January Jitters

2022 is well underway and I’m starting to feel like I’m not stepping up to it. Between the recent snow storms and the Omicron surge, I’m going through a phase of ‘out-of-sorts’. I sure hope it’s just a phase. While I’m trying to stay on course with my projects and such, it’s unsettling when so many are out of action and all sorts of events are being canceled. How does one plan for anything? Do I dare look forward to an upcoming visit/concert/class ? We’ve learned to be flexible and adapt but still, there’s that yearning for the familiar comfort of normalcy isn’t there. I catch myself feeling fearful of looking forward to things. Hate to be disappointed again. And again.

And then, a bright sunny day or a flash of cardinal red in the snow covered garden is enough to get the spirit soaring. I look around at the amaryllis blooming indoors and they give me pause to appreciate the beauty and the comfort they bring Soon, I’ll be forcing hyacinths and eagerly anticipate the flowers and fragrance. Spring would’ve arrived in my heart well before the vernal equinox.

Seeds that I’d ordered in December arrived yesterday. I’m not taking on any major seed starting – instead, I’m keeping matters simple and realistic so I can indeed take a trip or do other things should the opportunity arise. Shirley poppies to scatter towards the end of winter. Cosmos seeds will be sprinkled later on. I’m only going to start the highly dependable sunflowers. My big adventure will be growing dahlias for the first time. The tubers I’d ordered will arrive in due course and I’m excited to experience something new.

I’ve also signed up for several on-line talks/lectures. The Garden Conservancy recently announced their series on French Gardening that sounds quite interesting. Apart from learning horticultural stuff, it’ll be a bit of ‘traveling to France’. Until its safe to make an in-person trip there, I’ll make do with these talks.

Untermyer Gardens’ winter symposium should be a good one too. I thoroughly enjoyed their 2022 winter symposium. This one is on meadows – something, as you know, I’m very passionate about.

Wave Hill and NYBG have good line-ups for winter as well.

Across the pond, Fergus Garret of Great Dixter fame will be continuing his lectures on various aspects of gardening. These are always chock full of information and beautiful images.

By the time I’m through with all the talks, spring should be here for real. So, for now, I’m going to breathe deeply and plug away at my projects and goals, take comfort in the ‘early spring’ indoors, get inspired and motivated by the many talks, stay away from an overload of news and instead, focus on uplifting, life affirming nature walks and preparations for the growing season. Gardening to the rescue. As always.

Note: Things that help keep me calm and hopeful –

I’m a firm believer in enjoying my art until they get exhibited and find new homes. At present, some of my seed pods are giving me lots of pleasure.

More seed pods

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Start Me Up

Day 4 of 2022 and it is finally feeling like winter. On January 1, it was a balmy 60 degrees. Given all the ‘unprecedented’ and ‘record weather’ events, it tells me to expect more of the unexpected. And we must be prepared to pivot, remain flexible and possibly most importantly, adapt to circumstances.

Meanwhile, I’m getting on with the January garden chores. Here’s to 2022 – may we and our gardens thrive and spread goodness all around.

Things To Do In January

  1. Survey the garden after every storm or snowfall. If any damage such as broken branches or torn off protection has occurred, try to fix it as soon as possible. Likewise, large icicles hanging from roof edges pose a threat to plants below: shield the plants if the icicles cannot be removed.

  2. Take down holiday decorations. Before disposing off the Christmas tree, cut branches to spread as mulch on flower beds.

  3. Keep bird feeders full. Whenever possible, keep water available for the birds.

  4. Inspect stored tubers, corms and bulbs for signs of mold and rot. Get rid of any that don’t look healthy.

  5. This is a good time to examine the ‘bones’ of the garden. Make notes of what needs developing, changing or improving.

  6. Make icy paths safe by sprinkling sand or grit. Avoid toxic de-icing products.

  7. If ground is wet/soggy, take care to protect the sodden areas by not walking on it too much. Better yet, protect it by putting down a temporary path of wood planks.

  8. Take an inventory of garden tools. Get them repaired, replaced or sharpened.

  9. Gather up seed and plant catalogs. Start planning for the coming season.

  10. Begin forcing the bulbs kept cool since late fall. Time to start an indoor spring!

  11. Keep an eye on indoor plants ( in the house or greenhouse). Inspect carefully for signs of pests or disease. Act right away if either is detected. Organic practices only please.

  12. Still on indoor plants: water as needed, rotate for uniform light exposure, fertilize every two to four weeks. Remove dead or yellowing leaves.

  13. Enjoy the respite offered by this cold month.

Note: I have a painting in a global show online. Please do take look – it’s on Human Rights and there are some powerful works.The exhibition duration is from December 19 2021 till January 23, 2021.

If you like my work, do ‘like’ it and leave a comment. And spread the word to others! I’d love for a gallery to take note and give me the opportunity to exhibit the whole series. Your help in publicizing is much appreciated – Thank you!

Here’s what’s doing in and out of my garden –

Pumpkins saved from the fall for still life painting!

Watercolor

Amaryllis

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

Darkness To Light

This holiday season is not going the way the world had hoped. The best laid plans have been upended. We are once again struggling with what feels like deja vu. Haven’t we been through this already?

Determined to fight any feeling of melancholy, I’m once again taking my cues from nature.

It’s the winter solstice today. The shortest day of the year. But, from tomorrow, the days begin to grow. Albeit by just one minute a day, it’s a positive development. Psychologically, this single fact shifts my attitude – I feel so much better. I take it as a sign of hope and positivity. Frankly, what other option is there? I simply must believe that things will improve.

As I walk around the garden, I start noticing other signs of hope. Furry buds on the magnolia tell me to expect a lovely show in a few months. On the climbing hydrangea, the buds like long grains of rice sit tight and firm as though letting the world know that they’re here on a mission. I reach beneath last years leaves and gently dig around at the base of the hellebores – sure enough, I see the early signs of growth. All of this is so full of promise. What at first appears to be a garden in hibernation is really one where life is very much happening. It never stopped.

I’m being guided to see the hope. Light will return and spring will burst forth again.

I step back into the house renewed and ready to embrace the quiet joys of winter.

Note: The two poems below were written in previous Decembers and I’m happy to revisit them from time to time. They remind me to lean into the light.

Dark And Light

The light of day

sparkles honest

Cobwebs shimmer

rewards promised

Hope soars

confidence shines

Courage accompanies

mountains to climb

Sunrises occasion

plans anew

Clarity surfaces

Beliefs ring true

Nightfall arrives

slow and sure

Shadows lurk

luring fear

Darkness imposes

time to remember

Review, regret

call to surrender

Sunsets precede

hidden dreads

Anxiety reigns

awake in bed

Reality lies

in plain sight

there’s nothing in the dark

that’s not there in the light.

******

Trimming The Tree

Love hangs memories

on awaiting arms

twinkling happy thoughts

as new stories get written.

While the past is shared

the present unfolds itself

into the future.

This tree belongs to my daughter. We got it for her when she was very young. Each ornament is a story, a memory, an expression of love.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

December Deals

The garden is finally put to bed. All the clean up and cut back is done. The biggest pots and oak water barrel are cozily wrapped in plastic topped with burlap – they sit like packages waiting to be discovered. The meadow had its annual cutback and now lies with a nice covering of fallen leaves that offer all manner of sustenance and refuge to wildlife. The surrounding shrubs remain uncut – they lend some winter interest but more importantly, they too provide shelter and some more food for active critters.

The tiny greenhouse is home to so many tender perennials and tropicals that the small table and chair placed in for WFH respite is a very tight squeeze. Still, it’s always wonderful to spend time in there. The lemons were harvested over the weekend. They sit looking so beautiful – orbs of captured sunshine. I’ve set aside time to make a big batch of lemon marmalade tomorrow. That stuff gets consumed so rapidly that I might have to restrict it to ‘Sunday breakfast only’. No doubt , it’d lead to a mutiny!

Similarly, the many jars of basil and nasturtium pesto, pear brandy and limoncello, Concord grape jelly and vegetable stock made from the bounty from the garden through the fall, will bring great pleasure to many winter meals.

What remains to be done are maintenance chores like getting tools with blades sharpened, restocking on twine, stakes and such, bringing back order to the garden workbenches and shelves, checking what needs replacing or repairing and acting accordingly. I have the hyacinth forcing vases cleaned and ready for action for when the time is right to get the cooling bulbs out of the refrigerator.

Making our holiday decorations from materials found in the garden and woods gives me a wonderful sense of comfort and joy. The garden provides through all the seasons. That is the best deal of all.

Amaryllis coming along

Lemons!

Meadow under cover of leaves

Greenhouse

Greenhouse

Sedum seed heads

Echinacea seed heads

Rose geranium lemonade and nasturtium pesto

Bundles of bouquet garni – to flavor soups and sauces.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Farewell February

The final week of February means we are in the home stretch to Spring. Puts me in a good mood all together. It’s felt somewhat tedious being snowbound and socially distanced. Nothing to complain about but wearisome nevertheless. Transitioning into March feels positively cheery.

With so much snow, there’s nothing stirring in the garden horticulturally speaking. I wonder if the birds are getting impatient as am I. Eager to rustle about looking for early signs of spring, I’ve taken to vicariously enjoying gardens across the pond. The English spring has begun – snowdrops and other early bulbs are up and glinting like gems scattered on the unfurled green carpet.

The bulbs I’d potted up to get a jump start on spring are now under snow and impossible to retrieve till the big thaw. I should’ve moved them to more sheltered locations. I kept meaning to but dropped that ball. Note to self – next year, place potted bulbs in cool and easy to access sites. Also, pot up many more bulbs.

I’m supposed to winter prune the roses this week but for obvious reasons, that task needs to be rescheduled. Perhaps towards the latter part of March when the snow has melted sufficiently and they can be reached more easily. We gardeners must always defer to the climate and weather and stay flexible.

In the meantime, I’ve got all the cooling hyacinths out of the refrigerator and into forcing vases. Watching them grow and gradually bloom sending shots of color and perfume around the house should satisfy my need for sights of spring till the garden decides to join the party.

The limoncello started in early January is ready. As is the lemon pickle put up around the same time. They feel extra special because the lemons came from my garden. I’m looking forward to sharing both with friends as soon as enough snow has melted to make room on the terrace for friends to gather (around the heater) and we toast to a new spring in the garden. Hope abounds.

Present day

Looking forward …!

Hyacinths in vases. Present day.

Last year.

And this one from last year as well.

The roses in my garden

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

A Little Winter Winge

February is the most challenging month. We’re still in winter’s tight grip, there’s nothing much going on outside and yet, the days are growing longer and the light is nudging the gardener to get cracking. But it’s too early! It’s best to get ones attention diverted to other activities and events.

This year in particular, February feels particularly hard. The garden is covered in a nice, thick blanket of snow. Over two feet of it. Any chance of spying the occasional early snowdrop or aconite is impossible. Icicles abound instead. At present, the front walkway, the driveway and a narrow path to the greenhouse are all that’s available for any sort of ‘walk’. Given Covid conditions, there is pretty much no place else to go for entertainment or socialization.

Thankfully, the parks and nature preserves are open for brisk walks and snow related activities. Apart from that, I’m pretty much stuck at home. It’s taking much effort on my part to resist starting most of the seeds – it’s simply too early! I might however go crazy poring over the plant catalogs and order up more plants than my budget and/or garden can handle. The temptation is strong.

It’s going to be weeks before the snow melts away but I know it’ll be exciting to watch the ground reveal itself with offerings of the year’s first growth. To discover the first brave snowdrops or the hellebores tossing their pretty heads is a thrill that never gets old.

I’d intended to start sweet peas ( flowers not vegetable) a few weeks ago but the snow storm that arrived at that time reminded me to wait a little while longer. It wouldn’t be a good idea to have them grow long, leggy and straggly waiting for planting outside. I’m treating myself to this spirit uplifting job this week. By early April, I hope to have a host of healthy, young plants ready to settle into the garden and scramble up the trellis already in place.

The excitement I feel about this single activity is disproportionately high. As though I’ve never grown anything before.

The many amaryllis I started in November have generally been rather slow. I cannot think why. A few are in bloom and looking spectacular but others are stirring about much too lethargically. Maybe they too are feeling unmotivated like many of us these days.

This weekend, I start forcing the hyacinth bulbs that have been cooling in the refrigerator. Fingers crossed they will be more energetic than certain lazy amaryllis sitting around the house.

My hope is that these indoor beauties will keep me cheered up till the garden can once again be worked upon.

That’s what this pandemic has shown me – to not take for granted all the little, joy-giving things we do routinely.

Sweetpeas seed packets from Floret Farm

Soaked seeds overnight

All planted up

While I wait for the forced hyacinths and sweet peas, I’m surrounded by my Printed Garden products. They really do cheer up the home! “I’m not just the designer, I’m a customer too!!”:

 

Napkin with hyacinth

Tea towel with hyacinth

Table runner

Sweet pea pillow a

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

February Feels

The month looks pretty much all about snow. With over two feet of it already on the ground, there’s not much to do garden-wise. I’m going to use this down time to paint, write and catch up on reading and paperwork. The garden is never far from my thoughts however.

In the spirit of the season, I’m sharing some of my poems and art. I hope it’ll give you reason to pause, breathe and live in the moment, in the season.

February

The shortest month grows the longest

list of plants yet to be planted

The perfect garden patiently awaits.

Snowfall

Angel feather snow floats softly

Settles on earth deep in slumber

Squirrel decides to sleep in.

Under The Pile Of Snow

Under the pile of quilted snow
the snowdrops are stirring
Restless green ready
to meet the golden light
of a newly hatched world.

February Fervor

Golden sunsets

part leaden skies

Frost and fire

earth shifts and sighs..

Wild, untamed

landscapes wait

Restless slumber

at Spring’s gate.

Crystal snow

melts in drips

Plumping roots

greening tips.

Flowing sap

send hearts aflutter

Weather and emotions

soar and splutter.

Note: The Great Backyard Bird Count is this weekend! Don’t miss out! Get participation  details.

The checkerboard garden and potager from above

By the front door

‘Wind Sons’ in the meadow

Top of the side path.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

Snow Show

The Northeast is smack dab in the midst of a big blizzard. After last year’s mild winter with hardly any snow, it feels strange to be anticipating 20 inches of it. The gusts of wind turns the falling snow into a spectacle of whirling dervishes. Pretty awesome.

From the warmth and security of the indoors, I’m enjoying this performance art that Nature is executing so expertly. How grateful I am not to have anyplace to get to. In this whiteout situation the only thing to do is to call it a ‘snow day’ and make the most of it. With WFH in place, it might feel as though it is business as usual but I’m determined not to let it be so. It would be a shame to waste the opportunity to make hot chocolate, change ones office location to a cozy spot by a roaring fire and get outside to tramp around in the snow. After hours of screen time, the bracing effect of standing in the falling snow even for a few minutes is stimulating. Chances are, one will want to play – snowball fights, making snow-angels or snow-person building contest anyone?

As I watch the beautiful winter scene outside, I’m reassured that the dormant plants are safely insulated under the thick blanket of snow. I like to imagine that the seeds of wildflowers scattered by the wind and critters last fall will rest comfortably until the snow-melt gently coaxes their parched coats awake. Already, I can envision the meadow come alive with many more flowers this spring.

Watching the trees sway and shake in the fierce wind is a tad unsettling. Much damage is possible if one falls. Fingers crossed the trees are all healthy and firmly rooted. In the spring I’ll be sure to find interesting branches sprinkled around the floor of the woods. They will make good stakes and tepees for gangly plants in need of support. This year, I’m going to earmark a couple of good ones to use in outdoor decorating projects. Ostensibly we are all still going to only gather outdoors through the better part of this year. So, why not plan to make the terrace more festive?

The plants in the greenhouse are safe thus far but I’m constantly worrying about their heat supply. What if the propane tanks get depleted more quickly? Or, what if there is a technical glitch that fails to inform that the temperature in the greenhouse has dropped too low? Having a greenhouse can be both a blessing and a curse. Still, I’m very grateful for my tiny extravagance. Okay, okay, it’s a folly of sorts.

I make a note to myself to remove most of the snow around the fruit trees after the storm. A few winters ago, rodents made themselves cozy under the snow and had a good feast on the cambium at the base of some trees leaving a few of them completely girdled. It was heartbreaking to lose them. Replacing trees within a mature Belgian espalier is not easy or inexpensive. I’m forever determined to thwart those tree murderers. If I could, I’d banish them for all eternity but living in the ‘country’ makes that pretty much impossible.

Something to bear in mind – observe how the snow melts in the garden. As the garden resurfaces, it’ll become clear which parts are more sunny or sheltered. It isn’t always as obvious as one might think. Often, we fail to notice changes as trees grow or die or, new constructions come up. But, noting the speed with which snow disappears in certain locations and lingers on in others, tells you the different micro-climates within the garden. This information is very useful when choosing plants and designing beds.

In my garden, there are patches a mere two feet apart where the snow responds to the warming temperatures very differently.

I love the way snow silently traces over the elements and features in the garden. Almost like black and white pictures, they render the designs prettily. Any gap or lack of interest shows up clearly as though pointing out where one needs to remedy or improve the composition.

Snow brings out such emotions in us. We are awed, pleased, challenged, irritated and sometimes even devastated. But perhaps, the best effect it has is to bring out our inner child. So, before we clear the snow off our lovely, longish slope of a driveway, I simply must pull on a snowsuit and get in some sledding fun. Otherwise, what would’ve been the point of all that powder?

In the beginning-

After some hours –

Beauty indoors too!

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

January Jottings

January In The Garden

Feels lazy

Days spent

in waiting

wanting

wishing

Nothing done.

                                                                           – Shobha Vanchiswar

The final week of January. Things feel lighter and brighter. The sun is setting past 5:00pm – this singular fact is mood improving is it not? It might still be very cold with little to get excited about in the garden but the anticipation of the sap rising imminently buoys me up.

I’m currently reading and tremendously enjoying Page Dickey’s book ‘Uprooted’. It reads like a beautiful prose poem on starting anew. I’ve been noting down several plant varieties she mentions and I’m beginning to think I’m going to need more acreage to accommodate them all!

Some years ago, Page gave me a ‘Leda’ rose and an Abeliophyllum ( white forsythia). The latter blooms very early in spring and the rose pinks up the summer. These reminders of a valued mentor keep me in state of gratitude, contentment and humility. Despite how it appears, one doesn’t truly garden alone. There are always the teachers, the helpers, the cheerleaders keeping us company.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of Uprooted. It’ll inspire, instruct and inform in a most gentle, supportive manner.

On my sojourns outdoors, there’s great fun in listening to the birds as they go about their business seemingly unbothered by the cold. This coming weekend, I hope to put up the new bluebird house somewhere in the front garden that suits the potential residents as well as the landlord – I’d like to watch their antics and be entertained whenever I’m in this part of the property. The birdhouse in the meadow in the back has proven its purpose rather successfully. The house is being set up early so as to be ready and available as soon as avian house hunting season commences.

Similarly, the hummingbird feeder in the herb garden is a huge source of joy. Over the holidays, I received by mail a hand-blown glass feeder. It is a beautiful work of art. Oddly, there was no note with this package and I’m still trying to find out who the thoughtful sender might be. I’m appreciating the happy dilemma of finding the most appropriate site for it.

And so January is coming to a close. We’re half way to Spring!

January things:

Enjoying the sunset from indoors as its too cold outside!

Amaryllis

First snow of the new year

Get this book!

January recollections:

Goldfinch on coneflower

Hummingbird hovering just above the agapanthus on left

At the feeder

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar

Sharp And Smart

This week, I’m taking advantage of the January lull and getting organized with my garden tools and accessories. I love gadgets and tend to want every new and improved contraption that comes my way. Over the years however, I’ve wised up to myself and don’t give in to every temptation. The tools I actually use over and over and cannot do without are a small selection of tried and true implements.

I’m conscientious about keeping tools clean and easily accessible. It’s my co-gardener who tends to create disorder by not putting things back in their rightful places. It drives me crazy to have to search for simple things like secateurs and trowels. Worse, he always denies such travesties. This pattern is clearly not going to change. Instead, I make sure to have multiple secateurs and trowels available and I hide my very favorite ones. Yes, I resort to such devious practices because they not only safeguard my own trusty tools but also preserve domestic peace. That latter bit is high priority – one cannot let petty problems sabotage the harmony at home.

After a year of extensive use, most blades and edges lose their sharpness. It’s not only frustrating to deal with tools that do not work well but, they can cause harm to plants by tearing and fraying them at the cut. So, I’ve rounded up the mower blade from the push reel-mower, different pruning shears, sawtooth knives, shovels and such to drop off at the local hardware store for professional sharpening.

The hand-held secateurs and scissors are given the once over and kept in good working condition by using them to cut up different grades of sandpaper. This is an easy, effective method to sharpen them at home.

It pays to start with good quality instruments. But taking care of them is a commitment that will ensure a good many years if not a lifetime of devoted service. Clean after use, put back in place, sharpen and/or lubricate regularly, be thankful for having them. That’s my mantra.

I use the tool sharpening trip to the hardware store to stock up on twine, stakes and other necessary accessories. Replace worn-out gloves perhaps?

In a couple of weeks, the roses and grapevines will need pruning. While it isn’t fun to do this task in the cold, the job gets done quickly with well sharpened tools. And soon enough, it’ll be time to mow and dig, trim and train. I shall be ready!

Note: The Open Day for my garden through the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days Program has been scheduled for Saturday, May 22. When the Conservancy determines the new Covid-safe protocols, I’ll keep you posted. Mark your calendar and keep fingers crossed!

Here are some early March images from last year –

The newest addition to my tool kit.

(c) 2021 Shobha Vanchiswar