I’m renowned in my social circles for having a vast—some might say, ridiculous—collection of cooking utensils. If you need it, I probably have it. So, you’ll want to borrow my bamboo toast tongs any day now, right?
If the tongs aren’t your thing, you could open some of my kitchen drawers and fish out a mango slicer, boiled egg slicer or butter slicer…since I apparently have an overwhelming desire to slice things. But I also have a garlic press, egg separator and lemon/lime squeezer amongst my spatulas, wooden spoons, and whisks. If a recipe calls for it, I’m clearly more than ready.
And, honestly, that puts me halfway to getting the job done, doesn’t it?
Same with gardening. I probably don’t really need three shovels, four rakes, two kneeling pads, five shears, and three spades. And my clay pot collection is a little, shall we say, excessive. The shocker is: I actually use all of them! #Truth
You can often find me prowling around my gardens with my green utility cart, stopping at a problem bed, selecting the right tool, attacking the weed or spent bloom or dead branch with practiced ease. I like to think these problems see me coming and shudder with dread. Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you, wild onion.
When you take on any home task, having the right tools on hand can be essential to even getting started. If it’s the perfect tool, and you’ve been just dying to use it—like the melon baller I picked up recently—you’ll be on the lookout for any excuse to try it out. Then watch the how-to video. Then try it again. (Sorry, pockmarked cantaloupe…I’m savvier now.)
So, open those drawers. Paw through those garage shelves. See anything interesting? Anything inspiring? Pick it up and tackle that job today. Now, excuse me as I go grate a tomato. I have a tool for that.
I’d made the daily trek out to get the mail for three years until it finally hit me: My mailbox area wasn’t pretty.
I do a lot of neighborhood drive-throughs. I’d been admiring lovely, happy mailboxes in a slew of ‘hoods that caught my eye, made me smile, and changed with the seasons. Couldn’t I put together something similar? Why, yes! Yes I could! So I did.
The goal in each of my flower beds is to create year-round interest. I mean, it should be fun to wander the yard all 365 days, am I right? The tricky part is knowing what will survive in vastly different sun/shade beds. And my mailbox gets the brutal, blistering, southern summer, late-morning-to-afternoon rays that can crisp a leaf in hours. I’d need to do some floral homework.
I started by digging up the grass—back-breaking work. What I discovered was very poor soil and chunks of cement. I had a brief moment of discouragement, then said out loud, “Challenge accepted!” Spring-blooming bulbs were probably out. I needed something shallow-rooted that could thrive in full sun.
Enter the Black-eyed Susan. Only gnawing critters can kill these plants, so I got some starts from a generous gardener and in they went. Summer beauty: check! Then I considered the yellow-and-white lantana. This is a hardy, woody bloomer and—bonus!—sometimes they’ll volunteer back for you. Perennial: check! Since it was late-summer, I needed to consider something fall-blooming. Anything in a nursery can would have roots too deep for this spot, so I planted a mum in a pot to give the area some height, and added some pumpkins around it in October. Seasonal interest: check!
The next Spring, I added Sundrops—another yellow-blooming perennial. Much to my surprise, a pumpkin vine grew from a seed that must’ve made its way into the Fall soil. This summer, I threw in some yellow Four O’Clock and red zinnia seeds to join the volunteer lantana and Susans.
It’s an ever-changing bed of annuals and perennials that never cease to amaze me. It’s rather fun to see what works and what doesn’t, what thrives in poor soil and what says, “no thank you.” And every time I run out to get the mail now, it takes a wee bit longer as I pause, reach down, touch a bloom, pinch off a leaf, and admire nature’s handiwork. Mission accomplished.
I remember exactly where I was when I first heard the words al fresco.
It was 20 years ago, and I was volunteering for a Nashville event. Someone on staff asked, “Would you check the wording on this invitation? We need to get it right.” I looked it over and said, “What does dining ‘al fresco’ mean?” Pained silence. Crickets. Mind you, we were outside during this evening discussion, so there might have been actual crickets.
“It means eating outside,” the staffer finally answered…with a possible hint of an eye roll. “Ah. Good tip,” I said, mentally slapping myself. And then I had a sudden urge to giggle.
See—I spent my entire childhood dining al fresco. Except, we didn’t call it that. We called it “taking a meal to the field.” Because when the guys were farming and couldn’t stop long enough to get to the house, wash their hands, sit at a table, inhale a meal, return to the field, start up their tractors or trucks or combines and get back to it…they dined al fresco. Usually on the edge of a pickup, under full sun, thankful for whatever we brought them. Who knew there was such a fancy Italian term for it?
Since then, I’ve awarded that fancy phrase with dinnerware in the fancier-than-paper-plates category. “What’s wrong with paper plates?” you might ask. Well, nothing…if you’re eating on the side of a pickup. But if you’re setting up on your patio or deck, or at a winery, or for a romantic picnic, you’ll want to invest in some melamine.
Melamine is a lightweight, durable, dishwasher-safe type of plastic plate for outdoor dining. And here’s the best part: They look like real plates! They can be plain or fancy. They can be artsy. You can find sets as low as $20 and as high as $120. Go for the $20 plates. Get the matching Melamine cups and stemware. And while you’re at it, pick up some coordinating napkins. Your table will be lovely and your cleanup will be simple. And for the love of hosting…please don’t use plastic utensils. I’m begging you.
In the mid-South, our winters are so short, we can dine al fresco nearly year-round. When the weather’s a little chilly, we just gather ‘round the fire pit. We still don’t use paper plates because they’re flimsy, they’re flammable, and they never make people feel special.
And that’s what inviting people over really should be about, right?
Christmas season 2019, I learned to forage. Raccoons, chipmunks, birds and other woodland creatures have been good at it for a millennium, but it took me longer to follow their lead.
Two things happened that decorating season:  I priced live greenery at local stores—yikes!—and,  I watched an episode of my favorite YouTube channel--Garden Answer—where the host and her mom went on a foraging jaunt in the Washington State mountains. I watched in amazement as they gathered a variety of pine boughs, seed pods, pine cones, rose hips, and holly branches, then brought everything back to make into wreaths and bouquets and mantel displays…for free. Wow.
After that, I really started looking around my friends’ yards, common areas, and my own woods with a much-sharper eye. I started noticing pine trees with tiny, frosty-blue berries on them, holly limbs with red berries, dramatic branches, dried hydrangea blooms, sweeping grasses, chunks of old wood. When we picked out our Christmas tree, I noticed a bin of discarded boughs and stumps. I snagged those, too. Before I knew it, I was decorating in the “native” style like a pro! For free.
Since then, I’ve gotten really good at shopping my own yard. When my shovel hits rock, I dig around it and often unearth a large and beautiful piece of Tennessee limestone. I talk my husband into fully freeing it, scrub it clean, and add it to the landscape. I mentally attach a price tag to it: $30. That’s what I could have paid. Fallen branches are a great addition to a woodland landscape: $25. Discarded bricks pop up in the woods all the time: $20. People throw out artistic roots—$20, old flower pots—$30, and rusted metal—$25—all the time. “What’re you gonna do with that?” I often hear. I’m not sure…something cool.
Even if your budget is wide open and you’re not jonesing for a bargain, I encourage you to look around your yard. There’s a bit of a thrill in being creative with natural things. And it’s delightful to see the surprise on guests’ faces when I say, “Oh, I dug that out of the woods.” Priceless.
A Michigan farm girl transplanted to the South offering hospitality hacks.