It was totally unprompted.
I was saying goodbye to my grandkids who had spent the night. Before climbing into the car, my four-year-old grandson saw the dandelions growing in the lawn. He picked one and give it to me. Then he picked another and give it to his mama. Tears stung my eyes, and I gave him a good squeeze.
Friends, that simple act of watching him engage with nature and wanting to share it with me, and his mama, just touched my heart. Immediately I was taken back twenty-ish years when my own kids would do that. One of my favorite photos of my youngest son is him at age 4 holding a bouquet of dandelions before giving it to me. I remember showing my daughter how to make dandelion crowns when she was about five; teaching my kids to make a wish on a dandelion seed head and blow, not worrying bout the many offspring it will produce (aka more time spent weeding). Summers were simple and carefree back then - filled with little pleasures and special moments. The days were long and we lived them outside: kiddie pools, picnics, sand castles, chasing butterflies, riding bikes, tending the garden. I think back even further to when I was growing up and have similar memories: getting lost in a good book, swimming with my siblings, exploring the woods on our property, water-gun fights, catching fireflies, and just laying in the grass watching the clouds. Summer was a special time.
How different summers are now. Admittedly those days as a young girl and then as a young mom weren't all rainbows and butterflies, but I'm thankful I can look back and cherish them. Lately life just seems complicated - unsolved health issues, managing the effects of rising inflation, the challenges of relationships, the stress of work - l sure could go for those simple summer dandelion days. Can you relate?
Maybe there's a way to recapture the essence of those days. What I'm really in need of is finding rest amidst the stress. A vacation isn't in the cards this summer, but even those often leave us feeling exhausted when we return. How can I get the rest I'm looking for on a daily basis? Jesus says in the book of Matthew 11:28: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Like a drink from the fountain, he refreshes us when we come to him. A few moments spent in his Word, singing a praise song, saying a prayer are small ways to find rest in him. This gives me hope and inspires me to make the most of these summer days in small ways. Determined to recapture some of the simple pleasures of summer, here's what I've come up with:
Create a simple morning routine.
Summertime and routines seem contradictory, but how we start our day impacts the rest of the day. It sets the tone. Over the years I've learned that I function best when I have a morning routine. My day seems more productive and focused. Studies show this to be true for most of us. I still need that routine during the summer, but in a more simplified and more relaxed way. Starting with a devotion on the patio, yoga on the lawn, a morning walk, a check on the gardens . . . that's how I envision my ideal summer morning. Even if I could do one of those things every morning, connecting with God and with nature does my soul good.
Make a summer bucket list.
In order to capture the essence of summer, we need to live it intentionally so it doesn't slip away. Before you know it, September will be here. Instead of asking yourself, "Where did the summer go?" ask "What do I want my summer to look like? What are the elements of my ideal dandelion days?" If you are a list maker like me, you'll like this exercise. It doesn't have to be a vacation, it can be small things like reading a book in a hammock or for me, just reading a book!
Here are some things on my list:
- daily walk in the gardens
- find recipes for the herbs I'm growing and make them!
- read a fiction book
- watch a butterfly flit from flower to flower
- blow bubbles with my grandkids
- go barefoot in the grass
- watch the sun set
Cultivate what matters. Summer is a good time to check in with intentions that were set back in January. For me, I need to ask myself, am I cultivating what matters to me? Hmmmmm . . . honestly, I've gotten off track. So how can I refocus and cultivate those things that do matter? One way is to clear my schedule as much as I can. Saying no to a few things this summer is saying yes to simplicity. Maybe a 'no' to mindless scrolling is a 'yes' to more time outside or more free time to do the things on the bucket list. It's a choice! We make decisions all day long regarding how we spend our time, and as author Emily P Freeman says, those daily decisions are making our life.
What about you? Do you long for dandelion days and the simple pleasures of summer? Do you long to experience and savor all the flavors of summer, instead of letting it pass by in a blur? I hope you'll take some time to think about the summer days that lay ahead and how you want to fill them. Let's recapture that child-like sense of being carefree. It's in the small things, the small moments, that we can find joy, peace, and contentment. And maybe, just maybe, I might pick a dandelion and make a wish. :)
They look good, work hard, and taste delicious!
In the last few monthly columns I’ve written, we’ve been discussing the benefits of attracting pollinators to the landscape using native trees, shrubs and perennials, and into the vegetable garden with companion plants. Now that the weather has turned and we’ve all got the vim and vigor to get out into the garden, let’s talk about four powerhouse annuals that attract pollinators and beneficial insects, make terrific garden companions, and are edible to boot!
How do Borage jelly, Calendula Paella, Nasturtium salad, and Blueberry-Hyssop ice cream sound? Yum! I asked local herb enthusiast, Marge Koenecke, from Hickory Grove Farm, how she uses these plants. Below are her comments intermingled with my own:
Borage (pictured above) is an annual herb with a true blue flower; easy to start from seed (direct sow), and has a tendency to self-seed.
IN THE GARDEN: plant with tomatoes to attract beneficial insects such as parasitic wasps that will take care of tomato hornworms. Borage also attracts bumblebees, native bees, and honey bees.
IN THE KITCHEN: the edible flower has a cucumber flavor; add to salads; freeze in ice cube trays and add to lemonade.
Calendula, also known as pot marigold, is another self-seeding annual herb for the sunny garden. The pretty yellow and orange blossoms make great cut flowers.
IN THE GARDEN: plant them with cole crops, especially collards. Calendula repel aphids and attract beneficials. At the end of the season, take dried seed heads and scatter seeds to ensure a good crop for next year.
IN THE KITCHEN: Calendula has wonderful healing properties for skin, especially as an oil or salve. It’s often used for insect bites. In addition to its medicinal qualities, the petals are edible and can be added as a flourish to paellas, salads, and used to make flower & herb butter.
Nasturtiums are another annual easy to grow from seed. Soak seeds overnight before planting. They take awhile to germinate - just when you're ready to give up is when they pop up through the ground.
IN THE GARDEN: look for vining varieties of this pollinator plant to interplant with zucchini and other squashes. Nasturtiums deter squash bugs and the moth that lays eggs for the squash vine borer.
IN THE KITCHEN: Both the flowers and leaves are edible and have a mild peppery flavor, so they are fun to add to salads. I even came across a recipe for Nasturtium pesto using the leaves and stems. Need to try that!
Anise hyssop is one of the best pollinator plants for the garden. The bees love this herb! Anise hyssop is not always reliably hardy but usually sows itself around the garden.
IN THE GARDEN: As a member of the mint family, Hyssop has a wonderful fragrance. This quality makes it deer and rabbit resistant. In addition to attracting beneficial insects, it also attracts cabbage moths, so use Anise hyssop as a trap crop, planting it away from cabbage plants.
IN THE KITCHEN: As its name suggests, the flowers have a mild licorice flavor. Use the flowers to toss into salads, make vinegars, herb butters and herbal tea.
This is just a small sampling of the many ways these plants can be used. If you’d like to learn more about how to use these edible pollinator powerhouses, join me and Marge Koenecke in a virtual garden discussion on Wednesday, June 8 at 6:30 pm. Happy gardening!
It was dusk and had just rained - a sweet, summer kind of rain. She walked through the beautiful, lush gardens. There was music playing in the background, and the breeze carried waves of distant conversation. Yet she walked, her long gown trailing over sopping ground, her fingers running through tall grasses, stopping only to smell the flowers. Such is my memory of a scene from the 1992 version of 'Howards End'. It was the lovely garden and the peaceful smile on Mrs. Wilcox's face that has and will stay with me for a long time. In her garden . . . she found peace and contentment.
From those pages of fictional England where 'even the air smells delicious', I find myself in my favorite spot in my house, and a few moments of quiet. It's a cold, rainy day in May which happens to be my 'off' day. I settle in with the long-awaited magazine, In Her Garden, and enter into another world of beautiful photos and essays. It's just what I need at this moment. A phrase catches my eye as it's woven through the pages: 'In my garden . . . ' and each author, in turn, shares what she finds in her garden. . . immense peace, inspiration, connection with nature, freedom, growth, memories . . .
I find it pretty amazing that such a place can provide a universal balm to the soul. It's incredible, really. If you've been following along, you may have noticed that my blogs have been pretty heavy lately. I find writing as a type of therapy, to sort things out, work through them as thoughts flow from heart through pen to paper, in this case, keyboard. The garden provides this for me as well. A walk down the Hellebore path, pulling a handful of chickweed, planting a few sweet pea seeds . . . it all does wonders for the spirit. In my garden . . . I find refreshment and restoration.
How can the garden, or even bigger than that - nature, offer such healing and solace? Nature is amazing - from the very smallest creature, to the mightiest oak, to the miracle of life contained within a seed, and the intricacy of a spider web - It's all amazing. There are scientific studies that show the mood-lifting benefits of digging in the soil, and I'm sure there are other studies that indicate the healing power of nature. But I have a theory of my own. Maybe it's being surrounded by beauty that refreshes, maybe it's the calming color of green that restores. Maybe, but I believe that through nature, we have an intimate connection with the Creator himself. God, maker of all things, is our true source of peace, inspiration, freedom, and joy. Through his creation, he offers us a place to just be for awhile. He shares with us the joy of watching things grow. He uses nature to nurture us. Even the psalmist says "He leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul." (Psalm 23:2-3).
One my favorite things about the garden is that it's a place to be creative. This, too, is a gift from our heavenly Maker, who created the very first garden. Made in his image, we have been given the gift of creativity. We create tidy rows in the vegetable garden, combine colors in the flower garden, and arrange trees, shrubs, and perennials in our landscapes. We create spaces for gathering, spaces for kids to play, and spaces to start and end our day in. In the garden, we can creatively express ourselves, and this too, can be healing. "At the deepest level, the creative process and the healing process arise from a single source." - Rachel Naomi Remen, MD.
The rain has stopped for now, and the garden calls, so into the garden I go for some plant therapy. In my garden. . . what do you find there?
Tomatoes love carrots. Sounds like a grade-school romance. Tomatoes and carrots, Marigolds and salad greens. Plant pairing has been around for a long time. Its history is filled with folklore passed from one generation to the next. Only recently has it been backed with scientific research. So keep reading for companion planting that really works and how!
Why practice companion planting?
As we become more aware of the importance of attracting pollinators to our yards, it makes sense to take the next step of creating a yard full of biodiversity - including in the vegetable garden. More diversity of plant species leads to a greater diversity of insects. Those insects feed on other insects that are wreaking havoc in our gardens. When this ecosystem is in balance, we gardeners can step back and let nature do its thing. We’ll have healthier plants, and use fewer pesticides.
Debunking a myth
Let’s begin with the marigold myth. A common practice is to plant marigolds around the vegetable garden to repel pests and rabbits. Research has shown that marigold’s strong odor does mask the smell of certain host plants and does keep insects at bay, but to a very specific pest. Planting marigolds with members of the onion family will deter onion root maggot flies. Marigolds are also effective when planted with broccoli and other brassicas to deter cabbage root maggot flies. And, by the way, marigolds do not repel rabbits. I’ve seen rabbits munching away on them.
Tomatoes actually love radishes. Young tomato seedlings can be susceptible to flea beetles, but the beetles prefer radish leaves, so interplanting radishes with tomatoes is an effective trap-crop technique. Tomatoes also love basil. When tall varieties of basil are planted around tomatoes, research has shown that it reduces the number of eggs laid by the five-spotted hawk moth that mature into tomato hornworms. Here are more examples:
Create a haven for beneficial insects
Most good bugs need more than protein sourced from their prey to survive. They also need pollen and sugary nectar to reproduce. Let’s go back to the tomato hornworm. It has a natural predator - the larvae form of a parasitic wasp. The adult parasitic wasp lays its eggs under the skin of the hornworm. When the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the hornworm, eating their way out. The adult form - the parasitic wasp - requires sugars found in flower nectar. This is also true of ladybugs and lacewings and many more beneficial insects. We can create an environment for these beneficials in two ways: by planting specific nectar plants for specific beneficials, and by including a large diversity of flowers to attract and sustain a broad spectrum of beneficials.
As you plant your vegetable garden this spring, consider using a few of these simple techniques to grow healthier plants in a natural way. Get yourself a good book to learn more about it. I recommend Plant Partners by Jessica Walliser. You can also explore this topic further by joining me for a free monthly virtual gardening discussion on Wednesday, May 11 at 6:30 pm. Register here.
It's the month of April, and the 'Sweet Lillian' Amaryllis that I planted back in December finally is blooming. The bulb, buried up to her shoulders in potting mix, sat for what seemed forever. Daily I watched and waited, wondering if she was going to bloom this year or not.
Nature has its own timing. Flowers bloom and the seasons change on their own schedule, not ours, and yet each season comes when the time is right. Nature doesn't hurry. There's comfort in knowing this as I grow impatient at times during this season of waiting and overwhelm that I find myself in.
Maybe it's in this feeling of overwhelm that solace is found in the simple; that time spent watching the sky slowly change is calming and peaceful. Lately I've been fascinated with it. Every morning a new painting as the sun rises, every evening shades of pinks, blues, and oranges as the sun sets, and in between, the painting on the celestial canvas is ever changing - never the same. Yet the sky isn't always a blue ocean of cotton candy clouds. It can be filled with darkness heavy with storms that are not calming or peaceful.
These stormy skies of life have been dominating as of late, and the culminating overwhelm finally needs a release. So I succumb to tears that have been just below the surface the last few days. Like rain, they come in heavy. Then slow deep breaths as the storm within subsides, and it's then that I hear it . . . 'Be still. Be still and know. . . that I am God'. Suddenly peace pours in, filling me up with each breath. He knows. God knows. He sees, and he is in control. And he is working. Right now, as I sit in this pot, buried up to my shoulders, he is working - and I am slowly growing.
As author Kaitlyn Bouchillon wrote in a recent Instagram post:
"If you’re feeling buried right now . . . Can I just quietly whisper that perhaps you’ve actually been planted? There’s more to come. This is not even close to the end."
Yes! Planted is so much better than being buried, right? And when we are planted, the best thing to do is soak in the light of the sun (Son), and grow. Maybe this is the purpose of waiting - to grow slowly. I think of the Amaryllis bulb. It looked like nothing was happening, but underneath, in the darkness of the soil, roots were forming, growing slow. As we wait on God and trust his timing, we are growing, too. And when the time is right . . . blooms!
There's something else that I'm reminded of as I watch the sky: God is an amazing artist, creating these living paintings for us every single day. What a beautiful reminder that He is present! Every moment of every day, He is here with us, calming our storms, working while we wait, and nurturing us as we grow. The blessings are there, we only need to open our eyes to see. Hope, peace, contentment, and joy can exist in the waiting. So let the calm fill us, continue to look up, and let those roots slowly grow.
In her book ‘Garden Maker’, Christie Purifoy writes, “Flower gardens don’t begin with flowers. They don’t even begin with seed. They begin with desire and vision, and they begin with dirt.”
It’s this latter element, “dirt” that we are learning more and more about its importance in the health of our plants. First, let’s give it a better name: soil. Soil health is the secret sauce in growing healthy plants in the landscape, in containers, and in the vegetable garden.
What is healthy soil?
First some basics about soil:
How do we achieve healthy soil?
If you are starting a new garden, try the no-dig approach and build your growing bed on top of the ground. Begin with layers of cardboard and newspaper, then add layers of greens and browns which are the ingredients for compost! You can even do this in raised beds. As with all things in nature, it takes time for the layers to break down. Adding topsoil or good compost into the layer mix will speed things up because they contain those hungry microbes.
In existing gardens, adding compost to the beds in the fall is the best time, but a spring application is effective, too. Some vegetable gardeners will add compost between summer and fall crops.
What kind of compost? The best kind of compost is free and in your backyard! Leaf compost is the best amendment for vegetable gardens as well as ornamental beds. This spring you may need to find a supplier, but commit to mulching and composting the leaves from your trees and your neighbor’s trees this fall.
Adding microbes to the soil at planting time is another way to work towards healthy soil. Often they are available in liquid form. A tip that I have learned is that the most effective liquid forms of microbes need to be kept chilled. Dry soil additives that contain mycorrhizae such as Espoma’s Bio-tone Starter are also beneficial. Use when planting and transplanting vegetables, perennials, trees, and shrubs.
And one more free, easy practice to improve soil health is in the perennial garden. Spring is often when we cut back any remaining dead stems. Cut the stems into 4-6” pieces and leave them there - right by the plants. The dead material will break down and provide food for the soil microbes right where it’s needed - by the plant roots. This can be a difficult practice to embrace because we love the look of a neat, tidy, freshly-mulched bed. But by letting go of what WE like, it is actually benefiting the plants, the pollinators, and in the end, us. Be part of the circle and try this new gardening ethic.
So there you have it. The secret to having a healthy garden has been there right under our noses - or rather under our feet - the whole time.
If you'd like to learn more about building healthy soil, join me for our next 'Let's Talk Plants" - a free monthly virtual gardening discussion on Wednesday, April 13 at 6:30 pm. Register by emailing me at email@example.com.
Hi, I'm Tracy - horticulturist, beauty-seeker, Word-lover, and blessed to be the owner of Bella Botanica. I also love to write about plants, gardening, and about my faith journey. Thanks for reading!