“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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