Good Gourd!

Apologies! I’m a week late in posting this article that’s a follow up to my last article – got struck down with an unknown bug that put me out of action all of last week.

Allow me to introduce you to a jewel of a garden in Brooklyn, New York. Both Mei and Ying grew up in the rural southern province of Guangdong in China where their families cultivated the land for rice and vegetables for the market. Food to feed the family was also grown. Life was not easy and there were many to feed. They were put to work as soon as they were old enough.

Coming to the USA as a young couple, they knew all about hard work and as soon as they got a home with a backyard, they set about creating a vegetable garden to feed themselves and their two daughters. Vegetables innate to their culture and cuisine.

With no thought to doing anything extraordinary, applying methods they grew up with, Mei and Ying have created a stunning little garden. It burgeons with all manner of gourds and squashes, scallions, garlic and other vegetables. The main planting area is a raised bed about 16 feet in length, 8 feet in width and 30 inches in height. Gourds and squashes clamber and twine upwards on vertical supports to form a lovely verdant canopy over the whole space which I’m guessing is about 25ft x 18ft. The fruit hang fabulously pendulous. Standing beneath felt almost sacred.

Seeds are saved and/or exchanged with other Chinese families in the neighborhood. Occasionally, seedlings are purchased in Brooklyn Chinatown. Gourds seeds are started indoors and transplanted when consistent warmer temperatures prevail. Usually mid-April into May. Scallions and garlic are planted earlier as they can take cooler temperatures. Garlic cloves are planted directly in pots.

As we all know, old lessons learned from the old country are currently trending but Mei and Ying are only doing what they’ve always done – using compost, collecting rain water, applying organic products like Neem for pest control. Slugs are aplenty so they often wait for dusk and then, using a flashlight, they pick off the offenders. Birds that like to nibble on the young plants are thwarted by their pet cats. You see, ‘old-fashioned’!

I was struck by the similarity in the traditional practices in India and all across the globe. We are all more alike than we can imagine. Certainly, meeting Mei and Ying felt natural. Our backgrounds are worlds apart and yet, our values are the same. We’re also similar in age and share a passion in gardening. Gardens bring people together!

P.S. A big thank you to Mei and Ying’s daughter Jessica for making this wonderful visit happen!

Note:The images you see below were taken in the fall at the tail end of the growing season. It was already cold but their garden still looked impressive. With any luck, I’ll get to see the garden again this summer. Fingers crossed!

Ying and Mei

Rain barrels

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar


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          Doing December

          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/or 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. Enjoy paperwhites, amaryllis bulbs indoors.

          9. Make use of this down time and relax!

          The list above is my general to-do of garden related tasks for December. This year however, planting of bulbs and sowing poppy seeds got delayed due to unusually mild days in November. I hope everyone has also completed all necessary planting and sowing by now.

          While #9 says to relax, I’m actually in the thick of reorganizing various areas/rooms of the house. It requires working systematically and getting the cooperation and compliance of the family. The latter is harder to achieve than the former. The ones who are chiefly responsible for creating disorder are also the ones who cannot see the need to do any organizing. Oh brother!

          And then there’s the matter of the Holidays. Whether its going to be low-key, over the top or anywhere in-between, there’s still a call for doing something. I believe we must celebrate in some manner. As the year draws to a conclusion, its a blessing to gather with family and friends – remember how it felt in 2020 when we were unable to do that? The decorations with natural materials like evergreens, dried flowers, pine cones, acorns, other seed heads, moss, branches and such keeps us connected to Nature and the paperwhites and amaryllis flowering indoors remind us of the promise of spring. How cheering it is to have candles, twinkly lights and fireplaces aglow – warming and brightening our homes and hearts.

          This is a time for gratitude and grace. As a firm believer in celebrating everything big or small, doesn’t the fact that we’ve together completed yet another circuit around the sun surely deserves to be honored.

          I have indeed completed that aforementioned list so, relax I shall. With a sense of joy and place. Well ensconced amidst the happy chaos of celebrating.. The spirit of the Season prevails.

          (c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar


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                  Homestretch

                  So, Thanksgiving has come and gone. The Holiday Season has begun. What that means is up for grabs. My guess is that for most of us it is a combination of decorating, shopping, cooking, year end/Holiday events, It can feel frenzied. With family expected by the middle of December, I too am grappling with my to-do list. I’d like to get plenty done before their arrival so we’re able to make the very most of our time together. It’s been three and a half years since we last got together – so this feels particularly emotional and exciting.

                  But first, there’s much to do. Getting the house ready for our first house guests since the end of 2019 and Work From Home having changed the general configuration of how we now function means some creative thinking is in order. It seems as though every room must be reconsidered for purpose and aesthetics. I’m feeling excited and yet daunted by the challenge.

                  There’s shopping, baking, cooking and decorating too. I really want to get most things done before the guests arrive. And everything will indeed get done IF I stay on course with my agenda. At first, that aforementioned agenda started out looking really packed. But after some good deep breaths and common sense prevailing, I’ve simplified it. That’s the key – keep it simple. And authentic.

                  Simple, yet hearty meals cooked and frozen. Stews, soups, baked eggplant Parmigiana, lasagnas are ideal. Add a fresh, green salad, good bread, fine wine and dinner is served. I also love cheese boards, fresh fruits, crudites with a variety of creative and healthy dips ( homemade and/or store bought), an assortments of nuts, finger foods ( again homemade or store bought) in lieu of traditional meals. It’s about enjoying the company not about trying to impress anyone.

                  I find cleaning and organizing very cathartic. And typically, I do a big sort out in every room twice a year. Early spring and early winter. Hence, at this time, it’s all about getting cozy and comfortable. After a thorough cleaning, extra throws and blankets are brought out, the fireplace is made ready for use all winter, reading material and good lighting easily accessed, ditto for board games and puzzles, all the makings for enjoying the season. Candles and the paperwhites and amaryllis bulbs I’ve got going keep the home looking and smelling festive. Dried hydrangea spray painted gold adorn the mantel. In other places the hydrangea are left in their natural state of faded beauty. Pine cones, acorns and seed pods, leaves still clinging to branches, sprigs of evergreens and other treasures found around the garden adorn the house. I find it enormously comforting to bring the natural world in – they remind me of our divine connection to Nature and the part we play in the grand scheme. It humbling too.

                  As we enter the final month of the year, I think about the seasons gone by – the highlights and low-lights. More specifically, I assess the role I have played. What am I proud of, where did I fall short, what could I have done better or different? What am I trying to achieve and how can I do it? My covenant with Nature is lifelong and constant. As a result, what I do and how I live matters. My choices in products I buy and use matters. I think about what more I can do to better align myself to my mission of doing right by the environment. These thoughts are most often examined when I’m on my daily walks. They inform me on how I address my daily chores and leisure. Which comes down to how I deal with the demands of the holiday season – Do no harm, keep it simple, natural and most importantly, honest.

                  Being home for the holidays is the ultimate luxury.

                  Note: Images from previous years –

                  Home

                  Dried alliums painted gold – sparklers!

                  Golden garland of dried hydrangea

                  Homegrown lemons brightening everything

                  Amaryllis tree

                  (c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

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                  Living In The Sun

                  A big takeaway from the past year was that everyone rediscovered the power of nature. The visceral need we have for the open spaces rich in vegetation and fresh air was unarguably recognized. Those of us blessed with any size of land found sheltering at home less stifling than apartment dwellers. Parks and preserves saw a remarkable up-tick in visitors. Following more than a year of restrictions, how we live has become a focus.

                  Inside the home, we have quickly realized that our spaces are not designed for our current needs. For that matter, many homes were never set up for us to spend a great deal of time in it. With the flexibility of working at home full-time or part, office space is a necessary requirement. The family dining table can no longer do double duty. In order for any member of a household to get some time and space alone, bedrooms are now not merely for rest/sleep. Open living plans, hugely popular pre-pandemic are now regarded as unsustainable for multiple people living and working from home. Interior designers have noted the new needs and are responding with ingenuity and creativity.

                  Similarly, the gardens of many demand re-imagining. First and foremost, let me get a pet peeve out of the way – can we please stop calling our outdoor piece of property a ‘yard’? A yard is simply the grounds surrounding a building or a unit of measure. A yard does not evoke a beautiful space. Think about it. There are dockyards, shipyards, farmyard, junkyard, barnyard … you get the idea. Without the prefixes court- or vine-, yard by itself does not conjure up greenery. However, ‘garden’ immediately makes one see plants, grass, flowers and fruits. Somewhere pleasant. Words matter.

                  Gardens are not just for show. They should be designed for people to spend time in them – cultivating, meditating, socializing, playing, eating, reading, napping. That pretty much means outdoor living. Be it a balcony, a narrow strip or a bigger space, we must think about how they can serve multiple purposes aesthetically and effectively. I would add that all designs must be sustainable, eco-friendly, organic and environment conscious. In my book these requirements are non-negotiable.

                  A simple bench set in the garden provides a place to sit, read, converse and observe. Add a table and now you have a spot for eating, working, painting, writing, playing cards or board games. A swing under a tree or a hammock slung between two trees offers a different attractive choice. You see?

                  Of course, the right plants are critical. Color, texture, shapes, heights, widths, fragrance, tactility and functionality are all key attributes to consider. Native/eco-beneficial too. Good design makes a garden beautiful and functional.

                  Pulling together all the required elements to create a garden that suits the way one lives is perhaps most challenging. And exciting.

                  In my own garden, there are various places for escape, rest and activity. In the front, the two Adirondack chairs were installed to provide a place from which one could enjoy this area of the garden. It’s close enough to the street that spontaneous conversations with neighbors out for walks happen. From mid-afternoon on, the sun has moved on and one can sit in shade and read, work on the laptop, take a tea break, watch the birds, butterflies and bees.

                  The terrace on the side, is a lovely spot for breakfast before it is bathed in full sun till early evening. In summer, it’s too hot by noon. In cool months the sunny location is a gift. A table with chairs and an umbrella that can be tilted for requisite shade makes spending time here amidst the sweet smelling citrus and gardenia (in pots)is a rather sublime experience. Members of the household routinely hold Zoom meetings from this location. The hummingbird feeder nearby is visited often and always brings joyful distraction.

                  Similarly, the tree house has also stretched itself from just a cool spot to hangout (or camp out) with friends to a cool spot to work. Wi-Fi extends to this perch so what at one time was also a place to do homework, now permits all manner of work be conducted. As well as the occasional nap.

                  From late fall to early spring, the greenhouse, set up with a small table and single chair takes on the role of sheltering a myriad assortment of plants as well as an escape for any family member who needs a little nature therapy. Or simply needs to get away from the rest of us. This past winter, it became my husband’s corner office! He found it more enjoyable than sharing the house with the rest of us.

                  The table under the pergola on the terrace in the back is used in countless ways. We eat, entertain, work, read, paint, play, bird-watch and generally hangout. All day long. Adding an outdoor heater last fall has made it possible to use this area almost all year round. String lights and a chandelier keep us going well into the night. Poker nights, hysterical rounds of charades and long, lively conversations happen here frequently. Life.

                  There is a bench towards the back of the ‘meadow’ that serves as an escape from the madding crowd and also a restful spot from which to enjoy the flowers in bloom and observe more closely the activities of all sorts of pollinators. Seeing the meadow from a different perspective can be eye-opening.

                  A similar bench under the grapes on the far side of the terrace is another good location for bird-watching and catching some sun and quiet time.

                  The garden should be a true extension of the home. It’s meant to be lived in. Not merely viewed. It’s good for health.

                  Note: We’re in the midst of a heat wave. Hope these images give you some respite:

                  (c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar


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                          Riding Out December

                          It is finally December. After the year it has been, there appears to be a collective wish to be done with 2020 as if magically on January 1, 2021, things will have improved. It’s necessary to have that thread of hope to take us through the months. As we passed each holiday, every personal milestone, each public event, we’ve moved along with the aspiration that it will be so much better next year. With the imminent release of vaccines, the light at the end the 2020 tunnel just got brighter. Much brighter.

                          But, there’s still December (and potentially a few more months) to get past. I’m taking it one month at a time.

                          December for me is dark. Lack of light affects me. I also miss spending time outdoors in the garden. More than any other year, this December feels particularly heavy. I realize it is because typically, one had holiday parties and celebrations to offset the gloom. Social connections matter. If the cold weather took us indoors, at least we could engage in convivial gatherings. Not this year.

                          With the recent acquisition of an outdoor heater, I have ostensibly addressed two of my needs. I am able to bask in the sunshine and fresh air in the garden. Sitting cozily in the warmth of said heater, I’m able to watch the birds, survey the bones of the garden with a critical eye, dream or plan future projects, catch up on some reading, do some painting/writing, take care of timely tasks like sorting seed packets and even starting some for early planting. I know that simply being in the garden will cheer me up immensely.

                          I adored having visits from friends all through the warm months. They were such high points of my year. Socially distanced and safe, over food and drink, we celebrated, commiserated, and uplifted each other. Sharing my garden with others is gratifying. Sending a friend home with a rooted cutting, fresh herbs or fruit, a jar of homemade preserves or a small bunch of flowers is hugely happy-making. Now, I’m able to continue welcoming friends to hang out with me and get the benefits of sunlight and friendship.

                          Indoors, the paperwhites are coming along nicely and the amaryllis are emerging. The hibiscus I’d brought inside in October because they were so heavy with buds have proven to be wonderful house guests. Undemanding except for a bi-weekly splash of water, they have put forth multi-petaled flowers of a deep red hue continuously. The largest bay standard I possess was too large for the greenhouse so it is occupying a fairly prized spot by the kitchen window. While the tree blocks easy access to some things, it is quite lovely to pick leaves so conveniently for sauces, stews and such. A single bay leaf elevates a pot of rice – rich in fragrance and taste. Other herbs such as rosemary, curry, thyme, oregano, sage and Thai basil are just a short trip to the greenhouse. I’m comforted by and also deeply grateful for their availability. A sense of gardening continued goes a long way in keeping me cheerful.

                          A couple of days ago, I came across a commercial for new device called AeroGarden – it is a hydroponic kit to easily grow herbs and vegetables at home. I have no idea if it lives up to all that the manufacturer touts but, if it does, it’s a wonderful product. If any of you have had experience with this system, please share!

                          With seed packets ordered, tools sent out for sharpening and a couple of design projects incubating, I’m all set for getting through this month. A gardener always likes to have some element of related work in progress. We like the continuity of growing something with the giddy anticipation of a successful end in sight.

                          Reminder! It is Giving Tuesday today. When you purchase from the Printed Garden Collection, you are supporting a small business and giving to the American Civil Liberties Union. 50% of the profits are donated to the ACLU.

                          The products make lovely gifts for the home. Yours and someone else’s! ‘Tis the season!

                          In the greenhouse:

                          Lemons!

                          Painting seed heads

                          Paperwhites

                          Hibiscus

                          Sunday morning in the garden

                          Conversations around the heater

                          (c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar


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                                  Buds, Blooms, Babies

                                  From the first buds of spring, the pulse quickens in expectation of the blooms to come. And all through the growing seasons, the natural sequence of flowering carries one through in a state of excitement. Plants just about to burst into bloom are one of the few things that brings forth an almost childlike thrill in us. It never gets old.

                                  This week, the Monarda and Echinacea opened up to the bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. So gratifying. The milkweed in the meadow are getting ready and I’m eager to see the butterflies flock to them. The native wisteria is similarly studded with buds – this is the second flush. It’s the first time this second round looks as abundant as the first and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this week’s heat and humidity do not do them in. Typical of the greedy gardener, I’m over the moon when plants that are generally not from here do well – case in point, the agapanthus I covet and grow in a pot, has put out three fat buds. It’s absurd how elated I am. As though the plant is telling me that I did a good job. Oh the hubris!

                                  As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been doing a great deal of bird watching in the garden. Three different robins nests have resulted in no less than 10 fledglings. The bluebird house hosted a family of wrens, followed by sparrows and is now once again occupied by wrens. I watched a tiny wren fledgling last evening making short test flights. I couldn’t capture it with my camera as it was never still.

                                  This past Saturday, I noticed a small bird sitting on an electrical wire that runs near the maple tree in front of the property. Viewed from the back, it looked like no bird I could recognize. As it turned its head, I saw its orange beak and it dawned on me that it was young female cardinal! This was the first time I’ve seen a cardinal baby. While I observe cardinals regularly all over the garden, I’ve never been privileged to see their nests or young ones. My joy was immeasurable – simple pleasures.

                                  This past week, I finally launched the second collection in my line of soft furnishings The Printed Garden. I’m really proud of these beautiful, useful products and hope you will check them out.

                                  50% of the profits from any and all purchases will be donated to the ACLU ( American Civil Liberties Union). Your support is deeply appreciated. Note: Due to the pandemic, stock is limited and future production is uncertain.

                                  And there you have it. Buds, babies and blooms. Life.

                                  Native wisteria preparing for a second flush

                                  Cardinal fledgling

                                  The herb garden from above

                                  Agapanthus in bud

                                  Monarda and yarrow

                                  Milkweed about to open

                                  The white oakleaf hydrangea taking on a rosy hue

                                  Echinacea

                                  Concord grapes coming along.

                                  A peek into the the Printed Garden collection 2

                                  Tea towels

                                  (c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar


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