Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Winter Peony Thoughts

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

11 AM on the mountain. The temperature has stopped falling and has grasped a hold on zero for an hour now. The wind is a different story as it stays around 8-9 mph with gusts that send the anemometer spinning at 17 mph. Although some sun peaks through clouds of blowing snow, this is not the day to wander far from the back door and attempts at driving just raise potential for being photographed upside down for the evening news.

This is quite a contrast to yesterday afternoon when I wandered out to snap a couple photos of Sunday night's wet snow, still glued to trees as if magnetized there despite the rising wind. It was a pleasant walk and as I made the turn into the lower field, I glanced towards the peony nursery, half drifted over, with one row of signs still visible. Everything about me was white but in my mind I could envision the peonies of June.

If you have run out of Christmas- present- reading, try the American Peony Society or just Google up peony images and see what you find. Articles and books about peonies often lead you to believe that peonies can only be planted in late August into fall but these are hearty plants that can endure unskilled planters and still survive. They may take a couple years to bloom the way you want but any season except the current one are fine for planting peonies. Use some care and be happy for many years to come.

At times, all gardeners must pretend. Pretend for a minute that you found these beauties in your garden and just picked a fragrant bouquet for the table.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where blue jays eat lunch sitting on the platform feeder, heading into the wind. As they jump to leave, wind pushes them backwards and sidewards and little out-of-control bundles of blue feathers use challenging acrobatics to right themselves and head for the forest.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Winter Reading

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Just past 2:30 PM, 38 degrees out with light sprinkles, a 3 mph wind and a fog which holds motionless above the snow cover. I'm just off the tractor and into the house after cleaning up the driveway. Last night's rain exceeded an inch and coupled with the warm temperatures melted the snow pack in the drive. Moving the truck was no problem but the Camry never would have made it through the slush and snow. I just hope the wind continues as the temperature drops so
the water will evaporate instead of becoming an ice rink.

Christmas at our house includes lots of books. We are readers and we read most everyday. This is especially true in the winter when we play catch up from extra busy summer days at the nursery. A month ago I finally got started on Facebook with the thought of expanding our gardening resource base and also in hopes of driving a little traffic to our website. Both goals have been met handily although I must say that any social networking requires a time commitment bigger than is often expected.

A couple weeks before Christmas, Jerry Fritz and Nancy Ondra joined me on Facebook. I was familiar with Nancy from her great writing and photography on a popular blog I read, Gardening Gone Wild, but I had not yet met Jerry. As I read on, I found that Nancy had contributed to Jerry's new book, Lessons from Linden Hill. I foolishly tried to find the book in my favorite stores just before Christmas and finally ordered it online for Gail. It arrived in time and I hope she will hurry and finish it so I can read more than a page here or there.

Gail's comment so far is that the book serves as reminder to many things she has already experienced, completed or done over. She's keeping a list of pointers and a list of flowers, trees and shrubs that Jerry uses at his place that will also do well here.

As soon as it's my turn, I'll report back with a better overview. In the mean time, if you need a good resource, are into design or garden construction, or want a different perspective on starting your own nursery, buy the book. It's the kind of reference that you read until the pages are dog-eared because you read and reread the plentiful advice. Thanks Jerry and Nancy for another good read!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where a small flock of grosbeaks just appeared at the feeder to join a lone red wing blackbird and five doves. Holidays bring all kinds of guests together!

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Gift

Christmas Morning
December 25, 2009

Five AM and 19 degrees here on the mountain. A light wind moves back and forth from nothingness to 3 mph as morning begins to waken ever so slowly. The house is quiet. I flipped on the outside lights to look for sleigh runner tracks and footprints but save for a lone coyote track under the bird feeder, the snow was untouched. Just the same there are presents under the tree and the day will begin when sheets and blankets are tossed aside for coffee and breakfast and holiday greetings.

Gifts at Christmas take all sizes and shapes. As I age along, a warm hug, a handshake, an "I missed you" seem to be worth a bunch more than something material. Gifts of all types are always fun but more often I like to be able to share with Gail and Alex and Karl at the end of the day something like "Wasn't this a great day?"

This year I received a gift from Alex that came in August, not today. It was not boxed or bagged or wrapped in flashy paper or tied with curled ribbons or adorned with ornaments or even a personalized note or tag. It had nothing to do with gardening which I am supposed to be talking about here but it was a gift that warms me every time I think of it and was a gift that I will remember on my last Christmas Day.

Alex is a special person, but all kids are or should be. He is 17 now, and as many of you know he knows autism better than we wish. He is home educated here with us and he has a daily routine that works for him and us. What he did one day this summer was never a gift to anyone in his mind but to me it was very special.

One day Gail and I were working at the nursery and Alex stayed home by himself. His responsibility includes walking Karl the Wonder Dog and this is no chore for him as the two are best buddies. The walk varies from time to time as Karl's nose leads in different directions and as long as weather and time permit, the path out and back to the house varies each trip. On this summer day, they headed down the road, past neighbor Lively's lower road and down towards Salamander Brook.

Alex does not have distance vision and although he could wear his glasses, they are usually more burden to him than not. On this particular day Karl stopped to sniff and Alex looked into the woods and at a distance he spotted what he thought was a large moose. Moose are not uncommon here on the mountain and like Santa they often come and go without being seen but they do leave some notice of their travel. As the "moose" got closer, Alex noticed that it was not a moose but a riderless horse, complete with saddle and reigns but it was truly riderless.

Our neighbors keep a horse that belongs to Alexandria, a young girl Alex's age. She was born a couple months after Alex was and at the time we did not know the family or know that as neighbors we would share an Alex and an Alexandria just a couple hundred yards apart. When Alex spotted the horse, one would think he'd have identified it as Alexandria's horse, an animal he had seen every day for years. But autism is an interesting thing and items out of context often appear new and different and to Alex this riderless horse appeared different and unfamiliar. True to autism, as Alex processed what he saw, he began to shout out in uncommon question, "Anyone lose a horse?" "Anyone lose a horse?"

At first there was no reply as the horse wandered down the roadside eating grass and moving in a different direction than it's nearby pasture and stable. But then in the far distance Alex heard a cry for help. It was a weak cry and he didn't know at first where it was coming from but between Karl's nose and Alex's direction they traveled across the hill pasture and down over the side to a ravine where they found Alexandria laying in agony. The horse had been startled by an animal and she had been thrown off. When she came to, a severely broken ankle and wrist left her unable to move.

We have no idea what brief conversation Alex had but he and Karl ran all the way to Alexandria's home, yelling for help the last part of the way. Since the horse never came home the parents knew nothing of the problem which Alex identified as he and the parents ran back the quarter mile to provide assistance. The long and the short of it is that four months later the final operation has freed the injuries of the pins that helped them mend, and Alexandria is finally off her crutches, and just in time for holidays she is getting back to herself. Everyone is grateful for Alex's action and I am especially proud to know that he responded so well in a situation that was very difficult for him to process. This will remain a gift to me forever, a memory of something without a package or a ribbon or a card but a memory of caring. Without his presence and his action, there's no telling how long Alexandria would have waited for help.

"Anyone lose a horse?"
"Anyone seen Santa?"

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond, telling my Christmas story, and sharing warm thoughts of friendship to gardeners and their friends everywhere!

Merry Christmas!

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

5 degrees above zero with a 3 mph wind here on the mountain as The Vermont Gardener crawled out from beneath the sheets after a week and a half of a cold virus that knocked his socks off. Not a seasonal flu, not H1N1, just a nasty virus picked up in a dentist office or the hospital back on December 11th. My legs still have a spaghetti-like weakness to them and my head has a wooziness that makes focusing two eyes a challenge but my mind says let's get going again even though I know more energy is something I wish I could buy today.

Our house was a cold 60 degrees this morning. In WWII my dad was a boiler maker on two destroyers, the Kearny and the Wiley and as I grew up in Woodstock, Vermont, he continued on in that role keeping several woodstoves going. Here at our place, Gail is the "boilermaker" and she does a super job 99.9% of the time. I'll get the story when she wakes up today but I think last night's guests may have done her in.

I usually offer some ideas for Christmas gifts for gardeners this time of year but I'm now too far behind to be much help. I guess my one recommendation would be that as difficult as it is at times, try to support local businesses and buy American as much as possible. Small businesses built America and despite the attention big businesses always get, praise is due to the little guys that make it all work. Here at Vermont Flower Farm we know what "little" means and we respect loyal customers who keep us going.

This is the time of year when seed catalogs prevail. Some companies are sending out more catalogs and others are only sending to proven customers. There's a fine advertising line in which way you go when times are tough and I have deliberated both perspectives. The challenge is obtaining a customer in the first place and then keeping that person, business or family so they come back for a number of years. When times are difficult one might think that gardening would be low on the totem pole but last year showed an incredible increase in vegetable gardening. The incidence of new flower gardeners visiting us was very encouraging as more people entered that aspect of gardening to spruce up around their homes. All our trade journals suggest that trend will continue and grow again this year.

Among the seed companies, Johnny's featured up top is one of the best for us. We have known this fine Maine company for a long time and the way they manage their company is the way it should be done. We have never had a problem with delivery, germination or identity of product purchased. They are on-line for home and commercial purchases and you won't be disappointed.

Many people around the world have taken to saving seeds. My friend Mike down the road from here has been saving his seed for years. He feels he has arrived at success with some vegetable varieties that produce well on his land and in this climate so he saves seeds each year. He figures he is protected from other producers crop failures and he can keep his needs met each year. When I was a kid I remember the neighboring farm ladies, Fidelia, Lillian and Eunice, saved certain bean, squash and pumpkin seeds each year to guarantee that famous pot of baked beans, that special pie or pumpkin roll. Today the Seed Saver Exchange is an example of one of the biggest processors. I've always been intrigued with bean varieties and where they originate from and this catalog is clearly not short on beans for every purpose.

For a few years now we have received Baker's catalogs pictured below. They are one of the growing number of heirloom seed producers in America and many gardeners are interested in returning to these seeds. It's always important to remember that the older seeds have fine attributes but they may not have built in genetic protections against disease. Some of the finest tasting tomatoes for example are limited in how they handle fungus and virus but if you can get them to ripen, the flavor is unforgettable. I remember my mom canning tomatoes back in the fifties and now know why she was so emphatic about getting them out of the garden, washed and canned all in a few days time.

If you are contemplating a vegetable garden for the first time this year, do some research. If you need a resource to boost confidence and make you take that final step from "just thinking about" to "becoming a for-real gardener" consider local author Ed Smith's books, The Vegetable Gardener's Bible or Incredible Vegetables from Self Watering Containers. Ed and his family are great gardeners and they offer good advice to get you started.

That's it for now. Good to be back. I'll try to get regenerated here. Good holiday wishes!

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm I've started reworking our website but it's still functional. If you need a last minute gift card, give Gail a call at 802-426-3505 and she'll be happy to help!

Monday, December 07, 2009

The Ginger Eaters

Monday, December 7, 2009

Twenty degrees above zero this morning as the steam clouds from Peacham Pond making ice became more clear as the sun rose above the now-naked tamaracks. This is the coldest morning temperature-wise although the winds of a couple days ago and again last night made a couple 24 degree days feel much colder.

Karl the Wonder Dog slept in this morning but with unpleasant reason. He had us up last night at 3 in the half moonlight to welcome four deer coming up from the reservoir to eat some apples in the yard. There's one poorly shapen little tree that has a hard skinned, rusty, almost olive colored apple that hangs tough this time of year. Since most of the apples have already fallen, the deer take to these trees with regularity, apparently knowing that good foods in good supply will soon turn to hardwood buds and young branches, raspberry and blackberry leaves, and conifers for the balance of the winter.

As Karl and I walked into the lower hosta garden, the abundance of deer tracks somehow reminded me of Christmas ferns and Asurums, the gingers I have come to be interested in. As we approached the dying yellow birch, the site of last night's animal buffet became obvious. The European gingers and some of the Christmas ferns had been eaten to ground level. Ferns and deer are matched during the course of the late fall and early winter and later on the deer can be seen pawing away the snow to get to something green. This was the first time I ever saw my gingers take a hit. Now I am wondering how they will look come spring. For whatever reason, the deer did not touch the Asurum canadense, the wild gingers (just below) native to the East.

My memory thought back to how beautiful the small but growing swathes of European ginger were in previous years. Almost 100% of gardeners who see them want to buy some and since the move to the new nursery, I haven't had time to get any ready or even get some moved into the display gardens for viewing. As hard as the deer ate them last night, garden viewing in this garden may be more limited next year.

As I read the various listservs, especially the daylily, daylily spider and hosta lists this time of year, occasional attention turns to controlling deer in the garden. As always I refer people to a page on our website that summarizes our experiences here in Marshfield.....deer experiences, not dear experience. Here's the link.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the temperature and barometer are changing as if to signal a nice day or two before the first snowstorm with potential arrives Wednesday in Vermont.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm
Now on Facebook as just me: George Africa

Need help on a gardening gift? Email Gail at lilies@hughes.net with your name and phone number and she'll call you back with the details that will make a gardening friend smile.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Rain Walk

Thursday, December 3, 2009

It's already into December but one would question that this morning. It's 52 degrees, there's a 3-5 mph variable wind, and the rain is coming down in buckets with slight interruptions that last only long enough for a short walk. Karl the Wonder Dog and I just returned due more to his insistence than my desire. Reports across the nation from garden writers indicate rain and flooding prevails most everywhere.

Karl and I cheated a bit and started the walk in the truck until we got to the end of the big field. He seemed bothered by the shortness of the trip as he is a dog that loves truck rides. For him, today's ride ended in a question mark. I coaxed him out and we headed up the back woods trail. Two more fir balsams had come down during last night's windstorm. The beeches along the field's perimeter are obvious with leaves bleached by the rain but still holding tight in places while other branches are already forming next year's buds.

We walked to the top of the first road and I stopped without choice when Karl came to an abrupt stop. Coyote, fisher or bear had obviously come by recently as there was no moving this dog, his feet implanted like big bridge abutments going nowhere. Straight ahead was the last of an old spruce that has been falling apart for years. Since we had visited last the top arms dropped to the forest floor in final rest. It used to be fun to climb and peer from but now its age has made that unsafe and just a memory.

We half trotted down the hill on the back woods road. The wind blew water drops sideways and they dripped from the visor of my cap. Karl stopped often to shake. He sneaked under the lower branches of a spruce as I stooped to pick the spent scape from a lady's tresses orchid. Karl

showed no amusement for the old orchid as I made a mental note of its location for next spring. Vermont has a number of orchids and some are growing secretively in open fields or along woods roads begging to be seen but at the same time hiding coyly from disrespectful shovels of harm.

We stopped for a moment as Karl picked up the rustling sound of birch bark catching errant breezes. He couldn't figure out where the noise came from but it was uncommon to his ears. White birch are interesting to me but Karl could care.

We returned to the truck in time for my friend to jump inside and then begin to shake water everywhere. With all the outdoors I don't know why dogs do this but one is no different than the next. Karl couldn't wait to get home to the warm fire. Lunch and a hot coffee sounded good to me.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where a second flock of snow geese has passed overhead this morning.

George Africa
Vermont Flower Farm