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Fall–the New Spring!

As the days get shorter and the sun sinks lower, there is one thought on my mind: Will the pineapple sage bloom? It is October 21…and chilly. Back from a trip, I check the green tips of the plant that has been stretching up over the garden wall after a slow start from last year’s brown stump.

Yes! It’s blooming–aflare of red among the green. At last!


We are four weeks into autumn, but my hopes are spring-like. Which brings me to this: fall is the new spring!

Lantana flashes its pastels this morning, a week or so away from November.


Marigolds are bright as sunshine. For many flowers, this is their time to shine!


But not only flowers!

If you have ever picked green beans in the sweat, heat, and irritation of August, you will appreciate an October crop.


When I picked this bunch, the skies were cool and gray. The beans were sturdy, crisp, and flawless. There were caterpillars on stems here and there, hoping to break forth into lovely transformation yet before frost. And to top it off, a bald eagle flashed his brilliant tail in the sun at low altitude just beyond the garden fence. So much newness that we usually associate with spring, not fall!


About ten days ago, Lisa gave me a dozen packs of seeds and pointed me to a long prepared bed in her garden. For hours, I sowed seeds and marked the rows for vegetables that love a fall planting time.

As I sprinkled the seeds, I remembered the gigantic white cauliflower my father brought into the house on Christmas Day 1983. It was frozen solid, so big he could hardly get his arms around it. The autumn had been “an open one,” as he put it. Not a single frost until the temperature plummeted to zero on that Christmas Day. There were more huge cabbages and broccoli heads in his garden than several families could consume!

The seeds I planted that day for Lisa must have been as happy to grow as that cauliflower. A soft rain tucked them in just as I finished the work, making both Lisa and I positively giddy with delight. I went back five days later, and every single seed had already popped out of the ground.


Yes, the nights are chilly, but the sun is toasty warm, just the way lettuce, radishes, spinach, and kale like it.


They lift their faces the way I might do before an autumn bonfire–my toes and face to the radiant warmth, my back feeling the chill.

For joy of growing, for joy of gathering, truly autumn is the new spring.


Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at



Fall Feasting


Deep blue salvia, stunning red dahlias, and the arresting green of hairy balls create a visual feast in my fireplace, all the more beautiful in their transience. Soon my flowers will give way to fires. It’s fall, though, right now—a time for all kinds of feasting.

A small pot of oatmeal dotted with raisins sits on the back of the stove, waiting. Robby drove into the garage on the stroke of midnight, stayed up talking an hour or two, and now is sleeping in. It seems unlikely that he will rouse himself for a bowl of congealed oatmeal and skim milk.

It is clearly time to get out the rolling pin—and the five-pound bag of fresh beautiful pecans that just arrived from Koinonia Farms in Georgia.


We have been skirting around the issue of pecan pie now for days. There was a sort of promise that when the old Kenmore oven was cleaned, soldered, and repaired so that the bottom coil glowed red again, there would be feasting on his favorite—pecan pie.


I have been stymied though by the thought of tasteless chunks of darkened store-bought nut-meats. Fresh-fallen pecans are another ingredient altogether. All my life I had gathered pecans freely from under bountiful trees, right in my parents’ back yard. And when they died, I gathered them from the horse farm driveway. Now the horse farm is gone, too. I am learning how to buy pecans now, and this fresh shipment from Georgia restores my faith in the process.

This is how pecan pie used to start out. Here is my mother at her chosen work: picking the pecan kernels out of the shells I cracked for her. Nothing made her happier, especially when entertained by toddler Everett, our partner in crime those days, in 2008.


While my pecan-gathering days are over, the little squirrel we call Socks is still hard at it. No, we have no pecan trees. But just across the street, and in the yard next door, pecan trees tower. I think they are descended from some my father planted as a six-year-old nearly a hundred years ago. Socks likes to feast here on this stump. You could call it pecan take-out.

photo(19)There is other feasting in the yard:

Fat dogwood berries woo cardinals and mockingbirds


Bees gorge on what they like in goldenrod


Two young persimmon trees hold promise of more feasting.

At night by the light of a street lamp, deer stand on their back hooves to reach the plump acorns on white oaks.

A heap of wild grapes has apparently been stored here in an oak log bowl conveniently hollowed out by carpenter ants. I wonder how many trips the animal made to bring the fruit from the other side of the lawn.


But back to the pecan pie….It was a hit. And just like the season of bright colors and crisp sunny days, it will not linger. But while it does, we will feast.




Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at



Monarch Midwives

Monday, October 6th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

Stretching my legs after an open convertible ride back from the Outer Banks, I wander by our biggest butterfly bush. Butterflies everywhere! The bright October sunshine is glittering not only against the blue sky, but off the skittish wings of joyous monarchs—four of them chasing each other all around and over the bush, then away to the goldenrod and back again. Painted ladies and buckeyes join the dance, and dozens of fiery skippers. The movements are so frenetic my trusty iPhone is powerless to capture them. I can only stand in open-mouthed delight.

It’s fall, and my deepest wish for the monarchs is coming true right here at home as well as all the way to Hatteras and back. It turned out two monarchs had needed our midwife attention, and we were more than happy to give it.


At the Virginia Living Museum the week before, Robby had found two monarch chrysalises attached to the side of a tire on the museum van. A speeding butterfly nursery did not seem to be in their best interest, so Robby carefully detached them and brought them home to a barn post in our kitchen.

We watched them all week–these perfect green cases delicately ornamented with what looked like a string of jewels. They remained just as they were.


Departing for a week on Hatteras Island, we tucked the soon-to-be butterflies behind a vase of Lisa’s salvia and dahlias, and headed south. As a concession to the delicate travelers, we kept the top up on the convertible. We could sense a sweetness over our shoulders as we drove along.

Arrived at our beach house, we propped them on the mantel. They began to darken and show markings through the thin covering of the chrysalis. The four of us—friends of fifty years—were hovering in the wings, so to speak. We were to be monarch midwives, along with our husbands.


The third day at the beach, we came home from breakfast at the Diamond Shoals Café, and a cry went up. The first birthing had taken place! We watched as the body of the butterfly pushed fluid into its wings, moved its legs, and tasted the ocean air for the first time.

We sat out on the deck with the butterfly for more than an hour, in the stiff ocean breeze. It barely moved. Just as I turned to Robby and asked, “Do you think it’s all right?” it suddenly made its way to the edge of the cardboard. Barely even practicing its wings at all, it was quickly aloft and out of sight. It left us speechless!

Now all eyes were on the second chrysalis. We had read that they can take 9 to 14 days to emerge. This one was taking longer than the first, but in time it, too, turned black.

Soon the colors were showing through.


And then it was out! This time we got to see the tiny wings unfolding quickly into monarch size as the new butterfly swung and fidgeted on its old skin. We were supposed to catch the ferry to Ocracoke Island, so Robby, warding off a migraine anyway, stayed behind to keep the hatchling company.


After another hour or two, suddenly this one too, was off—straight up into the blue sky!


Back at the beach house that evening, we felt bereft. Those two tiny packages of gorgeous life, entrusted to us and our care, had lent a mysterious grace and presence to our beach days. We felt that familiar ache of “empty nest.”

But we were joyous, too. Knowing that some monarchs are alive and well, and that we could help them in some small way, lent a delight to our vacation.

Living together for those few days, watching and waiting and wondering, we felt a kinship with the butterflies. As friends of five decades and more, we trace the transformation in each other’s’ faces.But cheering the butterfly through all its stages, we can only celebrate our own as well. We are treasures in the vastness of the seas, the sands, and the skies of this earth.









Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at



Grape Lady

Monday, September 29th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

September 29, 2014

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In the misty pre-dawn, I run back and forth from the truck to the tarp, cradling boxes of Concord grapes in my arms. My father has died, and I am doing his work. On this one day a year, I am the grape lady. There are blue balloons flying out at the street and a couple of tons of grapes on my garage floor.

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Always in the food business, my dad Lauren A. Yoder extended his strawberry season by bringing a truckload of grapes from the Wenger Grape Farm in Augusta County when they were ripe. Customers ordered ahead, then picked up a half bushel, a bushel, or more on the designated day. They left with the fragrant boxes, driving off to make jam, to make wine, or just to eat the luscious fruit as a dessert. They drove away with a bunch of the grapes tucked in their laps or in the passenger seat beside them, to enjoy on the way home. It was impossible to resist the delicious smell. The bees and yellow jackets thought so too.

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After Daddy was gone, the phone at the old white farmhouse had begun ringing with pleas for Concord grapes. At the same time, I learned that Dave Wenger had a bumper crop of grapes and would be glad to send a truckload down to Denbigh once again. I found a clipboard holding an old customer list written in Daddy’s endearing left-hand scrawl, and I decided to take the plunge.

That was ten years ago. Every year since, I have hosted the pickup of the grapes one September day from dawn till night. A hundred people participate. It has become an exhausting harvest ritual for me and a poignant homecoming event for many.

They come bearing gifts: fresh garden tomatoes, jars of fig jam, a bag of candy, a foil-wrapped roll of kim-pap—that toothsome Korean snack of rice and seaweed.

They come bringing bottles of the wine they made in 2013. A profound blessing of the fruit of the vine is printed on the labels in Hebrew.

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There are gifts of stories as well. As we pack the grapes into the backs of cars and trucks, I hear the happy and sad of the past year—cancer, suicide, dialysis, loss. I hear how it felt to be part of the Battle of the Bulge at the age of 17. I hear about zebra finches and how to tell a male from a female. I learn the personalities of house-broken rabbits named Sarah and Benjamin. I hear about the grandson in tears because his girlfriend ate up the last jar of grape jam.

The grape-seekers are diverse… a retired Italian NASA engineer…a Romanian…many Koreans. The British woman who learned to make grape pies from her Maryland mother-in-law. The Brazilian mom whose little ones ate peanut butter sandwiches on my back steps and then admired the writing on a beautiful garden spider web. Too many to name are the country people whose grand-daddy grew grapes.

I have my own rendezvous the grapes. First and foremost, I pop them into my mouth, suck, and swallow—skins, seeds and all.

But in the days to come, grape jam is required, many jars of it, for the whole family.

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Grape pie is expected at holidays. Jars of rich purple juice make a refreshing treat mixed with sparkling water.

This is a lot of work. Over the years, my mother fairly begged for a bowl of grapes to be placed on her lap. With her slim brown fingers, she pulled each one off its stem, then popped the green inside from the purple skin. I would cook the pulp, strain out the seeds, then continue on with my recipes. She was a great help. I miss her! These days a little namesake Nina, born a hundred years after her, is my helper.



When Grape Day is over, and before I get started on my own mounds of grapes, I still have a pilgrimage to make. I put twenty pounds of grapes in the back of my car and drive down to the East End of Newport News. I go up a wheelchair ramp to the door of a little bungalow where late flowers bloom in pots. At my knock, a sweet voice calls from her hospital bed, where she has been the whole long decade. “Oh, I love my grapes!” she exults. “Thank you for bringing them to me.”

“You know why I do, don’t you?” I say.

“Yes, I do.” She smiles, remembering my father with me. Then her face grows pensive. “That last year he brought them, I thought he didn’t look well.”

I stand by her bed, misty-eyed, heart full and overflowing. There is a long, pulsing silence. I feel the dearness and the kindness of my father, as if he were standing near us in slouchy hat and shoes, plaid shirt tucked and belted into khakis.

The grapes are over for another year. But the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” remains vibrant in my heart.

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Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at



My Scrapbook Garden–Friends, Family, Flowers and Freecycle

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

Tucked away in the attic are scrapbooks half a century old. Crumbling brown petals from long-ago corsages stick to pages along with four-leaf clovers no longer green but treasured for whatever luck they brought me.

To ramble in my garden is to open a scrapbook of another kind. Living plants from friends and family add color to our daily existence not only in their blossoms, but by the memories that come along with them.

One morning a year ago, I dropped off a box of Concord grapes at the home of George and Suzanne Brooks. An hour later, I left with a tummy full of cheese toast and good coffee. I also had a box of dirt, containing some nameless green shoots and a shovelful of young kale plants.


Today, I was surprised by two white flowers I had never seen before, growing at the end of those nameless green shoots. Their fragrance was as sweet and strong as honeysuckle. Looking at them, I could almost taste the cheese toast and see the smiles on the faces of my friends.

And the Freecycle present my husband brought home to me. (Don’t you love Freecycle?
Somebody wants your old bird cage. A kid needs a black bowtie for a Halloween costume. Somebody wants to get rid of a dryer—or some excess garden plants.

This find was a small pot with several delicate tendrils reaching up from the soil. I had the perfect place for this cypress vine, and it took off climbing.


The vine is starred with brilliant blossoms here and there, but it has a ways to go to catch up sister Debby Wiggins’ cypress plant! She calls hers a Thomas Jefferson vine, and the seeds came via Kenny’s family from Bacon’s Castle on the other side of the James River. Stories, stories, stories!

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And then there’s my Streptocarpella. Yes, I know it sounds like a name for disease and dysfunction!

But actually it is a gorgeous blue-flowered hanging plant–a Mother’s Day gift years ago. It radiated grace and beauty all summer long. I brought it inside for the winter, where it bloomed profusely.


I took the plant down to my mother’s sunny back porch where we could both enjoy it during the last years of her life. Over time it became sprawling and leggy, needing some pruning and attention, but competing with pecan-shelling, seed-starting, and cat-managing for our time, as is obvious from this picture.


After my mother died five years ago, it seems the streptocarpella—or some starts of it—went home to Morgantown WV with my sister Linda, who carefully nurtured it with her famously green thumb.

Here are the starts she brought me this spring as a surprise gift!


I put them in a window to root


This summer I tucked them into some down-under pots I got from Lisa Z. years ago.


And so, on these last days of summer, I wander through my garden. In one lovely rush, the scarlet, blue, and white blossoms gift me with color, scent, and fond memories. My scrapbook is full of flowers thanks to friends, family, and Freecycle.






Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at



End-of-Summer Yellow

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off


Somewhere around the first of September it finally happens—a tiny flame of pure yellow appears at the top of a nondescript, ten-foot-tall weed just over my brick wall. The Jerusalem artichokes are starting to bloom! Since spring, the messy boring invasive greenery has been growing up and up until it towers over everything.

The iris bloom. The peonies, gladiolus, and larkspur come and go to brighten the garden in shades of pink and purple. But the plain artichoke leaves keep steadily growing taller. They look as though someone should just pull them out. And as a matter of fact, I do. I pull out or mow a lot of them, since they spread insidiously into and through every planting we have.


But, if the hurricanes and thunderstorms don’t smash them down before the first week in September, suddenly there they are high in the air, the most beautiful yellow flowers you ever saw. They are not only glamorous atop their leggy stems in the garden, they last a long time in a vase as well.


When I came home from the hospital with my first baby girl that September day, my sister celebrated my arrival with a big bouquet of Jerusalem artichokes. I will forever associate the girl with the sunny blossoms.


These gorgeous native North American flowers are a member of the sunflower family, but they are of course neither artichokes nor do they come from Jerusalem. Some call them sunchokes—a risky-sounding name when you consider that they are not only flowers, but a food as well, long used by the Native Americans. By the time of the first frost, they will have grown a delicious little tuber under the ground that you can slice up raw for salad, or fry into chips with salt, or cook and mash like a potato like my mother did. When she cooked them, they always seemed to me curiously waxy. Still, they are full of nutrients. They have an amazing amount of iron, potassium, and thiamine. They are also low in calories and high in fiber.

I went out with my mom’s little shovel just a few minutes ago, to check if anytubers had formed yet, but no. Later, around Thanksgiving, when the stalks have turned brown and the leaves fallen, cleaning up the artichoke bed will reward me with knobby little nuggets. I can keep them for weeks in the fridge.This year I want to try a salad with thin raw slices drenched in olive oil, garlic, and lemon juice, and topped with shreds of a good Parmesan.

There are two colors I associate with the sunny yellow petals of the Jerusalem artichoke.


One is the improbably purple beautyberry, voluptuous in these last hot days of summer, driving the mockingbirds and brown thrashers and cardinals to a frenzy as they try to stake out their territory. My father used to let us nibble the perfume-y berries when we found them in the woods. He called them turkey berries, but I’ve never heard anyone else do so! These bushes are happily spreading around our yard, all on their own.

The other is the deeper blue of the Concord grape. This is the time of year my father would order boxes of grapes from the Wengers in Stuarts Draft. His friends and customers would come to pick up their share at the big square white farmhouse on Lucas Creek Road. Recently, I met a Korean lady named Sunny, whose story will forever connect for me the yellow of the flowers with the blue of the grape.


She said she had come to Dad’s home to pick up her grape order. Noticing the bright sunny color of the artichokes over in the garden, she cried out how beautiful they were. He, gallant man that he was, went and cut an armload of them for her to take homer. She told the story with tears rolling down her cheeks. It was his last autumn.

As the skies turn gray today, I feel a change in the air. The fresh yellow of the Jerusalem artichoke is a marker of the end of summer, and the harbinger of autumn and winter days to come.






Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at



Prayer of the Butterfly

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

I was eighteen when I wrote “The Prayer of the Butterfly” into my journal, copied from Prayers from the Ark. The poem enchanted me. I was enchanted also by butterflies and the ditzy life they led. Imagine your life work being to flutter beautiful wings and go from flower to flower, tasting nectar.
Over the years, there wasn’t a lot of time in my life for butterflies, though whe n one fluttered by, it always felt like a visitation, as if a flower had taken wings to delight the eye.
But the summer of 2010, two things happened. One, a huge oak in our front yard began to die. Though its leaves were still green, dark sap wept through the bark and turned the whole tree trunk sticky and oozing. Beautiful butterflies of all descriptions gathered on the oozing surface. I hadn’t realized that some butterflies exist for just such a feast. I wrote inside the guidebook cover whenever I identified something new: red-spotted purple, red admiral, question mark, tawny emperor…and on and on. It was a fascinating treasure hunt! I just never knew what I would see next.


The second thing that happened was the companionship of four-year-old Everett. He is even now a great butterfly spotter, and never forgets a name. Adults do a double-take when he casually identifies a black swallowtail or a monarch. One day he came home from preschool announcing that the class had seen a buckeye flutter by at playtime. “Oh, did your teacher know its name?” “NO! I had to TELL her!” he said. Everett kept my fridge supplied with butterfly art as well.

That year and the next, my two butterfly bushes were alive with tiger swallowtails and black swallowtails.


There were so many, I hate to confess it, that I was almost bored with them. And the cabbage whites! So commonplace.
When we cut down the second huge oak in 2012, those butterflies enjoyed the wider swath of sunshine, along with fiery skippers, silver-spotted skippers, and long tailed skippers. It was butterfly heaven.


But in 2013 I suddenly asked myself: where are the monarchs? That whole summer I saw only one weak one in my wild flower garden. I began to fear. Other varieties seemed in short supply as well.
This year I have watched the season wear on with bated breath as others also expressed concern.Where are all the butterflies? Will the monarchs come back? What would a world without butterflies mean? If we lost our butterflies, what else would we lose after that?
I am happy to say some are coming back. Though in nothing like the numbers of previous years, butterflies are here. The oozing tree is now dead and dry, so I don’t see the sap-sucking ones. But every few days, I see a gorgeous monarch.

Today I saw two tiger swallowtails and a black swallowtail at the same time. The skippers are busy, and the cabbage whites flutter here and there.
I don’t know why the butterflies are struggling. Perhaps it was the hard winter of 2014. Perhaps it is the use of pesticides eliminating milkweed. Perhaps it was bad timing on the part of mowing operations along interstate highways. Perhaps it was too many gardeners crushing the caterpillars that fed on their parsley.

Some butterfly experts are trying to come up with a mowing plan for highways that encourages butterflies. Some are working on the pesticide issue. Whatever, I will keep on planting the plants butterflies love, and I will keep on hoping, hoping, hoping.
It’s funny, I don’t think of butterflies as ditzy anymore. They appear fragile and precious.I see them on the edge of calamity. Their work, gathering nectar, suddenly seems as important a job as any of us might do. In that spirit, I offer a new version of:

The Prayer of the Butterfly

Where is the milkweed?
Wait! I have to go.
Where? I do not know! Maybe to Mexico?
Oh, yes, Lord,
I had something to ask you….
What was it? Oh!
Please let flowers grow on the roadsides.
And let caterpillars live to eat the parsley.
Your world is beautiful, Lord.
Let my painted wings flutter till night comes.
Where was I?
Oh yes, Lord, this flower, this sun, thank you. Amen.



Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at

Socks and Four O’Clocks

Monday, August 25th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off


I opened the front door to get more of the morning through the glass storm door, then blinked in surprise as a squirrel on the lawn turned and ran toward me. I saw herwhite feet right away. We have been noticing Socks for years, frisking in the white oaks and in our neighbor’s pecan tree. And once you name something, it seems it becomes a part of the family.

In July I nearly fell off a second story ladder when, clipping ivy, I disturbed Socks in the middle of hermorning nap just outside our bedroom window. She leaped out of the ivy, ran down the foliage and scampered off into the woods, scolding all the way.

Whatever you think of squirrels—and I know there are lots of opinions out there—we had found ourselves warming to Socks. Especially since we are without pets for the first time in our lives. Our beloved cats no longer live here; as their lives ended we did not replace them because they trigger a grandson’s asthma.

Our quarterhorse has been gone two years now, and the little society finches hatched at Mennowood no longer brighten our sunny spaces with their chatter and flirtations. Life with a one-eyed monkey and an orphan bushbuck in Africa is only an incredible memory.

So when Socks scampered up to the door and looked me in the eye, I wasn’t surprised.She knows us, too. She sleeps in the ivy a few feet away from our bed at night; she helps herself to our bird food; she frolics in the lawn with her babies.

There on my front step, she ran back and forth back and forth, beseeching with her eyes. Then she tried to talk her way in. She began to chatter and chirp. I briefly considered letting her in to scamper through the heaps of paper airplanes the last little boys left behind. But when I cracked the door the slightest, she scampered off.

Later that day she came and scolded again. This time it was evening, and Robby was pulling a few weeds around an oak stump. That was just where Socks was trying to have dinner, stripping seeds from a green pine cone.


She picked up her pine cone and ran to the little gingerbread cottage where she hoped to have some peace. After a few more seeds, she gave up, noticing that darkness was gathering around her.


She scampered around us and to the ivy at the side of the house. She leaped to the rain barrel, climbed the ivy and the downspout, and disappeared into her nest just outside our bedroom window.


Socks had gone to bed.

But our evening surprises were not over. There was a fragrance in the air. Many times over the years we have smelled a sweet fragrance and never knew where it was coming from. We walked down the path toward the moonflowers that had just opened. Nope, no scent there.


But just in front, in the fading light, we were met with a blaze of color and a strong perfume. Who knew that the fuchsia-colored four-o’clocks would be wide open at nightfall and spreading a strong sweet fragrance?


It’s not as if four o’clocks were new to me. My grandfather John ThurloSteme had planted them at my parental home in the mid 1950’s…and these were descended from those flowers. Mom always had them coming up after her peonies had bloomed. I should have had plenty of time to recognize their fragrance. But it was news to me.

The next afternoon, just out of curiosity, I went to check out the four o’clocks a few minutes before four o’clock. There was no fragrance. And this is how they looked:


Eight o’clocks? Four o’clocks? Does it really matter? All I know is, a garden is a never-ending source of surprise and delight, for those who pay attention.



Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at



Poke Sallet and Purple Alligators

Monday, August 18th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

A commotion in the lawn caught my eye. There was a flash of gray and white in the pokeberry bush towering 8 feet high in our wild flower garden.


Red stalks shook and green leaves trembled. The mockingbird was tending his buffet, the first pokeberries turning black and succulent–ready to be snatched.


From now till fall, this native bush will keep flowering and forming berries. The mockingbird will be in charge of the harvest. We’ve even seen him in November gobbling freeze-dried remnants left on browned and slumping stalks.

The mockingbird is not the only pokeberry-lover in the family. On Halloween night 2007, a tiny boy stuffed into a too-tight alligator costume was more interested in exploring pokeberry bushes than he was in collecting candy in the neighborhood.


In fact, to Everett, fruit and berries have always been more seductive than candy. It was risky to allow him to investigate the juicy berries that night…but his mama kept a watchful eye. Entranced, he gathered beautiful berries in his little purple hand. None in the mouth, thank goodness, though they say pokeberry juice is the least poisonous part of the plant.


The part he didn’t like was the washcloth in his mama’s hand once we got inside…my heart melts every time I look at those uplifted alligator arms and the little tiptoe shoes—all begging for me to rescue his sticky purple self.


The pokeweed name comes from an Algonquian Indian word meaning a plant used to color feathers and horses. But my neighbor George calls it poke sallet, like so many others who grew up eating the very young leaves for a delicious spring dish of cooked greens. (Some say don’t pick them if they have grown higher than six inches off the ground. And be sure to cook them well, up to 3 times, pouring out the water every time and getting fresh.)You could even buy it canned, until about the year 2000 when workers were no longer willing to go out picking poke weed for the cannery.

You can be badly poisoned by eating mature poke weed, its seeds and roots. But the juice of its berries makes a lovely ink. Many a letter home during the Civil War was written by a soldier using a bird feather and poke berry juice. The words are still legible a century and a half later. As is the Declaration of Independence, its beautiful calligraphy in poke berry ink from the hand of Thomas Jefferson.

We don’t let the poke weed take over, though I think it would like to. Every year, though, we let one big one grow in a place of honor. For the grandkids and the mockingbirds. And, when I’m feeling daring, a little poke sallet savory with garlic and olive oil.



Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at



Summer Surprises

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

The first surprise was a piece of stainless steel chimney apparatus on the ground. That was followed by tufts of insulation. The crowning clue was a dark moving shadow and the flap of huge wings.

Mother & Child

Three huge vultures. That included the pair that we saw preening and kissing in our neighbor’s back yard. It also included their baby, just as big, but tufted with down and obviously waiting on our rooftop for some regurgitated carrion.

Then suddenly there were four. Apparently these past months the old corn crib back in the ravine—the last vestige of the J.H. Yoder farm unless you count the dairy house blocks in our terrace—had been serving as a black-headed vulture nursery.

So for days now, the two chimneys on our house as well as the nearby pine branches and the flat top of the dead oak have been staging areas for baby vulture flight. We watch them flap and flutter and spread their huge black wings to the sun.

That’s out the front window. Out the back windows we’ve been watching the tiniest hummingbirds guzzling our sugar water. This is the first summer we’ve had to re-fill the feeder every three days; there must be babies. In the last few days, there have also been skirmishes. Either the babies have grown up and become territorial, or there are strangers stopping by and meeting resistance from the more permanent residents.

It should not be a surprise that the largest and the smallest birds are raising babies here. We have seen every other kind this year as well—catbirds, robins, mockingbirds, wrens, house finches, doves, cardinals, brown thrasher, and the list goes on.

One morning we heard sweet noises in the chimney…two young starlings flew out when we opened the damper—into the dining room.Ilse caught them in a tee-shirt and let them go again.

photo photo3

That same week Robby came downstairs early to find Ilse reading to her daughter on the couch. He was sure she had set him up to think there was a brown bat hanging from a corner of the living room wall. But actually, there was!!! It is a complete mystery how that bat came into the house. On the bright side, it tells us that bats are part of our ecosystem here, and maybe part of the reason why there have been fewer mosquitoes! Everyone was too shocked to get a picture of the bat as Ilse ushered him out on a towel and put him on a branch to wait for darkness.

The flowers are surprising us, too. The scent of my first tuberoses ever fills the front yard. Thank you, Lisa, for a start of them last fall.


And who knew azaleas could be so gorgeous this time of year?


Or how artistic a volunteer wild morning glory appears?


I also love how the mystery lilies pop up on cue in August, my mother’s bulbs. They are almost over for the season.


Some people call them naked ladies, but the flowers I call naked ladies are much more in your face than these demure lavender ones. We’re still waiting for these red ones to pop up this summer.


Some people think that August is a tired season, when the garden looks drab and little happens. Au contraire….our August never ceases to surprise and amaze!











Susan Yoder Ackerman is a writer and gardener in Newport News, Virginia. Both her writing and her gardening are enhanced by tending a century-old family farmhouse and eight grandchildren that come and go. You can email Susan at



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