Garden Therapy

It’s hard to imagine anyone going about their daily lives and not feeling the weight of the war in Ukraine. I personally find myself unable to stop thinking about what the Ukrainians are experiencing. While, like so many others, my family and I are trying to help them and their cause as much as we can, it still feels inadequate and heart-aching. It’s difficult to get away from the sadness and horror.

In times like this, the privilege of having a garden, however small, is very comforting. One does not often think about it but, being able to oversee a plot of earth is truly an honor and a blessing. A garden must never be taken for granted.

For one, at its best, the chance to care for a piece of earth is an opportunity to nurture and protect our global environment. One garden at a time. Imagine if every gardener applied her/himself with sincerity how big an impact we could make. As Doug Tallamy puts it, we’d have created the biggest national park in this country. Now, consider that on a worldwide level. Powerful right?

A garden helps us feed ourselves. If not complete self-sufficiency, at least partially supporting ourselves is not only gratifying but it is empowering. Recall the concept of Victory Gardens. Particularly in times of war when rations are imposed as food becomes scarce, being able to supplement ourselves from the garden can make all the difference. Going a step further, we can share the bounty with neighbors and beyond. After all, we are in this together so together we will overcome.

Working in the garden is healthy and healing. The magical combination of fresh air, sunlight, sights and smells of plants, sounds of birds and bees, the feel of the breeze on our faces and soil in our hands and, the physical work of gardening, results in a mental, physical and spiritual transformation. I cannot think of any other activity that equals the power of gardening. Can you?

In making and growing a garden, we create beauty that changes not just the local landscape but also changes anyone who works in it or visits it. Bad moods are improved, sad hearts are comforted, low spirits are uplifted and, joyous emotions are celebrated.

So, as we do what we can to help mitigate the current crisis, let us use our gardens to help ourselves and the world at large. For those without gardens, volunteer at your local public gardens or ask to assist a friend in their garden. If possible, create a garden – a simple collection of plants in pots counts. I promise, you will never regret gardening.

To garden is to keep hope alive. Gardens are places filled with optimism and faith tin the future.

Note: I’m sharing images to put a smile on your face and a spring in your step:

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

Designing Seeds

I’ve been seed obsessed for a while. Each seed is a whole world unto itself. The future, yours and mine and every other life form depends on the survival and viability of seeds. Seen as symbols of hope and prosperity, the importance of seeds cannot be overstated. We know that much for sure.

And so, we harvest and collect seeds. We preserve and store. We sow and grow. Fruits, vegetables, flowers, herbs, medicinals – everything we need is sought and coveted. National and international repositories keep all known seeds for future needs and by doing so they strive to secure our future.

At this time of year, gardeners in the northern hemisphere are gearing up to sow seeds for their gardens. As am I. However, due to time and schedule constraints, I’m not planning to start too many. Instead, I’m going to make seed bombs to disperse. It’s an experiment so I’ll just have to see how it all turns out. The scientist in me is excited about the experiment. The gardener in me is skeptical – the whole thing seems a bit iffy.

My reasoning is, instead of directly sprinkling seeds such as poppies wherever one wants them to grow, seed bombs could increase the chance of success as they will hold the seeds down, perhaps safeguard them from birds, and, when weather conditions are right, supply the seeds with an immediate boost of nutrition. Sort of give the seeds a leg up. Similarly, instead of struggling to squeeze in seedlings amidst established plantings, seed bombs might serve better.

Like I’ve already said, it’s an experiment. For very little investment in time, energy and money. If it succeeds, the returns could be big. Fingers crossed. Click here for the link to the website and recipe I’ll be using to make the seed bombs.

But it is not just seeds to grow that have my attention. I’ve become deeply enamored with seedpods, heads and capsules. In examining them to paint, the diversity and ingenuity of these vessels just blows my mind. Each design is not simply functional but also very beautiful. To my eyes, they are as striking as flowers.

I’m awed by how the plants have evolved so their seed dispersing structures are exquisite in form and function.

Some plants like hellebores , drop their seeds around themselves and keep their babies close. Columbines are more about independence and spread their seeds away from themselves, giving their progeny greater freedom to thrive but still in the same neighborhood of the parent. And then there are the likes of milkweed and dandelion that let the wind carry the seeds much further away. It occurs to me that we, human parents, can identify with these methods. Am I right?!

Seeds – where would we be without them? Would we even be?

Here’s a small sampling of seedpods I’ve painted:

Swamp mallow

Baptisia, false indigo

Tree peony

Magnolia grandiflora

Milkweed

Columbine

Wisteria

Poppy

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

January Jitters

2022 is well underway and I’m starting to feel like I’m not stepping up to it. Between the recent snow storms and the Omicron surge, I’m going through a phase of ‘out-of-sorts’. I sure hope it’s just a phase. While I’m trying to stay on course with my projects and such, it’s unsettling when so many are out of action and all sorts of events are being canceled. How does one plan for anything? Do I dare look forward to an upcoming visit/concert/class ? We’ve learned to be flexible and adapt but still, there’s that yearning for the familiar comfort of normalcy isn’t there. I catch myself feeling fearful of looking forward to things. Hate to be disappointed again. And again.

And then, a bright sunny day or a flash of cardinal red in the snow covered garden is enough to get the spirit soaring. I look around at the amaryllis blooming indoors and they give me pause to appreciate the beauty and the comfort they bring Soon, I’ll be forcing hyacinths and eagerly anticipate the flowers and fragrance. Spring would’ve arrived in my heart well before the vernal equinox.

Seeds that I’d ordered in December arrived yesterday. I’m not taking on any major seed starting – instead, I’m keeping matters simple and realistic so I can indeed take a trip or do other things should the opportunity arise. Shirley poppies to scatter towards the end of winter. Cosmos seeds will be sprinkled later on. I’m only going to start the highly dependable sunflowers. My big adventure will be growing dahlias for the first time. The tubers I’d ordered will arrive in due course and I’m excited to experience something new.

I’ve also signed up for several on-line talks/lectures. The Garden Conservancy recently announced their series on French Gardening that sounds quite interesting. Apart from learning horticultural stuff, it’ll be a bit of ‘traveling to France’. Until its safe to make an in-person trip there, I’ll make do with these talks.

Untermyer Gardens’ winter symposium should be a good one too. I thoroughly enjoyed their 2022 winter symposium. This one is on meadows – something, as you know, I’m very passionate about.

Wave Hill and NYBG have good line-ups for winter as well.

Across the pond, Fergus Garret of Great Dixter fame will be continuing his lectures on various aspects of gardening. These are always chock full of information and beautiful images.

By the time I’m through with all the talks, spring should be here for real. So, for now, I’m going to breathe deeply and plug away at my projects and goals, take comfort in the ‘early spring’ indoors, get inspired and motivated by the many talks, stay away from an overload of news and instead, focus on uplifting, life affirming nature walks and preparations for the growing season. Gardening to the rescue. As always.

Note: Things that help keep me calm and hopeful –

I’m a firm believer in enjoying my art until they get exhibited and find new homes. At present, some of my seed pods are giving me lots of pleasure.

More seed pods

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

On A Wing And A Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a life lesson well worth learning early.

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

Mix of bulbs waiting to be planted

A drill is very useful

Planting bulbs in the meadow

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Bulb-Manic Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natural born witch and cat by day.

Sorting bulbs

Potting up

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

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

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

 

Seeing 2020

Ah, a new year begins. So many possibilities. So much potential. Resolutions to be made, dreams to realize, wishes to make true. Yes, a clean, new canvas to begin again. Really?

Why do we put so much pressure on ourselves? Having dreams and determination to do better is just fine but must we make it so hard? How is it possible for one to turn over a new leaf almost overnight? It’s not as though you go to bed on December 31 and wake January 1 a new person. Eat better, lose weight, sleep more, exercise everyday, read a book a week, cook every meal, learn a new language, land that dream job, meet the right life-partner, reduce stress, master a new skill – the list is endless. We expect way too much from a mere twelve months. In the scope of a single year we are effectively hoping to undo all that preceding years have built up or, accomplish everything we failed to achieve in all those years.

As the years go by, I see clearly how ridiculous so many expectations from a new year is. Having given up making resolutions a long time ago, I freed myself to simply see the start of a year as a good marker to do better in whatever I am already doing. No matter what, there is always room for improvement. And certainly, it is never too late to learn/try new things. But, that doesn’t need to wait for the arrival of January 1. Every day is an opportunity. If I need to get more exercise, then there is nothing like the present to get started. If your hair looks raggedy you go get a cut as soon as possible. If you need a new car/towels/shoes/appliance or anything else, as long as budgets permit, you acquire those right away. You see? Working out, eating healthy, starting on that pile of unopened books, registering for the course in Portuguese, seafood cooking or salsa dancing, giving up smoking etc., shouldn’t have to be put off till the planets line up. Start now!

In fact, having followed this practice of getting on with what needs doing or starting on any given day, has given me that liberty to welcome the new year as one would an old flame. I’m already doing my best and own who I am. There’s nothing to hide, pretend or apologize. Showing up strong is a pretty good place to be. So there.

Having said all that, lets consider the garden and how we go forth into 2020. This year, I really tried as hard as I could, other life obligations notwithstanding. Bear in mind, flexibility is key – things will come up and the best laid plans will be foiled. Never mind, adjustments must be made. C’est la vie.

In 2020, I will continue with getting the ‘meadow’ more established with the native plantings and closer to the vision in my mind. I hope to try out some new varieties of vegetables in the potager. Having received some seeds of tropical plants, I’m keen to design new plantings in pots to make exciting splashes of bold color and shapes.

While I created this garden to be organic from the start, I have been consistently working towards more sustainable and eco-friendly practices. From improved water management, better composting, reducing the amount of plastic ( nurseries! Are you reading this?), adding more native species etc., it is an ongoing effort. The new year is merely an annual reminder to up my game.

Happy New Year one and all. Please accept my heartfelt wishes for health, happiness and harmony. Just promise yourself you will try to the best of your ability. That is all one can and should ask.

Seen on a NYC sidewalk. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
A new vase from ceramist August Brosnahan @brosnahanarts.com
Homegrown lemons! So pleased to harvest them from the greenhouse.

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Hope Is Alive And Well

The shipment of bulbs finally arrived last Friday. The bulb houses ship the orders in time for planting at their final destinations. Given how erratic our weather has been this year, the bulbs are unsurprisingly later than usual. With no certainty on my part, I’ve decided to take the bulb companies to heart – maybe they know something I don’t. Hence, I began the planting on Sunday. Getting 1000 bulbs planted will take a while.

What can be more optimistic than planting bulbs? These rotund packages large and small, hold within their brown, plain bodies the promise of a beautiful spring as reward for enduring the dark, cold days of winter. Given recent happenings in our country, the days already feel dark, forbidding and scary. So planting the bulbs serves as both a distraction and an act of faith. Tomorrow will be brighter and better. Without that inherent belief, gardeners would cease to exist.

In performing this ritual of investing in the future, I’m encouraged that beauty on earth will persist. When the flowers emerge next spring, they will bring joy to all who see them. At that time, I will particularly remember those we lost at the time of planting. They didn’t go in vain.

I believe that we cannot give up or give in to the threats that loom – good will always triumph over evil, light will eliminate the dark, love will conquer hate. Otherwise, there’d be no point to anything.

Note: ‘Points Of View” opens this week. Do stop for a look!

This year’s bulb order.

Fall in miniature

Glimpses of last spring –

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar