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,