The past few weeks – months, really – I’ve taken a bit of a break from writing to revisit an old love. Drawing was always my first outlet, the one that stayed and morphed with me as I got older and eventually developed a career. When I’m not writing here or wandering with my camera outside, I’m making art, drawing for clients, and more recently, for myself.
Earlier this month I got a selection of my personal illustrations hand-screenprinted – the prints are now up for sale. If you want to bring a bit of the outdoors in, or have a blank wall begging for some artwork, I hope one of my pieces catch your eye.
A new website has recently launched, aiming to support and connect female travel writers of color through personal essays, city guides, travel tips, videos, podcasts, and forums. It’s called On She Goes, and I’m thrilled to have a piece live on the site. I wrote about the camping trip I took in February in Florida, to beautiful and remote Cayo Costa State Park. I’ll be posting more photos from the trip, but in the meantime, here’s the story: Reconnecting with Nature on Cayo Costa.
Because of schedules and timetables and prior commitments, I knew I would have one full day in San Francisco to spend on my own. So I got an early start. BART dropped me off at the 16th Street station shy of 8am, where I walked past businesses still sleeping behind graffitied metal shutters. I feasted on a soft red pepper quiche from Tartine and bagged up half of my morning bun before hopping on a MUNI heading west.
I’d read that the San Francisco Botanical Garden was free as long as you arrived before 9am, and that’s exactly what I did. I strolled across Lincoln Way, down the most beautiful Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive I’d ever been on, and walked right through the garden’s open gate.
There are a lot of benefits to getting to the botanical garden early.
Before 9am, you’ll have the place to yourself. You can wander from corner to corner, circling around cloud forests and through redwood trails without hearing so much as another footstep. The only people I encountered were staff: quietly deadheading, pruning, hosing down. And where the staff couldn’t reach, the irrigation system compensated. Hundreds of automatically timed sprinklers shuddered from behind wide leaves and brilliant inflorescence. As I went through the garden, I ran to dodge the great arcs of water. I shielded my camera from the unchecked droplets and watched the sun glitter in the periodic downpour.
Before 9am, you can wander the garden freely. Just up a short hill, beyond the sun-loving succulents, I found backstage. Plants-in-process. There were no elaborate planting schemes, or well-placed interpretive plaques. Back here, in the far corner of the garden, young plants sat tucked into their plastic trays, tagged with their scientific names, staked and tied in white plastic hoop houses. Under the shade of a row of giant eucalyptus trees and below the looming Sutro Tower, I imagined what it would be like to work in the gardens, to care for the greenery, to see the early morning sun touch their leaves every day.
That light, that unique light, is perhaps the best benefit to getting to the garden before 9am. The early morning sun is sly and generous, its angled beams streaming and pooling on the edges of silhouetted fronds. Before the sun reaches its midday high point, shadows are long and deep, pushing the bright colors of the foliage into even starker contrast. There’s a haze in the air, most likely still settling dew, that catches the light and turns it a warming yellow green. That light, like the morning itself, is a quiet secret: curling your lips at the corners; begging to be told; pressing on your lungs until they swiftly inhale and when you open your mouth, the sound that’s released is peppered with birdsong.
San Francisco Botanical Garden is 55 acres of walkable garden paradise, located in Golden Gate Park. It’s easily accessible via public transportation, many MUNI buses drive right by. If you’re planning to get there early in the morning, bring a jacket with you. San Francisco is beautiful, but it can get pretty chilly.
The day after Christmas, we heard it was going to be 50 degrees outside, a continuation of the extreme weather swings of the past few weeks. So we put on our fall boots and rode a bus all the way out East. We walked to Lake Michigan, and through Lincoln Park, and into the Conservatory. The wind along the lakefront threatened to push us over, but we bristled ourselves against the gusts and set our eyes out over the horizon.
We joined the steady flow of folks from out of town, folks visiting family, folks venturing out of their homes and pajamas for the first time in days. It was busy, the walkways were stuffed edge to edge with selfie-takers and cousins and new couples meeting parents for the first time. Children pointed out scavenger hunt finds and captured holiday trains on their tiny cellphones.
For the day, we had spring, a momentary break from the hostile weather of early December. At the end of the month, we were welcome outside again. We knew it wouldn’t last, but it felt good to get out, to get some fresh air, to walk along well worn paths and see some color.
The former British poet laureate, Alfred Austin once said: “Show me your garden and I shall tell you who you are.” I agree that the state of one’s curated surroundings says volumes about that person: about what they value and what they don’t; about who they think they are or want to be. My indoor garden is a pretty clear reflection of who I am and what’s important to me. I used to think about opening up a store one day, a place that would be an extension of my home, the public face of my private identity. The dream of a store still flickers sometimes in my mind, often when I’m lingering in someone else’s.
I’m interested in the purpose of a store. I know they’re meant to provide customers with access to goods. But, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, shops are also places that feed the spirit. Have you ever gone into a store and never wanted to leave? Wished you could just live there forever? Remember the statistic that said some Anthropologie shoppers spend up to four hours there? A shopkeeper’s job includes sales, for sure, but also requires creating a space where people will feel comfortable, welcome, at ease. A place where they may be able to be shown, as Alfred Austin put it, who they are.
I recently found myself thinking back on the plant stores I wandered in and out of during my week in New York. On paper they’re pretty similar, but the experiences of pulling open heavy doors and coming inside, wandering aisles, investigating objects and considering purchases — all the tiny actions that amount to “shopping” — those experiences were all so different. These shop visits were an exercise in observation, in being aware of how a space can make me feel, and what it can teach me about myself as well as the person who stocked the shelves and opened the doors.
When you first walk into Sprout, there’s a bright orange wall against which a number of strange and beautifully shaped plants are displayed. I was drawn to it like a moth to the flame. There are colors everywhere you look in this shop, but its white-washed brick walls serve as a perfect backdrop and breathing space. There’s a Sprout location in Chicago, which is dark and sumptuous, but the Brooklyn Sprout is fresh, elegant, and radiant — like a young professional woman in a smart, white wool jumpsuit. The ceiling angles high overhead and is punctuated by cloudy old skylights. The walls are lined with bookcases full of neatly organized textiles, crystals, and gift items. My best friend and I smelled every single candle on display. I got lost in the tangle of plants crowding each wall and overflowing from each table.
Ideal for: fancy people, fine gift givers, event planners, tablescapers
A few years ago when I first heard about Green Fingers Market, I spent the better part of an afternoon doing a deep dive of the shop owner’s entire online portfolio. It was the first time I’d heard of “plant stylist” as a job and I became obsessed. Satoshi Kawamoto has a shop in Japan and this store here in Manhattan, which is nestled into a long, narrow storefront on a small city street. Looking into the store from the front door is like peeking into a lush jungle from the windshield of an off-road trekking vehicle. There’s a feeling that you’ll uncover something here that no one has ever seen before, some perfect display or never before seen species. The place is dripping with plantlife and antique bits and bobs: the result is layered and effortlessly stylish. Keep walking all the way to the back of the store for an embarrassment of vintage menswear and leather bags. If Sprout embodies a savvy young woman, Green Fingers is the perfect mirror of its owner: cool, classy, and masculine.
Ideal for: men who love plants, vintage denim collectors
I had never been to Boerum Hill before this excursion, and the neighborhood fully charmed me. It’s quintessential Brooklyn: tree-lined cobblestone streets, brownstones with front porch gardens, tiny cafes and independent shops nestled within residential blocks. And from strolling around the neighborhood, GRDN is as quaint and wonderful as you would expect. The shop itself is one small room lined with useful gardening tools, gifts, and large bags of potting medium — a great blend of functional and decorative objects. In the middle of the room sits a large table filled with vases of spectacular fresh flowers. But go out through the back door and you’ll enter a secret garden, the nursery area of the shop. It’s almost like time traveling to a backyard garden in London, complete with the antique pots, classic perennials, and gravel crunching under foot. You may find yourself wanting to wrap the whole store up and ship it back to wherever you live. I know I did.
Ideal for: daydreamers, fresh bouquet seekers, classy neighbors who just need a big bag of dirt
When it’s 90+ degrees out and humid, inside a hand-built greenhouse is maybe not the place you want to be. But it’s where we found ourselves the day I learned about Crest Hardware. This place is, as you may have ascertained, an actual hardware store, with rows of hammers and lightbulbs and heavy duty gloves and ceiling fans and all the other things you would expect to find at your local True Value. But if you follow the signs for the garden center, out back you’ll find a glorious green space packed with both flora and fauna. There’s a bird cage tucked in among the philodendrons, rows of succulents, stacks of terra cotta, and a large wooden pen in the open air garden space. This is where Franklin lives, the resident garden keeper, a potbelly pig. Crest is not fancy. It’s not overthought. You won’t feel like you’ll break anything if you turn around too quickly. And that’s where its magic comes from. It’s a space for regular people who want to bring more beauty into their lives. A noble pursuit, and an attainable one, even in the middle of New York City.
Today, here in Chicago, it has started to snow. The first snow of the season is always a bit of a recalibration. It reminds me of where we are within the cycles of growth and decay, of light and dark. I had been finding it hard to believe that it was already December and that the end of the year was only a few short weeks away. But then this morning I woke up to snow, and it made sense again.
I always struggle to remember, when it’s snowing and I’m wrapped in multiple insulating layers and my fingertips are turning blue, that it was once warm. Not just warm, hot. The kind of heat that makes you gasp for air. The kind of heat that seeps into your body and radiates off of you, creating an echoing aura that hums when you get too close to anything or anyone else. The kind of heat that that coaxes your body into producing more sweat than you thought was possible.
This day I spent in Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters was like that.
It was August and my full week in New York City was coming to a close. Despite the intense heatwave and tropical storm system that seemed to be oscillating around the eastern seaboard, I was able to convince my best friend to join me on a sojourn out of Brooklyn and up to Washington Heights.
After riding the cool, stainless steel A train up along the eastern shore of Manhattan, we emerged in a green world. The cicadas were screaming their mechanic song and the heavy air was still in the tallest trees. The rolling Hudson River peeked through a clearing in the leaves and we caught our first glimpse of the giant old fort structures, built and used during the Revolutionary War.
We made our way to the Heather Garden where layers of green folded over and into each other, the landscape punctuated on its edges by tall elm trees. The drunk bees were in wild collection mode, barely visible inside deep flower cups, sucking up the nectar from alliums, irises, black-eyed susans, and all varieties of heaths and heathers. Along the snaking path, we stopped to gape at bright white hibiscus blooms, perfect and unblemished, with diameters bigger than pie pans.
And then we got to the Cloisters Museum, where trefoil arcades created perfect frames for the surrounding greenery. Where potted plants huddled around elaborately sculpted columns. Where low-set walls of marbled gray and pink stone held in serene central gardens: the carefully reconstructed cloisters for which the museum is named.
The indoor galleries at the Cloisters hold a collection of medieval art displaying both the beauty and brutality of the era. Wandering among the intricate tapestries and gold Byzantine jewelry, we caught our breath and soaked in the cool, conditioned air. We dipped in and out of the museum, into the dark galleries and out to the walled gardens. We eased away the goosebumps of the frigid, climate controlled rooms among the scorching hot terraces and beds planted heavily with ancient herbs cultivated in the medieval age.
Watching families wander among the gardens and tiny sparrows spin and flap their wings in a trickling stone fountain, I felt as if I’d stumbled into an alternate universe. One where the traffic and concrete intensity of midtown felt impossible and unknown. Where an interest in history and an avid appreciation for beautiful spaces were shared by everyone in attendance, all ethnicities and age ranges included. Where the immense hand of high summer’s heat touched us all, but couldn’t hold us back from enjoying what the vast city had to offer.
I had a hard time tearing myself away from this place. I’d kept the Cloisters in the back of my mind for years, since learning it held many artworks and artifacts I’d studied years ago in my high school art history classes. My eyes whipped around me, focusing on every leaflet and sprout and piece of delicately carved rock. I watched as the sun blazed mercilessly on everything in its reach, casting hard, sharp shadows through vine and pillar. I breathed in my fill of the thick, fragranced air, held in place by the wide Hudson River and the deep valleys dug out from clay and stone. But then, eventually, we started our trek back to the train and back into the belly of the city. We wandered through the deep brush of Fort Tryon Park and back to 190th Street, past children and adults running through fountains in the nearby playlot, seeking out relief from the profound heat.
Back here at home, in Chicago, remembering this day feels like a distant dream. Here, the sky has turned flat and white, has turned on its faucet producing an endless shower of fat, wet flakes, has lowered to envelop us in its impenetrable opaque globe. I know the sun is still up there, hot and unfiltered, probably warming the skin of park wanderers and lawn picnickers on the opposite side of the globe. But here in Chicago, I watch the fresh snow pile up on the bare oak branches outside my window and reminisce about when the sun, in all its harshness and warmth, was mine.
Fort Tryon Park is located at the far north end of Manhattan in Washington Heights. It’s a nice, relaxing ride on the A train, one made even shorter if you manage to catch an express train. To get to the Cloisters, you have to walk through Fort Tryon Park along a path that leads you through the Heather Garden to the east, or through the dense forest to the west. Gorgeous (and sweltering) in the summer, a walk through these lush areas will definitely impress year-round. Also helpful to note that admission to the Cloisters museum is suggested donation, so you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to enjoy these beautiful spaces.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.