Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Survey Says Success!

Another strange day for the weatherman and for those of us who think the end of November means blustery conditions and snow. Although the temperature didn't rise as high as I expected today, it was warm enough that I found myself shedding layers as I cut and moved wood and brush down off Route 2. Our new property has to have a name but so far it has just become "going downtown to work a little". I suspect this may be common place until we make the final move and start the 2008 season. Anyway that's where I ended up this afternoon following a road trip-work day in south central Vermont.

Waiting for our land boundary survey to be completed was kind of like waiting for Alex fourteen years ago. We knew what we were getting but we didn't know what he'd look like. We had many of the boundaries figured out but there was just enough question involved that we ordered up a survey and parted with a few dollars to quell the mystery. When the survey became a reality yesterday, we were more than happy and at the same time greatly relieved that it was over and we knew what we had.

For Gail and me, there are certain things we refuse to substitute. There are a lot of surveyors out there just as there are many carpenters, well drillers and a bunch of companies that will build a septic system for you. We go with the experienced people who have a reputation for being fair, honest and willing to explain what they are going to do for you. It's the kind of situation where you may have spent a couple more dollars for the product, but in the end you don't care and may not even consider it because you're so pleased with the quality of the work.

Our survey shows that our property borders US Route 2 for 845.81 feet, extends 472.89 feet from Route 2 to the Winooski River on the west side, has 360.90 feet on the Winooski River and has a border of 404 feet on the Marshfield Village side. When the land was listed for sale it was described to be 4.1 acres and when the survey was completed we had picked up another .35 acres of flat meadowland. The land is also located within the village which is important from a development standpoint and also with respect to zoning permissions. Having a recent survey as well as a title search are two things to remember as critical when getting into the property business.

This afternoon I worked some more clearing brush from the east side towards the village. This is the end where we picked up more meadow than we thought existed. If you look at the photo you'll notice two yellow "X's" on the left of the photo. These are the "new found" boundary. Along the tree and grass line is a red dotted line I added to show where I am clearing brush. Essentially this is the piece we picked up during our survey.

Having a survey doesn't always mean you find more land. Many people find they have less than they thought they had. Having a survey defines boundaries using modern day equipment and good paper-trail research. To us there is no question about obtaining one. New businesses or businesses in motion like ours have enough things to coordinate than an unexpected dispute over who owns what.

Where the red dotted line crosses in front of the tall grasses will become the front edge of a massive shade garden. I am cutting out all the alders and poplars. These are both fast growing trees of absolutely no value. They are often diseased and die quickly. In spring we'll dig out the stumps and roto till the entire area in front of the tall trees and then we'll continue tilling around the entire property. Over time there will be a walking path and an ongoing display garden in front of the deer fence around the entire perimeter. Lots of work but it's part of our business plan to promote Vermont hardy plants and good landscapes.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where late November fog and warm temperatures will become snow, sleet or freezing rain come Saturday morning.

Gardening wishes,

George Africa

Monday, November 27, 2006

Animal Visitors

Yesterday was another good day to work outside. I managed to get some more dead trees cut up and brought three loads of brush back here to the flower farm. An inquisitive traveler stopped by and wanted to know why I didn't stack up all the brush and burn it in place but I'm trying to keep the land pretty much the way it is right now.

In between refueling the saw, sharpening the chain and piling alder, I took a few breaks to continue with my mental inventory of the flora and fauna of this piece of property. I have noted signs of more animals than I have actually seen so far but it is clear that this is an important piece of land to a many animals.

The field has a number of woodchuck holes while the river banks and stone wall have fox dens with obvious activity. There is bear and raccoon scat on the river bank and mink tracks are common. Saturday morning before the sun got too high, the deer trails from the preceding night were obvious across the field. I have seen a couple sets of coyote tracks on a river bank and there is sign of beaver activity from perhaps 5 years ago. Only one red squirrel hollered at me from a young butternut tree but I suspect there are more there some place. It's nice to have such an assortment of animals around although the deer and woodchucks will have to be dealt with at some point which is why I'll probably resort to a fence. I should receive the final survey tomorrow or the next day so I'll be able to map out the fencing strategy.

I located three different piles of deer bones representing animals which either didn't make it through previous winters or which were injured by cars along the adjacent highway and made it as far as the river to lay down. If you look closely at the picture above, you will notice the bone scrapings from the smaller critters of the forests and meadow lands who work secretly and almost unnoticed. Their sharp, ever-growing teeth can gnaw through calcium rich bones in short order.

Yes, yesterday was a very nice day to think about animal visitors and enjoy yet another spring-like day as December approaches.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond, where chickadees frequent the flat feeder and bluejays compete for pieces of last evening's left over pop corn.

Gardening wishes,

George Africa

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Riverfront, Oh Riverfront

A cold day at Vermont Flower Farm this morning but plenty of time to get caught up on what has been happening at Vermont Gardens. It's been a busy week between finishing up fall tasks and making it through Thanksgiving. The weather has been great and we're really proud of what we have accomplished.

Our surveyor got involved in the work we wanted done and we are very close to having a complete survey. This took a bunch of research time at the Town Clerk's office. That might be something you don't think is necessary when you hire a surveyor but a survey is something you only want to do once. You want to know all the previous land changes in the area and you want clear boundaries. This is difficult because in the old days, surveyors used trees and wire fences and stone walls and thrown up roads and railroads as boundaries. That was fine except that many of these are now nothing but history.

I asked our surveyor to do good research and then to mark the property so there was no doubt about any corner, any twist. He did just that and started the work at the edge of Marshfield Village where the corners were very well established and agreed upon. It looks to me like we picked up some land that wasn't advertised by the previous owner and realtor as belonging to this piece; we also "lost" some river frontage. It is also clear that the new road entrance the Transportation guys allowed in the recent Route 2 construction was in the wrong place and they built an access road on part of our land. Our land comes to the edge of the old access road to the state property and includes what used to be the area river users parked their cars. It will be more obvious when we put up some deer fence but that is now someone else's problem. We'll know for sure when everything is complete in another week but once again this points out the need to have a good survey before you buy land or make commitments or improvements. In contrast, finding the real property lines after you have installed a fence is not a great feeling. As soon as we receive our final survey, we'll post an example which should make the importance of the process stand more clearly.

River frontage is an important resource for a variety of reasons. In our case we need a good water supply and a river can be used for agricultural purposes without permitting as long as one doesn't change the water course or do anything which will affect the volumes. This river is the Winooski River. It starts up in the Walden mountains and in Cabot as streams which come together, little by little, until in Marshfield Village three different pieces of the watershed merge.

Gail and I laugh about river frontage because more and more you see real estate signs advertising river frontage. This summer a house sold in Plainfield ten miles from here and the river frontage amounted to looking out the house window and down thirty feet as the house was built right on the edge of the river. Lake and pond frontage is about spoken for in Vermont so river frontage has become more in demand.

The Winooski River is a fine river as it heads for Montpelier and then north to Richmond, Essex and Winooski. "Our" piece of river is about 40-50 feet wide and a considerable distance down the bank on the property border. We intend to become involved with the Friends of the Winooski River, as their mission seems in keeping with some of what we believe in. As an organization they want to reduce pollution, promote improved wildlife habitat and encourage recreational opportunities. There's a lot of work to do along "our" river frontage, but over time we'll get things cleaned up.

As another week draws towards closure, we're happy with our progress. We have picked up a lot of trash river visitors left over the years, we've cut out the property lines and cut down dead trees for safety. We've begun an inventory of native trees, shrubs and plants, and we're making mental notice of where the red foxes den and where the deer and bear cross the river at night.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond, where heavy frost clings tightly to everything
as the morning sun yawns "Good morning!" and rises, intent upon chasing it away.

George Africa

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Start A Business Plan, Buying Land

Every day, thousands of Americans wake up and exclaim "Let's start a business!" Every day half the people who started a business fail. Within five years of the starting point, well under 5% still consider themselves in business. Part of the problem is understanding your business to begin with. To say that you know your intended business well and don't need a formal business plan is just another way to court disaster. It's almost inevitable.

Vermont Flower Farm started in Shelburne, Vermont in the early 1980s and made the move to Marshfield in 1989. By 1992 the original Vermont Herb & Flower Farm was reorganized with a reduced product line, no herbs, and a different marketing strategy. Three years ago a web site replaced a hand produced 44 page catalog. The overall strategy was meeting expectations close enough to consider the next step which was relocation to a more visible, higher traffic location.

The journey from Shelburne to Marshfield was a long one, with lots of hard work, some failures, and some interruptions. As we continued to grow our flower business, I thought seriously of writing a book to help others walk more easily the distance we had covered. I may still write that book some day. I have found one which satisfies much of what I wanted to say, I like the style, and the author is known as a successful person. That person is Tony Avent and his book, So You Want To Start A Nursery was published by Timber Press in 2003. If you're even remotely thinking of starting a nursery, read this book and keep reading this blog.

For three years I looked for land within a short drive of our current business but on Route 2. That road is one of three major east-west highways in Vermont. The other two include Route 9 parallel to the Massachusetts border, and Route 4 which travels from White River to Rutland-Fair Haven. Land on either thoroughfare is not easy to come by because people in the know think years ahead to what they envision the road, the businesses and the traffic counts to look like.

The Agency of Transportation has a friendly research section that counts vehicles instead of beans. They're very good at it. They do it with computers linked to lines permanently embedded in roadways, through digital counters and lines strung across roadways and with people positioned at key road points manually counting what goes by. These reports can help a potential business person figure out where traffic flow is greatest, where it is affected by seasonal influences and where it is just too limited to warrant consideration. I had looked at these reports for some time and although some properties came on the market between Marshfield and Danville, all reports suggested that our best bet was land located between East Montpelier and the junction of RT 215 (from Cabot) and RT 2 in Marshfield Village.

This spring a piece of land came on the market just west of the village on Route 2. It was advertised at 4.1 acres and listed at a price I had run numbers on with our business plan. I knew that if we could buy it within the asking price, we could develop it, make payments and move our business there over two years time. There were some interesting events along the way but the long and short of the story is that we closed on the land just after Labor Day 2006.

We knew that we had just bought a piece of land which bordered +800 feet on Route 2, was 472 feet deep on the west side, had about 500 feet on the Winooski River and was bordered on the east by a piece of land long since deeded to the State for a Fish and Game easement. We also knew that the land was heavy clay soil, and was 2/3d in the Winooski River floodplain and 1/3d zoned agricultural. We knew where the water came off the mountain across the road and knew how high the Winooski River raised each day when Green Mountain Power released water to make electricity. Electric service was located across Route 2 and that would mean a $3000 price tag to bring power across the road. Water would have to come from the river via a gas pump and an access entrance road approved by the Agency of Transportation would have to be built. The list of ancillary items was longer than one might like but within our budget.

The land had been surveyed and recorded in 1972 but some of the lines had been disrupted and trees that had served as markers had died and rotted into nonexistence. When the highway guys replaced an aging culvert on the west end, they dug up one marker and replaced it with new road and no marker. As Route 2 was raised and replaced over the years, other markers became obscured. A new survey seemed appropriate.

This may seem like a formidable list of items needing attention but it's calm compared to many business plans. There's no pressure for us to open next season and no other burdens beyond what we have committed to so far. The point of detailing this process is the reflection that a business plan is a "must", contingencies have to be realistic and the best of plans will still go off track somewhere.

The map pictured above is the 1972 version we went by to make our purchase. We confirmed the approximate location of two missing markers, identified three pins and a marked tree and then asked for a computer analysis of the approximate acreage. When that exceeded the listed estimate, we proceeded with the purchase. If you are considering a nursery or any other business, follow these examples.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond, where a good business plan makes sense for any business.

George Africa

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Welcome To Vermont Gardens

Welcome to Vermont Gardens! If you have had the opportunity to visit Vermont Flower Farm, either by web at or in person up on the mountain above Peacham Pond in Marshfield, Vermont, you already know what a growing nursery business this is. The interesting evolution of our nursery from its days as Vermont Herb & Flower Farm in Shelburne, Vermont is explained on our home page.

Since 1992 we had been growing bigger in Marshfield. We reached the point where rebirth in a new location seemed to make sense. This new blog will complement The Vermont Gardener bringing garden updates during the growing season and garden thoughts and conversation the remainder of the time. Vermont Gardens will show the development of a new nursery from the time the land was purchased through it's first years of operation. As the nursery and Vermont Gardens grows, we'll integrate some stories about other Vermont gardens and nurseries which we enjoy. We will also weave in some local stories and personalities, bits of ecology and observations about our new project, the land it encompasses and the Winooski River which it borders. We hope you'll read and enjoy Vermont Gardens just as you have told us you enjoy The Vermont Gardener.

Gardening wishes,

George, Gail and Alex Africa