Sharp And Smart

This week, I’m taking advantage of the January lull and getting organized with my garden tools and accessories. I love gadgets and tend to want every new and improved contraption that comes my way. Over the years however, I’ve wised up to myself and don’t give in to every temptation. The tools I actually use over and over and cannot do without are a small selection of tried and true implements.

I’m conscientious about keeping tools clean and easily accessible. It’s my co-gardener who tends to create disorder by not putting things back in their rightful places. It drives me crazy to have to search for simple things like secateurs and trowels. Worse, he always denies such travesties. This pattern is clearly not going to change. Instead, I make sure to have multiple secateurs and trowels available and I hide my very favorite ones. Yes, I resort to such devious practices because they not only safeguard my own trusty tools but also preserve domestic peace. That latter bit is high priority – one cannot let petty problems sabotage the harmony at home.

After a year of extensive use, most blades and edges lose their sharpness. It’s not only frustrating to deal with tools that do not work well but, they can cause harm to plants by tearing and fraying them at the cut. So, I’ve rounded up the mower blade from the push reel-mower, different pruning shears, sawtooth knives, shovels and such to drop off at the local hardware store for professional sharpening.

The hand-held secateurs and scissors are given the once over and kept in good working condition by using them to cut up different grades of sandpaper. This is an easy, effective method to sharpen them at home.

It pays to start with good quality instruments. But taking care of them is a commitment that will ensure a good many years if not a lifetime of devoted service. Clean after use, put back in place, sharpen and/or lubricate regularly, be thankful for having them. That’s my mantra.

I use the tool sharpening trip to the hardware store to stock up on twine, stakes and other necessary accessories. Replace worn-out gloves perhaps?

In a couple of weeks, the roses and grapevines will need pruning. While it isn’t fun to do this task in the cold, the job gets done quickly with well sharpened tools. And soon enough, it’ll be time to mow and dig, trim and train. I shall be ready!

Note: The Open Day for my garden through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program has been scheduled for Saturday, May 22. When the Conservancy determines the new Covid-safe protocols, I’ll keep you posted. Mark your calendar and keep fingers crossed!

Here are some early March images from last year –

The newest addition to my tool kit.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

In The Beginning …

The first week of a brand new year. Much hope and expectations rests on it. Everything will be better, bigger, brighter. Gardeners have a bit of an edge here. We are after all, an optimistic lot. Practical too. Never mind the countless plants that died on our watch, the misdemeanors of the weather that put paid to plans and designs or, the times pests took control away from us. We not only carry on but our determination to succeed gets stronger. It’s not because we simply repeat our efforts but that we are good learners.

Gardeners are students of life. We observe, experiment, record, research all the time. We share information freely, heed advice from the experienced. We are constantly collecting and collating information (not on paper but mostly in our heads ). And then, we boldly go and garden our hearts out.

At the start of a new year, in the icy grip of winter, I’m grateful for the time to look back at the past year, review what was successful and what was not. Importantly, I note why. If something I specifically did to make it go either way, I learn what I must change. If however a cool spell kept pollinators away and the apple blossoms went unpollinated and so couldn’t bear fruit, I just accept that it was not in my control.

However, I also dream big at this time. This year, I tell myself , my garden will be brilliant. I will be brilliant. Seeds will be ordered and started on time. Planting, weeding, digging, pruning, deadheading, dividing, watering – every task will be done properly and regularly. And I’m going to do them all perfectly. I can see this amazing garden so clearly! Thriving through the seasons, blooming exuberantly and on time, providing fruit and vegetables in abundance, free of pests, weeds and bad weather.

I know at the same time that I’m merely dreaming of the impossible, reaching for the unreachable. Life is never that straightforward. I’ll get in my own way, the weather will not cooperate and the unpredictable will necessarily disrupt plans. The beauty of this is that, no matter what, the garden will still grow and do its best. And as a good learner, so must I.

In that spirit, I’m beginning the year by getting my gardening calendar organized. For years I had a new year’s day ritual of filling out a physical calendar – obviously started in a time before electronic devices. I realized last year, that I missed my old calendar where I could readily see what chores were scheduled every day. I’m unable to say exactly why I feel the need to revert but I am. I’m now armed with all my garden chores and plans listed and scheduled both on the calendar sent by the Nature Conservancy as well as the ones on my laptop and phone.

Some seed packets have arrived and I await a few more. Seed starting pots, trays and medium are ready and waiting. I’d written about acquiring self-watering pots for tomatoes and other veggies – it’s been done! Three of them arrived last week. Later in the week, I’ll home in on other plants to purchase and source and order them from my favorite local or specialist nursery in time for spring planting. Tools will be sharpened, stakes, ties and twine stocked, leaky watering hoses and cans replaced. To be prepared is half the victory.

Indeed, in the beginning, hope and resolve reign.

Note: While we continue in anxiety filled circumstances, let’s remember that we’re all in this together. As we work in the garden, we will dig ourselves out of these times and emerge stronger. But first, lets be there for each other.

I share with you a few of my recent watercolors of seed heads and pods. They are full of promise for a future full of potential, possibilities and prosperity.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

No Challenge, No Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: Looking backwards –

December

November

October

October

September

August

August

August

July

June

May

May

May

April

March

February

January

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Natural Instincts

When you take away the commercial hype, the holidays are really all about nature and our relationship with it.

First, there’s the emphasis on light. Life on Earth is sustained by sunlight. Compensating for the short days of winter, we turn to our own illuminations. We light candles – to honor and remember, to disperse the dark, to give hope, to celebrate. Lights are strung outdoors wrapping bare limbs of trees, on gates and around pillars, porches and bushes. Lawns come alive with all sorts of illuminated scenes. Indoors, mantles, windows, banisters, doorways and the Christmas tree twinkle like stars. Fireplaces glow and dance – truth be told, we light ours as much for it’s bright ambiance as its warmth.

For me personally, the Winter Solstice is a turning point. The sheer knowledge that with each passing day we gain a minute of sunlight, buoys my spirits considerably. It is life affirming.

In our quest to decorate our homes for the festive season, we resort to nature. The tree, wreaths, garlands, roping, amaryllis, paperwhites, poinsettia and other flowers, strings of nuts in their shells, dried slices of oranges and whole spices such as cinnamon and star anise, pomanders of citrus studded with cloves bring fragrance and beauty to the celebrations. I have cinnamon ornaments made decades ago that still infuse the air with its aroma. One year, we were in Aruba for the holidays – we decorated our tree with sea shells gathered from the beach. So many of the other ornaments are modeled after nature – birds, animals, flowers, fruits and vegetables ( I’m amazed that holiday pickle ornaments are so popular!) abound. Stars, suns and moons made of paper (punched or plain), wood, metal, glass or even plastic allude to our romance with the celestial. Surrounding ourselves with elements of the natural world is important and essential to our physical, mental and spiritual health. Nature – we cannot, will not, must not get away from her.

So, give yourself permission to go all out. Decorate, illuminate, celebrate. It’s but natural.

Happy Holidays one and all. Be healthy, stay safe.

Trimming The Tree

Love hangs memories

on awaiting arms

twinkling happy thoughts

as new stories get written.

While the past is shed

the present unfolds itself

into the future.

                                                                              – Shobha Vanchiswar

Light Affirming

Winter’s stingy light

ekes out thin ribbons

of measured hours

Unlike generous summer

providing lugubrious lengths

of unfiltered radiance.

In the cold, rarefied light

the spirit wanes in echo

Till warm, broad rays

rekindle one’s love affair with life.

                                                                          – Shobha Vanchiswar

The next 6 images: the first  are from driving around neighborhoods and the other 4 are from Untermyer Gardens. Do try and visit!

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Leaning Into The Light

Despite the shorter days, I’ve been feeling upbeat. As someone who is quite affected by the reduced hours of sunlight, this is significant. I’ve found ways to keep me from going down the dark hole of gloom and apathy.

As soon as I wake up in the morning, I do 20 minutes of light therapy. Emulating sunlight, it informs my body that it is time to kick start my day. During this time, I meditate ( another proven health practice) for 10 minutes and use the remaining time to plan my day and get me in the right state of mind.

Following this ritual, I reach for coffee. And then I workout. Not because I’m gung-ho about exercise but because the endorphins after the exertion really keep me energized for the rest of the day. I’ve found this series of steps gets me through the early hours of the morning when it is still relatively dark. By the time I’m showered and at my easel or laptop, I’m feeling infinitely better. Overcast skies can now be managed. If the sun is shining, I’m truly ecstatic.

By lunch time I’ve typically got in a couple of good hours of work and I’m ready for a break. Outdoors. Unless it’s raining, I make it a point to get outside for a minimum of 30 minutes. A turn around the garden can last even longer – it just feels so good to be in it without having any chores! I notice so much more. Recently, I examined the climbing hydrangea and it was full of small, pale green buds. I’ve only ever checked this plant in early spring when I’m busy searching for signs of growth in every part of the garden. So I’m not sure if these buds are normal – similar to magnolias which sport their fuzzy buds all through winter. Or, should I be concerned. A little research is required. Either way, I’d have learned something.

A quick survey of whats doing in the greenhouse can be exciting. If a scented geranium is in bloom, I’ll cut the flowers for a tiny arrangement by my bedside. However, when a jasmine is adorned in buds, the whole pot comes indoors – when the flowers open, the perfume wafts all through the house transporting one to warmer, sun drenched climes.

At present, the greenhouse is cheerful in citrus – Calamondin oranges, Meyer lemons and regular lemons hang like orbs of bright sunshine. I’m always amazed that I’m growing my own lemons! And when I use them in the kitchen, its just so exciting. And precious.

Note: the Calamondin oranges are small, too sour and seedy to eat. So they are good for decorations or squeezed into cocktails in need of something tart.

Most days, I also take a walk in the neighborhood. I observe birds and trees. Often, a friend or two will join me. Its a lovely way to have a quick catch up. Regularly connecting to others is so comforting.

When I get back into the house, I’m revived and ready for several more hours of work. Nature therapy works wonders.

By sunset, I begin to feel the growing darkness impact my mood. It’s a good time to turn on all the lights in the room I’m in. For the next few weeks, my Christmas ‘bush’ ( as my daughter is allergic to conifers indoors, the largest bay standard I own is the stand-in) adds to the brightness in the home. Since strings of LED lights are used, I leave them on all the time. The twinkling sight is such a spot of cheer. Lit candles and a hot cup of tea round out this late afternoon ritual. The practice serves to reassure me that it’s all okay. I’ll be okay.

Paperwhites in bloom and amaryllis in bud are some of the things infusing hope and positivity all around the house. I’d saved some of the spent alliums from late spring and spray painted them gold over this past weekend– they now sit in a radiant arrangement in the living room. Alliums up-cycled! Alliums have served me very well this year. First, they made the garden look so beautiful in late spring. Then, if you recall, I painted a whole bunch of them red, white and blue to celebrate the Fourth. Here we are in December, still enjoying them. I think I’ll hold on to these gilded beauties well into the new year.

Doing the many things that keep one in good spirits takes me smoothly into the evening and I’m better prepared to enjoy it.

Contrary to how the shorter days feel, this is the season of Light. Starting with Diwali – the Indian festival of lights, Hanukkah – the Jewish festival of lights, the Winter Solstice which signals the gradual lengthening of days and finally Christmas – celebrating love and peace. I honor them all. I’m down for anything that commemorates life, love and light.

Note: For holiday gifts and sprucing up your home, do check out the Printed Garden Collection!

Bay tree in festive attire

Alliums in bloom in the spring

On patriotic duty

In the Holiday spirit

Amaryllis coming along

Paperwhites

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

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

 

Transitions And Traditions

Transition : the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.

Tradition : the handing down of information, beliefs, or customs from one generation to another.

Over the weekend, the cutting back, clearing and mulching got started. The leaves were raked and added to the compost pile. There are sufficient ‘safe harbors’ in the garden for all manner of critters that the general clean up does not make the garden inhospitable. While it is necessary to provide shelter for birds and such, it is also important to get ready for the next growing season. Equilibrium

The big in-ground bulb planting took place a couple of weeks ago. But I also wanted bulbs to pot up so I went to my local nursery and got myself the leftovers from their bulb stock. While one has a very small variety to select from this late in the season, it is actually fun for me to not have too much choice. The combinations can be unusual and quite lovely. The bonus is that the prices are highly discounted. I also picked up a bag of 10 hyacinths marked ‘assorted’ – it was added to the bulbs already cooling in the refrigerator. I’m so curious to see just what colors those hyacinths will be!

I started many paperwhites as well. For me, they start off the winter – watching them grow and bloom never fails to thrill. I love how the green and white cheer up the rooms in the house. By the time they are finished, the amaryllis have begun growing. The cooling bulbs follow the amaryllis and then the potted up bulbs. It’s a progression I absolutely need to get me through the winter.

At this time, the work in the garden is all about transition. Closing out one season and moving into the next. What we do now determines the future. When we cut back and clean up, we are getting rid of debris and potential disease. We are making space ready for new growth. Seeds are collected to ensure a continuity in succession and hence our own supply of flowers and food.

As I wash, dry and put away pots and tools, I’m conscious that my effort now means I get a good start in the spring. What needs repair or replacement, I address at this time. It is reassuring to know that everything is ready and in good order. I am prepared.

Gardeners follow traditions and wisdom handed down from those who gardened before them. None of what we do is new. It’s been happening through the ages. How we do them might’ve changed. New inventions and understandings drive us forward but in essence, we are still practicing a well known sequence of chores and order.

At this current time of uncertainty, it’s easy to feel frustrated and/or anxious. It seems so outside ones control. However, I believe there are things we can do in our own immediate spheres that will collectively impact the big world. As gardeners we already have a role in making the world beautiful, bountiful and healthy. Our gardens are havens for all manner of living beings. We are but custodians of this precious earth. So it follows that we conduct ourselves responsibly and with thoughtful attention.

In turn, we are setting an example for the next generation of gardeners. The tradition of gardening and caring for the world, the knowledge of lessons learned, the gain of progress and innovation so when the time comes the trowel is passed smoothly and with grace.

Perennial bed 1 before cut back and mulching

Perennial bed 2 . Before.

Bed 1. After

Bed 2. After.

Pots with bulbs ready to winter over.

The urn getting prepared

Paperwhites

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar