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: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/rakes-progress/november07/designerchicflowershow.htm
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 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concretion 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