Category Archives: Gardening

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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The Mole and the Fox, The Dog and the Pig

FARMER AND PIGGY and I spent the afternoon in the garden yesterday. It was lovely. Piggy has a habit of moving around when I am not looking and today I found him hiding in the lamb’s ears and later peeking out of a forest of bee balm. By late afternoon he was over by the rose trellis sniffing the hardy geranium that’s about to bloom. Honestly, Piggy.

Farmer loves gardening. He lies in the grass, baking in the sun until his black fur is as warm as beach sand on a hot July day. Then and only then does he move into the shade. Occasionally he gets up and wanders over to a mossy patch under the oaks where he immediately dives on to his back and does a roly-poly, squirming with glee as he scratches his back.

He’s a big help.

Today’s project was planting up containers and pots with annuals and herbs. It was a total immersion in dirt. The driveway was a disheveled disaster zone, pots upturned everywhere, bags of potting soil spilling in the gravel, various plants in various stages of undress waiting for new homes. Whenever I am covered in dirt, I think back (way back) to making mudpies with my best friend Eliza. This makes me happy. Dirt makes me happy.

My joy at being outside with Farmer and Piggy (yes, I realize that one of these two is an inanimate object) was coupled with relief, having powered through practically nonstop from Sunday midday to Thursday evening on a series of deadlines.  

I was so tired Thursday night that I couldn’t even read. I settled myself in my comfy chair, surrounded by stacks of books and magazines, thinking I’d be dipping in and out of any number of things.

Sadly, I was exhausted. Disappointed, I yawned and thought to make tracks for bed. But I hesitated, looking at the book on the top of the pile and thinking I had just enough energy to page through it. Again. It’s a book so charming as to make you weepy with gratitude. 

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and The Horse, by Charlie Mackesy, arrived earlier in the week, a gift unbidden from a friend, a kind and thoughtful friend who also happens to be a sober friend. She shared the book with me in part because it is so darn beautiful and sweet (and we already know that receiving wisdom from animals is actually my preferred wisdom-delivery form) but also because it is an affirmation of all the self-knowledge we’ve gained in recovery, the painful scraping away of the superfluous junk to arrive at the truth of who we are and what really matters in this life.

Wisdom delivery is a very tricky thing. No one really wants it thrown at them in a neat little package. But what is it about young children (in this case a boy), animals that talk, and a mythical land, that turns a story into a fable and creates a safe place to have honest thoughts and to express love?

In the book (which Mackesy hand-wrote in pen and ink and illustrated with sketches of the four unlikely friends on a journey through the wild to what may or may not be home), there is a moment when the boy — who was lonely before he met the mole, and they met the fox, and they all ran into the horse — is looking at his reflection in a pond.

“Isn’t it odd? We can only see our outsides, but nearly everything happens on the inside.”

So true. One of the first things I learned in early sobriety was to look past the outsides of people and to imagine a person as a struggling, yearning, vulnerable soul, someone just like me. (In the world I grew up in, appearances were valued above all else, so I had to unlearn this. In the book, the boy asks, “I wonder if there is a school of unlearning?” Don’t we wish!)

A wise person taught me to practice stripping away a person’s trappings and circumstances and to try to feel compassion. Not saying I’ve mastered this, but forced humility (in the form of realizing you are an addict who is unable to recover on her own) helped. And I clearly remember a moment when being judgmental suddenly felt less comfortable as a prop. I was listening to a woman talk who had recently been released from prison. Mind you, this was early on and I was still in a fog. I immediately began to judge her … until I began to truly hear her story. She had gone to prison for killing an elderly couple in a car accident by driving through an intersection while in a blackout. While I wasn’t prone to blackouts, there were certainly many nights when I had to drive with one eye closed to keep the yellow line in focus. But for the grace of God, there go I.

Later on in The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and The Horse, the mole asks the boy, “Is your glass half-empty or half-full?” And the boy replies, “I think I’m just happy to have a glass.”

I love that! I know I sure am happy to have a glass, and even though some days it is three-quarters empty, it is still sturdy enough to hold the few tablespoons of (non-alcoholic!) hydration I need to get through the day.

And if it is truly drained dry, I know (now) what to do. It’s something the boy learns from the horse, who is the most wise of all the creatures. 

“What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” the boy asks the horse.

“Help,” said the horse.

It gives me goosebumps to think about how life-changing that plea can be. I know that I can pinpoint the exact moment my life began to change course – and it happened the day I said out loud, “I can’t do this myself.”

If you know someone who needs help but is afraid to ask, perhaps a gift of this book might provide an opening. I also highly recommend at least one furry creature (real or imagined, live or inanimate) to talk to.


The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse grew from the response British illustrator Charlie Mackesy got when posting his thoughtful drawings on Instagram. The book was published in October 2019 by HarperCollins and has become an international bestseller. Read a bit about that here. And be sure to visit his website and follow him @charliemackesy on Instagram. All illustrations pictured here are Mackesy’s, of course!



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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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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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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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