Projects Positive

In a year rife with crises and challenges, it’s been a struggle to be positive. As I’ve said all along, the garden has singularly kept me hopeful and sane. It is impossible to tend a garden without the trust that tomorrow will be better.

With unexpected time on hand, I’ve been able to contemplate parts of the garden that are being underutilized and need work. These are not necessarily new observations but ones that have been ignored or put off due to lack of time or motivation. This year, the excuses stopped working.

Two areas needed to be addressed and I’ve called them Projects Positive – they move the garden in the right direction and align even more with my values about the environment and sustainability.

The first area needing attention was the very back of the lower garden where the ‘meadow’ dominates. This roughly 7×40 foot space along the property line buffers the meadow from the woods. Over the years, I’d added some native shrubs and an Amalanchier tree but it remained inconsequential. It had no real role to play. To make it worse, the groundcover was pachysandra that had been there for decades and was therefore very thickly established. The very thought of getting it all out had been the reason I let it remain. Until this year.

With Open Day canceled, I was at liberty to tackle spring work that typically would’ve interfered with getting the garden ‘visitor ready’. So, out went the pachysandra. That was really hard work – the growth was tight and thick and the roots ran deep. I had to get the able help of Ephraim our occasional garden assistant.

Following the pachysandra purge, layers of paper and cardboard ( recycling hack) were put down to smother any pachysandra still lurking around. The paper will eventually breakdown and supplement the soil. Over the paper, we laid down landscape fabric to act as a further deterrent.

Pachysandra can be persistent. I’m certain bit and pieces of root remain and will put out growth so vigilance is called for – pull out as soon as they poke out.

Native Chrysogonum virginianum was planted to replace the pachysandra. It seemed like the correct choice of groundcover for this shady area. The yellow flowers should brighten the area next growing season. I’ve also added to the oakleaf hydrangea, Solomon’s seal, bleeding hearts, ferns and dogwood shrubs with several Fothergilla and Ceonothum. In time, the shrubs will grow, fill out the bed to seamlessly join the meadow and provide what I imagine will be a lovely visual tapestry of shapes, hues and texture. Not only will all the plantings attract the native pollinators, Fothergilla flowers have a fragrance which I believe will invite a person (mostly me) to pause a bit at the conveniently provided stone bench and enjoy the garden from this perspective. I want every bit of the garden to matter.

Having completed the plantings, pine bark mulch was spread all over the ground to conceal the black fabric and to keep moisture in. This latter point is important as the ground can get very dry very quickly.

The second project is also in the lower garden. On either side of the path to the greenhouse, there are good sized patches that I’d left without any deliberate plantings. Over the years, they would put on a brilliant spring show of forget-me-nots, dandelions and violas. A beautiful mix of blue, yellow and white. However once that show was over, they become areas of shabbiness. Not wild and engaging. Just messy and unattractive.

I’ve taken my time trying to figure out what to do – something that was different and yet segue ways smoothly into the meadow. This past weekend, after clearing the two areas, 350 plugs of Carex appalachia have been were planted in one and later this week, 450 more will go into the other. The native sedges will be low enough so as to never block the meadow plantings beyond. They will look natural and provide movement. In addition, several types of native butterflies will welcome the presence of their favored food.

A large number of Fritillaria meleagris has been ordered to augment these areas. In my minds eye, I can see the plum colored, checkered flowers bobbing happily over the sedges in the spring. And when the vernal sun casts its gaze, the whole ‘field’ will look ethereal. A fantasy.

Now you see why gardening is full of optimism? It gives us permission to dream.

May all our projects in life be positive.

Note: If, like me, you too have been deeply saddened by the passing of our beloved Notorious RBG, then you must want to continue her work in uplifting people and making matters equal for all. When I elected to support the ACLU by donating 50% of the profits from the Printed Garden products, it was because  of RBG’s work with that organization. I make a fervent appeal to each of you to please join me in carrying on her legacy. Because,’We the people’ should include every single individual.

Project 1:

Project 2: Observe how it all looks pretty in the spring but by early summer (photo 3), the area in the right foreground looks blah.

Flats of sedge

One side all planted up

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

September To Remember

It’s the first day of September. While the distinct nip in the air is familiar, there is nothing else recognizable about this particular September. The usual end of vacation blues ( what vacation?), back to school excitement, return to work vigor ( return?) and traditional planning for the winter ahead have been replaced with uncertainty and apprehension. All I know is that I must be optimistic and find comfort in the rhythm of the everyday tending to work and home.

Until the pandemic is brought under control and we have the effective vaccines and treatments in place, we are perforce going to remain at home. Our activities will be restricted and as it gets colder, more time will be spent indoors. With that in mind, I’m planning on ways to heighten comfort and joy to offset any feelings of fear or anxiety for not only the winter but the year ahead.

I’ve learned a lot in these past 6 months. About myself, others and the world we live in. We know what we’ve missed, what has brought us joy and what we can do without. It’s been a time of reflection, reassessing, reset.

The garden has been so central during this challenging time. I truly cannot imagine how I might have coped without it. If one was not conscious before, they should be by now – to have a garden, however tiny, is a singular luxury. Lets not ever forget that.

For the most part, doing the myriad chores that gardening demands has been a godsend. It nourished mind, body and spirit like nothing else could have. But, certain tasks could be made easier or even eliminated. Since I’m counting on being able to travel by this time next year (my fingers and toes are crossed as I write), I’m eager to include in my plans more efficient methods to safeguard all the hard work I’ve put into the garden.

Going away on vacation always brings to the forefront the matter of how to keep the plants watered. The easiest is to have someone keep an eye on the garden and take care of the watering. But, unless there is a friend happy to take on this responsibility, it can be expensive to compensate an individual. Specifically, a vegetable garden demands diligent watering and more oversight. To that end, I’m looking into getting bigger, self-watering pots for the vegetables we grow in the greenhouse.

This year, the tomatoes have been targeted by the squirrels. They have been stealing the tomatoes just as they’re ready for picking! Who ever thought squirrels enjoyed this fruit! Without observing a bushy tailed thief ourselves, we could not have solved the mystery of the missing tomatoes. So, some critter-proofing is in order.

Still on the topic of squirrels, they have always been after the apples on the espalier fence. Normally, we have had to cover the whole fence in netting to protect the fruits. I have always found the netting to be unsightly. It makes this pretty feature look like a lumpy, misshapen length of darkness. I’m currently investigating fruit cages. Obviously nothing on the market answers the exact requirements but I’m hoping to come up with something that we can alter to fit our needs. I envision a feature that looks neat, practical and less offensive to the eye.

The maturation and evolution of the meadow is a long process but this year, it has finally shown its potential. I’m quite chuffed about that!

I’m contemplating the gaps to be filled and the plants that require thinning. In other adjoining areas, I’m going to introduce native sedge grasses to not only cover thus far wasted real estate but to also play a role in the overall design of the lower garden. This is always a fun project for me – I love experimenting with plants. Between the hundreds of bulbs and the large number of sedges to plant, the fall is going to be very busy. But just imagine how nice it will all look next year!

Gathering in the garden with small numbers of friends has been possible only because of the warm weather. Hoping to extend the time we can spend out in the garden, I’m researching outdoor heaters. With or without friends, my dream is to be able to sit outside for some time everyday until the winter precludes such niceties.

The outdoor lights I’d mentioned last week are now in place. They certainly make the garden look festive. Which is exactly the point. If there is anything at all this pandemic has shown us is that life is fragile. Everyday must be celebrated.

Note: With so much unrest and injustice in the nation, I’m doing my best to help make matters right. But, I need your support – please join me in raising funds for the ACLU. 50% of the profits from the sales of the Printed Garden Collection will be donated to the ACLU. I believe you will enjoy the products as much as I do!

The sphere at night – I love it!

Chelones and Heleniums in the meadow

An over view of a part of the meadow

Ready for a socially distanced dinner. Notice the string lights!

Hummingbird at rest

(c) 2020 Shobha Vanchiswar

Thought For Food

A significant upside to the lock-down is that more people are gardening. This makes me so happy. Of all the things one could resort to during this uncertain, scary time, gardening is perhaps one of the best activities to do. You and I both know all the benefits so I shall not reiterate them but for myself, working in my garden has been my salvation.

Vegetable gardening is what most have taken up. There is something fundamental and inherent about that. Historically, how and what we eat dictates how well we survive. In good times and bad. An unprecedented crisis such as this pandemic had us naturally look to our basic need. Subconsciously, food is always ( okay, maybe mostly) on our minds. This threat, being a challenge to our health got us to think about keeping us in good, robust condition. Growing and preparing owns own food is the obvious solution. It gives one a sense of taking charge and doing something positive. All good I say. It reminds me of the Victory gardens that proliferated during WW II.

While seed companies were suddenly faced with a run on their stock, people were (re-)discovering the joys of gardening. Friends living in tiny city apartments were growing herbs, radish and tomatoes on their window-sills and balconies. Some have been training peas and beans around their windows. A quick search on the Internet reveals a plethora of innovations for apartment gardening. I’m quite blown away by what cool stuff is available.

Others who already had a yard, have gotten busy making all manner of vegetable gardens. Raised beds, French potagers, English kitchen gardens, vegetables ‘plots’ solely comprised of pots – it’s been exciting to learn of all the activity. Even better, swathes of lawn have been turned over to rows of vegetable plants, pollinators have been encouraged with the addition of native flowering plants, organic practices have been adopted, composting has become routine – my goodness! We are already doing better.

I myself upped my veggie game this year. For the first time, I started growing peas and micro-greens, increased the number of tomato and zucchini plants and added more herbs. In the fruit department, a long desired persimmon tree joined the apple, pear and fig trees already in residence. FYI – While we get a nice amount of produce, the garden in no way covers all our vegetable needs as we follow a mostly plant based diet.

More significantly for me, I widened the usage of the plants and have been trying new recipes. The repertoire of family meals has grown substantially and we’re thoroughly enjoying the experience. I suspect that we have each become even more particular about where and what we select when we eventually dine out. The bar has been raised.

The CSA ( Community Supported Agriculture) Co-Op I belong to started up their 2020 weekly deliveries a couple of weeks ago. It’s a joy to get the produce from a local farm instead of the supermarket. And we’re continuing to try new recipes.

I’ve received several recipe requests so I thought I’d share a couple of old, tried and true family recipes as well as a couple of new ones that I’ve tried recently..

Cilantro Chutney – Most people think of chutneys as a sweet-salty-spicy mix but in Indian cooking, chutneys are not always sweet. This one is not sweet but is great on sandwiches, brushed on roasted vegetables, meats, fish and anything needing a little oomph.

This recipe is from my mother-in-law who was a highly gifted cook.

Jaya Mani’s Cilantro Chutney

1.

2 T oil

2 T urad dal (white lentil)

1 T fenugreek seeds  — optional

1 pinch hing (asofoetida powder)  — optional

1 large dry red chilli

 (2)

1 t black mustard

 (3)

1 medium bunch cilantro washed and drained (including stems)

Salt to taste

Fry (1) together until lentils are toasted – light brown. Strain but save the oil. Add strained mixture (1) to blender. Add (3), some water and grind to a paste. Remove chutney paste from blender. Add (2) to drained oil and fry until mustard starts to pop. Add (2) to chutney  and mix well. Use within 2-3 days or freeze.

 Suggested servings:

  • Sandwiches with thinly sliced white bread, butter, chutney, thinly sliced coriander

  • Chutney with cooked  rice

  • Chapati/paratha roll with scrambled egg and chutney

  • Crackers, chutney and cheese

Rose geranium syrup over roasted figs – This combines two things from my garden. It’s a very simple but elegant dish. Add a few rose-geranium leaves when making a sugar syrup. Once the syrup has cooked down to desired thickness, remove the leaves. Let cool.

Roast figs – Cut fresh figs in half and arrange cut side up on a baking sheet. Drizzle some extra-virgin oil over them. Roast in oven at 425 degrees for 10 minutes or until they bubble.

Serve figs with syrup dribbled over them. Add a dollop of plain Greek yogurt on the side. You feel healthy that way. To up the ante, decorate the plate with a few rose-geranium flowers.

Strawberry-Basil Ice Cream – When I came across this recipe, I was intrigued. Basil in a dessert! It is delicious and so refreshing.

Ribs with rhubarb glaze and radish-rhubarb salad – I wanted to use rhubarb in more than the usual crisp or compote. This recipe from Bon Appetit turned out well.

Strawberry-basil ice cream

Khao Soi by @miravanchiswar Recipe from dear friend @sonal.nair. Cilantro from the garden

Basil pesto

Dolma using leaves from my Concord grapevine by @muralimani

Sandwiches using the cilantro chutney

Rhubarb cake

Chive quiche @miravanchiswar

(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