Thursday, April 24, 2008


how to install electricity

Thursday, April 24, 2008

48 degrees and overcast here on the hill this morning. The ground squooshes as you walk from all the rain that fell last night. It is uncommonly dark which is unusual for folks who have had 11 consecutive days of sun and temperatures at 65 or above. Karl the wonder dog enjoyed his morning walk and was not frightened by the smell of a fresh bear track which followed last night's rain.

A powerful thunderstorm arrived last night when I was finishing up my piece on big diggers. I had to close the computer down quickly. The light show lasted well over an hour so the part I was going to write on electrification waited in safety until now.

Most businesses need power to accomplish something. Electricity is one of those things like water in most of America. You turn on the switch and you expect water to flow or lights to pop on. Electricity can be expensive. When we arrived here in 1989 from Burlington, our monthly light bill was programed at $39 a month. Today it is at $115 and it gets reprogrammed quarterly. Yes, things have gotten more expensive. Just the same, we cannot run a business without electricity.

Last fall as people stopped at the new land to find out what we were doing, many suggested we go solar. I applaud that thinking but could not find one single person with the suggestion that had any experience, could tell me what they were talking about or could recommend an experienced user who could help. Solar power is interesting to me anyway because Vermont ranks third in the continental US for darkness. We have to look for the sun here so getting solar power without an elaborate system is a feat at times. The most experienced in the field put their panels/collectors on mechanized trackers that follow the sun and adjust the collectors to maximize aborption. Just thinking about the cost of that would deter most from looking further. In our case we need dependable energy for water pumps and sprayers and everything in between down to the telephone and computers. No solar for us yet! Plus I couldn't possibly live long enough to see a pay back.

Getting electric to a site is not difficult but it can be costly. In our case, the utilities were close by as they run along US Route 2. Except for one thing. They run on the opposite side of Route 2 so that required a new pole for $809 to get the power above and across the road to our land. Green Mountain Power is the vendor in this area and they are easy to work with as long as you have a couple bucks. They consented to place the meter on the pole which made it easier for us and the meter reader since this is a seasonal business right now.

I first met with the field rep, mapped out the pole location, and made like Robert Amundsen at the north and south poles and sunk a stake laying claim to the pole site. The only stipulation was the pole had to be planted by a truck that was stationed on US Route 2 itself. A stability/safety thing I think. Once the pole was planted were were ready to do our work. That's where the real cost began.

First I had Kevin trench from the pole to the new building site. That was a distance of 110 feet. The trench must be a minimum of 2 feet deep to meet electrical code but we went deeper because we are going to be running heavy equipment over the top. When digging any trenches, it's best to call Dig Safe first and have them come scan the area for underground wires or pipes. In this case I did not use this service because I knew the existing utilities were across Route 2. Just winging something like this and making a mistake is not prudent because if you dig up something that's not yours, you pay to have it fixed. Dig Safe is a free service paid for through the contractor consortium so there's no reason not to use it.

The other point to remember about trenching no matter where you are is that you just plain do not put a person in a deep trench without providing for his safety in case of cave ins. Many have said "I'll only be down there for a couple minutes.", and never lived to tell about it. Not many mind you, but one is too many.

We dug the trench and the electricians ( Rachel & Chris, B&B Electric from Plainfield) appeared ready to complete the underground installation. One of them started installing the meter socket on the pole while the other one laid out the PVC pipe, threaded a pull rope, got ready for the cable and built the ground fault protector. Basically you are installing plastic pipe in the ground to protect the electrical cable from water or intrusion and deterioration caused by frost heaving, rocks rubbing, etc. There's not much good to say about pulling electric entrance cable through PVC conduit. It's actual three big wires bound together, it's heavy and like a snake, it's never straight.

As soon as the meter socket was up, two ground rods were driven into the ground and connected six feet apart. Grounding is part of the electrical code. Copper prices make you scream but it has to happen and from a safety and system protection standpoint, there is no thought about the importance of grounding an electrical system. It has to happen.

On the opposite end of the run near where we will build the new sales area, I built a temporary structure to hold the breaker boxes while we build the building. I used two 4 x 4 posts 8 feet long and screwed on six pieces of 36" 5/4 pressure treated decking. That made a good area to mount the breaker box and the receptacles. When the building is built, all of the electrical components will be moved inside the building and the interior and exterior wiring will be wired into the breaker box.

When the wiring was completed we began to backfill the ditch a little, I installed my own PVC and wiring for our telephone system (no cell service in our area yet) and then we rolled out a banner of yellow plastic warning tape the length of the hole. This is so if anyone decides to start digging in that area, they will hit the tape first and be reminded to stop what they are doing before they fry themselves. Kevin came back in with his equipment and filled in the rest of the ditch. The following day Green Mountain Power stopped by and made the connection from the meter socket up the pole to their line and across to the transformer. Presto! Electricity, expensive installation, but done right forever!

Installing electricity to your business site is expensive. Doing it right the first time means you only pay once. I find contractors and power utilities helpful and know they want to do a good job too. In this case. we needed electricity. By doing an underground installation we have enhanced the value of our property while meeting a power need. Another exhausting job scratched off the list!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the sun is trying to push between two big, dark clouds. Maybe, just maybe, we'll have some sunshine soon.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Big Diggers, Big Holes

Wednesday, April 23, ,2008

It's been a week since I had a chance to hardly breathe but as spring broke and the snow began to melt, it was time to get moving on some important issues at the new nursery. When I started Vermont Gardens I was committed to using this blog as a means of sharing with interested gardeners what is involved in starting a nursery literally from the ground up. Although we were moving an existing business to a new site, much of the work would be no different than starting from scratch. I thought some folks might be interested and I was right.

As last fall approached, I encouraged readers to stick around and share some winter type thoughts until spring arrived. Along the way I lost a few who didn't want winter chit chat but here we are again. Now we are in full activity and I am prepared to offer some info that should be of interest. For those with a curious nature , skip back to the start of the blog and speed read through the articles. One good reference is where I suggest a favorite book, Tony Avent's So You Want To Start A Nursery? Tony discusses many of the same things I have said or will say. As I indicated before, I intended to write the same book but Tony did such a great job it's just not needed right now.

So here we were a week ago with good weather upon us, the land finally free of snow on the high point, and Kevin Hudson, a local contractor who has helped me for years, able to squeeze in a few days between other jobs. That combination was the catalyst to nail down an electrician and get on with the show.

As we left the project last fall, we had done a nice job on the entrance off Route 2. We had obtained permits from the Agency of Transportation, went through site inspection before and after the work, and ended up with a 44 foot wide entrance which was almost level to the three rod road. We buried a 2.5" underground quality PVC pipe the width of the entrance so we could snake wires or other lines through if we ever needed to. We did this work in compliance with local requirements and completed the entrance using sand, road fabric and Stay Mat.

Road fabric probably has a professional name someplace but to me it's a woven plastic cloth that comes on 12.5 foot wide rolls. Essentially you roll out the cloth flat on the land then place material on top to aid in road construction. It is used to stabilize various soil types and it permits water flow while encouraging compaction. The Stay Mat which was the final course we applied is again a common name which looks different depending upon where you live. In many places it might be crushed shale or stone. Up here the local supplier mixes sand and gravel with crushed rock which compacts to a surface as hard as asphalt at much less cost and with real ease of maintenance over time. Anyway that's kind of where we left off last year.

Our plans for spring included getting in electricity, and then preparing a large area about 80 feet X 70 feet X 6" thick for a new building and three shade houses. We also planned to expand the parking area by 45 X 70 feet and bring the new part up to grade with where we left off last fall. That's where Kevin came into the picture. In four days time we did the parking area, finished the area for the building and shade houses and added on an unplanned area of 12.5 feet X 80 feet for a used shade house we just bought. We also reconfigured the flat area to accommodate a drive through road for the truck and tractor.

The good thing about any of our projects is that we always have a plan that has a budget attached. We also try to build in the opportunity to upgrade a little if the time seems right. No matter how many diagrams you draw, sometimes things look different when you are standing in the middle of a project. In this case our changes meant we needed 18, not 8 truckloads of Stay Mat and another roll of road fabric at $600 and a third more hours labor but we had the money built in and the final project is all the better for it. This all occurred because we got a good deal on a used shade house--kind of like the time I wanted a new roof on the house and ended up with a new roof and an addition. Some guys will do anything to get a private office for themselves!

Kevin has a small dump truck but uses an assortment of other contractors to do quantity hauling like this. We began by rolling out the fabric and then the trucks dumped their loads on the fabric and Kevin used his equipment to spread out and compact the Stay Mat. It's best to spring for $35 for a box of ground cloth staples and staple the fabric down ahead of time and then no matter how hard the wind blows, the fabric remains in place and the job goes along faster.

I have to admit that I created a little hazard in the project kind of like a water hazard to a golfer. Last fall I dug a 200 foot by 10 foot wide display garden that was four feet deep and filled with compost, manure, peat, and dirt. I had forgotten that a road across it would have to be created. In this case we excavated all the loose soil and replaced it with crushed rock, added another PVC sleeve for outside lighting and topped off the 15 foot roadway with fabric and Stay Mat. That change cost about $750 extra. It would have been needed anyway but I messed up last fall and could have done a better job planning.

As soon as we were done with that I had Kevin dig the trench for the underground electricty, scuff out an area for a porta potty and then spread out four extra loads of useless clay that came from somewhere???? To bad we were short of potters that day or anyone who needed clay to line a fresh pond site. Right now we are finished with moving earth and the place looks like the Ponderosa Ranch in size. Within the next two weeks things will close in quickly as our 14 X 28 foot building goes up, then the shade houses, split rail fence and the plants. Should be interesting.

Not everyone knows how to hire contractors, price projects and serve as straw boss and quality control agent. Prices can get scary and you have to make yourself think twice before you change a firm plan. Doing that even once can be costly. I've always had a good vision for what a project should look like in the end and I am never afraid to ask questions. If you know a trustworthy contractor, that's great. If not, do some competitive biddings, meet some people and check some references. In today's economy, it has to be that way unless you have a pocket full of money.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where today I saw three turkey vultures, one spruce grouse and three deer. It's 9:30 PM now, 52.8 degrees and a couple moths are dancing by the office window. If it rains tomorrow night the Eastern Yellow Spotted Salamanders should be migrating and my night monitoring project will begin. Spring is here!

Good spring wishes!

George Africa
Vermont Flower Farm
The Vermont Gardener

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Johnnys Seeds

Sunday, April 13, 2008

31 degrees this morning with a snow squall occurring at the top of Hooker Mountain but not a flake floating to earth here. There's light frost on the truck and the wooden walkway is a challenge for Karl and me and he has four feet to my two. Too early to get a handle on the weather, especially after yesterday which defied everything two different forecasters predicted.

Yesterday morning Karl and I stopped at our new place for the first time. The snow had melted off the entrance and parking area enough that we could get off the highway. The sun was warm even yesterday morning and Karl was eager for a walk and to have an opportunity to determine who had intruded on "his" domain since last fall.

As we looked west towards Plainfield, the large rocks we had placed last fall were finally out of the snow cover. They will be the bones for a 120' X 75' display garden for hemerocallis but will also be a place to sit and get out of the sun. No telling what trees we will plant there but Gail is working on that right now with a couple suppliers. These will be native trees and shrubs from Vermont nurserymen no matter what we arrive at.

The fence didn't do as poorly as I had expected. Several fence people told me to expect a lot of movement of the 4 X 4 X 10 pressure treated posts because the area parallel to Route 2 is quite wet. The far right corner post heaved the most and that was one I didn't put in myself but should have. It moved about 18" so the entire line of fence slackened enough to begin to sag. That stretch alone will be about two hours work to bring back together.

Up at the top, things look quite sound and the parking area we started last fall compacted nicely and remained firm. Since the ground is heavy clay underneath, I put down some sand first, then highway fabric, then crushed stone and gravel. It seems good except for the leftover potholes from so many trucks bringing in topsoil and manure. The picture just above here faces the Winooski River. In the middle of the picture is kind of a line of dirt which is really the end of a soon-to-be 10 X 200 foot display garden. Towards the top of the picture is where the building and shade houses will be built. There's another $5000 in preparatory ground work to do first and that will start in a couple weeks when the rest of the snow is melted and things settle a little more. Any year but this one, we would already be building but 7 feet of snow slows the best of plans a bit.

The land to the east facing Marshfield Village is as yet unspoken for in our plan. There is a little less than two acres there that rolls down the hill from where the building will be. It continues to a flat plain bordered by some trees and a wet area. Long term, the wet area will become an extended wildflower and hosta garden with an assortment of plants that like wet or damp feet. The perimeter will work into flowers that can take some moisture. The main field is still up for grabs and we've had suggestions for grapes and pick your own berries on the hill and propagation fields below. We're always happy to hear ideas but right now we are intent on getting the other areas established and the buildings up.

When I returned yesterday morning, Gail and I sat down and ordered a bunch of flower seeds. Johnny's Seeds in Winslow and Albion, Maine is a great company that's been around for a long time. ( 1-877-564-6697. It's employee owned and in fact the originator just retired (sort of) after a long and successful career building one of the finest seed companies in America. After going through the on-line commercial catalog three times we agreed "that's all folks" and we transmitted the order.

Not only was the order a success but we found that they carried the tomatoes I was looking for as a gift for Winnie, our Director of Hydrological Services. The good thing about these seeds is they are tried and tested in New England and there's no guessing, no disappointment. Gail and I were on a mission for asters, zinnias, calendula, ....a whole raft of cut flower varieties and then sunflowers, also for cuts. Johnnys has about 50 varieties of sunflowers and we were looking for an assortment of early to late 4-6" flower sized sunflowers which would make good cuts, by themselves or mixed in with other flowers. Sunbright Supreme, Autumn Beauty, Sonja, Velvet Queen, Pro Cut Lemon, Chocolate.......the list went on. Some places do cut your own but our plan is that we will do the cutting. They will be planted along the Winooski River so they will serve as a backdrop to the gardens and will hopefully produce a little revenue while brightening up Route 2. Sunflowers have become a popular cut flower as they hold up about a week in a vase, a little longer if you recut them when you get home and add some lemon juice to the water.

As I head out in a minute for the Sunday paper and a carton of milk, I want to remind you to consider trying some alliums this year. Like most all bulbs they are typically planted in the fall but alliums, a member of the onion family, are readily available in the spring too. They come in heights from 3" dwarf varieties up to 4 foot giants and different ones bloom from early spring on through into late July here. I wish they would self seed better than they do but it could be the acidity of the soil here that slows them down. Just the same they aren't really that expensive and they are very interesting flowers. Spring for a few bucks and try a few. I guarantee the comments from your friends will be pay back enough.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the snow shoes just got hung in the cellar until next year even though there's still over 4 feet of snow in the woods. Plenty to do here at Vermont Flower Farm even though I really wanted to get out back to the swamps around Peacham Pond to see how the deer made out. Next year????

Spring gardening wishes,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Friday, April 11, 2008

Spring Thoughts, Snowflake Sparkles

Friday, April 11, 2008

Already 7:30 PM here on the hill. The temperature is down to 34 degrees and the rain continues to pound the standing seam roof as ice crystals from somewhere high above bounce off the windows. The snow is melting to our pleasure even though there is a chance that tomorrow morning will find heavy wet stuff everywhere. This is April in Vermont and this is what is supposed to happen.

Gail is off visiting friends tonight so Alex and I are on our own. When I returned home from work, the pile of mail was on the table and some spaghetti and meatballs was the intended meal. Self service is kind of ok with me as Gail has had a difficult time lately with her Mom. Frankly I don't know how she does what she does but Gail has great concern for others and never seems to forget what they need or when they need it.

Near the mail was a catalog opened to page 28 "Orange". I knew in an instant she had been successful in locating a source for a hybrid tomato named Sun Gold that our Director of Hydrological Services was having trouble locating. Winnie is 80 years old but don't tell anyone. She is also the only person we have ever found who really and truly enjoys watering with a garden hose and talking to the plants at the same time. She was having trouble finding seed for these small fruited, cherry type tomatoes which are described as "Very sweet, bright orange...taste not just sugary but also fruity and delicious. A vigorous grower, these tall plants bear long clusters of fruit." The catalog was Tomato Growers Supply Company, PO Box 60015 Ft. Meyers, Florida 33906

I can't vouch for the catalog but after stopping at half a dozen stores and trying web searches from companies I know, this was quite a find and I'm grateful Gail remembered. I know Winnie will be pleased too. One store owner tried to sell me something that was "close, and also very good". I replied, "Thank you very much, you do not know older folks yet." Old folks want what they want and they don't want substitutes. It could be something as simple as Quaker Oatmeal or Blue Bonnet Margarine but that's what they want. Nothing new, nothing different. I'll order a package up on-line in a few minutes and next week I'll put together a flat full of seed starting mix and make the delivery. With snow still on the ground here, there's plenty of time for Winnie to get these going.

As the snow melts here at 1530 feet, gardeners in low elevations already are on their way to a joyous festival of hellebore blooms. This is an interesting plant I learned of years back from Barry Glick of Sunshine Farm and Gardens, Renick West Virginia. Barry bills his business as selling Uncommonly Rare and Exceptional Plants for the Discriminating Gardener and Collector. People have told me that I am an uncommonly rare and exceptional gardener including Gail so perhaps that explains why I like everything Barry sells.

It seems odd that I am so pleased with a plant that looks so ratty in the spring with brown, tattered, left over foliage, prostrate on the ground, flattened from winters' snow pack. Just the same, to be able to see incredible color surrounded by melting snow is a welcome sight we enjoy here.

Hellebores come in lots of varieties but so far I have stuck with the most common. They are doing well in the lower garden and have begun to seed in well. I have no plans to relocate any to our new nursery and will just buy in some more from Barry to get going. That won't be this year as we're already too busy but this fall or next spring we will for sure.

This plant will be blooming here in about three weeks. That's a guess because they are under two feet of snow right now but that is going fast. Any where that the ground has been bear, my guess is they are showing buds by now. Although Barry is at over 4000 feet at his nursery, his website temperature gauge says it's 69 degrees there so I expect he has some real good bloom.

It's June here before we get some good looking foliage back on the plants but by then you don't even notice because so many other flowers are in bloom. In the meantime you received that spring jump start you needed and even if snowflake sparkles had been pounding on your window or your spring thoughts had been dampened by three consecutive days of rain, I'm sure the colors of hellebores would have brightened your thoughts. It always works for me! Try some and you'll see.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where enough of the edge ice of the pond opened today to permit a flock of Canadian geese to set down tonight for a rest and a snack. Think I need a snack too!

Good gardening thoughts!

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Mourning Doves in the Morning

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Sunrise is camouflaged in gray clouds this morning and the sun appears to be having difficulty recognizing morning responsibilities. It is dull outside, and the ground crunches as you walk. Last night's 24 degree temperature solidified yesterday's snow melt. Karl the wonder dog and I just returned from our morning walk and it's apparent spring in here in his mind as he resisted a return to the house. I had slip-slided about enough on the patches of ice along Peacham Pond Road but minor slips to a dog are meaningless when spring smells abound.

The call of the mourning doves is welcoming. Somewhere I read that they pair for life and that may explain the single whatever that has been at the feeder outside my window all winter. I am seldom into male-female bird identification but the bird kept me company all winter in a strange relationship as it appeared when others birds were not interested. They are silent as they land and leave and when you see them on the roadways eating grit, they seem fearless or stupid. They do not spring into the air until you hit the brakes and share commentary they cannot hear and would not care about anyway.

As Karl and I walked down George Jewett Road, we faced Hooker Mountain straight on. It's a beautiful mountain with some thick cliffs I want to climb some day in search of bobcats. The backside was clear cut a few years back and is a messy representation of man's greed. Two years back a logging trail was cut across the summit to access another 60 acre woodlot and for some reason that road was obvious to me today. When we woke to our first spring day here in Marshfield in April 1990, bears talking about their winter hibernation were audible from here but since the clear cutting, even the bears have said enough of this and have moved on. I miss those calls as they remind me that I live in a place apart from bustle and noise and interruption. That has changed.

Last night I went out three times to listen for barred owls but they were silent or perhaps absent from the area. It has been a difficult winter for owls and those that live on ground rodents because of the snow. Several years ago Alex and I made a nice wooden house from plans we found in an old bird book. This winter we made two more but only got as far as dragging them on a sled out back to where they will be hung. Getting the ladder out is a chore and this all should have occurred last year but time was short. Sometime soon? Barred owls supposedly nest once a year here between February and August. I don't understand that behavior but that's what I have been told.

I just wrote an overdue check this morning to the Species Lily Preservation Group I am three months overdue but I figure they will forgive me. This is a the kind of catch up work I do at 5:30 in the morning before the real stuff has to start. The SLPG is an important lily group because it seeks to protect and reproduce important lilies from which today's favorites derive. I really have to get with the program here and write the Pacific Northwest Lily Society and find out when I need to renew with them. Plant societies are always looking for members but members don't always do their share of responsibilities. Gail and I belong to more than a dozen societies right now and I almost need a spreadsheet to remember how many years I renewed for, what the membership fee is and who the treasurer or secretary is. Regardless of my forgetfulness, these are very good societies.

Bulb lilies are a special plant to us. We have elected not to sell any this year as we make the move to our new nursery. It's not because we are giving up as much as they require a higher maintenance in pots and we have lots going on this year. Gail reminds me it would have been easier to have some for sale as opposed to having to tell everyone why we aren't carrying any this year. She's probably right but in our business, I am the juggler and I have too many things in the air already. Box stores and ag stores like Agway and Blue Seal often carry some lilies and Gardeners Supply in Burlington recently merged with Four Seasons and both of them offer lilies.

The Internet has a number of companies which mail order lilies. It's best to go with companies which specialize in lilies and also better to stay away from the companies that say they carry everything and always run some kind of low cost special. There's nothing like ordering what looks like a nice apricot or a muted pink that grows up orange or white. Just a thought.

We send all new lily growers to Judith Freeman in Washington State. Her business,
The Lily Garden, is only lilies and her personality is nothing but friendly and professional. She's always on top of the lily world and always has a lily which will make you and your friends stop in awe. As for me, I better stop everything right now and get on with today's projects.

Good gardening from the mountain above Peacham Pond where a Hairy Woodpecker is pleased with the new chunk of suet I put out last night.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Trying to sell some plants on-line at Vermont Flower Farm