A Beautiful Failure: Gardening From Mistake to Mistake

A DAHLIA DISASTER is looming. It has the potential to be a colossal gardening failure on my part and is already a crushing disappointment. Crushing, but not career-ending. If in fact every single one of the twenty-five dahlia plants which I started from tubers (in the bathtub) meets an early and untimely death in our breakfast room, I will pick up my gardening ego and carry on.

I have done it before and I will do it again because I am stubborn, and because I think half the time I cause these problems by moving too fast, planting too much, trying to squeeze too much out of too little. And I don’t think I’m ever going to stop being this way. The only good news is that I’ve learned to accept the outcome. Sobriety has definitely taught me this. And that you only have so much control over things. (Well, actually very little control. Especially when it comes to nature.)

However, if whatever pariah is affecting the dahlias (could be spider mites, could be potting soil with too much nitrogen, could be a temperature swing or a moisture thing, a virus, or God knows what) migrates to the tomato seedlings (which are looking spindly and a little droopy), I will have to beat myself up just a little.

The problem is that I started way too many things indoors, everything grew super-fast under the new lights, and the weather is still too cold to move anything outside, even during the day. So I am using limited window light to provide plants that need a lot of sun with, well, not enough sun. I should absolutely know better. And just because I am always wishing I had a greenhouse, that doesn’t mean that one is going to magically appear this instant. I should really rig up a little temporary plastic hoop structure outside, but I haven’t had time to do it yet. 

Seedlings are survivors though (yay, we love survivors – tough cookies!) and my bet is that most of the vegetables, zinnias, cosmos, Thai basil, etc., will power through the less-than-ideal conditions inside and make the transition to the outdoors in a couple weeks.

The dahlias are a different story. One morning at the breakfast table I looked over at the leaves curling on most of the plants and headed for the internet (a frustrating activity if there ever was one. No two dahlia growers agree on anything). By dinner that night I told my partner that I thought the dahlias might all have spider mites (probably from our house plants) and that it might be nearly impossible to eradicate. He looked at my face, and I know he thought I was going to cry. He offered every possible kind of positive encouragement, including suggesting we buy dahlia plants from a local nursery to replace them. He knew how much fun I’d been having planning the dahlia garden – lists and charts and pictures cut out of catalogues – and he’d been planning (still is!) to build me a new raised bed just for these flowers.

We decided we’d simply have to wait and see. So far some still look okay, but several are looking worse, and others that were just starting to leaf out are now relegated to a different part of the house in the hopes that they won’t get contaminated (if in fact it is a virus). They will be the first to go out to the little temporary plastic-covered holding area if I can get going on it. 

If we do lose some or all of the dahlias, we’ll replace some with whatever similar varieties I can find at the nurseries, though certainly not 25 plants (they are pricey!), and sadly it will be hard to find the exact same ones which I chose for color and shape. Maybe in the future I’ll give up on trying to start dahlias inside to get a jump on these gorgeous blooms. But probably not. I’ll come up with what I hope will be a better way to do it next year.

Dahlia Parkland Glory from last year.

I’m fascinated by the amount of failure I am willing to tolerate when it comes to gardening. You could toss it off to the familiar adages about failures adding up to success, etc., etc. But I think there is another reason I put myself through this: I enjoy the process, the doing, the thinking, the reading, the trying, the puzzling, the planting, the watching, the coddling. I like engaging this way so much that even if things don’t work out, I’m still happy. (Some people enjoy banging their heads against the wall repeatedly!)

So I guess I’d have to agree with Winston Churchill:

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

P.S. Sorry for the late delivery this week. I had my second vaccination yesterday. But now that it’s Sunday, I can wish you Happy Mother’s Day.

Last year, I paired a little Bishop dahlia with Thai basil and annual pennisetum in a container on the deck. It turned out to be a nice combo, though little Bishop grew quite tall!


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In La-La Land on the Emerald Isle

I HAVE NEVER been to Ireland, but on days like today, my little corner of the Vineyard looks much like the Irish countryside — or so I imagine. The pale pewter sky hangs low over emerald fields. The mists tarry, skulking along the hedgerows, conjugating droplets of water on thorny brambles and tangled branches, limbs just leafing out, cheeky in chartreuse. I suspect there are faeries living in the hollows of rotted tree trunks, dancing a jig around the robin’s nest under a canopy of wild rose. An oak sapling for a May pole, ribbons sewn of timothy grass.    

The cloak of fog is easy to slip into. I can hide away in this enchanted day, the hint of leprechaun mischief coaxing me through the opening in the hedgerow, delivering me to la-la land.

It may not be Ireland. (I am longing to go there, to follow the Butler in Susan Butler Evans Middleton back to Kilkenny. For now I am living vicariously through Tana French mysteries, though I do not aspire to be a detective.)

But la-la land, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a euphoric, dreamlike mental state detached from the harsher realities of life” may be just as nice.

In truth I think my state of mind has less to do with the weather on Martha’s Vineyard, an ancient longing for Ireland, or a fascination with faerie houses, and more to do with my reluctance to engage with my pre-vacation energy level, driven by deadlines. For some reason, I am not feeling the hounds nipping at my heels. 

I think I will just let them lie there for now, and tiptoe around la-la land for a bit longer.

“Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.”


William Butler Yeats

Happy May Day.

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Beam Me Up (or Down), Scotty!

Dad’s crabapple in bloom.

WHAT I WOULDN’T GIVE for a 21st century hovercraft or one of those Star Trek transporters — anything that would beam me from Martha’s Vineyard to Delaware (and back, of course) in an instant.

Visiting my dad and sister every five or six months just isn’t enough. When you’re not there, you miss things. Little things, like the joy my sister is getting from the puppy she very fortunately brought home right before Covid. Lucy was the cutest puppy ever, and now she is as fast and agile as a speeding bullet (and still ridiculously charming).

Next up from little things are medium-sized things, like time spent reading (aloud, together) a packet of old letters retrieved from my sister’s attic. These are letters from me to her, my 12- and 13-year-old self to her 18- and 19-year old self when she left for college and I clearly missed her. (And apparently, while she was gone, I was in charge of covering up her teenage misdemeanors, like hiding ashtrays and parking tickets from my parents. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for my very cool older sister.) She saved all those letters. We doubled over in laughter reading them.

Then there are bigger things. My sister and I always wind up talking about our childhood, and it is reassuring to know that our memories are in sync, that the things I wonder about sometimes – did I imagine that or exaggerate it in my head? – really did happen. Even though we were (are) nearly seven years apart, it was just the two of us, and only she and I have that shared experience of our particular family dynamic. 

And when it comes to little things and big things about seeing my Dad (who will turn 91 this summer), well, every day of this visit has been full of both.

We’ve made multiple trips to his favorite nursery (an amazing place filled with acres of plants), wandering the hoop houses, where he greets the owner and his son like old friends. (The Itoh peony pictured here, called Keiko (which means “adored”) is a present he bought me there several weeks ago. How it – and several dozen other plants – are going to fit in my car for the ride home, I don’t know.)

The other night we sat on the couch paging through a landscaping book together for nearly two hours, talking about trees and shrubs and flowers and gardens. Not only has he already transformed our garden here in Delaware in only three years, but he’s now helping a friend by designing some beautiful perennial gardens for her, too.    

Last night Dad walked into my room with a small decorative box in his hands. “Have I ever showed you my little box of sayings? Just about everything I believe is in here. All the quotes are on scraps of paper, but could you type them into the computer for me?”

Wow. A life philosophy, honed over 90 years of living, stuffed in a little box. I have been unfolding and folding up the little pieces of paper, reading and re-reading them. It’s like someone handed me a very special batch of fortune cookies. Dad cookies. I recognize many of the scribblings, as Dad has quoted (and requoted!) them over the years. But a few are more obtuse and I think of them when I see him deep in thought. And some are just more poignant than others.

Since my mother’s death, I know that much of his daily activity – gardening in particular, playing bridge with his lady friends, talking on the phone with his daughters — is engineered to fill the hole my mother left.

So it isn’t surprising to me that this quote from Samuel Johnson is one not just folded up in the box, but also printed out from the computer and left on his bureau.

“He that outlives a wife whom he has long loved sees himself disjoined from the only mind that has the same hopes, and fears, and interest; from the only companion with whom he has shared much good and evil; and with whom he could set his mind at liberty, to retrace the past or anticipate the future. The continuity of being is lacerated; the settled course of sentiment and action is stopped; and life stands suspended and motionless.”

He is also quite fond of this saying (attributed to various):

Happiness is –

Someone to love.

Something to do.

Something to hope for.

I picked those two to share with you (I don’t think he’d mind) not just to show what matters to him, but because of where we all are right now, and because we are so sculpted by the love we feel for the important people in our lives, whether they are family or friends. (Some we get to love for a very long time, some for a short time.)

And because as much as I love my Dad and my sister, I miss my partner. In a very palpable way. (And Farmer of course.) I will be glad to be home — the other home, the one that is now my real home. But of course as soon as I get there, I will be longing for that Beam-Me-Up machine. A quick check-in with dad, coffee with my sister. Is that so much to ask of modern technology? I know, I chose to live on an Island many miles away. Oh well!   

A flowering tree is an invitation to lie down on the grass and look up through the branches.

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The Road Home

THE RAINS came gently last night after so many weeks of dry weather. I lay awake with the window open, listening to the burbling and thrumming, thinking of rainy days at summer camp, stretched out on my bunk reading comics and writing letters to my mother. And of afternoon thunderstorms in Washington, that lush city of trees and parks and steep avenues, my hometown, built on a swamp.

Tomorrow I get on the boat at 7 a.m. and drive backwards in my rainy memory, first to Virginia and my sister, then to Delaware and my Dad. Maryland, like my mother and Massachusetts Avenue and Northwest Washington, in the rearview mirror. But like so many tricks of the mind, not really gone.

I have been up and down I-95 hundreds of times in my adult life, moving as I have from New York to Connecticut to Rhode Island to Connecticut to Massachusetts. (Good Lord, more than 20 domiciles in all that. ‘Just keep moving’ was my mantra for too long.) I have also hopped on the boat, as we call the ferry, to get over to America probably hundreds of times since I moved to this Island 13 years ago.

And yet I always get a little nervous.

This afternoon I got my first vaccine. It took me four tries and three weeks to get an appointment at our hospital, but I am very grateful to have nabbed this jab before traveling. And that my various allergies seem not to have caused any side effects.

I am leaving the boys behind. We joked that I should have created a You Tube video for all the watering and care of seedlings and dahlia tubers and garden beds and awakening perennials that will need to occur. Not necessary, as I know the one who can use the telephone (the other has paws) will not hesitate to send text messages and photos with ‘Help!’ Emojis. At least this rain, a rain that has turned from gentle to drenching, postpones the watering. 

I don’t like leaving them, and I am such a homebody (one who has not really minded the decreased social activity of the pandemic times) that it feels unsettling to go. And yet I want to see my Dad and sister so much.

That’s how it goes. I’ve worked too hard in the last few months. Written and edited literally thousands and thousands of words. Spent too much time in front of the computer. My neck hurts and I’ve gained weight from eating too many chocolate chips and sitting too much. But I’m listening to that. Getting up from the chair will be good.

One bright note on all that work: I wrote two gardening pieces last week, one on (you guessed it) a group of spring-flowering plants I’m in love with — hellebores (pictured here). We ventured over to Polly Hill Arboretum to see them in bloom and walked the path to the Far Barn, past the magnolia, the stewartia, the rhodies waking up. Polly Hill is magical.

Last in my rambling pre-travel thoughts today: I am reading Lab Girl. Have you read it? Somehow this memoir floated around me, just published, when I worked part-time at Bunch of Grapes bookstore for a year and a half. (That time was crucial in rebooting my love of reading.) And yet I couldn’t grab it; I shelved it, sold it, brushed dust off of it. Read the jacket copy. But never bought it and took it home. The time wasn’t right.

Books find you when you’re ready, and now is the perfect time for me to read how one woman (a very accomplished scientist) manages her passion for plants and science and discovery along with her clinically overactive brain by writing things down.

I just read this paragraph and want to share it with you. It comes right after she learns about the death of her favorite childhood tree, a tree who’s life – a life with milestones – she never really considered until it died. (Does everyone have their own childhood tree? I never thought about that.)

“Time has also changed me, my perception of my tree, and my perception of my tree’s perception of itself. Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.”

There is a lot to unpack there, which I haven’t time to tonight, but perhaps you will. I will turn it over tomorrow as I take the familiar road home, bumping into bits and pieces of my past along the way.

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All the Pretty Cosmos, Seed by Seed

THE DAFFODILS have finally bloomed. (We might as well be living in Nova Scotia for all the spring we have.)

The peas have been planted. Hurrah.

Thirty-six tomato starts are on the heating mat. Wait, no, correction. The tomato seeds have germinated and are now under the lights of our new gizmo. (I like to call it a gizmo, but this is what it really is: An LED SunLite 2-Tier Grow Light System. A very home-gardener-ish piece of equipment, I’m happy to say. None of this interminable hacking a small farmer has to do!)

Peppers, eggplants, and the first flower starts have taken the place of the tomatoes on the heating mat.

What varieties am I growing? First the peas. Green Arrow English shell peas, Super Sugar Snap peas, and the new purple Beauregarde snow pea from Row 7 seeds.

I always pre-sprout my peas by putting them between damp paper towels in a partially closed zip-top bag.

Then I make sure they’re coated with inoculant and plant them about an inch deep, pretty darn close together (no more than a couple inches apart so I can cram in a lot in one row!). I always think I’m going to thin them and I never do. And yet they yield prolifically. I think maybe because the roots grow down and not sideways.

I always plant them along a makeshift trellis or along one fence in the garden.

Most importantly, I protect the newly planted pea seeds from birds by covering them with fabric row cover or with upside-down plastic nursery trays (the kind with plenty of holes), weighted down with bricks to keep them from blowing away. I keep the cover on until the seedlings have a few sets of leaves.

In the tomato department: In addition to my usual assortment of cherry tomatoes (this year Sun Gold, Sweet 100, and Cherry Bomb) and my favorite sandwich and beefsteak tomatoes, Jet Star and German Green, I’m most excited about a paste tomato (also from Row 7 seeds) called Midnight Roma

Peppers and eggplants? Since I have such limited space in the fenced garden, I’m going to lean on some mini-vegetables that I hope will yield abundantly. I know my favorite Fairy Tale eggplants will comply, but I’m hoping some Lunchbox Peppers from Johnny’s will do the same. I’m also growing the delicious heirloom Jimmy Nardello pepper for the first time in five years.

But of course, as much as I love my vegetables, it’s no secret that my obsession with flowers has become all-consuming. Honestly, the number one way I deal with my anxiety these days is by reading flower books at night, imagining colorful bouquets in my head, inventing names of flowers —alphabetically — to try to fall asleep, and so on. (Though none of this has been particularly helpful this week as I try to balance too much work with preparing to travel down to see my sister and father next weekend – without having been able to procure a vaccine. At least I am getting the oil changed in my car! But enough whining.)

Clockwise from top: Cosmos ‘Double Click Rose Bonbon,’ Cosmos ‘Double Click Bicolor Violet,’ Cosmos ‘Double Click Cranberries,’ Cosmos ‘Cupcake White,’ Cosmos ‘Picotee’

And while I’m excited about my new dahlia passion, I am deeply indebted to my first loves – cosmos and zinnias – for cheering me through many years. In their honor (and because I’m just fascinated by the number of different varieties now available of both), I am seeding more than a dozen varieties of each, the most I’ve ever started.

This week, I thought I’d gather photos (mostly that I’ve taken over the years and some of new varieties from websites) of all the cosmos varieties I’m hoping to grow this year. I’ve only been able to seed a few of each variety, and God knows where they are all going to be planted (some in friends’ gardens, I’m sure!), but it will be fun to think about the spectrum of beauty and color anyway.

Clockwise from top: Cosmos ‘Apricotta,’ Cosmos ‘Sunset Orange,’ Cosmos ‘Apricot Lemonade,’ Cosmos ‘Double Click Bicolor Pink,’ Cosmos ‘Happy Ring’

If you’ve never grown cosmos, know that they are very user-friendly. The more you cut these annuals, the more they bloom. They get big and blousy and are quintessentially cottage-y. They don’t start blooming until mid-summer if you direct sow them in late May, but by starting them inside now, I’ll get blooms in June. And I learned from Erin at Floret that I should be cutting them when they are just about to open for the longest vase life.

Clockwise from top: Cosmos ‘Radiance,’ Cosmos ‘Daydream,’ Cosmos ‘Sensation Mix,’ Cosmos ‘Rubenza,’ Cosmos ‘Xanthos,’ Cosmos ‘Velouette’

Another thing I’ve learned about cosmos over the years is that I can cut down deeply into the plant to get stems long enough for arranging. It doesn’t matter that I’ll be cutting some unopened buds along with those stems, because the plant will just respond with more blooms. Some cosmos varieties grow very tall (up to six feet) and wide so give them a little space and consider corralling them with twine and stakes as the summer goes on, especially if you live in windy-world like we do. I invariably lose at least a few of my plants when the first hurricane threatens.

There they are. May the sight of them bring you joy. And if you live on the Island, give me a shout in about 8 weeks. I’ll have extra cosmos seedlings!


P.S. Good sources for Cosmos seeds include Select Seeds, Johnny’s Seeds, and Swallowtail Garden Seeds.


PEAS, PLEASE: In case you can’t wait until June to cook with peas, here are a couple of my favorite pea recipes, over on cookthevineyard.com.


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The Friday Night Smoke Follies, and Chocolate to the Rescue

BOY, I CANNOT TELL YOU HOW much I was looking forward to sitting in my comfy chair in the living room last night, a mug of Tazo wild orange tea and a little bowl of chocolate chips by my side. My big cardboard box of garden seeds on the ottoman. A stack of flower books on the floor. A roaring fire going in the fireplace.

The fire part happened but the rest didn’t. In fact, the fire was short lived, though it did blaze long enough to fill our entire house with smoke.

Yes, as I’m sure you guessed, the flue was closed.

But not because we didn’t open it. Or at least go through the motions that should have opened it. I’ll spare you the archaic construction of the mechanism that opens our flue; just know that a (hidden) pin that connects a knob to a lever unceremoniously removed itself so that screwing and unscrewing the knob no longer opens or closes the flue (we now know).

We have had backdrafts on windy nights, we have had times when the chimney didn’t draw right away. And because we thought the flue was open, the smoke at first didn’t alarm us. In fact I had hopped in the shower right after we lit the fire, only to hear the smoke alarm go off and find Farmer upstairs pacing (he hates the alarm). My partner was focused on turning off the smoke alarm when I came down the stairs in a towel – and the fire looked like it was drawing. So right at that moment I wasn’t worried.

I went back up the stairs to put some clothes on and immediately realized the bedroom was filling with smoke. (Smoke rises, don’t ya know!) Farmer clung to me, I threw my clothes on while trying to keep my face in the damp towel, and in the few minutes it took before I headed back downstairs, the smoke in the stairway became eye-stinging, cough-inducing bad. Thick. I saw that my partner had grabbed the fire extinguisher out of the hall closet and sprayed the fire (it was out) and was flinging open doors and windows.

I grabbed Farmer by the collar and ran him out to the car, where he hopped in (he loves the car) and stayed for the next three hours.

We, however, spent the next three hours (with all the doors and windows open and fans going, on a lovely 30-degree evening) removing just about everything from the living room, vacuuming first with the shop vac, then with the regular vac, and dusting every surface. In addition to the powdery residue from the fire extinguisher all around the fireplace, there was a fine layer of something (and in some places, not so fine) everywhere, including over all the upholstered furniture. The something I guess was part dust (we aren’t very good housecleaners), part ash, and mostly fire-extinguisher leavings. Delightful! 

The good news about having to do this kind of cleanup during a pandemic is that you have face masks lying around! (It’s a good look paired with a wool hat, a down vest, and a vacuum.)

After the living room, we moved into the breakfast room, where that layer of stuff also covered the dining room table.

Then we changed the blankets on Farmer’s bed and brought him in. It was late.

I’ll say this: I now understand how people can get quickly overwhelmed by smoke in a fire situation, while thinking they can get through it. I’d liken it to good swimmers who think they’ll be okay if they fall overboard into cold water (I used to be a sailor), when in reality, hypothermia can arrest muscle response in a matter of minutes. Yikes. That smoke was on steroids. (And yes, the house smells and will smell for some time.)

This was an exceptionally crummy endgame for this week as I had been working nonstop on my usual deadlines plus the 120-page Island Guide going to the printer on Tuesday. I was exhausted. I wanted my chocolate and my comfy chair! (Can you say whiner?!)

I made up for it this morning by plunking back into that chair (after getting up early to try and get a vaccine appointment with no luck), drinking lots of coffee out of my favorite Emma Bridgewater mug, and eating Chocolate Toast.

I had planned to write about seeds today (and chocolate). But I’ll have to report in next week about all the cool vegetables and flowers I’m planning to grow (and our fancy new LED grow-light gizmo).

I do need to air my concerns about my chocolate addiction. Not that I think it is going away any time soon. I have been hooked on Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate chips for a long time. Sometimes I am able to give them up for a while, but I always find my way back to them. They are my writing companions, and without them this week, I was bereft. I had purposely only bought one bag on the last grocery store run, thinking I’d wean myself off of them again. Bad idea. Halfway through the week I was rummaging through the odd old bits of baking chocolate, consuming everything with cocoa in it, including some really sugary Baker’s white chocolate, which frankly was disgusting. (You can see why I don’t drink alcohol anymore.)

Finally, my partner made a special trip to the grocery store to resupply me. It was a good thing it was him and not me, as I might have been tempted by Cadbury mini-eggs, too. I love those things – eek! What is it about chocolate?

Maybe you’re in the same boat, too, and frankly, it’s practically a prerequisite to celebrating Easter to consume chocolate. So, in my evil temptress way, allow me to point you in the direction of Abby Dodge’s Ultimate Flourless Chocolate Cake if you need an Easter dessert. (So. Good.) Or Abby’s Double Chocolate Cream Cheese Fudge Brownies or my Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookies if you need a snack. (Who needs hot cross buns?) Consider these a reminder that you can find new recipes (and a free weekly newsletter) from me over on cookthevineyard.com.

If you celebrate Easter, may it be filled with much chocolate and little smoke.


P.S. Hey, speaking of Abby, she and I, along with our pal Martha Holmberg, have been asked to do a little Zoom panel on April 11 at 3 p.m. for the Fine Cooking Community FaceBook page. We’ll be talking about the early days of the magazine. If you’re a former Fine Cooking subscriber, you might be interested in joining this group.


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Talking to Mr. Ed — And the Living and the Dead.

Early evidence of animal-talking propensity. Photo by Katie Hutchison, 2008.

THERE IS A HORSE in my neighborhood I am trying to get to know. I talk to him. So far, unlike Mr. Ed, he has not talked back.

I talk to Farmer a lot. He rolls over and looks at me with those big brown eyes, as if to say, “Oh, mommy, stop babbling. Just rub my tummy.”

Lately I’ve been talking to the plants in the garden. They are just coming around after a long hard winter, so it is very important to give them a pep talk. I coach the tiny rhubarb leaves and the hellebore flowers every day, give the shaggy carpet of young chives a pat, and cheer on the arugula that hunkered down and shivered through the winter under two layers of row cover. I tell the tiny sedum buds how fetching they are.

I always talk to myself out loud when I am cooking dinner, even when there are others present. This is partly because I am multitasking (who isn’t when they’re cooking dinner?) and I’m afraid I’ll forget something. Make the salad dressing. Flip the sweet potatoes. Turn the flame down. Spin the lettuce. Grate the Parmigiano. Set the table. Get out the matches. Rotate the chicken. Pour the Pellegrino. Warm the plates. Wipe up those bread crumbs. Don’t forget the nuts in the oven. I smell something burning. NUTS! Refill sea salt. All out of sea salt. Open chile crisp. Stir the shallots.

At night I talk to God. This doesn’t always go so well, because I am tired and my brain is like a Slinky flopping over itself down the stairs, tumbling from one subject to the next. But I try.

I also talk to my friend Judy, who isn’t around anymore. She died four years ago. Sometimes it is hard to remember when someone died, but I know for sure it was the winter of 2017, because one of the last things my friends and I did was gather around her hospice bed (which was set up in her living room), so that she could give me my 10-year sobriety coin (my anniversary having been Christmas Day of 2016, the day I found out Judy’s cancer had spread).

Judy meant the world to me. And to my friends who were there with me that day. And many others. She was the kind of person who made everyone feel special. I could talk with her about anything when she was alive. Lately I have been reminiscing about a picnic lunch we took at Polly Hill Arboretum, about a drive we took around the Island, about sharing her favorite chocolate cake at the Black Dog. Talking all the time, about good stuff and the difficult stuff.  

So I just keep right on talking to her.

For years I talked to my grandmother Honey after she died. I still do sometimes. 

I don’t know if you do the same thing – talk to dead people – but it can be quite cathartic. It’s also rather interesting to think about who you choose to talk to. For me it is the people I think understood me best. And people I loved for their joie de vivre, for the way they lived their life knowing the best part was right there and then.

I have no idea whether they are listening. I am always conjuring visions of the cartoonish ghosts portrayed in George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. (The novel is fiction, but the fact is that President Lincoln did visit his son Willie’s grave frequently after he died, staying well into the night, presumably talking to him at length.) In the book, the ghosts in Oak Hill cemetery are those folks who, for one reason or another, are stuck in the Bardo, the in-between place between life and death. They are a motley but caring crew, and when Willie joins them, they become concerned when Lincoln’s visits seem to be keeping Willie stuck in the Bardo, when really the young child should be moving on to a better place. And they set out to do something about it.

And I have just finished re-reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where the ghost of a child who never moved on (from a particularly hideous in-between) manifests in the lives of her family so profoundly that she is physically present. Yikes.

I’m not sure how I got from the subject of one-way conversations (whether with an animal, a plant, a pot on the stove, or a missing person) to the subject of ghosts. It’s just that I began to wonder the other day why I do all this talking (other than my obvious verbose nature, which I am so stuck with that I’m sure I will be bringing it with me into the Bardo). Why all the talking when there’s (presumably) no one to answer?

You probably guessed already that a lot of it is a nervous habit, a way (yet another way – you can’t say I haven’t started a great list for you!) of soothing anxiety. But I think there are other reasons. There’s an urge to connect – certainly with a horse or the dog, the hope is that it isn’t really a one-way conversation but an introduction of intentions, a way to express affection. With the plants I’m growing or the dinner I’m making, again I think I want to be connected to the process in an intentional and joyful way. I want to notice what miracles are going on, what alchemy is happening, how the puzzle of getting dinner on the table can be solved in a given time frame.

With people who are no longer around, the desire for connection of course intensifies. Not only do I wish those people were still here, but I like to pretend that they actually are and that engaging with them is still possible.

Honey, Uncle Doug, and Uncle Rodney are no longer around. But Dad (in plaid) is.

But I have the great good fortune of still having someone very important to me (and very old!) alive. My father.

And the way I connect with him is by talking. On the surface of things, I talk with him because he lives hundreds of miles away, alone, and I worry he might be lonely. But I also talk with him because I enjoy talking with him. He is smart and thoughtful. I learn from him. He’s always brimming with some new bits of information — a plant he’s fallen in love with, a Julia Child recipe he’s made, a story about our family. I talk with him because I love him. And I talk with him because I can’t bear the thought of the day when the conversation will only be one way. 


Book Recs This Week

Lincoln in the Bardo, By George Saunders

Beloved, By Toni Morrison


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Move Over Zinnias and Cosmos, Here Come Dahlias

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

THEY have names like Brown Sugar and Cupcake, Honeydew and Café au Lait. There’s a Zippity Do Da and a Gitty Up, a Bumble Rumble and a Poodle Skirt. Throw in a Lover Boy, an Irish Blackheart, a Foxy Lady, and a Platinum Blonde, and it sounds like the cast of Toy Story took a wrong turn on the studio lot and wound up on the Outlander set. 

“They” are dahlias, and I think I’m in love.

It’s not just those names, though seriously, who doesn’t want a Lucky Ducky or a Ferncliff Dolly hanging out in the yard? It’s much more. Much, much more. Starting and ending with color. With shape, size, stature, and abundant generosity in between.

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

If I’d only known. Oh, I must have known dahlias. They towered in late summer in Edgartown front yards, giant fiery blooms tipping over genteel cap-rail fences. Perhaps I dismissed them for their acerbic shades of carnation red and “highlighter” lemon (more on that in a minute). But I was in the dahlia dark.

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

By chance, in my last year of growing cut flowers as a farmer, I planted a few tubers next to my rows and rows of zinnias and cosmos and sunflowers. I had no idea what I was doing, and waited patiently for the shoots and leaves to appear above ground. (Staring at the ground? Yes I was.) Even when they showed up (and actually grew tall!), I wasn’t convinced they would bloom. At last, late in the summer, a raft of perky coral, ball-shaped flowers appeared to bounce on the breeze – and kept right on bouncing through October.

Susie Middleton photo

I harvested my first dahlias, popped them into my flower bunches, and thought, hmmm, I wish I had more. (More is the story of my life.)

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

But it has only been in the last few years, since I discovered Floret Farm and the fabulous Erin Benzakein, that my awareness of dahlias has really blossomed. I bought Erin’s first book, Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden, and then the next, Floret Farm’s A Year in Flowers. I soaked up page after page of gorgeous photos, expert planting tips, thoughtful arranging advice, and detailed variety information. From daffodils to peonies, lilacs to sweet peas, I began to learn how not only annuals, but shrubs, perennials, tubers (dahlias!), bulbs, vines, flowering trees, and grasses could also contribute to gorgeous flower arrangements. 

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

As a farmer, I’d been so unsure of my bouquet-making ability (and so short on time when I went solo), that I rarely sold anything but bunches of one type of flower. Having never worked on a flower farm, I didn’t know the tricks of the trade. Now I wish I had been bolder, less insecure, and more willing to learn.  

Last summer, thanks to Erin’s books and videos, I took a stab at the kind of lush, natural arranging she does. I plundered my small cut-flower garden (which includes a few dahlias I’ve managed to divide, store, and regrow) and foraged branches and stems of various leafy and flowery things lurking in the woods and along the roadsides near my house. I made a flower frog out of chicken wire, don’t you know! My efforts were hilarious. But I didn’t care. Flower arranging is so intentional and meditative (as long as you’re making just one, not 400, at a time) that it’s an ideal distraction for the busy-brained.

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

And then Floret Farm’s brand new book, Discovering Dahlias, arrived in the mail last week. At first I put it aside, knowing it would be such a treat to sit and savor it that I didn’t want to spoil the experience with a cursory look. (I’m sort of weird that way; my sister always found the secret hiding place for Christmas presents, but I never wanted to look.) I told myself I’d wait until I got through the busy back-to-back deadline days.

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

But one of those can’t-fall-asleep nights came along and I broke the spine. And I was off to the races. I think somewhere between learning there are eight sizes, twenty shapes (or forms), and literally thousands of varieties and seeing the astonishing range of colors, I went from charmed to hooked to officially obsessed. (As if anyone couldn’t guess that was coming.) Even before I started reading, the photographs by Erin’s husband Chris got me at hello. Just stop, I wanted to say, when looking at them. How can there be so much beauty between two covers?

Clearly dahlias are a geeky flower gardener’s dream. The permutations of color, shape, and size are seemingly infinite, as illustrated by the second half of Discovering Dahlias, where Erin and Chris have thoughtfully profiled and photographed 360 of their favorite varieties. 360! And that’s less than half of the 800 varieties they grew on the farm last season.

Photos by Chris Benzakein, Floret

The varieties are grouped by color (just as they are planted in the “rainbow” dahlia field on Floret Farm) – white, yellow, blush/champagne, peach, orange, coral, raspberry, pink, purple, red, and maroon/black. Seeing them segue together this way is a revelation. Those garish hues (including what Erin calls “highlighter” yellow, though she takes care not to dismiss it, only saying it can be difficult to pair with other shades) that I once associated with dahlias recede into this captivating new spectrum of subtly shifting color.

The photos – in the signature style Chris has developed of shooting bunches of flowers in Erin’s arms, often with her looking away from the camera – are illuminating. Showing a bunch, rather than just one blossom, gives a sense of how one dahlia variety can manifest itself in blooms each slightly different from the next. I just wish the pictures were larger!

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

I am currently in the “orange” chapter of the book, and I think I may stay there awhile, though I feel like I’m dissing my pal pink. There’s just something about the ambers and pumpkins and tangerines and butterscotches. In fact, last night, around midnight, I may or may not have placed an order to a dahlia farm for three (more) dahlia tubers in orangey hues (Brown SugarIce Tea, and Maarn). These are in addition to a just a few others I ordered in January. I don’t know, I’m afraid to look in my email and find out.

Tonight I will return again to the comforting world of Discovering Dahlias, knowing there’s more to learn, more to admire, more to feed my pursuit of color and beauty.


Take note! All photos from Discovering Dahlias and of Floret Farm were taken by Chris Benzakein and provided, with permission, by Team Floret. (Thank you Team Floret!). Follow @floretflower or visit floretflowers.comfor more. And here is the link to purchase any one of the three books.

Photo by Chris Benzakein, Floret

Pretty flowers need pretty vases. Check out @farmhousepottery and @francespalmer for dahlia-friendly pottery.


“If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.” — Buddha


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Following the Farm Dog to A Better Day

I picked up Farmer (aka the Farm Dog) at the Barnstable MSPCA 10 years ago.


BAD days happen. We all have them. I had one this week. 

The circumstances weren’t so very terrible; just uncomfortable enough that I wanted to crawl back in my Cancer-the-Crab shell where it would be safe. It’s a tactic I’ve turned to since childhood. You know the drill. 

My reaction bothered me more than anything. The problem was I was angry (rest assured, NOT with my beloved). I haven’t been really angry in years, and I’d forgotten what it feels like. My whole body overheated and my stomach turned on me, as if I had asked it to perform in front of a thousand people, naked. (My stomach has been known to portray my stage fright.) 

And then anger turned to hurt. Nothing like hurt feelings to reduce one to the emotional stability of a tired toddler. My eyes watered. Tears! Imagine!   

Worse, I soon realized I was on the down escalator heading for self-recrimination. Classic – turning the anger inward. This was not good! 

Fatigue, the heavy kind that comes when circuits are overloaded, crept up on me. But it was a busy work day so I powered forward on deadline, through a Zoom and on to the finish line. 

One silver lining to a job like mine is that you learn to write, edit, and package content quickly to get it out the door. You have to focus.

At the end of the day, Farmer was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. Having had his supper, he was ready to go – not just for a walk, but for The Walk, an adventure we discovered during the pandemic thanks to Google maps. It’s a backwoods route that takes us from our house to the water a couple miles away, to the shoreline of Tisbury Great Pond, one of the two largest ponds on the south shore of Martha’s Vineyard. It bumps up against the Atlantic Ocean with only a small barrier beach (sometimes breached) between.

I stepped out the back door and hurried to follow the blur of Farmer’s wagging black tail as he dashed through the woods behind our house.

We made our way across a dirt road, through a shallow wood, onto another dirt road and down a horse path, Farmer dragging his leash along, sidestepping like a Lipizzaner as he skipped along from sniff to sniff. 

We threaded an ancient way between more scrub oaks and pine seedlings, along the southern edge of a large hay field freshly spread with horse manure, picked up the path again, and finally reached the Short Cove trailhead, the start of a Land Bank trail that hugs the hedgerows, the hayfields, and wood lots of Flat Point Farm.

The wind whipped up on the stretch along the big field, Farmer’s nose to the wind sniffing wildly from target to target, landing on the prize of a slowly petrifying dead turkey. Geese honked, lifting off in unison. The farm’s sheep baa-baaed, perhaps in warning, from the barn far across the field where the hazy fuse of sunset blinked orange through the bare limbed oaks. 

Up and down and up again we went, the trail rising into a pine grove high above the first glimpse of the cove, a thick swath of golden grasses nearly obscuring the inky blue below. The soft bed of pine needles beneath us made treading lighter, softer on our feet and paws. 

Into view came the summer shack, surrounded by decades old blueberry bushes and a stately old rhododendron; the shack’s screen door knocking about, the windows long gone. 

And then at last a long deep gulp of water view. A heron. Two swans. And a brilliant study of evening light bouncing off the thick brush on the eastern shore.

As we covered that last bit of trail, space opened wide all around us, the low grassy plains of the Flat Point peninsula blending into the dark of the disappearing sun.

Farmer and I found the boardwalk path leading down to the lapping shore, stood and sniffed the rocky beach strewn with spent oyster shells. The roar of the ocean far across the water beyond the cut brought the sea humming back to us.

It was time to turn back, but suddenly everything was very still. And I was very still. I felt completely present and unfettered in that moment, like I had everything I would ever need. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of gratitude. 

It was the kind of gratitude that spiritual writer Cynthia Bourgeault calls a “healing force.” This is not your Hallmark-card gratitude or the stuff on your gratitude list. It doesn’t get its power from tangible things. This gratitude comes from a place inside you. It comes at strange and necessary times, but only in stillness, quiet — here, the gloaming.

Farmer and I made our way home in the cool March twilight, a chill rising from the ground now. 

Once home, I reread Cynthia Bourgeault’s words that have been with me for fourteen years, at first in my little notebook, later on the fridge when I lived alone, now on the bulletin board behind my computer. 


“Yes, it’s easy to be grateful when something good has been done for you.  But have you ever thought about gratitude not as a response but as a force in its own right; an initiating and healing energy that is not dependent on external circumstances but is rather an innate power of the human soul? When understood and wielded in this fashion, it has the power to liberate us from our self-imposed prisons of self-pity and envy and to actually change the energy fields (and hence, the outcome) of our circumstances.

In plain words, we can actually change our reality by being grateful first; not as a response but as an innate way of being.

…Gradually you will come to see that gratitude is not a response; it is a river that is always flowing through you, and that you can learn to flow with. Wherever your external circumstances may appear to be heading, it will always be carrying you inwardly toward fullness and love.”


Work in progress here.


P.S. I saw a meme on Facebook that pictured pets – cats and dogs – with the label “antidepressants” in front of them. I love that, and it reminded me of something else I keep tacked to my bulletin board.


Rules to Learn From Your Dog


Never pass up the opportunity for a joy ride.

Allow the experience of fresh air and wind to be pure ecstasy. When loved ones come home, always run to greet them. 

When it’s in your best interest, practice obedience. 

Let others know when they have invaded your territory. 

Take naps and stretch when rising. 

Run, romp, and play daily. 

Eat with gusto and enthusiasm. 

Be loyal. 

Never pretend to be something you’re not. 

If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it. 

When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by and nuzzle them gently. 

Avoid biting when a single growl will do. 

Delight in the simple joy of a long walk. 

When you are happy, dance around and wag your whole body. 

No matter how often you’re scolded, don’t buy into the guilt thing and pout. Run right back and make friends.

 — Anonymous 


“With gratitude, optimism is sustainable.” 

— Michael J. Fox

WATCH this inspiring interview with Fox for this recent Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival virtual winter event, on the subject of Fox’s new book, No Time Like the Future: An Optimist Considers Mortality.




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Picturing the Garden on Paper

Princess Margareta climbing English rose meets H.F. Young clematis.

OTHER PEOPLE bake bread, knit sweaters, craft origami. I draw pictures. Sometimes on random scraps of paper, but more often on pads of graph paper strewn around the house. I don’t have any actual drawing talent, which is a bummer since my great-grandfather was an artist and my sister is, in the immortal words of my mother, “very clever.”

Pink and White Roses, Paul A. Putzki, c. 1900

But I sure do like to make plans. It probably says way too much about me that when I’m anxious, creating make-believe worlds in little square boxes calms me down. But I’m going to leave that on the floor like so many discarded Legos. For now, anyway.

I’ve renovated our tiny kitchen three different ways on paper. And I’ve designed a fantasy kitchen with wrap-around windows, a baking station, a shallow floor-to-ceiling pantry, a user-friendly island, and big glass doors opening on to the deck. Light! I love light! 

I’ve sketched (aka scribbled) countless variations of this fantasy design — a room we’d actually have to add on to the southern end of our house as opposed to renovating the kitchen in situ

And stuffed away in drawers and file folders are years of garden designs.

In fact, just this week I drew a plan for a big (35’ x 40’) fenced vegetable and cutting flower garden that could (theoretically, if we wanted to take this plunge) be located in the open field in front of our house. We’d have to run water down there. We’d have to empty our pockets for fencing, soil amendments, irrigation hoses, the whole enchilada. We’d need a lot of help building this time around. But unlike the fantasy kitchen, which actually makes my teeth hurt when I think about how much it would cost, the fantasy garden has been tugging at me.

I detect a dangerous longing lodging in my bones. 

Which makes no sense.

I had my small farm, I had my farm stand. I said I was done with all that, and I was overjoyed at my partner’s generosity in immediately building me a small vegetable garden here at my new home. It would be so perfect, so manageable, so tidy. And it was, and it is, and we’ve already added on to it. Twice.

We started with the same three-square design I used for my very first Island garden in 2009. I plugged the virtues of that little design in an article I wrote for Martha’s Vineyard magazine several years ago called Holy Homegrown! That baby-bear garden, along with a mama bear and papa bear version, were beautifully illustrated by Fae Kontje-Gibbs for that piece.

Last year, I pushed aside any thoughts of bigger vegetable gardens to concentrate on a perennial garden plan instead. This was a completely absorbing depository for my Covid anxiety, which had mostly alighted on the subject of my 90-year-old dad living alone in Delaware. It had been years since I’d given much thought to perennials, and the open space between our deck and driveway was daunting. It would be a good excuse to call Dad, the Master and Commander Gardener, more often. He’s the man who passed the graph-paper gene down to me. 

My gardener friend Laura Coit brought me a stack of books to get started, and one immediately stuck to me – The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer. So many sample garden plans! The “Sunny Four-Season Border” and “The Easy Care Entrance.” The “Fantastic Spring Fling” and the “Made for Shade.” A meadow garden, a cottage garden, a white garden, even a secret garden. 

My brain on graph paper. Scary.

They all sounded (and looked) so wonderful, but I soon realized that creating a perennial garden was like solving a giant logic puzzle. Venn diagrams would come in handy if you were that sort. The challenge was fun, but keeping track of all the variables was mind-numbing. As soon as I’d wrangle all the deer-proof, long-blooming, dry-soil tolerating, bee-friendly, Zone 7, mildew-resistant plants on to one list, I’d have to start peeling off the ones that had ugly foliage, grew six feet tall, or spread invasively. And that was before considering flower color or leaf shape. 

But I persisted and finally set my pencil down, many pages of an extra-large pad of graph paper later. I went plant shopping while my partner heroically excavated the sand and rock out of what would turn out to be three (not one) perennial beds by the end of the summer.  

I can’t wait to see what’s lived through the winter and how everything looks in the second year. 

But as much as I love perennials for landscaping, I’m truly obsessed with cutting flowers, which are driving this new obsession with the big garden down the hill. The big garden would have room for long rows of zinnias and dahlias (yes, here in Deer Central, even cutting flowers need to be fenced), as well as room for all of my favorite vegetables, including space hogs like potatoes and perennials like asparagus. Plus berries— and fruit trees! 

For so many reasons, I hope I’ll let go of this fantasy soon. There’s still a wee bit of room to expand the little garden, anyway. 

But then again, I just got my friend Ellen Ecker Ogden’s new book, The New Heirloom Garden in the mail. And guess what it is full of? Garden plans! Beautiful and smart designs, each with a different theme, and … oh dear, I think we’re doomed.


P.S. Thank you to all of you who continue to email and comment on the blog since the reboot! So nice to be reconnected. If you feel comfortable, I encourage you to post your thoughts in the comments section under the blog, so that we can share conversations with each other. 


Book Recs This Week


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Vegetables, flowers, and serenity with Susie Middleton