My Real Garden – Part I

Last March, when we went into lockdown, I, like everyone else, felt confused, unsettled and more than a little scared. With all plans and projects canceled for the foreseeable future, the work shrunk down to almost nothing. Kept apart from anyone not living with me felt isolating in a way I could not fully adjust to. I have close family across three continents and the physical distance between us suddenly seemed as good as living on different planets. It was not good.

I believe four things kept me from going crazy. First, I was ‘stuck’ at home with the two people most dear to me. Second, with Skype, FaceTime and Zoom, one could ‘visit’ with family and friends – we were able to stay in touch consistently. Third, the entire world was grappling with the same situation – we were all in this together and many were struggling with extremely difficult conditions. Lastly, I had a garden that was my salvation – it is where I always go for solace, comfort, life lessons and inspiration. A blessing but still, quite a luxury.

In the grand scheme of things, I had nothing to complain about. And I didn’t. But privately, worries, fears and demons did surface up and I had to find a way to keep myself positive, motivated and engaged.

A big advantage I had was that for the last so many years, I’ve worked from home. Unlike most others, I did not need any adjustment to that. Instead, I naturally gave expression to my emotions in painting, poetry, other writing and design work. I spent blissful hours in the garden. Even the smallest of garden tasks felt good to do. Being creative and productive is key to my sense of wellbeing.

While I was figuring ways to keep the creative juices flowing, I became more active on Instagram. I began posting daily – marking each day with a single activity/observation with the tag-line “Social Distancing Day __”. Today is Day #360. That’s right. – it’s almost a full year since New York went into lockdown/sheltering at home.

On my @seedsofdesignllc Instagram account, I follow mostly gardens, gardeners and garden designers. I believe gardeners form communities easily – we relate and connect to each other almost instinctively. The problem I began having was that a good many of the garden ’influencers’ were posting images of what they were up to whilst sheltering at home that had what I call the Marie Antoinette Syndrome. They were showing images that appeared as though their lives were untouched by the global crisis – fabulous (read big and expensive) garden projects, lavish meals of certain items that were either unavailable at the supermarkets or beyond most budgets. As though they had risen above the fray in the most naturally obvious manner. I thought they were tone deaf and could not relate to most of these people at all. It’s one thing to be upbeat and positive and quite something else to flaunt a ’ Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous – Garden Version’ sort of message. With a pandemic, socio-economic inequities and racial injustices raging, it was frustrating and often enraging to see such posts. I’m not suggesting people don’t live they way they want to. I am however making clear that there is much need for us all to be aware, sensitive and empathetic.

It’s entirely possible that I was following some wrong folk on Instagram but, I started looking for other gardeners who were as affected as I was and found connection through the mundane yet life affirming acts of regular garden tasks. One from across the big pond, became a genuine source of support and encouragement. And it led to a wonderful global project that I’m deliriously excited to share with you. Next week!

Note: It’s not too early to start thinking of spring home sprucing and/or Mother’s Day! The Printed Garden collection offers a choice of beautiful products AND 50% of profits goes to support the valuable work of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU is fighting to correct all those aforementioned inequities and injustices.

I’m re-sharing some random photos from the last 12 months –

Last day of my group art show in NYC and first day of lockdown. March

Peony gone to seed. Watercolor

April – hid eggs around house and garden and created a virtual egg hunt for great nieces in the Netherlands and Singapore

Robin babies

Checkerboard garden in bloom

Memorial Day concert for neighborhood friends

Newly minted graduate after a virtual ceremony. June

Allium fireworks for the Fourth

Printed Garden photo shoot

‘A Peek Into The Potager’. Watercolor

Hummingbird friend

August birthday – all 3 birthdays in my family are in August

Vertical garden in August

‘Gilded’ Watercolor

October in gold

Paperwhites for the home. November

Beautyberry jelly

Lemons ripening in the greenhouse. December

Gilding alliums for the holidays

December dusting

Meyer lemon marmalade

(c) 2021 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

Life Deconstructed

So here we are. Living our days in an unfamiliar, uncertain atmosphere. It’s not easy when so much feels well beyond our control. I’ve categorically decided to pay attention to what is in my control. Managing myself, my work, my home, my garden – oftentimes, it is all one and the same.

I listen to Governor Cuomo’s updates every morning and then stay away from the flood of news. It’s simply too much.

Gardening began in earnest last week. While it was colder than desired, working outdoors in the bright sunshine was restorative and uplifting. Birdsong and crocuses, scillas, hellebores and ipheions in bloom kept me company as I went about clearing, planting and potting up. Last Friday, I got word that nurseries were going to have to close up shop because all non-essential businesses were mandated to do so. I know what you’re thinking – but those nurseries are necessary for the garden and hence, our very sanity! All kidding aside, while I understood the ruling, it galvanized me into action. Okay, so my daughter chose to say I went into a kind of shopper’s mad frenzy.

I went to my favorite local nursery and loaded up on plants, potting soil, seeds etc., Because it is early in the season, the inventory was not large. However, I could see that we weren’t likely to have any plants to buy in the foreseeable future – I mentally changed certain design plans and picked up alternatives to try out. Taking this as a challenge of sorts, I pulled my mind out of a fixed vision and opened it up to new possibilities. After all, if things don’t turn out great, there’s a certain vicious virus I can blame.

Underlying my frenzied buying, was the fact that all inventory not sold would in all likelihood go to waste. Such a shame no? But even more heartbreaking is that the employees at the nursery, who over the years have become my dear friends would be unemployed/unpaid. I was truly emotional about this. The growers who’d been preparing all winter for the spring would also have to face colossal financial loss. How many businesses will go under is frightening to think about. Not being able to do anything but buy all that I could was frustrating. Unfortunately, there will be such casualties in practically every industry.

Having brought home more than I’d ever planned, the weekend was spent totally in the garden. With the college student home, the extra pair of hands was very welcome. The child who once groaned at being given garden chores was actually happy to do whatever was needed. She weeded, re-potted, moved things, planted, watered – all in good cheer. I think that another generation has become an avid gardener!

We raked and reseeded the tiny front lawn, fixed some hardscape stuff, added several perennials in the front beds as well as the herb garden. The very large pots were brought out of storage, filled with fresh soil and planted with pansies and daffodils – when it is warm enough, the bay standards will emerge from the greenhouse and settle into them for the growing seasons. I have to say it felt particularly life affirming and gratifying. Nature applied her healing balm on my heart.

[ Having done all that work, it snowed all of yesterday. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or scream. Eventually, I did neither. Shrugged my shoulders – what will be will be. In the grand scheme …]

On my visit to the nursery, I’d bought extra flats of pansies and very young daffodils. Sunday afternoon, I potted up combinations of those in an assortment of containers. They will be distributed to friends and neighbors who are either immnuno-compromised and/or elderly and living alone. Simply spreading some much needed spring cheer. It feels so inadequate but I know every little bit of support and help makes a difference. I want the recipients to know they matter to us, their community.

As I did my garden work, I thought about the strange time we’re in. This social distancing and staying home has opened up opportunities to connect to each other – our families, friends, neighbors and community. With no place to go we have time to listen, to observe, to share, to reach out. Each task I do, I find myself doing it mindfully – there is, after all, no rush. We’re now so much more aware of our inherent need for social bonds.

This is our moment to be our better selves. To be the person our mothers raised us to be. Or, to be the person your dog things you are.

Flowers always make people better, happier and more hopeful: they are sunshine, food and medicine to the soul.”- Botanist Luther Burbank

Note: The images are in reverse order! I’m having a small technical issue.

Most of the haul from the nursery

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Staying Calm And Staying Home

How much has changed in one week. It has been so fast paced that it’s taken me a while to really consider our shared situation and come to terms with it. These are unprecedented times and it calls for unprecedented action. Social distancing, self-isolation, preparing for ‘just-in-case’, working from home (if possible), staying home all together – all new to most of us. For myself, working from home is normal but everything else is a challenge. However, I’m resolute in rising to the occasion. There is no choice. If not now, then when?

All of a sudden, the world is no longer as we know it. From people going on shopping frenzies to hoard up on everything including the kitchen sink to price gouging on essential products, to all cultural centers and performances coming to a halt to cavalier folks who don’t care about the community risks they present, it can be a little too scary and upsetting. Take a nice, long deep breath. Exhale slowly. Keep your calm. Together, we shall overcome.

Here is how I see it. We must all do our part for the sake of our family, our neighborhood, our town, our state, our nation , our planet. This might sound trite but in reality, it is pretty much what we must do. That said, I, along with my family, are socially distancing ourselves. It’s an adjustment. To have a full house with each one needing space to work in quiet itself is not easy. When one is on a conference call, the others must remain quiet. When the musician can be practice, the dinner prepared, a workout done to motivating music and such, require thoughtful coordination. We called a family meeting and after much talk, the conclusion was that each of us promise to help, support and behave ourselves. Nothing earth shattering. Simple kindness and consideration is in high demand at home and elsewhere. A sense of humor is a bonus. Admittedly, it is easy for the humor to turn dark.

Work is all very well. But how are we going to use our down time? Right off, suggestions for movies and TV shows pour forth. And thank goodness for this entertainment option. With nowhere to go, Netflix, Hulu, Apple, Amazon Prime etc., are godsends. The big mountain of books waiting for readers can now be conquered. Board games and puzzles are on the ready.

We’ve made a list of home projects (room by room) – what, when and by whom put down. I need the element of accountability. For myself there is the all-important creativity of painting and writing projects, the drudge of paperwork, recipes to try, business ideas to flesh out. But most importantly, there is the garden.

I’m so very grateful that whatever we are all currently facing is happening right now and not at any other time of year. Spring is officially starting this Thursday and crocuses have joined the hellebores in the garden. Nothing like the sight of the flowers to lift the spirits. Just as the news got dire, the crocuses started popping up as if on cue. The white forsythia is in full bloom too. Every day is adding more color to the landscape. Hallelujah! Spring is all about hope and good things to come.

A quick visit to my favorite nursery last Saturday paid off nicely. I got what I needed to put up the spring window-boxes. The daffodils and tete-a-tetes are still very young but should be trumpeting loudly by Passover/Easter. In the meantime, the mango hued pansies will carry the ensemble nicely. That simple activity cheered me up no end.

I also pulled out the last of the hyacinths and crocuses cooling in the refrigerator and potted them up. In a couple of weeks its going to be hyacinth heaven indoors.

Some of the nursery daffodils have a separate purpose. I’m going to pot them up to drop off at friends who are living alone and/or do not dare get out into the world because of immune-compromised health. For sure they could use some flower power.

On the subject of thinking about helping ones community, I got word that there is a need in my town for Meals-On-Wheels driver/volunteers. My daughter, now home from college ( for the foreseeable future) has responded to this call. I believe that college students can play a vital role during this Covid-19 crisis. They are less vulnerable, amply capable, familiar with their towns and able to do many things that put older volunteers at risk. Just putting it out there.

Similarly, restaurants have closed but take-out and delivery is being offered. A couple of meals from such businesses per week will help those businesses – they are not just hurting but actually hemorrhaging. Our support is desperately needed.

Lets look for additional ways to help our communities, each other. Doing something that serves a cause is a guaranteed to make our days better. When I’m busy doing positive, productive things, there’s simply no time for fear, panic or boredom.

In addition to spending time working in the garden which itself is so healing, I’m determined to go walking for a minimum of 30 minutes every day. Fresh air and sunshine are proven health boosters. We all know this. But in case you’re feeling particularly attached to the couch, think about this – during the Spanish flu pandemic, patients treated outdoors (the overflow of patients in San Fransisco for example) did far better than those cared for indoors.

Explore the State and county Parks (NY has waived all entry fees) and visit our many beautiful public gardens. They are open, never overly crowded and absolutely just what our bodies, minds and spirits need.

Stay safe, be well everybody. We’re in this together.

P.S – Please feel free to reach out, share tips and ideas or, just your thoughts. Or at least a joke! We must stay connected.

Scenes from my garden at present –

More snowdrops coming through

Forcing hyacinths

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar