The Accidental Gardener


Sometimes, serendipity is the best garden designer.

Our ever-changing, ever-expanding perennial bed fronting the previous owner’s chicken coop had a precise plan once upon a time. In my imagination, I had a color scheme of pinks, blues, and purples, some mellow pastels, some bold fashion statements.

I wanted pink plants with cerise blooms that would scream Hawaiian luau, not baby blankets and little girl cheeks. Running through them would be pools of pale yellow—coreopsis, daylilies, and others. For harmony’s sake, the yellow could definitely not shriek like the pinks.

The pinks next to, say, the bright gaillardia (which had to be transplanted away), looked like the outfits my young daughters once came down the stairs in some mornings. (Their inability to understand that red checked pants and purple floral shirts do not complement one another definitely changed over time.)

It Has To Go

One plant that I decided must go was the bold rudbeckia goldsturm in the corner. Gold is in the name for a reason. No subtle yellow tones there. At least, I thought it had to go, until I looked again.

Behind and to the side of the plant, a red barberry bush extends its prickly arms. (Designed to keep the kids away from the lead-paint laden shed windows, the barberry did its job with thorny vigor). In front of it, an aster ‘purple dome’ begins its long-running show. The three together made a combination so breathtaking all thoughts of banishing the offending golden flowers disappeared. Perhaps, so late in the season anyway, the plant could be allowed to stay.


Stay it did. What I first thought an unlikely combination, destined to quarrel with one another endlessly, became one of the late-summer focal points of the bed.

Plants Are Like People

It reminds me a bit of my two oldest girls. (No, they’re not prickly in general, although at times. . . .) Just eighteen months apart, they were a combination I certainly didn’t intend.

As the two girls grew, my husband and I quickly realized that we were the proud progenitors of night and day, yin and yang, hybrid tea and wild rose. However would we survive the sibling conflicts of two such different girls? Then, they did something surprising. They became best friends, inseparable, rarely erupting into argument, let alone all-out war.

The oldest—sensitive, awkward with people, perfectionistic—depended on her younger sister to draw her into social interactions. She needed Emily’s easy come, easy go life attitude to balance her more dramatic viewpoint that life consists of tragedy and ecstasy with no middle ground. Her somewhat insensitive, bulldozer of a younger sister, on the other hand, needed Becca’s keen perception and deep feelings to check her “I’ve got things to do so get out of my way” ways.


And People Can Be a Mess

Do you recall the story of Paul and John Mark in the Bible? There’s another unlikely pairing for you. Paul, the “roll right over ‘em” firebrand of an evangelist got frustrated with young John Mark’s apparently more sensitive, tentative nature. When a homesick John Mark left Paul in the middle of an arduous mission trip, the older man vehemently refused to consider him for future service. Their differences seemed too great, their incompatibility too evident.

Yet, years later, hear Paul’s words to Timothy regarding that young man. “Bring Mark with you when you come, for he will be helpful to me” (2 Timothy 4:11). Is he talking about the same person? Apparently, as both men matured in godliness, Paul realized that the younger man’s differences might be complementary rather than repelling. The once good-for-nothing boy had become an indispensable man.

In another letter, Paul explains why.

“The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up only one body. So it is with the body of Christ. Suppose the whole body were an eye—then how would you hear? Or if your whole body were just one big ear, how could you smell anything? But God made our bodies with many parts, and He has put each part just where He wants it” (1 Corinthians 12:12,17-18).

In his wisdom, God made each of us different, giving us different gifts. Those gifts He meant to complement one another, making a beautiful picture out of what may appear to be wildly disparate individual puzzle pieces.

Perhaps there are people in your life you would prefer to dig up and transplant far away from you. They just don’t seem to fit with the picture you’ve planned. Maybe they’re folks at your church or workplace. Maybe even parents or a spouse. Can you step back and see the whole frame, as God sees it? Can you perceive the checks and balances the two of you might use to help one another, if you could only stop clashing long enough to look?

You’re not together by mere chance. God has an ultimate design He’d like you to be a part of. But if one puzzle piece declines to interlock with another, that “big picture” loses something.

Some of my best garden combinations came unexpectedly. So, too, might some of your best people combinations, if you allow them to grow with you, enhancing one another with your contrasts.

Higher Up and Further In


I don’t care what the calendar says, February is the longest month of the year. The plant catalogues have all been dog-eared and highlighted and sighed over until their covers dangle by a half-staple. Teasing thaws blow in, followed by more blizzard.

Lovesick Teens

In February, I get a nearly uncontrollable itch to visit the area’s nurseries I know so well. Once, I took a roundabout way to a friend’s house just so I could drive by my favorite garden center, though snow covered its benches. Like a lovesick teenager driving by her crush’s house, hoping to get a glimpse of him through the window, I just had to see that familiar place where my beloved plants lived.

My husband shares my gardening passion, but even he thinks such behavior may be one plant short of a flat. I can’t help it. When February arrives, we’ve turned a corner in the tunnel, and I can glimpse spring light flickering in the distance. The dreary skies cannot dampen my certainty that those nurseries must soon open their doors.

Forever February

Some days, this world feels forever February. Its dark chill can overwhelm the winter-weary soul. The false hope of leaders who promise integrity and deliver self-preservation. The endless rain of racism, poverty, and violence. The blizzards of war. The fear of simply sending your child to school.


It’s difficult to imagine on this warm July morning with birds outside my window, but the news this week has been chilling, which seems to be a trend.

That’s when I glimpse eternity flickering in the distance.

“Then I saw a new heaven and new earth, for the old had disappeared. I heard a loud shout saying, ‘Look, the home of God is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will remove all of their sorrows, and there will be no more death or sorrows or crying or pain. For the old world and its evils are gone forever. To all who are thirsty I will give the springs of the water of life without charge! All who are victorious will inherit these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children.’” (Revelation 21:1-7)

The new heaven and earth. Do you give it much thought in your day-to-day? Have you endured the February chills of life, never divining that a day will come when eternal spring heals all pain and banishes all coldness of heart?

Or do you, like me, sometimes glimpse teases of eternity, like February thaws, that make you ache for the real thing?

Everything Is Meaningless . . .

Moments of such closeness with God you know what it would be like to look in Jesus’ eyes and fall into His arms. Moments of nearness to nature that make you wish all creation could stop warring with itself and live in peace. Times of pain, when you want a “do over” in life, and you know all foolishness and weakness will one day fall off like an ill-fitting jacket, leaving you to be what you always wanted to be.

The book of Ecclesiastes attempts to depress us with its unrelenting dirge—“everything is meaningless.” In a book that totally reversed my thinking years ago, Bold Purpose, authors Dan Allender and Tremper Longman argue that we could (and should) view such hopelessness as a gift from God. Run that by me again?


Indeed, God intends our feelings of futility, the despair that tells us life isn’t a quick fix, to awaken our winter-slumbering souls to the reality that this life isn’t all there is. He desires us, in our personal Februaries of life, to long for the time when all pain, injustice, and despair will be melted forever in the spring sunshine of His presence. Through that longing, we can see glimpses of the eternity ahead, and we do not lose hope.

Truly seeing the reality of life in winter plants in me the hope of spring so real that suddenly this life seems less so.

In C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, Jewel the unicorn longs to go “higher up and farther in” to taste the wonders of his final destiny—eternity in God’s land. So do I.

And sometimes, I long for it so deeply I just want to drive by, taking in the sight of what will be when the darkness is destroyed.

Strangers Together

20170701-Richardson-ReachI am not good at making friends. I don’t approach people. I don’t know how to start a conversation. I don’t engage first. When that conversation has to happen partly in charades, I’m ready to bow out and let someone more intrepid than I give it a try.

But those eyes told me she could be a friend. They also told me she needed one.

I’m over at (in)courage this morning sharing a story of courage and conversation–but not my own courage. Have you ever found an unlikely friend? Did God turn it into a journey you never expected?

Click Here  to read the rest of the story.

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Reality Chuck


The poor little guys never had a chance. For several weeks, we had tended our broccoli and cauliflower seedlings, planted from seed and lovingly grown under lights in the basement. A couple dozen strong baby plants grew happily there until the spring thaw, when their hardy souls could easily handle the cool early spring temperatures other less capable vegetables could not.

Already I counted the harvest, imagining how many Ziploc quarts I would be stacking in the freezer a few months hence. With this healthy spring crop and then one more in the cooler fall weather (to be seeded in July), we’d be in broccoli Valhalla all year. I could see the brilliant green color of just-blanched heads clearly in my harvest dreams.

Broccoli Dreaming . . .

The dream didn’t last long. One day, to be exact. After carefully plugging those babies in the ground one afternoon, we went out the next morning to see how they had fared.

They were gone. Not a leaf, not a stem, not so much as one tiny green straggling shoot poked out of that desolate ground. My brain could not register what my eyes relayed to it. How could every last plant vanish without a trace?


The responsible party soon showed his unrepentant furry face. Under our shed, an old chicken coop in the backyard, lived one very wily, very hungry woodchuck. He must’ve thought that broccoli-cauliflower smorgasbord worthy of his first meal after a long winter’s nap. Nothing remained of our long work and anticipation. To add insult to injury, he repeated his vegetable orgy in the fall when we tried again, along with the ornamental cabbage we put in the kids’ garden. Clearly, this particular rodent had a fondness for anything in the cabbage family.

When Dreams Get Eaten

The woodchuck’s transgressions remind me of a reality I don’t always like to face. This life devours things we hold dear. Something, or someone, we’ve built our dreams upon may be gone tomorrow. We only think we can control the future. Fact is, we have absolutely no say in what may happen tomorrow.

“A rich man had a fertile farm the produced fine crops. His barns were full to overflowing. ‘I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. And I’ll sit back and say, “eat, drink, and be merry.” But God said to him, ‘you fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get it all?’ Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.” “How do you know what will happen tomorrow? For your life is like a morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, ‘If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that” (Lk 12:16-21; Js 4:14-15).

One passing of the moon was all it took for an entire counted-on harvest to disappear from our yard. But other more serious raids on my security have happened just as rapidly. A few quick months destroyed my lifelong dream to return to small town, country life. One brief morning’s surgery severed my mother for our family. “Overnight” devastation shouldn’t surprise us in this blemished world, but it does, over and over.


“I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” “I AM who I AM, I will be what I will be, I AM the one who always is.” “His faithful love endures forever” (Rev 22:13; Ex 3:14; Ps 136).

How long? Forever. Regardless of any overnight devastation.

I didn’t get to store that broccoli in the freezer. Not should I store up treasures that don’t really matter, won’t last, and can’t be counted on. I dare not fasten my dreams and security to anything, no matter how precious, save God alone. I must learn to hold the broccoli patches of my world lightly, for they come with no guarantee.

But the love and character of God—now that’s a treasure to hold as tightly as ever I held anything. Besides, it doesn’t need a freezer to keep it fresh every morning.



My husband has long extolled the virtues of winter interest in the garden. I remained unconvinced for quite a while. After all, once the thermometer reaches a certain point, I consider the backyard hostile territory, inhabitable only by feeder-raiding squirrels and children who don’t know enough to be cold. Who needs anything to look at outside when I have seed catalogues and hot tea inside?

My husband, however, just took the wrong approach.

I’ve finally discovered a reason for winter interest gardening that appeals to me. Basic laziness. The winter garden, it seems, is supposed to remain untidy. Forget deadheading those coneflowers and rudbeckias. Never lop down those fading grasses until spring. The birds and bunnies will thank you profusely. When those perfectly manicured lawns and gardens die or are cut back to the ground by zealous horticultural perfectionists, winter animals must look much farther afield for the seeds, berries, and protective cover they still require.

Thus, the gardener who neglects her seedheads and procrastinates her trimming finds herself rewarded by a yard full of thankful cardinals and finches, flaunting their colors at nature’s buffet. What a lovely license—untidiness in my yard can actually make it more hospitable to others. My backyard brambles draw those who need shelter from coyotes and cold.

I’m finding that can also hold true in the rest of my life.


When my children were small and my husband working 12-24 hours a day, I discovered an awful demon in my quiet, retiring heart—uncontrolled anger. My inability to handle conflict had been well-hidden for many years (even from myself). I had easy-going friends, and I had married a man who rarely did anything I could get angry about. (OK, we did have a few discussions about empty cereal boxes on the counter and improperly aligned toilet paper rolls, but they didn’t exactly rock our marriage.)

Then we had kids.

Children, by their nature and seemingly by their firm desire, cause conflict. I had few coping skills for that kind of loving struggle. The day I found myself red-faced, screaming at them, “Why can’t you learn some self-control!” I knew I had a problem.

As God healed and taught me, I discovered something else—an awful lot of women felt the same way. They hated themselves, doubted their ability as parents, longed for someone to understand how they could have so much love and so much anger all at once.

Yet an embarrassed silence reigned over them, because talking about fears and shortcomings opens one up to further misunderstanding and pain. Only one who understood could break the silence and minister to them. Only someone who had an “untidy” life herself could extend a hospitable ear to hearts that needed nourishment and shelter.

Choking on Perfection

In the western suburbs of Chicago where we live, perfection reigns. It also chokes. Perfect-looking people in perfect cars commute to perfect jobs, then come home to perfect children and perfect houses. Deviation from the script isn’t allowed.

Yet, at times, I recognize the desperation behind those masks. The heart that cries, “Just let me see that you’re not perfect—then I can stop trying to prove that I am.” These people search for hospitality for their souls, and they don’t find it in the manicured perfection of our self-protecting masks. They find it in our untidiness, our inability to make all our pieces fit, our willingness to admit our weakness.

That surface-manicured standard reflects not God’s perfection but my pride. “My (God’s) grace is sufficient for you. My power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). What an intriguing paradox of what I’m supposed to be. Transparent enough so that His grace shines through my cracks and blemishes. A pointer for hungry hearts to the only one who can make order of their chaotic lives. To do that, I must be willing to admit to my own chaos.


I love the grass heads bowing under snow outside my sliding glass door. I appreciate the beauty of rudbeckia seedheads, lovely in their own right without the starry golden petals. I glory in the cardinals, goldfinches, and juncos that find my untidiness so inviting to those in need. When the lawn services come one last time to “clean up” my neighbors’ yards, I’m glad to remain a place of refuge.

In Praise of Dandelions


My neighbors probably hate me. Every summer, white trucks emblazoned with various clever slogans (“Jeff’s Chem Control—We Get the Bugs Out”) make regular visits to their yards. With military precision, lawn tractors, string trimmers, and sprayers seek and destroy any weed so bold as to stick its fuzzy seedhead aboveground. Then they pack up and convoy to the next reconnaissance point.

If we cut our grass before it reaches knee high by the Fourth of July, we pat ourselves on the back. I’m really thinking of just applying for a meadowlands permit and forgetting the whole mowing business. Except it makes for a very challenging game of croquet. Not to mention the occasional toddler who wanders back there and isn’t found until winter.

But the real area of contention, I bet, is those dandelions.

In the back where the grass remains healthy, they’re not too problematic. But in the side and front yards, where grass competes with tree roots, shade, and creeping charlie that could smother Texas? It is quickly losing ground to dandelions.

And I don’t really care. OK, I admit it. I like dandelions. Those seas of yellow shrieking “Spring!” to the world make my heart do a little dance. No subtlety for these tough guys of the plant kingdom. I love to watch little girls squeal with delight as the white fuzzy seeds they just launched with a whoosh of their breath float in the air, or come backward to tickle their noses.

The same girls’ dandelion chains, crowns, and necklaces remind me of a time when creativity was where kids made it, not on an iPad. Not so long ago, I was a total pushover for a small fistful of those bright yellow balls in the hand of one of my daughters, who too soon grew too sophisticated for giving me common weeds as if they were a golden treasure from her heart (which they were).


But dandelions are bad, right?

I agree that I hate to pull the things out of my garden beds. Kind of like trying to pick up a semi by the antenna. But in my lawn, I’d just as soon leave them alone.

I even have justification.

One morning, as I sat sipping tea at the breakfast table, I noticed a rabbit in the front yard semi-circle. Rabbits are another neighborhood bane. No one’s garden, it seems, remains immune to their appetites for all things green and growing. We see dozens of the cuddly critters around, and we hear tales of their destructive habits.

But as I watched this one, I realized he was in the throes of a gourmet bunny’s delight—eating dandelions. He would pluck one out of the ground, then blissfully chew up the stem as a child would slurp a spaghetti noodle. I swear I spied a smile on his fuzzy little face. Then he’d head to the next one, totally ignoring all the expensive garden center perennials.

I must tell you, bunnies have never eaten a thing in our garden. (We do have a resident woodchuck—that’s another story.) Now I knew why. We graciously and abundantly supplied them with what was obviously a favorite taste treat—why leave the all-you-can-eat buffet for lesser fare? Dandelions, the bane of a lawn care fanatic’s existence, were actually saving our plants.

We never know what unexpected bane will turn out to be be our salvation.

Seventeen years ago, my doctor noticed an enlarged thyroid on the right side of my neck. After unsuccessful treatment, a specialist performed surgery to remove half my thyroid. Surprisingly, she confirmed the next week that it had been a cancerous growth.


The interesting part of this story is the chain of events that led to the discovery. I had gone to my doctor for a blood pressure check when she discovered the lump. My potential high blood pressure had been discovered under sedation for surgery on my toe. I had sliced a tendon in my right foot in what surely should make insurance record books as a freak accident.

Innocently washing dishes one morning, I stacked a cutting board on top of something else on the counter. A few moments later, the board slipped down, knocking a giant serrated knife off the counter and onto my foot, followed by the cutting board, which drove the knife in. So while the surgeon repaired the tendon, he also discovered my high blood pressure, leading to the discovery of a cancerous thyroid.

You can’t make this stuff up.

While watching blood cover my kitchen floor and screaming for help, I never once thought, “Hey, this is going to turn out to be a great thing!” While eliminating dandelions and cursing bunnies, my neighbors have never once considered how God maybe made these things to work together and serve a tandem purpose.

Time and perspective can change a lot.

“Shall we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” (Job 2:10, NLT).

In time, I’m betting God will use our dandelions to make the whole garden glorious.

Just like the lawn care trucks, our attempts to control, sanitize, and tame the stuff of life can eliminate the things that would have made us better in the end. It’s worked well for the dandelions. Now I wonder what eats creeping charlie . . .

Unexpected Joys


So, last week was a heavy post. I know. But sometimes, heaviness is needed. Sometimes, it’s like a weighted blanket for us–helping us to center and recognize where we need to focus and what we need to prioritize.

Sometimes, though, God knows we need light. For the Richardson clan, it’s serious gardening season. Yesterday, we created a fairy garden waterfall and put in plants along the neighbor’s fence.  We planted beans and sunflowers and tomatoes. My husband checked on the bees to see if their little lives were buzzing along happily. And sometime this week, he thinks I am going to sew together fifteen yards of tulle to protect his blueberries from the birds and bunnies. Ha. He does not know my week.

So, a summer garden series. Because life began in a garden. Some of God’s finest beauties and best lessons are learned in a garden. Here we go.


In The Garden . . .

As I may have previously mentioned, lawn mowing around our house usually only get done when a) company is coming for a backyard cookout, b) we lose something valuable in the undergrowth (like a kid), or c) the neighbors ask us if we’d like to borrow their mower since ours must be broken. It’s not that we don’t like mowing—I really enjoy it. It’s just difficult to find a long enough chunk of time in my schedule to mow an entire acre.

After a few passes around the yard one morning, I noticed a bird swooping closer and closer to my head. After another pass, I realized that he was actually following me, darting and gliding close, but not too close, in the mower’s wake. I recognized the outline and colors of a barn swallow and smiled at my new friend. He must have thought he’d bellied up to the All U Can Eat Bird Buffet, as the tractor kicked up hundreds of tiny insects from the grass, destined to be a smart swallow’s breakfast.


Apparently, the feast was too good to keep to himself, because before long, at least six swallows dined and rolled about me, coming so close I could see the light bounce off their almost iridescent deep blue backs. We finished the lawn together, my aerial pals and I. I provided them with breakfast; they provided me with entertainment and kinship.

The antics and evident satisfaction of a half-dozen strangers the size of my hand unexpectedly enlivened my morning. They came so close of their own accord, to join me in a kind of interdependence that God must have intended from the very beginning. Those magic minutes gave me a glimpse of the delightful intent of God’s creation and His final plan for its culmination when the lion and the lamb will indeed lie down together, and the bird will no longer justly fear the human. The birds’ brief “friendship” brightened the rest of my day.

One of my husband’s friends and coworkers has a saying, “While I was doing my duty, joy overtook me.” Real joy can come, and often surprise us, not in our zealous pursuit of it but in our daily activities, just doing what must be done.


The Joy set before Him?

The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus endured the cross and obeyed even to death for “the joy set before Him.” Joy? Yes, that’s what it says. It’s not the word we expect. Pain? Agony? Necessity? Maybe those. But joy? Somehow, in doing the things one must, in submissive obedience to God, joy overtakes us.

I mowed the laws because it needed doing. No other grand motivation—just plain duty. But in that obedience, I found a joy that lasted all day and that I still smile to remember.

You’ve felt that joy, too. When what you offered under tight circumstances gave people in even tighter ones a gleam of hope. When a church service you didn’t feel like attending reached your heart with a new vision of God. When a note of encouragement you sent reached someone on the very day she needed it.

In dutiful obedience, joy overtakes us. Let it swoop and glide about your heart sometime today.

“While I was doing my duty, joy overtook me.”