Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Snow Buntings and Lily Thoughts

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Another beautiful day in Vermont with bright sun, light wind, and temperatures into the 30s for a change. Now at about 9:30 PM the temperature is dropping and 10.3 dgerees seems a long way from the warmth of mid afternoon. I was up early and on the road towards southern Vermont even before the day sorted out what it would present. As I headed down Route 232, the clouds were stacking high and I wondered if the weather folks had erred. By the time I crested the hill on Interstate 91 where you can look southwest and see Lake Fairlee, it was apparent I was in a new world of sunshine.

On both ends of my trip today I saw flocks of snow buntings along and in the road. Oddly, the weather lady on Channel 3 News featured them tonight too so I guess I wasn't the only one to notice them lately. They are flighty little arctic loving birds that seem to scare easily and as a flock they rise and return to the ground endlessly. By the interstate they seemed to be gathering weed seeds but I can't be sure. In two places close to home this afternoon I saw wild turkeys eating burdock seeds. They can't eat enough of those in my book.

Although the land remains endless in its whiteness right now, I thought of lilies again as I drove south and then north. Lilies have been a flower I have grown since the early 80s. As I drive down Route 5 from Wells River towards White River in the summer, I can see houses with plantings of lilies which I know came from Vermont Flower Farm. In recent years lilies are more readily available in the box stores and of course people access more garden catalogs and magazines now and buy from them. The thing is that Gail and I bought so many different lilies over the years that we were always ahead of the curve and had varieties you just didn't find.

With the white landscape, the colors stick out clearly in my memory but there's always a little worry attached, not knowing how the weather has already influenced the bulbs and how many critters have found them to be the living sugar candy that causes me to come up short on favorites very year. Voles have apparently attended a lily school and have always aced the math finals because they are one animal that only goes for the expensive bulbs. Give them a hundred Asiatic lilies and they'll go for that one Smokey Mountain that was just looking really good.

If you have lily thoughts like I have lately, take a look at the North American Lily Society site or the Pacific Northwest Lily Society site. These are excellent places of learn a great deal about lilies and can help track down sources. The PNWLS site has a picture of the Conca d'Or I mentioned recently. When you see it, you just might understand why Gail cut one out of the front garden so she didn't have to explain why it wasn't for sale.

Time is moving by tonight like a snow bunting heading back to Canada. I have to get going too.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where no one hears the temperature drop.

George Africa

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Lilies and Bird Visitors

Saturday, February 24, 2007

3 degrees above zero this morning with a wind that penetrates two layers of Polar Fleece as if it wasn't there. Some light snow has begun to fall, an apparent sign to the birds to get started on their breakfast buffet a little early today. I bought some more suet on Wednesday but then couldn't find any more onion bags. I save them all year for the purpose of hanging up the suet. The one chunk I placed on the platform feeder a week back is about pecked through and needs replacing as this cold weather continues.

Deep snows change the availability of certain foods and you tend to see birds that aren't often present. The Burlington Free Press had an article yesterday about the tufted titmouse. I have been on the lookout for these birds as they showed up last year about now. They are kind of neat little birds, a tad bigger than a chickadee. I'm also waiting for snowy owls. I haven't seen one here in a number of years but with the heavy snows up north, there's an improved chance they may be down soon.

I keep telling myself to put on the snowshoes and make a nice trail along the woodline of the back fields so I can travel at night. After burying myself to the waist the other day and freeing myself just before a ton of snow came off the roof, I have been reluctant to put myself in a similar situation. A couple years back I was snowshoeing through some balsams above Peacham Pond. I hadn't been there before and didn't know I was walking on top of 6-8-10 foot balsams covered with snow. When I broke through I was in a very precarious position and have to say I had an uncomfortable fear before I got out of that mess. Ski poles lend good support in deep snow but you still have to pay attention to where you are.

Yesterday The Lily Garden catalog arrived in the mailbox. I just can't say enough about the owners, Judith Freeman and her daughter, Catherine van der Salm. Their catalog originates from Vancouver, Washington over the Oregon border a bit from Portland and the growing fields are in adjacent Brush Prairie, WA. I had a chance to visit them last June with the Pacific Northwest Lily Society and the visit is well set in my memory. That part is good because my son Adam managed to move all the pictures I took into space somewhere near Neptune or dwarf planet Pluto, never to be seen again.

There are a number of lily growers out there but The Lily Garden is a good place to stick with. If you want mass plantings of solid colors, there are many places to buy in quantity and meet your goal. For smaller groups of newly released or just plain special lilies, think about TLG. The next three lily pictures are Alchemy, Caravan and Golden Stargazer. They represent the diversity that's out there right now. One that I absolutely love is named Conca d'Or. I can't find the picture right now but if you want a really special lily, purchase this one. The flowers are gigantic lemon yellow with a creamy white edge and at the end of the season you have to find someone with a chainsaw to cut the thing down. Ours is about 4.5 feet tall and a couple years back Gail actually cut the stem off and brought it in the house because it was easier than telling every single customer we didn't have any for sale.

If you're shopping for lilies, a few more names to remember are Arabesque, Sarabande, Leslie Woodriff, Luminaries, Scheherazade, Pizzazz, and Silk Road. Over the past twenty years we have grown thousands upon thousands of lilies here at Vermont Flower Farm amounting to hundreds of names. I only wish I had taken pictures of every one over the years but there's only so much time in the day. And on that note, I have to get back to one more order--this time hostas and peonies from Wisconsin.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where six mourning doves came from who knows where to compete with the grosbeaks for corn and small seeds kicked off the feeders by the mess-making blue jays

Your gardening friend,

George Africa

Saturday, February 17, 2007

A Time For Learning

Saturday, February 17, 2007

18 degrees here on the mountain. The wind is blowing in big gusts and the light snow seems to be flowing parallel to the earth instead of falling from the skies. There's a gray-white cloud above Peacham Pond and as I look down that way I can see the sun's rays slowing rising, orange and obvious. I just came in with Karl the wonder dog and he was not impressed with the thermometer reading which was apparently inaccurate in dog degrees. I'm inclined to agree that the wind is not kind some days as it affects temperature.

The platform feeder is absent of birds right now which seemed strange until I noticed that the wood smoke from the stove is being pushed down from the chimney and almost surrounds the feeder at times in a blue haze. There's lots of controversy about fuels and pollutants and in Vermont this is approaching the issue of outdoor furnaces. These are multi-fuel burning furnaces which are located away from buildings and stoked with large logs once every one to four days depending on their size. They hitch into your domestic heating system and have circulators to move the water through the furnace and back into your home, garage, barn, greenhouse or other outbuildings. Each one has a metal chimney and that's where the rub apparently comes. They reduce volumes of fuel and emit clouds of smoke. In the realm of fuel choices, the jury is still out but I think there is merit to be considered.

A neighbor high on the hill installed one last year and I thought nothing of it until I started smelling burnt household trash. This sends me into craziness because of the multitude of serious pollutants involved but there is no enforcement on this. I could be wrong and the problem could have issued forth from one of the other three houses up that way but the point of pollution remains. When you have an interest in the environment and an ongoing commitment to find out where autism comes from, these little mysteries are as critical and the larger ones media-blasted to us every day.

I've added a feature to both this blog and Vermont Gardens that I think will be interesting to some readers. I've added a little Yahoo Flickr badge on the right side of the page just below my profile. The badge has pictures I've taken over the years here at Vermont Flower Farm. Many of the pictures appear on our Vermont Flower Farm website as Virtual Tours but some are pictures not publicized before. On a rotating basis a picture enlarges but you can click any place on the Flickr badge to get to the site that houses the picture inventory. It's an easy learning curve to negotiate and I think you will enjoy it. Comments are always welcome.

The time seemed right to add more pictures to The Vermont Gardener because late winter and early spring is when gardeners tire of white ground and the sounds of snow plows and fuel trucks. This is a time for learning when trips to the library or bookstore find us returning with stacks of new ideas and ways to spend a couple bucks. There is a perpetual question involved with this annual quest for learning which has lots of answers, none of which are right or wrong.

"Why do people garden?" is a common question and a good one for introspection. Perhaps some time soon I'll offer some personal thoughts but in the meantime blogs, magazines, newspapers and educational radio and television shows offer opinions to match against your thoughts. On a wintery day with blowing snow, look out the window for a minute, let your eyes and mind cruise your garden spaces, and ask yourself "Why do I garden?" If you reach a conclusion, add a comment for us. I'm sure others will welcome your thoughts and your bravery!!

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where blue jays and grosbeaks have landed at the feeder and the smell of Gail's apple pancakes and maple syrup has me winding up this "good morning" wish.

George Africa

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Snow on the roof, record in the books

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Vermont Flower Farm sign is barely visible now but in our hearts, our gardens are always open. One degree below zero tonight but the wind speed brings the temperature to 10 below. It takes only seconds outside with Karl the wonder dog to know that this is not the night to do much sniffing around. This storm's record has been well publicized and the cold wil not leave.

I plowed three times yesterday and got out at 4:30 this morning to do everything again before heading out to work. From the last time I plowed last night until this morning, another foot dropped. The real trouble was the wind which drifted snow five feet high in places along the drive that I had in pretty good shape before going to bed. Tonight after work I got out the snow rake to approach the roof but the wind and blowing snow drove me back inside after less than half an hour. There is 4 feet of snow on the roof and although it's a standing seam metal roof, it's been cold for over a month and the snow has been holding on since a mid-January rain storm. My work is cut out for me over the next couple days. Once I pull the snow off the roof I have to dig out the windows and doors again. Such is winter.

In fall I leave many of the plant stalks standing tall in wait for a blanket of white to accentuate their unseen beauty and interest. The new snow has covered everything now and only a few rudbeckias stand above the drifts on the bank outside my office window. In their absence I try to visualize the beauty of waves of red, purple and maroon bee balm, busy with honey and bumble bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

I short while back I included a picture of a very tall clump of Empress Orienpet lilies surrounded by monarda. The picture drew a comment on the interest of the combination. Monarda is seen as a rough plant by many but I rate it as a people pleaser because visitors are regularly entertained by the insects and birds which frequent it. It can get out of hand, a trait from it's mint-like origins but its shallow roots make eradication or relocation as easy as bending over and selectively pulling out some extras here and there.

The so-called roughness can easily be tempered by bordering it front and back with larger and taller flowers. Much by accident we have used lilies and daylilies and are pleased with the outcome. The dark reds and maroons of Asiatic lilies such as Black Jack or America work well with the monarda reds and even though the monarda is a continuous flow of color, the size and smoothness of the lily petals catches your eye.

Several years back, lilies known as LA Hybrids were released. These are crosses between the longiflorums of Easter lily fame and Asiatic lilies, the fragrance-free, dependable, inexpensive, quick-to-multiply lily now common in many gardens. The LAs have large flowers, thicker petals, a mild fragrance of sorts, if any fragrance at all. They are strong lilies which can hold up against late July-early August thunderstorms and they work well as standouts within the bee balm.

And as a finishing touch, you can add some Lilium superbum standing in the back and swaying with the wind. These are 7-8-9 foot tall lilies over time and they make great perches for hummingbirds tired from flight and in need of a breather.

The daylily world has some terrific varieties now and I am developing an interest in tall varieties 36" and over. The liliums I have suggested are just that, suggestions to get you thinking about color, height and texture. Daylilies can replace the bulb lilies or other pernenials for that matter. The result will be a mass of color which will offer enjoyment for a long time. On a night like tonight when it's bitter cold and very white outside, I can close my eyes and see the bee balms,see the colors. Think about your gardens....see the colors????

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where the wind pounds the house but can't come in and where this gardener-plowman-snow shoveler-roof cleaner thinks it's time for bed. But not before that last piece of cherry pie and a glass of milk--a homemade Valentines Day gift from my Valentine, Gail.

With garden thoughts in winter,

George Africa

Sunday, February 11, 2007

New England Grows

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A beautiful morning here at Vermont Flower Farm with bright sun, no wind and minus three degrees. It appears warmer than it is but it should get into the low twenties this afternoon and allow Alex and I to get out and check a nesting box we made last year for owls. We built it with barred owls in mind but probably sited it incorrectly as our recent reading suggests they like to nest close to water. How "close is close" we do not know.

This past week I found time to attend New England Grows in Boston. This is a three day garden trade show held at the Boston Exhibition and Conference Center. I always remember the center as Bayside since our very first visit to the New England Spring Flower Show back about 1990. It's a good sized convention center and there was room left over in spite of over 700 exhibitors present at this show.

Everyone has a strategy at big shows but I like to walk the entire show first and then go back and speak with people on my list. I always have a mental list of questions that need answers, new products I want to see and companies which sell products we might carry here or at our new location. Just getting around 700 exhibits takes a while and it's good to be able to sit down once in a while and take a break.

High on my list was a boring topic for many but an important one to Gail and me. We are on the look out for organic insect and fungus controls because of our intense interest in the causes of autism and our desire to avoid any possible chemical contamination of the earth and our water supply. For over twenty years we have grown some of the nicest lilium in New England and at one time probably had the largest retail selection available for sale. In recent years we have seen the lily leaf beetle travel closer and closer to us and last year, although in very small numbers, we saw it here at the farm. It probably sounds funny that autism and lily beetles made organics number one on my list but these are big issues to us.

Although there were some suppliers of organics, it was clear that the money is in selling hardscape and nursery stock. There were several stone companies and landscape companies which had thoughtfully included stone in their garden and patio displays. I'm personally having a little trouble adjusting to the thought of sinking $100K into an outside kitchen, well planted with surrounding gardens and dotted with stainless steel appliances. That's probably because when my day in the gardens is over I need a chair by the barbeque to get supper cooked and on the table. Entertaining is when the garden crew is too tired to rush home after work and they volunteer to cook and wash dishes.

Conifers and shrubs were prevalent with well known suppliers even traveling from the west coast to exhibit. Conifers take some care in the landscape but I am convinced they help sell a home if you're moving on and sure make it look better in the interim.

I was looking for some good quality hand tools and finally found some from Sweden. They are costly but well built with wooden handles. I tried to find out where the wood came from hoping the sales rep would know but he didn't. They were the only tools which I found which didn't come know, CH--A.

I was also looking for some more information on deer fencing. If you check out our Vermont Flower Farm website, you'll find a section named Deer Control. It gives some background on the deer situation and various methods of control. The step-by-step process ends with tall fence surrounding your gardens. (Tall as in 7.5 feet or higher!!)

Finding the fence has been easy and a more up to date search than I describe in the article can probably find less expensive sources for the extruded plastic fence which is very good. The difficulty I have experienced is finding fence posts that finish off with 9 feet of post out of the ground and posts which don't send you to your mortgage officer to refinance the house. I discussed the situation with three companies at the show and am awaiting quotes. I'll discuss the results in the future.

The show had many great growers with fabulous displays of plants as yet untested here at our place. I have a stack of notes on things to try. Container manufacturers reinforced my thought that everyone needs containers either to compensate for small yard space or to accentuate exisitng gardens. Containers prevailed almost to Volkswagen sizes and in every composition and color you can think of.

With a couple months of winter left before the first grass peaks through here in Marshfield, there's plenty of time to think through our gardens and how to enhance or rework them. Attending a show stimulates new thoughts and and makes us review what we have ordered for spring delivery. If you have any ideas you want to toss around about things you might want to try at your place, give us a call or drop us a note. We're always happy to share thoughts!!

From the mountan above Peacham Pond where 4 degrees below zero and a howling wind serve notice of the weather lady telling us that a big storm is in the making.

Winter wishes,

George Africa

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Flower Show Delights

Saturday, February 3, 2007

A cold start this morning but nothing like the next front which is on its way.Yesterday was the exception and the first night that wasn't below zero in 8 or 9 days. I came home from work knowing that I had to take advantage of the temporary warmth and clean the chimney. Ground Hog Day signals we're halfway through winter and serves as a reminder to get up on the roof and run the brushes up and down. This winter's mild temperatures have kept volunteer fire departments busy with chimney fires and some lost homes and buildings. Like it or not, if you're going to burn wood, someone has to keep the chimney clean.

I pulled out the 28 foot ladder and grabbed the ropes. Up I went to the roof's edge to toss the ropes over the house to the other side. I have this procedure which is probably crazy to look at but it keeps me safe. I tie the rope to a birch tree on the other side and then to the ladder so I have a rope guide for going up and down the roof with tools and brushes.

The rope part was easy but with all the cold, the snow never came off the standing seam roof. I grabbed the snow rake and pulled one roof section to the top but the snow wouldn't come clean. It seems that no matter how old people are, they still have too many "Why nots?" that have been left untried. I looked at the rope and the roof and said "Why not?" In just two steps off the ladder rung I found myself hanging by one arm and half a leg. It happened too quickly for expletives as I molded myself to the ladder and got both feet firmed back on a rung. "No climbing the roof today," I thought.

Two hours latter the chimney was clean, from the cellar up this time. Gail helped do the stove while I took the two sections of stove pipe outside to wire brush clean. The shop vac hummed and things were cleaned up for the balance of the season. Chimney sweeps are available for this chore but until I can't do the work, I'm the boss on this cleaning crew. Or is it Gail??

With the advent of Ground Hog Day come flower shows, designed to jump start a gardener's emotions and facilitate the Federal Reserve's next interest rate decision. There's no doubt about it, flower shows, especially those which occur when it's still very cold outside, encourage people to begin planning for spring work and summer gardens. That translates to money spent. As example, two days ago when the daytime temp was having an effort of a time crawling above zero degrees, we received an on-line order for hostas. It was the second order in two days, thank you very much, but the earliest we'll be able to find the hostas in the garden is April. Just the same it shows that garden catalogs, flower shows and too much cold weather all suggest to people to get going.

The pictures I'm including today are from the 2004 Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle. It's something like 8 acres in size and is one of the big ones. It's a nice show to go to if live out that way as the landscaping companies which display do a great job with life size home facades and accompanying hardscape and plantings. This year the show runs from February 14th through the 18th.

In the northeast, the Connecticut Flower and Garden Show is February 22-25 in Hartford, in Maine there's the Bangor Garden Show March 23-25 and the PortlandFlower Show March 7-11. In Masschusetts there's the Central Masschusetts Flower Show in Worcester, March 2-4 and the New England Flower Show in Boston March 17-25. New Hampshire offers the Seacoast Home, Garden and Flower Show March 30-April 1 in Durham, and New York has shows in Syracuse, Henrietta, Troy, Hamburg, and Hempstead. Pennsylvania offers the oldest show in the US at the Philadelphia Convention Center from March 4-11 and Rhode Island has its show February 22-25. If you're close to any of these shows or can plan a trip to one or more, you'll be impressed with the enthusiasm and sorry you didn't visit a show sooner.

Here in Vermont the Vermont Association of Professional Horticulturists is gearing up for its show March 9-11 at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction. This year's theme is A Walk On the Wild Side. It will emphasize woodland , meadow and wetland gardens and will host Bill Cullina of the New England Wild Flower Society as a guest speaker. Try

If you have a flower show in your area, post me a note so others know what's going on and where. It takes great financial and personal expense to pull off a flower show each year and the best reward for those doing the work is to see good crowds with lots of questions. Try to be part of the gardening crowd!!

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where the sun shines brightly as the wind creates circular whirlwinds of powder show and the spireas along the bank hold tightly to their snow caps.

Gardening thoughts and wishes;

George Africa