Saying Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garden images spanning the year thus far –

January snow

January beauty indoors

February snow

February growth

March indoors

March

April flowers

Forsythia brought inside

May in the meadow

May flowers

June roses

June

July at the feeder

July promise

August exuberance

August aflutter

September exotica

October dahlia

October Diwali celebration

November in gold

November indoors

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

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Finding The Light

Like thousands of others, I am markedly affected by the short days and lack of light. What I do and when I do them is linked to how much light there is. For sure, my mood and temperament are directly proportional to the amount of light I’m exposed to. I realize it’s hard for those not affected by this seasonal disorder to fully understand. But, the problem is very real. And not fun at all.

I consider myself fortunate because while I’m affected, there are countless others who are debilitated by the short days and long nights. Hence what I say below is my personal strategy and by no means meant to imply a simple solution to what is a complex condition.

Mornings take on greater importance – I try to get as much done as I can by front-loading my day. It includes taking a daily walk for 20 to 30 minutes so I specifically get my required dose of sunlight and of course, it gets juices flowing. I enjoy looking at whats doing in the landscape, greeting neighbors and preparing my mind for the things I hope to accomplish that day.

As we head into winter, the work in the garden more or less comes to an end. It naturally becomes imperative for me to get outside more frequently each day. And yes, I also do light therapy by way of a light box – it is particularly useful when the weather is inclement.

While getting enough light is most critical for those prone to SAD, there are other things that also help in coping and improving ones mood. Social interactions play a critical role. I’ve found it immensely cheering to have ‘play dates’ with friends. To meet for walks ( more sunlight!), coffee/lunch/dinner, a visit to a museum can be so energizing. Even online chats and phone calls are good. It’s all about being connected and feeling relevant. I call it friend-therapy.

There’s something else I do because I must. I start bulbs indoors and outdoors in pots so there’s always something growing and blooming throughout the dark, cold months. Why not simply buy a weekly bunch of flowers instead? Actually, I do that as well but, there’s a consistent, undefinable thrill about watching the daily, progressive growth of the bulbs and awaiting the flowers. It keeps me in a state of hope and optimism which is key to managing my winter mood.

First, by mid-October, I start cooling bulbs. Prime real estate in the refrigerator is given over to bags of hyacinths, muscari and crocus. Once that is done, I begin setting up paperwhites in containers all around the house. Simply observing the green shoots emerge and grow is mood lifting. The delight of anticipation cannot be overstated. The first sight of those buds in thin, translucent coats is reason to celebrate. I love watching the buds plump up and eventually break through those casings. And voila! Flowers so beautiful and fragrant to brighten any day. From very white to creamy tones, paperwhites are dear to me. They’re just so very easy to grow.

Note:There are some like my husband who do not like the characteristic scent of paperwhites. I try to get those that have a more acceptable perfume and I also keep them in locations he doesn’t frequent. The good man puts up with my many such transgressions.

While paperwhites get me into the spirit of the season, amaryllis definitively mark the festivities of the holidays. So, by early or mid-November, I get a few of those started as well. In another couple of weeks, a few more will join their ranks and that’ll take me nicely through January. By that time, the cooling bulbs will be brought out of the refrigerator and coaxed ( so much nicer than ‘forced’) into awaking.

In March, I begin checking on the bulbs that I’d potted up at around the same time bulbs were being planted in the garden. These pots are kept outside in a sheltered area. As if on cue, around the time of the Vernal Equinox, the pointy tips of the bulbs can be seen breaking through the soil. A splash of water and a move to a sunnier but still sheltered locale will get them growing fast. I like having these pots where I can see them from the house. These bulbs are generally a few weeks ahead of their in-ground relatives and do a mighty fine job heralding the season of rebirth.

And that’s how I keep myself happy and hopeful at a time when the season makes me struggle. A combination of light, social and plant therapy. A sacred triumvirate.

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

Carpe Diem!

There I was all draggy with jet lag last Thursday when presented with unexpectedly balmy weather. 51 degrees F in early February is not common and the weatherman promised three whole days of it. So what was I going to do about it? For starters, all thoughts about slowly getting back into the groove of winter idleness had to be put aside. This gift of sunshine and warmth simply could not be overlooked.

On the first day, which was also my first day back, a good walk around the neighborhood was in order. A reconnaissance of sorts – checking out my neck of the woods as though mighty changes could’ve occurred in the two short weeks I’d been away. There was a fair amount of snow everywhere with patches of tired looking terra firma showing through. Not particularly pretty but hopeful of spring not being too far off.

I returned to my own garden and noted where the snow had melted completely, where traces lingered and where it remained in quantity. I conduct a studious observation every year because all the micro-climates are revealed by snow melt. The varying amounts of light in the different parts of the garden dictate which plants are likely to thrive or struggle. Even nano-climates can be exposed. This pattern can change year to year as trees or shrubs grow or die, new constructions come up or old ones torn down. Even the introduction of a car park can influence the situation. I take mental notes and lots of photographs.

Then, keeping the approach of Valentine’s Day in mind, I decided to make the effort of creating an fun ephemeral sculpture to mark the day. Knowing the snow would melt fast in the current mild temperatures, I decided to act immediately. Using a nifty mold, I made a couple of dozen snow hearts. And then put them all in the freezer to keep for the eve of Valentine’s when the whole work would be assembled. Thinking ahead with the weather in mind is a hallmark of all gardeners. Comes in handy for other matters too.

When Saturday, the warmest of this mild spell, came along, I announced to the family ( much to their surprise) that all hands on deck would be required in the garden. Pruning was on the agenda. Grape arbor, all the climbers and shrub roses and the espaliers of fruit trees. This is a tall order. Hence the need for all available deckhands. We had this window of one day before the temperatures would plummet.

An prune we did. Honestly, it was glorious to be outdoors. I guided my daughter through her first attempt with the roses – this felt rather special to me. A passing along of lessons to the next generation.

Grapevine clippings were stored away for camouflaging the peony supports later in March. And so the day was spent clipping and cutting till all got done just as the sun began to set. Truly, the day was a divine gift. Often the task of prunings gets significantly delayed because of huge amounts of snow still in place and temperatures being very low. At other times, one is surprised by warmer weather and fails to take advantage of it. This time however, we really did seize the day.

Whilst working, I became aware of the birdsong that was keeping us company and that reminded me to clean out the two birdhouses. Which was just as well because, shortly after removing the previous years nesting material and getting the houses refreshed, I spied a wren checking out one of the houses. It too was making the most of the warm day.

I also took out the hyacinths cooling in the refrigerator and got some potted up and others into forcing vases. The joy of monitoring the bulbs as they awaken and grow is what keeps me in a very good state of mind till the garden outside comes alive.

And then, on Sunday, temperatures not only plummeted overnight, but we awoke to a most beautiful snow clad garden. What a difference a day makes.

This was a most wonderful homecoming. Jet lag lingers but the spirits are revived.

Grape vine pruning

Vine clippings to conceal the mechanics of propping up the peonies

Rose pruning lesson in progress

Bird house to be cleaned

Pattern of snow melt

Climbing hydrangea in bud

Snow hearts

The sculpture

Sunday snowfall

Hyacinths ready to go

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

 

 

February Fervor

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.

Shobha Vanchiswar

A poem I wrote a few years ago to sum up February.

I’m heading back home today after a couple of weeks in Mumbai, India. So eager to check on the garden and get the cooling hyacinths started in the forcing vases.

Note – The images below are ones I took the same February I wrote the poem:

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

February Foward

I’m currently enjoying some mild temperatures in Mumbai. While this is not a vacation per se it still feels good to get a bit of warmth. For reading material, I’d brought my rather large stack of garden related periodicals with the sincere intent to get through them all. Progress has been slow. But the two I’ve read thus far have certainly jolted me out of my winter induced stupor. It’s time to jump into action – seeds to get started, pruning of fruit trees, list of plants to acquire, repairs and/or replacements to be made and various other odds and ends.

Closely following the big snowstorm that blasted the northeast over the past weekend, I confess to selfishly hoping my little garden would be spared any damage. About 7 inches of snow fell – enough to be an event but certainly nowhere near a calamity. I breathed a sigh of relief because worrying from a distance is always more stressful. The imagination can be cruel.

Meanwhile, my lovely English gardening magazines reminded me that the winter aconites and snowdrops are up and blooming in their part of the world. So, here I am in 80 degree weather, reading about spring awakening in the UK and snow blanketing my garden back home. All together a bit confusing. I’m itching to get started on preparations for spring but know it is really not yet time – the feeling of urgency is only because those pretty pictures of early bulbs and seed flats full of seedlings are making me think I must be behind schedule. The pleasant warmth I find myself in only augments the sense of being tardy.

I get back home in about ten days. At that time, the hyacinths cooling in the refrigerator will be brought out and forced. That’s the sort of early spring that will actually be happening. Towards the end of the month, if weather permits and barring mounds of snow preventing moving around the garden, the fruit trees, grapevines and roses will be pruned. As March rolls up, seeds will be started. I’m eagerly awaiting the rather charming cart ordered from @gardeners – a metal number in cheery yellow with a grow light system to coax seeds to unleash their potential in the lower shelf. The top shelf I have assigned for reviving the small topiaries that get weary of the greenhouse by this time. I plan to station the cart somewhere in the house where I can monitor it closely and gaze fondly at the seedlings as they emerge. And the sunny color will surely banish any and all grumpiness.

All good things to anticipate. February doesn’t look so bleak after all.

In the greenhouse right now. (I get updates on request!)

In bloom right now

Hyacinth forcing 2021

A few of the seed sources

How cute is this cart?!

(c) 2022 Shobha Vanchiswar

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