Thursday, March 29, 2007

Amphibian Monitoring Program

Thursday, March 29, 2007

I'm running short on time tonight but want folks to check out a special event that may be of interest to those in central Vermont next week. Read today's blog on Vermont Gardens for the details. Those with home schoolers, or those interested in ecology and protecting native resources might be interested.

Click on

Spring wishes from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the temperature is dropping ever so slowly and the muddy road is becoming a bigger challenge every day.

George Africa

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

A 5th Vermont Season

Tuesday March 27, 2007

It's heading for 7 PM here and despite the weather I have to say how much I do enjoy the time change and the advent of spring. It still has Karl the wonder dog a little confused as to when he's supposed to go for a walk after dinner but the rest of us have adapted well. Tonight there is a heavy fog and the temperature of 43 this time of day is uncommon. We would like to see the temperature fall into the mid twenties and refirm the earth to something you can walk on without wondering how deep your shoes will sink. This is early spring in Vermont and this is the start of our fifth season--Mud Season.

Evenings like this one remind me of being 6 years old and wondering if we'd make it home for supper. The old early-forties Buick was a fine car with Bondo patched fenders and a good array of dents, scratches and rust. It mattered little what a car looked like back in 1954 as no one had a new car and during mud season no one would know if you did anyway as every car was covered with mud.

My Dad always figured if he could make it over the hill by Frenches, we'd probably be golden. He'd always make an initial run and just gun the motor for all it had in hopes that he'd make it and not have to put on the tire chains. That philosophy worked in early spring but it seemed as if it created more problems than it was worth.

One night we waited for one of the Reeds to finish milking and come down with the tractor to pull us over the top and on another night we blew a radiator hose and walked home. These memories repeated themselves over time with only the date changing.

Getting buried and then having to put on the chains was no guarantee that you'd get out but it was the last resort. My father would curse the chains being stuck together and I feared him too much to remind him that he was the only person who put them on and took them off. Often he'd have to jack up a tire at a time to get them on and sometimes he'd have to take them off and do on-site repairs with a giant ball peen hammer and a cold chisel. These were skills I did not want to learn but the repetitiveness buried them back in my mind. I can still see my father's arthritic knuckles covered with mud but powerfully draping the chains under a wheel well and over the tire before he layed on the ground and pulled the pieces together to lock them. Yes, mud season in the old days was something you expected but did not look forward to.

We've been here on Peacham Pond Road since 1989. Gail lost the entire exhaust system only once, and since '89 I have had enough discussions with the road foreman to get the road built up more each year. Tonight the pot holes are so deep that Karl barks each time a vehicle approaches as even at slow speeds there are loud rattles. Yes Vermont's 5th season, Mud Season, is memorable!

This is the season when Gail and I can take a brief walk every night after supper. That's a nice change. By tomorrow night I expect that enough snow will have melted off the potted plants that we'll have some discussion about when the insulating blankets will get torn off this year, who will fold the 500 feet of plastic, how much damage we'll find from the vole population and whether Hosta "Montana aureomarginata' will sprout first and get nailed by frost as usually happens. All the conversations will be interesting to us and have relevance to what we grow and sell. Farmers, even flower farmers, trust each other with their conversations and they look forward to them.

Gail just interrupted my writing by asking that I come into the kitchen and listen to VPR and a couple senators discussing education, funding, taxes and spending too much money on special education. One of these has been around for a long time. He hasn't been around long enough to have learned that he should answer constituents questions and at least fake an interest in thoughts. I wrote him on March 7th and I haven't even received an acknowledgement yet. Perhaps he doesn't answer email or maybe he doesn't read it. Apparently he doesn't know me yet, but he will.

Mud Season is not a planting season, it's a time for final preparation. It's a time to sharpen tools like hand pruners and then wade through the snow to cut some pussy willows or some forsythia for a vase on the side board. It's time to push a hand file or a power grinder on the edge of all the shovels to sharpen their points. It's time to sand all wooden handles and apply a fresh coat of oil or sealer. There's actually a long list of Mud Season chores that have to be completed quickly. As the snow melts and the grass greens, planting time will be here and there's no spare time. Here on the hill there's still over two feet of snow on the ground but that too will be gone soon.

Mud season is a time to reflect on last year's gardens. The picture above is from late last summer. The daylilies had just peaked but other flowers held strong and the color combinations attracted new customers. Garden memories are peaceful.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond, where summer visions are clear, just separated by three more months, more rain, more snow and more fog.

Spring gardening wishes,

George Africa

Friday, March 23, 2007

Sugar House Smoke

Friday, March 23, 2007

32.3 degrees here on the hill. As the temperature drops tonight, bigger and bigger smiles form on sugar makers faces each time they look at the thermometer falling into the twenties. A hard freeze tonight will guarantee a good sap run tomorrow and sugar house smoke should billow skyward by about 2 PM.

The maple syrup industry is important to Vermont and although the process of gathering sap and making delicious syrup is foreign to most folks, it's something many of us have grown up with. It's worthy of explanation and if I get a chance over the next week, I'll shoot some pictures and tell a story or two. Let me leave that as a promise.

Gail and I have been busy for a couple weeks now and regrettably we have wandered away from work on our website and writing to each blog. Autism is a big part of our family and there is legislation in Montpelier that is dear to us. I must add that some of what I have learned about the legislative process I did not care to know. No matter how big a state you live in, politics is just that and everyone has agendas which may differ from yours. I have written to over 35 legislators and as things stand now, there's a good chance a very important bill will never come out of Senate Appropriations because .......of politics. I had to catch myself there and for those who know me, you can let out that sigh of relief now. I won't go further on this one.

Today's warm weather dropped the snow and I can begin to see the pots we covered with an insulating blanket and plastic last fall. As the snow has melted, too many rodent trails are appearing in the snow and that's not a good feeling. We knew in January when the ground was barely covered with snow and the voles were feeding everywhere that there would be losses we couldn't control. It will be another month before we can accurately access the damage but don't be surprised if you lose a few things in your garden too. Usually you lose the expensive plants first. It's a tough world out there for animals so they like expensive things and they go for them ambitiously.

One plant I really like is coneflower or echinacea. It is not expensive unless you buy the newer varieties. It is an enjoyable plant because it lures birds and bees and butterflies in abundance. The white varieties tend to bring in Japanese beetles if there are any within miles of your property but the plants stand out nicely in early evening light and make gardens look bigger as only white can do. The various heights and sizes of pink are also very nice.

The reason I go with the whites and pinks is that the newer creams, reds, oranges, yellows and marmalades are just not hardy here. I'm told that with protection they fare better but for the current price I don't think it's worth the possible enjoyment. During a winter like this last one, I doubt any amount of help would have brought them back as they tend to be susceptible to multiple freeze-thaw cycles and we sure had those this year.

Coneflower exits fall each year as a large seedhead packed with seeds that are bird feed for months to come. Although the plants produce thousands of seeds, few germinate each spring. Regardless of the weather or the variety, you're likely to see some new growth. As spring approaches and cleanup time begins, be sure to find a good pair of gloves before cleaning up this plant. The remaining seeds and stalks are prickery and if you don't use care you'll find yourself performing minor surgery. I have no problem digging out prickers or broken stems with a sterilized needle and some magnifying glasses but the room seems to clear out quickly around here. In your house do everyone a favor and wear good gloves to start with. In the meantime think about buying some coneflowers to add to your gardens. Varieties range in height from 20"-36". The bloom time is quite long and the accompanying display of critters is fun to watch.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where the wind is silent, the stars are shining and the word "prickery" eludes Webster, even though I still like it. Karl the wonder dog wants to go out just one more time before he goes to bed. Sounds good to me.

Gardening wishes,

George Africa

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Thoughts of Other Colors

Sunday, March 18, 2007

17 degrees here on the hill with a haze above the trees and an ultra fine snow falling. Received a couple more inches of light, fluffy snow last night that is moving around with off and on again winds. The blue jays have been here since 6:15 and have a lot of the snow kicked off the feeder. They are talking a lot today but I can't figure out the words. I noticed the grosbeaks talking back to them but their words were muddled from mouths full of sunflower and millet.

It's peaceful looking today but my color of choice is turning to green. I know that will be slow in coming and staying but things will be dramatically different in a couple weeks. Yesterday was a longer day than I wanted and the day's shoveling has caught up with me. Big storms have matched big holidays this year but regardless of the day, a thousand shovels of snow makes for a weary shoveler.

Color in the garden is always welcome and some gardeners are amazed at masses of color we have put together. Obviously a garden looks better every year but there are certain ways to get there in a year or two with just a little patience. The required budget is also manageable.

Regardless of their gardening skills, people seem to understand "daisies" and "black eyed susans" and they use those names frequently. When we talk about any of the leucanthemums or the rudbeckias we are talking about the sunflower family which also includes asters and echinacea and similar flowers we enjoy a great deal. As I have attested to with frequency I am not a botanist and I guarantee you that I'll never speak with confidence about plant families. What I do know is that any of the leucanthemums or rudbeckias will give you color without expense and they look fine mixed with sneezeweed, daylilies and a smattering of the bright red crocosmia 'Lucifer'.

If you like to start seeds, garden centers and mail order can offer wide possibilities for well under $2.00 a packet. Companies purported to sell wild flowers often include these in their all- too-expensive mixes because they serve as a filler. Many are guaranteed to thrive and make you think the other 59 varieities you thought you bought are mixed in there too. If you don't want to start seeds inside, sowing directly into the garden works well.

For many, a trip to your favorite nursery is a quicker way to get the color going. These are often potted in 3 and 4 quart containers for $3.50 to $10.00 and sometimes there are two gallon pots of well established plants for $15. Smaller is better than bigger here because it's important that the roots get well established. These flowers have fibrous stems with roots which get woody over time. As they age, those roots become sponges for water which in a place like Vermont leads to their demise in three or four years. The good news is that they self seed nicely and once established you will probably have some in the garden for a long time.

Those that swear by well amended soil with lots of organic material will find that these flowers might well grow better with neglect in poor soil that drains well. The prevalence of organic material sometimes contans more fungus and encourages the rot we are trying to avoid. Trial and error will get you where you want to be in a couple seasons. Do what we do and let them go to seed and then in late fall rub the seedheads back and forth in between your fingers, letting the seed fall to the ground. You won't notice the results for two years and by then you'll be on your way to great swaths of color which you can enjoy for a good part of the summer.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the feeder is empty and a single dove pecks cracked corn from the ground and probably thanks blue jays with poor manners for making breakfast an easier meal.

George Africa

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Flowers Not Vegetables

Saturday, March 17, 2007

3:30 PM and I feel like the day should be over. That's probably because I have moved a billion snowflakes since 5:30 this morning and there's still one section of path which needs to be shoveled. I have plowed three driveways, fed the birds twice and pared all the vegetables for the corned beef. It has been simmering since 12:30. Gail said I got carried away with the size of the beef this year but to me that's one meal that is better as leftovers. All wouldn't agree with me but I took cook's liberty on that one.

I belong to the Garden Writers Association and am in my second year. I joined so I could gain a different perspective on what people are writing about and I hoped to learn more about publishing. The $85 annual membership pays for itself in less than a month and I am glad I found it as a resource. A benefit is that you receive a number of announcements about new garden products. Don't get me wrong on this, no one drove up with a tractor trailer of Vermont hardy Japanese bonsai yet but announcements from the gardening world are frequent. Today I received an announcement from Johhny's Selected Seeds.

We grow flowers at Vermont Flower Farm and never seem to find the time to get to vegetables. Alex plants some things once in a while and the reviews are mixed. Last year he grew a few hot peppers. I questioned how they looked and bought a couple dozen mixed varieties. They about cooked in the greenhouse before Michelle got tired of looking at them and planted them one day while I was in Seattle. By then they needed CPR but she knows what she's doing and they came along fine. I remember picking a bunch one fall night when a frost was predicted but as I sit here tonight I have no recall of where they went. Kind of like the Lilium canadense seeds I babied into September when someone used the cart they were stored in and ???????

We have grown vegetables before and we know how to grow commercially. We're just not going down that road again. There are several area growers that have fine products and the Wellspring Farm CSA is just down Route 2 a few miles from our new land. There are also farmer's markets in either direction from here.

Johnny's Selected Seeds is the best as far as I am concerned. They are in Albion, Maine, a part of that state which tests thermometers to see how low they will go. They compare those readings to what they see on the anemometer and regardless of the numbers, they develop some incredible vegetables, herbs and flowers. I went to Johnny's a couple years back when I was on one of my solo "lost in Maine, looking for nurseries" cruises. I was en route to Fieldstone Gardens in Vassalboro, Maine. I can't remember if I was coming or going but Albion is not too far away.

Today's mail included a press release on the tomatoberry pictured above. Johnny's has exclusive marketing rights of this tomato which is bred by the Tokita Seed Company. As the picture indicates, they have a strawberry shaped 1" fruit, are indeterminate and high yielding. The good part is they are ready in 60 days.

When we moved to Vermont, one of my first lessons in gardening involved tomatoes. Fidelia and Eunice, our kind of down-the-road-neighbors on Church Hill Road, were responsible for their family's large vegetable gardens excepting the potatoes, winter squash and corn which the men folk did. The first spring I learned that Vermonters plant tomato seeds on Town Meeting Day which is the first Tuesday of the month. I still don't know why they do that but it might be that they need encouragement to get through the rest of the winter. Even though spring comes in March, the snow stays a lot longer and for some I guess it's a dreary time.

The next lesson I received was how to make and use manure tea. What I don't remember is what were the tomato varieties which people grew each year. Some from back then may still be grown by Johnny's--I just don't know.

If you get a chance, check out Johnny's website and make a few purchases. You might even want to try the tomatoberry as they look very interesting. If you have a dog, I cannot recommend buying a Johnny's garden cap. That's about the only thing I have had trouble with. I have had four of those and my dogs have eaten every one. Barney ate three and Baker ate one. They don't eat the hat, they eat the plastic adjustable band when you're taking a nap. After I told a sales rep at a flower show that I had lost 3, he gave me a fourth which met the same fate. I rigged up that last one with some baling twine and it got by last spring but wasn't too pretty. Maybe you don't have dogs like I do, so the hats and everything else Johnny's sells will really please you.

Getting closer to the time to slide the vegetables into the corned beef keetle. It will be a real nice meal even if we didn't grow the vegetables ourseleves. Smells good!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where a single young blue jay cries out "Jay" "Jay" in hopes of finding company for the evening meal.

George Africa

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Vermont Magazine and Vermont Flower Farm

Wednesday March 14, 2007

Time is short tonight but we don't want you to think we've forgotten you. Click on our blog Vermont Gardens

Some good reading to get you through the night. We'll be back tomorrow!


Friday, March 09, 2007

Thoughts of Wild Flowers

Friday March 9, 2007

A busy day here. While Gail was at the Vermont Flower Show, I labored away on a bathroom renovation. I'd rather be installing a new garden than a bathroom as I can get in less trouble moving rocks and soil than electrical wiring and pipes. We've been here 18 years and it's just one of those things that needs attention. Every year I try to update a few things in hopes they will last the next twenty years of my life or at least make it easier for whoever lives here.

Fred the plumber from Cabot was here to help this morning. We work well together and we got a lot done in about four hours. Tomorrow I'll strip out the rest of the sheetrock now that the room is bare and I'll go from there.

Monday Ed from Peacham will be here to replace a window and reframe a wall. Then new insulation and sheetrock follows. Ed's a very meticulous carpenter and the kind of guy I will wait years for because he is so good. The office I am sitting in is an example of the fine work he does.

When Gail returns home I'll be happy to hear about the show. It's tricky in Vermont trying to force flowers to get them ready for a show of this size. I heard from Dave in Stowe a few weeks back. He was forcing peonies. Now there's a tough job! Then there were the greenhouses at Claussens in Colchester where they were forcing hundreds of pots of bulbs. Trees were forced and wild flowers too to go along with the theme "A Walk on The Wild Side".

Even though there is 5 feet of show outside my window, I'm already thinking about spring and the beautiful wildflowers that we have in Vermont. The native hepaticas pictured above have become very popular now and many are hybridizing them for bigger, or smaller flowers, in pinks, blues, purples, stripes, and with and without variegation. These are one of Gail's favorites and they really are nice.

False Salomon Seal is an interesting plant with fist sized blooms in June which are like a million little firecrackers going off. They set seed and begin aging by the time July arrives and change colors on into fall when the berries change from silvery gold to red. This is a nice background plant, very hardy and easy to multiply.

Wild gingers are interesting and are usefull for their leaf foliage. Most people overlook their flowers which arrive early and sometimes are hidden by the fast unfurling leaves. See if you can find one in this picture. They work well when planted along with European Ginger, the domestic variety with the shiny green leaves. The sparkle versus the dull coating of the natives is an interesting match, especially noticed if planted in swaths.

Tiarellas are another nice plant which we know here as foamflowers. I like to ride the Lanesboro Road from the falls in Marshfield Village back around to the Owls Head turn in the spring. There are places along that route as you drive under maple canopies that are lined heavily with them.

I've written and included pictures of trilliums before on my Vermont Gardens site and I have to say they are a favorite. The picture at the start of this piece is Trillium erectum but the undulatum which bloom later and the showly white grandiflorum are plants to grow too. There's nothing like a garden walk where flowers like the ones I am mentioning burst with color and interrupt your journey with a short "look-see".

If you like flowers and especially if you like wildflowers, get to the flower show this weekend. I can't say if anyone forced any wild flowers for the show but Bill Cullina from the New England Wild Flower Society will be on hand for a great lecture. And if you want to know where to purchase some of these native beauties, that information will be available too.

Just thinking about what I missed today makes me wish Gail would hurry up and get home with the news. I asked her to buy me a couple bundles of pussy willows and I can't wait to see what colors she purchased.

Karl the wonder dog is whimpering. It's his signal that it's time for a walk. Guess I better get going.

From the moutain above Peacham Pond where the temperatures of the afternoon are cooling quickly. It's 16.2 right now but shouldn't get close to the -34 in Island Pond last night.

Be well!

George Africa

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Morning Warning: The Vermont Flower Show

Gardener's note: Friday through Sunday. The Vermont Flower Show at the Champlain Exposition Center, Essex. Details at The red is a flag in the sky directing you to one of the best little flower shows you'll ever visit. Starts at 10 tomorrow morning. Plenty of parking, guaranteed cold parking lot, guaranteed displays inside that will make you happy you made the trip. Lots to see, new ideas, product displays, great lectures. Say hi to Gail if you pass her. She'll be there with friends from the Marshfield Inn I'll be here at the farm with Alex and Fred the plumber tearing apart a bathroom for a complete upgrade.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the snow is deep, the wind has stopped and the temperature is a cold -11.8 degrees.

Winter wishes,

George Africa