Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas Ideas

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

4.1 degrees below zero this morning and the absence of the wind is nice. The nor'easter that hit Sunday dropped over two feet of snow here and being married to a shovel handle, a snow rake, and a snowplow for all of yesterday wasn't my idea of fun. In my high school days I plowed snow with a rag top Jeep for a local lady. It was her Jeep and I got to use it as long as I worked for her. Some memories are fun but youth has a way of covering up bad things. I know today that plowing snow for hours on end in a vehicle in which you could always see your breath was not good. There was a little electric fan blowing on the windshield to keep open a clear spot within the over-glaze of frost. It worked for me back then but now even plowing has become a chore.

A week from today is Christmas. Our tree has been up and decorated for a week, the house is accentuated with flowers and decorations, and a pot of citrus, cloves and cinnamon simmers on the wood stove lending a baseline fragrance we confuse with baking cookies and holidays foods. It is a pleasant time.

Each year I try to offer some thoughts about gifts. They are all simple gift ideas from a simple gardener but things that a gardener or anyone who enjoys New England might enjoy. I understand that this is the age of gift cards but giving just a little thought to a gift shows you care.

Magazines are like newspapers in many respects. They are being replaced one by one with
on-line productions which are much less expensive to produce and more environmentally responsive. I'm reminded of this at holiday time when the mailbox is full of catalogs. I still haven't gone to the "do-not-call" type website for the catalog world. You can actually ask to be taken off catalog mailing lists. According to the direct mail industry, 95% of all catalogs are not even opened before they are discarded and successful direct marketers are pleased if they receive orders from 1% of their mailings. Do the math on that one and you'll come up with a number representing a lot of trees that served no purpose at all.

Just the same, there are two magazines I really like. They are People, Places and Plants and Northern Woodlands, both New England magazines. Gail and I have met PPP's founder, Paul Tukey, here at Vermont Flower Farm when he came to prepare for an article on our business and discuss an article I helped write on growing hostas. He is a great person, knowledgeable of gardening, well traveled, a good father and a gardener with a perspective. In the past couple years he has founded SafeLawns.org, For a Healthier Planet, of which Shepherd Ogden from Cook's Garden days is the Executive Director. If you buy a subscription to PPP right now, they'll send you an accompanying gift subscription for a friend. This way you can give yourself and a friend a super present at the same time. If you look at the SafeLawns site you'll see where Paul has taken the subject of organic lawn care international. In a world that has yet come to understand chemical pollution, Paul's work on safer lawns is worthy of a thought at holiday time. He has written a book, The Organic Lawn Care Manual, describing his pursuits and it's available from Storey Publishing. So the PPP Magazine is a good start and although the book might produce thoughts of prior lawn chemical-spreading guilt, it will encourage a plan for the future. Between the magazine and the book you can either have chemical free lawns and nice gardens or no lawns at all and very, very nice gardens.

Northern Woodlands is like having a personal trainer. It doesn't come out nearly often enough but when it does I am amazed at what I can learn. It's great for anyone who enjoys the outdoors and would be great for a school teacher at about any level. Every issue has some mention of flowers from the wild that we should be watchful of, discover and protect. I especially enjoy the A Look At The Season's page which offers a week by week review of what to expect over the course of the next three months. You might have to adjust a week or so one way or the other depending on where you live but it's a close enough reminder to keep you on target in subsequent years.

Books are traditional and this is an area I leave to bookstores to help with. I could never get through even the new books I purchase every year. A couple I do like are little pocket sized books by Kate Carter. Her first was Wildflowers of Vermont and her more recent release,
Shrubs and Vines of Vermont.
These are valuable little guides which slip easily into a pocket. They have a protective plastic cover too. Publisher and author info is available at http://www.wildflowersofvermont.com

Sometimes gifts can be no more than a super nice card, even a handmade card and some scribbled thoughts. I like to receive these because they stick with me as memories. Our friends Tracey and Diana pick out great cards every year. They are so special to me I keep them out year round. The picture at the far top of the page is from a painting by Cindy Gage Stotz at Studio C. http://www.studiocweb.com It is titled "Spruce Trees".

This card (below) is titled "snowy spruce" and it's by Katharine Montstream of Montstream Cardworks in Burlington. Take a look at http://www.kmmstudio.com

My card has been sitting on the little CD player by the kitchen stove since last Christmas so the snowflakes have a little splattering of spaghetti sauce but it's the trees that count.

Another fun gift is membership to any of Vermont's fine, but too often overlooked museums. Fairbanks in St Johnsbury, ECHO in Burlington, Montshire in Norwich, North Branch Nature Center in Montpelier, Vermont Institute of Natural Science...to name a few.

And if all else fails and the gift truly has to be"gardening" and you don't know where to go, give Gail a call at 802-426-3505. A handmade Vermont Flower Farm gift certificate with a picture from one of our gardens will certainly fill the void and solve the gift problem. Where else can you get Vermont hardy plants, garden advice, local chit chat and a sense that this is a place you have to return to time and again?

Karl the wonder dog just gave a whine that in dog speak says "Let's get going, it's time for our last call-of-the-night walk." Tonight it will be a nicer walk as it's 15 degrees out, with gently falling snowflakes and no wind. If you were here, you could walk with us.

Green garden wishes,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Red In The Morning

Sunday, December 9, 2007

6:30 PM has already arrived and it seems like just minutes ago that I looked out the office window at 6:30 this morning and saw the sun screaming through the trees and turning the clouds red like the pine grosbeaks that visited the bird feeders a few days back. It was a powerful color, bumpy in places, and interrupted by gray-blue background skies.

Red at night, sailors delight, red in the morning, sailors take warning. As I write, it is 15 degrees, clear and calm. During the day here we had a few short lived squalls but the snow fluff that materialized accumulated very little.

Today I continued to teach myself Dreamweaver CS3. By the time spring arrives I'm hopeful that I'll have mastered enough to present a new website for gardeners to view and order from. Everyone learns differently and I'm a visual learner so the online tutorials and picture books are getting me where I need to be. I have to take breaks and refresh myself so Karl the wonder dog and I go for walks or rides when I get hung up. Tonight I will begin working on images and then when I tire, I'll look at background and text colors.

I'm open to advice on colors. I always listen to advice but don't always use it. When I did our site four years ago I used a cream papyrus font and a dark red background. I was cautioned not to. Today "fonts" are out, cascading style sheets are in and non-dithering colors are recommended. I thought I did well to build a site with just me and a book but now I am told that I have to test the site in a variety of browsers and be sure not to forget to go to Adobe's Device Central and check out the emulation on a variety of hand helds like Blackberries and mobile phones. Good advice but mind boggling to an aging gardener!

Today I helped Gail rearrange some furniture in anticipation of my grandson's arrival next week. He's a year and a half old and his middle name is "inquisitive". I'm told he's too strong at times for his own good so my office just inherited two 30" tall cast iron garden urns, one with a rosemary and the other with a lemon tree. Gail is convinced he might flatten himself pulling on one and I agreed. The Eucharis grandiflorum which is a nice plant and is just finishing this round of bloom was relocated onto a table in our bedroom. I really do believe my son and daughter in law feed this kid well but if he's hungry from the flight out or the ride down from Burlington, I don't want him chewing on a seriously deadly plant. I do hope I see a shopping list soon as Marshfield itself is quite limited.

Speaking of Gail, I hear her now. Supper is ready and Monday will be here soon. As time grows short between now and holiday time, give some thought to gifts for the gardener in your family. Don't hesitate too long because you might not be the only one with a good idea. Long ago Alex told me that smart people don't shop for Christmas the day before. I think he was five then. If you can't think of something or don't feel comfortable with a decision yourself, a gift certificate from Vermont Flower Farm is the way to go. Give Gail a call at 802-426-3505 and she'll help.

Gardening thoughts at holiday time,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Astilbes in Vermont

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The thermometer reads minus 3.4 degrees right now as the sun pulls itself ever so slowly above the sugar maples and shouts good morning to us. I just came in from feeding the birds and the feeders went from motionless to full-of-activity in the turn of the bucket. If birds could smile, the lone mourning dove would have smiled as I added a heaping pile of cracked corn to the platform feeder. I see dozens of these most every day down the road a quarter of a mile. They are usually in the road eating sand or sitting on the power lines but they never make it here in quantities larger than five or six.

Karl the wonder dog is confused this morning as Gail went out the door at 6:30 for an autism conference in Burlington and I haven't left for work yet. He likes it best on weekends when he knows I'm staying home because he is almost always guaranteed a ride in the truck. Winter is good for him because there is snow to plow and he likes to ride along.

For a couple days now Gail has been going over her plant orders. I kept suggesting that she study the sales numbers on the astilbes and she finally succumbed to my boring repetitions and analyzed this summer's sales versus last year's. Surprise! The missing numbers mean astilbe sales set records and replenishment stock, new varieties and spring digging and splitting from large mother garden plants are all in order.

We have always liked astilbes but found them to be hard-sell plants during earlier years. When I planted a nice display for Gail about 4-5 years ago, things began to change. I dug up the old milk room part of the lower barn foundation garden and planted 30-something different astilbes which Gail really admires. As they matured, more and more people commented on lack of experience with them. Sales increased. During the past two years, the single line of about 60 different astilbes that I bordered one of our daylily nurseries with came to maturity. As clumps that measured 2-3-4-5 feet wide, the masses of bloom brought out fine comments and good purchases. Once again it pointed out that no matter how nice a one gallon potted plant is, if people aren't familiar with it, they're not going to purchase it. Here are examples of Vision in Pink, Moreheims Glory and Elizabeth.

Astilbes range in height from 8-10 inches to 5-6 feet tall. Here in Vermont that means there is good bloom from late June through mid to late September depending upon the varieties you plant, the location you choose and the care you provide. They are clearly zone 3 hardy so the cold is not their problem, severe drought is. We have them growing in full sun in places to show how well they do despite being billed as a shade plant. Their root mass should not be allowed to dry out so that implies planting in a soil mix that will retain moisture when rains are absent and you're too busy to drag out the hose.

If there is one difficult characteristic of astilbes, I'd have to say it's identifying them correctly. Basic colors are red, white, pink and purple and variations of these colors translate to hundreds of varieties. Proper identification takes me quite a while and I know I still makes mistakes when I'm in the garden and someone calls out from afar. We have a real good assortment here and on the website so if you're interested in a trying a good perennial, stop by or check out our site. If you get a chance to drive by our new nursery on Route 2 next year, we're developing a display garden that will parallel Route 2 and be visible from the highway. Most of our collection of astilbes will be represented there.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where the sun has warmed the air to 9.8 degrees and a small flock of evening grosbeaks have arrived for breakfast.

Gardening wishes,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Monday, December 03, 2007

Snowstorm Sustenance

Monday, December 3, 2007

Just inside with Karl the wonder dog. Our first trip out was at a little before 5 this morning as he was awakened by someone with bald tires trying to get up the hill. It began snowing at about 2:30 this morning and the storm I have been waiting for since Wednesday's prediction looks like a good one. As soon as I clicked the snap on Karl's leash I went back outside to clean off the bird feeders and shovel the two sets of steps. My two helpers sleep soundly this morning but they'll be brought into action before the storm is over.

I saw a note yesterday from a lady in New Zealand commenting on the astilbes just starting to bloom there. Many folks get turned around when they try to figure out what season is occurring where in the world. I find that the various flower listservs I belong to are real good reminders to the question as well as leading me through the winter months in Vermont.

I had planned to write a little piece about astilbes as I think they are an underused plant. I'll probably do that tomorrow as I have a ton of things to do this morning and want to mention food instead. Several garden blogs speak of food and share favorite recipes. I've had two people mention that I should stick to gardening or they'll be booking from my blogs but gardeners need sustenance and sometimes that means food.

One of the sites that combines recipes with the gardening is Joey Randall's blog, The Village Voice. I added her work to my list because some of the recipes are alluring and her photography including frequent collages is very good. The recipes are often passed on from others but not without good screening and accrediting. I tried one yesterday and want you to know about it.

On November 20th, Joey offered a recipe for Stuffed French Toast with Cranberry Maple Sauce. It originated at the Ramsey Canyon Inn in Arizona. I admit that I modified the recipe a bit, left out the maple extract, used world famous Vermont maple syrup, and cooked the French toast a little in a fry pan on the stove top, added the cream cheese and then finished it off with a lid on the pan to meld the flavors and melt the cheese. I didn't wait overnight to get cooking and can't say there was anything but rave reviews. We finished the balance of the cranberry maple sauce on vanilla ice cream last night and that's to be recommended too.

As I look out at the bird feeders, the competition is high to get at the suet and sneak out some extra cracked corn. One blue jay just put twenty four pieces in his crop before leaving. No mother would be proud of that table top performance......except a blue jay mom!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the snowflakes increase in size but remain silent as they bang against each other, then land safely on earth. If it's snowing at your place and your only work is snow shoveling or plowing, find time for a garden catalog or book.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Blustery December Welcome

Saturday, December 1, 2007

This past week has been a blur of events at work that left me in Burlington at the close of the work day yesterday afternoon. Until I dropped off a passenger in Montpelier on the way home and he wished me a good weekend, I wasn't even tuned in to the fact the week was over. Some weeks are like this, and that's why I enjoy gardening a whole lot more.

It's bitterly cold here this morning with a temperature of 8.3 degrees and a wind that is brutal. Karl the wonder dog had to go out and out he went. My right arm is still kind of stretched out straight because when he decided to come back in, he booked for the back door like a phantom T. Rex was on his tail. It's just not nice out there.

Yesterday in 1846, a major storm hit New England and it dropped 26" of snow around Hanover, NH and White River. The weather forecasters have been talking for three days now about a big storm coming in from the west but my best weather forecaster is my wife. Gail used to work as a florist and florists are consulted about the weather more than you'd believe. People plan weddings and anniversaries and receptions and retirements and they are possessed to plan months and months ahead, even years, for outside events in Vermont. The Vermont part is nice but fair weather is not always in the cards. You know..... the nice weather, the 72 degrees and no wind, humidity or black flies weather.

Gail tells me that the first week in December has a reputation for a big storm and she says I should look for about 8 inches on this one. Guess we'll see. She has also asked umpteen times if the plow is ready to put on the truck. After last February, I sure wish she would show some interest in learning to put on the plow and move snow herself. Such a wish, George, such a wish!

I'm behind on a few things this year, actually quite a few things. The new nursery has taken a lot of time and modified some of my priorities. I'm playing catch up now and there is a penalty for some oversights. One is my amaryllis.

Amaryllis are bulbs but the ones I'm talking about are really a relative named Hippeastrum. You can quickly see by the name why the marketing world tuned in on "amaryllis" and not Hippeastrum. Kind of like the time that they changed a great daylily, originally named Jen Melon, to Starstruck because it wasn't selling well under the first name

Whatever the name, these bulbs are easy to grow. You can buy them in supermarkets, box stores and garden centers pre planted in pots and soiless mix so all you need to do is unwrap and water. You can buy bigger bulbs at garden centers and agricultural stores and plant them yourself, and of course there is the Internet where the selections really become obvious. I really wanted these ready for Christmas and New Years but there's little hope mine will grow that fast. When they do bloom, the snow will be halfway up the snow fence and new color in the house will be a welcome sight.

I better get going here this morning. Lots to do. The howling wind has taken all outside chores off my list but there's still plenty to do. If you get to a store today, buy an amaryllis for yourself or friends. Or would that be Hippeastrum?

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the hard wind shouts notice that today is World AIDS Day and I see the faces of two gardening friends who are gardening in a different place now.

Gardening thoughts,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Friday, November 23, 2007

Thanks and Thanksgiving

Friday, November 23, 2007

19 degrees here on the hill this morning, a noticeable difference to yesterday's heavy rains and low forties temperatures. By 4:30 PM when folks were tossing back and forth in soft chairs fending off post dinner sleepiness, the temperature outside began to drop and as it did, Vermont Flower Farm and much of the east was enveloped in deepening fog. Right now fluffy snowflakes drift slowly to earth on a fairly clear morning. Deer hunters have been driving by for more than an hour now trying to get courage enough to park and advance into the woods for one of the last days of this year's rifle deer season. It will be cold and crunchy out there and the footing will be uneasy much of the way as a glaze has formed on the snow from last night's quick freeze.

Here in America, Thanksgiving and the week or two before represents one of the most well publicized food preparation times of the year. At our house there is such an abundance of different foods that sleep comes too easy in late afternoon. This year was marked by the first year in my memory that creamed onions and mince meat pie were absent from the table. I can't say why exactly but as eyes scanned over already heaping plates, the call went out as "Are the onions still in the kitchen?" which they weren't.

Alex as only Alex can do gave his run down of the fact that most of our food wasn't even present at the first Thanksgiving. He always has to tell about three foot long lobsters and other shellfish that the first folks really didn't care for and typically tossed to the pigs. After his run down of deer and ducks and guinea hens and root crops we usually try to get on with festivities and dig in.

Although the mince meat pie was absent this year, outside contributions included a beautiful pumpkin cheese cake and a pecan pie with an old fashioned crust recipe in which you add boiling water to the ingredients and roll quickly. I'm not so sure about my interest in returning to the land of lard and rolling pins but the pumpkin cheesecake is something that was special. Elizabeth from East Montpelier put this beauty together and the swirls of sweet pumpkin mix nicely with the cheese and crust contrast. I have already requested the recipe. It had to be good as Gail's mother, now well on route to age 91, asked for a second piece and then proceeded to scrape the flowers off the plate in hopes I guess of securing a third piece. Thanksgiving was quiet, peaceful, nice and we are thankful for all that we have.

On the gardening scene, Gail continues to prepare plant orders from her collection of wholesale catalogs and draw garden design pictures for new gardens at the new property. I am working away at five cords of logs, already blocked but needing to be split and stacked for winter 2008 and 2009. The job is progressing well and is more rewarding each time I look at the price of oil. In the minimal free time I have left, I am teaching myself Dreamweaver CS3 so I can finally do our less than stellar website over with cascading style sheets and pictures which boot large and clear for everyone. I have not become familiar enough with the new software to be able to predict when I'll approach the site or when it might be close to done but if someone knocked on the door right now and wanted to trade plants for web time, I guarantee a deal would be cut. I smile at each little accomplishment and love what new software can do but sometimes my mind seems to bunny hop over important directions and I have to read and reread before I can make things work correctly. Guess that's why there are gaggles of designers waiting for levels of frustration to convert to pleas of "Can you please help?"

As you work your way through pots and pans and dishes today, and as left overs work their way into smaller and smaller containers, reflect for a minute that despite talk of economic woes, the year has been fine and your gardens were a success. And as fall snows grow into winter snowdrifts, consider next year's gardens and consider the Plant A Row for the Hungry program. It was started in 1995 by the Garden Writers Association of America. Everyone in American didn't have the Thanksgiving you may have had.

This doesn't have to be a big endeavor, in fact it doesn't even have to be a full row of anything. Just consider growing something next year to give to a friend in need, a senior on a budget, a food shelf in your area. It's a difference you can make in the course of your regular gardening and you can feel really good about doing it.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where red and also white breasted nuthatches are this morning's frequent visitors.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Inside and Out It's White

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Just passing 8:30 PM and the temperature is only a couple degrees warmer at 17 than it was at daybreak. It was a nice day even though the afternoon sun came and went and by 3:30 the temperature dropped quickly. Gail and Alex and I were ready to retreat to the house by then as we had tired of moving firewood around. Gail likes a stockpile of kindling and logs in the cellar so if she doesn't feel well or the weather is bad, she can stay inside while keeping the Vermont Castings Vigilant stocked.

As the wood made its way through the basement door, up the bulkhead steps and almost to the twin metal doors, Alex commented that the Vermont method would be to leave the pile where it was until it was used up--this despite the fact the whole house would be colder with the door open. He always likes to compare what he thinks people do with what we do and the thought made him laugh. He was less than pleased when I reminded him the job continued in the cellar and the door would be closed when the job was finished. Despite his protests he worked quickly with Gail and the day's chores ended.

Gardeners don't usually retreat to the confines of their house without some form of gardening entertainment during the winter months. Although we have always had some collection of houseplants, the numbers have dropped considerably in recent years as other responsibilities have increased. One plant that always makes me pleased is Eucharis grandiflorum, the Amazon Lily. I don't remember where we purchased this one but probably at either Claussen's Florist and Greenhouse in Colchester or Jerome The Florist in Barre. Gail worked at both places during her florist days and having a good selection of dependable, easy to care for houseplants was high on her list. She always felt a good plant, a well written care tag, a nice ribbon and a greeting card made for one of the nicest gifts going. Of course, she was correct in her thinking. The Amazon Lily is a beautiful plant which will flower several times each year. It always flowers for us around Thanksgiving time and the flowers themselves draw lots of attention. I have read that the plant is poisonous so use care around kids and pets but give it a try. It blooms for a long time and the show is incredible.

If you're out and about tomorrow, don't forget some flowers for the Thanksgiving table. Cut flowers or potted plants are readily available and they sure add something special. If you can find Eucharis grandiflorum, buy two!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the wood stove feels good as Karl snores loudly from the rug in front of it.

With kind gardening thoughts,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Final Clean Up

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Already almost 8:30 PM and yet it seems as if I barely started the day a couple hours ago. I just walked Karl the wonder dog to quiet his restlessness. The slice of moon and half a sky of stars barely lights up the snow but I know he heard the deer coming through the woods and into the lower field to look for apples. Karl's ears are the best but his bark is annoying when I can't figure out what he sees. If it's not Gail, Alex or me, it is danger in his mind until he's had a good look-see.

It's 21 degrees out now and this is the most tranquil it has been in three days. It's either been raining buckets or snowing and blowing. The quiet is nice. And I am back to my thoughts about gardening at Vermont Flower Farm even though the ground is blanketed for the first time with 3 inches of snow.

When the hours of sunlight drop below 10 hours per day, farmers have to work faster to get outside work done. That's true here too. There are always a few things that do not get done before the snow and cold have slowed even the energetic to a halt. While some things slow down, other elements of time speed along unfettered by personal desires.

The bowl of apples pictured above was gifted last Sunday morning by our friend Eric from Massachusetts. I can't believe it's been a week already! Eric has a seasonal camp in Groton and he escapes city life for Vermont every chance he gets. This time of year the desire to get away is cautioned by dropping temperatures and thoughts of how to keep the wood stove going in a camp that is just that--an insulation-free camp. Eric has various records of "last weekend of the year to visit", "first day of the spring to visit" and "weekends I should have gone but didn't". Last week when we parted company he spoke of the possibility of coming for Thanksgiving. Gail welcomed him to join us for dinner but we all knew the weather would call the shots.

The Honeycrisp apples by the way are one I was not familiar with before Eric brought us a bag. They are terrific! They are crunchy, juicy and have a real nice aroma. The flesh is not colored like the Beacon apples Harold and Leila brought us a while back but it makes no matter as the taste is super! I've been told they are a Macoun cross of sorts and that explains the crispness that translates to a hard, noisy bite. If I hadn't told Alex to leave them alone until I got a picture, you'd be looking at a shot of the pottery bowl on the placemat.

During the past couple weeks I have been picking up here and at the new property, planting more fence posts, installing two gates, and configuring a new computer. I am pleased that everything is going well. A less than special project is putting up a piece of snow fence along the walk from the house to the vehicles. I don't like this job, never did, never will. Each year the fence reminds me of myself as it gets older and rustier and some of the cedar just falls apart. I can always think of why we probably won't need it this year but I always trust my experience and put it up no matter how cold it is on the day I pick. Yesterday the fence got from storage to as far as the walk. Perhaps tomorrow it will be erect by nightfall. It never turns out straight but it always slows down the snow from drifting over the walkway. Last year it looked like wasted effort until mid January when the snow that began to fall forgot to stop until late April.

A few days back I got the shade cloth off the shade house that we use to keep some of the hostas out of the sun. I purchased this pipe shade house from Rimol Company in Hooksett, NH a couple years back. Putting it up was a memory but it has been a dream since. The cloth weighs almost nothing and there are about 80 elastic ties that hold it onto the pipes. It takes longer to get the ladders ready than it does to do the job.

At the end of the growing season we line up all the perennials, in this case hostas, and cover them first with an insulating blanket we purchased from Griffin Greenhouse and then with 6 mil construction poly and old tires. The tires are for wind control on the plastic and they work well.

We also put 2 foot sections of 2" PVC pipe within the rows of potted plants. Each pipe gets a couple-three ounces of D-con for rodent control. Voles are the big concern as they don't hibernate but at various times chipmunks, mice and moles can be destructive too.

Yesterday afternoon I spent a couple hours getting the shade cloth off the south side and the roof of this wooden shade house. I built this a few years back so we would have a place to get miniature hostas off the ground. They are always potted in small pots, say one and 2 quart size, so having them at waist level made more sense. I never cemented the uprights in the ground because I figured that sooner or later it would have to be moved. It has some interesting curves to it now but it served the purpose well this year as it helped us move about 3000 hostas from our place to someone else's house. The Rimol pipe house will come apart with a set of allen wrenches and a crescent wrench but this house will take some work. For now they are both uncovered and no matter how deep the snow gets, they will continue to stand tall as spring approaches.

The list gets whittled down a little at a time. I began on the wood pile today after cleaning up the tractor. This year's wood has been drying for well over a year but the wood I have blocked and ready to split is for next year and maybe even into 2009. The Honda engine on the splitter took three pulls to start this time which isn't bad for an engine that has been sitting for a year.

As I walked around the gardens this afternoon, I looked up at a birdhouse I built four years ago. Birdhouses are a gardener's winter work. I always build a few when I get antsy for spring. Right now I am thinking about the last few chores and a few weeks rest. Our gardens are lots of work but we enjoy them. We know you enjoy yours too!

Good gardening thoughts,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener


Saturday, November 03, 2007

November Chill

Saturday, November 3, 2007

I woke early this morning after hoping for over an hour that the arthritis in my right hip would fade. It didn't, so I got up and began my Saturday ritual. The house had cooled off last night as the fire in the Vermont Castings Vigilant wood stove was less than vigilant through the wee hours. Two trips to the wood pile, crumpled newspaper and two matches later things have begun to come around.

It was 23 degrees last night, absent of wind, with skies dotted with clouds and stars. The hurricane off the East coast may change things today. This morning things are calm and no amount of coaxing got Karl the wonder dog to think about joining me for a quick walk. I went down the road and into the lower hosta garden where the wooden bench was solitary reminder to the crowds who visited that garden this summer. I was embarrassed by the presentation this year with weeds and a multitude of maple seedlings everywhere but there was little I could do. My energy was diverted to a new piece of property and brighter beginnings for next spring.

The leaves of the birches, poplars and beeches hold firm and offer color. My eyes glanced towards the corner of the foundation wall where 'Hadspen Blue' Tokudama flavocircinalis', nigrescens and 'Striptease' hostas usually provide color. The wall was strong and firm but the colored plantings lay flat from several hard frosts. It's a nice granite wall and it looks fine to me at any time of year. If Robert Frost could join me, I'm sure he'd have some words to share. Gail just gave me a copy of a compilation of his works dating from 1916--more winter's work--perhaps I can find some words about foundations.

I wandered towards the standing stones which have reminded several visitors of the Seven Sisters. They are still just nice stones to me and I have encircled them with epimediums which have really grown this past season. This is a flower which will continue to gain popularity and probably price. It's still worth the expense. You should consider it in your garden if you haven't yet.

The deer have topped off about every hosta but for some reason have left Summer Music, Daybreak, City Lights and August Moon. Some nice seed pods remain on some sports of Summer Music which came in a tray of tissue cultured plants a couple years back. Obviously the person doing the culling wasn't perceptive enough that day. Actually I'm pleased with the find as these are big plants, rapid growers and I think they have some potential. I may name them 'Off Key' at some point in the future. Time always permits lots of fun thoughts but fewer completions.

As I headed up the back path to the house, the blue jays began scolding me for not filling the feeder yet. All that remained was a block of suet, enclosed in an onion sack and tied to the flat of the platform feeder. The ravens, Vermont's stealth bombers of the woods and fields, coast in and try to grab the suet but so far it has held firm and provided caloric warmth for our smaller feathered buddies.

It will be a cold morning but I have more leaves to rake, more wood to cut.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where early morning car traffic results from Youth Day when young hunters get a crack at deer before the competition of the regular season. Some parents have forgotten the fact that good hunting starts when you get out of the truck or car.

Fall gardening encouragement,

George Africa

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Joyful Colors While Planting Bulbs

Thursday, October 25, 2007

38 degrees this morning and apparently just enough moonlight to give the coyotes reason to be having a convention in the lower field. I never learned coyote speak but they are certainly vocal this morning, and this time of year. Last week when I walked in to Kettle Pond at 5:30 AM for some pictures, there were a number on the hill within the group camping area. I listened in the dark and could differentiate 3 voices but have a great deal to learn about them before I can explain what they are discussing.

The flower industry has done a good job conditioning people over the years to do certain things at certain times while expecting industry events. I don't think this is good for gardeners but it sets parameters for growers, wholesalers and retailers. In Vermont there's something about buying plants for the summer beginning around Memorial Day when the frosts are likely to have passed. Then by the June 15-July 4th time frame all retailers have sales to unload any stock they have left. This schedule almost encourages people to think that garden color will fade by the first of August and be gone when the kids go back to school the third week in August.

This artificial schedule is not a good one and here are Vermont Flower Farm we have always tried to encourage the thought that color can prevail until several hard frosts have occurred. Operating a nursery is difficult enough without having your own industry direct people that you should be closed when you really just opened. We work hard here to change that thinking and the orders of hosta and astilbe that are going in the mail today remind us that we're making some headway.

Perhaps a way to lengthen your season with color is to integrate some small trees and shrubs into your landscape. There are many euonymous varieties out there like the one pictured above. These have colorful foliage and bright berries. Depending on where you live, some varieties verge on invasive personalities but if you like an abundance of color and like watching birds, these aren't bad. Be prepared to pull up or dispose of any seedlings and you can keep your area in control. I moved a couple here almost eighteen years ago and there are four that have self seeded and grown to five feet tall.

The red berries of winterberry (above) are super. I have transplanted some of the natives from out back (not that easy!) but the new cultivated varieties on the market now are exceptional. They hold their fruit longer, beginning to end, and some of the new ones hold tight to firm, bright berries even after many 25 degree frosts. Gail and I plan to use a number of these at the new nursery so in time they will be eye catchers for Route 2 travelers to muse about.

Dogwoods are in abundance and have received lots of publicity in recent years. Fall frosts encourage the leaves to redden in contrast to some continued green coloration. Their berries draw in birds and they respond well to shaping so there are various possibilities.

There is much discussion about problems in the dogwood world and a combination of viruses and insects is raising serious question to long term survival. As long as they do survive, they are a shrub to be enjoyed. There's something about the self styled umbrella growth of some that make them interesting to me.

Weigelia is another nice shrub although don't plant them under the eaves of the house like I did and expect them to last forever. A native of Japan and also found in Korea and China, there are a couple hundred varieties out there, perhaps more as we look closer and hybridize better. They range in size from 2.5 feet to 8 feet and flower colors include reds, rose, yellow and white. The offset leaves allow for good flowering and the leaf color is good. The taller ones can be Incorporated into a nice hedge of mixed shrubs that will provide color into late fall and serve as a bird magnet the balance of the year.

Years ago when Gail bought barberry bushes named 'Rosy Glow' from a friend I had my doubts but visitors ask about them all the time and someday I may even sell some. They are not invasive like the natives that have covered all of New England and they have a very nice cream and pink variegation to some leaves. These are not the same as the natives which have seriously impacted farmer's fields and salt flat swamps along the ocean.

Most of the maple trees have dropped enough leaves around here that the tamaracks, birches, poplars, oaks and beeches are now the mountain accents. Fall leaf color is yellow to yellow-brown to brown depending on the tree. They all have their merits. If planting oaks around the house, give some thought to where you plant and what your agenda is. An oak tree planted for summer shade in front of a south facing window may work well for summer sun but the leaves hang tight for so long, some back into spring, that expected winter warming will not be possible. Consider some of these trees and shrubs mixed with the vast variety of smaller conifers available today and you will have a garden of color your neighbors will enjoy too.

Although garden centers have already discounted spring bulbs, fear not, there's plenty of time to plant some spring color. We enjoy daffodils and historically buy them by the bushel. There are hundreds of varieties available with new varieties entering the market every year. A number of people are bringing back the old species and there are tons of resources available now. The American Daffodil Society is a good place to begin your research. If you buy a dozen of several varieties each year and plant them as a group, in time you'll have a nice collections that visitors will ask about. I always like to be asked "Where did you get that?" because it proves I have made a good choice.

The thermometer hasn't budged but I have to get ready for my real job. I'd rather be here on the mountain today raking leaves and chatting with late arriving tourists who stop to say they always wanted to meet The Vermont Gardener.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where noisy geese are having breakfast.

George Africa

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Fall Hollyhocks

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Already 9 PM and the rain is finally quieting after a couple hours of pounding like a heavy fist on the standing seam roof. The weather people predicted more than an inch of rain and I won't be surprised if we surpass that amount. It is such a contrast to California and the South where serious problems continue. We are lucky here at Vermont Flower Farm to have several excellent supplies of water. It's not just any water, it's the best tasting water I have ever tasted.

Fall 2007 has been interesting. The weather yesterday was like a July day but without the higher humidity. After work, I rode the tractor making a 10 foot by 200 foot long garden at the new property. It will serve as a buffer between the parking area and the sales building and will have a split rail fence the entire length save for the opening for delivery trucks and entering/exiting customers. I misread the amount of clay I would have to remove and backfill with good soil, compost and manure and I had to order up another 25 yards of soil tonight. The garden will be the first thing a customer sees as they park their vehicle so I want it to be well prepared and good looking.

This morning I had to head south for the day down towards Brattleboro. First I had to get the truck back to a tire place on the Montpelier side of the Barre-Montpelier Road because they sold me a defective radial tire last week. They did a weird trial and error thing until they figured out what to do with it and that left me less than pleased. Today was my third visit and now I'm driving on $600 worth of tires that track straight. I left them with my message in economics: If I tell ten friends of the problem and they don't buy $600 in tires, that's a $6000 loss. If they tell 10 friends each, that becomes $60,000 in potentially lost sales. Customers are not always right but when they are, they need to be treated appropriately.

When I returned tonight I needed a good walk to stretch out some arthritic joints. For some reason, hollyhocks caught my attention. The first picture above shows some plants from this summer when hollyhocks were in their glory. Now singles are opening and although the masses are not there, the individual flowers are noteworthy. The flower bees are slowing down their visits but the bumble bees and a neighbor's honey bees keep working every available flower.

Many visitors ask us to dig up hollyhocks but we won't. This is a plant that is best seeded into your garden space and this is the time of year to do it. Our garden seed production was not that good this year but this is a plant which produces more than I want to deal with from year to year. It was a nice surprise today to see so many in bloom. There are still some trollius showing color, several campanulas, the last of the monardas and one last Hemerocallis 'So Lovely'. Looking back on our gardens this past summer, I can reiterate, "They really were so lovely."

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where sunsets come too early, daylight is too brief.

Best garden wishes,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Cautious Cleanup

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

5 AM and 26.7 degrees here on the hill. This was the kind of temperature I expected a day ago but there's no doubt it's here today. The lawn grass is white and crunchy as I walked Karl the Wonder Dog. The air is crisp and serves as a reminder not to go too far from the back door without a jacket. Karl didn't like cold feet and he headed back to the house with great speed. He can go back to bed but I cannot.

This is the time of year for fall cleanup. It is not necessarily a great sport but one that gardeners accept. Part of my problem is where to start. The Mad Hatter told Alice in Wonderland, "Start at the beginning and when you get to the end, stop." I need a Mad Hatter that says "Start here, sir."

There are a few cautions I suggest to anyone, regardless of where you start. I think they are worth a little consideration. First, put on a good pair of work gloves and keep them on as you progress. Gloves can be like socks if you're not careful and then you have several pairs of lefties or righties but no pairs left. I've ended up at times wearing two different gloves and folks know immediately that I never followed my own suggestions.

One of the nicest annual plants in my book is cleome. I have been growing it for several years and I can't start summer without it. Actually all I do is stop at a greenhouse and buy a couple flats and Gail or Michelle get it into the ground. Although there are many varieties out there now, I always buy the taller variety because I like it interplanted along the split rail fence where all the plants are 2.5 feet and up to 6 feet tall.

Cleome is a good plant because it keeps growing upward and it blooms as it grows. As the individual blossoms fade, a long slender seed pod is formed, adding interest to the overall plant. The plant does reseed but the soil has to be closer to neutral than ours is.

The part most don't know about cleome is that it has a good root system and invisible thorns on the lower stalk. When a gentle tug from the mid-plant doesn't free it from the soil after a hard frost, many people bend over and grab tight and pull in one, quick, thoughtless process. That's fine with good gloves but if you're not careful you'll turn into a sophisticated expletive machine spouting nasties as the thorns prick your hands. Don't try to figure out where the thorns are, just wear good gloves and don't forget.

Cleaning up the garden means cutting down plants and getting them out of the garden. This slows down the spread of disease and eliminates places for the bad inspects to lay eggs, hide and winter over, etc. Some people are big on composting and they try to move everything to the pile. I disagree. Here's an example.

Last week on a local television station, fall clean up was mentioned. The host showed how to do some things and specifically talked about cutting down garden phlox even if they are still blooming. He suggested cutting them to 3"-4" and throwing the stems into the compost pile. That would be a "do not throw" to me.

Modern day phlox have been bred to be more resistant to mildew and other fungal problems but many New England gardens have older varieties which have been passed down. As lovely as they are, many are mildew magnets as these pictures show. These were from a nice lavender unnamed variety (that means I don't know the name!) The older whites are even bigger problems, especially during summers like this one with cold, wet weather early on and into July.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend eliminating them if you have a place at the back of the border or far enough away that the foliage can't be noticed ....but...if you can afford replacement, give it some serious thought. In the meantime, do not put this diseased material in your compost pile. In the first place the stems will take another dinosaur age to break down and the fungus will not cook away no matter how hot the center of your pile measures. Let's just say that when you do your garden clean up, think about where to put diseased materials. Whole hosta plants with virus and lilium stems covered with botrytis are other examples.

Along with plant problems at clean up time, I try to remind people about one insect here in New England. My guess is that it's prevalent in many places now as insects are spreading with ease I don't even want to talk about. This is the short winged blister beetle. It is obvious this time of year. I have been noticing small ones in the half to three quarters of an inch size in the grass now but as they mature as in this picture, they'll be an inch and a quarter long and fat. Blister beetles might attract you to pick one up and look it over or show it to someone. Don't. The name says it all and the blisters you will probably get in a day or so will be a bad memory. Just like poison ivy, not everyone is affected but the fact is the per centage is high so just don't do it. Look with your eyes and leave it at that.

I've got to get going to my other world of work right now but if the weather is favorable you might want to start some garden clean up today. Start at the beginning and when you get to the end, stop.

Gardening thoughts from the mountain above Peacham Pond where darkness prevails and the temperature hasn't budged.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Saturday, October 13, 2007

First Frost

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Last night's heavy frost
Is this morning's
Sugar maple confetti,
As colored leaves
Float safely
To the comfort
Of the earth.

It's a beautiful morning here on the mountain. The ground is covered with a thick white frost, the first real frost we have had this year. I cautioned Gail to bring in any plants she wanted to "save" last night but I fear a few of the specialty coleus were forgotten sometime after the nightly news and the roast chicken. Some days are longer than others and this week was a series of jobs that had to be done no matter how tired we were.

The weatherman has had some problems lately and this morning is another example. The sky is clear and the sun is shining brightly through the holes in the maple canopies where leaves have parachuted to earth for their first and last descent. It is crisp and the air feels good as you walk along woods roads admiring the sights. This morning was a Wonder-dogless walk as Karl is sleeping in. He has some seizure problems that we are trying to adjust but sleep works wonders after he has had a bad time. Yesterday was difficult on him.

I rode and walked, rode and walked this morning, as I enjoyed the sunrise and the leaf color. It has been an odd year as the colors have grown stronger and held tight to the trees much longer than we expected. There were several heavy rains and lots of wind after three solid weeks of drought but for some reason Mother Nature knew we needed to enjoy a fine fall display after two consecutive years of "Not so good".

I like to walk back roads, especially logging roads or roads thrown up decades ago. There is a peace that is only interrupted by bird songs or flushing partridge or deer. On occasion a bear or moose, deer or fox, fisher or coyote will be standing around a bend or slightly off the road, watching with care. These sightings add to the peacefulness.

Today I thought through the gardens we'll plant today. The little verse, Frost, appeared to me on the Osmore Pond road and really does represent what I saw. Fall marks the end of gardening for many but for us there are different things to see and do.

Gail has prepared a good sketch of the 400 foot garden which we will start today on the western perimeter of our new property. I rototilled it more than a dozen times since the second spraying with weed killer. I picked the rocks after each tilling and have most of those removed. I have the hoses layed out and buckets of manure ready. Within the hour, Gail will have the truck loaded and we'll be on our way.

The soil along this piece is sandy load, The half closest to Route 2 holds water most of the season as a three foot culvert allows water from the adjacent mountain to make its way to the Winooski River. This half will be excellent for bee balms, four different ligularias, aruncus, rodgersias, actea, astilboide tabularis and some Macleaya cordata, the plume poppy. I expect that someone will give me some grief for planting plume poppy and darmera because of their tendency to become a nuisance. Properly cared for they can be made to stay within bounds and in mass plantings they are very impressive. Next summer I don't expect much of the planting but the following year the garden will be a show stopper.

The back door just closed which means Gail is a steps ahead of me and I have to get going. If you don't have plans today, get out and enjoy the foliage. The Forest and Parks people closed off Owl's Head Monday night so if you want to enjoy that view, plan on the mile walk to the top. The Lanesboro Road still has nice views and the Mack Mountain Road from Route 2 back to Peacham Village is very nice. Along the way you can think through your gardens and what you need to do before morning frost becomes morning snowflakes.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond, where white crowned sparrows from somewhere, one nuthatch and a breakfast club of chickadees have gathered on the platform feeder in the morning sun. Steam emanates from the tall grasses as the thick frost melts and a new gardening day begins.

Fall gardening wishes,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Counting Crows

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The weatherman forecast the start of several wet days and thus far, today has escaped much of the prediction. Just 5 PM now and 53 degrees and as darkness sets in, the air has the feel of a storm en route for breakfast. If the way the birds are feeding is any indication, the rain will be heavy when it gets here. First the juncos, then the chickadees, then the mourning doves, now the young blue jays, never any crows. Crows don't eat bird seed from a feeder but they will eat cracked corn from the ground. If you want to count crows it has to be in the morning, but the other birds are here off and on most of the day.

All the way home from work I thought about getting over to Kettle Pond to see what the foliage looked like. I knew I was late but it's an annual thing that I have to do at least once. I enjoy walking out to the canoe launch, sometimes a good deal further. I knew the walk would be easier this year because a crew from the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps worked on the trails again this year.

Every year I stand on the teeter-totter dock that makes no sense and take pictures of the shore, the mountains, the young loons still gaining courage to leave Vermont. I never get a good picture of the loons as they are always too far away for any equipment I have but it's fun just the same. A walk to Kettle Pond is kind of like walking in the garden. It mellows the difficult times the day has brought.

I returned home and put Karl the wonder dog back in the house so I could make a quick walk through the gardens and then head downtown to ride the tractor for an hour. I promised Gail I would have the western garden, 10 feet wide by 400 feet long, rototilled and ready to begin planting Saturday. Karl resisted the thought of exclusion and the opportunity to get good dog smells from around the gardens. A gentle nudge didn't encourage a change of attitude but the sight of my right foot coming up behind his tail made him scoot along quickly. Different reminders accomplish different goals in life.

The garden by the drive has a few different anemones that begin blooming in late September and continue on despite cold nights. I don't know the names even though Gail has reminded me many times. They look so nice that late garden visitors always ask about them but usually they are long since sold out. I think if they appeared in just one well written magazine article they'd be in every nursery going but except for specialty places you don't see them that much. The white woods anemones which bloom in the spring are a different story. They spread like spilt milk and are more often available although they probably shouldn't be.

As I walked along, a lily became obvious. Our lilies end their beautiful garden presentations with the tall bloom of Uchida. I must admit that pronouncing Uchida twice the same way is about as easy for me as saying Sagae, the beautiful hosta with a similar name problem. Despite many rains of late, the blooms continue to open with a fragrance that beckons from afar. This one caught my eye because a slug had smelled the fragrance and climbed a five foot stem to feast on the petals. Slugs are not afraid of heights I guess and this one climbed 240 times its height.

I walked past the mailboxes and looked down at the hosta garden. It was a mess from August on because I was away making gardens for next year. Nonetheless the hostas themselves grew strong with good attention early on. Although the deer have been trimming them down well, a couple sports of H. 'Summer Music' have heavy seed production this year. The pods are thick walled and the seeds are quite large. I cut off one scape just to be sure I have one. Maybe with luck I can harvest some of the remaining seed from other hostas this weekend.

Two more steps and I ran into a ripening stem of white baneberry seeds. The insects are beginning to dig inside the pods and help with dispersing the seeds. This particular baneberry is very colorful with bright red stems holding each seed pod tightly. It's also the most poisonous so keep these away from kids. As with all baneberries, the foliage looks great until the seeds reach maturity and then dormancy brings on the blahs. Lots of wild flowers are like that but it's not a reason to give up on them.

I glanced at my watch and reminded myself that the calmness of the gardens was nice but I had to get going with the new garden. A flock of geese called from above and I knew I had to move too.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where darkness comes too early and Karl begs to go outside just a minute or so before the evening news starts. Good dog, good dog!

With fall gardening wishes,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener