Thursday, January 24, 2008

Cold Weather, Warm Sliced Bread

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Almost 5 PM here on the mountain. Just home from work and I'm kind of cross eyed from two busy days and an almost sleepless night thanks to Karl the unwonderful dog. There seems to be a point every year towards the end of January when the wild critters from the Groton State Forest yearn for a menu different than they can find in the woods. Last night in the bright moon and cold weather, wildlife came to visit and Karl went nuts. This critter thing is reminiscent of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are except that my usual fear is that I'll never get back to sleep before it's time again for work.

Sitting here now and looking down the hill and into the field I can see the problem. Tracks from the woods converge in the vicinity of the compost pile so that location must have been on last night's animal party invitation. I can see three distinct sets of coyote tracks, two larger than the third, and one fisher track even from here on the hill. Fishers are amazing animals with an ability at maturity to leap over 20 feet without missing a beat. If you weren't familiar with them you might ask just how long the legs were on an animal that could leave so much space between tracks. I know they weren't looking for the leftovers in the pile but instead
for the visitors that came to them.

It's going to be cold again tonight and for the next couple nights. Below zero is predicted but I'm not sure how cold. Fortunately the predictions have been off lately and the oil burner hasn't run quite as much. When Gail is here during the day she keeps the woodstove burning but on days like today, we resort to oil. When I returned home there was a delivery receipt in the door and for six weeks we have used 91 gallons. That's not too bad considering all the company we had over the holidays and the times when we couldn't use the wood stove because of little feet pattering about.

A couple weeks back Gail caught on to the collection of Fleishman's Yeast in the door of the fridge. Sometimes I leave reminders and in this case I was hoping for some home made bread. Bread isn't difficult to make but few attempt it any more. Gail is a good cook and a good baker too and she tries to get Alex involved as much as possible. His Portuguese bread is excellent but the loaves here are few and far between.

In this case all I was looking for was some white or wheat. Gail uses the Joy of Cooking cookbook that was my mother's. It's the 1946 edition which had five previous printings and who knows how many since then. It's a real simple book, easy to understand and with dependable results.

Here's the recipe which makes 2 loaves.

Combine: 6 cups of flour
3/4 c. sugar
1 1/2 tsps salt

Heat until lukewarm:
3 c. water

Dissolve in half cup of this:
1 package of yeast

Add dissolved yeast to remaining water. Stir in the dry ingredients until the dough is well blended. Put it in a bowl topped with a covered cloth and put in a warm place where it's about 85 degrees until it has doubled in bulk (takes about 1 1/4 hours)

Split the dough and place in two greased five by ten inch bread pans. Let it rise again until it has doubled in bulk. Bake in a 400 degree oven until it is light brown, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake until done. Usually this is about 1 hour total.

These direction are pretty much copied from page 469 of the book. If you have dogs, do not put the bread even close to where they could get it as it rises. Dogs love yeast and will go out of their way to give you an opportunity to yell at them. If they got into a bowl of rising bread they would puff up like party balloons and might succumb to the event. If it didn't get that bad, you'd still wish it was a different day. I remember such a day with Rusty, my Irish Setter. I was about 6 and my memory is the only thing worse was the day she went after a porcupine.

As winter continues, if you determine bread making is not your sport, grab a stack of catalogs, do a few web searches for garden design or take graph paper and pencil and work on some new gardens. These are all good pursuits on a cold winter's eve.

Right now Karl is barking and that means Gail and Alex are home. I have to get the door.

Good garden wishes!

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Monday, January 21, 2008

Cold Weather Thoughts

Monday, January 21, 2008

A very cold morning here on the mountain. It's 12.2 below zero right now and the wind that pounded the house much of the night is subsiding a bit but the wind chill is certainly still a consideration. There had to have been a bunch of very cold people in Green Bay football land last night where the temperature was -4 and the wind chill was -24. I suspect that after the game, medical centers had visitors with common problems of frostbite.

Here in Marshfield, last night was only the fourth night this year of below zero temps. That's not bad compared to many previous years. The hard part for many, many Vermonters is the price of fuel oil which is above $3.89 a gallon now in most places. I understand that many people on limited budgets are buying off road diesel fuel at gas stations because it is still less expensive than oil dealers. That's a laborious way to go but you have to keep warm.

Despite the cold, our thoughts continue to include gardening. I stopped at Borders in West Lebanon, NH the other day to pick up a web design book and the magazine rack that contained gardening magazines was surrounded by a convention of gardeners. It was kind of like an encampment and many "lookers" had been there long enough that they rocked back and forth flamingo-like, first on one leg, then on the other as they thumbed through the pages. I think if a garden author held up her latest book and motioned to the book group area, there would have been an instant discussion. Garden books and magazines abound today and the opportunity to expand your interest grows annually; so do garden blogs and garden websites.

Here at Vermont Flower Farm we rotate our subscriptions over time. Fine Gardening, People, Places and Plants, Horticulture, Country Living, Martha Stewart all seem to be integrated with journals from the various plant societies we belong to. Every plant has a society someplace and most have a newsletter if not a formal journal. To us the American Hosta Society is hands down number one, with the American Hemerocallis Society second. Each has a nice series of journals, 3 for hostas per year and four for daylilies. The hosta journals are by far the best anyone has ever seen and as people who love daylilies, we always wish the daylily folks would catch on to improving what they deliver. Regardless of our wishes, we have the greatest respect for those who expend countless hours turning out these super publications.

We belong to the American Conifer Society, American Peony Society, American Iris Society, North American Lily Society, Pacific Northwest Lily Society, the Lily Preservation Group, some New England sub-societies of the larger hosta, daylily and lily societies, the Hardy Plant Club and the Garden Writers Association. These memberships keep us in good reading and good friendships and help keep us up on new varieties, insect and disease problems, new sources and new gardens. If you have a growing interest in a plant type, search online for one of these societies and you'll learn how to subscribe.

If you are considering the big step from crazy, compulsive, collect-a-bunch-of-one plant gardening to starting your own specialty nursery, the American Nurseryman is a good investment. It costs $48 a year and is published 26 times so there's plenty to read. I like it because it reminds me of things I should be doing that I have overlooked and it always contains lists of suppliers, reviews of new products and info on the latest insect or invasive plant problems. A subscription will place you in touch with other resources and your work quickly becomes a little easier.

There won't be a lot of reading going on today. I have some information to get out on some very important autism legislation that is in Montpelier, and then I promised Alex we'd get to a bookstore and a computer software store so he can spend some more of his Christmas gift money. Before I know it, Karl will want to brave the cold and Gail will tell me there's some breakfast ready. Just as I have written this, the temperature has dropped three more degrees and it's not encouraging me to get going. Some winter days are like that. Enjoy yours, whatever it brings!

Cold garden wishes from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the old blue jay with the battered wing has returned, still displaying his "step aside, I'm the boss" attitude.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Rain Drops and First Thaw

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Almost 7 PM here on the hill where we are anemometer-less but wish we had one. The local television news just announced the wind speeds at various Vermont towns and 55-60 mph was common. The wind continues with great ferocity here and a brief step outside with Karl the wonder dog scared both of us as a large maple tree bit the snow. That's apparently common tonight (the falling tree part) as Channel 3 reported the number of people without power. It includes 561 Green Mountain Power customers burning candles and kerosene lamps and looking for more flashlight batteries as are our friends at the Marshfield Inn. The outage extends to parts of East Montpelier and beyond. Green Mountain Power happens to be one of the better utilities when it comes to line maintenance and speedy repairs so hopefully everyone will be back to normal soon. January thaws are like this sometimes but this one is giving plenty to remember.

A week ago it was minus 15 degrees and blustery cold. Yesterday and today new records have been set and now rain and wind cut away at one of the nicest early snow packs we have seen in several years. Fifty degrees and pouring rain reminds me of mid June when our hostas are looking great. I have always enjoyed seeing the raindrops bead up on the big leaves of a Hosta 'Elegans' (above) but today the picture is only a memory.

As I sit here, letting my mind walk through the lower hosta gardens of summer, it's a calming journey. The garden I have created over the years within the walls of that old barn foundation is a peaceful place. It's easy there to pull up a rock and sit down for a few minutes to reflect on the world and enjoy the quiet.

As my mind skips through the greens and blues and whites and yellows, names come to mind. Jimmy Crack Corn, Feather Boa, Jewel of the Nile, Captain Kirk, Dick Ward, Robert Frost, Bobbie Sue, Blue Moon, Little Sunspot, Blue Jay, Olive Bailey Langdon, Yellow River, Popo, Venusta, Amber Tiara, Hacksaw, Risky Business, Royalty, Donahues Piecrust, Red October, Regal Rhubarb. There are hundreds of different hostas here and in the slide show that works through my mind.

These are some of my favorite plants and this garden is a favorite too. If winter cold begins to get to you and you aren't sold on hostas yet, take a look at the American Hosta Society site. If that shows promise try the Hosta Library Those two sites will take days to get through but if you still have some ambition, go to our Vermont Flower Farm site and try the links for
Building a Hosta Garden or Hostas A-K Those links should help you make a decision on how much you do or don't like hostas. For me there is no question......I can't buy enough!

Writing from the mountain where tomorrow's sunlight will make obvious all the rearranging tonight's winds have done.

Drive with care.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Cold Nights, Friendly Vermonters

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Just past 7 PM here on the hill at Vermont Flower Farm. Gail just brought Karl the wonder dog in from his post supper relief. It was a short trip outside and a hasty retreat up the steps and back beside the wood stove. For the 99th time since yesterday morning I have heard Gail say "Boy is it cold!" If you heard her speak the words, you'd agree without challenge. You have no choice but to agree when the thermometer reads 13.9 degrees below zero and there's a light wind blowing. As pretty as the stars and the moon are shinning from above, no amount of beauty will keep anyone out there for long.

Today I had to take Alex to Burlington and when we finished the business part of the day we did a few things he liked. We started at Barnes and Noble where I was looking for a special garden book. Alex scanned for H.P. Lovecraft books, decided against a new Star Wars Jedi v. The Sith book and bought a cook book on North African cooking. He loves cookbooks and is especially fond of things from around the world so this was a find for him.

Then we stopped at our favorite Cheese Traders on Williston Road where we picked up two loaves of Challah bread from Stewart's Bakery (yes, Vermont!), some fresh buffalo mozzarella from the farm in Woodstock, some honey mustard and a few odds and ends. We sat in the truck and had a little buffet of goodies and watched people coming and going to the store. This is a routine the two of us have and although it's never the same menu, it's always fun. Good business people know their customers and know what they like and I think the Cheese Traders folks have this figured out.

We decided to squeeze in a trip to Church Street to visit Quarterstaff Games which is Alex's favorite gaming store. This is located at 152 Church Street on the second floor, just a few steps from the corner of Church and Main. He made a purchase only after working through the Made in China label which bothers him immensely. Just the same it was a good purchase and a complicated role playing board game that he is already learning.

Our trip back to the Burlington Square parking garage was a treat as the wind off as-yet unfrozen Lake Champlain was about all either of us could handle. All the while we were out and about, I watched people and how they were shopping.

Really good businesses study their customer base and can describe who their typical customer is and what they purchase or what they ask for. To be good at this, you have to understand people and be able to describe them. I believe I am beginning to get good at this.

For Christmas I received a number of books from Gail and Alex. I reported on one nice book last night on The Vermont Gardener. It was Dan Snow's In The Company of Stone, and it's a must-read for any gardener But two books that are about people and specifically Vermonters are Vermont People by Peter Miller and Sweet Days and Beyond by Burr Morse.

Miller and Morse know a Vermonter when they see one and their writing gives great example of their skill at this. Each book is entirely different from the next but they are both great gifts and fine reading any time of year. My business point for anyone contemplating any business venture, horticultural or otherwise, is to know your customers, listen to them and talk with them. Make no assumptions about appearance, the car they drive or the dog that barks in the back seat. Knowing people and displaying this knowledge brings people back time and again. It's an issue of trust and an assurance that you know what you are talking about. In the case of a nursery business, repeat customers means all these things including your obvious knowledge of what you grow and sell.

So as you continue to work on your business plan and you get to the "How do we market?" section, give attention to the people you think will be your customers. The reward to understanding people will be in the cash drawer at the end of the day but it will also be in the friendships that you seed and the warm greetings that you will harvest for years to come.

Writing from the now -15.1 degree mountain above Peacham Pond where looking out at the snow is just fine when you're sitting by the wood stove.

George Africa

The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm