Friday, December 26, 2008

Winter Work

Friday, December 26, 2008

Morning marches on here as the early red sky that reminded of bad weather has cleared to brighter sunlight making shadows form through the balsam woods. It's an unusual morning here and the birds and squirrels know of an impending storm. The blue jays number 11 on the platform feeder and they only leave their breakfast meal when myriads of evening grosbeaks gang up on them and cover the feeder and the ground. Blue jays are fascinating birds as they pack 23-24-25-26 sunflower seeds in their crop before flying away. That gives the other birds time to clean up all the seeds they have scattered about wastefully.

Black oil sunflower is the seed we have always used here. Grey stripe was my preferred seed for years but it became more and more expensive and then less available. Black oil now costs slightly more than $20 for 50 pounds. I use coarse cracked corn too which is rising to almost $9 for 50 pounds. The ground feeders like that and it seems to make the sunflower go further.

I have a pile of boards left over from summer construction of our new building. These will give plenty of opportunity for new bird houses. I prefer to recycle old boards like I did with the triple decker house above. The decorative boards on top of each entry hole were actually shingles from an old camp on the Lanesboro Road. The shingles were cut the way you see and I simply cut off the bottom and nailed them on.

As stormy days approach, making bird houses is a great project for kids or adults. A study of the birds in your area and their housing requirements is a good place to start. Be sure to read up on where your favorite birds live as a nice new house in the wrong place won't do too much for you.

Have to get going here. Need more wood for the fire and I have to shovel to the back shed. I'm still trying to find one 20 foot piece of tow chain to have ready if the rain storm that is coming turns icy again.

Best holiday wishes!

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Short Thoughts, Short?Bread

Thursday, December 4, 2008

A long day today that started at about 4 AM and is drawing to a forced close. My shoulder blades feel like there's something large on them, partly I think because as I was coming up the steps tonight, the recent corn snow had slicked things up. I instantly found that I am not good at splits with armfuls of groceries. No dozen eggs tonight, so other than my aches.... nothing broken.... all is well.

See if you can visualize this non-garden encounter I had when I returned home. I made it up the steps with pieces of brown paper bag in one hand and an unscathed bag of groceries in the other. All the way home I was listening to a news program which was detailing how bad the drug scene is in Vermont, Oxy this and Percocet that. So I opened the door and there in front of me, passing a bottle of vanilla back and forth between them, are Gail and Alex. I asked the obvious "What is this all about?" to which I received a non answer and heard another "That is so nice." Great, now I have to add vanilla sniffers to my list of life burdens.

As I pushed the groceries onto the counter, Gail said that she and Alex were preparing to make shortbread and they just got to the vanilla part. Remember now that we are home schoolers at our house and Alex has some quirky Aspergers traits but cooking is a favorite pursuit he enjoys and we do too. I had forgotten that I had asked Gail about shortbread after reading a couple weeks back that Ann Zuccardy of the Vermont Shortbread Company (has a blog too) was thinking about selling twelve years of work. Don't get me wrong, I didn't want to buy a shortbread company (and Ann's is a great one!!) but I did want to see how the recipe from the cookbook King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion turned out. This is a great cookbook by theKing Arthur Flour folks from Norwich, Vermont, a place that should be on everyones "Go Visit" List.

So-o-o-o-o as I recovered from the case of the fallen groceries, Alex and Gail proceeded with the recipe and in time the shortbread was in the oven and Karl the Wonder Dog and I were thinking about sharing some. As we waited, I looked over the recipe again. Although I have eaten shortbread in various shapes, it is traditionally round and that's how the cookbook directs you.

In time the baking was done and Alex flipped the bread out on the board. The fork print design for some reason wasn't deep enough to show through nicely but for a first attempt at an untried recipe, it was great. The recipe makes two pans and one was gone before I could get a picture of the other. I recommend the cookbook, the store in Norwich and Vermont Shortbread Company.
Try them all!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the temperature is 29, snow is falling and the wind is howling as the front moves along. If you like history, try Wikipedia for King Arthur Flour and trace K.A.F. from 1790 in Boston to where it is today. Nice story, good company.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Business Insurance

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A cold morning here on the mountain, so cold in fact that I think it's January, not November. The seven degrees above zero is not the bad part, it's the wind which cuts through untempered skin that just a week ago experienced +60 degrees for two days. It will come to pass but for the next few days through Thanksgiving, we will experience more light snow, wind and cold. I already am missing the long morning walks with Karl the Wonder Dog but even he says the wood stove is too comfortable to trade for anything.

Back when I started this blog I said I would try to offer some insight into building and growing a business. Some of what I offer needs personal interpretation, like how I build a new shade garden, but some guidance like putting up shade houses or where to buy them in New England is more clear. Like it or not, one aspect of business that always needs attention is insurance.

There are a few things in life that I don't care for all that much. Some are controversial and not good on a blog and insurance is close to the perimeter of such a discussion. It's one of those things that you just plain have to maintain in today's world. It comes up any time you apply for bank loans and you get reminded each year at tax time if you have a good accountant. But before the insurance discussion, a reminder about what you call your business in the world of taxes and insurance.

Years back we ran Vermont Flower Farm as a hobby at home and then it actually became a real business. Originally we were a sole proprietorship but as time passed, our assets and our customer base grew to the point that we kept looking at the value of our personal assets and our business assets. We had never had any problem with customers or staff but you always heard that "fall down and break a leg" discussion. Our business had grown to a longer season and our gardens placed customers in different places on our property.

Some visitors had to walk down the dirt road to access the lower hosta garden, some walked through a bumpy woods path to the peonies and daylily nurseries out back and others just plain pulled little red coaster wagons through the paths and picked up black plastic pots of various perennials. Probably the scariest day in our history to that point was the day a psychiatrist sent his patient to our place (unannounced by all of course!) to view nice flowers (a positive I was told) and come in close proximity with insects (a negative I was told) which she was paranoid about. The blood curdling screams of that exercise in absolute stupidity will never leave my recall, not even this morning at seven degrees, white and blustery. The woman was not hurt physically but her paranoia was challenged big time and as she ran through the gardens, arms flailing, I had no idea how/if she had been injured.

Sometimes it takes little things like this to make you bump yourself to the next level and we immediately moved to a commercial business policy and also moved from a sole proprietorship to a limited liability company. The latter separates personal and business assets and in today's world that's where we should have been in the first place. An LLC doesn't insure that if you are sued you'll be safe, it offers a little more assurance that your bed will still be there at night and the fridge will still run, even if empty of food.

As businesses grow, staff additions sometimes occur and as we moved away from bartering with people and part time laborers, it was clear that workers compensation insurance had to be added to our list of insurances. In Vermont when you first start with workers comp, your business may have some history but not on record with an insurance company so you begin with the assigned risk group. Your agent searches for companies interested in insuring your business and you make a decision on the "takers". Depending on the business, there may be few interested companies and the premiums may shake you up. A roofer, carpenter, electrician, heavy equipment operator all pay startling premiums and those are reflected in the wages they receive.

Part of Vermont's regulation is that as soon as you enter the assigned risk pool which is state mandated, your name is made available to other registered agents. This insures that employees who might have been placed in an incorrect risk group can be properly assessed. So as the close of your first year in the assigned risk pool nears, you begin to hear from companies who are interested in bidding on your coverage.

I have always been driven to keep paperwork at a minimum and have had the same insurance company since 1983. House, business, two cars, at one time a lake property--all under one umbrella. Workers comp was the first insurance to disrupt this convenience and I learned a lot about the change. When I rebid the entire package, one company said they would save me almost $200 per year but there was a caveat. They proposed coverage through 4 different companies which they said they would maintain annually. I just couldn't buy it because in my mind I was and am comforted in the knowledge that I know who I am calling if a have a question and my rates of combined insurances are about as good at they will get.

So the only message I can offer on a cold morning and after two cups of coffee is to research your insurance needs well, make a list of questions and get the answers from of variety of interested companies. Consider deductibles and replacement values and loss of use of buildings or machinery, think through vandalism and theft, natural disaster and your customer experience to date. If you are an organic operation, consider outside influences that might rob you of that classification. I once knew a family who had an organic operation and a plane flew close by spraying an adjacent orchard. The over spray hit their farm and you can imagine the rest.

None of this is difficult, all is a bit of a chore but it all has to happen. Since businesses are for the future, they factually do have a life, and since good business people should have a plan for what they will do with their business when they don't want it any longer, insurance is a big part of this. If you have insurance questions, I cannot be helpful other than to say do not postpone the responsibility, some of which you are legally obligated to maintain.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the sun is shaking off a cold start and the blue jays are using their beaks to knock the snow off the feeder to find breakfast.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Heartwood Time

Saturday, Novemeber 15, 2008

A busy morning here on the mountain, not "us" being busy but being surrounded by the commotion generated by the opening day of rifle deer season in Vermont. Headlights break the darkness, traveling in all directions as hunters head for deer camps, favorite "stands" or agreed upon meeting places. Karl the Wonder Dog began his security watch around 4 AM and within half an hour I was up and around, wanting just a little more sleep but knowing it was a hopeless wish with so much uninvited company.

Karl and I had hardly stepped off the walkway to the lawn and he came to attention with a mean growl that sounded like a "STOP, Who Goes There?" to me. Close by, in the damp, thick air of the 52 degree morning, I felt the presence of a big bodied animal not far from us. First I thought it was a moose but as it moved away, there was no sound of hooves in the damp soil. I quickly passed over 'paranormal' and concluded that Mrs Bear and the cubs were passing through again. As long as she is moving away from me I am fine with that but having a protection unit at the end of the leash can be troublesome depending on how the bear interprets relationships. This morning all went well and we got back to the house safely.

Yesterday morning as I stopped at Tim's Mobil for my daily morning paper and extra large Green Mountain Coffee , someone I had never seen before asked "Blog don't work?" as he never stopped walking towards the sleepy cashier. "What's that?", I queried as other coffee pourers stopped filling cups to catch the answer. "You're not writin" much now. Sick?" It still didn't register who this man was but I could tell by his dress that he was a logger and the conversation proved that even some loggers are gardeners....or read gardening blogs.

It might have been difficult to figure through his oiled chain saw chaps and ragged sweatshirt, but the smile through a pile of third day growth whiskers made it clear he missed the blog. I topped off my coffee and walked up to him as he almost swallowed whole the first of 6 Eddie's jelly donuts. "I've been cleaning up for the season and the new nursery is taking more time than I thought." "I figured that." he replied "See you out there every night and don't know when you sleep. Get some writing done cuz we miss it." I told him that I appreciated his comments and I'd get back on target soon.

If you follow garden blogs, there's always a time when there's a noticeable absence. Everyone has some chores which take a bit longer than usual and priorities are a must. For me, it's been splitting wood for the next season or two as I like to be at least a year ahead. That insures that we have dry would to burn and even if something happens to me that interrupts my schedule, the house will be warm and worries about creosote in the chimney won't exist.

In a few minutes I have to get going on the wood pile that if half and half, ash and beech. I dislike cutting either of these trees as they are on my list of favorites. Unfortunately both have major problems and they are dying out around here. The ash is bothered by the emerald ash borer, a beetle that has been here for 6 years now. That number is in conflict with what all the state and federal tree people say but I identified the problem here while they were denying it existed.

With the beech, there has been a serious decline that started in Vermont in the early 60's. The problem involves Nectria fungus and the beech scale insect which in conjunction are known as Beech Bark Disease. The smooth beech barks become pock marked and the heartwood begins to get pulpy as the tree quickly dies. In short order the tree is worthless for lumber or even firewood and the result is great economic significance to an important resource. I cut this very high BTU wood when I see signs of bad health. I don't like to but it's better to use the resource than it have it fall into useless piles.

Before it rains today I want to wash off the brush hog and the tiller and get them covered for the winter. There's a still a ton of empty pots stacked here and there and residual debris from a short but successful summer on Route 2. Better get going as rain shows strong on the radar and the temperature will fall as will snow by morning.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where two shots just broke the morning silence. Deer hunting is a big economic event in Vermont.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Friday, October 31, 2008

Japanese Beetles

Friday, October 31, 2008

It was apparently a quiet night here on the mountain. Apparently. A beautiful starlit night, motionless air and 16 crisp degrees suggesting the distinct possibility that the prediction for a +50 degree, snow-melting day would occur. That apparition dissolved about 4 am when Karl the Wonder Dog, premise protector extraordinaire, life buddy, home security chief, flew out of slumber like one of those vertical take off jets, ending a dream I'll never get back to. As I left the dream, I thought I heard someone at the back door so I stumbled in that direction, ungratefully cursing while simultaneously begging Karl to calm before three zombies were fully awake and bouncing off the walls for the balance of the night.

When I got to my office and flipped on the outside perimeter light, the tracks in the snow below the window made the problem obvious. I got dressed and leashed up Karl and we headed outside. The sow bear and two cubs had been standing on the back steps getting ready for one of those Goldilocks maneuvers as they went from place to place in the yard, turning over stacked plant crates and five gallon buckets looking for breakfast.

Karl is a strange security officer for sure. He stops abruptly and snorts hard like a musk ox or a pawing bull but one always wonders what he'd do if large, physical danger approached. I knew that the bears had heard his noise long before I pulled on my boots so the only fear I had was how I'd make it through the rest of the day without enough sleep.

We circled the yard and tracks were everywhere. Two days ago I had spread a little cracked corn on a platform bird feeder and then the rain came and the birds left. That provided sufficient smell that the bears bent over the steel pole and licked off the little corn that remained. Once again my eagerness to enjoy birds out my office window disrupted my sleep. I know better than to do this but I messed up again. In a forgiving way, I was thankful that Karl's auditory perception was so clear. When he finished pulling me around the yard, we returned to the house and he was fast asleep almost before I got my boots off.

Something that is really more troublesome to me than bears is Japanese beetles. A month ago I wanted to mention beetle control as I have that one figured out. I've written about this before and I guess that's a sign of how important I think it is to get control of this beetle. There's plenty of information on the Internet about how the beetle got to America but less obvious info about milky spore. I swear by this bacteria and suggest that you do some quick research and consider it. If your soil temperature is already below 50 degrees, it's too late to apply this year but just the same you can get prepared for next spring. Several companies manufacture it but here's an example of what I purchase from the garden section in Vermont box stores. It's about $25 to cover 2500 square feet. Give it some thought, it really works!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the stars switch has been turned off for the night and I have to get to work!

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Shade Garden Construction Continues

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A quiet morning here on the mountain. 37 degrees which is the warmest in a few days. A front is approaching with rain by noon and heavy rain by tonight. Predictions are from 1 to 3 inches by midnight tonight so there's lots to do this morning to stretch the day as far as possible.

I took off most of yesterday from my regular job to work on the new shade garden. This is a big project which Gail had her doubts about me completing, actually even starting, this fall. Good gardeners have goals and one of mine was to get the designated area cleaned up and rototilled for next spring. This had to match the declining night time temperatures and my need to get the tractor home and get next year's wood supply out of the woods before the snow comes. As of this morning, the project has a bunch left but is on target to be completed. It was "close" a couple days this week because night temperatures in the low twenties froze things solid and thaw didn't occur until late afternoon. This is a characteristic of this portion of our new land. It lays in a hollow, bordered in the back by the Winooski River for some warmth but low enough otherwise to frost up first when other areas are warmer.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, our hosta collection is not big by collectors standards but hidden away here on the hill are over 400 varieties. We actually have more but unlike some gardeners we don't maintain an Excel spreadsheet with everything in the collection. If we grow for sale, we know what we have for stock but probably half what we grow has not been put into sales yet. The only excuses for that is developing salable numbers or finding the time.

This new garden intends to recreate the shade garden in the old barn foundation here on the hill. For many people, no matter how nice it is, it won't be the same. I agree, but also guarantee that in a couple years, the garden will be a destination for those interested in shade plants including hostas.

The soil at this site is alluvial clay washed there annually for years as the spring river flow went over the bank and covered the area several feet deep. There's not a rock, not a pebble to be found. Just before we came to Marshfield in 1989 the river was reconstructed a bit and the spring flows began going where they should. This summer's rain was a good test to how much water that river can hold and save for debris damming it up, we have no worries.

Riverbanks are notorious for their collection of weeds and shrubs. They contain wide samplings of about every plant that lies upstream from the point you are working on. In this part of Vermont you can be assured that you'll find wild hops growing up the alders, Joe Pye Weed, Jewelweed, Forget-Me-Nots, Ground Ivy, Vetch, Burdock,Canada Thistle, and Japanese Knotweed in abundance. There are tons of matted Goldenrod woven into a terrible mess with a variety of 5-6 foot tall grasses. On any perimeter where there is a little sun, poison ivy is guaranteed and smattered here are there are wildflowers, in this case trilliums, Lilium canadense, Purple Fringed Orchids, Red and also White Baneberries. The mix creates a challenge for the gardener as members of this offering belong to the "Wish I Never Saw You" Collection.

As of last night I am down to two truckloads of top growth to load up and bring back here. I'm filling in a couple areas in a back field here so I can get the material off the nursery land and put it to use. I have now rototilled all the new areas over a dozen times and with each till I am getting a little deeper into any remaining root systems I missed earlier. The three yellow "x's" mark large groups of Spotted Joe Pye Weed which I have left for their height and shade. The large yellow spot is a wet area which will be dug out a bit next year. I have lots of left over clay piled up and the plan is to dig out the wet area and drop in some loose clay so hold the water in that area better when it rains. Earlier this week there was one night of rain and I can't work that end again this year because it is saturated. My plan is to surround that area with various Ligularias, Rodgersias, Astilboides tabularis and similar plants that are large leaved and like their feet wet. Then I'll add giant swaths of various astilbes. Each tree will be surrounded by swaths of the same hosta and somewhere, yet to be determined, will be a network of stone paths.

If you look at the picture with a little imagination you can see a slight definition above the truck and tractor that represents an old road. It comes down behind the tree line and is more noticeable on the right side of the picture above the pond location. I have already cleared this and tilled it. It is directly in front of the fence and now represents an elevated walkway. My plan is to have a stone path come down the perimeter from the right of the picture and then extend across through the trees so visitors can view the gardens from above. I'll probably need a bridge of sorts to keep people out of the seasonal muck that predominates above the pond location but for next year that may be a couple elevated 2 X 12's.

Next spring after the summer planting is done, I'll go through this whole piece, free it of weed plants I have missed, rototill it again and then begin planting. The soil is so good that I really think the plants will catch on quickly. It is a work in progress no different than the foundation garden we have left behind. If you travel Route 2, glance down the bank and you'll see a garden that will be worth stopping to visit!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the only noise this morning is my stomach suggesting breakfast is in order, two cups of coffee doesn't cut it!

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Monday, October 20, 2008

October Skies

Monday, October 20, 2008

I woke up early this morning with pins and needles carpal tunnel hand and a hope that the day would be kind to me. Karl the Wonder Dog sat up and whimpered which is his cue for going outside. He knows that on Mondays I start a week of different behavior but he didn't care this morning as he wanted to go out. I think he slept through the part of the Red Sox game just before I gave up last night and neither of us made the last call of the night.

I got dressed quickly and headed for the back door. Karl was obviously more awake than me as he already wanted to play a "try to catch me" game which didn't really tickle me all that early in the morning. I latched onto him and snapped on the leash with a couple non- dog expletives and away we went into the cold.

This time of year caution is the word on the first step. That's when you find out how thick the frost is and whether you will dance to the ground or not. Karl was away after some scent before I could get organized and before I knew it I was looking at a star-filled sky and a large meteor plummeting down. I must love that dog for what I go through.

Forty minutes later I was out the door and heading to Waterbury to work. Tired, lame and too cranky to pick up the pot of Aster 'October Skies' that I had knocked off the steps. Asters are a great fall plant, a good grower and an easy plant for color no matter how cold it gets. I almost like its color in contrast to the reds and yellows of the maple leaves and the bright yellows of tamarack needles. But for today, it was off to work, enjoying what was to become a gray clouded day with little warmth until after 4 PM.

Hope your fall days are going well and that you have had a chance to plant some spring bulbs. If the Farmers Almanac is correct again, spring bulbs and color will be in order when Vermont welcomes in May 2009.

Good gardening wishes from a tired gardener,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Constructing A Shade Garden

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A quiet night here on the mountain. Gail is reading, Alex is grouching away at a home school project and Karl the Wonder Dog is in front of the wood stove, almost motionless with only an occasional rise and fall of his ribs. Dogs apparently mellow out better than humans when they are relaxing....I should be so lucky!

It's quiet outside too with everything well dampened from a full day's worth of heavy rain. The foliage season had never been so good until this morning. It has been going strong since about the 22d of September, with bright reds and strong yellows, greens and browns. Many of you have asked for more pictures but I have had so much work at the nursery to finish up that camera clicking has been off the list. Here are a few shots in haste on my part. Just click to enlarge if you're so inclined.

As for today's topic, return to the introductory photo at the top of the page. If you have followed this blog, or The Vermont Gardener, or have checked out our old but good website, Vermont Flower Farm, or if you have just plain visited us at Peacham Pond Road before our move, you will have an understanding of our love for shade plants. We maintained (past tense) a beautiful garden within an old barn foundation and by it's virtues it had become a destination for many gardeners.

This summer we moved to our new location and placed a few thousand hostas and shade plants in and around a couple shade houses. One house was 20 by 30 feet and the other was 20 feet by 60 feet. The plant quality was as superb as ever but the displays, no matter how often they were changed, just weren't the same as the real thing.

Moving and developing new gardens in the same summer is an impossibility without a bundle of money. As such we progressed as best we could and we're proud of what we accomplished. A 10 foot by 200 ft garden breaks the entrance to the nursery from the plants themselves. It's weedy but plantings held up well and will be completed next spring. The "stone bones" of what will become a certified daylily display garden are set. Other gardens have been started and the 5000 daylily plants in various garden plots is a good start by itself. Just the same, the shade plants hadn't received any real attention.

Gail had herself convinced that I would not get to a hosta and shade garden this year and perhaps not until later next year. Let me just say that she does not know me as well as some that work with us. Three days ago I began what should amount to about 40 hours of tractor work excavating a site a little over 300 feet long and 10 to 100 feet wide. If you enlarge the picture at the top, you will receive a sense of the proposed garden.

To the left of the picture you'll note a piece of the Winooski River which winds behind the garden. The couple house roofs suggest where the village of Marshfield commences. The new garden is only scratched out in the land as I used the tractor bucket to skim off all the weeds and then began the process of rototilling back and forth, back and forth. The soil is free of as much as a peeble and being close to the river it leaches water at a depth of about 10 inches on down. The end on the right is lower and a line of heavy clay forms an underground dam and holds water at that end as it seeps through the bank and into the river.

A little more than a week ago, George the geologist came by and sampled the area. The proposed area was covered with weeds at the time but now its nakedness confirms the samples. It is at least three feet deep in alluvial soil deposited over the years during various floods. Although this soil type is devoid of organic material and although the top dries to dust in 2-3 days, it's all fixable, it's easier to improve than clay and it's perfect for shade tolerant plants like hostas.

Riding around on the tractor is great fun for some but it wears on my back and legs after a bit. Just the same, one look at what I have done so far is sufficient encouragement to keep at it. My goal is to have it ready to plant before the snowflakes get too deep. That will give me the days of winter to design what will go where, bring in the rest of the hard scape and order up trees and shrubs. I know the single picture lends little direction to where I am heading but bear with me. This new garden won't be able to replace the old barn foundation, but it will be a shade garden you'll want to walk through....time and again, in peace and tranquility. Be patient. Plan a visit.....

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where large flocks of Canada Geese flew high
during Tuesday and Wednesday nights moonlit skies. Cars now come with built in GPS's but geese always had them.

With cool garden thoughts of fall chores,
Gardening wishes,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Monday, October 13, 2008

Blog Action Day: Poverty 2008

Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Blog Action Day

Some of you may have noticed a banner on the right side of my Vermont Gardens blog. It mentions Blog Action Day and makes a commitment this year to the topic of poverty. I've already written about this at The Vermont Gardener but the topic is dear to me so here are some different thoughts.

For most people in America, getting old means learning to live with less. Although we live in an affluent country compared to some, most people find that by the time they retire they have not saved enough and inflation or health issues have created uncomfortable pressures. Some folks do better than others but conversations about "making do" are not uncommon.

My parents grew up during the Depression and they got by with all kinds of little phrases and thoughts that made them happier. They also did some things that were the direct result of living during tough times. My mother saving every Hellman's Mayonnaise jar during her lifetime in Vermont was such an example. Although my family had little, my Dad always said it was the little things that counted most and he often repeated "Please and thank-you don't cost a dime."

A few years back, Gail invited the local Seniors group to visit our flower farm for a little look-see after their meal at the community center. Gail had this thought that they would like to walk the gardens and see flowers that they may have planted and tended themselves during times when the earth wasn't so far away and when bending over didn't hurt so much. Looking back on the visit, Gail wasn't thinking about poverty when she made the invitation, she was thinking about the absence of something people probably enjoyed during earlier times of their lives. Just the same, for some people, poverty really does mean giving up what was meaningful and fun in the past for lack of health or resources in the present. Here's a picture of the group. Their faces portray the way the gardens temporarily erased thoughts of age and need. (click to enlarge)

A couple weeks back, our zinnias were in full force and were growing faster than we could sell them all. One Sunday night I picked a bucket full and dropped them off at the home of a local lady who manages and helps cook at the Senior Meals Program here in Marshfield. I suggested that the Seniors might like some flowers as zinnias appeared in about every Vermonter's garden in the old days.

It took me a few days to get the story about the impact of the flowers but the story made me smile. Essentially the flowers were spread out so everyone could make their own bouquet to take home. I guess the conversations complete with reminiscent garden stories was worth it's weight for all involved.

Today is Blog Action Day. One of the goals is that people stop for a minute and reflect upon themselves, their families, communities and world. Sometimes little things really do make a difference. There's plenty of time today to make a difference.


George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

PS Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty was a huge success. Check out

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Fall Colors

Wednesday, October 2, 2008

I've been away from Vermont Gardens for well over a week but only because I have been in the gardens working until the sun falls over Plainfield and the dew has become noticeable on the brim of my baseball cap. Days grow shorter now and despite a desire to keep working, I can't get excited about working by flood lamp to finish up the work. I have been logging long days and lots of miles at my regular job so I have to be reasonable at the nursery.

Despite the rain this summer, we had a great first season. The fall foliage has been spectacular and even after last night's inch of hard falling rain, the trees are holding tight to some nice color. When I returned from work today I cut wood for an hour and then asked Gail to come help pull cosmos and zinnias. To our surprise, the rain and warm temperatures for two days encouraged yet another flush of zinnias to bloom and the flowers were big, bright and flawless.

We pulled up all the cosmos as they had been nailed a week ago by a frost. Most were planted in a low spot at the bottom of the field and the frost settled in there quickly. We had planted these a bit heavier than usual so the plats were almost 4 feet tall and each stem was quite thick. They required a few bumps on the ground to free the clumps of dirt and then one by one they were tossed into the truck body.

The zinnias were a shame to leave tonight as frost is a possibility and there are thousands left. Gail picked huge bouquets for friends but we left behind some flower friends that may not be looking so good tomorrow. As a reminder to what you missed this year, here are a few shots.

But besides the foliage and the zinnias providing color, a different part of nature provided an attention getter which caught our eye today. The caterpillars that become swallow tail butterflies were obvious on the dill weed today. The late afternoon coolness slowed them to a standstill but that made careful observation that much easier. It was good to see three healthy caterpillars and a fourth (not so good) that was being devoured by a brown stink bug.

I am not keen on these bugs ever since I tossed one into my mouth with a handful of potato chips one day. I have read of a new, larger version called the brown marmorated stink bug
and although I haven't seen any reports of them in Vermont yet, I expect they are here based on an incredible smell that is obvious as I mow the field sitting on a 30 h.p. tractor. At any rate I can see no goodness in any of these as anything that eats butterflies at any stage in their life cycle is not my friend.

If you get a chance tomorrow or this weekend, get out and enjoy the foliage and the fall smells (except stink bugs and flattened skunks!) and sounds. Owl's Head in Groton State Forest remains open until Columbus Day so if you're in the area, climb the steps and enjoy the views. Cameras and a good field guide to birds are encouraged!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where Karl the Wonder Dog is snoring next to the wood stove that feels so-o-o-o good after working through the evening hours.

George Africa,
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sunshine and Sunflowers

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The makings of another great day here on the hill. It's 35 degrees out right now, still and quiet. I've been up since about 4 when the moonshine was bright enough to confuse a tired gardener who really should have slept a bit longer. This will be another fine autumn day just the same.

The contrast today is that the ground doesn't have patches of white from thick but spotty frost. As I headed for Waterbury yesterday, many properties along the way were dotted with parts of a massive patchwork quilt of sheets and towels, tarps and old shower curtains, grain sacks and recycled construction poly. The freeze was severe in some places, ending all gardening for this year while in other places the threat was only that. Forecasters now predict 5 consecutive days with no threat of frost so we'll enjoy the annual flowers a bit longer. Despite a below freezing temperature here, some things are history, others were untouched.

Each night now as I return from my "other" world of work, I stop at the nursery and work until about 7. That's when the mosquitoes begin to bite and the sun goes into hiding. Last night the sun was dropping faster than I could get started but even an hour's worth of work helps with the giant fall clean up. One of the projects is pulling the sunflowers.

Sunflowers are a neat crop and again this year we bought seeds from the commercial side of Johnnys Selected Seeds in Maine. The sunflower varieties are extensive as you can tell by the rows we planted. Alex has begun to help pull those that have gone by while Gail avoids the project as if it doesn't have to happen. To stand tall, sunflowers grab the earth with a tenacity that challenges the strongest of us. Sometimes you end up with a broken stalk but if you're lucky, it's the entire plant that breaks loose and you can pound off the dirt, lop off the seed head for drying and move the balance onto a long term recycle pile.

As the sunflowers dry naturally, the pistels on each seed in the head will drop off and the seeds will begin to cure. As we cut them, we rub off the extras to get to the seeds which then dry faster in the sun.

Some sunflowers show their maturity by dropping their heads as if in embarrassment and cure from there. You wouldn't think a flower would look away from you but some of these do.

Over the next couple days we'll pull all these plants. We'll keep the good seed heads for the feeders here on the hill and leave the rest along the river bank for the birds. River buffer zones are important to wildlife and the seeds will be welcomed meals to a variety of birds and animals.

This year we should have 250 pounds of seed when all is done. Since 50 pounds bags now exceed $26, the left overs from our cut flower sales will help with our budget. The birds, squirrels, mice and chipmunks should be happy too.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where Karl the Wonder Dog just convinced Gail he could wait no longer and off they went on a morning walk.

Best autumn gardening wishes,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Empty Bench

Friday, September 12, 2008

It's a dark morning here on the mountain. The thermometer reads 52 degrees with a slight wind and a dampness that walked with Karl the Wonder Dog and me as we headed down the woods trail. Although the weather folks say rain by late today, I can only hope for that prediction as I have a long list of things to do and rain-free until 5 would make it easier.

Gail just headed to the statehouse in Montpelier for a speaker on autism that she wanted to hear. Autism prevails in our family so we try to learn every resource, hear every new methodology possible. Gail is a like sponge with this information and she always remembers the appropriate time to share it with a new friend who just received a diagnosis in their family and knowns not where to turn. No matter what my schedule, I am quick to modify my day so she can attend. Just thinking about this reminds me that I have to update our Autism page on the Vermont Flower Farm website. We have lots of new resources since I last looked.

If you happened to read The Vermont Gardener yesterday, my post Gardening Respite described our trip to Maine and my walk through the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. No matter where I travel, I always meet gardeners and they are always quick to develop relationships and share information.

As I walked the refuge trails, I came down the path to stop number three where I have met the same man for the past two years. As I approached this time, the bench upon which he always sat was empty. I had an immediate feeling of sadness for a man I had come to know only on a couple brief visits.

Two years ago, same week, same time, I met the man sitting on the bench looking out to the marsh. As we talked we shared that we both came to Maine the same time of year and had been doing so for some years. The man was a Korean War vet and he had lung cancer. He was positive about his treatment but I could tell that the absence of his wife who had recently passed was an additional burden. He said walking the refuge gave him a sort of refuge from daily life and it brought back memories of the two of them walking the trail together.

Last year we got into a gardening discussion. He shared that he was a vegetable gardener and I said I was too busy with flowers to even plant a row of lettuce or a single tomato. At the end of our talk, we both said we'd follow each other's advice and try growing something different. He said he's look for me again, and God willing we'd meet. We shook hands and parted, me for the car, him still watching the marsh.

As I gave up waiting and headed down the path, my mind processed all the reasons he wasn't there this year. I missed our conversation but I know sometime we will meet again.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where damp eyes run even for gardeners.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunny Labor Day Coming

August 31, 2008

Ten minutes before 8 PM and I just heard the water stop running to the roadside garden here on the mountain. Gail has been out watering potted daylilies for over two hours but the darkness has pushed her to the limit and she will settle in for the night.

August has sped by for us and we cannot figure out where summer went. The bad weather will be a forever memory but the amount we accomplished in a few months will encourage us on for the balance of this season and on into the next. In most all respects it was a very good summer.

Two nights back we looked at pictures from early May when our new business was but a flat of groomed crushed stone and a pile of lumber. Three and a half months later as business winds down, we can look at a very nice building, two shade houses, electricity, a water pump, twenty four planted gardens of daylilies, a full five acre perimeter fence, and the makings of a very nice daylily display garden. The "things-to-do" list is very, very long but in a four days we'll take a break and head to Maine as we always do. Then we'll return and work as long as the ground temperature remains at 50 degrees or better. We need eight more 12 X 50 foot gardens for more daylilies and two 30 X 60 foot gardens which will shadow either side of a new shade house of that same dimension. That shade house won't arrive until next spring but we want to begin to get the accompanying gardens ready now.

I guess what this shows is that two people, with a business plan, with a dose of mental and physical perseverance, with some good friends and with some loyal workers can really take big steps in a short season. We are very proud of what we have accomplished but without everything and everyone mentioned, it couldn't have happened this quickly or this well.

For a couple weeks now hundreds of sunflowers have welcomed us each day. Like the smiling faces we saw every morning when we started work, the bright sunflower colors encourage us to continue. As summer really ceases and fall moves into winter, I will try to fill in the blanks of moving a business like this. When I started this blog I promised to offer thoughts about this type horticultural business. I've gotten off course at times and missed cues when I had good opportunities but considering the work accomplished, it's understandable. Bear with us

and like two sunflowers sharing sunflower stories, we'll catch up soon.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond, where evening quiet is just that.....quiet.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

August Colors Continue

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

It's quiet now, almost 8:30 PM and an in-between time that occurs just after the sun's last rays absent themselves and before the night celestials turn on or the night animals begin to sing. There's an interruption of sorts going on in the kitchen as Alex is mixing a grapefruit spritzer--cling-cling-cling with the spoon and Gail just took a Honey Spice Cake out of the oven--the second in as many days. The recipe comes from a World War II cookbook Alex and I found at the used bookstore in Plainfield some time ago. We have cooked many recipes from it and this one served as Alex's birthday cake yesterday. Three boys came over, all friends from pre school days. They are all good guys who have learned to accept their friends autism and not forget him despite how the world turns.

Gardeners ask for help this time of year in their quest to bring more color to their gardens. For us, much of the color is accidental as everything we plant has a purpose and a place but for some, this is difficult. The top picture includes orienpet lilies from Judith Freeman and The Lily Garden, Vancouver, WA. If you like the lilies, go to her site by the same name and you'll be fascinated by your opportunities. The backdrop includes a hydrangea of unknown origin but one Gail acquired and planted several years back. It started slow this spring after begin covered by 8 feet of snow this winter but it is a champion and adds nice contrast. Look carefully and you'll note a yellow hollyhock flower which adds the contrast collections like this need.

The Lilium superbum are bordered on the left by hosta flowers and backdrops of shasta daisies. The fence post that is sticking up was salvaged perhaps 15 years ago, maybe longer from a long fence that someone was throwing out in Woodstock, Vermont. It's covered with blue and gray fungus now but it sure provides a definition to our gardens.

There are many, many cimicifugas out there now and these are an example. Gail goes for the dark one like James Compton, Pink Spike, Hillside Black Beauty or Brunette but I'll take waves of ramosa or the height of atropurpurea any time. These were renamed actea but I'll accept cimicifuga for some time.

August color is a must and this year, although our new nursery gardens are lacking in maturity, they are on their way to being special too. Sometimes gardens that reside in past memory or current mind have sufficient display to get the garden designer in us working better when we visit plant club sales and nurseries we like. If you have a question or an incomplete thought, ask Gail when you stop by. She is forever completing sentences for me so i'll bet she can help you too.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where Karl the Wonder Dog is already snoring and spice cake aromas seem more tantalizing than tv convention noise. Maybe with vanilla ice cream tonight--the spice cake, not the convention!

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm Our website that can serve as a place to pull together great gardening ideas

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Zinnia Time

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Heading for 9 PM already so it has been a long enough day here at Vermont Flower Farm. I was later than usual getting to Route 2 to open for business today but figured folks would not stop by until well after lunch because of the good weekend weather. I was right about that so I had some time to get a few things caught up. Every morning we begin by picking a representative daylily from the garden of each variety we have in bloom. This time of year things are slowing down so it didn't take as long.

I just got in full swing with one row remaining to draw from and I heard a car coming down the flat, obviously in trouble and sputtering like an engine on it's last leg. It coasted into our driveway entrance, half blocking the area. Before I could make it to the top of the field, the owner, a woman with three kids in tow, asked if she could use the phone as her cell phone didn't work in our area and her car, (why yes!) just "stopped".

Many people in Vermont, and around the country for that matter, try to make a car go forever. Cars are expensive and so are clothes for three kids going off to school next week. This car was a 2000 Ford van and my money is on the fact it won't ever run again. Two calls to her friends, one to AAATravel for the wrecker and by 9:40 things were back to normal for me but not for the "carless" family.

I got back to picking sunflowers for sale as cut flowers and then zinnias by the bucketfull. People always have liked zinnias and I remember them from my first days in Vermont when the neighboring farm ladies, Fidelia and Lillian, and their mother, Eunice, had a flower garden with rows of 'State Fair' zinnias growing tall all season.

As I finished the picking, I checked the water pump and happily found that it was still working well. I began dead heading the daylilies in the field when Winnie, our Chief of Hydrological Services (80 something years old and better fit than me!) called to see if Gail had arrived and if so was she ready for some fresh coffee. Winnie is a special person who does the work of many local people helping our community. We are somehow on the list she maintains and she helps water plants and do odds and ends including making coffee for Gail when she needs a cup.

Gail arrived and the coffee and conversation seemed to give sufficient jump-start on the bouquet making project which went on for an hour. I had picked buckets of various sizes of zinnias as well as foliage from cosmos and some stems of Eupatorium maculatum 'Gateway' I thought would make nice filler..... and it did.

I had some errands to run too including a stop to pick up a load of calcium sulphate, more commonly known as gypsum. I am getting closer to tilling 8 more 12 X 50 foot gardens and as soon as that is finished, I need the gypsum to break down the clay. By the time I got back at 6 PM, the place was quiet and I could sit for a minute and enjoy the things we have accomplished so far this summer. If you get a chance to come visit, you'll probably be as amazed as we are.

As I sat in the hosta shade house, I was reminded that Austin is with us for one more week before returning to college. He'll keep the Chevy loaded next week and will continue planting the various display gardens. He's been a real asset too and like the zinnias, has grown this summer and learned a lot about this kind of business.

Time for sleep as I have to move the tractor in the morning. Hope you enjoyed the day.

Good gardening!

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Daylilies Continue To Bloom

Alice In Wonderland

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

58 degrees here on the hill with a heavy fog hanging down towards the pond. It would be a great morning to tour the various kettle ponds around here and take pictures of the fog over the water and the moose and deer drinking at the edge. The nursery calls me to set up for Gail for the day before I head out to the real job. Sadly for me, there's no time for taking pictures or enjoying the wild critters. Today it's just a thought, but maybe I can squeeze out one early morning this weekend.

The summer has been a summer with no summer with heavy, constant rains which have made the daylily fields a muddy mess. Just the same the daylilies are blooming and blooming and some like the Chicago series are now putting forth more scapes. Double Dream and Classy Lassie are two basic daylilies but if you don't have them in your garden, you should stop by and take a look or call Gail and order some. They bloom on and on, not with a couple blooms here or there but with a profusion we haven't seen before. I expect them to bloom for a couple more weeks like this but the weather will be the influencing factor I am sure.

Patio Parade

Around the garden there are some daylilies that catch my eye. These are not fancy, new-to-the market, collectors favorite type plants but daylilies that are backbones of a garden, daylilies that bloom dependably and fill the palette. Patio Parade is blooming strong and 32" tall right now. The petals are thick and high winds don't waste it away. I planted two dozen this spring by the lower nursery border next to some tall white veronica and close to some Eupatorium maculatum 'Gateway'. Next year this spot will be an attention-getter as the contrast in foliage, height and color are dynamic. Folks who want a couple noticeable daylilies by the back garden or entrance are noticing Patio Parade for this use.

Grape Velvet

This is not a good picture of the beauty of Grape Velvet. I can't seem to get the color right. The name says it all but the picture doesn't show what I want. This is an older daylily which is difficult to find. We grow on all we can and never have enough. For three years now Gail has tried to order in a quantity from our supplier and they never are correct. The color is really darker and the velvet part of the name is very true. We have about three dozen left for sale this year so if this tickles your interest, call Gail soon.

Double Firecracker

Doubles never intrigued me--kind of like streaked hostas but it's something that grows on you. I always loved Double River Wye, a light, lemon double that has started blooming in our garden again. This Double Firecracker and Double Dream, Double Yellow and Double Gold are all blooming off and on now and it's nice to see the stand-out colors as we are half way to September.

Guess I better get going here. I was interrupted once already by Karl the Wonder Dog. He heard a small buck entering the hosta garden and I don't know what possesses me to try to protect a garden that has been neglected and well eaten so far this year. Just the same, we ran out and non stop barks with mild ferocity got the buck down the road far enough that he knew Karl wasn't coming. The buck's challenge was really an insult to Karl's ability but Karl and other dogs seldom pick up on animal insults. A dog with a wagging tail clearly thinks he "did good".

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where good gardens soothe tired bones and sore muscles and make me feel proud about what we have accomplished this year at the new nursery. Come visit if you can!

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm