Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Morning Ride

Sunday evening, April 29, 2007

Quiet and 46 degrees here with rain still coming down. I'm going out in another hour as part of the amphibian monitoring program but in the meantime, a quick update on today at Vermont Flower Farm. I picked up what I needed at the store and Karl and I headed for Lanesboro Road for our trip back home. The actual road name is RR Bed East and you turn off Route 2 by Rainbow Sweets, drive past the Community Center and then up the hill taking either fork in the road. Either way you go over a tributary of the Winooski River and you get to see part of Vermont's longest, least know waterfalls.

As Karl and I rounded the corner and approached Bailey Pond on the left, my eyes scanned the water surface quickly as they always do. Karl was motionless as he knows the routine well. My eyes picked up two very large birds on the opposite shore, one pure white and the other a duller color not easily recognized from the distance. I assume these were swans and probably the same ones I saw last year about the same time. They are not domestic but I cannot prove what they are as the distance was too great for eyes even with my camera.

As I watched the big birds I let the truck roll ahead on its own. Suddenly Karl went nuts at the same time a yearling moose landed in the road in front of us. It had been in Bailey Pond but I was so intent on watching the birds I didn't see it. Even a yearling moose meets you eye-to-eye in a truck and it's apparently not easy for a dog like Karl to figure out where something so big came from.

The rain was pouring down and I had to put the wipers on, then off and shoot a quick photo through the water-covered windshield. If I didn't have Karl I could have gotten out for a couple good shots but there was no way that could happen. In time the moose left the old railroad bed and headed up the mountain for breakfast. Many would have liked to have seen this animal as close as I did.

If you enjoy wild flowers, this is an enjoyable ride in another month. Long about Memorial Day week, many flowers are in bloom or well budded. If you travel slowly you can find many good examples. If you have a field guide such as Kate Carter's Wildflowers of Vermont you'll have a nice trip and be challenged by what you see.

Today I had to get right home before the ice cream melted. There was planting to be done and that meant getting the little greenhouse set up. Things went very well and we got another 250 plants potted up. Today it was Hosta 'Abby' freshly dug and divided from the lower garden and then 11 different daylilies. We finished at 3 to do paperwork and have some quiet time. Tomorrow the tractor trailer arrives with pallets of potting mix, pots and other supplies. We'll be a different kind of busy tomorrow.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where the peepers orchestrate fine spring melodies as a barred owl, somewhere down in the maples, hoots calls for companionship.

Good garden wishes,

George Africa

Virtual Garden Tour:

Good morning from Vermont Flower Farm where the falling rain is getting stronger and Karl the wonder dog keeps scratching my leg. The rain, I cannot control, but the scratching means Karl knows it's Sunday and time for me to head for town for the Sunday paper and a half gallon of milk. Karl knows the routine and knows he will ride shotgun in the truck, barking at red squirrels and turkeys and generally irritating the silence I prefer on a Sunday morn. Today we'll try to make the first return route of the season along the Lanesboro Road--the railroad track bed of the old Montpelier to Wells River RR that was thrown up in the fifties.

I'm just getting back to writing so things are slow. Patience please. Yesterday we planted 375 gallon pots of perennials and got a lot of other work done. Gail and Winnie did a lot of the planting while I mixed most of the soil. Michelle was here too and she moved hundreds of pots, raked leaves and cleaned up some messes. It is so nice to have a person who knows what to do and does it right the first time.

I spent another couple hours raking the lower hosta garden which is a magnet for maple leaves in the fall. I had spent hours there in October mulching piles of leaves but the late fall winds backfilled my work with more leaves and I probably have a couple days left to get that in shape.

If you have a minute check back at and see what is going on at our new property. If you want to see the latest addition to our business website, check out and you will see some very nice pictures from last year's gardens. Maybe these two sites will buy me some time as I get back into the swing of writing about the gardens of Vermont Flower Farm and the gardens we are going to develop along Route 2 just below Marshfield Village.

In the meantime, have a nice Sunday and get gardening! Spirits improve when you're in the garden.

Rainy day gardening wishes,

George Africa

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Rising temps, rising flowers

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Up to 45 degrees here on the hill, the light drizzle has stopped and a bit of sunlight is encouraging me to write faster and get outside. I really wanted breakfast to serve as a jump start today but Gail suggested a piece of freshly frosted carrot cake instead. She just finished making a beauty for the planting crew that will be here shortly.

Gail makes one of the best carrot cakes you'll ever eat--to me "the" best. If you want the recipe, let me know and I'll send you a copy. I like moist cakes with good flavor and this one fits the bill. But for this morning I was thinking about some eggs and toast and juice. I've been informed that I'm on my own, but that's not uncommon around here this time of year. Already Alex and I have found ourselves looking at each other at 9 PM asking "Did we have supper yet?"

Apologies from The Vermont Gardener for taking a leave of absence from this blog without having the courtesy to advise regular viewers we'd gone into hiding. It wasn't really like that, we were just plain busy. There's legislation in Montpelier related to autism and that's a subject that's dear to us. That meant a constant daily/nightly email campaign. Monday the House will get the bill out of the House Education Committee and we're hopeful on that. Two weeks ago we had Gail's mother's 90th b-day party and in between we have raked tons of leaves, planted a buckets of lily bulbs, put the cover on the greenhouse, and split two cords of wood for next winter. We've also compared aches and pains which prevail when out-of-shape +50 year olds come out of hibernation and find out how far it is to the ground all over again.

The forsythia is finally coming into bloom and the pulmonarias are already putting out flowers for the first hummingbirds to savor. If those tiny birds got a good travel agent this spring, they should be arriving here on time the end of next week, beginning of the following week. They are like clockwork in their arrival here unless there is a big storm someplace that delays them just like the big jets that can't get out for a few hours or a few days.

Gail's favorite, the hepaticas, began to bloom earlier this week and as always with her first look, shel begs me to plant her some more. This is one of those childhood loves that never fades. I agree they are a very nice wild flower and they help jump start our gardening enthusiasm for dirty hands and happy spirits.

I have raked off a third of the lower hosta garden pictured above. This is the garden built inside an old barn foundation. It's coming along nicely and with the rain this weekend, the first hostas will begin to grow. Montana aureomarginata is usually the first or second to break ground. It does this just in time to get nailed by a hard frost or two but it always comes back in all its glory. The lancifolias break through early and hold tight as they can handle temperature change better.

The hellebores are in bloom and for once the foliage looks great but the first flowers look a little weak. That will all change in a week or so. If you don't have any of these, stop by and take a look. We don't have any for sale this year but will next year when we move.

The first daffodils are in bloom over the bank here by my office. The tulips are up about 2 inches and growing fast. I raked off the hosta garden by the little frog pond and already the blue scilla are up two inches so bloom should be this week too. The list goes on and on.

If you're out and about, Peacham Pond Road is muddy in a couple places. Our place looks like a bomb hit as there are piles of tires stacked here and there and hundreds and hundreds of feet of rolled up plastic and folder insulating cloth. Place looks like a big recycling center but this is how it should look as we uncover the gardens and prepare for another season of growing good plants.

As I have said for many years, we grow hardy plants for hardy Vermonters and their friends. Be a gardening friend and keep us in mind for a visit this season. In the meantime, show compassion for my absence from this blog and give us a question or two to help your gardens grow better. We don't have all the answers but we know a lot of people who do.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where a tom turkey is calling his female friends and looking for a fight with competing males, while two docile mourning doves coo happy thoughts and act out plans for a new family.

Gardening wishes,

George Africa

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Desirous of Spring

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Already 7 PM and the snow continues to fall heavily, drifted first left, then right by shifting winds that care not where the flakes fall. The seedheads of the various rudbeckias have pretty much been pecked clean by the goldfinches but tonight they are like mini towers with 2" of snow stacked like a tube on top of each head. The still-firm stalks hold strong and the snow waves back and forth in the wind. Nature's super glue at work!

No one can deny the beauty outside with today's snow but you'll be hard pressed to find words of encouragement from anyone around here. It's an even 32 degrees now and has been for an hour. Before that it was 34 degrees which made the sticky snow cling tightly to every tree and shrub. There it remains. The blackberry bushes look impressive but already the birches are weeping under the heavy weight and these trees never seem to rebound from wet snows. All is not as beautiful as first glace suggests.

Today we had a get-together to celebrate Gail's mother's 90th birthday. It was a low key event with family members from Massachusetts and South Burlington. Another couple from Johnson caught one of those spring viruses that are going around and they had to cancel. I was sorry as I knew they would come early and if they had come, Jan and Al would have enjoyed a sight at the bird feeder at about 11 AM.

I was shuffling things around tryng to get the seating set up and I caught a flash out of the corner of my eye. It came from the birdfeeder outside my office window. Earlier I had chased away a flock of grackles and two ravens which were trying to steal some small pieces of suet yesterdays blue jay visitors had broken off the bigger pieces I set out Friday.

As I stopped and turned back to look at the feeder, I peregrine falcon burst from under the feeder, chickadee in its talons, and it fanned its tailfeathers and headed aloft with tremendous power and speed. These are beautiful birds and they are here because of a successful restoration program several years ago. Their favorite food is pigeons and their favorite residence has become cities, not pigeonless, houseless forestland like Groton State Forest. I do wish they would rewrite their menu to include a few grackles but they have no preference for those birds. Maybe it's the grackle's eyes and their finicky, easy-to-startle attitude.

Usually I am out raking leaves by now, or putting a new cover on the greenhouse we use to plant inside. In typical years the hellebores in the lower shade garden are forming buds and although the left-over leaves from last fall are wrinkled and brown, the promise of fine colored flowers and new leaf growth is encouraging.

Some years the first crocus would have come and gone by now but this year even by the house, the ground temperature never got warm enough to jump start the bulbs higher than half an inch out of the ground.

Gail just looked over my shoulder and commented on the hellebore pictures. She likes them too and thinks Barry Glick at Sunshine Farm and Gardens is the best US grower. I concur. I also wonder if he has snow cover today like we do. We're at 1530 feet and as I recall he's at about 4200 feet in West Virginia. Chances are it's warmer than here but snow may be in his vision too.

Time to move along as I need to get get organized for tomorrow morning. I plan to be in the truck by 4 AM to get things plowed out and cleaned up so I can get to work. If it keeps snowing like this, it could be that the "get to work" part won't be possible. We'll see.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where Karl the wonder dog is asking to go out, just as snow slides slowly off the standing seam roof with a "thud-thud-thud" noise as it hits the piles of snow now far above the bottom of the window sills.

Cold gardening wishes,

George Africa

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Happy Easter

Sunday, April 8, 2007

21.3 degrees on the mountain. Just back in with Karl the wonder dog. His sniffer was in overdrive this morning as a red squirrel had just dug out a cache of seeds from the wall by the driveway. Karl is difficult to coax back into the house when he has a likable scent, even on Easter morning.

The sky is open and the moon is lingering on the horizon. There is an obvious cloud above Peacham Pond, probably caused by the water that has opened up parts of the ice. The water enters from a couple larger sources like Sucker Brook and the overflow from the white spring but there are a couple other lesser sources that help to weaken the ice and change the surrounding temperature. I won't be surprised if we receive a flurry of sugar snow this morning as the air just "feels" like snow will be part of the morning.

Today is Easter and for the second year in a row we don't have an Easter lily in the house. The Amazon lily, Eucharis amazonica, pictured above, can be a substitute. Easter lilies as we know them are Lilium longiflorums although the lily mentioned in the Bible was really the Madonna lily or Lilium candidum. The flower industry needed a big showy lily with trumpet flowers and big buds and their work is obvious by the millions.

Growing lilies for Easter is a moving target and quite a challenge. When you see one in the box stores marked $6, respect what the grower has gone through. Easter falls on different dates and Easter lilies must be grown in greenhouses. In a state such as Vermont, winter climates are moving targets too. There are temperature and light changes and both of these are critical to bulb production. Growers have resorted to chemicals to regulate height and speed of growth. At the end of a winter like this one where February and March had many nights close to or below zero, the production costs rocketed just to keep the bulbs growing. A producer's goal is to have just a couple buds opening when the plants hit the market.

This year the lilies I looked at had spindly stems and were blooming long before they should have. Florists usually have the best selection which has received more attention, hence the reason why you traditionally pay a little more. It's worth a little more to have a healthy, balanced plant that will be in bloom for 2-3 weeks. At least I think so.

Just in the time I am sitting here, the sugar snow has started. There are 11 blue jays and a pair of doves competing for their Easter breakfast. A lone grackle without an invitation keeps appearing from nowhere.

Whatever your celebration, whatever you have planned for today, enjoy yourself.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the fire in the wood stove feels good to Karl and to us too!

George Africa

Friday, April 06, 2007

Textures, Shapes and Colors

Friday, April 6, 2007

An even 25 degrees here on the hill as snowflakes float around and the recent wetness begins to firm hard and crunchy under foot. Winter has pushed Spring back out of the way...actually more of a hard shove. The weather report looks more like late February than early April. Our road is a mess as even the snow plow driver put off coming down as long as he could because the ruts were deep and uneven. Now he has left and the ruts are blazed off on the top but as deep as ever. He was mad enough to have to put the plows back on the trucks but madder still to know how much abuse he and the trucks would take to keep impatient drivers happy. The road travelers are his customers but he clearly didn't read that book on customer relationships. Spring will come again but not before as much as another foot of snow arrives over the next week.

Today was one of those days that shouldn't have been. Things went from poor to just plain terrible and I was asked twice why my face was so red. If you know me, you understand. Today was the day everyone wanted to be right and I held in a lot of comments that should only have been thought. Turning off Route 232 onto our road was a relief as I knew I was home for the weekend and there would be little to bother me. As I unloaded groceries, I noticed the trees over the bank looked especially nice and I wanted a picture.

Sometimes gardeners find it difficult to understand how to mix colors, shapes and textures to their advantage as they create a standout garden. Years ago a Canadian photographer who only shot black and white film taught me how to deal at a very basic level where these attributes exist in nature. Color is easy but our eye does not necessarily pick up texture and plant form.

Take the picture of the snow covered trees for example. If you click to enlarge, you'll be able to see the variety of trees involved and the way the different textures combine nicely. The tall tamarack on the left is skirted by some fir balsams and then there's an apple mid-picture and a maple. Each lends a different look. Although these are trees, not flowers, the concept is the same.

Often if you take a flower you don't understand and use about any of the photo manipulation software products (I use IrfanView) you can use the feature that changes a picture to appear as a negative. In that format you are viewing blacks and whites and greys and the textures become apparent. Use one plant's stronger points to enhance another plants hidden virtues. Lilium for example, don't have the greatest looking stems but if they are planted among astilbes or even monarda you maintain the stand-straight feature with more accent on the blooms which then stand out and grab more attention.

Spring is not going to be quick this year so there's still time to do some planning. Every year people come by and explain they just can't design and they want to know who they can hire. I always try to convince people that they don't need a designer to step into the world of good gardening. They need to remember that any color can work its way into a garden .....and if it's not pleasing, it can be moved.

With that said, I'm retreating to the cellar to work on some wooden tool handles. Still enough time to sand off rough spots, apply a new coat of polyurethane, and sharpen up the points. You need sharp tools to move your mistakes. And yes, I have made some. Ask Gail!

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where the temperature continues to drop and the gardens I think of and mention are covered under one to three feet of snow.

Almost spring wishes,

George Africa

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Bird Names, Daylily Names

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

30.2 degrees here on the hill and the snow flakes have changed from the size of half dollars to a fine mist of snow moving south east parallel to the earth. Karl the wonder dog is upset with an unknown contractor who didn't please me all that much by turning his trailer complete with Traxcavator around in our drive. He was just leaving when I got up to watch the rear wheels coming off the front astilbe garden which now looks like a pair of drainage ditches. It is probably good I didn't get to this sight sooner as I have an unpleasant and vociferous way of reacting when our property has been stepped on.

The weatherman suggests a storm is coming and Gail reminds me that I might be plowing in the morning. I'm not happy about that thought either as plowing snow in the spring is a difficult job and you often end up plowing things you shouldn't. We have to get going early tomorrow to Burlington so any detraction to early morning responsibilities is not well thought of. Heavy snows in April are not uncommon in Vermont but as you get older, they are much less welcomed.

I felt badly about all the birds coming to the feeder only to find it covered with three inches of snow. The seed bucket was empty so I left the computer for a minute to go downstairs and get a refill. Every time I open the galvanized trash cans that serve as seed reservoirs, I scold myself for leaving brand new containers outside last fall before the bears went into hibernation. The two cans in the cellar are shiny, new and clean but they are also well dented and neither covers fits right. The cans were empty when the bears struck but they didn't know it at first. I guess they thought the assortment of bungie cords I tied the cans together with represented food inside. Bears make good can crushers and men with poor memories give them new targets each fall.

On an afternoon like this, it's difficult for me to understand geography and meteorology. Gail received an Internet order yesterday from Kansas for some of the Munson dayliles. It is often clear that I'm not the only one with poor geography skills as people often ask what day we can ship and Gail tells them it's tough to tell with several feet of snow on the ground. If you live in another part of our country you might not understand that your warm day might be different 12-1500 miles away. It was 80 degrees in that part of Kansas but only 48 here with a wind that made things feel like 30. I'll be the iris and peonies were up as the customer said the daylilies were almost a foot tall.

As I look out the office window and down onto one of the daylily nurseries, I am reminded how much I like the daylilies named after birds. Big Bird, Cedar Waxwing, Starling, Sceech Owl, Ruby Throat, Bald Eagle, Scarlet Tanager, Nile Crane, Wood Duck. Not the same hybirdizers but some fine plants with some nice names. No Pileated Woodpecker, no Yellow Sapsucker here but some real nice daylilies. Maybe some day I should round up one of each and plant them in a special garden with a variety of bird houses or bird feeders. Right now I'll just think about them. The smell of the pot roast cooking is enough for me to keep my eyes on the monitor. I have to get going here.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where light snows fall from grey skies and the threat of more snow encourages workers to head right home tonight.

Gardening wishes;

George Africa

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Pruner, Gloves and Socks Mystery

Monday, April 2, 2007

32.7 degrees here on the hill. I just came in from walking Karl the wonder dog. He is not too wonderful tonight because he doesn't care for cold, damp nights with a mix of big snowflakes and sleet pellets. Neither do I. Nights like this one remind me of when he was a pup and I volunteered for the last walk at about 10:30 one night. Although you are taught to always be in control of your dog, the last toe stumbling walk of the night is not a time to reflect on what you have been taught. I had given him too much lead after plowing through six pots I had pulled for an order. Out of nowhere I felt wind swooshing over my head just when Karl, the wonder dog, jumped into a nearby lilac tree for protection. He barely made it. It was some kind of owl, raptor, or pterodactyl-like winged creature with small dog on it's menu and me in its way. I never got a look at it in the darkness of that night but I have told many people since then to "hold tight at night". Owl or raptor doesn't do as much for the memory as pterodactyl, especially if you ever saw one in a science fiction movie.

Gail was reading an article yesterday about pruning and it reminded me that I wanted to write something about taking care of tools and even buying good tools. Time is getting short here and we already have too many irons in the fire with the bathroom renovation project finishing up just in time to cover the little greenhouse and begin planting. When you buy new tools, expensive isn't necessarily "best" but it's "better". Hand pruners is a good example. I have a bucket full of hand pruners that won't cut butter but probably cost $8-$9-$10-$12 a piece. I bought them because at the time I needed a new pair and I kept telling myself to "buy better" and they'll last longer. Sometime I'll throw them on a canvas and let you see what I mean. Even a picture will convince you never to buy anything but quality.

The pruners pictured laying on the magizine above aren't even available now but if they were I would buy a box full. They were made by the Scotts Company somewhere between 25 and 45 years ago. They still take a file well and sharpen up with a few strokes going each way. The spring mechanism is still strong and the bakelite handles make them light weight and easy to hold onto with wet hands.

Certain hand tools are like socks and gloves to me. Friday we needed work gloves to stack a couple cords of wood I had split. Gail pulled out the bag of gloves we always have clean and by the back door for workers and visitors. She found a couple-three pairs but also found 11 left handed gloves. How could we lose 11 right handed gloves? Gloves are like socks around here. Just a mystery will a smattering of laziness I guess. Our house may be no different than yours except that we start out with more and still end up with half. Gardening has strange math which I do not understand. If you can help me out, drop me a line. If not, just remember to buy well and take care of your tools and other possessions.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where Karl snores by the woodstove while sleet hits the office windows.

Gardening wishes.

George Africa