An Arcadia Dweller Finds Happiness, Healing by Sharing Her Gardening Journey on Instagram
A gardening micro-influencer shares her inspiration and crafty, creative recipes using cuttings from her garden.
Photography by Carl Schultz
A love of gardening runs deep in Kristi Belk’s roots. A Phoenix native, her early years were spent in Deer Valley, when much of the area was resplendent with lush, fragrant orange groves. “I grew up with the smell of citrus all around me,” she says. Belk’s great-grandfather moved here to farm the land before Arizona was even a state, and her grandmother’s home featured a cottage-style garden with giant blooming jacaranda trees. “When you visited her garden, it was like you were not even in Arizona anymore,” Belk remembers. “The desert just disappeared.”
Today, she continues the family legacy of tending the earth at her ranch-style home in Arcadia. Partly shaded by giant, decades-old trees left intact by developers, her front courtyard welcomes guests with bright, cheerful poppies, herbaceous lavender, sweet-smelling roses and colorful ornamentals.
In springtime, the white jasmine that wraps around a wooden post fence bursts into bloom, its delicate perfume attracting bees and other pollinators—as well as Belk, who tends some of her more finicky plants by hand each growing season. “Our spring ends in fireworks,” she says, referring to the bursts of color that signal the end of her planting and harvesting season. “Then, we all go inside … and stay there for the summer,” she quips.
The real magic happens in Belk’s backyard, where her most treasured plants are kept. In the seven years since she moved into this home with her husband and two teenage sons, she’s transformed her backyard from a blank slate into a verdant paradise centered around citrus. “I love lemons,” she says, gesturing to her cheerful, lemon-printed shorts. “A long time ago, after college, I went to Italy, and they had citrus growing along the cliffs. After that, I had this vision of doing a lemon cove.” In Belk’s own interpretation of this memory, citrus trees are clustered into a thick, circular arbor that hides an oasis set with reading chairs and a small, tiled table.
The backyard houses nearly a dozen lemon trees that Belk planted by hand, including lush, green Meyer lemons that she trained to crawl up her property’s border wall. By late March, hundreds of fist-sized yellow fruits perch in thick clusters on each tree. The citrus-loving hobbyist then hand-picks them to use in baked goods and her signature Meyer lemon margaritas–a favorite at the family’s pool parties.
Beyond the lemon cove, grassy areas are bordered by planting vignettes. A vegetable garden on a front-facing wall rotates through seasonal edibles, including kale, artichoke and eggplant. Between veggies and lemons is a bed of towering, old-fashioned single bloom hollyhocks. Like a proud mama marking her children’s increasing heights on a door frame, Belk measures these flowers at the end of each spring to see how tall they’ve grown. “Hollyhocks cross-pollinate, so they have babies again each year,” she says. “The tallest hollyhock I’ve ever grown was 12 feet high.”
Perhaps the most cherished spot in Belk’s garden aside from the lemon cove, a white wooden swing covered in passion-flower vines perches beneath the cascading branches of an established mulberry tree. The swing garden is a memorial to Belk’s late mother, who passed away from COVID-19 last year. “After I lost my mom and I couldn’t handle doing anything, I’d come out to the garden and it would heal me,” Belk says. “The process of gardening and planting, it soothes me. When I make something from the garden, it brings me joy. It doesn’t take my energy—it gives me energy.”
Lemons are also prominent in the scrumptious eats and floral crafts that Belk features on her Instagram account, @shefollowsflowers. Her feed is an eye-catching rainbow showcasing the myriad uses of her garden harvests, from holiday cookies topped with edible petals to citrus-infused cakes and floral cocktails. One of her favorite recurring projects is a homemade ice bucket that she crafts by submerging fruit or blossoms in tap water and freezing it inside a homemade mold.
“I started the Instagram account in the middle of the pandemic, when we were stuck in the house. It grew so much bigger than I ever thought it would,” says Belk, whose primary career is in public health. SheFollowsFlowers currently has more than 12,700 followers on the social media platform as of this writing. That’s enough to make Belk a gardening micro-influencer, though she’s reluctant to describe herself in those terms. “It’s more about the garden and how I celebrate it. That is my life, creating the garden,” she says.