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My Scrapbook Garden–Friends, Family, Flowers and Freecycle

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

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 AckermanNo Comments


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

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


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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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






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



Prayer of the Butterfly

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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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

The Prayer of the Butterfly

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



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

Socks and Four O’Clocks

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


Socks had gone to bed.

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


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


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

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


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



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



Poke Sallet and Purple Alligators

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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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



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



Summer Surprises

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

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

Mother & Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo photo3

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

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


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


Or how artistic a volunteer wild morning glory appears?


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


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


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











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



Mimosa Confessions

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

It is dusk. Robby and I are lingering over a shared piece of apple pie as we finish dinner outside by the brick garden wall. Suddenly there is a familiar throaty whirr—and a hummingbird zooms past us. And another. The first perches on the clothesline and rests nearby. The second shoots to the very tiptop of a small mimosa tree.

photo 1

The hummingbird carefully inserts its tiny beak into each pink spray of flowers, swinging from one to the next.

photo 2

A mimosa-lover. Like me. And that’s my confession.

Yes, I know mimosa is not native. I know it becomes invasive along the roadsides and crowds out other plant species. We aren’t supposed to have them in our yard. And, for years, I didn’t.

But I loved the month of June, when open car windows on the way to the Outer Banks brought a rush of mimosa fragrance and the roadside lined with blossoms. And, coming home from anywhere, taking the Fort Eustis exit ramp off #64, I knew we were home when our headlights revealed trees heavy with pink blooms hanging over the roadway.

Mimosas aren’t native to Virginia, but I guess I am native to mimosas. As a child, I found the low, round, smooth gray trunks and branches inviting to climb. When summer came, the heavy perfume of mimosa blossoms drifted on the humid night air, and filled our dreams as we slept by open windows.

The exotic flowers—crisp and delicate at the same time—were sweet little scented brushes to tickle the nose. The pink and cream color made them look like a dessert. Running through dewy grass in the early mornings, the dried flowers from the day before stuck to my feet and got tracked into the back porch. I can feel them still.

After my mother died and before her home place passed to new owners, I dug up a fig bush to transplant to my house a mile down the road. I picked up several clay pots of amaryllis bulbs also growing under the dappled shade of her spreading mimosa tree.

And that’s how Robby and I learned firsthand how easily mimosas spread. Before I knew it, a mimosa was coming straight up in the middle of our fig.


After my amaryllis bloomed, and I set them out to gain strength over the summer, mimosas popped up in all the pots


And so, we have mimosas. For now, we are letting one grow. It’s beginning to make a nice little space of shade on the corner of the driveway, just right for our outdoor table. We can always cut it down any time, we tell ourselves. And someday we will. But until that day, we will take joy in the sight of hummingbirds dipping and swaying in its frothy pink blossoms.




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



Blowin’ in the Wind

Monday, July 28th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

It was just a simple pulley ordered from Lehman’s Hardware, the fabulous place in Ohio where you can find any interesting gadget. I hoped it would change my life. For decades I had longed for a beautiful airy clothesline on which to pin flapping sheets and tough-to-dry blue jeans and towels that would come in with that rough fragrance that tells you: line-dried!

I had grown up with a mom whose favorite job was laundry. I think she found it therapeutic to run her Maytag wringer washer, the beaters thumping, the rollers pressing out the soapy dirty water, my little sisters standing behind to guide the flat wet clothes into the clothesbasket to await their rinse.

The first movie my family took of little me as a toddler, I was crawling in and out of a torn sheet on the clothesline, making the hole bigger with every pass through it. The clothesline was a play place.

My grandson Everett was just a few days old, when the first row of diapers went up so beautifully in their Rockbridge county back yard. I loved the look of new white diapers blowing in the wind.


The clothes-hanging gene must have come through full force in his mom, our daughter.

When she heard what I was writing about today, she sent me a photo of her full four lines of this morning’s laundry, hung the way her African friends taught her during her time in Zambia.


A clothesline was a happy place. And I wanted one of my own. Hence, the pulley. Robby spent a long time figuring out just what gadget would work best for us. We reminisced about trips to Nova Scotia, where farmhouses and town cottages had lines swooping up off of porches and up into distant trees, the family wardrobes out for the world to see in full living color. The pulley and lines were ordered, along with spacers to keep the clothes up off the ground.

After sitting in the basement in its box for several years, and after endless discussion about where in the world a clothesline could appropriately be installed in our yard without annoying ourselves or the neighbors, the pulley was finally installed. Robby cut a small cedar out of our thicket and made a post. He set the post in cement, and lined up the double line between the cedar and a mulberry tree down in the small ravine along the property line. We were in business.

Or were we? After a few weeks of Robby “trying it out to see if it worked,” it dawned on me that I hadn’t yet hung up a single article of clothing or a towel. When I was out, or off visiting the grandchildren, Robby would do up all the laundry and hang it meticulously on the line. There is nothing like the lovely order of the clothesline after Robby has hung each piece. Even the shop rags look beautiful.

Not only was he sorting the laundry, working on stains, doing each load so as not to get lint on his black tee-shirts, and then hanging it up in such a picturesque manner, he was also taking it down and folding it. I started to find my drawers filling with neat piles of clothing. He was making an art form out of the laundry.

So how could I complain? Even little Everett, now 8 years old instead of newborn, was copying his granddad and asking to try out the line, especially working those cool spacers and sending the clothes sailing down the ravine by pulling on the line.

photo boy

So one day not long ago, when I had a sewing project to do, I did a sneaky thing. I started the washing machine and put in two lengths of African cloth that were to be made into valances for Anje’s entryway windows. Robby was not consulted. I carried them outside, stretched them out on the lines and stepped back in satisfaction. The sun was freshening the batik cloth; the wind was blowing. My life indeed had been changed, but as always when living with my husband, in delightful and unexpected ways.

photo af


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



High Summer: Chicory Petals and Blackberry Brambles

Monday, July 21st, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.






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



Crape Myrtle—a Tree for the Ages

Monday, July 14th, 2014-Miracles in the Garden with Susan Yoder AckermanComments Off

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


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.


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.


Children climb in its branches.


Birds bathe in its shade.


Wild friends take refuge on its smooth surface.


In winter it becomes an ice sculpture.


In fall it blazes with glory.


Its leaves drift down to nestle beside a mossy brick.


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.



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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