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

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Autumn Delights

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Good morning from Marshfield, Vermont where the geese fly high overhead today on clear skies after two days of rain. It's 43 degrees and the sun is halfway up the valley, lending promise of a fine day.

Karl the wonder dog and I have just returned from a morning walk. He's not that pleased with me as he wanted to stay in the lower hosta garden and smell the signs of last night's deer convention. Few of the +450 hostas remain untouched and most show deer nibbling that took them from glorious specimens to four inch, leafless scapes.

Some people worry about what to do with hosta plants in the fall. They want to cut them down but fear that will possibly spread unseen hosta virus. The deer seem to go a plant at a time until only plants such as H. 'City Lights' or H. 'Daybreak' remain, weakened by multiple frosts but unnibbled by the deer. I wish someone would evaluate what it is in certain hostas the fends off deer as most are on their nightly menu.

I'm here with Alex today as Gail is in South Burlington at an autism conference. It's a really special event and will discussTEACCH: Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication-handicapped Children. While Gail is away, Alex and I will get some shopping done in St Johnsbury and then visit Stephen Huneck's Dog Chapel. If you aren't familiar with the chapel or Huneck's work you should visit too. The amazing story behind the chapel is enough by itself but his work is so special that once you see it, you'll remember him every time a dog passes you on the street.

Since today is a catch-up day, I want to offer that long overdue recipe for German Apple Cake. This is a recipe originally passed down from my great grandmother Engelke but frankly I don't know the real origin. It's tasty any time of year but when apples are freshly harvested, I'm reminded to get out the mixing bowls. In this case, a gift of apples preceded the mixing bowls.

A couple weeks back, Leila and Harold Cross stopped by for dinner. The brought along some freshly pressed cider and a bag of Beacon apples (their picture above). The cider was the best we had ever had. We are big cider drinkers and know what we like. This was not pasturized like you buy in the store and it had a sweet flavor that was just perfect. As for the apples themselves, we hadn't even heard of them before. I was thinking German Apple Cake and Gail was thinking apple pie.

Here's the recipe for the cake which is made in a 9" pan or dish. You might think there's not enough batter but as you'll see, the apples make up the difference. This recipe is copied from the back pages of a 1946 version of Irma Rombauer's The Joy of Cooking. That's where my Mom used to write special recipes that had been passed along to her.


4 medium apples, quartered, cored, sliced
1/4 c. white sugar
1/4 c. shortening
1 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 c. milk
1 whole egg

Cream the shortening. Add sugar, egg and mix. Add dry ingredients, alternating with milk. Mix.

Spread batter in 9" pan. Press apple slices on top in rows.

Spread a mixture of 1/2 c. white sugar, 1/2 tsp. nutmeg and 1/2 tsp. cinnamon on top.

Bake at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes. Then cook 5 minutes more with a cover on.

My mother always used Crisco but I use butter. The cooking time might be off a little based on your oven. You can use a piece of foil for the cover. There is a problem with this recipe. It doesn't make enough and once you try it, you might be late for a second piece. I've made this recipe with a number of different apples and have to say that the new found Beacons have a very nice flavor. My Mom spent what seemed like days placing every apple slice in perfect rows. That's how she did everything she cooked. Perfect or not at all.

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where maple leaves drop one by one from the trees, still heavy from last night's dew, and chickadees man the platform feeder and discuss wind generation and greener living.

Fall gardening wishes,

George Africa

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Fogs of Fall

Friday, October 5, 2007

When September ends in northern Vermont, evening temperatures of 40 degrees or below encourage morning fogs which drift as the sun rises. Travel on the roads can be tricky but a visit to nearby ponds is a pleasant sight as banks of fog float in waves across the waters and adjacent swamps.

We are lucky to live so close to so many bodies of water. The Marshfield Reservoir, Peacham Pond, Bailey, Goslant, Kettle, Osmore and Groton Ponds are all somehow connected by swampy areas and meandering brooks. It's fun to get out early and witness the changing visions as the fog burns off and the autumn colors offer such enjoyment.

In a few minutes Karl the wonder dog and I will walk out back to the White Spring. There are some Lilium canadense seed pods which should be ripe by now. I want to harvest them and spread the seed along the swamp banks to encourage a colony. This picture was from last

year when there were slightly more buds. This year this particular plant put forth another stem but fewer buds. About half the flowers set seed and the bulb maintained a 7 foot scape again.

If you have some time to get out and about today, the colors are very good where there is a good maple concentration. Areas with ash and oaks already have changed to dull browns but from mountain tops like Owls Head, the views are spectacular. The Forest and Parks staff open the gate to Owls Head about 9:30 and it closes at 8. Give it a try!

From the mountain above Peacham Pond where Karl whines "Take me out" and two mourning doves discuss the day's news which pecking cracked corn.

Fall garden wishes,

George Africa