Thursday, September 20, 2007

NESTING, continued

Last but not least, as they say in all the magazines these days, I try to "bring the outdoors in", and take a little of the indoors out. I think cut flowers are beautiful, but their cost vs. pleasure ratio is just too low for my liking. I'm not that good at arranging them, they cost a fortune if you have someone else do it for you, and then they go pookie on you in the blink of an eye. I was never great with houseplants either, and I think that's because they tend to look much the same, day in and day out, so I tend to forget that they are even there. Instead, I prefer to concentrate on the three B's - berries, bulbs and branches. In the fall, nothing could be easier than just sticking three or four beautiful berry branches in an urn or rustic vase. The trick is to find one with a narrow opening, so it takes only a few branches to fill it, and they stay upright. I also love fall leaf garlands and the huge assortment of bead and berry garlands that are available these days. Weave one through the arms of your chandelier, drape them over the top of your hutch or armoire, or use them down the center of your table or as a topping for your drapes - just use them. To decorate your front entry for fall, try taking an autumn leaf garland and twisting it around a length of orange rope-light, then outline your door with it. For winter, how about using a sparkly glass beaded garland with some white twinkle lights to wrap a spiral-cut juniper by your front door?

In addition to being a garden designer, I am also the visual merchandiser at a great little garden center in Houston. One thing I use in a lot of my displays is mesh cloth or abaca - that wonderful, scrunchable, fabric/netting-like stuff that comes in every color in the rainbow. Every fall, when we get our huge shipment of pumpkins in at the nursery, we also get a bunch of cornstalk bundles. Since we have a nice wrap-around porch on the gift shop, I thought it would be fun to attach some of the bundles to its columns. I knew normal ribbon would never hold up to the elements, but I didn't want to resort to plastic either. So, one year I decided to experiment with beautiful lengths of rust and green mesh cloth, with sparkly metallic threads that catch the sun and make it glisten. I scrunched it up into giant pouffy bows, tied it off with twist-ties, and attached the cornstalk bundles to the porch posts with those. Not only were they gorgeous, they stayed that way for several weeks, through wind and rain. As it turns out, we had a lot more people asking to buy the bows than we did the cornstalks. If you don't have porch columns, try attaching a corn bundle to your gaslight in the yard, or even to a bare tree.

And speaking of bare trees, probably the very best decorating accessory you can have is some bare, dead tree branches. One fall, just after a big storm, I was having lunch at my favorite taco joint. When I glanced out the window, I realized that the field behind the restaurant was full of dead branches that had been blown down in the storm. I jumped up, ran outside, grabbed several large branches, dragged them across the parking lot, and hefted them up into my truck. Now, I'm sure that every person in that restaurant was convinced that I had flipped my lid, but nay, nay my friend. It was almost time for our annual fall festival at the nursery, and I knew that those branches would make fantastic Spooky Trees. We filled two big black cauldron-like pots with sand and stuck the branches down into those, strung orange twinkle lights on them, dripped Spanish moss from the branch tips, and then decorated them with assorted plastic bats and spiders. Finally we set one on each side of the entry to the greenhouse, and they were quite striking, if I do say so myself. I had a friend in Indonesia who almost got herself arrested for trying to bring home some dead branches she had found. For winter, she spray-painted hers white, used white twinkle lights on them, and had them positively dripping with candy canes and glass icicles. In spring she switched to pastel lights, and hung her collection of decorated eggs from the branches. Put your thinking-cap on and you could probably come up with lots of other ideas as well.

(to be continued)


"Mother Nature's palette is a rich resource of inspiration for decorating your home. By bringing the seasons indoors with inexpensive personal flourishes, you will rarely grow tired of where you live." Sarah Ban Breathnach, from Simple Abundance

Have you ever wished that you owned more than one house? Wouldn't it be fun to spend summer at your beach house, and winter at your mountain lodge? Or maybe you'd be content if you could just totally refurnish the house you have periodically. Well, I've found something that's almost as satisfying, but not nearly as expensive. What is that? Seasonality, of course!

Let's start by setting up some guidelines. Over the years I've established a few basic rules that help guide me whenever I do any sort of decorating, whether indoors or out:

1) Always remember, the purpose is pleasure, not perfection. Don't strive to be an immaculate house-keeper. Be a great home-maker.
2) Think in terms of pyramids and layers. Whether you are setting up a buffet for a party, arranging a grouping of candles on the mantel, or planting a container to go by the front door, you will get much more impact and interest if you have a variety of heights and layers. For a no-fail grouping, arrange items in a pyramid shape.
3) No confetti allowed. If you have too many little things, in too many colors, scattered all over your house or garden, the eye has nowhere to pause and focus, so it just skitters across without really seeing anything. Give them something to focus on.
4) Get the most bang for your buck - concentrate your efforts where it really counts, and don't try to decorate every single surface in your home.
5) Surround yourself with that which you truly love, and get rid of everything else that is cluttering up your home and your life.

Now, let's get down to business. I have a few areas in my house that I change out seasonally. It takes me an hour or two at most, but it completely transforms the atmosphere of the house. First I rearrange the open shelves of my hutch, which faces the front entry. In winter I might hang a berry swag at the top, and display my white ironstone collection. In spring it could be a garland of tulips and daffodils, my wedding china with the pastel flower border, and an assortment of bunnies, chicks and eggs. Next I change out my table decorations. In summer it might be a country French print cloth and an old red sap bucket filled with sunflowers. In autumn it would probably be my harvest-print linens with my collection of Bakelite-handled flatware in luscious shades of red, rust, green and gold. Nothing I use is valuable - most of it was picked up at flea markets and such. My goal is to never buy anything that would break my heart, or bank-book, if it were lost or broken, but never settle for "I suppose it will do". I only buy something if it will put a smile on my face each time I see it.

(To be continued....)

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


"It's not just about cooking, decorating, or entertaining - it's about enjoying all the small details of domestic life. It's about making time for family, growing some vegetables in your garden, chatting with the butcher, and cooking for your family and friends." Robert Arbor, from Joie de Vivre

I'm the first one to admit that I am not a great cook. I was raised in a very citified family, who absolutely loved all the modern conveniences that the local supermarket had to offer. I grew up thinking that mashed potatoes came out of a box, and asparagus came out of a can. When I finally realized just how inadequate my skills were, I tried to compensate by collecting great recipes that weren't too difficult. The only problem was that I never learned to be spontaneous or to improvise. I followed the recipes verbatim, spent hours each week making out menus and grocery lists, and another couple of hours each weekend at the supermarket, trying to buy everything I needed in one fell swoop. Invariably I would forget something, and would end up in an absolute tizzy when I discovered I was missing an ingredient. After 25 years of this, it eventually became a major pain in the rear. I was starting to dread it more and more, we were eating out more and more, and we were becoming less and less healthy. So, I started looking for ways to simplify the process, eat better, and enjoy it more. According to all my favorite books about living the good life, seasonality was the answer.

"In the end, seasonality is the key to the French woman's psychological pleasure in food - the natural pleasure of anticipation, change, the poignant joy we take in something we know we shall soon lose and cannot take for granted. Such heightened awareness of what we put in our mouths is the opposite of routine, mindless eating that promotes boredom and weight gain." Mireille Guiliano, from French Women Don't Get Fat

The next step was to set up some rules, to define what it means to cook and eat with seasonality:
1. Use whole foods, rather than processed, whenever possible.
2. Use foods that are in season.
3. Use foods that are grown, or produced, as close to your home as possible.
4. Keep it simple.

"The most important environmental decision you can make is where you get your seasonally, buy locally." Ann Harvey Yonkers, Advocate for community farmer's markets

So why is that important? Well, think about it. According to Victor Hansen, author of The Land was Everything, "We cannot rail about pesticides and bland-tasting fruit and then expect to eat peaches in March, asparagus at Christmas and oranges in August." Also, if you are concerned about pollution and global warming, consider how much fuel is burned in order to transport these fruits and vegetables to you from growers in other climates. I nearly fainted the first time I tasted fresh asparagus and home-grown tomatoes. Hard to believe I grew up thinking I hated them both. So where do you get good food that is in season? Make a habit of going to the local farmer's market for your produce, and seek out vendors who actually grow what they sell (as opposed to shipping it in from other growers). Better yet, join a C.S.A. (Community Supported Agriculture), where members buy shares of a farm's harvest before the season begins. Experience the joy of weekly deliveries of fresh produce straight from the farm. Take your kids to the farm when they hold open house, so they can see where their food actually comes from, and maybe even pick some themselves. Not only will it taste better than what you get at the supermarket, you'll find that you are a much more adventurous cook when you start looking for new ways to use the items in each delivery. Check out to find out what's available in your particular area. If all else fails, do as the French do and plant your own little potager, or kitchen garden. In Joie de Vivre, Robert Arbor says "I think that sometimes people don't grow fresh food because they think that it is too much work. So my advice to you is to grow a tiny thing that pleases you, and enjoy that tiny thing for all it's worth."

When I first decided to try my hand at growing a few vegetables, we were living in a Dallas suburb. Because of urban sprawl, our neighborhood was being overrun with rabbits that were feasting on all the pretty flowers I planted in my yard. Just to be on the safe side, I decided to plant my lettuces in big whiskey barrel planters, to keep them away from marauding bunnies. One day, as I was watering the barrels, I noticed a pile of grassy stuff in the middle of one. I thought it must have blown in when my husband was mowing nearby. Then I noticed that the grass pile seemed to be moving, every time the water from my hose got near it. Wondering what kind of ghastly creature could be lurking under there scared the bejeebers out of me, and sent me screaming for John. While I kept my distance, he used a broom handle to lift up the grassy mat, then he burst out laughing and said "You're not gonna believe this!" What was hidden under the grass? A nest of baby bunnies. Some brazen hussy of a rabbit, not content with having the run of my whole yard, had managed to climb up into my barrel, build a nest, and lay her bunnies right smack dab in the middle of my lettuce patch! Damn, they were cute though.

"Everyone knows that chefs go to the market and see what's fresh before deciding what to cook...The key to cooking from ingredients is using a few basic recipes and techniques. Ina Garten, from Barefoot Contessa Parties!

"Good food in season responds to the simplest preparation; you really can't go wrong when you start with quality. The key to cooking, and therefore living well, is the best of ingredients." Mireille Guiliano, from French Women Don't Get Fat

So, now that you've found a source for wonderful, fresh ingredients, what are you going to do with them? Follow Ina Garten's advice, and learn some basic recipes and techniques that adapt to a variety of ingredients. Here is one to get you started:


3 cloves garlic, minced
assorted firm veggies (carrots, green beans, broccoli, etc.) cut into bite-sized pieces
assorted soft veggies (bell peppers, mushrooms, onion, etc.), thinly sliced
12 to 16 oz. uncooked chicken, beef, or pork, thinly sliced
soy sauce and fresh ground pepper
about 1 tablespoon oil - can be all vegetable oil, or can add a few drops of sesame oil for flavor or chili oil for spice

Bring some water to boil in a large saucepan as you prepare the vegetables. Cook the firm veggies in the boiling water for about 3 minutes, then drain and set aside. Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan on medium heat. Add garlic to the oil. When it starts to sizzle, add the soft veggies to the pan. Increase heat to med-hi. Stir until softened, then add meat to the pan. Stir gently, until it starts to get some color on the outside. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of soy sauce and some freshly ground pepper. Continue to cook and stir until meat is almost cooked through. Add the remaining veggies and turn heat to low. Can add more soy sauce if desired. Cook and stir until all veggies are heated through. Serve over rice.

Our kids are both grown now, and sometimes I wonder how we managed to get this far with so little trauma. Friends and family kept making dire predictions of "just wait till they turn...", but each stage came and went without them turning into monsters, and with them still thinking that as far as parents go, theirs weren't half bad. A lot of that was luck I'm sure, but there is one thing that I think contributed greatly, and which I take full credit for, because I really had to fight for it. What's the big secret? This!

The Key to a FUNctional Family

1. Eat together around the table at least 3 or 4 times per week.
2. No TV, phones, games, headphones or reading allowed at the table.
3. No criticism or disciplining allowed at the table (teaching good manners is encouraged, but do it in a fun, positive, reinforcing way, not in a nagging, negative manner, that will only make them want to escape from the table at the earliest opportunity).
4. Learn to ask questions that will get them talking. Instead of asking "How was your day?" (guaranteed to get a single word response), ask questions like, "What was the best/worst/most interesting part of your day?"
5. Laugh together a lot (but never at one another's expense). Make your home a haven - the one place where your family knows they will always be nurtured and supported. Be the wings that lift them up, rather than the arrow that shoots them down. They will run into plenty of other people who will be more than happy to fill that role, as they venture forth in the world.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Part One - The Beginner's Guide to Living the Good Life

I used to have a little design business called Seasonality. Most people who saw my signs, thought I chose that name because I specialized in four-season garden designs. Actually, I chose that name years ago, before I even knew what kind of business I was going to start.

As I mentioned in the introduction, once upon a time, I had an epiphany - an honest to goodness, gen-u-ine, life-altering original idea. I was standing in front of my bookshelf, staring at all my favorite books about people who were living the good life - books like 'Under the Tuscan Sun' by Frances Mayes, 'Simple Abundance' by Sarah ban Breathnach, 'Joie de Vivre' by Robert Arbor, and of course, the one that started it all, 'The Good Life' by Helen and Scott Nearing. I was thinking about what I had learned from them. For instance, Sarah taught me that by bringing the seasons indoors to decorate my home, I would rarely grow tired of where I lived. Elliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch, of 'Gardening Naturally' fame, told me that, just as it's easier to write sonnet than free verse, it's easier to cook well with seasonal limitations, for they are a spur to creativity. Ferenc Mate, in his book 'A Reasonable Life', told me that if we ate only what is grown within a thousand miles of our bloody little houses, we might have the great pleasure you get from expectation and waiting, that special joy you feel on Christmas morning. Anna Quindlen, in a warning to those of us who were trying to be superwoman, said yes, "you probably can have it all, just not all at the same time". Eventually I came to the same conclusion that was written in Ecclesiastes thousands of years ago - "There is a time for everything, And a season for every activity under heaven."

Seasonality. I couldn't find that word listed in my old Webster's New Collegiate, buy I thought it sounded like a good way to describe living one's life in rhythm with the seasons. You may well be saying to yourself "That's fine and good for those of you who live in Ohio, or somewhere that actually has seasons, but what about those of us who are stuck down here in Texas?" Well, that is where you need it the most - it's the best cure there is for monotony! When our children were in elementary school, we were transferred to the boonies of Indonesia. The temperature there never varies by more than ten or fifteen degrees. You have two seasons, basically. You have rainy season, and then you have not so rainy. However, if you were to consult my kids, we had the best seasonal theme parties, the best fall carnivals, the best Christmas pageants, the best Easter egg hunts, and the best crawfish boils ever, and nothing since has come close to comparing. Why, we even celebrated Canadian Trapper's Day, complete with log-rolling in the swimming pool, and human dog sled races! And how did we accomplish all this with no craft stores, no home improvement stores, and no mega box stores? We got creative, that's how, and we worked together as a community. Basically, we threw ourselves into making our own seasons, and our own entertainment, because it kept us from going insane from the boredom and repetitiveness of our lives there. And face it people, no matter how much you love your family, being a homemaker can be very boring and repetitive. You know what? The kids were right. Those were the best times ever.

So, how do you incorporate seasonality into your own life? Just keep reading!