Karen Atkins is the owner of Proper Gardens in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She designed the Victorian Gardens for the Merrick Art Gallery, the Pioneer Entrance Garden for Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, and many award-winning gardens for residential clients. Karen loves to help and hear from other gardeners.

Recent Blog Posts

Sep 16
Pumpkin Flower Vases  

Jul 26
Lavender Confections  

Jul 12
Michigan Strawberries are in!  

Jun 03
Dahlias are on sale!  

May 13
Plant Virginia Creeper Now  

Apr 16
Thank you Leslie Library!  

Mar 31
Cultivating Friends  

Mar 18
Time to Order Chicks   (2 comments)




Pumpkin Flower Vases
by Karen Atkins - posted 09/16/14

Get Your Cinderella On!


Isn’t it thoughtful of Mother Nature to provide us with such a wide array of vases for flower arrangements each fall? Pumpkins come in every shade of orange, and white. Some are even dappled.  I like to find pumpkins that are large enough to hold a plastic coffee can inside them for water. You can too. Clean out your pumpkin, saving the seeds. Rinse them and dry them really well with paper towels. Toss the seeds with vegetable oil and a little salt and bake them on 350 until they are toasty and brown. While they bake, go around the yard, scavenging for branches, berries, roses and sunflowers for your vase.photo courtesy dreamstime.com

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Lavender Confections
by Karen Atkins - posted 07/26/14

Some friends have been calling, asking for my lavender recipes. No surprise, really, it is that time of year. So I include them here in an article that first ran in Michigan Gardening last summer:


I have always associated the scent of lavender with pampering. So I cut and save it for my houseguests, stuffing it into drawers and in-between towels for them in heady sachets. But if I really want to spoil somebody rotten, I make lavender shortbread and ice cream. Both can be made up to a week ahead, so I can spend less time fussing over my friends and more time enjoying them. And like eating warm tomatoes in July or crisp apples in October – savoring lavender while it’s blooming brings you right into the moment. As Winnie the Pooh said, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That's why we call it the present." I drag tables and chairs right out into the garden when serving these desserts. Fair warning, if you serve these treats they will be requested again.

Lavender Shortbread Cookies:

Makes 30


2 (eight ounce) sticks of butter, at room temperature

1 and ½ cups of flour

Pinch salt

lavender-infused sugar ( ½ cup of sugar mixed with ½  cup fresh lavender buds, allowed to sit for at least a few hours.)


1.      Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Beat together the butter and sugar until creamy. Add the flour, salt and lavender and mix until combined.

2.      Bring the dough together into a ball with your hands and shape into a flat disk. Cover and chill for at least 20 minutes.

3.      Once chilled, roll out the dough so it is ¼ inch thick.  Cut out into small rounds or use a cookie cutter. Allow room between cookies when placing on baking trays – they really expand while baking.  Sprinkle with extra sugar.

4.      Bake for 10 – 12 minutes or until they feel sandy on top and have the slightest hint of color on the edges. Do not let them brown or they will taste burnt. Also, please resist the urge to remove them from the tray until they have completely cooled, or they will break.



Lavender Honey Ice Cream

Note: This recipe was adapted from one printed by Martha Stewart Living. I hope my explanations flatten the learning curve for you.




2 cups whole milk


¼ cup of dried lavender buds


1/3 cup of honey


5 large egg yolks


¼ cup sugar


1 cup of heavy cream


½ cup fresh lavender buds (to stir in just before freezing)


1.       In a heavy saucepan, heat milk, dried lavender, and honey over medium-high heat until bubbles begin to form around the edge of pan. Please do not boil or scald the milk.  Remove from the heat; cover, let steep, then let stand until cool. Run the mixture through a strainer to remove the lavender. (Don’t worry, you do this only because it has lost its color and flavor to the mixture.)


2.      Add egg yolks to sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and mix for 2 or 3 minutes, until creamy. At the same time, put the milk back into the saucepan and bring it back to a low simmer.


3.      Add half of the milk mixture to the yolk mixture and whisk until combined. Then pour the yolk/milk mixture into the saucepan with the remaining milk. Cook over low heat and stir the entire time until the mixture has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and immediately stir in cream.


4.       Place saucepan in refrigerator until cold, about 2 hours. Now mix in some fresh lavender buds so that people will know what they are eating. I use about ½ cup.  Most people pour the mixture into an ice-cream freezer and freeze according to the manufacturer’s directions. I do not have room in my kitchen for one more kitchen appliance, so here is how I do it. I freeze the ice-cream right in the stand mixer bowl. Each half hour for 3 hours, I pull it out and give it a quick mix to break up any ice crystals that might try to form, and then return it to the freezer.


You can needlepoint or take naps in between, but serve this and they’ll think you slaved all day.


Lavender Fun Facts:

1.       Humans have been harvesting lavender for over 2500 years. Aromatherapy advocates believe a lavender compress placed to the head can relieve headaches, depression, tension and exhaustion.


2.      You can use lavender in any baking recipe by mixing it fresh (not dried) in a 2:1 ratio of sugar to fresh lavender.  You won’t need to adjust quantities of the sugar or other ingredients. To allow the scent and the flavor of the lavender to permeate, mix it with the sugar a few hours before you begin to combine your mix with any other ingredients. Try lavender scones, pancakes, pound cake, and cheesecake.


3.      If you have had trouble growing lavender, it may be that you don’t have proper drainage.  She is the “princess and the pea” of herbs and really resents wet feet. Make sure you provide a bed that drains quickly and fully after a good soaking.


Photo Captions:

1.       Lavender thrives in full sun and quick-draining soil.

2.      A chalkboard gets summer weekend guests pumped for dessert.

3.      Make lavender honey ice cream without an ice cream machine.

4.      Bake lavender shortbread up to a week ahead and kept in an airtight tin.


Photos are courtesy dreamstime. com  and this article first appeared in Michigan Gardening, summer 2013.


Karen Atkins owns Proper Gardens in Grand Rapids.  She designed the Pioneer Entrance Garden for the Botanic Garden of Pittsburgh and the Victorian Garden for the Merrick Art Gallery. Find her knot garden design in Superstar Food Gardens: Plans From My Favorite Gardeners By Niki Jabbour (Storey Publishing, January 2014).

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Michigan Strawberries are in!
by Karen Atkins - posted 07/12/14

I have always made cooked jams. I like sweet jams, like coriander plum, strawberry, and grape. As for savory jams I’ve always made garlic, rosemary, and white wine jelly for lamb and pork roast - and it is darned good.  You can still find all of my recipes for these on line, if you want to make the same. But just when I thought I knew it all, I tasted my friend Dan’s freezer jam. I had never had such a fresh tasting preserved fruit before. My family was hooked. Zoe said it was absolutely the best jam she had ever had in her 14 years of life!  Dan explained that cooked jam results in a cooked fruit taste and that freezer jam gets you a fresh fruit taste. Since you store the jam in the freezer, the temperature does not allow any bad bugs to develop, which means all of the frenetic sterilizing of jars and lids you do with cooked jam  isn't needed. And when Dan added that there would be no boiling jam sputtering on the stove, no boiling of jars and no processing of the jam under boiling water – I was in!  How about you, would you like to try it? Make it easy on yourself so there is no scrambling later. Round up all of your supplies and place them on the counter:


1 Pitcher

1 Potato Masher

1 long-handled wooden Spoon

2 Cups Strawberries

2 Teaspoons Lemon Juice

4 Cups Sugar

1 Pouch of Liquid Pectin

Canning Jars and Caps


Next, follow these instructions, which are crazy easy!


Remove the green tops from the strawberries. Put them in a large bowl and use the masher to break them up – but leave some large chunks of strawberries in there. This will make the jam look and taste better.  Next, put the strawberries in the pitcher, add the lemon juice and the sugar, and stir really well. This is the part that separates the men from the boys. Use some elbow grease. If you don’t stir it ‘til the cows come home you will be left with sugar that has not dissolved and makes your jam cloudy and grainy. So put some weight into it. When you have stirred it for about 5 solid minutes, add the pectin pouch, give it a quick thorough stir, then pour it into jars. Leave about ½ inch at the top so the jam has room to expand and contract in freezing and thawing. Now set those tops on and freeze. You’re done! Can you believe it? Now go make some. You’ll have hostess gifts that everybody wants for as long as your jam holds out. And that’s if your family permits you to give it away. I’m thinking of buying a chest freezer so that I never run out.

By the way, I'm still not giving up my cooked jams. Nothing tastes better on ice cream or roasts than a good, cooked jam. 



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