Friday, April 22, 2016

Landscape Lessons Learned: I made the mistakes so you don't have to!

I jumped into my first DIY landscape project 5 years ago when we moved into a new house and had a nearly "blank-slate" yard to work with. While I still love our backyard and the many growing things that live there, I've learned a lot from the many design mistakes I made on that first project.

When I look at my backyard landscape, I'm reminded that every good gardener learns from their own experience, as well as the experience of other gardeners. So, it only makes sense for me to pass my lessons on to you. If you're planning on jumping into a DIY landscape or garden project, take a look at my List of Landscape Lessons Learned (alliteration is so tempting, forgive me), so you don't make the same mistakes that I did.

And then let me know what mistakes you make so that I learn from you. It's the circle of gardeners' life, you see.

1. Incorporate pre-existing shrubs and flowers into your design (if you're leaving them there). I didn't want to dig up the entire hedge of old lilacs along the back fence, so I left most of them and then seemed to forget all about them as I planted the rest of the area with Xeric, low-maintenance perennials. If I were to do it again, I'd work harder to integrate their tall structure and early-spring bloom into the overall design.

Pre-existing shrubs in background with a couple tall grasses in between. 

2. Create a "rhythm" or site line for the eye. I made the common noob mistake of getting super excited about all of the plant options and then getting lost in the variety. There is no real site line for the eye in my landscape. Your eye will be drawn to the purple flowers of the Salvia when it's in bloom, but they do not create any real rhythm in the garden. The garden looks like what it is -- just a bunch of plants that I wanted to try. In terms of a "rhythm", my garden just makes noise. No matter how small, every grouping of plants should have some sort of "rhythm". Whether it's grand and sweeping, slow and quiet, or energetically staccato, you can create a rhythm with texture, form and color.

3. Utilize groupings of plants to create the rhythm and structure of your garden. This is where I feel like I really went wrong. I did not adequately utilize groups of plants in my landscape. Instead, I put one type here and one type there, and spread them around the garden with other plants that I thought might look nice next to them.  The two tall grasses planted at the back of the garden are perfect examples. They'd make a much bigger impact if I had planted in groups of three, for instance. Of course, a few of the original perennials have died and been replaced, so the garden has morphed over time, but it still lacks any real continuity.

4. Consider bloom time and plant accordingly. The rhythm of your garden is created in part by the color of the flowers' blooms. If there's a time in the season where none of your flowers are blooming, then your garden will feel somber and silent at that time. You can create an all-season show by grouping plants together with similar bloom times and making sure you have groups of flowers that will be blooming at all times. When I see pictures of my garden in late summer, I realize that I made a huge mistake -- I created a garden that is lush and colorful for only part of the season, not all of it. In late summer, only the sunflowers and hollyhocks prevail, which makes for an unbalanced appearance in our backyard.
The garden in late summer

5. Forget the weed barrier and small river rock. Use some form of mulch (including gravel or rock for truly Xeric plants) and weed-resistant groundcover instead. Focus on using larger rocks throughout the landscape rather than spreading small river rock all the way through it. The weed barrier and small river rock in our backyard have both proven to be a huge pain in the ass. It took me forever to get the landscape planted because I had to cut through the weed barrier and move rocks every time I wanted to plant a plant. Five years later, the weed barrier pokes up in weird places and I'm always trying to pull the rocks away from a plant's new growth. I really wish I would have just gone without both.

Exception: If you're doing a manicured and structured landscape that focuses on the space between plants as much as it does the plants, then use a weed barrier. I like the look of a "meadow" planting, or one where all of the plants slowly start growing into each other and mingling in unexpected ways, so I like to allow plants to go where they want.

Now, as I jump into my next major landscape project, I'm trying to keep all of these lessons in mind, but I find myself making similar mistakes, even in the planning stages. I have a pretty good variety of plants waiting to be planted, and I worry it will look a little disjointed once it's all growing, but we'll just have to wait and see! I do feel confident that it will be an improvement on the backyard, even if a small one. I'm so excited to see how it turns out. Of course, I'll have to wait a few years to really see this garden in all its full-grown glory.

Stay tuned; we start planting our next big Xeriscape project tomorrow! Follow me on Instagram @mlefrances520 to see updates.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Invaluable Postpartum Support

After sharing so many details about my pregnancy and birth, I'm suddenly at a loss for words when it comes to discussing my first few weeks after having Aldo. But, I'll try my best to do my experience justice.

I look back at my first weeks as a mother and, besides a teeny-tiny Aldo, I just remember the heat, the haze and the pain. Our house was hot, my mind was hazy and my body hurt. I didn't get much sleep and I was very emotional. After the euphoria of the first two days, my brain went into some sort of "animal mode". I was completely and utterly changed. I can't remember a time in my life when I cried so much and so often. I was overwhelmed with my new job as a mother, the pain of breastfeeding and the lack of sleep. My tailbone changed position during the birth, so laying in bed, reclining and sitting were uncomfortable and my entire lower back hurt. And, my love for Aldo and Patrick threatened to burst my heart with every beat.

Heart Bursting!

There's now evidence that A woman's brain changes dramatically when she has a baby, and I can definitely attest to that. Now 7 months into motherhood, I'm comfortable with that change, but the sudden shift was difficult to deal with at first. Like birth, the postpartum experience is vastly different for every woman. I had a relatively easy birth, and a somewhat hard postpartum. Like I suspected during my 3rd trimester, there really was no way to prepare myself for the experience. All I could do was rely on my support system. And that's exactly what I did.

Hanging out in bed with newborn Aldo

Our very first visitor after Aldo was born was my dear friend, Aubrey. I witnessed Aubrey's beautiful home birth only two months before and planned for her to be at mine. Of course, that didn't work out, but she came as soon as she could get her baby girl and two-year-old (who, by the way, shares her birthday with Aldo) out the door the morning of his birth. She walked in our bedroom wearing her gorgeous baby, gave me a big hug, cooed over Aldo and listened with a genuine smile as I told her how awesome I did. She brought a huge thermos full of delicious smoothie and made us a big breakfast. She welcomed me to the mom club.

Next was my sister-in-law, Alyssa. She made us a healthy lunch, took our dog, Scout, out for some playtime and gave Aldo the love of a newly made Aunt. I was once a newly made Aunt, and can remember clearly the obsession I had with my first niece. I was so proud to have given that gift to Alyssa. And so grateful that my son had an Aunt in town who would cherish and spoil him for years to come. Alyssa came back many times in those first few weeks to help around the house and make sure Scout got her exercise.

Alyssa took this picture the afternoon of Aldo's birth. she made that delish salad on my bedside table.

My mom arrived the morning after Aldo was born. She stayed with us for the first two weeks. She cooked, cleaned and basically waited on me hand and foot. She took Aldo in the mornings so that Patrick and I could get some sleep. She rubbed my back as I cried in bed. She didn't think twice about my new need to be topless. This was her fifth time taking care of a daughter after a birth, and it was obvious she knew what she was doing.

Mom holding newborn Aldo

My sisters came to stay with us in the first two weeks, too. Both of my sisters have two kids. One of my sisters, Amy, had a three month old baby, so she was not so far removed from the experience, herself. My sisters helped me immensely in the weeks after Aldo's arrival. They reminded me over and over that the first two weeks were the hardest and that it would get easier. They assured me that breastfeeding would eventually turn from being painful to being joyful (they were so right). And they made me laugh. That in itself was an invaluable gift.

My sisters making me laugh as I breastfeed Aldo

By the time my in-laws came to visit, I was 4 weeks out and feeling much better. I was getting comfortable with breastfeeding and my emotions were starting to even out. My back still hurt, but I was seeing my chiropractor twice a week and that was helping. I am lucky to have very caring, loving and generous in-laws. I felt comfortable breastfeeding around them, didn't feel silly when it was obvious that my brain had turned to mush and enjoyed their thoughtful support. Aldo is their first grandchild and, like with his Aunt Alyssa, I felt proud to give them that gift. Watching them love him is such a joy.

Patrick wearing 2-week-old Aldo

Most enduring of all was the love and support of my husband, Patrick. When I watched him slip effortlessly into the role of fatherhood, I fell in love with him all over again. I fell for him harder than I ever had before. I watched him with our son and I knew to my core that I had made the smartest move in my life when I married him. The first few weeks were hard for him, too, but he was steadfast in his love and strong support. Because I had Aldo in the weeks between his grad school graduation and first post-grad job, he was home with us for the first two months. He cooked, cleaned, changed diapers and wore Aldo around in the sling. He gave me long, reassuring hugs when I cried. Watching me go through the enormous change of motherhood alarmed him at first, but he had the patience to listen to me as I tried to explain what I was going through (which, by the way, is impossible). Eventually, he grew and changed with me, and I am so grateful for that.

My entry about postpartum ended up turning into one giant, lovey-dovey Thank You note, but I think that's how it should be. Thank you so much to every member of my family and to all of my friends for giving me and our new little family so much love, support and happiness. I love you all so much!

A Fierce, Fearless and Fast Home Birth

For the last two weeks of my pregnancy, I could tell that my body was slowly getting prepared to birth, so I worked on visualizing a peaceful, smooth home birth and imagined my body as a flower that was slowly opening. Looking back on my amazing birth experience, I'm sure that this meditation, coupled with the generous support of my husband (Patrick), other moms and my wonderful midwife (Carol), lead to the fast, fearless birth of our son.
I highly recommend the opening flower visualization to every woman who is approaching her due date

After a relaxing day at the pool with friends and a few indications that I might be in early labor, I sent a sort of "on call" text to Carol before going to bed. She replied with "rest and then maybe baby." Wise advice. I had tried hard to do everything my midwife told me to do up to this point (with great results), so I got in bed and read my HypnoBirthing Birth Affirmations out loud -- now a nightly ritual -- and started to read some birth stories in Ina May Gaskin's Spiritual Midwifery. Patrick was laying on the bed and playing the guitar while I read.

As I was getting into the beginning of a birth story, I felt a POP and a warm gush. I looked up and said "My water just broke."

We both hopped up from the bed and witnessed a gush onto the carpet next to the bed. I knew I needed to check my water for meconium so got on the toilet as quickly as possible and checked the towel that Patrick had gotten me to hold between my legs as I shuffled to the bathroom. Everything was clear, so I texted Carol to let her know that labor had begun. It was 10:30pm. She again recommended that I rest up (it was bedtime), so I changed my underwear and got back in bed. I mentally prepared myself for a long night and possibly another day of labor.

Shortly after I got back in bed, I felt my first real contraction and another gush. I got up again to go to the bathroom and change my clothes.
Then I went to the kitchen to see what Patrick was doing and saw that he was packing a bag.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm packing a hospital bag just in case. I want it to be ready if we need it."
"Patrick, my water was clear and contractions have started. We're having this baby at home and we're having it tonight."

He smiled and followed me back to the bedroom where I lay down, yet again, and attempted to rest. But contractions became instantly intense and I soon had to moan through them. I started experiencing all of the signs that I was in transition -- needing to sit on the toilet, feeling nauseous and chilled, and puking. But I couldn't believe that I might already be in transition. It shouldn't be happening this fast!

As I rode out another incredibly intense contraction followed by a slightly less intense wave of nausea, I clearly remember thinking, "How many more hours of this!?", but knowing in the back of my mind that all of the signs pointed to transition and that meant that I was already close. Even in this moment, I wasn't scared at all, just feeling as if I was on the brink of something immense; something that I couldn't measure the size or weight of.

I leaned on Patrick the most in the very beginning of labor, when I was going through transition. He got me something to puke in, he squat in front of me as I sat on the toilet (brave, brave man) and helped me to and from the bathroom. He managed to balance his birth-support duties with texting the midwife, my mom and friend (all planed on attending the birth, but only the midwife made it). I was so grateful to have him by my side. He was the perfect blend of calm and excited.
Soon after I made it through the feverish chills and nausea of transition, my body started to bear down. It was an uncontrollable thing that my body was doing on its own, and I had to just let it take over and do what it needed to do. However, Carol wasn't at our house yet and I didn't want to start pushing before she got here.

I told Patrick to tell Carol that I was feeling the urge to push, knowing she would head right over. She did Somewhere in this time frame, when it was still just us two, Patrick got my birth candles and asked me if I wanted to light them. The plan was to send a picture of the lit candle to my support system so that they could all light their candles and send me strength. But I was on my knees on the side of the bed and most certainly couldn't spare a moment to light the candles like I had planned. He lit them for me and set the candles on top of the dresser as the intense pushing contractions kept rolling over me.
I needed to fight the urge to push since the midwife wasn't around yet, so I tried to "blow out a candle" with my breath to keep from pushing. It felt nearly impossible to fight the urge to bear down, though; my body was doing its thing and I couldn't stop it one way or the other.

Carol arrived and allowed me to move through a few contractions before checking me, declaring I was fully dilated and allowed to push. Thank god! I didn't have to try and fight it anymore. Patrick tells me that this was around midnight. I had lost all sense of time, but was fully aware that labor was going very, very fast.
I spent the next two hours pushing, which wasn't as awful as it might sound. My body was doing most of the pushing itself, and I would just follow the urge and put some extra "oomph" behind it. I went from kneeling by the bed to hands and knees on the bed, and finally, as I got more tired, to laying on my side with one leg bent up. This is the position I was in as I slowly, slowly pushed our baby boy out. Carol reminded me to keep my body relaxed and to push into the burning, not "bust through" it. I tried to stay as in-tune as possible with my body as I slowly urged him out, and Patrick was right there talking to our baby as his head finally came out.
Patrick says our boy looked right at him. The work wasn't over for me yet, though, and I pushed his body out as Patrick picked him up and set him on my stomach.
Just born!
I did it! We did it! It's our boy! He was covered in white vernix and making gurgling sounds as he lay on my stomach. It was completely peaceful, joyful and surreal. He was born at 2:23 am in the warm, happy comfort of our home. I have never felt so proud in my life.

Wait. My pride was tinged with complete disbelief. A 4-hour labor?! Did that really just happen? Did my birth really just go even better than I could have ever imagined? Am I really a mother? That was fast. That was so, so fast. Wow. I did such a good job. My body is amazing. I am a superhero.

Moments after birth
We took the next couple of hours to get to know him, try breastfeeding, and then finally burn the cord and say "Thank you" to the placenta. The sun was rising and the birds were chirping as Carol left us alone with our brand new baby boy. Patrick and I lay in our comfy bed and watched the dawn sky change colors as I held our baby in my arms. We were so overjoyed and I was so proud of myself.

Patrick and Carol burning the umbilical cord

Another shot of the cord burning
One of the best things about my birth is that no one can ever take the experience away from me -- the most amazing, life-affirming experience of my life. I'm so happy we were able to have our baby in the comfort of our home.
Our first selfie! The morning he was born
The next day, we named our boy Aldo Paddock, and he's been the biggest joy of our lives ever since.

*While it would be neat and tidy to end the story there, I feel that I wouldn't do other moms and soon-to-be moms justice without at least touching on the postpartum experience. You can read about it here.

Friday, January 15, 2016

3rd Trimester: Waiting

*Note: I found this post when my son was about to turn 7 months old. I had written it in its entirety, but failed to add pictures and publish it before our little man showed up a week before the due date.

Okay, let me start by saying shit gets real in the third trimester.
All of a sudden you're two months, one month, weeks, who-knows-how-long away from meeting the baby you just spent several months of hard work growing, bonding with and thinking about. All of a sudden, you realize it's not just going to be you and your partner. Life is about to change in so many ways. It's nearly impossible to wrap your mind around all that is happening in those last months of pregnancy. Plus, you have the unknown of when the baby is arriving, so you really never know how much longer you have left.

Family of two
I spent a lot of time at the very beginning of my third trimester worried that we'd be meeting our boy sooner than expected. I experienced an unusually high amount of "Braxton Hicks" contractions, as well as some cramping. I couldn't walk, stand, bend over or do anything, really, without experiencing an uncomfortable contraction. I grew so concerned that I contacted my wonderful midwife and we set up an ultrasound to check things out. Thankfully, all was well and I could move forward without being too worried about my "active uterus." My midwife reminded me to listen to my body and to take things slow, and I knew the warning signs to look for for premature labor. I spent the rest of my third trimester with Braxton Hicks as my nearly constant companion.
(pretty much) ready for baby

One of the things I'll always remember about the third trimester is the abundance of attention that was paid to my body and my pregnant belly. Suddenly something that is so personal and private is literally thrust out into the public eye. It's painfully obvious that you're growing a human in there, and everyone wants a look. And most people need more than a look, they need to make a comment. People started guessing that I was due "any minute" at about 32 weeks, which prompted Patrick to ask me if I carried bigger than most women. The truth is, all women carry their babies differently, and most people don't have the slightest clue as to how to guess a due date. Here's a tip -- don't guess. If you're curious, just ask. Also, remember that a pregnant woman's belly can get a lot larger than you think.

Even though some people thought I was big enough to pop at "any minute", I'm happy to say people were still kind enough to pay me compliments through most of the 3rd trimester, and I made a point of accepting those compliments as gracefully as I knew how.
A couple of people told me I "didn't look pregnant from the back." Thanks?

As I hit my "30's" weeks, I tried to treat my third trimester as a time to let go of fears and anxiety. Anxiety was a constant companion throughout my pregnancy, and I was ready to let it go and move forward with confidence. Rather than remain worried about all of the what-ifs -- and there are so, so many when you're pregnant -- I wanted to fully experience every kick, and revel in my swollen belly and changing body. I tried to thank my body for all it was doing and maintain a sense of awe and wonder for what it could do. You guys, my body grew a freakin' human being! How cool is that!?

 I went to pre-natal yoga about twice a week, and worked on relaxation, visualization and meditation techniques nearly every night (per our birth class of choice, HypnoBirthing). I attended a dear friend's home birth and was able to witness the peaceful, calm and joyful experience that birth can be. I sat in my living room with a Sweetgrass crown on my head and listened to my friends and family say beautiful things about me and my birth. I told my baby and myself that we were healthy and strong, together. I told myself that I was beautiful. I ate chocolate when I wanted it, and ate healthy meals when all I wanted was a cheeseburger. I tried to find a healthy balance in my life so that I could grow and birth life as well as my body knew how.

At my baby shower with birth candles and sweetgrass crown
One day, I realized that I had been so focused on preparing for a healthy, happy birth that I had almost forgotten to prepare myself for the postpartum period. Within a couple of days, I heard a few different women say that postpartum was far more difficult than birth, and I got scared. But, I realized that other than ensuring that I have the support and help that I need after having the baby, there wasn't much I could do at the moment to help my postpartum self. I was already taking good care of myself mentally and physically, communicating with my husband and getting organized. All I could do was try to bring this baby into this world in the best way I could, and then stumble along after that, just like every other mom out there. It makes me feel better knowing that I'm not the only one learning as she goes.