Earthly Days

I’ve been sticking rather low to the ground lately. Literally. Remember when I planted hundreds of native sedge Carex appalachia plugs in a part of the garden and then added in hundreds of F. meleagris last fall? Well, this ‘field’ is looking absolutely delightful right now. The sedge is greening up nicely and the frittilaria are up and waving their checkered bells very sweetly. I’m smitten. Imagining is one thing but having it become a reality is excitement overload.

All weekend I kept taking frequent breaks from other garden chores to gaze at my little ‘field’. Joy. Joy. Joy.

This sedge is the larval food for the Appalachian brown butterfly. I’ve given my family direct orders to take pictures of any brown butterflies they might see flitting around the garden lest I miss such an important sighting.

Life in the garden is one of the most satisfying experiences in life. Connecting with nature is fundamental to our very existence. The past year demonstrated this imperative loud and clear. With Earth Day two days away, I reckon it’s a good reminder to renew this bond to make it stronger, better, healthier.

As gardeners, we are acutely aware of what’s happening in the environment. The situation is dire and its all hands on deck to mitigate climate change. I recently watched a morning news segment of a major network wherein each host voiced the one thing they have adopted to be more ’green’. They mentioned things like returning dry cleaning hangers, carrying their own bottle of water and such. All good practices but I had to think – surely all of these measures ought to have been adopted a long time ago no?.

At this point, we should be doing so much more. And please lets not get complacent about how we’re conscientious in our recycling. Simply tossing all recyclables into the appropriate bins and putting them out for pick up is not a big effort. Reducing the amount in those bins is.

In the garden, organic practices, collecting rain water, composting, using electric tools instead of gas powered ones, growing a majority of native plants, encouraging pollinators of all sorts, mulching etc., has always been my modus operandi. What I struggle with are the plastic pots the plants come in. Even the ‘biodegradable’ ones aren’t so great as they take a really long time to degrade. I truly wish all nurseries would take back the empty pots to be returned to the growers for reuse. I understand this is not so easy to manage but there must be a viable solution.

On a bright note, growers that ship out plants directly to gardeners are coming up with many ‘green’ ways to safely transport plants. Perhaps something similar can be invented for nurseries and garden centers. Personally, I’d be more than willing to take my own containers to fill with plant purchases – much the same as taking bags to the farmer’s market or supermarket.

Similarly, in the house, we use non-toxic/organic/homemade cleaning products, consume organic, locally sourced foods, carry our own drinking water, cloth napkins, use beeswax cloth, silicone freezer/sandwich bags, reusable bowl covers to reduce the usage of plastic, aluminum or other paper wraps. Paper towels and toilet paper are from Who Gives A Crap that uses 100% recycled paper and donates 50% of its profits to build toilets in needy areas all over the world.

Recently, we switched to toothpaste tablets from By Humankind. This totally eliminates toothpaste tubes – something that is not even recyclable. The same company also sells floss that dissolves or can be composted. The entire packaging it arrives in is compostable. The containers to keep the tablets and floss are made of glass with silicone tops. They’re really clean and minimalist looking. By subscribing, one receives refills to serve several months at a time. This helps with the carbon footprint. Ditto for the aforementioned paper products.

While we have been using woolen dryer balls instead of dryer sheets to fluff and ‘soften’ clothes for some years, we were a bit hesitant about ‘green’ detergents that could clean the clothes properly. We tried a few options but were not too satisfied. Just recently, we’ve made the switch to laundry soap sheets from Tru Earthno more dealing with plastic jugs or cardboard boxes.. One sheet per wash – hot or cold and usable in any type of machine. The soap itself is free of all harsh-to-the-environment ingredients. The jury is still out on the efficacy of the sheets but I’m very optimistic.

I go into those details because we can each do better in every aspect of our lives. There are  always more efforts to be made of course but for now, I know I’m trying my very best to do as much as I can. In the end, that’s what matters – committing wholeheartedly to doing our part in caring for this beautiful, wondrous planet we call home.

FYI – The companies I’ve mentioned were discovered in my research to find good eco-products. I am NOT sponsored by any company.

Note: Reminder! Mother’s Day is fast approaching! Do shop from the Printed Garden Collection mom will love the products!

Daffodils

Amelanchier in bloom

Tree peony pushing up.

The ‘field’ of sedge and frittilaria.

Watercolor

 

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

April Awakening

April

Starts as a joke

Teases with the weather

Dresses in shades of green

Giggles in daffodils.

– Shobha Vanchiswar

April’s joke this year was to give us a winter blast. It was not funny at all. I was concerned for the emerging buds on the trees and shrubs. The star magnolias in the neighborhood were looking beautiful and then, overnight, they succumbed to the cold and all the petals turned limp and brown. Don’t you just hate when that happens? A real shame. A reminder that life is ephemeral, make the most of the moments.

The weekend however was gorgeous. The early bulbs bloomed confidently in the warmth of the brilliant sunshine. Spreading out across the ground so casually as though they know exactly how cool they are. I adore the days when the scillas, crocuses and hyacinthoides are having their moment. Before the rambunctious daffodils commandeer my attention. The minor bulbs are like an exquisite, sweetly simple overture to an epic symphony full of drama and crescendos.

While it was too cold to do much last week, the weekend permitted a fair amount of organizing and clean up. I potted up urns and such with pansies and daffodils and immediately they made the garden look smart and ready. Cosmetic elements for sure but so transformative.

The first proper garden celebration in over a year also took place on Sunday. What a joy to be with beloved friends once again. Fully vaccinated feels very good!

The early morning choir of birds have begun chiding me for lingering in bed too long. They are incredibly loud and I might have to start rising with them. The guilt is overwhelming. As much as I am loathe to get out of bed early, I know that I’ll feel wonderful once I’m up. And so much gets done that it leaves more time at the other end to sit back in contentment.

It’s tempting to bring out the plants from the greenhouse but the weather can be capricious. Perhaps in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, there is other work to do – seeds to start, new plants to get and install, the tiny lawn to de-thatch, aerate and reseed. The list is long as always. But, I’m going to enjoy the garden as it ought – make time to watch the birds and other critters, closely observe the plants, feel the garden soothe my soul. Otherwise, what exactly would’ve been the point of it all?

What I’m enjoying in the garden at present –

 

Set to celebrate.
For Table linens

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

My Real Garden – Part II

Grab a drink and settle in – This is the long-ish story of how a special group came to be, how they collectively dealt with the last 12 months and how much good resulted from this association.

This time last year, we had just started sheltering at home in New York State. In the beginning, it seemed strange – we understood so little about the virus that the threat felt surreal. As we learned more and New York rapidly succumbed, the gravity of the situation was unmistakably severe. I realized that the lockdown was a powerful step to mitigate the spread of the disease. Our fear of the unknown, invisible and formidable enemy was very real. It became instinctive to want to stay home and be safe.

I was fully aware of how fortunate I was to have a home that gave me all the comfort I needed. And not confined indoors either – I was blessed with my own bit of the outdoors. My garden which has always been essential to my well-being, took on greater significance. With no other items on my agenda to go anywhere, the benefit of unlimited time amidst my plants was unquestionably a gift beyond measure.

For the first time in more than a decade, I could devote my total attention on the garden. Time was ample, spring had just sprung and the myriad tasks offered the ideal solution to be productive, creative and content. It was so therapeutic to immerse myself in this space and not fret about the raging virus.

But, I missed the company of others. Particularly like-minded folk who were out in their gardens coping, healing and learning in the process of planting, weeding and nurturing. And I struck gold.

I came across @myrealgarden on Instagarm. Of all the innumerable accounts on Instagram, something about Ann-Marie Powell’s (AMP from now on) posts connected with my core. Here was someone who could be my friend in real life – it seemed as though we shared very similar sensibilities.

Boy! Was I right! AMP, with her inimitable exuberance and sense of humor drew me into her garden so to speak. Every day for a half hour we hung out talking about all things garden via IGTV. Seasonal chores, how to do them, mistakes, successes and just about everything in between were covered. No pretensions or gloss overs. This was real gardening.

Of course I Googled AMP. Turns out she’s a somebody! A highly acclaimed garden designer in the UK, Chelsea Show medalist, very well regarded by her peers in the industry, smart, shrewd and total fun person. She knows all her garden stuff and while she has created some truly impressive gardens both private and public, her own garden reflects her true self. And she is unhesitant about showing you every bit of it – warts and all. Something every single gardener can appreciate and relate to wholeheartedly. AMP is the genuine article – a gardener’s gardener. No airs and graces, not high and mighty. She’ll cringe that I’m saying good things about her!

When I started following @myrealgarden, I assumed that most of the followers were from the UK. But before long, I identified many from other parts of the globe. The group just snowballed in size and formed a most delightful MRG community. We began following each other – commenting, passing on advice and tips, complimenting, comforting and cheering everyone on.

For myself, following AMP going about her tasks, was a lovely thing – the UK is a few weeks ahead of us in the garden calendar. I knew to stay on track with my chores but observing what was to come in AMP’s garden spurred me on in an exciting way. It was so critical to be positive and motivated. Ann-Marie made it that much easier. FYI – I was brave enough to ruthlessly execute the Chelsea Chop because of her!

We were all in the same boat and each doing the best one could. Connecting to @myrealgarden was a daily highlight – her half-hour live always put me in a good mood. This was so important because in addition to the pandemic, the economy was a mess, people were going hungry, racial injustices were being rightfully protested, the political climate was appalling. I’m certain I was not the only one in a prolonged state of being on edge. Gardening was the one thing that took me away from all the problems and gave me hope. Tending to it was productive and uplifting. With all the attention, I do believe my garden hasn’t looked better.

At the same time, I was looking to find ways to help with the various needs arising. Donating to ACLU through the sales of my Printed Garden Collection was a no-brainer. But there were also other organizations and individuals in need of urgent assistance. I could certainly do my part in supporting small businesses, local restaurants, food pantries, worthy political candidates and. checking in on friends and neighbors living alone. There was just so much need at every level that I sometimes felt I didn’t have enough time, money or energy to give to them all. It was overwhelming. It still is.

Then, in late summer, AMP came up with a brilliant idea that infused the MRG community with new purpose. A book! Full of images, tips and tales from our own gardens. That in itself was a welcome project to participate in – everyone was enthusiastic. But it got better – the proceeds from the book sales would go to Green Fingers Charity  – an organization in the UK that creates gardens for children’s hospices. That we gardeners could help in any way was perfect.

AMP teamed up with her friend and fellow member of MRG Tamsin Westhorpe (she of Stockton Bury Gardens) to put together all the submissions. The task was quite big and I can only imagine the many hours that went into it. The book is now a reality! Crowd funded by the MRG community and its many friends, it is a beautiful manifestation of what can be achieved in the name of friendship and gardening. Globally and during a pandemic.

I am so proud to belong to the MRG group and be a part of the book. And immensely grateful to AMP for starting it all and consistently, generously providing motivation, inspiration, joy, humor, relevant information and support to her entire tribe. All along, she was dealing with her own lockdown demons. Thank you dear friend – I look forward to meeting you in person in the not too distant future!

Note: You can read AMP’s own version of the @myrealgarden story . it’ll show you what I meant by our like-mindedness!!

Here AMP talks more about the My Real Garden Book .

How To get yourself a copy of the My Real Garden Book – at present and until April 1, the book can be pre-ordered through British Garden Centres . After April 1, there will a choice from where to purchase. I’ll let you know as soon as that information becomes available. Stay tuned!

Sharing photos from my garden that you might see in the MRG book –

Ann-Marie Powell

Checkerboard garden

Printed Garden Pillows

The Vertical Garden

Pear In A Bottle in progress

Overview of the potager

Alliums in red, white and blue

Garden concert for the neighborhood. Memorial Day 2020

Meadow

Front Garden

The MRG book!

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Farewell February

The final week of February means we are in the home stretch to Spring. Puts me in a good mood all together. It’s felt somewhat tedious being snowbound and socially distanced. Nothing to complain about but wearisome nevertheless. Transitioning into March feels positively cheery.

With so much snow, there’s nothing stirring in the garden horticulturally speaking. I wonder if the birds are getting impatient as am I. Eager to rustle about looking for early signs of spring, I’ve taken to vicariously enjoying gardens across the pond. The English spring has begun – snowdrops and other early bulbs are up and glinting like gems scattered on the unfurled green carpet.

The bulbs I’d potted up to get a jump start on spring are now under snow and impossible to retrieve till the big thaw. I should’ve moved them to more sheltered locations. I kept meaning to but dropped that ball. Note to self – next year, place potted bulbs in cool and easy to access sites. Also, pot up many more bulbs.

I’m supposed to winter prune the roses this week but for obvious reasons, that task needs to be rescheduled. Perhaps towards the latter part of March when the snow has melted sufficiently and they can be reached more easily. We gardeners must always defer to the climate and weather and stay flexible.

In the meantime, I’ve got all the cooling hyacinths out of the refrigerator and into forcing vases. Watching them grow and gradually bloom sending shots of color and perfume around the house should satisfy my need for sights of spring till the garden decides to join the party.

The limoncello started in early January is ready. As is the lemon pickle put up around the same time. They feel extra special because the lemons came from my garden. I’m looking forward to sharing both with friends as soon as enough snow has melted to make room on the terrace for friends to gather (around the heater) and we toast to a new spring in the garden. Hope abounds.

Present day

Looking forward …!

Hyacinths in vases. Present day.

Last year.

And this one from last year as well.

The roses in my garden

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

A Little Winter Winge

February is the most challenging month. We’re still in winter’s tight grip, there’s nothing much going on outside and yet, the days are growing longer and the light is nudging the gardener to get cracking. But it’s too early! It’s best to get ones attention diverted to other activities and events.

This year in particular, February feels particularly hard. The garden is covered in a nice, thick blanket of snow. Over two feet of it. Any chance of spying the occasional early snowdrop or aconite is impossible. Icicles abound instead. At present, the front walkway, the driveway and a narrow path to the greenhouse are all that’s available for any sort of ‘walk’. Given Covid conditions, there is pretty much no place else to go for entertainment or socialization.

Thankfully, the parks and nature preserves are open for brisk walks and snow related activities. Apart from that, I’m pretty much stuck at home. It’s taking much effort on my part to resist starting most of the seeds – it’s simply too early! I might however go crazy poring over the plant catalogs and order up more plants than my budget and/or garden can handle. The temptation is strong.

It’s going to be weeks before the snow melts away but I know it’ll be exciting to watch the ground reveal itself with offerings of the year’s first growth. To discover the first brave snowdrops or the hellebores tossing their pretty heads is a thrill that never gets old.

I’d intended to start sweet peas ( flowers not vegetable) a few weeks ago but the snow storm that arrived at that time reminded me to wait a little while longer. It wouldn’t be a good idea to have them grow long, leggy and straggly waiting for planting outside. I’m treating myself to this spirit uplifting job this week. By early April, I hope to have a host of healthy, young plants ready to settle into the garden and scramble up the trellis already in place.

The excitement I feel about this single activity is disproportionately high. As though I’ve never grown anything before.

The many amaryllis I started in November have generally been rather slow. I cannot think why. A few are in bloom and looking spectacular but others are stirring about much too lethargically. Maybe they too are feeling unmotivated like many of us these days.

This weekend, I start forcing the hyacinth bulbs that have been cooling in the refrigerator. Fingers crossed they will be more energetic than certain lazy amaryllis sitting around the house.

My hope is that these indoor beauties will keep me cheered up till the garden can once again be worked upon.

That’s what this pandemic has shown me – to not take for granted all the little, joy-giving things we do routinely.

Sweetpeas seed packets from Floret Farm

Soaked seeds overnight

All planted up

While I wait for the forced hyacinths and sweet peas, I’m surrounded by my Printed Garden products. They really do cheer up the home! “I’m not just the designer, I’m a customer too!!”:

 

Napkin with hyacinth

Tea towel with hyacinth

Table runner

Sweet pea pillow a

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Snow Show

The Northeast is smack dab in the midst of a big blizzard. After last year’s mild winter with hardly any snow, it feels strange to be anticipating 20 inches of it. The gusts of wind turns the falling snow into a spectacle of whirling dervishes. Pretty awesome.

From the warmth and security of the indoors, I’m enjoying this performance art that Nature is executing so expertly. How grateful I am not to have anyplace to get to. In this whiteout situation the only thing to do is to call it a ‘snow day’ and make the most of it. With WFH in place, it might feel as though it is business as usual but I’m determined not to let it be so. It would be a shame to waste the opportunity to make hot chocolate, change ones office location to a cozy spot by a roaring fire and get outside to tramp around in the snow. After hours of screen time, the bracing effect of standing in the falling snow even for a few minutes is stimulating. Chances are, one will want to play – snowball fights, making snow-angels or snow-person building contest anyone?

As I watch the beautiful winter scene outside, I’m reassured that the dormant plants are safely insulated under the thick blanket of snow. I like to imagine that the seeds of wildflowers scattered by the wind and critters last fall will rest comfortably until the snow-melt gently coaxes their parched coats awake. Already, I can envision the meadow come alive with many more flowers this spring.

Watching the trees sway and shake in the fierce wind is a tad unsettling. Much damage is possible if one falls. Fingers crossed the trees are all healthy and firmly rooted. In the spring I’ll be sure to find interesting branches sprinkled around the floor of the woods. They will make good stakes and tepees for gangly plants in need of support. This year, I’m going to earmark a couple of good ones to use in outdoor decorating projects. Ostensibly we are all still going to only gather outdoors through the better part of this year. So, why not plan to make the terrace more festive?

The plants in the greenhouse are safe thus far but I’m constantly worrying about their heat supply. What if the propane tanks get depleted more quickly? Or, what if there is a technical glitch that fails to inform that the temperature in the greenhouse has dropped too low? Having a greenhouse can be both a blessing and a curse. Still, I’m very grateful for my tiny extravagance. Okay, okay, it’s a folly of sorts.

I make a note to myself to remove most of the snow around the fruit trees after the storm. A few winters ago, rodents made themselves cozy under the snow and had a good feast on the cambium at the base of some trees leaving a few of them completely girdled. It was heartbreaking to lose them. Replacing trees within a mature Belgian espalier is not easy or inexpensive. I’m forever determined to thwart those tree murderers. If I could, I’d banish them for all eternity but living in the ‘country’ makes that pretty much impossible.

Something to bear in mind – observe how the snow melts in the garden. As the garden resurfaces, it’ll become clear which parts are more sunny or sheltered. It isn’t always as obvious as one might think. Often, we fail to notice changes as trees grow or die or, new constructions come up. But, noting the speed with which snow disappears in certain locations and lingers on in others, tells you the different micro-climates within the garden. This information is very useful when choosing plants and designing beds.

In my garden, there are patches a mere two feet apart where the snow responds to the warming temperatures very differently.

I love the way snow silently traces over the elements and features in the garden. Almost like black and white pictures, they render the designs prettily. Any gap or lack of interest shows up clearly as though pointing out where one needs to remedy or improve the composition.

Snow brings out such emotions in us. We are awed, pleased, challenged, irritated and sometimes even devastated. But perhaps, the best effect it has is to bring out our inner child. So, before we clear the snow off our lovely, longish slope of a driveway, I simply must pull on a snowsuit and get in some sledding fun. Otherwise, what would’ve been the point of all that powder?

In the beginning-

After some hours –

Beauty indoors too!

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

January Jottings

January In The Garden

Feels lazy

Days spent

in waiting

wanting

wishing

Nothing done.

                                                                           – Shobha Vanchiswar

The final week of January. Things feel lighter and brighter. The sun is setting past 5:00pm – this singular fact is mood improving is it not? It might still be very cold with little to get excited about in the garden but the anticipation of the sap rising imminently buoys me up.

I’m currently reading and tremendously enjoying Page Dickey’s book ‘Uprooted’. It reads like a beautiful prose poem on starting anew. I’ve been noting down several plant varieties she mentions and I’m beginning to think I’m going to need more acreage to accommodate them all!

Some years ago, Page gave me a ‘Leda’ rose and an Abeliophyllum ( white forsythia). The latter blooms very early in spring and the rose pinks up the summer. These reminders of a valued mentor keep me in state of gratitude, contentment and humility. Despite how it appears, one doesn’t truly garden alone. There are always the teachers, the helpers, the cheerleaders keeping us company.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of Uprooted. It’ll inspire, instruct and inform in a most gentle, supportive manner.

On my sojourns outdoors, there’s great fun in listening to the birds as they go about their business seemingly unbothered by the cold. This coming weekend, I hope to put up the new bluebird house somewhere in the front garden that suits the potential residents as well as the landlord – I’d like to watch their antics and be entertained whenever I’m in this part of the property. The birdhouse in the meadow in the back has proven its purpose rather successfully. The house is being set up early so as to be ready and available as soon as avian house hunting season commences.

Similarly, the hummingbird feeder in the herb garden is a huge source of joy. Over the holidays, I received by mail a hand-blown glass feeder. It is a beautiful work of art. Oddly, there was no note with this package and I’m still trying to find out who the thoughtful sender might be. I’m appreciating the happy dilemma of finding the most appropriate site for it.

And so January is coming to a close. We’re half way to Spring!

January things:

Enjoying the sunset from indoors as its too cold outside!

Amaryllis

First snow of the new year

Get this book!

January recollections:

Goldfinch on coneflower

Hummingbird hovering just above the agapanthus on left

At the feeder

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Sharp And Smart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some early March images from last year –

The newest addition to my tool kit.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Escape Roots

Less than two weeks into 2021 and it already feels old! If there wasn’t enough going on already, we now have even more happening to consume our attention and raise our worries. I don’t know about you but, I am focusing on mini-escapes. Books are a great way to get away from it all but I’m finding it hard to concentrate at present. It’s easy enough to divert my mind with a movie or television show but once its over, reality sets in and I’m invariably left with a feeling of having used my time inadequately. I’ve learned that screen time serves me best as a reward after I’ve been creative and productive.

While I cannot actually work in the winter garden, I take comfort in doing the things in preparation, planning and plotting that perfect garden. It’s activity filled with hope and positivity. Perusing seed and plant catalogs that arrive in the mail send me dreaming of all sorts gardens. Plantings for seaside homes, tropical terraces, alpine aeries keep me entertained for a good while at the end of which, I’m more informed about the possibilities in those climes.

Similarly, I find good information and inspiration in garden magazines. The periodicals from across the pond have me salivating. Particularly since their winters are milder and they’re already starting seeds, have early bulbs and hellebores blooming. I look outside and nothing is happening in my neck of the woods. But, for an hour or so, I’ve been to the UK and basked in the gardens depicted on the pages. That’s a lovely escape that gets my creative juices going.

Painting is always a lovely form of taking my mind from everything. And I do so as often as I can. The focus it requires pushes back the worries that tend to bubble up so easily these days. And I’m always happy to have something new and tangible after the effort. Each painting marks growth in the artist.

I’ve taken to adding a slow tour of my garden at the end of my daily neighborhood walks. It calms me with its familiarity. While I know it so well, new ideas or plants permit me to envision it differently. Sort of like trying to visualize your child at different stages in the future. Endless hopeful possibilities.

After such jaunts, I’m energized to come indoors and tackle what needs doing.

Stirred by all the seed catalogs and reportings from English gardens, I’ve decided to order some sweet peas. I absolutely adore the flowers – delicate, softly hued and sweetly fragrant, they entrance and beguile. The climate where I live is not ideal for this plant. All prior attempts have shown they are rather short lived and disappointing. Still, I’m going try again.

This time, I’m going to give them a head start by starting them indoors in mid-February. Sweet-peas have long root structures and do best when they are given the space to put out strong, long roots straight down. Standard seed starting trays are not appropriate. One needs to use either commercially sold root-trainers or the cardboard cylinders from toilet paper rolls – Ann Marie Powell in England (@myrealgarden) has convinced me that sweet peas do considerably better ( she says ‘fierce’) this way. I’ve elected to use the latter as collecting the rolls is easy and promotes sustainability. Stay tuned – I’ll report back in due time. For now, I’m happily fantasizing numerous posies scattered around the house in May/June.

Time in the greenhouse is hands down the most immediate getaway of all. In mere minutes of seeing and inhaling the greenery I’m calmer and breathing evenly. It’s always spring here. Puttering around snipping, primping the plants is hugely gratifying. I’m deeply grateful for my tiny, transparent sanctuary. I know what a privilege it is.

The bounty from the lemon trees has kept me busy – I’ve been focused on harnessing all the lemony goodness in as many ways as possible. Sour lemon pickle – tweaking an old family recipe, a jar sits on a sill where, over the course of a few weeks sunlight will work its magic to create something that’ll perk up any dish.

Limoncello, lemon marmalade, lemon curd are other products. And I’m also freezing some of the juice in ice cube trays for vinaigrette and cocktails. Every one of these will provide a chance to simply enjoy the flavors of captured sunshine. A respite from whatever else is going on.

Escapes can range from just a few minutes to several days. Its important that we do so – to maintain our equilibrium and reset as required.

Right now, join me for a quick recess. Sitting right where you are, close your eyes. Bring your attention to your breath. Inhale deeply. Exhale deeply. Do it again. Again. Once more. Notice how your body starts to relax. Keep breathing with intent. Open your eyes. There. Doesn’t that feel good?

Packages of sunshine!

Sour lemon pickle (as opposed to sweet pickle)

Most recent watercolor of seed heads

Vanilla bean infused Meyer lemon marmalade

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

A Wander To Wonder

But for the odd pot or furniture to put away, the garden has been put to bed. As I gaze out the window slowly sipping my coffee and contemplating the day, it looks very subdued and quiet out there. I’m planning on going into the garden a bit later in the day. Spend some time getting the benefit of the outdoors. Sunshine notwithstanding, it looks cold. I’m tempted to make excuses and stay in. I know that once I’ve made it outside, I’ll be totally fine. It is getting past the inertia that is the hardest.

After a morning of work, I’m ready for a break. I require some diversion to get my mind ready for the next tasks that must be completed. I pull on warm layers kept on the ready, grab my winter gear and step out. The sharp edge of the cold hits me as I squint in the bright sunlight. Right away I feel more awake and my body adjusts to the temperature. It’s not so bad at all.

Instinctively my eyes start surveying the perennial beds on either side of where I stand. I look down at the hellebores left uncut so the emerging buds are protected. Gently lifting a couple of the leaves, I note the tiny buds nestled at the base. In my minds eye, I see the flowers in bloom. Hellebores are so dependable. I cannot have enough of them. The rest of the beds look tidy and flat with the plants cut back. They and the bulbs are nicely tucked away for the winter under a thick layer of mulch. Staring a bit longer, I detect the slightest growth – slender tips spearing through. Crocus or snowdrops awakening way too early? There had been a few days of mild temperatures a couple of weeks ago. Could that have triggered some bulbs? I fervently hope not. There’s not much I can do about it so I tell myself to let it be.

Leaving the front garden, I walk past the vertical garden – a length that looks so devoid of any growth, that one would be hard-pressed to imagine the lush greenery that is a hallmark of this space in the growing season. My heart feels a twinge – I miss the wall garden. It surprises me to realize just how much I love this feature. I wonder if the mosses looking barely present in their dormancy miss their fern companions now ensconced safely in the emptied vegetable bed in the potager.

Standing at the top of the steps that lead down to meadow, I marvel at the filigree of tree branches above. Denuded of leaves, like a loosely knit scarf the patterns trace through the air against the backdrop of a clear blue sky. Below, I become aware of birds hopping around as they forage for food. It’s only in being still that I am able to detect the many sounds in the garden. What at first felt quiet is in reality humming with activity.

The rustle of small creatures in bushes, the scratching of the birds as they avail themselves of worms and scattered seeds, distinct birdsong punctuates the air and I begin to watch the various singers at different locations of the garden. Each time a gust of wind come through, I hear the creak of branches swaying. Airlifted leaves perform balletic dances before settling down again on the ground. The sunlight glancing off the metal sculpture brings into focus the moire pattern on its surface. Reminds me of eddies of water in a stream. I watch a hawk high on a tree of a neighbor’s property – it is feasting on something newly caught. I don’t want to know what its eating. Nearby, I watch a spider hard at work – a web is such a marvel. I wonder if the spider does it instinctively or has some forethought directed the strategy. As an artist, I know both factors come into play when I create.

Before I know it, an hour has passed. My body feels so alive and filled with inspiration. Wandering around the garden, has quieted my mind and prepared it for the work that lies ahead. I return indoors refreshed, relaxed and motivated.

Tomorrow, I will get to do it all over again. The daily gift of Nature.

Note: I’m very pleased to have my series of 6 paintings on “The Women Of India” at the International Art Show Of Raleigh on the Arts Of India. Do please take a look!

Hellebore leaves shielding new growth

Buds peeking through

All bedded down

Up close and personal with dormant mosses

The winter wall garden

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar