Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Cold Temperatures, Warm Lilies

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A beautiful day here at Vermont Flower Farm. The sky is almost out of clouds and the sun is shinning brightly. Only the faintest of breezes comes and goes, spreading tiny black Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' seeds about the snow crust making it easier for the smaller birds. This morning's -18.2 has been transformed into 22.3 degrees on the thermometer but I suspect it's really colder than that. The sunshine knows how to deceive even the best thermometer.

The birds are coming in waves which would make an interesting movie. I filled the top of the 20" square platform feeder with 1/3d cracked corn, 1/3d millet and 1/3d black oil sunflower. Three equal stripes of feed as if someone took a paintbrush that changed colors and painted three downward strokes. Bluejays first, totaling about 12-15, some young, some old. One has a bad wing but makes up for its disability with a tough beak and a short fuse. It regularly says "Step back, brother" with a couple hard pecks to any other jay which tries to move in on its territory. These jays are all relatives of each other but family ties means nothing when you're hungry.

A mature jay, fluffed out to fend off cold and looking bigger than it is, kicks sunflower seeds from side to side like a mad bull pawing the ground before the charge. Then suddenly the Evening Grosbeaks move in, 15-18 strong, eating as if it's their last trip to the feeder. They are flighty birds, quickly spooked by the slightest movement from inside the house or in their outside world. They come one or two at a time but leave in unison in split seconds. Then the Juncos and chickadees arrive, on the platform and on the ground. Their diminutive size affords inspection of the seed remains at the platform and it becomes obvious that they were taught better manners than the jays and grosbeaks.

Yesterday I saw a Northern Shrike again. A friend from Danville reported one too. It is fortunate these birds do not come in flocks because they are mighty warriors and like harrier jets they swoop out of the sky and grab up small birds first. I have read that they have been known to impale their prey on wire fences or tree limbs but I would have to see this first to believe it. Factually they have great speed and they have total disregard for my admiration of small birds.

The mail will be here in a few minutes bringing more catalogs and more documents to go along with income tax preparation. Lois is our mail lady and she packs our mail meticulously with catalogs at the bottom and letters carefully secured so as not to get mixed with the junk mail. I'm hoping that she is bringing a particular lily catalog more than I'm wanting to get back to the taxes.

Gail and I started with lilium about 1983. At that time there were so few people growing lilies in Vermont that we had a hard time getting started. That was pre-Internet and also before we knew of the North American Lily Society. Once we got started, things increased rapidly. Every year Gail bought in more and more new varieties and we always have had a great selection.

I'll never forget the first order we received from Europe. It was a very large and expensive order for us and we didn't know what to expect. When the boxes arrived it was like kids at Christmas until we opened the boxes. The freight bill should have been an indication of what we'd find but we were neophytes in the vast world of lilies. As we opened the boxes, inside were blocks of ice with 25 lilies frozen in each block. I was convinced we had been had.

Courage sometimes takes a while to conjure up but looking at the frozen bulbs prodded mine into full gear. I got on the phone with the company and the US bulb rep. He was Dutch and he listened politely to my description. I thought I could hear him laughing in the background and kind of hoped that wasn't true. But he was laughing and he apologized for himself and then said to think of the blocks of frozen lilies as an American turkey at Thanksgiving. Thaw slowly and patiently and the bulbs would be ready to plant. He reiterated the company's guarantee and we thanked each other graciously. True to statement, the lilies thawed, were planted and flourished. The very next year all lilies were shipped dry in peat moss but the memory of the first year will last forever.

In recent years Gail and I have each developed greater interest in daylilies and hostas but we still offer some lilies. Our website, http://vermontflowerfarm.com explains the different varieties and how to successfully grow them. If you're interested in a quick breakdown of what is on the market, take a look at our pictures at http://vermontflowerfarm.com/lilies_cat.html
You'll get an idea of what's out there and whether lilies are something you want to add to your gardens. The North American Lily Society website has a good resource list and lots of good information to help.

Karl, the wonder dog, is barking. That means Lois is out front. There are three other mailboxes in a row with ours and it takes her a bit to fill them, all the time being barked at by Karl. He only barks happy barks to her and they both know it. For me, I'll tolerate the barking, I'll tolerate the tax forms but really I want to know if that great lily catalog is there. Have to go see!

Cold gardening thoughts from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the rural delivery mail people are an important part of every weekday........even if you're a dog.

Goerge Africa

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Heirloom Thoughts and New Ideas

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The weatherman reported that this week is typically the coldest of the year here in Vermont and none of us are doubting that. Right now it's 5 below and dropping slowly. Last night in the northern part of Vermont the lowest temperature was minus 29. Tonight is supposed to be colder. A month ago 60 degrees was an oddly uncomfortable temperature and now we're heading in the other direction. Ski areas have finally been able to make and keep snow and the various industries which depend on cold weather are finally getting started.

Here at Vermont Flower Farm we are entertained by birds and snowfalls as we return from trips to the mailbox with garden catalogs of great variety for further entertainment. Today's mail brought Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Raintree Nursery, and Brent and Becky's Bulbs. Baker's is a Missouri company in its tenth year of catalog sales. It has some interesting squash and pumpkins including the giant pink banana squash we grew when I was a kid. I'll have to spend a little more time with the catalog because the seeds aren't in alphabetical order by common name or species so beyond the general heading, it's not that easy for me to reference things from past gardens. Raintree is from the state of Washington so one has to be careful not to get excited about something new without first checking zones. Fruit trees, bushes and vines are in abundance but they might not all make it in Vermont.

Brent and Becky's work with bulbs has a long history and their company shows their perseverence through some interesting times. I don't remember when I saw their catalog last and I'm surprised at the diversity of bulbs. Towards the end they have a list of books for sale and I noticed a couple that I have. Their Daffodils for North American Gardens was one I bought in the days when I decided that buying daffodils by the bushel was the way to go. I'd always buy a bushel of larged flowered, quick-to-naturalize bulbs and then a bushel of mixed bulbs. Spring would come and by late May I'd be doing a lot of "what is its????", hence the need for a reference book. Since that time the number of daffodils on the market is so great that I doubt any book has kept up with what's available.

The other book they sell is Lilies: A Guide for Growers and Collectors by Edward Austin McRae. If you enjoy even the thought of lilies, buy this book. It's a great book just like the author who I got to meet this past June. I attended a meeting of the Pacific Northwest Lily Society in Brush Prairie, Washington and my memory of the events, the lilies, the people and of course Eddie himself are ever present. I had planned to ask for a trip to his species gardens up towards Mt Hood but an earlier storm had brought crushing hail so the trip didn't make sense. Gardeners and growers are nice people and they are willing to share their knowledge. Eddie is the nicest!

We're not into vegetables any more as life, time and flowers have a way of limiting what we can get done. In the past we grew many, many vegetables and in fact one of the first things Gail and I grew together was eggplant, in an old barnyard, under black plastic. The plants prospered and I swear each plant had a bushel of fruit. I was quickly elevated to the chief and only "picker" position of our two person company. You see the black plastic made a second home for the spotted adders that had been living in and around the adjacent barn foundation. The first day Gail saw the plastic moving and a big head pop out at her was the day of my promotion. It wasn't a meritous event but it did mark the last year I layed down plastic.

Heirloom seeds are now in vogue in the garden world and justifiably so. Many people are growing, saving and exchanging old seeds to maintain the great varieties from who knows how many hundreds or thousands of years ago. My mother was a seed saver along with everything else you could save. The Depression did that to a lot of people and many glass Hellmans Mayonaise jars became her seed vaults. I never knew anyone who could polish a glass jar so shiny clean just to put seeds in and stick on a tape label naming the contents. She saved about every seed going and I only realized this when she and my father passed away and I had to clean out the house. They would have made some seed collector happy but for me it quickly became a piece of history I had to close the book on. If you are interested in old varieties, start with Baker's catalog. I can tell that if you get stumped for something special they will try to help.

Along with all the old seeds come new and unusual seeds from all over the world. A long time ago I studied and worked with seed samples I begged from companies whose names I have long forgotten. Their research and development divisions were always so exciting you'd constantly see things which you just had to have. In Japan there was some great work with pansies and dianthus and in Europe echinacea were produced in colors and petal combinations that seemed to grow butterflies and hummingbirds right out of the package.

The lesson I learned early on and have shared with many gardeners is "new and shiny" doesn't translate to a good plant for your garden. Zone classifications that come with plants might not have been zone and time tested. The plants might do well for a year or two and then just when you're beginning to brag about what you have, it's gone. A good mix of dependable heirloom varieties and a handful of new and "what you can afford to try and perhaps lose" makes sense.

There will probably be another offering of catalogs tomorrow. And the way the thermometer is falling, there will be another morning in the minus numbers. Catalogs and winter evenings jump start the planning process. Deep cold reminds me of Paul Simon's How Can You Live In The Northeast? Gardens and Vermont keep some of us here.

With fine gardening thoughts, clear nights and warm woodstoves, from the mountain above Peacham Pond,

Winter wishes,

George Africa

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Vermont Farm Show

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Before we moved to Marshfield in 1989, I wondered what it would be like living in a small town. I had grown up in Woodstock and had the opportunity to experience a community where everyone knew everyone else and showed respect and was somehow part of a greater family constellation. In 1966, I moved to Burlington to attend UVM and there was no looking back. Burlington was my idea of the perfect sized community and no matter where I travelled, I always maintained that feeling and always returned.

In 1989, I knew we were committed to returning to a small community. I really wondered what it would be like and what I'd miss. Quickly I learned that some things I had become accustomed to were not meant to be available in a little town. I also found that a real community provides all the other supports you don't necessarily find in a city and it provides them almost every day. Between Marshfield and the adjoining villages of Cabot, Plainfield and Danville there is some event just about every day of the year. With not too much looking, you can also find an "authority" on just about any subject that interests you.

Today was a long day and between the Vermont Farm Show and Sunset Woodpeckers that I just wrote about, I was wearing thin. But tonight was one of those special events at the community center that Gail and I just didn't want to miss. Charles Fish was going to visit at 7 and discuss his new book, In The Land Of The Wild Onion. His book chronicles several trips down the Winooski River from its source in Cabot to its mouth in Chittenden County. In the book he talks about farming, geology, pollution, hunting and fishing, tracking, transportation and various aspects of hydrology. With the skill of an experienced knitter, he draws his subjects together with Vermont history and local anecdotes. Knowing some of the personalities made the presentation more fun but Charles is so skilled that you left knowing many people as if they were long time friends.

I don't recall hearing Charles mention wild onions once although I noticed he represented them on a hand made map that he used as an initial overview. The Winooski is the Onion River in Abenaki and along the way there are many patches of wild onions that smell strongly when you inadvertently walk through a patch. Thoughts of onions and other horticultural delights and the peoples that have walked the banks of this river for thousands of years left the community center with me. I'll track down his book and fill in the spaces soon. If you get a chance to hear Charles, don't miss it!

But the Vermont Farm Show, what happened at the Farm Show? When I said earlier that I'd have to put the Farm Show on ice in my previous post, I'm alluding to something you only know about if you've been to the show before. The show is held in the Barre Auditorium but it spills out of the auditorium like milk spilled from a 40 quart milk can. The balance of the show is held in the the hockey rink. The ice is covered with rugs and platforms and without looking you might not know where you are.

I went to the show this year with three agendas. I wanted to check out the American Chestnut Society display, find some emu oil and look at tractors. I accomplished a lot more than this and really enjoyed myself. I always go kind of crazy looking at the baked goods that have been brought in for judging. They shouldn't put them by the entry door. To me maple syrup and honey are maple syrup and honey. We use these two products weekly and often daily at our house and we support local producers and would have it no other way. But seeing the baked goods is like going to a specialty bakery. I have never heard of someone trying to snag one of these beauties and take it home but I know I'm not the only one who has ever thought about leaving with a fresh baked apple pie or a maple cream cheesecake or honey glazed raspberry tarts. This competition is fierce and Vermont obviously has some great pastry chefs.

The whole issue of the American Chestnut really intrigues me because this is just another tree that built America but is in serious trouble. Kind of like maples, hemlocks, ash and beeches. The American Chestnut Foundation was represented by Leila Pinchot, the New England Regional Science Coordinator from Yale University. Leila makes a good presentation and answered all my questions. The Foundation is trying to establish a Vermont chapter so if you have any interest in saving and promoting a great tree, contact Leila at leila@acf.org, by phone at 203-598-5808 or via the Foundation website http://www.acf.org I have some literature to read and when I get caught up here, I'll try to give a little summary of what's going on with the Foundation.

My search for the emu exhibit was not because I was interested in raising these birds. I've tried the meat on several occasions and even though it's supposed to be great for the non-cholesterol dieter, I could never figure out how to cook it correctly so it didn't dry out. It's like venison as there's no fat in the meat. Expensive meats are fun until you mess up the recipe or the cooking and have to start over at another $14 a pound. I also have limited respect for anything that reproduces by laying eggs in the snowbank after sunset in January in Vermont. Walking around in the dark with a flashlight looking for eggs from a big bird you just paid $1000 for makes no sense to me.

So the attraction? --it's the oil, the incredible oil that I was looking for. An ounce for $8 and change and four ounces is $25.00 This oil is marvelous. It is one of the very few oils that actually can penetrate human skin. It is an extremely good joint lubricant and makes knee and back aches disappear after a couple days. I have heard that it has been used to massage heart valves in open heart surgery --I said "heard" but for me the $25 means that joint pain goes away. Today I found the booth and got what I needed for myself and some as a gift to a friend with lower back problems.

Tractors? I'm in the market for a new tractor for the "new Vermont Flower Farm" (see http://vermontgardens.blogspot.com) The Farm Show has tractor vendors lined up so it's easier to go from one to the next asking questions and dickering about prices. I'm keeping all options open and trying to learn as much as possible. The difference between a 30 hp and a 29 hp may not be much but the gear ratios and an assortment of other factors deserve review. I'm still thinking about one guy's response when I asked about warranties. He said that no matter what the color of todays tractors, green, blue, orange, yellow or red--the warranties are all the same. Three years and xxxx number of hours. I left the Show a step closer to making a decision but not quite there yet. Right now, day is done, and I'm a step away from sleep.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond, where George Winston is playing in the background and the ever so slow piano notes mimic the movement of the digital thermometer as it goes -2.3, -2.4, -2.3, -2.3, -2.4.................

Good gardening thoughts,

George Africa

Sunset Woodpeckers

Sunset in January often suggests a temporary unknown. Darkness comes quickly when the sun falls behind the mountain and with it the temperature drops quickly. There's often no hint of how fast things will change or whether the harsh winds will follow. Clear skies at days end is a guarantee that cold is coming.

I just came in from a real quick walk with Karl, the wonder dog. I wasn't in a rush but the temperature is already down to 11 degrees and Karl likes the wood stove more than snow and ice on his feet. He's one of those modern day dogs that doesn't have the spunk my old beagle Barney had. Barney could run rabbits, foxes or coyotes for hours from afternoon on into the night and then spend the rest of the night finding his way back home. Karl, in contrast, thinks a good distance from the back door is the mailbox at the end of the driveway. He only makes it that far if he feels certain there's a good chance of being carried back to the house. He's too big for carrying very far but house dogs are like that.

It's been quite an afternoon already and rest seems good. I went to the Vermont Farm Show this afternoon. It's a three day annual event held in Barre and it draws exhibitors and visitors from far and wide. I just about got home and a bird missed the feeder and bounced off the kitchen window. I got up and looked out and there in the snow, twitching a wing, was some type of woodpecker, Hairy or Downy, I couldn't quite tell. I don't know if you have ever watched the Dog Whisperer on the animal channel on TV but here at Vermont Flower Farm we have the Woodpecker Whisperer. That would be Gail, my loving, jack-of-all-trades wife. If she could find a reliable day stretcher that really worked she'd be more exceptional than she already is. With birds that are down for the count she is really something else.

One mention of what had occured and Gail went into action. She has a portable dog kennel we used when Karl was a pup. It's lined with a flannel sheet puffed up irregularly to accept a fallen body no matter what shape it's in. Out the door she flew with Alex, Karl and me all peering out the window hoping to see a wing flutter or maybe even see her get bit like the time she saved the baby pileated woodpecker from a cat. This bird showed little encouragement of making it. Alex and I could hear a very sad "Oh no, poor thing." even through the window. The bird didn't move as Gail gently slid it into the kennel and backtracked through the snow and into the house. Like spectators at a sporting event, Alex and I ran for a visual inspection.

The bird lay motionless on the sheet, one wing splayed out away from the body, its head at a strange angle. It made us wonder if it was finished, done for, expired, just plain dead. Gail placed the kennel on top of the dryer in the utility room and affirmatively told us to leave. The Woodpecker Whisperer made it clear that the bird was in precarious health and poking it with words or fingers wasn't going to be at all helpful. We both obeyed like good schoolkids, all the time hoping that she could revive yet another fallen flyer.

Half an hour went by. Forty five minutes went by. We knew that Gail's experience has taught her that it takes a good hour for dizzy, injured birds. The time approached and we slid on our boots and headed outside. These are not good moments because you just don't know what will happen when you open the kennel door. Gail held the kennel and I opened the door. As I reached in, there was an explosion like a fine Springer Spaniel putting up a woodcock in the swamp off Lanesboro Road. The bird flew almost parallel to a maple and then turned its wings, landed and began doing the typical woodpecker climb up the tree. Every foot or so it shook itself. Something was not quite right. Ten or twelve feet higher and it pecked at a bug, then it pecked again. Recovery is golden! The Woodpecker Whisperer had succeeded yet again. This was a Hairy Woodpecker, a fairly common bird that is one of the janitors of the forest. It eats bugs and in so doing slows down some infestations. This Hairy has another day to enjoy life.

From the moutain above Peacham Pond, where the temperature has dropped to 8.1 degrees and my description of the Vermont Farm Show will have to be put on ice until later.

With gardening thoughts,

George Africa

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Insect Recollections

Saturday, January 20, 2007

7.7 degrees here at Vermont Flower Farm. The temperature is dropping as the afternoon progresses. The wind has been constant since daybreak but now there are stronger gusts which pick up the fluffy white snow and blow it into disorganized swirls. It's almost like looking at a National Geographic movie of the arctic.

I've been to the platform bird feeder with fresh seed twice since breakfast. As the sun peaked out this morning, the Juncos were here when darkness was just breaking. Then an abundance of blue jays arrived, 6-7-8 of them in noisy conversations I cannot understand. Chickadees flirted in and out and since then its only been Juncos. My guess is that the blue jays will be back by late afternoon to stock up on corn and sunflower seeds to provide caloric warmth through the night.

Yesterday I was looking at garden blogs and up came May Dreams Gardens. From there I checked out Carol's other blogs, stopped at her Hoe and Pictures page, and quite by accident started a circuitous, bunny-hopping search that took me past bed time.

There was a picture of an Imperial Moth, which I had never seen before. Now many of you know I'm very interested in hostas and as a result I found myself at a New England Hosta Society annual meeting one time in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Like all the flower societies, annual events usually include a fund raiser auction and this one was no different. One of the hostas on the block was a fine specimen of Mildred Seaver's Imperial Moth. What was better was that Mildred was there herself. What wasn't good was the thing raised a lot of money and my poverty became apparent somewhere around $50 with the bidding still going. Since that day I've probably added a couple hundred hostas to my collection but still don't have an Imperial Moth.

As I continued reading Hoe and Garden I was interested in a link named Whats That Bug.When you're out in the garden most every day, you unknowingly train yourself to recognize details that others might miss. New insects are always on my radar so a website that could help on the identification end of things was a welcomed find.

Years ago I found these metallic blue-black insects in the grass along the potato patch. They always seemed to be in 3's or 4's. I remember getting down in the grass one time to look them over and recall thinking that they would make a good model for one of those creatures in the Star Wars movies. The color is impressive but the antennas and body dimensions are really neat. I kept thinking some computer loving kid could use a name generator and come up with a 12 syllable name no one could pronounce but everyone would love. For me, I just wanted to know what this bug was and which of the flowers I admire that it ate. The website got me started.

The bugs in the top picture are the Shortwinged Blister Beetle. A common name is the oil beetle, no doubt because of the blue-black coloration. My search determined there are several blister beetles out there but I probably have this one right. If not, rest assured someone will remind me of my error.

Oil beetles are often hanging upside down and their size makes you want to right them but that's the wrong thing to do. As with anything in the wild, plant or animal, if you don't know it well, don't be messing with it until you do. Blister beetles get mad if they are touched and they excrete a caustic chemical from their leg joints. The outcome for the intruder is...you guessed it....blisters, and not very nice ones at that. Not everyone is affected adversely but is makes no sense to try first.

As I continued on with Whats That Bug I was pleased to find another insect that I had been searching for. I have no aspirations of being an entomologist, and ever since Mrs. M. made everyone wear a toga and eat weird food in Latin IV, I've never had an interest in going that route to figure out what I'm looking at. What I need is easy descriptions and clear pictures. The end.

My second "mystery solved" turned out to be a Pelicinus polyturator. That would be a Mrs. Pelicinus because the Mr.s are apparently in hiding and difficult to find in the northeast. This is an unusual wasp, glossy black coloration with nice antennae and a long tail, specially evolved for sticking into the ground and directly into June beetle grubs. To keep its energy levels up while hunting for grubs, it drinks flower nectar. This particular one I found on a hosta leaf en route for some blooms but the previous one I located was on a Trillium undulatum in late August.

Finding a website to assist in identifying insects is not difficult to do but this one worked well for me. These two insects will have more interest to me in the future and I'll be able to share what I have learned with other gardeners. Some may get blisters from raking too much without good gloves but blisters from the blister beetle just won't happen if we remember what we've learned.

From the mountain above frozen Peacham Pond, where cold ice fisherman are driving home, wind burned, chilled and minnowless but if luck prevailed, with some fresh fish for supper.

With shivering garden thoughts,

George Africa

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Blue Jays and Spent Astilbes

Sunday, January 14, 2007
A quiet afternoon here at Vermont Flower Farm. This morning's snow has tapered to an occasional ball of fluff floating awkwardly to the white carpet below. The weather of late has given everyone a challenge as several fronts have merged with each storm and the outcomes have not always been as predicted.

I've always enjoyed watching weather and if I had things to do again I might even study it. Lyndon State College is about 30 miles from here and it has a very reputable meteorology program which meshes well with its Televisions Studies program. Learn to "read" the skies and then get a job on TV someplace. Not bad! There's also the possibility of working at a place like St Johnsbury's Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium that houses and sponsors The Eye On The Sky, a weather forecasting station and educational center. These are great resources and we are very fortunate to have them so close.

As I watch the weather, I also watch the birds, my very own weather predictors. As the snow stopped, the birds began to appear in large numbers. First the Juncos began leaving the comfort of the large forsythia bushes and then the Chickadees followed. Both were quickly chased away by 9 noisy Blue Jays who succumbed to "flock intimidation" by a group of about 20 Evening Grosbeaks. On goes the images I get to watch every day, supporting the notion that birds and animals feed heavily before a storm.

The clean white snow also accentuates the leftover plant stalks and seed heads left from autumn. Some folks are possessed to clean their gardens each fall and to a degree I follow that philosophy. Close to the house, however, I leave the spent flower stalks to stand out against the winter snow and give remembrance to the beautiful summer, just passed.

One of the seed heads I like comes from the various astilbes we grow. I'm not sure how many we have now but those for sale are worth a look on vermontflowerfarm.com. The flowers bloom here from the end of June on into September with heights from 10 inches to almost 6 feet. Although there are four basic colors, white, red, pink and lavender, there are many shades of each to choose from.

Astilbes prefer shade and moist soil conditions although they can handle sun if the soil is well amended with organic material. Pumilum, one of the smallest astilbes, grows into a tight mat of late blooming, pink flowers.I've used this plant as a rock garden accent and despite the arid conditions which prevail, it always looks quite nice.

As you walk your gardens on the next need for some fresh air, pay note to the leftover foliage and seed heads. If our selection of astilbes doesn't quite give what you're looking for, give Leo Blanchette's a try. Leo and his family live in Carlisle, Massachusetts and they know a great deal about astilbes. Try Blanchette Gardens

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where winter trout season has begun and where George, the anemometer-less weatherman sits and predicts on a quiet, wind-free afternoon.

Gardening thoughts and wishes,

George Africa

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Stary Night, Star Shaped Thoughts

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A nasty day in these parts today, partly because we haven't been accoustomed to winter and partly because it was .....nasty. A week ago it was almost 60 degrees here and this morning the thermometer struggled at 6. Right now it's at 5.2 degrees and as the sky becomes more dotted with twinklers, the temperature slides down another notch. Welcome! Winter in Vermont.

I had to go to Burlington today and I had planned to slip down to Gardener's Supply on the Intervale and see if they had any more amaryllis or paperwhite bulbs. The crumpled cars from Bolton Flats on up to French Hill in Williston was enough to convince me to stick to real business. By late morning the highway crews had things cleaned up and there was enough sun to chase the snow and ice away.

Tonight is a good night to spend by the fire and thumb through garden catalogs with a pad and pencil close by. Years ago I made our first catalog for Vermont Flower Farm on the computer. I was really pleased with the MS Publisher production of two pieces of paper folded to make eight pages, stapled in the middle and on one edge, labeled, stamped and in the mail. As years advanced the catalog grew to 40 pages and was mailed to over 1500 gardeners. That was the threshold that encouraged me to take the step to http://vermontflowerfarm.com and there hasn't been any looking back. I read recently where 90% of catalogs never are even opened and for me that's a lot of trees and too much waste.

We receive few catalogs anymore as we have our suppliers narrowed down and we aren't interested in adding to that "do-not-even-open" category. Nonethless there is something special about a well written catalog that a computer just can't provide. If you are new to gardening and need a start, go to http://www.gardenlist.com which is an extensive list available by plant type. The owner of the list has been working on it since I first broke into computers and last I looked it was quite dependable.

One plant that has really interested me for several years now is epimedium. I can tell it's a plant my Mom would have enjoyed. Around Vermont I don't see it offered that much but once you get some growing, you'll want to add to your collection. I've mentioned before that the best place to begin learning about epimediums is with The Epimedium Page This is Darrell Probst's page and I doubt anyone has knowledge of this plant as he does.

Epimediums are forgiving plants which work well as a ground cover and can handle various soil types. They fare well planted in difficult situations such as under trees and they can handle some shade and acid soil as you can see in our lower hosta garden.

The flower shape, color and foliage have some variation and this gives the gardener something different to work with. Up here they are slower to cover big areas but June flowers and lesser September rebloom makes for an interesting addition.

I didn't check to see if epimedium sources are included in the garden list I cite, but when you do get to see some, you'll know why tonight's stary night and epimediums are on my mind.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond, where moose are shedding antlers and people are adding layers of clothing they didn't need until today.

Gardening thoughts,

George Africa

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Soggy Seeds, Flighty Birds

48.3 degrees this morning at Vermont Flower Farm. The fog has been with us since about 9 last night when the temperature dropped from another record setting high. Near sixties in early January is certainly not close to the below-zero temperatures we often see from late December into early January.

As I look out the office window, the rain has quieted things and save for raindrops, everything has stopped. The birds and animals of the fields and forests hunkered down last night, knowing that low pressure and bad weather were upon them. The platform bird feeder is actually tipping south, rearranged a couple nights ago by a doe deer looking to nibble the last of the cracked corn I leave for the blue jays. It matters not, as the rain has been so heavy all night that the corn, sunflower and millet seed is soggy now.

Many gardeners enjoy birds and incorporate feeders and bird friendly plants into their gardens. I've mentioned before that I leave the wild mullein to grow close to where I place the feeders because the small birds like those seeds. We also plant lots of rudbeckias and coneflowers to provide selections to our bird buffet. That way we have swaths of great color during the summer and from late fall through spring we can enjoy bird visitors.

Internet resources, TV and radio shows about birds are plentiful and make it easy to work into a really interesting hobby. At some point I'll write some thoughts about birds and gardens but in the interim try http://vt.audubon.org for the Vermont Audubon Society, http://www.nekaudubon.org for the Northeast Kingdom Audubon Society (8 Audubon chapters around Vermont), and http://www.vinsweb.org for the Vermont Institute of Natural Science. If you have elementary school age children, track down the VINS ELF Program. Environmental Learning for the Future is a program you and your kids will really enjoy.

Finally, one of my favorite local resources appears every Tuesday in the Caledonian Record newspaper. This is an old newspaper from St Johnsbury Vermont and it's still one of the best. Science and Nature is one section followed by Education. As example, this week's paper includes an article entitled Birding In A Winter Wonderland. It's a regular in the Bird Notes section that the NEK Audubon Society does. The same section also includes The Night Sky Observer sponsored by the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium. Between the two sections you can bring the heavens to the earth with a quick study specific to whats happening that week. The weather may be challenging this year but the world outside your back door places you just steps away from some interesting lessons.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where 5 Evening Grosbeaks just appeared at the feeder, satisfied with soggy seeds for breakfast.

Best gardening wishes;

George Africa