Back to the basics

Bench in snow 03 07 08I thought the worst part of winter would have passed by now, but the weather advisories and the warnings of ice accumulations and hazardous travel conditions seem to reappear every week. I haven’t seen signs of life in my garden for a couple of months now.  As soon as the weather begins to warm a little I’ll be itching to get outside and dig in the dirt, but right now all I can do is stare out the window, dream about spring and the gardening I plan to do when the weather is right. Or I can start to formulate a plan.

By formulating a plan, I mean planning what plants I’m going to buy.  If you’ve ever ordered anything from a business that sells plants you’ve probably landed on at least a dozen mailing lists. I’m already getting a steady stream of plant and seed catalogs in the mail. They’re in my email in-box, too. I think the plant businesses know I’m working myself into a buying frenzy.

I’m not big on buying more of what I already have. I can just dig and divide and get those.  I want something new.  I want something different.  I want something that my gardening friends don’t have (and that they will envy).  So I peruse the catalogs and surf the web to find anything with those magical words “New and Improved!”

Changes are being made in the plant world everyday. Someone is constantly trying to improve a daylily, a rose or an oakleaf hydrangea. Trying for a larger bloom, a more vibrant color or a longer bloom season. We gardeners have come to expect something new every year. What we’ve begun to look for in our plants is the next-to-impossible.

I used to hear it almost everyday at The Green Thumbs, a nursery and retail garden center where I worked several years ago.  Some of our customers would come in with a list of requirements for their plants, and it usually resembled something like this…

  • Maintenance-free (almost always top of the list!)
  • Comes back every year
  • Looks good all year / evergreen
  • Multiplies, but won’t take over the garden
  • Attracts hummingbirds or butterflies
  • Deer and/or rabbit resistant

The lists would go on and on. I usually told the customer that they had two choices… silk or plastic.

daylily-bloom-purple-d-oro-b-06-05-07I’ve made plenty of plant purchases that fell under the “New and Improved” category. There was the new purple color of the seemingly perfect, ever-blooming daylily ‘Stella d’ Oro’ called ‘Purple d’ Oro’.

daylily-bloom-joan-senior-a-06-05-07And then I had to have the ‘Joan Senior’ daylily because it was the closest thing to a white daylily.


The Oakleaf Hydrangea ‘Snowflake’ was at the top of my list because it promised bigger blooms and even more beautiful fall colors.

I couldn’t resist the new Cuphea ‘Batface’… well, for obvious reasons. batface-bloom-07-16-07

I wanted by flowerbeds to look good all year long, so I needed evergreen plants.  The evergreen ferns looked like the ideal fit.


The new Illumination Vinca was going to be perfect for my containers, giving me an evergreen plant with some color variation to spill over the edges of my pots.

gardenia-05-20-10-aAnd the ‘August Beauty’ Gardenia would give me those heavenly-scented blooms long after everyone else’s gardenias had stopped flowering.

Some of these plants did a fair job in fulfilling their expectations.  Most did not.  The Purple d’Oro refuses to re-bloom for me.  The evergreen ferns can’t be divided nearly as easily as the traditional deciduous varieties.  The Illumination vinca looks a lot like a sparsely-leaved string.  And the August Beauty doesn’t even begin blooming until much later than the old standards. Even then, its flowers are much smaller.

I’ve said all that to say this.  We can’t improve on what God first gave us. We can try to intervene and fiddle and tinker all we want, but nothing seems to be better than the original.

Take roses, for instance. For Valentine’s Day a couple of weeks ago, florists delivered millions of long-stemmed tea roses.  These roses have been bred especially to have those long, sturdy, straight stems, and those tightly-formed, lovely-colored blooms.

I’ll never have the patience to grow hybrid tea roses.  I think they are the prima donnas of gardening.  They require way too much attention, with the fertilizing and the spraying and the pruning.  Besides, there’s hardly any fragrance at all.

That’s the thing about most hybrids. They’re bred for certain characteristics, but they lose some of their most precious traits… like fragrance. Want a rose that smells really good and is tough as nails?Get an old fashioned rugosa rose. That’s the parent plant of all the so-called new and improved roses. Finding a rugosa rose is no easy task if you’re shopping at a run-of-the-mill garden center.

Years ago, before I began working at a nursery and garden center, I went to a garden center in another town and asked for a rugosa rose.The salesperson looked at me like I had two heads and asked, “A ditchbank rose? You’re looking for a ditchbank rose?  We don’t sell those!”


I’d never heard it called a ditchbank rose, but it certainly made sense. It’s tough enough to grow along the side of any road, with no help from man. You’ll find them still growing and thriving on old homeplaces that have been abandoned for decades. They can be seen gracing cemeteries where some were planted more than a half-century ago. And they smell heavenly! Yea, that’s what I want… a ditchbank rose!

It wasn’t the Hybrid Tea Roses that were delivered all across town for Valentine’s Day that made me think back to these new-and-improved’s. It was something I said to a friend at exercise class.

I told her I really didn’t care if I lost any more weight. I said I just wanted to try to be dedicated to eating healthy and exercising regularly. Yea, right. The fact is, that was just a cover-up for the fact that I hadn’t been able to lose any more weight.

The name of our exercise group at church was “Faithfully Fit,” so my statement seemed appropriate. The group helped us live by what God’s Word tells us in Romans 12:1… “And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God.  Let them be a living and holy sacrifice — the kind He will accept.”

In our devotions we discussed nutrition and exercise that would help us treat or bodies like the temples of God that they are. But as time went on I started focusing on other things. Finding exercises that promised a flatter belly or a more firmed backside. I was looking for less flabby arms and a lower number on the scales.

I was spending a lot more time with my South Beach Diet cookbooks than I was with my Bible. I was trusting in South Beach instead of trusting in the Lord for my physical fitness. My focus became my body instead of obedience and trust in God. I was trying to do it on my own, in my own way, instead of relying on God and trusting Him to do His work in me.  Slowly but surely I was transforming myself from that resiliently fragrant rugosa rose into that prima donna of a hybrid tea.

“I just want to try to be dedicated to eating healthy and exercising regularly.”  God allowed the insincerity of my words to echo in my mind. It was quite a wake up call. Thank goodness He doesn’t give up on me. Thank goodness that His mercies are new every morning. Thank goodness for second chances.

I’m going back to the basics with my health and fitness, along with every other aspect of my daily life. I’m going back to doing things to honor God, and not for my own fulfillment. I’m going back to relying on Him to lead me in my food, my fitness, and all of my choices.  And once again I give my body to God — a living and holy sacrifice — the kind He will accept.

Lonicera fragrantissima – Fragrant Honeysuckle – one of God’s most fragrant and carefree gifts to the plant world

“They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.  And my God will meet all your needs, according to the riches of His glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:18b-19, NIV)

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