Sunday, March 06, 2016

Caring For The Land

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Almost 7 am and the sun in just breaking through the gray band of clouds that hangs tight above Peacham Pond.  A +12.2° night should transform into a nice day and a warming trend that is expected to top 55° here by Wednesday noon. Crows call loudly from the compost pile as blue jays complain at my office window about a lack of seed in the feeders. There are an average of 20-25 jays a day at the feeders as well as 10-15 mourning doves so regardless of what other birds arrive to feed, the food supply quickly runs on "low".

On Mothers Day 2016 when we open Vermont Flower Farm for its ninth season on Route 2, there's a sense of accomplishment. This year will mark 27 years that we have grown flowers in Marshfield after moving from Shelburne and the shores of Lake Champlain. Our business has evolved over that time, partially due to a follow-up move from Peacham Pond Road to Route 2 and partially because of  being forced to discontinue being a New England leader in growing lilum due to the lily leaf beetle. Perhaps the single biggest influence on where the farm is now is the floods of 2011 which began with back to back spring floods and culminated with Tropical Storm Irene on August 28, 2011. So much of what we built and rebuilt had to be restructured after that date. Seeing ten feet of water flowing over your labors is a sight that can never be forgotten.

Since 2011, we have made a number of changes intended to strengthen the land and the gardens when floods occur again. We would hope that floods that exceeded 100 year levels would not arrive again but as the climate has changed and the Winooski River that borders our land has grown wider, we accept the reality that a repeat of the previous calamity is a given. 

On the east side of the property, we have planted trees and shrubs to change the water flow. This is a prayer as well as a plan because high water has a power that is difficult to harness. Rows of lilacs and hydrangeas on the east border, a new lilac nursery planting parallel to Route 2 and more trees and shrubs within the shade gardens seeks to keep in place the perennials we have replanted. We have half a dozen 16 foot tall hybrid maples, some lindens, a dozen golden locusts, Diabolo and Nugget Ninebarks, Gold Pillar barberries, Arctic Fire Dogwoods, North Pole Arborvitae, Japanese Fantail and Golden Curly willows all planted in hopes of holding soil and slowing the loss of perennials in our display gardens. This is a
"maybe, maybe not" affair, hopeful but unknown until the next disaster arrives.

As for the soil itself, we continue to work at making it better. There are five different soil times on this piece of land and each requires a special strategy to improve. During the past years we have added as much organic material as we can afford and in many places have added gypsum to work against the clay content. Over the past two seasons we have added tons of maple leaves covered with wood chips, wood shavings and pine needles. This material has been placed between the rows of perennials to slow water loss and wind-related soil erosion. We have reduced rototilling and lawn mowing and have tried to clean the gardens each fall of all leftover organic material that might serve as reproduction sites for fungal or insect problems. 
We continue to add lime and commercial fertilizer but at lesser rates. We are planting all the display gardens more intensively and have a couple new water management sytems that allow us to put water on potted plants  in a more useful and more conservative manner. 

The Winooski River runs along the flower farm's eastern and southern borders and it is our water source which is legal, free and good. Rivers in Vermont are allowed to run free and no longer are any restructured or deepened to manage water flow. As such the river widens more each year and takes more and more of our land. It's clearly a conflict of resources if you think about it because millions of dollars are spent each year cleaning up Lake Champlain while all Vermont's rivers erode millions of tons of soil each year, strip good agricultural land and deposit the residue in the lake where fisheries and other plant and animal life are destroyed and algae blooms impact all manner of  lake users.  Farmers are regularly blamed for polluting the state's waters but a sizeable portion of the pollution could be regulated with better control of streambanks. 

The water level of the river as it passes the flower farm is regulated by Green Mountain Power which uses the watershed resource to make electricity. This is a year-round event with the production of electricity contingent upon the availability of water and actual electrical need based upon population and seasonal temperature. Two dams in the immediate area control the watershed and are regulated by Green Mountain Power. The 2011 water events showed how fragile and poorly planned the regulatory structures are and to date no changes have been planned. This means there is a strong likelihood that the event will repeat itself and more land including the site of our flower farm will be lost. A Water Resources engineer told me that Governor Shumlin directed the Agency of Natural Resouces to leave all the rivers alone.  He also said after the next significant disaster, meaning after the flower farm has been completely wiped out, we could reapply for the State to consider changes to the river. We hope we don't have to experience a repeat of 2011, but the reality of our weather suggests otherwise. It is certainly a strange feeling to have others act so God-like with something that is not theirs. 

This spring we are planning more riverside plantings of willows in hopes of stemming the erosion that is about ready to take out our fences in the southwest corner of the farm. Over ten feet of the river bank on each side of the river has eroded in the 9 years we have owned the property. Our only hope is that the willows can catch and grow before the next disaster arrives. Instead of prayer, we are planting a possible solution. It takes time, money and labor but it is the best possible insurance we have. We will continue to plant along the riparian way with a variety of trees and shrubs that will not only help to stabilize the bank but provide refuge for wildlife and help to cool the river water temperatures which have gotten so warm that the fish population is almost nonexistent. 

All land needs a caring attitude and some dirty hands to protect it. Our philosophies may not be your philosophies but there is probably some overlap here someplace. If you are interested and have some time, stop by the flower farm this summer and we will show you around. The fields of flowers are a project that needs more time. Come visit!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the temperature has risen to 31.1°,  the sky has cleared and the bird feeders still have not been filled. I need a glass of juice and then I can get going. Have a pleasant day!

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Writing on Facebook at George Africa and also at Vermont Flower Farm and Gardens
On Twitter as vtflowerfarm
Always here to help you grow your green thumb!

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