Category Archives: Gardening

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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Ready, Set, Go: Put Yourself in the Way of Beauty

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I have been reading a little book by Cheryl Strayed called Brave Enough. It’s a collection of quotes. I like it. Them. Many of them. All of it.

But my favorite is this very simple thought: “Put yourself in the way of beauty.”

This is really just another way of saying do something joyful. But beauty is (in my view) a very specific kind of joy. It is sensual and tactile, visual and aromatic. Calming in its distraction.

For me, beauty is almost entirely owned by the natural world.

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So I have been doing this—putting myself in the way of beauty. On our foggy morning walks in the woods across the way, Farmer and I are deliberately pausing (he to sniff, granted) to watch the limey-green ferns seemingly unfurl before our eyes. Blueberry blossoms—at our feet on the wild scrubby plants that hug the foot path and up in the sky on decades-old highbush plants—are everywhere. I am noticing the little white clusters of flowers on the bare-branched shadbush and the soft pink apple blossoms on our way back down the driveway.

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DSC_0096On the wooden steps outside my back door, I have set up a little mini potted-plant garden of fresh herbs and annual flowers and things that smell good and look pretty. Lemon thyme and scented geraniums. Dwarf dahlias and pink dianthus. A little piece of beauty.DSC_0078

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Lilacs. A big, fragrant, fresh-picked bouquet from my friend Judy is now on my kitchen counter and everything is right with the world.

DSC_0089My biggest pleasure, though, is unpinning the fabric row cover over the greens I’ve planted in my new market garden. The baby kale and mizuna and ruby streaks mustard with their toothy leaves look like puzzle pieces nestled together.

DSC_0109 DSC_0111The new pea plants are sending tendrils out to grab on and start climbing.

DSC_0101The ruby chard I transplanted has settled in and taken off.

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These beautiful vegetables are gifts to me from my own hard-working self. Every year I have a fear that I am going to suddenly forget how to grow things. Or that all the inherent risks will conspire to prevent anything from growing. This year especially, when I didn’t know where I was going to be growing until a few months ago, I am so relieved and grateful to have this beauty to turn to. Sometimes I think I grow vegetables as much for their looks as their taste.

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Right now, with the help of friends and fellow farmers, I am building the pieces of my new little market gardening operation. It is exhilarating and exhausting and full of beauty. It is tempting to get fixated on making progress, on getting enough beds planted and the fencing done, to get to the point where there is enough to harvest and sell.

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But I realized this morning, during a beautiful, misty ride up to Allen Sheep Farm (the grey, the green, and then the unexpected blue of the sea) to pick up my fence posts, that what I like best about this whole thing is the process, not the destination.

Maybe today you can find three or fours ways to put yourself in the way of beauty. Ready, set, go.

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