Put A Name On It!

As a scientist and a gardener, I’ve always found nomenclature to be very important. The scientific name of a living thing is full of information and not simply a tag by which they are referred. But, that is not what I want to discuss. I’m thinking more in terms of what words we choose to designate the spaces in our property.

To start, I cannot for the life of me understand why a garden is ever called a yard. A yard is for junk, trains, lumber, school, stock, barn, grave and such. A holding area. A garden is not synonymous with yard. When you hear the Y word, do you really ever envision a plot of land lush and lovely? But you do when you hear the G word. A yard does not imply a lovingly tended area but a garden definitely does. You see?

I have no doubt that what we name things matters. How we view, use and care for something is impacted by how we reference it. I’m not done. I have one other similar peeve.

Consider the deck versus terrace/patio/loggia/veranda/lanai. The deck sounds ordinary– functional and convenient. As a noun, it is also a part of a ship or a pack of cards. Not necessarily something that belongs to a garden. All the other aforementioned synonyms evoke an area distinctly designed for relaxation with a pleasing backdrop of plants and flowers. Am I right?

So, with that in mind, consider the various parts of my garden. Front garden with front porch looking on to it – an inviting, pretty place leading to the house. The espalier allée or peony walk on the side escorts you to the potager, terrace and checkerboard garden. Beyond, is the meadow that plays host to the greenhouse and tree-house. And coming up the other side one walks by the vertical garden. And there you have it. You just got a garden tour.

The alternate would be – front yard, side path, vegetable/herb plot, deck, back yard, plant

wall. Which tour would you want to take?

Be honest.

Note: Enjoy a quick tour of my garden

Front garden

Espalier Allee or Peony walk

Side porch

Potager

Potager and side porch above

Potager and terrace

Terrace

Checkerboard garden

Meadow

Vertical garden

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

January Jitters

2022 is well underway and I’m starting to feel like I’m not stepping up to it. Between the recent snow storms and the Omicron surge, I’m going through a phase of ‘out-of-sorts’. I sure hope it’s just a phase. While I’m trying to stay on course with my projects and such, it’s unsettling when so many are out of action and all sorts of events are being canceled. How does one plan for anything? Do I dare look forward to an upcoming visit/concert/class ? We’ve learned to be flexible and adapt but still, there’s that yearning for the familiar comfort of normalcy isn’t there. I catch myself feeling fearful of looking forward to things. Hate to be disappointed again. And again.

And then, a bright sunny day or a flash of cardinal red in the snow covered garden is enough to get the spirit soaring. I look around at the amaryllis blooming indoors and they give me pause to appreciate the beauty and the comfort they bring Soon, I’ll be forcing hyacinths and eagerly anticipate the flowers and fragrance. Spring would’ve arrived in my heart well before the vernal equinox.

Seeds that I’d ordered in December arrived yesterday. I’m not taking on any major seed starting – instead, I’m keeping matters simple and realistic so I can indeed take a trip or do other things should the opportunity arise. Shirley poppies to scatter towards the end of winter. Cosmos seeds will be sprinkled later on. I’m only going to start the highly dependable sunflowers. My big adventure will be growing dahlias for the first time. The tubers I’d ordered will arrive in due course and I’m excited to experience something new.

I’ve also signed up for several on-line talks/lectures. The Garden Conservancy recently announced their series on French Gardening that sounds quite interesting. Apart from learning horticultural stuff, it’ll be a bit of ‘traveling to France’. Until its safe to make an in-person trip there, I’ll make do with these talks.

Untermyer Gardens’ winter symposium should be a good one too. I thoroughly enjoyed their 2022 winter symposium. This one is on meadows – something, as you know, I’m very passionate about.

Wave Hill and NYBG have good line-ups for winter as well.

Across the pond, Fergus Garret of Great Dixter fame will be continuing his lectures on various aspects of gardening. These are always chock full of information and beautiful images.

By the time I’m through with all the talks, spring should be here for real. So, for now, I’m going to breathe deeply and plug away at my projects and goals, take comfort in the ‘early spring’ indoors, get inspired and motivated by the many talks, stay away from an overload of news and instead, focus on uplifting, life affirming nature walks and preparations for the growing season. Gardening to the rescue. As always.

Note: Things that help keep me calm and hopeful –

I’m a firm believer in enjoying my art until they get exhibited and find new homes. At present, some of my seed pods are giving me lots of pleasure.

More seed pods

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Start Me Up

Day 4 of 2022 and it is finally feeling like winter. On January 1, it was a balmy 60 degrees. Given all the ‘unprecedented’ and ‘record weather’ events, it tells me to expect more of the unexpected. And we must be prepared to pivot, remain flexible and possibly most importantly, adapt to circumstances.

Meanwhile, I’m getting on with the January garden chores. Here’s to 2022 – may we and our gardens thrive and spread goodness all around.

Things To Do In January

  1. Survey the garden after every storm or snowfall. If any damage such as broken branches or torn off protection has occurred, try to fix it as soon as possible. Likewise, large icicles hanging from roof edges pose a threat to plants below: shield the plants if the icicles cannot be removed.

  2. Take down holiday decorations. Before disposing off the Christmas tree, cut branches to spread as mulch on flower beds.

  3. Keep bird feeders full. Whenever possible, keep water available for the birds.

  4. Inspect stored tubers, corms and bulbs for signs of mold and rot. Get rid of any that don’t look healthy.

  5. This is a good time to examine the ‘bones’ of the garden. Make notes of what needs developing, changing or improving.

  6. Make icy paths safe by sprinkling sand or grit. Avoid toxic de-icing products.

  7. If ground is wet/soggy, take care to protect the sodden areas by not walking on it too much. Better yet, protect it by putting down a temporary path of wood planks.

  8. Take an inventory of garden tools. Get them repaired, replaced or sharpened.

  9. Gather up seed and plant catalogs. Start planning for the coming season.

  10. Begin forcing the bulbs kept cool since late fall. Time to start an indoor spring!

  11. Keep an eye on indoor plants ( in the house or greenhouse). Inspect carefully for signs of pests or disease. Act right away if either is detected. Organic practices only please.

  12. Still on indoor plants: water as needed, rotate for uniform light exposure, fertilize every two to four weeks. Remove dead or yellowing leaves.

  13. Enjoy the respite offered by this cold month.

Note: I have a painting in a global show online. Please do take look – it’s on Human Rights and there are some powerful works.The exhibition duration is from December 19 2021 till January 23, 2021.

If you like my work, do ‘like’ it and leave a comment. And spread the word to others! I’d love for a gallery to take note and give me the opportunity to exhibit the whole series. Your help in publicizing is much appreciated – Thank you!

Here’s what’s doing in and out of my garden –

Pumpkins saved from the fall for still life painting!

Watercolor

Amaryllis

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

Performance Review 2021

The final week of 2021. One can’t help but think about the year in review and anticipate the one to come. On my part, I’ve shifted the way I’m examining 2021 in the garden. Instead of looking at how things fared in the garden, I’m taking a hard look at my own efforts as a gardener. Instead of simply considering how weather, pollinators and pests contributed to successes and failures, I’m reviewing how my performance has impacted the garden.

In the latter part of winter, I was filled with hope and energy and got columbine seeds started. The seeds had been stratified weeks earlier and were duly sowed in starter pots. I’d hoped for a plethora of seedlings to plant in the meadow. It was a complete failure. While I’d been told by experts that starting columbines was not simple, I had not expected total defeat. Thinking back to that time, I see how I neglected to closely monitor the seed flats. I kinda let the seeds manage completely on their own as I got distracted with myriads of other seasonal tasks in the garden. Well, I shouldn’t have been surprised when not a single seed sprouted. What I’ve learned is that I shouldn’t take on something I don’t have the time/skills/conditions required. While this effort was not a big financial investment, it was a very visual reminder of my gross negligence. I’m duly shamed.

When the weather gets too warm and humid, I always retreat indoors. It’s not only very buggy and uncomfortable to be outside but, conditions are ideal for migraines to plague me. I’ve learned to be preemptive and stay inside. This year, the summer atmosphere was mostly unpleasant. We had weeks of bad weather. I barely got in the garden and endlessly complained about how the weather had created unhealthy conditions for the plants. But I took no personal ownership. I should’ve found moments in the cooler periods in the early hours of the mornings to do a pest check, some staking or a spot of weeding. I could’ve helped the beleaguered plants in pots by feeding them weekly (instead of sporadically) to counteract the loss of nutrients by the incessant rains. I admit I used the excuse (valid as it was) of migraines to conceal my laziness. Ashamed I am. Thoroughly.

On the positive side, timely pruning and trimming resulted in those plants looking healthy and happy. My foray into hot colors for the potager and terrace was very successful. Due diligence resulted in a very good grape harvest. The plants that were too vigorous and smothering their neighbors were dealt with – creating more breathing space all around. I finally addressed the wisteria that was in the wrong place and replaced it with a magnolia espalier. The wisteria is now in a friend’s garden where it has a much more suitable home.

Open Day and Digging Deeper were not only successful but brought me so much joy to once again be amidst like-minded, garden crazy people. My kind of folk.

I’ve begun taking steps for next year. Inspired by the stunning flowers I saw in other gardens this past year, I’ve ordered dahlia tubers for the first time. I’m hoping to source and order flats of native columbine seedlings for the meadow. If I can get them early enough, I will nurture them along responsibly. In the coming weeks, I plan to get organized and ready for spring. And I’m creating a game plan to mitigate my laziness.

And now, the greenhouse beckons. Some faffing and fussing is in order.

January

February

February

March

April

April

May

May. Marco Polo Stufano, Timothy Tilghman na his wife Renee visit.

June. Open Day

July

August

September

October

November. Bulb planting.

December. Gifts from the garden.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Darkness To Light

This holiday season is not going the way the world had hoped. The best laid plans have been upended. We are once again struggling with what feels like deja vu. Haven’t we been through this already?

Determined to fight any feeling of melancholy, I’m once again taking my cues from nature.

It’s the winter solstice today. The shortest day of the year. But, from tomorrow, the days begin to grow. Albeit by just one minute a day, it’s a positive development. Psychologically, this single fact shifts my attitude – I feel so much better. I take it as a sign of hope and positivity. Frankly, what other option is there? I simply must believe that things will improve.

As I walk around the garden, I start noticing other signs of hope. Furry buds on the magnolia tell me to expect a lovely show in a few months. On the climbing hydrangea, the buds like long grains of rice sit tight and firm as though letting the world know that they’re here on a mission. I reach beneath last years leaves and gently dig around at the base of the hellebores – sure enough, I see the early signs of growth. All of this is so full of promise. What at first appears to be a garden in hibernation is really one where life is very much happening. It never stopped.

I’m being guided to see the hope. Light will return and spring will burst forth again.

I step back into the house renewed and ready to embrace the quiet joys of winter.

Note: The two poems below were written in previous Decembers and I’m happy to revisit them from time to time. They remind me to lean into the light.

Dark And Light

The light of day

sparkles honest

Cobwebs shimmer

rewards promised

Hope soars

confidence shines

Courage accompanies

mountains to climb

Sunrises occasion

plans anew

Clarity surfaces

Beliefs ring true

Nightfall arrives

slow and sure

Shadows lurk

luring fear

Darkness imposes

time to remember

Review, regret

call to surrender

Sunsets precede

hidden dreads

Anxiety reigns

awake in bed

Reality lies

in plain sight

there’s nothing in the dark

that’s not there in the light.

******

Trimming The Tree

Love hangs memories

on awaiting arms

twinkling happy thoughts

as new stories get written.

While the past is shared

the present unfolds itself

into the future.

This tree belongs to my daughter. We got it for her when she was very young. Each ornament is a story, a memory, an expression of love.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Home For The Holidays

If we’ve learned anything these past two years, it’s just how singularly important our homes are. Under the definition of home, I include with the physical house, the family/friends/pets we live with, the garden/favorite park, the neighborhood. and the community in which one is privileged to live. What contributes to our well-being are a string of linked people, groups and spaces. It makes sense then, that we each must do our part for ourselves and each other to be healthy and well.

Taking the concept of home as my theme for the holidays, I decided that all the decorations would be things I already had and/or could find in the garden. The big bay standard was already the Christmas tree but what of garland or wreath? Other adornments?

Because of a family member’s allergy to evergreens, no traditional evergreen tree, garland or wreath. Not a problem. Bay standard holds itself very well in lights and all the ornaments collected/made over decades. As I’ve said in previous posts, foraging the garden was in order for the garland.

All the hydrangea flowers cut for autumn displays were sprayed in gold. I could’ve left them natural but the holidays deserve a bit of pizzazz. They look positively glamorous in gold – I’m so thrilled. On lengths of grapevine from the arbor, the gorgeous golden clusters were attached with wire. It looked good just that way. But why stop at good? I inserted beautiful leaves from the magnolia espalier – the top surface of glossy, dark green contrasts so strikingly with the suede brown underside. They add that bit of extra elegance to the garland for sure. But, I needed something for whimsy. Whatever remained of the beauty-berries after the birds had finished were salvaged and the stalks were inserted in the garland at random. I think it all comes together very nicely – pretty, festive, sophisticated yet with hints of carefree. For all that it is really just a simple, sweet creation from the garden. Every time I look at it, it reminds me of the generosity of the garden.

The amaryllis coming along in various pots and candle lights in the windows round out the holiday decor. That’s it. Exactly to our taste. Nothing extravagant or ostentatious.

The gifts we’re giving are all either homemade ( lemon marmalade, gingerbread cookies) or products that are meant for personal or household chores – they are not only gentle to humans and the environment but eliminate the need for plastic containers altogether. Think dish-washing soap and powder, cellulose cloths for cleaning and wiping, toothpaste and mouthwash tablets and biodegradable dental floss made from plant material. We made the switch to all these and other products over a year ago and have been pleased with them. I figure that gifts expressing our shared concern for the health of the environment and ourselves would encourage the recipients to make the change as well.

My remaining gifts fall into two more categories. Products whose purchase goes entirely to a good cause ( WWF, cures for certain diseases, UNICEF, social justice, etc.,) is one. The other is memberships to worthy organizations such as museums, botanical gardens, historical societies local to but not frequented by the recipient.

Gifts from the heart that reflect our homes, our values and our interconnectedness to everything and everybody in the ultimate home that is our beloved planet Earth.

Amaryllis ‘lemon drop’ has begun the festivities

Meyer lemon harvest

Lemon marmalade.

Hydrangea clad in gold

Beautyberries

Magnolia leaves

The finished product

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

December Deals

The garden is finally put to bed. All the clean up and cut back is done. The biggest pots and oak water barrel are cozily wrapped in plastic topped with burlap – they sit like packages waiting to be discovered. The meadow had its annual cutback and now lies with a nice covering of fallen leaves that offer all manner of sustenance and refuge to wildlife. The surrounding shrubs remain uncut – they lend some winter interest but more importantly, they too provide shelter and some more food for active critters.

The tiny greenhouse is home to so many tender perennials and tropicals that the small table and chair placed in for WFH respite is a very tight squeeze. Still, it’s always wonderful to spend time in there. The lemons were harvested over the weekend. They sit looking so beautiful – orbs of captured sunshine. I’ve set aside time to make a big batch of lemon marmalade tomorrow. That stuff gets consumed so rapidly that I might have to restrict it to ‘Sunday breakfast only’. No doubt , it’d lead to a mutiny!

Similarly, the many jars of basil and nasturtium pesto, pear brandy and limoncello, Concord grape jelly and vegetable stock made from the bounty from the garden through the fall, will bring great pleasure to many winter meals.

What remains to be done are maintenance chores like getting tools with blades sharpened, restocking on twine, stakes and such, bringing back order to the garden workbenches and shelves, checking what needs replacing or repairing and acting accordingly. I have the hyacinth forcing vases cleaned and ready for action for when the time is right to get the cooling bulbs out of the refrigerator.

Making our holiday decorations from materials found in the garden and woods gives me a wonderful sense of comfort and joy. The garden provides through all the seasons. That is the best deal of all.

Amaryllis coming along

Lemons!

Meadow under cover of leaves

Greenhouse

Greenhouse

Sedum seed heads

Echinacea seed heads

Rose geranium lemonade and nasturtium pesto

Bundles of bouquet garni – to flavor soups and sauces.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Keeping It Natural

It’s quite wonderful that the holiday season coincides so nicely with the garden being put to bed. It makes it easier to have to retreat indoors. The festive time requires decorations and what better way to lift our spirits and spread good cheer than letting Nature dictate the theme

Given everything that has affected us this year, I’m determined to go about the holidays with thought and mindfulness.

Lets not get upset about supply chain problems, Christmas tree shortages, less than fully stocked stores or other news that increases the level of anxiety. Instead of complaining, this is a call for creativity. I’m going to do my best to stay focused on what I can actually control. In many small ways, I intend to do my part in mitigating some of the problems we face and are concerned about.

To begin with decorations, I’ve always kept it simple. Strings of LED lights and family ornaments adorn the big bay tree standard that stands-in for the traditional Christmas tree. My daughter is allergic to evergreens but honestly, we are quite happy with the bay. Similarly, the mantel will be decorated with a garland of foraged materials from the garden and woods and more strings of lights. An electric candle light at each of the windows adds a great deal of charm. Several amaryllis started a few weeks ago should be blooming through the holidays into the New Year. A lit fireplace and real candles completes the whole scene. Over the years, we’ve made pomanders with oranges and the fragrance of citrus, cloves and cinnamon just says ‘HOLIDAYS!’. And lets not forget all the yummy aromas that come from the kitchen when baking is underway. Add a good playlist and we’re done. Seriously, does one really need anything more to set the stage for celebrations?

Similarly, for the gifts, I’m giving only things where either the proceeds serve a cause I support (cozy house slippers from the World Wildlife Foundation) or are products that will introduce the recipient to living in a more sustainable, environmentally healthy manner. That’s good stuff like household detergents, dental and body hygiene products made from natural, plant-based materials and packaged in what can be easily recycled or composted. No plastics whatsoever. I also support local businesses and artists/artisans. These are some of my humble efforts to put my money where my heart is and do right by Earth and all who call it home.

Keep it simple. Keep it natural. Nature’s beauty cannot be beat.

Note: In keeping with the natural theme, I’m sharing images from this years Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Gardens. I just love this event so much and every year I’m delighted and inspired by the creativity and beauty of the display of iconic buildings and plantings.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

Gratitude Attitude

Finishing the job of putting the garden to bed generally coincides with Thanksgiving. It’s natural then that my mind, already in the throes of reviewing the past year ,takes on a more grateful outlook. All too often, whilst cleaning up and cutting down, I’m thinking about the problems and failures that occurred. What failed to thrive, pests that destroyed plants, weather related challenges, paucity of butterflies and/or bees, lack of time in the garden because of a bumper crop of mosquitoes … so many garden trials. And then, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, just as most of the chores are completed, my attitude shifts. I’m in a state of gratitude for almost the very things that I was lamenting.

Just when the apple trees were poised to bloom in spring, a sudden drop in temperature pretty much closed down that show. I was really frustrated. No flowers meant no pollination and therefore no fruit. A real bummer. On recent reflection, I see how this setback made me that much more diligent in my care of the trees. I trimmed and pruned, fed and watered, checked for pests far more regularly than I had in recent years. I carefully nurtured the few apples that did develop. I’m determined to be prepared for unexpected cold spells next spring so I can protect the buds and give them a fair chance to flower.

We observed that this year there was a drop in numbers of butterflies in our region. I missed their usual company sorely. So, mid-bulb-planting, I made a dash to the nursery and picked up several butterfly/caterpillar friendly, native plants to add to the ones already in the garden. With so much to do both in and out of the garden, I probably would’ve let this action slide by unattended and simply continued to complain about the drop in butterfly population. Now, I can look forward to even more blooms in the garden and feel good about taking some positive action to help attract and nurture the winged dancers.

The heat and high humidity last summer made it quite unbearable to enjoy the outdoors. But the amount of bugs waiting to eat one alive, pretty much had us mostly stay indoors. I felt cheated and was very resentful. While going about my fall chores, I kept thinking about that. And then, I stopped. For next year, I have a good supply of an effective, natural bug spray to slather on and a couple of electric fans to keep me cool and bug free. It will not do at all to let another year go by without living in the garden as much as possible.

There are many other instances but you get the idea. The garden has given me a quick refresher course in how important it is to be patient, positive, resilient, understanding, accepting, pro-active, empathetic and most importantly, grateful.

Wishing everyone a beautiful Thanksgiving. May it be one of peace, love, blessings and fellowship.

Sharing a few favorite photos of the company I keep –

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Shared Wisdom

Gardeners are the best sharers don’t you agree? From produce and plants to cuttings and advice, we share generously. It’s no wonder then that we love being in each others company. And the longer I garden, the more there is to learn.

So this week, I’m passing on three things I learned recently.

#1 – As we well know, comfrey makes a most effective organic fertilizer. The usual method is to fill a bucket or other container with comfrey leaves, add water, cover tightly and let it sit for some weeks. Over that time, the leaves breakdown and the whole turns into rich, liquid plant food. Simple. The reason for that tight cover is to contain the odor – it stinks to high heaven. The final product is diluted as necessary to feed the plants.

I’ve just learned of another way to use comfrey. Dry the leaves, crumble them and sprinkle into pots to boost seedlings and plants. This past weekend, as I was putting the herb garden to bed, I cut back vast amounts of comfrey. I’m going to dry some of it. Towards the end of winter, the plants in the greenhouse will receive a generous serving of dry comfrey to get them ready for the move outdoors.

If there is a prolonged spell of rain during the growing season as it was this past summer, the dry comfrey will come in good use. A liquid feed on wet days would be useless.

#2 – Right after the last snowfall last winter, I sprinkled Shirley poppy seeds all over a snow covered area in the meadow where I wanted them to bloom. As the snow melted, the seeds would settle on the earth and take root. I’d heard that this very simple method worked well. Not for me. It was a total failure.

But last week, I learned of a better way. Mix the seeds in sand, sift this over the planting area. Tamp down with a brick or board. Give a misting of water. Seedlings should appear in about 3 weeks. Thin out as needed. I’m going to try this next year.

#3 – My Brugamansia did not put up a good show of flowers this year. I blamed the crazy weather. But, on reflection and remembering another tip I’d picked up a while back ( and forgotten), this plant needs very diligent feeding. So, starting next growing season, weekly doses of dry comfrey are in order. Will report back in a year!

I’d love to hear your tips – please share!

Mature common comfre

The lesser known blue flowered comfrey

Comfrey (by the sculpture) in early spring

 

Poppies

From my seedpod series – watercolor of poppy pods/heads

Watercolor of poppy

Brugamansia

My watercolor rendition

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar