Some things are so beautiful, I can’t help but stop and admire.
Usually it’s nature that catches my eye and steals the breath with it's stunning beauty. Driving past this wrought iron gate had the same affect – caught the eye, pulled off the road, had to get closer to take it all in. Graceful curves, white aged to yellow, chipped and rusted, but to me it was beautiful. What struck me most was the contrast – strong iron shaped into gentle curves. How many years had it stood here? How many storms had it endured? Strong yet so graceful. How hot was the fire that softened hard iron to form beautiful swooshes and swirls?
I see the same beauty in someone close who battled the ugliness of cancer with such grace. Keeping her eyes focused on the ultimate Grace-giver was reflected in her response to what life had handed her. Through the firestorm, her strong faith unwavering was beautiful. Grace under pressure.
Long seasons of testing and trials are made up of small moments that define us. Like fire, they can refine making us stronger or they can consume and weaken us. I think of this as I stand on what seems a mountain of whys and unanswered questions. Trying to be strong as I move forward through the day, my breath a constant prayer, at times I feel I could crumble under the sheer weight of it all.
'. . . we are weak, but He is strong'. Those songs learned at a young age can be such a comfort! Yes, Jesus does love me. He is strong. And it's in that strength, HIS strength, that I can draw strength and find peace; it's in His grace that I see blessings that are still here, amidst all the uncertainty. And I know that all of this is grace.
Maybe you're not in a season like that. The truth is that we all face small everyday fires that can define and refine us. The question is, how do we respond when in the midst of those everyday fires . . .
to the heated moments of a stressful day?
to gossip that surrounds, or pain that hounds?
to words that sting and tempers that flare?
It’s in our nature to react to these pressures of fire with more fire: to be unkind when treated unkindly, to give anger when shown anger, to lash out when lashed at, to break under pressure. But what if we respond with what’s unexpected - kindness. What if we respond with what is undeserved - grace. What if we see our situation as an opportunity?
Each small moment fire can be an opportunity to reflect the undeserved love - unmerited favor - the grace God has shown us. When we react to moments of pressure or a season of trials with a posture of grace, our unexpected response and our attitude could stop fire’s fury, catch the eye, and be something beautiful. Just like that wrought iron gate. Grace under pressure.
May God use whatever fire is in our moments to make us stronger and be a reflection of his grace. ‘Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus’. 2 Timothy 2:1
Planting with Purpose - Using Keystone Native Plants
Isn’t it fascinating to sit and watch butterflies flit from flower to flower? One of the most memorable moments of mine was at the Rotary Gardens in Janesville in the Children’s Garden. Movement filled the entire stretch of the zinnia border - it was a butterfly haven! It was magical and spellbinding. I could have stood there for hours mesmerized. And I’m not the only one. The ‘planting for pollinator’ movement is growing with 1 out of 4 Americans purchasing plants specifically to attract pollinators in 2021.
This leads to the next question: do certain plants attract more pollinators than others? To answer that, we need to take a step back and begin with the caterpillars. They support our food web and native plants, in turn, support them. In fact 14% of our native plants support 90% of the various butterfly and moth species! This tells us that not all native plants are created equal. The ‘key’ is to use keystone plants - those that attract the most species of caterpillars. And from there, we can dig even deeper into the keystone native plants that are native to our specific area.
Here in Southeastern Wisconsin, we are part of the Eastern Temperate Forest ecoregion. Keystone native plants for our ecoregion fall into two categories: those that are host plants supporting caterpillars of butterflies and moths, and those that also provide pollen for the native bee population both specialists and generalists. The top caterpillar-supporting keystone trees for us to add to our landscapes are:
Compare that with a tree like Stewartia, which is a beautiful tree, but only supports one type of caterpillar species.
The top two keystone native shrubs that support both caterpillars and provide pollen for native bees:
We know the importance of incorporating natives into our personal habitats, but can you see how this added information can influence our native plant purchases so we are planting even more intentionally and more effectively? It’s extremely exciting!
You can learn more at nwf.org/keystoneplants where this data was taken from. Also consider joining our virtual discussion on this topic coming up in March (see below). Keep the movement going by planting natives which benefits all of us. Happy growing!
Tracy Hankwitz is a horticulture adjunct for Gateway Technical College and owner of Bella Botanica LLC located in Springfield, WI. Explore this topic further by joining her for a free monthly virtual gardening discussion on Wednesday, March 9 at 6:30 pm. Register here.
"To the nest, to the nest"! I remember those words like it was yesterday, sitting on the bleachers at my daughter's 5th grade basketball games. Her coach was shouting to the girls to hustle back on defense to guard their 'nest'. Those words come to mind now after a long day on my feet, juggling five things at once. Stressed and exhausted from decision fatigue, all I want to do is go home - to the nest! to the nest! As I step outside, the long, cold fingers of winter seem to reach through my warm coat right to my bones.
Once home, I settle in with a warm blanket and a cup of tea. Still wound tight with the stress of the day, my eye catches the hand-written note with a crayon heart. I take it in my hand and open it, as I have many times before:
Mom, I love you more than my puppy.
I melt into a puddle.
It was one of the many Mother's Day cards from my four kids when much younger. I've saved them all, maybe just for days like this, when I need that sweet reminder from those days that seem so long ago. Holding small hands in mine, snuggling together to read a book, and hugs a-plenty. More tears . . .
We are emotional creatures, aren't we? The heart is such a tender thing - it holds hurts and love full up. And when the heart is too full, it overflows into tears, words that can't be spoken.
How we need those reminders that we are loved! I think of my kids, now grown and flown, building nests of their own. But the roots they formed while here will keep them grounded, at least that's my prayer.
My focus this year is to cultivate those things that matter in my life, and to create a schedule that reflects that. But perhaps instead of things, I should be cultivating postures. I remember teaching my kids a song about the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The melody still easily runs through my mind. What if I put my focus on cultivating those things?
Since it's February, it seems natural to start with love. But where to begin? What does a posture of love look like? I head to the Bible, to 1 Corinthians. The writer says that of all things, the greatest of these is love. And if our actions are not done out of love, then they are meaningless. So I ask myself, if we all need reminders that we are loved, then how am I showing others that they are loved? Are my actions motivated by love? What does true authentic love look like, and how do I cultivate it?
Looking back at the past two tumultuous years, I think about all the things that have divided us - friend from friend, parent from child, and husband from wife. It's heartbreaking, but even in the brokenness, love is the one thing that is stronger. For me, that's the unconditional, forgiving, and endless love of God. That is the kind of love that is greater than all else, and I want to be rooted in it. Loving without condition, loving even when we've been hurt - it's not easy, but its the path back toward restoration.
"And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power . . . to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ". - Ephesians 3:17-18
Knowing that I am loved in that way, compels me to demonstrate it to others. This month of pink hearts, roses, and conversation candy hearts, I'm going deeper. I want a life rooted in true, authentic, Christ-like love. How about you? What if we allow the hard tines to cultivate love in all we do? What if we allow it to be our driving force, and let it fill our hearts until it overflows into our actions, so that our posture becomes one of love?
“Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are” - Alfred Austin
Our gardens are a reflection of who we are. They give us pleasure, can be a form of therapy, and allow for self-expression. In a garden we are free to try new things, fail, learn, and try again. It’s a living classroom where the learning never ends. So what if this year, we garden with more heart, thought, and intention? This is what I mean:
When selecting plants to add to a space, let’s really get to know the plant. What does the plant offer beyond it’s lovely flower? Does it have interesting foliage or attractive seedhead? What type of conditions will make it thrive? What kind of neighbors will it get along with? Which pollinators will it attract during the growing season? Will some insects benefit from it standing over winter? When we ask these kinds of questions and do some research, we make better choices and everyone benefits, especially the plants and the pollinators.
As I have matured as a gardener and a designer, I consider foliage to be just as important as flowers. This is a must especially with perennials and woody plants whose bloom time is brief. With a nod to February as American Heart Month, here are three plants with heart-shaped leaves and the pollinators that love them:
I hope you’ll give more thought to your plant choices this year. Don’t be wooed only by the blossoms - learn all you can about the plant’s needs and what it offers before adding it to your garden. Then continue to observe, learn, and make adjustments. And remember to find joy in the process.
Do you want to explore this topic further?
Join me for a free virtual gardening discussion on Wednesday, February 9 at 6:30 pm. Register by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
"There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind." - C.S. Lewis
This morning, as we awaited the first measurable snowfall of the season to begin, I found myself in the garden with shovel in hand. I don't believe I've ever planted this late in the season - or this early - depending on your perspective. What makes it even more profound is today is the first of January - the beginning of a new year.
Shovel pierces through white slushy crust into soft earth - a January rarity here in Wisconsin. Daffodils, Camassia, Leucojum, and Crocus - about 150 bulbs in all - find their winter home deep in the brown soil. And now they wait, resting patiently through a few frozen months until the spring thaw. The flower show may not be plentiful this first spring, but next year it will be beautiful.
I can't think of a better way to begin a new year. Planting something that I can watch sprout, grow, and blossom, well, it's like planting hope. I had the same thought as I browsed the seed catalog this afternoon. Dreaming of a new growing season is exciting and much needed encouragement to get through snowy days that lie ahead.
This is where it begins - in this month of beginnings - the unearthing and the planting of dreams. Discovering what our heart desires takes some quiet time, to be still, and listen to what's tugging. Have you felt a tug? Have you thought about what you might plant in your life as we stand in the doorway of a new beginning? Is there something you've been putting on hold because the time just didn't seem right? Before planting, it's good to clarify the what and why by first unearthing. Here are a few unearthing questions to consider:
What are you passionate about?
What do you want to spend more time doing?
What do you want to let go of?
What is something you've always wanted to try?
What can you say no to, so you can say yes to this?
Spending time unearthing your dreams - big or small, is the first step towards making them become a reality. You need to know what you want before you can go get it. Don't rush this process. It takes time - unhurried time - to listen to your heart.
Once you've discovered and named what you want, it's time to plant the seed and watch it grow. One of my favorite things to do at the beginning of a new year is to do some annual planning and goal setting - both personal and professional goals. I know this isn't for every one, but I encourage you to consider practical ways to making your dream become a reality. Think of it as stepping stones: what is the first thing you need to do? what's the next step after that, and the one after that? This is really what setting goals is like - looking at where you want to go, then breaking it down into steps of how to get there.
If you are having a hard time relating to this idea of unearthing and planting dreams, then think of it a different way: what's one small thing you'd like to do differently this year? Maybe it's . . .
. . . be more hydrated, so drink a glass of water before every meal;
. . . be more active, so take a walk every day;
. . . reconnect with a loved one, so make the time to write and send that note;
. . . seek beauty, so make a bouquet every week from whatever is growing in the yard no matter the time of year;
. . . practice random acts of kindness
OK, I admit this is my list! Though they seem small, it's the small changes and improvements that we make to our lives every day, that stick and have the biggest impact.
My new year wish for you is that you'll spend some time unearthing and planting. When we do, we grow and that's the best thing we can do for ourselves and for those around us.
Have a blessed new year!
A Winter’s View
“A short story is what you see when you look out a window.” - Mavis Gallant
January rings in the year with a shiver and crisp blanket of white on what can be the loveliest of winterscapes. I personally prefer to admire these scenic vistas from a cozy spot on the couch wrapped up in a warm blanket with the fire going or candle burning. The large picture window in the living room holds my gaze as the snow-clad landscape takes center stage.
In landscape design we strive to frame a view, and in essence, this is what a window does. The window becomes the picture, framing winterlands that are the stage backdrops for scurrying rabbits, flitting birds, browsing deer, and other wildlife brave enough to venture out. Trees, woody shrubs, and evergreens set the stage with their strong lines of architectural structure. Perennials play a role in the story if left standing over winter, attracting finches and other birds. They also capture bits of snow which can be enchanting in a way. I always leave Echinacea and Stonecrop Sedum standing for these reasons. We are learning more and more about how pollinators depend on the stems of ‘dead’ perennials like Spotted Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium maculatum) and the perennial Hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos), so this is another reason to leave them alone and not cut back.
Birds are the main characters in the winter stories providing hours of entertainment. They gather at the feeders as means of survival, yet unbeknownst to them, they fascinate us - young and old alike. It’s like living television or a front row seat at the theater with a new play every day.
Here are a few ways to enhance the story you see out of your window:
January can seem to be the longest, slowest month, but enjoy the beauty it offers, especially the view out your window. What story do you see?
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!