Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Memorial Day Reminders

Tuesday, May 30th already and just 5 PM here on the mountain. Guess I came in just in time as the skies just opened and the gentle rain has changed to a heavy pour even though the temperature continues at 79.8. I had planned to get something out this weekend but the first sunny days and a long list of gardening chores kept me away from my computer. That's not to say that I didn't think about the importance of Memorial Day and what it means to me.

Our family believes in service to country and the philosophy of the power of our freedoms were ever present. Both grandfathers and a grandmother served in WWI, my Dad was in the Navy in WWII. He served on the USS Kerney which was torpedoed even before the war started and while on neutrality patrol in the North Atlantic. I lost an uncle in Normandy and another uncle to Viet Nam. I was in a Guard engineering unit and my son was in the Navy. Our freedoms are important to us and we think of them and are thankful for them every single day. We hope you are thankful too!

Memorial Day in Vermont is another signal, kind of a gardener's reminder to changes in weather, less chance of frost and the beginning bloom of some of nature's showiest wildflowers. By now the purple trilliums, Trillium erectum, are about finished even under the big white pines. The painted trilliums look especially good in places although they refuse to group themselves in prominent colonies like the purples and whites. The white grandiflorums are turning pink and light lavender as they fade away--annual reminders to me that it's probably close to Memorial Day.

I have always enjoyed the orchids and I equate Memorial Day weekend with the chance to seek out lady slippers. The pink lady slippers, cypripedium acaule, are out now and knowing that they are available for viewing makes my want to take some pictures....more pictures. For some reason I just really like this flower. To me, finding a new lady slipper is like picking up an arrowhead. I just get a rush as if succeeding at some individual conquest.

The adjacent state parks with their swamps and bogs and waters provide ample viewing space for all wildflowers and the past 4 days have been exceptional. Great waves of clitonia, the so called blue-bead lily, are everywhere. Bunchberries with their perfect white blooms are coloring up on the forest floor and rock tops along the way.....and the list of beautiful flowers and foliage continues.

Spring rains and warm days bring on mushrooms too and I can't forget the job of picking morels. They are the best. Morels to me are kind of like a find of orchids. I might take pictures, I will pick mushrooms, I will tell others about my happiness but I won't tell where I've been. I can't and I won't. Maybe some day in the future but certainly not now. That's just the way it is with me. They are parts of nature and I hold the map. By spending just a little time outside, you can make your own map and enjoy these things too.

So as June approaches get out into nature, reflect on our freedoms and go find some nice wildflowers!

From the mountain above Peacham Pond,

George Africa

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Trilliums Final Show

Vermont has three different trilliums, which are shared by other New England states. Maine has one addition to this trio that is partial to that state but will grow here, as many trillium will, if they are relocated.

Pictured above is T.undulatum, the painted trillium, which is the last to bloom here. After almost six inches of rain this past week and 3" of that Friday night, these usually bright accents to the forest floor looked waterlogged yesterday morning when I tried to take pictures. Our grandiflorums, the large, pure white trilliums are past peak and the T erectum wine reds have about faded away. Under the large white pine are some interesting T. erectum which have especially large leaves and very wide petals. I haven't figured out the differences but it could be something as simple as the age of the plant and size of the rhizome.

Trilliums are a great woodland garden plant as long as your gardens are prepared for their disappearing act come August. Within days they go dormant and the space they once occupied is obviously bare. This isn't noticeable with small plantings but here we encourage many trilliums planted together so when they are gone, the hole is obvious.

Well before the plants become dormant, the seed pods require daily attention as they mature. Ants are the "great seed dispersal insects" as far as trillium go and that means that you have to beat the insects to the seed pods if you want to expand your collection. Each tiny seed is ellipsoidal in shape and has a fleshy appendage which has an oily texture that ants like to eat. This part is called the elaiosome. You must monitor the seed pods because when the ants know they are prime, they'll clean them out over night. I pick the pods and make a hole in the ground with a finger and then smush the pod before forcing it into the hole in the ground and covering it.

Within my gardens I have some T flexipes seeds planted last year which deserve an inspection soon. I also have some T luteum which Gail bought for me a couple years back. They are in bloom now with their yellow petals. I keep forgetting to get down and smell the flowers to see if I can detect the lemon fragrance which I'm told is obvious. Actually I think the mottled leaves are the strong point of this one. Finally I have some new arrivals, some rhizomes of T pusillum. Pusillum means "small" or "dwarfed", hence the common names "Dwarf" or "Least" Trillium.
Last spring I took some pictures on Bainbridge Island in Washington of some trilliums which I liked. They are the only other trillium I have had the opportunity to see. Nonetheless I feel prividledged to be familiar with 7 of the 43 trilliums native to North American.

Have an interest in trillium? I think Trilliums by Frederick W. Case, Jr and Roberta B. Case is worth the $29.95 new, probably much less than that slightly soiled and used. I take trillium journeys with it trying to figure out where I'd like to go to see and photograph other trilliums. Trillium journeys are good journeys!

From the hill above Peach Pond where final daylight leaves balsam tops on the horizon, and the call of a barred owl across the pond in the maples.


George Africa

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Hostas Rise Up!

We've always grown hostas at Vermont Flower Farm but it wasn't until about six years ago that visitors began commenting how nice it was to come to a garden with more than the 6-8 hostas common to the many nurseries and garden centers in Vermont. Maybe that was the encouragement we needed to begin a collection and make a serious garden to properly display the mature size of hostas we offer for sale.

Much has changed since then and the shade garden we have established within the confines of an old barn foundation has become our pride as an example of how useful these plants are. The collection exceeds 400 varieties now and it grows annually based on our budget and gifts from other growers. Although there are other collections in Vermont that are 4-5 times as large, ours has a uniqueness because of its setting. Although bordered by the town road, a neighbors place and our driveway, people remind us that they like to get "lost" in the tranquility of the garden. That's a nice reminder to what we will forever work to improve.

Hostas can jump-start your desire to garden in New England because of the way they grow. Snows melt and garden walks while watching and waiting for "something green" are finally rewarded by tiny cracks in the soil and the first green or gold. Early on the lancifolias emerge, gold, green or variegated. Nothing special here except the encouragement that more are on the way. Montana aureomarginata rushes to become number one only to be nailed by spring frosts one or two times before its upward growth succeeds. And then garden sparklers emerge as small Golden Scepter, Chinese Sunrise, Crepe Suzette, Lemon Lime, Platinum Tiara and other small yellows confirm our need to register our happiness with spring. The hostas have arrived!

Here in Marshfield it has rained for 12 days straight. Although the sun is breaking through black clouds over Peacham Pond as I write this morning, it has been a difficult spring for farmers and gardeners. It has been a great spring, however, if you're a hosta. The repeated heavy frosts are long ago forgotten and the grounds were so wet early on that the few nights of mid-twenties air temperature never translated to cold ground temps. The Sieboldiana 'Elegans' hosta pictured above is now 18" tall and ready to unfurl its first leaves with today's sun and warmth. All the hostas are out of the ground and rising upward to visitor's cheers.

Hostas are an easy plant with strong architectural meaning and intent. From tiny 2" tall plants like Popo and Cats Eyes to plants such as Tall Boy, Tenryu, or Krossa Regal with flower scapes in the 5-6-7 foot range, hostas offer more than enough to work with. As the ground warms we try to rake off the left over winter debris including last year's leaves and flower scapes and get it out of the garden. We don't compost this for reuse but spread it instead out back on the open fields where we are encouraging wild blueberries to grow taller and save our backs at harvest time.

When the gardens are cleaned and the hostas are on their way upward, we fertilize with fish emulsion and Epsom Salts. The salts are magnesium sulphate, a salt that was found for hundreds of years in farms and farm houses all over the country. Although its primary use was to soothe aches and pains, it's agricultural value is also important. Additionally, it is used by some as a regular bath for those on the autism spectrum because of some theories about chemical needs (magnesium) and balances. For plants, this salt assists in strong root growth and dark, healthy looking colors while not affecting soil ph levels. Although it is a salt is doesn't burn the plants and the short term changes are quick and obvious.

When the fertilizing is accomplished we try to add an inch or so of last years left-over maple leaves, shredded by the garden vac and left over winter to begin to decompose. The leaves have beneficial bacteria and chemicals and they serve to slow water evaporation. Hostas best fertilizer is water and to insure a nice looking collection, consistent watering and water conservation is essential.

I sure don't have to water anything today but the list of spring chores is still longer than I want to admit. Gail has pancakes cooking in the kitchen and that's a sign that another day calls my attention. I've already seen more sunshine this morning than in two weeks and between the sun and the pancakes, it looks like a welcoming day. Welcome to spring, gardeners, welcome to spring!

From the mountain above Peach Pond, where loons call and the robins are nesting....

Happy gardening!

George Africa

Monday, May 15, 2006

Spring Yellows

The rain continued here today but fortunately failed to set +8" records as it has from the southern Maine coast on down to Peabody-Danvers Massachusetts. Mid Vermont saw about 5" and various other pockets received 1.4" or above. The weather radar tonight suggests the weather will continue for another three days.

Gardeners almost always listen to weather reports and read newspaper and online reports to keep tuned in to when they can work outside. I have always liked the Eye on the Sky which is a weather program put on by a couple forecasters working out of the Fairbanks Museum in St Johnsbury, Vermont. Their site is at http://www.fairbanksmuseum.org/eye

The Eye on the Sky does a close job tracking what will happen and since we live only 20 miles from St Johsnbury, the reporting is especially important to us. From late spring through hard frost there is a Farm and Garden Report and a journal of historical accounts. Today for example, they reported that in 1884 there was a giant snowstorm in Newbury, Vermont about 40 miles SE of here. 24-36" of snow fell in that area. Snow in early May is not uncommon but is much less common than a hundred years ago. 2 feet of snow was noteworthy even back then when attention was paid to getting spring farm crops in the ground.

The yellows of spring trees, shrubs and flowers offer plenty to look at. A couple days ago the euphorbias caught my eye. I have always called them spurge and the ones which spread around here must either have been here when we arrived in '89 or moved in by wind, bird or animal. There is a certain group of Vermonters who think they are a fine plant and one they "have to have". The most we'll ever do is point out a shovel and offer a paper bag so they can cart away another less than desirable plant. One of those "eyes of the beholder" things I guess.

These are bright yellow and although the bracts are often thought of as the real flowers, the brightness is like a signal light informing that spring is here. All that shines is not bright and the euphorbias have a milky juice which is latex in nature and in some folks cause a dermatitis much like poison ivy. I remind people to use care until they understand how they are affected but few seem to listen.

As I looked around tonight the euphorbias, my spurges, were bright eye catchers in comparison to the fading daffodils and forsythias. When the first day of warm weather arrives after all this rain, the dandelions will burst open in abundance and become the next eye catcher. For right now I'll just settle for the newness of spring and the smells of a roast chicken dinner calling me to the table.

From the hill above Peacham Pond, where the rain is pounding on the roof and windows,
evening thoughts and best gardening wishes!

George Africa

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Spring Wildflowers

The native flowers of Vermont provide a nice prelude to summer from the time April snows melt and the ground begins to warm. One that I've enjoyed since childhood is Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis. It's a common spring plant, easily found along the eastern half of the US, and often found growing on shaded hillsides. Here is Vermont it blooms beginning in mid April or into early May depending upon your location. Although I can't find any populations growing on our property, I traded some daylilies for a nice clump last fall and was quite pleased with this year's flowers.

The juice from bloodroot was supposedly used by Native Americans as body paint. Today it is used as a dye for fabrics and yarns by those true to their craft. Getting juices on your hands or clothes serves a reminder for a while so use care. I learned the lesson from picking a bouquet as a kid and then getting yelled at for my stained hands and clothes. Too much yelling back then.

As the plant emerges in the spring, the leaves are tightly wrapped and eventually they emerge to entertain with their beautiful white petals and yellow centers. The flowers open and close each day and an evening photographer like me has to adjust one's schedule to secure a good shot.

At some point I'd like to inquire of an herbalist as to the medicinal uses a couple hundred years ago. In the meantime I'll continue to enjoy that one brief week each spring when bloodroots blossom and black flies emerge to torment anxious gardeners.

Gardening thoughts from the hill above Peacham Pond.

George Africa

Friday, May 12, 2006

Peat Moss and May Rains

I worked in Guilford, Vermont today, down below Brattleboro and not far from the Massachusetts border. It was raining when I got there and it was pouring when I left. There are flood warnings for the next day or so and clearly if the rains I left behind are still falling, the threat is real. On the way home I thought about my gardens and how I wish they would green up like what I saw in southern Vermont. Rain makes a big difference.

Mother's Day is this Sunday and for many gift givers, a trip to the local nursery is a regular event. I'll bet a lot of flowering shrubs and trees are purchased as well as roses and other perennials. I'll also bet that a lot of the purchases are planted incorrectly and peat moss is part of the problem.

Gardening advice in magazines, newspapers and advertisements often speaks of the virtues of peat moss and almost make "soil amendments" and "peat" seem synonymous. Folks get the impression that digging a hole and filling with peat is a great way to plant a new prize. This is the furtherest from the truth.

Often when I give gardening talks I grab a handful of dried peat and put it in a half filled quart Mason jar as I begin. When I finish my rambling I point out the peat still floating on the top. I try to show that if peat is not thoroughly wet before going into a planting hole, it will remain dry for another million years. As the roots of the new plant begin to grow, they eventualy reach the dried peat and there they stop. If there is lots of dried peat, many roots meet the same fate and in short order the plant starves and dehydrates.

Some gardeners are hard to convince and they must use peat when they plant anything. Sometimes there are too many "My Dad did it, my Grannie did its". For those I suggest "peat soup", a thorough mix of peat and water stirred well in a big bucket or better yet a wheelbarrow. The soup means the peat is thoroughly wet and it mixes better with the soil originally removed from the hole and any other additives you think belong.

Personally I've seen some evolution in my planting methods over the years and I think the latest is the best. Here at Vermont Flower Farm the soil is very acidic clay soil which refuses to encourage good plant growth. I dig an oversize hole and add maple leaves to the bottom 6" and then add a mix of our compost. There have been times when I've run out and I've purchased from the Vermont Compost Company http://www.vermontcompost.com

A thorough mix of dirt and compost makes all the difference. Peat can be added to the mix, but in moderation and completely mixed in. If you see fellow gardeners dumping whole bags of peat into a hole, become a plant saver and give the "peat-in-the-jar" lesson. You'll help save a plant and make another gardening friend.

Gardening wishes from the hill above Peacham Pond.

George Africa

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Evening Starbursts!

Gardeners seem to enjoy walking their gardens in the morning or in evening time after dinner. I like the weekends when I can catch both ends of the day. This is especially true in the spring and early summer when so many things are changing. I didn't make it to the lower shade garden yesterday afternoon or this morning so this evening's walk was a surprise. The flowers are jumping through growth spurts and are amazing to watch. If only we'd get some rain, things would look so much better.

The epimediums caught my attention as they circle the standing granite stones. The grandiflorum album stand out with their star shaped flowers. The heavy bud counts mean that there will be blossoms for some time to come. The simple rubrum are heavy with flowers and even though they have creamy yellow centers that stand out, their more rounded petal shape is not as interesting as the shape of the white grandiflorums. Are they star shaped or spider shaped flowers? Look closely at the picture and try to describe the flowers. I find it a difficult task. Perhaps it would be easier if I had studied botany.

Walking along I noticed a new group of hellebores brought on by the soaking from yesterday's watering. Yellows, creams, whites, maroons, all with heavy center spots, all hanging downward
save for one curious yellow flower that looked into the camera for me. I glanced back to the epimedium, back to the hellebores. Which do I like the best?

The evening sky is blackening as a storm approaches. The sound of the fire trucks in the background is lightening a bit so the drill must be over. The local volunteers come a couple times a year and pump from the dry hydrant that enters the trout pond. They shoot plumes of water 200 feet into the air. Never once have I seen a trout go flying by and that is good because the little ones cost $1.85 a piece. I add 50 per year--25 brookies and 25 rainbows and I prefer they don't learn to fly.

The European gingers have fleshed out nicely and the tiny yellow of immature Hosta 'Green Eyes ' is an attraction with such a bright yellow. Lemon Lime and Venusta are barely poking through the earth but by week's end they will probably be an inch tall. Little hosta are nice!

Time to end the walk as darkness is coming fast. Perhaps the weeds are growing as fast as the hostas. One thing is clear though. Heavy watering up until frost time sure made a difference with the size of the hostas coming through the ground this year. If I can catch up on other chores this weekend I'll add a little fertilizer to the water and really watch them grow. In the meantime, I'll just enjoy the sights of spring and the voices and sounds of the male hummingbirds, home to Marshfield at last, to build nests in the white pines and enjoy the flowers at Vermont Flower Farm.

Enjoy the evening. Walk your gardens as often as you can.

George Africa

Friday, May 05, 2006

Warm rains and black flies

The day dawned early today with little fog, a clear sky above and a temperature already in the sixties. A surprise for us and and a welcome sight as there's much to do over the next few days. Gail will be busy planting and continuing to get things organized. The gardens still look messy from last fall's as yet unraked leaves. It's always a mystery how we can rake and vacuum so many leaves each fall and still have truckloads more each spring. We compost them all so it's no loss, just very time consuming.

Maple leaves seem to have some special component which encourages growth when we include them in each hole we plant. One time I was told that's because maple trees have a very long root system and the roots draw minor elements from down deep. I don't know that it's true but it makes for a nice thought.

The hellbores continue to produce more flowers like the one I have included here. Despite the recent rains I put the sprinkler on the foundation garden yesterday and by nightfall more hellebores were in bloom including some pure white this time. I think I'll move some to the foundation headwall so they can be seen looking up. Crawling on hands and knees and turning petal cups skyward to see the beuaty is a bit of a chore.

The bloodroots came out yesterday. I noticed them open in their glory around noon but by the time I returned with my camera at 5:30 they had already closed shop for the day. They have a special personality and show that they are in charge. We don't have any growing wild around here but I have always loved them since growing up in Woodstock where they abound. An elderly man and his wife who attended a talk last year heard me say I liked them and brought a gallon pot full in trade for a couple daylilies. I think he was happy with the trade.... I know I am. They are the single variety.

The young bear spotted at the edge of our property the other night has found the area too good to leave as it was spotted again yesterday. I'm not sure what it is finding to eat that's keeping it here. I guess I removed the bird feeders just in time. A neighbor at the pond reported that the osprey I was enjoying so much last weekend has moved to his place at the Peacham Pond fishing access. The Fish and Wildlife folks stocked the pond as they do every year. They used to take the hatchery fish out into the pond and dump them in but now the trucks unload at the fishing access. The fish stay there for several days before they figure out they really are swimming in 360 acres of water. Chuck says the osprey is having no trouble finding a meal. At least the trout in the pond here at the house are spared for a while.

We received another hosta order yesterday from a friend in Wisconsin. There are dozens of hosta dealers on the Internet but Northern Grown Perennials has some nice looking stock. They also sell some great looking daylily roots. I have five plants of Komodo Dragon filling a five gallon bucket and they'll get planted later today. I wish I had bought them last year so they would stop visitors like the giant Sum and Substance, Parhelion and Lady Isobel do. Only so much time each day and I guess that's a reminder to get going here. Hope your day and weekend are pleasant. If for some reason you can't get out and walk your gardens, go to our website and check out the Virtual Tour links. These are just pictures of our gardens over the years but some are special.

So with great gardening wishes, be well and go plant something!

George Africa

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Misty May Morn'

May has arrived and added confusion to the weatherman's work. It's been no lower than 51.5 degrees all night. At 3 a.m. when the dog wanted to go out, the warm mist was impressive, and made it difficult for the light from the power pole lamp to shine through.

The dog was more occupied by bouncing frogs, lazy toads and nightcrawlers everywhere than he was in doing what I suspected he had us out there for. He walked cautiously, holding his nose high as if trying to home in on a strange scent of something that did not belong around the house. Spring rains encourage many animals to travel and our home is situated in the middle of a historical animal trail. Last evening a neighbor stopped his truck in the middle of the road and got out to say a bear had just crossed in front of him by the upper mailboxes. I inquired if it was a "good one". He replied that it was young judging from its prominent ears. Perhaps the dog caught a smell of the bear looking for our birdfeeders, absent from their winter stand for a week now.

It's been a busy week for us at Vermont Flower Farm. I've been busy away from here but Gail and a couple helpers braved the rain and wind and plugged away at the plants. New orders have arrived and are potted save for a couple more boxes of hostas. Now we are settled on digging and potting from the fields and lining up and refreshing last year's plants. Most overwintered very well but the red voles raised havoc again with some of the potted bulbs and a few of the ferns.

Spring is an exciting time when each day is different from the previous one. Sunday morning I looked out the window towards the trout pond and thought for a minute a dog had jumped in for a swim. There was great and wavy commotion for such a little pond. Then at the far end, a large male otter climbed out of the water, shook for a brief moment and headed into the woods. They are a masterful critter in the water but my mind was more on the trout count than the otter. I couldn't tell if he had lunch at my expense.

During Friday and Saturday a male osprey circled overhead, eyeing the pond and trying to decide whether to dive in for a meal. He never did which is a surprise as the trout are plentiful and the water in most places isn't that deep. I enjoy watching him in flight and hope he returns.

The woods are changing quickly. Various ferns are growing by the minute with the recent rain and warm weather. The hellebores are nice and remind me I need to plant more. I'll snap a photo soon and share their beauty. I do wish they didn't hang down so much but that's their nature. The Canadense and European Gingers are refreshing themselves with new leaves, the arisaemas are sprouting high and the baneberries are well started. And then there are the epimediums, just such an enjoyable flower quite unknown to many. E. rubrum is out now and the multitudes of dainty flowers slows the garden journey to a halt. They remind me of the many varieties left to come.

Today I'll pot a dozen tomatoes and put them in the greenhouse to grow larger. Piles of leaves have to be moved out of the gardens and the rest of the hosta pots have to be freed of weeds before they catch hold, fertilized and lined up for the season. Yesterday's delivery was a 20 X 30 foot shade house which will serve to protect the smaller hostas from late August temperatures. Sure wish some good friend would arrive and put it together for me.

That's all for now. Good gardening wishes from the hill above Peacham Pond!

George Africa