Julia Watkins was hungry, circa 2000.
A Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa at the time, she couldn’t exactly order an entrée at a steakhouse or motor to a drive-thru and eyeball at least 16 menu options that would eventually mute her stomach growls.
“I had to learn how to garden to feed myself,” Watkins, a Glencoe resident since 2016, recalls.
Good thing her grandparents Ralph and Eleanor, who lived two miles from where Julia grew up in Anderson, South Carolina, had gardens that provided most of the fare for their family lunches on Sundays.
That meant Peace Corps Julia wouldn’t be overwhelmed in her quest to ingest, and survive, in Guinea.
“My grandpa’s gardens were huge,” Watkins says. “Twelve beds, long beds. He practically lived in them. He’d grow watermelons, cantaloupes, tomatoes … his specialties. I was 2 when I was in one of his gardens for the first time. Seeing food, which had grown in a garden, mesmerized me.
“My grandparents lived simple, self-sufficient lives.”
Watkins’s life today: simple, self-sufficient.
Her first book— Simply Living Well: A Guide to Creating a Natural, Low-Waste Home (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pages)—was published in 2020. It’s a motivational guide. In it she shares rituals, recipes, and projects for living simply and sustainably at home. Watkins, a sustainability expert, shows readers how to eliminate wasteful packaging, harmful ingredients, and disposable items for every household area: kitchen, cleaning, wellness, bath, and garden.
A bamboo toothbrush is better than a plastic one; reusable cotton bread bags (or pillowcases) wallop plastic bread bags; compostable rubber gloves vs. disposable gloves?
Watkins applauds the former.
Recommended projects in the book include non-toxic dryer sheets, an all-purpose citrus cleaner, and scrap apple cider vinegar.
“By the time you’re finished reading this book,” she writes, “you’ll know how to make your own cleaning supplies, natural remedies, and bath and body products. You’ll know how to use simple ingredients, plants from your backyard, and herbs from your garden to clean a grass stain, soothe a headache, and stave off a cold.”
Watkins’s second book—Gardening For Everyone: Growing Vegetables, Herbs, and More at Home (Harper Collins Mariner Books, 304 pages)—launches on March 8. It’s a guide to creating and growing a backyard garden simply and sustainably—from planning to planting to harvest, with profiles of essential vegetables and herbs, ecological tips, and fun and creative projects.
Wondering how to build a bean teepee? Make wildflower seed paper? Prepare a herbal lemonade ice pop?
Open book. Find answers.
“I’m homey,” admits Watkins, who shares children Benjamin, 13, and Eloise, 10, with her husband, Scott Stone, a lawyer who grew up in Winnetka and attended Lake Forest Academy. “I’m simple, natural, low-waste. Everything good has happened since we moved to Glencoe. I documented this life of mine on Instagram, and when I’m passionate about something, I go all in. My husband says I don’t have a dial.
“I got my first book deal a year and a half later, and you know what? I had the book in my head. I was asked to submit photographs, but I didn’t know anything about photography. So I taught myself photography. When we left Washington, D.C. (where she had worked for 12 years in the field of environmental conservation), I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s good-bye to the possibility of working again.’ ”
Her first book received waves of raves. Of the 1,144 global ratings it had generated as of February 28 on amazon.com, 85 percent of customers rated it a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5. The average review was 4.7.
“It surprised me, being able to develop a source of income from my love for simple living, low-waste living, and slow living,” Watkins says. “It is trendy, though, the idea of getting rid of the things you don’t need or enjoy and finding stress-free happiness afterward.”
The inside of her house on Vernon Avenue is minimalist and allergic to clutter. Visitors enter the abode and get infected—with calmness.
“I’ve always been organized,” says Watkins, the daughter of David, a golf teaching pro, and Jean, whose house would have always been an annual threat to win Tidiest in the Palmetto State—had such a contest been held.
“My mom was a role model to me,” Watkins says. “She’d tell me, ‘Julia, help me clean this closet,’ because she knew how much I was into neatness.”
Julia’s brother David, a lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee, liked to call his sister ‘Lisa Simpson’ because Bart’s sister in the animated show The Simpsons is a passionate activist.
“And I was a passionate environmentalist in my youth,” Watkins says. “I collected aluminum cans from everybody and made sure they got recycled. I was into nature, too. Summer camps, most of them in North Carolina … those were my happy places. One month in the woods, or near mountains, or near a lake, excited me.
“I had such reverence for the outdoors.”
Julia, a Duke University graduate, met her future husband at, yep, a camp, this one in Maine. They were in their 20s. Both served as naturalists (counselors) at a camp that was part excursion, part academic.
While Julia served in the Peace Corps from 2000-2002, she and stateside Scott were pen pals.
“Scott,” she says, “wrote the best letters.”
They hiked together in Nepal in the summer of 2002, when they were best friends. A courtship followed.
The married couple co-founded Lookfar Conservation about six years ago. The nonprofit supports conservation and restoration projects in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Watkins cherishes time with her children and whenever she’s bicycling. A seat on her bike makes her feel free and transports her back to her teen years.
“I love feeling like a kid, and I love watching our kids play with their friends,” she says. “After our children were born, I started to develop skills and get into craftsmanship. I’d always admired people who made things. I’ve learned how to make yogurt—plain, with a little honey. I’ve learned how to make butter and soap.
“For me it’s mindset before lifestyle,” she adds. “I live simply for the environment and for my sanity. Live like that and you’ll have plenty of time for what you care about the most in life.”
Follow Julia Watkins on Instagram @simply.living.well, or visit simplylivingwell.com. Visit amazon.com for more information about her two books, including Gardening for Everyone: Growing Vegetables, Herbs, and More at Home (to be released March 8).