Carpe Diem

It’s finally looking like February is supposed to. Crisp and cold with a thick quilt of snow spread over the ground. It’s been a week of brisk, bracing walks, fireside conversations and a return to dreams of the perfect growing season ahead. This is the February I’m familiar with and it’s mighty comforting even though I know the climate is changing and it will not always be so.

The weekend before the first great snow fall, it was definitively spring weather. 50 degrees! The garden beckoned with a siren call and I was lured into it eager and excited. The grapevine got pruned and the trimmings were stored for future projects in and outside the garden. Similarly, the roses received a fair bit of cutting and shaping. The rose hips were collected on lengths of stem. They look so pretty in hues of orange tinted with blush pink. All the plants left to serve the birds and bring seasonal interest with their varied designs of seed heads and warm, earthy colors were also cut back. And yes, all of those trimmings are also safely stored away. Why?

Because, come April, they will be the stars of a public project in which I am thrilled to participate. I’m not saying any more for now! All will be revealed in due course.

As I gathered the cuttings, the color palette itself was so beautiful. Browns, golds, reds and everything in-between. And the many textures and shapes! Truly, the sight rivaled any opulent bouquet of fresh flowers. Plants in senescence are so very under-appreciated. Yet, they serve at this stage to ensure the future health and wealth of the land. Surely, we ought to pay these humble yet noble members more attention, admiration and esteem.

And thus, it was a very satisfying two days of cutting and tidying. Timely work got done (and a new project got underway!). If I’d put off this task, the 12 inches of snow that fell two days later would’ve put paid to the beautiful ‘harvest’. The plants would have all been pushed down and broken apart. Seizing the day was a very good thing!

Note: Because the snow was expected, I left the old leaves of the hellebores uncut so they could protect the emerging buds from any snow and cold damage.

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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February Therapy

With no snow on the ground and temperatures hovering above freezing, February doesn’t quite feel normal don’t you agree? I fret about the well-being of the garden and the environment at large. How is Mother Nature coping with the changing climate? How will I cope? I try however, to not dwell on gloom and doom. We will deal with the situation as it unfolds.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of the fact that my daily turns around the garden have been given a jump-start, I’m delighting in all the things happening in it. What’s coming up, what’s looking good, what tasks typically done after snow melt can be done right now. The play of light and shadows that pattern the space, the micro-environments within the garden displaying their individual responses to the weather are some of the compelling sights that speak volumes about the lay of the land and the ‘bones’ of the garden. I’m currently obsessed with tracking down exactly where the hummingbirds and cardinals had built their nests last year – the bare trees and shrubs reveal those secrets. There’s so much to see and know!

But don’t just stop and stare. Chores await!

Things To Do –

(Much of the items in the January list are applicable here. Do check that list) 

  1. Stay on top of effects of snow and storms. Take quick action.
  2. Keep bird feeders full. Whenever possible provide water.
  3. Get garden plans and designs ready.
  4. Check garden supplies. Does the hose need repair or replacing? Is there enough soil, organic fertilizer, twine, stakes etc.,? Make a list and do what is needed.
  5. Towards the end of the month, prune roses, wisteria, grape vines and fruit trees.
  6. Cut back ivy on walls and fences before birds start nesting. Brightly colored stems of Salix and Cornus should be cut back to about 6 to 10 inches from ground. This will encourage brighter color next spring.
  7. Prepare for seed sowing. Get seed flats clean and ready. Check if there’s enough seed growing medium.
  8. Order seeds. Once seeds arrive, write labels and clip to each pocket. This saves time later when there is so much else to do.
  9. If there is not much snow, cut back old leaves on Hellebores. New growth and flowers will be emerging. Cut back other perennials that were skipped in autumn.
  10. Attend to indoor plants.
  11. The New York Botanical Garden’s annual orchid show opens in March. Do reserve your tickets and go! It’ll banish winter blues and get you inspired.
  12. Renew ( or join) your membership to the Garden Conservancy. Place your order for the Open Days directory. Once you receive it you can start scheduling visits to beautiful gardens near and far. Inspiration is only a garden visit away!

Whats doing in the garden right now –

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Wild Thing! You Make My Heart Sing

Rewilding is the buzz these days. Le mot du jour. But what does that really mean? And how wild is one to go and still have a garden to speak of? Wildness is sort of an ambiguous word – it can mean different things to different people. Wildness typically means an area that does not have humans impacting it. We humans are tamers historically. So, loosening our control on our gardens and letting Nature take over runs counter to what a gardener (human) does. Not to mention, a garden by its very existence is a managed space. It is created by human effort. So why all the current hype about leaving well enough alone?

Rewilding is, as I see it, a pendulum-like swing from the over-cultivated, heavily manipulated, high maintenance gardens that were more for show and less about sustainability or conservation. After all, simply letting nature take over would not be good. It would result in woodlands emerging all over the space. While the woods are delightful and come with their own special and diverse flora and fauna, it could hardly be a garden. Besides, more important ly, the better part of pollinators would have no place to exist. Most woodland flowers bloom in spring and the rest of the year, blooms are scarce. Pollinators require sustenance during the other seasons as well.

This naturally means open spaces such as meadows and more to the point, gardens. A range of habitats are required to support diverse wildlife. Every kind of space has a specific purpose and fosters different wildlife leading to healthy ecosystems and environments that are in balance.

In the case of our gardens, it does not mean we hang up our trowels and say goodbye to doing the fulfilling work of transforming our spaces. As I see it, gardens can play very vital roles in the context of keeping the environment healthy as well as bridging the countrysides, farmlands, woodlands and waterways to support the diverse plants and wildlife.

The variety of habitats will support the myriad wildlife most individually suited to them. How we make our gardens rich in wildlife is determined by how we choose to garden.

First and foremost, reduce the area of lawn. They are detrimental to the environment. The cost in terms of money, time, labor and resources in order to keep a pristine, green lawn is prohibitive and ultimately, it does not encourage any pollinator or other wildlife to thrive. Instead, create areas for native grasses and plants. If space permits, add a few native trees, shrubs and groundcovers.

With whatever lawn that remains, mow less, keep the height of the mower blade high to protect the soil from drying up. Leave the grass clippings in place to go back to enriching the soil. Electric or manual reel mowers are preferred over gas mowers.

Allow wild flowers to emerge in the lawns. ‘Weeds’ such a dandelions, buttercups, clover and plantain are greatly loved by pollinators, So leave them alone! Use compost to feed the lawn – a single application in spring is sufficient. Compost does double duty as a mulch. Unless there is a drought, let the lawns and plants cope without watering. Native plants are hardy and adapt best to changing climates. Permit the plants to express themselves -there’s much to be said for the organic beauty of seeing where self-seeders pop up. My garden has several columbines and not a single one grows where they were originally planted. They have independently found the sites they grow best.

My meadow, the most wild part of my garden, is all native plants competing for space and pollinators. Whatever thrives is just fine. Sometimes, I need to run interference when a member gets too thuggish and ever so often I will introduce something new in the hope it’ll make it. Apart from that, the meadow is let to do its own thing. No watering or feeding. It gets a partial cutback in late fall when hundreds of spring bulbs are planted. That’s it.

This part of the garden is so full of life that I could sit and observe the goings on endlessly.

Elsewhere, the more structured parts are also full of native plants so there is continuity in design as well as in the wildlife they support. Fruit trees, water features, the vertical garden and adjoining woods, keep my garden rich in both flora and fauna. As regards the non-native members in my garden – they are non-invasive and ecologically beneficial.

In the final analysis, go a bit wild. Free yourself to let nature work with you. I promise, your heart will sing.

(c) 2024 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Act Of Faith

Bulb planting got done last weekend. All of a 1000 give or take a few. The weather cooperated beautifully. Sunny, not too windy and comfortably cool conditions made the daunting task much easier to tackle. I say daunting because it is. There are so many holes to dig, drop a bulb and then fill back whilst maneuvering ones way around myriad established perennials. In my garden, it takes two days of steady planting by a team of two minimum. One drills holes the other fills.

In the past, I did the whole thing myself. But age catches up and help is necessary – family is roped in. I’m immensely grateful for their willingness to go along with my horticultural ambitions or, as they like to call it, my craziness. This year, I’ve been handicapped by wayward knees so it has been particularly meaningful to get the support of loved ones.

Like a child of a farming family taking time from school to help with planting/harvest, my daughter drove down from her graduate school in Ithaca to do her fair share in getting the bulb planting done. I’m thinking next year, I’ll try to get her cohorts from school to join in and give my husband a break!

Despite having a direct, realistic understanding of the weather patterns and climate shifts, the loss, reduction or changes in certain flora and/or fauna of value to the ecosystem, gardeners are an optimistic lot. The very business of gardening is about the future. What I plant now will only yield in time ahead. Through all the vagaries of the weather and general circumstances, on pure faith we sow, plant, water, feed, weed and nurture. It’s going to be just fine – we feel this viscerally. It would be impossible to garden without that conviction.

When it comes to bulb planting, it takes an extra dose of faith. The bulbs look innocuous – brown, rotund, little nuggets full of the promise of a beautiful tomorrow. With the goal of celebrating the end of winter and the arrival of spring, we envision the flowers put forth by the myriad bulbs and plant. We bury the bulbs in cavities of appropriate depths scattered through beds and meadow and come away with the conviction that they will deliver. Our full trust in Nature is commendable. In our interactions with other humans we do not display quite the same degree of faith. Human nature seems so much more fickle and treacherous than Nature herself.

Currently, at a time when we cannot ignore the acts and words of so many people within our midst as well as afar that demonstrate the worst of human traits, we must seek solace somewhere. That somewhere is a garden – ones own or elsewhere. Here, we find comfort and courage to face the future. In planting a bulb, a seed or a young plant, we firmly express our faith that there will be better tomorrow. Life would simply be unbearable otherwise.

Note: I encourage those without gardens to grow something(s) in a pot. A houseplant, an amaryllis, micro-greens, anything. I promise, you will feel so much better as you watch it grow. Have faith.

Images of bulb planting this past weekend – A mix of assorted tulips, alliums, camassia, fritillaria and ornithogalums were this year’s choice.

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Reckonings In The Garden

A double feature this week! I missed posting last week as I was in the throes of helping my daughter move into her apartment from where she will attend graduate school. She will be dearly missed. Living at home since the pandemic, she morphed into a very capable gardener and I’d come to rely on her assistance. Fingers crossed she will miss the garden and visit often enough to help out. It’s only a 3 hour 45 minute drive – surely a monthly trip is possible? I live in hope.

A couple of weeks ago, I placed my bulb order for fall planting. A few weeks later than usual due to all the traveling I was doing. As expected, a few of my choices tulips were sold out. Some other favorites were not being offered. I had to find alternatives and make design adjustments as I was placing my order on the phone.

Note: Being able to speak to an actual person is far better than ordering online or by mail. I could discuss alternatives that were suggested when my selections were not possible.

I found out that due to the horrid heat endured throughout Europe last year, the volumes of bulbs were smaller this year. The heat also put paid to certain longtime favorites.

Given this year’s unusually wet, cool summer will in all possibility impact next year’s bulb production. This is the direct result of changing climate. Similarly, other plants will also be affected. We must ready ourselves to shift how we garden and what we plant.

Just yesterday, I heard that the olive oil production this year will be 20% less than last year when it was already lower than usual. The excessive heat over the summer all across the olive growing regions in Europe has caused the olives to drop before its time. I’m bracing myself for a hike in cost.

So, if you haven’t as yet got around to ordering your bulbs, don’t waste any more time. The tulip selections have been seriously impacted. The alliums, camassia and such were not as affected but its only a matter of time that they too will. This is a gentle warning that global warming is happening and we as citizens of the world as well as our governments and corporations must take action before it gets worse. So much is at stake. We cannot ignore the writing on the wall. A reckoning is underway.

As gardeners we are generally so busy doing thing that we mostly miss out on the wondrous goings on in the garden. We see what is in bloom but don’t pay attention to the details of the flower. Similarly, we don’t notice the beautiful and brilliantly designed seedpods specific to a plant. We miss noting details of shapes, colors, interactions of the many critters with the plants and so much else all through the seasons. We think we notice but we don’t really. Mindfulness takes conscious effort and time.

This was made beautifully apparent when I attended a ‘mindful walk’ at the botanical gardens at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY this past Friday. Sarah and Kevin who work there, took our little group on a slow walk where they pointed to plants and trees and highlighted things we had to stop and look closely to truly understand and appreciate the details. Patterns, designs, textures and how they evolve and change over time. There’s always something you notice that you’d missed before. How flora and fauna work together, how colors complement or camouflage, how pollinators are attracted and guided to do their work… the list is endless! This kind of walking is meditative and so uplifting for body, mind and spirit.

Full disclosure – I do my best to be mindful in my garden but it is hard because I’m often distracted by to-do elements – weeds that need pulling, plants that need staking or trimming, what needs watering, who is attacking and munching on whom. It’s much easier for me to go to a public garden and do a really good mindful walk. Perhaps one day, I will be evolved enough to do the same in my own garden. To simply and purposefully observe is a goal.

I sincerely believe that in being mindful, truly present in the garden and in everything else in life is how we will stay aware of changes in the environment, our homes and in ourselves and act accordingly before matters get out of hand. Everything in Nature is connected and together we can overcome any challenge. Together we will thrive. We must.

Note: Some images from past years to get you motivated to order bulbs for fall planting –

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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And That’s A Wrap!

I’m still enjoying the benefits of all the garden work done to get ready for Open Day. Apart from watering the pots (it has been rather dry), deadheading and routine weeding, it’s been sheer bliss to sit and enjoy the garden with family and friends. The cooler temperatures have given us a beautiful, long spring and I’m taking full advantage of it. If only days like these would last forever.

The Pleasantville Garden Club in conjunction with their local television station, have put out a short clip of my garden. Instead of writing more this week, I’m sharing the video link. Enjoy!

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Afterglow

It rained. The days leading up to Open Day were idyllic. Dry, sunny and oh so comfortable. But wouldn’t you know it, on the big day, it rained. Cool and wet all day. From drizzle to downpour it took turns. But yet, they came – hardy, undaunted folk. Hallelujah.

The garden was ready – lush with greenery and bedecked in flowers. It truly came through for the visitors. I was in my element. To chat with other gardeners/garden lovers about all things garden is just immensely enjoyable. To share information, opinions and experiences is what I look forward to most on this day. The rain simply ceased to matter.

Would I have wished it to not rain? Absolutely. But here we were and we made the most it. There were repeat visitors which warmed my heart immensely. Friends who know my garden well came especially to support the Garden Conservancy, new neighbors arrived out of curiosity and eagerness to befriend and so many first time visitors came from near and far. One couple was visiting NYC from Australia – they took the train and came up just to see my garden. That blew me away.

That people come at all is something so gratifying and humbling. I garden because I love to do it. I experiment and learn as a scientist, satisfy my curiosity, design as an artist to create something I and my family can enjoy all year round. That others notice and appreciate my work is heartening. I am deeply grateful.

So this week, I’m just going to indulge in spending time in the garden and do no work at all. Really. Maybe water when the pots look thirsty but do nothing else. This time off is well earned don’t you think? Afterglow feels good.

Some pictures from Open Day

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Rising To The Occasion

It’s the home stretch to Open Day and all the last minute fluffing and faffing is happening. Fingers crossed – the weather looks stellar. The garden is popping with new bursts of growth and color. I’m eagerly anticipating the arrival of old faces and makng new friends. It’s my favorite part of Open Day.

In all likely hood, visitors will get to see my latest project that I vaguely alluded to last week. I was not really looking for a new ‘experiment’ but when the opportunity arose, I couldn’t resist. A self-taught lotus growing friend generously presented me with some lotus divisions. Now, bear in mind that I grew up in India where the lotus is the national flower and holds much significance in different cultures in the world. So when presented with these tubers, I could hardly resist. That’s so typical of a gardener isn’t it?

Along with the tubers, Maria gave me some good instructions on getting started. But first, I needed specific supplies. Containers, heavy soil for aquatics, fertilizer, aerator as lotus love moving water. Thankfully they were all easy to source. You-Tube was very useful in showing how to plant the tubers.

Instead of planting all the tubers together, I’ve chosen to have each in its own fabric pot. The fabric allows water in but keeps soil from moving out. It is light but sturdy and very convenient to place as a group in a larger container. Four of these fabric pots are immersed in that large container of water and a small aerator and one is sitting in the trough that runs a fountain from a lion’s head sculpture.

Selecting the right large container was important. Firstly, since this was a first attempt, I was not going to invest in anything pricey. Secondly, it needed to go with the whole garden and not stick out – I needed a team player for a container. There was only one obvious site for the sun loving lotus so, whatever I selected had to sit well there. Turned out, I had exactly the right vessel. A large-ish, shallow, antique, zinc tub that I’d brought back years ago from Provence. It was used as a pool for my daughter from baby through toddler-hood. And then it sat largely unused but too dear to get rid off.

I now have tiny leaves/pads rising sweetly above the water as lotus are wont to do. Nothing dramatic to see as yet so visitors on Open Day might not be impressed but I figure it’ll be fun to share. By way of equipment, nothing was costly and I understand that lotus are resilient so I’m hoping a few visitors might be inspired to try their own lotus experiment. The big challenge will be housing these aquatic newcomers through the cold season.

It’s so exciting to try new things and my garden has always been a laboratory. This project harks to my Indian heritage so I feel the pressure to be successful. Fingers crossed that both lotus and gardener rise to the occasion admirably.

Note: Only 3 more days to Open Day! Hope you’re coming!

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Powering Through

What a glorious weekend it was. After a week of wet, cold days, I was beginning to feel somewhat hard pressed to remain thankful for the rain that had eluded us for so long. Then Saturday arrived glowing in sunshine and temperatures that were Goldilocks perfect. The sort of day that gardeners pray for. And we made the most of it. So much got done.

Big tasks like moving large, heavy pots to their assigned positions for the rest of the growing season to smaller ones such as potting up annuals for immediate prettying up. The summer window boxes are up, boxwood and other topiaries all got a tidying trim, hummingbird feeders recommissioned, dormant oil sprayed on the fruit trees and a myriad other chores were completed. I also have an unexpected project which I will reveal in due course. Fingers crossed it’ll pan out and rise above all expectations. There’s a clue in that last line!

Open Day is less than two weeks away and things are coming together nicely. With warmer temperatures forecast this week, I expect the many plants bearing plump buds will burst forth in bloom. Timing is everything so lets hope all goes well. I really don’t want to tell visitors that they should’ve seen the garden a week earlier.

A week ago, our county,s Department of Fisheries gave out minnows for free as part of a mosquito control effort. We went and got ourselves some. They were put into the trough which could be much too small a container but certainly worth a try. Lets see. I desperately want it to work.

Regular weeding and deadheading has commenced in earnest. This really helps to stay on top of it and prevents that feeling of being overwhelmed. I’m also aiming to be more consistent with picture taking. While it seems as though I’m always taking a million photos, I often fail to capture key images and moments that will help me understand, appreciate and plan forward. Ditto making notes in my garden journal where its important to mention what tasks got done and whats in bloom each week. I generally start out well and then, about now, when it gets really busy, I procrastinate and end up giving up on journal entries all together. It’s not the worst thing to do but as one who likes keeping records, it just makes me feel bad to lapse.

And so it will go on as May 20 approaches – it’s all about getting ready for YOU. Hope to see you in my garden!

Note: This Friday and Saturday, May 12 & 13, I will be selling my notecards and products from the Printed Garden Collections at the PlantFest at TeaTpwn Lake Reservation. If you live in the area, DO NOT MISS THIS EVENT!

Also, I’m so pleased share that my painting ‘New World Symphony’ has been selected for the @katonahmuseumartistsassociation juried show ‘Rhythm, Rhyme And Harmony’. The exhibit runs from May 12 to June 9 @bethanyartsorg

All are invited to the opening reception this Friday May 12 6:00 – 8:00 pm.

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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May Power – Showers And Flowers

May is truly a frenzy of flowers is it not! And a turbine of tasks! We finally got some much needed rain this past week and it’s making planting that much easier.

I recently learned that the wild varieties of native plants like bergamot, coneflowers, milkweed and such tend to disappear in 3 to 4 years and therefore need to be replanted regularly. While I’d always known that the wild varieties are what attract the native pollinators, I was not aware that they need to be replaced so often. Plants and pollinators have co-evolved so all those fancier, more colorful new varieties of plants one finds these days are not recognized by their pollinators and hence, do not serve the purpose at all. The wild plants do not look as splashy but they’re the ones we must include in our gardens. So that’s what I’m re-planting in the meadow – I’d noticed a reduction of some of the plants last year and had wondered what had happened. Very glad to have been enlightened to correct the deficiency.

Here is the list of garden chores for this month –

 Things To Do In May:

  1. Weed regularly if you want to keep the thugs in check.
  2. Put stakes in place so as plants grow it’ll be easy to secure them.
  3. Deadhead spent blooms for a neat look. Some plants will reward you with a second wave of blooms. Of course, if you want to collect seeds, do not deadhead.
  4. Water as necessary. Add a splash of compost tea to fertilize – about every 2-3 weeks.
  5. Plant in summer vegetables, summer bulbs and tubers and, annuals.
  6. Keep bird baths filled with clean water. Use safe, organic mosquito ‘dunks’ to prevent mosquitoes from breeding. The same goes for fountains.
  7. Start mowing lawns but do the right thing by keeping the mower blade high at about four inches. Leave clippings in place to replenish the soil.
  8. Make sure all beds, shrubs and trees are mulched to retain moisture and keep weeds from proliferating.
  9. To take care of weeds in areas that are paved or bricked, pour boiling hot water over them. The weeds will be killed and no chemicals were used! (It’s how I dispose off water used to cook pasta, boil eggs etc.,)
  10. Stay vigilant for pests or disease. The earlier you catch a problem, the easier it is to treat them. Always employ organic methods. Be judicious.
  11. Stir the compost heap regularly. Keep adding in kitchen and garden waste.
  12. Take time every day to simply enjoy the garden.
  13. Visit other gardens through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program. You will be vastly instructed and inspired. Www.gardenconservancy.org

It’s now a mad dash to get the garden ready for my Open Day. Hope you’re coming!

(c) 2023 Shobha Vanchiswar

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