Friday, September 29, 2006

Plant Helpers

It has rained all day in Vermont and it looks like we received about an inch here in Marshfield. I was traveling all day and the showers varied in intensity but it was truly wet everywhere. That's not uncommon for this time of year and it's good for all the plants. I'm especially happy to see some good rain as the hostas continue to mature thicker root systems which translates to better foliage next year. Although the peonies are changing leaf colors right now with dull red stems and yellowing leaves on many varieties, the roots can take a lot of water as they continue to form good buds for next spring's stems and eventual flower buds. The peonies should be absolutely beautiful next June!

This time of year many of the wildflowers have set seed and the seeds are being dispersed by the weather, birds and animals, and man. There are three chipmunks in the lower hosta garden and each is working until it's no longer safe to be out in late afternoon-early evening when quiet raptors glid through the gardens. There may be more than three but I have seen these three so often that the only thing they lack in my mind is individual names. A "Marvin" there is not!

Chipmunks at Vermont Flower Farm receive plenty of cute comments from everyone but me. They're fun to watch and they give me something to talk to when others have deserted me. Just the same, they are the "relocators", the lobbyists for the seed dispersel industry, with their full cheeks and speedy voices.

I had a half dozen Jack-in-the-pulpit ready to photograph last week but each night I got home from work too late or too tired to get myself organized. When I finally got down to see a promising specimen, it had tipped over due to its own weight and the chipmunks began to pick off one fleshy red seed case after another. Arisaemas are a fine wildflower which make kids smile as they pull back the flower hood to see what's in the pulpit. There are many to be found throughout North America and W. George Schmid does an excellent job describing them in his book, An Encyclopedia of Shade Perennials, Timber Press, Inc. 2002.

Chipmunks have been good and bad to me. They enjoy eating lilium bulbs almost before we can plant them in early May. When the lilies form stems and the first flower buds show, chipmunks can smell which ones have higher concentrations of natural sugars and starches and they eat those first. There is nothing like seeing a rodent running down the drive with $2.50 in his/her mouth while a customer tells you "Oh, isn't that cute?" Why they prefer Leslie Woodriff or Pizzazz or Luminaries at $20 a pop instead of a simple little Lemon Pixie is difficult to understand but that's the way it is.

Last year Gail and I noticed about 11-five foot tall lilies under an apple tree next to the ligularia garden. We questioned each other as to why we planted them there and likewise commented what a great job each did. Trouble was we didn not plant those lilies and in fact couldn't even identify which Asiatic they were. Apparently a chipmunk had stolen a bulb years earlier, scaled it, and planted the scales here and there. They formed bulbils and matured and all flowered at the same time. Now if chipmunks could just leave a plant marker when they did this work we'd be all set! They did the same thing with Pink Giant, a beautiful Asiatic no longer available in the trade. We still have a couple growing thanks to chipmunks.

Arisaemas grow from a round creamy white tuber, usually the size of a quarter or smaller. Native Americans and their neighbors often dug the tubers and boiled them for long periods of time and then dried them before using them as a starch food product. Presumably this made them safe to eat. I have not read any updates on current-day edability and figure it's best to look at them, not eat them.

It's getting late on the hill above Peacham Pond. The chipmunks are resting and I'm the one who needs a little snack before the lights go out.

Gardening wishes,

George Africa

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Dark Skies, Swirling Winds

Saturday is over already and it almost seems as if my list got longer today instead of shorter. I tried to stimulate a little interest in going to the St Johnsbury Farmer's Market but in the end I went by myself. It's a good market, rain or shine, and I enjoy it. I took an umbrella and a jacket but I made it through two trips back to the truck without feeling a single raindrop.

This time of year I like to be sure to get some corn as you never know when a hard frost will sneak up and end the harvest. I really like Silver Queen but ended up with something from a box marked "White". The farmer said he was from the top of a hill in Danville and the corn was special. He slid an extra ear into the bag and when I left I think we were both happy.

I wanted a nice bag of spinach for our salads and I knew I'd find some creamy tasting leaves at one of the organic growers stands. As the man tallied my lettuce, Brussels Sprouts, green pepper and pound of spinach, he threw in another pound of spinach. The e-coli problem with bagged spinach from California messed things up and although people want spinach, they have a mindset that it's tainted. I gave my regrets as well as my thanks and headed for the baker that Alex likes. I knew I had to buy him a couple dill-onion pretzels and a loaf of Ciabatta bread. I was lucky to wait for the 3 ladies in line in front of me and still grab the last Ciabatta.

I bought tomatoes from two different vendors and then looked for the lady who I have been buying tiny bok choy from. She wasn't there. As I headed out, I said hello to Dianne Gadapee from Danville. Dianne sells maple syrup, maple sugar, maple cream, maple granola and sometimes a fine maple bread. I've had all her products and they are exceptional. The whole family helps out during sugaring season and Dianne keeps things going. If you are interested in making a purchase but can't make the market, call Dianne at 802-684-3323 or e-mail at

On my way to the truck I passed a man selling Shaker boxes. These are the oval shaped wooden boxes made from various veneers. I picked a maple box for $10 and headed home. The price seemed too low for the quality of the product which was superior. Farmers markets are great fun and the prices are not to be challenged.

When I got back to Marshfield and entered our drive I noticed the colors of various sedums here and there. They have been selling well but they remain an understated, underused autumn flower. We have had Autmn Joy, Vera Jameson, Neon, Matrona, Purple Emporer and Angelina this year. Blackjack, pictured above, just came out last week. We picked it up at McSherry's in Conway, NH on our way back from Maine. Its dark black-brown foliage make it a standout. Mix some sedums of various heights with some different rudbeckias and a couple cimicifugas, and sneezeweed in the back and you'll have autmn color that your neighbors will ask about. Sometimes the price makes folks buy a pot of this or a pot of that but if you spring for two or three of one variety, the affect of the mass is an eyecatcher. Try it and you'll see what I mean.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where some rain is falling, the wind is swirling and the summer has been nice!

George Africa

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Late Colors

Tuesday night already and I am reminded again how much I miss the long evenings when I can get back into the garden after an evening meal. It's foggy now and 63 degrees with a light rain falling. Even in the dimming light I can look out my office window down into the lower daylily nursery. A row of color reminds me that there are many fine daylilies still blooming. Although I haven't learned the names yet, I have about 20-25 daylilies from Olallie's in South Newfane, Vermont. I picked them for their late bloom and I have not been disappointed. Close to that row is one prominent scape that I know so well as Ruby Throat. It's a glorious daylily and it has about ended its show here at Vermont Flower Farm. I would recommend it to anyone because it is a long bloomer that makes it beyond Labor Day.

Ruby Throat is one of many daylilies which are the combined work of Robert Griesbach and Roy Klehm. It fits into what I remember as "the bird series" although I don't know if other folks call this group by that commonality. Together these men named a number of their successes after birds. I've tried to purchase them when I've seen them because I enjoy birds and try to learn as much about them as I can.

Besides Ruby Throat we have Screech Owl which finished blooming last week and Cedar Waxwing which I dug up and split into 38 plants two weeks ago. We have Big Bird, Starling, Mallard, Phoebe and Falcon; also have Scarlet Tanager and Wood Duck. Wood Duck, just like the beautiful wild duck, has great colors. Wood ducks are quick water fowl but the daylily is very slow to multipy here. I think I am missing a couple more that we have but no more come to mind right now--kind of bird-like "memory in flight". Although I'd recommend all of these, we don't have all of them for sale. Check around on other sites and you can probably locate them.

Besides a number of nice daylilies still blooming, the asters, sneezeweed, cimicifugas, ligularias, phlox, and sedums are providing nice balance to the colors of the falling maple and ash leaves. Fall is a great time to plant and the rain that's coming down makes it even better.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where senescence can be found within the hosta beds and the dictionary.

Gardening wishes and warm rain drops,

George Africa

Monday, September 18, 2006


Monarch butterflies have been important to me for as long as I can remember. They are a signal of the health of our environment. Their health is subject to a myriad of factors with mankind and weather issues being two huge influences.

I remember the first chrysalis I saw was in Miss Hathorne's second grade class. Someone brought one to school and she taped the whole stalk it hung from to the window above a bookcase. There it would receive some sun and we could see it hatch. There was great worry that the event would occur when we were home or during the weekend. I don't recall there was a line of kids wanting to "stay after" to be the first to see the special event but everyone was interested. Almost everyone.

A couple days passed and we reported to class to see that the beautiful shiny green chrysalis with the gold dots and black ribbing had turned a dark brownish-black. One classmate who clearly showed no promise in science quickly commented "Its rotted. I told you it wouldn't hatch."

But hatch it did and we got to see much of the process at the end of that day. When we left, it was still unfolding one wing which made no sense to us. The next day Miss Hathorne said it dried its wings soon after we left for the day and she opened the window and it flew away. It made for kind of a nice closing to a neat event.

Milkweed, Ascelepias syriaca, is the Monarch caterpillar's favorite food. Every year since we've lived here, I have avoided cutting the milkweed that occupies a bank behind the ligularia collection. Some people comment that it looks a little rough most of the time but that's why it's behind a fence to begin with. This year there have been butterflies everywhere but I have yet to see a caterpillar. The chrysalises are in abundance however, and I almost feel guilty when I move a stack of pots or a tarp and find one hanging on.

I was five when we moved to Vermont and our first spring here I found how important milkweed and cow slips were to real Vermonters. Milkweeds were the first spring green after dandelions. I learned they must be picked early and tender, and that they had to be boiled three times and always with hot water, not cold, on the water changes, to get rid of the bitter taste. Back then no amount of boiling made them taste good to me but I respected the old people and didn't mind helping pick.

The Monarchs are so plentiful this year that about every newspaper has run an article on them. The milkweed plant is critical to the life cycle but apparently the health of the plants in the wintering areas of Texas and Mexico are more important. Whatever was going on there last winter and early spring must have been perfect as this year's show has been special. If you haven't seen them yet, keep an eye out, as the migration is under way.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where the temperature is a warm 64 degrees and the sound of a barred owl seems quite close this evening.

Gardening wishes,

George Africa

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Back in Vermont

It's still clouded over here at Vermont Flower Farm, 57 degrees, with moisture drifting through the air. It doesn't look like it will last very long but for now the heavy dew adds interest to the morning. Spider webs become temporary garden accents. Outside my office window, hanging tightly between the two tall mullein spires I pictured a few weeks back, is a fine spider web. It's anchored diagonally to two spireas and one rudbeckia, both about 6 feet away. Makes me wonder how the spider did this. Maybe the engineers who designed the new Penobscot Narrows Bridge and Observatory
in Maine studied spider web construction too.

When the fog burns off, the early fall colors will become more prominent. Right now the various native asters are beginning to display. The New England and the Purple Stemmed Asters might catch our attention first but the Heart Leaved, and the Flat Topped Asters are also nice. The Whorled Aster pictured above has been blooming for a while now. Although smaller, it makes a great start to a bouquet for Gramma when clutched tighly in a little girl's soft hand.

I took a quick walk this morning with Karl to try to organize my thoughts and figure out what deserved the most attention. If you haven't met Karl before, it's understandable. He's a very non-customer/visitor oriented dog until he sizes you up and has met you a few times. He's a Standard Chihuahua and he protects us like there's no tomorrow. He has met a black bear face to face with Gail and has also met Mrs. Moose and her young one. Things like this encourage his curious nature. When on a walk in the woods or down the road, however, so much as a passing scent or recent animal track brings him to a complete halt with all four feet planted like concrete.

A few weeks back Karl assumed one of these entrenched positons in the middle of the road. I very ungently pulled his lead and he slipped his collar about the same time as a car came down the road. Michelle has a way with him and she brought his running behavior to a halt with her gentle voice and quick hands. He melted into submission, with a waggy tail suggesting "Boy, that was fun!" I wish he wouldn't do that but he is obstinate like others I have seen here.

I need to get the hoses going on the lower hosta garden, and then will split some more wood. My sore back forced me to purchase a log splitter and I can already see I should have made the purchase some years ago.

The garden tractor needs a new drive belt installed, there are daylilies to trim and more peonies to dig and split. Leaves are already dropping and the lower daylily nursery needs one more tilling before fall. Guess I'll be busy. Perhaps you will be too.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where the monarch butterflies are hatching like we've never seen before.

Gardening wishes,

George Africa

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Heading West

The sound of the ocean mellows the soul and calms the difficulties of the times we live in. Hemingway had some thoughts on what the sea was capable of doing for people. For most, he thought time at the ocean freed one of internal burdens and reenergized them for the next battle. For some, he felt the power of the ocean would encourage new directions which could include death. I kinda like the thought about renewed energy myself.

Heading back to Vermont is a mixed blessing. We are leaving a relaxing time after a very busy summer gardening season. We have had the opportunity to sit by the shore and read our books and magazines, we've met new people, visited new places and explored new paths. Our gardens in Vermont, and of course our rascal dog, Karl, beckon us to return.

It's foggy this morning with a light drizzle of sorts. It's 63 degrees but warm and free of wind. Back home we have to get ready for Bee Balm Day and then get on with fall clean up. There's plenty to do. Here we are leaving part of America that we really love. We have visited the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve and the Rachael Carson National Wildlife Refuge as we always do. These are back-to-back refuge areas which comprise the third largest estuary in North America. They deserve some mention which I'll try to get to some time soon.

Back in Vermont we'll still have some daylilies blooming including some from Olallie's in southern Vermont. They probably haven't set all their buds yet. The Cimicifuga atropurpurea (renamed Actea) is more than 8 feet tall now and it's creamy bottle brush flower scapes are no doubt hosting a variety of insects. I'll bet the hummingbirds have headed south but that the warm weather has encouraged the latest hatch of monarch butterflies to feed a little longer before heading for Mexico. No security checks for these insects before they move on.

It will be good to be home. Before heading out, we'll make a reservation for the same time next year just to be sure the cycle continues. Life is good.

From various points in New England where the day will be fine, the temperature warm and the smiles of happy gardeners abundant.

Gardening wishes,

George Africa

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ocean Gardens

The Maine coast is a favorite of mine, especially in the early morning hours when beach travelers are minimal and the tide is taking it's last breath at being "low". Today was especially good because the beach was inactive and save for a black spotted-on-white Great Dane which the owner said was less than friendly, I was in my own company when I headed out onto the peninsula.

The ocean floor at low tide is like a flower garden to me. It's decorated with a variety of plants and although the ocean colors are more subdued here in the north, there is a variety of plants to see, touch and smell. I've never spent much time learning ocean plant names as I have no one to share the knowledge with. One rock weed probably smells the same to me as to the next gardener and they each have a protective coating which feels similar.

In my brief lifetime, the ocean has changed a great deal. The changes are obvious and they continue in less than favorable contrast to what I enjoyed in my youth. My trips to Calves Island in Long Island Sound, trips to dig clams or trap crabs, or fishing adventures with my grandfather for flounders--these are all memories of a different time and a "different" ocean. Many places where I was taught to dig clams are no longer open to the public because of contamination. Some of the best waters for crabs are now closed areas belonging to wildlife sanctuaries. That is good.

In early June of this year, I stopped at some beaches 25 miles north of Wells, Maine. I was struck by the amount of trash which had been left from the previous year. I soon emptied a collection of razor clam shells back onto the sand so I could have the plastic bag in which to pack trash. Before going too far I reorganized my collection format and only picked up broken glass and sharp bottle caps. When young I had been taught to scour the sands before leaving at the end of the day but that training has absented itself from beach travelers over the recent years.

Today I reflected on previous trips to Maine just after Labor Day. One visit about ten years ago we arrived to find thousands upon thousands of sand dollars at low tide. The following day was extremely hot and the beach was crowded but still, sand dollars remained everywhere. This June, the bluefish were so thick that surf casters made great harvests and those fishing from the breakwater at Camp Ellis pulled in some beauties. Yet another memory.

As I walked carefully out onto the peninsula, I passed a beat up lobster trap. It was yellow coated wire, flat and rectangular shaped, lodged securely between two rocks and pecked clean of bait by marauding gulls. It was new, not made by hand with a wooden frame and it lacked a handwoven bait bag. Mussles were so noticeably absent it bothered me enough to make me walk to a rock edge and pull back some rock weed in hopes of finding some telltale blue shells. There were none. A single shell here or there, isolated by weed and rocks, gave notice that things have changed.

Snails. Snails. Snails are everywhere. They coat rocks and the open areas between mounds of rock weeed. They don't seem to move but just wait patiently for the tide to return with fresh water to recirculate for their next meal. Things have changed.

I walked off the peninsula and scuffled through the thick piles of seaweed. There is a name for this collection of debris but it escapes me. I looked for starfish but there were none. I made a methodical search through three square feet of weed and found nothing of great interest. As I headed back down the beach, I found one, two, three, then a fourth small sea urchin. Three were still alive so I hid them under the weed debris away from the gulls. The forth, long since expired and totally missing from the shell caused no grief when I decided to bring it back with me. Finding four alone might be a good sign or might be a poor sign. If draggers are trying to bring them up from the bottom to sell at restaurants, more serious damage to the ecosystem might be taking place.

After walking a bit I walked into the ocean. It was warmer than I had ever remembered. I had listened to a radio program along the way which suggested that temperatures have changed 4 degrees this year. I thought about it and hoped the numbers were wrong. A recent NASA studied documented that winter sea ice to the northern cap is melting quicker than ever before. That change influences the growth of sea plankton which is at the start of the food chain for all ocean life. Yes, the oceans are changing and not all for the better.

I returned to where I had left my knapsack and then I headed back to the truck. My walk along the ocean was like a walk through my gardens in Vermont. Beauty abounds and there is more to learn each step of the way. My walk left me with many questions, but I left in the company of peace.

From the Maine coast, where dropping a piece of cracker encourages airborne visitors to arrive and offer a bad scolding.

Your gardening friend from Vermont,

George Africa

Monday, September 11, 2006

Separate Waters

Last week I was trying to pull together a number of projects to get ready to escape to Maine for a few days. We always do this right after Labor Day weekend. That weekend marks the end of our busy season although we remain open here at Vermont Flower Farm through Columbus Day. Telling folks you're open "by chance or appointment" is like saying you're still open. We almost always have someone cover for us and if all else fails we leave a note and a place for honest folks to leave money. They always do.

By Wednesday things were really hectic, so much so that one night before supper I needed a break. I headed down the lower woods road and then bushwhacked over to the red pine plantation. Along the way I encounter these rocks. Once they were a single piece of granite but over the years the forces of a glacier probably moved them apart. Since then they have aged with mosses and ferns but their separation from one another is obvious. I sat by them for a while and reflected on the summer.

In June, I went west to see my new grandson. I had a meeting to attend outside fo Portland, Oregon so I made it a point to head west to the ocean to wet my feet in the Pacific. I went past great logging companies, historical Astoria, old sardine factories and new lavender farms. On the way back and south I stopped at various places to hike marsh trails and watch bald eagles cruise the wind currents.

But now it was September and my thoughts were to the Atlantic and the Maine coast. There is something nice about the opportunity to touch both of these oceans a couple months apart. More than their names make them distinctly different. The two rocks reminded me of the two oceans, strong, powerful, distinctly different.

Along the way east to Maine, I'll share some thoughts but in the meantime I'll think about the two rocks and the smells of the woods as summer begins to fade.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond, where the red squirrels are cutting fir cones from the balsam trees and piling them neatly for winter food.

Gardening wishes,

George Africa

Remember September 16th, 8-10 AM. Bee Balm. $10/shovel full. A great price for a great hummingbird, moth and butterfly magnet.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Aperature Settings

Another long day is drawing to a close. The rain is noisy on the metal roof but it's nice to think it's still warm outside. It will be tricky taking the dog out for the last call, as I know the frogs and toads will be jumping everywhere.

I was happy to get home this afternoon. My list of gardening chores gets longer this time of year as the daylight shortens and the wood pile talks to me. It continually reminds me that it's not big enough, not long enough, not high enough yet. I never was sure about all that stuff about wooly bear caterpillers and the duration and type of winter but they are in great numbers this year so I better get on with the wood splitting.

I went down Springfield-way today. It's about 100 miles each way but it seems much longer because I've made the trip so many times. Less and less to see so more time to think about Vermont Flower Farm and how to grow it bigger. When I arrived home and pulled into the drive, a Jeep and trailer were trying to back around the "Y" in the road. People often have a problem making a decision at this particular "Y" and often elect for the left when in fact they should be heading right, nine times out of ten.

There's a big maple tree in the middle of the road just past our mailbox. I use that tree to tie up lost bear hounds and rabbit dogs. There's a granite marker in front of the tree with arrows pointing left and right with numbers of camps on Peacham Pond. I've lived here 17 years and still haven't figured out the numbers. Neither have camp visitors, the UPS, FedEx or DHL delivery guys, 3 different rescue squads, the oil and propane delivery drivers, or the trucks from the lumber yards in East Montpelier and Barre. Lots of people like to do things over around here.

The guy in the Jeep was looking for a couple hostas for his wife. He lives in Groton and his wife decided she'd like to have some like the house across the road from where they live. I pointed out the lower hosta garden but this man was on a mission for two hostas. He picked out Christmas Tree and Blue Umbrellas and after a pleasant conversation he headed home with a gift for his wife. Nice gesture, nice hosta!

I changed, grabbed the chain saw, my safety chaps and my camera and headed out to cut wood. Like the man and the hostas, I had a mission too: clean up the downed wood from yesterday and scout out some rattlesnake plaintain.

Several years ago I found some rattlesnake plantain growing under some fir balsams and a lone hemlock. I really liked them. They belong to the orchid family and have neat foliage and single scapes of multiple white flowers. Over time the pods ripen and there are numerous tiny seeds in each one to sprinkle on the forest floor in hope of a larger colony.

For several years I only found one or two scapes so distributing the seed was easy. Then I began to study where the bigger ones grew and it became apparent that slightly greater sunlight meant larger and more plentiful scapes. My "aperature setting theory" was born. I decided to try to clear out a minor number of overhanging branches here and there and reach an improved amount of sunlight. This has taken about three years. Over time I slowly opened the sky as one opens a camera's aperature, and the result was more plants. This was rewarding for sure, and a lesson I'll remember.

The dog is whimpering and that means it's time for the last "run" of the evening. I'll carry a flashlight and hope my eyes quickly open wide to spot the leaping frogs and toads before the dog pulls me and my lead arm parallel to the ground. Even little dogs can do that!

From the mountain above Peacham Pond, where animal life continues in darkness despite my thoughts on aperature setting.

Gardening wishes,

George Africa