Thursday, December 28, 2006

Peace and Eucharis grandiflora for 2007!!

Sunday, December 31st. 14 degrees out and the temperature is dropping rapidly now. This year quickly slips from the grasp of Father Time with but a few hours left to savor before 2006 dissolves into 2007. It's been a great year here at Vermont Flower Farm and we hope it has been positive for you too!

This time of year we like to enjoy potted amaryllis on into January and we're always pleased to see the Amazon Lily bloom again. With a minimum of care, this houseplant springs forth a handful of scapes three times a year. The blooms last for some time and their pure white intricacies encourage a number of "What is that plant?" queries.

I truly can't recall where our plant came from but it's been with us for a long time. It has suffered neglect and near freeze-ups from being too close to the door where the firewood comes in. One time Gail tried it in the bedroom in a north window thinking it didn't need much light. Within a week it began shedding its large green leaves, one right after another until she abandoned the experiment and returned it to the front room. Just like the ligularias in the summer garden, this plant has be well watered to maintain stem and leaf turgidity. Let it dry out too much and the leaves topple and fold on top of each other. If you are interested in houseplants, give this one a try.

As I sit in the front room "plant" reminiscing far into the past, a couple plants prevail in memory alone. Not significant houseplants but a couple that I recall from when my family first came to Vermont in the early fifties. We moved next door to a very old farm, known locally as the Century Farm, which confirmed only part of its real age. There were some neat Vermonters living there and for years they helped raise me and my sister when our mother was ill. All the old folks are long since passed but I'll never forget what they taught me and how in their own way they influenced my green thumb and what has become Vermont Flower Farm.

There were two sisters, short, round, and caring. One was Fidelia, the other Lilian. They handled the domestic side of the farm as well as the milking and feeding chores under the watchful eye of sharp-as-a-tack, 93 year old Eunice, their mother. Summer vegetable gardens were always well tended and at this farm there was a separate flower garden which served to keep flowers on the table and bouquets ready for summer visitors who stopped for milk, eggs and baked goods. There were rows of tall sweet peas, zinnias and asters, and a minor number of other flowers, now only represented by a blur of color in my mind. To the women, the flowers meant ribbons from the county fairs that equalled or exceed those won by the "men" for their maple syrup, fine milkers, and horse and oxen pulling events. Those gardens were very special and the soil the flowers grew in was 100% pure Vermont farm!

But we're talking winter in Vermont now and back then there were no Amazon lilies in the farm house. The white curtained windows were lined with geraniums planted in old Red and White brand coffee cans and a wide array of African violets which Eunice tended daily. She was very proud of the collection and especially liked to point out the doubles and a couple with variegated leaves which were not common back then. I recall when I first saw an angel wing begonia at their place and how they always planted baskets of tuberous begonias. "Never water into the center of the bulb", explained Fidelia, "you'll rot the bulb." She was a good teacher and showed me the shape of the bulb and the importance of a lesson, never to be forgotten.

I can't remember when I last saw geraniums in used coffee cans or African violet cuttings stuck in water-filled glass jars, held upright by wax paper with rubber-bands across the jar mouths. That's a memory. Eunice and Fidelia and Lilian, and others at the farm contributed to some very fond gardening memories which set my course for a life time of horticultural endeavors.

Today memories turn to 2006. There are lots of good memories!

Peace and best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year!

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where deer wander through the field, checking the apple trees one by one for errant droppings while some of the residents of the pond have already started a fireworks display, almost as if begging 2006 to leave so 2007 can begin.

George Africa

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Fresh Snow

30.8 degrees here on the hill. It is quiet now. The kids down the road had friends over, and there was enough new snow to make new sleds slide much faster than on yesterday's mud and leaves. The new snow, slight as it was, cleansed the landscape and gave folks the opportunity to feel differently about the winter solstice. For the kids, it was an opportunity to let voices and spirits run free.

I returned home from work today and Karl the wonder dog greeted me as always. His trot-trot-trot across the kitchen floor, eyes wide open and both ears layed back made obvious reminder to the fact that yesterday, amongst wrapping paper and ribbon, food and drink, friends and neighbors, Karl got lots of attention....and too many snacks. What he didn't get was a good walk out back through the fields and into the woods. His behavior begged "Let's go!" and I knew I was obligated.

We got in the truck and drove out into the woods as the light was fading quickly and a cold rain was falling. I wanted to get out to the white spring and park and then walk from there. Karl didn't care, walk or ride, as long as he was out with me and he could smell the smells of the forest.

The big buck's track came off Blake Hill and onto our log road. He carries a beautiful set of antlers. His front hooves, splayed widely in the snow, serve as reminder to how heavy this deer is. I was surprised to see how far he walked down the road, apparently feeling safe during the storm when he left the tracks behind.

Karl ran, stopped, sniffed, and then ran, stopped and sniffed the tracks again. Every once in a while he would blow air out his nose in a big blast, apparently bragging in dog talk about his tracking ability.

We went on for several hundred yards until we came to the old refrigerator. There was something strange about folks in the old days and out of sight meant out of mind. They often had a habit of dragging broken household items out into the woods and just discarding them. Over time, the old refrigerator has become a landmark among hunters on the Peacham property. Directions like "wait for me at the old refrigerator" or "I'll be between the refrigerator and the pulp pile" sound odd to some but in hunter speak these are clear and important directions. Fortunately the fir balsams have grown quickly in recent years and the landmark is mostly surrounded now. It still represents an animal crossing point and hopefully will forever.

Karl stopped and began sniffing a foot tall balsam. The snow was bare of footprints but it was obvious the tiny tree was recently well marked by fox or coyotes and Karl was interested. I respected his interest in the spot but a clump of snow dropping from above had hit my shoulder. It splattered inside my collar and down my neck, cold enough to want to make me move along.
Karl wouldn't budge save for his sniffer which was in overdrive.

My thoughts of feeling sorry that he didn't have a nice walk on Christmas were fading quickly. Just then a red squirrel, obviously late returning to his nest, chattered loudly from the balsam above. Karl spotted it quickly and began to yelp like a true hunter. Red squirrels are always saying something and they seem to want you to believe they own the woods and are always in charge. This one looked a little odd. It was so wet its tail looked hairless. Just the same it scolded Karl for even thinking he was important and it scurried higher and into a hole in a dead poplar tree. For Karl, that was a sign to head for home.

As we walked along the woods road, I noticed again the death within the forest. The balsams on this property have reached their age peak and they are declining. The white and red spruces appear to have some blight or insect as many do not look as healthy as I'd expect. The long needle pine are tall and wave nicely in the wind but I notice they have a blight beginning on the north side of the stand. All of the forest is in transition. Regardless, the snow lends a silence and a peace that is powerful and calming.

We got back to the truck and Karl jumped up and in. He had a nice walk. I did too, I really did!

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where the night is still and the storm has stopped. Soon the birds and animals of the night will shake off ice pellets and snow flakes and head out to meet friends and find some dinner.

With frosty winter thoughts....for just a day.....

George Africa

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Hard and Heavy Holiday Gifts

27 degrees here on the mountain. I had to walk to the window to see if the stars were shinning and they are. I flicked on the light switch and the outside light startled the doe deer and twins just over the bank. I hadn't half expected to see them as they have been missing for several days. They appear to be headed for the only apple tree that holds fruit this late--some kind of a small yellow apple that doesn't appeal to me but does appeal to deer. There are very few apples remaining but they will kick the snow and leaves around until they find every last one on the ground.

I'm pleased that my thoughts about using stone in gardens encouraged others to ask questions and show interest. I think I have answered about everyones questions. I cannot say that it's inexpensive to work with stone or easy on the back or wallet (your preference) as it isn't. The thing about stone is when it's done, it's done and it can be enjoyed until you change your mind. Personally, I like Dan Snow's philosophy and abide by it--"Only lift a stone once."

When I wrote about holiday gifts I mentioned stone but forgot to give examples of a different use that interests some gardeners. Chris Cleary lives in Jericho, Vermont. His Dad owns a great stone yard in Richmond on Governor Peck Road and Chris has worked there in the past. His real strength however, is working with his hands as a sculptor. The example above is a recreation of a Zuni piece from out west. He did this on bluestone. He drew a stencil and then sandblasted the design. Somehow I hit the wrong button when I was resizing the picture and I inverted the dimension so you don't see the depth of the cuts. Regardless of my error, it's a neat looking piece of work. Chris varies the design size as you prefer based on your intended use. Stone types and colors are also available.

I have always like kokopeli and at one time researched myself silly on this interesting representation. Sometime I may craft a large one to center in a labyrinth garden. Gardens by themselves can offer fine music but there's nothing like a flute to encourage thoughts of new gardens and new designs.

The lizard in this last design may not fit well in a Vermont garden but it is also well done and offers conversation. These happen to be three pieces which I have collected but the concept
and the sculptor are what I wish to convey here. Vermont has some fine craftsmen and their work displays well in garden settings.

Still stumped for a gift for you favorite gardener? Running short on time? Try a pair of Felco pruners and a leather holster with belt clip. Trouble is they'll last forever so start thinking about next year's gift right away.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where Karl the wonder dog just brought me his stuffingless sheepskin animal toy in hopes that I'd toss it back out the office door a few times before his bedtime...and mine.

With kind gardening thoughts for safe travel,

George Africa

Monday, December 18, 2006

A list of "should haves"

A sliver of sunlight grows more and more slender as it pokes through the needle-barren tamaracks, casting a long reach across the forest floor. Its decreasing size signals the impending clouds which will bring us yet more rain. It's an odd sight for mid December as the fields are bare below my office window, save for snow swaths trapped between the rows of brown and tipsy daylily scapes, long since the colorful attention grabbers of the lower field.

One-two-three, ten-eleven-twelve, sixteen in all..... mounds left on top of the septic leach field by the star nosed mole or one of his relatives who enjoy burrowing through damp locations, looking for worms and other delicacies. I need to make a mental note that come spring and soil temperatures of 50 or higher, I'll sprinkle Milky Spore down there on the off chance that the area also holds a collection of beetle grubs. Piles of fresh dirt left by these little animal rototillers are a signal to gardeners that something is going on in that area and needs attention lest the mole or the beetle numbers grow too fast.

As I sit here to write, the outside temperature is 41 and there is a slight wind blowing. I just returned from walking Karl, the wonder dog, and the temperature feels lower than the reading. If Karl could talk I know he would have commented because he dislikes cold and hates wet feet. He's really not meant for Vermont but there's no challenge that he was meant for this family!

Gardeners like the population at large, always have a list of "should haves". I'm looking at a "should have" right now. On the bookcase next to me sits a Hippeastrum.... a "should have"..... an amaryllis. I should have planted my amaryllis back in October but I didn't plant them until late November. Now it appears that my reds and whites and pinks, intended to complement our poinsettias on Christmas Day will give no more than a pale green accent. Yes, I should have planted them earlier.

Amaryllis are a great houseplant which is readily available online, in garden centers, hardware stores and big box stores everywhere right after Labor Day. They are priced from about $5 on up to $16. The come in a variety of colors and bulb sizes, some sold boxed, some in bulk, often sold from wooden crates. The convenience of the plant leaves no excuse not to try a couple for additional holiday color around the house.

We generally buy several prepotted amaryllis so we can give some away as gifts to guests who stop by to see our tree and have never seen or grown an amaryllis before. I sometimes buy slightly larger bulbs in bulk to plant ourselves but this year we were just too busy. The larger bulbs produce spectacular plants with several strong scapes which bloom on and on way past the celebration of the New Year.

When amaryllis are finished blooming, many think of them as disposable plants and with one plop they're in the trash. My mother was a junk collector from Depression days and she couldn't throw away a spare smile. She'd always carry the gone-by pots to the cellar and put them in an area which wouldn't freeze. Since the house was built in 1826, there were too many places in the cellar that did freeze in those days so care was important. When spring came and we were well into June, she'd drag out the bulbs and give them to my Dad to plant. He'd care for them until fall, dig and dry them in the sun for a couple days and then scoot them back to the cellar until Mom could plant them in October. Every year the bulbs got bigger and those two gardeners would pat each other on the back for what a good job they had done. You can do exactly the same thing, hopefully without an 1826 house, and enjoy a fine flower again and again. Go ahead! There's still time to find some and they'll be in bloom long before you ask which day Lincoln's birthday falls on.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where wrens continue to feast on mullein seeds and tall gray clouds close out the last of the afternoon's sunshine.

George Africa

Monday, December 11, 2006

Holiday Thoughts

Monday, December 11, 2006

32.5 degrees here on the hill. Same temperature for the past 3 hours. Gail has a nice roast chicken in the oven. It smells delicious and prompted Karl, the wonder dog, to jump up and trot-trot-trot to the kitchen in hopes that something dropped off the counter onto the floor. He and his vacuum-like mouth just returned to his dog bed beside me, empty with disappointment but obviously relieved, knowing that the oven timer is wearing down. Dogs are smart critters and Karl, the wonder dog is exceptional.

Not only is the oven timer wearing down but the number of days left for rational holiday shopping is drawing down too. I have never seen myself as a shopper and as many can attest, I am not known for my package wrapping skills. Some have even commented that I clearly own stock in 3-M based on the amount of Scotch tape I go through. Regardless of that, I guess some think I should be consulted for gift ideas. With reluctance, and in hopes that none of this will be held against me, here are some ideas.

There are three words in my garden vocabulary that come to mind when I think through the first suggestion. Peace, tranquility and water. Hemingway was an author I admired and he commented on the relationship of man to water from the perspective of one's sanity. He usually was thinking of ocean-sized bodies but I think we can agree that water has a tranquilizing affect which brings a peacefulness to us. To that end I recommend a pre-made pond liner available at the Home Depots and Lowes of the world, rural farm stores and probably many hardware stores. A liner is as close to "instant pond" as you can get.

I bought the liner pictured above about ten years ago. It was inexpensive then so is probably about $135 now. 7-8 feet across, 28" deep, with a shelf for placing potted water plants and little raised bubbles on the bottom so when you step in to wash it out, you won't pull a Simon and Garfunkle "slip-sliding away" and get hurt.

This gift would best be purchased for someone who really wants one but doesn't live close by. That's because someone has to get it into the ground. When I close my eyes I can still see the sticker plastered on the side with that adhesive that never comes off. It stated that "In just 4 hour hours you'll be enjoying the beauty of your first water garden." Yeh right! With a back hoe, a truckload of sand and two helpers you couldn't get it done by noon if you forgot about breakfast and just started before the sun got hot. If you decide to buy one, write me and I'll explain how to install it the right way. Once it's in the ground you can plant around it, in it, add an electric or solar water pump, buy all sorts of water nozzles and add a number of other things to your list of garden chores and garden budget. Oh yes, and where do those goldfish go every fall???

Antique garden art is a broad category but some people do like to complement their plants with other items. Gail picked up two of these cast iron garden urns at an antique store in St Johnsbury for $250. They are in perfect condition and give her a chance to practice different container gardening styles each year. I half expect someone to stop by at night and grab one but so far they're still here. After the last good frost we clean them up and bring them in for the winter to display in the front room. Nice addition!

The armillary is another find. It came from an old dairy farm in Beverly, Massachusetts long ago. It's missing part of it's directional arrow but it's an eye catcher and a conversation piece. You'll also find out how many people haven't heard "armillary" before. You can still find which way is north even if you buy one without the pointer like we did.

Birdhouses come in all sizes and they're really nice. As long as they have a hole size of 1.5" you're guaranteed of getting some bird to set up residence for a while. They might not be bluebirds but they will be birds. The best might be handmade houses, especially those made by a kid with developing carpentry skills. To me there is only one place to purchase birdhouses and that's from Brown's Foster Home in South Gardiner, Maine. I stop by their booth every September at the Laudholm Craft Festival in Wells, Maine but their website will tell you the whole story. You'll get a warm feeling and a great "like-no-other" birdhouse made from recycled materials and found art.

If you want to give plants, our website
is one of thousands of nurseries available to help with your questions and your gifts. Gift certificates are commonly available and they often make it easier for the shopper who isn't up on botany but does like to see holiday smiles.

Garden labels are something lots of gardeners haven't figured out yet but want to. We use a very basic metal product from Eon Industries but there many varieties available. Search under "Plant Markers" and you'll find quite a selection. Ken and Sue from KS Plant Markers will show up and I know Sue will be happy to answer questions and help with an order. If you want to go one step further, kick in a box of Avery waterproof laser labels and you're likely to hear "How'd you come up with this?" The labels come in clear or white. We use clear with Times NewRoman font but the choices are endless.

A subscription to a gardening magazine is priceless if it's a regional magazine that tells you who is planting what and where. People, Places and Plants Gardening Magazine covers New England and upstate New York. Paul Tukey is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher and one of the nicest in the business. Take a look at Right now if you buy yourself a subscription you get another for free.

And if all these choices fail to stir an idea that seems just right for your special gardener, a hand made gift card with an invitation to spend the day on the road shopping nurseries near or far, will certainly do the trick.....and Vermont Flower Farm could be one of those stops.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where the temperature remains 32.5 degrees and a light mist continues to fall while last night's snow slides slowly off the roof, one section at a time.

Warm Gardening Wishes,

George Africa

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Vermont Reflections

Tuesday eve, December 5, 2006

I just put a couple logs in the woodstove. The warmth feels very good, especially to Karl the wonder dog, flanked out in front of the brick hearth acting as if his spot is not to be intruded upon. In a few minutes he will probably become oblivious to his surroundings. Soon we'll hear his erractic snoring and twitching as he goes into dreams of chasing red squirrels and rabbits. Much has changed in the past couple days and the weather has shown it is in charge of our outside world.

Sunday morning Karl and I headed out early to try to get a few late fall pictures. We headed south on Route 232 and then took a right turn across from the turn to Owls Head. If you haven't been there yet, locate it on a good map and make a note to visit any time after Memorial Day next spring. That's when the state park system begins to open. Owls Head is special to me and I speak of it often, to friends, to visitors, and in our blogs. The profile shot of me on this blog is one Alex took several years ago when I was sitting up there enjoying a time of peace. For Alex and me, we don't make the trip up there often enough but when just the two of us go, we have good conversation.

Karl and I headed down the road until we came to Marshfield Pond. I have no idea how many pictures I have taken of the pond but Sunday morning we got there as the sun was just tossing back the bedsheets. The mountain looked cold and dark even though the temperature was almost 30 degrees warmer than it is tonight.

Marshfield Pond is a kettle pond, less than 35 feet deep and filled with browned, acidic water, warm water fish and is surrounded by some fine wildflower specimens. Despite all that beauty, the shear granite headwall has always intrigued me, forever beckoning me to visit.

The visual entrance to Marshfield Pond is similar to the entrance to our hosta display garden. It makes you catch your breath with all there is to see and as soon as you cast your eyes right or left, you're instantly fatigued by how much there is to see. Once you've looked around , you know you'll return time and again to compare differences and savor the tranquility that is so difficult to find these days.

The hosta garden entrance is impressive but it didn't turn out as expected. It serves as a good reminder to other gardeners that a good garden plan is priceless. If you visit before mid May when the hostas are first breaking ground and then visit again around the third week of June, you'll notice that the beauty of the hostas has covered the beauty of the stones that delineate the old barn foundation, three stone walls holding firm grasp to hundreds of hosta so they can't escape to adjoining land. Had I done it correctly, I would have spaced the larger hostas further apart and would have planted the smaller ones 5-6 feet from some of the larger varieties. Seeing a Sum and Substance hosta that's 6 feet across and almost four feet high makes you "wow!"; having to peal away 20" leaves to find much smaller Kabitan, Lemon Lime, Twist of Lime and Little Sunspot is not nearly as fun as seeing them well grown as perimter hostas.

Planting a hosta garden the right way makes you want to keep bending over to grab another hosta to plant. The new garden looks sparsely planted and open at first and makes you feel too stingey with the plant material. This feeling continues for at least the first two years when the plants begin to fill out.

If you can't resist that urge to fill in between plants with yet more hostas, you can always buy some fast growing annuals and pop in a few here and there. It's also prudent to remember that the first full year after planting, the hostas are typically adjusting to the soil and putting on some nice root growth. The second year they will start to grow and the third year it's a whole different look

These last two pictures show the same hosta bed two years apart. It's been two additonal years since the last picture. If you stop by to visit, you will easily see what we're trying to communicate on the spacing issue. And I'll bet even a quick walk through the lower garden will give you the encouragement needed to try some hostas. If the look is enticing but the courage is lacking, courage is something we dole out for free. Just ask!

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where colder temperatures will lead to some snow on Thursday and then slightly warmer days by the weekend. "Warmer" is relative in a Vermont winter but it's always nice for us to hear.

Happy gardening thoughts!

George Africa

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Remembering Summer

Saturday afternooon and the wind doesn't seem to have let up a bit since daybreak. The temperature has dropped to 31 and it has been holding there for some time. Last night after supper I dumped a couple 5 gallon buckets--my "rain gauges"--and this morning there was over 3" in each. The daily paper said there was an inch an hour falling in Burlington last night and it flooded out the sewer network. The Winooski River goes through Marshfield village and continues for 65 miles before it gets to Lake Champlain. Today it is flowing about as high and fast as I have seen in quit a while. This isn't the first year the weather has acted like this but with the land saturated as it is, it doesn't take much to create problems.

Usually there would be snow on the ground but this year the rain and warm weather has kept us snow free. November finished the month in number two place for the warmest on record. It hasn't been this warm since 1948.

I guess it is the warmer November that continues to remind me how much I enjoyed the flowers this summer. They seemed to come out early and hold their color longer than usual. The rain which came mostly at night kept the daylilies looking beautiful and the scapes seemed in great abundance for weeks on end. Just a great memory!

There are a couple things which I can't seem to follow through on from year to year. It drives me nuts as soon as I find out I have messed up again but apparently I never feel guilty enough to mend my ways. I have three good cameras and I know how to take pictures. You'll never see my stuff in galleries or with price tags but usually you can honor whatever it is I have photographed with the ability to name it generically. ...mountains, river, brown tree, red flower, little fluffy dog....that kind of thing. My problem is I never take the pictures that I should.

Each year I make a new list of pictures I need for our web site. You'd think after 4 years I could get around to a picture of the daylily Chicago Apache instead of taking twenty each of Witch Hazel or Wayside Green Lamp. I can't. You'd think I could take some garden photos to break out when the snows of January are three feet deep. I can't. This got so bad this summer that I actually had to contact a writer/publisher and say that I had to forego being in her book because I couldn't get the pictures off to her.

It's not so much taking the pictures that is the problem. It's identifying them. I actually bought a camera with a recorder so I could walk down the rows and say "Nefertiti, Rococo, Mauna Loa, Hesperus, Citrina, Lusty Leland, Night Beacon, Alaqua, chipmunk, another damn snake" but I didn't like the feature. I probably have 500 beautiful close up photos of daylilies and at best it's a crap shoot as to what they are. When I try to coax Gail to look at the monitor with me she always reminds me "I can only identify them in the garden." Somehow I have to get better at this for next year.

The other thing I have gotten terrible about is updating my maps. When I plant a new something-or-other I always write the name on a tag and bury it in the same hole, always at 3 o'clock. That's so if the tag that's above ground is grabbed by the tag fairy or some child aspiring to be a plant tag collector at maturity, I can still determine what is what by digging down on the right side of the plant til I find the tag.

Having a garden map makes it easier to replace tags in the spring, and to plan garden revisions during the winter. But maps around here need to be updated every year. I like to do mine in the fall when customers have forgotten us and the frost has had a chance to make mush of all top growth. Again this year I have failed with my maps. Frankly, I can't even find my maps. Gail got so tired of hearing me ask "Have you seen my maps?" that she bought me a new pad of graph paper in hopes it would quiet me. It did silence the irritating questioning but it didn't get the maps done.

The other day I saw some free software in a gardening magazine. It was supposedly made for designing gardens. By the time I had logged in and taken a ridiculous survey and finally got to the design feature, I found out the thing was set up for an 8 foot wide garden. We don't have gardens like that and when I tried out their icons for various plant varieties, the space filled up so fast I had little chance of ever getting from Abba Dabba Do to City Lights let alone Wylde Green Cream or even Zounds. I guess all software designers are not garden designers too.

Regardless of current photos or updated maps, the flowers of the summer of 2006 were very special. If you didn't have an opportunity to stop by, now is the time to pencil us in for next year. The picture up top is typical of what you might see here, late July, first week of August. It could be a memory you'll want to relive annually. Hope to see you next year!

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where the blustery winds are so strong they encourage the smoke from the woodstove to come back down the chimney...... instead of floating down the valley and through the fir balsams where the deer rest quietly.

Gardening thoughts,

George Africa

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Creative Hardscapes

Tuesday afternoon and the outside appearance is no different now than it was at 7 this morning. The temperature lingers at 37 degrees as a fine mist drifts to earth, now mixed without choice, with the gray wood smoke which floats about horizontally. I tried writing last evening but the weather conditions and Cyber Monday slowed our new satellite connection so much that Gail felt dial-up looked good again. With anything new, there is a period of adjustment.

The weather last evening was interesting. My son Adam lives in Seattle and it was 31 degrees there. A lady wrote from British Columbia and offered pictures of 24" of snow which shouldn't have been there. It was 50 degrees here in Marshfield at the very same time I was checking out other geography. I have seen times in Vermont when today would be 12 degrees below zero with a howling wind and 2 feet of snow. The current temperature puts us one day closer to spring gardening and gives a few more precious hours to walk the gardens and make notes for winter's garden design projects.

Hardscapes are the supportive skeletons of our gardens and they can take many forms. Here in Marshfield where glacial erratics are common, a few common tools and primitive knowledge of mechanical advantage can lead to some interesting hardscapes. Like a chiropractor says he realigns vertebrae, the gardener can rearrange stones to enhance plant life, define garden rooms and accentuate paths and garden architecture

As rock is degraded by nature, the sizes and shapes we are left to work with have great variation. Depending upon our skill and resources we can incorporate stone from bonsai sized pebbles and sand reminiscent of aged coastal Maine rock to Volkswagen sized boulders tossed off Vermont mountains or left along volcanic pathways.

Many have written about using stone in horticulture and volumes are left to be composed. It's not that techniques will change a great deal but more artisans will wish to share their mix of stonework, plantings and photography. Any online search will produce numbers of books which can assist your decision to get involved with stone or not.

My personal library has a few books on stonework and I go back to each at different times of the year. They serve as reminders to the potential beauty of stone and also caution me to work carefully so that the weight of the beauty doesn't become a physical weight on me personally.

Last winter I had a chance to attend an evening lecture at the Cabot Library. Connie, the Cabot librarian, does a special job with lots of interesting folks. The lectures draw good crowds and fine conversation for days to come. She invited Dan Snow to discuss his profession of dry stacking stone. He has written a book I am fond of entitled In The Company of Stone. Between the book and the lecture you want to grab some tools and go to work.

The Granite Kiss: Traditions and Techniques of Building New England Stone Walls by Kevin Gardner is another good resource. I like the title because it warns of the danger of stone work when the laborer put hands where they do not belong and they are "kissed" by the rocks as reminder to who is in charge. I don't like to be kissed that way and to this day have a dented, rippled thumbnail that reminds me.

Gordon Hayward from southern Vermont has those manicured garden thoughts in mind when he suggests uses for stone. In his book, Stone in the Garden: Inspiring Design & Practical Projects he presents pictures and writes about stone from an organized perspective. This is a good resource.

Sometimes simple is best of all, and my favorite book is also the best of all. It was written by Curtis P. Fields who I knew from my earlier days growing up in Woodstock, Vermont. His book is entitled The Forgotten Art of Building a Stone Wall. It was first printed in 1971 by Yankee, Inc. and by 1986 when I was gifted a copy it was in its 12th printing. To have known the man and to have touched the walls he built firmed up a memory and some benchmarks for working with stone.
I have tried to describe my enjoyment with working with stone and some of what I have accomplished on two pages of our website, Vermont Flower Farm. In each one, I've tried to show how the stone and the gardens evolve over time.
Building A Hosta Garden and Stone Steps

Using stone doesn't have to be any more dramatic that I did in 2000 when I started the lower hosta garden here at Vermont Flower Farm. 7 pieces of granite ranging in length from 6 feet to 11 feet, randomly set in the earth with no real plan have become a discussion piece for visitors and a backdrop for a future hosta garden. The ground beneath is carpeted with several varieties of epimedium and there are probably 35 different hostas mixed among the stones. The backdrop is formed by Hosta 'Tall Boy' and Lilium superbum and over time the grouping will flow nicely. In the meantime, a different application stands tall as an example of what you can do when you get creative with your garden hardscape!
From the mountain above Peacham Pond where the mist hangs tight and Karl the wonder dog barks gruffly at the kid by the mailbox leaving off the weekly buyers digest.
Gardening wishes,
George Africa

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Hunting and Gathering

An absolutely beautiful day here at the flowerless farm, though a tad chilly to start, with an "even" twenty degrees on the thermometer at about 5 this morning. At that time the sky was full of stars and not a sign of a cloud was to be found anywhere. As the sun rose, the giant high pressure mass made obvious its presence with a light wind and lots more sun. It turned out to be a great day to work outside and get a few more things off the "have-to-do-soon" list.

Life gets complicated now days and it seems as if we have to stop everything once in a while and catch up on those items which just can't be overlooked any longer. Although I have been doing a good job juggling events lately, there are a couple things that need to be shared.

This blog has been very successful and has directed gardeners to our Vermont Flower Farm site. That's what I hoped would happen when I started it back in April but I didn't know how many people would write with comments and questions. Except for some time in June when I was on the west coast, I have kept all the mail going and only lost one lady with a question about hellebores. I caught up with her about the time our hellebores were going to seed. She said she was happy with my late answer and didn't mind the wait.

When I first signed up to use Google's Blogger software, I knew little about blogs. I just applied the templates and wrote myself silly. Then Internet Retailer Magazine had a great article on social networking and suggested you network your blogs to market your business products through your writing. It also suggested LibraryThing, Flickr and MySpace as inexpensive vehicles to this networking.

I signed up for LibraryThing for a start. (Look for VermontFlowerFarm -- no spaces) This is a piece of software that allows you to enter up to 200 of your private book collection into an online database which compares the books of your collection to those of other readers. From the shared books comes the start of communication and social networking which can include forming groups. If you go beyond 200 books it's $10 a year or $25 for a lifetime membership. Like the blog, I have found that people do express an interest in communicating with other people with similar reading lists. When I signed up there was no group for hostas, shade gardening, daylilies, or horticulture but just when I was thinking of starting a group, others had the same idea. LibraryThing is really catching on and is already establishing some interesting relationships.

I signed up for MySpace and then decided to back off for a while as some of it didn't seem to fit too well. Today an impatient reader asked if I was going to write or not. I will probably cancel that out and stick with what I have. It is a fact that this networking theory works well to direct people to at least look at your site. The downside is you need more time than I have to really do it all well.

One of the things I have turned on and off twice is the blog comments posting section. I like people who don't mind public postings to be able to see what they have written. People tell me they enjoy reading comments even though they might not feel comfortable making any themselves. Kind of like thinking about a letter-to-the-editor but never quite getting there. The thing I don't like is the spam which has infiltrated everything. I think I'll probably revert to accepting comments but not having them be publicly displayed. If you have a question or a comment that you want us to respond to, please e-mail directly at Unless you grow hellebores or have questions about them, this will work fine to get a prompt answer from us.

The other housekeeping issue is the good news that Vermont Flower Farm has been well fed over the past few years and is going to move by 2008. Gail and I purchased a piece of property just outside Marshfield Village on Route 2. We will be open here on Peacham Pond Road during the entire 2007 growing season (starting next May!) and will be relocated by April 2008.

This is a really exciting thing for us and it couldn't have happened without the incredible support of thousands of gardeners who have made their way to Peacham Pond Road. Operating a nursery business is a lot of work but when you enjoy flowers and nice customers like we do, it's a little bit easier.

To let you know where we are going and how we are progressing, I have started a separate blog named Vermont Gardens. My intent is to represent what goes on as we grow the new business from the earth up. Along the way I'll incorporate the same style anecdotes, local lore, and ecology that I do here, but I'll detail the business aspects along the way. Many people ask us about starting a nursery and this blog will help some with their decisions.

So with news updates out of the way, the question remains, what is this "hunting and gathering" title and what is today's picture? I've been working lots of hours at the new property and am trying to absorb every horticultural detail of this new piece of land. It is bordered by the Winooski River so it makes it even more of a challenge in terms of what grows there and what might have lived there or been brought there hundreds of years ago. We like history and horticulture in our family and this new project merges both interests well.

Echinocystis lobata is not a luffa-like deep sea sponge left from 7 million years ago but the totally inedible wild cucumber which grows happily in moist soil and shady conditons as we have on the east corner of the property. The seeds, usually four in number, are black to brown and they are held tightly in the cucumber until frost speeds up the ripening process. The seeds drop to the ground and the fruit succumbs to the weather. Over the following year the prickly outer coating blows off, allowing the internal fruit to dry and blow away leaving an interesting skeleton. I found some left overs today clinging to some equally dehydrated alders. They're kind of neat and they work well in fall arrangements. For me, they are a reminder that as a kid my pet goat, Martha, used to love to eat these despite their prickly outer skin.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where the Vermont Castings wood stove has made the house toasty and where Karl the wonder dog snores loudly, laying on his back, all four feet pointed to heaven.

Gardening wishes,

George Africa

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Colorful Epimediums

Dark and quiet here at 5:30 AM. 32.7 degrees out and only the car and truck lights of hunters heading for the woods cuts through the darkness. Deer hunters have another week for the rifle season in Vermont and then special time for muzzleloaders begins. People ask if I still hunt and I do but it has become more of a ritual than a reality. I seem to feel quite comfortable resting on memories of successful hunts in earlier days than actually getting out and taking it seriously. My enjoyment comes from nine successes and my real enjoyment is when my neighbor stops by with a tenderloin and a package or two of venison steak like he did the other night.

Fall clean up continues but from now on it won't be as pleasant as previous weeks when temperatures set new November records and we got to accomplish many things that normally would have waited until April or even May. Yesterday I loaded another truckload of leaves, fired up the wood splitter to split two giant wheelbarrows of ash kindling, and got the rest of the summer furniture heading towards the bulkhead for winter clean up and storage.

Walking the gardens is still enjoyable as there's always something to see that was missed on previous trips. Yesterday I noted how feverishly the small birds were working on the purple and white echinacea seed heads. Just watching them reminded me I wanted to spread some seeds in the lower hosta garden where it stays damp all summer. I want to see how well they actually do close to water. I have noticed many gardening articles this year that mention them growing in damp areas yet I always thought they came from the midwest and needed an arid environment. Guess we'll see in a year or two.

Harvesting echinacea is not a difficult job but don't forget your gloves. This time of year I always wear deerskin gloves with Thinsulate lining but as thick as they are, the slender, outer seed coating of an echinacea seed found a way through a thumb seam and gave me fits trying to find it stuck in a finger. Since they produce prodigous amounts of seed, I had half a five gallon bucket in short time. If you have any echinacea in your garden, spread some around before the birds get to them. No fear, they don't have a high germination rate and a few more plants will look really nice two Augusts from now.

Walking on, the epimedium Gail planted under the James MacFarland lilac caught my attention. Although the small leaves had been eaten ragged in places by some insect, the color had darkened to a nice red-bronze. I still can't get enough customers to buy these but those who do come back to pick up another variety or two. They are a really special plant to me and deserve more attention. I always point out that interested gardeners should scoot on over to The Epimedium Page and take a look at what's available. Darrell Probst is the authority on a plant that seriously needs your attention, whether you have a spot with some New England sunlight or a shade or woodland garden.

As I headed back to the house I noticed yet again how large the Aruncus aethusifolius had grown this summer. Dwarf Goats Beard is a nice symmetrical plant which grows in mound shape, round on the perimeter, rising 15" in the center before the creamy white, astilbe-like flower scapes rise slightly higher. The one that caught my attention is now three feet in diameter. I tried to spring it loose from its tight handhold on the front walkway garden but it lucked out when I couldn't locate the 6 foot prybar. Perhaps this spring??? Perhaps not.

Time is already escaping and my coffee cup is empty.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where a flock of geese just sounded its overhead flight. Frozen lakes and ponds in Canada will now encourage greater migrations and by mid December Vermont waterways, still unfrozen, will host several goose and duck parties to give birders a fine holiday present.

George Africa

Friday, November 17, 2006

Digging Garlic, Frying Oysters

Already 4 PM here on the mountain. The weather has changed from sun and warm, to windy, to cloudy and black with minor sprinkles in between each change. It's still 53 degrees out and mighty warm for this time of year. When I drove down the road an hour ago the town truck followed me. It seemed odd that the driver should be riding around with the snow plow mounted on. Putting on the plow is a habitual thing and I guess you do it whether you will need it right away or not.

Last year I bought a snow plow for my pick-up truck. It was the first I ever owned although I have plowed snow before for other people using their vehicles. No more of that "get out and change the plow angle" with these new rigs. Everything is automatic from inside the cab with a little joystick affair attached to the dash. They do make another version with a joystick that sits on the seat next to you so you can pretend you're playing crash and burn video games while driving along. I bought the cheaper version at $4000 but never got much chance to use it last year as it hardly snowed. Gail said that buying it showed I know nothing about business as I could have hired half the town to plow the yard and still been ahead money wise. I'm betting I'll use it some before I leave Earth.

I bought some oysters today with plans to fry them up for supper. I like an ever-so-minute hint of garlic in the sauce--one of those "pull-it-through-the-pan-quickly-on-a-piece-of-string" affairs that leaves so little garlic flavor that you might not even notice it. Naturally the garlic I wanted was still in the garden and the shovels were in the shed put away for the winter.

I chased two red squirrels out of the shed and headed to the old potato patch to snag a few fresh cloves of garlic. Alex had planted some among his potatoes a few years ago when he tried without success to scare the deer away. The garlic grew and grew and reseeded itself in many other places. It wasn't a problem finding any to dig but for the life of me I don't remember the name and really don't care. I dug three clumps and got three different varieties. The most abundant was a creamy, mild one I like to use in my vegetable soup. That's probably the one I'll try tonight with the oysters. As I work away on the keyboard I can still smell the garlic even though I washed my hands several times.

I'm not keen on digging much of anything in the fall. That's why I no longer grow glads or dahlias, cannas, calla lilies or caladiums. I enjoy them all but don't want to be a fall digger. Tonight I won't think about flowers save for the nice mum adding decoration to the table. I'll fry up some oysters and some home fries, and I'll dip some zucchini slices in a tempura batter before they make it to the oil. Some sliced tomatoes and fresh basil accompanied by some smoked mozzarella slices from Cheese Traders in Burlington and we'll have a cholesterol packed meal no one could pass up. Spring water will keep us honest!

It's Friday and the big part of the week has ended. The sun is dropping quickly and before we eat it will be dark. Those oysters will be great!

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where energetic red squirrels don't seem to get old, slow or gray, and where they prefer running full tilt or eating to sitting still.

Gardening wishes from tomorrow's leaf raker,

George Africa

Monday, November 13, 2006

Wooshing in the Night

Difficult to believe but here it is 9:30 in the evening and it's still 48 degrees out. At some point tonight the rain will start and by tomorrow it should be quite heavy. The weather lady says it will wear itself out in time for a beautiful day on Wednesday with highs in the sixties. No matter how much it rains here, it won't come close to what my son Adam is reporting from Seattle. The evening news showed a shot of I-5 in Seattle and if you know that road, it's bad enough on a clear day let alone with 6 inches of rain on it and rivers running into it.

I was sitting here finishing a letter of support for a grant application some friends are involved in. I had started it once before and was interrupted so tonight's goal was to get it in the mail. With one paragraph left, Gail came in and did one of those "There's something out there????" statements. I don't know how I got to be the chief mystery solver around here but maybe in this case it was more of a chief protector role I was expected to play. There was a little uncertainty in Gail's voice and I could see my letter was doomed again so I better figure out this mystery.

I was drawn into the front room where the wind was blowing a cool breeze sufficient to fluff the curtains away from the window's edge. Gail repeated the noise, some kind of wooshing sound she said. I mimicked a few bear sounds as Mrs Bear and the boys are visitors every night as they head to the neighbors place. A tipped my head to the window, listened for a minute and then my one good ear kicked in. "Kim got a deer", I said. Gail seemed confused but somehow relieved with the verdict. "How ya' know that?"

This is Vermont and Kim likes to hunt. He took today off from his job at one of the Barre granite sheds to hunt and as I looked out the window I saw his truck lights pointing to his outside shed. He has a block and tackle in one side and the lights headed in that direction. But the real proof that he got a deer was what Gail called a "wooshing" sound. What Gail heard was a Sawz-All--an electric reciprocating saw which in Vermont has replaced the old hand meat cutters saw. Once you hang up the deer on a whipple tree, rear legs spread, head hanging down, and remove the skin, you're ready to halve it with the Sawz-All. You start where the tail left off and cut down til you get to the neck. I've seen lots of deer skinned out, some in the middle of the night in the middle of no where, but only in recent years have I seen the Sawz-All "wooshing" through vertebraes. Mystery solved.

I got back to my writing, finished the support letter and searched for a blog writer who had recently sent me a comment about The Vermont Gardener. Her blog is entitled A Study in Contrasts and I have added it to my list of favorites. The author uses colors very well and does an excellent job explaining them. I scanned through a number of her posts and could visualize the silvers , reds, oranges, yellows, plums and purples she uses so well. The colors made me think of a simple patch of grass by the Winooski River that caught my attention the other day. Yellow colored grass with brown fungus spots surrounded by a sea of dried milkweeds and seedy gray goldenrod.

As gardeners we should all study the contrast our gardens present via their colors, textures, heights and fragrances...........even on a warm Fall day the week before Thanksgiving.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where"wooshing" has been replaced by the sound of freezer paper torn across the metal box cutter and rolls of tape pulled to lengths sufficient to seal fresh venison for future meals. It won't be over for a while but the memory of the hunt and the harvest will last forever.

George Africa

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Autumn Textures

A busy weekend here at Vermont Flower Farm. Not busy as in July with flowers in bloom and customers lined up with plants and questions, but busy with seasonal chores. Friday and Saturday benefited from a changing weather system that dropped a few inches of snow in parts of the mid-west but brought high temperatures to Marshfield that even broke 60 degrees yesterday after lunch. Two such beautiful days made us change our schedules and get more things cleaned up that typically we would have been left until late April 2007.

Raking maple leaves isn't a great sport. I do have a leaf vac which shreds leaves nicely but during the past week the winds blew ferociously and twigs and limbs are everywhere. Raking was the only way to go and 5 truckloads later, things are looking better.

Maple leaves are precious to us because the soil here is so poor and maples have so much to offer. The trees have deep roots so they bring minor elements up from deep below the surface. An inch or so of shredded leaves spread on the gardens in spring helps add to the soil and provide a mulch blanket to hold spring rains. Some days I have to remind myself of this benefit to get the wind rows into the back of the truck. To see the benefit in healthy plants during summer days is sufficient reward to make me do the same task year after year.

I still have to get the weed whacker out and cut down the display beds now adorned with various brown shades from monardas, phlox, astilbes, liatris and the like. This refuse goes out back on a separate pile which never comes back to the gardens. The possibility of encouraging fungus is reason enough to separate it from the regular compost pile.

Yesterday I sat for a minute and looked over the various stems and seed heads and asked Gail what she thought about a nice autumn arrangement for the harvest table. She said she had already considered it and in minutes she set about picking an armful of materials. Cimicifuga (now Actea) atropurpurea, astilbes, Siberian iris 'Double Delight', and Sedum 'Matrona' seemed to fit the bill. In short order Gail had prepared a very nice arrangement in a Lucinda Rochester vase that had been in hiding for some time . The various heights and textures worked nicely with the teal color of the vase and it will serve as an anchor to a fall display in the front room.

Although these materials were destined for a compost pile, they can become a very nice decoration with just an ounce of creative imagination. I've been equally as happy to have an arrangement plunked into a Mason jar but finding Rochester's product in the back cupboard made for a nicer display. It also reminded me to remind you that the Holiday Craft Fair and Fine Arts Show starts this Thursday at the Sheraton in Burlington. It's billed as the "54th annual...". I don't know how it started but do know that with over 175 artisans exhibiting, it's worth a visit.

Vermont artisans are like Vermont gardeners--they spend inordinate amounts of time creating works of art that bring back smiles and compliments and move us on to the next project.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where six shiny yellow eyes in the night probably means Mrs Bear and the twin cubs are hoping I've changed my mind and put out all the bird feeders. Wrong!

Best gardening wishes,

George Africa

Friday, November 10, 2006

Crusades Through Garden Time

Already 7:30 here on the mountain, 42 degrees, with gray skies and a steady wind blowing brief spurts of colder air. Karl, the wonder dog, was not enamored with the morning breeze and cut short his typical morning venture to sniff every leaf from here to the mailbox. The newspaper delivery person still hasn't figured out Newspaper Delivery 101 as there was a paper in the box today, the first since Monday.

Today is Veterans Day, a day that always makes me pause and think about America and the history that got us to today. The peony pictured above is named Crusader and much has transpired since the crusades of old. Many wars have occurred and many souls have been lost as we climb higher mountains and approach greater challenges. I'll never forget the members of my family who died serving our country and I'll always be thankful for those who came home. The opportunity to be free, to do as we wish, to read, to vote, to practice politics and religion as we wish--these our opportunities ever so valuable to me.

Today the gardens are quiet in the messages they have to share. Several hard frosts have flattened most foliage and darkened the rest. Just the same there is beauty in the balance. The rudbeckia and spirea stems outside my office window stand tall, waiting patiently for Sunday's snow to cap their seed heads. The astilbe stems are turning a deeper rust color while the half dozen different ligularias around the little display pond still hold tight to their seed heads. If I get to it this weekend, I'll collect a bunch of seed and take it out back to a little woodland pond we have. Little of this seed germinates but the seeds which do may well produce some interesting hybrids. At very least, a new crop will provide more food for deer when they stop for a summer cooler.

No matter what time of year it is, our gardens provide a magical mystery and always provide us with ideas for change. I have a couple more things to pick up in the lower hosta garden today and as I walk around I'll reflect on the beauty of the summer and the great feeling it is to be free.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond, where two doves walk the ground under the feeder, picking up cracked corn that the messy blue jays have kicked around.

Peace and gardening wishes on Veterans Day!

George Africa

Monday, November 06, 2006

Planning Gardens, Rethinking Thoughts

Yesterday was another one of those fall days that made the gardener in me push onward against a still too long list of things to do before sleet and snowflakes become serious around here. It was a nice day to work outside and there was a quiet peace in the air. The rural newspaper delivery person once again failed to meet my expectation that the Sunday paper should be delivered on Sunday so I loaded up Karl the wonder dog and my camera and headed for the village.

A few days earlier I had come home over the Lanesboro Road and noticed lots of beaver activity along the way. The Lanesboro Road is actually the railroad bed of the old Montpelier to Wells River railway system. The tracks were thrown up in the fifties and since then the road has become frequently traveled by hunters and fishermen, ATVs and snowmobilers, hikers and bicyclers, paddlers and llama day trippers. I liked it a lot more twenty years ago but it points out that people do like to get out of the city and into nature. This road can be accessed by turning near Rainbow Sweets in Marshfield (coming into town from Plainfield). During fall and early spring the road is open almost to Rickers Pond but from Memorial Day through Labor Day a portion is blocked off.

All along this route there is a lot of water, adjacent swamps and plenty of alders and mixed hardwood and softwood. At different times over the past twenty years we've seen lots of beaver activity and then almost none. This year someone passed out beaver calendars and when they all turned the page to November, there must have been some notation about "Cut, float and submerge lots of trees and brush for winter". During the past week there has been a flurry of beaver activity and I kind of hoped I could enjoy a little while still wondering where my newspaper was.

I made the turn across from Owl's Head on Route 232 South onto Ethan Allen Corners/Lanesboro Road, stopping for a moment on the culvert to look at the sun casting a beautiful first light on the swamp grass. I've taken many pictures here and it really is a place to stop and enjoy. The road is narrow though and getting out of the way can mean bad news so be careful.

As I neared the railroad bed I could see the thick frost from the night before. I could tell immediately that my friend Eric from Massachusetts hadn't made it up this weekend. He has a camp in Groton but part of his joy of weekends in Vermont is making an early morning "moose run" over the Lanesboro Road and other surrounding roads. He is a very knowledgeable birder, great gardener, and has keen sight for moose, bear, beavers, deer and you-name-it birds.

Being the first on the road means you have a clean palette to look for tracks. A few hundred yards down I noticed a new beaver house right next to the road (1st photo above). It was difficult to see and as I rolled down the truck window to take a picture, the beaver floating flat in the water next to it escaped my vision until it slapped its tail and showered me with perfumed swamp water. The location of the new house had considered availability of building materials, water supply, predators and distance from neighbors. The new homeowners were good at planning just like a good gardener plans and replans his gardens from year to year.

I headed down the road, first crossing a couple bear tracks, a large moose track and then arriving at Bailey Pond. The beaver house at Bailey Pond has been there for years but this year it is growing. The house is a good 15 feet in diameter and currently has the makings of a good supply of winter food on the right. Since this kettle pond is quite shallow, it's important for the beavers to pile in their food by mid November else the brush can't be accessed from under water.

If you ever have a chance to watch beavers work, it's worth the time. They are not always the best of neighbors and they have persistence that has tested backhoes and chainsaws and led some to traps and guns just to keep roads open. But beavers always have a plan and that's what good gardener should think about having this time of year too.

At Vermont Flower Farm, Gail and I walk the gardens until the snow gets deep. Passers by share their comments and questions but gardening is a passion to us which is not always easy for others to comprehend. When we walk, we observe what we have accomplished and we plan for the things we have missed or forgotten.

Taking pictures of your gardens after the frost has leveled everything won't provide pretty summer memories or photos for gift cards. Fall pictures will help your memory and help you plan for next year. You can scribble some notes on the back, add a few measurements, even a few "atta-boys" or "atta-girls" if you're especially pleased with what you've done so far. A few garden pictures of frost curled, browned leaves and stalks still serves as ample reminder to what you need to plan for. "Remove the Pacific Giant Delphiniums and hollyhocks . Replant with helenium, rudbeckia and Tetrinas Daughter, Alice in Wonderland and Miss Amelia daylilies."

Pictures are worth a lot and they'll give you time over the winter to consider height, color and texture, shade and sun, and what you want to promote in certain areas of your landscape.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond, where the moon is shinning through some clouds, and a barred owl calls from the red pines.

Gardening thoughts and wishes,

George Africa

PS One of my favorite magazines is Northern Woodlands: A New Way of Looking At The Forest. The autumn issue has an article entitled "Living with Beavers". It's written by Madelin Bodin. Worth the read.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Tangutica Meets the Lorax

21 degrees here on the hill this morning, clear as a bell and just plain quiet. Karl the wonder dog went out and suddenly froze like a statue, his tender foot pads not yet adjusted to the fact that winter is on the way. I refused to carry him back to the house and he quickly got the picture that this was not the morning for more sniffing.

Young deer hunters are probably already in the woods, sitting in tree stands or at preselected vantage points. They are no doubt waiting in anticipation of a big buck while already wondering what pocket they hid away a couple snacks and why their feet are already cold and their seat is no longer comfortable. It's youth weekend in Vermont and young hunters under 16 can hunt in the company of an adult. The theory is that giving new hunters a couple days without other competition might encourage them to stick with the sport. My neighbor Kim is out there right now with his oldest daughter Alexandria. She's a good shot and a nice kid but I'll bet she'll still be cold in another hour.

Gardeners sometimes ask me why I write about things which don't appear to have much to do with gardening. I can't understand the questioning because to me gardens are like part of a constellation and they all relate to their surroundings. Deer and other animals live in proximity to our gardens here at Vermont Flower Farm and at different points of the year they are addressed as friend or foe. Right now with the gardens about tucked away for the winter, the deer are "pretty to watch". In spring the new fawns will be "cute" and then as early July approaches, when they are old enough to follow their moms, they will become a "nuisance". By late July, expletives will be included in our thoughts and comments and unless the new deer fence holds true, it will be difficult to find something positive to say about them.

This is the time of year when outdoor gardening is kind of like deer hunting. There are some beautiful sights left to enjoy but you have to hunt a little. I really enjoy comparing seedheads and I guess I am not alone. Timber Press, one of my favorite publishers, just released a book by Noel Kingsbury entitled Seedheads in the Garden. It has over 200 photos of seedheads and just the pictures, forget about the narrative, encourage me to collect an armful and put together a nice fall arrangement.

One of the latest clematis to bloom here is Clematis tangutica. It grows in great tangles and enjoys holding tight to fences and rock walls. In late fall the yellow blooms have matured to seed heads which catch my fancy with their fluffy little mop-like feathers which quickly expand to cotton balls. I have often thought that Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) must have been looking at Clematis tangutica when he was drawing the Lorax. I'm probaly wrong but there are some similarities.

Of all the clematis on the market, this one ranks lower in popularity, especially as you journey south of Vermont. It reproduces prodigious amounts of seed and in warmer climates than Marshfield, the germination rate pushes the plant into the invasive category. Still I like the flowers and the seedheads and I really still do read Dr. Seuss.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond, where the doves are eating side-by-side with the blue jays, and where I still can't figure out the rule for words like "seedheads"?? "Seed heads"???

Gardening wishes on a cold morning,

George Africa

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Needles Drop Last

4 PM but my watch says it's 5. I can always remember "spring ahead, fall behind", but changing all the clcoks and timers is something I don't like. I'm almost never late but sometimes I'm a bit early. On October third I was early for a dentist appointment which was really scheduled for tomorrow--the 30th, not the 3d. Some much for the virtues of my hand held.

The snow blows and stops, blows and stops with intermittent pelting of larger ice crystals on my office window. There was a possibility we would receive 6" of snow late today but it hasn't really gotten started yet. The temperature is dropping slowly but is still close to freezing so the snow flakes are not stacking up yet.

We did well on our clean up list today and within a week everything should be finished. I do have a lot of leaves left to pick up with the leaf vac/mulcher and get piled up for spring. One of the listservs I'm on has been discussing clay soils and amendments which will improve things over time. That's why I save all my shredded leaves as they really help. In the old days I thoroughly amended every hole for every new plant but in recent years for planted gardens I've followed the new strategy. I try to layer out an extra inch of leaves every spring after clean up is finished and the rains are consistent. As little as an inch of leaves holds down the moisture and reduces weed growth quite a bit. I wait til spring so the voles don't have an easier time feeling comfortable over the winter as they eat my crops. They don't hibernate so my theory makes sense.

Some people use a lawn type fertilizer on their daylilies in fall. That is something I've never done but those that do, sprinkle on the fertilizer just after Labor Day. They say it promotes larger root systems which I'm sure it does. We have a lot of chores and just can't find time to even think about it.

I drove down towards Boulder Beach today. I had planned to drive up into the hills behind the Nature Center which is part of the state forest system here. The road was locked off so I turned around and stopped for a minute at the entrance to Stillwater Campground to take a couple pictures. The yellows of the birch leaves slowly losing their grip on the tree branches stood out in contrast to the smaller yellow needles of the larches. I say "larch", others say "tamarack" but either way it's the only conifer which loses it needles annually. The forest floor and adjacent roadways are carpented in yellow now and with today's wind the color in the picture will change to the brown and black of the tree branches, defoliated by Mother Nature for another 6 months. If you look over the larches in the picture you'll see Owls Head and Big Deer Mountains, two more of my favorites.

Owls Head has some of the most spectacular views in Vermont. During the Civilian Conservation Corps days, the workers installed a set of granite steps up the mountain. When they reached the top they built a little gazebo. I could never figure out how tall these workers were because the steps are taller than my step and I can handle a good one. Over the years the smaller people have walked around the steps and made their own paths along the way. On a clear day you can see a long way and even with rain or fog you can see Groton and Kettle Ponds. Hawks float by, an occaisonal Peregrine Falcon drops bullet-like into the swamp below, and groups of turkey buzzards land on the ledges preening and hissing sentences which I do not understand. I have even seen a Northern Ring Necked Snake up there, how and why I do not know. They don't say much.

Big Deer is a walk away but not far. In the late May-early June time frame the trail is bordered by a very nice wildflower collection which is wonderful to look at and work your identification skills on. Soon the hay scented ferns grow thicker and locating nice flowers gets a little trickier. Right now the flowers are dormant on both mountains but I can see them in my mind from my many walks to both these places.

Light is fading quickly. The tarp on the woodpile needs tightening down before supper. There's always something.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond to which folks like my friend, Eric from Massachusetts return as often as possible to offer a welcome, see the sights and enjoy the peace.

Gardening wishes on a blustery night,

George Africa

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Kettle Pond Memory

The pounding rain woke me at 4 this morning. The sound was an immediate reminder that the list of today's chores would have to be reworked over the first cup of coffee. I flicked on the outdoor light from my office and the white slush that covered the ground confirmed that the weather prediction was on target this time. It was difficult to see as the snow had clogged the window screens but sufficent light got through to know that this was a storm that would be around a while. I knew I would have to wait longer this morning to catch a glance down the hill towards the peonies that were on my mind today.

Vermont has a short growing season and we have to savor every bit of enjoyment. Gail and I have grown accustomed to working in cold, wet weather although I have to admit she lasts longer than I do. Arthritis affects people depending upon the type it is, a person's age and genetics or how they have used their bodies over their life. I am already missing the stamina I used to have and my right hand doesn't move well early in the morning on days like this. My pinky finger and the next one that keeps it company have worn out joints and even dislocate at times when I'm holding tools a certain way or even just typing. Working outside today will be unpleasant but at some pont we will both be pulling on boots and jackets about the same time we ask we other "What are you doing?" Gardeners are like that and even though the gardens aren't producing new and interesting sights each day, we feel obligated to do what we can to make the next growing season even better than this one was.

I looked back towards the peony rows over a hundred yards away. A third of the area was represented by rows of white signs where I already pulled myself along the ground and pruned off the stems. It had been a great year for the peonies until that hard rain storm in early July. The bud counts were great and the flowers wide and full. The balance of the peony nursery needs to be pruned and if the weather comes true next Tuesday, Gail will finish the job for me.

Peonies are indestructible plants with giant root systems. Late September into October are perfect times to move them and there are 7 on my list that are supposed to be dug and replanted today. Gail wants a nice row in front of the house addition we put on a couple years ago. They won't be visible from the house but they will look beautiful for the folks who are driving back up from a visit to Peacham Pond.

Gail wanted the very old 'Festiva Maxima' because she has a good supply I think, but being the "digger" I have the say. I'll go with 'Top Brass' and 'White Wings'. I have large plants which will set in well and adapt quickly to their new locations. I like the whites which have golden centers which look like someone took bright golden-yellow yarn, crumpled it into a ball and tossed it into the middle of the petals. These two will make us happy. I'll plant them 4 feet apart and by next September they will almost fill the perimeter.

I've mentioned planting peonies before and I do so on our website too. I dig deep holes well amended with compost and lined on the bottom with 6" of chopped maple leaves. I insure that the roots are not planted deeper than a couple inches below the surface and I keep the roots free of weeds and root competition during future growing seasons. It's worth the bother to plant them corrrectly. There's nothing better than visitors offering nice comments and inqusitive questions about how successful these plants can be.

The rain is falling against the house. The images outward are cold and dull but my image of even a week or two ago is of bright colors and falling leaves. When Alex was small he called these "rememories". A bright "rememory" is of the shores of Kettle Pond, three miles down the road from here. Just the picture reminds me of the many walks I have made there--a Kettle Pond Memory--a place of peace. If you haven't stopped to visit yet, consider it the next time you're passing by. Even a brief walk will give you your own "Kettle Pond Memory".

Gardening wishes from the mountain above Peacham Pond where three mourning doves have made their first appearance to the feeder where "blue jays" and "pecking order" will soon define the day.

George Africa

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Pleurotus ostreatus, so good

24 degrees this morning on the hill, minor clouds visible in the east and a red sky an hour ago suggesting that perhaps more rain or snow is on the way. Friday night was quite a storm with anywhere from 2" of snow in Burlington to 5" in Williston to 7" up towards Sheffield. We had about 2" of slush on the ground at 9 PM Friday night and ended up yesterday morning with a couple inches of white. The snow pushed hunters out of bed early to get out to scout deer territory or to try to fill a moose permit if the luck of the draw had been in their favor.

There is a peace this time of morning that is interesting. The birds begin to stir before there is much human activity and it's fun to watch everything wake up. I really shouldn't have but a few days back I pulled out a bird feeder and put the stake in the ground about 10 feet from my office window. Bird feeders are troublesome because until black bears hibernate, they roam around looking for an easy meal. This feeder is a 30" square piece of plywood mounted on a 3/4" pipe with a flange to hold it on. There's a little 1/2" piece of molding around the edge to keep the seeds from blowing off. I fill it in the morning as I just did with just enough seed to be consumed before nightfall. So far it has worked well.

I'm trying to find a source for a bag of millet as I enjoy mourning doves and millet is their favorite. So far I have struck out with the farm supply places who assure me I'd like the "mix" which I already know I don't. I use coarse cracked corn for the blue jays and grosbeaks and black oil sunflower for all the birds. After Thanksgiving when I know the bears are asleep, I hang big chunks of suet in old onion bags for downy and hairy woodpeckers. Chickadees and nuthatches compete with the other birds for the high calories that keep them warm when the temperature drops.

Yesterday was a busy day here. Snow has a way of defining the real beginning of a quick end to fall. The list of things to do has to be reorganized several times as cold weather affects what you want to do versus what you have to do to close things up. Yesterday I had to get the cover off the shade house as the wet snow was already stretching it. It was supposed to have been removed last week but I was gone several days, wanted to get the lower daylily garden rototilled one last time--you know--those kind of changes in priorities.

On weekends I always try to find a small period of time to do something for myself. It's a great practice because it provides a sense of measurable accomplishment. Yesterday I wanted to get out back and walk the boundary of the Peacham land which I hadn't done in many years. I was happy to have such a nice walk but was surprised by how things have changed. I guess it's been longer than I thought since I've been out there.

A neighbor up on the Route 232 bought the adjoining property. He located the boundary and reestablished it with his chainsaw and a bunch of work so the first part of my walk wasn't half bad. Then I got down into the section that adjoins the Groton State Forest. It is mostly softwoods and swamp land which hold Peacham Pond in a tight squeeze. This is a very interesting ecology which is the sum of some very important parts.

It had been a lot longer than I thought since I walked from tree to tree looking for the red paint that a state forester had marked the forest property line with years ago. Fir balsams which were 18-20" in diameter where now long since dead and toppled back to the forest floor. The sugar maples, ash and black cherries were still standing but the balsams had reseeded thousands, no hundreds of thousands of trees over the years since the area was clear cut. Travel was difficult at best.

I moved through the balsams like an explorer in a jungle movie except I had no machete to clear a path. I tried to follow the trails the moose had used but in places my size prohibited forward movement and I had to stop and turn where there was less resistence.

As I exited into a little clearing a spotted a maple with a giant swath of red paint. Maybe the forester was using the last of the paint in his bucket that day as the mark he left was more like that of a sign painter than a woodsman. The tree was very old and was heading into terminal stages of life. It was covered for over twenty feet with one of my fall favorites, Pleurotus ostreatus, The Oyster Mushroom.

I got into hunting and eating wild mushrooms back in early adolescence. My father worked at a job site one time where a Portuguese would spend lunch time in the woods looking for edibles. He taught my father 6-8 mushrooms which were choice and couldn't be confused with something poisonous. This mushroom was one of them.

I almost always have a plastic bag in a coat pocket so I can make collecting easy but today when I reached in every pocket, I came up empty. The mushrooms were plentiful and had just gotten a foothold on the maple so they were small. I pulled off layers of the little ones and filled both coat pockets. As time goes on, these grow to 8" across but I prefer the smaller ones pictured above.

Oyster mushrooms are super to eat. I soak them first in salt water to be sure they don't have any insect life hiding between the gills. A small black beetle eats these too but today's gathering was clean and nice. A big dollop of butter and some slices of fresh garlic make a fry pan of these "oysters" very special. They are also delicious addded to a seafood cream sauce and served on linguini or a nice pasta and Italian sauce with lots of diced tomoatoes and some sliced pecorino.

If you try these mushrooms just once, you'll know why I don't mind filling my pockets. This time of year there are many outside courses where you can walk with an expert and learn what to pick and what to leave alone. I have always used Orson K. Miller. Jr.'s book Mushrooms of North America as the identification keys work for me. I've used it since the late 70's and know it well even though there are books available now with more detailed keys.

A crow just coasted over the birdfeeder and the voracious jays exited as if it was a raptor looking for breakfast. They'll be back in a minute but I have to get going here. Much to do today even though it's Sunday.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where tiny snow caps still adorn each Rudebeckia 'Goldsturm' seed head as if to provide warmth from the nights cold.

Gardening wishes,

George Africa