Monday, January 22, 2007

Tax Time Beckons

Karl the wonder dog is in for the night (I hope!), and I just filled up the woodstove. It's a very dependable Vermont Castings stove which Gail aquired long ago when she worked in Randolph. The temperature outside is 14.7 and it is slowly dropping a fraction at a time so the stove's warmth and the smell of buring wood makes for a pleasant evening. Tonight's weather report suggests Thursday and Friday daytime highs of 4-10 degrees so I guess tomorrow will be a good time to bring in some more wood to get us through the weekend.

In our house, we leave the Christmas tree up til the weekend after New Years. That's just the way it's always been. I recall when we moved to Vermont in 1952 my parents couldn't believe Vermonters tossing their trees the day after Christmas. It made no sense to us. Many Vermonters still follow that plan but we follow our own design and we like it that way. As soon as the tree is out, we clean up needles for about a week and then we start our income taxes. I'd rather pick balsam needles out of my socks than start the taxes but this time of year these are two jobs you have to do.

Taxes by themselves are not popular with me You have to do them, I understand they have to be done and I dislike them. I resent the changes in depreciation schedules which I do not understand and the annual changes to charts and rates. I resent having to hire somone to take my work and apply all the new rules and then charge me too much money. There has to be an easier way to fund government, I believe there is an easier way and I am amazed that no matter who we send to Washington, they complain but can't figure out a new way.

Taxes for any business require some forethought. Taking a shoebox full of receipts to an accountant and saying "Here" just doesn't cut it any more. You have to be a smarter business person in today's world where every single penny counts.

If you're thinking about a horticultural business, I really recommend you start to think about taxes long before you sink the first shovel in the ground. I've mentioned the need for a good business plan first, so you understand the relationship between assets and liabilities and how much money you need to get going. No matter how well you have planned, it's likely you've missed something. Bet on it!

Owning a business means that you bounce to the IRS1040 form and its associated schedules. I recommend that first you work your way through all of the Small Business Administration's tools for designing and building a business. The SBA website is very good and it lays out methods of counting money and product that are important. When you're comfortable with a business plan, move on to the latest IRS 1040 instructions.

At some point, you'll get to the page that says it will take at least 52 hours to complete the required forms for your business. Don't fret, the IRS can't count either, and it will clearly take more than 52 hours, especially if you haven't done your homework all year long. This is another reason to get organized, either the old fashioned way with files and a calculator or with some software and your computer. The earlier you start this, the less time it will take to complete the forms.

I've become a little obsessive over the years and I maintain about 50 categories under which I collect receipts. I try to track change in prices of various supplies and that helps me decide when to buy more, buy less, or buy on sale even if I shouldn't stock pile something. The nursery business uses many items which require petroleum to produce and since they all have to be delivered to Vermont, petroleum issues affects our bottom line.

Years ago our potting mix was $9 a 3.8 cubic foot bale. Delivery was free. In recent years the price has moved to $18 and there is a surcharge on the delivery. I can get it cheaper but I have to buy by the tractor traier load. This same example carries to most products so it's worthwhile to establish a good tracking system. Every product you buy or sell has to appear someplace in your tax return so why not have well organized information that can make you a more educated buyer and manager?

Gail has done the final organizing for me and I have begun to put things in their proper place. I don't have any reports from our banks yet so I know there's still time on my end to pull things together. I always like to have our work completed and off to our accountant by the first week of February. That way she can get through our work before the tax onslaught begins.

Sometimes I have questions and I need some help. I call or write IRS and I have to say I have always been treated courteously and have received answers I can understand. I've been doing taxes since the mid sixties and so far I haven't been audited although I know that's always a possibility. In this year's tax manual there is a mission statement. It says "Provide America's taxpayers top quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities and by applying the tax law with integrity and fairness to all." They do what they say, but you know, in the years I have filed taxes, never once did anyone say thanks for getting them in on time, thanks for double checking the math, or thanks for doing what the instructions say to do. Here at Vermont Flower Farm we say "thanks" to everyone who comes, even if it's just for a visit. Maybe I should suggest that approach to IRS Commssioner Everson.......better still, maybe I should get going and finish the taxes. Thanks for bearing with me tonight!!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where advice is free, opinions vary, nights are cold.

Gardening wishes,

George Africa

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Warm Coats and Lady Slippers

Thursday, January 18th already! It seems as if I was just out cutting the Christmas tree and here it is half way to February. It's a beautiful day at Vermont Flower Farm but the 31 degree reading on the thermometer is deceiving. The sun is bright but the wind continues to whisper cold thoughts which have the birds quite busy. You may not know this, but birds are mandated to read a book on caloric intake each fall and January is the month their memories are tested. A few moments ago there were so many blue jays on the platform feeder that they were coming in like harrier jets and landing sideways on the two tall mullein stalks. Birds and mulleins sprung back and forth, back in forth. Blue jays do not like to take turns and they are always anxious to get to the feeder.

I haven't stopped at our property because of the recent bad weather. Yesterday morning the temperature was at 13 below when I was getting ready to head for work and I know by the time the sun rose it had dropped some more. At ten last night it was 9.8 below but this morning a front had begun to move in and it was "only" 3 below.

There have been many discussions in recent months about global warming. I can vouch for change even though I don't have a definitive reason why things are different. I don't want to get crazy about this but I have a desire to understand it better than I do. Last night I ordered a book by George Perkins Marsh which he wrote around Civil War time. Some say he was one step back from Rachael Carson and wrote his own Silent Spring but named it Man and Nature: Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. Marsh grew up in Woodstock like I did only a hundred years earlier. I'll give some thoughts about his writings sometime soon.

What I do recall is that winters are not as cold as they were fifty years ago. Likewise the snow is not as deep. We moved to Vermont in 1952 and I quickly despised cold. The house my Dad moved us to was built in 1826 and it was big on woodstoves and drafts. With all the stoves going full bore you could still see your breath in the upstairs bedrooms. Some of the neighbors named my mother Miss Woodbox because any time they came for a winter visit they found her sitting on or near the woodbox by the kitchen stove. Being cold really isn't nice and I promised myself someday I'd work myself into a position of warmth, not wealth and that's about where I am now.

Just because I haven't stopped at the "future" Vermont Flower Farm, I think about it every day. It's really an exciting endeavor and it should be quite a showpiece in a few years. As I drove by yesterday it struck me that I have no idea if there are any wild orchids on the northern side of the property. I doubt that there are but there's good possibility there are some across the river in the dry woods adjacent to the marshland. More to think about and explore next year.

The cypripediums are neat flowers which I enjoy a great deal. Sometime between Memorial Day and June 10th there is always a good display someplace around here. The yellows like the one pictured above prefer sweeter soil but the glaciers left pockets here and there and that's why these can be found between here and Danville and Peacham. I like to sit on the ground and observe insects crawling in and out of the hole in the top of the flower bloom. One day I played a pretty absurd cat 'n mouse game with a my camera and a yellow crab spider. I finally got a bad cramp in my leg and had to give up.

Cypripedium acaule have quite a lot of color variation although the pink shown above is the most prominent around here. The forest floor around Kettle and Osmore Ponds has many colonies of pink but as you climb the surrounding mountains you'll find the pinks going to a red veined

creamy yellow. Occasionally you'll find a pure white but more often these will be in greater abundance as you head deeper north into the Northeast Kingdom. I have found them on Owls Head and also on the back edge of Silver Ledge.

If you are interested in wild flowers, check out the New England Wild Flower Society Within Vermont there's a really special nursery that I try to plug all the time. It's the Vermont Ladyslipper Company located at
It's mail order only, no visitors yet, but the products are only the best. Over the years I've seen an increasing number of shovel holes in the woods where nice plants used to grown. Buying from a very experienced dealer is miles ahead of trying to replicate growing conditions for something you know nothing about. Guess I'm saying to leave whats wild where it is.

Well, I guess it's time to get moving. Karl the wonder dog is suggesting a walk is necessary. ...for him, not me but I have to go too. Maybe you should consider a little walk too!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where Juncos predominate the feeder, all with a watchful eye for a feral cat that has moved into the territory.

Winter thoughts and garden wishes,

George Africa

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Measuring Progress

Tuesday, January 9th. A cold front is moving in and some snow is expected. It will be the first snow in some time. The spring-like weather has afforded an opportunity to do and see things at the new property which would normally have waited until spring.

I worked both days this weekend and three or four days a week after work since Pearl Harbor Day, December 7th, when I wrote a piece entitled Land Lessons and Wildflowers. I said something which suggested that new land and new gardens need to have a vision and I showed this picture.

Today I coaxed Gail and Alex to come down and see the progress and help load the truck with brush. I've surpassed twenty loads for sure so any help loading is a welcome change. I didn't think they really wanted to go as the wind was swirling and it's not the greatest job to begin with but they are a part of this project and they know it. As we pulled off Route 2, I stopped at the top of the hill so they could look down at what had been a collection of poplars, alders, grey birch, blackberries, wild cucumber, grape and wood vines, burdocks and assorted rush and weeds. They said nothing but their eyes told their thoughts and rewarded me for my efforts.

If you click on each picture separately, you should be able to see the difference. The property line is more apparent now that the debris is cleaned up. The make shift road left from the days when this was the town and State sand pit is more prominent now. Its height serves as a diversion for water runoff from Route 2 as well as water that is hydraulically moved from the hill above and the adjacent river. Next summer I'll have to get local contractor Kevin Hudson to stop by with his traxcavator for a couple hours and create a ditch parallel to the old roadbed to encourage the water to head back to the river.

Yes, I'm pleased with the weather and pleased with my progress. I can measure it it smiles from my family and friends, truckloads of brush removed or the honking of passers by. Since I've started this project I have met people every week that I have never seen before or who I have seen but never spoken to. It's a rewarding experience for certain. Almost weekly since we bought the property, a logger in a shiny black rig gives me a wave and a long ho-o-o-onnnk with the air horn as he heads west, returning empty from either Canada or Maine. He's not from around here but somehow he wants to show that he notices change and I'll bet someday he slows that rig down enough to stop and say hi. Gardeners are like that and I'll bet he has had dirty hands before.

As we began to drive back up the hill, I pointed out to Gail and Alex where I wanted to plant some Astilboides tabularis, several varieties of ligularias and rodgersias, and some creamy white bloomed Aruncus doicus. I could see that Gail was drawing mental pictures of the layout even before she said "You've really done so much in so little time. This will be beautiful."
I reached down and pushed the lever out of four wheel drive and we headed home.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the thermometer reads 24.7 and the snow has stopped at 2 inches.

Gardening wishes,

George Africa

Friday, January 05, 2007

Wet Snow, Rising River

Friday, January 5, 2007

A different kind of day in Vermont, with country store talk including thoughts of "where's winter?" vocalizing from the gas pumps to the meat counter. Everyone agrees that it's been fine on the heating bill but so very un-Vermont that folks are almost looking for someone or something to blame. A high of 60 in Burlington today and mid fifties here in Marshfield really does make one wonder when the real cold will come. At Vermont Flower Farm we don't think we've made it for yet another year until April first arrives. To us, every warm day is a day closer to when our gardening lives are reborn.

I returned home to an empty house this afternoon as Gail and Alex were at a home schooling program at the Fairbanks Museum in St Johnsbury There is a great home school group up that way and the crew at the Fairbanks offers some courses which are just unforgettable. Today's course included Endangering Species, how man interferes with some great Vermont species, and Vermont Snakes, a slithering course introducing snakes we should know but perhaps don't. Alex was happy the instructor brought up the Eastern Ring-necked Snake which we spotted one summer day atop Owl's Head. At the time I thought I knew all Vermont's snakes but this was a mystery requiring some research.

The house wasn't really empty as Karl the wonder dog greeted me proudly and after our quick walk I decided to take him downtown to pick up another load of brush. Karl is like my other dogs in that he loves to ride in the truck and almost gets depressed if he knows it's not a work day and I'm leaving without him.

We got to the property and parked on the hill so I could look down on the progress I was making with the brush and dead trees. Progress is sometimes slow but the end product is very rewarding. Karl leaped out of the truck and immediately picked up a large coyote track from the night before. It was a sizeable animal judging from the track and it walked along the high bank, parallel to the Winooski River. It was either looking for food or maybe just plain coyote trouble. I can't tell from the tracks as I haven't studied coyotes enough.

When I got tired of being led towards Plainfield, I pulled tight on Karl and he reversed himself. Still on the lead, he looked up at me when he passed and he snorted as if to suggest my rudeness for cutting short a good trailing mission. The expression on his face could have been a great cartoon.

We stopped at the corner marker by the river and I noticed how the viburnums still held tightly to clumps of bright red berries. I looked around for waxwings as they seem to like any fruit with good seeds such as the viburnums. No waxwings today. For some reason though, the red fruit reminded me of arisaemas, jack-in-the-pulpits, a wildflower I haven't noticed on the property yet. This time of year my wildflower mind works in reverse and I think of the plants I should be seeing but obviously do not.

Arisaemas are an interesting wildflower and a plant I spent too many hours looking at when I was a kid. Pulling back on the hood uncovers the spadix, like a preacher in a church pulpit offering discourse to the congregation. At Vermont Flower Farm there are hundreds of these amongst the ferns and hostas in the lower foundation garden. My guess is that come spring I'll find a bunch here under the trees along the river.

As summer days begin to shorten, the seeds turn red and flesh out to the point of bending the flower stem over towards the ground. By Labor Day the seeds are ripe enough that the mice and chipmunks begin to harvest them and drag them to secret hiding places for winter consumption. When I come upon half plucked stems, I always welcome a glance at the symmetry

of the seed pods, each filled with many small seeds. Often I think about one of Tasha Tudor's mice friends busy harvesting winter's food. Mice and voles do a lot of damage in some situations but they are also good gardeners and they always help with the planting.

I let Karl get back in the truck cab and I went about dragging brush and stacking it into the bed. In short order the load was finished and we were heading back home. No cedar waxwing birds to see, only warm temperatures and thoughts of arisaemas. If you like the thought of this plant, take a look at George Schmid's book An Encyclopedia of Shade Perennials. It doesn't stay on your lap too well but it sure has a wealth of gardening info.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the temperature is 42 degrees and there is an uncommon fog about.

Winter (?) gardening wishes,

George Africa