Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas Ideas

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green garden wishes,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Red In The Morning

Sunday, December 9, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gardening thoughts at holiday time,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Astilbes in Vermont

Thursday, December 6, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gardening wishes,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Monday, December 03, 2007

Snowstorm Sustenance

Monday, December 3, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Blustery December Welcome

Saturday, December 1, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gardening thoughts,

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener