My Big Little Garden

A few days ago, I watched the The Big Little Farm – ‘an award-winning documentary about bringing a farm back to life after years of neglect. New farmers, the Chester family, work with nature – not against it – to create a living system with biodiversity where each plant, animal and insect contributes to the health of the land’. I encourage everyone to watch it. It is inspiring, informative, life-affirming and heartwarming.

The basic principles applied in the film are easily implemented in our gardens both public and private. It is how we humans should be cultivating the land. In harmony with nature, maintaining that balance that is so fragile and yet so critical.

The day after I saw the Big Little Farm, I sat a while outside thinking about the film. I could drew a parallel with the evolution of my own garden. When we first bought our property, it was a completely neglected piece of land. The house, built in 1915 was sound and solid. It needed updating but nothing drastic. The garden however, was a total shamble. Left on its own for a few years, it had lost the the battle with the woods in the back which had started encroaching well into the property. We had to measure exactly where the property line was and then started removing all manner of invasive vegetation and debris.

To the side of the property, weeds had quite literally become trees. You couldn’t walk there let alone examine that side of the house. Just out of grad school, we were so naive that we bought the house without really knowing what condition this part was in. After we closed on the house, we had to hire a tree service to remove the “weeds” and open up the space to create a proper path connecting front to back. Mercifully, that side of the house was intact.

In front, there were sickly evergreens right up against the house. They’d grown so tall and gangly that you couldn’t quite see the house. Imagine how dark it felt inside.

Separating us from our neighbors on either side were jungle-like hedges and raggedy shrubs totally gone out of control. In general, we’d inherited a complete mess.

Slowly, we cleared and cut, waited and watched, planned and prepared. I realized I could create garden ‘rooms’ with the different levels that were naturally presented. One squarish area sat atop the old septic tank. This meant that beneath a foot and a half to two feet of soil, was a thick layer of concrete. Nothing with deep roots would do well here. I made it the potager where herbs and vegetables could grow. (The neighbor’s cedar tree was much shorter at that time – it is now huge and casts more shade than I’d like). The fact that I’ve added native wisteria and espaliered pears on two sides of this space is typical of how I’m always pushing the limits.

After the clearing and opening up happened in the front, a charming garden was envisioned. I believe I succeeded and the beds are a happy mix of bulbs and mostly native perennials that have something in bloom through three seasons. It starts off in spring looking colorful and orderly, then gradually gets looser and assertive in the summer and by the fall, it looks rather wild and rambunctious. I like it that way. As do the bees and butterflies.

The meadow in the back was my big push to eliminate all lawn and create a lush area of native plants where native wildlife could thrive and result in an ecosystem that was in balance. This is the most ambitious project in the garden. It’s still evolving but, it is certainly already the busiest area! Birds, bees, butterflies, worms, toads, garden variety snakes and a whole slew of other insects thrive here.

Right from the start, we knew we wanted to practice organic methods and began composting kitchen and garden waste. We also set up a rain barrel to water the garden. We eschewed gas powered mowers and found ourselves a manual push-reel mower that had been put out at the curb for garbage pick-up. This was in the early 1990’s. We knew nobody who was composting or using rain barrels. Gas was cheap and non-organic products were prolific. We were bucking the trend and labeled quaint or hippie-ish. This was amusing to me – I have a strong background in Microbiology and molecular biology. All I’d been doing was applying that knowledge to restore the health of the soil and ecosystem of the land. Straightforward science.

Through old-fashioned research ( pre-Google) and much trial and error, the garden is now a place of biodiversity, beauty and balance. It is a very hardworking garden and tries to serve all life forms well. As small as it is, this garden works big. I’m constantly learning and growing with it. Perhaps most significantly, it stands testament to what each of us blessed with a bit of land (or pots) can do to become a contributing part of the larger effort to keep our planet and ourselves healthy, happy and in harmony.

Note: A bit of what’s doing in the garden this week –

Some images from how the garden used to be. I wish I’d known to take more photos of the ‘Before’.

The potager/herb garden is ready for planting!

A bit of the mess on the side-path taken from indoors.

The original front garden!

Ripping up turf and compacted soil over the old septic tank

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Escape Roots

Less than two weeks into 2021 and it already feels old! If there wasn’t enough going on already, we now have even more happening to consume our attention and raise our worries. I don’t know about you but, I am focusing on mini-escapes. Books are a great way to get away from it all but I’m finding it hard to concentrate at present. It’s easy enough to divert my mind with a movie or television show but once its over, reality sets in and I’m invariably left with a feeling of having used my time inadequately. I’ve learned that screen time serves me best as a reward after I’ve been creative and productive.

While I cannot actually work in the winter garden, I take comfort in doing the things in preparation, planning and plotting that perfect garden. It’s activity filled with hope and positivity. Perusing seed and plant catalogs that arrive in the mail send me dreaming of all sorts gardens. Plantings for seaside homes, tropical terraces, alpine aeries keep me entertained for a good while at the end of which, I’m more informed about the possibilities in those climes.

Similarly, I find good information and inspiration in garden magazines. The periodicals from across the pond have me salivating. Particularly since their winters are milder and they’re already starting seeds, have early bulbs and hellebores blooming. I look outside and nothing is happening in my neck of the woods. But, for an hour or so, I’ve been to the UK and basked in the gardens depicted on the pages. That’s a lovely escape that gets my creative juices going.

Painting is always a lovely form of taking my mind from everything. And I do so as often as I can. The focus it requires pushes back the worries that tend to bubble up so easily these days. And I’m always happy to have something new and tangible after the effort. Each painting marks growth in the artist.

I’ve taken to adding a slow tour of my garden at the end of my daily neighborhood walks. It calms me with its familiarity. While I know it so well, new ideas or plants permit me to envision it differently. Sort of like trying to visualize your child at different stages in the future. Endless hopeful possibilities.

After such jaunts, I’m energized to come indoors and tackle what needs doing.

Stirred by all the seed catalogs and reportings from English gardens, I’ve decided to order some sweet peas. I absolutely adore the flowers – delicate, softly hued and sweetly fragrant, they entrance and beguile. The climate where I live is not ideal for this plant. All prior attempts have shown they are rather short lived and disappointing. Still, I’m going try again.

This time, I’m going to give them a head start by starting them indoors in mid-February. Sweet-peas have long root structures and do best when they are given the space to put out strong, long roots straight down. Standard seed starting trays are not appropriate. One needs to use either commercially sold root-trainers or the cardboard cylinders from toilet paper rolls – Ann Marie Powell in England (@myrealgarden) has convinced me that sweet peas do considerably better ( she says ‘fierce’) this way. I’ve elected to use the latter as collecting the rolls is easy and promotes sustainability. Stay tuned – I’ll report back in due time. For now, I’m happily fantasizing numerous posies scattered around the house in May/June.

Time in the greenhouse is hands down the most immediate getaway of all. In mere minutes of seeing and inhaling the greenery I’m calmer and breathing evenly. It’s always spring here. Puttering around snipping, primping the plants is hugely gratifying. I’m deeply grateful for my tiny, transparent sanctuary. I know what a privilege it is.

The bounty from the lemon trees has kept me busy – I’ve been focused on harnessing all the lemony goodness in as many ways as possible. Sour lemon pickle – tweaking an old family recipe, a jar sits on a sill where, over the course of a few weeks sunlight will work its magic to create something that’ll perk up any dish.

Limoncello, lemon marmalade, lemon curd are other products. And I’m also freezing some of the juice in ice cube trays for vinaigrette and cocktails. Every one of these will provide a chance to simply enjoy the flavors of captured sunshine. A respite from whatever else is going on.

Escapes can range from just a few minutes to several days. Its important that we do so – to maintain our equilibrium and reset as required.

Right now, join me for a quick recess. Sitting right where you are, close your eyes. Bring your attention to your breath. Inhale deeply. Exhale deeply. Do it again. Again. Once more. Notice how your body starts to relax. Keep breathing with intent. Open your eyes. There. Doesn’t that feel good?

Packages of sunshine!

Sour lemon pickle (as opposed to sweet pickle)

Most recent watercolor of seed heads

Vanilla bean infused Meyer lemon marmalade

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

No Challenge, No Change

The final days of a year give pause to reflect and reassess on how we did, what we’ve experienced and learned. The new year is full of expectations and anticipation. We hope it will be the best year yet.

2020 has been a most challenging year. I doubt if there is even a single person who was not had to face some kind of test in the past ten months. At best, it’s been a struggle for most of us. Devastating for many. 2020 has not been easy.

We have had to adjust, change and rethink so much. How we work, live, shop, communicate, entertain and connect to others and the environment. But, we’ve done it – we humans are resilient. We grow from our problems. We adapt.

I’m giving plenty of thought to how I’ve handled 2020. Undoubtedly, my garden got me through. Like everyone else, I’ve dealt with fears, anxiety, confusion, loss, disappointments and setbacks. Through it all, the garden kept me engaged and busy. I was consoled by it’s beauty, comforted by its bounty, kept productive by the many tasks. Somehow, even easy, uncomplicated tasks like watering the plants, managed to calm the mind and lift the spirit.

So much joy was experienced in the garden. Birthdays, graduation, new jobs, small gatherings were celebrated in the midst of flora and fauna. I found time to do the varied chores with attention and appreciation. Equally, there were plenty of opportunities to sit back and enjoy the artistry of the plants. Beguiled by the antics of the numerous birds and butterflies, my resolve to ensure their continued residency in my garden was reaffirmed over and over.

What I’ve learned is that I need to slow down so I can immerse myself in what truly fulfills me. Short changing the garden by giving the tasks limited time or a rushed effort results in shortchanging my own joy and well-being. Devoting a good amount of time taking care of chores, listening to the birds chatter as they go about their own business, inhaling the perfumes of flowers and aromatics, reveling in the beauty of the plants, watching the bees and butterflies making their rounds has kept me in a state of equilibrium at a time when the world seemed to be torn asunder.

As if to reward my attention, the garden was brilliant all through the seasons. It filled cup repeatedly. And I couldn’t get enough. My only regret is that I was unable to share it with everyone. After all, gardens should be shared and lived in.

Reviewing the year, I understand that the garden recognized where I was coming from and comforted me accordingly. It gently revealed to me that I’d been stretching myself too thin, got involved with too many things and how far I’d moved away from my true north. Not any more.

While a good amount of the global challenges from 2020 will carry over into 2021, I feel better about the coping skills I’ve acquired from under the tutelage of the garden. I now have a clearer , cleaner vision for myself. Simplify, streamline and then full steam ahead. In the garden and in life.

From the bottom of my heart I send each of you the warmest of wishes – health, hope and happiness for the New Year. May 2021 bring peace, joy, love and laughter to all.

Note: Looking backwards –

December

November

October

October

September

August

August

August

July

June

May

May

May

April

March

February

January

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Giving Thanks

For a year replete with so much dissidence and despair, I find myself overcome with gratitude as never before. With Thanksgiving two days away, it is not the meal that is uppermost on my mind but the simple fact that I’m present and accounted for. Everything that has brought me through the months up to this point has my deep, sincere thanks. Every single thing.

Ups and downs, good and bad, sad and happy, birth and death have all been experienced. What a year! As I look back, it’s painful to recall some events but, there have been celebrations as well. If anything, 2020 has exposed the raw reality of life. Nothing glossed over. All the trimmings of how we live have been stripped away to reveal exactly who we are. And that I see is the gift.

The’ pause’ button was pressed and a ‘reset’ was initiated. A new way of living was begun.

To arrive at this realization, I give full credit to the garden. I rediscovered my joy of gardening and paying attention to the lessons it teaches. With so many other plans and projects canceled or postponed, I had no need to rush to be elsewhere. I approached each garden task with the unfettered willingness to do it properly. I even had the luxury of time to take satisfaction in completing each achievement and fully appreciate every chore the garden provided. What I did in all other aspects of my life paralleled what I did in the garden.

As I pruned and cut back wayward branches, I reduced the personal to-do list to only what was essential. Nurturing the plants with a layer of rich, homemade compost directed me to make delicious yet healthy new meals for the family. I took the time to pay mind to the process of creating them. Vegetables, flowers and fruits from the garden were no longer assumed as given; they were admired and prized. I started appreciating my own near and dear ones anew instead of taking them for granted.

Finishing a big task in the garden invariably caused my body to express itself by way of aches and soreness. Rather than complain about the demands of the garden, I noticed how much more energy I had, how my strength had improved and how my mood was uplifted. I took to valuing my physical self instead of grumbling about its decline with each passing year.

In spending more time in the garden, I became acutely aware of the wildlife that enjoyed it with me. Stopping to watch a pair of wrens checking the bird house or a robin foraging for worms to feed its babies, had me breathing deeply and relaxing my muscles. I chuckled at the butterflies and bees vying for a drink from the same flowers. Noting a toad hopping around and then staying completely still once it felt my presence made me stand still as well. A few minutes observing its markings and cuteness instantly put me in a good frame of mind.

I spent many hours watching the birds – right here in my own garden, there are so many different kinds. Over the years, I’d forgotten how pleasurable it is to be in their company. Chipmunks flourished this year – while I was not elated about their presence, I couldn’t help being amused by their antics. A live and let live policy seemed to be good for us all.

All sorts of problems and conundrums got resolved when I weeded and watered. Lines for new poems came to me, I found the correct approach to responding to difficult emails, ideas for gifts or celebrations, resolutions to conflicts, working through worries were some of the personal benefits from these chores. I mourned, adjusted to new circumstances, celebrated, commiserated, vented and worked out dilemmas in the garden. A lot of joy, fears, sorrow, tears, laughter and anger have found expression in this beautiful space.

To garden is to live in hope. That tomorrow will come and it will be bountiful. This, I believe with all my heart.

The more time I had, the more I spent it in simply appreciating the garden. After all the years of being too overwhelmed, I was finally ready to paint my garden. Not simply individual flowers but actual parts of the garden. It was as though I had been liberated. Nay, I had liberated myself. The garden had, very quietly and gently, coaxed me to shed my doubts and uncertainties. I was free to create as I pleased and exactly how I saw it.

I’ve so enjoyed the day by day changes in the garden. I’ve learned as much about myself this year as I have about my garden. It’s an intimate relationship. Together we have grown to be more authentic, articulate and expressive. For which, my gratitude knows no bounds.

I sincerely wish each of you a safe, healthy, meaningful Thanksgiving. It might look and feel different this year but celebrate it we must. Gratitude begets happiness.

Note: Here is a collection of my garden paintings since the pandemic started. I will share the ones done in the autumn (and potentially this winter) another time.

Daffodils

The Light By The Woods

The Embrace

F meleagris

Tree peony

Remembering Spring

The phlox garden

Vertical Garden 1

Vertical Garden 2

A Peek Into The Potager

The Side Path

Nasturtium

Beauty In Passing. Hydrangea

Summer Collapsing Into fall

Amaryllis Social Distancing

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

September To Remember

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sphere at night – I love it!

Chelones and Heleniums in the meadow

An over view of a part of the meadow

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

Hummingbird at rest

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Creature Comforts

There’s no doubt that I’ve been able to manage my concerns during this pandemic, economic crisis and national unrest because of the garden. Every single one of us has been impacted – some far more than others. How we cope has also been a matter of individual circumstances. To find myself with a garden to tend and enjoy has been nothing short of a blessing. A huge blessing.

Spending time in nature is now a scientifically established prescription for ones wellness and wellbeing. To nurture a garden has the added bonus of taking oneself out of ones own headspace to focus on doing, creating and making something beautiful and healthy. That therapy is priceless.

In having the luxury to spend more time than usual in the garden, I’ve reconnected with it in ways that I’d forgotten. In the early years, everything was new and exciting. I was creating a garden from scratch. The learning itself was exhilarating. As my vision was being realized, my other responsibilities and commitments increased. My leisure time in the garden dropped significantly. The chores got done but it became more about efficiency and completion rather than mindfulness and enjoying the process.

With the mandated ‘pause’, I have once again regained the joy and curiosity that gardening permits. Going forward, I’m determined to keep to a schedule that always provides for more hours in the garden than anywhere else. I’m so much better off that way.

One of the most rewarding benefits of hanging out in the garden is observing the other creatures also hanging out with me. The dance of yellow swallowtail butterflies floating gracefully over the meadow before they alight on their respectively chosen flowers. How quickly the butterfly moves away if a bee or wasp gets close.

There is a pair of ruby throated hummingbirds that frequent the feeder at the potager. If I sit in a particular spot under the pergola, I get a very good view of them sipping. The female makes more visits than the male. I find it even more gratifying when I notice them at the flowers in the garden. That’s why I planted them after all.

Something I haven’t yet been able to fathom is the remarkable attraction the agapanthus has for all the different pollinators. More than the lovely native plants in bloom, the pot with the agapanthus bearing large inflorescences of pretty blue flowers is, at any given time humming with bees, butterflies and hummingbird. I wonder if it is the color that has such a draw. At present, it is the only blue amidst a sea of white, pink, yellow, red and orange. Are cool colors preferred? Definitely needs further investigation.

There has been an overall paucity of butterflies this year. I hope this is due to a cyclical process and not a red flag being raised. Fingers crossed.

With this concern in mind, coming upon a mating pair of Monarch butterflies last week made me delirious with joy. I’m really eager to see their caterpillars maraud the milkweed planted just for them.

Thus far, I’ve come across two garden snakes. An urgent, telepathic request for them to have their fill of all the rodent types scurrying around and causing damage above and underground has been sent. Not sure what can be done with the surplus in chipmunks though. They have taken to behaving as if they rule the place. I simply cannot allow that and yet, I don’t know how to stop them. No nasty chemicals permitted of course. Occasionally, there is a neighbor’s cat that prowls through – I sincerely hope it is paying its passage by culling the mice.

The variety of birds that I spy on a daily basis marks my hours as well spent. This past spring, there have been three nests of robins successfully raised. I’ve also noticed fledglings of cardinals, wrens and blue jays. I know there are gold finches, downy and red bellied woodpeckers residing in the trees because I see them foraging freely in the meadow. A red tailed hawk lives somewhere in the area and paid us a visit earlier in the spring. That was an unusual yet remarkable sight.

To share the garden with them and other creatures is this gardener’s wish come true. Because, for all the effort and time I put into it, nothing would work out if not for their part in it. Though, I could do without their gifts of seeds from other parts – a certain porcelain berry trying to invade the meadow comes to mind. Birds will be birds notwithstanding.

Witnessing these natural interactions reminds me of how all living things are closely connected and responsible for maintaining the health of the environment. Their well-being is my well-being. Life is all about balance.

Black swallowtail

Mating Monarchs

Pollination in action

Hummingbird at the agapanthus

Hummingbird at feeder

Yellow swallowtail

Bee on the milkweed

Cardinal fledgling

Feeding time at the Wrens’

Robin eggs

Feeding time at the Robins’

Red Tail hawk visit

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Masked And Muzzled?

The garden looks and feels different these days. Mostly because I’m spending more time in it than I ever have. It’s a privilege to be privy to all the routine goings on in the garden. It feels more intimate.

My garden has always been an extension of our home. Apart from the actual time spent gardening, it is where we enjoy gathering for meals with or without friends, spend time reading in a shady corner or take a snooze. When my daughter was little, she’d play in the garden endlessly and nap in a hammock while I went about my weeding and planting chores.

But, these months, the garden has taken on a greater importance. It’s the go to place. For everything. Starting in the spring when lockdown was mandated, the only way to get some sense of normalcy was in the garden. Sunlight, fresh air, new growth – all life affirming and reassuring. To me, it was as though the world was telling me that it was going to be all right. When the news was scary and we were all getting anxious about the unfamiliar, formidable virus, stepping out in the garden and communing with nature was the sanity-keeping elixir.

Very quickly we each found ourselves in the garden for all sorts of things. My daughter finished up college from home. She attended her Zoom classes in the garden. My husband made the tree house his office. Phone calls were taken as he walked around the garden. I too brought my work out to the terrace – writing, planning, designing, painting. We Zoomed, FaceTimed and Skyped with family in far flung places and friends living much closer. We shared our garden with many. Virtually.

All along, we enthusiastically did all the necessary seasonal tasks required and savored the opportunity to watch it gradually grow and transform itself into a beautiful sanctuary. Our shelter from the stormy world.

Right now, as one looks around my garden, you get the feeling the garden itself is in compliance of the New York State mask mandate. The grapes, apples and most of the pears have been covered in bags. To protect them from pests and critters.

This year, I decided to try something I’d been wanting to do for years – growing pears in bottles. Of the original four bottles, two are doing well. I’m hoping the current heatwave does not harm them. The two other pears broke off from their stalk very early. It’s a simple project but it’s a thrill watching the fruit grow in their glass ‘muzzles’. I can totally envision the bottles in October –sitting pretty with a full pear. Ready to be filled up with pear brandy. For those cold winter nights up ahead.

These days, the garden is where we can meet our friends – safely and comfortably. We share meals and drinks at a distance. Play games. Easter, birthdays and a graduation were duly celebrated in the garden. Very small parties but party nevertheless. Quality over quantity.

We meet our visitors masked and distanced. But we meet – that means everything to us.

And speaking of celebrations, absolutely every good thing, big or small, is honored. The first sighting of a Monarch butterfly, the first fig or tomato of the season, a clean bill of health for a friend who has emerged safely from chemotherapy, the success of growing topiaries from root cuttings, a positive review of a poem or a sale of a painting, spying hummingbirds feasting at the cardinal flowers in the meadow, a handwritten note from a long ago friend, fresh flowers from the garden.The list is endless!

We’ve all come to know how fragile the world we’d come to take for granted truly is. Never again. The pandemic unmasked our hubris. Now, humbled and openly vulnerable, we relearn how to care. For ourselves, each other and our planet. In time, the physical masks we must now wear will come off but until then, they’re a small price to pay for our well-being.

Note: Sprucing up your home? Need gifts for brides/ newlyweds, housewarmings, hosts, birthdays? Do check out The Printed Garden collections. You will be supporting the ACLU at the same time!

Bagged grapes

Bagged pear

Coming along!

Photo shoot of the Collection 2 of The Printed Garden

Haircut in the garden

Graduation parade

Cheers!

Nephew helps with allium project

Setting up for a music video

Keeping masks on the ready!

Masked and distanced audience

Concert in the garden

Painting in the garden

Zoom class in progress

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

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

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

Back To Basics

Time spent in the garden has never felt more correct than right now. It is where I feel alive, useful and comforted. It is where I instinctively want to be. I’m relishing the gift of time to work in it unfettered by busy agendas and outside commitments. More than anything, I’m deeply grateful for having a garden in the first place.

As a big city girl, it was a dream come true to have a place to garden – that was 28 years ago. All too quickly, the garden became such an integral part of my life that I just took it for granted. These days, I’m acutely aware of what a privilege it is to have a piece of land to call ones own. With everyone doing their part in staying home, the inherent human need to connect to nature is not always possible for many. With several parks and public gardens closed due to the current crisis, those that are still open are getting unprecedented numbers of visitors. I worry that they too might have to be shut down if folks don’t observe distancing rules.

I’m enjoying walks whenever possible. Good weather and fewer crowds determine those opportunities. But, I always have the garden to provide immediate and consistent relief. That is a blessing I don’t think I’ll take for granted ever again.

It is not surprising that people have instinctively sought the outdoors – we are part of the natural world after all. The healing, soothing, uplifting effect of time spent in nature is both anecdotal and empirical. Even more interesting at present, is how we are rediscovering fundamental practices that we had somewhat forgotten or moved away from.

One of the first items to fly off grocery store shelves was flour and active dry yeast. All of a sudden, America is baking bread at home. Even now, more than a month after we all began staying home, flour is not easy to come by. Apparently, we Americans are actually enjoying baking our bread. Interesting no? Something that demands time and effort was one of the first items we sought to make. We see bread as a staple, a basic food. The same with pasta – more people are making their own but not quite at the same level as bread. I personally find it amusing that cooking rice is daunting to many. Something so ridiculously easy is viewed with trepidation. Yet, here we are. Mind you, I think it is terrific that homemade bread is on the rise; I’m just puzzled that it is one of the first things to be undertaken. There is no actual bread shortage in the country.

Simultaneously, everyone is into vegetable gardening, Apartment dwellers are growing tomatoes, herbs and such in pots and under gro-lights/ on balconies. Those with some property are making vegetable plots or potting up a range of vegetable plants. People are starting from scratch – seed sales have risen so dramatically that some seed companies have had to start directing their seeds to only commercial growers.

From what I’ve heard, for the most part, seeds are being sown not in fancy seed starter kits but in old tin cans, the cardboard cylinders from paper rolls, newspaper molded into pots etc., Sustainability! These are very good developments. Healthy for humans and the planet.

I have a feeling we are each growing the vegetables that hark back to our ethnic roots or childhood cuisine. We are seeking comfort in the familiar. Trying to relive fond memories of (perhaps) less complicated times.

I myself, have seeds sprouting in my tiny greenhouse and no matter how many years one has sowed seeds, the thrill of seeing new growth never gets old. I’m also getting ready to take cuttings to root them on to get more plants. Geraniums, rosemary, heuchera, bay, myrtle to mention a few. I might even give boxwood a try.

Yes, it is back to basics these days. Sowing seeds, growing ones own food, rooting cuttings, making fertilizer such as comfrey tea ( I hear rhubarb leaves work just as well) and composting are seeing an epic revival all across the country, In advance of harvest time, I’ve already corralled all the necessities for canning – jams, sauces, pickles, chutneys and pestos to stock the larder. Secateurs and the blade of the manual, push reel mower have been sharpened. Stakes, twine and trowel sit ready.

Homesteading is back in style.

Note: My garden is still primarily a flower garden so, while I’m going about dealing with the veggies and herbs for the year, I’m thoroughly enjoying the early bulbs bursting forth on a daily basis. Seeing the new growth of perennials is always exciting and reassuring. I also have a couple of fun projects I’m working on – more on those when I develop them further along. Stay tuned!

In the garden this week:

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar