EXACTLY 59 years ago on a sultry July night (4:30 a.m., to be accurate) in the City of Washington, in the Columbia Hospital for Women on NW 25thStreet, my mother gave birth to a six-pound baby girl. My father told friends the baby’s name would be Laura. My mother told the same friends the baby would be Susan. Guess who won?
Soon baby Susan met her six-and-a-half-year-old sister, who wasn’t immediately happy about the intruder, but would quickly become the most loyal and fierce protector, friend, and even caretaker to the baby. Six months later, the baby would meet her other best friend for life, who came into the world on December 31, 1962.
Baby Susan, by all accounts, was not very cute. “Where’d you get that homely baby?” a great aunt commented upon seeing her, noting that the older sister couldn’t have been a cuter baby. (Apparently Susan looked a little like J Edgar Hoover in the early days.) This story would be oft repeated to peals of laughter, so one can only hope that this means baby Susan grew out of her awkwardness eventually.
Small strides were clearly made, but the metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly is still magically happening, 59 years later.
All this of course, is just a way of saying that it’s my birthday. Of the immense gratitude I have today, those two women – my sister and my best friend – are at the top of the list. My healthy father, and the healthy relationship I have with my wonderful partner are the source of so much joy for me.
In my view, my 14 ½ years of sobriety has made all the difference in distinguishing the importance of homely-baby comments vs. how I see myself as a whole person, one who is always growing. But instead of growing into a persona I created for myself based on others’ expectations (something I embraced whole-heartedly pre-sobriety), I am just watching how I grow closer and closer to my true self by following my gut, being honest about my own limitations, and embracing imperfection.
A friend and I were walking through my garden this week, and I said, “It’s not perfect.” And she said, “That whole perfection thing is overrated, especially in the garden, but in life, too.” So true! In the recovery world, “Progress, not perfection” is a common refrain.
One of my biggest challenges – one I may never master – is balancing work time vs. play time. But due to it being birthday weekend, I went along with my partner’s request to do whatever I wanted to do this weekend (which meant Friday-Saturday, since if I don’t work this afternoon, I will completely crumble. We leave for Delaware Friday, and I have three deadlines before that). We went out for a fancy and delicious dinner Friday night.
And on Saturday morning, we went to the beach. We took advantage of the foggy weather and the early part of the day to avoid the crowds. And it was lovely. We weren’t there for a long, but it was so peaceful that we promised ourselves we’d go back, work or not. (Though negotiating the crowds on Martha’s Vineyard this summer is pretty much the number one hassle on everyone’s minds.)
Of course, these days I don’t have to go to the beach or go for a walk to find joy. It is right in my own backyard, where I have cultivated it. The seedlings and young plants I worried over for months are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do. The flowers are just as beautiful as I imagined they would be. Our first cherry tomatoes and Fairy Tale eggplants and shishito peppers are coming in. The peas have been generous, the beans are proliferating.
There are at least 59 reasons to be grateful just out in that garden, and many many more deep in my soul.
P.S. There will be no blog from me next week while I travel to visit my Dad and sister. See you in August!
An old summer photo of Dad, undoubtedly taken while he was working in the garden.
MY DAD TURNS 91 in three weeks. My sister and I were worried about him this morning, because he hadn’t responded to a three-way text that we keep pretty active – a very 2021 kind of way to stay in touch with your family. When he first got his IPhone, he’d been shy about texting. He never learned to type; the idea of struggling with that little keyboard seemed like too much trouble. But once he realized his busy daughters were apt to communicate more often by text than by phone, little by little he joined in.
But in his typical way (he is a wordsmith and a careful thinker), he has fashioned a style of texting that is uniquely his. Every text is carefully worded, in complete sentences, intentionally witty, and warmly and articulately expressed. Usually with an emoji.
These are not texts he can bang out in rapid fire; response from him takes a little time.
This morning, my sister was in a board meeting, and since I had just finished wrapping up a publication to send to the printer, I offered to call Dad so that I could reassure my sister that everything was fine.
He picked up after a couple rings and I could hear outdoorsy noise in the background. So right away, of course, I realize he’s fine. I’m thinking he’s in the backyard.
But no, he’s over at his friend’s house – one of the nice ladies he plays bridge with – installing a garden he designed for her over the winter. Actually, he wasn’t installing it himself – one of the only concessions he’s made to being almost 91 is that he can’t put as many plants in the ground as when he was almost 90. (Last year during the pandemic he occupied himself by redoing all the planting beds around his house with hundreds of perennials. That’s a lot of digging.) This time, he had help in the form of his friend’s gardener. But having drawn the design and traversed the length of Delaware several times visiting nurseries in search of very particular plant varieties for his friend, he of course had to be there to supervise!
He apologized for not answering the text. But they had started the installation project yesterday and had been at it ‘til late. When he got home, he laid down for a nap and fell asleep. In the morning he had to dash back over there to help finish the project.
One of many birthday celebrations with Dad (in plaid pants), Uncle Rodney (right), Uncle Doug (left), and my grandmother Honey (and her famous chocolate cake).
I let him go back to work after a brief chat about the dates in late July that we’ll be driving down to see him. Three months is about as long as I can stand to go without seeing him these days. And if possible, we like to celebrate our birthdays together. We’ve been double-celebrating for a mighty long time, sometimes with my grandmother’s chocolate cake, sometimes without. (My sister made it last year, complete with 7-minute boiled white icing.)
As I was watering my garden tonight, I kept thinking about Dad and how much he loves plants and gardening and how thoroughly he has passed that love on to me and my sister. It is a true gift. I’m never more content (the opposite of anxious) than when I’m working in the garden.
Last weekend, during a three-way Father’s Day text, I sent along some photos of our progress in the garden, including the newly expanded veg and flower garden with the little retaining wall.
His response was effusively complimentary (with emoji). He also offered support and empathy to my sister for some work she is trudging through.
But my favorite part of the text?
“Thanks to you both for your loving messages. The best thing about Father’s Day is…well, being a father!”
This Dad just gets better and better with age. I can’t wait to see him. I think I’ll bring him a plant for his birthday.
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 Musicwhen 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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 Sugar, Ice 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.
I have a lovely bit of good news I’ve been meaning to share with you. You might not think it is the most fun or exciting thing, because it involves work. But for me, it is a game changer.
I have a new job. A full-time office job. For the first time in nine years.
Perhaps you got the slightest hint, during those nine years (many of which I was writing this blog), that self-employment was, well, exhausting. And financially…challenging.
It also was amazing and wonderful and the best decision I’ve ever made in my life (up until now!), because I took a risk—a lot of risks really—and the rewards were huge. I got to pursue a dream (that I didn’t really even know I had) of being a farmer, I got to write books, I got to manage my own schedule, I got to burrow into my new community. All while living on this Island, which has turned out to be the biggest reward of all.
For better or worse, I am now ridiculously attached to this place, in a visceral way. Mostly it has to do with the immediacy of nature; once you step out your door you are in it completely. The other-worldly curtain of grey fog on an emerald field, the mirage of sparkly ocean that glistens just around the bend, the clear black night sky hole-punched with infinitely luminous patterns of starlight.
That kind of attachment makes it hard to leave a place, even when you know it is time to realign with the real world.
Which is why I am so grateful to have my new job as an editor at the Vineyard Gazette Media Group, publishers of the 170-year-old award-winning Vineyard Gazette newspaper and Martha’s Vineyard magazine (where I have contributed food pieces for many years). As special projects editor, I’ve got a bunch of creative editing and writing challenges to work on, starting with editing a publication called the Vine which began as a supplement to the paper and now stands alone as something closer to a magazine. With my long career (pre freelance!) in magazine editing, it’s a good fit.
There are so many wonderful things about my new job, starting with my smart and friendly coworkers and my fantastic boss, but I thought for now I’d just show you some pictures of the office, an historic house which was added on to over the years (the newspaper presses are on the first floor), and of the neighborhood. It is pretty cool. (Top photo is the front of the office; the next photo is the side/back entrance; the photo directly above is the view of the harbor at the end of the street; the middle photo is the plaque next to the front door of the office.)
As much as I love the rural end of the Island where I live, coming to work in the picturesque New England village of Edgartown is kind of a kick. (Or at least it has been this spring; I’m sure my attitude will change with summer traffic!) It certainly beats other office buildings I’ve inhabited.
To add to the fun, my office space is actually the archive room, so I am surrounded by bound copies of old newspapers, old books, and a treasure trove filing cabinet of newspaper clippings organized alphabetically by last name (Belushi, Clinton, Kennedy, along with Luce, Mayhew, Silva, etc.). (I also have a nice view out my window!)
You are probably wondering, and the answer is no.
No, I am not giving up on my vegetable growing operation completely (and certainly not on cooking)—I’m far too stubborn for that. I have had a stern talk with myself though about making the farmette a much lower priority for this year. But since I built a lot of infrastructure here last year, it only makes sense to use it. So I am planting mostly tomatoes, flowers and beans, and will harvest and open the farm stand Friday-Sunday. I hope that will work out. I did say I was going to wear less hats, but I am a slow learner.
On instagram I use these hashtags: #sixburnersuecooks #sixburnersuegrows #sixburnersuewrites. We’ll just have to add a fourth one: #sixburnersuehasarealjob
It’s a strange summer. Slow in getting here, fast in passing. The tomatoes have barely started to ripen and already it is time to pull the onions out of the ground. The weather is confused—dripping hot one day, New England chilly the next night. It’s like summer and fall all at once. But I’m okay with that. I like fall, and I feel a bit disconnected from summer this year.
I can’t complain. Grace and magic and kindness and opportunity have conspired to give me a new farmette business with a little farm stand plunked fortuitously close to the road.
My fencing and irrigation and weed controls are working as planned, so everything (well, most everything) is thriving, and the whole darn thing is actually manageable.
The soil still needs a lot of improvement, so my yields are not what they could be. But the real conundrum is space. The 4000 square feet I carved out this year isn’t enough for the little business to really thrive. 10,000 square feet is a quarter acre, and that would be great, but I can’t necessarily get to that here. I might be able to carve out 2000 more feet, but first I’m going to figure out a way to get a small hoop house built (and hopefully a chicken coop and pen, too). Then perhaps I will lease an extra little bit of land somewhere else next year, and grow more flowers on it. All things to consider this fall!
I did finally break down and buy a new camera, as my old one died and I’ve been borrowing from friends. I went with the cheapest DSLR I could buy and still get good quality—an older Canon Rebel T5—and I just took it out of the box yesterday.
So of course the first pictures I took were of tomatoes and flowers–probably my two favorite things about the late summer garden. Fortunately, with our warm fall out here, I’ll have tomatoes and flowers until late October of even early November.
But I hope I can find some good tomatoes and flowers to enter in the Fair, which is–yikes!–next week! I did say summer was flying by.
And the last bittersweet sign of changing seasons: The President and First Family arrived for their vacation last weekend. It still thrills me to see the motorcade whiz by, and I will always be grateful that they’ve chosen to come here for their vacations. Now if they’d just stop at the farmstand…
Vegetables, flowers, and serenity with Susie Middleton