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

 

Back To Basics

Time spent in the garden has never felt more correct than right now. It is where I feel alive, useful and comforted. It is where I instinctively want to be. I’m relishing the gift of time to work in it unfettered by busy agendas and outside commitments. More than anything, I’m deeply grateful for having a garden in the first place.

As a big city girl, it was a dream come true to have a place to garden – that was 28 years ago. All too quickly, the garden became such an integral part of my life that I just took it for granted. These days, I’m acutely aware of what a privilege it is to have a piece of land to call ones own. With everyone doing their part in staying home, the inherent human need to connect to nature is not always possible for many. With several parks and public gardens closed due to the current crisis, those that are still open are getting unprecedented numbers of visitors. I worry that they too might have to be shut down if folks don’t observe distancing rules.

I’m enjoying walks whenever possible. Good weather and fewer crowds determine those opportunities. But, I always have the garden to provide immediate and consistent relief. That is a blessing I don’t think I’ll take for granted ever again.

It is not surprising that people have instinctively sought the outdoors – we are part of the natural world after all. The healing, soothing, uplifting effect of time spent in nature is both anecdotal and empirical. Even more interesting at present, is how we are rediscovering fundamental practices that we had somewhat forgotten or moved away from.

One of the first items to fly off grocery store shelves was flour and active dry yeast. All of a sudden, America is baking bread at home. Even now, more than a month after we all began staying home, flour is not easy to come by. Apparently, we Americans are actually enjoying baking our bread. Interesting no? Something that demands time and effort was one of the first items we sought to make. We see bread as a staple, a basic food. The same with pasta – more people are making their own but not quite at the same level as bread. I personally find it amusing that cooking rice is daunting to many. Something so ridiculously easy is viewed with trepidation. Yet, here we are. Mind you, I think it is terrific that homemade bread is on the rise; I’m just puzzled that it is one of the first things to be undertaken. There is no actual bread shortage in the country.

Simultaneously, everyone is into vegetable gardening, Apartment dwellers are growing tomatoes, herbs and such in pots and under gro-lights/ on balconies. Those with some property are making vegetable plots or potting up a range of vegetable plants. People are starting from scratch – seed sales have risen so dramatically that some seed companies have had to start directing their seeds to only commercial growers.

From what I’ve heard, for the most part, seeds are being sown not in fancy seed starter kits but in old tin cans, the cardboard cylinders from paper rolls, newspaper molded into pots etc., Sustainability! These are very good developments. Healthy for humans and the planet.

I have a feeling we are each growing the vegetables that hark back to our ethnic roots or childhood cuisine. We are seeking comfort in the familiar. Trying to relive fond memories of (perhaps) less complicated times.

I myself, have seeds sprouting in my tiny greenhouse and no matter how many years one has sowed seeds, the thrill of seeing new growth never gets old. I’m also getting ready to take cuttings to root them on to get more plants. Geraniums, rosemary, heuchera, bay, myrtle to mention a few. I might even give boxwood a try.

Yes, it is back to basics these days. Sowing seeds, growing ones own food, rooting cuttings, making fertilizer such as comfrey tea ( I hear rhubarb leaves work just as well) and composting are seeing an epic revival all across the country, In advance of harvest time, I’ve already corralled all the necessities for canning – jams, sauces, pickles, chutneys and pestos to stock the larder. Secateurs and the blade of the manual, push reel mower have been sharpened. Stakes, twine and trowel sit ready.

Homesteading is back in style.

Note: My garden is still primarily a flower garden so, while I’m going about dealing with the veggies and herbs for the year, I’m thoroughly enjoying the early bulbs bursting forth on a daily basis. Seeing the new growth of perennials is always exciting and reassuring. I also have a couple of fun projects I’m working on – more on those when I develop them further along. Stay tuned!

In the garden this week:

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Days Of Quarantine And Daffodils

These are strange unfamiliar. Sequestering at home lends a surreal quality to our days. Some days, nothing seems to be happening and at other times, particularly after watching/reading the news, too much is happening. Mostly, it is unsettling, anxiety ridden, heartbreaking and confusing. Those are a lot of emotions in play. It can be too much for the human heart to bear.

To offset the negative reports, the media inserts the feel good stories. Challenging times reveal heroes in our midst. Ordinary people do extraordinary things to help their community, their nation, the world. We need to know about them because it serves to teach us about ourselves. Hearing one good story makes us ask ourselves what we can do, what we are capable of doing, how far are we willing to go for the cause. The opportunity to grow and stretch is wide open.

Working in the garden these days has been my salvation – far from the madding crowd. It has also given me time to think about the times we’re in, how we’re coping and, most importantly, what are we learning from this. After all, one day, when we emerge ( and we shall) from this dark place, it is imperative that we as a people have changed for the better. I read recently, that after all this is over, what will have mattered is how we treated each other.

Amongst the myriad uplifting stories of people helping people, one in particular recently caught my attention and my heart. As a gardener, it was inevitable that it had such huge appeal and the source was my most favorite garden.

More than a week ago, whilst watching the morning news in a distracted sort of manner, I was suddenly captivated by images of daffodils cascading down a hillside. Hundreds and hundreds of yellow trumpets calling my attention. The place looked familiar and I heard the newscaster say it was Untermyer Gardens – of course! Over the past few years, they’ve been adding scores of daffodils to the hill. This year was its splashiest, happiest display to date. Sadly, in the current situation, nobody was going to see it for real. The images I saw were stunning. Oh! To actually be there!

Turns out, Stephen Byrnes ( president of the Untermyer Garden Conservancy) was thinking along the same lines. It would be such a shame to have all those flowers fade away without giving pleasure to others. In short order, Steve put together a plan – with the help of a very limited number of volunteers (social distancing in practice), all the daffodils were harvested and distributed to several area hospitals and nursing homes where they were received with much appreciation and loud cheers.

Untermyer was the first garden in the country to take this step. I have heard that since then, some others have followed suit. Floret Farms in Washington State did the same with the thousands of daffodils from their trial fields. Does this not warm your heart?

In times of crisis, one may not think of flowers as critical. But the ability of a single blossom to cheer the spirit cannot be overstated. Think about the snowdrops that uplifted the soldiers during the Crimean War. Fighting in a foreign land, they were bitter and demoralized from the failure to provide them with food and warm clothing. The winter had been brutal. Then, when they observed the first snowdrops emerging through the ground, their spirits rose. Several lifted and replanted them around their tents, one soldier even included a flower in a letter home. Eventually, some soldiers returned home with specimens of snowdrops which were carefully planted and bloomed the following year. The snowdrops were identified as G plicatus but they are simply known as the Crimean snowdrop. Just how much the ‘flower of consolation’ or ‘star of hope’ meant to the troops cannot be undermined.

Similarly, the poppy symbolizes those lost in WW II. A single flower can have a powerful role in reminding and memorializing events of great consequence in our lives.

To me personally, the daffodil has become the symbol of this particular viral war. Perhaps, in time, others will think so too. It has flowered just when we’ve been brought to our knees by a formidable, invisible foe. Those trumpets call for hope and to trust that there better times ahead. We must believe that.

Note: Below, I share with you photos taken by Jessica Norman – Jess works at Untermyer. She is a powerhouse of many talents – molecular biologist, expert gardener and ace photographer to name a few. I’m privileged to call her my friend.

I’m just as proud to know Stephen Byrnes. Through his leadership and vision, Untermyer has become one of the premier gardens to visit in these United States. Steve and his incredible team of dedicated gardeners led by head-gardener Timothy Tilghman have achieved this in a remarkably small number of years.

Volunteers are the backbone of our society and those who harvested the daffodils should not go unacknowledged. They stepped up to do the work so the Untermyer gardeners could go about their rightful duties of tending the gardens. They are –

Kathryn and Jim Buckley, Joseph Brownell, Joseph Ades, Trish Lindmann and her son Tyler, Christopher Kittle, Harris Lirtzman, Ed Sabol, James Judy.

My heartfelt thanks to them, Steve and Jess .All photos (c) 2020 Jessica Norman

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

As The World Turns

Sheltering at home and garden feels different. It is not the same as when one chooses to spend time cocooning at home. While our homes continue to offer refuge in this difficult period, we are not living out our days in quite the same way. Having to be home at all times, working from home, coordinating schedules with those we live with, no possibility of going anywhere, making do with what groceries are available at the stores, are all situations we’re adjusting to. Some things are easy and others more challenging. Still, despite all the limitations, I, for one, feel very blessed. Not in a virtuous, martyr-ish way – but simply being realistic and aware of my privilege.

I cannot possibly have any complaints. For goodness sakes, I have a garden to work in! That is a high advantage that I’m acutely aware of as increasingly, more public gardens and gardens are being closed. Far too many are restricted to small, cramped spaces in the city with only windows and, with any luck, balconies to lean out of to catch some sun and fresh air.

Once I’ve accomplished my work related and domestic tasks of the day, the garden is where I seek to pass my time. Chores that were done with the a certain degree of haste because other matters/appointments awaited, are now given due attention and time. Be it planting or fixing or watering, everything has taken on deeper meaning and connection.

I’d ordered a self-pollinating persimmon tree a while back – it was delivered last week. A couple of decades ago, I’d planted an American persimmon with intentions to train it into a candelabra style espalier against the southern wall of the house. The tree grew but failed to produce because there did not exist another persimmon anywhere in the neighborhood – no cross-pollination was possible. I blame myself for letting the seller assure me that I didn’t need another persimmon to get fruit. I should’ve known better. Instead I wanted to get on with my project so badly that I accepted what I wanted to believe.

That tree was subsequently disposed off and the whole project forgotten. Soon, a tree peony occupied its place.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago. I discovered the existence of a new Japanese-American hybrid that has the best traits of each nationality (persimmon-wise) and is truly self-pollinating. I immediately ordered it from Logee’s Greenhouse. Once the very young plant arrived, I gave it a few days to recover from its journey before giving it a permanent home.

If this were a business as usual time, the persimmon would’ve been plonked down in any open space along the fence of the lower garden. It’s sole purpose being to provide fruit. Instead, this past Saturday, the tree peony was dug up and replanted near by – its very long roots had to be trimmed a bit so fingers crossed it didn’t mind the amputation. It is after all a plant dear to my heart – Hennriette Suhr gave it to me and I love floating the heavy, multi-petaled flowers in a bowl to show-off their beauty. I will keep a watchful eye on it.

The new tree was planted in the old persimmon’s place so the espalier project is back on. All the wire guides to train the branches from years ago are still in place as though they fully expected to be called back into service.

Similarly, there were some heuchera I’d purchased on my mad plant shopping spree the same day that stay-at-home was mandated. They sat waiting while the watering system to the vertical garden was restarted and deemed functioning well. Again, I took the time to not only clean off all of the soil from the roots of each heuchera( the plants on the wall are grown hydroponically) but, I also worked to carefully divide the plants to get several more plants for the wall.

All of this might sound trivial. Even frivolous. But really, not only did the work get done with attention, thought and purpose, for the time each task took, the mind was focused and relaxed. Two things that are getting rather difficult to do during these stressful days.

With more people taking daily walks/strolls, I see many neighbors on the street. It’s been gratifying to exchange greetings and news – albeit from the required distance. We – old and new, are all being more neighborly. To give those passing my home a reason to smile, I set up a collection of pots of daffodils and pansies right by the road. After all, those flowers will disarm any grump and uplift any heart feeling the weight of the times. Even if its fleeting, every bit of cheer matters.

These days of sheltering are instructive. I’m relearning to give my garden the right amount of attention it deserves. I’m paying attention to not just what is dry but how dry before I water. This serves to conserve water as well as provide the plants with only what they need. I’d become too busy to start seeds in recent years. There are several flats of seeds sown currently – of flowers and vegetables. I’ve rediscovered the joy of this fundamental act of gardening.

Things that I might have easily replaced for lack of time, are now being fixed instead. All non-essential shopping is to be avoided after all. Over all, many more hours are whiled away working in the garden and it is mighty satisfying. Like it used to be before I got too busy. I’m sure things will not stay this way forever but I’m also sure I cannot let myself get that busy again. These days are guiding me how to strike a healthier, happier balance.

The garden provides with enough distraction that when I’m in it, my mind completely shuts out the news and fears in the world. Unlike a movie which also provides some escape, at the end of my time in the garden, I have accomplished some necessary tasks, got a bit of physical activity, relaxed my mind, soaked in some sun, breathed fresh air and allowed nature to provide much needed therapy to my spirit. Priceless.

Pots by the street

New Persimmon hybrid – Nikita’s Choice

Heuchera in the wall garden. Ferns will go in shortly.

Forced hyacinths in a ‘cage’ of pussy willow.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Life In Waiting

Every morning, I look out into the garden to see whats up. Have all the crocuses bloomed? The scillas are blazing blue but when are the spring leucojum planted to contrast with them going to bloom? And the muscari paired with early daffodils? Even in the midst of reveling in the early spring flowers, I can’t help waiting for the ones to come. It’s as though my mind is trying to hurry along the season so it can get to the next one.

I thought about that yesterday and came to the realization that it’s because of this unfamiliar time we’re in. We don’t know for sure what each day is going to bring. There are predictions, projections and calculations but nothing is certain. How long the crisis is going to last is unknown. So, subconsciously, my mind is looking weeks ahead to a different, hopefully better time. When other flowers will be in bloom.

Once I understood my propensity, I determined to curb it. After all, it wasn’t getting me anywhere at all. Instead, I’m going to really stay in the present. In all its entirety – pleasant and unpleasant. I must experience this epic period in history in full. This life. My life. Only I can live it.

Instead of waiting for the next flower to bloom, for the next month to be over with, I shall take in the days with my whole self. Make each one matter.

It doesn’t mean I’m not going to look forward to future flowers and fruit, for better days. It simply implies that I will endeavor to bring my best self to each day.

In keeping myself at home, it has already become apparent how ‘being busy’ is overrated. With absolutely no place to go, what one does on a quotidian basis is revealed clearly. There’s no hiding behind ‘busy’ or ‘so much to do’. We have to do what must be done. No excuses. There is time – that commodity we’re always complaining we’re short on.

Even if or especially if one is privileged to work from home, there is now time to get other things done. Without need to commute, sans distractions of unnecessary meetings or chatty colleagues, one is free to use the time to make a meal with thought and care. To connect with family and friends for meaningful conversations. To reach out to shut-in neighbors with a phone call or a note / freshly baked muffins left at the door. To complete the house tasks we’ve been putting off. In other words, pay attention to life.

At a time of frustration in not doing enough to help a situation, I’ve come to the conclusion that first and foremost, the most effective contribution we can make is to stay at home.

While my paying work as such has slowed down or completely halted, I’m now at liberty to work on creative projects that were sitting on the back burner and, make business plans that more accurately define my philosophy and philanthropy. This mandatory time at home is a gift of sorts. I appreciate it as such. On waking each morning, I’m grateful I’m still healthy and must therefore try to be and do my best.

In working in the garden, I’m particularly aware of having the time to tackle the chores with the required attention. After all, where else do I need to go? Simply breathing in the fresh air with the sun smiling down is an endowment. Working to create a beautiful, productive garden is a high honor not to be taken for granted. Ever.

The peony supports have been placed, the circulating water system for the vertical garden has been revamped and commissioned, the lawn reseeded, pruning completed, seeds such as tomato, cool weather greens and nasturtium sown and, the birdbath stands filled. Later this week, the ferns over-wintering in the potager will be transferred to their home in the vertical garden, the potager then prepared with a good layer of compost to receive vegetable plants and, the bluebird house cleaned – please let these sweet birds find it this year. All the birds are going about their business and a few have begun building nests. I’ve already observed earthworms working the soil. The pear blossom buds will be opening within the week and I’m fully expecting to see bees make their daily visits. This is life.

Soon, with the temperatures going up, the chairs will be brought out and set up around the table on the terrace for al fresco meals to be enjoyed. This alone strikes me as so special. What has thus far not seemed unusual is now distinctly a benediction.

In preparing this garden, I’m making the world that much better and beautiful. I can’t wait to share it again with everybody. It may not be much but it’ll be my best. That’s about all one can hope.

Scilla

Everything is growing!

Window-box

Hyacinths

Hellebores

Pruning hydrangea

Epsom salts feed the roses

Spreading straw over the reseeded areas

Peony supports in place

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar