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

Other People’s Gardens

Gardeners are an innately inquisitive lot. That’s what drives us to keep gardening year after year. How to grow anything, do it better, battle the growing conditions, … even how to save the world. But, here’s our guilty pleasure – we are most keen on investigating other people’s gardens. How and why someone else is gardening is a much indulged passion. Contrary to popular assumption, it is not about competition but rather, it is about checking on the doings of the garden community and what we can learn from it. Admittedly, there’s a bit of envy or ‘what am I missing’ every now and then. However, in equal measure comes moments of self-satisfaction and validation that one is doing well.

Garden books are a great source of information but truly, actually visiting a garden(s) teaches much more. The instruction from such visits cannot be overstated. One learns new methods and designs, novel solutions to universal problems, unusual/striking plants and combinations and best of all, the gardener is generally available to answer questions and share knowledge freely. Sometimes, I’ve come away with generous gifts of seeds, seedlings and/or cuttings.

No matter what kind of garden one visits, there is always some nugget of information to come away with. I liken it to a visit to a new art exhibit. Whether the art resonates or not, the viewer is transformed even just a wee bit. We know what we like and what we do not. Or we now know a new way to see or depict something. Our minds expand regardless. Gardens do the same.

Over the years, I have personally gained infinite knowledge from visiting gardens. I am the better gardener for it. Acquiring like-minded gardener friends has been the icing on the botanical cake.

So, coming to the point, I urge everyone to make a commitment this very minute to regularly visit gardens this year. Both public and private. The Open Days Program of the Garden Conservancy is perhaps the singularly most convenient and organized way to see gardens all across America. A diverse and most interesting range of gardens and gardeners await!

Note: The Open Days Directory for 2022 is now available. Get it! Better yet, join the Garden Conservancy – you will be privy to all sorts of garden visits, event, talks and tours. At the same time, you will be supporting the Conservancy’s mission to preserve important gardens in America.

Furthermore, my garden is open May 14 – make your reservation online! I’ll be taking attendance.

In 2021, I visited –

The gardens of Christopher Spitzmiller and Anthony Bellamo in Upstate New York –

Notice the plant supports

 

Hollister House in Connecticut –

Such a lovely color palette

Formal and informal blended seamlessly

Hay Honey Farm in New Jersey –

How I covet this bench!

This meadow validated mine own!

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

Open Season

After all the weather related trials and tribulations, the garden opened for visitors this past Saturday. After a year of forced ‘hiatus’, the Open Days Program was up and running! And it felt so good. Opening my garden to visitors is a sly way to meet lots of like-minded folk and have fun, interesting conversations all day long. While the visitors invariably appreciate the sharing of my garden, little do they know how much I enjoy meeting fellow gardeners and garden lovers.

Open Day 2021 was no exception. Following a few days of torrential rain, Saturday was sun filled and bright. The humidity and temperature was high but, nobody cared. It felt wonderful to be outdoors. I was so ready to see people that the fact that the garden was a bit toned down on the flowers in bloom section, did not bother me. Abnormal heat from the previous week had put paid to several flowers that would typically have been at peak beauty. But, there was enough color provided by the baptisia, roses, geraniums, native wisteria, hibiscus, nasturtiums, peonies, irises and others.

As gardener and designer, I know my garden all too well. Warts and all. So it is hard to be objective. The critical mind always takes over. Stuff will bother me that absolutely nobody will notice. Still, until I improve or change it, the ‘problem’ will nag me. And by its very existence, a garden is never done. There is always more to do, undo and redo. And then, like a knight in shining armor, Open Day arrives to rescue me from myself.

After doing the usual last minute fussing and primping, the garden is what it is as the clock strikes the start of Open Day. Visitors arrive and perhaps it was my imagination but this year, they seemed more eager to tour and observe. Like me, they too must’ve missed Open Days. How else can we see all the beautiful private gardens that we yearn to see and covet?

On my part, I’m always impressed by the depth of knowledge and degree of curiosity that visitors bring . I’m gratified when they take note of elements and plants that I’ve designed and/or selected. Seeing my garden through their eyes and preferred interests is enlightening and fun. We commiserate about trends and fads, discuss cultivars and species, joke about chores, share ideas and information and linking it all together is our deep and abiding love for gardening.

I don’t know or care to know their political leanings, religion, socioeconomic status, level of education or other credentials. All that matters is the universal connection we have to nature and consequently to each other. Surely, if we can come together on all aspects of gardening, that in itself becomes, literally and figuratively, the common ground upon which we, as a people can build better relationships and understandings.

At the end of the day, I was, as always, euphoric about the new alliances made, plant suggestions, garden recommendations, good feedback on my own garden, humorous anecdotes shared and hopelessly optimistic about achieving all my horticultural dreams.

After the last guests had left and all paraphernalia had been put away, it was with such satisfaction that I ‘closed’ the garden. Days like that are truly special. At many levels.

My sincere thanks to all who came from near and far – I loved meeting each of you. Deepest gratitude to all who purchased from the Printed Garden collection. Your generosity supports good causes like the ACLU and orphan children with HIV.

Note: Do sign up to visit private gardens through the season and all across America at the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program. They will inspire, motivate, teach and entertain. I promise!

All but the first image below were taken by ceramist and photographer August Brosnahan:

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Hanging Out With Hellebores

Spring! It’s definitely staging a comeback. Where I reside, it’s not quite so obvious but the signs are there. The snowdrops are up. However, one has to look a bit harder to notice that the witch hazel is quietly gracing the garden with its tassels of flowers and characteristic fragrance. Bulbs like daffodils and hyacinths are fearlessly pushing through the still crusty earth and slender spears of crocus appear as though they were secretly planted in the cover of night. The climbing hydrangea is studded with fattening buds. I hear birdsong more clearly; it’s only a matter of time before feathered couples will begin house hunting. Everywhere, one can observe nature coming alive.

Which brings me to hellebores. In my opinion, no garden should be without them. They live to serve the gardener. Starting from that time of year when you know winter is still in session but you cannot help look for some signal that spring is on its way, one need only check carefully at the base of the hellebores. Nestled close to the ground, safely tucked under the canopy of large leaves of the previous year, the shy buds have silently emerged. Long before anything else is stirring, the hellebore gives a sweet heads up for spring. This singular sight is reassuring and exactly what an impatient gardener needs.

Soon after, it’s time to cut back the old leaves and unleash the new growth. Stands of upright stems extravagantly displaying cup-shaped flowers nodding in the garden are sure sights of spring. Single, semi-double or double, the hellebore flowers appear as though painted in watercolor. Translucent and soft, the hues range from dark, almost black to deep pink to rose to cream to yellow. Some new varieties sport petals gently edged in a complementary color recalling finely hand-painted porcelain cups of another era.

There are today a variety and color that would suit every taste or situation. The flowers last a very long time – often through summer. The colors may fade or deepen and turn less showy as the season progresses but I still love their look. Hellebores self seed very easily and some gardeners complain about it but in my experience, if you mulch diligently, then it is not a problem at all. The mulch suppresses the seeds from germinating. I typically get only a few seedlings that I often pot up to give away or plant elsewhere in the garden.

Hellebores prefer deep soil rich in hummus, moist but not soggy. They do not require regular feeding. I find that an annual application of compost topped with the mulch of wood chips is sufficient. The plants do best in cool, semi-shaded locations. At a full height of about 18 to 24 inches and a spread of the same, they are ideal in border fronts. The large leaves will shade out more diminutive neighbors so plant accordingly. In the fall, I let the leaves remain to protect the following season’s young buds and remove them only around late March. Hellebores are slow growing and do not get too big so it is best to not divide them. To grow your collection, get new plants or start from seed.

In pots – Because of their extensive root system, they require large pots to allow for growth. A nurseryman friend recently presented me with a couple of hellebores in bloom potted up splendidly in a French zinc pot. While I adore how beautiful it looks on my dining table, I think the plants are displaying a restlessness as though they want to be planted in the ground. As soon as the thaw happens, I will do exactly that.

Hardy, low-maintenance, easy to grow and oh so dependable, hellebores are a mainstay in my garden. Bonus – deer generally stay away from them.

Hanging out with hellebores is indeed a very good thing.

Note: I’m in the upcoming New Horizons art show in Cos Cob, Greenwich, CT. Do stop by to take a look! April 2 – 28. Click here for details.

Mark your calendar – my garden Open Day is May 18, 2019.

Here are images of some of the hellebores I hang out with:

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar

Flowers, Showers, Zero Hour

What in blazes is going on with the weather? Just two weeks ago we had a rash of summer heat followed by near perfect spring days and now we’ve regressed to days poised to blow hot and cold. And from needing some respite from the dry conditions, it is now wet, wet, wet.

As Open Day draws near ( this Saturday!), I’m searching anxiously for some indication of what will be in bloom. Typically, the meadow should be sparkling with alliums, camassia and columbines in full bloom, the creeping phlox in the checkerboard garden ablaze with starry flowers while the wisteria over the pergola bears imminent promise of a purple explosion. The ‘heat wave’ helped jump start the plants after winter dragged on and on. But now, we’re back to being behind schedule. This is admittedly frustrating. A little warmth and sunshine is not too tall an order right?

The perennial beds in front are looking fetching with tulips and newly opened camassia but even there, the columbines, amsonias and baptisia are lagging behind. With the exception of a riotous carpet of violas, forget-me-nots and dandelions in the meadow, all of the gardens in the back of the property are replete with buds – so, are they going to pop open for Open Day visitors or not?

I guess we will just have to wait and see. Zero hour is 10:00 am Saturday May 19.

I look forward to your visit.

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar