Thursday, December 27, 2007

31.1 and snow

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Returned to Marshfield today and as I began to climb the hill out of the village, the sky darkened noticeably. By the time I had reached Hilltop Auto Body where wrecks put on new bodies and drive again, snow was spitting from the sky and it had the appearance of a big storm. Now it's an hour later and the wood supply for the next couple days has been brought in. Karl the wonder dog is barking at a neighbor getting their mail out front and Gail is preparing a pot roast for tonight. The wood stove has been cleaned and fired up and I have to pay good credit to Gail and Alex for today's labors.

I enjoy watching the birds and animals just before a storm as they busy themselves in flighty movements and gorge themselves on seeds of choice. Someplace under the snow there is a red squirrel magnet this year and it is drawing in squirrels from adjacent woodlands. As I sit looking out the window, three reds move like little vacuums across the snowy crust, picking up cracked corn and black oil sunflower to store in temporary storage units beneath the snow. They work relentlessly like blue jays and apparently have a similar appetite.

When snows come like this year's have, there's no worry about wind dessication to plants. Instead the caution comes when the snow begins to leave in late March, for then there's no telling how much damage was created by little critters like voles, hungry for good food throughout the winter. I have yet to determine if there are more plant eaters each year or if it's merely the fact that we seem to increase the size of our gardens and provide a more enticing buffet.

Some folks tire of talk of global warming, Kyoto Protocol, Bali and the suggested books and movies which raise credence or discussion about change. Today it is snowing. Today in 1866 a storm came up the coast and dropped three feet of snow in the Berkshires and left a couple feet in southern Vermont. If we get 4 inches of snow and some rain that constitutes change. If the temperature here in Marshfield changes 2 degrees one way or the other, we will either have a pile of snow or melting snowbanks. That's change.

I for one am not going to dispute temperature change. I see it in the temperature, the type of snow, the amount of precipitation and the creatures new and since passed that result from the change. Every growing season there are too many new insects gnawing away on our plants--insects I have never seen before. I just learned that the hardiness zones have been updated. The Arbor Day Foundation site has some interesting information and the new

hardiness zone map and accompanying information deserve a look. Our half of Vermont is now Zone 4 with the exception of a dot of land from Canaan in the Northeast Kingdom to adjacent Pittsburg, New Hampshire. As you get a chance, take a look and compare what hardiness zone you are in.

Our new land along the Winooski River is Zone 4 but the river rises and falls each day as Green Mountain Power releases water to make electricity. The movement changes air flow and temperature and should allow us to try some zone 5 plants that might be tricky in other places. In contrast the heavy clay soil where our building and shade houses will stand may stay cold later or warm up faster. It all depends on how quickly the snow will melt off that piece. I guess the story then is that temperatures have changed. Gardens will be affected by everything in proximity and a gardener's success or challenge will relate to temperature. As you consider a new garden for next year, view the proposed site all winter. Make note of where the wind blocks, the snow piles up and the water gathers. Those little pieces of information will make for a stronger project next spring.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where two inches of quick falling snow has covered the seed in the platform feeder and closed down the evening meal for our birds.

Snowy garden wishes,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Monday, December 24, 2007

Late Thoughts, Good Ideas

M0nday, December 24, 2007

24 degrees this morning here on the hill. Yesterday's fluffy snow became today's snow crust and walking down the drive, whether with my 2 feet or Karl the wonder dog's four paws is a challenge. The road seems fine as the tons of sand that was already spread now covers at least an inch less packed snow and traction is the best to be found. I'll have to get a load of sand today for the driveways as slip siding at Christmas is not welcome.

I have a number of aches this morning-before-Christmas as I spent yesterday moving snow in anticipation of last night's storm. Perhaps three weeks ago we received heavy sleet and freezing rain and it bonded to the standing seam roof. Last week's 26" just added to the foot that was already welded in place and the constant winds added to the mess by dropping more snow on the house roof. I put on every extension I own to the roof rake and by nightfall I was wasted and there was still some snow holding firm in a couple places. I used the tractor to move everything I could away from the house and waited for the rain. This morning it's obvious the roof is clean and ready for the next part of winter.

I got out early this morning and filled the feeders. The evening grosbeaks sung me an untitled Christmas song while I filled one feeder after another and scattered cracked corn and seed on the snow crust. Before I made it halfway to the back door there was a flutter of wings and the breakfast feasting was under way. The blue jays come and go and as they do they scare the lesser birds away. Woodpeckers work the suet constantly and are fun to watch. Wednesday afternoon the barred owl stopped in an adjacent white birch to wish my grandson from Seattle a chance to see his first owl. Birds are a fun hobby and make winters move along.

Last week I offered some gift suggestions on my other blog, The Vermont Gardener, but I forgot
one mail order source I always try to promote. Gardening and birds go together and birdhouses enhance the garden while drawing in friendly comments and bird neighbors. Alex and I try to make a few birdhouses each year and in fact have a barred owl house in the cellar which really needs to get dragged out back and mounted soon. The birdhouse pictured above is one I made with leftover wood from an old camp on Marshfield Pond. It's been with us for several years and needs a good cleaning and another coat of varnish as it's a popular house for small birds.

My gift suggestion is Brown's Foster Home in Rome, Maine. I'm not recommending you buy a foster home (although they can always use a donation) but I am recommending you consider a gift purchase from Recycled Bird Houses which is a bird house building business they use as an activity for their clients. Their website tells it all and their houses are really great. I met them years ago when they had first started. They were selling at the Laudholm Trust Crafts Festival
in Wells, Maine and have been expanding their business ever since.

In our family we have a deep appreciation for the kids with special needs who will continue to need special attention for their lifetime. Places like Brown's help meet our "people responsibility". It's nice to be able to help them by making a purchase that will make others happy too. Give it a thought this year. It's too late to get a delivery for Christmas Day but I'll bet they will get caught up by New Year's and be able to help.

So as the morning light brightens just a bit, and as the birds breakfast club expands to tufted titmouse, red and also white breasted nuthatches, jays, grosbeaks and chickadees, I really have to get going with some last minute touches for Christmas. Alex and I have a couple more gifts to wrap and I want to make one more batch of olive cheese balls.

Best Christmas wishes from the mountain above Peacham Pond where apple and blueberry pancakes are on this morning's menu and Karl the wonder dog prances back and forth to the back door suggesting the need for his second morning walk.

Have a nice holiday, give great hugs and smiles, remember friends and neighbors, and part freely with contributions to those who have not had the good fortune we have.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Counting Birds, Counting Days

Saturday, December 15, 2007

3.8 degrees below zero here on the mountain. The wind stopped some time after 2 AM, the clouds cleared and the stars came out. It's quiet and motionless out there but we are beginning to shake off sleep and get going here at Vermont Flower Farm. 5:30 in the morning gives gardeners a time to think through the day.

Holiday time is a busy time for everyone and I want to get a list out in the next day or so for last minute shoppers. You can call Gail at 802-426-3505 or email her at and she will help with a gift certificate if you're having trouble with your list. We've never seen a gardener leave here who wasn't happy to have had one for a gift.

What I want to remind folks however, is that today is the Plainfield Christmas Bird Count. You can find out about participating at the North Branch Nature Center site. If you have an interest in birds, spend a little time at this site as there is some interesting information there. I especially like the information about what birds have been spotted at the Center and what birds have been confirmed by Vermont county. We live in Washington County so you can get an idea from that link of what I see around here. North Branch is a great organization that kind of picked up after a previous Vermont Institute of Natural Science satellite site.

Birds and gardeners go together because they spend a lot of time outside together and they have an informal but important link. I have a platform feeder outside my office window so I can enjoy a flowing movie of birds and bird antics on a daily basis. I have to say that this is a challenge as you'll understand when you see the list of birds that live in Washington County. I am not good yet but I'm getting better each year with identification skills.

Downey Woodpeckers have been hammering away at the feeders for days now but the vireos, the warblers and the flycatchers have me baffled most of the time and I need to spend some hours with a skilled birder to figure these out. There are a variety of good books out there but some good binoculars or a spotting scope and a few hours with an experienced person and you can see things you only ever heard.

I have to get going here as a nor'easter is approaching for tomorrow and there is much to do to get ready. Participate in the bird count today if you can or locate a similar event between now and spring. And above else, slow down a little. There's plenty to do at holiday time but safety and consideration for others are good gifts for all.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the town plow just backed up the hill making very strange noises that are loud, unknown and bad sounding. I need to see if I can lend assistance. Everyone doesn't have two good days in a row.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener for gift certificate ideas

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Money Box

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Just 5 PM here on the mountain and the wind continues to blow as the temperature drops still lower. Today's high of 11.9 degrees is now back down to 2.2 degrees and the prediction for tonight is below zero as a major storm front approaches. I put out two large pieces of suet for the birds today and until the sun went out of sight, a variety of birds spent more time with the suet than with the seeds. The only bird that wasn't interested was a single, lonesome looking mourning dove.

A few weeks back I stopped at a store on the way home and couldn't help but notice that the owner had invested in a very nice Dell business computer with the built in cash drawer. These are more and more prevalent in the business world now because you have many more options than with a traditional cash register.

It wasn't really the computer that caught my attention but the young clerk who was banging a roll of quarters on the side of the monitor as he tried to break open the wrapper. Someplace in his vocational history he had obviously learned to bang the coin wrappers on the cash drawer but since the monitor was handier, he was giving it a try. I was cringing at the sight and knew the owner would have gone nuts if he saw a very nice flat screen heading south.

These are really good computers if you treat them right. As you process sales transactions you have instant inventory control to make ordering replacement stock that much easier. You can manipulate your sales data hundreds of ways to determine who buys what on what day, time of day and in conjunction with what other products. This is all valuable information as long as you as business manager take an interest in learning the programming features and take action on what you learn.

Here at Vermont Flower Farm we're a bit primitive. We use a metal cash box with a plastic money drawer that wears out about the second week you own it so the drawer always slides into the bottom of the box and money spills everywhere when you try to pull it out. Just the same, this has worked for us for years.

A couple days after seeing the clerk banging on the new Dell, I asked myself where our money box ended up at the close of the season. From Labor Day on until we call it quits, the box resides on the shelf above the washing machine by the back door. We carry it outside when customers arrive and then return it to the shelf the rest of the time. It finally makes its way to the cellar and usually resides with the gardening stuff on a stack of metal shelves.

Half way down the cellar stairs I spotted the money box. I picked it up and took it to my work bench. It felt heavy but I almost expected that as Gail uses it as a repository for all kinds of things. This time was just a little different. There was quite a collection of business cards, mostly from landscapers and nursery salesmen but one from a web designer, one from a furniture maker and one from a massage place over in Topsham. Last I knew Topsham didn't even have 900 people in town but I guess skilled back rubs for gardeners is popular. There were others but I just gathered them all up and put a rubber band around them. February reading I thought. I always place things like that in order with those with websites on the top of the pile.

The change tray was a disaster with the wrong change in the wrong pocket. I resorted everything and in the process found a dollar coin mixed in with the quarters and a very well worn dime from 1942. There were bits and pieces of broken dog treats mixed in and quite a collection of broken plant labels. I pulled out as much junk and discarded it and prepared for the real surprise by removing the tray.

On the top of the pile was a form from Lifeline Medical Alert with the name of a woman I didn't remember. Gail apparently volunteered to be on someones Lifeline call list. Lifeline is that deal where you wear a little call button on a necklace and if you need help you push the button and a message goes to a call center. The call center then works through the list of relatives and friends to get someone to go check out the problem. From my experience most old folks forget they even have the thing around their neck or are afraid to push the button. They do make relatives feel a bunch better when people ask "Hey, she does have Lifeline right?" Kind of like something you're supposed to do even if it doesn't get used.

I thought a little more and it finally occurred to me who it was I was supposed to be helping in time of emergency. Gail must have been quite busy not to tell me about something like this. I read the form over a couple times, being thankful that Gail hadn't accepted one of those "Do Not Resuscitate" forms or any "Living Wills" or organ donor statements. I am a proponent for all these things and factually we have a collection from family members; nonetheless I really like to know who I am responsible for. This was clearly a conversation to have with Gail when I was fully awake.

As I dug through more folded papers I came upon a check for $101.95 with a note attached. "Hold until September 29th. He gets paid that Friday." I guess "he" was the guy with the stack full of checks with the first name Melanie on them and as I looked at the check and Gail's note I figured that by now the guy got paid a few more times and still didn't have the money to cover the check since this was November and a couple months had almost passed. I stuck the check in my pocket and vowed to attempt cashing it. Never once have we not been able to collect on a check and I'm optimistic about this one too.

Finally there was a note Gail had scribbled on a page from a receipt book. "$15 donation to Spanish Club to go to Portugal." This one got to me but I assumed that Gail was helping some local school kid. I was thinking that a little geography was in order for all concerned.

Our money box was a treasure of interesting items. It's not a Dell computer although it would be nice to have one next year as we start our business at a new location. If we had a new Dell, I probably couldn't have enjoyed so many different things which made their way to our money box during the summer. Sometimes old and simple is better than new.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the coldness continues and the wind has quieted noticeably.

With kind gardening thoughts,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Irruptive Grosbeaks or Crossbills?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I started the day at my office in Waterbury and by 9 headed out for a day of traveling. The temperature was in the thirties when I started and now, at almost 7:30 PM, it's still in that range. The entire day it felt like snow or freezing rain, that damp cold that kind of goes through you no matter what you're wearing. Every time I got out of the truck I was thinking I should have had my polar fleece vest to go with my light coat.

On the way home I stopped at the new property to check things out. With over an inch and a quarter of rain last night, I wanted to get an idea how the new gardens were draining even though in most places I knew they were frozen solid. There's a lot of water along Route 2 and it seems as if the roadbed forms a dam of sorts and the hydrological pressure from the mountain above forces water under the road in certain places. This is not my science but this is what I have observed in the year we have owned the land.

I slid on my muck boots and made a quick tour along the road and made some more mental notes. Good gardeners do this constantly. I could see boot tracks in the mud confirming that Gail had been here today. She said she wanted to update her inventory notes on the daylilies and write down the number of signs we'll need for next spring. Signs is a different subject but in today's world, marketing at all levels is important.

I headed for the mountain remembering that Gail would be gone, Karl the wonder dog would want a walk and the wood stove needed to be cleaned and started. As I pulled into the drive, the snow under a crab apple caught my attention. The ground was covered with small bits of crab apples which were less prevalent on the limbs than when I last noticed.

I collected the mail and as I started towards the house some robin sized birds flew into the tree. My mind was confused between identifying the birds, getting the camera and greeting Karl and his needs. First things first and although I thought the birds would fly away, they didn't. There were brightly colored males at first, three of them, and then a couple females and then a second small flock. Obviously they had been here earlier and something scared them away.

When I finally got the camera and got back outside I was surprised how tame these birds were. I identified them as Pine Grosbeaks at first glance but wanted to get a better look. My friend Eric, and international birder who really wants to be a full time Vermonter, suggested that crossbills might be passing through too and to pay attention.

Pine grosbeaks are one of several irruptive birds which do not winter here but pass through. Crossbills do the same and they enjoy some of the same foods but these were grosbeaks for sure. The males were especially colorful and the two white wing bars and beak made confirmation easy. They prefer conifer woods but the small fruits of crab apples like these Sargent crabs (malus 'sargentii') were like invitations to land and dine until finished.

As the birds about finished off every apple, the males began to drop to the snow covered ground for clean up duty. Later, and with more obvious caution, the females dropped down and surprisingly they came within 5 feet of me as they looked for choice apples that had fallen. Although Karl had already received one quick walk, he was more like Karl the irritation dog and he begged through the window to come out and chase the birds. It mattered not as the birds disappeared quickly when the last apple was eaten.

Good gardeners are often bird watchers. I recall that my Grandfather Ellingham, a retired constable on patrol from Rye, New York, used to love to come to Vermont and learn new birds. He was my teacher when I was very small and I have always appreciated what he taught me. As climates change, insect populations change and so do birds that prevail in the Green Mountains. When I was a kid if you saw a pileated woodpecker it was a strange sight that people talked about. Here on the mountain there's not a day that goes by that we don't see or hear one in the adjacent sugar maples. Birding is a good winter hobby and one you might consider. You may not see pine grosbeaks or pileated woodpeckers but I'll bet you see some birds that you find entertaining.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where Alex has helped bring in a large pile of fir balsam boughs for the 5 foot diameter wreath for the front of the house.

Late fall gardening wishes,

George Africa

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Frozen Hydrangeas, Morning Thoughts

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A frosty morning here on the hill. 12 degrees and overcast with snow flurries falling from the east and nuthatches landing on the platform feeder like hover jets in high winds. I have yet to figure out the aerial maneuvers of these birds but it must have something to do with avoiding predators.

Karl the wonder dog was reluctant to walk very far with me this morning. I don't always agree with him but today I do as the walks and roads are still very icy. The Thanksgiving eve weather front changed from rain and 45 degrees to 19 degrees and slippery in three hours. This morning we got down the road past the lower hosta garden and when two of four of his feet headed south, we both headed for the house and the wood stove. His egg was over easy today; mine were scrambled.

As late fall chores are about completed, my thoughts are turning to our website, orders for next year and a marketing plan. The Internet is just so valuable a tool for all this and yet I am continually amazed when people ask how I find out certain things. One search leads to another and before the cycle is finished I have new resources and a longer "To Do" list. This morning was no different.

A gardener from Vancouver Island who belongs to the daylily listserv mentioned that a new poster promoting the Chelsea Flower Show contained a daylily and the picture apparently came from an English blog which she listed as:
I went to the blog, checked out the daylily and before I knew it I was at the Gardening Blog Directory checking out blogs from Scotland, England and Ireland. A couple steps later and I was into hydrangeas and then back to the US visiting The American Hydrangea Society and a members' site that is recommended, Hydrangeas, Hydrangeas. It's prepared by AHS member Judith King and gives great advice on types and wintering over....and that's just what I was looking for! Gail and I really like hydrangeas and although we only have three varieties now, we want to incorporate a number of them at our new location.

If you have a few minutes or find that your driveway is like ours, try the Blog Directory and click on a different part of the world. The flower possibilities are limitless and what you can learn about another part of the world is fascinating. Today's fascination for me will be splitting some more wood and learning some more about Dreamweaver CS3 for our new website.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the sun is breaking through but the thermometer is stuck at 12. This is the part of the fall season that forgot it's not winter.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Air, Land and Water Observations

Sunday, November 18, 2007

It was 15 degrees this morning and as I looked out the kitchen window I saw my friend the barred owl land in a tree above the trout pond. I took this picture of him several weeks ago and have been more than pleased with his local presence for more than three weeks. Barred owls don't seem to mind flying in daylight and this one moves back and forth between here and the top of the hill. When he is sitting in a locust tree as in this picture, it's easy to walk or drive right by and not even notice him. This morning he landed in a white birch and was no challenge to watch. A couple nights back I heard it call which is uncommon this time of year as locating a mate is not on an owl's "to do list" this time of year.

More than a month ago now on October 15th, I missed an item I wanted to write about. Some would question the topic's relationship to our new gardens but you can make up your mind and let me know. October 15th, 2007 was the first ever Blog Action Day. The day was intended to raise an awareness of environmental concerns and people were encouraged to write and share thoughts and resources. I did not. Back then I was still spending time planting daylilies and finishing up odd chores. Regardless of missing that day, I think about environmental issues almost every day.

Owning property bordered by the beautiful Winooski River has encouraged Gail and Alex and me to think more about the environment that surrounds us. We have walked the river and its banks and have visually searched the area for new plants and animals we need to learn. I'm familiar with the Friends of the Winooski River and volunteered this summer on some water flow studies. This is a dedicated group with a mission to protect and teach.

The Winooski that flows by us has a lot to tell. It is small in comparison to when it enters Lake Champlain in Colchester, Vermont but just being the state's largest watershed offers big expectations. Between the Friends website and the Nature Compass site
which includes the Winooski River Paddling Guide, you can quickly learn a great deal. Thinking about Blog Action Day and then the Winooski I am reminded how important it is to protect such a fine river and watershed.

Despite the cold this morning, I took Karl the wonder dog with me when I went to work on the last of the clean up work. I parked the truck and we just sat there at the top of the land admiring the new gates Gail and Alex helped hang Wednesday night. Karl sat tall in the truck as if guarding the river and I watched as a flock of geese flew overhead and four mergansers headed down the river at top speed. Come spring we will plant some new trees along the banks and we will get flowers planted in the gardens along the bank. During the winter as I rebuild our Vermont Flower Farm website, we'll add sections on the native flora and fauna. I'm even hoping that Alex will take over this project in between helping Gail and customers.

Although the barred owl is mostly silent this time of year, it reminds me that we shouldn't be when it comes to our environment. Maybe next year you can join in Blog Action Day as we will and try to help keep Vermont green! In the meantime, do all you can to keep things green.

Writing from the cold mountain above Peacham Pond where Mrs. Deer and this year's twins work their way up the bank outside my office window. It's just 8 PM and 17 degrees outside, and spirea stems and black raspberry leaves are apparently on the Sunday evening deer menu.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Picking Up The Pieces

Sunday, November 11, 2007

19 degrees this morning and a reminder to how long I have been away from on-line conversations. The 50 degree nights have passed and the snow flurries we have already seen will intensify soon. The weather folks have predicted below-normal cold for December and that might well translate to more snow than we saw last year in early winter.

There's something nice about not having to plow or shovel snow in January but one consequence to that is red voles, the creatures that do not hibernate. Last year they ran around eating special shrubs and plants and giving the gardeners at Vermont Flower Farm bad feelings.

Gail, Alex and I have been busy since the end of October picking up the nursery and continuing to work the new land. People tell us almost every day that they are amazed what we have accomplished with almost no outside help. It has meant sacrificing a few fun things but we're proud!

Building a new business requires a good plan and to be good it should have time lines that are realistic. There's a need to build in a little flexibility too, especially in the horticulture business where Mother Nature can affect a schedule with one storm. Part of our plan was to construct a 10 foot by 200 foot garden plot to border the parking area. Gail and I thought and thought, scribbled pictures, drove in rebar stakes, set up orange marking flags, rolled out fluorescent survey tape and then did it all over again several times. We wanted to try to understand traffic flow turning off Route 2 and into our proposed parking lot. At the same time Gail was (still is) obsessed with where the building will go come May 2008.

It's not the 12,000 vehicles that drive by every day that's a concern, as a business is lucky to snag 1% of what drives by. That's something I learned from the direct marketing business. What is critical is the vehicles that turn in and how safely they are parking, exiting for a look-see, filling their vehicles and leaving. Businesses have to contend with delivery trucks including tractor trailers, landscapers vehicles and giant RVs dragging additional vehicles in tow. My dad always said "Measure twice, cut once." and Gail and I did this exercise over and over. It looks workable as long as there isn't a combination of large vehicles coming and going at the same time. If you're thinking about a business location, give a bunch of thought to this traffic component and where cars will park.

Our plan was to have a garden ten feet deep with a split rail fence three feet in from the back. That would allow 7 feet in front of the fence to plant, would add some dimension to the front and would provide seasonal color that would slow down traffic from the highway and be striking to potential customers as they exited the highway for a visit.

I knew the top of the hill was the most incredible clay I had ever seen. A year ago when I hired Kevin Hudson to do the initial rototilling, it became clear where the clay started and where it stopped. I knew this new garden would be no different but until I cut into the sod and got down a foot or so, how extensive the clay was remained a question.

As it turned out, I had to excavate about 2.5 feet deep for over half the length to get down far enough to be assured that when I back filled with organic material I'd have a good garden composition for planting trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and bulbs. If there is anything more difficult to work than clay, let me know. This wasn't just any clay, this was the special stuff, the stuff that makes potters cry with happiness when they find a source with a tall "Free--Take All" sign stuck in the middle. This isn't just potters clay, this is outdoor oven-building clay like the oven they made this summer at Wellspring Farm down the road a bit in Marshfield. It has all kinds of potential.

Working this stuff with the tractor is not easy and I found myself saying some nasty things, especially after hours and hours of going back and forth. It is elastic and it sticks to the tractor bucket, refuses to drop off, fills the tire cleats so you spin a lot and cakes onto the front axle refusing to relax its firm grip. It's not that nice unless you are a potter or maybe a geologist--my opinion. The picture above is a chunk that I let dry out for a day. It weighs a good ten pounds. It's special clay and here's why.

I guess "special" is relative and maybe this clay is no more special than the next deposit but it is to me because I never knew what a concretion was. This clay is full of concretions. This summer Mark and I had just finished putting up fence and we were standing around the truck as he waited for Michelle to arrive. He picked up a concretion thinking it was a coin. As we looked around, we found more and more. I had no idea what they were and I kept asking people for a name. Then one day when I was working on the Winooski River project, I asked my friend Emma if she knew the name. She did but she didn't. Along came another George--this time a geologist, and he offered up "concretion" without a nano-thought. From the river bank above, a school teacher volunteer quickly shouted out her love for concretions and I climbed up and gave her one. That was the start of my love for concretions.

These are small compared to some and this area has a bunch of clay banks of with concretions of various sizes. None are as big as the one that is 1.5 meters on Wikipedia. Take a look yourself at and you'll see what I mean.

I have read that concretions are the "buttons" found at Button Bay State Park in Ferrisburg on Lake Champlain. They aren't as easy to find now but probably as the waves move in and out, some become visible...kind of like finding sand dollars at the ocean 30 years ago. Anyway, these little geological wonders spark the imagination.

Walking the gardens in fall highlights pieces, leftovers, discards, some out of place, some just cast off. It's part of operating a business. The pieces of metal on the granite block in the first picture are pieces pushed up by winter freeze-thaw cycles. I like to straighten things up in the fall as I pick up the pieces. You can too!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where a barred owl has decided 256 Peacham Pond Road is a good place to hunt. He's in a white birch right now, looking at a merganser on the trout pond.

Fall gardening wishes and kind business thoughts for whatever you are contemplating.

George Africa

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Walkin', Tossin', Gatherin'

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

As I drove down Route 2 towards home and Marshfield tonight, my eye caught Gail's car and then Gail out in the daylilies, spade fork in hand, weeding the second of the 22 plots I got planted with daylilies. I slowed down way in advance of the turn because folks returning home after work are not always as cautious as they should be. I pulled up alongside our car and noticed Alex stretched back in the passenger seat reading his H.P. Lovecraft stories and recovering from his very unfavorable experience of weeding with Gail. Karl the wonder dog was no where to be seen which probably meant he was sound asleep when Gail and Alex left the house and it wasn't worth the trouble waking him.

Already it's been almost two months since I began transplanting daylilies. They look good for the time they have been in the ground and have set in quite well for the winter. Planting in the fall is a good thing but as you work into mid October in Vermont, you need to use care and watch the soil temperature fall. Below 50 degrees and I don't think it's prudent to transplant daylilies because that is a signal that temperatures will fall quickly and soon. This morning was our second hard freeze, this time 22 degrees. I suppose if you wanted to plant and mulch or plant in known micro climates it would be fine but for us, planting for the first time in an open field, caution is the word.

In addition, to a major planting effort, we have made other accomplishments. I have patched up the fence where moose have walked right through. This didn't please me either time but there is no stopping a moose. This time of year there is mating season to contend with when moose are on the move, a controlled moose season is under way, archery season for deer just ended and rifle season is beginning. This puts thousands of hunters into the woods causing moose and deer to move where they may not have gone before. The fence has done well for deer control but stopping moose was already a known factor. In the next couple weeks we'll start work on the gates to Route 2 and the last piece of fence along the Winooski River. I intentionally left that open after watching animal movement there last year. Observations found deer, bear, moose and coyote all using the same corridor.

I made contact with Green Mountain Power and know that the power pole will cost $1200. That is a spring project that I will schedule in February so we are locked in before things get busy for the power company. We also have agreed to a building which we will use for a "pack and ship, sales area, office, take-a-break, get-out-of-the-weather, store equipment, warm up/cool off room".

When we were thinking about buying a prefab building from The Carriage Shed near the VA Hospital in White River, we had a contractor doing a bathroom over here at the house. He's a great person and a super contractor and he knows his stuff. He said he was familiar with the product and he couldn't build the same thing much cheaper if at all. That made us look more seriously at options. This picture isn't what we'll be getting for about $9000 delivered but it should help you visualize where we're at.

We will have a 12 X 28 foot building with the run-in part on the right as this picture shows. "Run-in" is the open area set up in a horse barn style building for animals to come in out of the weather, eat, drink, sleep etc. That's where we'll do pack and ship for Internet sales and all local sales. On the left interior wall of that room will be a full wall and a traditional door and storm door. I'm planning the door where customers and visitors won't be trying to get in, looking for whatever customers and visitors always look for. When I think about how important this is, I always remember the time three years ago when I walked into our house and a lady was wandering around. I asked if I could help and she said she thought our house was a gift shop. Gail will surely be happy not to give up her house anymore.

So you have a more complete concept, the two barn doors pictured to the left of the run-in will be replaced by windows and on the left end there will be another window. I really wanted the four foot overhang shown in this picture but that was going to add another$3400 to the price. The building is built on pressure treated 6 X 6's and is delivered on a tilt bed /flat bed trailer so it can be placed where you want it. It's also moveable if it needs to be relocated. These are all positives to me so if the business for some reason failed, was disbanded, was sold, there would be many options for using the land without having to deal with a building. When I plan a business, I always have contingencies and I recommend any business owner think into the future as much as possible.

Once in place we'll have to install underground electric from the pole. I'll put in 200 amp service with a breaker box in the interior room and circuits for the water pump, general lighting, the computer and technology equipment, and a circuit for any cooking/refrigerating equipment.
During the summer we have had many, many curious visitors and a number of those asked if we had considered solar power. Although we have not studied solar, it is on our list of things to explore this winter. If any readers are knowledgeable about an application such as this one, we'd be pleased to hear your advice.

The building will have to be insulated and next summer it will have a pretty rustic look inside as there's too little time to get everything done to finished quality. We'll get it stained on the outside and I want to get gutters on both sides to get the rain away form the building. During the second year the rain water and water from the plant wash sinks will be diverted to an adjacent rain garden--but that's a story for another time. In the middle of a five acre field a 12 X 28 foot building will look small but it will serve as an energy warehouse for some fine gardens and a business of growing. Let us know if you have questions about the plan. Suggestions are just that "suggestions", but we always like to hear them.

After trying to get Alex to give up Lovecraft and get back to work, I scooted home to change and get back to help Gail. We worked until the sun was fading, picked up all the hose and irrigation equipment we no longer needed and headed home. For two people, we have accomplished a lot this summer while operating our nursery and with me going to work at a regular job every day. Gail has been great to juggle so many things and still keep the nursery and Internet business in operation. Passers-by encourage us to keep it up and about every day, like yesterday at 5:30 AM at the gas station, I met another person who introduced themselves and offered thanks and encouragement....thanks for keeping a piece of Vermont in agriculture.

When I returned home there was just enough time for a quick walk in the gardens. Fall is a time when I try to keep getting one more picture of our gardens filed away in my memory bank for winter. I'm one of those gardeners who can't keep from picking seed heads, tossing seeds around and trying to locate those flowers which just keep blooming. Seeds that I think have promise for next year might even end up in a Mason jar for dry storage. Last week I found another bloom of the daylily 'Miss Amelia'. This walk found me with a hand full of heuchera leaves, batchelors buttons, rose companion, dried astilbe scapes and rudbeckia and echinachea seed heads. The trollius are sparse compared to their summer offering but the fact that they rebloom now is enough for me.

If you have a chance during the next few weeks, pick a warm day and walk your gardens too. Walkin', tossin', and gatherin' are part of gardening.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where small blocks of ice lay coldly on the ground near empty buckets no longer filled with warm colored flowers. The season "Fall" holds tight.

Gardening wishes;

George Africa

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Year Has Passed

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Great good mornings to you from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the loons call, in competition with the harsh voices of two crows sitting in an adjacent white pine. It's 31 degrees and the dark clouds don't seem to be moving much. Yesterday was a good day to get some planting done because today is supposed to be wet with snow showers in higher elevations. We are at 1500 feet so I don't think we'll see the white stuff quite yet.

It's been almost a year since I decided to start this blog as an offshoot to The Vermont Gardener
Now at 3770 hits I guess I may have roped the interest of a few, although I know some subscribers have opted out. One person wrote me personally and said they liked the blog but thought there would be a lot more information on starting a nursery business. That was my plan and still is, but lacking a dependable day stretcher, there are fundamentals to building a business which have to be done. In a geographic area like Vermont, an outside business is at the mercy of the weather and that reprioritizes things for gardeners despite what they had planned.

For those still impatient with me, I want to cite a good resource which might help while you wait for me to pull things together. I've mentioned it before because I was going to write the same sort of book myself except that the task never elevated itself to the top of my "to-do" list. The book is titled So You Want To Start A Nursery written by Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery, Inc. What the book points out is that you need a well thought out plan and you need to follow it. Gail and I have a very good plan for moving our nursery and we are following it almost to the letter. What we don't have is a lot of spare capital so the "doing things yourself" part takes more time. Here are some examples.

Yesterday we scheduled the day to plant the western border garden. It is 408 feet long and I have prepared a ten foot width with the tractor mounted rototiller. For reference, the fence posts in the pictures are 30 feet apart. Half this width maintains high moisture because water feeds down the mountain across Route 2. The soil is clay loam but stones are almost nonexistent and save for the need for more organic material, it will grow plants well. Our plan was to plant things that complimented each other and could also handle full sun and high moisture.

We loaded the Chevy until it wouldn't hold any more plants and away we went. With a few minor changes, Gail's design worked well. I wanted to leave 18" along the grass so I could run the small Troy Built rototiller and keep the grass from encroaching. This entire area (previous to our purchase) was originally planted with White Dutch Clover to feed the deer and break up the clay. As we know, clover has a way of spreading and my plan was to keep it out of the gardens in subsequent years.

The transplanting went well until we got to the Astilboides tabularis and the Darmera. These plants had been in 1 gallon pots for two years and had expanded their root systems to the point they wouldn't come free of the pots without splitting them down the sides. 150-180 pots later we were finished but the "big pot problem" added another hour and a quarter to the project. Today we'll get back there and plant the corner with a variety of bee balms and hopefully

get started on a full season "yellow garden" with helenium, various rudbeckias, heliopsis and daylilies.

Monday night when Alex and I were returning from Burlington, the traffic halted at about the entrance to our property. A quarter mile down the road, a car had sheared off a power pole. Speed has a way of messing up your day if you're not careful but the accident reminded me I needed to call Green Mountain Power and get a price on a power pole. I called on Tuesday and found that I could mount the meter on the pole and the installation would cost $1200. The stipulation was that the company truck could set the pole from the highway. Although that's not a concern, I asked for a physical site inspection since the bank is steep there and the pole has to be high enough to match the pole on the opposite side of the road. The line has to be high enough to avoid the highest trucks.

The delivery and placement of stones for the daylily display garden almost two weeks ago was another positive accomplishment but it modified how many daylilies I could get into the ground before this week's temperatures dropped too low. With the stones in place, I had to spray the entire garden area with Round Up. 9000 square feet isn't that large in the world of plants but when you're spraying with a backpack sprayer it gets big real fast. Looking back on all the issues related to ground prep, I should have budgeted for a trailer for the tractor and a 50 gallon electric sprayer with a boom sprayer. Small business plans should not contain too many "should haves" but a few are not uncommon.

With the stone in place, Gail can start the actual garden design. She has been carrying around thoughts for some time but without the large stones in place, she was reluctant to proceed. That's just how Gail works. This week the design will take shape and we'll visit some nurseries and look at trees and shrubs on our list of possibilities. We'd like to get the trees planted before the snow arrives and that looks possible.

Growing a gardening business is an exciting job. A good plan and a pocket full of money help. Gail and I are the tortoises of the garden movement but in the end Vermont Flower Farm will have a nice new home and more than ever before, you'll want to visit.

Best wishes,

The Vermont Gardener

Friday, October 05, 2007

Moose versus The Fence

Friday, October 5, 2007

Another beautiful day in Vermont. The sun is rising through the maples, the blue jays are annoyed by the empty feeder and I can hear loons flying overhead en route to the pond. The weather will change beginning Sunday but until then, things are fine.

I just want to give an update on the deer fence I installed. This was 7.5 foot extruded plastic fence from Italy named Tenex. I mounted it on 4 X 4 X10 foot pressure treated posts after running a piece of 17 gauge electric fence wire through the top row. As a means of preventing deer from entering the gardens, it is great. I still have a few places that I have to secure the bottom better where the fields roll up and down but pretty much the only way deer are entering the gardens is through the main entrance. As soon as I finish this week with the daylilies, the 2 14 foot gates will go up and the place will be closed in.

The moose situation is different and this past week a large moose came across Route 2 and took out a 30 foot section of fence, ran across the field and went right through another section and on into the Winooski River. This is the type thing you know will happen but hope it doesn't. People with horses in their pastures can often relate stories of seeing a moosing dragging half a mile of electric fence across a montain top. There's not much that will stop a moose and this time of year it's mating season and they are on the move. Later on in the fall the moose head to mountain tops to spend the winter while deer head to lower areas. Any time now I could see more moose damage but since they are travelers, they don't return every day. They also don't eat anything I have planted.

The moose in the picture was on the Lanesboro Road the other night. The following morning I saw a yearling bull walking down the road to Owls Head. These will be the first of many sightings over the next few weeks. Moose and deer are part of gardening in Vermont.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where red, yellow and orange maple leaves float gently to earth.

Garden greetings!

George Africa

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Planting Rocks, Making Gardens

Thursday, October 4, 2007

New England continues to have fine autumn weather and Vermont is no exception. This has allowed us to make good progress on our new property and reach the goals we had set for this year. We intended to get all the daylilies moved and as of last night I had planted through the"P's" so we are on target for what has been a tremendous job. One of the difficulties is estimating the time to complete something you have never done before. We've only missed our timeline on the daylilies by about a week and a half and the weather has made up for our miscalculation. What I really missed on was how long it would take to install the perimeter fence around 5 acres but that came at a time when we had more time to play with.

As soon as we finish with the daylilies, there are a number of plants going along the western fence in large groupings. These are plants such as ligularia, cimicifuga, astilboides tabularis, different monardas, rudbeckias, darmeras, rodgersias and aruncus. They are less picky about establishing good root systems before the soil temperature falls below 50 degrees and they will transplant well.

The front display garden will follow that planting. It's started but a long way from completion. It will be ten feet wide by 200 feet long and will serve as a buffer to the parking lot. My intent is to get the ground prepared and the split rail fence installed before the snow flies. That's a bigger task than it seems because the first 50 feet is solid clay and has to be excavated a foot down, spread with gypsum and then back filled with a mix of aged manure, peat moss and top soil. I'll be bouncing around on the tractor with the rototiller, clawing an inch at a time deeper into the clay but in time that will come together.

Gail and I had discussed a display garden to parallel Route 2 so passers-by could see a fine display. We had discussed a garden 120 feet long by about 75 wide which would start at the end of the parking lot and work it's way to the western fence. The vision included a walk way linking to the western fence-side garden and then continuing around the entire perimeter. Good gardeners need visions and we have a lot of them.

One of the great things about a small Vermont town is you get to know a lot of folks and you find out that you sometimes have similar interests. Years back we met Jean and Brien Ducharme. Jean was the town clerk for years and Brien owned a logging business that had historical roots in his family. Jean and Brien both liked plants and one year they appeared to help us with spring planting and they have been coming back ever since.

I had heard that Brien had just completed a big rip-rapping job on a piece of the Winooski River west of our land. The rocks were from a local contractor who wanted to open up an area. I asked Brien if he had some time to move some rocks to our property for a display garden and his recent retirement made the response easier. What I didn't know was that Brien had his truck up for sale and it could be sold at any time.

Monday afternoon when Gail and I had just started setting up the water pump, Brien appeared. He was ready to move the rocks because the truck sold and would be moving to a new owner in the next couple days. We had already lined out the garden with rebar stakes and string and marked each rock placement with colored marking flags. I had also used Round Up where every stone would sit. We walked the proposed garden so Brien knew what we were doing and away he went for the first load.

I love to see craftsmen work and when I heard the roar of "Rollin Thunda", the logging truck, coming down Route 2, I knew the next few minutes would be a treat. Brien pulled into the drive and we had a quick discussion about unloading. I would have driven the truck right into the field but Brien cautioned that the field was soft in places and backing in means being able to drive out. Another lesson learned. He backed to the end of the field and then climbed the ladder to begin off loading.

It's fun for me to watch a person work the controls of a big rig and so flawlessly place giant pieces of material which weigh thousands of pounds on a dime in one smooth motion. Brien is no different. One after another the giant boulders, a couple like small Volkswagens, came off and went into place.

For some stones, Brien would use the pinchers to dig a quick hole in the sod and then he'd plant the stone, firmly placing it in upright fashion so it wouldn't move with winter's freeze-thaw cycles.

The first load come off quickly and our "Chief Financial Officer", Gail, made a spontaneous decision that another load was needed. An hour and a half later we were admiring the finished project and Brien was pulling up onto Route 2, just a little late for Jean's dinner party for 16. I have to say that I appreciated the efficiency of the project but mostly I liked the fact that Brien committed to helping and he didn't forget. Vermonter's are like that and a commitment means a commitment completed.

Standing around giving direction and confirmation was the easy part of this project. The difficult part will be the planting. Gail will be responsible for designing the placement of trees and shrubs, walkways and garden benches. She'll also figure out the planting scheme. In part this will become a certified American Hemerocallis Display Garden so it will contain clumps of everything we sell and and some we collect but don't sell. In a couple years it will be a beautiful garden that will stop traffic on Route 2. Right now it also stops traffic, like the cement contractor foreman who stopped yesterday to say "I drive this road every day to Springfield or Ludlow. What exactly are you doing and what are all those stones?"

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where a beautiful day is in the making as two young blue jays talk to me through the office window.

Garden wishes,

George Africa

Monday, September 24, 2007

Curiosity Continues

Monday, September 24, 2007

Another beautiful day in Vermont with a high of 79 in Burlington and very close to that even here in Marshfield. I was in St Johnsbury for a forum on autism and the ride across Route 2 showed variation in color. My guess is that within a week this area will reach peak color but right now it's fun to round a bend and see wide contrast to what you just saw. Here are two shots from yesterday morning. The first (above) is a trout breaking on nearby Osmore Pond. The second is a broad view across the swamp in the vicinity of Ethan Allen corners and Lanesboro Road.

Work continues at the new property with me as chief planter and Gail back on the hill checking and rechecking inventory lists and preparing crates of daylilies. Tonight I reached Little Dandy and Little Grapette, two older daylilies, both shades of purple and smaller sized blooms compared to many of the more modern introductions. Gail tells me there are about 14 more in the "L's" and then I am quickly on to the "M's" and the second half of the alphabet. I figure I only have about two weeks before it will become too risky to continue to transplant here. The weather has been a surprise but it's important to get the transplants well settled and rooted before the ground temperature drops. Since it appears that I will run out of prepared space before reaching X-Y-Z, I guess there's no need to fret about completing the task this fall.

Visitors continue to stop by and it often gives me a chance to stand and stretch. Arthritis is not pleasant and this carpal tunnel thing in both hands is never a problem until about 2 AM. Age comes with reminders of what you have done in life. You don't need to have been bad to have aches and pain.

This is leaf peeper season in Vermont when tens of thousands of tourists pass through the state viewing our beautiful foliage. Some have stopped to talk with me and we have always had good conversations. Yesterday it was yet another person thinking we were starting an elk farm; the next visitor reaffirmed a vineyard. The elk and deer farm guessers have been stronger than those thinking we were going to raise grapes but I have to say that vineyards and wineries have become very popular in Vermont. Our friend in gardening, Paul Tukey, editor of People, Places & Plants: The Magazine for Northeast Gardeners agreed that wine has become big business in New England because in the Autumn 2007 issue of his magazine he features ample notice to how important this has become. Vermont has 10 vineyards, Maine 10, New Hampshire 6, Massachusetts 24, Rhode Island 6 and Connecticut 17. I'm trusting the magazine and my counting ability but the numbers shows how important an industry has caught on.

We aren't planning to grow grapes but a few years back Alex got interested in grapes and asked Rich Ducharme of Hillcrest Nursery in Cabot for recommendations on two varieties. From the time they were planted they were never cared for but annually this time of year the deer and birds frequent the long vines and make a regular feast of what has grown. If you get a chance, pick up a copy of this magazine and find out how to grow your own grapes or build an arbor. At very least, the various articles will push you in one direction or another. These are some of our grapes, variety unknown.

Today was busy and things are winding down for the night. I just heard the squeak of one of the outside faucets which means Gail has given up on watering for the night. It's been dark for a good 20 minutes but she will never quit until a row is finished. I do not share that trait and for me, it's a pleasant "Good Gardening, Good Evening." to each of you.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the second hatch of mourning doves are almost under foot in the garden; they look for food but show no interest in testing their little wings.

George Africa
A Vermont gardener

Monday, September 17, 2007

Actea, Butterflies, Cimicifugas: My ABC's

Monday, September 17, 2007

Just after 8 PM and now 44.6 degrees here on the mountain above Peacham Pond. It was a glorious day and although I was in central Vermont most of the day, the bright sun made my meeting times speed by, nudged along by the thought of getting home and into the garden. Gail and Liz were in the garden when I arrived and they had 8 crates of daylilies prepared for planting. The process has been working well and although I am the lonely planter at the new site, there is a tranquility to the job that is satisfying. People honk as they go by or stop to chat for a while as Arthur did today on his way home from an environmental consulting job in Maine. I kinda like it!

I loaded up the truck and was about to shove off when the large Cimicifuga atropurpurea caught my eye. This is the plant we love so much even though it has been reclassified as Actea. Plants should have the correct classification and it seems the quite often now, plants, like people, are renamed. I am growing more tolerant of the new plant names but the same people with new "people" names still kind of gets to me a bit. Today a Karen who was then a Karin is now a "Car-in" kind of Karen. You've got me............ I'm still just plain George.

This particular Cimicifuga was originally in a gallon pot for sale until Gail decided it would accompany some daylilies and other plants in a 30" clay pot. This whole affair started 3 years ago now. At the end of the first year the plants had to come out of the clay pot so it wouldn't freeze and break. It was the end of the season when even good gardeners grow tired of digging holes and Gail planted the Cimicifuga right next to where it rolled (not easily!!) out of the pot. At the end of the following year Gail tried to coax me to dig up the giant and move it but I said I'd only be involved if she bought me a tractor with a backhoe. She bought me the tractor this year but without the backhoe and the Cimicifuga, now well over 9 feet tall, is a giant and still planted in the same place.

Today the plant was an obvious magnet for butterflies and bees of all sorts. I don't recall seeing the monarchs fly to it as they did today but they were not alone. The plant is so tall and the scapes so long that it waves in even the most gentle of winds so getting a good picture for a non-photographer like me is a challenge. As you click on these pictures to enlarge them, you'll have a good opportunity to see the beauty of the flower scapes. The flowers are often described as bottlebrush and it is an appropriate characterization.

>The monarchs are feeding heavily as they are about to shove off for points south. There is an especially good hatch of late and earlier this week just before I mowed along Route 2, there were a dozen or so "newborns" fanning their wings to straighten and dry them. This is really interesting if you've never seen it before. At one point I couldn't stand it any more and I got off the tractor and let one climb on my finger so I could watch it closer. I read in the Sunday paper of a group that was netting and tagging monarchs. If I owned a day stretcher I'd probably have time to give this a try too.

Next year when you visit Vermont Flower farm at its new location, looked down at the west fence. You'll see a couple clumps of Actea that by September 2008 should be 10 feet tall. Since that fence is bounded by a field of wildflowers, my guess is that it would be worth a walk down to count the insect varieties including butterflies. If you're a photographer too, take a camera and see if you can help me with a good shot of what you see. In the meantime, stop by Peacham Pond Road. You can't miss this year's Actea in bloom!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond and waiting for Gail to return from an autism forum in Montpelier. The night is still, except for the call of the invisible but very nearby barred owl.

Great gardening!

George Africa