Flowering May

The pace in the garden has picked up by leaps and bounds. It feels as though the plants are all coming up at the same time. I sincerely hope not! The temperatures this week are projected to be unseasonably high so there’s no telling what will happen. The tulips are at their peak prettiness and I’m keeping my fingers crossed they will not succumb to the heat. I desperately want to enjoy them for a while longer.

The apple blossoms have joined the pears at the espalier fence. Their frothy exuberance is irresistible to the bees and I can’t be more pleased. In the meadow, just as the daffodils are waning, the ornithogalum have stepped forward. The white bells nodding sweetly are such good place holders for the drama of the alliums coming up soon.

With flowers unfurling everywhere, the birds have been busy. It sounds as though they’re mostly busy chattering but I know they’re focused on nest building and raising their young. The chandelier in the pergola has been comandeered once again by robins. Three turquoise blue eggs repose in a nest built from material found in the bin that holds garden waste headed for the compost heap. I notice dried leaves of brugamansia and papery flowers of hydrangea. All no doubt carefully selected by the discerning robins. I’m impressed.

This past weekend, as I went about our gardening chores, I was made acutely aware that my presence anywhere within a 3 foot radius of said nest was highly disapproved. I did my best to give space but the table under the chandelier is key to doing the potting up of small to medium plants, shaping the small topiaries and such. If only there was a way to assure the robins that I’d never harm their babies and would instead do my best to protect them.

Until eggs are hatched and babies are grown and flown, we will not be using this area for al fresco meals and gatherings. The birds have no idea how much they’ve inconvenienced us and nor do they care. We can empathize.

Sitting well away from the pergola and sipping a much needed cup of coffee I was given the pleasure of seeing my first hummingbird of the season. Only just a bit earlier I’d wondered if these tiny treasures had returned and if it was time to put up the feeders they enjoy so much. They have and it is.

I’m almost breathless keeping up with all the garden goings on. May begins tomorrow and the flowers are here. Lets hope Open Day on May 11 will be abundant with all the blessings for everyone to enjoy.

Glimpses of the garden right now –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Decompress And Debrief

What a week it was! Busy, hectic and full of excitement. It was spent installing my art for the Lyndhurst In Bloom event. Transforming a vision to reality is a process fraught with ideas, doubt, fun, tweaking, rethinking, redoing, second guessing everything and, finally pulling it all together. A roller-coaster ride.

And then the preview night arrived – it had all come together and I was ready to enjoy the evening. Whew!

The feedback that evening and through the weekend was good and gratifying. I’m really glad I’d said ‘yes’ to this opportunity. It made me stretch and explore, dig deep and think out of the box. It was truly exciting. I’m very pleased with how the final installation looked as well the public response. I learned a lot too.

I had many requests to share as much as possible about my project from those who could not attend. So I submit here the mission statement for it and lots of photos. Lyndhurst had a professional photographer take pictures but I will receive them only later.

And now, after a day spent collecting my thoughts and decompressing, I head into the garden and onward to the garden’s Open Day!

Before Flowers, Beyond Flowers

Lyndhurst Mansion will forever be connected to the Gilded Age. A time associated with rapidly expanding industries, significant progress in science and technology and of course, opulence and excess. What is often overlooked is that this period was also when Environmentalism as a national movement got started. It was a seminal moment when Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872. The first of its kind in the world.

We are now at a similar inflection point where we must renew our covenant as protectors of the environment.

On that note,Welcome to The Gilded Age 2.0. What was the scullery has become an ode to seeds.

The very fundamental source of all life is highlighted. Every seed contains the past, present and future. Seeds hold the history, geography, science and art of life on earth. 

Yet, while there is universal agreement that seeds are important, one tends not to pay serious attention to them. Benign, diminutive, innocuous with an appearance perceived as dull, they’re easy to go unnoticed. When was the last time you deliberately examined a seed pod, capsule or head?

They are exquisite in design and each uniquely suited to its natural environment and manner of seed dispersal be it by gravity, wind, ballistic, water or animal.

The viewer is invited to take the time to examine the watercolor art works, displays of the real materials themselves, various ways to propagate – seeded paper hung like prayer flags as testaments of faith, hope and service, seed bombs to broadcast generously, seedlings started in flats/)pots for assigned places and purposes, some set aside to exchange with fellow gardeners,

A lot of gardening is focused on flowers. People don’t realize plants can be beautiful after flowering, and they cut them down before they can even see it. I look outside now and see the clematis that flowered in the summer but is more interesting now that it is showing seed heads.

If you make a four-season garden you have to learn to accept decay and see the beauty of it. It’s about the texture and shape, the seed heads and the skeletons. So instead of using the scissors you use your eyes.” Piet Oudolf

Note: The dried materials seen here were gathered from my own garden with some treasured additional contributions from Harnek Singh – @plantstani and Timothy Tilghman of @untermyergardens.

Sustainability at its best!

My garden is open to the public May 4 through the popular and highly acclaimed Open Days Program of the Garden Conservancy.

Shobha Vanchiswar

Artist, gardener, designer, environmentalist

Welcome To Before Flowers, Beyond Flowers-

A few of the other lovely installations –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Parallel Processing

Working on two deadlines at the same time is anything but dull. The pressure is on full throttle – final stretch to Lyndhurst In Bloom which happens this weekend and less than a month to my garden’s Open Day. Both are very personal to me as they speak of my philosophy, my creativity and skills. In both cases, I’m aiming to share whats important to me – the natural world that deserves to be appreciated, admired and protected at all costs. Along the way, we find joy, laughter and comfort.

In the garden, given the vagaries of the weather, it’s been slower than I’d like. Between cold and rain, I’ve had to be cautious about bringing out plants from the greenhouse and/or planting too soon. This past week, I focused on replacing groundcovers that had simply run their course. In the garden, perennial doesn’t mean forever. They come back every year but many will eventually run their course and peter out over time.

This was the case with a favorite of mine – Mazus reptans. Originally planted along the side path that connects the front and back of the garden, it had faithfully performed spectacularly. But over the last couple of years, it started losing momentum and finally, very little showed up last spring. This is a very pretty garden stalwart. Undemanding, requiring no direct sunlight it carries on. Diminutive leaves delicately scalloped around the edges form fresh mats that knit together to beautifully cover the earth. The flowers come up a bit later in spring and look like small moths charmingly speckled in purple and white. So very pretty. After the flowers, the green carpet remains and serves for rest of the growing season.

It was a joy to find them in my local nursery and plant them in on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the creeping phlox in the checkerboard garden had been challenged by moss that wanted to take over. Last years wet summer had clearly favored the moss. So much of the moss got removed and new phlox was added to the ones that remained. This garden will have to be reexamined as it is entirely possible that conditions have changed more permanently with surrounding trees and shrubs casting more shade along with all the rain we seem to be getting lately. For now, the new phlox will do. I must research some other interesting yet suitable alternatives.

Opposite from attending to spring chores, is my project on seedpods for Lyndhurst In Bloom. A wholly different season and still so very interdependent. The diversity, sheer beauty and genius designs in packaging so well suited to how the seeds are dispersed is breathtaking. I’ve learned so much through my efforts at painting them. But as I created some arrangements this past weekend, I found myself learning more about how exactly those designs functioned. Quickly meshing into a network or snagging a hold on a neighbor just to get a bit of leverage, quivering at the slightest disturbance, using its sticky seed coat to attach firmly till its safe to open and send its seeds out into the world. They all wait patiently for the rain, wind or critters to help them. Some, do it on their own via ballistic action or gravity. And in each, the circle of life carries on. Just brilliant.

In all the busyness, I’ve been mindful about taking the time to enjoy the process. Giving each task due attention is imperative. Because to have a garden to work in is a privilege. To have the opportunity to show my art is a gift. To share both garden and art is a blessing. I’m aiming to deliver with Grace.

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Spring Fever

What a week that was. From Monday through Thursday it rained continually. The brief breaks permitted only quick walks to get the blood flowing. No garden work was possible. Then, come Friday, the sun shone bright and we were surprised by that earthquake – no damages but it was certainly scary to feel the house and all its contents shake and shudder. And funnily enough, a solitary snakeshead Fritillaria popped up. I’m convincing myself that the tremors jolted it awake. An after shock was felt in the early evening. All very unsettling.

Still on the subject of out of the ordinary happenings, the much anticipated North American Solar Eclipse happened yesterday. We got up to 90% of totality in our area. Unlike other prime viewing locations, we were not hindered by clouds until after. There’s something special about the shared experience of entire groups/communities gathered to experience an event well beyond their control and devoid of all the differences so rampant these days. Together we acknowledged not only our humanity but also our humble place in the mighty, magical, wondrous and ever-expanding cosmic universe. That’s extraordinary.

The past weekend was thankfully dry and even had periods of sunshine. But it was cold and windy. Felt more like March of the old days. There is no new normal as yet. However, some garden work got down. New plants to replace lost ones got planted, the watering system for the vertical garden was turned on after the whole apparatus was cleaned and serviced and, the peony rings were put in placed. Other tasks that were on my agenda had to be tabled as it was simply too cold. Inevitably, when chores get delayed, I start feeling the pressure of falling behind. Especially with Open Day less than a month away. There’s plenty to do. At the same time, I’m working on my installation for Lyndhurst In Bloom coming up in less than 2 weeks. Exciting and anxiety ridden.

The poem below, written some years ago, sums up what the gardener experiences every year –

Spring Cleaning

Sweep away detritus

Winter’s wild remnants

Prune roses

June’s dress code

Straighten borders

Summer edges to spill

Outside order

Inside peace

Clearing, cutting

Room to breathe deep

Opening, widening

Minds broaden fast

Plants get bigger

Spirits grow higher

Colors multiply

Senses infused

Days lengthen

Smiles brighten

Outdoor classroom

Paradise within.

-Shobha Vanchiswar

Note: While I’ve been very focused on meeting project deadlines, it has been wonderful to take walking breaks in my neighborhood. The images below are from this morning –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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April Showers, April Flowers

Hello April – we’re expecting all of this first week to be rainy. Can’t say I’m terribly pleased. Too much of anything is not good. Yet, we must carry on with the garden duties. The number of activities ramp up hence forth. Best to get a move on regardless of the weather.

Things To Do In April

Time to restart the compost pile! Give it a good stir and add fresh compostables. If you don’t have a composter, please do make or buy one.

2. Clean up all winter debris.

3. Can you believe weed patrol begins now? Be regular about it and you will always be on top of this chore.

4. Seedlings started indoors can be planted out once the soil has warmed up and has been well prepared for planting. Stay vigilant for spells of late frost. Keep cloches and fleece covers at hand.

5. Attend to the lawn. De- thatch, aerate, reseed and finally, fertilize with a good layer of compost.

6. Similarly, feed trees, shrubs and all garden beds with compost.

7. Remove burlap and other protection from plants and pots.

8. Divide overgrown perennials.

9. Plant summer-flowering bulbs.

10. Remove any dead, damaged or diseased stems/branches from roses, other shrubs and trees.

11. Start using an organic control to put off slugs and snails.

12. Put out nesting material such as wool, moss, cotton string, shredded paper, small twigs, feathers and hay for the birds.

13. Uncover the outdoor furniture and give them a good cleaning. Now you’re prepared for the first truly warm day!

14. Plant or move evergreen shrubs and conifers.

15. Take the time to revel in the beauty of the bulbs in bloom.

As I took my daily walk around the garden this morning, eager to see what has sprung up overnight, I once again couldn’t help being amused by the emerging scalloped leaves of the columbines. This wayward charmer does not like being told where to live. Not a single one of my plants remains where planted. Instead, they chooses their own locations with no regard whatsoever for the fragile ego of their gardener. The most unlikely of sites are perked up by their random selections. Truth be told, yhey truly know better than I – the garden looks all the better when the lovely, spurred flowers surprise the visitor. Sometimes, knowing ones own mind and ignoring others can be a very good thing. From the photos below, you’ll see that it appears they like being between a rock and a hard place!

Note: Do remember Lyndhurst In Bloom and Open Day are fast approaching. Don’t miss!

A few glimpses of what’s blooming in the garden right now as well as proof of where the columbines have chosen to grow.

Columbines –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Learning On The Grow

The more I garden, the more I learn. There’s never a point when one feels all gardening knowledge is now acquired. It’s quite the opposite isn’t it – there’s so much I still don’t know. It’s what keeps a gardener excited and curious. And humble,

Curiosity is what drives me to experiment with new plants and projects. What thrives is cause to celebrate. What does not is never a failure because they teach us about the whys, whats and hows of the living world. We discover our own humanity.

In the course of creating my garden, the countless life lessons, the personal growth of mind and spirit and, the practical understanding of the natural world sustain me and give me the courage to live larger, take chances, stretch my skills outside the garden. So every new thing I learn as a gardener enriches every aspect of life. What a blessing.

Late last summer, I beheld a gorgeous plant at the Cornell Botanical Gardens. With a statuesque, bold silhouette, it called attention unabashedly. With strong burgundy-plum stems, heart-shaped, multi-lobed leaves glistening in the sunlight, the plant bore large, creamy yellow flowers with a crimson center. On closer examination hung long, tapering fruit capsules also colored maroon-plum. I coveted it instantly. It was a variety of okra!

I then noticed the more common green okra that is equally beautiful. Together the two look quite spectacular and peak at a time when so many plants are beginning to tire. While I enjoy okra ( there are many non-slimy ways to enjoy it) very much, I’m going to try growing them as ornamentals. Having obtained the seeds, I’ll start them indoors next month. Can’t wait to see how successful I’ll be. Fingers crossed. FYI – in India, okra is also called Lady’s Finger!

More recently, on a visit to Wave Hill, drooling over the cascades, pools and rivers of scilla in bloom, I expressed aloud how much I wished the scilla in my meadow would self-seed and naturalize as rampantly. Wave Hill gardener Harnek Singh told me that the effect was achieved by actually collecting the seeds and scattering them over the areas. Planting them as bulbs would either require planting thousands of them or waiting an interminably long time for them to multiply. Seeds! I must get them!

Something else I learned from Harnek on that visit was that yucca can be grown in my zone and cutting them down in the fall is a good way to manage the plant size.

Finally, along the entry path at Wave Hill, I noticed for the first time a feature that’s actually been there for some years. Sedge being used to hold a low embankment as the land slopes down to the path on one side. As the photograph below testifies, it looks so interesting and effective.

The four new things learned have given impetus to introduce some novel late summer flair with the okra – scheduled to happen this year hopefully, early spring beauty of scilla – but that will come into its own only in a couple of years after the seeds establish, grow and the plants mature. Meanwhile, I shall seek a variegated yucca to brighten a blah spot in the garden. I don’t have immediate need to use the sedge in the manner of Wave Hill but rest assured it will be applied when the opportunity arises in either mine or a client’s garden!

This is my kind of exciting. Growth in the garden as well as the gardener.

Reminder! Lyndhurst In Bloom and my Open Day cometh! Make your reservations!

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Spring Up!

Happy Spring! The first day of the season and as if on cue, the daffodils have begun the celebration. I cannot recall the last time there was so much early growth on this day. Despite the uneasiness, I can’t help but feel eager to see what’s popped up overnight. And this year, the season has hit the road running. The snowdrops are done but the Hellebore. Crocus and Scilla have been dancing gaily for several days already. The Daffodils have just joined in. The party has begun. Even the birds are raucously going about their business of disturbing the morning quiet earlier in the season than ever before. Note to self – clean out the birdhouses so new tenants can move in!

Feeling cautiously optimistic, this past weekend, we began the seasonal chores in earnest. The arrival of 5 young ( two years old) apple trees to replace ones we’d lost over recent years in the espalier spurred us into action. The weather was mild enough, the soil quite pliable to plant and so it seemed foolish to wait.

This in turn led to chores like digging up some boxwood that had been struggling the last few years. While new replacements will be procured, the evicted plants will be given a go with some TLC and cossetting in pots to see if they might come around. I do hate just tossing plants away.

The large pots were dragged out of winter storage, positioned in their rightful locations and filled with fresh soil and compost. They will be duly planted up next weekend. It’s best to work systematically and mindfully. I’ve learned not to rush. Though all of a sudden I’m beginning to feel the pressure of the myriad tasks that must get done ahead of the garden’s Open Day on May 11. The work of getting ready for my installation at Lyndhurst In Bloom is also underway. The weekend of April 20 is only a month away!

The juggling act requires not only a good deal of organizational skills but a good sense of humor to boot. Admittedly, it’s all exciting.

As I schedule out my chores, I imagine gardeners everywhere doing the same. Making lists, trips to the local nursery, extensive searches online for plants and such, examining the garden closely. But mostly, I allow myself to feel a sense of camaraderie where, in the guise of gardening, we indulge in the sheer joy of once again being out in the garden. It is our happy place.

Together, lets make this a very happy, healthy and productive Spring.

This week in my garden:

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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New Growth

A few weeks ago, if you were paying attention, I’d hinted at a new and creative project coming up. It’s now time to reveal what’s got me so excited. I’ve been invited to participate in Lyndhurst In Bloom. As the name suggests, it is an event held annually at the historical Lyndhurst Mansion in Tarrytown, New York.

Select floral designers and artists are invited to decorate a room each at the mansion. It’s always resplendent in flowers and a perfect way to usher in spring. Each space is uniquely highlighted in flowers reflecting the creative skills of the decorator. Now, as we well know, I am not a florist or floral designer. However, I am a gardener, an artist and designer, as well as a scientist. This opportunity presents a wonderful challenge to get creative with those various skills and experiences. My goal is to offer an aesthetically pleasing yet informative, instructive display that challenges the viewer to see the botanical world a bit differently and appreciate it with an enhanced perspective.

What am I blathering about? I’m aiming to bring attention to the importance of safeguarding the environment by understanding seeds! To show the genius of nature’s work in designing not just the seeds themselves but how they’re packaged in pods or heads specifically suited to how they will be disseminated. I want to share my awe and expose everybody to the sheer diversity and the exquisite nature of the myriad designs.

Between my years of observing, working with and, painting nature, I find that, while flowers with their range of colors, rightfully have the viewer swooning, seedpods too deserve due recognition and respect. After all, all of life begins with a seed. By understanding this and making the effort to see them up close, one cannot but admire them. What seemingly appears innocuous, mostly monochromatic and undeserving of close examination, is in reality way more impressive than the flamboyant flower.

Of course, one cannot exist without the other. My point in all of this is that by seeing just how amazingly beautiful seedpods and seed heads are, we will be recommitted to preserving our plants and the natural world at large. Pollinators and/or herbivores/omnivores are often specific to only certain plants. Consider this, while the common milkweed is crucial to the life-cycle of the Monarch butterflies, it is the Carpenter bee that is supremely suited to pollinate it. It behooves the gardener to have a diversity of flora to support the diversity of fauna required to keep the environment in equilibrium.

With my installation at Lyndhurst In Bloom, I hope to be sharing all of this through my seedpod paintings, beautiful displays and arrangements of various seedpods to rival any floral counterparts and simply, to tell folk to take time to marvel at Nature’s brilliance. The ultimate mastermind of this vast and wondrous yet fragile world. We humans are her custodians. We must execute that responsibility as best we can. Preserve, conserve, serve.

Wish me luck please!

Note: Lyndhurst In Bloom will be happening April 20 & 21. Tickets are now available. Do grab yours! In past years, they’ve sold out quickly.

Getting ready for the event involves a review of the raw materials! –

Meanwhile in the garden –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Onward March!

March has come in like a lamb. It distinctly feels like spring and I’m in full on gardening mode. If this is the new weather pattern, I’m wondering if all seasonal chores should accordingly be brought forward. How soon should one direct sow seeds? Is it okay to move the tender perennials out of the greenhouse earlier by a month? What if the temperatures plummet or we get hit by fierce storms snow or rain? It is worrisome for sure.

Perhaps, for now, I must rein my impatience and work with caution. I’ll direct sow some seeds and reserve others for a bit later. The plants being sheltered in the greenhouse can wait a while longer. But some tasks like the spraying of dormant oil on the fruit trees to smother the egg of pests like aphids and coddling moth before the emergence of buds, giving a feed of compost to all the plants, Epsom salts to the roses etc., will be done this week. One must use sound judgment based on science and common sense.

Here’s the To-Do list for March

Cut some forsythia and pussy willow branches for indoor forcing. Place in water and keep in a cool place until the buds are swollen. Then move them to a location where they can be viewed as the blooms burst forth. A lovely prelude to spring.

  1. As snow melts, start clean up process. Twigs and other debris can be removed. Protect the still wet areas of grass and beds by first placing cardboard or wood planks and stepping on those instead. They help distribute the weight better.
  2. Later in the month, remove protective burlap and/or plastic wrappings and wind breaks.
  3. Get tools sharpened. This includes the mower blades.
  4. Commence indoor seed sowing. Begin with the early, cool weather crops. Read seed packet instructions and calculate dates for planting out.
  5. Order plants that will be required for the garden as soon as the ground has warmed up. Let your local nursery know your needs – they will inform you know when shipments arrive.
  6. As soon as possible, once snow is all gone and soil has thawed, spread compost on all the beds including the vegetable plot.
  7. Finish pruning fruit trees, grape vines and roses early in the month.
  8. Take an inventory and stock up on whatever is lacking. Soil, gloves, mulch, tools, water crystals, grass seed, pots, hoses etc.,
  9. Survey the garden and see what needs replacing, repairing or painting. Schedule and do the needful.
  10. Start bringing out or uncovering outdoor furniture. It’ll soon be time to linger outdoors!
  11. Get Open Days directory from Garden Conservancy – www.gardenconservancy.org. Mark your calendars to visit beautiful gardens in your area.
  12. Come to my Garden Open Day on May 11 between 10 am and 4 pm. I’m looking forward to seeing you! Registration has begun – https://www.gardenconservancy.org/open-days/garden-directory/the-little-garden-that-could

Here are some images from the bulb display at the Berkshire Botanical Gardens to get you in the vernal mood!

(c_ 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Micro- Managing Climate Change

I’ve just returned from a long weekend to Ithaca, NY. That’s well north-west of where I live. In 2012, this region was firmly in USDA Hardiness Zone 5. But in 2023, it was moved up to Zone 6. Given that my own zone has shifted from 6a to 6b to now 7a, I’m not surprised and yet, seeing the landscape completely bare of any snow and its famous waterfalls gushing and flowing in the depth of winter was somewhat of a shock. The stamp of climate change felt so definitive and progressive.

Already we are witnessing the ‘migration’ of some native plants. They’re moving north! Slowly buy surely. While it means that we can indulge in some plants that were not possible to grow before, it also takes away some cold loving plants from our gardens. When we must plant things like bulbs and other spring bloomers must be adjusted. The growing season will be longer now and accordingly, plans for flowers, vegetables and fruits require due consideration.

This also brings up the conundrum of what we can now include as native to the region. Similarly, some current natives will not stay so much longer if the climate continues to change. Native pollinators and other native creatures will also be affected. All of life will be impacted.

In our home gardens, it indicates that we must stay vigilant, resilient and responsible. Observe the changes, adapt to the loss of certain cherished garden members and welcome new ones, be careful to take on only non-invasive new natives because only time will tell if this was a good inclusion or not. We must act with caution and open minds. Not easy but, we gardeners are a tough, tenacious lot and we learn well. Our future gardens will reflect that I’m certain.

On my return from Ithaca, a warming up had occurred and the thick layer of snow had been reduced to patches here and there. A perfect moment to re-identify the micro-climates within the garden. Exposure to light, sheltering shade, grade of the land, heat retaining walls/stones can all be viewed clearly by observing the pattern of the melting snow. Don’t dismiss the smaller patches as they too show the timeline of how the snow recedes.

Where the snowdrops are up and where they’re yet to awaken says much. Similarly, observe not only what trees and shrubs are beginning to show buds but examine how much those buds have plumped up and the location of the plants. Depending on those micro-climates, shrubs of the same kind will flower earlier or later. Changing climates, trees spreading more shade over time, loss of trees opening up areas to light, alterations in the lay of the land due to erosion or build up, new constructions nearby are all factors that affect the garden.

I’m taking notes more seriously this time – it’ll be a record for future plans as we go about the business of adapting to the changing environment. Our collective experiences will matter greatly as we educate ourselves and the world at large.

Here are some images from my garden with the melting snow –

Meanwhile, at the Cornell Botanical Gardens, Ithaca –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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