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The Winter Garden


Fall planted, spring blooming hardy annual garden ready to go to bed for winter.

I feel as though this is the best fall-planted, spring blooming garden we have had in a couple of years. Our fall was cool and moist, not cold and dry. And as winter is getting started it has not been the brute of years past with relentless wind and rain. All of this has worked together for the greater good of our winter garden.


Lettuce planted in October that will produce all winter. We cut and it regrows.

Our vegetable patch is pumping out lettuce, spinach and greens like a champ, we can hardly eat it fast enough. In years past—including last year with our single digits in January—this garden with only the protection of a floating row cover provided for us throughout winter. No one was more surprised than me last year to knock the snow off of the collapsed garden hoops and row cover to find rows of greens smiling back at me. Once you have eaten your way through winter you’ll never miss fall planting of greens again!

20141125_073857 Garden safely tucked to bed from deer and ferocious winter winds under hoops and row covers.

I forecast that this spring our hardy annual spring bloomers will be spectacular and in abundance! We planted pretty close to on schedule and our soil blocked transplants were at the perfect size for planting. With our fall conditions these plants hit the ground running. Then, when added in that we go the extra mile and mulch all the pathways deeply with leaves that suppresses weeds and retains moisture and top the beds off with hoops and floating row cover for deer and wind protection, well this all makes for a perfect spring garden storm. I am afraid and already dreaming of the 5 one hundred foot beds of snapdragons planted and how many stems they will produce…

20141025_181105 Snapdragon beds before pathway mulch, hoops and covers.

If you can imagine life in the winter garden for these plants that love cool-to-cold weather it all makes perfectly good sense. When planted into cool conditions to get settled in and grow roots, it creates a plant that is so healthy and hardy that it will resist disease and pests once it does warm up beyond their comfort zone. Plants are set to take off come spring; this improves health, grows more abundance and grows larger flowers or fruits.

babs ad Lisa on bendch

Lisa and Babs watching spring unfold.

During winter some folks page through magazines looking for signs of spring. I live in the presence of spring all winter. Daily, I pull on my boots, call Babs and head out the backdoor to walk my winter garden and watch spring unfold before my eyes.


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 , call her at 757-877-7159 or visit her website .

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Just—and Justified–Desserts

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanNo Comments


“T’is the season!

Kroger shelves empty of my favorite unbleached flour. I search from store to store for green candied cherries. Bags of chocolate chips and packs of butter spill over in my grocery cart. Dough is chilling for pecan dreams and molasses crinkles. A Concord grape pie is already baked and in the freezer.

In full frenzy, I stop, though, rolling pin in hand,when I see a friend’s Facebook post:

“At our house we have one dessert per holiday.”

I was struck with awe! One dessert per holiday! Still festive, but controlled. That would totally solve so many problems—how to have enough hours in the day for all baking projects, how to prevent a kitchen backache, how to keep from sampling every tasty treat and ending up with too much of a good thing.

But how would that look at our house—one dessert? I was stumped. Whose favorite dessert would I choose? And for which meal?Some holidays there are people in and out of our house for weeks, nibbling, tasting, and enjoying while the kettle boils for another plunge of the French press. The desserts share the stage with savories like soups, salads, and breads.


On Christmas morning some expect this cranberry coffee braid. Others love my mother’s orange slice fruit cake full of dates and nuts and coconut. A double recipe of Aunt Mary’s layer cookies is required.

And then chocolate. Don’t forget chocolate! The Buche de Noel tradition, French teacher that I was—some years I made five or six gorgeous chocolate and cream logs in a season. I took them to school and to parties; I served them at home. I passed on the recipe, never quite managing the meringue mushrooms crafted by the true French but improvising with cream cheese mushrooms rubbed in cocoa and spearmint holly leaves with cinnamon candy berries.

One dessert per Christmas—I don’t know how to do it. And what about the other holidays? Is one dessert even possible then?


A birthday bunny cake, sure, but you need mice to go with it.


A coconut lamb cake at Easter, yes, but what about a fruity trifle, too, piled high in a glass bowl?Pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving, certainly, but who wants to leave out pecan?


And on Fourth of July the picnic crowd will barely be satisfied with just one oozing pie of fresh picked blackberries.


And then there’s every day. Tradition has given humble desserts a place at the table.(The Mennonite Seven Sweets and Seven Sours were not just for holidays!) My mother fed a family of seven children with them. They featured fruit, whole grains, eggs, or dairy. Oatmeal cookies with nuts and raisins…. tapioca with egg and milk…strawberries with bread crumbs and milk…baked custards…canned peaches…apple crisp…blackberry cobbler. Dessert—nothing decadent, just good food rounding out the meal.

Last night our dinner was delicious but light–chicken, oven-roasted carrots and potatoes, and kale fresh from the garden. A dessert was not only justified, but needed, to fill it out. In a double boiler I put a half cup of rice, 2 ½ cups hot milk, cinnamon and nutmeg, a handful of raisins, and less than ¼ cup of sugar. I stirred as it cooked, watching it turn creamy and spicy and utterly delectable. The smell was heavenly.


While I was at it, I cooked up a dozen apples that I found in the crisper, too. This dessert is lovely with yogurt or cottage cheese.


Holidays bring about some outrageous desserts with barely a scrap of nutrition to recommend them. But this is their time–if ever–to be served with flair and shared with friends and family. It is a way to celebrate hospitality, creativity, tradition, and festivity.

As in all of life, moderation is the key. Portions can be small. My family calls it “slivering,” when I shave off a slice. They are quick to point out, when I indulge in “serial slivering,” that I am at risk for eating way too much! They are right. But…

It’s just desserts. Merry Making and Baking to all!






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



Season of Sweet Angels…

Sweet Potato Angel BISCUITS, that is! And a Nina angel to roll out the tender dough.


At fall harvest time, and into the Christmas season (think ham or veggie accompaniment)—well, really, all year around–Sweet Potato Angel Biscuits have become a favorite of our family and friends. The morning after Thanksgiving, I made nearly a hundred of them, and by evening, only four or five remained in the bottom of the Ziploc bag.

Those who kept reaching for another and another included a baby-wearing mama, a teacher, a business vice president, a data scientist, an engineer, a college professor, a cardiologist, a nurse, and a whole front yard soccer team of little first and second cousins along with two dads—a research doctor and a hotelier.

But I don’t really make these for the grownups. I make them because without exception, my grandchildren love them. And they love going through the steps required to transform them from raw sweet potato into a delicacy.


Here Noah is waiting for the rosy dough to turn golden as they puff up in the oven.


Sweet potato angel biscuits are toothsome and sweet without being candy or cookie. They are buttery. They fit the hand well and don’t crumble, so they are perfect for travel treats in the car. And healthy? For every teaspoon of yummy butter there are two teaspoons of mashed sweet potato, so there’s your vegetable for finicky eaters! What’s not to like!


After Thanksgiving, Audra, our niece from Florida, asked for the recipe. Her daughter wanted some of “those yellow biscuits” Aunt Susan had. Anyone can make them—they are easy! However, they do take advance preparation and multiple steps, which is part of the fun. If you want to serve them on a certain day, be sure to begin the day before!

I start with raw sweet potatoes and put them in the oven to roast in their jackets in a moderate oven. I lay them on a tray because they get messy when they get good!


It is possible to mash up canned ones, but the taste is more delicious if you roast them in the oven until they ooze caramel juice. I am not the only one who feels that way. Many years ago, George Washington Carver, the expert on peanuts and sweet potatoes, said this, and I heartily agree:

“A sweet potato cooked quickly is not well cooked. Time is an essential element. Twenty minutes may serve to bake a sweet potato so that a hungry man can eat it, but if the flavor is an object, it should be kept in the oven for an hour.”

The vegetable becomes so sweet when roasted to perfection, that I find I can cut the added sugar to a third of what the recipe calls for. No one misses that sugar!


A couple of hints: Be sure to let them rise until they look high and puffy, it may take a while because they start out cold. That gives the best texture. Also, I roast a lot of sweet potatoes at once and store them in three-cup containers in the freezer. Gives you a head start when the urge to make these angelic treats strikes, or when a little one asks for “those yellow biscuits.” May she never be disappointed!




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



Tool Wars—Friendly Fire

Monday, December 1st, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

We both stared at a crack on the surface of the small wood-handled pancake turner. I’m not sure if he offered, or if I requested, but it was agreed that he would take it to the garage and try to fix it.

“Don’t ruin it!” were my last words as he headed out to the arsenal of tools he keeps in the sacred space we call “the garage.”


I guess his welding equipment was over-engineered for an egg-flipper.


This was the casualty he handed sheepishly back to me. It was friendly fire this time, but still just as horrifying!


The Tool Wars had begun soon after we were married. A neighbor came to borrow a wrench. I knew we had a wrench in the garage. I told the man to help himself. The decades since have mercifully blurred the way the story unfolded, but the marital learning curve took a huge jump that day. I learned NEVER to lend a tool. Robby could lend a tool. But I? NEVER. It was like a toddler releasing a prize puppy to wander through the neighborhood unguarded—the danger! The loss! The possible damage!

I got it instantly. All tool questions were to go to him. The battle was short and victorious. But the war was not over.

As in all young marriages, neither of us had learned all there was to know about What Really Matters. It hadn’t occurred to Robby that he wasn’t the only one in the family who had tools.

My kitchen is small and quaint, my oven tiny, but everything I use there is dear to my heart.


First, my electric skillet lost the ability to regulate its temperature. No problem– I just turned it on and off accordingly as I tended the food.

I came home one day to find the skillet had been carried away in the trash—(probably it had burned his eggs!)–and a brand new one was in its place. I was fine with acquiring a new one. But the old skillet was my kitchen companion, my right hand man. I wanted to be the one to decide when it was to be taken off of life support.

The next defeat was over a pancake-turner. It was small and limber—perfect for turning a one-egg omelet or a crepe. Its tendency to rust if not dried with a towel was a minor flaw. One morning I turned the kitchen upside down looking for it. But it was gone. In its place was a large stiff one with a black plastic handle—just like one I already had for sturdier tasks.

I was outraged!!! What gave this man the right to throw away my personal tools??

I knew just the thing to do–toss out any of HIS spare parts or tools that weren’t pleasing to me. I would need a tow truck for the job, since the first to go would be several entire rusty “parts cars” hidden in our woods and treasured by him as veritable gold mines of free car parts.

Rusty parts car? Rusty pancake turner? Could he not see the parallel?

But he was contrite. And he made amends. Soon after, he brought me a flipper from his mother’s kitchen. I forgave all, because I loved this one even more than the one he had thrown away. It didn’t rust! It had been Dorothy’s! It had a smooth, worn, wooden handle. It was beautiful…until today! Now it was sporting an ugly hole.


Well, the crack had been half sealed, at least. And though the hole was ugly, I could still turn a pancake or an egg with the thing. It was going to stay in my kitchen. Amnesty was granted.

This week, when our children and grandchildren gathered for Thanksgiving, our son and his wife had a special package for me. “To save Robby’s hide,” I believe was the rationale. This was inside:


There was a beautiful wooden handle, painted red. There was a small, flexible metal surface. And there– yes, there was a crack across its surface, just like the one Robby had tried to weld with such disastrous results. A crack that will never be mended.



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



Garden Gold: Leaves

Saturday, November 29th, 2014Happening on a Flower Farm with Lisa Mason ZieglerComments Off

It is so good to be back! My sabbatical this past season from blogging was such a relief as I was required for other duties related to launching Cool Flowers during the farming harvest season. Now that I have hung up my harvesting shears for a few months—I am happy to get back to sharing what is going on our farm.

image001(1) First load of the season!

The most excitement going on around here lately is the truck load after truck load of leaves been brought to the farm to mulch our pathways. This annual chore of mulching our fall-planted garden is labor intensive for about two to three weeks but we reap the benefits for the life of the garden. Our beds and pathways are about 110 feet long, we have 32 beds planted which makes 64 pathways to mulch—whew, lots of leaves!About 20 good size bags for each pathway.

image001(2) We collect from a house every year that has what we call “body bags of leaves”–huge!

We mulch the pathways 12” or more deep—this makes it virtually impossible for a weed to sprout. Weed suppression is the most obvious advantage but there are far more that are vital to the organic function and low maintenance of our farm. Moisture retention is another huge benefit.

image001(3) No soil showing in garden for weeds to sprout or moisture to escape.

How it all works for the good of the farm:

  • We mulch pathways as soon after making beds in fall or early spring as possible to prevent weeds from getting a start.
  • We only use bagged leaves—so easy to drag or carry to where you need them. (FYI: this rescues them from the landfill. Bagged leaves cannot be composted by most cities and counties.)
  • Mulch deeply to prevent having to top off mulch later in the season. Leaves are free and usually available in abundance—don’t skimp.
  • Beds are planted and harvested throughout the season as usually with no maintenance needed in pathways (huge benefit!)
  • Flowers and vegetables are stripped of excess foliage while harvesting, dropping the greenery in the pathways.
  • All season we are walking on this amazing “organic lasagna” we are creating, breaking down the leaves and basically pulverizing it all as we work.
  • When a bed has reached the end of its usefulness, we remove any flower support netting, mow the crop, and pullup any irrigation tape up.
  • To work the organic matter into the soil we plowand/ or till the garden—pathways, beds and all adding tons of organic matter.
  • Let the garden digest the matter for 2 to 6 weeks –depending on the weather, soil type, and the crop mowed to start all over again—making beds, planting and so forth.


image001(4) No bag left behind–sometimes we even put them in the front of the truck when the back is full! (Babs is totally bored with this chore. She goes along for the hope of stopping at a drive thru!)

This practice has built our soil into what it is today. The very best part of all of this for me? Walking my little farm all winter and early spring admiring these beautiful pathways knowing what that offer and the life they bring to my garden. The other benefits of all this organic mulch? When your soil is covered and insulated with organic mulch, it brings the earthworms and billions of his microbe friends closer to the soil surface to work.

image001(5) Suzanne and Rhonda can always find room for one more bag!

All winter while you watch from the window— there is a whole lot going on out there beneath that blanket of leaves. So, go ahead and rescue a few bags—but don’t come in my neighborhood, it might launch a new realty show: Bag Wars!

Magic Dust–Little Entrepreneurs and Me

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

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!

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

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



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