Press Reset

While I’ve given myself a garden hall pass this month, it doesn’t mean I’ve stopped thinking about all matters of gardening. It’s been really nice to do the bare minimum in the garden as the weather has improved – gives one the freedom to bask in the sunshine without guilt. That’s a really rare thing as gardeners are perpetually filled with guilt because there is always and forever several things wanting attention. Having decisively given myself permission to take it easy has been liberating. It’s so much more fun to be amidst the plants and observe the goings on sans reservation.

However, the mind is always working. In a good way. By letting the garden sort of do its own thing, I see how it’s quite apparent that we gardeners, need to reset our artistic expectations of our gardens. Rather than wielding a strict hand on the aesthetics, we must loosen up to work more with nature and changing climate. Our gardens should reflect an awareness of environmental and sustainable requirements, be sympathetic to the needs and habits of native flora and fauna.

I’ve often referred to my meadow as an area of controlled chaos. This is primarily because the native plants have a tendency to look wild as they are let to self-seed and edited only when a plant is trying to overpopulate itself in a thuggish manner. With the knowledge that the fittest, the ones most suited to the conditions offered here do best, I learn from the plants. As much as I might desire a more varied array of natives, and I’m willing to trial them all, I have learned to acquiesce to the workings of nature. What thrives supports a happy number of pollinators and is an ecologically beneficial environment. That is after all the whole point of what I have attempted.

On the other hand, I had originally designed the beds in the front garden to be more traditional – tidier and charming like a cottage garden. More in keeping with what might be universally appreciated by viewers from the street. This is pretty much still true through spring when the bulbs are the principal players. However, over the years, I have replaced the more demanding/cantankerous yet popular summer perennials with natives. I did so for two reasons – one was that the native plants are hardy, reliable and low maintenance. The other was to give a visitor a preview of what is to come as they gradually make their way to the meadow in the far back. Design-wise, it provided continuity instead of giving the garden a split personality. Consequently, the beds take on a wild look in summer and fall. But how they hum, buzz and flutter with pollinators! There is so much more life and movement than ever before.

Both, the front beds as well as the meadow don’t require watering except in times of severe dry spells. A dose of compost and cedar mulch keeps the front beds relatively weed free and helps the soil retain moisture longer. The meadow requires no such applications whatsoever. All in all, so much better for the environment as well as the gardener.

It’s true that many perennials peter out early. This point occurred to me every year until more recently I accepted that I must use annuals to fill in those gaps of color in certain places like the terrace and around the side porch. This is no different from the window-boxes and pots that are filled with annuals to pep up the aesthetics.

Keep in mind, those perennials that have finished blooming, continue to serve. The seed heads ripen and feed the birds and other creatures as they prepare for the cold season ahead. In addition, their intricate designs and shapes have inspired me to paint them. I have a wonderful series going!

Ultimately, the looser, wilder native plantings, respond best to the dire calls for longevity, sustainability and sound ecology while still looking beautiful. It really is time to reconsider our gardens and adapt our design sensibilities accordingly. A shift in mindset makes us winners all around.

Fall is a good time for planting native perennials – get cracking!

Note: Last Saturday, I visited the gardens at Hay Honey Farm in New Jersey. I was thrilled to see that they too have a meadow similar to mine and even the other borders have the same natural sensibilities as mine. Except, theirs are far more extensive and better maintained!

My wild show: One gardener’s paradise and anothers hell?!

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Plant Perspective

Last Sunday was most wonderful. The day sparkled in September sunlight with comfortable temperatures and a promise of fun to come. I was scheduled to attend the plant sale at Hollister House in Washington. CT. Following a gap of almost two years, the anticipatory thrill felt new and yet, oh, so familiar!

This was no ordinary plant sale. You were not going to find the most trendy or popular plants. Small growers in the Northeast who specialize in the less common, the special, some rare and others just less known. Many native plants. Most importantly to me, for the most part, they’re grown in the open so they are proven to be hardy in this region. I had missed these plant sales and chatting with the growers themselves. Nothing like firsthand knowledge. For those who’re familiar with these purchasing opportunities know exactly how wonderful they are. So friendly, helpful and modest about their valuable work.

I went with no list or plan about buying anything. Honestly, I simply needed to be in the midst of such an event once again. However, knowing myself and certain that I’d come upon irresistible plants, I went armed with cash, checkbook and credit card. Sensible shoes too. I was not disappointed.

Note: not all vendors accept credit cards.

The sheer joy of being in a spectacular garden, seeing familiar faces and confronting the myriad plant possibilities made me giddy. Having a glass of wine in hand elevated the experience to sublime.

Chat and purchase I did. I bought some must-haves and some cannot-live-withouts. Heaven!

To get really serious for a moment, it is of the highest importance to champion our regional growers. Locally grown plants do better. Supporting these nurseries also means supporting the economy of where we live. Often, they grow plants that could be at risk of being lost or forgotten but are valuable to the preservation of native fauna and flora. I purchased two yellow Slipper orchids – they are hard to source so I was very pleased to find them here.

Many growers also offer interesting, special non-native treasures. Bear in mind, as long as about 70% of the plants in your garden are native/eco-beneficial, it is perfectly fine to have some non-native, non-invasive treasures. Case in point, I bought a new-to-me peony – P. obovata Japanese Pink. Take a look at their bright seedpods in the image below.

Simply put, these folk are vital to how and why we create gardens. Support them – they’re heroes. Look for similar plant sales or visit them directly. You will not regret it.

A word about Hollister House. It is a most wonderful garden that appeals to all the senses. The painterly color combinations, textures, fragrance, shapes, sounds of water and pollinators and, designs of the many rooms cannot fail to delight and instruct. My daughter who grew up being taken ( dragged she says) to many, many famous, fabulous, unique and also not so well-known gardens, declares Hollister House as the best garden she’s ever visited. Do check out their website and plan a visit.

Now, I must get into the garden to install my cache of new plants.

Some nurseries to check out:

McCueGardens – 47, Hartford Avenue, Weathersfield, CT 06109

Broken Arrow Nursery – www.brokenarrownursery.com

Cricket Hill Garden – www.crickethillgarden.com

Falls Village Flower Farm – www.fallsvillageflowerfarm.com

Note: Some images of the gardens at Hollister House and plant growers –

Seedpod of P odovata

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Exposing True Colors

My Digging Deeper event ‘Wilding Walls And Fruiting Fences’ took place last Sunday. The weather cooperated beautifully and I was more than ready to welcome the folk who’d signed up. That they were willing to spend their Sunday morning in my garden felt very special. I was in my happy place – a chance to be with gardeners/garden lovers exchanging garden ideas, information and experiences is my favorite pastime. I was not disappointed – this was a wonderful group of friendly, curious and intelligent individuals. Such a pleasure.

I’m used to sharing my garden with the public through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program – which is normally in May. Mid-Spring is when it looks most beautiful. And winter weary visitors are particularly complimentary on seeing plants fresh in their new growth, flaunting bright colors.

Late summer however, is not when my garden is at its best. Typically, there is a certain fatigue that sets in as summer is drawing to an end and fall isn’t quite ready to take over. Additionally, I’m most often away on vacation at this time so, the garden has that neglected appearance that makes any self-respecting gardener cringe. This year, while I am very much present, the weather was seriously disagreeable that things did not look much improved. As such, how the garden appeals is pretty much up to the beholder.

In front, the beds that look fetching in a parade of bulbs and early perennials through spring, become boisterous as summer perennials take over. Likewise, the meadow moves from a space of happy bulbs frolicking around to a space thick in all manner of native plants jockeying for space and attention. To those who are accustomed to a garden being well contained and tidy, this can come as bit of a shock. If one spends a little time in the garden however, they’d become aware of the life that this garden supports. Birds, butterflies, bees and all manner of other insects abound. This is exactly what I intended for my piece of paradise.

To please a traditionalist, short of giving my garden complete re-constructive surgery, there isn’t much I can do. Not that I really expect to please everyone at any time.

The garden had taken a beating this year because we’ve had really bad weather. First a spring that was mostly too cold and dry and then a very hot and wet summer. Extremely challenging. Plants struggled, many bloomed but the flowers could barely last. Things were early or late but not particularly on time. Some plants simply gave up trying.

A visitor was going to witness a rather wild looking, not so conventional garden. I know it is not everybody’s cup of tea. As I prepared for the big day doing the usual weeding and tidying up, I was acutely conscious of all that was not right. The flaws glared at me. In addition, certain matters that I kept meaning to address but did not because I am freshly returned from a trip and short on time, were now plainly obvious to me. Why hadn’t I taken care of trimming my side of the neighbors hedge? And what about those annuals I intended to plant to ignite the color palette in the beds and meadow? Why did I let the thuggish (but loved) members to spread unchecked? Honestly, all I could see was everything that was not right.

On behalf of my garden, I felt very vulnerable and exposed.

On the morning of my Digging Deeper, I had my fingers crossed for kind, understanding eyes to be cast on the garden. I needn’t have worried. The visitors were ever so generous in their observations. They noticed the flowers and many features and commented enthusiastically. On spying hummingbirds, there were such expressions of joy. And when it came to the focus of the event, I had a rapt audience eager to understand the art and science of espalier and vertical gardening.

Suddenly, I was seeing my garden through their eyes. They appreciated the variety of native flowers in bloom – not splashy but nevertheless pretty. A couple of people had seen my garden in spring on past Open Days. They too were taken by the summer display – something that I feared was less than best. I realized then, they were gardeners – they understood the vagaries of the weather, the vanity of the gardener and the wonder contained in all gardens.

By letting others tour my garden in all its authentic reality, without any pretension, I had freed myself to share my own experiences and knowledge in exactly the same way. In turn, I gained a new found appreciation of my humble garden and the people who choose to visit it.

Here are some images from my Digging Deeper morning –

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

My Big Little Garden

A few days ago, I watched the The Big Little Farm – ‘an award-winning documentary about bringing a farm back to life after years of neglect. New farmers, the Chester family, work with nature – not against it – to create a living system with biodiversity where each plant, animal and insect contributes to the health of the land’. I encourage everyone to watch it. It is inspiring, informative, life-affirming and heartwarming.

The basic principles applied in the film are easily implemented in our gardens both public and private. It is how we humans should be cultivating the land. In harmony with nature, maintaining that balance that is so fragile and yet so critical.

The day after I saw the Big Little Farm, I sat a while outside thinking about the film. I could drew a parallel with the evolution of my own garden. When we first bought our property, it was a completely neglected piece of land. The house, built in 1915 was sound and solid. It needed updating but nothing drastic. The garden however, was a total shamble. Left on its own for a few years, it had lost the the battle with the woods in the back which had started encroaching well into the property. We had to measure exactly where the property line was and then started removing all manner of invasive vegetation and debris.

To the side of the property, weeds had quite literally become trees. You couldn’t walk there let alone examine that side of the house. Just out of grad school, we were so naive that we bought the house without really knowing what condition this part was in. After we closed on the house, we had to hire a tree service to remove the “weeds” and open up the space to create a proper path connecting front to back. Mercifully, that side of the house was intact.

In front, there were sickly evergreens right up against the house. They’d grown so tall and gangly that you couldn’t quite see the house. Imagine how dark it felt inside.

Separating us from our neighbors on either side were jungle-like hedges and raggedy shrubs totally gone out of control. In general, we’d inherited a complete mess.

Slowly, we cleared and cut, waited and watched, planned and prepared. I realized I could create garden ‘rooms’ with the different levels that were naturally presented. One squarish area sat atop the old septic tank. This meant that beneath a foot and a half to two feet of soil, was a thick layer of concrete. Nothing with deep roots would do well here. I made it the potager where herbs and vegetables could grow. (The neighbor’s cedar tree was much shorter at that time – it is now huge and casts more shade than I’d like). The fact that I’ve added native wisteria and espaliered pears on two sides of this space is typical of how I’m always pushing the limits.

After the clearing and opening up happened in the front, a charming garden was envisioned. I believe I succeeded and the beds are a happy mix of bulbs and mostly native perennials that have something in bloom through three seasons. It starts off in spring looking colorful and orderly, then gradually gets looser and assertive in the summer and by the fall, it looks rather wild and rambunctious. I like it that way. As do the bees and butterflies.

The meadow in the back was my big push to eliminate all lawn and create a lush area of native plants where native wildlife could thrive and result in an ecosystem that was in balance. This is the most ambitious project in the garden. It’s still evolving but, it is certainly already the busiest area! Birds, bees, butterflies, worms, toads, garden variety snakes and a whole slew of other insects thrive here.

Right from the start, we knew we wanted to practice organic methods and began composting kitchen and garden waste. We also set up a rain barrel to water the garden. We eschewed gas powered mowers and found ourselves a manual push-reel mower that had been put out at the curb for garbage pick-up. This was in the early 1990’s. We knew nobody who was composting or using rain barrels. Gas was cheap and non-organic products were prolific. We were bucking the trend and labeled quaint or hippie-ish. This was amusing to me – I have a strong background in Microbiology and molecular biology. All I’d been doing was applying that knowledge to restore the health of the soil and ecosystem of the land. Straightforward science.

Through old-fashioned research ( pre-Google) and much trial and error, the garden is now a place of biodiversity, beauty and balance. It is a very hardworking garden and tries to serve all life forms well. As small as it is, this garden works big. I’m constantly learning and growing with it. Perhaps most significantly, it stands testament to what each of us blessed with a bit of land (or pots) can do to become a contributing part of the larger effort to keep our planet and ourselves healthy, happy and in harmony.

Note: A bit of what’s doing in the garden this week –

Some images from how the garden used to be. I wish I’d known to take more photos of the ‘Before’.

The potager/herb garden is ready for planting!

A bit of the mess on the side-path taken from indoors.

The original front garden!

Ripping up turf and compacted soil over the old septic tank

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Whatever May Come

The only thing consistent about May has been its inconsistency. It has run the gamut of all four seasons in three short weeks and now, in its final stretch, we finally get to enjoy the month as it ought.

The intense heat last week put paid to the tulips and I’m still feeling cheated. It was a very short time with them. Meanwhile, the alliums are ablaze and I can only hope they will last longer. Much longer.

The two clematis at the arch in front are in full flower – typically, the buds open in sequence allowing one to enjoy them in a prolonged manner. Not this year.

It feels as though spring has been cruelly compressed. I worry this might well be the pattern to come. Globally, we are experiencing unusual weather. From heavy rains in some parts to high heat to others and widespread strong winds whipping up frequently. Nothing is typical or predictable. Like it or not, climate change is underway.

In my little corner, I see that I need to be flexible and think deeply about future plans and plants with climate changes in mind. For instance, I’m still going to order bulbs because I cannot imagine a spring without them but my expectations will be more in accordance with the reality.

These developments also underline strongly the need for us all to look to native and/or ecologically beneficial plants that are proven to be hardy and adaptable.

The rain barrel serves well during the dry spells – best to seriously start looking to conserve water. Pots are watered as needed. We turn on the hose to water the plants in the ground only when and if it has been unbearably dry and there is a threat of plant loss.

I’ve taken to checking the bird bath assiduously. Between the heat and wind, it seems to dry out very quickly. The same diligence with the hummingbird feeders. With heat, the sugar water begins to ferment and can harm the wee birds. There is a helpful guide that I follow about when to replace the water. Note: always clean the feeder before each refill.

It’s easy to feel the lack of control in the garden when the weather is so uncertain. However, I’ve found solace in doing my part in tending to the chores that are in my control. That covers my choice of plants, organic, sustainable practices, encouraging pollinators of all kinds, conserving water and most importantly, accepting change. That last one is truly hard and my progress has been slow. Very

Yet, I must persist. My planet is counting on me. And you.

Note: Reminder! My Open Garden Day is June 5. Get tickets online.

Alliums coming up strong. Camassia too.

First iris

Clematis

Calycanthus

Alliums taking over from the tulips

Last of the tulips

Itoh/intersectional peony

Primula in a friend’s garden

Buttercups with primula.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Stock And Bond

Summer is winding down and frankly, I’m eager for cooler temperatures. Between the heat, humidity and biting critters, it’s made gardening less than pleasant. Simply being in the garden is uncomfortable. Given the current paucity of options for visiting, socializing and entertainment, not being able to spend enough time in my garden has been quite frustrating,

However, taking the lessons learned from the lockdown, I’m determined to be positive and make the best of the situation. Typically, I’m away for most of August only to return to a garden in desperate need of care. Forced to stay in place this year has been an opportunity to review and reset the garden. In addition, staying on top of the weeding, feeding and general maintenance is satisfying.

Right off, I finally got around to addressing the Sanguisorba alba conundrum. This plant, obtained at a ‘rare and unusual plant’ event, has the prettiest of leaves. Serrated edged ovals of bluish green foliage gave reason to covet. And I did. After a rain shower, the beads of water sit like diamonds on the leaves. Even more reason to love it.

However, the fuzzy, white flowers are less than stellar. They look like albino woolly worms which quickly turn a sad shade of brown in the heat of the sun.

I’d just cut off the blooms so as to allow the foliage to be the real draw. But, there was always something that made even that impossible. Something that obviously agreed with me on the plant’s beauty. Japanese beetles! Every year, a whole army of the loathsome creatures would devour the leaves rendering them skeletal and unsightly. Still, I was too enchanted with the plants and just a tad too stubborn to admit they were a mistake. Till this summer.

The Sanguisorba were unhesitatingly dug up and disposed off. In their place, were planted Echinacea. Native, attractive, butterfly and bee friendly and happily hardy. I think that both, garden and gardener breathed a big sigh of relief to be rid of the burden of trying to support an inappropriate, high maintenance member. Now, there is so much more harmony in the grouping of Echinacea, Eupotorium, Asters, Solidago and Rudbeckia (the paler yellow sweet coneflower variety) and phlox/stock. The pollinators have certainly endorsed my action.

This year, I have derived so much pleasure from watching the birds in the garden, that I’ve ordered another bluebird/wren house to install in the front garden. I look forward to observing more avian activity from the comfort of the porch preferably with a drink of choice in hand. I also expect to have the increased number of birds patrol this area for bugs and such. A mutual sense of kinship I hope.

Keeping in mind that we expect to spend more time in the garden from now on, I’ve had time to consider more carefully the places and times we hangout in the garden and plan on improving these sites. More comfortable cushions for the daybed in the tree house – it’s my husband’s ‘office’ on good weather days. Better, eco-friendly (solar powered, LED) string lights for the terrace to make it festive and pretty – we are, after all, spending so much time here.

Better systems for protecting the fruit trees from marauding squirrels are under consideration. Similarly, I’m going to re-do the way we are growing tomatoes and squash in the greenhouse but keeping it under wraps till a proper plan is ready before revealing it to my husband who sees this particular growing operation as his realm. Ha.

While the weather is too hot and humid to physically do much in the garden, my mind is working overtime to improve it. For ourselves and the environment.

Note: With so many events of injustice and unrest in the news these days, there is great need to do what we can to help the victims. Please join me in supporting the American Civil Liberties Union – 50% of the profits from the sale my Printed Garden collection of soft home furnishings will be donated to the ACLU. I’m very proud of these products and I believe you will enjoy having them in your home. Together, we can do our part to make things right. Your support means so much. Stronger together.

The wall right now

Japanese beetles on the Sanguisorba

After the attack

With the removal of the Sanguisorba, the bed is reset.

Phlox

Sweet Coneflower

Bees all over the Joe Pye

Echinacea

Hibiscus

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Creature Comforts

There’s no doubt that I’ve been able to manage my concerns during this pandemic, economic crisis and national unrest because of the garden. Every single one of us has been impacted – some far more than others. How we cope has also been a matter of individual circumstances. To find myself with a garden to tend and enjoy has been nothing short of a blessing. A huge blessing.

Spending time in nature is now a scientifically established prescription for ones wellness and wellbeing. To nurture a garden has the added bonus of taking oneself out of ones own headspace to focus on doing, creating and making something beautiful and healthy. That therapy is priceless.

In having the luxury to spend more time than usual in the garden, I’ve reconnected with it in ways that I’d forgotten. In the early years, everything was new and exciting. I was creating a garden from scratch. The learning itself was exhilarating. As my vision was being realized, my other responsibilities and commitments increased. My leisure time in the garden dropped significantly. The chores got done but it became more about efficiency and completion rather than mindfulness and enjoying the process.

With the mandated ‘pause’, I have once again regained the joy and curiosity that gardening permits. Going forward, I’m determined to keep to a schedule that always provides for more hours in the garden than anywhere else. I’m so much better off that way.

One of the most rewarding benefits of hanging out in the garden is observing the other creatures also hanging out with me. The dance of yellow swallowtail butterflies floating gracefully over the meadow before they alight on their respectively chosen flowers. How quickly the butterfly moves away if a bee or wasp gets close.

There is a pair of ruby throated hummingbirds that frequent the feeder at the potager. If I sit in a particular spot under the pergola, I get a very good view of them sipping. The female makes more visits than the male. I find it even more gratifying when I notice them at the flowers in the garden. That’s why I planted them after all.

Something I haven’t yet been able to fathom is the remarkable attraction the agapanthus has for all the different pollinators. More than the lovely native plants in bloom, the pot with the agapanthus bearing large inflorescences of pretty blue flowers is, at any given time humming with bees, butterflies and hummingbird. I wonder if it is the color that has such a draw. At present, it is the only blue amidst a sea of white, pink, yellow, red and orange. Are cool colors preferred? Definitely needs further investigation.

There has been an overall paucity of butterflies this year. I hope this is due to a cyclical process and not a red flag being raised. Fingers crossed.

With this concern in mind, coming upon a mating pair of Monarch butterflies last week made me delirious with joy. I’m really eager to see their caterpillars maraud the milkweed planted just for them.

Thus far, I’ve come across two garden snakes. An urgent, telepathic request for them to have their fill of all the rodent types scurrying around and causing damage above and underground has been sent. Not sure what can be done with the surplus in chipmunks though. They have taken to behaving as if they rule the place. I simply cannot allow that and yet, I don’t know how to stop them. No nasty chemicals permitted of course. Occasionally, there is a neighbor’s cat that prowls through – I sincerely hope it is paying its passage by culling the mice.

The variety of birds that I spy on a daily basis marks my hours as well spent. This past spring, there have been three nests of robins successfully raised. I’ve also noticed fledglings of cardinals, wrens and blue jays. I know there are gold finches, downy and red bellied woodpeckers residing in the trees because I see them foraging freely in the meadow. A red tailed hawk lives somewhere in the area and paid us a visit earlier in the spring. That was an unusual yet remarkable sight.

To share the garden with them and other creatures is this gardener’s wish come true. Because, for all the effort and time I put into it, nothing would work out if not for their part in it. Though, I could do without their gifts of seeds from other parts – a certain porcelain berry trying to invade the meadow comes to mind. Birds will be birds notwithstanding.

Witnessing these natural interactions reminds me of how all living things are closely connected and responsible for maintaining the health of the environment. Their well-being is my well-being. Life is all about balance.

Black swallowtail

Mating Monarchs

Pollination in action

Hummingbird at the agapanthus

Hummingbird at feeder

Yellow swallowtail

Bee on the milkweed

Cardinal fledgling

Feeding time at the Wrens’

Robin eggs

Feeding time at the Robins’

Red Tail hawk visit

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

This Land

Last Sunday, June 14 was Flag Day. I decided to get in the spirit. It wasn’t a spontaneous decision – I’d had red, white and blue on my mind for some days. Remember when I mentioned that I’d harvested all the spent alliums? It was done primarily to give the bulbs the opportunity to fatten up for next year but the allium stems and their spherical umbels have a sculptural presence even in senescence. So, re-purposing them seemed a natural thing to do. Simply by themselves they look rather good in a vase but to me, they resemble sparklers and star bursts. Given the pandemic restrictions and the desire to have something fun to do, I got the family involved in ‘painting’ a good number of allium heads red, white and blue. When the paint had dried, they got topped with a coat of glow-in-the-dark paint.

The allium sculpture now placed in the front walkway in plain view of passersby and from inside the house is cause to smile and be reminded that it is summer – Fourth of July, picnics and fireworks. At nightfall, they do glow! FYI – I bring it indoors if rain is expected.

This whimsical project has pleased me more than you’d think.

The remaining half of the alliums will be coated gold for the holidays in December. Yes, I’m planning well ahead. Why ever not! Gardeners are nothing if not optimists.

While the big show in the garden is dominated by peonies and roses right now, I’m more enchanted with the native plants that are starting to make their presence felt. The native wisteria comes into bloom in mid-June – not as splashy or fragrant as its Asian counterparts, it blooms after leafing out. I appreciate the timing as there’s something so lovely about the green and purple display scrambling over the pergola. It’s also generally warm enough by this time for al fresco meals – can you imagine a prettier setting? The native wisteria will put out a second flush of blooms later in summer as though rewarding the gardener for taking a chance and giving it a home.

In the meadow, the allium have passed the baton to the native plants. The columbines, geums and zizia kept the alliums company but now, the geranium, woodland anemone and ornamental raspberry are taking over. It’s all less dramatic than the the bulbs but there’s a quiet comfort in observing nature in action in the meadow. The swallowtail and silver spotted skipper butterflies have been dancing madly all over the plants. The bees have gone into high gear – the hum can be loud! I watch numerous birds picking up meals for their young all day long – it must be far more exhausting to be an avian parent than a human one.

I’ve occasionally seen a garden snake in the meadow. While it is harmless, I’m always a bit skittish when Severus slithers along. Still, I wish him well – eat all the rodents please!

Its hugely exciting to see the oakleaf hydrangea covered in emerging inflorescences. Likewise, the turtleheads, cardinal flowers, Echinacea, Monarda, milkweed and other summer bloomers. With them will come more butterflies and activity. This is not only exciting, it’s also gratifying. These are all flora and fauna that belong here. This land belongs to them. I am merely the privileged steward.

Note: I am thrilled to share two things – first, each weekk, the Garden Conservancy is including news from my garden in their In My Garden – a visual diary series. If you are a GC member, it’ll be showing up in your email  in-box each week. If you are not a member, I highly recommend that you remedy that! Until such time, you can see it here.

The other news is that this is the Garden Conservancy’s 25th anniversary of the their Open Days Program. Accompanying their Annual Report, is a companion book #OpenDays25 in which, I am one of the 25 featured gardeners. I am truly honored to be in some very illustrious company! The book is full of wonderful images by the super-talented Christine Ashburn, @christine_ashburn_photography. I hope you will check out her work as well as the book when it comes out very soon this month. I’m presenting my ‘profile’ below.

Allium fireworks!

Silver spotted skippers visiting native wisteria

Geum

Woodland anemone

Ornamental raspberry

Cranesbill geranium

Intersectional peony whose name eludes me

R.leda

David Austin R. ‘Boscobel’

David Austin R. ‘ Strawberry Hills’

Bonica rose

R. New Dawn

An oakleaf hydrangea in bud

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

 

Work In Progress

A week of the big push in the garden. That means getting the last of the big chores going before settling into a rhythm of general maintenance. Weeding started in earnest – a couple of days a week, I go around the whole garden looking for the thugs. That helps me stay on top of them. Deadheading regularly keeps things tidy and checks the promiscuous from self-seeding recklessly, In some cases, it encourages repeat flowering. At present, it’s the spent daffodils that are getting lopped off so the remaining leaves can do their job of fattening up the bulbs for next year. As the early tulips finish up, I deadhead them to keep things neat even though I treat tulips like annuals. I prefer not to disturb the beds by pulling them out all together. Besides, sometimes they do condescend make a comeback.

Veggies and herbs are all planted. As are several perennials. Some annuals like cleomes and cosmos were re-introduced into the garden. My daughter recalled that when she was little, we had a ‘jungle’ of cleomes and sunflowers along the side-path that made it feel exciting and magical. Now that she’s home for the foreseeable future, I thought it might be fun to do it again. We chose a different location but I let her do the planting. Any which way she liked. Sunflowers to be added very soon. It’s always a good thing to bring back happy memories and create new ones.

The garden is now pretty much set for the season. The biggest chore we decided to undertake ( because right now, there is no excuse), was to get the far end of the garden into better shape. This area has had pachysandra as a groundcover for decades. Long before we got here. So, we’re talking a really well established patch. It had given the shrubs in its midst a hard time, encroached into the ‘meadow’ and, smothered out smaller plants. It was time to smother it out in turn.

Back breaking work it was and as much as possible was dug up. Over the now bare areas of soil, we put down layers of paper ( brown paper shopping bags and flattened cardboard boxes saved for the purpose), over-layered by breathable landscaping fabric. This should asphyxiate any remaining pachysandra and other weeds. A native groundcover like goldenstar ( Chyrysogonum virginianum) will take its place. I chose this groundcover because I think its yellow flowers will brighten the dark area and bring attention to the bigger plantings. In the fall, other native shrubs will join the oakleaf hydrangea, American holly and shrub dogwoods and Amelanchier tree already there. I’d do it now but my selections are out of stock everywhere! Not because they are so popular but because nursery stocks are low in general. Darn virus!

The simple, stone bench that sits at the front edge of this area is once again accessible and I plan to keep it that way. From this bench, it is possible to merge oneself with the meadow, observe the goings on of the pollinators, listen to the birds gossip and take a wellness moment to recharge with a healthy session of nature therapy.

Without this period of Pause, I doubt this project would’ve been undertaken. The usual excuses of lack of time would’ve been made instead. Using the current situation to improve the garden has been a blessing.

What lies ahead in the months to come is unknown. The future of practically everything is uncertain. All we have is now – to work on ourselves, our gardens, our homes and our relationships. I don’t want to waste this opportunity.

Note: Last Saturday, May 16 should’ve been our Open Day. The garden truly looked lovely and I was so sorry not to share it with anyone. Here are a few photos:

Project Pachysandra underway! Note the bench.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Fringe Benefits

It’s the simple truth that plants don’t observe months and our passage of time and seasons; they sense the fluctuations in the environment and respond accordingly. Despite everything gardener do, they know in their hearts they are not in control of their horticultural realm. Nature is the ultimate commander-in-chief and the gardener adapts, adjusts and acquiesces.

This past weekend, while a large portion of the country got blasted by tornadoes, storms, ice and snow, here in my neck of the woods, we enjoyed spring-like temperatures of 65-68 degrees and glorious sunshine. By now, we typically have severe cold and snow accumulations on the ground so a normal January thaw is only a rise in temperature just enough to give some relief where a spike to just 50 degrees feels positively balmy.

Thus far this winter has been relatively harmless. So the 60+ temperatures is kinda alarming. Yet, what can we do about it? Enjoy it! So I did. Sitting outdoors and letting the sun hit my skin felt delicious. The landscape was stark but the atmosphere was joyous. The parks and trails were busy with hikers and bikers. Nary a glum face was to be seen. Admittedly, every now and then I felt a twinge of apprehension as though waiting for the other show to drop. Though in general, I made the most of this unexpected reprieve. Taking time to examine the leaves and grasses made iridescent in the sunshine. How they glowed in tints of ocher and russet! Basking in the warm caress of sunlight did this body and soul a lot of good.

Similarly, the ice-storm we experienced early last December was unseasonal. Too cold too early. We worried about damage to trees and other plants. Yet, in the light of day, the ice coated limbs sparkled in brilliant celebration. It was beautiful. I was filled with wonder and marveled at the icicles hanging from branches and eaves, the sculptural shapes of shrubs encased in ice, the general radiance and refraction of the sunlight on ice. Instagram abounded with Insta-worthy images of beauty bound in ice. Clearly, we were all struck by this alluring danger. For a brief period we were able to stop worrying and be present to the artistry of nature.

Last summer, we went through a hot, dry period. Desperately needed rain was not happening. The lawn started browning and the leaves of many plants began drooping. In fact, my apple trees shed much of their leaves in panic. I was torn between copiously watering in the immediacy of the situation and restraining that instinct by looking at the bigger picture of climate-change and the global shortage of water. In that pathetic scene of a raggedy looking plants, the native plants stepped up and bloomed and filled my heart. Their stoic hardiness was admirable. I had a perfect opportunity to not just take note of the flowers but to actually stop and observe their bold beauty and designs. It left me with a resolve to not only add even more natives to the gardens but to give them their due in gratitude.

While we wrestle with the climate-change happening at present and do our duty in slowing/halting its progress, it helps to find the moments that uplift and understand that nature is asking us to be attentive and appreciative no matter what. Even in adversity there is grace to be gleaned. Then perhaps, we will be in a position to rise with that phoenix as it emerges from the ashes of the global climate crisis.

From the ice-storm last December:

I didn’t take any photographs over last weekend’s Spring in January. Instead I did two quick watercolor sketches. Imagine, I got to paint outdoors in January!

From last summer’s heat wave(s):

The browning’ lawn’

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar