Category Archives: My greenish thumb

February spring



Don’t hate me, hardy and intrepid folks who live in snow country, but it felt like spring around here this weekend.  And it was nice.

I hasten to add that the only reason that I can enjoy this warm weather without guilt is because rain (lots of rain) is predicted for later in the week.  I hope it’s true, because California is thirsty.  But it was lovely to have balmy temperatures and sun and blue skies, and to have the following spring-y experiences.

1.  The tapestry of color at the nursery.  I wanted to buy it all, but I contented myself with three six-packs (I sound like a frat boy, don’t I?) and one large multi-colored snapdragon.


2. Memorable little-boy observations.   There was a flowering pussy willow tree at the nursery, and  I called the boys over and had them touch it.  ”Doesn’t it feel like a cat?”  I asked.

“It feels more like a dog,” said my younger son.

“I’m glad it’s not a real cat,” said my first-grader, “because I’m allergic to cats.”



3.  Dirt therapy.  The boys and I weeded, I pulled out an old dead straggly penstamon, and it just felt so good to be digging again.  Bringing color and prettiness to a tiny corner of the planet does a lot for one’s mood.

4.  Spreading the gardening love.  The boys helped me plant the tiny blue and purple violas and raspberry-pink bellis.   “Pat the dirt down around the plants,” I told them, “and tuck them in tight.”  Luke was quite taken with the experience and called his little section of flowers a “family.”  I looked over at one point to see him holding a tiny plant to his cheek and smiling.

I know just how he feels.



Color splash

What’s going on in my garden these days?  A whole lot of color.  So much color, in fact, that I grabbed my camera and went out to capture it on film (followed, of course, by a small boy toting our old camera, which he has claimed as his own.  It’s nice to have an assistant.)

You like red?  We’ve got red.


We have pink, too — many different shades.




My yellow roses are just about to start a new cycle of bloom …


I just love the various blue tones of the lobelia.






And my snapdragons are shades of sunset … gorgeous, especially in the light.


Really, this is why I garden.  It’s hard to look at so much vivid color and not feel a little bit happier, isn’t it?

P.S. I’m guest-posting today at dotMagis — blogging about how St. Ignatius’ prayer the Examen is the perfect prayer for anyone with a crazy-busy life (that would include all moms).  Check it out!

Consider the lavender

Few things lift my spirits more than having fresh flowers in the house.   I’m blessed to have rosebushes that give and give without counting the cost, so for a good part of the year, I get to enjoy beauties like these.



The other day, though, I was surveying my rosebushes, and the pickings were pretty slim.  The pink ones were between blooms, and many of the white ones were rendered undisplay-able due to pest damage ( I curse you, thrips! shaking of fist).   I’d be waiting a few days, it seemed, for my fresh flower fix.

And then I thought of the lavender bush in the front flowerbed.  It’s been there for a few years, but this spring, I swear it seems to have doubled  in size. ( It’s like the phenomenon that happens all the time to high school teachers: you run into the junior who was in your class as a tiny freshman, and he’s suddenly towering over you like an NBA player.)    I looked at the lavender, with its purply gray-green lushness,  and thought: You’re coming into the house with me.

Dodging the fat black bumblebees, I snipped several stalks.   Once I was done I put it all in a little green vase on my prayer table, and I can’t tell you how happy that little bouquet makes me.  As I sit here and read or write or meditate, I pause periodically to rub the flowers, and I drink in one of the most intoxicating scents God ever created.


It’s a very good pairing, lavender and prayer.  I’m glad I had  a reason to try it.


The first sign of summer

Every spring, along about early May, I start planting annuals.  Because our backyard gets so much shade, I tend to plant impatiens, year after year.  There are a few places in the yard where they do particularly well.


I could vary it up — and maybe one of these years, I will — but for now, I love the combination of colors: the snap of the red and the bright punch of fuschia, the pure white to balance it out, the soft baby tones of pale pink and lavender.   Whether they are in a ray of sun or in the shade, these colors positively glow.

Patting the soil around the little plants, I always feel like I’m participating in a beautiful ritual.  I finish and straighten and look around my yard.  Even though there are patio pots still waiting to be filled and hydrangeas that have yet to bloom, I feel as though the garden is coming to life again.  It’s just waiting: for the boys to have sprinkler parties, for family dinners on the patio, for me to sit outside with a notebook on a warm evening, celebrating the sacrament of a summer’s night.

A tale of two bouquets

Here in northern California, everything’s coming up roses.  My yard is no exception; I’m filling vases every few days.  These beauties are gracing the little Mary shrine (actually, a 1940s phone nook) in the hallway.


If only you could smell them as well as see them!   The scent is intoxicating.


This isn’t the only vase of roses in the hallway, though.  If you look really closely at the first picture,  you’ll see that there’s another tiny one, there at the base of the Mary statue.


Last December, Matthew’s elementary school had a little holiday shop on campus where kids could purchase gifts for their family and friends.   Matthew excitedly asked us for some money, so we gave him a few dollars.

“I want to tell you what I’m going to get you, Mom,” he told me in the car.

“Don’t tell me!”  I said.  “Let’s keep it a secret.  Then I can be surprised when I open it on Christmas.”

He thought about it. “No,” he said, with a smile he couldn’t hide. “I want to tell you what it is now.  I don’t want to wait.”

We went a few rounds back and forth: me, extolling the virtues of suspense and surprise; Matthew, insisting that he wanted to tell me now.  He was so excited to tell me that I finally said he could.

“It’s a vase of glass roses,” he said eagerly.  “Do you think you would like that?  I know you really like flowers.”

I told him that it sounded beautiful.  Of course I would love it.  And how thoughtful of him to remember that I love roses so much!  He beamed in the backseat.

And when he gave me the roses — the very day he bought them, because he couldn’t wait until it was Christmas — he produced a small square box from his backpack.  It was about four inches high and four inches wide; I’d envisioned something much larger.  He opened the box eagerly and I helped him take off the protective wrapping.  And there it was: the Christmas gift from my little boy, a miniscule  MADE IN CHINA bouquet of electric-pink roses.

“Do you like it?” he asked anxiously.

I hugged him and kissed his head.  “I love it,” I managed to say through the lump in my throat.  “I absolutely love it.”

When we got home, I put the roses at the base of the Mary statue.  It was winter, and I didn’t have any garden flowers of my own to put there.   But  even though it’s spring and the yard is blooming now, I haven’t moved Matthew’s roses.  I like having the two bouquets there, side by side.

One bouquet is lush and fragrant, a testament to the awesome beauty of creation.  And one is small and scentless, a testament to the earnest love of a kindergartener.  They each represent something different to me, and I like that.

But there’s only one bouquet that I will keep forever.

Grace from a neighbor’s garden


It was a few weeks ago that my neighbor across the street came up to me as I was outside with the boys.  “Do you like violas?”  she asked.  “Because we have a whole ton of them out back.  You can take as many as you want.”

It was obvious from the context that she was talking about the flower, not the instrument.  I told her that I liked them very much.   “Come on over and get some anytime you like,” she said.

About two weeks later, the boys and I followed her into the backyard, to the plot where her husband plants vegetables.  There, along by the fence, were hundreds of purple and yellow violas, a pansy’s petite sister.

I exclaimed at the number of flowers.  “You know, we didn’t even plant these,” my neighbor explained.  “They  came from somewhere and seeded themselves.  I hate to just pull them out.”  She had donated clumps of them to another neighbor, one whose front yard — like mine — was still in winter-bare mode.

She handed me a trowel and an aluminum roasting pan.  As the boys gleefully chased her small dog around the grass, I carefully dug around the flowers, lifting them out of the ground.   Dry brown dirt clung to the tiny roots; it crumbled like baking cocoa at my touch.  Soon the aluminum pan was full of blooms.

The boys and I took the flowers  across the street and, with our trowels, we immediately set to work planting them.  Other than a bit of weeding and some trimming back of old branches, it was the first garden work I’d done since winter, and it felt deliciously good to be back in the soil.   It was the perfect work for little boys to do, too: the flowers were free, and we knew they were tough, so I didn’t worry about my fellow gardeners’ ungentle enthusiasm.  Between the three of us, we made short work of the planting.  Soon the bare brown bed was dotted with violet and white and yellow.

As we worked, it occurred to me that this is what grace is like.  Grace tends to show up out of nowhere, like these little blossoms in my neighbor’s vegetable patch.   It seeds and grows without any effort on our part.

Once we recognize the grace, we have a choice of what to do with it.  Noticing and savoring it ourselves is important, and beautiful, and holy.  But there is something even holier about sharing it with others, about handing your neighbor an aluminum roasting pan and the trowel and inviting her to share in the blessing.  And when your neighbor is a mom with two small boys who gets to share a quiet lovely moment with those boys, digging in the dirt together, that moment is a kind of grace too.

And with those violas planted in the bed up front, the whole yard looks prettier.  That’s a grace for everyone who passes by on the sidewalk and glances at our yard, getting a glimpse of spring where before there was only winter.

Where have you seen grace lately?

Holy ground

Gardens don’t hold grudges. That’s one of their nicest qualities. No matter how many weeks (or months) of neglect my backyard has endured, I always feel welcome when I put on the gloves and venture outside.

I was reminded of this one evening, after the dinner dishes were cleared up. Led by a sense of carpe diem, I escaped into the backyard. It had been a while; the ground was rife with weeds.

I’d bought some coleus and impatiens to plant, so I began raking up the molding leaves that covered the flowerbeds. Black beetles scuttled out as I disturbed their homes. The smell of soil filled my nose and the weeds uprooted themselves obligingly from the soft ground. The sun was almost gone, below the horizon.

I’d planned just to prepare the soil and then go inside, but I ended up planting all of the flowers. Even though it was getting hard to see, the peacefulness of the evening drew me in. I pinched the bottom of the crinkly plastic cartons and eased the small plants out carefully, afraid to break them at the stems. The tiny flowers looked vulnerable and insignificant. As I planted them a careful foot apart from each other, they made a very unspectacular display. But I knew that with weeding, water, and Miracle-Gro, it would just be a matter of time before they began elbowing their neighbors, a cheerful coexistence of blooms. As always when I work in the garden, I felt hopeful. At home. Grounded.

I’m hesitant to extrapolate a spiritual message from this experience. Gardening as a metaphor for faith is hardly original; any writer who makes that connection is treading on well-worn ground. But there’s a good reason for that. There’s such a profound, elemental connection between tending a garden and tending one’s spiritual life. After all, gardening is about encouraging the things that sustain and nurture life, and removing the things that don’t. That’s exactly what I try to do with my faith life: assess what brings me closer to God (daily prayer, gratitude, mindfulness) and find ways to do them more often.

The problem with such stock-taking, though, is that it takes effort, and it takes a quiet mind. I’m so busy juggling motherhood, marriage, teaching, writing, housework, and the occasional pursuit of exercise, that days can pass without any conscious spiritual reflection on my part. Every now and then, though, the craving for spiritual renewal hits me like a thunderbolt. Only then do I realize, with what feels like surprise, that I need some quiet time to help keep me blooming.

That’s why I stayed out in the yard that night, working even after the sun had gone down. Kneeling on the overgrown lawn, pressing soil around the tiny new plants, it felt like a benediction. I was praying without words, satisfying a hunger I hadn’t realized I’d had. And I was relearning a lesson I’ve learned thousands of times: every now and then, we all need to hit pause, breathe deeply, and return to what grounds us.

 This article first appeared in Catholic San Francisco.

Maybe the snails did me a favor

Every year, I plant impatiens in one little area of my yard.  It’s a corner under a lovely Japanese maple, right near a kitschy figurine of a happy frog.  It’s an area with a lot of shade, so when the flowers bloom – red, lavender, fuschia, white – the vivid color is absolutely striking.

I planted them about six weeks ago, and settled in happily to wait for them to flourish.

I got one good bloom, and then something – I suspect those neighborhood ruffians, the snails – vandalized them.  Leaves were chomped off, petals were shredded, and a full half of them ended up as mere shadows of their former selves.

I was tempted to replace the damaged plants.  At about $1.99 for a six-pack, it would not have been a huge investment.  But then I decided I’d just apply Miracle-Gro, cut back the damaged part, and wait to see what happens.

And guess what?  They’re blooming again.

The whole story seems like a metaphor for so many things in my life.  In my haste to make things happen now, it’s so easy to get impatient and to pull up the tender little thing that just needs a little time and space and TLC to flourish.  I do this with my writing, sometimes; if an article doesn’t seem to be going with quite  the speed I’d wanted, I’ll sometimes move on entirely instead of giving it a little more time to hit its stride.  I’ve also had times of prayer when it starts off feeling  dry and rote and so I bag it all and go watch that DVR’d episode of Frasier instead of embracing the process.    That’s not to say that every stunted thing is eventually going to burst into glorious bloom, but I do have to recognize that my tendency is often to pull things up by the roots just a little bit prematurely.  Sometimes, it’s good to sit on my hands and wait.

One of the great things about motherhood, in fact, is that it trains you to give things time.  When my kids are annoying, I can’t just drop them off at the neighbor’s house and board the next plane to Anywhere But Here (even though, believe me, that sounds pretty tempting at times).  I wait it out, whatever “it” is – the tantrum, the stomach flu, the potty-training that seems to move in geological time.   And I have never been sorry that I did.   Just like those little flowers under the maple tree, there’s a beautiful reward if you can just hang in there.

How fitting that impatiens made me reflect upon patience.

Worth waiting for

Guess what’s happening around here?

The roses are blooming!

For weeks now, I’ve been monitoring the progress of the buds.  And in between all the rain, we’ve had just enough warmth and sunshine to coax some of my beauties into blossom.  Thus far, the pink ones are the only ones that have opened, but the Perfect Moment roses — a lovely mix of red, yellow, and orange — are just days away.  The white and the yellow roses look like they’re not too far behind.

Every year, I love that first  bloom.  I love it.  Roses are finicky, yes, and it takes some work to stave off aphids and powdery mildew and blackspot, but it’s worth the effort to have that gorgeous bounty in my yard, blooming and blooming from April to (some years!) November.  I love that I can set vases full of roses on my table and my writing desk and my little Mary shrine in the hallway. My rosebushes truly are the gift that keeps on giving.

It almost seems like I should have some ritual to mark this, the first bloom of the year.  I should make as big a deal about this as the French do about the beaujolais nouveau.  I guess my writing about it here is a kind of celebration, right?  Regardless,  it’s such a thrill to have these beauties right in front of me as I type this, pale pink and impossibly huge and with a fragrance that sings of summer.

My aunt once gave me a magnet with a quotation by Emma Goldman.  The quotation is  “I’d rather have roses on my table than diamonds on my neck.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Forgetting what I planted

The daffodils in my yard have started to come up.  They are little bursts of February sunshine, lovely as always.

And the other day, I looked over and noticed this beautiful  little thing blooming nearby.

It stopped me in my tracks.  I don’t even remember planting crocus bulbs last fall, but it seems I did.   And that little bit of  effort, totally forgotten months later, is bringing a splash of joyful color to these gray winter days.

That’s what I love about bulbs: a little bit of work results in a whole lot of  beauty.  It comes just when you expect it least and need it most.