produce from a local farm instead of the supermarket. And we’re continuing to try new recipes.

I’ve received several recipe requests so I thought I’d share a couple of old, tried and true family recipes as well as a couple of new ones that I’ve tried recently..

Cilantro Chutney – Most people think of chutneys as a sweet-salty-spicy mix but in Indian cooking, chutneys are not always sweet. This one is not sweet but is great on sandwiches, brushed on roasted vegetables, meats, fish and anything needing a little oomph.

This recipe is from my mother-in-law who was a highly gifted cook.

Jaya Mani’s Cilantro Chutney

1.

2 T oil

2 T urad dal (white lentil)

1 T fenugreek seeds  — optional

1 pinch hing (asofoetida powder)  — optional

1 large dry red chilli

 (2)

1 t black mustard

 (3)

1 medium bunch cilantro washed and drained (including stems)

Salt to taste

Fry (1) together until lentils are toasted – light brown. Strain but save the oil. Add strained mixture (1) to blender. Add (3), some water and grind to a paste. Remove chutney paste from blender. Add (2) to drained oil and fry until mustard starts to pop. Add (2) to chutney  and mix well. Use within 2-3 days or freeze.

 Suggested servings:

  • Sandwiches with thinly sliced white bread, butter, chutney, thinly sliced coriander

  • Chutney with cooked  rice

  • Chapati/paratha roll with scrambled egg and chutney

  • Crackers, chutney and cheese

Rose geranium syrup over roasted figs – This combines two things from my garden. It’s a very simple but elegant dish. Add a few rose-geranium leaves when making a sugar syrup. Once the syrup has cooked down to desired thickness, remove the leaves. Let cool.

Roast figs – Cut fresh figs in half and arrange cut side up on a baking sheet. Drizzle some extra-virgin oil over them. Roast in oven at 425 degrees for 10 minutes or until they bubble.

Serve figs with syrup dribbled over them. Add a dollop of plain Greek yogurt on the side. You feel healthy that way. To up the ante, decorate the plate with a few rose-geranium flowers.

Strawberry-Basil Ice Cream – When I came across this recipe, I was intrigued. Basil in a dessert! It is delicious and so refreshing.

Ribs with rhubarb glaze and radish-rhubarb salad – I wanted to use rhubarb in more than the usual crisp or compote. This recipe from Bon Appetit turned out well.

Strawberry-basil ice cream

Khao Soi by @miravanchiswar Recipe from dear friend @sonal.nair. Cilantro from the garden

Basil pesto

Dolma using leaves from my Concord grapevine by @muralimani

Sandwiches using the cilantro chutney

Rhubarb cake

Chive quiche @miravanchiswar

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Kind Of Hush

It was an important week. My daughter graduated college – a virtual ceremony. No pomp nor circumstance but to be fair, given present state of affairs, it was as good as it could get. One can feel bad about what the fresh graduates have missed but lets face it – this is a historic time and they now have stories to relate that will outmatch previous generations!

Then, there was not only the summer solstice but a total solar eclipse to go with it. While we don’t ourselves have anything to do with the phenomenon, it just feels like the earth and it’s principle star have been busy. Quietly.

In all honesty, I’ve really appreciated the quiet that has resulted in the lockdown. The lack of vehicular traffic heightened our awareness of the sounds of nature. The birds didn’t get louder, they could be heard better. Likewise the peepers, the bees, even the breeze rustling through the leaves. With less outside distractions, I’ve observed the sounds, activities, colors and smells in the garden. It’s been nurturing, inspiring, healing and grounding. A gift.

At this time of year, another sort of quiet creeps into the garden. A lull of sorts. The spring hoopla slows down and the summer soirée is yet to begin. The garden right now is mostly shades of green punctuated with the hues of minor players like cranesbill geraniums, evening primrose, yarrow, borage, woodland anemone and such. One could see this as poor planning on my part. I should think about adding more late June flowering plants. On the other hand, I’m happy giving attention to these less flashy members of the garden. They are so valuable in serving the pollinators. Plus, as an artist, I’m able to admire their forms more closely. They’re easy to overlook when the roses and peonies dominate.

The summer asks for none of the frenzied work that spring demands. From now on, it’s all maintenance – deadheading, weeding, feeding and watering. On each day of the week, one of those tasks is tackled – Weeding Wednesday, Feeding Friday, Trimming Tuesday, Thirsty Thursday, Mowing Monday. You get the idea. The days settle into a comfortable rhythm. There’s time to simply enjoy the garden because doing the daily tasks regularly means I’m not spending long hours doing them. After all, Summer is for Sitting Back. Am I right?

Meanwhile, the first peas have been consumed right off the plants. Two batches of basil pesto made last week sit in the freezer in anticipation of winter meals. A third batch has already contributed to a delightful pasta dinner. The Mojito mint has been called into service and I’m thoroughly enjoying fresh cilantro, rosemary, thyme and oregano sparking up our meals. The lettuce and Swiss chard are also being harvested regularly. All of which contributes to a sense of quiet satisfaction.

No doubt about it. There’s a kind of hush. All over my world.

 

Tomato flowers

Washed basil

Pesto

 

Peas

Stevia for sweetening tea

Cilantro for chutney

Mojito mint

Herb ‘wall’

Yarrow

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

This Land

Last Sunday, June 14 was Flag Day. I decided to get in the spirit. It wasn’t a spontaneous decision – I’d had red, white and blue on my mind for some days. Remember when I mentioned that I’d harvested all the spent alliums? It was done primarily to give the bulbs the opportunity to fatten up for next year but the allium stems and their spherical umbels have a sculptural presence even in senescence. So, re-purposing them seemed a natural thing to do. Simply by themselves they look rather good in a vase but to me, they resemble sparklers and star bursts. Given the pandemic restrictions and the desire to have something fun to do, I got the family involved in ‘painting’ a good number of allium heads red, white and blue. When the paint had dried, they got topped with a coat of glow-in-the-dark paint.

The allium sculpture now placed in the front walkway in plain view of passersby and from inside the house is cause to smile and be reminded that it is summer – Fourth of July, picnics and fireworks. At nightfall, they do glow! FYI – I bring it indoors if rain is expected.

This whimsical project has pleased me more than you’d think.

The remaining half of the alliums will be coated gold for the holidays in December. Yes, I’m planning well ahead. Why ever not! Gardeners are nothing if not optimists.

While the big show in the garden is dominated by peonies and roses right now, I’m more enchanted with the native plants that are starting to make their presence felt. The native wisteria comes into bloom in mid-June – not as splashy or fragrant as its Asian counterparts, it blooms after leafing out. I appreciate the timing as there’s something so lovely about the green and purple display scrambling over the pergola. It’s also generally warm enough by this time for al fresco meals – can you imagine a prettier setting? The native wisteria will put out a second flush of blooms later in summer as though rewarding the gardener for taking a chance and giving it a home.

In the meadow, the allium have passed the baton to the native plants. The columbines, geums and zizia kept the alliums company but now, the geranium, woodland anemone and ornamental raspberry are taking over. It’s all less dramatic than the the bulbs but there’s a quiet comfort in observing nature in action in the meadow. The swallowtail and silver spotted skipper butterflies have been dancing madly all over the plants. The bees have gone into high gear – the hum can be loud! I watch numerous birds picking up meals for their young all day long – it must be far more exhausting to be an avian parent than a human one.

I’ve occasionally seen a garden snake in the meadow. While it is harmless, I’m always a bit skittish when Severus slithers along. Still, I wish him well – eat all the rodents please!

Its hugely exciting to see the oakleaf hydrangea covered in emerging inflorescences. Likewise, the turtleheads, cardinal flowers, Echinacea, Monarda, milkweed and other summer bloomers. With them will come more butterflies and activity. This is not only exciting, it’s also gratifying. These are all flora and fauna that belong here. This land belongs to them. I am merely the privileged steward.

Note: I am thrilled to share two things – first, each weekk, the Garden Conservancy is including news from my garden in their In My Garden – a visual diary series. If you are a GC member, it’ll be showing up in your email  in-box each week. If you are not a member, I highly recommend that you remedy that! Until such time, you can see it here.

The other news is that this is the Garden Conservancy’s 25th anniversary of the their Open Days Program. Accompanying their Annual Report, is a companion book #OpenDays25 in which, I am one of the 25 featured gardeners. I am truly honored to be in some very illustrious company! The book is full of wonderful images by the super-talented Christine Ashburn, @christine_ashburn_photography. I hope you will check out her work as well as the book when it comes out very soon this month. I’m presenting my ‘profile’ below.

Allium fireworks!

Silver spotted skippers visiting native wisteria

Geum

Woodland anemone

Ornamental raspberry

Cranesbill geranium

Intersectional peony whose name eludes me

R.leda

David Austin R. ‘Boscobel’

David Austin R. ‘ Strawberry Hills’

Bonica rose

R. New Dawn

An oakleaf hydrangea in bud

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

 

Masterclass

Growth is a process. Every gardener understands this. Yet, applying that to life outside the garden is not always easy. We know it takes not only time to grow from seed to plant to flower to fruit but there is need of the right conditions – temperature, light, nutrients, pollinators, good health, space. Nothing happens all by itself. A network of ‘helpers’ make growth possible.

When I say that the garden offers me an escape, a place of solace, it isn’t that it becomes somewhere to pretend that all is well. Instead, it is where I go to get away from the noise that drowns out the music. As I go about tending to my plants, I observe, I think, I listen, I learn. The garden is full of lessons and ideas.

Right off, an examination of a garden reveals that diversity is key. Shapes, colors, textures and, fragrances from diverse sources come together to create beauty. Every plant has a part to play. There are no insignificant roles. While some players might have loud/large visibility, they could not shine without the less obvious ones propping them up.

The sweet-peas have put out their first flowers. I’m looking forward to harvest time already! Their delicate tendrils stretching and reaching along the string tell me that we all need support to make progress, reach our goals.

The native wisteria over the pergola is in bloom. It flowers later than its Asian counterparts and the racemes are much shorter. I appreciate the timing because I’m invariably so overwhelmed by May’s full on blast of blooms that I’m not duly appreciative of the individual beauty of each type of flower. Besides, there’s also a lot of garden work to do at that time. The shorter racemes may not be as dramatic as the longer ones but they are still lovely and, they show up twice. So there. Being different is just fine. An asset even.

Watching the birds, butterflies and bees is better than anything on television. That by itself is an astounding feat. However, they make a couple of important points. First, all of life is interdependent. Across species and genus. We need each other.

Second, no matter who or what one is, our goals are universal – survival and providing for family and community. We have more in common than we think.

It’s fundamental. By striving to be my best self, I am able to connect with the world with empathy, understanding and purpose. But, just as I know from gardening, the garden is never done. There is always plenty of work to do. Growth. It’s a process.

David Austin’s R. boscobel

Native wisteria

Brugamansia

Baby robins

Native wisteria

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Justly June

My heart is heavy. The pain, sadness, frustration and anger within feels constant. I’m trying my best to only focus on love and peace. In thoughts, words and action.

This past week, the garden took on even greater importance – it was the only place where I could get totally immersed in the chores, the beauty and horticultural goings on. A productive, satisfying escape. True, as all escapes go, this too doesn’t solve any current problem. It does however, keep me sane, physically active, breathing in fresh air, catching some sunshine and, gives me the satisfaction of getting required work done. I get to process thoughts, relieve pent up frustrations ( yanking out weeds!) and create some order in what feels like a completely chaotic world.

The few days of muggy, warm weather put paid to the tulips. I was sorry to see them go. However, the irises have begun dancing gracefully through the beds. Soon, the baptisia will spray blue spikes to vie with the starry amsonia that seem to have got a bit of a head start. Peonies and roses are just beginning to open and the anticipation to see their frilly fullness is keeping me in a good place.

Regular deadheading, weeding and watering have become the norm for the rest of the growing season. It’s comforting to be in that rhythm. The summer window-boxes are filling out out nicely lending charm and cheer. We’ve been harvesting micro-greens, other leafy vegetables and herbs for our meals – is it just my imagination or does the food taste better when its cooked with homegrown produce?!

The topiaries and boxwood balls got a proper haircut over the weekend. Given the present state of my own hair, they have given me a serious case of jealousy. The next time the plants receive a trimming will be just before they are returned to the greenhouse for the winter. By which time, I too ( hopefully) should be looking well groomed.

I’m loving the progressive greening of the vertical garden. Ferns unfurling their fronds, heuchera getting husky and mosses mapping out the green background. It’s like watching art in progress.

The big task that got done over the weekend was at the far back of the garden. If you recall, it’s an area that borders the west-northwest end of the meadow, right next to the woods. A couple of weeks ago, as much of the ancient pachysandra that could be pulled out was and the stubborn rest smothered with cardboard and landscape fabric. On Sunday, plugs of Chrysogonum virginianum were planted in for groundcover. Their yellow flowers should brighten up this semi-shady area. Dwarf Fothergilla shrubs were added to the existing oakleaf hydrangea and native dogwoods. A couple more oakleafs as well as a few Ceanothos americanus will round out the plantings. This project would never have taken off if it were not for the fact that we are in a state of Pause. There was simply no excuse to put it off. This time next year, when the area is brightened in yellow from the ground and the white Fothergilla flowers are wafting their fragrance, I shall remind myself to be thankful for this time.

I cannot wave a wand and make our present troubles disappear. But, I can certainly do my part in restoring some native beauty to our natural landscape, spread some optimism and possibly, just possibly emerge a stronger, better person myself.

After tackling the pachysandra and before new plantings

Another before

After the plantings. Few more shrubs yet to come!

New groundcover of golden star. The silver maple near by has shed tons of seeds. We’re letting the squirrels have their fill before we clear it all up!

The meadow right now.

Topiaries post haircut.

The vertical garden greening up.

(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

Work In Progress

A week of the big push in the garden. That means getting the last of the big chores going before settling into a rhythm of general maintenance. Weeding started in earnest – a couple of days a week, I go around the whole garden looking for the thugs. That helps me stay on top of them. Deadheading regularly keeps things tidy and checks the promiscuous from self-seeding recklessly, In some cases, it encourages repeat flowering. At present, it’s the spent daffodils that are getting lopped off so the remaining leaves can do their job of fattening up the bulbs for next year. As the early tulips finish up, I deadhead them to keep things neat even though I treat tulips like annuals. I prefer not to disturb the beds by pulling them out all together. Besides, sometimes they do condescend make a comeback.

Veggies and herbs are all planted. As are several perennials. Some annuals like cleomes and cosmos were re-introduced into the garden. My daughter recalled that when she was little, we had a ‘jungle’ of cleomes and sunflowers along the side-path that made it feel exciting and magical. Now that she’s home for the foreseeable future, I thought it might be fun to do it again. We chose a different location but I let her do the planting. Any which way she liked. Sunflowers to be added very soon. It’s always a good thing to bring back happy memories and create new ones.

The garden is now pretty much set for the season. The biggest chore we decided to undertake ( because right now, there is no excuse), was to get the far end of the garden into better shape. This area has had pachysandra as a groundcover for decades. Long before we got here. So, we’re talking a really well established patch. It had given the shrubs in its midst a hard time, encroached into the ‘meadow’ and, smothered out smaller plants. It was time to smother it out in turn.

Back breaking work it was and as much as possible was dug up. Over the now bare areas of soil, we put down layers of paper ( brown paper shopping bags and flattened cardboard boxes saved for the purpose), over-layered by breathable landscaping fabric. This should asphyxiate any remaining pachysandra and other weeds. A native groundcover like goldenstar ( Chyrysogonum virginianum) will take its place. I chose this groundcover because I think its yellow flowers will brighten the dark area and bring attention to the bigger plantings. In the fall, other native shrubs will join the oakleaf hydrangea, American holly and shrub dogwoods and Amelanchier tree already there. I’d do it now but my selections are out of stock everywhere! Not because they are so popular but because nursery stocks are low in general. Darn virus!

The simple, stone bench that sits at the front edge of this area is once again accessible and I plan to keep it that way. From this bench, it is possible to merge oneself with the meadow, observe the goings on of the pollinators, listen to the birds gossip and take a wellness moment to recharge with a healthy session of nature therapy.

Without this period of Pause, I doubt this project would’ve been undertaken. The usual excuses of lack of time would’ve been made instead. Using the current situation to improve the garden has been a blessing.

What lies ahead in the months to come is unknown. The future of practically everything is uncertain. All we have is now – to work on ourselves, our gardens, our homes and our relationships. I don’t want to waste this opportunity.

Note: Last Saturday, May 16 should’ve been our Open Day. The garden truly looked lovely and I was so sorry not to share it with anyone. Here are a few photos:

Project Pachysandra underway! Note the bench.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Rain, Snow, Sunshine And Storm

We saw it all this past week. Bizarre, beautiful and bewildering weather. It was as though we were witness to a highly compressed video of the four seasons. What gives? As if the pandemic was not enough. I did a great deal of worrying all week.

The rain itself was not a problem but then, it got windy. Really windy. Tipped over pots that had never been affected before. With the soil getting so saturated with water, I fretted over seedlings in the vegetable patch getting wobbly and possibly drowning. Thankfully that did not happen but a few new worry lines have shown up on my face.

Then, we had a couple of dry days with strong wind. And sunshine. Well, that completely dried up the soil in no time so we had to water everything. Crazy no?

On one day it was almost perfect. Sunny, pleasant and totally misleading. That night, temperatures plummeted. We were back in winter and scrambled to bring some tender plants back into the greenhouse they’d vacated just last weekend. The smaller pots were all we could shelter. The big ones were too heavy to move in a hurry.

The next day it remained super cold. And poured rain for hours. At night, it snowed. Not much but enough to coat the cars. Thankfully, the snow melted as the sun rose but the temperature was still twenty degrees below normal. Go figure.

Later that same day, we experienced two squalls. Two. Snow gusted and swirled. It got dark. About twenty minutes later, all was calm and bright. The sun shone as though nothing untoward had occurred.

All this took place in a span of six days! On Sunday, we were finally blessed with a beautiful day. The pots of plants taking refuge in the greenhouse found their posts in the garden and we tethered and propped everything that had been pushed around by the wind. Not going to take chances anymore – this could be an ongoing trend in the weather. Who knows.

Making good use of the reprieve in the weather, much weeding was done. It is impressive how hardy weeds can be. Two roses were dug up and relocated. These roses were the offspring of a rose given to me by a friend. It reproduced all by itself i.e. with no help from me. I’m guessing that’s why the friend was giving away that rose rather generously. When I first saw the progeny coming up near the parent, I was delighted. But they grew fast and encroached other plants aggressively. They had to be moved. I’m going to keep a sharp eye on these roses – no more surprise babies.

Speaking of babies, my biggest source of stress during what was a trying week in the garden, was the nest of three robin babies in the wall pot by the front door. I’ve been keeping an eye on them throughout and posting photos here and on my Instagram account (@seedsofdesignllc and @shobhavanchiswar). Watching the parents care for their little ones who are growing fast has been so enjoyable. But with temperatures dropping so low, winds picking up and, snow coming down, I was totally afraid for the safety of the baby robins. Would the parents be able to keep them warm and dry when they themselves were cold? I was consumed with concern.

I expressed a desire to set up a heater in the front porch but that got shot down by the family. Mostly because we do not even have an outdoor heater. However, I didn’t much care for the lecture on how this is nature at work and I cannot go around playing God. Who says?

Of course, I know how Nature operates and the circle of life yada, yada. I worry about my garden plants and critters anyway. They are each in my care after all. But, at this particular time when we know so little about the powerful virus and are trying so hard to stay well and positive, the fact that we actually have very little control is not lost on me. Hence, tending the garden is a way of staying creative, productive, active and optimistic. Any threat to this source of therapy is distressing. All and any support and kindness from the weather-gods would be much appreciated. Is that too much to ask?

As I went about grumbling about such matters yesterday, I was also dealing with the small odd jobs in the garden. In the process, I started to relax. The sheer beauty of the flowers in bloom, the melody of bird song and the energy of life all around was having their unfailing impact on my entire being. I was now paying attention to what the garden was saying to me. The baby birds had pulled through the cold nights, the veggie plot was looking just fine, plants deemed tender had survived nicely – they had all weathered the storm so to speak. Not because of my worrying and stressing but because they applied their deep seated natural instincts. The plants bent and swayed and let the wind flow through, the robin parents instinctively did what they could to keep their young ones warm. They were all doing whatever they were capable of doing. Sure there was no guarantee of survival but each living thing was using its inherent capacities to that end. We rise above and despite the fear. That is all we can do.

Apple blossom

wall garden waking up

Alliums getting ready …

White forget-me-nots have joined the blue!

Bleeding hearts

In the ‘meadow’

Robin babies

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

May Flowering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy, healthy May one and all.

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

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

Pear blossoms

Tulipa ‘Cool Crystal’

Meadow

Tomatoes in the greenhouse

Rooting cuttings

Vegetable bed

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Slow Gardening

These uncommon days have brought me to a rediscovering of the pleasures of fundamental garden work. As I mentioned last week, I, along with so many across the country (world maybe?), are getting back to basics. Seed sowing, root cuttings, composting, growing vegetables etc., It isn’t that I stopped doing any of that but now, I’m once again taking the right amount of time to do those tasks with attention, appreciation and anticipation.

Over the past dozen years or so, I’d gotten into the habit of accomplishing the tasks with a sense of urgency. Admittedly, there was the pressure of getting the garden ready for Open Day by mid-May but, that was only part of the story. So many other commitments and projects had been taken on that I was spreading myself too thin. This year, under unforeseen circumstances, I find myself doing exactly the same chores but with a renewed energy and spirit of purpose. Once more, I’m having fun sowing seeds, eagerly checking daily to see if they’ve sprouted even though I know the typical amount of days it takes to germinate.

This past weekend, the pea shoots were transplanted to the potager. I had not sown peas in years because I really felt I hadn’t the real estate to set up a trellis for them. And I didn’t want to spend the time to do so. Well, all of a sudden, I knew exactly where to plant the seedlings. Along the edge of a potager bed that borders the pergola, seven pea plants were planted. To guide them in their climb, strings were strung from the top of the pergola down to each baby seedling. Like a 7 fretted instrument, it waits for the plants to start ‘plucking’ the strings and create sweet music. As the peas grow, they will provide some welcome shade at lunchtime gatherings at the pergola. By the time the whole potager is in full growth and the wisteria ( native variety so it blooms later) on the structure is fully leafed out, the peas will be done and that ‘window’ will once again be opened up to enjoy the view of the potager. Why didn’t this idea occur to me before? Because I hadn’t paused long enough to let the garden reveal the solution to me.

I’ve also started a project of growing micro-greens. It began with a large shallow pot of peas whose shoots add a seasonal something to salads and the occasional egg salad sandwich. As soon as I obtain the seeds, broccoli shoots are going to join this project. Since the lockdown is about staying healthy, micro-greens are a good thing to bring to the dining table – they are chock full of nutrients and very easy to grow. A nice rhythm of succession planting is the plan.

I didn’t get to start the root cuttings as intended last week. Between bad weather and other garden work, that got postponed – to hopefully sometime later this week. Instead, I divided some tiarella to make several new additions to the vertical garden. Herbs got re-potted and put up on the herb ‘wall’ in the potager. Nasturtium seeds started in the greenhouse were ready for transplant – they are now underplanted in the large pots that hold the bay standards. The citrus hued flowers should look lovely spilling over the pots.

I find myself short on pots – another reason I did not do the propagation from cuttings task. By setting up all those pots with daffodils and pansies to cheer up passers-by, there aren’t enough pots for much else! The current stay-home situation has forced me to reconsider the number of trips I make to any place. One makes do with what is at hand. Or do without all together. This week, I shall make one precious foray to my local nursery. Cannot wait!

Gardening these days is so mindful and sensory. I’m taking the time to smell the earth and how it feels in my hands as I dig and plant. The aroma of geosmine that we associate with spring is so life affirming.

As I carefully wash the soil off the roots of plants for the vertical garden, I marvel at the exquisite pale roots and how strong they are despite their delicate appearance. Nature is genius.

A regular distraction is following the goings on of the avian real estate market. One afternoon, we watched a turf battle between cat birds and crows, another time, we observed a pair of cardinals touring the garden checking out suitable sites for building a home. I really hope my garden came through – as such rejections are taken very personally. The hummingbird feeder is up but I think it is still a bit too chilly for those tiny friends. The robins that built a nest in the pot on the wall by the front door, get all irate when we step out or linger on the porch. So we are limiting our passage through that door and my time on the porch is restricted to watering the various pots there. At which point, I take advantage to quickly check the status of the eggs.

These days, I’m not nearly as efficient each time I work in the garden. Diversions not withstanding, the tasks are nevertheless getting accomplished. The garden is coming along just fine. And I’m so much more relaxed and fulfilled. As we know, slow and steady … I’m re-learning. This time around, I’m a better, more mature student. I think.

Note: Mother’s Day is less than two weeks away. For lovely gift selections – take a look at botanical notecards and soft furnishings for the home. All images are from my original watercolors. Original artwork is also available at Gallery. All profits go to support HIV/AIDS orphan girls’ education. Your support means everything to this cause. Thank you!

The herb ‘wall’. Soon, the A/C unit behind will be hidden by the growing plants.

The plant waste headed for the compost pile looks like abstract art

Note the strings!

Another view of the pea trellis

Note the pea shoots planted at the base .

The ‘meadow’ getting set to burst into a floral chorus

Leucojum

Two-toned muscari

Snakeshead fritillaria in a sea of forget-me-nots

Two types of fritillaria

See the robin keeping watch from the nest behind the pansies?

Pea shoot micro-greens

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar