Echinacea from my garden, Jenny Frech 2011

My mom and I always get a chuckle when we see someone buying purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, at the greenhouse.

This flower has always performed well for us.  I’ve gotten oodles of starts from mom and passed on baby flowers to friends and neighbors.

This is one of my favorite, easy-to-grow flowers.

Purple coneflower is native to the eastern half of the United States.  It is well adapted to a variety of conditions including: cold winters, wet springs, hot and dry summers, and clay soil.  Once coneflower is established, the only care it needs is a little bit of root splitting when it gets too dense.

Coneflower is easy to start from seed.  I just sow the seeds where I want them, sprinkle a little bit of dirt on top (or not) and then let the springtime showers germinate them.

As a perennial, coneflower won’t flower the first year.  You’ll get plants that are about 8-12 inches tall.  If you have other flowering plants in your garden that first year, they will be pretty inconspicuous.

The next year, and in following years, you should have a nice clump of flowering pinkish, purple flowers, between 24 and 48 inches tall.  I’ve heard, but haven’t tried this, that if you cut them back in the late spring/early summer, that the plants will be fuller and less gangly when they bloom in mid-summer.

The blooms look pretty for about 3-4 weeks, and then the petals start to brown.  Some people will choose to deadhead the flowers at this time.  I leave the seedheads as they are.

Goldfinches come to the flower bed all winter long to feast on coneflower seeds.

The seeds that don’t get eaten will reseed themselves, producing even more plants to share with friends.

Echinacea "Irresistible", Photo by Jenny Frech 2011

Echinacea "White Swan", Photo by Jenny Frech 2011

Echinacea is popular, easy to grow and makes a great background flower, so plant breeders have developed unusual varieties.  My first fancy variety was White Swan that I started from seed. This year, I finally broke down and bought a couple of the expensive, er, specialty varieties.

Coneflower comes in a variety of colors , some are puffy and frilly, and others look like a double decker flower with one set of petals stacked on top of the other.

As always, I recommend starting with the basics, in this case it would be the basic purple coneflower.  The basic flowers of any variety generally outperform the ones grown for appearances. That being said, White Swan has always performed well for me.

While searching for images to use for examples, I ran across  WhiteFlowerFarm.com.  This website gave me a bad case of the “Gotta Have Its” as I wiped the drool from my chin.  For even more variety, hop on Google and do a search for “fancy echinacea” and you will be amazed at the variety.  When ordering online, check Davesgarden.com for reputability of the store you are buying from.

Echinacea "Hot Papaya", photo by Jenny Frech, available at Whiteflowerfarm.com

Echinacea "Fancy Frills" photo from Gorge Top Gardens

Echinacea "Sunrise", photo from Gorge Top Gardens

Echinacea "Bubble Gum", photo from White Flower Farm

Echinacea "Flame Thrower", photo from White Flower Farm


Echinacea "Double Decker", Photo from Gorge Top Gardens


My mom is planning a memory garden for her new house.

Which got me thinking about the flowers in my garden that remind me of special people.

Montana Blues from Jeanette

Two people feed my flower obsession, my mom and Jeanette. Jeanette is my former neighbor.  I haven’t seen her for several years, but I still consider her to be my flower mentor.

There are oodles of flowers that remind me of Jeanette: cleome, sweet peas, Christmas cacti, giant pink rose bushes, coreopsis, flowering quince…

One time, she came home from church with Easter lillies that she pulled from the trash. She gave me some and told me to plant them. For many years the lilies returned. I moved them from house to house, but they disappeared along the way.

My whole garden style reminds me of Jeanette. Her philosophy is to let flowers reseed themselves and let them come up where ever they may to create a grand surprise for us. I’ve expanded on her love of mixing and matching, by tucking away annuals into nooks and crannies.

I still have a flower that she gave me.   As freely as I give away starts, I don’t share my Montana Blues, a fancy bachelor’s button. I’ll be glad to share some once I’m sure they’ve spread enough and are here to stay.

Lantana reminds me of my artist friend, Jan

This year I bought a yellow and pink lantana and put it in a pot with some petunias.

I can’t see lantana anywhere without thinking about Jan.

My friend Jan and I were both part-time traveling teachers at the same schools. She taught art, and I taught science.  At one of the schools we shared a room and exchanged moral support.  In the window, Jan kept giant lantana plants with sandpapery leaves. Guara always reminds me of her too, and how she calls the baby plants, “pups”.

Hollyhocks are part of the childhood memories of my Grandma Frech.

She didn’t bake me cookies or read stories aloud when I was a little lassie, but I recall two fun moments. The first is completely unrelated to flowers.  She babysat us and we played Land of the Lost underneath the dining room table that now resides in my dining room.

This hollyhock is a little bit fancier than the ones Grandma grew

The second is a sweet and simple memory.  Outside of the farmhouse was a patch of dark pink Hollyhocks. When they were in bloom, she would make dolls for me using a bud as the head and an open blossom as the skirt. I wish I knew how to make them like she did.

Bleeding hearts and daylillies remind me of my Aunt Nina who also has a flower obsession. Nina has jam-packed flower beds, which always have something in bloom.  She loves Hostas too, which rubbed off on my mom.

Lots of flowers make me think of Mom.

She has a special fondness for violets because they remind her of her grandmother. Once we visited the wooded lot where her grandmother’s house used to be. We took a few starts home.

My daughter is starting to enjoy flowers.  She claims to not like gardening much, but she spends hours playing in the dirt.  That is the makings of a gardener if you ask me.

She is starting to ask to plant particular flowers, and is claiming favorites.  This summer she declared poppies as her favorite.  How can I argue with that?  We planted several from seed.  When I’m missing her I visit her crab apple tree and the poppies underneath. The memories and joy that flowers carry with them is one of the reasons I love to garden.

When I spend time meditating by pulling weeds and planting seeds, I’m spending time with the people I love.

When I stroll through the aisles at a greenhouse, I’m looking for connections. What flowers are near and dear to your heart?  I bet there’s a link between our favorite flowers and someone we love and admire.

Violets, my mom's favorite

Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.

Her house is a pigsty.

Where would you like to sit? Let me clear a spot for you.

There is cat hair on the sofa the dog hair in the carpet. Half of a pair of dirty socks is rotting on the coffee table and its mate is on the stairs.

Fruit flies party around a bruised tomato on the counter. A mysterious red goo clings to the floor by the waste basket.

There is a funny ring around the sink in the kitchen, and the shelf in the fridge is sticky.

There is so much stuff on sitting surfaces that you’ll have to pile it up to find a place to plop.

There are kids drawings on the fridge and bulletin board; and games piled up on the table. Stuffed animals are stuck in between the couch cushions. Books pages are marked with old envelopes.

This is my house.

I know. I’m a slob. But there are only so many hours in a day, and I’ve finally stopped beating myself up about my messy house.

Quality time with my daughter and step-kids is more important than shiny floors. After a long day at work, if I come home and clean for an hour, there won’t be enough time to just hang out with the kids: helping with homework, watching Cosby show reruns, reading together and playing games.

Cleaning up before someone comes over to my house is lying.

I spend 95%* of my time in a messy house. I know I should try to put my best foot forward. But when I spend hours scouring the house, I get stressed, and still feel the need to make excuses for the mess that’s left.

My messy house is embarrassing.

But I’ve decided that other than running the vacuum and making sure there’s a place to sit at the table and the couch, I’m not going to stress myself out anymore before people come over.

Since I’ve stopped making a major production of cleaning before company, I’ve actually gotten compliments on my house.

Not, “Oh your house is so lovely,” but “your house is so homey.”

My friends feel pretty comfortable in the clutter, I think.

It takes the pressure off them to feel like they need to clean before I come over.

After all, most of us have messy houses 95% of the time. We either have kids, or dogs, or busy jobs, or occupying hobbies. All are more important than a clean house.

Now, I am in no way slamming anyone with a clean house. Some people are great at cleaning. They are efficient cleaners. They feel better when their living space is organized. Some people find cleaning, meditative.

If you love to clean, go for it.

I’m too A.D.D. to keep a clean house. I spend hours trying to organize a countertop. I am completely inefficient. As much as I love an organized space, it takes so much energy that I spend way more stress trying to maintain the organization, than the stress the clutter causes.

I’ve decided that the best friends are the ones you don’t have to clean up for; the ones that you’re not ashamed to bring into your messy house for coffee.

Typical state of the dining room table

Seriously, do we really want our friends to waste time fretting over their messy house for us?


I want to be the friend that you’ll invite into your house when the counter is full, and you have to push your junk onto a pile on the floor for me to sit down.

I don’t care about your clutter.

I care about you.

*all percentages are completely made up, but I think they’re pretty accurate anyway.

The Store

We have three tween girls in our family.  Two age 9 1/2, and one age 11.  Trying to find clothes for all of them could break the bank, but we came up with a solution.

All summer long, I shop at garage sales and second hand stores.  Hubby and I watch for half-off sales and 75% off tags at Good Will, collecting cute clothes for $.10 to $2.00.

I have learned to hit the jackpot by driving slowly past garage sales, looking for  a stylish teenager guarding the money box.  Often their clothes have been worn once or not at all, or they have too many, so they practically give their unwanted threads away.

Right before school starts, and in the spring, we pull out the clothes and set up a store.

The girls take turn trying on and choosing items they love.  Lucky for us, the three girls have very different taste, and slightly different body types, so there isn’t a lot of competition.

This is the oldest in her "not quite polished mis-matched, but look at me I'm cute" look

The oldest sports a polished look.  The middle is a traditional preppy girl, and the youngest digs more of a Punky Brewster style.

Any clothes that are still too big get boxed up for the next season.  Unchosen clothes will make their way back to one of the thrift stores.

As they get older, I’m scared that they won’t want to shop this way anymore and my money saving plot will be foiled.

But they are still excited to pick out outfits.

Each of them will get a little bit of spending money to buy the school clothes that they didn’t find on shopping day.  We’ll go to the box stores and to the second-hand stores.  They’ll decide how to budget their funds to fill in their missing wardrobe.

I spent about $80 on the clothes and shoes bought this way.  Each of the girls is getting $40 to spend at the regular stores.  Any leftover money will be set aside if they want to buy something later this fall.

The girls are learning how to budget their money.  They’re learning about the value of reusing and recycling.  And heck, clothing three girls in really cute, full wardrobes for less than $200 total, works for me.

The three girls, youngest to oldest in their favorite outfit of the day

A Note About “The Boy”

My step-son is going into high school.  He is substantially less picky about his clothes.  I find nice shirts for him along the way, and his dad will take him to buy blue jeans and socks.  So far, so good.


To round out my posts around the theme of eyes, I have three more little vignettes, and then I’ll shut up about eyes and eyeballs for a while.

Moley is Growing Up

First off, Moley the Canadian Tiger Swallow Caterpillar is now a Chrysalis.  My daughter took him with her to dad’s.  If all goes well he should be a butterfly by the weekend.  Go, Moley, Go!

It Goes With My Eyes

A green Xoom tablet cover, and one of the Omar Rayyan prints we bought after seeing him at GenCon last year.

On our first date, my husband and I compared notes on glasses. He had just gotten a new pair, and was lamenting that although they were supposed to be green, they were really a khaki color instead.

Jeremy had ordered the green specifically to “go with my eyes,” he said. Since then, it’s been our little inside joke. I always pick blue, and he always picks green: green shirts, green hats, and now a truly green pair of specs.

If the kids ask what color they should pick for something, we always recommend matching it to their eyes.

Recently, Jeremy got a tablet computer for work. For weeks, he requested that I make him a case. I had a thick blue sweater picked out for his case, but I kept putting it off.

As luck would have it, I ran across a felted wool scarf in a lovely shade of olive green, a perfect match for both Jeremy’s eyes, and his glasses.

The Beholder Is Not So Beautiful

My husband, gamer and blogger at Takeonrules.com, pokes the Beholder in the eye at GenCon 2010. The Beholder is a D&D character. If this was real D&D game, you shouldn't poke a Beholder in the eye. He might eat you or cry on you or something.

Tomorrow we are on our way to the GenCon, the “best four days in gaming”, convention.

Jeremy is forcing me to go into work with him tomorrow so we can get an immediate start to Indy as soon as he’s done programming for the day. He’s not really forcing me, but he suggested it, and I’m not sure I would be allowed to say no.

I’m excited to go to GenCon. It will be fun, but Jeremy is REALLY excited.

After I tiled in the basement all day, and while I am walking around the house like a zombie, with mortar still stuck to my fingernails, he was bouncing around the house.

“Aren’t you excited?” he asked, “It’s like Christmas Eve.”

Jeremy has been pumped up about this weekend for the last few days; he has been ultra focused on it.

Over the weekend, I think he wrote like 40 blog posts per day about games he wants to play at GenCon, strategizing where to go first, and what color underwear he was packing (duh, green).

This is Pete, he lost an arm to the Beholder last year. He angered the Beholder because he talked about Firefly too much. The Beholder will take his other arm at the mere Mention of Game of Thrones or The Dance of Dragons.

Because of his blogging, and reviews of games, he started getting noticed by some game designers. I’m pretty sure he’s planning a secret rendezvous with them, and I will be stuck all alone in the hotel room eating granola bars and drinking wine on the rocks, while watching HBO.

I swear, if he’s off having martinis with Wil Wheaton in person while I’m watching Star Trek reruns, I’ll be angry – very angry.

This whole ballroom is filled with people playing D&D.

These folks are playing a giant game of Settlers of Catan. That's more my speed.

We went last year, but just for a day.  This year we are doing the whole shebang.  Thursday through Sunday, Baby!

I’m excited to people watch, and play some board games. Last year, we discovered a fantastic artist, Omar Rayyan.

There will be lots of photo ops of weirdos dressed up in tights, or vampire costumes or as robots.

There should be time to try new board games, and play some of my old favorites.

I’m excited to stay in a hotel, and stay up late.

When I need a break, I have a couple of interviews lined up, farms to visit, and writing to do, which will round out the weekend nicely.

If you’re at GenCon and you want to say hi, look for the guy in green and the lass in blue.  We’ll be there with bells on.

(Not real bells, it’s just a metaphor, because there probably will be someone there with bells on.)

Getting a Fill Up

Love Tanks Can Be for Energy Too

Photo of my daughter and my dog, taken by my step-daughter

Many of you are probably familiar with the book, The Five Love Languages.  In the book, Chapman describes love tanks.  As long as there are continuous deposits, your love tank will never be empty, and you will in turn have plenty of love to give.  Relationships begin to break down if one of the people involved has an empty tank.

I think it’s similar with emotions and energy as well.  As long as there are continuous deposits of energizing activities, positive communication, and affirmation of who you are, there will be plenty of positivity for you to give back to the world.

The last year, not only drained my love tank, but also my overall emotional tank.  I have a loving husband and daughter.  I know they love me.  But there were too many withdraws from other areas my life.

Someone Ought to Write a Vampire Book That Takes Place at a High School

Teaching uses a lot of energy without a lot of return (unless maybe you are paid in hugs by kindergarteners-my high schoolers don’t hug me-thank goodness!).  There are some nice kids, some that want to blend into the scenery, and those that will suck from you any remaining energy you have.

There aren’t a lot of “atta girls” in teaching.  Parents of high schoolers don’t call you up to say, “Great job on the unit, little Billy couldn’t stop talking about it.”  I’ve only had two students write thank you notes.  The only time I hear from the administration is when I’m missing some paperwork or forgot to do something.

Heck, my students say, “I don’t have a pencil” instead of, “May I borrow a pencil, please?” In fact, I had one student that would say, “Screw it then, I just won’t do the work,” when I asked him to use please as part of his request.  It sounds little, but twenty situations just like this over the course of a day, is draining.

There are not a lot of kudos in step-parenting either.

Being a step-parent to tweens and a teen is very similar to teaching.  Just like my students, the may respect me, but they don’t love or appreciate me the way my own kid does.  I don’t get hugs and kisses, and “I love you” notes from them.  I give as much as a parent, but the return on investment is much smaller than regular ole parenting.

Just like in teaching, they will probably appreciate what I did for them when they are all grown up.

I get it though.  It’s part of the job that I signed up for when I married my husband.

My point is, I don’t hear, “That’s awesome” or “Good Job” very often at all.  Most of the feedback I get is, “This is stupid (dumb or boring)”, or “Why do we have to …?”

This summer was a shock to my system.

I got positive feedback.

The first was when I went to a coffee shop to install some of my photographs on consignment.  The woman in charge of the displays couldn’t stop gushing over them.  She pulled the customers into our conversation, so she could gush some more.  I wasn’t quite sure what to do with positive attention.  I was caught completely off-guard.

Then I started doing some freelance writing in one of my favorite topics, sustainable agriculture.  While I was doing my first interview, the interviewee, asked my opinion about the topic.  A leader in the industry wanted to know what I thought about an issue?  Stunning.

The editor that hired me for the writing job said something like “Nice job,” or “Good article” or something like that.  Amazing.

At the end of an interview with one of my agricultural heros, he said to me, “Thank you for the work you do.”  Ahhhh.  So nice.

Each little thank you.  Each atta girl, was simple.

I started to wonder.  Do some people get thanked at work?  Do some people hear, “you’re doing a good job” or “what do you think about this idea?” on a regular basis?

And then I remembered.

Yes.  Yes they do, I’ve had those jobs before.

That’s what was missing for me in the last year.  Each simple act of kindness and gratitude gives me a little bit more energy to face my day and push ahead.

This summer I’ve had the energy to laugh.  I’ve had energy to be courageous.  And I’ve had the emotional space to think creative thoughts.

Remember to say “thank you” or “I appreciate what you do” to someone today.

Let’s keep these tanks filled up.

Note: As I was finding links to The Five Love Languages, Chapman has a new book called, The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.  I think it would probably be a pretty good read, especially if you are a manager of people.

Okay, so maybe I don’t need fame, and if I just get enough to pay the mortgage…

I am a high school teacher. Until this year, I’ve really liked my job. I was glad to finally be settled into a profession that I felt good about. But, Indiana shares its ideas of “education reform” with Wisconsin. Instead of a “do what’s best for the student,” theme, now schools are shifting to a “do what we need to market ourselves” mentality. A shift toward more technology and away from proven teaching methods, has also caused a lot of philosophical differences that don’t sit right in my gut.

I saw these changes coming down the road, I just didn’t think they would be put into place so quickly.

By the end of the year, I was exhausted, anxious, and crabby. I didn’t feel like myself. My husband tirelessly stayed up late with me listening to me cry, complain, and shout for a life preserver. Ultimately, we strategized. He is an avid game player after all; that’s what he does.

Teaching uses a myriad of skills and talents, but it is really difficult to translate: maintaining order in the classroom, multitasking, flexibility and making creative lesson plans into meaningful language for other careers.

I need additional skills, and I need them now!

So we started making a game plan. Learning HTML would be the first step. I had dabbled with it before, but I would make an earnest effort to read about it, do tutorials, and jump in with both feet and start messing around with it. CSS would be the next step. I’ve always enjoyed design, and this would be a good way to set my blogs apart. We even talked about learning some Ruby (a programming language).

I also wanted to work on my writing and photography freelancing.

This was a pretty big undertaking. And this year, my summer vacation was shortened by two weeks.

I was sure I’d be able to do it all.

Well, so far I’ve done a pretty good job of learning HTML. I spent several days immersed in tutorials. I think I’m getting a pretty good handle on it. It’s not really rocket science.

I got about a quarter of the way through the Ruby programming book. It’s fun, but there are only so many hours in the day. I’ve dabbled a little with CSS too. I really hope to get more in depth with it.

What’s been most exciting is some of the avenues that have opened up with freelancing. It’s not enough to start singing Johnny Paycheck or anything, but its a beginning. It’s also helped identify some of my strengths and sparked some creative fires.

I wish I had another couple of months before school starts to keep the momentum going.

At least I’m feeling refreshed and energized. I feel less panicky as I develop marketable skills to go along with my work ethic.

As I enter this school year, I’ll do it with my tank full instead of running on fumes.

We’ll see how long this engine can run.

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