Happy Earth Day, everyone! Today is a day when I pause to reflect on how beautiful this planet is and how lucky we are to have another day to live on it. When you think about it, you realize how amazing it is that this rock in space can support all of our lives. And the earth does it with such noble silence and forgiveness for our human silliness. Aren’t we lucky?
In my own life, I try to do what I can to help the planet sustain itself. I’m not perfect, I still drive a combustible engine car and heat my home with gas. But until those new electric vehicles hit the market and solar panels come down in price, I do a few tiny things to emit less CO2 and curb my pollution and waste. Here’s what I do:
Recycle Everything I Possibly Can
Sometimes my husband thinks I’m a weirdo because I’ve trained my family to recycle almost everything. For instance, I discovered our local transfer station (read: dump) accepts styrofoam blocks, bubble wrap, and almost all plastic bags (including bread and veggie bags) for recycling. So every plastic bag that comes into our house goes into a bin in the pantry closet. After a month or two, I put all of those bags in one larger white trash bag and take it to the recycling bin at the transfer station. Easy.
I also recycle every can, bottle, and container. Unfortunately, we’ve learned that our recycling is only going into giant piles in the country and not shipped over seas where it’s properly recycled. But our waste service still wants us to separate and recycle anyway until they find a new solution. So I do because there’s no sense in all of those granola bar boxes going into a landfill. I mean after all, a tree helped us make that box.
With this approach, our family of five produces very little garbage. The only thing in the garbage now is styrofoam food containers and plastic that’s been soiled by food, and various bathroom items. Most everything else is recycled. And that small amount of garbage keeps our service bill down since we use a smaller can.
I Walk or Take Public Transportation Instead of Drive
On days when I don’t have a lot to haul, I’ll walk to the library or grocery store or for coffee. Because I still drive a combustible engine car, I take five seconds and consider whether my trip is worth the emissions. Sometimes it is, like when I take my daughter to her teen group meeting, or I have to bring home a load of groceries, but if it’s just to get a cup of coffee or buy a gift at the bookstore, I usually walk. This, in addition, to reducing emissions, gives me steps and extra exercise, which brightens my mood and improves my focus.
Similarly, Seattle now has a train that goes to the airport. One of my favorite little rituals is to ride the train to and from the airport instead of driving. Driving often means struggling through clogged traffic for almost an hour. So taking the train means I arrive wherever I’m going with less stress. Plus, I can relax and read a book!
I Keep the Temperature Lower
I’m not going to lie, I need to heat my house comfortably. If you live in the north, you usually do. But instead of cranking the thermostat to 72 like I really want to, I usually keep it at 68. What do I do to make up the difference? Well, one word: wool. A yummy wool sweater and a wool blanket. The beauty of wool over polyester (also a plastic) is that wool breathes well. It keeps you warm and cozy and dry. A polyester throw keeps you warm and then too warm and your body gets clammy. So I keep the thermostat a little lower and wear a wool shirt, socks, and sweater. I also use a beautifully knitted wool throw I bought from an Irish maker. Check it out here.
Along these lines, I lower the temperature on the water when I do laundry. Doing a load of clothes in cool water saves gas and emissions. Also, keeping your hot water tank at a higher temperature actually saves gas. I learned this from our hot water repairman. Because the temperature is higher, you use less hot water when doing dishes or showering. You just have to be careful to adjust the faucet so you don’t get scorched.
I Practice Organic and Sustainable Gardening
Of course, I could write a whole post on this. But overall, I plant plants that like the conditions of their location. For sunny areas, I plant sun-loving, low-water plants. For shady spots, I grow plants that like the shade and Seattle rain. I don’t grow a lot of plants that need extra care or fertilizer. When I do fertilize, I fertilize with an organic fish fertilizer rather than a chemical mix. This prevents chemicals from leaching down through the soil and into our water table below. And plants actually grow more robustly for a longer time with natural fertilizer anyway. If you want to learn more about good garden plants and their conditions, check out these articles.
I know a sprinkler system sounds fancy, but it’s actually a great investment, particularly the kind with emitters on shorter stakes. Or even just drip hoses. Instead of watering with an oscillating lawn sprinkler, which often waters a sidewalk or misses certain areas of the garden, I have a sprinkler system that sends water straight to the plants. This allows me to water for a shorter duration.
I Re-Use Bottles and Bags
Single-use plastic bottles and bags require energy and labor to make. And yet we use these things for maybe a few hours at most. Not to sound preachy, but we have a huge chunk of plastic hanging out in our oceans right now. This pollutes the water and affects sea life, sometimes even killing it. We don’t really need to add to that, right? So if you want to help our waterways, buy a metal water bottle and re-use it. Take paper bags back to your grocery store. The trees and fish will thank you.
Overall, if we just take a minute to think about our actions, we can make small easy adjustments to help the planet. For instance, if you wash your car at home, do it with eco-friendly soap so the runoff doesn’t go into the sewer and your nearest river, lake, or ocean. Because that’s where it often goes. If you have paint to dispose off, dry it out before putting in the garbage. If you have the financial resources, switch your kitchen stove from gas to electric. With a little extra effort, we can all do a tiny bit to help this big beautiful pearl we call home.
Earlier this year, I worked with a sleep specialist. I wanted to regain those luxurious seven and a half hours I’ve usually slept these last several years. But in January, I started experiencing intermittent bouts of insomnia and by February it became chronic. So I sought out a sleep doctor and worked with a specialist nurse to track my nighttime habits.
We went over the usual litany of possible obstructions to sleep: screen time in the late evening, the glow of nightlights, bed comfort, room temperature, unwanted noise, alcohol use, etc. These are all part of what experts call “sleep hygiene.” In other words, how well you accommodate your body’s natural ability to become sleepy and actually sleep. My sleep hygiene was quite good. I’d solved earlier problems of noise and light on my own, which left the last and most common factor in getting good rest: stress.
Investigating my Habits
I’ve experienced it a lot these last two years. The pandemic put a huge strain on our family. We had pets die. My sister was diagnosed with advanced cancer. Despite these circumstances, my nurse told me over 90 percent of insomnia cases are solved with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). I was skeptical but willing to try. And so, I began a system of tracking my sleep.
I created logs where I wrote down when I feel asleep, how long I slept, and when/how many times I woke up. I also tracked when I got in bed and left my bed. It was all kind of silly to me since my pattern was stable. Fall asleep for a few hours, wake for a couple hours, then sleep for two hours or so. On really bad nights, I experienced very little if any deep, black out sleep.
Our aim was to figure out how much sleep I could generate. Some folks only sleep about six hours and seem to be fine so we needed to find out how long my body needed. I started staying up until one in the morning and setting an alarm for seven. This strategy didn’t help. I was tired at midnight but then overtired by one and couldn’t fall asleep. Plus, I caught a cold and felt rundown. So I ditched this method.
We talked more about cognitive issues and winding down my thoughts at the end of the night. This has been difficult since I’ve been dealing with all of what I described above. And then there’s always a ton of the next day’s work to think about!
My specialist advised me not to stay in bed whenever I was conscious as this often led to me seeing my bed as a place of worry and stress when it should be a clear-headed refuge. But I like to read in bed before falling asleep. I like to wake up slowly and let’s face it, there was no way I was getting up during the night to sit in a cold quiet house or wash dishes or watch TV.
The Effective Strategy I Discovered
In the end, I discovered a strategy on my own that gave me good solid sleep. It was something unexpected and easier than I’d imagined. And it had no tracking or psychological “shoulds” built into it. And of course no medication.
You might have heard of “morning pages.” It’s the daily ritual of writing three pages of stream of consciousness as soon as you wake up. The idea is to declutter your mind before going on with your day. Start off mentally free and clear. Author Julia Cameron, who wrote The Artist’s Way, created the practice. And several creatives I know swear by it.
To be honest though, I could never get into the habit of morning pages. I’ve kept gratitude journals before but not morning ones. After I wake up, I’ve always felt too sleepy to journal and never had much clutter in my head in the morning anyway. I mean, I’d just woken up from being unconscious, which had wiped my worries and concerns away for the night.
So I flipped the habit around. Instead of journaling in the morning, I journaled right before sleep. I free wrote in bed, a stream of consciousness without editing. I started with how the day went. What was bothering me, worrying me, annoying me, whatever. I cut loose, not holding anything back. I bitched, griped, felt sorry for myself, bemoaned whatever went wrong. My grievances tumbled onto the page.
Also, I wrote down my not-so-emotional stuff. What I had to figure out. What I had to tackle. Who to call or email the next day. The stuff that was still unfinished and would carry over into the next day. I dumped it all onto the page.
The Unexpected Happened
After a few days of this, an interesting thing happened. I slept better. I fell asleep more quickly and stayed asleep longer. It was as if I’d drained my brain and it was ready to do nothing else except shut off. Since I’d put all those thoughts and feelings bouncing around in my mind on the page, I had nothing else to mentally spin out about. It was all external and somehow finished for the time being. What’s more, it was in a place I could refer back to the next day if I needed to. But heh, it turned out I rarely needed to.
Since I’ve been writing in my night diary, I’ve slept in a deep blackout sleep most nights. If I do wake up, I’m not automatically stressing so much about being awake or what’s bothering me or what’s on my mind. I feel more clear-headed, more relaxed and I fall back to sleep more easily.
It’s as if the page has absorbed all of my mental junk and is holding it there for me until I’m ready to deal with it again. It reminds me of David Allen’s system of Getting Things Done. He recommends writing out every little and big thing you have to do in order for you to clear your head of the stress that work generates. It’s about dumping all the unfinished stuff out of your mind so you can get organized.
This tactic is in some ways similar. I write for as many pages or as few paragraphs as I need. I don’t judge my writing or my life, I just record. Feelings and frustrations are best. And to be honest, since I’ve been night writing regularly, my days have gotten less stressful. Perhaps because I’m more rested, I don’t know.
Also, I don’t date my entries because I don’t need to review on what day which kind of stress happened. There’s not much point in that for me, although some folks may find that useful. I’m more inclined to write out the stress and move on. In fact, I’m thinking of recycling all my entries at each month’s end so I don’t judge myself for feeling badly about the same thing more than once.
A Recommended Respite
Nowadays, I actually look forward to getting into my bed. I journal and then, when I have nothing more to write, I read a light book and sleep. I encourage you to try it. If you can at least empty your mind of your stress and its related mental junk, you’ll probably be able to shut down for a longer rest. Then, because of that sleep, you might end up having better days since you’ll be rested, more clear-headed, and able to seize the day with more positive energy.
Just a quick note to let you know my new novel, The Dark Petals of Provence, is now available in all formats: paperback, ebook, and even audiobook. As I mentioned in my newsletter, I was terribly disappointed when the physical book was out of stock for a while but it’s now available. Whew!
Dark Petals was inspired by the evocative yet sinister books by the French writer Marcel Pagnol. Pagnol grew up in Provence and created stories based on his childhood experiences for both literature and film.
One of the more famous of these is the book Jean de Florette, about a city lawyer who inherits his family’s country farm and decides to be a simple, gentleman farmer. But the small-minded prejudiced town blocks his progress at every turn until things come to a dramatic head. It’s a study in dark group mentality and revenge against the strength of familial love and personal dreams.
The Idea Behind the Book
I was inspired by how people behave when a newcomer arrives to disrupt things. And so, I created April Pearce, a modern-day American photographer who visits Provence to take photographs for a travel magazine. April’s in her late 30s and struggling to secure a permanent place at this company to prove to herself she’s not a career failure. But it seems all of the most fascinating shots she finds lead to trouble.
In the book, I tried to bring the hot weather, rough terrain, and alluring culture of Provence to life. I also tried to draw interesting characters whose secret pasts raise questions for the reader. April’s character reaches into my own past feelings as an outsider. And of course the story pivots on one particular plant. How else would I write a novel? haha.
Anyway, if you want more information, check out the jacket description here. And by the way, I do realize the paperback cover is not as beautifully saturated with color as the ebook cover, not sure why nor is my publisher. Regardless, you can also read tidbits on my Instagram feed or read the first chapter here.
And if you’d like to buy it, click here.
In the meantime, have a great day!
When I peruse my bookshelf, I often gravitate toward the same old cluster of gardening books. They’re by the most prominent British horticulturalists of the 19th and 20th centuries. The designers who built the most spectacular estates in England. They experimented with the concepts of outdoor rooms, mixed borders, and designing with focal points or natural features. While classic European gardens featured the formality of hedges and geometric patterns, these British visionaries broke away from that formality. They created a new, inventive, naturalistic art.
The Gardens of Gertrude Jekyll
Gertrude Jekyll was the original garden designer. Born in 1843, she was a student of Arts and Crafts artist William Morris. Influenced by the integration of various crafts and art (tapestry, painting, woodwork, etc.), Jekyll became one of the first gardeners to consider color palette, sculpture, architecture and natural cues in her designs. She created the garden of her home Munstead Wood as well as many commissioned designs. She also published books and articles. But really she is most remembered for seeing gardening as an artistic endeavor. This book discusses her philosophy of practicality while laying out her vision in illustrations of design plans and photos. I love this book.
Gardening at Sissinghurst
Perhaps, the most famous English garden is at Sissinghurst Castle. Vita Sackville-West bought a ramshackle estate owned by her ancestors and renovated it in the 1930s. She established a sweeping, multi-faceted property. She and her husband Harold Nicolson installed a lake, a tower, countless “rooms,” and borders. Each room focused on one theme or element.
For example, can you imagine planting a giant border layered only with purple, blue, violet, and indigo plants? They did. This book outlines the history of Sissinghurst and its spaces. There’s the Cottage Garden, The Nuttery, The Lime Walk, the Herb Garden, and on and on. But it not only talks about the ideas behind these spaces but the plants currently in it, with illustrated plans. This book is “Downtown Abbey” meets gardening. Dreamy.
Rosemary Verey created the gardens at her home, Barnsley House, in the 1950s, which won awards for her expertise in plant combinations and year-round structure and color. In Good Planting, Verey advises on how to use texture and shape to create lovely spaces whose personality changes throughout the seasons in pleasing ways. I learned a lot about mixing deciduous and evergreen plants together from this book, a ton about color. There’s a great discussion of layering and contrast too. This is a wonderful practical guide by one of England’s 20th Century treasures.
Beth Chatto’s Green Tapestry
Beth Chatto may be my personal favorite. I think so much of her. She teaches readers about the nitty gritty of gardening. How to figure out your soil conditions. What to plant in a damp area. How to space plants. She’s maybe most famously known for the concept of “right plant, right place.” The concept says if you learn a plant’s natural habitat, then recreate those conditions in your garden, the plant will thrive. It won’t suffer disease or weak growth. This approach was an outgrowth of her property being located in a drier area of England. That challenged her to grow plants in Mediterranean conditions as well as shady groves and wet areas. Still alive in her 90s, Beth Chatto is a gift to the United Kingdom and the world. My dream is to visit the Beth Chatto Gardens.
Succession Planting for Year-Round Pleasure
The home and property of Great Dixter had been purchased by Nathaniel Lloyd in the early 1900s. But it was his son Christopher Lloyd who turned the estate into a gardening showcase in the mid-20th Century. He and gardener Fergus Garrett wrote this book in the early 2000s. It focused on how to create a garden that had year-round interest. They discuss in detail which plants to plant for a spring rise in excitement, then a summer spectacular display, and a blast of fall interest. They also discuss plants that offer ongoing color and how to plan for blank spaces. Hint: seasonal annuals regularly fill in for pops of personality. It’s a great guide as Lloyd says, “to keep the show going” in your garden.
Hellebores are excellent shade perennials for almost any garden. They have pretty glossy leaves and never overgrow their area or get in the way. Plus, they’re evergreen. And when there are slim pickings in late winter for foliage and color, hellebores reliably bloom in February, March, and April. How cool is that?
The most common types are Helleborus orientalis, helleborus niger, Helleborus x hybridus. They like shade and are hardy to Zone 5. Unlike some other perennials, hellebores don’t flop or trail or put on uneven new growth. They just expand in a loose mound, getting slightly wider and not much taller each year. While hostas and brunneras are also attractive for their foliage, hellebores can’t be beat for graceful structure, evergreen foliage, and long-lasting flowers.
Here are some fun facts you may not know about hellebores.
Lenten Roses That Aren’t Roses
- The colored “petals,” are actually sepals, little protective wrappers for the flowers inside.
- They’re easy to transplant. If you don’t like where yours is, you can easily lift the clump out of the ground and move it.
- Flowers can last up to three months. Have you experienced this? If you own a hellebore, you probably have.
- They’re poisonous so deer and other critters will avoid them.
- Your impulse to cut away the blighted or brown stalks as new growth emerges is the right way to trim them.
- The highest concentration of hellebores occurs in Bulgaria and the Balkan countries.
- Their flowers will never look up at you. They nod down. Like fuchsias, they’re stubborn like that. Still worth it.
- They bloom during Lent, hence the common name of Lenten Rose.
If you’re new to growing hellebores, I suggest trying any of the Helleborus orientalis hybrids. They’re kind of common but they’re tough and virtually care free (outside of annual, late winter trimming). For beginner gardeners, I don’t recommend Helleborus foetidus or argutifolius. These grow on stalks and can look odd, perhaps even homely, to a newbie gardener. Plus, the leaves are often a matte tone and toothed, making for a scratchy experience if you brush up against them.
I don’t know how hellebores push themselves up through the darkness and cold weather to bloom so early and elegantly every late winter, but I’m certainly grateful they do. And regardless of which kind you plant, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you walk out the door and see flowers in the garden.