Why Dirt Under Our Nails Is So Good For Us


Recently, I was talking with a friend about her new garden.

At first, we traded a litany of complaints and disappointments.

Deer ate her tomatoes. A groundhog ate my sunflowers. She kept digging up bricks (the remains of an old patio). I kept plucking the nymphs of Spotted Lantern Flies (the newest pest to invade Pennsylvania).

But after ten minutes or so, we both sighed. And almost as one we said,

Isn’t it wonderful to work in a garden?

Here is one of those great mysteries of gardening:

From the outside it looks like drudgery.

From the inside, it does sometimes feel like drudgery.

But when my mind drifts toward my garden, it is rarely with a sense of dread. Rather, whether it is deep winter and I must wait for spring or it is summer vacation and I must wait for homecoming, when I think of my garden it is almost always with a mixture of longing and love, grief and gratitude.

And even the grief (whether I grieve over diseased plants or troublesome pests) is a kind of love.

After our shared sigh, we laughed, and she said, “I’ve heard there’s something in the soil–some mineral, maybe?–that’s good for us. Even if my garden fails, I am glad for this chance to take off my gloves and get some dirt under my nails.”


My friend is right.

No matter our superficial successes or failures, it is good for us and for our happiness to tend a bit of dirt.

Scientists have found evidence of soil’s anti-depressive properties, and exposure to dirt and sunshine strengthens our immune systems.

So while it is good to make plans, set goals, and work toward garden progress of one kind or another, the work itself is worthwhile.

The work itself can help keep us happy and healthy.

Here are a few more links for further reading:

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

Why January and July are Alike in the Garden


In outward appearance, these two months aren’t alike at all.

But in the heart, mind, and soul of a gardener, they have something significant in common.

These are the months that invite us to pause. To be still. To pay attention. This is how we tend the soil of our own selves in order to better grow the gardens we really want to grow.

Not our grandmother’s garden. Not the garden we visited on vacation. Not the gardens we see in books or on tv, but the garden that is unique to us and to our place.

The garden only we can grow.

Like my cat Tom, pictured above, mid-summer should be lived (and gardened) less frenetically and energetically than spring.

July is for watering, and deadheading, and gathering the first harvests of vegetables or flowers, but the heat of July is there for a reason. It pushes us down–into a chair or onto a hammock–and asks that we simply look. Looking is one of the most important things we can do as gardeners, but attentive observation is too easily lost as we bustle back and forth at work in the space we are making.

When we stop and look–really, look–we can see the gaps we want to fill, we can see the plants we really love (and the ones we don’t), and new garden dreams can begin to take shape. Lately, I’ve been sitting quite a lot at a glass-topped table outside my kitchen door. Because of all that sitting and all that looking, I have begun to imagine a lily pond in the space between the gravel terrace and the flower garden. Perhaps it’s a terrible idea, perhaps it will never happen, but it is certainly an idea I never would have had if I had kept on quickly marching between the kitchen and the garden with only my next garden task on my mind.

July and January: if the garden is a journey, these mid-points are significant. They are signposts we should not rush past without taking time to reflect.


Here are a few “seeds” to inspire your own mid-season contemplation:

  • January is a good time to think through what we will plant in spring. July is the perfect time to consider what we might plant in fall, and some argue that fall is an even better time of year for planting. This may be especially true for trees and shrubs. The soil has warmed, rainfall often picks up again, and the plant can grow its roots a bit before resting through the winter and taking off again with vigor in the first warm days of spring.


  • Are you naturally more of a plant collector or a landscaper? This is a tension I am always feeling in my own garden. At heart, I’m a collector. I want one of everything and often order special plants before I know where I will put them. But gardens rarely look as good they could without restraint. A hodge-podge is not as peaceful as a landscape thoughtfully designed to look and feel good. Currently, I’m thinking through my approach to a long stone-edged border in my backyard. The plant collector in me has filled it with roses and dahlias and a lot of self-seeders like poppies and cosmos and verbena bonariensis. But it is a border that is usually seen from a distance, and I know it would have more impact if I planted it with big blocks of color. Neither is right, but I do need to take the time to consider which style I really want.


  • Sometimes, what we need most mid-season is escape. If we escape into garden books and television shows, we often emerge re-invigorated to tackle our own garden challenges. I love to read memoirs about the making of personal gardens like Charlie Hart’s Skymeadow: Notes From An English Gardener or We Made a Garden by Margery Fish. I also like to browse old episodes of gardening-themed television shows on YouTube. I recommend both seasons of the Great British Garden Revival and the always inspiring and informative Gardener’s World hosted by Monty Don.


Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

Celebrate: Cut Flowers!

One of my favorite ways to celebrate and appreciate my garden is by cutting flowers to bring indoors.

This is an especially helpful practice when we are hitting that mid-summer Wall of Discouragement, as I think of it.

You probably know the moment I’m talking about: suddenly it’s too hot, too humid, too buggy, and the garden has lost its spring freshness. At that moment, it is all too easy to see the things that aren’t going right, for instance, the rose buds devoured by Japanese beetles, the blackspot or powdery mildew, the worrisome signs of blight on the boxwood.


This is when cut flowers can turn our perspective right around.

Gardeners have a critical eye in their own spaces. We are drawn to the “not right” and easily pass over the “absolutely wonderful.”

When I cut flowers and bring them indoors it’s as if I put a frame around the garden’s gifts.

Flowers in a vase are the very best of what’s growing in the garden at that moment. Flowers in a vase help bring the garden’s best right up close where we can appreciate it and be nourished by it.

Did a raging storm knock down half the scented lilies?

Are insects devouring a favorite plant?

Is mildew or fungus creeping up the stems?

Each of these scenarios is an invitation to choose to see the best in our gardens and to make that our focus–indoors as well as out.

Here are some links to help you celebrate cut flowers:

Floret Flowers is a family-run flower farm in Washington’s Skagit Valley. Their website, blog, and books offer lots of beautiful inspiration for growing, harvesting, and designing with flowers.

A flower frog is a funny name for an amazing tool. Pop one in the bottom of your vase and use it to secure tall stems. Life-changing, I tell you.

Even if nothing seems to be doing well in your garden, the book A Tree For the House will give you new eyes to see the design possibilities of everything alive outdoors. You’ll be inspired by weeds and shrubs even when your garden flowers aren’t doing so well.

One of my favorite inspiring accounts to follow on Instagram is Swallows And Damsons.

Some tips on keeping cut flowers fresh longer from The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Finally, even those of us who don’t grow many flowers can see the beauty we do have and celebrate it indoors. I love to add herbs to my bouquets, and flowering herbs especially are worthy of their own arrangement. A bonus is that you can keep your bouquet on the kitchen counter and use it in your cooking. Even vegetables can look amazing brought indoors.

What about a vase of glorious Swiss Chard?

What about a few branches from a leafy shrub?

The possibilities are almost endless.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

In Praise of Ugly Plants


Ugly is a strong word, isn’t it? Perhaps I could say garish or not to my taste.

But the funny thing about taste is just how much it changes. Even up into my twenties, I hated the flavor of blue cheese. Now I love it. I’ve always said I disliked the color orange, now I can’t imagine my garden without the deep, vivid orange of tithonia or Mexican sunflower. Put it up against a black-painted fence or a deep purple flower and it positively vibrates.

Who can dislike a color with so much living energy?


The summer solstice is just around the corner, and it is beginning to feel like summer here at Maplehurst. It isn’t only the warmer temperatures and the more humid air. It’s also the particular plants growing alongside the country roads, in municipal flower beds, and around the homes of my neighbors.

Many of these plants have never been “to my taste.” However, I went for a drive for the first time in a long while and was shocked by how happy I was to see things I have always, vaguely disliked.

The golden mustard color of ‘Stella d’Oro’ daylilies.

The bright pinky-red of the Knockout roses.

The so-red-they’re-almost-orange of pelargonium in clay pots.

I saw these familiar colors, and my heart was filled with … joy. That’s the only word for it: joy.


The daylilies in my own garden are apricot and pink. The Knockout roses I prefer are yellow or white. I love to keep pelargonium in clay pots, but I love variegated leaves and flowers in salmon or coral.

But as my husband drove our car, I kept my eyes glued to every passing yard. The ‘Stella d’Oro’ daylilies seemed to shout summer is here! The knockout roses really did knock me out. My own roses wouldn’t look like much seen from a distance from a moving car, but those knockouts make a statement even at thirty-five miles an hour. And the pelargonium? The flowers most of us still call geraniums? The red was so red it made me think of summer berry picking and grandmother’s porch and childhood.


I believe there is a language of flowers. It isn’t a secret code. It isn’t, perhaps, as strictly controlled as the language Victorians used when they gave violets rather than roses.

This language is more personal. More powerful. And matters of taste and style and preference don’t have all that much to do with it.

Perhaps all these years I’ve spent gardening, I have really been learning to listen.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.


After We Weed and Water: Let’s Celebrate

Maybe it’s because I was born in June, but I’m always in a mood to celebrate this time of year.

Here at Maplehurst in Pennsylvania, the flower garden is at its most flower-y, and a long spring of garden work is behind me.

But celebration takes discipline. It requires commitment. As the days grow warmer (and perhaps even hotter and stickier and buggier), it can be easy to lose momentum, to begin to see our outdoor spaces as burdens rather than blessings. Taking the time to celebrate with intention may be as important as deadheading the fading roses and pulling the weeds.

Here are some ways I’ll be celebrating the garden this month:

Flower Crowns

I’m no florist, but even an amateur can gather a few flowers for her or her daughter’s head. One of my most precious garden memories is of the time I hosted a Summer Solstice gathering for several families who have young children. We gathered buckets of flowers from the garden and made flower crowns at our old picnic table. Even my sons joined in.

There are many ways to do this–from simple daisy chains to more elaborate creations with floral tape and wire. I like this tutorial from Taproot magazine and Erin Benzakein of Floret Farm.

Cut Flowers

I am a committed cutter-and-bringer-in-of-flowers. It can be hard for a gardener to do this when the outdoor picture we’ve created seems just right. But it’s amazing how much cutting a garden can take before it shows.

I look beyond flowers for things to cut and bring indoors: fern fronds and hosta leaves, cuttings from flowering shrubs, even weeds can be beautiful when brought indoors.

I am inspired by the idea and the Instagram hashtag #onebouquetperday

Feasts and Flavors

You may or may not grow many edibles, but making something wonderful and unique to taste from our gardens is a celebration in itself.

This month I’ll be making elderflower champagne, strawberry shortcake (with basil!), and decorating my birthday cake with roses.

More ideas?

I look forward to hearing your own celebratory ideas–either here in the comments on this post or in our community space on Mighty Networks.

This month, let’s commit to celebration. Let’s picnic under trees, eat fresh-picked berries for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, make rose petal jelly, and … so much more.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

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