Featuring Photography by Margaret Moulton
‘Festiva Maxima’ peonies line one side of the garden.
Come spring, Chappaqua must breathe a collective sigh of relief, because that’s when the Vanchiswar garden revs up. First the daffodils step into party attire, followed by a flamboyant parade of tulips, hyacinths, scillas, and more, staged front and center where everyone within eyeshot can be transported straight into mass rapture. And the spring fling is merely the beginning, because peonies, iris, and just about everything else with flower power keeps the scene ecstasy-worthy throughout the entire growing season. With a world-class garden on the block, just think what the property values are doing sky-rocket-wise on Castle Road.
The mastermind behind this microscopic miracle is Shobha Vanchiswar. Well-known in gardening circles, she meticulously crafted her quarter-acre Nirvana together with her husband, Muraali Mani “who must have been a farmer in some past life,” Vanchiswar often says. A molecular biologist by training, Vanchiswar seamlessly morphed into gardening as if it were a birthright. And the fact that Mani is a mechanical engineer has proved equally efficacious for the land. Vanchiswar tackles the design, planning, research, and maintenance. Mani does the hardscape (with occasional help from friends—and getting something installed by a gaggle of mechanical engineers ensures that all elements are divided, multiplied, plumb, and basically ready for the 22nd century).
As for the limited space, Vanchiswar sees it as a blessing. Basically, her quarter-acre keeps everything focused. “Most people don’t know how to transition into the woods or natural areas on the farther edges of their properties,” she says. (To remedy this deficiency, Vanchiswar occasionally takes on garden-design projects for clients; she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.) Clearly, Vanchiswar has no problems venturing into the nether-regions in her domain. With a penchant for art, she’s learned to bring the entire canvas into the dialogue. Given her petite panorama, she’s incorporated a dining area, an herb garden, vegetable beds, a patio-like checkerboard of neatly clipped creeping phlox, a greenhouse, a meadow-like organic lawn with spring bulbs popping out all over followed by clover later in the summer, a treehouse, and a remote seating area backed by hydrangeas to admire the scene. And that’s just in the backyard.
Actually, the backyard was her first skirmish, laid siege when the family purchased the property in 1992. Vanchiswar and Mani moved to Chappaqua in 1988, but settled tentatively into their new town with a rental before committing to purchasing a property. However, that wasn’t Vanchiswar’s first brush with botany. She had gardened plenty prior to the couple’s arrival in Westchester County. Growing up in India, she was exposed to all things horticultural at her childhood home, but only second-hand—professional gardeners cared for her family’s floral pursuits. Still, she always was drawn to the garden and was an avid observer.
Shobha Vanchiswar and her husband, Murali Mani, designed and installed their Chappaqua garden.
When she moved to America and attended graduate school in Chicago, Vanchiswar had to revamp her cast of characters. Few of the plants she’d encountered in India translated over here. “It was a nice learning curve,” she recalls, “but gardening is about doing.” As soon as she had an opportunity, Vanchiswar dug in.
And the Castle Road property tested her horticultural skills. Upon arrival, the front yard was such a jungle that she simply didn’t know where to start untangling. With foundation plantings from hell that had totally engulfed the front and obliterated any clear view of the modest stucco house (“we bought it on blind faith”), she was too intimidated to start ripping and tearing at first. So, she started in back, creating spaces that would put food on the family’s table and feed the family’s soul. She gave them entertaining areas, incorporated recreation spaces, established views, and stretched the venue to touch all its distant points within the property lines. It was a masterpiece-in-training even before the neighbors knew what was going on.
Buoyed by that taste of triumph, she went up front, removing or moving the offending botanical barricades between the front of the house and the street. She defined her space with open fencing, she directed foot traffic with a neat little notched brick walkway marching straight up to the front door like dentil molding laid horizontally, and she ran an archway of roses intertwined with clematis to reinforce the fantasy before you enter her flower-filled home. Further empowered, Vanchiswar and Mani went into fancy-footwork mode and installed an incredibly successful espaliered Belgian fence composed of apples and pears that now bear fruit in addition to establishing boundaries. On the street side, Vanchiswar framed her piece of art in a simple, straight-edged confection of carefully selected flowering perennials. For those borders, she stayed within the realm of soft colors syncopated by plenty of green foliage to keep the scene on the safe side of riotous.
Repetition calms the floriferous scene considerably. After the tulip extravaganza of early spring, there’s an equally strong peony moment with multiple bushes all echoing the theme. The fact that the peonies require staking to keep their flower heads from nodding was no problem in Vanchiswar’s carefully calibrated scene. She disguised tomato cages by winding their boring wire with textural grapevines. She does a similar trick by camouflaging a railing in back with vines. “The mechanicals should never show”—that’s her mantra.
Actually, Shobha Vanchiswar has many mantras. And, without apology, she uses her garden as an opportunity to bare her soul to the world. For Vanchiswar, cultivating plants is nothing less than plant psychoanalysis; she explores plants as individuals. “I approach them as specimens and study them until I know the conditions they need to thrive.” But it’s not only about the secret lives of plants. Her garden is unapologetically quirky, in an effort to reflect her own individuality. “People don’t project themselves in their gardens anymore,” she comments about the cookie-cutter foundation plantings that hold suburbia hostage. Even though Vanchiswar is admittedly impressionable and has brought home ideas from trips abroad, she does them her way in her yard.
‘New Dawn’ roses arch over the front door.
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Another strong conviction is that everything must be organic in the Vanchiswar/Mani garden, in keeping with the current understanding that everyone is downstream and downwind from all their neighbors. Granted, Mani dresses up in a protective suit to fertilize, etc., but the off-putting attire is merely an effort to prevent his clothing from reeking of seaweed. As for the lawn peppered with crocus, fritillarias, Iris reticulata, and narcissus, it’s left uncut until July, clover is encouraged, and chemicals are strictly avoided. “The last thing I want is a pristine lawn.” Same for the gently imperfect apples in the backyard (“this whole area used to be an orchard”) and the espaliered apples on the side; they’re all managed organically. After all, Mira, the couple’s 12-year-old daughter, plays outside—and she needs a space that is safe as well as inspirational.
As for Shobha Vanchiswar’s agenda, it flows out from her garden to touch all aspects of the world. She’s published a book of poetry and photographs entitled The Lucky Ones to raise money for HIV-positive children—100 percent of the sales of that book benefit charity. She’s also working to start a community garden in her neighborhood. And her garden is open through the Garden Conservancy Open Days Program to support the conservancy and nearby Rocky Hills, Henriette Suhr’s spectacular 13-acre property in Chappaqua, which Suhr has agreed to turn over to Westchester County as a strolling garden and horticultural center. By baring her beautiful soul, Vanchiswar has attracted the most astute garden gurus in the region to her open day, and many have become friends. To be in their company has been an honor that Vanchiswar values immensely. But beneath that pride, she admittedly struggles to feel worthy. “When you garden,” she often says, “you realize how much you don’t know—it keeps you humble.” However, she counters any trepidation she might feel when in the midst of the garden masters with the benefits of being in their close proximity. “Education is never wasted,” she observes. The fruits of her labor speak for themselves. No wonder so many flock (and her open day is usually attended by hundreds of visitors) to the small jewel in Chappaqua.
Tovah Martin is a freelance garden writer and author of many books, including The New Terrarium (Clarkson Potter, 2009). An honorary member of the Garden Club of America, she lectures throughout the country (visit tovahmartin.com for schedules). Because they’re both hands-on gardeners inside and out, a budding friendship immediately sprouted between Tovah and Shobha.