“Can we plant the pumpkins this day?”
“Let’s go see if the peas are growing!”
“Mom, the chickens are in the garden again.”
Oh yes, those are the sounds of spring around here. It’s our fifth year growing vegetables in our backyard. It’s amazing how much easier it is than that first April, when seven months pregnant, I dragged my husband out to help me dig a garden bed in our brand-new backyard. I wish I’d heeded the wisdom of permaculturists, who recommend observing and analyzing a site for an entire year before planting a single seed … and also the wisdom of my body, which wasn’t happy about my grand gardening visions.
Those are just two of the hard-earned lessons I’ve learned from five years of gardening. Except for one summer of gardening in Colorado several years ago, my husband and I are gardening newbies. My dad planted a vegetable garden for one season when I was a kid, and it was one of the most thrilling summers of my life. I couldn’t wait to go outside every morning to see what was growing. I knew I would be a vegetable gardener someday, and during the many years my husband and I spent renting and moving around, I longed to get my hands in the soil.
I wasn’t a natural.
Those first few years, I labored over my garden plans for hours while studying Steve Solomon’s Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades. I’m thankful for all I’ve learned from that book, and from others. I still refer to books. But even for a word lover like me, gardening is one of those things you learn by doing. And, oh, how I’ve learned.
My first big lesson: I’m not really in charge.
Yes, I can plant at a certain time and mix the fertilizer. I can water or not water. I can fence the chickens away from the first tender sprouts. But I’m collaborating with the weather, the rain, the soil, the wildlife, bugs, insects, and bees. There’s a certain amount of surrender involved.
Over the years I’ve surrendered to stunted squash, wilted cabbage, and unripe tomatoes. To chickens shredding the lettuce, bugs eating the spinach, kids eating the cherry tomatoes.
I’ve learned to let go of perfection.
My next big lesson: gardens have healing powers.
For a couple of seasons, gardening became a chore. Work. I’d trudge out and dutifully plant the seeds and water. I’d mix my fertilizer and mindlessly sprinkle the soil with it.
I believed in growing my own food. I wanted to harvest vegetables from my back yard. But I’m not sure I loved the actual gardening part.
Last spring, overwhelmed with caring for a three-year-old and an infant, I wasn’t sure if I’d plant a garden at all.
“Maybe it’s a good year to let our plots lay fallow,” I announced in March.
But, at the end of April, I got a great deal on a bunch of starts and planted.
Then my dad died.
I spent much of June in Colorado. And when I came back, it was incredibly uplifting to see the peas twisting up their trellises and the lettuce, rainbow chard, spinach, carrots, and heirloom tomatoes crowding their beds, reaching for the sun.
I spent so many hours with those plants over the next few months, watering and weeding, watching and listening, sitting.
I was surprised a few weeks ago when I pulled out my gardening journal. Every season I meticulously record what I plant, what’s growing and what’s not, when I fertilize, etc. Last year, I didn’t jot down a single note after April 29.
And yet, I learned more from gardening than ever before.
The garden is the perfect place to grieve. Quiet, buzzing with bees, bursting with life. The plants have so much to tell us about life and death, about patience, about just being.
Now, as I embark on my fifth growing season, I feel no sense of duty. No obligation. I only feel grateful and excited.
What lessons have you learned from your garden? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
We’re bringing in the season this week with lots of gardening, hiking, and spring cleaning. Here are a few scenes from our hike this weekend.
We also plan to do some biking, now that we’ve inducted the newest member into our bicycling clan.
Happy spring to you!
“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
― Margaret Atwood, Bluebeard’s Egg
The spring equinox is this Wednesday. What a perfect time to celebrate longer days, warmer weather, and blossoming trees and flowers. Here are some ideas for simple ways to observe the day:
Observe and Explore
Watch the sun rise and set. Visit a farm to catch a glimpse of the adorable lambs, calves, and chicks. Go for a hike and identify wildflowers. Learn about the plants and trees on your block or in your yard.
Arrange a bouquet of crocuses, daffodils, tulips, or dandelions for your kids or partner to wake up to. Go on a picnic. Eat dinner by candlelight.
Fly a kite. Blow bubbles. Draw birds. Collect bugs. Run around barefoot.
If it’s time to sow seeds where you live, designate a place for each member of the family to plant a favorite vegetable or flower in honor of spring. Or, plant a hanging flower basket or window planter.
Make a spring crown out of dandelion or clover chains. Get creative with some spring arts and crafts. Decorate hard-boiled eggs with natural dyes. (Try beets, cranberries, blackberries, or raspberries for red; yellow-onion skins or turmeric for yellow; parsley, spinach, or red-onion skins for green; blueberries for blue; and coffee, pecan hulls, or black-walnut hulls for brown. Or experiment with whatever is coming up in your backyard.)
Read aloud from The Spring Equinox: Celebrating the Greening of the Earth by Ellen Jackson. Check out these ten spring reads for kids aged 0 to 9. Browse Publisher’s Weekly’s list of The Most Anticipated Books of Spring 2013.
Prepare a spring feast with the first crops of the season. Dandelion leaves, steamed nettles, and asparagus are delicious spring greens. Other traditional spring foods include eggs, ham, and sweets.
Spring is a time for rebirth and new beginnings. What’s ready to grow in your life?
It’s March, and as I write this, it couldn’t be lovelier here. (March does have a way of surprising us, doesn’t it?) In these parts it came in with sunshine, daffodils, and birdsong.
Last week I received my copy of the Spring 2013 issue of YES! Magazine, which includes my review of Janisse Ray’s The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food. Ray’s book is about seed saving, and it’s part memoir, part poetic manifesto, and part how-to.
Ray presents a bleak scenario about seeds. Ninety-four percent of vintage, open-pollinated seed varieties have been lost forever since the turn of the 20th Century. “Goodbye, cool seeds,” she writes. “Goodbye, history of civilization. Goodbye, food.”
Nonetheless, The Seed Underground is an upbeat read. Ray calls seeds “the most hopeful thing in the world,” and she profiles a handful of “quiet, under-the-radar revolutionaries” who are collecting and exchanging seeds in a quest to preserve our food heritage against enormous odds.
The Seed Underground inspired me to learn more about seed saving and got me excited about experimenting more in my garden this spring. I hope you’ll check out my review if you see a copy of YES! Magazine. I’ll be sure to post it here once it’s available online.
In other news, we survived our long stretch of sniffly, sneezy, fevered February days inside, helped greatly by … a pack of construction paper. Valentines. Glider planes. Homemade kites. Crowns. Cards. Envelopes. Shapes. Handcrafted books. Oh yes, we are making the most of this $5 pack of colored paper. What a fantastic reminder that kids don’t really need expensive toys to have a great time. And often the most basic supplies inspire the most creativity.
I hope you’re also enjoying some good weather, or some creative afternoons inside, or some combination of those, as we are.
It’s the time of year when we prune the rosebushes in our backyard down to a few stalks. For several weeks afterward, they look stark, straggly, and half-dead.
Then an amazing thing happens. By May, they transform into vibrant, healthy bushes overflowing with blossoms.
It’s life-changing to witness this process time and again, because it exemplifies how powerful it is to get rid of what you don’t need.
So around this time of the year, I inevitably find myself taking inventory of all of the stuff in our lives — and feeling a tad buried.
For much of January, I feared I’d never see the floor in Ezra’s room again. I’m in a never-ending battle with the end table in our kitchen, which magnetically attracts loose toy parts, tools, and scraps of paper. And I avoid our garage altogether, because I fear I won’t make it through the piles of detritus without spelunking gear.
But I also can’t help but peek back at where we’ve been and celebrate some successes in our quest to live better with less stuff.
Over the years, I’ve discovered a secret to simplifying. It’s not about having less. It’s about figuring out who you are and what you love. Then you can keep and celebrate the things that make you feel alive and happy — and donate or discard the rest.
It’s tempting to think if you have the space to store extra clothes, there’s no harm in keeping them around. But rifling through the stuff littering our lives takes a daily toll. Last year I got rid of more than half of my clothes and all but five pairs of shoes, and every day I feel lighter and happier because of it. Less laundry. Less stress. More space.
Here are a few tips if you’re thinking of dramatically paring down your wardrobe:
1. Your motto is, “If in doubt, throw it out.” Repeat it often.
2. Take the time to figure out what kind of clothes and shoes you really like. You can learn more about what colors look good on you here. And you can explore what styles look good on you here (women) or here (men).
3. Get rid of anything that doesn’t fit right, isn’t flattering, or is damaged.
4. Be aware of emotional attachments to certain clothing items, which make it harder to part with them.
5. Never welcome new clothes into your wardrobe without saying goodbye to some first.
6. Be gracious but judicious about gifts. I’m thankful that my sister gifts me lots of slightly-used clothes. But I’ve had to learn to be a little bit picky about which ones I keep and which ones I pass on to somebody else.
- Personal care items
Over the years, we’ve traded all of our costly, chemical-laden, heavily-packaged personal care items for simple, safe, inexpensive alternatives. In every single case, the alternatives work better. But the real pay off is how much lighter our lives are without half-empty plastic bottles and tubes cluttering our bathroom drawers and counters.
If you’re on a mission to downsize your personal care items, here are a few of our favorite swaps:
1. Baking soda and vinegar for shampoo and conditioner.
2. Castile soap for face and bar soap.
3. Castile soap or homemade tooth powder for toothpaste. (Scared to give up commercial toothpaste? So was I. Then I did, and I was amazed. I have cleaner teeth, healthier gums, and no more tooth sensitivity.)
4. A mix of 50/50 baking soda and cornstarch for deodorant.
6. Salt water for mouthwash.
7. Coconut or olive oil for lotion.
Tip: If it feels drab to swap colorful sweet-smelling products for simple alternatives, consider packaging your homemade personal care items in jars, making beautiful labels, and using essential oils to jazz them up.
- Toys and kids’ clothes
I’ve heard of four-year-olds who clean their rooms, but Ezra is allergic to cleanliness. He delights in transferring all of his toys and books from the tubs, drawers, and shelves I use to try to maintain order in his little corner of our house to the floor.
The other day as I was muttering about the disorder, Ezra diagnosed the problem. “I like it messy, Mom. Then I can find everything.” It was a huge breakthrough. I realized that I’m not going to keep his room clean no matter what I do. So I let it go.
Of course, we still need to get inside his little kingdom, so I decided to try an idea I’ve heard about. I packed up a couple of boxes of his toys and put them in the garage with plans to pull them out in a few weeks in exchange for different toys. The goal is to keep a revolving carousal of toys. That way even when every single toy in the room is on the floor, we can still open the door and move around. So far it’s working great.
We’ve also been purging clothes, books, and toys as Ira outgrows them, and I stumbled onto a brilliant idea to make that easier. An acquaintance of ours throws an annual children’s toy, book, and clothes swap. Parents bring what their kids have outgrown and trade them for things their kids can use now. It’s amazing! You can pare down, hang out with friends, and save money all at the same time. And they’re casual and informal affairs, so it would be easy to organize one yourself.
As the weather warms, we’ll need to sharpen our clippers and tackle some areas desperately in need of pruning, like, ahem, the garage. It’s nice that we can arm ourselves with the glow of a few past successes.
Are you trying to live better with less stuff? Do you have tips, successes, and ideas to share? I’d love to read about it in the comments.
Winter is the time of promise because there is so little to do — or because you can now and then permit yourself the luxury of thinking so. – Stanley Crawford
Oh February. I always find this month a little challenging. Short days. Rain. Fog.
Moreover, this February, a host of coughs, sniffles, sneezes, and most recently fevers have descended on us.
Around now it’s tempting to long for May, for the first strawberries and garden-fresh greens. For throwing the windows open in the afternoons and planting the garden and walking barefoot in the grass.
But the other day, when I emerged from our fevered nest, I was greeted by a handful of yellow crocuses dotting our neighbor’s yard. And I felt a wistfulness, not for spring or summer, but for the quiet, reflective days of this season, which is so quickly departing.
These days, we seem to think we can outsmart winter. We can arm ourselves with our electric lights and flu shots and vitamin drinks and continue to go, go, go.
I’m no different. I had all sorts of plans for February. A big project. Outings. Busy, packed days.
But so often winter demands a certain amount of stillness from us.
This month has brought me lots of quiet afternoons tending to sick family members, watching movies, knitting, and reading.
As crummy as it feels to be sick or to see those you love sick, I see wisdom in all of this. Slow down, winter tells us. Be still.
In the Mountain Rose Herbs blog this week, acupuncturist Dylan Stein advises, “Let’s take these last few weeks of winter as an opportunity to rest, to meditate quietly and to prepare our bodies for the bursting energy of spring.”
He recommends ingesting nourishing foods like beans, root vegetables, seaweeds, dark leafy greens, and walnuts, and gentle warming spices like cinnamon and ginger.
Likely, that’s where you’ll find me this week: resting, sipping on spice tea, and reflecting on the wisdom of these seasonal cycles of stillness and vigor.
My favorite spice tea:
1.5 quarts of water
2 teaspoons turmeric
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Combine and boil for 10 to 20 minutes. Strain.
Add honey to taste, if you wish.
What’s your favorite winter food or drink? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.