Category Archives: Flowers

A Body in Motion Stays in Motion. A Body at Rest…

“Take one thing and do it very deeply and carefully and you will be doing everything at the same time.” 

— Thich Nhat Hanh

I AM NOT known for my ability to stand still or pay attention for long periods of time — my default setting is constant motion. And my brain is even worse. A nonstop game of ping-pong is going on inside that cavern. 

At this particular moment, there are 45 windows open in the Chrome browser on my laptop. There are 10 books and 12 magazines on and below my bedside table. I am ostensibly working on this blog, but in reality I’m thinking about a friend’s sick dog, another friend’s illness, an event I need to wrap my head around, a telephone call I’d like to make, two appointments I have tomorrow, and a recipe I plan to test today.

Getting my thoughts to settle in one place seems nearly impossible sometimes. Worse, sometimes (many times), I verbalize them: Words come streaming out of my head in the form of a Faulkner-esque soliloquy which my partner must listen to with patience. (God bless him, he has that ability.)

That may be why I am drawn to gardening, to photography, to cooking, to arranging flowers, to writing. These activities require extreme focus, and inevitably when I am deep into one of them, my anxieties drop away, my whole body slows down, and I feel peaceful and content. I’m still energized but the concentration of the energy on one thing is very freeing.

“Nothing feeds the center so much as creative work, even humble kinds like cooking and sewing.” 

— Anne Morrow Lindbergh

I’ve gotten pretty good at turning to one of these activities as a natural way of calming down. Sometimes I feel like I’m just a hedonist, seeking out pleasure, but most of the time I identify this impulse as one of the ways I manage and maintain both physical and mental sobriety. It may not be the thing that someone else has to do to get through life, but for me these pursuits are essential.

Late in the day on Friday (after our internet returned from its fifth hiatus this week), I decided to press the button and sign up for a gardening photography class happening the next morning at Polly Hill Arboretum. Naturally I didn’t sleep well Friday night and after a cup of coffee, I was still regretting my decision when I got in the car to head over there at 8 a.m.

Bear in mind that Polly Hill is only a couple miles from my house, the place is gorgeous, a front had blown through leaving us with much cooler air, and the class promised to be laid back. A couple hours of wandering around outside in a beautiful place with a camera — how hard is that?

Of course, it turned out to be a good call, sleep or no sleep. The teacher – Dan Jaffe Wilder, the author and photographer of Native Plants for New England Gardens – was lively, articulate, and down-to-earth. The class was small, we moved through almost the whole arboretum, and we photographed a range of subjects. Best of all, I stimulated the learning part of my brain, which I always enjoy. It’s not that we covered a lot of technical camera things (which frankly make my brain short circuit), though I did push myself to use the camera in ways I don’t normally.

It was more about making art ­– looking at scenes from different angles, moving around rather than shooting straight on, framing a shot in different ways, dividing a shot into thirds to find the interesting off-center spots to focus on, noticing unusual interplays of texture and shape.

It was very freeing since I realized that I normally tend to dive straight into the most colorful or most graphic object in a scene — the flower, the bee, the rusty door, the moss-covered pig.

But that means I often miss the more interesting and dynamic contrasts of shapes and textures — the place where the meadow meets the stone path, where the climbing hydrangea begins to take over a stone wall, where the flowering branch interrupts a stream of light spilling through the opening in a hedge. Just the hint of a barn door through a veil of foliage.

I took literally hundreds of photos. That is a little bizarre – all photographers, especially in the digital world, do this to some extent and cull out much of what they shoot. They “bracket” a shot by changing the aperture and shutter speed and the distance from the subject so that they have lots of options of one scene. But I don’t think they are wasting shots the way I do – I still take way too many photos without really changing much in each frame. Ironically, I might need to move around more!

But taking so many pictures yesterday was helpful as I was able to look at them last night knowing why I had 20 versions of one thing…that I had been concentrating (as instructed!) on framing, on depth of field, on the flow of a photo, or the location of the subject.

I think that may have been the biggest takeaway for me from the class: Work on one thing at a time. (Ha! Difficult for me.) Break photography down into components. Work on just composition or just light or just depth of field. Instead of randomly firing off a million photos and hoping for the best, focus on one thing and slowly consider different approaches to it.

 Doing this requires stillness.

“The basic condition for us to be able to hear the call of beauty and respond to it is silence. If we don’t have silence in ourselves—if our mind, our body are full of noise — then we can’t hear beauty’s call.

Thicht Nhat Hanh 

Well, it’s something to aim for anyway, even if I never quite get there.



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Hello, Henri. Goodbye Fair-Weather Neighbors.

THERE IS NOTHING BETTER than being inside your cozy home on a stormy day. If that day is a Sunday and you have a good book or a pile of magazines, a comfortable chair, a dog at your feet, coffee or tea brewing, even better. 

Perhaps the window is cracked and the breeze is on the back of your neck. You listen as the wind swoops through the trees, humming and whistling as it builds to a soft crescendo. Looking out, you see limbs of leaves bouncing wildly in and out of your view, tall grasses and random flowers flattened against themselves like a cotton skirt wrapped around your legs.

You might venture out with the dog from time to time to inspect the gentle carnage, leaves and lichen plastered to the floor of the wooden deck, acorns and twigs and branches morphing into mossy tableaus under the oaks. A pole bean vine or two dangling from a fence post.

There is a litter of pink cosmos petals across the maroon marigolds and a single cosmos heading sideways. No sign of the two baby bunnies you’re been keeping an eye on, but they are probably safely under the deck in a nest of pine needles.

Later you might drive up-Island to see the storm surf, to watch the waves roll in, cresting and crashing on the slick rocks and rutted sand.

You’ll catch the early evening light turning the clouds a rosy pink and the water an inky denim blue with frayed shadows. 

Swaths of goldenrod and phragmites might sway under the causeway as you walk back to the car, hand-in-hand with the person you love.

You would miss all this of course if you jumped on a plane and left the Island the night before as many people did. The constant drone of jet engines gave them away. Staying the course was not for them.

The thought of this exodus might make you a little sad if you were the nostalgic type, wishing for that time, not so long ago, when a storm meant staying put, battening down, stocking up, dragging the boats up to the dunes, taking down the clotheslines, staking up the garden plants, harvesting all the veggies and flowers, moving the outdoor furniture, filling pots with water for flushing the toilets, making sure your neighbor doesn’t need anything.

Not heading for the nearest exit.

It seems that moving around or away from discomfort instead of through it is the modern way. Which of course means missing all the beauty that hides in the dark spots. (Says she who is prone to assigning metaphors to everything!)

No matter. If you were here as the storm passed to the west, leaving a branch or two down here and there, you had a good day. And you remembered why you live on an Island, why you stick close to the sea, how beautiful the light is after the storm passes.

P.S. Even though the storm did not turn out to be a big deal, the gusts were aggressive enough to flatten some zinnias and sunflowers I hadn’t tied up properly (I knew I’d missed something!). But for the most part, they’re fine. I just stood them back up and lassoed them to a stake or two. And some things looked even happier after a bit of rain!


BOOK RECS THIS WEEK


I know I mentioned the novel Cutting For Stone last week, but in the interim I finished reading it, and I believe it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t know how I missed it when it was published in 2009, but I’m grateful to have discovered it now. I put it down thinking about the arc of life, about how the little (and big) actions we take (and don’t take) have deep repercussions. I learned a little about the country of Ethiopia. I learned much about the job of a surgeon. And I was challenged to remember that people show their love in different ways. And that bonds of family are never truly severed, even if they seem broken.


I recently discovered Sarah Raven through her Instagram account @sarahravenperchhill and through an interview she did with flower farmer Erin Benzakein. Once again, I’m not sure how I missed this talented and accomplished British flower maven, but I’m glad to be on board now. I just got her newest book in the mail and I am over the moon about it, especially her tips, her suggested color palettes and her lists of favorite flower varieties. Beautiful photographs by her collaborator Johnathan Buckley featured in a compact book with a lovely design make A Year Full of Flowers: Gardening for All Seasons one I will be reading from cover to cover.

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Releasing the Pressure Valve – Now Off to the Fair

NOTHING LIKE RELEASING the pressure valve to flood the system with endorphins. I’ve been sort of floating around the last couple of days, freed from the anticipation of the event I moderated Wednesday.

It was a marvelous day all around, successful on all counts. You can see a handful of photos by my dear friend Jeanna Shepard over on the @cookthevineyard Instagram site. All three panelists were amazing, and Dr. Jessica B. Harris dropped some big news on us too, about another season of High on the Hog, and about the groundbreaking subject of the newest book she’s working on, which will weave the three threads of American cooking – Indigenous cooking, European immigrant cuisines, and African-American influence – into a historical narrative.

Me, Dr. Jessica B. Harris, Sam Sifton, Dawn Davis, Jane Seagrave 
Photo by Jeanna Shepard

Anyway, with that behind me and a short (very short) break in the constant deadline schedule, I have spent the last couple of days sleeping late, eating buttered cheese toast (Swiss levain from our Vineyard Baking Project bread CSA), catching up on garden maintenance, reading a good book (Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese — I never read it!), taking a little ride off-Island on Thursday with my partner, and, most importantly, obsessing about my Fair entries. 

The ride on Thursday was just the thing. It’s funny how hopping on the ferry and going for a quick off-Island jaunt can change your mindset when you live in the middle of what has become a pretty intense vacation destination. It’s nice to get away from the crowds on the Island, and a change of scenery is always uplifting. We took a drive along the coast (Buzzards Bay) through West and North Falmouth, past Snug Harbor and Old Silver Beach – so pretty.

But then once you’ve been in a big-box store or two (the budget toilet-paper-and-laundry-detergent-run which every Vineyarder does when off-Island), you can’t wait to get back on the ferry! 

But about my Fair entries. I was chatting with my co-worker and fellow gardener Steve at our editorial meeting Friday morning. I told him I entered way too many categories (14 in total), and he looked at me with his deliberate gaze and said, “You said the same exact thing last year!” Oy, so true I guess.

Anyway, this year I have entered more flower categories and less vegetables. I won’t have enough green beans, but I will enter cherry tomatoes (Sweet 100 and Sungold), roma tomatoes (Midnight), eggplants (Fairy Tale), and peppers (Shishitos).

But not only am I entering two size categories in zinnias and dahlias (as well as cosmos, marigolds, and coneflowers), I am also entering two arrangement categories. One is the “tea cup” arrangement, which I’ve always wanted to do, because how cute is that? But the other is a more standard arrangement, which of course terrifies me, as I am still in pre-school (maybe kindergarten) when it comes to flower arranging.

And once again, I am entering everything in the commercial (not home grower) categories, partly because I am a former farmer and mostly because the requirements suggest that if you teach or lecture about vegetables or flowers, you must enter commercial, and technically I do that through writing and occasional demonstrations.

Being in the commercial category in vegetables used to be an advantage, as busy farmers would often not enter, and even if they did, there were far fewer of them than home growers.

But these days we have so many young farmers on the Vineyard that I bet the categories will be crammed. And I can’t even begin to tell you how talented the flower arrangers are on this Island. So I won’t feel bad if I don’t get a ribbon in those, though there are opportunities where I might have a shot. (For instance, I doubt commercial flower folks will enter the marigold category!) We’ll see.

My friends on the Vineyard Dahlia Collective Facebook page are gearing up for the Fair so it should be interesting. The crazy humidity and the short window of time to put everything together puts a bit of pressure on the whole flower thing. I’ll probably pick as late as I can on Wednesday evening and put the flowers in buckets of water in the cool basement. Then I’ll get up super early on Thursday to do the arranging. Perishables are due at the Fair grounds by 8:30 a.m.

Delivering is always a fun event; you see your friends in line and get a peek at what everyone else is turning in. Then you go home and hold your breath until the hall opens later on Thursday.

We usually go over in the evening, cruise through the hall to check the ribbons and see all the beautiful quilts and pies and artwork, visit the magnificent teams of oxen in the animal barn, eat BBQ and french fries and ice cream at the picnic tables, and watch the Tilt-a-Whirl light up the night sky.

I’m just hoping this crazy Delta variant doesn’t throw a wrench in the Fair. Not so much for me, as I get a lot of joy out of my flowers every morning when I go out to the garden. (Those dinnerplate dahlias – OH MY!). But for the sake of the Ag Society. The Fair is their main fundraiser and they really need this to happen. Last year the Fair was virtual, and that was a bummer.

Plus, we all want it to happen simply for the good will it generates. From the pet show to the Firemen’s burgers, from sheep shearing to prize-winning pickles, the Fair is classic old-school Vineyard. To me it represents everything that I love about living here.

See you at the Fair!

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The Edit

I AM HAPPY to be home. I was sorry to leave Delaware. I am loving the cool breeze, the dry air, the deep blue sky and the rustling leaves here in our backyard on the Vineyard. I am missing the enveloping warmth of the hot, humid, languid days of last week.

I am happy it’s the weekend and that we could splay out on the back deck this morning, books and phones and coffee and toasted cinnamon raisin bread strewn about, freshly clipped flowers stowed in mason jars of cool water in the shade. I am wishing I didn’t have work to do, many hours of it, inside, and bills to pay and housework to do. But I am looking forward to a long walk and grilled chicken for dinner. And maybe a game of Scrabble if there is time.

I was beside myself with excitement and joy to see all the flowers blooming in my garden when I got home. But bummed that a critter has apparently eaten the first ripe beefsteak tomato. And sad when I think of my father outside in the sun, dutifully pruning and hauling and replanting his garden plants, but with no family dinner to look forward to tonight.

I’m happy for the quiet day here with my partner, but missing my Dad and sister very much.

It occurs to me once again how much influence the narrator has over the trajectory of a story. (Just think of the impossibly fictional creation of a social media feed…even my own, where I mostly show the pretty flowers—not the rotten or bug-eaten ones.) Amazing how details are carefully plucked from life and arranged in a row to advance one (white-washed) story line over another. 

But real stories are never linear, and real emotions are never constant.

I craft my own stories so that they lean positive, mostly because I do want to share the joy I feel like I’ve worked hard for, and because I think it’s especially great to show how life smooths out in sobriety. But also, I probably don’t dwell on the negative or the controversial as much because I’m not as confident there. I have to be very very sure of my knowledge of a subject before condemning an action with opinion.

But on a given day or in the space of an hour or a minute, no matter how much joy I’m experiencing, there are always moments of malaise. Mostly they pass quickly, and I am back on the bright side. But sometimes they linger on in the background, naggingly present, even though I’ve made every effort to stash them.

Living in joy is a good place to be, but it isn’t possible all the time and even difficult for some people to do most of the time. (Understanding that is called empathy.) I like to think of it as a choice, but it isn’t – at least not in the moment. Though it is a series of a zillion choices, starting with making the decision to be honest about what you feel, which can change like the wind direction in a nanosecond. And sometimes you feel two ways at one time.

All the little choices that move you towards the light matter. I chose to live on Martha’s Vineyard because the suburbs of New York were too frenetic for me. I chose to quit my job as editor in chief of a national food magazine because, in sobriety, I discovered that I actually don’t handle stress well. I’ve made a lot of bad choices, too, over the years, but they are surprisingly less frequent now that I listen to my gut (whenever I am quiet enough to hear it). (And choosing to plant a lot of flowers this year was definitely a very fine decision.)

I have a good life, interrupted by occasional bad things, like everyone else. That’s my story for today.

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A Little Rain Must Fall

THE COOL RAINY weather following the heat wave is a bit jarring.

Returning to work at the office for a few hours here and there this week and last has been disorienting.

The explosion of traffic on the Island is jaw-dropping and completely unnerving (today, a 5-mile backup on the Edgartown-West Tisbury road).

The summer work schedule is relentless.

I feel somehow like I am wasting time on all the wrong things. And I’m having trouble getting excited about what I should put my energy towards. I guess I’m just a little out of sorts. Not hugely. Just bitly. Well maybe more than bitly. Moderate-ishly. Certainly in that place where inventing words seems appropriate.

With my energy low, I’m happy enough to be inside on this rainy Saturday, curled up in a chair, with my partner reading nearby and Farmer snoring on the couch. Right there is pretty much all I want in this life, and yet somehow I am feeling that little devil on my shoulder, the one who’s sole purpose it is to remind me that I’m not doing something I should be doing.

I know enough to recognize the devil and start working my toolkit to banish him. My first sponsor years ago reminded me to “move a muscle, change a thought” to get out of a bad headspace.

Normally I would head straight into the garden, but the weather is not cooperating. That may be half my problem – I’ve missed my gardening time this week. Or most of it. I’ve still gone out most mornings to snap a photo for Instagram. For me, just the small act of capturing a pretty flower or a baby vegetable in a photo is joyful. I like the cropping and photo correction, too. It’s a mini distraction — a pleasurable, creative way to start my day.

Recently I decided to revive a little personal Instagram challenge I did years ago on the farm. I posted a different vegetable variety for 100 days straight over the summer. The next year I did 100 different things on the farm for 100 days straight. This year I decided to do 100 different flowers and veggies. Even though I’m growing in a far smaller area than the farm, I have managed to cram in quite a large variety of flowers and vegetables. (Follow along @sixburnersue on Instagram if you like.) It’s fun for me to see if I can find a different one blossoming or newly fruiting every day.

This afternoon, I am going to distract myself by writing down a complete list of what I’m growing in the veg and cut flower garden. That might sound tedious, but for me the mental concentration of organizing, going through my plant tags, looking up names and pictures online, and typing it all out will be productive and distracting – even if it isn’t the work I really should be doing.

Maybe you have some trick like this to turn your mood around when you need it. If not, think of something you absolutely love and go do it. I find when I’m down, it’s usually because I’m directing my energy towards something I don’t want to do, or I am feeling bad because I’m not doing what I am “supposed” to be doing.

More and more I’m inclined to do more of what I love, and less of what I don’t. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to clean the house (which I don’t do enough but when I do, I feel satisfied) or go to the dentist or pay bills or whatever. It just means I’m going to keep seeking out joy, wherever I can find it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day (attached below). I know many, many of you have read it, and love it, and the last two lines have sadly entered Hallmark territory. But I still treasure them, keeping them nearby and reading them over and over. The ability to live life fully seems more important every day, as it seems I get news of an illness or passing on of someone I know more and more frequently. I don’t like it, and I don’t have any control over it, but I owe it to myself and to them to embrace life, even when it means (metaphorically) sitting in the rain, stepping in the puddles, getting soaked. I think I’ll put on my galoshes and go check on the garden.

The Summer Day

By Mary Oliver 

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

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The Tale of Bunnykins Rabbit and Ms. McMiddleton’s Garden

Carding Mill (a David Austin English rose) sat out 2020 in a pot but is happy to be in the ground this year. It greeted us in full bloom upon our return from Georgia.

I call him Bunnykins. Which is ridiculous on many levels, I know. Why come up with an endearing nickname for a creature who is singlehandedly destroying your vegetable garden? And if you’re going to call him something, a sappy name doesn’t seem quite appropriate. Peter would be a more suitable moniker, since our resident rogue rabbit has taken a page straight out of Beatrix Potter’s famous tale, a copy of which I happen to keep on my shelves. (Apparently bunny – and human – behavior hasn’t changed much in 100 years.)

But look, Bunnykins and I get to talking most evenings, and I have to call him something. He’s a little guy, so that’s the name that came out of my mouth when he and I first found ourselves in the garden together — with the gate closed. (He was as surprised as I was and began to bounce off the fence in every direction, looking for an exit, any exit, the likes of which he seemed to have forgotten after his feast of lettuces and French beans. Just like Peter.)

How did Bunnykins get in?

Earlier in the week I came home from Georgia to many beautiful surprises – roses and other flowers in bloom, dozens of peas to harvest, garlic scapes curling, tiny green tomatoes forming on the vine – and one unpleasant surprise that took awhile to completely reveal itself.

First I noticed the tops of my baby bush bean plants had been lopped off. My struggling little snapdragons were beheaded too. Birds, I thought, those damn crows!

Then I noticed a whole row of lettuce, heads nibbled neatly all the way around into jolly rosettes – rather pretty if you didn’t actually care about eating your lettuce.

Maybe not birds, I thought.

Worst and last: I noticed some of the pea vines were withered. I followed the clues right down to the base of the plants and found them cut off at the knees (so to speak) – completely untethered from their roots, ripped in half by some jagged teeth. I looked up at all the beautiful pea blossoms and newly forming peas at the top of the plants and thought this was just not going to be a good thing if the vines continued to be chewed. I’d lose dozens, maybe hundreds of peas.

Still there was one reason to hope – the vines were clinging to the back fence and it looked like whatever (whomever) was gnawing the bottom of the vines was doing it from outside the garden, grabbing the vulnerable vines that had meandered outside the fence.

However, the very next night I found severed pea vines inside the garden, parts lying around like Lincoln Logs in the path in front of the bed. Not an outside job. Critter (please, please, don’t be a rat) was working on the inside, under the cover of darkness.

Critter had found an easy way into the fenced garden, so I began to scour the fence. I was worried because I knew our fence was not as secure as it should have been. We’d had to leave for Georgia in the midst of a garden expansion project. (Thanks to a small retaining wall and some fill, we have been able to nearly double the size of our little vegetable garden to make room for my cut flowers.) We’d quickly erected the deer fencing but hadn’t added the chicken wire around the bottom. I soon discovered that our critter had taken advantage of this and simply chewed through the plastic deer fencing in a few places. I’d certainly seen that before back on the farm – and it was almost always the work of a wily wabbit.   

It’s not like I hadn’t already noticed Bunnykins in our yard. He – and his appetite – were quite evident in the perennial garden. I often saw him out around dusk, and in the morning the coneflowers were another inch shorter. (I’ve tried really hard to plant deer- and rabbit-proof perennials, but apparently I was asleep at the wheel when I added multiple echinacea to our beds.) 

The night Bunnykins and I met face to face in the garden was the night after I began a harried effort (this was during the work week – the real work would have to wait for the weekend) to run as much chicken wire along the bottom of the fence as I could, and to barricade the rest with bags of mulch and bricks.

I thought I’d done a pretty good job, but now here I was inside the garden, and who should I meet? I caught him right in the pea bed. The only good news was that now I could be 100 percent sure I wasn’t dealing with a rat. 

I can’t say that I really chased Bunnykins with a rake like Mr. McGregor chased Peter, but I was anxiously following him as he rushed around looking for an exit – I wanted to know if he was going to find a secret spot to get out. Darn if he didn’t disappear, squeezing between the raised tomato bed and the back fence into a space I never really would have thought of as wide enough for anything other than a slug to transgress.

By this time, both my partner and Farmer were on the scene. Thinking Bunnykins was hiding – that there was no way he could have gotten out – we shined the flashlight in all the nooks and crannies. Honestly, it was like the final scene in The Sound of Music when the Von Trapps hide in the Abbey cemetery. I pictured Bunnykins with his back up, trying to be vewy vewy quiet and not move a muscle as the flashlight flooded back and forth.

In searching we found that, in truth, the narrow space between the raised beds and the back fence , obscured by clumps of grass, was actually a perfectly fine little rabbit tunnel. A great place to hide or move around under cover (but not escape, since this older part of the fence was locked in with chicken wire). But Bunnykins was not in the grassy tunnel, not anywhere. He’d found a way out. We left, shutting the gate, and I went back again before bed with the flashlight to make sure he wasn’t inside.

It was only in the morning when I scoured the fence again and looked for places just big enough for him to squeeze through (remember, he’s pretty small), that my eyes settled on the entrance gate, not the fence. It’s the only gate into the garden, an old baby gate turned on its side, covered with plastic hardware cloth. The baby gate has 2-inch openings. The plastic hardware cloth has only ½-inch openings and is plenty sturdy enough to withstand chewing. But that morning I noticed we’d never completely attached it to the bottom rail of the gate. Essentially, I could see now by lifting the hardware cloth up, it could act as a kind of bunny door (a flap, like a cat door) if you ran through it from the inside. (Though I don’t think a bunny could lift it to enter from the outside!)

I’m pretty sure that’s how Bunnykins got out that night we were tailing him, as the end of the little tunnel along the back fence brings you (if you’re a little rabbit) right to the gate. I think he got IN to the garden that evening when I was working in there with the gate open.

I quickly devised an instant temporary solution to the gate problem by jamming a roll of chicken wire against the bottom of the gate when I left. (Yes, you could call me Ms. MacGyver rather than Ms. McMiddleton. No one ever said I was the queen of infrastructure, and luckily I have help from my partner with the real work.)

The last two nights, I’ve greeted Bunnykins outside of the garden. He’s been hanging out up on the hill where the garden is, near or under the garage steps (a favorite hidden lookout spot for him), clearly baffled by the newly fortified fortress. Inside the garden, there’s been no pea damage and the lettuce is growing back. And we set to work on finishing the fence this weekend. 

Perhaps Mrs. Rabbit (Bunnykins’ mother) will put him to bed with some chamomile tea, reassuring him that another day will come, another human error will occur, and by then the carrots will be ready for digging.

P.S. You may wonder why I’m so sure that Bunnykins is one rabbit and not one of many. Well, I have no doubt that it’s a virtual Watership Down around here, but most of the rabbits we see out in the field in front of our house are large, mature rabbits that would have trouble getting through small holes. Bunnykins is not a baby, but he is small enough (a teenager?) to be distinctive, and tends to favor a particular schedule and favorite grazing spots. Alas, removing Bunnykins from the premises, as some have suggested we do, wouldn’t solve much. I’m sure there are more Bunnykins in Mrs. Rabbit’s warren.

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One Vegetable, One Flower, One Bird at a Time

The first fuschia flower of Beauregarde snowpea appeared today. Lots of peas on the way.

I’VE DECIDED that when I finally get the headspace to write the memoir I have false-started many times, I will call it One Vegetable At a Time. (A not-so-clever play on “one day at a time.” Ha, ha, I know. Funny, not funny. But appropriate for me.) Not that any publisher in their right mind would let an author actually pick the title for her book. But the magazine editor in me always wants to sum up the story before it is written. (Yeah, that’s a problem in itself!)

But I’m thinking about this right now because I am feeling overwhelmed. In three days, we get on a plane to go to Georgia for a memorial service, and between now and then I have three work deadlines, two more publications that need to get moved forward substantially before I go, four work meetings, and about 60 plants that need to go in the ground — after erecting a new fence and filling two large raised beds with soil. Got to clean the house for the dog sitter and of course eat, sleep (very minimally), pack and get to the airport. Yada yada ya. Everyone has this stuff, these weeks, so I feel a little silly carrying on about it. (Well, more than a little silly.) Especially because half of it is self-induced stress. 

This is the first time I’ve grown clematis, and it is so exciting to see it bloom on the trellis we built last year. This one is called H.F. Young and is paired with a peach climbing rose (Crown Princess Margareta) that is about to burst into bloom.

I am so very adept at stressing myself out! I always take on too much and then feel like I must accomplish it all in proper fashion. God forbid I should just not do some of it.

Then there’s the complicating factor of actually wanting to accomplish some of the tasks more than others. Spending time in the garden this time of year is probably my most favorite thing in the whole world. Not being able to do it is doubly frustrating since I can see the garden from my office window. It sings out to me like a Siren, begging me to come out and leave my work, unfinished, behind. Day after day it taunts me.

Lately, I’ve taken the last hour of daylight – between dinner and a return to the desk – to give in to that call. I’m snatching a little time in the early mornings, too – the garden being one of the only things that can get Susie out of bed early (since Susie reads and/or tosses and turns until very late at night!).

With these little windows of time, I take things one flower, one vegetable at a time. The other night during the rainstorm, I sat in the garage and began repotting the top-heavy tomato plants, one by one. Pretty soon I had 30 done. The temperature of my anxiety dropped in a short amount of time.

By breaking things down into simple tasks and not trying to be too ambitious, I can get one thing done and feel good about it. (I was taught to do this in early sobriety, when often I didn’t feel well enough to do half of what I needed to do.)

One day last week, I used 10 minutes to get 12 zinnias into a corner of a raised bed. Not much, but it was something! It felt good. (The gangly zinnias had been languishing in six-packs with tiny root balls. I know they felt better, shaking their roots out.)

I try to use the same approach with my work. If my head is about to burst, I stop and rewrite my yellow legal-pad lists. I have a different legal pad for each aspect of my job (and different colored sharpies, of course!). If I get even a small task done, I cross it off the list. (My mother was such a big list maker that she wrote things down every day just so she could cross them off, starting with “Get up.” Yeah, and you wonder why I am crazy. By the way, the next thing on her list was usually “Vacuum.” That is almost never on my list.)

This bite-size approach isn’t novel, and I think my favorite illustration of it is an anecdote from author Anne Lamott on how she came to call her book on writing Bird by Bird:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.

I also keep this quote (that also happens to be about writing – which apparently inspires stress and anxiety in even the most seasoned authors!) from novelist E.L. Doctorow on my board:

“Writing a novel is like driving at night in the fog – You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Page by page, bird by bird, vegetable by vegetable, flower by flower, task by task. Not only do small accomplishments move you forward and push you through anxiety, but sometimes performing smaller tasks, especially in repetition, is particularly soothing to a noisy brain.

Tuck that into your toolbox to use when you need it.


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Trader Sue’s and Good Will Hunting

“I’ve got something for you,” my friend Ann said, reaching into the back seat of her car.

We were standing in my driveway, a tomato-plant hand-off about to take place. (A lot happens in my driveway. It’s all legal though, I promise.)

I started salivating. Would it be almond bars? Or oatmeal cookies? Ann has a cookie-baking business, and she hardly ever travels (even from Chilmark to West Tisbury, which is a hop, skip and a jump) without some delicious thing wrapped up in cute paper and tied with a bow. 

But it was something even better. Out from behind her car door she appeared, hugging an armful of flowers. Not just any flowers, but freshly cut bearded irises, the stems bursting with buds about to bloom any second. One already had, and it was truly beguiling – the color a soft Pat-the-Bunny-peachy-pink with a tangerine seam, the contours unabashedly frilly and feminine. (I hope the bearded irises are not self-conscious about their beauty, but I bet not — they seem like flirty flowers to me.)

Ann left with a Sun Gold, a Sweet 100, a German Green, a Jet Star, and a Bodacious, reducing my tomato load to 34 from 39. (Originally there were 40. One snapped in half during the tempest a few nights ago — the tempest before the current Shakespearean tempest, which has stopped ferries and left us marooned once again. Using a flashlight to guide me, I’d managed to usher all the poor leggy plants into the garage and prop their sodden necks up in milk crates and clay pots, but not before one succumbed to the conditions.)

I went inside with the irises and found a pitcher to hold them. But I couldn’t let them be. I grabbed my camera and started moving the pitcher around. I found a complementary tableau with a Max Decker painting and a koginut squash over the fireplace! But I wanted to get the blooms (now two more) up close. I requested the use of my partner’s hands and tee shirt for a dramatic look.

Next I tried laying the flowers down on wood to photograph from above, but found that those nifty still lifes you see in all of Erin Benzakein’s books (husband Chris Benzakein’s photos @floretflower) are much more difficult to take than you’d think. And the light has to be just right, which it really wasn’t anywhere in the house.

Nevertheless I persisted with a few more versions (and again the next day with more blooms).

The point is that I was overcome with joy and happiness playing with these intriguing old-fashioned but new-to-me flowers. I considered what a thoughtful gift the flowers were; the bearded iris only blooms once in spring – when the flowers are harvested, there aren’t more where those came from (though some do rebloom in fall). It’s not like giving someone zinnias or pansies that will just replenish themselves. Ann gave them to me because she knew I would appreciate them. And knowing Ann, I bet she probably enjoyed the act of giving them almost as much as I enjoyed receiving them. She’s a generous person.

Sure, they were a trade of sorts, but not in the usual sense of quantifiable value. Here on the Vineyard, while bartering and trading are long-standing customs, held over from days when procuring things from off-Island (or getting rid of something on-Island!) was much more difficult than it is today (unless there’s a tempest), it’s the paying forward of good will that guides these transactions. There’s a ridiculous amount of sharing and giving away of things that goes on out here, because if you take part, the good will inevitably comes back around to you. As a bonus, you’re filled with a sense of belonging to a caring community when you participate.

Tomorrow I will head out to deliver a couple of tomato plants to a friend who gave me her potting bench last year when she cleaned her shed out. Tomorrow night, we join dear friends for dinner who have returned to their seasonal home on the Island, a home they have shared with me when I’ve needed a kitchen, when I’ve needed a place to sleep, when I’ve needed a cup of tea. I’ll be bringing tomato plants (of course) and dahlias that came out of their garden as tubers last fall and were entrusted to me to bring back to life this spring. By starting the dahlias early, perhaps I’ll be giving our friends the gift of dahlia blooms before they leave the Island in the fall. But I could grow dahlias and tomatoes all day and all night for these friends and never repay them for their kindness to me over the years. I know they don’t care, though.

Over the winter my friend Katharine, who’s beginning the process of decluttering and possibly downsizing a lifetime of collections (she’s on her third dumpster), called to see if I wanted cooking equipment – an Insta pot, a deluxe toaster oven/air fryer, a cast-iron wok. Yes, please.

I offered money and she declined. I couldn’t think what to bring a person who’s decluttering, so I stopped at Mermaid Farm farm stand on my way there and bought her a big bag of fresh pea shoots.

Another friend left dahlia tubers on her front porch this winter for me to pick up. Over the years on this Island, I’ve received gifts of homemade cheese, compost, freshly picked apples, tree seedlings, books, tee shirts, furniture, you name it. And you’ve got to know this has nothing to do with me personally. My friends put up with me despite the inordinate amount of time I spend not socializing. (I’m not a group activity person and I get antsy when I feel work hanging over me.)

But if you need a tomato plant, I’m your gal. And come August, I’ll be calling everyone over for cutting-flower free-for-alls! I love this place.

More on Bearded Irises

My friend Cathy Barrow tells me this particular bearded iris is most likely Beverly Sills. But if you are enchanted by these spring blooming rhizomes, right now Floret Farm is offering a free PDF guide to bearded iris (which ironically arrived in my email the day after Ann brought the flowers!). It includes profiles and photos of favorite varieties and comes with a 20 percent off coupon to Schreiner’s Iris Gardens, where you can also view hundreds of iris varieties.


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People and Plants Need Fresh Air. Duh, Susie.

I STOPPED AT SOUTH BEACH on Thursday. Didn’t intend to, didn’t stay long. But man, what a lungful of sea air and some brilliant sunshine can do for a girl.


I was out on assignment and early for an interview. So on a whim I drove to the end of Katama Road, pulled into a sandy parking spot next to the dunes, and hurried up and over the path, feeling my pace slow as the sand swallowed my shoes with every step.

And then that horizon. The Atlantic Ocean sparkling and uncharacteristically calm, the color of Coke bottle-sea glass bumping up against a Carolina blue sky. (Carolina, of course, nowhere to be seen. The next stop due south is the Dominican Republic, about 2500 miles away as the crow flies. For those of you not on the Vineyard, the screen grabs below will show you where South Beach — aka Katama Beach — is on the Island.)

I chided myself: ridiculous that I live on this Island and don’t afford myself this opportunity for nearly instant calm more often. Remarkably, my friend Liz gets up every single morning to photograph the sunrise over Nantucket Sound in Oak Bluffs. I am envious of her ability to do this, to get up early. But I am not willing to let go of the night, especially late night when the work is done and a pile of books waits for me.

But this morning the birds woke me up and I got out of bed. Hit the coffee button and padded out to the garden in my PJs. If one thing can lure me out of bed early, it’s the prospect of a garden inspection, Farmer along (mostly doing roly-poly’s on the mossy un-lawn under the seven-trunked oak).

This morning I am especially happy to be reminded of a gift that arrived yesterday. Two fine men, on the request of my partner, drove up the driveway, unloaded some freshly bought lumber, and built three new garden boxes for us.

The long one is for the dahlias. The dahlias that are still alive. Yes, I do feel a little bit like the boy who cried wolf, because the dahlias are hanging in there. But we’re not quite out of the woods yet. We still have plants with curling brown leaves, but they are in the minority.


It seems the rest of them needed fresh air, just like me. Duh.

My friend Laura the plant doctor (as opposed to my other gardening friend, Laura the horticulturalist) made a house call last week and declared the dahlias longing for sunshine and fresh air. She was right (she usually is). Clearly stressed out by the lack of adequate light and wonky watering, they grew too fast for their own good. They are definitely much taller than they should be at this point (meaning the stems are weak, and they’ll be an unwieldly size for transplanting in our windy climate), but they do seem to have really perked up in the sunshine.

Despite a busy work week (including a celebration for the Vineyard Gazette’s 175th birthday), I made time to put together those makeshift little hoop houses inside the fenced veggie garden. I had a roll of plastic, some wire hoops, clothespins, and bricks. A half hour here and there, and done. By midweek, more than half of the dahlias were spending the nights out there and their days in garden sunshine. I put all the pots in trays so that I could bottom-water them, which makes a whole lot of sense, because that’s the quickest way the water can get to the roots. If you pour water on top of the tuber, the tuber can’t use it – it will just rot if too wet. Plus the stems and leaves don’t like to be wet, either. 

Out in the garden, the peas and radishes are doing well, the garlic is thriving, and the sweet peas have germinated. It will be the first time I’ve ever grown sweet peas, the fragrant, old-fashioned cottage garden flower.

There is so much more to do out there — including setting up those three new beds — but I have to be patient. Even when I’m on deadline (which is most of the time), I have to remember that a little bit of fresh air and sunshine will work wonders if I just seek it out. 

P.S. The tomatoes mentioned to me that they would very much like to go outside this week, also, if only for an hour or two.


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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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