I don’t know how many fall chrysanthemums—45? 60?—I'd dutifully tossed when they’d bloomed out each October before someone suggested I transplant them into the landscape. Uh…what??
Yes—hardy mums are…wait for it…hardy! As in, you can move them into the ground in September, October, November each year and they will happily return each spring double or triple their original size. I kid you not.
I tested this theory a few years ago by transplanting two bright yellow mums between two deep yellow lantanas that surprised me when they returned in spring. And sure enough—it was a wash of shockingly yellow blooms that fall, greeting me each time I pulled into the driveway.
I distinctly remember thinking Southerners were ridiculous for planting fall pansies my first year in the mid-South. I may have even snorted. I mean, flowers don’t survive the winter! Hello! Uh…they actually do.
So now I’m a mum-planting, pansy-planting maniac. I mean, who can turn away from a purple pansy fighting its way through ice and snow in the short, grey days of February? Not I! And who could possibly be discouraged by seeing new growth at the base of that brittle, dead-looking mum in April? Only the Scroogiest Scrooge.
This year, I’m enjoying perennial blooms in yellow, orange, maroon, purple, and white. They even bloom at different times—like I planned that! But I didn’t. But I let people assume so. Even though I didn’t. Que será, right?
Those $5-$10 mums have more than earned their keep in my gardens. And they will in your gardens, too. So when the last blooms have shriveled up into brown or black nubs, give your potted mums a long and fruitful life in a sunny part of your landscape. Then fill those empty pots with a $10 flat of pansies. You won’t regret it. I promise you.
A friend made a last-minute popover recently and said, “Does your house always look like this?”
I looked around for something weird. “Like what?”
“Like this.” She waved her hand in a broad gesture. “Clean and tidy!”
Ah. I smiled a little. Yes. Yes it does. But only when I have a 10—(or more)—minute warning.
I usually clean the house on Mondays. Top to bottom. Change the sheets, vacuum, dust, wipe down counters, scrub toilets, and water plants. I start dinner in the crockpot. If I have extra time, I’ll try to organize the always-present pile of recipes, bills, magazines and other paperwork. It kicks off the week in a positive way. And then, all I have to do the other six days is maintain.
But you know how it goes: The tidiness starts to loosen up a bit two days later. I mean, I don’t live in a museum with a full-time cleaning crew. Real life happens! The countertops get sticky in odd places. Dirt gets tracked in. Toilet paper gets down to four squares. Spiders weave webs in the corners overnight.
So when the phone rings and a friend says, “Hey—are you home? I’m in the area and thought I’d stop by”…I go into 10-minute-cleanup mode.
Most guests are happy to stay in the open-floor-plan living/dining/kitchen area. Couch cushions, blankets, slippers, and reading material are a very quick tidy-up: 2 minutes, tops. The dark wood floors ALWAYS need a sweep: 30 seconds. After I hide the pile of paperwork in the laundry room and store away errant cups, silverware and other dishes in the dishwasher, I wipe down the counters: 1 minute. The downstairs powder room always needs something—and sometimes more than “something”—so I give that area a solid minute.
That usually leaves me about five minutes to put out coffee, cookies/pastries, fruit, napkins—whatever I have on hand—for an impromptu casual chat. Guests never turn down that hosting gesture, and are usually delighted!
You know why? Because that 10 minutes of tearing around, getting things in order and putting out refreshments makes guests feel special. And they might just stay a little longer. We might get to laugh a little harder. I might learn something important—something life-changing.
To me, that’s far more important than any errand I needed to run, any news story I needed to read, any item on my to-do list. And I hope you’ll come to the same conclusion the next time a friend calls and says, “You home? I’m in the neighborhood…”
I started seriously gardening when my friend Fran volunteered to dig up my mom’s peony bulbs at my townhouse to transplant to my new house.
I was so tired from the seemingly endless packing and moving process, I couldn’t stomach the thought of digging bulbs. So Fran took charge. She grabbed the shovel and dug up the peonies, the hostas (also from Mom’s collection), and the azalea. She put them in pots or bags or anything that would hold dirt, and then she helped me transplant them in the new beds.
And then the serious gardening began.
The back and sides of the new house were blank canvases. “What should I plant?” I asked Fran. “What do you like?” Fran countered. I liked hydrangeas. So we installed two Annabelle hydrangeas in a petite, two-foot-wide, mostly shady bed along the back of the house. They looked lonely there, so we added the hostas and azalea. It was lovely. That was Year #1.
When the spring of Year #2 approached, I was ready to attack the sloping back yard. I wanted to create a visual break between our neighbors’ yards and ours, so I ordered six Green Giant arborvitae from a local VFW sale. I didn’t know anything about planting trees, so I hired a guy. I watched him set out a trio of the trees on each side, dig the holes, amend the soil, fertilize and backfill, and thought, I can do that.
Then I started clearing out the edge of the woods. I wanted that “park” look, instead of the scrub of privet and wild vine and ragweed. It was sweaty, brutal work, but I hacked away until I had a two-foot border. “You know what would look great there?” asked Fran. “Forsythia.” So I bought three and we got them in the ground. And I learned a lot about native planting.
And then we really went wild. We added a ninebark and two burning bushes. Fran shared some ajuga, sundrops, and grasses from her gardens. Another friend shared native ferns and anemones and various perennials that quickly fill in. And I learned serious gardeners love to share plants they know do well in Tennessee’s clay soil.
Jimmy now winces a little when he sees Fran pull into the driveway with a load of plants. “I guess I’ll get the shovel,” he mumbles. Under our direction, he digs holes, unearths rocks, saws off limbs, and trims back hollies gone rogue. It’s not his favorite thing, but he beams a little when guests gasp over the lush and bountiful blooms. He’s learned that beauty matters.
In just five years, I’ve developed nine different garden beds. They take a LOT of work—weeding, watering, trimming, fertilizing, googling, treating for slugs and beetles and mildew and black spots. I’m constantly learning, constantly expanding. I’m not afraid to move things. I’m not afraid to fail.
And it all started with a friend and a shovel. Thanks, Fran. We now live in a garden oasis because of you. As you like to say, “There’s always room for more.”
The No. 1 response I get from people who are hesitant to host a dinner party is: “I don’t cook as well as you do.” Well…I beg to differ!
Almost everyone has a “signature dish”—a one-pot or crockpot or casserole-dish meal they absolutely ROCK. It might be lasagna. It could be chili. Maybe a simple pasta dish or soup or Sunday roast or pot pie. There’s high potential it’s a family recipe passed down through generations, so it doesn’t feel “special” enough for a dinner party. But let me assure you: It is!
Most guests are simply delighted to be invited to dinner. They don’t have to cook or clean up afterwards. They’re served in a comfortable setting, under no pressure to plow through their meal so the server can clear the table and seat the next patrons waiting in the lobby. They don’t have to scan the menu to see what they can afford. They don’t have to leave a tip.
Doesn’t that sound like a winning scenario??
The No. 2 response I get from people who are hesitant to host is: “I don’t have fancy things.” Well. Do you have a tablecloth or table mats? Do you have everyday dishes? Water glasses? Paper napkins? Do you have enough silverware for everyone? If not, could you borrow some? I’ve done that!
And guess what? Most dinner guests are absolutely delighted to contribute to the meal. When they say the magic words—“What can I bring?”—be ready with a little tidbit you know about their cooking skills. Do they make a killer dessert? Suggest that. Do they have good cheese instincts? Good enough to put together a little charcuterie board? Score! Are they bread makers? Dip makers? Deviled-egg makers? Take that opportunity to let them shine! If they’re not particularly handy in the kitchen, do they have an excellent wine collection? They’d probably love to share a bottle or two.
See what we did there? We put together a delightful evening with one phone call. It’s really that simple. So go through your worn, tattered recipes and select the one you know is a winner. Then pick up the phone and invite over a lovely person or couple or family today. You won’t regret it.
I’m not a particularly picky eater. Seriously. The food could be patio-grilled. It could be straight from the crockpot. It could be gourmet or even takeout. But if you serve it on paper plates with plastic forks and a paper towel for a napkin, you’re gonna lose me.
My husband Jimmy realized this the very first time he asked me over for dinner. We hadn’t been dating long. His place was squeaky clean, fragrant candles glowed invitingly, soft 80s music played…and then he offered me wine in a red Solo cup.
I’ll pause as you imagine my internal scream.
“Ohhhh…” I murmured in a squeaky voice. “Do you have a glass? Of any kind? Even a juice glass?” He dug around and found a heavy beer glass that may or may not have been cleaned in the previous year. I took it. The next time I was invited to dinner, actual wine glasses stood proudly on the counter. And that’s when I knew he was a keeper.
See—anyone who’s special to you deserves the real things at a meal: non-disposable plates, metal utensils, serving bowls, glassware, not-paper-towels napkins. Note that I didn’t list bone China or sterling silver or lead crystal or fine linen. If you have those—great! Use them! But if you don’t, just go with your everyday dishes…that are actual dishes. They don’t even have to match!
And don’t forget the placemats. Everybody deserves a placemat. Yes—even the kids! My brothers and I ate off laminated placemats of Michigan landmarks. There was often a battle for the Mackinac Bridge mat. So fun…and educational! Mom just wiped them clean after meals.
If you’re feeling particularly bold—or if your guest is particularly special—add some flowers and candles. Put your condiments in little bowls or cups. Get completely ridiculous and add a centerpiece. Lose your mind with wine glasses. Voila! Beauty abounds!
Your table doesn’t have to be gorgeous every time, but it’s a great habit to form, educational for kids, and a step up in social dining skills. So, explore your cabinets, assemble the elements, and try it tonight!
My husband Jimmy and I have an ongoing battle over the dining table centerpiece. Meaning: I want one, he doesn’t. I adore a dramatic bowl or vase or jar of eclectic, conversational items. He doesn’t. I like to layer a base, then a vessel, then an assortment of interesting flowers or items. He—wait for it—doesn’t.
If it were up to him, the dining table would be starkly, sadly naked.
Now, he has a point sometimes. If the table is loaded with dishes and food, and all sides are packed with laughing people, a three-foot vase of gladiolus just gets in the way. But if it’s a small gathering—three or four people—a low bowl of hydrangea blooms or pinecones adds a sophisticated touch.
If you struggle with dreaming up a table centerpiece, you are not alone. They were commonplace with our parents and grandparents (I give you: the cornucopia), and still take center stage during business luncheons and fancy parties. But a centerpiece doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated or even floral. It just needs to be interesting.
If you have a cutting board, you have a base. If you have an artsy bowl, you have a vessel. If you have a collection of anything—marbles, dried flowers, copper utensils, artificial fruit or vegetables—you have a filler. You can skip the vessel entirely and put a houseplant on the cutting board. Voila! Centerpiece.
Let’s give it a try: Choose a board, put it on the table, then look around your house. Bring some odds and ends over. Try different combinations. Grab a glass bowl, fill it with water, then float some candles or mature blooms from your own gardens in the center. Lovely!
And you know what? You don’t have to throw a dinner party to showcase your table creations. They can be just for you and your family. Before long, every decorative item in your home will have centerpiece potential. And then my work will be done.
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.