Editor’s Note

Editor's Note

Some things just belong together: peanut butter and jelly, Hermione and Ron, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. In celebration of our favorite pairing — a beach and a book — O.Henry has produced its summer reading issue every August for over a decade. In that span, our contributors have included Frances Mayes, Daniel Wallace, Etaf Rum, Ron Rash, Lee Smith, Clyde Edgerton, Bland Simpson, David Payne, Lee Zacharias, Celia Rivenbark, Michael Parker, Nan Graham, Terri Kirby Erickson, Shelby Stephenson, Fred Chappell, Anthony S. Abbott, Wiley Cash, Ruth Moose, Sam Barbee, Virginia Holman and Jill McCorkle, to name a few. This year, we added Valerie Nieman and Brendan Slocumb to our roster.

And every August, we strive to find a cover that celebrates both reading and readers. This year, we’re fortunate enough to feature the work of California artist Michael Stilkey, a “book sculpture” entitled Out of the Night That Covers Me. In a style reminiscent of German expressionism, Stilkey uses a mix of paint, lacquer, ink and pencil to capture his melancholic, whimsical characters painted on stacks of books, many of which are destined for the recycling bin. Stilkey told the L.A. Times, “Books are dying. There are so many that go to the garbage. It’s crazy. If I can paint on them, I’m giving them a second chance.” His work has been exhibited throughout the United States and around the world, including the United Kingdom, Italy, Switzerland, The Philippines and China. When the curator of the Rice University Gallery randomly saw his work in a Los Angeles gallery, she flew him to Houston where he created his first large book sculpture. It went viral. “Then I went on a world tour for the next, I don’t know, 15 years,” says Stilkey. “Right place, right idea, right timing. It all aligned.”

In 2018, Stilkey was invited to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as a cultural leader. There, he created a book installation entitled Down to Earth, consisting of nearly 8,000 books, standing 27 feet tall and 20 feet wide, and depicting people from diverse walks of life floating on the music of a pianist. In 2019 at the Starfield Library in South Korea, he created his largest piece, a three-sided sculpture made of roughly 15,000 discarded books.

If you’d like to see more of Stilkey’s artwork, visit mikestilkey.com. For now, we hope you enjoyed our 2023 page-turners. And we really hope you’re sitting in your beach chair, toes dipped in the water.  OH               

— Cassie Bustamante

To see more of Stilkey’s artwork, visit his website at mikestilkey.com.

Visual Language

Visual Language

Jennifer Meanley creates kaleidoscopic realities

By Liza Roberts 


Center: As if smoldering and smoke were oneness evoked by thought and expression, oil on paper mounted on panel, 15 x 15 inches, 2019.

Right: Milk-Ersatz, spilt, oil on canvas, 48 x 56 inches, 2017.

Intimate but alienating, lush and allegorical, Jennifer Meanley’s paintings appear to capture the moments upon which events hinge. Figures, often out of scale with their environments, gaze at odd angles within untamed, kaleidoscopic settings, more consumed with their interior lives than with the discordant scenes they inhabit. Animals, alive and dead, sometimes share the space. Something’s clearly about to happen, or might be happening, or perhaps already has happened. Are her subjects aware?

“There is often a sense of lack of synchronicity between how we experience our bodies and how we experience our mind, our emotional states,” Meanley says. Her paintings “often register that paradox, whether that’s with the animals, or the symbolism with the space itself . . . or whether the figure seems to be looking and registering and connecting” to reality. Or not.


Left: Midnight Filigree, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches, 2020.

Right: Repertory Lights in Deep-Night, oil on canvas, 61 x 72 inches, 2020.

At UNC-Greensboro, where she teaches drawing and painting, Meanley paints these large-scale depictions of human experience. Simultaneously capturing the spheres of action, memory, participation and observation, she invites a viewer to examine the parts and absorb the whole. Like poetry, her works reveal themselves in stages and elements: image, rhythm, tone, vocabulary, story. Color plays a major role. “I’ve always had a penchant for really saturated colors,” she says, especially as a way to indicate atmosphere, like light, air, wind and the grounding element of earth.

Does she begin with a narrative? Not really, or not always. In a painting underway on her working wall — in which a caped, gamine figure gazes upon a flayed animal, possibly a deer, within a riotously overgrown landscape — the New Hampshire native describes her impetus: “I was thinking of this sort of crazy Bacchanal,” she says, “or of a surplus, imagination as a kind of surplus.” Anything is possible in the abundant realm of the imagined, she points out. The real world is another matter.

It’s no surprise to learn that Meanley writes regularly in forms she compares to short stories that emerge from streams of consciousness. It’s a process she describes as if it’s a place where she goes: Language is “like a field that I experience, stepping in and noticing punctuation, noticing the spaces between things, or the pauses, the way breath might be taken. That’s all really, really fascinating to me.” When she’s teaching, she tries to create a corollary to visual language in much the same way: “What does it mean to literally punctuate a drawing, in a way that you would take a sentence that essentially had no meaning, and make it comprehensible?” she asks her students. “Through timing, and space, and rhythm, and breath.”


Left: Migratory Inflection, oil on Canvas, 18 x 24 inches, 2019.

Center: Roil, Oil on Canvas 18 x 24 inches, 2019.

Right: Beloved, oil on canvas, 72 x 190 inches, 2017.

All of which connects to physical movement, another practice Meanley credits with fueling her creative process. Long walks with her dog in the woods spark marathon writing sessions, which then engender drawings and paintings.

In the last year, her writing sessions have taken on new importance, Meanley says. Writing “is a way for me to deepen my personal exploration of my own psychic space, which is the origins of the paintings as well.” Though she doesn’t intend to publish these writings, Meanley is open to the possibility of including some of her words in new paintings. “I think the world that I’m exploring has to do with the idea of psychological interiority and how that can find representation” through words and images. In the meantime, the kinetic activity of walking continues to fire her imagination.

It has also attuned Meanley to the natural environment of the South, so different from what surrounded her in New Hampshire, where she grew up, and where she also earned her BFA at the University of New Hampshire, or even at Indiana University, where she received her MFA. In and around Greensboro, she finds nature so lush, so green, so impressive. “I started realizing that there’s this battle within the landscape. Just to even maintain my yard, I feel like I’m battling the natural growth here. It did amplify that sense of tension, of creating landscape as a narrative event . . .  as an important space to contemplate hierarchies of power.”

Summer, with its time away from the demands of academia, provides Meanley with more time for outdoor exploration and for contemplations of all kinds. She’s also looking forward to having time to tackle larger works, with the hope of a solo exhibition later this year or in 2024. “Doing a solo show is an endeavor,” she says. “Right now I’m gearing up.”  OH

This is an excerpt from Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, published by UNC Press.

July Almanac 2021

By Ashley Wahl

July spills her secrets to the night.

At twilight, as the earth exhales the sun’s hot kiss, the parish of crickets chants glory to the rising moon and a softness spills across the landscape.

In the garden, a luminous sea of moonflowers opens beneath the glittering heavens. Fragrant blossoms resemble tiny white horns — silent galaxies transmitting sweetness from the darkness to the great abyss.

A night bird calls out from the shadows.

Does he sing his own name — whip-poor-will — or does he sing of the muse? 



Hard to tell.

As constellations of fireflies rise from the tall grass, cicadas blurt out their shameless confessions. It seems that each moment is a dance between sound and light, and as moths orbit lamp posts like tiny winged planets, five deep, guttural bellows resound.

A bullfrog moans from an unseen pond. It’s not a siren song, per se — more like a trembling cellist exploring a single string — but enchanting, nonetheless.

Might it draw you to the water? Will you run your fingers along the pond’s silky surface, dip your toes into its coolness, hum a sonorous tune of your own?


Only the night will know for sure.

Edible Landscape

The garden is churning out summer squash and snap beans. Beefsteaks and Brandywines grow plump and heavy. And yet, everywhere you turn, edible treasures spill forth.

Blackberry patches at the edge of the woods.

Wineberries along favorite trails.

Mushrooms galore — boletes, leatherbacks, chanterelles and, if you’re lucky, chicken of the woods.

Red clover and dandelion, daylilies and chickweed, chicory and burdock roots.

Yet at the height of this summer abundance, don’t forget: Now’s time to sow seeds for the autumn harvest.

Something Sweet

Japanese wineberries:
delicious though invasive. So, if you are wondering what to do with your daily harvest (besides eat them by the handful or tuck them into your favorite cobbler), consider using them for a cool, summer treat.
Got lemon balm? A friend passed along this simple recipe:


Wineberry & Lemon Balm Sorbet


3 cups fresh-picked wineberries (rinsed and drained)

1/4 cup sugar

1 handful lemon balm leaves (rinsed and dried)

1/4 cup water

Additional ice water


Line wineberries on a cookie sheet to put in freezer.

While berries are freezing, make simple syrup by stirring water, sugar and lemon balm in saucepan over medium heat. Once mixture reaches a boil, remove from heat and allow syrup to cool completely before straining out the leaves. Put syrup in a covered container; refrigerate.

Once berries are frozen, combine them with cold syrup in blender with a few teaspoons of ice water. Blend until smooth, adding more ice water if needed.

Enjoy immediately.


Mosquito is out,
it’s the end of the day;
she’s humming and hunting
her evening away.
Who knows why such hunger
arrives on such wings
at sundown? I guess
it’s the nature of things.

—N. M. Bodecker,
Midsummer Night Itch

Cheek to Cheek

Newly married, two young architects
infuse their historic home with a fresh perspective

By Cynthia Adams
Photographs by Amy Freeman


For architects Brian and Casey Cheek, there’s no place like the circa 1915 foursquare they’re enthusiastically restoring in High Point’s Johnson Street Historic District — especially now.

Casey, 28, can’t stop smiling. She’s standing in their newly renovated kitchen, where exposed brick, richly colored walls and wooden floors set the tone of the house.

Originally serviceable but small and confining — as in minimal counterspace and outdated appliances — the kitchen was hardly ideal for Casey’s vision.

You see, as a passionate cook and food blogger, Casey documents her culinary adventures on Instagram, drawing inspiration from the Italian dishes made with love and real butter by her grandmother, Nonnie. Because she shares her gourmet creations with followers, she needed a picture-perfect workspace.

Though she didn’t design it as a true test kitchen, Casey visualized how white, veined quartz counters (a resilient stand-in for Carrara marble) would look when staging food photos. She would need ample natural light, ample space and a fabulous gas stove — all of which now define the kitchen.

Brian? All he asked for was a bar sink, wine fridge and a stretch of counter reserved for entertaining.

“I have no power in this relationship,” Brian jokes, “but I held out for this,” he says, patting the bar sink. “I get to use this sink.”

The couple dissolves into laughter.

“You have power in the relationship,” Casey retorts, “it just does not extend to the kitchen.”

But for the time being, the bar sink has mostly served as a station for washing out paintbrushes. Brian and Casey have devoted much of their free time over the past year to painting and refinishing the home’s interior. They have done much of it alone.

Theirs is a compressed, impressive saga.

But it didn’t begin in the kitchen — it began in Nashville, where the couple cooked up a dream of relocating to North Carolina, where Brian had grown up. Less than two years ago, after interviewing with Freeman Kennett Architects, they found a two-story in need of all their talents and within walking distance of the firm.

Three leafy blocks of this residential corridor offer all the classic elements of Americana: generous, shaded porches; wide sidewalks; a variety of architectural styles; plus easy access to restaurants and bars. In other words: eye candy for architects.

It also felt like a lifestyle upgrade, going from “seven miles, but a 45-minute commute in Nashville to walking to work in a snap,” Brian says. (He does admit that he wouldn’t cross Main Street from his Emerywood family home as a kid. “It seemed too busy,” he says with a laugh.)

Brian’s father is a Triad surgeon, and his mother a lawyer and educator.  Casey’s father is in technology and her mother is a chemical engineer.

As anyone who has ever loved and restored an old house can understand, the biggest reach for the Cheeks was knowing that this was the house. Once decided, they had to figure out how to a) nab a historic house from “on the edge of foreclosure” that had languished in an estate for two years, b) plan a wedding and honeymoon, and c) reinvigorate an old house with new life.

With the help of friends, family and sheer good fortune, “We got the house a little over a year ago,” says a still smiling Casey.

But preceding that, a dizzying timeline unspooled.

The Cheeks were married on September 29, 2019, then sealed the deal on their new historic home while returning to the U.S. from a trip to Mexico. Or rather, Brian’s mother did.

“I got a text as we were in the airport in Atlanta,” Casey recalls.

She marvels at the cascade of events. “Brian turned 30, we got married, and we closed on a house all within two weeks.” With a grin, she adds, “It was so cool!”

In December, the Cheeks left Nashville, where they had worked for four years following graduation from architectural school at the University of Tennessee, which is where they met. After unloading their belongings at their new home, they took off for New York, where they would spend the next two weeks enjoying a culinary holiday with Casey’s family. There, Casey further mastered Italian dishes with her grandmother, Nonnie, an accomplished cook.

Next, they flew from New York to Prague for what they call their “big honeymoon.”

The newly married architects drank in the city’s splendor and enjoyed cocktails that were cheaper than bottled water.

They returned to High Point in January 2020, eager to begin new jobs and tackle a renovation. 

Given their architectural training, they had the remodel and design concepts in mind in no time. But as the crew began a partial gutting of the kitchen, and walls fell away between the kitchen and dining rooms, a revelation. The couple noted the “beautiful, organic look” of a fireplace and chimney that had been previously slated for demolition. 

“It’s going to stay,” Casey decided.  “I love the look of it.”

Brianagreed, they couldn’t destroy it.

They feverishly revised plans and set to work out how to make the most of what they unearthed while removing a minimum of walls. 

The dining room retained a built-in hutch and was reconfigured as a den/dining room, where Brian’s sketches hang on the wall.

The house had good bones.

“I love me some symmetry,” Casey playfully adds, which is one reason why she and Brian were drawn to the foursquare from the start. But to find just the right house, she began her search before leaving Nashville.

She noted one had been sitting on the market. The house had gone to auction and didn’t sell. Then a friend in town helped them navigate the issues with a house in an estate. They put an offer in before they were married, says Brian.

After their three-part honeymoon and moving into their historic home last January, they didn’t really delve into the renovation until March 2020, as COVID hit hardest. In sequestration, they worked at Kennett Freeman remotely. After the workday ended, they began remodeling.

“We have ‘before’ shots of the overgrown azaleas,” says Brian.

They hired a backhoe, and “went crazy” ripping out the front then backyards, which were choking in overgrowth. Suddenly, the house emerged from a wild tangle of greenery, thrilling them.

Initially, they tackled cosmetic things that were easier to do solo. Most of the rooms were a garish white, though the stairwell and one room were red. They focused on the three main rooms downstairs, and softened them with the most cost-effective, unifying change to come: a coat of Natural Linen by Sherwin Williams. 

Then they installed new kitchen cabinets. By using standard cabinet sizes, they were able to configure wood cabinetry at a hefty saving. 

The kitchen gained natural light, enhanced by being opened up. For the walls in the kitchen and dining room, they chose Benjamin Moore’s dramatic Bleeding Heart “to make things fade away a bit,” says Brian.  The color was forgiving, especially with areas where the plaster was irregular or repaired.

The trim and cabinetry were painted white.

“It gets so much light,” says Casey of the kitchen. They installed the long dreamed-of quartz surfaces.

“We were so proud of it, we were inviting all our friends,” Brian says, even as things were in flux. “Having a front porch! It was a different vibe.”

The house was ideal, too, for two large dogs.

“We saw them on Craigslist while living in Nashville,” explains Brian of their Great Pyrenees dogs, Dolly Parton and Del McCoury. “They were small enough to fit in my hand,” says Casey, but in two weeks they quadrupled in size.

“They’re like horses,” she quips.

In the Nashville house, the couple and dogs “were all on top of each other,” says Brian. There was no space, and therefore, sleep was challenging. Brian imitates Del’s heavy breathing, snuffling and laughing. 

Now, one dog sleeps on the stair landing, and the other sleeps on a downstairs sofa. “It’s wonderful,” says Brian.

But the happier fact was that Brian had long felt the tug of home and a desire to return to High Point.

“A lot of us are moving back,” says Brian. 

“Everyone’s leaving the big cities because of COVID,” adds Casey.

Commuting in a large city was crushing.

“Now we come home and let the dogs out and feed them,” he adds, without the stress of trying to get home yet being stuck in traffic.

At the end of the workday, the Cheeks rolled up their sleeves. They tackled a large patio area and paved it, using bricks found at the rear of the house, likely the remnants of a Charleston style garden. They reused both old bricks and pavers and other pieces excavated as they worked to create additional terracing, with a new seating/entertaining area.

“It was a rush to get all this done — the retaining wall and knee wall,” says Brian, pointing out their outdoor project.

“We were worn out,” adds Casey. A major holiday approached.

By Easter this year, they hosted family, and also held a best friend’s wedding after completing the patio. (The friend’s venue had been cancelled due to COVID. They invited them to have a small gathering in their newly re-done back garden.) 

Easter was the first test of their new kitchen and layout.

Casey’s family arrived from New York and Mooresville, North Carolina.

“We had 20-plus people,” Casey exclaims. Nonnie’s arrival completed the joy for her. “I think my grandma cooked on this stove the first time.”

They continued feasting and prepping food. Casey made mushroom risotto and chicken cutlets with Nonnie. “Pickled pepper, roasted eggplant and tomato pasta. The food was flowing that weekend.”

Casey immersed herself in the joy of Italian cooking and their newly blended families.

Casey shows a picture of Nonnie grating an enormous wedge of parmesan. It thrills Casey that her grandmother has now cooked in this very kitchen, a good glass of red on hand.

Nonnie likes Carlo Rossi wine; the couple laugh in unison. “Table wine,” Nonnie says.

“My grandmother was the one to pick us up after school. Dinner was ready. Our parents worked. She was at the house, cooking classic Italian, every single day,” Casey says, marveling.

“Instead of candy, we got chicken cutlets.”

Away from her grandmother at college, Casey would experiment in the kitchen on her own.  “She doesn’t cook with measurements,” she says of her Nonnie. “Everyone in our family gets so frustrated [trying to replicate her recipes]. So, I started recording her, making reels on Instagram.  Hers always tastes different.”

When Casey presses Nonnie, one thing is predictable. “Her answer is always, ‘you’ve got to use more salt.’ She’s from northern Italy, so she uses butter, versus olive oil.”

More salt. More butter.

Cooking ace Casey has summed up exactly why her segue from the North to the South was so seamless: Salt and butter, fundamental culinary staples of her adopted home.

“I thought I’d love the South,” she adds happily. And she does. 

Find Casey Cheek on Instagram @alltypesofbowls.

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor of O.Henry

April Almanac 2021

April is the earliest fawn, dewy eyed and trembling, landing in a world so soft and tender you can barely remember the deep silence, the bleak landscape, the icy ache of winter.

The nectar of spring flows steady as milk from the mother. It is the wet kiss from doe to teetering fawn. It is here, now. And it is delectable.

Like the fawn, we’ve awakened to a warm and gracious Earth that simply gives.

A tabernacle of peepers sings out.

In the garden, thin spears of asparagus rise like tiny prayers to the sun, young turnips humming songs of the cool soil. Cottontail rabbit grows plump.

Purple martins chatter inside birdhouse gourds and everywhere — everywhere you look — edible flowers bloom.

Rosy pink redbud bursting from bare-branched limbs. Violet and clover spilling across lawns. Forsythia and dandelion mushroom like palatable sunshine. 

Even wisteria — sweet, aromatic miracle — twists around fences, buildings and treetops like ruche fringe, a garden party for this tender new world.

The trees are leafing out. There is pollen for the wasps, the beetles, the bees. And, do you hear that?

The chorus frogs have reached a crescendo, their many squeaking voices one.

The canticle of spring is growing stronger. Whitetail baby mews along.


I will be the gladdest thing

Under the sun!

I will touch a hundred flowers

And not pick one.

— Edna St. Vincent Millay


Canticle of the Sun and Moon(flowers) 

Now that we’ve made it past the last frost, bring on the summer bulbs: gladioli (sword lily), flamboyant cannas, caladium (aka, heart of Jesus, angel wings, elephant ears).

Sew the first of the sunflowers.

And — at the end of the month — moonflowers.

Although they look like morning glories, which open at the earliest touch of light, moonflowers blossom beneath the stars — each ephemeral bloom lasting just one night. Kissed by the light of a near-full moon, the fragrant white flowers are nothing short of enchanting. Create your very own Midsummer Night’s Dream, plus or minus a mischievous garden sprite or two.

Poetry Month

What is a flower but a poem?
Same of a tree, a nest, an egg.

Of course April is National Poetry Month. Look around. Birds weaving tapestries of needles and grasses. Spring tulips. Dogwoods like angelic flashes of white in naked woods. And, three words: violet blossom jelly.

Harvest wild ones in the morning. Three heaping handfuls. Place them in a pretty bowl.

Add boiling water. Stir, then keep covered for one rotation of the Earth.

Tomorrow, strain the liquid — deep and dark and blue. Add lemon juice; boil. Add cane sugar and pectin; boil and behold: wild fuchsia magic.

Just add toast.

Devotion in Motion

One native plant at a time. That’s how Root & Branch Gardens’ Steve Windham is helping to restore our ecosystem

By Ross Howell Jr.



Sitting on his Wharton Street front porch, Steve Windham is telling me the story behind Root & Branch Gardens, his landscape design and services business.

What makes Windham’s approach unique is that he doesn’t want your yard just to be pretty. He wants it to protect the balance of nature.

For that reason, Root & Branch Gardens specializes in landscaping with North Carolina native plants and trees. Native plants, he tells me, are arguably essential to life as we know it. The birds, the bugs, the harmony of all living things.

Sharing this knowledge has become the soul of Windham’s work.    

I ask him how long he’s worked in landscaping and watch a twinkle dance at the corner of his eye.

“Since I was big enough to dig a hole,” Windham answers.

He describes a photograph in which he’s sitting in a wheelbarrow at the age of 8. It wasn’t just anybody’s wheelbarrow. It was his mother’s.

Jeannette Windham is the founder and proprietor of Jeannette’s Plants and Designs, a gardening institution in Greensboro — and later, in Summerfield — for many years.

Though retired, Jeannette still keeps her hand in the soil, so to speak, volunteering for Greensboro Beautiful Inc. (Steve, who’s also active, served as a past chairman.) Just recently, she curated the renovation of the Rock Garden at Tanger Family Bicentennial Garden, finalizing its design and specifying the plantings.

“My mom was a great inspiration . . . a mentor,” Windham says. “She’s a real plant person.”

Butterfly weed
Butterfly weed
 Jeana Garden Phlox and black-eyed Susan
Jeana Garden Phlox and black-eyed Susan


As a kid, Windham recalls helping his mother with various landscaping projects in Greensboro and getting his hands dirty in his granddad’s vegetable garden. Before graduation from Page High School, he even worked part-time for his mother.

At one time he considered a career in electrical engineering, but his interest in the natural world never waned. He studied at Guilford College and Central Piedmont Community College. “I took biology, ornithology, different things,” he says. He received a degree in horticulture at CPCC. And his passion for learning continues.

Windham is currently working toward a certificate in native plants from the North Carolina Botanical Garden at UNC-Chapel Hill, where a conservation garden offers something of a proving grounds for propagating native plants, banking seed to protect wild plants from extinction, conserving biologically diverse habitats and creating native gardens using sustainable gardening practices.

Before realizing what is now his core mission — that he is here to serve as a guide and advocate of native plants and trees — Windham ran a small business and worked at New Garden Landscaping & Nursery for nearly three decades.

In 2016, while Windham was still working at New Garden, he got involved with the Davidson Horticultural Symposium, which has been around for 35 years but seeks to offer new voices in horticulture.

One of those voices was Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. In the book, the University of Delaware professor uses hard science to convince readers how essential the link is between native plants and native wildlife. When gardeners fill their yards with nonnative species, native insects will not — or cannot — ingest these “alien” plants. So the insects starve, depleting a major food source for birds and other creatures.

When Windham fully understood how important native plants and trees are to the environment, he put that knowledge at the core of his professional life, launching Root & Branch Gardens in 2018.

“I decided to tie my personal interest to my business,” he says, “so I could practice conservation in my backyard and other people’s backyards.”

The point, Windham adds, is not to get customers to uproot and replace all their Bradford pear trees, crape myrtles and Burford hollies. He’s happy if he can get customers to at least consider native options, which are also beautiful, sustainable and beneficial to our ecosystem, when selecting trees and plants for their gardens.

As for groomed, expansive yards — well, he’d like to see them smaller. Many native grasses and shrubs that need no herbicides or fertilizer to thrive can be introduced to occupy some of the space.

Jacob Cline bee balm
Jacob Cline bee balm


But before Windham makes any suggestions, he first visits with his clients in their yards and gardens. He asks them if they like to have birds and butterflies around. He asks if they’d like to reduce the size of their lawns, and add plants that will provide food for wildlife. He asks their favorite time of year in their gardens, since various natives add interest at different times of year.

“Just because you decide to use native plants doesn’t mean they’ll do well,” Windham explains. The success of the natives depends on matching their traits with soil type, drainage and sunlight. There are some native plants that are best suited to shady, wet situations, and others that thrive in hot, dry exposures.

Now Windham is reading a New York Times best-seller by Doug Tallamy: Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard. If American landowners converted just half their yard space to native plants, Tallamy argues in his online initiative called the Homegrown National Park, they would “collectively restore . . . ecosystem function to more than 20 million acres of what is now ecological wasteland.” (To put that in perspective: the biggest U.S. National Park is Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, comprising 13.2 million acres, more area than Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park and the country of Switzerland combined.)

Windham is doing what he can to help make that happen.

The best part?

“I’m getting to do what I love,” says Windham. “And I know Mom is proud.”  OH

Root & Branch Gardens is located at 1019 Wharton Street, Greensboro. For more information, visit rootandbranchgardens.com.

Ross Howell Jr. is a freelance writer and geezer gardener. Contact him at


Interested in learning more about landscaping with native plants?

In addition to the resources already mentioned, Windham recommends Native Plants of the Southeast: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 460 Species for the Garden, written by Larry Mellichamp, professor emeritus of botany and horticulture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

In addition to visiting Chapel Hill’s botanical garden, you might also want to visit The University of North Carolina at Charlotte Botanical Gardens. Founded in 1966, the botanical gardens comprise a 7-acre native plant garden, The Van Landingham Glen. Like the UNC-Chapel Hill botanical garden, the UNCC botanical gardens offer certification in native plant studies.

One of the oldest plant societies in North America (founded in 1951), the North Carolina Native Plant Society provides an outstanding website with a list of N.C. native plants for gardens, along with activities and events, at ncwildflower.org.

It’s a Blog’s Life

Social media maven René Zieg shares her flare

By Maria Johnson     Photographs by Amy Freeman



If you drove by René Zieg’s home, a cream-colored bungalow distinguished by a heavy brow of evergreen clematis over the front door, you’d never guess that it was a laboratory of sorts, a proving ground of products and ideas.

Zieg publishes her findings regularly.

You can see them — as some 75,000 followers do — on her blog, Cottage and Vine (cottageandvine.net), a digital scroll of her musings about home, garden, food, clothing, travel and other expressions of self.

Spanning several social media platforms — including a dedicated website, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and email newsletters — Zieg fuses the commercial and the personal with ease.

Her posts draw on her own home-improvement projects; seasonal design ditties; meals that she and her husband make (“Sometimes he’ll say, ‘This is blog-worthy,’ and we’ll take a picture.”); her experiences with freebies and invitation-only tours; family gatherings; and morsels vacuumed from websites, magazines and books.

Recently, when her older son, Tyler, was getting married on a February weekend visited by an ice storm (which happened after the ceremony was delayed so the bride could recover from COVID), Zieg pulled out the stops to make the rehearsal dinner memorable. She scripted signs, composed table decorations and assembled a slide show of snapshots. People were surprised when she didn’t cry at the wedding the next day. René explained that she’d spent all of her tears while going through family photos.

Such vulnerable glimpses, she says, are vital to her readers.

“I would like for people to know me a little bit. I read a lot of blogs, and I enjoy them more when I feel like I know the writer. I feel like they’re more relatable,” says Zieg, who grew up in Asheboro and earned a degree in fashion merchandising from UNCG.

She met husband-to-be Rick, a Maryland native who graduated from UNC Charlotte, through a high school friend. They settled in Greensboro in the early 1990s, nestling into a home in Lindley Park before transplanting to their current home in the old Starmount neighborhood in 1996.

René started blogging in the late aughts, when sons Tyler, now 25, and Parker, 22, were in elementary and middle school. “Back when we still got a newspaper, Rick was reading about blogs,” she recalls. “He said, ‘You really should start a blog as a creative outlet.’” René let the idea simmer for a couple of years before launching her site in 2009. “It started out as family things — parenting strategies, things the kids were doing, family management,” she says. As the boys grew, René, by then a full-time mom, focused on writing about the thoughtful curation of home and garden. “Once they get older, you know, you kinda get back to your roots,” she says.

René leaned on design experience from former jobs, one as a merchandiser in the men’s and boy’s divisions of Girbaud, then a 

brand that belonged to Greensboro-based clothing giant VF Corp. “We’d take designs from French designers and adapt them to the American market, with colors and buttons and trims,” she says.

Her last full-time gig was with the Klopman Mills division of Burlington Industries, where she devised mood boards to show potential customers how synthetic fabrics could be used in apparel.

On her way to work one day at the Burlington Industries headquarters — a mid-century “exoskeleton” building that was leveled to make room for the expansion of Friendly Center — she first saw the Starmount home that would be hers.

Like most people who fall in love with a house for sale, she and Rick were blind to the flaws. “It was like, ‘Oh, it’s fine. We can move in!’” René says, laughing. “Then all of a sudden, it was like, ‘Well, we really need to do this.’”

Some fixes — like ripping up the mauve carpet that crawled up the pine stairs leading to the second story of the 1938 home — were easy and cheap. Other improvements took more design and budget planning.

In 2003, the Zieg family (pronounced ZIG, as in zigzag) undertook a major renovation. They bumped out the back of the house, adding about 200 square feet to the dining room and another 200 square feet to what had been a galley kitchen. The construction lent itself to good stories — later. “We had two toddlers, and we were washing dishes in the bathroom,” René says. “When we pulled up the flooring, you could see dirt in the crawl space under the kitchen floor,” chuckles Rick.

The improvements were pre-blog, but subsequent renovations and tweaks have been a mainstay of Cottage and Vine. There is no shortage of subjects. “When you live in an older home, it’s like the Golden Gate Bridge,” René says. “You finish working on one thing and move on to another.”

“I like having something going on at the house,” adds Rick, a sales director whose company makes liners for shipping containers. “Fixing something, painting something or landscaping in the backyard is fun.”

René’s likes and reflections snare oceans of eyeballs. Fohr, a company that verifies the reach of social media influencers, puts her audience at almost 75,000 between all of her platforms.

There’s likely some overlap among followers, but René’s numbers still are robust enough to generate a healthy stream of income thanks to dozens of advertisers, including Crate & Barrel, Lexus and Nordstrom. She works with a national agency, AdThrive, that places advertisements on her blog. She also uses rewardStyle, a monetization program. When readers click on her links and tags, and buy the attached items, René gets a commission.

Often, companies pitch products to her, hoping she’ll post a picture and write-up. Walmart, for example, dangled a fee for her to write about their on-line clothing store. So last fall, René bought some jeans, sweaters, boots, dresses and a faux-Sherpa coat, then posted pictures of herself modeling in her home and at locations around Greensboro. She stresses that she only promotes products that appeal to her tastes.

“I’ve turned down more than I’ve accepted,” she says.

“It’s been people coming to her, not her going to them, which is a high compliment to her,” adds Rick.

The perks of the job can be surprising. Sound Sleep Products, a gel-foam mattress company, sent René a queen size sample compressed into a small box. “We opened it in the dining room, and it sort of exploded,” René says, laughing. “We had to finagle it back to the bedroom. We’re still sleeping on it.”

The bedroom echoes the placid vibe of the home, where downy whites and beach beiges dominate. Blue-and-white ceramics speak calmly. Live plants and pale green glassware bring in notes of nature, along with fibrous mats and baskets. Faded oriental rugs pave the hardwoods. Impressionistic watercolors by family friend Lenton Slack of Asheboro grace the walls.

Even the family’s Weimaraner, Reagan, fits the decor with her soft gray coat.

Sometimes, René solicits feedback on interior changes. Last fall, when she trotted out a new kitchen island/prep table made of metal and marble, she pondered what kind of rug should go underneath. “I’m torn between a simple sisal rug or a vintage rug with muted color. What do you think?” She asked. Readers voted for vintage.

In 2010, when she painted the upstairs hardwood floors — a way to brighten the former attic while avoiding the cost and disruption of refinishing floors — readers lauded her courage. “It takes a brave woman to paint the floor white, so kudos to you! Love it, it looks stunning!” exclaimed a reader known as The Hip Hostess.

Followers also endorsed a major project that the Ziegs finished last fall: the construction of a patio that spans the back of the house. Greensboro landscape designer Marguerite Suggs drew plans for hardscape and surrounding plants, some of which were transplanted (boxwoods and limelight hydrangeas) and some of which were bought new (autumn ferns and an oh-so-upright hornbeam tree). Pruning Perfection & Landscape, a local company, laid the patio pavers. They also installed lighting below trees, along walkways and under the ledge of the patio’s knee wall. Buffalo Fence erected sections of privacy fence, dressing up the posts with pyramidal copper caps. The overhaul preserved René’s herb garden, which is outlined by rocks from family homes in Vermont, and West Jefferson, North Carolina.

René inherited her green thumb — a kitchen orchid supports 19 white blossoms — from both parents. Her mother, Rita Hunter of Asheboro, specializes in gardening to attract monarch butterflies. Her late father, Norman Hennessee, raised vegetables. René relishes the memory of sitting down with him to watch Crockett’s Victory Garden on PBS.

Norman, who was an avid woodworker, also whispers his presence inside René’s home. The family prizes his Queen Anne and Chippendale reproductions. Another heirloom is the kitchen table that René’s maternal great-great-grandfather fashioned from thick pine planks in the 1800s. Generations have sat around the table, spilling their lives, literally and figuratively, across the love-worn boards.

The Ziegs have added their own chapters to those stories. Years ago, they hired carpenter Doug Mack to build a banquette down the long side of the table. René looks at the nautical-style bench, deep with concealed storage, and sees her sons, exhausted from swim practice and full of a late dinner, lying down and falling asleep on the broad seat.

Soon to be empty nesters, René and Rick plan on staying put. They’re fond of their neighbors and of the neighborhood’s proximity to downtown Greensboro and their favorite haunts at the Four Corners crossroad in Lindley Park. Plus, René is itching to entertain on the new patio and write about it.

And there are more projects on the horizon. Like refreshing the downstairs bathroom. Moving the laundry room from the basement to the first floor. Organizing the basement into a proper storage space. There is no end in sight, which is a bonus for René and her readers.

“It’s an evolution,” says René. “Our needs change, and our house changes with that.”  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. Contact her at ohenrymaria@gmail.com.

Queen of DIY

How stay-at-home mom Ursula Carmona became a media sensation (Hint: She did it herself)

By Cynthia Adams



Nine years ago, Ursula Carmona typed out her manifesto:

“I’m a DIY junkie,” she confessed. And with “expensive taste but no décor budget,” she realized this was her best option.

Never in her wildest dreams could she have imagined that her simple mission — to create fresh, creative interiors on the cheap and inspire others in the process — would render her a nationally recognized design influencer.

And yet, this self-taught, DIY, social-media sensation wasn’t always comfortable using power tools, tearing out walls or gutting rooms.

This came of necessity, she insists.



One day, she found an old circular saw at a yard sale, and before she knew it, Carmona was leaning into all sorts of power tools — hard. Mastering tools emboldened her to tackle projects like moving walls, creating her own built-ins and undertaking entire bath and kitchen re-dos.

Her résumé reads like a DIY dream: Better Homes & Gardens Stylemaker; nominee for Domino’s Design Blog Awards; runner up for Home + Garden Trendsetter of the Year.

Now, Carmona’s work is regularly featured in The Home Depot blog, Better Homes & Gardens Style Spotter Blog, IHeart Organizing and Remodelaholic.

And since landing in North Carolina five years ago with her family, she has been power-tooling, painting and resurfacing her way towards creating the home of her dreams — transforming a fixer upper in nearby Ruffin into a house fit for the pages of Better Homes & Gardens. Check it out in the January 2021 issue, to be exact. All the while, she’s become a print and social media inspiration for thousands of others with ambitious tastes but limited budgets.

A decade ago, before her husband Orlando’s California job relocated their family from “the brown hills of Cali” to the frigid Great Lakes area, Carmona worked as a massage therapist. Although she briefly considered nursing school, it occurred to her that a profession in health care or alternative medicine simply wasn’t going to spark her joy.

Orlando supported her decision to stay at home as daughters Fiora, Priya and Sayuri were born in close succession.

“My husband worked two jobs. We slept on an old mattress with a spring that used to poke me in the ribs at night.” They saved money and stuck to a budget.

But living in the cold clime of the North, in a confining bubble of children, meals and chores, she morphed into a dauntless “DIY junkie,” she admits. Adversity in the form of the difficult climate and distance from her California family amplified her creativity.

With kids at home, says Carmona, “You need some outlet.”

And so she began documenting her DIY spirit by creating her first blog, Home Made by Carmona.

The blog was something of her own, something she could work on in her precious downtime. Just a little project, she figured. Even if nobody read it, she consoled herself, “it’s a way to reach out to a creative community.”

Life as a stay-at-home mom provided endless content. From her once lonely kitchen table, the first-time blogger began sharing meal planning and organizational tips, then, eventually, projects that became more and more ambitious. Within just two years, she had amassed thousands of subscribers.

Soon, too, Carmona was invited to appear on HGTV’s popular home improvement programs, becoming a name. A brand, even.

She gained eager sponsors like The Home Depot, whose products aided her renovations. She was even invited to travel with HGTV Expos, presenting alongside celebs like Fixer Upper’s Chip and Joanna Gaines.

Early on, Carmona found an experienced ally among HGTV’s original stars.

“I had a chance to chat with Matt Fox,” she says. “He mentored me, helping my public speaking.” (Fox and Shari Hiller hosted Room by Room, HGTV’s first-ever program, which swiftly boosted home renovation’s ascending popularity among viewers.)

Carmona ascended too. Naturally telegenic and preternaturally calm, her gentle smile and self-assurance caught the attention of magazine editors, TV producers and sponsors — those who “make things possible.” Still, she modestly insists, she is “not a top tier” blogger.

Things happened swiftly. Only a few years after launching a blog, Carmona’s inspiring “chic on the cheap” projects landed in coveted print and digital shelter publications, including Better Homes & Gardens, Country Living, This Old House, House Beautiful, ELLE Décor, BuzzFeed, DIY, Apartment Therapy and Domino.



For someone who had never worked in media or design — and without the help of an agent to promote her — that’s pretty impressive. But she worked hard, springing up before dawn each day and often toiling away into the night.

She credits necessity and creative restlessness as the genesis for her work, but it’s clear she possesses an extraordinary drive.

She also learned the basics of home renovation — electrical wiring, plumbing and carpentry — all by herself, calling it “solo remodeling.”

More and more she was tapped for national television appearances on HGTV and as a speaker at home improvement shows. She became a DIY finalist featured on Hallmark channel’s Home and Family Competition.

She marvels that all of this has happened. But when she shares the story of her childhood, it’s clear the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Carmona is the oldest daughter of Donald and Karen Town, who remain on the West Coast. Donald is a fine artist and a former art director for Disney known for creating iconic art for films including Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.

As a child, Carmona often accompanied her father at work and played on film sets.

“I grew up a Disney kid . . . The philosophy that you can create anything.”

She even jokes that she married her husband “because he looks like Aladdin.”

Carmona interned at the studio while she was being home schooled, rotating through the various departments and absorbing the creative energy.

“My folks sought to be expansive,” she adds. They always encouraged us to “explore whatever we wanted to do.”

Long before the pandemic, Carmona proved herself uniquely equipped to handle isolation. She was committed to providing the home-school experience to her children, too.

Yet blogging was daunting because there was such a learning curve.  Carmona slowly taught herself everything from writing content and creating photography to styling and blocking shots, even learning HTML in order to program her new blog.

The photography and styling were easier. “I’m very visual,” she explains.

She studied search engine optimization in order to attract more eyeballs to her blog.

What most surprised her were the responses to organizational ideas and meal planning tips.

“Everybody wanted free downloadables and printables,” she muses.

Wearing the hats of wife, mother, blogger, influencer, home renovator and do-it-yourselfer, Carmona kept gaining momentum with her projects and attention from followers. She expanded into other platforms, adding Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram.

America took notice. One journalist marveled that she had taken her make-do, re-do style and “turned that into an art form” after she was a featured speaker at a Cleveland, Ohio, home show five years ago.

Yet another journalist called Carmona’s home renovation skills nothing short of a “sensation.”

Upcycling and self-reliance became key to her mission.

Repurpose things, she stresses. “You can make beautiful things with effort and creativity. That is what I want people to understand.”

Her daughters helped her rescue cabinets from the roadside by loading them into a wagon and lugging them home. Now painted and with new hardware, they factored into a reno and are utterly unrecognizable.

“I don’t want people [to view us] as design bloggers who didn’t have to reach to get here. And, I don’t want them to waste money.”

She worked equally hard at presenting her projects in an encouraging and articulate way.

Opportunities began flowing — speaking gigs and televised appearances. She accepted multiple “one-room challenges” along with fellow bloggers.

At one point, she undertook “at least four one-room challenges sponsored by Better Homes & Garden” in a single year. The challenge requires completing a room renovation within six weeks, as a community of bloggers post their progress along the way.

Despite travel limitations, 2020 led to more media exposure than ever, as home-bound followers eagerly attempted DIY themselves, although the pandemic halted media junkets. Many of her most popular ideas on Pinterest concerned adapting to pandemic confinement: A closet became an office — a “cloffice.”

But there was another all-consuming project: the fixer upper.

Around the 2016 Cleveland home show, Carmona made another vow: No more shoveling snow.

“I had lived in the North for so long. When opportunity came, I said, ‘Is it my chance to be warm?’ We’d heard so much about North Carolina from friends and my sister.”

Carmona sought a place private and verdant.

They searched online properties once Orlando found a job in Elon.

A (vacant) two-story house set on 16 acres of woodlands in Ruffin interested them. It was remote but blissfully private. Plus, it had a guest cottage.

“Space and opportunity,” Carmona says. But her husband was dismayed.

“He said, ‘Oh, this is terrible!’” She giggles. “But, I knew I was home.”


The setting was idyllic. There was even a solar panel! The houses would allow her to expand her skills, she decided. As for her husband, well, ‘He didn’t object that hard.’”

She knew he would come to love it. “The joy comes from making the space your own.”

Renovating the guest house kitchen was first, so her sister, brother-in-law and their new infant could temporarily stay there. (They later resettled in Charlotte.) Her own kitchen redo happened later.

Recently, when Better Homes & Gardens came to document the progress of Carmona’s DIY dream home — including the kitchen, the living room and various refurbished interiors — what they didn’t photograph was her newly renovated greenhouse. (Carmona is an avid gardener as well, with, believe it or not, a separate gardening blog.)

And what was that line about the apple and the tree?

The Carmona daughters are growing up. Fiona, 16, who has dreams of culinary school, is working with her mother on a culinary blog, Cooking with Carmona. Priya, 15, aspires to be a textile designer and has been printing her own designs onto fabric for design projects.

Last year, Carmona braved COVID to fly to California for a partnership project with The Home Depot. This was especially close to her heart: she was to tweak her parents’ home.

“I wanted a space to showcase his [Donald Town’s] artwork. I will say, despite the job he’s had and the lifestyle he’s chosen, he’s the most down-to-earth person.”

Carmona pauses. “Maybe a little too humble. He rubs shoulders with these incredible people and doesn’t say a word.”

Like her father, she is self-effacing. “I consider myself a mid-level blogger. But when you are breaking into a smaller niche, it presents some opportunities.”

She adds, “Isn’t the idea of stretching oneself to break the mold?”

It’s not just who you know, talent and skill, she says, “but a little luck too.” OH

You can check out Ursula Carmona’s blog at www.homemadebycarmona.com.

Poem April 2021

Beige Wall Telephone, 1960s


To you who have never known what it is to be tethered

     to the family’s one phone by a corkscrew cord

          filthied by idle fingers twisting it as we talked

and stretched by our efforts to sneak with the handset

away from the dining room where that cheap plastic box

     clung to the wall, my sister and I desperate

          to hide behind curtains or in a nearby room

and mumble dumb endearments to whichever lucky soul

we had a crush on that week: I won’t say how wonderful

     it felt to hear a call’s unexpected tremolo

          and rush to answer that sudden summons,

lifting the receiver’s heavy curve out of its metal hook,

or to dial seven numbers on a whirring analog wheel

     and hear a distant ringing pulse in the ear,

          knowing that actual bells trilled as a body

moved through space to deliver its hopeful Hello? –

no, it was awful, that phone, intended for businesses,

     brisk standing exchanges of information,

          not a home where its too-public anchoring

left adolescent siblings open to each other’s mockery

and the cocked ears of nosy parents straining to decode

     one side of conversations as we curled closer

          to the wall and whispered words downward

into the darkness that our huddling made, not pacing

like a barking dog chained to a stake in the backyard

     but trying our best to vanish, descending

          slow as a diver sipping words like oxygen

from a humming line whose other end kept us breathing.

— Michael McFee, From We Were Once Here,
Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2017

March Almanac 2021

March Almanac

By Ashley Wahl


March is as harsh as it is hopeful. The earth is aflame with tender new grasses. Dead-nettle spills across the lawn like a sea of purple kisses. The birds are twittering on high and the dog is cradling something in its mouth, looking up as if to say you’ve got to see this.

You are equally relieved and horrified to discover that whatever she’s holding is pink and wriggling and very much alive.

“Drop it,” you say.

And so, she does. On a soft patch of earth dotted with dandelion. 

Blind and hairless, the newborn squirrel is utterly helpless. You look up to the fork of a nearby oak, hoping to see a wild, leafy tangle of nest. Back when the world was gold-and-rust, leaves rustling like starlings with each gust, you’d witnessed its construction. And by some miracle — because what held by sticks and faith is not — the nest is still intact. You scoop up the babe with a thin cloth, place it at the base of a tree like a sacred offering, back away and wait.

The dog is whimpering. She looks up at you with the worried expression of a mother, back to the squirrel, so pink and vulnerable, then back to you.

Patience, you tell the dog as a reminder to yourself. The earth beneath you softens, yet there’s a chill you cannot shake.

An hour passes. You have nearly given up hope that mother squirrel will arrive, but she does. And in an instant, she is gone, scurrying up the tree with the babe in her mouth.

March winds can be cruel. But dog was dog, not snake or hawk. And in spring, there is always hope.

Just listen to the birds.


I glanced out the window at the signs of spring. The sky was almost blue, the trees were almost budding, the sun was almost bright.
— Millard Kaufman


Princess of the Pea


Although the robin has been announcing its return for weeks, official spring arrives on March 20 — and with it, the glorious, flowering redbud.

Blue sky or gray, redbud blossoms are utterly electric by contrast, seemingly more vibrant by the day. The Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), also known as the Judas tree, is a tree of the pea family. Christian folklore tells that this now small and somewhat dainty tree once stood tall and mighty as an oak and that, when Judas betrayed Christ, he hanged himself from one. But let’s talk instead of their delicate clusters of rosy pink flowers, shall we?

Yep, they’re edible. High in Vitamin C. And that they burst from bare-bone limbs before the tree’s first heart-shaped leaves never fails to dazzle. Pickle them or transform your spring salad into a work of art with a sprinkling or a sprig.

As for the seeds and pods? Edible, too. Eat the Weeds [eattheweeds.com], a blog for foraging newbies, suggests using the unopened buds as a caper substitute. 

Just add pasta, garlic and butter.


In the Garden


Mid-month, transplant broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage into the garden. Ditto lettuce and spinach. And get ready for April. After the last frost, it’s time again to sow your summer garden. The earth is softening. But the birds tell you everything you need to know: spring is here.