For as far back as my childhood memory allows, my family’s holiday table had a chair reserved for strangers. They were missionaries, foreign college students, pastors, traveling musicians, and roommates eager to experience a Norman Rockwell moment.
See, I grew up on the Michigan equivalent of Walton’s Mountain—farm families gathering together for food and fun on any occasion. Everyday grandparents. Cousins galore. Board games and ice skating and cookie-making and croquet.
We had a revolving door of guests who jumped right into whatever we had planned for the day. Planting and harvest were the biggest draws, but the holidays with their farm-food buffets and handmade gifts were a close second.
As children, we were fascinated when foreign exchange students from far-off countries like Turkey sat at our Thanksgiving table. (Plus, it was giggly-funny.) A Michigan State student from Yemen joined us for Christmas. Summers brought kids from Japan and Mexico. Strapping teenage German boys joined us one spring.
And what I find most fascinating on reflection of these glory days is how well everyone adapted. Guests tried new foods. We tried new languages. We never talked about politics or religion or anything controversial. We just laughed and ate and played games and enjoyed each other’s company. And really—isn’t that how it should be anyway?
This holiday, I encourage you to invite a stranger to your holiday table—a student, a recent transplant, a widow, an immigrant. You might be surprised how many people near you have no holiday plans, but would really like them. And just like that, you could be the difference between a long day of sorrow or joy.
Are your outdoor plants gasping in this heatwave? Mine are. I check on them morning and night, gently pulling off yellowed and dead leaves, shaking my sweaty fist at the brutal sun, and watering, watering, watering. I mean, what else can we do?
Well, here are a few ideas.
Lay down a thick layer of mulch. Mulch keeps plant roots and soil temperature cooler, and helps retain moisture. About 2-3 inches should do it. Any less and the pesky, drought-happy weeds will just laugh and pop through with abandon. Any more and you may actually block rain or irrigation from getting in AND oxygen-starve your roots. NOTE: Although it’s fun to just throw on mulch with abandon, keep it off and away from the plant base—it could cause plant rot.
If the summer sun seems to be burning your plant’s leaves, consider putting up shade cloth. Think of this as a lightweight umbrella, filtering harsh rays and giving your plants a break. Go with white or light-colored cloth and install it on posts or poles or even bamboo. Here’s a great how-to link: https://youtu.be/lFbloOu_raQ.
If your flower containers are drying out too quickly, try double-potting them. Just put the original pot inside a bigger pot, then fill the gap with newspaper or those packing peanuts you’ve been storing for an occasion such as this. The bigger pot will absorb the sun’s harsh heat, the layer will act as a filter, and the actual pot will stay cooler. No—this is not the look you were going for when you snatched up that one-of-a-kind planter at the garden center. But your plants will reward you in the blistering summer, and you can release the beautiful pot in the cooling fall.
Remember the mulching tip for your garden beds? That also works for pots! Use up to 3 inches of stones, gravel, sand or bark to protect and reflect sun from the top layer of potting soil. Bonus—this layer pushes water down into the soil and stores it for later. NOTE: You want light-colored stones (yes, yes…black stones are really trendy and pretty, but…) because they reflect sun, not absorb.
And then there are a few “don’ts” for this harsh season: Don’t fertilize—they don’t need it, can’t use it, and it may actually stress out plants even more. Don’t re-pot—this will add even more stress to the shock plants naturally experience during repotting. Don’t prune—not only does this add (wait for it) stress, you expose tender cuts to harsh sun and temps. All of these can wait until fall, when everybody’s ready for a change.
Every single southern summer, I think I might not survive the high temps, relentless sun, and hair-crushing humidity. But I do, and so can your plants with just a little bit of added attention. Now, where did I put those packing peanuts…
I catered a graduation party recently, and one of the 20-somethings said to me, “I wish I could cook.” I smiled at him and said, “Do you own a crockpot?” He looked off into space and said, “Um…maybe?” That response always cracks me up, because if you have a crockpot in your kitchen, you know it.
Slow cookers are space hogs of the first degree. They’re oversized round or oval, incredibly heavy (if they have a ceramic or stoneware insert), with a giant glass lid. If you have one in a cabinet, you’ve had to work around it…probably muttering like Fred Flintstone.
But man, are they worth the storage hassle!
The slow cooker is the workhorse of cookery. (My apologies to the air fryer, the kitchen appliance du jour. I have two of them, so shhhhhh.) The main idea behind the slow cooker is the ease of “setting and forgetting”—i.e., You fill it, start it, and leave it alone ALL DAY. There’s no rushing around after work to throw together dinner. No staring into the fridge or pantry, wondering what could fill your gurgling stomach. Your food is just ready.
That idea alone is revolutionary.
But add to the set-it-and-forget-it concept the simplicity of crockpot recipes. I own seven slow-cooker recipe books. SEVEN. My favorite by far is Stephanie O’Dea’s 5 Ingredients or Less Slow Cooker Cookbook. I’ve hosted dinner parties with Stephanie’s “King’s Chicken” recipe and one attendee said, “I want to put my whole face in this dinner.” I mean, is there a better compliment than that?? And it was five ingredients, people!
I’ve come to the conclusion that I should just carry around a box of crockpot cookbooks to hand to “I-wish-I-could-cook” bemoaners. You can cook…you really can! All you need is a slow cooker, a few recipes, and a grocery list with less than 10 items. So believe it! Then let your crockpot cook it.
I used to say, “If you can read, you can cook.” But that’s not really true, is it? If you’ve never actually seen someone sear a giant roast, how would you figure it out? When a recipe reads, “Mince two cloves of garlic…” could you do it? And how much, really, is a “pinch” of salt?
In my 20s—before online search engines answered any question we might have about cooking—I called Mom, Grandma or Aunt Beverly for answers. When I first moved south, I pestered my friends Millie or Betsy. Now, I just shout it into my phone. That’s incredibly convenient and efficient, but I miss those food chats with real people.
Real people usually have confessional stories to accompany their answers. Take, for instance, my “town kid” mom who married a farm kid. She knew nothing about meal prep, let alone growing food. When Grandma sent her to the garden to pick some strawberries, she scanned the tidy green rows in anguish, spotting nothing resembling a delicious red fruit. Aunt Marilyn to the rescue! She parted the leaves and—voila! Strawberries! Hiding underneath! Who knew??
It is astonishing how much food knowledge a farm kid gains just by hanging around the fields and gardens. In college, a friend asked me, “Do you ever just walk into the field, rip off some corn, and start eating it?” Sarcastic snort before, “Well I might. If I was a COW.” [awkward pause] “Field corn is not the same as sweet corn.” [crickets] “It’s really dry.” [blinking] “You’ve maybe heard the commercials about corn-fed beef…?” [light bulb moment]
The same is true of kids who hang out in the kitchen. You might start out standing on a stool and just stirring, but you soon learn a wooden spoon picks up every flavor, every spice it stirs. So you might not want to mix your baking batter with the same spoon dipped repeatedly in your pot of jambalaya. You don’t remember learning this, but you just know that measuring cups are different for dry vs. liquid ingredients. So you measure flour or nuts by the cup or half-cup, and oil by the ounce.
So yes—if you can read, you can cook. BUT…there’s always a learning curve along the way. Just ask the questions. Someone out there will be happy to share the answers. Bonus: You might get a little story out of it. Like that time I had to rescue a salty gravy a nameless friend tried to thicken with baking soda instead of flour…
It seems impossible that just one year ago, when the world was still slightly mad and everyday tasks were restricted, I agreed to start a YouTube show. I mean, how much crazier could life get?
As it turns out: Pretty crazy!
A luxury weekend for out-of-town guests led to a coffee-shop meeting, which inspired a phone chat, that shaped an idea with currently 20,000+ YouTube views about…hospitality. Yes—hospitality! Those skills you gleefully drag out when guests arrive and you get to kick your daily routine to the curb. The happy excuse you give for trying a new and possibly expensive recipe. The much-needed reason to spruce up your home and yard because: Company is coming!
Now, hospitality can be as simple as having a friendly and generous spirit as you welcome people into your everyday life. It can be. But it never is for me. I seem to go over-the-top for one guest to join us for chicken pot pie. I mean, flowers need to be enjoyed…candles need to be burned! A coffee chat needs to give the French press a workout. Tea is just better in a vintage pot with a fresh slice of pumpkin loaf on matching plates. Am I right?
Of course I am! And that’s why I’m having so much fun sharing hospitality tips with viewers all over the world.
You see, we are all better people when we extend a hand to friends and strangers. People notice when we try harder. Guests appreciate beauty and thoughtfulness. Generosity is never out of style! And kindness should be second-nature, shouldn’t it?
I think so, and I hope you’ll continue to join me each week as I try to encourage everyone to confidently say those three magic words: Come on over!
I blame my Aunt Beverly for my vast dish collections. She’s in Heaven now and can’t refute this, so you’ll just have to roll with my recollection.
When I settled into my first long-term apartment after college, Aunt Bev looked around my kitchen and said, “If I lived alone, I’d have a different set of dishes for every season.” BAM! I liked that idea. I looooooooved that idea. I embraced that idea.
I embraced that idea so firmly, I’m now able to loan out my entire collection of glass luncheon plates (52) and never miss them. Traditionally, I use my full set (12) of heavy Pier 1 “crackle” dishes December-February, my set (12) of yellow HomeTrend dishes March-May, my Johnson Bros. blue-and-white transferware set (8) June-August, then return to the yellow for Fall. I just sold the transferware, so now I’m in the market for a trendy set of white plates.
But why stop at plates? I mean, we need serving bowls and platters, don’t we? Yes. Yes, we do. And maybe a cake stand. Possibly a footed trifle bowl. Pudding cups are awesome.
You see how this Aunt Bev idea quickly grew into an obsession? And—bonus!—these dish patterns are retired. (Or as I like to call it, “out of print.”) So resale sites like eBay and replacements.com are both my enabler and my nemesis. You can find me late at night by following the soft glow of my computer screen as I scroll, scroll, scroll through page after page after page of retired dinnerware.
I console myself by recognizing there are far worse obsessions than dishes. Like, glassware. See, it all started with a set of gold-rimmed crystal I found in Austria…
I once attended a house party that was so fun, so rocking, so friendly that it was a full 30 minutes before I realized I was at the wrong wedding reception. Truth.
Now, this was before phone GPS and—in my defense—it was a very crowded and unfamiliar neighborhood. I was on the right street, just in the wrong house…which I realized when I finally got around to congratulating the bride. We toasted to her happiness and I dashed off to the correct shindig. Good times.
And that’s the kind of party we should all aspire to host, isn’t it? You know what I mean: the vibe, the ambience, the front-door mood that calls out to every guest, “Come on in and stay awhile.”
So how do you achieve that?
I think it starts at your well-lit entrance. Your porch should have a welcoming glow—not searchlight bright, not horror-film dim. Just a nice, pleasant glow…like the inside of a carved pumpkin. That way, when you open the door to your guests you’ll know exactly who’s standing there and—bonus!—they’ll know they’re at the right house.
After that, it’s all about comfort and pleasure. Have a designated place for coats and handbags. Clear some counter space for gifts of wine, desserts or side dishes. Introduce the latest arrival to the earliest, then listen for the next doorbell.
Music should be just loud enough to be recognizable, but not too loud for conversation. Interior lighting should be soft and—hear me on this—NOT overhead. NOT glaring. NOT fluorescent. In fact, get that fireplace going and light every candle in your house…that’s beautifully intimate.
If you’re hosting a dinner party, resist the urge to get everybody seated immediately. Let them chat as guests trickle in. Freshen cocktails. Clear appetizers. Then, when it feels natural, invite them to the beautifully-dressed table—where the evening will undoubtedly linger and end.
Before long, you’ll get really good at these gatherings. People will speak fondly of that cocktail hour, that Super Bowl party, that ladies tea you hosted. They may not even mention the food, but they’ll remember how welcome you made them feel.
I remember precisely when I became a yard scavenger.
I’d made a risky move from a large Midwest town to an artsy mid-South neighborhood just in time to roll my eyes at residents planting Fall pansies. (Newsflash: They bloom through the winter here!) And then, suddenly—like overnight—nearly all the mailboxes on my street were covered in fresh evergreen garland and bows.
But not mine. My mailbox was naked and cold and definitely the odd man out.
I put my journalism degree to work and discovered a local private school held an annual Christmas fundraiser by selling mailbox garlands. These garlands were stunning. They were lush. And they were waaaaaaay out of my price range.
So I gathered some pine boughs and holly from my yard, pulled some festive ribbon from my stash, and created my own, free mailbox garland. It was not an unmitigated success.
I wish I’d taken pictures of it, because you’d probably shake your head in pity. Pieces started falling out the first week. I think the ribbon came untied in a high wind. But I was not deterred! And I got better at it each Christmas.
After that scavenging revelation, I started noticing the pinecones scattered over the lawn and collected baskets of them before the mowers blew through. I found forsythia along a fence line and clipped some branches for a spring vase. I came upon a rogue tulip along the canal. Volunteer daffodils beside a storage shed. Tiny crocus near my back steps.
And I officially became a scavenger-forager.
Before long, I was asking friends if I could cut a few wayward branches from their magnolias and euonymus. In exchange, I could provide pine and holly. I grew some roses and traded those for hydrangea blooms. I became unafraid to ask for blooms because most gardeners simply loved to share.
So I encourage you to start really investigating your yard. Explore your friends’ yards. Walk slowly along the edges in all seasons. Look up into the trees. Chances are you’ll find some wild beauty out there just waiting to come inside and adorn your home.
Christmas has officially “left the building” and, boy, does my house look…blah.
This happens every year, so I shouldn’t be surprised by the end result. But every January when the last container gets hauled up to the attic, I look around and think, ‘this is boring.’
Now, keep in mind that my level of “boring” may not be yours. I have vintage photos resting on bookshelves and hanging on walls, dried hydrangeas in vases and bowls, ceramic/pewter/stone birds on tables and windowsills, and yet…boring.
I think the mind game involves the muted colors of winter design. Once the bold Christmas hues of rich reds and green plaid and metallic golds are stored away, I’m left with wood and cream and perhaps a spot of blue. *yawn*
But then I look outside, and guess what? Winter is rife with leafless wood-toned branches, a sprinkling of evergreens, spots of tan hydrangea blooms. And that bland landscape makes it easier for me to delight in spotting a shockingly red cardinal, an orange holly berry, the purple-white blooms of a winter hellebore.
So, I’ll take it a little easier on the blah of winter interior. It’s rather peaceful, now that I’m settling into it. And when spring erupts in late-February, and visions of Easter dance across my mind, I’ll delight in those pastels…maybe bring some inside. And the interior landscape will change anew.
Confession: I am terrible about planting flower bulbs. I mean, I buy them—tulips, daffodils, crocus—but I rarely plant them. Then I get to find them all shriveled and wasted on the garage shelves during the winter clean out and mentally kick myself. Hang my head in shame. Total up the wasted money. This happens year after year after year…
So this fall, I came up with a way to buck that trend.
I watched a local garden center video on “underplanting”—burying bulbs in flower pots under 4-6” of potting soil and top-dressing with winter flowers or even decorations. And it hit me: It’s the process of digging six inches into the Tennessee clay that trips me up! I mean, can you name one gardener who enjoys digging through six inches of cement-hard or wet clay to plant something that lays dormant for months?? I’ll wait while you desperately think of one…just one…
Okay, maybe you came up with one. But I can’t. And I know a LOT of savvy gardeners.
Bulbs in pots serve two purposes: (1) easy planting, (2) spring surprise. Planting is so EASY because you just bury them in fluffy potting soil. It’s almost fun! And the surprise in early spring—that time in four-season areas when the days are cold and gray and depressing—as the new growth bursts through the soil is unmatched for even the most experienced gardeners!
So I encourage you to raid the bulb bins at your local garden centers this week. Yes—this week! Grab any tulip, daffodil, crocus, and hyacinth bulbs you can find and bury them in potting soil. If that’s enough to satisfy you, great! OR…
Top dress those pots with winter greenery, pansies, decorative moss, obelisks—anything that creates interest and lifts your spirits. Just about the time you’re weary of those toppings, your spring flowers will burst through and inspire you once again.
I have three pots underplanted right now, and I’m jonesing for a fourth. And, who knows? Maybe I’ll get inspired by all this planting to actually dig some clay holes. Probably not…but a gardener can dream.