Saying Grace

Thanksgiving week has arrived and all the chatter is about where one will celebrates, what will be served and how much will be consumed. At some point, what we’re thankful for might be shared. Despite this being such a favorite holiday, the reason for it gets somewhat lost. I’ve learned that any lengthy discussion on gratitude is viewed as too sappy. I get it. What one person is grateful for is not that interesting to everyone else. But, surely, is it too much to ask of ourselves to give due consideration for our blessings? This is not about religion, commerce or God forbid, politics. It’s simply about life. In a world gone mad, pausing to appreciate what we have is an act of pure grace. That gives perspective to where we are and what we’re living through. This is a shared, sacred experience.

I’ve got my own private ritual at Thanksgiving. I take a walk during which I think about the year (almost) gone by. In doing so, the difficult or particularly challenging events come up right away. These are the things that seem to overshadow everything else and are not so pleasant to relive. However, I’ve noticed that as soon as I confront those memories, the people or circumstances that help(ed) in solving or coping with each challenge also show up. That’s not to say that things were not bad or to minimize the pain, Rather, it is acknowledging the truth, accepting the reality but also seeing the good that was exposed in helping us deal with the struggle. The helpers, the intangible shifts for the better, the solutions that came in unexpected guises are the blessings for which I’m grateful. The growth as a result of each such experience, the hindsight that instructs on the hows or whys, the strength and understanding that comes from it all cannot and should not be undervalued.

There are of course the clearly joyous moments and happenings that makes me feel very grateful. People and possessions, music and miracles, art and amity, the many celebrations and successes – the list is long because there are always things that are good. And cannot, must not be taken for grated.

In the midst of all the noise and chaos, there is one thing that has unfailingly kept me anchored and given me guidance, purpose, sanctuary, perspective and solace. My garden. The science of the positive impact of time spent in the great outdoors is in – it confirms what humans have always known – that Nature is the best counselor there is. And it is free for all and sundry. We just need to pay attention.

So, in essence, among all the many blessings I’ve been given, my own piece of Nature is a mainstay. My wellness of mind, body and spirit depends on it. I’m constantly learning and growing as a person because of it. The garden embodies all that is true and sacred. A space of Grace.

I wish each and everyone a very blessed Thanksgiving. I hope that you too will find your place of peace in a garden, park, lakeside or seaside, mountain top or woods somewhere.

Garden images spanning the year thus far –

January snow

January beauty indoors

February snow

February growth

March indoors

March

April flowers

Forsythia brought inside

May in the meadow

May flowers

June roses

June

July at the feeder

July promise

August exuberance

August aflutter

September exotica

October dahlia

October Diwali celebration

November in gold

November indoors

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Simply Summer

A lot rides on summer. A season so full of plans and expectations that it feels as plump and juicy as the fruit it bears. It’s time to switch to a lighter schedule so we can make the best of the long light filled hours. Reading lists, picnics, outdoor concerts, beach fun, pool time, ice cream tastings, hammock naps, freshly picked produce, crayon box colored flowers – we demand so much of summer. In our bid for simple, easy living, we expect to do a lot!

And then, there’s summer vacation. Where to go? For how long? With whom? To do what – chill out, sight see, find adventure, reunite with friends/family? It’s as exciting as it is stressful to plan that ideal getaway.

I’ve learned to pare down my own expectations and get very organized ahead. Mostly, I free up my schedule and create more space in my days for spontaneous activities. The to-do list is shortened to the bare minimum. Even in the garden. Weeding, watering, deadheading and lots of lounging to count butterflies and watch birds. Pure heaven. It’s the much awaited period when pleasure is prioritized over purpose. I believe I’ve earned it.

However, it’s what needs doing before going away on vacation that is invariably the challenge. How to best ensure the well-being of the garden when I’m away.

An intensive weeding is done right before. As is the mowing and tidying. I try to leave the garden looking as groomed as possible so on my return, it doesn’t look overly disheveled. Nothing like an unkempt garden to wash off the vacation glow.

Ensuring that the plants are well hydrated is a whole other matter. As I’ve mentioned before, plants in the ground are expected to hold their own – unless it’s been unduly hot, they are not watered routinely. It’s only the plants in pots that get regular quenching. And I have many pots.

In the past, I typically arranged for someone to come periodically to water the pots in various parts of the garden. It was a bit of a hit or miss as it depended wholly on the diligence of the person doing the watering.

This year, we’ve corralled all the pots in one place and set up an automatic system that turns on at a specific time of day for a specific length of time. There’s a moisture sensor attached so it does not turn on the water if it is raining or has done so recently. I just returned from being away for two weeks and the potted plants look lush and fine.

My nephew stopped by regularly to ensure everything was generally okay but most importantly, he cleaned and refilled the hummingbird feeders. I had made a quantity of the sugar solution and stored it in the refrigerator. A word of caution – the feeders must be refreshed more frequently during particularly hot spells because the water can start fermenting and this is unhealthy for the birds.

Overall, this new system, whilst requiring some effort to set up and move pots together, seems to be a better way to serve the plants. At the same time, it requires less of my nephew so he doesn’t feel too put upon by his garden obsessed aunt.

I’m going away again soon and it’s comforting to know that the care of the garden is in hand. So now, back to savoring the joys of the summer. Whats left of it.

Pots gathered together for watering:

The garden at present. I notice some hints of fall! –

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

Call Maintenance!

July is all about maintenance. No major planting or project occurs at this time. It’s time to enjoy the fruits of ones labor. And I’m here for it. There’s nothing as satisfying as strolling around, preferably with a cool drink in hand, admiring what’s in bloom and what’s going well. Finally, a bit of time to simply take in the beauty and wonder of what one has created.

Of course, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. That would be wishful thinking. Weeding, watering, propping up, trimming back and general faffing is in order, But these can set a happy rhythm to the days. Leaving plenty of time to sit and soak up sunshine and revel in the delightful horticultural offerings. Hours spent watching the numerous insects and birds never get old. Quite the contrary – like sunrises and sunsets, rainbows, full moons and meteor showers, we never tire of what’s in bloom, butterflies flitting and floating gracefully, hummingbirds darting from feeder to flowers, bees laden with pollen whirring home, dragonflies pausing at the water filled trough, their iridescent wings refracting sunlight into flat rainbows …. the list goes on. Before one knows it, afternoon has become nightfall and the fireflies are twinkling in time with the stars.

All too often, I’ve allowed myself to be caught up in the spirit of the season and neglected to do enough in the maintenance department. It’s so easy to let that happen. I think I’m doing enough only to discover that the garden is no longer just expressing summer exuberance. Rather, it is shockingly messy and overgrown. Not this year. My resolution made early in the spring has held up well thus far and I’m seeing the impact due diligence makes.

Regular weeding and watering as required have always been kept up but, timely deadheading, staking and cutting back overgrowth makes all the difference to the health and appearance of the garden. This past weekend, blessed with good weather, that’s exactly what was accomplished. Snipping off spent flowers, cutting overgrowth of certain highly rambunctious plants, staking and supporting those in need, re-potting plants started from cuttings, trimming topiaries, chopping some plants like asters by 1/3 to prevent legginess and encourage fuller growth, feeding all the roses and every plant in a pot with organic fertilizer – it all got done. And the garden breathed a big sigh of relief. Everything looks so much better.

My husband and I split the numerous tasks but we made sure we took breaks for coffee, lunch and many glasses of water on the terrace, at which time we watched the hummingbirds, counted butterflies and shared observations made when we were tending different parts of the garden. A happy balance of work and pleasure. Pre-dinner drinks and dinner felt very well deserved as we sat back and appreciated this piece of earth of which we are blessed to have custody.

My final task before calling it a day was to water all the plants in pots – something that is done almost daily. I had to resort to the tap as the rain barrel was very low in water indicating how dry its been. I then noticed some plants in the beds looking mighty thirsty and watered them too. Fingers crossed it’ll rain later today, slake the earth and fill up the barrel.

In doing the maintenance chores regularly, it’s easier to notice what’s new. Which flowers are blooming, is there a scarcity or abundance of pollinators, where the nests are, what pests have made an ugly appearance and addressing the problems right away before it gets too late. The tasks remind me that I am a caretaker. And care I shall take.

Scenes from the garden –

Hummingbird at the feeder

Blue Jay taking a a break

Before and after a light trim

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

Some Like It Hot

For the longest time I resisted hot colors in my garden. Growing up in India, I was accustomed to the gaudy oranges, reds and yellows of calendula, marigold, nasturtium, lily, canna, dahlias , salvia and such. In my mind, they were tropical colors. So, when I started gardening in my current garden in New York, those colors felt inappropriate.

Blues, pinks, purples, soft yellows and whites shone in this space. And they do look spectacular in spring. I was rather strict about it. I shunned sulfur yellow yarrow, reserved the annual, school prompted, Mother’s Day pot of orange marigold that my daughter brought home all through elementary school to a good but discreet location, selected only paler nasturtiums and made an exception for the claret red Monarda in the herb garden. I had convinced myself that those hues were wrong for this garden.

Yet, as the years passed, I was struck by the lack of summer exuberance in the garden. The pale hues were washed out in the strong sunlight. The garden lacked oomph. But, as summer was also the time I traveled for several weeks, I never made any serious attempts to change anything. Then, in 2019, a late August photo shoot was scheduled by the Garden Conservancy for the 25th Anniversary of their hugely popular Open Days Program. I returned from a long vacation to a bedraggled, lackluster garden with just a few days to whip it back into some semblance of summer splendor. The marathon weeding and trimming brought in order but there was serious lack of punch. Off I went to the nursery looking for inspiration.

True to form, the nursery was a riot of summer color – all the plants of my childhood dominated. I had a sense of comfort in seeing old plant friends. They made me happy. I brought home some canna sporting flames of red and orange. Installed into the pair of pots leading down to the potager, they instantly lit up the space. What a difference that small tweak made.

The following year, 2020, became the year the garden and gardener were transformed. I had all the time in the world and the garden was my salvation. It was a rekindling of my romance with it. Like most long term relationships, I had gotten complacent with the garden. I realized I hadn’t been giving it my all. A good partnership requires consistent effort and attention and I was resolved to do better.

With no possibility of travel and pretty much no distractions, I sought out elements that brought joy and comfort. Happy colors that shine bright as summer unfolds. I planted cardinal vines to scramble up the pergola, red and yellow hibiscus standards in the urns on the terrace, orange, red and yellow nasturtiums to ramble freely in the potager,and tumble boisterously from the big pots of bay standards, yellow calendula and saffron hued marigold in alternating rows in the bed of leafy greens, cannas again in the pots – the potager and terrace was ablaze. In the meadow, the colors were echoed by Monarda and Lobelia ( cardinal flower) punctuated by Solidago golds. Everything was so much in keeping with the season – summer became a true celebration.

And that’s how it has come to be. Sometime in June the softer shades of spring give way to the hotter hues of summer. It’s become my cue to ease up and slide into the season of kicking back and relaxing- rules, rituals and reservations. Let’s drink to that – Cheers!

Random glimpses of summer color  – 

          

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar     

 

Sizzling Into July

Both temperatures and garden are distinctly taking on summer sizzle. I don’t do well in the heat so I’ve learned to keep my time in the garden to the cooler hours of the morning and evening. I leave the hot midday to mad dogs and Englishmen.

It’s now all about balancing between letting the sounds of birds and insects lull us into a happy state of doing nothing and keeping on top of weeding, tidying and watering. The weeds are the biggest offenders – they seem to come up with an enthusiasm that I wish would rub off on the choice plants that are taking time to spread.

The season to gather with friends has commenced. I firmly believe gardens are created to be shared with others. Have you noticed how everyone instinctively inhales visibly and relaxes in nature? Entertaining outdoors is unfussy and naturally easy. The food is simple and fresh and the garden does its magic at putting everyone at ease.

I’ve had the pleasure of hosting several groups of artists in the garden this month. A garden is a perfect muse – inspires us to paint and stretch ourselves, it relieves us of inhibitions and nudges us into working more freely, exploring, experimenting, learning to see anew. Encouraged by the creative company and commiserating about the challenges of all the greenery, the whole experience is joyous. As both gardener and artist, I absolutely love to see how others view my garden. It’s the same when I see photographs taken by visitors. I learn a great deal and grow as gardener as well as artist. Quite possibly, in sharing the garden, I’m the one who gains the most!

As we head into the long weekend, here’s incentive to get stuff in the garden –

Things To Do In July

1. Weed, weed, weed! Remember, pouring boiling water over bricks and other stonework will kill  weeds growing in-between.

2. Deadhead often. Neatness matters.

3. Mulch, fertilize, water.

4. Mow regularly but keep the mower blade high.

5. Watch out for pests and/or disease. Use organic control.

6. Plant out vegetable seedlings for fall harvest.

7. Keep birdbaths filled with fresh, clean water.

8. Order fall bulbs

9. Take time to watch dragonflies by day and fireflies by night.

Happy Fourth!

Summer vibes

Veronicastrum lighting up the meadow.

Lady Slippers getting worn out

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

September Self-Care

September

September slips in

quiet, unnoticed

Whispers softly

I’m here to take Summer down!”

Bit by bit the garden succumbs.

Shobha Vanchiswar

September II

September curls cool tendrils

soothing sun bright flowers

weary and worn

from a wild summer.

Shobha Vanchiswar

I’m taking it slow this month. Just the essential chores. Nothing else. After a summer that was less than stellar, I’ve decided to give myself September to be in the garden simply to enjoy everything. I want to listen to the birds and distinguish their songs, let the hum of the bees lull me into a pleasant nap, follow the butterflies as they flit from flower to flower. I’m going to use this time to examine the flowers closely as though I’ve never done it before. Observe the daily changes in the ripening seedpods and be present when they burst open to release the next generation primed for continuity. As the light grows soft and low, I will soak in as much the sunshine as the hours allow. During the day, I will paint and read and stare in the garden and, when darkness descends, I’ll remain to dance with the last of the fireflies. This is my idea of self-care. Self-Care September.

Note : Click here for garden chores in September.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Complaint Box

It feels as though I haven’t as yet got into a summer state of living. Admittedly, my trip to Mumbai swallowed up a few weeks of the season but, that shouldn’t get in the way of feeling it. I put the blame squarely on the weather. It has been way too hot and oppressive to enjoy the days as we’d like. I measure my level of participation by the amount of time I spend in the garden – eagerly and with pleasure.

Typically for me, summer days in the garden are best savored in the early hours of the morning and late afternoon into the evening. High temperatures and humidity do me in so, I avoid those mid-day hours. This year, it’s been unprecedentedly hot and muggy even in those ‘bookend’ hours. I have found it really difficult to work in the garden. As for lingering and simply reveling in the garden goings on, it’s been unbearable. In addition, the biting bugs are in abundance and attack immediately. Using repellents when the skin is already sweaty and hot is not at all pleasant. As a result, time in the garden has been reduced to the bare minimum – just enough to get routine chores done. I deeply miss being able to live in the garden. From dawn to dusk.

Returning home after time away has presented an abundance of work. The garden had run amok. And it has been really challenging to bring back some order. As I’d mentioned last week, I have a deadline. The Digging Deeper event is this coming Sunday and like every self-respecting gardener, I want my garden to look its seasonal best. Last week’s heat put paid to any garden work. Working in temperatures in the high 90s but felt like the 100s would’ve been downright dangerous. So I took care of myriad indoor tasks. The weekend ended up being a marathon of chores. The family rallied like champions. Much got done. Pruning, trimming, weeding, editing, clearing, thinning – it felt endless. Yet, much remains and the clock is ticking as once again, the weather is going to get unpleasant.

In the end, after our best efforts, matters will be what they’ll be. And all who attend on Sunday will surely understand because they are all gardeners. I fully expect all to empathize and eagerly anticipate some commiseration on how this summer has been less than ideal. Misery loves company after all.

Note; With a view to Digging Deeper, I’m sharing images of the espalier fence and the vertical garden. Sign up if you want to learn how to add these features to your own gardens!

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

July Ripples

July

July comes in many waves

surges first in stars and stripes

then butterflies surf garden sites

spilling over in swells and sprays

as heated rollers collapse the days.

Shobha Vanchiswar

The past week has been trying. The heat wave followed by heavy rains pretty much kept me indoors. In the beginning, it was kind of fun to have legitimate reason to loll in air-conditioned comfort and read at leisure. But after a couple of days, I started fretting over the garden. When I finally ventured out, as expected, the weeds had made great strides. A few days without vigilance and the hooligans had gone to town. What weeding could be done between rain showers was done. But that’s it. It just wasn’t possible to do more.

This week is once again fraught with erratic weather but I think I can no longer take it easy. There’s more weeding, plenty of deadheading and cutting back awaiting. The spice bush and climbing hydrangea are being strangled by Virginia creeper that somehow escaped notice till now. And the ornamental raspberry is threatening to overrun the meadow. The bees love it so, thus far, I’ve been reluctant to disturb their bliss. It’s going to be quite a job to pull out a substantial chunk of this hardy plant but I cannot afford to delay– several other plants in the vicinity are being smothered.

Meanwhile, with all the warmth and humidity, the snail and slug populations have exploded. A real bumper crop. Aaaargh!

The list of chores grows and the weather refuses to cooperate. So I’m left with no choice but to get out and get on. Sigh. My pile of summer reading must wait.

Note: Some images of whats doing in my garden at present –

Milkweed

Ornamental raspberry

Coneflowers

Nasturtium

Canna

Gardenia

First fig

Day lily

R. strawberry hills

Astilbe

Acanthus rising

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Stock And Bond

Summer is winding down and frankly, I’m eager for cooler temperatures. Between the heat, humidity and biting critters, it’s made gardening less than pleasant. Simply being in the garden is uncomfortable. Given the current paucity of options for visiting, socializing and entertainment, not being able to spend enough time in my garden has been quite frustrating,

However, taking the lessons learned from the lockdown, I’m determined to be positive and make the best of the situation. Typically, I’m away for most of August only to return to a garden in desperate need of care. Forced to stay in place this year has been an opportunity to review and reset the garden. In addition, staying on top of the weeding, feeding and general maintenance is satisfying.

Right off, I finally got around to addressing the Sanguisorba alba conundrum. This plant, obtained at a ‘rare and unusual plant’ event, has the prettiest of leaves. Serrated edged ovals of bluish green foliage gave reason to covet. And I did. After a rain shower, the beads of water sit like diamonds on the leaves. Even more reason to love it.

However, the fuzzy, white flowers are less than stellar. They look like albino woolly worms which quickly turn a sad shade of brown in the heat of the sun.

I’d just cut off the blooms so as to allow the foliage to be the real draw. But, there was always something that made even that impossible. Something that obviously agreed with me on the plant’s beauty. Japanese beetles! Every year, a whole army of the loathsome creatures would devour the leaves rendering them skeletal and unsightly. Still, I was too enchanted with the plants and just a tad too stubborn to admit they were a mistake. Till this summer.

The Sanguisorba were unhesitatingly dug up and disposed off. In their place, were planted Echinacea. Native, attractive, butterfly and bee friendly and happily hardy. I think that both, garden and gardener breathed a big sigh of relief to be rid of the burden of trying to support an inappropriate, high maintenance member. Now, there is so much more harmony in the grouping of Echinacea, Eupotorium, Asters, Solidago and Rudbeckia (the paler yellow sweet coneflower variety) and phlox/stock. The pollinators have certainly endorsed my action.

This year, I have derived so much pleasure from watching the birds in the garden, that I’ve ordered another bluebird/wren house to install in the front garden. I look forward to observing more avian activity from the comfort of the porch preferably with a drink of choice in hand. I also expect to have the increased number of birds patrol this area for bugs and such. A mutual sense of kinship I hope.

Keeping in mind that we expect to spend more time in the garden from now on, I’ve had time to consider more carefully the places and times we hangout in the garden and plan on improving these sites. More comfortable cushions for the daybed in the tree house – it’s my husband’s ‘office’ on good weather days. Better, eco-friendly (solar powered, LED) string lights for the terrace to make it festive and pretty – we are, after all, spending so much time here.

Better systems for protecting the fruit trees from marauding squirrels are under consideration. Similarly, I’m going to re-do the way we are growing tomatoes and squash in the greenhouse but keeping it under wraps till a proper plan is ready before revealing it to my husband who sees this particular growing operation as his realm. Ha.

While the weather is too hot and humid to physically do much in the garden, my mind is working overtime to improve it. For ourselves and the environment.

Note: With so many events of injustice and unrest in the news these days, there is great need to do what we can to help the victims. Please join me in supporting the American Civil Liberties Union – 50% of the profits from the sale my Printed Garden collection of soft home furnishings will be donated to the ACLU. I’m very proud of these products and I believe you will enjoy having them in your home. Together, we can do our part to make things right. Your support means so much. Stronger together.

The wall right now

Japanese beetles on the Sanguisorba

After the attack

With the removal of the Sanguisorba, the bed is reset.

Phlox

Sweet Coneflower

Bees all over the Joe Pye

Echinacea

Hibiscus

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Blowing Hot

We’re in the midst of a heatwave here in the Northeast. And I’ve retreated indoors. This is the reason summer is my least favorite season. Spring and fall are no-brainers. What’s not to love about them? Winter can be brutal but it is still possible to get outside if properly bundled up. But summer – when there is much going on in the garden, the heat starts soaring, humidity hits a high and the mosquitoes takeover the airspace. It gets virtually impossible to spend a length of time outdoors without risking heat exhaustion and/or being eaten alive. Whatever is a gardener to do?

I’ve developed ways to cope with my least favorite season. First and foremost, embrace bug-spray. Without that, I simply cannot remain outdoors for any length of time. Yesterday, my bare limbs were under siege within seconds of stepping out in the garden until I remembered my ammunition in a can. The sticky feel of the repellent is not great but it is the only way to working without bites.

Do the work really early. Or as late as possible. Those are the only hours with remotely tolerable temperatures. I’m not a morning person but for years I’d reluctantly get started early in the garden. Admittedly, once I was up and busy, I felt great. The birdsong for company and the sense of accomplishing the chores early is undoubtedly wonderful. But, I didn’t like the pressure of having to get up early.

Now, I’ve made it easier by giving myself the option of working later in the evening. It is still light outside and the temperature is equally amenable. The bees and butterflies are still busy as are the birds. At this time of day, the hummingbirds always visit the feeder in the herb garden so I make it a point to loiter around for a bit just so I can watch them. The joy of observing these diminutive wonders never gets old.

And so the work gets done. After a day of doing more sedentary work indoors, it actually feels restorative to get outside and be more active. Most evenings, I end up lingering into the night watching fireflies and letting the perfumes of jasmine, phlox, gardenia and brugamansia gently ease me into calm and gratitude. Ending the day in a state of grace.

A word on mosquito repellent – The most effective ones contain DEET. I don’t like using it all the time. I’ve learned that the only effective plant based repellent is oil of lemon eucalyptus from its namesake tree and NOT to be confused with lemon-eucalyptus oil. Tested by the EPA and found to be effective up to 6 hours. Choose one with at least 30 percent of the ingredient. Other plant based repellents might work but for very little time.

Note: Create an indoor garden with my Printed Garden collection! Support the ACLU at the same time!

Can you spot the hummingbird?

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar