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Magic Dust–Little Entrepreneurs and Me

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanNo Comments

Magic dust! The words caught my eye as I paid for my grapes at the vineyard farm stand. A small baggie of wonder-working dust to work magic on tired African violets–bargain at only one dollar!

There was no mention of secret ingredients or even active ingredients. The magic was in the crooked handwriting. I am a complete pushover for childish entrepreneurs, and “Isaac + Cyrus” were apparently nothing if not clever little marketers making money for their piggy bank.


I bought a bag. Of course. I could just see the devotion to the project: first getting the idea—next, enlisting a partner (not always a smooth process when siblings are involved!)—then finding the special dirt—bagging it—cutting the masking tape—making painstaking letters—deciding on the price—creating the display. And then standing back to watch the money roll in, with bated breath.

It reminded me of decades ago, when three little girls knocked at our neighbor’s door to offer bouquets for sale. The flowers were short of stem, limp from sweaty hands, and way overpriced.


But my little sisters were confident of one thing: the flowers they were selling were most certainly ones the neighbor liked. After all, the girls had just selected the best from the neighbor’s very own flower beds!


I can’t forget some of my own door-to-door experiences as a child. My friend Norma and I decided to sell Sunflower dishcloths. It was soon after our school had raised lots of money selling hundreds of those very dishcloths for a quarter each. Well, obviously the rural Denbigh market had been saturated by the time we two girls piled dishcloths into our bicycle baskets and plied the Colony roads. The weather turned cold; the wind blew them out of our baskets; and no one wanted to buy dishcloths. We arrived home, discouraged, with a quarter between us for our trouble. I am pretty sure both our mothers were well supplied with dishcloths for years to come, because I don’t think we ever went out and tried again.

Maybe that’s why we have always sympathized with the kids knocking on our door. The children of the neighborhood know we will buy whatever they are selling for fund-raisers. We buy boxes of Girl Scout Cookies; we buy fall bulbs to plant; we buy Christmas ribbon.

But a week ago I shocked myself. A brother and sister knocked at my door. I had always bought from them before. But when I paged through their catalogs, something in me rebelled. The glitzy catalog had nothing but candles and candle stuff. Now, I love candles as much as anyone. I have a cabinet full of candles, some of them handmade by family.


But thirty-five dollars for one, seventy dollars if I bought one from each kid? Part of me argued: just buy the candles, it’s for the kids. The other part of me said: no it’s for some company that’s running this fund-raiser. The kids have nothing to do with it. In the end, I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t buy the candles. I’m so sorry, kids, not this time, I said.

I buy other stuff, though. For nephews and grandsons at a distance, the internet is a wonderful thing.


Popcorn from little Boy Scouts near Buffalo NY. Lovely multi-colored tissue paper packs on their way from a school in Rockville, MD. But these are reasonably priced in the 6, 10, 12 dollar range. And they are things I enjoy using.

Fund-raisers aside, my heart will always leap to the crooked lettering and the spunk of such little dust-baggers as Isaac and Cyrus.


And, like the generous neighbor of our childhood, I will always buy a handful of fresh sweaty flowers, even if the little florist delivery girls have snatched them from my own flower beds.





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



Distress Cries from the Hollow Oak!

Ahhh…how nice to be home after some extended time away. There was lots to do in the yard—firewood to stack, weeds to clear away, and lots of November beauties to savor.

I loved the turkey tail fungus that had popped into color after a rain.


I loved the fresh yellow faces of green-headed coneflowers. The goldfinches had mobbed the ten-foot tall summer stalks until they were empty of the seed the birds adore.


And then the gorgeous purple of the saffron crocus making its way through the tangle of periwinkle leaves.


But the beauties weren’t just in the vegetation. This showy turtle surprised Robby as he added stalks to the brush pile.


And then we heard it—the biggest surprise of all! From the tallest oak in our front yard—the one with the well-worn hole midway up the trunk– came cries of distress, a panicked high-pitched chattering. A tiny raccoon, just the size our grandsons loved to cuddle as stuffed animals, scampered all around the big tree, crying for all it was worth. There was no time to get a camera with a zoom. My iPhone did its best as we watched in amazement.


It sat in the arms of the large branch in the highest fork of the tree and looked down at us as if to say, “Can’t you help?”


It came around to the front of the tree and begged some more.


It looked from left to right. Still no sign of Mama Raccoon, who we were pretty sure was curled up for a long day’s sleep in the hole farther up the tree, after a night of hunting to feed her children.


Suddenly the baby started up the right side of the tree trunk as if getting its bearings.


That was when a face popped up out of the hole in the tree, its black mask matching the little ones, its eyes watchful and concerned. The baby happily scrambled on up, back legs trembling with the effort.

Then,” Welcome home, small adventurer!”


Miracles in the garden, indeed, they are new every morning.




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



Chocolate Milk—a Halloween Ritual

Monday, November 3rd, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off


When pumpkin time rolls around, we lay in a supply of chocolate. Not M&M’s or Snickers bars. We buy chocolate milk–small half pints of the cold stuff, ready to tuck into proffered pumpkins or grocery sacks or pillow cases when little ones come trick-or-treating.

Though a dairy once stood on this spot, the chocolate milk tradition didn’t begin until 1972, the year Robby and I first became parents–the year we moved into the abandoned house my grandfather had built sixty years before.

At the time, Robby was supplying wholesale milk and cream to Colonial Williamsburg from my father’s Hampton Heights Dairy, located on Fox Hill Road. He would park the big loaded milk truck at our house overnight, ready for early morning deliveries.

The pastures around us were just being cut through with roads and new homes, and we weren’t sure, that first Halloween, whether we would have any trick-or-treaters at all. As the sun started going down, it dawned on us that we hadn’t bought any candy. I guess Robby went out to the milk truck and grabbed a few cold chocolate milk cartons in case anyone showed up.

Then we went to bed—Robby for early rising, me catching some sleep before our baby called out for her night feeding.

We were awakened by a loud banging on the door! Ghosts and goblins from nearby Sandpiper Street, longer established than ours, had braved the spookiness of the old house and were demanding treats! We leaped out of bed and thrust cold chocolate milk cartons into their surprised hands.

And that’s when it all began.

Every year since, the fridge gets stocked with chocolate milk and we wait for the parade of gypsies, vampires, and butterflies.


But the family dairy business ended in the 70’s. How to keep finding those cute little half pints you can’t buy in the store? Local school system to the rescue. Year after year now,Karen, the cafeteria manager at Menchville High School, has stocked her milk coolers with Robby in mind. She reserves a crate or two of the small plastic bottles just for our Halloween event.

Here is the fierce note he found guarding his purchase this year!


Last year panic set in as the delivery schedule left Karen short of half pints on October 31. Not for long. A quick call to Denbigh High School got their cafeteria in on the project, and 75 milk bottles were soon waiting for Robby there. It was touching to read this note.


Somehow the Yoder name—forever associated with dairies around here—came through. And I fervently wished it was my dad who was picking up the crate oftreats he had always called “choc’ate milk.”

When children receive the cold milk, they often want to stop in their tracks to drink it, hot and thirsty from their costumes and the trudging from door to door.


Some who may have picked up milk early in the evening return toward the end, hoping for a second helping to wash down the Kit-Kats.

After the chorus of “Trick or Treat!” we often hear:

“Are you giving chocolate milk again next year?”

“Somebody told me this house gives out chocolate milk!”

“Do you have any regular milk?”

“I used to come here for chocolate milk when I was a little boy years ago!”

“Can I have some for my Dad and Mom? They used to come here to get it too.”

“Mom!!! I got chocolate milk! Can I drink it now?”

And always, the chorused, “Thank you!!!”


I love how this one night brings the past and present together in a moment of celebration. Listen as I might, I no longer hear the heavy hoof-steps and tail-swishing and mooing of a herd of dairy cows. I don’t hear the roar of the dairy truck heading off to Williamsburg in the early morning so Chowning’s Tavern diners can have their black walnut ice cream.

But weare satisfied to hear the happy voices of children floating through the neighborhood as they run awkwardly in costumes, waving our small bottle of chocolate milk in the air.











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



70 Years…70 Trees…70 friends

Monday, October 27th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

It was a sparkling October morning in Flory Park along Mill Creek in Lancaster, PA. A beautiful patchwork of fallen leaves drifted on the surface of the lazy stream, as if showing off cherished varieties of local trees.


Near the creek, seventy friends in sturdy boots were leaning on seventy shovels. They had gathered to celebrate Mary Lou Weaver Houser’s birthday. Not by pinning seventy tails on some poor donkey, thank heavens. These friends were going to plant sturdy saplings—seventy of them.


An old Chinese proverb says: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.” Well, today had come, and the trees were ready. Matt, the Watershed Coordinator from the Lancaster county Conservation District had arranged pots of young oaks, poplars, sycamores, dogwoods, buttonbush, and others next to places where earlier plantings had failed to grow.

The beautiful grassy verge of the creek had become susceptible to destructive flood, as development encroached. Far too much fertile county farmland was washing down the creek and eventually to the Chesapeake Bay.Trees could help. Trees were carefully selected for how comfortable they were with wet feet and how well their little root hairs would hold onto the soil when the water rose.

But before shovel struck earth, it was time for reflection. We heard Chris Longenecker, Poet Laureate of Lancaster, share tree poems. She looked like a tree herself, hair tousled and blowing like leaves and branches. In fact, her words and the wind were together so powerful that a stately vase of wild flowers behind her crashed to the floor of the pavilion and shattered as she spoke.


Then small teams of friends fanned out along the creek bank. In each designated spot, theyplanted a new sapling where a dead one had been, carefully slipping a protective sleeve over the baby tree.


Birthday Girl Mary Lou on the left and Poet Laureate Chris on the right, settle a sapling into its new home.


When the trees were all planted, the boots and shovels found their way back up to the picnic pavilion where a feast was spread by The Scarlet Runner caterers.


There may not have brought seventy dishes, who was counting? The profusion of breads, of quinoa salads, of green salads hiding praline pecans, of roast turkey and roast carrots and buttery apple desserts—it was a birthday celebration indeed. Above the clamor of old friends talking and laughing, you could almost hear seventy new trees digging their roots in and beginning to grow.


(thanks to Herb Myers, Amy Houser, Mary Lou Houser and Ted Houser for the photos)




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–the New Spring!

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

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

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off


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



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