Adjustments, transitions

McDonald Woods, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Back on Labor Day, surrounded by all that loud, vivid green, I was almost able to drown out the “last day of summer” whispers. Summer was alive and present. The sun was still out. The day was hot and muggy and the cicadas were screaming. People still strolled sleeveless, sockless.

As we wandered through deep woods, the first step on our journey back to the city, I saw it on the edge of a row of bright green oaks and alders. Fall. It was a little spindly thing with lime-veined pink vellum for leaves. It grabbed the early evening light, and radiated a nostalgic warmth. It stuck out, a lone blast of color and crunch against a soft green backdrop. I wondered about this little tree. About the accelerated calendar it must have been using. About the singular forces that made it begin to turn so much earlier than the others.

Early fall in the McDonald Woods, Highland Park IL / Darker than Green

I kept walking, leaving fall behind, thinking it was an anomaly of the far northern suburb we had ventured into, something to deal with later. I reentered the city, blindly expecting summer to blaze on. But, sitting in my living room staring out at the treetops I’d grown so used to these past few months, I saw it again. Fall. I noticed the leaves of the honey locust across the street. A canopy of the brightest, boldest green whose uppermost leaves had now begun to yellow. Its bits of confetti gently released their hold on the branch, almost indiscernible for those not paying attention. And I realized, I hadn’t been paying attention.

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For all the walking and wandering and gazing and thoughtful considering I’d been doing this summer, my eyes had been closed. I saw what I wanted to and ignored what I didn’t. I’d quietly trained myself to take in the good, the green, the growing — and avoid the signs of change and transition. The fading color, the curling edges, the going-to-seed. Summer is on its way out, and fall is humming its arrival.

Turning maple leaves in early fall / Darker than Green

Change is something I’ve never been good at accepting. I resist it, averting my eyes and ignoring the inevitable. I crave stability but rarely attain it. Out of control, hovering just shy of the unknown, the anticipation of the changes to come tighten in my stomach.

Leaves turning yellow / Darker than Green

For the gardener and greenhunter, these last days of summer feel a bit bewildering. Just as I had settled into summer, I now feel its warmth waning: an embrace that always ends too soon. Outside, things are changing everyday, usually signaling the end of something that had been beautiful to behold. But this year I heard a ringing in my ear. The echo of something I had already, somewhere in me, known to be true:

Don’t think of it as the end of summer, think of it as a season of new beginnings.

Green leaves at sunset / Darker than Green

It’s a lofty task for someone who generally resists change by any means necessary. But in the spirit of new beginnings, I’ve started to look for signs of fall like I do with spring, spotting and uncovering the hints the living world has left around me. It’s still a slow shift — a flutter of yellow, pointed tips turning red, crisp brown wedged within curb — but I see it now, everywhere.

I don’t avert my eyes. I don’t avoid the signs. The exact shape and color and sound and smell of it is still unknown, but fall is coming. It’s ok to not know exactly what’s on the other side of all this change. And I’m working hard to welcome it.

Late summer in the McDonald Woods, Highland Park IL / Darker than Green


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New Green City Guide: NYC

Walking through Central Park / Darker than Green

Back in August I split town and spent a week in New York City. I stayed on the edge of Brooklyn and Queens and caught up with good friends, 99% of whom now live there. I wandered for miles through wild gardens, biked a surrey around Governors Island, lingered in the aisles of heavily air conditioned stores, drank delicious tiny coffees, and ate a bagel everyday.

With each small adventure, I felt myself growing fonder of this crazy place that had previously intimidated and overwhelmed me. I found the softer side of the city, the lush green underbelly that often gets overshadowed by miles of steel infrastructure and concrete facades. I felt tested and stretched, but I also felt welcomed and comfortable. The streets were walkable, the people were kind, and the food was fantastic. What more can I need?

I’ll have several more posts coming up about a few of the New York green spaces I fell in love with, but in the meantime, I’ve got some suggestions for your next trip to NYC. Check out the New York City Green City Guide and let me know if you have any favorites to add to my list!


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Chicago Botanic Garden

Grasses at the Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

We’ve been taking an annual trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden for a few years now. The Garden’s hundreds of acres unfurl into an infinite number layered views, gushing with color and texture. I’ve spent many, many hours exploring the individual themed gardens, walking as many of the crushed gravel paths as I could, maximizing my time in this planted oasis. But every year, I find more. More hidden corners of the grounds, more plant combinations, more sights for these sore city eyes.

Desert house at the Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Desert house at the Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Crassula arborescens, Silver Jade Plant, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Cacti at the Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Desert house, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Alluadia procera, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Cacti at the Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

We always take our trip out to the Gardens on Labor Day. The bonus day, third day in a three day weekend nestled well inside the warm weather season. This year, it felt like half the city of Chicago had the same idea. The gardens were full. Multi-generational families lingered on bridges, beers clinked in the grill patio, and rows of strollers lined up outside the butterfly tent.

Tropical house, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

In the tropical house, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Monstera deliciosa in the Tropical house, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

There were thousands of people exploring the gardens, bickering, laughing, sharing seating space on wide, flat rocks. We listened in on friends catching up, a wife telling her husband her cheeseburger-and-red-wine order, mothers and sons giggling about recently made memories. I heard different languages, many of which I couldn’t identify. I saw white linen robes and jewel-toned saris billowing with the wind, and baseball caps shielding eyes from the late day sun.

We all wandered from garden to garden. Inspired by the same call to leave our homes and enjoy a day off together, outside. We all sighed in relief under the shade of a tall tree. We all inhaled deep when we passed the scent throw of a flowering plant.

Tallgrass prairie, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

In the tallgrass prairie, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Grasses in the tallgrass prairie, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

I enjoy spending time in beautiful gardens because I love the plants. The way they look and smell and feel. Their patterns, the way they splay their leaves, the way they catch sun and shade throughout the day. But my favorite part about the CBG might be watching how other people interact with the garden. You don’t have to know everything about horticulture or garden design or biodiversity to be able to enjoy the space. You just have to use your senses.

Russian sage at Council Ring, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Bridge to Evening Island, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Evening Island, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Evening Island, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

From afternoon until evening, I watched the Garden come in and out of focus. It shone as scads of eyes grazed over its hills and ponds, picking out particular plants as singular objects of attention. And then it faded into the background, sparkling like lens blur, behind the faces and stories of all its visitors.

In the desert house, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Bridge to Japanese Garden, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

Japanese Garden, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

The Chicago Botanic Garden is almost 400 acres of beautifully planted gardens located in Highland Park, a north shore suburb of Chicago. I get there using the Metra Union Pacific North line, which costs about $6 roundtrip. Get off at Braeside and walk 20 minutes to the Visitors Center where you can get your bearings and plan your route. My favorite stops include the Japanese Garden, the Council Ring on Evening Island, the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, and the Prairie. I’ve only ever been to the CBG in the summer, but it’s open year-round and I imagine it is stunning during any season. Parking costs $25-30, but entrance on foot or by bike is free.



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Gethsemane

Perennials in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

I recently got back to Chicago from a long-awaited vacation to New York City. I spent most of my time in NYC doing all my favorite things: going to parks and plant stores and eating my weight in delicious vegetarian food. Needless to say, it’s taking a while to get back into the swing of things here in the Midwest.

In an effort to bring some of that vacation feeling back with me, some friends and I recently took a long lunch and headed up to Gethsemane. This shop is a gardener’s paradise with a succession of yards and greenhouses showcasing perennials, annuals, indoor plants, trees and shrubs, garden furniture, pots, and tools. The place takes up a whole city block and during weekends in summer, it’s absolutely packed with people. People who love plants, people who buy plants, beginning gardeners, experienced collectors, sellers, experts, and everyone else.

A well-stocked plant store at the height of summer is a beautiful thing. On the day of our visit, Gethsemane was warm and vibrant, but mercifully calm — its typical throng of eager shoppers conspicuously absent. So we got to wander the hallways of this quiet green temple in peace. I wasn’t really in the market for more plants. I’m trying to hold back on spending for a while until my wallet recovers from its time in New York. But I can always browse. And browse I did.

Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Agave in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Succulents in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Cactus in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Cacti in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Orchid in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Asparagus fern in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Perennials in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

Annuals in Gethsemane Garden Center in Chicago / Darker than Green

A bee's butt in Gethsemane Garden Center, Chicago / Darker than Green

Gethsemane is located in the northside neighborhood of Andersonville. It’s fairly easy to reach via public transportation: the #50 bus drops off about a block away. While you’re up north, I’d strongly recommend a stop at the nearby Middle Eastern Bakery where you can buy all the falafel, hummus, and bulk spices your bag can carry.



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Camping in the city

Tents on Northerly Island, Chicago / Darker than Green

We stuffed our packs and rolled up sleeping pads borrowed from gearhead friends. We took a train to a bus and then walked ten minutes past crowded museum steps and beach front hot dog stands. We signed waivers and scoped out spots for our tents alongside a thick row of wiry green stems. We caught glimpses of choppy Lake Michigan through openings in the brush. The glowing gray buildings of downtown Chicago stood sentinel to the west, hugged and held by the hot afternoon sun.

Lake Michigan lagoon, Northerly Island / Darker than Green

Northerly Island / Darker than Green

Kayaks on Northerly Island / Darker than Green

We kayaked in a shallow lagoon bordered by bog-loving plants, learning proper paddle technique and racing each other from end to end. The breeze off the lake and the droplets of water that inevitably found their way into our boats kept us cool. We hiked slowly back to camp where we drank beers and ate perfect, plump plátanos around a well-tended firepit. The sun dipped down behind the city and we watched the bright moon rise red over the lake. We shared jokes and ghost stories and turned our fingers sticky with melted marshmallow.

Campers at Northerly Island, Chicago / Darker than Green

Smores on Northerly Island, Chicago / Darker than Green

That night we heard the cars rush down Lake Shore Drive, and the wind whip rhythmically at our tent walls, and the crickets chirp out loud, to each other, to themselves. We heard the distant hiss of a neighbor’s tent zipper, and the ringing of an ambulance floating deep through downtown.

The morning brought squishy walks through dewy lawns, a climb along the rocky lakefront, and a race to catch the quickly changing light of the sunrise. The sky and clouds churned an infinite number of colors, and we watched the waves creep over the hard concrete dock. People in pairs sat below the planetarium, clicking photos of the neon pink sun, or just watching the day open up.

Sunrise at Lake Michigan / Darker than Green

Sunrise at Lake Michigan / Darker than Green

Sunrise at Lake Michigan / Darker than Green

As the sun rose higher in the sky, the cloud cover thickened and the threat of storms rolled in. We broke down camp, warmed our bagels over the bonfire, and made our way back to the bus. Sitting on the elevated subway, clutching our transit cards and cellphones, still clipped into our giant packs with sand between our toes, the distance between nature and the city quietly collapsed.

I thought back to our hikes to the lagoon, to floating through marsh plants in a bright red kayak, to spotting glowing planets in the hazy pink sky. I thought back to the crackle of the early morning fire, and the sound of hot coffee being poured into a stainless steel thermos, and the patterns of clouds passing over a warming sun.

I remembered the early morning conversation we had with one of the campout guides, about the places he’d lived and how each of them are entirely unique and can’t be replicated. About how Chicago is it’s own amazing thing, and so is Oregon, and so is Tennessee, and everywhere else. I thought about the times I’d wished Chicago could be different, more, something else, something better. And I felt something shift in my mind where a frustration had once been. I felt full and excited and grateful. And I looked forward to another night, some time in the future, spent out under the stars.

Lake Michigan / Darker than Green

We spent a night camping on Northerly Island with REI. Camping within the city of Chicago is essentially non-existent, so this experience was incredibly special. I’ve gone out before on an excursion with REI and can’t recommend them more highly. They are experts who are fun to be around and take care of everything. But even if you can’t make it to the next campout, a hike around Northerly Island Park is still time very well spent. The park can be accessed on public transit using the #146 bus to Museum Campus.



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Lights out

Sunset in Chicago / Darker than Green

Last weekend we had two straight days of giant, loud, destructive storms. Rain poured in buckets from the sky, and deep cracks of thunder shook the neighborhood, waking up a chorus of angry car alarms. Giant hail shot holes straight through my nasturtium leaves. Shoes got soaked, plans got canceled, and somewhere in a dusty corner of the grid, the switch for all the streetlights on our block got turned off. At first I figured they’d come back on the following night, but it’s now been six days and we’re still in the dark. And I love it.

For the past week, it feels like we’ve been living in the country. Yeah, there’s still noisy traffic and from the sidewalk you can still see a pair of glowing gas station logos in the distance. But in our living room, every night at dusk, we watch the sky gradiate from blue to pink, and the crowns of honey locust trees turn black with the setting sun.

I never thought about just how omnipresent streetlights are, how loud and invasive they can be. How easily their withered orange light paints every nighttime memory and experience. I revel in the times spent away from the city because I’m often closer to wide open green spaces, but also because I’m farther away from buzzing street lamps and light pollution.

But this week, the vacation came to us. Our top floor apartment became a cabin in the woods. Stars have been shining just a little brighter. Sleep has come more easily. When I walk through the door, I pull on relaxation like a cozy winter coat. And all we had to do was turn off the lights.


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Weeds

Wild plantain / Darker than Green

These days the hard asphalt feels miles thick. Solid. Impenetrable. The endless sidewalk unrolls for blocks, dirtied bubblegum dotting the peeling curb, crumbling and worn by the hot summer sun.

My eyes, magnets for green, spot the plants squeezing through cracks in the street. Many like to call these plants weeds. Nuisances, pests. So-called invasive or foreign species, identified as outsiders. Aggressors gobbling up space and resources. Taking hold in soil never meant for them.

Weeds / Darker than Green

In this country, black people are weeds. Brought over from a foreign land, we were cultivated, domesticated, beat back, and disposed of when deemed too wild or unprofitable. We’re seen as opportunistic and greedy. Our features are considered vulgar and undesirable. Experts gather to discuss methods of blocking the spread of our blight. And we’re deliberately eliminated — razed when we take up too much space, destroyed when we simply try to exist somewhere we’re not welcome.

There are things I know how to talk about because I know them so well. And then there are things I struggle to talk about because I know them so well. The helplessness of seeing people that look just like me be systematically overlooked, held back, locked away, and murdered. The hopelessness that comes with learning our history, discovering that the oppression may have shifted gears, but that it’s never really gone away. The frustration of witnessing people continuously deny and belittle experiences they have never had and could never have. The resentment from watching those people speak for me and down to me. The confusion and anger from knowing that some minds can never be changed, that some people will never recognize their privileges, that some truths will never be acknowledged. The emptiness I feel when the dizzying thought crowds my mind: what if justice is an impossible, unattainable dream?

Weeds / Darker than Green

I’ve been keeping an eye out lately for construction zones, not for the buildings in progress, but for the plants that often take advantage of the newly open space. It seems that the rigid asphalt can actually be broken away quite easily — like the shell on a hardboiled egg — revealing the loose, damp earth below. In some emptied lots, the prairie has already rushed in, that grassland that develops after the humans have gone and the earth is left to settle and heal itself. The place where weeds and wildflowers sprout freely, plants differentiated only by context and perspective.

Many of these pop-up gardens won’t make it past the summer. They’ll be sprayed or chopped or smothered. And many of us won’t make it another year. Black people continue to be murdered, black communities continue to be fragmented, our voices continue to be drowned out. But despite their attempts at mowing us down, we keep rising up. We keep growing. We evolve. We sprout thorns to protect ourselves. We blossom.

I have a soft spot for weeds. Unwanted. Misunderstood. They persevere, finding the will to thrive under less than ideal circumstances. They get cut down, pushed over, uprooted, and they keep coming back, stronger than ever. They are resilient. They are beautiful. And so are we.

Weeds / Darker than Green


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Outdoorsy and black

Darker than Green

The solstice has come and gone, which means it’s officially summer. People are parading to beaches in droves. Gardens are filling in. National parks are being crossed off bucket lists. I don’t have any imminent plans for specifically outdoorsy travel, but it’s always on my mind. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of rivers and canyons and mountains and deserts that I want to experience. My hope is that there’s enough time (and grit and money) to ensure I see them all, and it’s always my hope that having visited these places, I’ll leave with a deeper understanding of the land, myself, and the people who came before me.

I often think about how love of the outdoors is typically represented in the mainstream. Sometimes it’s about getting away and connecting to nature. Often it’s about fitness or extreme adventuring. Very rarely it’s about heritage and cultural sensitivity. Also very rare: depictions of capable, interested people of color spending time outdoors and enjoying it.

I’m a person of color — a woman of color, no less — who loves nature and being in it and learning about it. I don’t usually see a lot of other people who look like me on the trails, or on the catalog pages of outdoor equipment retailers. But I know we exist. Because I exist.

Midwest sunset / Darker than Green

The Code Switch podcast recently did an episode on Being Outdoorsy When You’re Black and Brown, and it was beautiful. They talked to people of color about how and why they get outside. They talked about how many different ways connecting to the outdoors can look and sound and feel, despite the lack of representation and historic barriers of entry. They talked about organizations working to increase access to the outdoors for people of color. It was a dialogue about inclusion, and positivity, and growth. It made me proud to know there were other people out there wanting to have these conversations. And then I looked at the comments.

I’d seen it before, not the exact words, but certainly the anger. “Why is it always about race??” “Can NPR report on something without tying it to skin color??” “How is this a story?? Just go for a hike and relax.” A complete dismissal of the personal accounts, the nuanced reporting, the richness and diversity of experience. I saw this same sort of visceral negativity in the comments in The Guardian’s April feature on Outdoor Afro. I’m consistently amazed at how negative people can be when presented with an idea or experience they’re unfamiliar with. There’s so much I don’t know or understand about the world around me, but I try my best to keep an open mind and acknowledge when I’m coming at something from a position of privilege. It seems like something as earnest and crunchy as talking about building community in nature wouldn’t become a battleground for statistics and claims of race baiting. But now we discover that no topic is safe.

Bug in the prairie garden, Chicago Botanic Garden / Darker than Green

My impulse is to run away. To take a break. To take a hike. To go outside and water my garden. And I suppose, in one way, this may be the best way to combat the history that tells me these spaces aren’t for me and the indignant commenters that tell me my experience has no merit. Do I want to walk into an outdoor store and see adventurous women on full bleed marketing collateral that look like me? Yes. Do I want to purchase a ticket to an outdoor excursion and know that I’ll be around people who value diversity and new experiences as much as I do? Definitely. Do I want to browse the interpretation plaques in a National Park visitors center and see text acknowledging the displacement of indigenous people and the environmental stewardship efforts pledged by the Park Service? Of course. But I also know change is slow, and the people in place to make the change are usually very hesitant to do so.

The answer may just be to venture out, to go camping and kayaking, to climb mountains, to canyoneer the narrows, to tend our gardens, to acknowledge and protect nature, to create beauty where before there was none. But we should also make sure to continue asking questions, and having conversations, regardless of how uncomfortable they make people feel. The answer may be that in nature, like everywhere else, our presence and our voices are equally important.

Simone Martin-Newberry / Darker than Green


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How to buy plants

Baby cacti / Darker than Green

It’s no surprise that I love trips to the plant store. A friend of mine once described the sense of unbridled joy and limitless opportunity for self-healing she felt whenever she went to the grocery store. This is how I feel at the plant store.

Plant stores sell more than just plants. They sell beauty, and oxygen, and therapy. They sell commitment, a connection to the natural world, and a renewed understanding of time. All for relatively cheap. If it’s a good garden store, you can walk out of there with something special, a combination of colors and scents and textures that is completely unique to you. And then you can bring it all home and enjoy it everyday.

I’ve been spending time (and money) at garden centers for decades. I wouldn’t call myself a gardening expert, but I might be an expert on plant stores. Here are some of the tips I’ve collected over the years.

Sempervivum / Darker than Green

1. Check out your space

If you’re planning on some cleaning and greening — whether outside or inside — enjoy the space for a while before spending any money. The urge to improve can be pressing, but it’s worth it to pump the brakes get a sense for what you’re working with. Grab a chair and a cool drink. Watch the light, watch where it goes and when. Look for spots where the sun is strongest and observe where it’s weakest. Watch for wind or high traffic areas, knowing these are the spots where delicate stems could be bent and broken. Figure out what you want, what will grow well in your space, and take notes.

Christmas cactus in bloom / Darker than Green

2. Set a budget for yourself before you get to the plant store

We all want a lush, verdant garden today, right now, immediately. These days we expect convenience and speed in all things, and our desires for a perfect green space is no different. However, when planning a garden, you can have it fast or you can have it cheap, but you can’t have both. The most magical gardens you’ve seen have been built slowly, and almost certainly didn’t look perfect in their first year. Likewise, if you’re not starting plants from seed, you’ve got to be willing to put some money into it. Consider what that number looks like before you get to the plant store. This will help you avoid both a busted wallet and a broken heart.

Plants in a bag / Darker than Green

3. Bring a bag, or a box, or both

If you’re driving, you don’t need to worry about this because you can just put everything into your car. If you’re like me and you’re walking or taking public transportation, bring something to help you transport your finds back home. Canvas bags work well if they’re gusseted and made from sturdy fabric. The straps will help you carry more, though if you carry the bag over your shoulder, delicates leaves and stems can get damaged in transport. Cardboard boxes work well too as they keep everything upright and are relatively easy to carry. But you can’t just throw them over your shoulder. Unless you have incredible upper body strength, there’s a limited amount of weight you can bear with just your hands. I’ve found the bag/box combo to be the best, providing a flat bottom and straps for easy carrying. Grab a cardboard box, place it inside your canvas bag, and plan to fill that thing with plants.

Darker than Green

4. Ask for help

We’re all still learning, even the master gardeners among us. When at the plant store, don’t be too proud to seek guidance. Look for an employee or the owner and ask questions. If you’re looking for something special, they’ll know if it’s in stock. If you’re looking for something for a specific area of your garden, they’ll be able to help narrow down the options. They may have direct experience with the tricky plant on your wish list and can give you advice on how to make it work. These people are an excellent source of free plant advice. Take advantage.

Maidenhair fern / Darker than Green

5. Inspect your picks

Don’t get a plant home and then realize that it’s overrun by pests. Don’t just assume every plant in the store is equal in health and quality. If you’re at a good, independently owned plant store, chances are high that most picks will be good picks. But give your plants a thorough once over anyway. Look for infestations: weird bugs or strange substances on the leaves. Look for new growth. Healthy plants grow. Some species grow slowly, but there should almost always be some sign of growth. Look at the roots. Some guides will tell you to avoid plants that are rootbound (ie, you can see roots growing out of the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot). It get can extreme, but it’s not always as much of an issue, especially if you’re planning to repot or put the plant in the ground as soon as you get home. If you’re a plant doctor and feel confident in your rehabilitation skills, by all means, buy away. Otherwise, zero in on the healthiest specimens.

Baby's tears / Darker than Green

6. Look for smaller versions of the plants you like

This is a quick one. Smaller plants are cheaper and easier to carry. If you’ve chosen a plant that will thrive in the space you picked out for it, it will quickly grow to be as big as the version that would have cost you $16 (or more).

Shooting star plant, Dodecatheon meadia / Darker than Green

7. Treat yourself

And on the other side of the coin, if you find a plant that’s kind of expensive, but just thrills you, do yourself a favor and get the plant. Splurge. On a plant. If buying the plant and all the others in your basket blows your budget, maybe leave the others behind. Like money spent on experiences, money spent on plants will come back to you many times over.

Pilea peperomioides and fern / Darker than Green

8. Only pick up what you love

I don’t believe in filler plants. Everything in your garden should make you happy when you look at it. Extend Marie Kondo’s life-changing edict to the garden. Every plant you own should spark joy. If you want a vegetable and herb garden, get veggies and herbs. If you want a container garden of all perennials, get them. If you love bright color and refreshing your garden every spring, load up on annuals. Don’t pick up a plant just because you need “something.” Leave a space bare until you come across the right plant for the space.

New plants on the porch / Darker than Green

9. Don’t take it too seriously

We’ve all killed plants. We’ve all forgotten to water, or watered too much, or picked a plant that needed way more sun than we have in our apartments. The only way to learn about plants and get better at taking care of them is to make those mistakes. So the next time you’re at the plant store, challenge yourself and buy something you’ve never seen before. Buy something you’re not sure you’ll be able to keep alive. You just might surprise yourself.


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Talking about weather

Summer storm in Chicago / Darker than Green

We’re at the tail end of a long stretch of warm weather storms. Just like spring, summer came early — the hot, muggy days expected of July went ahead and showed up in late May. Fans are set up in every room. Beds have been stripped of their comforters. Ice cubes clink in sweaty glasses of water. And every day brings a rain shower of varying intensity. Today, the thick white cloud cover overhead is slowly shifting to gray. Sharp gusts of cool wind burst through dense canopies as if to say, “Get ready.”

Before I moved to Chicago, my understanding of summer storms was sorely limited and essentially flawed. The “rainy season” in Southern California mostly comprised of a few weeks in November when the ground goes damp and everyone forgets how to drive. Here in the Midwest, I’ve learned the extreme weather season lasts all year.

Darker than Green

My first big warm weather storm happened during my first summer in Chicago. I was in college at the time and paid $270 a month to live two blocks from campus in a sunroom with white-framed windows on three walls. The subsequent winter would see me huddled by a space heater, attempting to ignore the frost growing on both sides of my single paned glass. But in the warm season, windows and curtains stayed open to let the breeze flow through. The room was my refuge in the trees. I spent much of that first summer sitting in the window sill, watching the lazy handful of neighborhood kids and graduate students jaywalk three floors below.

One afternoon in my bedroom, I noticed the light change. The buttery yellow walls had begun to glow a hazy orange. I leaned closer to the window screen and struggled to focus my eyes on the sky, sidewalk, brick buildings across the street. Everything was bathed in the eerie orange light, deepening rapidly. The air hummed with electricity. The cloud cover thickened and before long, the sky let loose an angry spew of hail that turned green lawns white and rattled violently against our cement facade. As quickly as it came, the hail slowed and then stalled, melting away and taking the thick orange sky with it. Hot, wet asphalt and leaves fat with the weight of water were left behind as the only evidence of the storm.

Callery Pear tree in the rain / Darker than Green

In the years since, there have been many more hailstorms, some worse than others. We’ve had thunderstorms that blew out power for entire neighborhoods, powerful stabs of wind that felled the oldest trees, curbside flooding that turned intersections into lakes. There was even that year when we were first introduced to the legendary derecho. A this point, I’ve had a lot of experience with this city’s intense weather. But every time the sky darkens and the winds ripple through wildly swaying trees, I’m still surprised.

I suppose it’s the city’s brush with untamed nature. We don’t have craggy mountains to arch our necks at, or vast oceans to dive, or deep forests to wander. Chicago’s natural beauty has been largely leveled to make way for historic feats of architecture, temples of culture and academia, and a few hundred lovingly tended urban parks. But the weather is our great equalizer. We’re all cold on the hundredth straight day of freezing temperatures in April, and we’re all in awe of the uncontrollable power of a wild summer storm. It doesn’t matter how much we try to insulate ourselves with society and technology. One way or another, nature always overpowers, stuns, delays, distracts, reroutes, impresses, terrifies, and drenches us.

Darker than Green

The breeze outside picks up speed and the windchimes on our back porch sing louder and more often. A distant rumble of thunder echoes, and the skies churn from bright white to a swirling gray. When today’s storm breaks, I have my face pressed hard to the glass. I watch in awe as the army of droplets fall, and as the wind blows unknowable patterns in the soaked and shining streets.


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