Masterclass

Growth is a process. Every gardener understands this. Yet, applying that to life outside the garden is not always easy. We know it takes not only time to grow from seed to plant to flower to fruit but there is need of the right conditions – temperature, light, nutrients, pollinators, good health, space. Nothing happens all by itself. A network of ‘helpers’ make growth possible.

When I say that the garden offers me an escape, a place of solace, it isn’t that it becomes somewhere to pretend that all is well. Instead, it is where I go to get away from the noise that drowns out the music. As I go about tending to my plants, I observe, I think, I listen, I learn. The garden is full of lessons and ideas.

Right off, an examination of a garden reveals that diversity is key. Shapes, colors, textures and, fragrances from diverse sources come together to create beauty. Every plant has a part to play. There are no insignificant roles. While some players might have loud/large visibility, they could not shine without the less obvious ones propping them up.

The sweet-peas have put out their first flowers. I’m looking forward to harvest time already! Their delicate tendrils stretching and reaching along the string tell me that we all need support to make progress, reach our goals.

The native wisteria over the pergola is in bloom. It flowers later than its Asian counterparts and the racemes are much shorter. I appreciate the timing because I’m invariably so overwhelmed by May’s full on blast of blooms that I’m not duly appreciative of the individual beauty of each type of flower. Besides, there’s also a lot of garden work to do at that time. The shorter racemes may not be as dramatic as the longer ones but they are still lovely and, they show up twice. So there. Being different is just fine. An asset even.

Watching the birds, butterflies and bees is better than anything on television. That by itself is an astounding feat. However, they make a couple of important points. First, all of life is interdependent. Across species and genus. We need each other.

Second, no matter who or what one is, our goals are universal – survival and providing for family and community. We have more in common than we think.

It’s fundamental. By striving to be my best self, I am able to connect with the world with empathy, understanding and purpose. But, just as I know from gardening, the garden is never done. There is always plenty of work to do. Growth. It’s a process.

David Austin’s R. boscobel

Native wisteria

Brugamansia

Baby robins

Native wisteria

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Justly June

My heart is heavy. The pain, sadness, frustration and anger within feels constant. I’m trying my best to only focus on love and peace. In thoughts, words and action.

This past week, the garden took on even greater importance – it was the only place where I could get totally immersed in the chores, the beauty and horticultural goings on. A productive, satisfying escape. True, as all escapes go, this too doesn’t solve any current problem. It does however, keep me sane, physically active, breathing in fresh air, catching some sunshine and, gives me the satisfaction of getting required work done. I get to process thoughts, relieve pent up frustrations ( yanking out weeds!) and create some order in what feels like a completely chaotic world.

The few days of muggy, warm weather put paid to the tulips. I was sorry to see them go. However, the irises have begun dancing gracefully through the beds. Soon, the baptisia will spray blue spikes to vie with the starry amsonia that seem to have got a bit of a head start. Peonies and roses are just beginning to open and the anticipation to see their frilly fullness is keeping me in a good place.

Regular deadheading, weeding and watering have become the norm for the rest of the growing season. It’s comforting to be in that rhythm. The summer window-boxes are filling out out nicely lending charm and cheer. We’ve been harvesting micro-greens, other leafy vegetables and herbs for our meals – is it just my imagination or does the food taste better when its cooked with homegrown produce?!

The topiaries and boxwood balls got a proper haircut over the weekend. Given the present state of my own hair, they have given me a serious case of jealousy. The next time the plants receive a trimming will be just before they are returned to the greenhouse for the winter. By which time, I too ( hopefully) should be looking well groomed.

I’m loving the progressive greening of the vertical garden. Ferns unfurling their fronds, heuchera getting husky and mosses mapping out the green background. It’s like watching art in progress.

The big task that got done over the weekend was at the far back of the garden. If you recall, it’s an area that borders the west-northwest end of the meadow, right next to the woods. A couple of weeks ago, as much of the ancient pachysandra that could be pulled out was and the stubborn rest smothered with cardboard and landscape fabric. On Sunday, plugs of Chrysogonum virginianum were planted in for groundcover. Their yellow flowers should brighten up this semi-shady area. Dwarf Fothergilla shrubs were added to the existing oakleaf hydrangea and native dogwoods. A couple more oakleafs as well as a few Ceanothos americanus will round out the plantings. This project would never have taken off if it were not for the fact that we are in a state of Pause. There was simply no excuse to put it off. This time next year, when the area is brightened in yellow from the ground and the white Fothergilla flowers are wafting their fragrance, I shall remind myself to be thankful for this time.

I cannot wave a wand and make our present troubles disappear. But, I can certainly do my part in restoring some native beauty to our natural landscape, spread some optimism and possibly, just possibly emerge a stronger, better person myself.

After tackling the pachysandra and before new plantings

Another before

After the plantings. Few more shrubs yet to come!

New groundcover of golden star. The silver maple near by has shed tons of seeds. We’re letting the squirrels have their fill before we clear it all up!

The meadow right now.

Topiaries post haircut.

The vertical garden greening up.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Work In Progress

A week of the big push in the garden. That means getting the last of the big chores going before settling into a rhythm of general maintenance. Weeding started in earnest – a couple of days a week, I go around the whole garden looking for the thugs. That helps me stay on top of them. Deadheading regularly keeps things tidy and checks the promiscuous from self-seeding recklessly, In some cases, it encourages repeat flowering. At present, it’s the spent daffodils that are getting lopped off so the remaining leaves can do their job of fattening up the bulbs for next year. As the early tulips finish up, I deadhead them to keep things neat even though I treat tulips like annuals. I prefer not to disturb the beds by pulling them out all together. Besides, sometimes they do condescend make a comeback.

Veggies and herbs are all planted. As are several perennials. Some annuals like cleomes and cosmos were re-introduced into the garden. My daughter recalled that when she was little, we had a ‘jungle’ of cleomes and sunflowers along the side-path that made it feel exciting and magical. Now that she’s home for the foreseeable future, I thought it might be fun to do it again. We chose a different location but I let her do the planting. Any which way she liked. Sunflowers to be added very soon. It’s always a good thing to bring back happy memories and create new ones.

The garden is now pretty much set for the season. The biggest chore we decided to undertake ( because right now, there is no excuse), was to get the far end of the garden into better shape. This area has had pachysandra as a groundcover for decades. Long before we got here. So, we’re talking a really well established patch. It had given the shrubs in its midst a hard time, encroached into the ‘meadow’ and, smothered out smaller plants. It was time to smother it out in turn.

Back breaking work it was and as much as possible was dug up. Over the now bare areas of soil, we put down layers of paper ( brown paper shopping bags and flattened cardboard boxes saved for the purpose), over-layered by breathable landscaping fabric. This should asphyxiate any remaining pachysandra and other weeds. A native groundcover like goldenstar ( Chyrysogonum virginianum) will take its place. I chose this groundcover because I think its yellow flowers will brighten the dark area and bring attention to the bigger plantings. In the fall, other native shrubs will join the oakleaf hydrangea, American holly and shrub dogwoods and Amelanchier tree already there. I’d do it now but my selections are out of stock everywhere! Not because they are so popular but because nursery stocks are low in general. Darn virus!

The simple, stone bench that sits at the front edge of this area is once again accessible and I plan to keep it that way. From this bench, it is possible to merge oneself with the meadow, observe the goings on of the pollinators, listen to the birds gossip and take a wellness moment to recharge with a healthy session of nature therapy.

Without this period of Pause, I doubt this project would’ve been undertaken. The usual excuses of lack of time would’ve been made instead. Using the current situation to improve the garden has been a blessing.

What lies ahead in the months to come is unknown. The future of practically everything is uncertain. All we have is now – to work on ourselves, our gardens, our homes and our relationships. I don’t want to waste this opportunity.

Note: Last Saturday, May 16 should’ve been our Open Day. The garden truly looked lovely and I was so sorry not to share it with anyone. Here are a few photos:

Project Pachysandra underway! Note the bench.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Rain, Snow, Sunshine And Storm

We saw it all this past week. Bizarre, beautiful and bewildering weather. It was as though we were witness to a highly compressed video of the four seasons. What gives? As if the pandemic was not enough. I did a great deal of worrying all week.

The rain itself was not a problem but then, it got windy. Really windy. Tipped over pots that had never been affected before. With the soil getting so saturated with water, I fretted over seedlings in the vegetable patch getting wobbly and possibly drowning. Thankfully that did not happen but a few new worry lines have shown up on my face.

Then, we had a couple of dry days with strong wind. And sunshine. Well, that completely dried up the soil in no time so we had to water everything. Crazy no?

On one day it was almost perfect. Sunny, pleasant and totally misleading. That night, temperatures plummeted. We were back in winter and scrambled to bring some tender plants back into the greenhouse they’d vacated just last weekend. The smaller pots were all we could shelter. The big ones were too heavy to move in a hurry.

The next day it remained super cold. And poured rain for hours. At night, it snowed. Not much but enough to coat the cars. Thankfully, the snow melted as the sun rose but the temperature was still twenty degrees below normal. Go figure.

Later that same day, we experienced two squalls. Two. Snow gusted and swirled. It got dark. About twenty minutes later, all was calm and bright. The sun shone as though nothing untoward had occurred.

All this took place in a span of six days! On Sunday, we were finally blessed with a beautiful day. The pots of plants taking refuge in the greenhouse found their posts in the garden and we tethered and propped everything that had been pushed around by the wind. Not going to take chances anymore – this could be an ongoing trend in the weather. Who knows.

Making good use of the reprieve in the weather, much weeding was done. It is impressive how hardy weeds can be. Two roses were dug up and relocated. These roses were the offspring of a rose given to me by a friend. It reproduced all by itself i.e. with no help from me. I’m guessing that’s why the friend was giving away that rose rather generously. When I first saw the progeny coming up near the parent, I was delighted. But they grew fast and encroached other plants aggressively. They had to be moved. I’m going to keep a sharp eye on these roses – no more surprise babies.

Speaking of babies, my biggest source of stress during what was a trying week in the garden, was the nest of three robin babies in the wall pot by the front door. I’ve been keeping an eye on them throughout and posting photos here and on my Instagram account (@seedsofdesignllc and @shobhavanchiswar). Watching the parents care for their little ones who are growing fast has been so enjoyable. But with temperatures dropping so low, winds picking up and, snow coming down, I was totally afraid for the safety of the baby robins. Would the parents be able to keep them warm and dry when they themselves were cold? I was consumed with concern.

I expressed a desire to set up a heater in the front porch but that got shot down by the family. Mostly because we do not even have an outdoor heater. However, I didn’t much care for the lecture on how this is nature at work and I cannot go around playing God. Who says?

Of course, I know how Nature operates and the circle of life yada, yada. I worry about my garden plants and critters anyway. They are each in my care after all. But, at this particular time when we know so little about the powerful virus and are trying so hard to stay well and positive, the fact that we actually have very little control is not lost on me. Hence, tending the garden is a way of staying creative, productive, active and optimistic. Any threat to this source of therapy is distressing. All and any support and kindness from the weather-gods would be much appreciated. Is that too much to ask?

As I went about grumbling about such matters yesterday, I was also dealing with the small odd jobs in the garden. In the process, I started to relax. The sheer beauty of the flowers in bloom, the melody of bird song and the energy of life all around was having their unfailing impact on my entire being. I was now paying attention to what the garden was saying to me. The baby birds had pulled through the cold nights, the veggie plot was looking just fine, plants deemed tender had survived nicely – they had all weathered the storm so to speak. Not because of my worrying and stressing but because they applied their deep seated natural instincts. The plants bent and swayed and let the wind flow through, the robin parents instinctively did what they could to keep their young ones warm. They were all doing whatever they were capable of doing. Sure there was no guarantee of survival but each living thing was using its inherent capacities to that end. We rise above and despite the fear. That is all we can do.

Apple blossom

wall garden waking up

Alliums getting ready …

White forget-me-nots have joined the blue!

Bleeding hearts

In the ‘meadow’

Robin babies

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Slow Gardening

These uncommon days have brought me to a rediscovering of the pleasures of fundamental garden work. As I mentioned last week, I, along with so many across the country (world maybe?), are getting back to basics. Seed sowing, root cuttings, composting, growing vegetables etc., It isn’t that I stopped doing any of that but now, I’m once again taking the right amount of time to do those tasks with attention, appreciation and anticipation.

Over the past dozen years or so, I’d gotten into the habit of accomplishing the tasks with a sense of urgency. Admittedly, there was the pressure of getting the garden ready for Open Day by mid-May but, that was only part of the story. So many other commitments and projects had been taken on that I was spreading myself too thin. This year, under unforeseen circumstances, I find myself doing exactly the same chores but with a renewed energy and spirit of purpose. Once more, I’m having fun sowing seeds, eagerly checking daily to see if they’ve sprouted even though I know the typical amount of days it takes to germinate.

This past weekend, the pea shoots were transplanted to the potager. I had not sown peas in years because I really felt I hadn’t the real estate to set up a trellis for them. And I didn’t want to spend the time to do so. Well, all of a sudden, I knew exactly where to plant the seedlings. Along the edge of a potager bed that borders the pergola, seven pea plants were planted. To guide them in their climb, strings were strung from the top of the pergola down to each baby seedling. Like a 7 fretted instrument, it waits for the plants to start ‘plucking’ the strings and create sweet music. As the peas grow, they will provide some welcome shade at lunchtime gatherings at the pergola. By the time the whole potager is in full growth and the wisteria ( native variety so it blooms later) on the structure is fully leafed out, the peas will be done and that ‘window’ will once again be opened up to enjoy the view of the potager. Why didn’t this idea occur to me before? Because I hadn’t paused long enough to let the garden reveal the solution to me.

I’ve also started a project of growing micro-greens. It began with a large shallow pot of peas whose shoots add a seasonal something to salads and the occasional egg salad sandwich. As soon as I obtain the seeds, broccoli shoots are going to join this project. Since the lockdown is about staying healthy, micro-greens are a good thing to bring to the dining table – they are chock full of nutrients and very easy to grow. A nice rhythm of succession planting is the plan.

I didn’t get to start the root cuttings as intended last week. Between bad weather and other garden work, that got postponed – to hopefully sometime later this week. Instead, I divided some tiarella to make several new additions to the vertical garden. Herbs got re-potted and put up on the herb ‘wall’ in the potager. Nasturtium seeds started in the greenhouse were ready for transplant – they are now underplanted in the large pots that hold the bay standards. The citrus hued flowers should look lovely spilling over the pots.

I find myself short on pots – another reason I did not do the propagation from cuttings task. By setting up all those pots with daffodils and pansies to cheer up passers-by, there aren’t enough pots for much else! The current stay-home situation has forced me to reconsider the number of trips I make to any place. One makes do with what is at hand. Or do without all together. This week, I shall make one precious foray to my local nursery. Cannot wait!

Gardening these days is so mindful and sensory. I’m taking the time to smell the earth and how it feels in my hands as I dig and plant. The aroma of geosmine that we associate with spring is so life affirming.

As I carefully wash the soil off the roots of plants for the vertical garden, I marvel at the exquisite pale roots and how strong they are despite their delicate appearance. Nature is genius.

A regular distraction is following the goings on of the avian real estate market. One afternoon, we watched a turf battle between cat birds and crows, another time, we observed a pair of cardinals touring the garden checking out suitable sites for building a home. I really hope my garden came through – as such rejections are taken very personally. The hummingbird feeder is up but I think it is still a bit too chilly for those tiny friends. The robins that built a nest in the pot on the wall by the front door, get all irate when we step out or linger on the porch. So we are limiting our passage through that door and my time on the porch is restricted to watering the various pots there. At which point, I take advantage to quickly check the status of the eggs.

These days, I’m not nearly as efficient each time I work in the garden. Diversions not withstanding, the tasks are nevertheless getting accomplished. The garden is coming along just fine. And I’m so much more relaxed and fulfilled. As we know, slow and steady … I’m re-learning. This time around, I’m a better, more mature student. I think.

Note: Mother’s Day is less than two weeks away. For lovely gift selections – take a look at botanical notecards and soft furnishings for the home. All images are from my original watercolors. Original artwork is also available at Gallery. All profits go to support HIV/AIDS orphan girls’ education. Your support means everything to this cause. Thank you!

The herb ‘wall’. Soon, the A/C unit behind will be hidden by the growing plants.

The plant waste headed for the compost pile looks like abstract art

Note the strings!

Another view of the pea trellis

Note the pea shoots planted at the base .

The ‘meadow’ getting set to burst into a floral chorus

Leucojum

Two-toned muscari

Snakeshead fritillaria in a sea of forget-me-nots

Two types of fritillaria

See the robin keeping watch from the nest behind the pansies?

Pea shoot micro-greens

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

As The World Turns

Sheltering at home and garden feels different. It is not the same as when one chooses to spend time cocooning at home. While our homes continue to offer refuge in this difficult period, we are not living out our days in quite the same way. Having to be home at all times, working from home, coordinating schedules with those we live with, no possibility of going anywhere, making do with what groceries are available at the stores, are all situations we’re adjusting to. Some things are easy and others more challenging. Still, despite all the limitations, I, for one, feel very blessed. Not in a virtuous, martyr-ish way – but simply being realistic and aware of my privilege.

I cannot possibly have any complaints. For goodness sakes, I have a garden to work in! That is a high advantage that I’m acutely aware of as increasingly, more public gardens and gardens are being closed. Far too many are restricted to small, cramped spaces in the city with only windows and, with any luck, balconies to lean out of to catch some sun and fresh air.

Once I’ve accomplished my work related and domestic tasks of the day, the garden is where I seek to pass my time. Chores that were done with the a certain degree of haste because other matters/appointments awaited, are now given due attention and time. Be it planting or fixing or watering, everything has taken on deeper meaning and connection.

I’d ordered a self-pollinating persimmon tree a while back – it was delivered last week. A couple of decades ago, I’d planted an American persimmon with intentions to train it into a candelabra style espalier against the southern wall of the house. The tree grew but failed to produce because there did not exist another persimmon anywhere in the neighborhood – no cross-pollination was possible. I blame myself for letting the seller assure me that I didn’t need another persimmon to get fruit. I should’ve known better. Instead I wanted to get on with my project so badly that I accepted what I wanted to believe.

That tree was subsequently disposed off and the whole project forgotten. Soon, a tree peony occupied its place.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago. I discovered the existence of a new Japanese-American hybrid that has the best traits of each nationality (persimmon-wise) and is truly self-pollinating. I immediately ordered it from Logee’s Greenhouse. Once the very young plant arrived, I gave it a few days to recover from its journey before giving it a permanent home.

If this were a business as usual time, the persimmon would’ve been plonked down in any open space along the fence of the lower garden. It’s sole purpose being to provide fruit. Instead, this past Saturday, the tree peony was dug up and replanted near by – its very long roots had to be trimmed a bit so fingers crossed it didn’t mind the amputation. It is after all a plant dear to my heart – Hennriette Suhr gave it to me and I love floating the heavy, multi-petaled flowers in a bowl to show-off their beauty. I will keep a watchful eye on it.

The new tree was planted in the old persimmon’s place so the espalier project is back on. All the wire guides to train the branches from years ago are still in place as though they fully expected to be called back into service.

Similarly, there were some heuchera I’d purchased on my mad plant shopping spree the same day that stay-at-home was mandated. They sat waiting while the watering system to the vertical garden was restarted and deemed functioning well. Again, I took the time to not only clean off all of the soil from the roots of each heuchera( the plants on the wall are grown hydroponically) but, I also worked to carefully divide the plants to get several more plants for the wall.

All of this might sound trivial. Even frivolous. But really, not only did the work get done with attention, thought and purpose, for the time each task took, the mind was focused and relaxed. Two things that are getting rather difficult to do during these stressful days.

With more people taking daily walks/strolls, I see many neighbors on the street. It’s been gratifying to exchange greetings and news – albeit from the required distance. We – old and new, are all being more neighborly. To give those passing my home a reason to smile, I set up a collection of pots of daffodils and pansies right by the road. After all, those flowers will disarm any grump and uplift any heart feeling the weight of the times. Even if its fleeting, every bit of cheer matters.

These days of sheltering are instructive. I’m relearning to give my garden the right amount of attention it deserves. I’m paying attention to not just what is dry but how dry before I water. This serves to conserve water as well as provide the plants with only what they need. I’d become too busy to start seeds in recent years. There are several flats of seeds sown currently – of flowers and vegetables. I’ve rediscovered the joy of this fundamental act of gardening.

Things that I might have easily replaced for lack of time, are now being fixed instead. All non-essential shopping is to be avoided after all. Over all, many more hours are whiled away working in the garden and it is mighty satisfying. Like it used to be before I got too busy. I’m sure things will not stay this way forever but I’m also sure I cannot let myself get that busy again. These days are guiding me how to strike a healthier, happier balance.

The garden provides with enough distraction that when I’m in it, my mind completely shuts out the news and fears in the world. Unlike a movie which also provides some escape, at the end of my time in the garden, I have accomplished some necessary tasks, got a bit of physical activity, relaxed my mind, soaked in some sun, breathed fresh air and allowed nature to provide much needed therapy to my spirit. Priceless.

Pots by the street

New Persimmon hybrid – Nikita’s Choice

Heuchera in the wall garden. Ferns will go in shortly.

Forced hyacinths in a ‘cage’ of pussy willow.

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Life Deconstructed

So here we are. Living our days in an unfamiliar, uncertain atmosphere. It’s not easy when so much feels well beyond our control. I’ve categorically decided to pay attention to what is in my control. Managing myself, my work, my home, my garden – oftentimes, it is all one and the same.

I listen to Governor Cuomo’s updates every morning and then stay away from the flood of news. It’s simply too much.

Gardening began in earnest last week. While it was colder than desired, working outdoors in the bright sunshine was restorative and uplifting. Birdsong and crocuses, scillas, hellebores and ipheions in bloom kept me company as I went about clearing, planting and potting up. Last Friday, I got word that nurseries were going to have to close up shop because all non-essential businesses were mandated to do so. I know what you’re thinking – but those nurseries are necessary for the garden and hence, our very sanity! All kidding aside, while I understood the ruling, it galvanized me into action. Okay, so my daughter chose to say I went into a kind of shopper’s mad frenzy.

I went to my favorite local nursery and loaded up on plants, potting soil, seeds etc., Because it is early in the season, the inventory was not large. However, I could see that we weren’t likely to have any plants to buy in the foreseeable future – I mentally changed certain design plans and picked up alternatives to try out. Taking this as a challenge of sorts, I pulled my mind out of a fixed vision and opened it up to new possibilities. After all, if things don’t turn out great, there’s a certain vicious virus I can blame.

Underlying my frenzied buying, was the fact that all inventory not sold would in all likelihood go to waste. Such a shame no? But even more heartbreaking is that the employees at the nursery, who over the years have become my dear friends would be unemployed/unpaid. I was truly emotional about this. The growers who’d been preparing all winter for the spring would also have to face colossal financial loss. How many businesses will go under is frightening to think about. Not being able to do anything but buy all that I could was frustrating. Unfortunately, there will be such casualties in practically every industry.

Having brought home more than I’d ever planned, the weekend was spent totally in the garden. With the college student home, the extra pair of hands was very welcome. The child who once groaned at being given garden chores was actually happy to do whatever was needed. She weeded, re-potted, moved things, planted, watered – all in good cheer. I think that another generation has become an avid gardener!

We raked and reseeded the tiny front lawn, fixed some hardscape stuff, added several perennials in the front beds as well as the herb garden. The very large pots were brought out of storage, filled with fresh soil and planted with pansies and daffodils – when it is warm enough, the bay standards will emerge from the greenhouse and settle into them for the growing seasons. I have to say it felt particularly life affirming and gratifying. Nature applied her healing balm on my heart.

[ Having done all that work, it snowed all of yesterday. I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or scream. Eventually, I did neither. Shrugged my shoulders – what will be will be. In the grand scheme …]

On my visit to the nursery, I’d bought extra flats of pansies and very young daffodils. Sunday afternoon, I potted up combinations of those in an assortment of containers. They will be distributed to friends and neighbors who are either immnuno-compromised and/or elderly and living alone. Simply spreading some much needed spring cheer. It feels so inadequate but I know every little bit of support and help makes a difference. I want the recipients to know they matter to us, their community.

As I did my garden work, I thought about the strange time we’re in. This social distancing and staying home has opened up opportunities to connect to each other – our families, friends, neighbors and community. With no place to go we have time to listen, to observe, to share, to reach out. Each task I do, I find myself doing it mindfully – there is, after all, no rush. We’re now so much more aware of our inherent need for social bonds.

This is our moment to be our better selves. To be the person our mothers raised us to be. Or, to be the person your dog things you are.

Flowers always make people better, happier and more hopeful: they are sunshine, food and medicine to the soul.”- Botanist Luther Burbank

Note: The images are in reverse order! I’m having a small technical issue.

Most of the haul from the nursery

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Scaling Labyrinths

The word labyrinth comes from the Greek labyrinthos and describes any maze-like structure with a single path through it which differentiates it from an actual maze which may have multiple paths intricately linked.

Labyrinths and labyrinthine symbols have been dated to the Neolithic Age in diverse regions across the globe. They continue playing a role in modern times.

My love affair with labyrinths began at childhood. The mystery books I devoured often featured a labyrinth or maze to offer riddles and clues in ways I now realize might have been a tad bit romanticized. Over the years, while mazes remain fun and exciting in a ‘hide-and-seek’ meets treasure-hunting sort of way, labyrinths have taken on a more meaningful, sacred role. To me, mazes get you to focus exclusively on the task of finding ones way to the center and then making the return trip to get out, thereby providing a complete distraction which can be refreshing and exhilarating. Getting lost and/or confused is all part of the experience.

In traversing a labyrinth, one can ostensibly see its entire design. The center is visible at all times. Where one is trying to get to is apparent. How to do so is not as clear. It’s only by mindful walking, taking in all the turns and switchbacks, that an individual makes it to the center – itself a site for rest and reflection. Labyrinths are not meant to be challenging. Instead they gently guide the walker to move through at an easy pace whilst permitting him/her to observe, think and center the mind. In doing so, by the time one reaches the labyrinth’s center, the mind has shed itself of all other distractions and arrives prepared for deeper meditation.
In perfect silence, a well laid labyrinth teaches life lessons to all who walk it. Like the best of therapists it has us work out all our issues by ourselves.

A labyrinth sits there as a ready escape from chaos, a world gone mad, to find once again one’s true north. Typically set outdoors, it partners beautifully with nature to calm the mind and heart by purposefully removing the walker from the normal, linear understanding of time and direction. Slowly, the outside world recedes and one becomes aware of the world within ourselves. How we are feeling, what we hope for, the conflicting thoughts, the elusive solutions rise up and get understood. This active meditation leads to the deep meditation awaiting at the center. Sitting in quiet, breathing deeply and surrendering all diversionary thoughts gives one the gift of emerging clear headed and relaxed. Ready to face with clarity and acceptance that complex, noisy world we live in.

I’ve always longed to design a labyrinth. A good labyrinth has an ideal size. Too small and it fails to decompress the mind because the center is reached too quickly. Too big and it can get tedious. The amount of walking and turning must be just right. Even the width of the path must be correct – not too narrow and constricting or too wide and spacious. Creating an ideal labyrinth is not as easy as it might seem. Scale is key.
Making paths of grass or mulch bordered by stones, low growing plants or any other natural material keeps the cost quite low. The simpler the better. Yet, an ideal design and layout is a call for creativity.

The only part of my garden that could support a proper labyrinth would be where the meadow lies. However, this area is sloped and uneven and must not be leveled for reasons of water drainage and run-off. I’m thus resigned to not having this feature of my own.

Last Sunday, I was taken to an absolutely lovely labyrinth at the Priory in Weston, Vermont. Sited on an open, flat space laid with paths of grass outlined by single lines of brick set in the ground, it is beautifully simple. The size is perfect and the design takes you just long enough to get to the inviting seats in the center. Beyond the labyrinth is a vast, open meadow full of native grasses and wild flowers. Birds, butterflies, bees and other critters abound. Feeling vulnerable and humble, I walked with the sounds of nature keeping me company. The sun was bright and a light breeze kept me from getting too warm. Seated in the center, as I came out of my reflections empowered and reaffirmed, I observed the meadow with the swaying grasses woven through with seasonal blooms of milkweed, daisies, black-eyed Susans and other flowers, above them, swallowtail butterflies played tag with each other – it all seemed so tranquil despite the obvious activity going on. The whole scene serving as a reminder that “creativity flows from a quiet mind”.
As a flight of goldfinches rose up from within this meadow and made their separate ways, I too got up and purposefully followed the path to take me back to my awaiting world. Just as I left the labyrinth the priory bell was rung calling all to prayer and morning service. I did not join – I had after all just completed my worship.

The labyrinth in Weston, Vermont
The meadow beyond.
Notice the swallowtail on the milkweed at center lower half?!
A labyrinth I visited in Cape Cod some years ago. Set amidst tall trees, it gives the sense of being in a cathedral.
A labyrinth in upstate New York

(c) 2019 Shobha Vanchiswar