Category Archives: Flowers

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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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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