This, That And The Other

I can hardly keep abreast with the flowers exploding in the garden. I might be gazing adoringly at the alliums when from the corner of my eye I notice the irises gracefully unfurling themselves. The clematis on the arch tumbles in a cascade – its exuberance is contagious. In counterpoint to the rounded heads of allium, the camassia shoot up in tall cones of pale blues and cream.

The foxgloves are having their moment in the potager. Their speckled spires distract me no end. It’s hard to work in their towering presence. And just this past weekend, the native wisteria scrambling up the pergola nearby, decided to join the party. The tiny bell shaped flowers of both the common and the more unusual blue comfrey are supporting actors in this cast of performers. Their part is no less important in the tableaux. Indeed, the bees and other insects seem to prefer them to the more showy companions.

The first rose to bloom is the David Austin R.Boscobel but the others are getting ready to compete any day now. Surprisingly behind schedule, the Baptisia and Amsonia are adding their shades of blue to the late spring parade. It’s rather interesting to view them amidst a new cast of characters. They fit in rather well.

What has excited me the most is something diminutive and easy to escape notice amidst this floral carnival are the Cypripedium parviflorum – the yellow lady’s slipper. I’ve long coveted them and acquired two plants last summer at the plant sale held at Hollister House. Both were planted in two different parts of the meadow. One is currently in bloom and the other is in bud. I am so pleased.

On the other end of my excitement was the discovery of cutworms on a small, potted pine. They looked so creepy writhing around in a cluster. Already a branch had been totally denuded and the vandals were working on another. They were dealt with swiftly. Felt very satisfying.

Today, the temperatures are expected to rise to the low 90s. Just when the late spring garden is looking so glorious. Don’t you just hate that! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that no real damage is done. I went around late last evening harvesting the peonies in bloom and those just about to. The anticipated heat would burn them easily. So now, while I work in the cool indoors, I’m basking in peony perfume and beauty. That’s a pretty good upside.

Lady’s Slipper

Wisteria on the pergola

Wisteria viewed from above

Cutworm cluster

Rescued peonies before the heat wave.

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

When Old Is New Again

The hummingbirds are back! The feeders were optimistically put up two week ago when it was still cold. It has remained pretty much below normal temperatures since but the sugar solution was duly refreshed. Yesterday morning, just as more seasonable weather arrived, the tiny birds showed up as well. I’m taking that as a good sign for the season.

Humans have always relied on signals and sightings in nature as guides for when to do things and what to expect. A glut of acorns in the the fall means a consequent increase in mice, squirrel and deer populations as well as an emergence of new oak trees. And vice versa.

A cold spring means reduced pollination and lower production of fruit and future plants.

The timing of when the leaves fall in autumn is recognized as a good predictor – too early means mild fall and winter, too late indicates a colder winter and if leave shrivel up on the branches before dropping, then expect a very severe winter. I’m going to pay attention more to this autumn!

Similarly, it’s said that the wider the woolly bear caterpillar’s brown band is, the milder the winter will be. When birds migrate or returns are foretellings. Dandelions, tulips, chickweed and such fold their petals prior to rain.

While there is some evidence that some of these signals are accurate, for the most part, they are anecdotal. On my part, I’m happy to know them and tend to believe only if they predict something I desire. Selective is what I am. Ha.

However, there are old gardening practices that are very sound and good for all of nature. When I began creating this garden about 25 years ago, I resolved to do my best to do no harm. That right away meant organic methods. This was in part driven by my own childhood where I watched gardeners do their work sans chemicals. As a scientist, I learned the harm chemicals can do – long lasting harm. So organic it was. What was good through time is good for the present and future. ( A word of caution – even organic pest control should be applied judiciously. They might knock off pests but they also kill the good bugs. They are not specific to pests.)

Compost was known to be beneficial but, it was not a general practice at the time I got started on this garden.I knew enough soil microbiology to understand how effective this natural product was. While one could buy bags of compost, people did not make their own compost. At least not in the cities and suburbs. I was hard pressed to find a company that sold composters suitable to suburban homes – something that offered protection from curious critters (think raccoon) unlike open compost bins often seen in large estates and rural properties. I did eventually find one that is ideal for kitchen waste. The woods that back my property take care of all garden waste.

Next came my quest to collect rain water. No water butts or barrels to be found. Why? Because most people were not thinking about water shortages at that time. Even though the evidence was already pointing to water becoming a global crisis in the not too distant future. Now, collecting rain water is a very old practice. Not just because of shortage concerns but also because it saved drawing it from the well water or fetching from the river. It simply made sense. We converted an old wine barrel to do the job.

Native plants encouraged native fauna and the ecosystem was kept in balance. Companion planting, crop rotation, diligent observation to thwart disease are all time tested methods for a healthy garden and gardener. Our ancestors learned the hard way and have passed on that wisdom. We strayed but now, we’re returning to those lessons. And that’s a very good thing. Admittedly, not everything our forebearers did was good but we know enough now to know the difference.

To think, my approach to gardening was called ‘quaint’ at the time. Now, 25 plus years on, I’m trendy. I’m having my moment!!

Note: Last call to pre-register for my Open Day!

The greening of the wall

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

May Flowers

It’s finally looking and feeling like spring. After last week’s cool, windy days, the weekend arrived bright, sunny and warm. A gift! It’s now a mad dash to get the garden in ship-shape for its May 14 Open Day. Lots got done over the weekend – aching muscles bear testimony. Still more remains. Because of the unprecedentedly cold weather, we’re running behind schedule. But, that’s life in the garden. Nature is always in charge. However hard we gardeners work, we are not in control. Ever. That is a good lesson to take to heart – do your best, stay humble, be resilient and work with Nature not against.

Our relationship with Nature, whilst seemingly collaborative, is an unequal one. It is best to accept that. Leave the ego outside the garden or else it’ll be shredded ruthlessly in no time. And in the end, when the garden looks gorgeous, graciously accept your part in it but know in your heart who really had the last word.

So, I’m keeping my head down and focusing on getting the work done. I’m also beseeching the powers that be to be kind and generous to send good weather, get the plants blooming and bring in many happy visitors.

Here’s the general To-Do list for May –

Things To Do In May

  1. Weed regularly if you want to keep the thugs in check.

  2. Put stakes in place so as plants grow it’ll be easy to secure them.

  3. Deadhead spent blooms for a neat look. Some plants will reward you with a second wave of blooms. Of course, if you want to collect seeds, do not deadhead.

  4. Water as necessary. Add a splash of compost tea to fertilize – about every 2-3 weeks.

  5. Plant in summer vegetables, summer bulbs and tubers and, annuals.

  6. Keep bird baths filled with clean water. Use mosquito ‘dunks’ to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. The same goes for fountains.

  7. Start mowing lawns but do the right thing by keeping the mower blade high at about four inches. Leave clippings in place to replenish the soil.

  8. Make sure all beds, shrubs and trees are mulched to retain moisture and keep weeds from proliferating.

  9. To take care of weeds in areas that are paved or bricked, pour boiling hot water over them. The weeds will be killed and no chemicals were used!

  10. Stay vigilant for pests or disease. The earlier you catch a problem, the easier it is to treat them. Always employ organic methods.

  11. Stir the compost heap regularly. Keep adding in kitchen and garden waste.

  12. Take time every day to simply enjoy the garden.

  13. Visit other gardens through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program. You will be vastly instructed and inspired. Www.gardenconservancy.org/opendays

Note: I’ll be at Teatown Lake Reservation’s eagerly awaited and hugely popular PlantFest May 6 &7. Look for my Seeds Of Design booth – items from my Printed Garden Collection will be available. Beautiful gifts for Mother’s Day, teachers, hostess, brides , birthdays and yourself. All profits donated.

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

March Moves

Can’t you just feel the approach of spring? The light feels brighter and days are distinctly longer. As the sap rises in the trees and the buds begin to swell, the pulse quickens and spirits soar. It’s time to get moving in the garden!

Things To Do This Month

  1. Cut some forsythia and pussy willow branches for indoor forcing. Place in water and keep in a cool place until the buds are swollen. Then move them to a location where they can be viewed as the blooms burst forth. A lovely prelude to spring.

  2. As snow melts, start clean up process. Twigs and other debris can be removed. Protect the still wet areas of grass and beds by first placing cardboard or wood planks and stepping on those instead. They help distribute the weight better.

  3. Later in the month, remove protective burlap and/or plastic wrappings and wind breaks.

  4. Get tools sharpened. This includes the mower blades.

  5. Commence indoor seed sowing. Begin with the early, cool weather crops. Read seed packet instructions and calculate dates for planting out.

  6. Order plants that will be required for the garden as soon as the ground has warmed up. Let your local nursery know your needs – they will inform you know when shipments arrive.

  7. As soon as possible, once snow is all gone and soil has thawed, spread compost on all the beds including the vegetable plot.

  8. Finish pruning fruit trees, grape vines and roses early in the month.

  9. Take an inventory and stock up on whatever is lacking. Soil, gloves, mulch, stakes, twine, tools, water retaining crystals, grass seed, pots, hoses etc.,

  10. Survey the garden and see what needs replacing, repairing or painting. Schedule and do the needful.

  11. Start bringing out or uncovering outdoor furniture. It’ll soon be time to linger outdoors!

  12. Get Open Days directory from Garden Conservancy – www.gardenconservancy.org. Mark your calendars to visit beautiful gardens in your area. Come to my Open Day on May 14 between 10 am and 4 pm. I’m looking forward to seeing you!

Let’s get on with it.

Current glimpses of what’s doing in my garden –

Swelling buds on climbing hydrangea

Snowdrops braving the snow

Hyacinths coming along indoors

My watercolor of a snowdrop

Forced bulbs from a past year

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

February Foward

I’m currently enjoying some mild temperatures in Mumbai. While this is not a vacation per se it still feels good to get a bit of warmth. For reading material, I’d brought my rather large stack of garden related periodicals with the sincere intent to get through them all. Progress has been slow. But the two I’ve read thus far have certainly jolted me out of my winter induced stupor. It’s time to jump into action – seeds to get started, pruning of fruit trees, list of plants to acquire, repairs and/or replacements to be made and various other odds and ends.

Closely following the big snowstorm that blasted the northeast over the past weekend, I confess to selfishly hoping my little garden would be spared any damage. About 7 inches of snow fell – enough to be an event but certainly nowhere near a calamity. I breathed a sigh of relief because worrying from a distance is always more stressful. The imagination can be cruel.

Meanwhile, my lovely English gardening magazines reminded me that the winter aconites and snowdrops are up and blooming in their part of the world. So, here I am in 80 degree weather, reading about spring awakening in the UK and snow blanketing my garden back home. All together a bit confusing. I’m itching to get started on preparations for spring but know it is really not yet time – the feeling of urgency is only because those pretty pictures of early bulbs and seed flats full of seedlings are making me think I must be behind schedule. The pleasant warmth I find myself in only augments the sense of being tardy.

I get back home in about ten days. At that time, the hyacinths cooling in the refrigerator will be brought out and forced. That’s the sort of early spring that will actually be happening. Towards the end of the month, if weather permits and barring mounds of snow preventing moving around the garden, the fruit trees, grapevines and roses will be pruned. As March rolls up, seeds will be started. I’m eagerly awaiting the rather charming cart ordered from @gardeners – a metal number in cheery yellow with a grow light system to coax seeds to unleash their potential in the lower shelf. The top shelf I have assigned for reviving the small topiaries that get weary of the greenhouse by this time. I plan to station the cart somewhere in the house where I can monitor it closely and gaze fondly at the seedlings as they emerge. And the sunny color will surely banish any and all grumpiness.

All good things to anticipate. February doesn’t look so bleak after all.

In the greenhouse right now. (I get updates on request!)

In bloom right now

Hyacinth forcing 2021

A few of the seed sources

How cute is this cart?!

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

Boning Up

I love the way the garden gets defined by the snow. Snow in its stark whiteness, highlights the bones of the garden. Even as it blankets everything, it reveals the design and lay of the land. There are highlights and low-lights that emerge to give a new understanding of the effect of the various elements in the space and their relation to each other. One hardly designs a garden for the snow but it is always gratifying to see an entirely new dimension revealed by it.

Winter is always a good time to asses the bones of the garden. Devoid of foliage, the garden is laid bare for scrutiny. Too much or too little structure, a need for some additional plantings or focal point, even what alterations or repairs are necessary. Add a coat of snow and it gets even more telling. Subtle gradients can be seen more clearly, Sunlight on the snow exposes how light hits the garden. Shadows from trees and buildings tell of the extent to which they impact the plantings. As the snow melts, the different micro-climates can be observed – where it melts first and where it remains cold longer helps the gardener plant appropriately. There is so much learned.

As an artist, when painting snow scenes, I have to observe even more closely.. Exactly how the light hits the ground, the angle of the shadows, dips and inclines, areas that are either particularly interesting or too bland and discerning colors in what seems like a very white canvas.

This observation has proven even more educational than simply taking photographs. In fact, I believe it has improved how I compose my photos as well as the garden.

Best of all,, both, painting and taking photos keep me in the moment. A valuable lesson in mindfulness.

Watercolor

Watercolor

Watercolor

Watercolor

Watercolor

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Start Me Up

Day 4 of 2022 and it is finally feeling like winter. On January 1, it was a balmy 60 degrees. Given all the ‘unprecedented’ and ‘record weather’ events, it tells me to expect more of the unexpected. And we must be prepared to pivot, remain flexible and possibly most importantly, adapt to circumstances.

Meanwhile, I’m getting on with the January garden chores. Here’s to 2022 – may we and our gardens thrive and spread goodness all around.

Things To Do In January

  1. Survey the garden after every storm or snowfall. If any damage such as broken branches or torn off protection has occurred, try to fix it as soon as possible. Likewise, large icicles hanging from roof edges pose a threat to plants below: shield the plants if the icicles cannot be removed.

  2. Take down holiday decorations. Before disposing off the Christmas tree, cut branches to spread as mulch on flower beds.

  3. Keep bird feeders full. Whenever possible, keep water available for the birds.

  4. Inspect stored tubers, corms and bulbs for signs of mold and rot. Get rid of any that don’t look healthy.

  5. This is a good time to examine the ‘bones’ of the garden. Make notes of what needs developing, changing or improving.

  6. Make icy paths safe by sprinkling sand or grit. Avoid toxic de-icing products.

  7. If ground is wet/soggy, take care to protect the sodden areas by not walking on it too much. Better yet, protect it by putting down a temporary path of wood planks.

  8. Take an inventory of garden tools. Get them repaired, replaced or sharpened.

  9. Gather up seed and plant catalogs. Start planning for the coming season.

  10. Begin forcing the bulbs kept cool since late fall. Time to start an indoor spring!

  11. Keep an eye on indoor plants ( in the house or greenhouse). Inspect carefully for signs of pests or disease. Act right away if either is detected. Organic practices only please.

  12. Still on indoor plants: water as needed, rotate for uniform light exposure, fertilize every two to four weeks. Remove dead or yellowing leaves.

  13. Enjoy the respite offered by this cold month.

Note: I have a painting in a global show online. Please do take look – it’s on Human Rights and there are some powerful works.The exhibition duration is from December 19 2021 till January 23, 2021.

If you like my work, do ‘like’ it and leave a comment. And spread the word to others! I’d love for a gallery to take note and give me the opportunity to exhibit the whole series. Your help in publicizing is much appreciated – Thank you!

Here’s what’s doing in and out of my garden –

Pumpkins saved from the fall for still life painting!

Watercolor

Amaryllis

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

Performance Review 2021

The final week of 2021. One can’t help but think about the year in review and anticipate the one to come. On my part, I’ve shifted the way I’m examining 2021 in the garden. Instead of looking at how things fared in the garden, I’m taking a hard look at my own efforts as a gardener. Instead of simply considering how weather, pollinators and pests contributed to successes and failures, I’m reviewing how my performance has impacted the garden.

In the latter part of winter, I was filled with hope and energy and got columbine seeds started. The seeds had been stratified weeks earlier and were duly sowed in starter pots. I’d hoped for a plethora of seedlings to plant in the meadow. It was a complete failure. While I’d been told by experts that starting columbines was not simple, I had not expected total defeat. Thinking back to that time, I see how I neglected to closely monitor the seed flats. I kinda let the seeds manage completely on their own as I got distracted with myriads of other seasonal tasks in the garden. Well, I shouldn’t have been surprised when not a single seed sprouted. What I’ve learned is that I shouldn’t take on something I don’t have the time/skills/conditions required. While this effort was not a big financial investment, it was a very visual reminder of my gross negligence. I’m duly shamed.

When the weather gets too warm and humid, I always retreat indoors. It’s not only very buggy and uncomfortable to be outside but, conditions are ideal for migraines to plague me. I’ve learned to be preemptive and stay inside. This year, the summer atmosphere was mostly unpleasant. We had weeks of bad weather. I barely got in the garden and endlessly complained about how the weather had created unhealthy conditions for the plants. But I took no personal ownership. I should’ve found moments in the cooler periods in the early hours of the mornings to do a pest check, some staking or a spot of weeding. I could’ve helped the beleaguered plants in pots by feeding them weekly (instead of sporadically) to counteract the loss of nutrients by the incessant rains. I admit I used the excuse (valid as it was) of migraines to conceal my laziness. Ashamed I am. Thoroughly.

On the positive side, timely pruning and trimming resulted in those plants looking healthy and happy. My foray into hot colors for the potager and terrace was very successful. Due diligence resulted in a very good grape harvest. The plants that were too vigorous and smothering their neighbors were dealt with – creating more breathing space all around. I finally addressed the wisteria that was in the wrong place and replaced it with a magnolia espalier. The wisteria is now in a friend’s garden where it has a much more suitable home.

Open Day and Digging Deeper were not only successful but brought me so much joy to once again be amidst like-minded, garden crazy people. My kind of folk.

I’ve begun taking steps for next year. Inspired by the stunning flowers I saw in other gardens this past year, I’ve ordered dahlia tubers for the first time. I’m hoping to source and order flats of native columbine seedlings for the meadow. If I can get them early enough, I will nurture them along responsibly. In the coming weeks, I plan to get organized and ready for spring. And I’m creating a game plan to mitigate my laziness.

And now, the greenhouse beckons. Some faffing and fussing is in order.

January

February

February

March

April

April

May

May. Marco Polo Stufano, Timothy Tilghman na his wife Renee visit.

June. Open Day

July

August

September

October

November. Bulb planting.

December. Gifts from the garden.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

December Deals

The garden is finally put to bed. All the clean up and cut back is done. The biggest pots and oak water barrel are cozily wrapped in plastic topped with burlap – they sit like packages waiting to be discovered. The meadow had its annual cutback and now lies with a nice covering of fallen leaves that offer all manner of sustenance and refuge to wildlife. The surrounding shrubs remain uncut – they lend some winter interest but more importantly, they too provide shelter and some more food for active critters.

The tiny greenhouse is home to so many tender perennials and tropicals that the small table and chair placed in for WFH respite is a very tight squeeze. Still, it’s always wonderful to spend time in there. The lemons were harvested over the weekend. They sit looking so beautiful – orbs of captured sunshine. I’ve set aside time to make a big batch of lemon marmalade tomorrow. That stuff gets consumed so rapidly that I might have to restrict it to ‘Sunday breakfast only’. No doubt , it’d lead to a mutiny!

Similarly, the many jars of basil and nasturtium pesto, pear brandy and limoncello, Concord grape jelly and vegetable stock made from the bounty from the garden through the fall, will bring great pleasure to many winter meals.

What remains to be done are maintenance chores like getting tools with blades sharpened, restocking on twine, stakes and such, bringing back order to the garden workbenches and shelves, checking what needs replacing or repairing and acting accordingly. I have the hyacinth forcing vases cleaned and ready for action for when the time is right to get the cooling bulbs out of the refrigerator.

Making our holiday decorations from materials found in the garden and woods gives me a wonderful sense of comfort and joy. The garden provides through all the seasons. That is the best deal of all.

Amaryllis coming along

Lemons!

Meadow under cover of leaves

Greenhouse

Greenhouse

Sedum seed heads

Echinacea seed heads

Rose geranium lemonade and nasturtium pesto

Bundles of bouquet garni – to flavor soups and sauces.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Gratitude Attitude

Finishing the job of putting the garden to bed generally coincides with Thanksgiving. It’s natural then that my mind, already in the throes of reviewing the past year ,takes on a more grateful outlook. All too often, whilst cleaning up and cutting down, I’m thinking about the problems and failures that occurred. What failed to thrive, pests that destroyed plants, weather related challenges, paucity of butterflies and/or bees, lack of time in the garden because of a bumper crop of mosquitoes … so many garden trials. And then, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, just as most of the chores are completed, my attitude shifts. I’m in a state of gratitude for almost the very things that I was lamenting.

Just when the apple trees were poised to bloom in spring, a sudden drop in temperature pretty much closed down that show. I was really frustrated. No flowers meant no pollination and therefore no fruit. A real bummer. On recent reflection, I see how this setback made me that much more diligent in my care of the trees. I trimmed and pruned, fed and watered, checked for pests far more regularly than I had in recent years. I carefully nurtured the few apples that did develop. I’m determined to be prepared for unexpected cold spells next spring so I can protect the buds and give them a fair chance to flower.

We observed that this year there was a drop in numbers of butterflies in our region. I missed their usual company sorely. So, mid-bulb-planting, I made a dash to the nursery and picked up several butterfly/caterpillar friendly, native plants to add to the ones already in the garden. With so much to do both in and out of the garden, I probably would’ve let this action slide by unattended and simply continued to complain about the drop in butterfly population. Now, I can look forward to even more blooms in the garden and feel good about taking some positive action to help attract and nurture the winged dancers.

The heat and high humidity last summer made it quite unbearable to enjoy the outdoors. But the amount of bugs waiting to eat one alive, pretty much had us mostly stay indoors. I felt cheated and was very resentful. While going about my fall chores, I kept thinking about that. And then, I stopped. For next year, I have a good supply of an effective, natural bug spray to slather on and a couple of electric fans to keep me cool and bug free. It will not do at all to let another year go by without living in the garden as much as possible.

There are many other instances but you get the idea. The garden has given me a quick refresher course in how important it is to be patient, positive, resilient, understanding, accepting, pro-active, empathetic and most importantly, grateful.

Wishing everyone a beautiful Thanksgiving. May it be one of peace, love, blessings and fellowship.

Sharing a few favorite photos of the company I keep –

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar