Saturday, December 30, 2006

Lilium canadense

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Almost 4:30 PM here on the hill. The sun gave up for the day long ago and there is a dullness about that even the fresh snow cannot brighten. Two lone juncos sit on the flat bird feeder facing each other. They are eating millet and other small seeds I have added. They appear to be eating and talking to each other at the same time. That's not polite but birds do it a lot. Bird talk. Watch them.

Gail had planned to go to Montpelier today to do errands but the morning gave rise to a snowfall of light, dry snow. The roads even here didn't seem too safe so she decided to stay home and I decided to head downtown to load up some more brush.

I don't think most folks understand how a little clean-up can provide a different visual effect within your garden, regardless of its size. I drove off Route 2 and onto the property, made a wide circle along the Winooski River and came to a stop at the height of the land with the truck parallel to Route 2 but facing towards Marshfield Village. The view impressed me and made me enjoy our purchase even more.

For a couple-three weeks now I have been clearing dead trees and brush while trying to understand the land better. There's plenty to learn. My point is that a real messy looking piece of property can command a much better selling price if only it's cleaned up a bit. I have removed something like 20 pick-up truck loads of brush so the entire image is much different now. It makes everything look bigger and lets you know what you have and where the boundaries are.

Dragging brush through grass and goldenrod stalks, hops and grapevines, woodvine and blackberry bushes is not pleasant. You kind of feel relieved when the truck is loaded. At the same time you wish you had some kind of levitation power like you see in the movies to unload the debris where you want. I have yet to acquire that skill.

For as long as I have loaded trucks, I have had a habit of walking around the loaded vehicle to be sure I haven't left anything behind. Driving something that suddenly has lost visibility out the back window and gained a payload at the same time deserves a safety check. When I made the circle today, a view of the Winooski River caught my attention and I headed for it. A couple red squirrels sat above me, eating butternuts. One sat back on his tail and almost pointed his nose toward the river.

As I walked along the riverbank, mellowed by the sound of the flowing water, I was suddenly pleased to find a dried, 6 foot tall stalk from a Lilium canadense. It was seedless on top and looked little like the beautiful candelabra lily that often welcomes Vermonters close to Independence Day. I have trained myself to look for plants at different times of the year and today the training paid off. I looked around, making a note in my mental diary for next spring and summer.

There is variation in L. canadense and although spotted, creamy orange is the predominant color around here, there are some reds and red/yellows. I have been asked to look out for clear, unspotted lighter colored orange but I have never found one without spots. Finding a red L. canadense is like finding a nice arrowhead along the Lemon Fair River in Middlebury. Your heart skips a beat and you smile even if you don't know it.

Riverbanks are ideal places for these lilies because the soil is usually replenished each year with a new layer washed down from above. The annual changes help disperse the seeds and on occasion when spring runoff is especially forceful, whole bulb parts head for Lake Champlain. If you find one Lilium canadense, it's likely you'll find more in fairly close proximity. Your "finds" won't necesarily be in bloom but over time you'll be able to enjoy them every time you return to the site.

There a several things working against lilies now. There is a lily leaf beetle like the one in this picture from the University of Rhode Island. This beetle has been around a long time but only this past year did we find any in our gardens. I suspect they may have been here last year but went unnoticed. They seem to arrange lily varieties in order of preference for dinner, something like poached salmon goes here and boiled spinach goes there. Asiatic lilies seem to top the lily list but the species like L. canadense seem less of interest. It's still early to assess the long term ramifications but clearly the lily leaf beetle is of concern.

Deer rank number two and are the most current danger in my opinion. Every year the number of hunters declines, the number of new homes increases and the amount of land disrupted for construction grows. Deer seek out easy meals and I have seen them eat lily stems to the ground when I am 20 yards away watching then.

The final threat seems to be from the plant world itself and from some of the more primitive plants, the ferns. The lily in the next picture is doing well on a bank of the Winooski River surrounded by three varieties of fern. Ferns can take over an area in a few years and some with more significant root systems probably interfer with growth in subsequent years. I haven't studied these to the point of affirming that the bulb production is deterred by fern competition but I think I'm accurate.

Although I mention the nemeses of my favorite lilies, it's out of admiration for them that I think about how to protect them. Finding one that will stand so tall next summer, made my day. I hope you will get a chance to see some yourself next year.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where wind, blowing snow and a temperature of 20 degrees reminds Karl, the wonderdog, that life by the woodstove is not bad.

Best gardening wishes for 2007!

George Africa

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Planning Continues

Friday afternoon I stopped by again for a visit. The car was loaded with groceries and last minute holiday items so once I made it home, I could stay there for the weekend. As I approached the drive from Plainfield, I could see someone had added two new markers parallel to Route 2. That was a signal that the Agency of Transportation folks had stopped by to inspect the road access we had built.

If you buy a piece of property on a town road, then you approach the town for legal permission to build an access road to it. If it's off a State road, then you are required to follow a similar process with the State Agency of Transportation. Since a state highway is involved, Gail and I had to file an application with AOT, arrange a site visit, receive approval for that plan and then receive a final inspection after the work was completed. It makes sense to get the AOT people involved because they understand traffic flow, lines of sight, and also know what plans might be in process for future road changes. Other than the time involved, this process went smoothly. Probably the two points of concern were the road location and the width of Route 2.

I agreed to build the road directly across from an existing residential road across Route 2. AOT said that setting roads off from one another confuses drivers and they don't know when to turn, brake, pull out, etc. That makes sense. The problem is that the drive is steep and the water run off comes down across Route 2 and onto our drive. It's already washed out some of the fill so we'll have to get some stay mat (crushed slate/shale) in the spring and then use some straw retaining cloth on the banks and seed them down. This isn't a big affair but in any small business, dollars count and time expenditures are critical.

The main engineer felt that Route 2 was 3 rods wide and our surveyor said the road was 2 roads wide. A rod is 16.5 feet so the difference in question was 16.5 feet, 2 rods wide compared to 3 rods. At issue was where the highway right of way ends because I plan to install deer fence around the land's perimeter. Essentially the difference amounts to either 25 feet from center line or 35 feet. That difference of 10 feet times the +800 feet of road perimeter amounts to lots of lost garden potential. The land on the other side of the fence would be very difficult to access and some of it would be lost to use. Naturally it would still be taxed.

Seeing the stakes suggests that the issue has been resolved the way I felt it should. I will make a call before erecting the fence next spring to be sure we're all on the same page. If you ever buy any land for a business (or a home, camp, etc) understand these issues before hand so you're not surprised, late on your business start up, or short on cash.

Friday's mental planning was for more big plants that enjoy damp areas. Gail and I have come to enjoy ligularias (Desdemona pictured above) and apparenlty a lot of gardeners like them too based on the number we sell. I have been tracking the water level in the low areas of the property and am marking places that won't remain wet but will provide good moisture during the summer. I have it about figured out so today was just another "check to be sure","measure twice, cut once" kind of affair.

Years ago we began receiving inquiries for large leafed plants and also plants that didn't mind wet feet. Ligularies seemed to offer some garden architecture by their texture, height and color. There only shortcoming is that without even moisture during hot summer days they flatten like pancakes about 2 PM. Although they rise for the next day, the interim "down time" looks terrible. This is why they need to be properly sited. The big green one pictured above is Hessei. It blooms later than others and has nice large yellow-orange flower scapes over five feet tall.

Some plants have names which suggest you consider a new career. No wonder someone came up with the common name "The Rocket" for Ligularia prezewalskii. This is a nice plant with deep cut, dark green leaves, 5 foot flower spikes and star shaped yellow flowers that can take late summer storms but still stand tall and sway with the wind.

Desdemona, Othello and Siberica are examples of larger flowered plants. These are certain attention getters, as they provide interest to people and members of the insect world. From a distance they stand out, beckoning you closer to see what you're missing.

I plotted a few more locations and headed for home. Christmas is coming and there's still a lot to do. Planning always makes the end result that much better.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond, where this afternoon's snowflakes, sunshine and high winds confused the birds at the feeder and the writer in his office. In Vermont we like a white Christmas but sometimes it just doesn't occur that way.


George Africa

Monday, December 18, 2006

Forested Wetlands

I stopped for a couple minutes tonight on the way home from work. There's something about this land that I already like. Perhaps it's the openess, perhaps it's the running river, but something already has an ability to mellow me from complex days.

I got out of the truck and walked to the edge of the bank overlooking the river. I had been listening to A Winter's Solstice during my journey home. For some reason "When Earth's Last Picture Is Painted" kept playing in my mind and overshadowed even the sound of the Winooski River. It was very nice.

I didn't have much time but I have a little routine during each visit and I walk the same route either coming or going. It includes a stop at the survey marker that divides "us" and the Fish and Wildlife land.

From the yellow birch, I looked down the bank and thought what a good teaching example this probably is of forested wetlands. The trees include a couple white birches, a couple yellow birches, many box elders and silver maples, cottonwoods, elms I'm not sure of, green ash and fir balsam. There are a few more but regardless, they all represent life in a wet habitat.

My eye caught the rusty brown color of the fallen Japanese knotweed: Polygonum cuspidatum. This plant is on invasive lists but is towards the top of my "Do Not Like At All" List, just under poison ivy. I remember 40 years ago it impressed me as Vermont's bamboo. That was about a year before I noticed that it was everywhere. Today this plant is a serious threat to more plants than we probably know. It lines river banks and borders road ditches and parking lots. I have yet to learn how it spreads but save it to say it's in too many places already. Now it lies dormant and unnoticed. When spring arrives and the Winooski River rises and falls, knotweed will no doubt travel with it. This years pockets will become even bigger masses by mid summer 2007. Something to keep purple loostrife company.

A pileated woodpecker talked from across the river as it flew to a new maple for an early dinner. I took the sound as a reminder that I must be going.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where quarter sized snowflakes in small numbers drift to earth , and where Karl sleeps in front of the wood stove, dreaming dog dreams and mumbling dog words I just do not know.

Gardening wishes,

George Africa

Friday, December 15, 2006

A Spring Memory

Sometimes when you buy yourself a new present you have to take a breather and enjoy it. Today on the way home from work I stopped to walk our new land and make a few more mental notes. I hadn't stopped by yesterday because I was in Burlington and Richmond until late so today was the perfect day for a walk.

The temperature was surprisingly warm and although there was an occasional rain drop, it was a very uncommon December day. I remember days growing up when by now the snow level would be halfway to the botton of the first floor house windows. I would already have been instructed to begin banking the north side of the house with snow to cut down on air infiltration. I didn't get much explanation of why I had to do this but it seemed right since I witnessed others doing the same thing. The difficult part was being six.

No shoveling today as the little snow we have had was melting with temperatures approaching 50 for a brief period as a front moved through. I wanted to check the river and then review all the chain saw work I did a couple weeks earlier.

I parked the truck midway along the river and got out. Years ago farmers collected the few stones from the property and dumped them along the river bank, forming an odd looking wall of sorts. I sat down on the one smooth, moss-free stone and looked around. By now all the leaves have fallen and the ground contour is obvious.

A few feet from where I sat I recalled a beautiful clump of bloodroot. To an untrained eye they would be nonexistent but I remember things like this and the dormant plant caught my attention. Back in May, before we owned this land, I wrote about bloodroot in The Vermont Gardener It has always been an interesting plant to me. Although I don't have as many plants as I'd like, those here by the river will get special attention from next spring on and I'll try to grow a big colony over the next few years. The seed heads on one plant had been tamped into the ground by a large deers foot. I guess nature plants in strange ways too.

As I sat on the rock I noticed the absence of certain things. I thought for a moment that it was an odd way to enjoy a its missing parts. My mind reviewed the great blue heron, the pair of kingfishers, the black ducks in mid October, the merganser family and the two muskrats I only saw once. They're gone....absent until next year.

Today was a nice day to walk the land, enjoy nature and plant new gardens in my mind. It's very peaceful along the Winooski River and I think the new gardens will share that same feeling for years to come. I hope you had chance to walk too.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond, where dropping temperatures and wet ground make temporary quiet for the little creatures of the early night. Someplace close by an owl reviews an unprinted menu, and the lands of Vermont Flower Farm will serve as his dining table.

Good gardening wishes,

George Africa

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Shady Friends

A beautiful morning here at Vermont Flower Farm. The day started at 20 degrees and is now up to 44 with the sun shining on the thermometer. There's a light haze floating above the trees, giving signal to the perimter of Peacham Pond, as yet unfrozen.

I haven't been down to the "new" Vermont Flower Farm in two days. Had to cut a Christmas tree Friday afternoon and get the trimming under way. We always have a nine foot fir balsam tree with thousands of lights and ornaments. This is a special holiday to us so the place is well decked out and includes some ornaments that were my great grandparents from days in England and Germany.

I have been reviewing maps and the sketches I have made of our new venture. It's kind of fun to lay out gardens and try to think of them in terms of being highly visible from the Route 2 highway. That means that in some places the distance will be 300-400 feet away so size and color matter, texture at that distance does not.

It was good it rained so hard a couple weeks back because I had a chance to map out the high water points likely to reoccur again and again. This is important to the low areas which will hold water in spring and fall as planting is limited and care of plant types is critical.

We intend to do a good job in the wet areas with rodgersias, ligularias, aruncus, and astilbes. We'll also use a number of the Astilboides tabularis pictured above. This one is growing here at VFF adjacent to the bog garden and although slow to get started, it is now a good three feet in diameter. Its broad leaves catch the needles from the towering white pine and the leaves of Royal ferns and a couple different rues provide contrast which catches notice to its simple beauty.

As you open books and magazines this winter on your garden design journey, try not to overlook those larger plants that some call "coarse". We think you'll enjoy them...we know we do!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where blue jays shout mysterious calls that make a lone red squirrel think differently of approaching the bird feeders.

Garden wishes,

George Africa

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Land Lessons and Wildflowers

Learning The Land
Thursday, December 7, 2006
When the snow begins falling here on the mountain at Vermont Flower Farm we know that winter will get serious at some point soon. That means we have to put ourselves in hyper drive to finish up all the odds and ends before the cold weather convinces us to wait for spring. I have been real busy at my real job lately so squeezing in more hours in a solstice-shortened day makes for a bigger challenge. Gail has been working on wreaths and other decorations and Alex has been assisting as he can.

I've cleaned truckloads of brush and dead trees from the new property and am feeling very good about the whole project. That would be "very good" and "very tired". I've already relearned a great deal about the property but there is a lot more I need to learn through all the seasons.
The heavy rains of the past week raised the Winooski River to flood stage down river and left pockets, puddles and deep pools of water at various places on our land. This watershed is very interesting because it is larger than first visible and there are several influences you must understand. The entire area up Route 215 to Cabot and Walden drains towards Marshfield where it is joined by what I call the Peacham Pond watershed. At some point I'll research this and get it all right but the Peacham part to me includes all the streams that flow into Peacham Pond which then flows down into the Marshfield Reservoir along Route 2. There are also streams from the Danville side. Part of that water comes down the valley to Marshfield and some of it is directed at the reservoir into a giant pen stock managed by Green Mountain Power. That water goes along Route 2, to the top of Water Tower Farm (hence the name) and then down the Cabot side of the mountain range to a small hyrdo plant.

This time of year Green Mountain Power opens the dam that controls Peacham Pond. With all the rain of last week including 3" in one night, the water levels were already very high. For some reason GMP decided it was time to reduce the pond level. I heard that the "controller" decided to drop the level a foot more right in the middle of the major flooding. As a result the Winooski, already running four feet above normal, went another couple feet up the banks. I'm sure there's more to that than I understand but the fact was a lot of water headed on its way to Lake Champlain.

Now that cold has come and rains have changed to snow, a walk along the river shows more damage along the way. Down river past Pike Road you can see where the river fluctuation is degrading the banks and dragging tons of silt downstream. It's an issue deserving of attention but so far I haven't figured how to approach it. There are a number of variables in the "energy crisis thinking" going on in Vermont and it's obviously difficult to keep everyone happy. The Winooski River is a fine resource and I personally think we need to pay more attention to its capabilities, both positive and less so. The erosion issues are paramount I think.

The point of mentioning this is the challenges is has created on how we will manage our new land. From a larger perspective, it reminds us of our need to learn lessons from any land we are considering for a new business so we don't spend money on something which can't produce what we want.

I recommend that you spend some time before buying anything. Unfortunately this has become more difficult in recent years because land has not lasted on the market very long and in many occasions the winning price becomes many thousands of dollars above the asking price. That market behavior has forced people to buy quicker without the opportunity to understand what they are getting into. It makes it incumbent on the buyer to spend more time more quickly walking proposed land. You have to do a quick study which is not easy for everyone to do.
We have had the opportunity to drive buy this land almost every day for many years. We already knew the soil type which was a concern but the location made the land more valuable. We knew the soil could be remedied over a few years and a few hundred tons of organic materials. The water is another issue and one which would be concern to many.

As we walked the land beginning on the west corner by Route 2, it was apparent how much water came off the adjacent mountain. Earlier this summer the Agency of Transportation crews replaced the old metal culvert with a new, one-piece 30" plastic pipe. Size alone would suggest how much water might come under the road at various times of the year. AOT are pretty good engineers and they understand how to size projects. To a potential buyer, this should have been a sign to look further.

The lay of the land shows evidence that at one point in the past the water from this culvert headed straight for the Winooski. This time the new road construction included dredging out a bit of ditch in front of the culvert and the water now heads towards Plainfield, using the fir balsams on the adjoining land as a giant sponge. At various points along the roadbed, water seeps out from the mountains across Route 2. Water hydraulics is very interesting and something any potential buyer needs to look for. We are just beginning to learn this aspect of our property. It's one of many things buyers should place high on their list. I'll write some more on this a little later.
New land and new gardens has to have a vision. Likely that vision will change over time but a plan is important. Over the past couple weeks I have cleaned up the area in this picture. All the dying and diseased trees are gone and the less desirable alders and willows have been removed. Towards the middle of the picture the land raises about 6 feet to a series of peaks and valleys left from the days when this corner of the property was the sand storage area for the village, town and state. I have to trace that story down further but it appears from the mystery of holes and pockets in this corner of land that this is probably true. I also need to determine is any roadsalt was stored there.

The understory of the remaining trees has left a great place for some of our wildflowers which is why I started with the trilliums. This past week I planted some baneberry seed and in three to five years that should be looking nice too.

Baneberry grows in red, white or pink and I planted seeds of the first two last week. This is an interesting plant which is somewhere on the "don't think of eating the berries" scale. The red variety grows quicker and maintains nice foliage until August when just like trilliums, it seems to slide into dormancy in a week or so. During that downturn the foliage looks ratty and brown to black.
White baneberry also goes by the common name doll's eyes because the berries remind us of old fashioned toy dolls. The plant grows taller than the red variety and seems to enjoy life in deeper woods/more shade than the red. The "bane" in baneberry might represent the apparent toxicity of the berries but I do know that ripe red berries translate to busy chipmunks and mice. The white berries share no attraction that I am aware of with hungry critters. The white berries become obvious much later than the red.

I was gifted a very nice little pink baneberry at one point and I promptly planted it in an out of the way spot that even I can't remember. In the meantime, our new wildflower collection now has some nice trillium and baneberries in progress. It will be years before any of these are showy specimens but in the meantime we are assured that in time we'll have some nice flowers for visitors to observe.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where at 32.5 degrees, last night's snow is sliding off the roof and the first nuthatches of the season have appeared at the feeders.

Gardening thoughts and wishes,
George Africa

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Cutting Alders, Planting Trilliums

Heavy rains gave way to blustery winds today which continue even now. The wind has that sound about it that reminds me of a February back around 1987 when the wind never stopped all month. We were living in a place right on Lake Champlain and as beautiful as the surroundings were, the cold wind almost didn't let you ever go to sleep. I wish it would stop soon but until I notice it's absence, I know it will be in control.

Gail and Alex were leaving me behind today to keep the fire going and do some things around here that had to get done. I put Karl, the wonder dog, in the truck about 10 and headed to the newest part of Vermont Flower Farm. I have been cutting alders, poplars and willows and am trying to get the mess cleaned up before deep snow or real cold forces me to stay home.

I gave Karl a quick walk and then put him in the truck. I can't figure out what spooks him but one of the many wild animals who finds our new place "home" leaves just enough scent that Karl gets upset. He is not enamored with thoughts of coyotes or bears so perhaps it was one of those. He was happy to sit back inside the truck, perched on the little fold down piece between the seats.

I chain sawed and then dragged limbs up to the truck until it was piled high. I threw the spiderman net over the top and secured the load for the way home. Ever since I lost a load at the intersection of Route 2 and 302 at 4:30 PM on a Friday I have made it a point to properly secure anything that reaches above the bed walls of the pickup.

It was close to lunch time so after unloading the wood and brush, Karl and I headed for the house. He pulled up in front of the wood stove and I found the refrigerator. In the back of the bottom shelf was a plastic container marked "erectum and grandiflorum". I had forgotten it was there and apparently Gail had overlooked it too as it's not like her to allow science experiments in the fridge.

One of my favorite wildflowers is trillium. My favorite trillium book, although there really is no other, is Fred and Roberta Case's Trilliums published by Timber Press, 1997 ISBN 0-88192-374-5. Trilliums are easy to grow from seed as long as a.) you harvest the seed before the ants find the seed or the deer eat the whole plant, b.) you can remember where you planted the seed as it takes two years to germinate and c.) you are saint-like in your patience for another 4-5 years as the plants get big enough to have noteworthy flowers. I put the seed by the back door so I could get it planted along the Winooski River.

We finished our lunch and returned to our project. Karl was content with sleeping on my sweatshirt and I was resigned to plant the trillium and get back to the brush. Through the edge of the property that runs from Route 2 down to the river is a fine area of alluvial soil. It has grown some nice Lilium canadense and I think it will grow some nice trilliums too.

The erectum are earlier bloomers and I have had some nice displays since moving to Marshfield. I brought some grandiflorum seeds with me and it's been a slower process but I have hundreds now in various stages of development. My general method of operation is to harvest the seed pods just before the insects find them and then plant an entire seed pod in a hole I make in the ground by simply poking a finger two digits deep. I squish the ripened pod first and them push it into the hole and cover with dirt. Every Spring like clockwork I spread some lime around with a tad more for the grandiflorums. This method of planting means that when success arrives, there are fairly large clumps of very small trilliums ready to be dug en masse and spread out. They look something like this. This is a three year old clump.

There is one other trillium which grows in Vermont named T. undulatum. I have a small group started but I seem to forget about seed harvest and planting because they are the last to bloom and are at seed pod stage later in August when we get busy selling plants. In the wild they are seldom found in colonies and are more often found singly and spaced 10-15-20 feet apart. There were some nice displays off the trail at Kettle Pond this year with some much more mature plants than I have. Next summer I'll make it a point to snag some seed and get them going in the woods by the river.
Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the winds howl and remind me how much I'd like my own anemometer opposed to guessing wind speed.
December greetings,
George Africa