Exposing True Colors

My Digging Deeper event ‘Wilding Walls And Fruiting Fences’ took place last Sunday. The weather cooperated beautifully and I was more than ready to welcome the folk who’d signed up. That they were willing to spend their Sunday morning in my garden felt very special. I was in my happy place – a chance to be with gardeners/garden lovers exchanging garden ideas, information and experiences is my favorite pastime. I was not disappointed – this was a wonderful group of friendly, curious and intelligent individuals. Such a pleasure.

I’m used to sharing my garden with the public through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program – which is normally in May. Mid-Spring is when it looks most beautiful. And winter weary visitors are particularly complimentary on seeing plants fresh in their new growth, flaunting bright colors.

Late summer however, is not when my garden is at its best. Typically, there is a certain fatigue that sets in as summer is drawing to an end and fall isn’t quite ready to take over. Additionally, I’m most often away on vacation at this time so, the garden has that neglected appearance that makes any self-respecting gardener cringe. This year, while I am very much present, the weather was seriously disagreeable that things did not look much improved. As such, how the garden appeals is pretty much up to the beholder.

In front, the beds that look fetching in a parade of bulbs and early perennials through spring, become boisterous as summer perennials take over. Likewise, the meadow moves from a space of happy bulbs frolicking around to a space thick in all manner of native plants jockeying for space and attention. To those who are accustomed to a garden being well contained and tidy, this can come as bit of a shock. If one spends a little time in the garden however, they’d become aware of the life that this garden supports. Birds, butterflies, bees and all manner of other insects abound. This is exactly what I intended for my piece of paradise.

To please a traditionalist, short of giving my garden complete re-constructive surgery, there isn’t much I can do. Not that I really expect to please everyone at any time.

The garden had taken a beating this year because we’ve had really bad weather. First a spring that was mostly too cold and dry and then a very hot and wet summer. Extremely challenging. Plants struggled, many bloomed but the flowers could barely last. Things were early or late but not particularly on time. Some plants simply gave up trying.

A visitor was going to witness a rather wild looking, not so conventional garden. I know it is not everybody’s cup of tea. As I prepared for the big day doing the usual weeding and tidying up, I was acutely conscious of all that was not right. The flaws glared at me. In addition, certain matters that I kept meaning to address but did not because I am freshly returned from a trip and short on time, were now plainly obvious to me. Why hadn’t I taken care of trimming my side of the neighbors hedge? And what about those annuals I intended to plant to ignite the color palette in the beds and meadow? Why did I let the thuggish (but loved) members to spread unchecked? Honestly, all I could see was everything that was not right.

On behalf of my garden, I felt very vulnerable and exposed.

On the morning of my Digging Deeper, I had my fingers crossed for kind, understanding eyes to be cast on the garden. I needn’t have worried. The visitors were ever so generous in their observations. They noticed the flowers and many features and commented enthusiastically. On spying hummingbirds, there were such expressions of joy. And when it came to the focus of the event, I had a rapt audience eager to understand the art and science of espalier and vertical gardening.

Suddenly, I was seeing my garden through their eyes. They appreciated the variety of native flowers in bloom – not splashy but nevertheless pretty. A couple of people had seen my garden in spring on past Open Days. They too were taken by the summer display – something that I feared was less than best. I realized then, they were gardeners – they understood the vagaries of the weather, the vanity of the gardener and the wonder contained in all gardens.

By letting others tour my garden in all its authentic reality, without any pretension, I had freed myself to share my own experiences and knowledge in exactly the same way. In turn, I gained a new found appreciation of my humble garden and the people who choose to visit it.

Here are some images from my Digging Deeper morning –

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

August Aura

August Aurum

Rays so radiant, burnished bright

Sunflower faces beaming high

Solidago spreading yellow light

Peaches ripening as branches sigh

Flickering flames of Monarch flights

     Mantled in gold is August.

– Shobha Vanchiswar

Joy and gratitude in reuniting with my father notwithstanding, I miss my garden. The flowers that showed up and left, the butterflies that visited, imbibed and moved on, the nests that were built and occupied. Being cooped up in a city apartment has revealed most clearly just how much my garden contributes to my well-being. Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely no remorse in coming to Mumbai at such a difficult, scary time. My heart could simply not bear the forced separation from my father any longer. He and I needed this visit equally. It’s been fraught with emotion and that’s exactly why I miss my garden. The monsoons rains prevent me from seeking a temporary sanctuary in a park or public garden. In fact, the sun has graced us on just two brief occasions over the course of almost 3 weeks!

Being in my little botanical paradise gives me perspective and balance. A daily dose of time in the garden admiring the flowers, being entertained by the wildlife, tending to chores provides the much needed time to muse over whats happening in my life and work out solutions, make immediate and long-term plans and often, take stock of all the many blessings I’m given – in essence, one gains perspective and clarity. It is the therapy so priceless and valuable that I miss it no matter where I am for any length of time.

As I wrestle with future actions to keep my father safe, happy, engaged and comfortable in these uncertain times, I wish I had access to my garden. It would help me make good, wise decisions. As always.

The images below are from last July/August –

(c) 2021 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

Bird Brain

It all started whilst standing in the kitchen at the cooking range – from the corner of my eye I noticed a flurry of activity outside the kitchen window. Turning to look, there was a robin with a beak full of fine pieces of twigs hopping around on the pergola directly below. Observing more closely, I spotted the nest. As though sited for my viewing pleasure, it sat nestled in the wisteria branches atop the pergola, giving one a perfect aerial perspective. Oh joy!

Watching nesting birds is one of my favorite pastimes. Here was that chance like no other. No climbing ladders, straining awkwardly or being stealthy – all that was needed was to stand at the window and look down. The nest is barely six feet below. Needless to say, this discovery took me completely away from all intentions to get my work done.

I was so loathe to leave for my trip to the Netherlands. Throughout my flight there I obsessed about the nest. Was it sited too visibly? Is it too easy for the squirrels o find? Would the afternoon sun hit it too harshly? And how about the rain? With reports of the heavy downpours yesterday, I’m anxious to find out. Oh the worries! I’m due back in a day so thankfully, the wait won’t be too long.

My walks in the Dutch country side have taken me through farmlands where I’m privileged to see cows with calves sticking close to their mamas, sheep with lambs that resemble balls of wool for the taking. Signs are posted making the public aware the this is an area that farms in a way that protects creatures that nest at ground level. Sure enough, I’ve discerned ducks in grassy fields sitting on what must be clutches of eggs. The farmers do not cut the hay the typical three to four times of the year. Instead, they do so only once. This allows wildlife to flourish. At any given time, some fields are left uncut and other fields are cultivated. Consequently, the yield may not be as high as we have come to expect from modern practices but, it is a comfortable compromise between man and animals. In time I heard enough bird song and became aware of sufficient activity that proved how well this policy was working. Did my heart a world of good. To take up modern ways is not always progress. Certain ancient principals have held up to time. To live and let live is one of them.

As I prepare to fly back home, I take with me a fresh resolve to assiduously support the wild life I have come to appreciate and depend upon.

Notice the robin with its beak full?

The Dutch countryside:

See the nesting duck in this field?

Protected birds here

‘Ekster’ – is the Dutch name of this bird

Ekster nest

(c) 2018 Shobha Vanchiswar