The new year

Hot pink sunset on an early May evening, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

The end of the calendar year has always felt a little awkward to me, a little arbitrary. The line between December and January is so thin, almost indiscernible, save for the dwindling number of round fir wreaths on doors and hazy twinkle lights in windows. We go from love and ritual and celebration to stoic facial expressions and lists written in pen, I-resolve-tos and I-really-mean-it-this-years. I know the new year signifies a fresh start for many people, an opportunity to try each month, week, day over again. But I struggle to find new energy between one cold, snowy day and another.

On the other hand, the door between days in early May swings wide. 24 hours of sleet can be immediately followed by sun-warmed skin and a cloudless sky. Trees that were asleep on Monday can sprout on Wednesday and stretch wide to full leaf by week’s end. Spring was a subtler affair when I was growing up in southern California, but here in Chicago, in early May, it’s a 30-piece brass band: warming up with a rumbling din; a sudden, jarring racket of out-of-tune notes; a swelling, well-known tune played in perfect harmony, uncanny in its effortless perfection.

It’s easy to see this time of year as the time to start over, to brush off old plans and introduce new goals. The endless changes in the natural world almost demand it. “We’re in transition. What about you?” It’s not the beginning of the calendar year, but it is the time to visualize and resolve. As it turns out, it’s also the beginning of my personal new year. My birthday is in early May. The 4th, to be precise. So today, it all starts fresh.

Last night in my living room, as the sun set, I watched the thick gray clouds dissipate and uncover a hot, pink sky. The colors, almost impossibly saturated and strong, didn’t last for long — night draws its flat shade quickly this time of year. But as the afternoon disappeared into evening, the sky sizzled, burning through everything that had happened in the past 24 hours, and in the past 365 days. I saw the sky’s fire consume all I’d done and thought and lost and broken, won and created and accomplished and forgot, ignored, adopted, transformed, destroyed. It all fell away. The colors began to lose their heat, fading to a dustier range of hues, and as the day retreated, I put the old year to rest.

Today, the new year begins. The 30-piece brass band is warming up. Their fingers fiddle nervously at valves and reeds, tightening and polishing the cool metal. When they’re ready, they inhale in unison before letting the first, clear note ring out, familiar and sweet.

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Linger and dissolve

Purpleleaf Plum tree (Prunus cerasifera) in full flower, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Purpleleaf Plum tree (Prunus cerasifera) with new leaves in spring, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

Purpleleaf Plum tree (Prunus cerasifera) in full flower, Chicago IL / Darker than Green

At time of writing, I’m sitting on my back porch, wearing shorts. It’s mid-morning and it’s the first truly warm day of the year. The wind is pushing our spindly branches of our pear tree against each other, a rhythmic clacking, almost like the first few drops of rain against the window. The soft sound is interjected by the roar of speeding cars. After months of hearing the traffic muffled through closed windows, the rumbles are sharp again, sudden, surprising. The bird chatter, too, stretches easily to my ears — their calls, like laughter, ringing loud and close.

I’m sitting here, watching the air swirl around me, push the last of the petals from the leafing plum tree up into the air and across our weathered wood deck. The air itself sounds warm again: the sound of leaves brushing, sweeping, rustling. The smells are back, too. After winter’s dry, howling vacuum, even the pear tree’s overripe scent is a welcome reminder that things are alive. I light some incense. It’s what I do when I know I want to sit a while, linger. It’s the kind I can’t burn indoors because it’s too strong, too dusty, will fill the house and our lungs too much. Out here, on my back porch, on the first truly warm day of the year, the sweet clouds rise and twist, hanging on for a few moments before dissolving away.

It’s our nature to want more, to imagine things being different and therefore better. I remember longing for a morning like this, just a few weeks, days, hours ago. Now that it’s here, I feel my brain struggling to stay, focus, accept. I go backward, remembering what the plum tree looked like earlier this week, an explosion of white, pink-centered blooms, bright and clear among the foggy weekday haze. I go forward, spotting the new branches on treetops two blocks away, imagining them bobbing and dancing in full leaf. My eyes understand them to be bare but my brain knows it’s not for long.

How do we — how should we — process moments that we know are fleeting, that we know may never happen again? There are only so many photos to be taken. In the in between times, just being aware must be enough. On my back porch, a heavy gust of wind rushes through, waking up all the wind chimes in the neighborhood. As the wild, tiny orchestra pushes into action, I lean toward the sounds, let each tone sink into my ears, hold them tight, and then let them go.

Purpleleaf Plum tree (Prunus cerasifera) flowers and leaves, Chicago IL / 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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City noises

Flowering Callery Pear tree / Darker than Green

We live on a busy street in Chicago. These two lanes cut through most of the north and south sides, and are often used a backup for drivers routing around the city’s endless construction. There’s usually a steady flow of traffic, pedestrian revelry, ambulance sirens, window-shaking bass, and reggaetón. In short, it can get loud.

When I first moved into the apartment, I didn’t know how I was going to handle all the noise. Even with the windows closed, the sounds aren’t muted completely, just muffled. My first few months of opening the front door was enough to routinely startle and distress. Five years have since passed. And though the noise is still there, now I’m pretty used to it. Wooden floor squeaks and blender rumbles mix with the constant din of the city beyond.

Ming Aralia in front of a window / Darker than Green

Mornings mean breakfast in the east-facing kitchen, where we turn sleepy faces toward the hot sun and watch, swaying in the breeze, a quarter mile of treetops. The loud concrete crackle in front of our apartment becomes a quiet green echo in back, the sounds softening through the filter of wind and leaves. Occasionally we can hear the distant roar of the El train and the hefty puff of a passing bus, but what we hear most is birds.

The birds were here as soon as the word ‘spring’ shivered on the city’s tongue. The giant tree next door was brought down last fall, so now our towering callery pear tree serves as the avian highrise for so many pairs of tiny wings. The tree’s leaves fill in more with every warm day. Hidden by foliage, we rarely see the birds, but by our ears we know they’re there.

Flowering Purple Plum tree / Darker than Green

There’s one we hear so clearly. Her plaintive song rebounds against our brick building and pierces through the chirping clamor. It’s loud and unmistakeable. Three minor notes, descending in order, held long until they warble. I haven’t heard her before this year. Maybe the extended cold spring keeps her here longer than nature would have wanted. Some furious internet research led me to believe she’s a golden-crowned sparrow, a western bird that typically flies north and south along the Pacific coast, but whose habitat appears to be expanding east. An expansion, I assume, motivated by the extreme fluctuations of our new weather norms.

Along with the rattle of a faulty engine and the soaring sweep of an airplane overhead, I keep an ear out. For the sparrow. For her three long notes. For the shuffle of a warm breeze through green coin leaves. For the trickle of a hose, feeding budding sprouts in the raised bed nextdoor. For the clink-sigh of a beer can opening on a nearby patio, and the sizzle of a steak on a neighbor’s dusty grill. For the cement crack and hard wood drill of construction machinery across the street. For the car horns and the geese honks, drifting through an open window on a cool pink evening.

Sunset in Chicago / Darker than Green


Forty-five minutes before night

Back porch lights after sunset / Darker than Green

The great reward at the end of a long flat gray rainy day is the cool neon blue the sky turns after the sun goes down. For a brief while it glows, like an idled desktop monitor, and every wet surface reflects default blue and streetlight amber. Some days the cover breaks and you can see the wispy remains of the storm’s slate gray clouds, drifting left into darkness.

Last night I missed my connecting bus, and so walked the ten minutes to my house in the cold spring rain. When the initial anger of tail-light syndrome passed, I turned my attention to the sound of car tires sizzling against wet pavement, and how dark black the bare tree branches looked after a full day’s soak. It’s holding on tight, that part of spring when the trees are still sleeping. There are a few high achievers, but most haven’t changed since the last leaf dropped in fall. I kept an eye out for blooming bulbs, most hanging heavy heads and nodding under rhythmic droplets. I lingered alongside the low strip of land next to the local park fieldhouse — already covered in weeds that wasted no time making their eager return above ground.

My eyes caught the last of the blue glow after climbing the stairs to my apartment. It quickly deepened, then settled into the matte graybrown of an urban night sky. The brick buildings across the street pulled on their muddy orange bedclothes, reflecting the streetlights’ shadowed shine, and the hiss of commuting cars one story below echoed again to the north and to the south.

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Sensing Spring

New branch growth / Darker than Green

I smelled Spring today.

It’s incredible the things you forget you’re missing during the long pause of winter. The things you learn to live without when you have no other choice.

I smelled Spring today during my walk through the park. It smelled of damp dirt.

It wasn’t a spectacular smell. Not bad. Just normal. But noteworthy in its ordinariness. It hinted at possibility, at the changes to come. At the tiny sprouts preparing to emerge from newly thawed ground. Waiting, like tiny toddler dancers. Jittering in the wings, poised to take the stage at their spring showcase.

Spring city lawn with flowers / Darker than Green

Callery Pear tree in bud / Darker than Green

I saw Spring on the branches of the Purple Leaf Plum tree behind our apartment. Its bare, dusty branches bejeweled with tiny round buds, sitting quietly on forked arms reaching up toward the warming sun. The tips of the nearby Callery Pear are likewise adorned and will soon burst into musky white blooms.

I saw Spring reflected in the curb puddles and the snowmelt and the stillwater collected in last Summer’s plastic planters. I saw it in the return of gardening displays in brightly lit retail spaces. Lime green gloss varnish cover stock and double walled cardboard seedpack towers. Mass-produced eyecatchers reminding us it’s almost time to put our hands back in the ground.

New spring plants / Darker than Green

Crocuses in bloom / Darker than Green

I heard Spring this morning in the chirps of the sideyard sparrows and singing wrens. In the sweet call of the bright red cardinal that’s made its way back to our tree. Or maybe it never flew south at all, just huddled in the cracks between roof shingles on the coachhouse, waiting out winter’s loose handful of flurries.

I heard Spring in the sounds of waking up, sounds drifting up from one floor down. A deadbolt’s loud clunk and the squeal of a back door creaking open: hopeful neighbors testing the air to see if it’s warm enough for the season’s first porch-bound beer.

Spring sky / Darker than Green

I felt Spring in the sliver of warm light that slipped through the gap in my bedroom curtains. Resting on my face, incrementally earlier and stronger than the morning before. In the mild dash of wind that slid through my jacket zipper while waiting on the train platform high above Fullerton Avenue. In the marked increase of humidity in the air, and the unfamiliar touch of dew that leaped from greening grass and soaked through unsealed boot gussets.

Spring growth / Darker than Green

Winter flowers in Chicago / Darker than Green

The way it usually goes in Chicago is: Spring feels very far away for a long time. You walk through the entirety of winter, nose buried behind scarf and collar, eyes locked to the space directly in front of you. You whine for warmth, but you don’t dare look for it on the ground and in the trees. Until one day, it’s suddenly just there. A green leaf poking up from beneath withered mulch. A spray of purple growth on an old yellow lawn. A pop of color where there once was none. An open door.

Soon there will be bright green tree flowers hovering high overhead, creamy magnolia blossoms, and long legged tulips. We’ll bask in the sudden abundance with feasts of snow peas garlic scapes asparagus fava beans ramps. Leaves of every shape and size and texture will push through hardened bark and twist and turn toward the sun. Bulky raindrops will announce their arrival with heavy taps at double-paned glass, searching wildly for roots to wet.

But for now, we’re just at the beginning. And I’m enjoying our early Spring with as many senses as I can.

New growth in the community garden / Darker than Green

Callery Pear tree in Chicago / Darker than Green

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