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Farm blogger returns…

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My absence from blogging these past few weeks isn’t because there hasn’t been action around this flower farm for sure. It was my new book “Cool Flowers” manuscript that I was totally committed too.  My deadline for the first go around was April 15. I feel as though I am free having that boulder roll off of my shoulders and onto my editor’s shoulders for now.

(Photo above: Bobo and Carin weeding the fall direct seeded garden–it’s on the verge of bursting into bloom!)

The only way I can think to explain how it feels to write a book is the same way your smart phone does when some app is running in the background eating up all its power and making your phone sluggish. Your phone can’t focus because it is busy all the time. Even during the times I was not literally writing, the book was always front and center on my mind. No matter the job at hand, I was always reminded of something for the book or even something to ax from the book. Exhausting.  It left little of me for everything else in life like running a farm and online garden shop with lecture jobs mixed in.

 

2014 April 18 BBBut, all is well now. The first bouquet of the season is on my kitchen table, Bachelor Buttons. Now, having to grow masses of flowers doesn’t seem like the huge job it did before the book manuscript was done.  Amazing how things change.

While the book is in the hands of the masters—St. Lynn’s Press— I wait. Back to farming and loving it!

Lisa Z

“Cool Flowers” will be out September 1, 2014. We are scheduling book events and programs now. Suzanne and I would love to come your way—contact us for more information.

Lisa Mason Ziegler is a commercial cut-flower farmer in Newport News, Virginia; she lectures and writes about organic and sustainable gardening. You can email Lisa at lisa@shoptgw.com, call her at 757-877-7159 or visit her website www.shoptgw.com .

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Hearing Old Daddy Crow

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Feathers rippling, dust scratched and tossed, red combs quivering…the busy sound of clucks and trills and every now and then the triumphant arching crow of the presiding rooster. My memories of chicken days on my parents’ Lucas Creek Road home don’t date back to childhood. They are as recent as my mother’s last days.

A little woven basket usually held a few small brown eggs on a kitchen shelf. When appetite waned, a soft fried egg with pinkish yolk with a bit of toast was sure to please at any hour of the day.

In the five years since the little flock was disbanded along with the home, I sometimes got a care package of beautiful home-raised eggs from our daughter Anje in Rockbridge or Augusta County. But for the daily dozen, it was back to the store.

But lately, and especially when my grandchildren ask for eggs cooked in the famous yellow fying pan, I have my niece Tara to thank for a new source of very special eggs.

Her TajMahal of a chicken coop and her coddled layers in York County produce the array of colors and sizes I was used to back at Mom’s, and I’ve become a loyal customer. But mere money won’t do, to buy these eggs.

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Enjoying the eggs from Playtime Farms takes me back to the past in more ways than one. The ancient system of bartering is alive and well. I take home eggs. She takes home fresh-baked pilgrim bread from my oven.

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Somehow the process gives us both a double measure of something you really cannot measure—along with the good food, we are nourishing our families with a connection to the earth and to our people. I can almost hear Old Daddy crow. I can almost see my mother’s slim brown fingers cradling a warm, just-laid egg.

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Dogwood Winter

When I was a girl, we had the novelty of an April Fool’s Day snowstorm. As if the calendar date weren’t unusual enough, the snow was memorable in that it fell on fully-unfurled dogwood blossoms. Up until that day, I had thought of dogwood blossoms as white. That day, the brilliant white of the snow rendered each dogwood petal a dingy brown.

This week I learned the word for that event: Dogwood Winter. That long-ago winter had gone away just long enough for the dogwoods to open in warm spring sunshine. Then it turned and circled back to dump snow on the blossoms.

Cold as this year has been, I wouldn’t call it a Dogwood Winter. On April Fool’s Day 2014, every single bud on my dogwood trees was a tiny gray knob. If it had snowed, there would have been no petals to catch the snowflakes.

Even now, a week later, the dogwoods have only opened this much:

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It may have been a very cold season, but now we are skipping Dogwood Winter and going straight into spring. Here’s how I know:

The violets are blooming in mossy crannies

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The japonica is red. These were among the first spring flowers my mother would cut from her gigantic bushes and bring inside to open.

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My yellow flowers are thriving. I ordered a few of these bulbs 40 years ago and they are more beautiful this year than ever.

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Periwinkle is carpeting the ground. There is no more beautiful color.

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From now on, I won’t be able to take my morning walk around the yard without bringing something back inside with me. A favorite place to arrange favorite flowers is this little magnetic vase that sticks to the refrigerator. Today a green amaryllis is featured with pink camellias and the last fragrant blue hyacinth—divine artwork joining childish paintings in that humble art gallery.

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Fistfuls of Dandelions

Monday, March 31st, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

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This week, on the first hot day, when a bright dandelion was spotted, plucked, and offered to me without a stem, I was ready!

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For years, I had tried floating the things in little dessert bowls, but they always looked about to drown. Propping them up against the rim of a jelly glass didn’t work too well, either.

Then Ilse gave me this. Just in time for grandma bouquets.

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Heather Hansohn Pottery was located next door to her on Harrisonburg’s Wolfe Street, and one of the many beautiful clay products Heather makes is this stemless flower holder. (She has a website, in case you are interested!)

It’s perfect for little hands to tuck tiny flowerets into place to create one-of-a-kind bouquets. Its tiny water reservoir is just big enough to freshen the wild blossoms until they naturally fade. And then, the next day, a new arrangement can take its place.

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I have vivid  memories of picking flowers as a child. I think I learned how precious flowers are by noticing my mother’s reaction when I wantonly picked her favorites. I’m thinking of the luscious drapes of bleeding heart that I picked and adorned a play letter with, pretending it was a beautiful postage stamp. My mother wasn’t rude about it, but somehow I got the message that she had treasured the way that flower looked in her garden.

I must have done the same with her gaillardia, since she loved quoting little Susie with a repentant voice, saying, “Mama, I won’t pick lour guh-lah-dee-ah anymore!”

It was my turn later, when bright red and yellow parrot tulips were blooming at the edge of a flower bed, and my darling Everett picked every last one to give me. (What better way to remember their glory, than framed by that eager face!)

But dandelions are free for the picking, and I hope I will have many more sweaty little collections offered to me this spring. When it happens, I will be ready!

Hollywood and Daffodils

Monday, March 24th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

Every year when the daffodils start to bloom, I meet nostalgia at every turn.

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Here are the ivory flowers with dark orange centers, the ones I dug from behind the barn after my mother died. Their radiance and fragrance take me right back to the time I spent with her in her garden. I’m with her again, arranging little bouquets everywhere in my home and sharing them with people I love.

At our back door is a curving row of bright yellow daffodils. Robby’s mother gave me a brown grocery bag of those bulbs from her garden. They bloomed here the year after her death, and every spring in the five years since.

Re-arranged by squirrels, jaunty little jonquils come up in nooks and crannies all over the yard. I don’t remember planting any of them. I think they date back to my grandmother Irene, and certainly, as well, my Aunt Janet Yoder, who both gardened here before I ever did.They are my favorites.

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And then there’s Irene Dunne, the Hollywood actress from the forties and fifties. No, I don’t have any of her daffodils. But every spring, I go through the ritual of dusting off her long-ago gift and filling it with our favorites.

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When little Robert Wayne Ackerman II was born 67 years ago, the neighbors in Beverly Hills, California celebrated with flowers. I don’t know exactly what blossoms Irene Dunne chose to send baby Robby in this rather oddly-colored duck, but these days I choose daffodils.

In addition to the duck, there is also this sweet little rocking horse from the same era. Lenten roses are the perfect color to ride on his back.

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We can’t remember who sent the flower arrangement in this one—maybe Lucille Ball! Of course I can’t say for sure, but we do have a guest book in which her name is signed as a regular at Ackerman parties! Then again, it could just as well have been David Niven or Susan Hayward or the man who played Tarzan!

Well, Robbysojourn in Beverly Hills turned out to be brief. And from what I’ve read about Irene Dunne, she eventually moved on from acting because she was more interested in living. I like to think that for her, living might have included planting some flowers of her own, enjoying the feel of the earth on her hands. I’m grateful for the way she celebrated the birth of the man I love, long before I ever knew him—with flowers! What better way to speak to the heart across the decades, especially at daffodil time?

 

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 susan@shoptgw.com.

 

Plant Easter Grass on St. Patrick’s Day!

Monday, March 17th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

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You might be wearing green, but on this cold, sleety, gray St. Patrick’s Day, you might also consider planting green! That is, if you want your colored eggs to nestle into a natural green nest on Easter morning.You will be able to bypass the tangle of pink and purple plastic shreds if you grow your own beautiful green grass.

This is fun and easy to do, with or without a child’s helping hand! The hard part is remembering to start the project a few weeks before Easter, but luckily Easter is very late this year and you have been alerted in time.

You will need:

A flat bowl or casserole dish

Potting soil

Small amount of grass seed

Plastic wrap

A misting spray bottle of water

A sunny window

Fill the bowl almost to the top with earth or potting soil. Sprinkle ordinary grass seed on top of the earth. Spray thoroughly with water from the misting bottle. Then cover with plastic wrap. Set in a sunny place. Each day take off the plastic, mist again, and then replace the plastic.

After four or five days, the grass should be sprouting. Remove the plastic wrap; continue to mist daily whenever it seems dry.

When the grass sprouts taller than three or four inches, you may clip it with scissors. Keep misting and clipping and your green nest will be ready for this:

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Watering and tending the grass is a great activity for Lent and in anticipation of Easter morning. I like thinking of the words of this poem from the Psalms, as I mist and spray and clip.

“He will endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations.

He will be like rain falling on a mown field, like showers watering the 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 susan@shoptgw.com.

 

 

Lessons from Chickens

Friday, March 14th, 2014-Guest BloggerComments Off

Our first four fuzzy chicks arrived at our home six years ago. This was two years after my husband Scott and I read an article called “City Chicks” in Natural Home & Garden Magazine, our introduction to the backyard chicken movement. Two years, lots of research, and a quitting-of-one-job later, we had four cheeping fluff-balls named Chicory, Iris, Poppy, and Violet depending on us for their very lives. And so began my metamorphosis into a chicken lady!

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I’d read all the books and websites…so I was totally prepared to appreciate my hens for their oft-praised skills as pets who could magically convert chicken feed and kitchen scraps into eggs and fertilizer, as pest control experts, lawn mowers, and soil-builders.

What took me by surprise were the other lessons my chickens are teaching me. Here are a few:

We’re all connected, if we pay attention. Every day, I sit with my chickens on our backyard swing, learning about community. Chickens are low on the food chain and make a variety of sounds that warn each other of impending danger. In my yard, this danger is most often the Cooper’s hawk who has been frequenting the bird feeder since BC (Before Chickens). I quickly learned the chickens’ warning sounds, but when I paid closer attention, I discovered that they heeded the early-warning sentinels like the chickadees, who alert us all to the hawk’s approach well before we can see her. I’m sad  I could not hear this in the first 45 years of my life. I feel part of the club now.

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Routine is my friend. After quitting my job, I reveled in the freedom from gotta-be-somewhere-now, yet struggled with keeping some sort of focus. Chickens are tuned into daily rhythms of sunrise, sunset, time to eat, nap, and dust bathe, and the time that Scott gets home and feeds them an apple (they’ll be waiting at the back gate if he’s late!). Poppy laid an egg after her winter break–spring must be on the way! I have learned to embrace these rhythms too.

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Our yard is full of complexity. I had never looked as closely at the fascinating insects or plants in my yard as when I started watching and wondering about what the chickens ate and what they avoided. Now we plant things formerly considered weeds (clover, chickweed, violets) and get excited about grubs and termites and maggots. We are better stewards of all these lifeforms.

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Backyard chickens are the great political unifiers. People from both sides of the political and environmental spectrums can find common ground in issues of food security and personal control over what we eat, and in how cool it is to see chickens happily pecking around your back yard.

We miss a lot of important things if we only listen to our own species.

Carol Bartram is an artist, Master Gardener and Tree Steward volunteer, and founder of the Peninsula Chicken Keepers (PeCK). She lives in York County, VA, and can be reached at peninsulachickenkeepers@gmail.com. peninsulachickenkeepers.weebly.com

“The Hills Untie Their Bonnets…That must have been the Sun!”

Monday, March 10th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

Everything and everyone on earth needed bonnets—or fur-lined parkas—these past few months, as winter twisted us in its icy grip. But today the words of Emily Dickinson resonate. The sun is finally blasting warm rays against the cold March ground.

Last week I posted an impulsive note on Facebook when ice was pelting down on our first spring blossoms: “Wish I could knit tiny hoods for all the daffodils and snow drops hanging their heads against the icy pellets and bitter wind.”

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Well, that apparently struck a chord. Before the day was out, I had lots of likes and loads of suggestions for knitting projects.

Suzanne, Lisa’s sister, asked: “Can you knit some for my birds and a blankie for the owl nest??” (I would have done anything to tuck an afghan around that stalwart great horned owl mama, who sat on her eggs wearing a bonnet of snow that could be seen through the scope in Lisa’s upstairs office in the coldest weather of the winter.)

Neighbor Rebekah placed an order: “I need 4 dozen for my crocus.”

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Then came more outrageous suggestions, as if winter was making us all a little crazy!

From cousin Jewel: “Have you ever thought of making doggie sweaters?”

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From Karen in Idaho: “Susan Ackerman, this is for you!”

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From former student and cousin Laurie in Oregon: “Susan Ackerman, this made me think of you.”

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But luckily, before I got too carried away, common sense prevailed. A follow-up message informed us all that—surprise!—penguins don’t really want to dress in sweaters, no matter how oily their wings. Maybe dogs and chickens feel the same way.  And I notice no one was reckless enough to even imagine trying to put a cute knitted outfit onto a cat. Ha!

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I stepped outside to admire my daffodils this afternoon. As their butter-yellow blossoms nodded in the March wind, I realized they were just fine without the intervention of my knitting needles.

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Perhaps they, like the penguins, would rather go with the flow and wait for comfort and health to come about naturally.

So winter is at last losing its grip. Spring will soon entice me outside a lot of the time! But for the moment, and–to tell you the truth, no matter what the weather–I am knitting furiously every chance I get.

 But, all helpful suggestions notwithstanding, today I am focusing my dreams of cozy warmth and colorful yarns on tiny human being babies rather than chickens, penguins, dogs, or daffodils.

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 susan@shoptgw.com.

 

Wait for Spring and Fresh Garden Lettuce

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

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I am so impatient for the first garden lettuce. Shaking brownish-green chunks out of a salad bag into a bowl is no longer cutting it for me. I want real lettuce: dark red, lime green, oak leaf, or deer tongue. I wouldn’t even care if slugs and spiders lurked along the stems. I want the real thing.

My mother used to nurse little plants through the winter in sunny protected places. And just about this time of year, when the jonquils showed yellow and the camellias were blazing, her lettuce was there for the cutting. Crisp heads of bright lettuce were bursting right through the wires of old milk crates she had turned over them to keep her chickens from pecking the most tender leaves. For Sunday dinner there would be lettuce bathed in cream/vinegar dressing. Nothing ever tasted better.

There were years I even had lettuce volunteers in my own back yard. Here’s one of the most beautiful:

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This cold, snowy winter of 2014 has not given lettuce plants any ideas about volunteering. The seeds I impulsively sowed next to the garage one warmish day a few weeks ago are mostly alive, but that’s as far as it goes. You can barely see a hint of green against the much-frozen dirt, even when I covered them with sheets on the coldest nights.

Soil-blocking and seed-starting are the way to get around this arctic impasse. While the snow and ice make another assault this week, I already have little chocolate-y squares warming their toes and holding tiny lettuce seeds to the fluorescent light.

For this job, I had the best of help. One boy put one seed precisely on each square till the tray was filled. One boy pressed a whole handful of seeds on the surface, convinced if one was good, a whole lot was better. Both methods suited the respective personalities to a T.

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While the seeds sprout, we are biding our time, dreaming of a big beautiful bowl of lettuce that looks and acts and tastes the way lettuce was meant to.

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On a side note, gardening tasks always go better with new purple gardening gloves. After the lettuce, spinach, and kale were planted by soil-blocker, John and Everett attacked some honeysuckle vines with clippers. If spring ever comes, the boys stand ready to tweak weeds from my lettuce plants. But until then, the glovesI gave them are not lying idle:

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While you, too, wait for spring and fresh garden lettuce, you can get some of these XS gloves for the children in your life. Lisa has them here at the Gardener’s Workshop online shop! Happy Gardening!

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 susan@shoptgw.com.

 

 

 

Smells Like Dirt

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

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It has been my season for unexpected gifts. Last night I returned from a week with grandchildren to find a jar of homemade hand lotion. I opened the lid and breathed in the aroma. Maybe it was just my recent bout with Valentine syndrome, but it smelled to me like opening a box of chocolates. Mmmmmm.

I creamed it onto my hands. What a great feeling! It was no surprise to learn that raw cocoa butter was the first ingredient, along with shea butter and olive oil. Karen, my friend and relative in the extended Shenk family, had concocted it from memories of her grandmother Fannie. I well remember my own grandmother Emma—a Shenk as well—using olive oil as a precious skin emollient, never for cooking. Karen added balsam, rose, sandalwood, and lavender essential oils, meant to release their fragrances according to their respective evaporation rate. What a fantastic gift!

But when I offered Robby some of Karen’s amazing lotion for his winter-and-firewood-chapped hands, it was no, thank you. The box-of-chocolates fragrance just didn’t suit. Nothing perfumey or fruity would do. Recently, he dispatched the cherry-almond Jergens lotion (a scent he had reluctantly chosen) to the dark regions of the cabinet. He’s got something better—something that smells like dirt.

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When my sister Anita gave him shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and hand cream with the aroma of mint and rosemary, he finally was content. To him, it did not smell like either mint or rosemary, but just like plain garden dirt. Perfect. Never again would he be stuck with unsuitable personal care products. Now he just needs to stay on good terms with my Aveda-giving sister!

Garden season heats up—today Lisa and the gals are already hand-weeding the spring flowers that have been hiding under row cover. It is definitely hand cream time for us on the farm and around the house.

Now I have “Grandmother Fannie.” Before that there was Burt’s Bees:

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I also love lanolin, and its role in conditioning sheep wool and yarn. Someone gave me a tin of it that was just stubbornly hard and sticky. I set it on the wood stove to bring it back to a liquid form. Now it is sticky only until rubbed well into the hands, at which time it lends a heavenly softness.

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While the smell of dirt, and even the feel of its soft dark texture under your fingers, can be a good thing, it sure is hard on skin. With Karen’s gift, I am all set for the season. It is going to be a great spring!

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