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

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

The Gift Of Timeout

It is such a busy time in the garden. Putting the garden to bed involves many chores and it feels as though one needs to rush before the weather gets really cold. Personally, over the years, I’d taken to doing the fall chores in a state of frenzy. There were always additional commitments demanding attention. But not this year.

This fall, all my free time can be spent in the garden. And for the most part, weekends are wide open for seasonal chores. This is a gift. For the first time in many years, I’m able to give the necessary focus to the tasks. This awareness was foremost on my mind over the weekend. During the previous week, the greenhouse was cleaned inside and out, the heater and fan serviced and set up. The pots of tender plants could be moved in. But first, in the interest of good hygiene, every plant must be clipped back and cleaned thoroughly. This is a process.

I reveled in this chore on Sunday. The weather was perfect too. With nowhere else to be, the whole day lay in front of me like an invitation to play endlessly. A gardener’s dream.

I clipped and trimmed the many standards of boxwoods, bays, roses and myrtles. In taking my time, I was able to identify any damage, disease or abnormality and take appropriate action. The top of the soil in the pots often play host to weeds and roly-polies (wood lice) so it’s always prudent to weed the pots and apply garlic spray to any take care of any bugs.

Once the trimming and checking is done, both, plants and post are ‘power-washed’ to get rid of dirt, debris and any tiny critters hiding around. And only then are the plants moved into the greenhouse. It takes some hours to get it completed. In the greenhouse, arranging the pots so each gets enough light and adequate space for good airflow can be tricky – much shifting and rearranging occurs. Given the size and weight of many of the pots, it is also physically tiring. However, given enough time, it is much less challenging.

For the most part, the really big plants have made the shift. The mid-size plants such as the rosemary, citruses and jasmines along with the many smaller topiaries will be given their check-up during the week – a task that actually serves very nicely as a method of decompressing after a long work day. Come the weekend, the greenhouse will be full.

This year, I’m relegating the Brugamansia, hibiscus and fancy/scented pelargoniums to the basement where the agapanthus and figs have always spent the winter. I’m hoping that this frees up some space in the greenhouse for a small table and chair. Given that we will still be observing current pandemic guidelines and continue working from home, having the opportunity to get a little change of scene in the warm greenhouse will be a very welcome relief. Spending even a short time amidst the plants with the fragrance of boxwood/orange blossoms/jasmines in bloom can make all the difference to one’s disposition.

I have a feeling I’ll have to set up a sign-up sheet so we don’t waste time arguing over who gets to enjoy the greenhouse at any given hour. Yes, the Wi-Fi extends to the greenhouse as well as the tree-house. Now you see where our priorities lie!

Note: Before being moved to the basement, the aforementioned plants will be cut back and cleaned as well. They will spend the winter in dormancy.

Also over the weekend, the espalier of fruit trees was pruned, fallen leaves everywhere were raked and deposited in the woods, a new quince tree was planted in the lower garden. The quince will be espaliered to form a nice feature in what was thus far an unexceptional spot.

I now have a basket full of bay leaves for friends to come by and stock up for winter cooking and fragrant tea. Turns out bay leaf tea has some good health value. I also brought in a nice bunch of rose scented pelargonium leaves to make a few bottles of cordial – I came across a recipe recently that I’m eager to try. Seems like a good way to make any day feel festive.

Several pots of annuals were emptied and washed before being put away for the winter. I gathered up all the nasturtium leaves for more of that delicious, lemony-peppery pesto.

Memories of summer evoked in our winter meals is one way of getting through the cold days in a good mood.

Thinking ahead, root-cuttings of some of the clippings of boxwood, bays etc have been started – by spring there should be new plants to train into topiaries and add to the collection.

So much got done in a day. It was singularly satisfying – something only the luxury of time could make happen. I did not hurry, skip opportunities to start root cuttings or set aside ingredients to try new recipes.

There is still plenty to do but instead of feeling the pressure, I’m looking forward to getting the job done right – with my full attention and presence.

Note: While we’re in the throes of getting our homes ready for the winter and in a state of anxiety about the national unrest and injustices, do take a look at my Printed Garden Collection for the home. Beautiful products to cheer up the home AND support the ACLU. Every effort to improve matters makes an impact.

The vertical garden looks stunning right now!

Rosehips in the sunlight

Beautyberry.

‘Wind Song’ rising above a froth of asters

A few of the pots awaiting clipping and cleaning

Root cuttings

Bay and rose geranium cuttings

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

Topiary Tableaux

I have a real weakness for topiaries. Looking around my garden, there are roughly, well over 30 of them and about another dozen in training. Okay, so maybe its more likely an addiction but, in the grand scheme of things, I could do worse. No guilt whatsoever.

To many, the word topiary conjures up images of old, elaborate gardens belonging to châteaux and villas and manors. Gardens that require a retinue of gardeners and very large coffers. Not any more. Unless of course you have the means and inclination to manage those traditional and sometimes pretentious gardens. Today, plants shaped into balls, pyramids and quirky creatures play a more understated role in our contemporary gardens. While such plants still bring a valued design feature to a garden, they do not dominate. Topiaries of today are team players not soloists.

What is it about a topiary that makes it so attractive? That they look like diminutive trees? The more creative shapes add an element of whimsy? Their neatly clipped appearance brings a sense of order and design? That a topiary can lend an air of gravitas and legitimize a green space as a garden? Yes! It’s ALL of the above. I love everything about them and how they make my garden look.

My collection (I’m a collector!) is a mix of topiaries both purchased and homegrown. They are not difficult to train but do require patience and diligence. All the bay standards in the garden were started from cuttings. As are a couple of boxwoods and myrtles. I’m currently training some rosemaries that I’d rooted earlier in the spring. Several coleus and variegated boxwood cuttings are being monitored for rooting – they too will be coaxed into standards. If I’m feeling ambitious, some might make it as double sphered beauties. A couple of young jasmines have been earmarked for training into heart shapes.

A couple of weeks ago, I made a visit to Atlock Farms which specializes in topiaries. It is king of the entire tri-state area. They create topiary magic with an impressive array of plants in a variety of sizes. It was a big adventure for me that day – my first ‘border crossing’ since the lockdown started way back in March! So leaving New York to enter New Jersey felt like a big deal. At Atlock, the vast array of gorgeous, green topiaries drove me crazy – I wanted everything. Thankfully, my family restrained my enthusiasm and I did not break the bank. I returned home with only about a dozen small beauties and a very contented heart.

Maintaining the standards or any other shape is easy. They get fed organic fertilizer every few weeks. Watering as dictated by the weather – since the pots are all terracotta, during the summer heat a daily drink is required. Depending on the type of plant, they are placed in sun or part shade. A regular trimming keeps them looking tidy and stylish.

While my big bays and myrtle are used as specific design elements in the garden, the smaller ones get to provide drama collectively – I call them my three tableaux. They are stand-alone points of interest. Situated in areas that are otherwise not particularly compelling, the groupings bring transformation. They spark curiosity and delight.

Even a single good size topiary can make a strong statement in any space. I strongly urge everyone to get themselves one. Or two. Or many.

Since my well-coiffed plants are in pots, they endure the winters in the greenhouse. I have a feeling that this year, some will find themselves in the main house. My collection has grown exponentially while the greenhouse has remained small.

Time spent tending to my topiaries is invariably calming. Not physically demanding at all. Re-staking and tying, trimming and clipping, re-potting as the plants grow, serve to release any tensions and forget about the bigger dramas going on in the world. At the end of which, they sit pretty – order restored. If only it were that simple with those other matters outside the garden. Sigh.

Note; The response to the Printed Garden products has been heartwarming. Thank you! Please check it out if you haven’t thus far. 50% of the profits donated to the ACLU.

In the images below, how many topiary forms can you see? This is a test! Don’t miss the three tableaux.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Masked And Muzzled?

The garden looks and feels different these days. Mostly because I’m spending more time in it than I ever have. It’s a privilege to be privy to all the routine goings on in the garden. It feels more intimate.

My garden has always been an extension of our home. Apart from the actual time spent gardening, it is where we enjoy gathering for meals with or without friends, spend time reading in a shady corner or take a snooze. When my daughter was little, she’d play in the garden endlessly and nap in a hammock while I went about my weeding and planting chores.

But, these months, the garden has taken on a greater importance. It’s the go to place. For everything. Starting in the spring when lockdown was mandated, the only way to get some sense of normalcy was in the garden. Sunlight, fresh air, new growth – all life affirming and reassuring. To me, it was as though the world was telling me that it was going to be all right. When the news was scary and we were all getting anxious about the unfamiliar, formidable virus, stepping out in the garden and communing with nature was the sanity-keeping elixir.

Very quickly we each found ourselves in the garden for all sorts of things. My daughter finished up college from home. She attended her Zoom classes in the garden. My husband made the tree house his office. Phone calls were taken as he walked around the garden. I too brought my work out to the terrace – writing, planning, designing, painting. We Zoomed, FaceTimed and Skyped with family in far flung places and friends living much closer. We shared our garden with many. Virtually.

All along, we enthusiastically did all the necessary seasonal tasks required and savored the opportunity to watch it gradually grow and transform itself into a beautiful sanctuary. Our shelter from the stormy world.

Right now, as one looks around my garden, you get the feeling the garden itself is in compliance of the New York State mask mandate. The grapes, apples and most of the pears have been covered in bags. To protect them from pests and critters.

This year, I decided to try something I’d been wanting to do for years – growing pears in bottles. Of the original four bottles, two are doing well. I’m hoping the current heatwave does not harm them. The two other pears broke off from their stalk very early. It’s a simple project but it’s a thrill watching the fruit grow in their glass ‘muzzles’. I can totally envision the bottles in October –sitting pretty with a full pear. Ready to be filled up with pear brandy. For those cold winter nights up ahead.

These days, the garden is where we can meet our friends – safely and comfortably. We share meals and drinks at a distance. Play games. Easter, birthdays and a graduation were duly celebrated in the garden. Very small parties but party nevertheless. Quality over quantity.

We meet our visitors masked and distanced. But we meet – that means everything to us.

And speaking of celebrations, absolutely every good thing, big or small, is honored. The first sighting of a Monarch butterfly, the first fig or tomato of the season, a clean bill of health for a friend who has emerged safely from chemotherapy, the success of growing topiaries from root cuttings, a positive review of a poem or a sale of a painting, spying hummingbirds feasting at the cardinal flowers in the meadow, a handwritten note from a long ago friend, fresh flowers from the garden.The list is endless!

We’ve all come to know how fragile the world we’d come to take for granted truly is. Never again. The pandemic unmasked our hubris. Now, humbled and openly vulnerable, we relearn how to care. For ourselves, each other and our planet. In time, the physical masks we must now wear will come off but until then, they’re a small price to pay for our well-being.

Note: Sprucing up your home? Need gifts for brides/ newlyweds, housewarmings, hosts, birthdays? Do check out The Printed Garden collections. You will be supporting the ACLU at the same time!

Bagged grapes

Bagged pear

Coming along!

Photo shoot of the Collection 2 of The Printed Garden

Haircut in the garden

Graduation parade

Cheers!

Nephew helps with allium project

Setting up for a music video

Keeping masks on the ready!

Masked and distanced audience

Concert in the garden

Painting in the garden

Zoom class in progress

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Thought For Food

A significant upside to the lock-down is that more people are gardening. This makes me so happy. Of all the things one could resort to during this uncertain, scary time, gardening is perhaps one of the best activities to do. You and I both know all the benefits so I shall not reiterate them but for myself, working in my garden has been my salvation.

Vegetable gardening is what most have taken up. There is something fundamental and inherent about that. Historically, how and what we eat dictates how well we survive. In good times and bad. An unprecedented crisis such as this pandemic had us naturally look to our basic need. Subconsciously, food is always ( okay, maybe mostly) on our minds. This threat, being a challenge to our health got us to think about keeping us in good, robust condition. Growing and preparing owns own food is the obvious solution. It gives one a sense of taking charge and doing something positive. All good I say. It reminds me of the Victory gardens that proliferated during WW II.

While seed companies were suddenly faced with a run on their stock, people were (re-)discovering the joys of gardening. Friends living in tiny city apartments were growing herbs, radish and tomatoes on their window-sills and balconies. Some have been training peas and beans around their windows. A quick search on the Internet reveals a plethora of innovations for apartment gardening. I’m quite blown away by what cool stuff is available.

Others who already had a yard, have gotten busy making all manner of vegetable gardens. Raised beds, French potagers, English kitchen gardens, vegetables ‘plots’ solely comprised of pots – it’s been exciting to learn of all the activity. Even better, swathes of lawn have been turned over to rows of vegetable plants, pollinators have been encouraged with the addition of native flowering plants, organic practices have been adopted, composting has become routine – my goodness! We are already doing better.

I myself upped my veggie game this year. For the first time, I started growing peas and micro-greens, increased the number of tomato and zucchini plants and added more herbs. In the fruit department, a long desired persimmon tree joined the apple, pear and fig trees already in residence. FYI – While we get a nice amount of produce, the garden in no way covers all our vegetable needs as we follow a mostly plant based diet.

More significantly for me, I widened the usage of the plants and have been trying new recipes. The repertoire of family meals has grown substantially and we’re thoroughly enjoying the experience. I suspect that we have each become even more particular about where and what we select when we eventually dine out. The bar has been raised.

The CSA ( Community Supported Agriculture) Co-Op I belong to started up their 2020 weekly deliveries a couple of weeks ago. It’s a joy to get the produce from a local farm instead of the supermarket. And we’re continuing to try new recipes.

I’ve received several recipe requests so I thought I’d share a couple of old, tried and true family recipes as well as a couple of new ones that I’ve tried recently..

Cilantro Chutney – Most people think of chutneys as a sweet-salty-spicy mix but in Indian cooking, chutneys are not always sweet. This one is not sweet but is great on sandwiches, brushed on roasted vegetables, meats, fish and anything needing a little oomph.

This recipe is from my mother-in-law who was a highly gifted cook.

Jaya Mani’s Cilantro Chutney

1.

2 T oil

2 T urad dal (white lentil)

1 T fenugreek seeds  — optional

1 pinch hing (asofoetida powder)  — optional

1 large dry red chilli

 (2)

1 t black mustard

 (3)

1 medium bunch cilantro washed and drained (including stems)

Salt to taste

Fry (1) together until lentils are toasted – light brown. Strain but save the oil. Add strained mixture (1) to blender. Add (3), some water and grind to a paste. Remove chutney paste from blender. Add (2) to drained oil and fry until mustard starts to pop. Add (2) to chutney  and mix well. Use within 2-3 days or freeze.

 Suggested servings:

  • Sandwiches with thinly sliced white bread, butter, chutney, thinly sliced coriander

  • Chutney with cooked  rice

  • Chapati/paratha roll with scrambled egg and chutney

  • Crackers, chutney and cheese

Rose geranium syrup over roasted figs – This combines two things from my garden. It’s a very simple but elegant dish. Add a few rose-geranium leaves when making a sugar syrup. Once the syrup has cooked down to desired thickness, remove the leaves. Let cool.

Roast figs – Cut fresh figs in half and arrange cut side up on a baking sheet. Drizzle some extra-virgin oil over them. Roast in oven at 425 degrees for 10 minutes or until they bubble.

Serve figs with syrup dribbled over them. Add a dollop of plain Greek yogurt on the side. You feel healthy that way. To up the ante, decorate the plate with a few rose-geranium flowers.

Strawberry-Basil Ice Cream – When I came across this recipe, I was intrigued. Basil in a dessert! It is delicious and so refreshing.

Ribs with rhubarb glaze and radish-rhubarb salad – I wanted to use rhubarb in more than the usual crisp or compote. This recipe from Bon Appetit turned out well.

Strawberry-basil ice cream

Khao Soi by @miravanchiswar Recipe from dear friend @sonal.nair. Cilantro from the garden

Basil pesto

Dolma using leaves from my Concord grapevine by @muralimani

Sandwiches using the cilantro chutney

Rhubarb cake

Chive quiche @miravanchiswar

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Kind Of Hush

It was an important week. My daughter graduated college – a virtual ceremony. No pomp nor circumstance but to be fair, given present state of affairs, it was as good as it could get. One can feel bad about what the fresh graduates have missed but lets face it – this is a historic time and they now have stories to relate that will outmatch previous generations!

Then, there was not only the summer solstice but a total solar eclipse to go with it. While we don’t ourselves have anything to do with the phenomenon, it just feels like the earth and it’s principle star have been busy. Quietly.

In all honesty, I’ve really appreciated the quiet that has resulted in the lockdown. The lack of vehicular traffic heightened our awareness of the sounds of nature. The birds didn’t get louder, they could be heard better. Likewise the peepers, the bees, even the breeze rustling through the leaves. With less outside distractions, I’ve observed the sounds, activities, colors and smells in the garden. It’s been nurturing, inspiring, healing and grounding. A gift.

At this time of year, another sort of quiet creeps into the garden. A lull of sorts. The spring hoopla slows down and the summer soirée is yet to begin. The garden right now is mostly shades of green punctuated with the hues of minor players like cranesbill geraniums, evening primrose, yarrow, borage, woodland anemone and such. One could see this as poor planning on my part. I should think about adding more late June flowering plants. On the other hand, I’m happy giving attention to these less flashy members of the garden. They are so valuable in serving the pollinators. Plus, as an artist, I’m able to admire their forms more closely. They’re easy to overlook when the roses and peonies dominate.

The summer asks for none of the frenzied work that spring demands. From now on, it’s all maintenance – deadheading, weeding, feeding and watering. On each day of the week, one of those tasks is tackled – Weeding Wednesday, Feeding Friday, Trimming Tuesday, Thirsty Thursday, Mowing Monday. You get the idea. The days settle into a comfortable rhythm. There’s time to simply enjoy the garden because doing the daily tasks regularly means I’m not spending long hours doing them. After all, Summer is for Sitting Back. Am I right?

Meanwhile, the first peas have been consumed right off the plants. Two batches of basil pesto made last week sit in the freezer in anticipation of winter meals. A third batch has already contributed to a delightful pasta dinner. The Mojito mint has been called into service and I’m thoroughly enjoying fresh cilantro, rosemary, thyme and oregano sparking up our meals. The lettuce and Swiss chard are also being harvested regularly. All of which contributes to a sense of quiet satisfaction.

No doubt about it. There’s a kind of hush. All over my world.

 

Tomato flowers

Washed basil

Pesto

 

Peas

Stevia for sweetening tea

Cilantro for chutney

Mojito mint

Herb ‘wall’

Yarrow

(c) 2020 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

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

Slow Gardening

These uncommon days have brought me to a rediscovering of the pleasures of fundamental garden work. As I mentioned last week, I, along with so many across the country (world maybe?), are getting back to basics. Seed sowing, root cuttings, composting, growing vegetables etc., It isn’t that I stopped doing any of that but now, I’m once again taking the right amount of time to do those tasks with attention, appreciation and anticipation.

Over the past dozen years or so, I’d gotten into the habit of accomplishing the tasks with a sense of urgency. Admittedly, there was the pressure of getting the garden ready for Open Day by mid-May but, that was only part of the story. So many other commitments and projects had been taken on that I was spreading myself too thin. This year, under unforeseen circumstances, I find myself doing exactly the same chores but with a renewed energy and spirit of purpose. Once more, I’m having fun sowing seeds, eagerly checking daily to see if they’ve sprouted even though I know the typical amount of days it takes to germinate.

This past weekend, the pea shoots were transplanted to the potager. I had not sown peas in years because I really felt I hadn’t the real estate to set up a trellis for them. And I didn’t want to spend the time to do so. Well, all of a sudden, I knew exactly where to plant the seedlings. Along the edge of a potager bed that borders the pergola, seven pea plants were planted. To guide them in their climb, strings were strung from the top of the pergola down to each baby seedling. Like a 7 fretted instrument, it waits for the plants to start ‘plucking’ the strings and create sweet music. As the peas grow, they will provide some welcome shade at lunchtime gatherings at the pergola. By the time the whole potager is in full growth and the wisteria ( native variety so it blooms later) on the structure is fully leafed out, the peas will be done and that ‘window’ will once again be opened up to enjoy the view of the potager. Why didn’t this idea occur to me before? Because I hadn’t paused long enough to let the garden reveal the solution to me.

I’ve also started a project of growing micro-greens. It began with a large shallow pot of peas whose shoots add a seasonal something to salads and the occasional egg salad sandwich. As soon as I obtain the seeds, broccoli shoots are going to join this project. Since the lockdown is about staying healthy, micro-greens are a good thing to bring to the dining table – they are chock full of nutrients and very easy to grow. A nice rhythm of succession planting is the plan.

I didn’t get to start the root cuttings as intended last week. Between bad weather and other garden work, that got postponed – to hopefully sometime later this week. Instead, I divided some tiarella to make several new additions to the vertical garden. Herbs got re-potted and put up on the herb ‘wall’ in the potager. Nasturtium seeds started in the greenhouse were ready for transplant – they are now underplanted in the large pots that hold the bay standards. The citrus hued flowers should look lovely spilling over the pots.

I find myself short on pots – another reason I did not do the propagation from cuttings task. By setting up all those pots with daffodils and pansies to cheer up passers-by, there aren’t enough pots for much else! The current stay-home situation has forced me to reconsider the number of trips I make to any place. One makes do with what is at hand. Or do without all together. This week, I shall make one precious foray to my local nursery. Cannot wait!

Gardening these days is so mindful and sensory. I’m taking the time to smell the earth and how it feels in my hands as I dig and plant. The aroma of geosmine that we associate with spring is so life affirming.

As I carefully wash the soil off the roots of plants for the vertical garden, I marvel at the exquisite pale roots and how strong they are despite their delicate appearance. Nature is genius.

A regular distraction is following the goings on of the avian real estate market. One afternoon, we watched a turf battle between cat birds and crows, another time, we observed a pair of cardinals touring the garden checking out suitable sites for building a home. I really hope my garden came through – as such rejections are taken very personally. The hummingbird feeder is up but I think it is still a bit too chilly for those tiny friends. The robins that built a nest in the pot on the wall by the front door, get all irate when we step out or linger on the porch. So we are limiting our passage through that door and my time on the porch is restricted to watering the various pots there. At which point, I take advantage to quickly check the status of the eggs.

These days, I’m not nearly as efficient each time I work in the garden. Diversions not withstanding, the tasks are nevertheless getting accomplished. The garden is coming along just fine. And I’m so much more relaxed and fulfilled. As we know, slow and steady … I’m re-learning. This time around, I’m a better, more mature student. I think.

Note: Mother’s Day is less than two weeks away. For lovely gift selections – take a look at botanical notecards and soft furnishings for the home. All images are from my original watercolors. Original artwork is also available at Gallery. All profits go to support HIV/AIDS orphan girls’ education. Your support means everything to this cause. Thank you!

The herb ‘wall’. Soon, the A/C unit behind will be hidden by the growing plants.

The plant waste headed for the compost pile looks like abstract art

Note the strings!

Another view of the pea trellis

Note the pea shoots planted at the base .

The ‘meadow’ getting set to burst into a floral chorus

Leucojum

Two-toned muscari

Snakeshead fritillaria in a sea of forget-me-nots

Two types of fritillaria

See the robin keeping watch from the nest behind the pansies?

Pea shoot micro-greens

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar