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High Summer: Chicory Petals and Blackberry Brambles

 

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In all my Tidewater summers, I have yet to see chicory growing along the road along with the Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod. Go west just a short ways, however, and it starts brightening up the roadside. The arresting blue of a chicory flower has always been one of the charms of visiting my relatives in the Shenandoah Valley, along with cool nights and mountain vistas.

When our children were little, we moved to the Valley ourselves for two years. The flowers and the goldfinches swooping in the thistles sustained me in a stressful time. I loved the chicory so much, I used it to make a first-day-of-kindergarten dress for little Ilse.I embroidered the petals with the prettiest blue floss I could find. The photo is decades old now, and the glimpse of chicory on the bodice a little vague, but the child is as radiant as I remember her.

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This week I was in the valley visiting our daughter Anje. I noticed that her yard was fringed by a meadow, and that the meadow was hazy with blue chicory brightened by Queen Anne’s lace. This was my chance to dig up a few plants and bring them home to my wild kingdom. Maybe I could grow chicory for myself!

There was precedent for it. Though chicory didn’t grow along with other Tidewater weeds naturally, over the years, however, there were two places where I had seen it. The first placewas in James Burkholder’s eclectic garden of exotic and heirloom plants at his home on Lucas Creek road not far from my parents. I’m sure he grew it because he was charmed by it just as I am.

The second place was Quarterfield Farm. When we kept our horse there, I found a stand of chicory right beside the open stable door, its blue flowers brightening the bench where we sat to watch the horses and share thoughts with the farmer after our work in the stalls was over. Probably the seeds had arrived in a bale of hay from a hayfield in the western part of the state.

Not far from the chicory was a sprawling bramble of blackberries. He said pick all I wanted. I shared the blackberry jam and cobbler with him.

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The chicory is no longer by the stable door, nor is the farmer sitting on the bench. But this week the blackberries were rioting, thorny and vicious as ever. With permission from the caretaker, I filled my bowl one last time. A young red fox curled up in the grass not far from me, watching my every move with bright eyes. The mockingbirds chased and cavorted as always. The horses blew through their noses and cropped grass.

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I brought the blackberries home and set them on the hearth next to the chicory blossoms trimmed from the plants Robby had tucked into the ground. I don’t know for sure that the chicory will take hold and grow here in Tidewater. I don’t know for sure that the blue flowers will gladden my heart in a few weeks.

But it is high summer. I cherish memories of gardeners and school girls, of barn doors and roadsides. The chicory is blooming somewhere in Virginia and perhaps in my own yard–one can always hope.

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But what I do know is this: here in my Tidewater house, the blackberries have been transformed into a generous pie, its juices spilling over its crust and smoking on the oven floor. We will celebrate the season of chicory and blackberries. We will celebrate summer.

 

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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 susan@shoptgw.com.

 

 

Crape Myrtle—a Tree for the Ages

I open the attic window and lean out. Crape myrtle flowers billow below me in a pink froth.

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It’s that time of year. Blooming crape myrtles line grassy sidewalks in small towns everywhere. White church steeples rise out of a sea of pink. Visitors from France gasp at the rare outrageous blossoms so familiar and honey to us.

Not only do crape myrtles grace Virginia so beautifully in every season, but this particular tree is to me almost like one of the ancestors. In our last heavy rain, rain-drenched blossoms floated over our walkway as if we were about to have a rosy visitation.

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When we moved here in 1971, I was told that the crape myrtles in the front yard had been planted early in the century by the family Grandpa at the time, poet and orchard man S. P. Yoder. I don’t remember why we moved one of them to the back yard. But it was a happy stroke of luck. Three generations of grandfathers have passed away by now.We are the grandparents. Our children have been born, grown up, and moved away. And the crape myrtle still blooms.

Its trunk is old and sculpted now.

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Children climb in its branches.

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Birds bathe in its shade.

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Wild friends take refuge on its smooth surface.

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In winter it becomes an ice sculpture.

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In fall it blazes with glory.

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Its leaves drift down to nestle beside a mossy brick.

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Our ancient crape myrtle casts its blossoms on the driveway, footprints of those from times gone by. This is truly a tree for the ages.

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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 susan@shoptgw.com.

 

 

Swamp Rat from Lucas Creek

Monday, July 7th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

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It is midsummer, and wild Turk’s Cap lilies curl back in the blazing sun. Blackberries disappear as fast as they ripen along Lucas Creek, and the orange witch fingers of trumpet vine flash through their brambles above the tide’s murky reach.

Bobbing on a stem of cord grass, red-winged blackbirds sing sweetly, while fiddler crabs scamper around their muddy holes.

Lucas Creek is home. When I left at the age of 18, to spend a year out west, my best friend cautioned, “Remember, you’re just a swamp rat from Lucas Creek.” I did not forget. I came back to live in the farmhouse my grandfather built a stone’s throw from it.

The brown channels of the creek rise and fall with the tides–dangerous, mysterious, and powerful. The creek has no sandy shore or rocky coast where people play casually. It meanders to a rhythm and meaning we have not learned. It commands fear and respect.

One bend of the creek was the favored swimming hole of the young farm boys of the 1920’s. After a hot day in the fields, they gathered there to splash, swim, and horse around. One evening they got ready to go home and noticed a pile of clothing still on the creek bank. One boy had been lost in the waters. They never used that swimming hole again.

When Mennonites first bought land here, there wasn’t even a bridge across the creek, just some logs to cross at low tide. One young man greased the logs when he knew a rival suitor was about to cross in the dark to call on the girl they both fancied.

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The first bridge turned Lucas Creek Road into a vital thoroughfare. But it took another hundred years for the creek to feature a wide bridge with generous sidewalks, the bridge we have today.

When I was a girl, the bridge did not invite nature lovers. It was narrow, with high concrete sides. When riding my bike, or walking, I hurried across, hoping a car would not appear to share the bridge. Often the short bridge and the road leading across the marsh were covered in high water.

Sometimes I slipped under the bridge in a rowboat. Bunni and I launched off Stony Point along the Warwick to explore its tributaries. I felt like I was going to a secret place, where few others could go. I loved looking up at the shadowy, cool underside of the bridge, plastered with swallow nests.

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The bridge for this century has been more welcoming. Wide sidewalks invite bird watchers and a few fishermen. Children can see through the railing, while still staying safe.

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To be sure, this boy holds his sister’s hand securely as we trek across the bridge in a red wagon this summer, a favorite destination.

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We could always count on seeing something very special. One day it was muskrats, swimming and puttering and nibbling busily at the roots of plants. Labeled a swamp rat myself so long ago, I felt an immediate kinship.

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Another day it was a beautiful two-inch minnow, inexplicably on the edge of the bridge, far from its swirling swimming brothers below.

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Once we startled deer in the tall grass between two loops of creek.

This week I needed to pick up library books at Grissom. The weather was awesome, so I set out on foot across the bridge. I was stunned at how much there was to see. Just in the time it took for me to make my way across the bridge, a great egret stalked its prey on long legs, its white feathers glistening. A great blue heron flew over the creek.

A bald eagle soared, circled, and then landed in a tree just above a good fishing spot, its white head reflecting the sun through the leaves and branches. Osprey fluttered and swung high in the sky.

Nostalgia is good, but sometimes things actually get better with the years. Raptors were rare to see when I was a child. Now I can count on seeing big birds hunting and fishing every time I go to Lucas Creek. The bridge is child-friendly now, nature-lover friendly. It’s a place of breath-taking sunsets, of morning mists.

These summer days, I am at happily at home in my habitat, the swamp rat from Lucas Creek.

 

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.

 

 

Emergency!! Out of Pickles!

Monday, June 30th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

The winter was wearing on to spring, when I had a shock. I was making a sandwich, and used up the last of the bread and butter pickles.

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It was no big deal. I could just go down into the basement and get another jar. Except that—when I went down the stairs to get one– there were no jars of pickles in the basement! I panicked. No pickles! I was quite aware that I hadn’t made any last summer. Lisa’s garden had been rich in beans, poor in cucumbers that year. And, lest you get the wrong impression, I am not really into canning much. I make jam and pickles, and occasionally put up tomatoes, if I have a lot. That is all.

But, ever since I was a child, there was ALWAYS another jar of bread-and-butter pickles in the basement. I looked among the jars of grape jam, hoping to find a stray quart of pickles that Robby’s sister Debby had made and given at Christmas along with her delicious pickled beets.

But Debby’s pickles were gone as well.

It would be a long wait and a lot of dry sandwiches till summer’s first excess of cucumbers.

I know, I know–I could have bought pickles. Yes, grocery stores sell them. I have eyed the jars suspiciously over the years. But this variety of pickles does not come from the store. It comes up from the basement. That’s all I have to say about that.

June came, and Lisa opened her garden to visitors on a beautiful cloudy Saturday. As I directed guests toward the flower beds, I could hardly contain my excitement. I had noticed several club-shaped cucumbers on vines in the kitchen garden! Everyone else wanted the skinny ones. I took these babies home and got busy.

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These pickles are easy and delicious to make. You can buy packets of mix, or you can follow the directions from the Mennonite Community Cookbook, as I did

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We are now in pickle heaven again! And, down in the dark cellar, there is a beautiful row of jars all ready for many sandwiches to come.

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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 susan@shoptgw.com.

 

 

Flower Faces Under Summer Sun

Monday, June 23rd, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

The solstice has come and gone. Now all flowers are summer flowers, including the spring ones that linger. In that category I would place this white false indigo that sprang up in a place it was not planted, blooming in a season it wasn’t intended for. How cheeky it looks in that stand of goldenrod.

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I’m pretty sure it is saying “Nanny nanny booboo” to me because I tried so hard to get BLUE false indigo staretd. Really, the white indigo is very pretty, as is this bank of airy whites beyond the front steps where I once kept a tidy bed of red impatiens. That was until the deer ate it like strawberry shortcake.

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This week I drove Interstates #64 and #81, with frequent glances toward the side of the highway, and the wildflowers there. What a delight to pass tangles of riotous sweet peas, a swag of orange trumpet vine, and blue lupines standing at attention in a median valley! Peachy day lilies, ruddy butterfly weed, and ethereal blue chicory added pizazz to the sweep of grass on the shoulder. Along the way there were tall mullein plants with their gray-green leaves and yellow blossoms. Now and then I glimpsed a yucca’s sharp leaves and large white bells. The pink and green of crown vetch sprawled over slopes. Daisies, coreopsis, and coneflowers dotted the hillsides.

I drove safely and didn’t take photos, but here are the faces of a few of the front yard wildflowers that were waiting for me when I got home:

Coneflowers

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Daisy fleabane

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Dark-eyed Helen

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Feverfew

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Blanket flower or gaillardia

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And many, many more…what a beautiful season is summer, at home and on the road!

 

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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 susan@shoptgw.com.

 

Fun with Fungus, Fiddler Crabs and Fireflies

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

Last week the newspaper reported that June 14 was meant to be Play-Outside Day.

At our house, that day comes every day.

There’s a garage full of bikes, cars, balls and bats

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There’s a playhouse for stirring up messy dishes with mulch and rain barrel water

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And then there is outdoor play that transcends toys and play equipment:

Feasting on mulberries and honeysuckle

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Finding the funny fungus on an early morning walk

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Startling small bunnies and goldfinches in the coreopsis, or passing time with baby birds.

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Chomping on sorrel leaves (oxalis) while waiting for the butterfly bush to bloom and attract a tiger swallowtail.

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Feeding your baby doll a tasty meal of green money plant pods and shelled seeds (lunaria).

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Taking the wagon to Lucas Creek Bridge to see muskrats, great blue herons, and fiddler crabs.

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Waiting all day for dusk so you could catch 40 fireflies in the front yard and let them go again.

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Yes, today and every day, in this place, it is Play-Outside Day.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Butterfly Weed Kisses

Monday, June 9th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

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I know summer is here when this enameled pitcher comes down off a high shelf. Its burnished orange is the only thing that will do for this wildflower bouquet, echoing the outrageous flaming of the first sprays of butterfly weed. And though larkspur, feverfew, coreopsis and coneflowers fill in supporting hues,this bouquet is all about butterfly weed.

As gorgeous as this flower is, I walk through the wildflower beds fervently hoping to detect caterpillar damage. The sight of black larval droppings or chewed-off leaves make me so happy! As a type of milkweed, butterfly weed (Asclepiastuberosa) is a host for monarchs and other butterflies. I love having a garden full of it, emerging slowly and coming to gorgeous flower in its own good time—June.

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Our butterfly weed has come back each year for decades. Once established, it is deep-rooted and makes itself comfortable in the landscape.

To me, there is also a poignancy about the flamboyant orange. It has woven itself in and through our journey as a family. One Sunday morning in June, about ten years ago, I was caring for my mother in her home a mile down the road. As I made her breakfast coffee, I had a sudden inspiration. “Mom,” I said, “let’s take your coffee up to my house and sit in the wildflower garden. It’s beautiful there!”

The pictures from that morning almost take my breath away. The butterfly weed was so lavish in the morning sun. My mother in her hot pink robe, holding her favorite white mug, was like a rare flower herself.photo(26)

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The photos are a reminder that every flower has its season. And though I won’t find my mother in my garden again, whiling away a happy morning hour, I look forward each year to these beautiful flowers, and the delicate and precious butterflies they invite to our landscape.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summer Bed and Breakfast–Bats, Vultures, and More

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

For a hundred years now, summers have brought company to our farmhouse–sleeping bags on the attic carpet, picnics under the oaks, and joyous firefly-catching at dusk. Not to mention food and more food any and every hour of the day—like these Memorial Day lentil burgers and fresh fruits and vegetables.

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At the beginning of the last century, friends and family would drop in and stay for weeks. We still love drop-in guests! (A little picky about which ones stay for weeks, though!)

“Dropping in” took on a new meaning last week. I was outside with two grandchildren when a huge racket in the sky made us all look up—a bad idea, because just then a red-tailed hawk swooped over the garage straight toward us, hounded by shrieking birds of all sizes, and dropped its fresh meal at our feet.

A beautiful warm mourning dove lay dead. There was grieving and regret and spontaneous eulogy. (“I love you, bird.” “I wish you were still pecking for food.” “I wish I could help you so you were still alive.”) Each child picked a storybook to be read at the burial.

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Another drop-in was this baby raccoon—a story that had a happier ending. The newborn was unharmed in the grass after the riding mower made a pass over it. Its eyes were sealed shut, the umbilical cord still attached.

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By the next morning, the raccoon mom had whisked her babysafely away to a hole in the highest oak. Here she is taking time to find her own breakfast at the bird buffet.

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We’ve had baby possums, too. We were having dinner one night with a guest from Cape Cod, when she blinked her eyes and shook her head, thinking she might be hallucinating. Peering in the open window was a mama possum. Who knew her babies could be this cute?

Sometimes dead fish hit the grass. Pretty sure the guys to blame for that are the two that swoop over us with giant shadows on their way to this roost behind the Aulich home next door—a pair of black-headed vultures with a penchant for preening at the mirror.

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The activity around here seems to be all about either Bed or Breakfast. Sometimes it is hard to tell which! Mysteries abound. Last night, taking the cover off a “parts car” tucked away in our woods, Robby uncovered a very fresh…what? Nest? Bed? Or is it tomorrow’s dinner?

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When we got up the other morning to find a brown bat clinging to a corner of the living room ceiling, no one knew exactly what it had hoped to find inside the farmhouse—or how it had gained entry!

Of course there was no mystery about what a black rat snake was doing in our basement. Especially when his visit coincided with the disappearance of some pesky mice and the shedding of an outgrown skin.

I was expecting to feature spring flowers in today’s blog. But when I knelt to photograph the wild pink roses that were rampant when we moved here 42 years ago, I was startled to see this little fellow uncoil and slither away. It felt like a time to write about the creatures that share our space.

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Our summer Bed and Breakfast–truly a place of beauty, food and comfort for 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 susan@shoptgw.com.

 

 

 

Cool Flowers Warming the Heart

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

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Lisa’s garden this week is awash in beautiful colors. The cool flowers she planted last fall and wrote about all winter are bursting into bloom. They sat with their small but growing feet in the cold and damp of a miserable winter. And now they are shining like this little face. As the child delights in her favorite purples, her brother is looking over the flowers to find a butterfly to chase. To him, a cabbage white is a rare and beautiful thing.

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(“Know why I don’t want to go home? Because there are more butterflies here!”)

I didn’t know about cool flowers when I first started gardening. I’m sure my mother did, because she had seet peas romping over the garden fence when I was a girl, and this was in southern Virginia. She had huge stands of larkspur blooming every summer by letting them develop from seed over winter, even in the lawn. Somehow I had never put a name to what was going on.

 

 

When Robby and I scattered wild flower seeds in our yard 25 years ago, we had a visitation of sorts. In the fall, after the flower stems had browned and dried, the bachelor’s button seeds that had dropped in the summer took root and began to grow.

Not paying much attention, we were surprised when spring came by what looked like a rampant weed crowding out the grass. They weren’t weeds at all. They werehealthy bachelor button plants lifting jagged bluish-green leaves and sending up buds. We let them do what they wanted to do.

What they wanted to do was fill an expanse of lawn with gorgeous blue waist-high bachelor’s buttons. We loved their vibrant color and their wild willful behavior. The black cat explored their understory and took long sunny naps there, emerging sleepily with a seed or two stuck on her head.

At the end of the season, we mowed off the dried stalks and had a grassy lawn once more, until fall, winter, and spring came around once more and the blue bachelor’s buttons came back.

Recently, my father’s sister Helena told me that here in this very yard, her mother Irene—the grandmother I never knew—had the same blue flowers coming up in the very same place. What are the chances? Obviously it is just exactly where they want to grow and thrive—my natural heirloom garden.

But back to the sweet peas—here’s another happy ending. When we moved into the Yoder home place in our twenties, a wire fence separated our back yard from the neighbors. It was still open meadow; the trees had not yet grown up there. Remembering my mother’s sweet peas with their incredible fragrance, I imagined how beautiful it would be to have them romping over that wire fence.

I bought a pack of sweet pea seeds in variegated colors. I planted them after danger of frost just like the packet said. I watched them emerge and begin to climb the fence. But oh, the disappointment! First they began to straggle and then to struggle. Hot spring days discouraged them and they gave up. I never had a single blossom.

Last fall, Lisa handed me a couple of sweet pea plants she had left over from her cool garden planting. They were slight and fragile. I tucked them into the soil near a shrub that they could climb on. The winter came, harsh and cold. Wind whipped the little plants. Each morning on our walk we would check that they were still alive. No new growth was seen, but underneath, the roots were spreading, securing the plant for future blossoms.

This week I took my first breath of home-grown sweet peas. Already spoiled by the fragrance of magnolia and honeysuckle, I couldn’t imagine anything sweeter. But there it was–the sweetness of victory at last—another cool flower to warm the heart!

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This side of the Fence

Sunday, May 25th, 2014Happening on a Flower Farm with Lisa Mason Ziegler, Stories and SuchComments Off

I walked the farm this morning. My sunrise Sunday morning strolls with Babs tagging along have been my time in the garden when I know no work will commence, it’s just looking and listening—stopping to smell the roses you might say. I have missed this ritual for the past months. As time passes and I get older and I suppose wiser, I am learning it’s not that time heals all things, it just makes it easier to swallow what you’ve been dealt and to see beyond.

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This past winter I stopped doing my early Sunday morning walks on the farm because I took a blow. It wasn’t that I didn’t know it was coming. It was the reality that it is going to happen and there is nothing I can do but watch and listen. The picturesque 39 acre horse boarding farm next to me in the midst of the city of Newport News is going to be developed. I will be in fact the last standing farm and farmer in the city.

It just about consumed me. I had to totally block it from my mind this winter as I wrote my new book, Cool Flower. I literally held up indoors with the blinds closed on that side of the house to keep from looking and wondering. Not that anything has happen yet—other than the surveyors walking around doing their jobs. The afternoon I saw them, I stood at the window for an hour watching and gripping a chair like I was experiencing what I would imagine is like an amputation. That’s when I closed all the blinds on the west side of my house and they stayed closed until Cool Flowers was done. I had to focus on writing and writing only. I didn’t even think about what was happening and what it meant to me, my way of life, and my little urban farm.

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So with Cool Flowers done, I am returning to my Sunday morning strolls. After allowing myself these months to digest or mourn the unknown future of all next to me, it dawned on me; the treasure is on this side of the fence. I have been so overwhelmed in what I will lose on the other side I lost sight of what I have on this side of the fence. So, today is the first day of the rest of my farming life.

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While I do not know when and how it is going to happen next door, time will tell. On this side of the fence we are going to work to create a native buffer for the creatures to flee to and for a visual block for my roaming eye. In fact, it is becoming kind of exciting to think of all the possibilities this is forcing me to face. I have spoken of planting a windbreak for years but haven’t because we didn’t want to block the view—now I have my chance. My garden will fare much better because of it.

Steve preparing soil to make our first beds of 2012!

So this explains my absence from blogging, newsletters and all the other things I love sharing with you. I just couldn’t face sharing this until now because I couldn’t bare the questions and sorrows that will rip through this community.

Coming to you from knee deep in flowers and photos of my treasures!

Lisa

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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