Saturday, April 29, 2006

Morning walks

A beautiful day here above Peacham Pond. The sunrise was a surprise because even though it's crisp and clear out, the sun rose as a burst of yellow, rising quickly between the mountains. Last night's 25.7 degrees should soon be heading towards 50 as there's no wind this morning. At 6 o'clock the loons were calling back and forth between the reservoir and Peacham. I hear them daily until just before the ponds freeze again but still don't know what they are saying. Their calls remain an ancient mystery to me. Spring fever is evident in the downy woodpeckers and sapsuckers as the males continue to entertain their companions with special dances and splayed tail feathers.

Garden walks in the morning are better than any other time. The light is most clear then, and personal mind and sight are fresh from sleep and more open to processing new sights and sounds. The mornings are still cold now but later on, the night's dew will decorate leaves and flowers differently each day and new sights will become a daily challenge to find and enjoy.

Spring flowers come quickly now and each day brings more leaves and flowers. The Trillium grandiflorum are forming white buds, the hepaticas are in full bloom, and the common primulas have been in bloom for a week. Some of the epimediums are quickly growing new leaves and flowers simultaneously. Their flowers are difficult for me to describe and more difficult to take my eyes from. They are one of my favorite plants, a fairly new introduction to collections here and one plant that will continue in my favor.

I stopped for a moment this morning to look at the vernal spring adjacent to the standing stones.This is on the perimieter of the lower shade garden, towards the field. Some years this spring holds water into July but this year it won't make it. The water table is much lower now due to a dry winter. The spring was so erratic this year that even the peepers avoided laying eggs. I think I should build a bench of sorts so folks can stop and view the mass of boulders cast around the depression by farmers from past centuries as they cleared the fields of our ever abundant "glacial erratics".

Time is wasting, I thought. Have to get to work while the weather is so good. Just a quick stop in the peony nursery to check P. smouthi. Peonies are a great plant which gardeners are beginning to find out about again. We have over a hundred varieties in our collection now and probably have close to 200 plants, maybe more. I really like Smouthi because it is early to set buds and bloom and it has some great looking fern leaf foliage. It's a single red dating from Smout-Malines in 1843. It looks great this morning with 7 buds and more probable. I have to remember to bring down a piece of fence and surround it. For some reason, it ranks number one with the deer and previous years it's been cut back to the ground before we can enjoy it. Gardening in the spring is a busy time. Our intentions are fine, our accomplishments often off target a bit. Morning stroll journeys in the garden provide a regular opportunity to review and enjoy. This was great!

Better get to work!

George Africa

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Mullein of Many Names

As I walked around before supper, wishing it was warmer but knowing it was raw and cold, I noticed an occasional mullein here and there on the side bank. The soil there is about worthless but it has what it takes to grow some interesting wild plants.

There was a time when I was pretty good at remembering a large variety of herbs but today's recall of mullein left me wondering. I resorted to our collection of horticultural books and this in itself created just another mystery. After sorting through three books, I pulled out Euell Gibbons Stalking The Healthful Herbs from 1966. Some memories there. I located the chapter on mulleins, 35. Great Mullein or Velvet Dock (VerbascumThapsus) p. 224. Fumbling around, I dropped the book to the floor and when I picked it up, I opened to the title page. There was an ink sketch of a flower and a note written on the page: "Gail-May you ever walk in harmony with the plants of the earth.....In joy and infinite love. Sue"

I read the inscription a few times. Who was Sue? This was Gail's book and knowing that Euell Gibbons books were long ago replaced on her reading list, I inquired "Who was Sue?" The mystery continued. Sue-Sue-Sue-Sue Who? Who was Sue? This went on for what seemed like ages and then came the brillance of a light turning on. Gail remembered--well kinda. Sue was a friend from high school days +30 years ago. She was a talented artist who moved to British Columbia to go to college. Was she still there?.....yet another mystery.

So mullein, the plant of many names, has a history of use as a cough medicine and an expectorant. Gibbons mentions a long list of common names begining with "flannel leaf, beggar's blanket, Adam's flannel, velvet plant, feltwort, bullock's lungwort, clown's lungwort, Cuddy's lungs, tinder plant, rag paper, candlewick plant and witch's candle." He lists other names too.

I remember pulling the old flower stalks, often 5-6 feet tall from the pastures and using them to keep the cows heading back to the barn. They also remind me of the domestic plant, Lamb's Ear, which we brought here from Burlington years ago. I think it lasted about 4-5 years and then one year succumbed to too many freeze-thaw cycles.

If you enjoy native plants and like to hike around like we do, a really great little pocket guide to consider is Wildflowers of Vermont by Kate Carter. The waterproof cover points out that the book details "255 wildflowers from Vermont's trailsides, roadsides, alpine summits, woodlands & bogs" . What I like is the book fits nicely into your pocket and is color coded by the flower color so you don't have to have a clue about what you're looking at to finalize the identification. A neat book by Cotton Brook Publications, Waterbury Center, Vermont. Gail gave me my copy for my birthday. No inscription like in the Gibbons book, just Kate Carter's signature. Where is Sue anyway?

From the hill above Peacham Pond
Evening wishes,

George Africa

Cirsium vulgare, beware!

Time seems to fly by once the snows have melted and our flower gardens experience their annual rebirth. There is so much to do to get the nursery ready for summer and no matter how well we plan or how hard we work, nature's interruptions set us back a few days here, a few hours there.

Gail was planting Oriental lilies this afternoon. She almost always works outside at a table crudely constructed of 6 bags of potting mix and a sheet of plywood. She worked her way through 25 Farolito lilies and 25 Casa Blancas and just finished 50 Souvenir before I got home from work. Her timing was perfect as the skies had darked and rain was eminent.

I brought in groceries and some homework and Gail threw together a box of plant labels, a packing list and two coffee cups covered with Pro Mix. Her day was over and although I wanted to do some potting myself, the rain-sleet mix suggested I consider something else. With a cup of fresh coffee,I checked our website for activity and reviewed my ever growing list of things to do.

Two years ago we built an additon to our little house. It is a 28 foot addition which includes a small office and a porch-like room. It has a Vermont Castings woodstove and great cottage style windows for easy views towards Hooker Mountain and the mountains surrounding Peacham Pond. It's a pleasant place to contemplate garden chores and look out at some of our gardens.

In front of the windows is a steep bank which we planted with 7 varieties of spirea, each a different height and color. We interplanted with over 1000 daffodils which have grown well and are now coming into bloom. It's a comforting view.

For a minute I convinced myself that the rain and sleet had stopped. I put fresh batteries in the camera and headed out for a few shots. There was more wind than I thought and the daffodils floated back and forth, wavying whites and creams and yellows. No use trying to photograph those, I thought.

My eye caught the yellow of the 6' X 8' forsythia in full bloom. It had been in bloom for over a week now and unlike some years, the entire shrub remained a mass of color. This was the first year it had bloomed like this, perhaps because of the winter, or lack of winter we experienced. I thought of the flower arrangement Gail had made for the kitchen table. Three varieties of daffodils mixed with sprays of forsythia in a round, green, hand blown glass vase. A temporary work of art to remember.

As I looked at the daffodils, my eyes fixed on a garden infiltrator, Cirsium vulgare, the Bull Thistle. Where do these things come from? Clearly they had been here last year and had been overlooked. There's one, there's another. Such symmetry! They aren't a very nice visitor, as dead or alive they are tricky to handle. I wondered if I had any cider vinegar left. I began using vinegar a couple years ago as a weed killer and is works well on thistles. A job for the next warm day I thought.

The roast chicken smells delicious. Must be almost done. Time for dinner.

Be well!

George Africa

Friday, April 21, 2006

Spring colors

Spring is different every year and this year is clearly no exception. Some things are early, some are late, some haven't even arrived yet. It's still been a fine spring after a very dry winter.

By now the cowbirds and red wing blackbirds should have been here. Our token cowbird is not a representation of "being here" and I haven't seen flocks of blackbirds along the Winooski River yet as I usually do. A neighbor told me his adnonis, a yellow buttercup-like flower with fern type leaves has come and gone. Last year this time I took pictures of some in full bloom in a bed of snowflakes. Not so this year.

Cardinals, a favorite bird with us, never stay here during the summer but they always visit this time of year, encouraging our hopes with their nice songs. So far there aren't any cardinal songs although they can regularly be heard in Marshfield village which is probably 500 feet lower in elevation than we are.

The hellebores are in bloom and their colors please us. These are less than exotic as their flowers hang down, hiding the beauty and intracasies of their blooms. This is another flower I have tried to avoid becoming more interested in because I really do like them---and I really do have enough things going on right now. If you think you want to try hellebores, search for my friend Barry Glick at Sunshine Farm in West Virginia

In the larger gardens, hundreds of daffodils, narcissus and scilla are beginning to bloom. Rains are on the way and they will jump start the spring bulbs. And as the flowers grow, so does the palette of colors. Spring is nice!

George Africa

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Links of chain

It was cold and dark this morning with the skies spitting pieces of sleet and intermittent snow flakes. I hadn't been fooled by previous weeks of warm weather and the nicer signs of spring but like many, I had hoped the mild days would continue. As I came around the corner of the lower woods road, a grouse ran through, did a half circle, took a glance my way and scooted into the balsams.

I walked up the road checking for deer and moose tracks. No fresh moose tracks today but the usual deer sign showed movement from the valley floor up to our seculded fields. Recent rains have encouraged the grass to grow and although it is always a poor crop, it's the best there is in these parts this time of year.

I made it to the old barn foundation garden and as I always do, I entered the front, moving slowly and looking for signs of unfurled hosta and wildflower leaves breaking ground. Save for a few bunchberry stems, there were none. I sat on the granite bench a neighbor had made for us, and listened to the silence. The sun would be rising soon, I thought, as the birds had begun their morning chorus.

Lots of work left to get the garden ready, I thought. I had already raked the leaves off the beds and into the walkways. The accumulation of downed branches from January's storm would take time to remove. The northeast corner of the foundation wall still had a foot of ice and snow welding piles of leaves to the garden floor. It would be another week or two before they would thaw. The little display pond was ice-free but filled with leaves and twigs. Apparently, it was still too cold for the spring peepers, as the water surface didn't move.

My eyes focused on an old piece of chain I dug out of the cellar hole. Eight beautiful old links of pitted and rusted iron....left I surmise, from the days when the foundation was built. Moving large stone takes levers and rollers and pry bars, man and animal power...and sometimes even chains. I could be wrong about its use but I'm certain the bigger part of it remains a mystery, still missing....perhaps buried right here. Eight links would not have been much use except perhaps to hold a rope hoist to the barn rafters and secure a beef or pig butchered and spread on a whipple tree, hanging to drip. Chains have many uses......but eight links?

In the distance, I could hear the sound of the route driver for my Sunday paper. He's new and I haven't met him yet. His muddy truck sounds as if it is missing the muffler, perhaps another victim of mud season. I'll meet the driver sometime soon, but for now...........a cup of coffee.

Be well.

George Africa

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Spring rains, spring flowers

Mornin' from Marshfield! 50.7 degrees now as a gentle and much needed rain begins to fall. I've been away for a few days and there is a lot to catch up on. The greening grass, the calls of loons just back to Peacham Pond and the sight of the first blue heron all suggest the early spring will continue. The lone cowbird and the absence of red winged blackbirds remains a mystery.

The ice left Peacham Pond on Wednesday and that's a couple weeks earlier than the April 28 average. Although the water level is still low, the power company will probably be closing up the dam gates and the level will rise quickly over the next couple weeks.

Each spring is somehow different. The first spring we were here in Marshfield, the spring of 1990, Gail's Dad planted his peas on April 1st. It's never happened that way since. On April 23, 2001 we had 8" of fresh snow a day after we had planted 1500 lilies into gallon pots. On April 28th, 2003 about 4" of wet snow covered everything for a couple days and slowed down our spring planting. Keeping a garden journal is a good reminder to the past as well as things we should do that sometimes are escape us.

I was outside early this morning setting up the hoses on the lower hosta garden for the first time. I waited impatiently for rain but there hasn't been enough to suit me. Last year I waited and I paid the price with some less than admirable looking hosta. This is a plant that loves water, in fact water is said to be the best fertilizer. Dry springs, absent of sufficent rain to really get to the roots, shows itself weeks later when the leaves dehydrate ahead of time and brown and tear at the edges. One of my favorites is Regal Splendor, a vase shaped sport of Krossa Regal. Last year the creamy edges cracked and tore early and once that happens the beauty of the plant is lost for the season.

As I set up the hoses I noticed some damage from voles this winter. There is all kinds of information available about these little critters and I avoid the controversy of moles, voles, mice and who eats what, damages what, and so on. Fact is I could see too many holes among the hostas and pieces of root mass on the top of the ground.....chewed leftovers from sometime this winter. Hopefully a thorough watering will bring them around.

Time to get going here. The list is long. The rain is now falling hard enough that it was like turning off the switch on the voices of the spring peepers who carried on all night as they do when the temperature stays above 45. Already I miss their voices as nature's music is kind of nice. Off to the garden..Be well!

George Africa

Monday, April 10, 2006

Building a Garden

Another beautiful spring day making everyone want to be outside enjoying the warmth and sunshine. I wanted to get home early to do some raking but things didn't turn out that way. I've been trying to get the leaves and branches collected in the "lower garden" but as usual, it's a bigger task than I want it to be. I sat on the garden bench with a cup of cold coffee and enjoyed the sun.

Close by the bench is the old barn foundation within which I started a shade garden several years back. The granite and fieldstone slabs pay homage to the strength of the past when men and animals accepted the burden of this type construction and labored on for weeks as a foundation moved into place.

At the end of one of the front walls is a flat rock that just seemed a natural place to toss things I found during the garden building process. Some the the metal shapes offer no idea of their origin but the collection of hand wrought nails of various sizes is very interesting. No need for nails in the current theme of construction but just the thought of history-past weighs more obviously when you grasp a hand-made nail and think back in time. I guess these "found" nails hold part of my mental garden history together.

This is an interesting garden and building it has been fun. The first part was more laborious as the foundation had become a dumping ground for rocks and trash. The foundation was close to the Peacham Pond Road and it afforded an easy place to off-load unwanted property in the days before we moved here. I became friends with the crew at the landfill for a time when cleaning up the mess was the first priority and trips with a loaded pick-up were frequent.

Using stone in garden construction is so very rewarding but it requires some thought ahead of time. Stones rarely move themselves and some are larger than others. Calculating each move in advance cuts down on the work. Crude tools to enhance mechanical advantage also come in handy--a 6 foot pry bar, some wooden blocks for fulcrums and some iron pipes in 2"-3"-4" diameters to use as rollers.

Folks often ask where I learned to do this. There really was no course to take, no book to read, no mentor for me. It was more a mix of time and trial.....and a plan. As I sat on the garden bench I reminded myself of the garden plan which had come this far. Today I saw some buds starting to show on the European ginger; the hellebores are forcing their first new shoots out of the cold ground; a few lone Trillium grandiflorum are breaking ground. My plan is well underway but long from finished. History covers time.

George Africa

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Almost 8 PM and the light is almost gone. One robin is running across the lower field looking for a last bite. It's been a busy day! I sat here at the computer at 5 this morning watching the sun rise up from the valley. The morning was clear and it had every indication of being the great day it turned out to be.

As I scanned pictures of last year's gardens, I ran across this one of our driveway. It's only a driveway when flowers aren't in season. Beginning about the first week of July when the first lilies begin to bloom and continuing on until about Labor Day, the colors are warm and inviting and pots fill the drive save for a small area we leave to handle 3-4 cars. This picture represents a time we really enjoy at Vermont Flower Farm.

This morning was pleasant but cold to start. Last night's drop in temperature caused the pond to skim over with a fresh layer of ice. As I enjoyed my coffee I caught a glance of a dark brown mink at the edge of the pond. He seemed upset that he couldn't enter the water for a fine trout breakfast but that didn't hurt my feelings. Each spring just as it did late Friday afternoon, a strong wind breaks up the last of the winter ice on the pond. The pieces tinkle as they slide into each other and then they melt away.... only to come again a few more times until May rains warm the water. This is the time we typically see mink or maybe an otter traveling overland. They are fun to watch but as they leave I always wonder how many trout are missing.

Today it was time to uncover the pots we had carried over from last year. There were about 6000 this year, too many according to Gail. In the fall we line up the pots, ten abreast in rows 50-60-70-80 feet long. Then we cover them with a spun fiber insulating blanket and a piece of construction poly to keep the water out. Tree boughs top off the plastic to hold it in place and catch and hold snow to further insulate.

I had started this uncovering project a week earlier but the woods road muddied up quickly and I had to wait for it to dry a bit. Today was a good day to remove the rest of the boughs and errant tree limbs from the bad storm back in December. It took four large loads but the task is done.

My curiosity won't ever leave me alone and I had to uncover the lilies to see how they fared. I curled back a corner of the insulating cloth and the evidence was clear that the vole population must be healthy. Some pots looked as if a strong hand reached straight into the center of the pot and grabbed out the lily bulb and soil. Voles are small but they have an interest in the sweet sugars contained in lily bulbs. I can't say that I like them even though I rarely see them. Why do they eat the most expensive lilies first? Wouldn't a $2 lily bulb taste just as good as a $20 bulb? Guess I'm not a vole. Hope you enjoyed today too!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

It seems like ages ago when the tall Orienpet lilies stood 7 feet tall and towered above the other flowers. Perhaps their name "The Empress" was appropriate to their strength and stature, all the while in contradiction to their role as chief hummingbird perch for the ruby throats. The tiny birds stake these lilies out as they catch their breath before feeding again on the bright red monardas, known to many as bee balm.

Welcome to the Vermont Gardener

It's a blustery day here on the hill above Peacham Pond. It's still too cold to get outside to work in the gardens but it's a good time to begin The Vermont Gardener. Here at Vermont Flower Farm, flowers are our specialty. We've been growing flowers since the early 80's and although our interests have changed over the years, we have arrived at an outstanding collection of astilbes, daylilies, lilium and hostas plus some great shade plants. During the evolution of this blog, we'll post pictures of how the gardens develop and the varieties grow. Chances are good that you'll be interested and want to keep coming back.

We hope that as you visit and exchange thoughts, questions and pictures with us, you'll get a sense of gardening in Vermont, the people who visit us here and the gardens that interest us. One of our fondest and most popular gardens is a shade garden built within the granite and fieldstone walls of an old barn foundation. We left the wildflowers we found growing there as design anchors to the plants we added. Now, as this particular garden enters it's seventh year, hundreds of different hostas combine with epimediums, hellebores, cimicifugas, ligularias, rodgersias, primulas, ferns, baneberries, arisaemas and false solomon seal. It's a picture to remember!

So thanks for joining us on our gardening journey.

George Africa