Monday, February 24, 2014

Planting a Hosta Garden

Monday, February 24, 2014

22.8° here on the mountain after a roller coaster of temperatures for the past four hours. The wind is a constant 6 mph and that makes it a lot colder. Alex just brought in some more wood for the stove so I guess he noticed the temperature too. Karl the Wonder Dog is in front of the wood stove, apparently oblivious to anything at all. Gail just packed the car and headed to a friend's to get advice on a bear paw quilt she is making. I think she is going to squeeze in a few lessons on making penny rugs too. It should be quiet here!

I have promised myself that I will bring my hosta display garden back into the direction it was headed before the Tropical Storm Irene disaster in 2011 and this will mean redoing a lot of work that I have already done three times over. Some of this might interest those considering a hosta garden themselves.

The location of any hosta gadren should be done with more care than I provided when I started my project. I think I stood at the top of the hill looking towards Marshfield village, saw the Winooski River snaking around the eastern part of our new land and convinced myself this was the perfect place. It was an absolute mess of a swamp and water, willows, box elders and a few elms but I learned long ago to see through problems and look positively to the future. It took all one fall and most of the following season to clear the land but in the end I had myself convinced it would be fine. I still hadn't recorded the wind and temperature influences on the land and assumed the sunlight that seemed obvious would do what I neded through the entire piece of land. Not so. At that point I still hadn't noticed that the wind came every day from the west and that meant during cold spring and fall, frost settled right on top of what would be the most leafy plant I grow. Hostas. Not good!

When I began planting, my errors began to show. The land had once been a staging area for the town and the state to stockpile sand and gravel for the adjacent Route 2. Over the years the river had flooded and left 2 feet of alluvial soil on top of the sand but I didn't learn this until the first hole was dug. 

Hostas are an easy plant but that still means that you should plant them well and they will prosper. They benefit from moist soil but what I had was not the dream it first appeared. The alluvial soil was basically clay loam with a small amount of organic leftovers from ten miles above us at the source of the Winooski. There was little in the soil that retained moisture and although it looked deep brown-black when wet, it was really not worth much. The land below leached water when the water table was appropriate but when dry times came or the river was reduced by a nearby power plant, the sand and soil dried quickly. As poor as this might sound, the situation was workable, it's just that more compost was needed than I planned for. 

I overdug every hole about three times the width of the plant I was adding. I removed soil and sand well into the sand mix and insured that the sand was spread away from the holes so it would not go back in. Then I added a foot of composted maple leaves and manures with the manure mixed with the top +1 foot of soil and three handfuls of lime per hole. Then I watered each hole well, planted each hosta, topped with a layer of compost and wood chips to hold everything in place and I watered with a mix of Epsom salts and 10-10-10 fertilizer. I stomped each plant in well and then circled each with one last handful of lime.

Since that time the hostas have prospered and so have the weeds. Following my original plantings and prior to the floods I had a friend spend a week spreading 6 inches of decomposed wood chips on top of the entire area. I brought in tons of crushed granite and made pathways. It truly did look fine before the flood took it away.

During the planting I intentionally left some clumps of native eupatoriums. I thought the color of the foliage and the height of the plants would contrast well with the hostas. It did and it didn't. The eupatoprium spread all over the place and I was forever digging up more and more. I had the same experience with several ferns with hay scented ferns being the biggest nuisance. Then there were the leftovers from the floods. Weeds cropped up everywhere, some I had never even seen before. Unlike many organic vegetable growers along the Winooski, I was spared the trouble of major seeding-in of Japanese knotweed. Just the same, the weeds I did inherit were more than enough to keep the tiller tilling for two summers. Things are now on their way to recovery. 

Looking back on four years of experience I am pleased the garden still exists even though by now I intended it to be one of the nicest hosta displays in the east. I lost over 250 hosta varieies as well as companion plantings of cardinal flower, 4 varieties of trollius, ligularias, rodgersias...the list goes on. But 2014 will be a different year as the rebuilding continues. Some of the box elders will last for a few more years and those that need to come down will head to my friend Paul in Peacham for eventual turning into bowls. Box elders have a beautiful red fungus that colors like a flame and holds fast after being turned. I will plant a few more lindens and hybrid maples for shade replacement and will plant Ninebark 'Diablo" and 'Nugget' against the outside of the back fence to provide for the shade lost when shear winds toppled scores of tall, shade producing trees. 

Gail has been growing on many replacement hostas in 15 gallon pots and these will be reintroduced. I have orders coming from out of state hostas growers that will be sizeable plants within two years when we add them to our sales list. In the interim they can be on display for folks to see. Visual in the garden is many times better than  looking at catalog pictures even if the plant has not reached maturity yet.

If you are passing by this summer, stop and see how we are doing. Gail reminds me there is some type of natural disaster to this land every year but I'm still optimistic. All farmers, any kind of farmers, even flower farmers have to share smiles with their friends.  Happy gardening!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the sun is coming out, the wild turkeys have left and the feeders are filled with hungry song birds. I have to get some more seed out to them.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm  (site under reconstruction)
On Facebook as Vermont Flower Farm and Gardens. Like us!
On Facebook as George Africa
On Twitter as vtflowerfarm
Visible on LinkedIn
Always here to help you grow your green thumb!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Hostas Compete With Roots

 Sunday, February 23, 2014

27° here on the mountain this morning with a 2 mph wind. The moon is surrounded with a foggy looking halo while a minor number of stars still twinkle here and there. Strong winds went through last night knocking down tree limbs along the road and around the house. Today is supposed to be the last good day before the temperature drops for the balance of the week.

More and more people are trying to grow hostas now and often they come with a list of questions. Many do not understand how much shade is too much shade and many, many times we hear "Can you help me pick some hostas? I want to plant them under a _____ tree."

When planting hostas you have to consider that they still need sunshine to grow well and they need moist soil to  keep their leaf mass turgid and healthy. When planting hostas under trees, the tree roots will likely already be so well established that in short order the hostas will begin to grow smaller and smaller instead of bigger. This is a waste of time, effort and money. Here's a solution.

Back in 2004 a shade garden I was working on in an old barn foundation was coming along nicely. It had reached the front of the foundation and there were apple and maple trees on the perimeter.  I wanted to continue to plant more and more hostas but I  knew the trees were already too well established to plant hostas. 

A friend with lots of hosta experieince told me about using oversized nursery pots--those large plastic pots that trees and shrubs come in, say 15-20-35-30 gallon size pots. I took what I had and began a garden using them. I can't say this was easy work as digging holes into root systems that have been in place for years requires some energy. I took out all the roots and rocks, inserted the pots in the holes and then filled with mixes that would hold moisture and provide feed for some time to come. Then I planted the hostas. 

The project got a lot of publicity and the outcome received more. In time I really liked the idea because the pots held moisture and fertilizer in place and prevented the tree roots from encroaching. I recommend it. A lot of work and a few bucks? Yes! But the outcome is worth every penny and if for some reason you want to  move a plant, it's already potted. Give this plan some thought if you have a similar situation.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where juncos and blue jays are competing at the feeders as the gray sky offers no firm prediction of today's weather.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
On Facebook as Vermont Flower Farm and Gardens  Like us!
A personal FB page with gardening thoughts named George Africa 
On Twitter as vtflowerfarm
And always here to help grow your green thumb!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Green Is A Garden Color Too

Friday, February 21, 2014

31.1° here on the mountain and pouring rain. I just returned from a quick walk with Karl the Wonder Dog and he is less than happy with what's going on outside. He loves the warmer morning but right now he cannot shake enough to get dry. I expect in a couple minutes he'll be in front of the wood stove sleeping.

Although it's not too nice outside, this is the time of year when we finalize plant orders and work on our list of what has to be done come Spring before those orders begin to arrive. I spoke yesterday with a great hosta grower and supplier in Michigan and since it was raining cats and dogs there, I knew it would be here today. My call was about adding some new hostas to our display garden to get more mature plants ready for customers and visitors to see in a couple years. There's an email waiting for me this morning and I'll see what they are suggesting. We already have a very nice selection but bad weather here for three years running has kept us so busy that we haven't expanded what we grow and offer. Gail spent a lot of time last year potting up more hostas to offer larger plants for instant gratification and I'm trying to get reorganized too.  This is the year!

If you have read many of my blogs you might remember that I am a proponent of designing gardens based on the size, shape and texture of the plant when it is not flowering. Although we buy plants for their colorful blooms, most of the season we are looking at foliage and to me that is an important concept to understand. Along this same line, I think we often forget that green is a great garden color too and as such we should incorporate more and more plants with leaves of different sizes, different shades of green and different textures. 

Take a look up top here and you will notice a grouping of rodgersia. This is a plant not often seen in gardens but it has an important job to serve. Heights vary and the creamy white blooms offer lots of attention. But it is those season long leaves that break up other parts of the garden backdrop and allow us to plant in front and around them. 

Hostas have always been thought of as those leafy green plants that don't do much for a garden and get carried away with self propagation until big clumps of solid green or white fringed green are evident. That may have been true a long time ago but hostas continue to be the number one best selling perennial in the world and there are over 6000 varieties on the market now. I believe the best hostas ever are being released to us now and they are so beautiful there should almost be a garden mandate to look them over and give a few a try. Old perceptions are difficult to change!

I'm not trying to prove a point, only share a message and an opinion that you consider green as a good garden color and try to work more with it this summer. If you have questions or want to see the direction I am pursuing, stop by the flower farm or drop us a note. Our new business email is Gail's personal email is  

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where wet birds are arriving at the feeders for a breakfast buffet that needs a little attention this morning. I have to get going and feed my friends!
Safe travel  this morning. If your roads are like ours, you might have a late start today.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm (Patience, reconstruction under way!)
On Twitter as vtflowerfarm
On Facebook as Vermont Flower Farm and Gardens, a Like Page
On FB as George Africa offering gardening thoughts
And always here to help you grow your green thumb!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Valentine's Day

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The dishes are washed, the news is over and it's finally quiet here for a minute. I just checked outside and the storm has taken a breather. It's 24.2° but the wind starts and stops and 5 to 9 mph is what we are seeing now. When the wind sneaks around my office window it creates tall whirls of snow that spin ghostlike over the steep bank and down onto the field below. There are probably 5-6 inches of snow right now, an accumulation from around 1 PM. There's no telling what I will have to deal with in the morning but Alex and I put the plow on the truck knowing that it will be needed.
When morning breaks, it will be Valentine's Day. I have no idea how much revenue the day creates in sales from candies, flowers, jewelry, dinners out and various fancies. Valentine's Day seems not as big as some special occasions but it has its place.
When I think of Valentine's Day I always think of the perennial flower named Bleeding Heart. I can remember the common variety growing in the gardens of the farm ladies next door to us when we moved to Vermont. Likewise I remember when they gave a piece of root to my mother who loved the plant and in a couple years had something to brag about when it reached comparable size to those plants at the farm.
Up top here is a  Springtime picture of bleeding heart when it gets started. Some might have trouble  recognizing what it looks like before the flower scapes rise and the tiny hearts begin to take shape. Over time the plants can grow very large and this should cause notice to you to fertilize them well and on occasion in the spring or fall, divide them and share the wealth with a gardening friend.
The stems can be cut and brought inside to enjoy but you'll doubt this when you first cut a stem and smell something unusually bad. Take a match and singe the end of the stem and it will encourage the turgidity to hold strong for a few days and you can enjoy the hearts displayed by themselves or mixed with other spring flowers. No, bleeding hearts don't flower for us in February but they do appear in our gardens when other nice spring flowers brighten our days. Give them a try if you wish but remember one other caveat to planting them. Over time they grow large like Oriental poppies....and like poppies, they suddenly go dormant and leave us with a big yellow hole in our garden that looks odd. Plant the bleeding hearts towards the back of gardens where their dormancy will not matter. In spring when they bloom, other flowers will not be as advanced and the hearts will be the standout--certainly for you to enjoy--maybe for someone you love...too. 
Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where with a whistle of wind the snowfall has returned, leaving no doubt that I will be plowing snow come morning.
George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
On Facebook as George Africa and also as Vermont Flower Farm and Gardens
On Twitter as vtflowerfarm
And always here to help grow your green thumb!
Gift certificates always. Call Gail at 1-802-426-3505


Thursday, February 06, 2014


4:30 PM, windless, quiet. This afternoon’s snowstorm has brought darkening skies sooner than I wished for. A couple hours ago the snow began to rain out of the sky and it continued to the point that the birds left the feeders and never returned. The critters of the woods and the birds all know the weather better than I will ever learn.  Snow is frozen rain and rain has not been plentiful in recent years in the west but has been “over plentiful” at our flower farm for parts of a couple years. Growing anything has been a challenge.
People like to honor new years with predictions and resolutions. I have never been set on doing either but often will offer a thought if pressed.  I did this with the Super Bowl and I doubt I’ll be asked for my opinions on that again. The only compliment I received that day was for the blackberry-peach jam marinade I made for one of the batches of chicken wings. Now those were special!
Lately I have been relating thoughts of our food supply to gardening. For three years now all our horticultural trade magazines have suggested that sales of fruit trees and shrubs as well has vegetable seeds have shown excellent increases. Gail and I have personally found this to be true. The year that berry bush sales were predicted to increase by 17% we gave raspberries and blueberries a try and they all sold. The next year sales were predicted to increase by +50% so we backed off and let the competition handle the increase here in Vermont. Everyone did very well. But with the positive come some concerns.
During the past few years we have seen weather conditions change. In the west drought prevails and widespread fires have taken down tens of thousands of acres of cover. Some water supply networks that historically served people and farms have closed off all water to farms.  Some researchers document that the west is the driest it has been since 1580. Many western cities have issued new rules involving water use and this is not setting well with a country that is used to turning on the spigot for cows or faucet for itself….and then letting it run …...forever.

The Farm Bill just passed and Congressmen are bragging about their participation. Vermont's own Sen. Patrick Leahy drinks a glass on milk on a TV spot and says we did fine. Just the same, there are things in America I cannot understand and don’t care for. The FDA just approved importing poultry from China because America cannot produce enough chicken to meet our needs. Chicken is one of those foods whose production has been mechanized to the point that few human hands are required. Apparently we cannot find those “few” hands. Here in Vermont dairy farmers have hired large numbers of migrant workers because they cannot find local labor. It may be wages, it may be benefits, it may be living costs, it may be that Americans find farm work demeaning but it’s all a surprise to me since farmers were the lifeblood of a new country before America had its own name.
Then there’s the friend or foe thing known as Genetically Modified Organisms. I recall many years back learning about GMO potatoes which were developed to counter the Colorado Potato Beetle I had grown up with. As a kid I remember being instructed to dust the potato plants which I did........"Dust until the leaves are white." they said.  The chemical used was DDT but other seriously dangerous dusts were used to kill the pink colored larvae as they devastated potato plant leaves. Looking back, I have no idea why those chemicals didn’t kill me. Probably there’s still time as chemicals have longer lives than people.
Potatoes went through an entire evolution of genetic change while at the same time US potato consumption has decreased. GMO potatoes are no longer a concern because potatoes are more often grown as a crop used in making starches to combine with food as opposed to being eaten as food.  Those starches are being used for processing paper and for making industrial lubricants, glues, pastes, and things I probably don’t want to know about. As a result of the change in use, fungicides and insecticides are not needed in the same quantity because getting starch from a potato does not require a clean skinned, tasty, good looking potato. And where are the latest, largest Frito-Lay potato growing fields in the world? China. And how are the Chinese pumping up potato production while minimizing time from planting to harvest? Water. Through extensive irrigation systems. Maybe we need a big government focus group to map some of these changes out.
And then there are honey bees, bumble bees and other pollinators needed for production of our foods even before we can talk about harvesting and processing and counting food shortfalls.  Again, there is a problem. Systemic chemical insecticides are thought to disrupt a honey bee’s life cycle.  We don’t seem to understand it and researchers are not sure they have all the pieces of the puzzle yet. They are certain however, that honey bees are in decline and this is serious. I raise honeybees and I can vouch for the fact that they do some weird things like swarming when they shouldn’t and trying to fly at night. Beyond chemical interference there is interference from GMO plants like corn. Focus on this for a minute.


Cattle food, whether for dairy or beef, has become very expensive. Domestic grain production for US farms has diminished in recent years, much more grain has been exported and corn has become the main crop. Lots of corn has gone to ethanol production and the rest has been increased to replace the grains. But corn just like potatoes, is susceptible to insects and corn was ripe for being genetically modified. Now GMO corn is planted all over and the same bee pollinators that are in decline are having more of a problem existing. Fields that were planted in grain crops that bees pollinated are gone and bees must go to GMO corn which is killing them.  Farmers have learned efficiency of field management and have planted corn to the corners of their fields with no margins for other crops key to bees. So think this cycle through. We grow grains which get too expensive so we export them to make money, grow GMO corn, kill pollinators to other foods humans need to live. With limited water, problems getting people to work and the impacts of climate change this whole food production thing has become difficult.

A thought for now is what can we do about safe food production for ourselves and world neighbors? We know how to farm and we need to get back at it. We need to cut out the subsidies paid not to farm certain crops and we need to grow more safe food that is better for us to eat. We can do that but it will require some training from school kids on up. Kids learn and question better than some adults.

So take a minute in the next few days and think about what you and your family eat, where your food comes from, how safe it is and what you would do if it fell out of supply. If you can
grow some food yourself, learn to do it. If you can grow food for yourself and others, do that too. Make a different kind of change for you and your family, your neighbors and your planet. You can, I know you can!



Saturday, February 01, 2014

Monarch Butterflies

Saturday, February 1, 2014
14.9° this morning which is a great surprise after almost three weeks of zero to far below zero weather that began with a high temperature of +52° in Burlington, Vermont.  That left us shaking our heads. We have some much nicer weather coming soon and there's somewhat of a promise for some snow to help our winter sports industry that we depend on so much. At this very same time, maple syrup producers around the state are in their sugar orchards cutting up downed trees and cleaning things up for new tap lines, repairing line damage caused by staggering moose and chewing red squirrels. Some sugaring always starts in February and lots is up in the air this year because the weather has been so odd.
There has been lots of talk about last year's monarch butterfly population and I have beaten this up enough on my Facebook pages. Check out my personal George Africa page or our Like page for Vermont Flower Farm and Gardens. All I want to repeat here is brief mention of some plants that do the trick in luring in Monarchs if they are in the neighborhood.
Pictured up top here is some eupatorium, commonly known as Joe Pye Weed. I think that one is maculatum 'Gateway'. Besides the natives that grow wild and over lots of New England, there are some fine hybrids like Gateway which grows to 10 feet tall.
Eupatorium maculatum 'Reisenschrim' pictured here coming into bloom is a real Monarch magnet. I haven't found it for sale in a few years and have some large plants for sale in limited quantity. It maintains a 5 foot height, sometimes to 6 feet.
There's no doubt that color is important to Monarchs including anything close to the bright orange they display. One year--perhaps in about 2008-- I was preparing more land for daylily gardens. I always use flagging markers in various colors that I can see from the tractor as I rototill. That afternoon I was using orange markers--no special reason why--and by the time I got them lined out and got on the tractor, I noticed most of them had a Monarch butterfly sitting on top. Quite a surprise for me!
Another flower, this time an annual, that draws in any Monarchs if they are passing by is Tithonia. This is like a giant Mexican zinnia and the color is special. I first grew it when we gardened in Shelburne Vermont in an old barn yard and farm pasture. It grew so tall--10 feet anyway--that Gail and I needed ladders to cut it for the markets. Back then, it was always a cloud of Monarchs.
Finally there is milkweed. The wild species is very common in Vermont although much of it has been destroyed as farm fields have become roads or developments. It is easy to grow and it does best where there is some moisture to the soil. We leave it to produce wherever it is already growing. Here's a picture.

There are many lists of other suitable plants available on the Internet. Look closely and make sure they are zoned for your area and also be sure you are not adding to an invasive problem you don't want to see. If you find some good plants that work for you, please drop us a line and share what you find!
Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where it's windless and still too dark out to see.......anything.
George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Always here to help you grow your green thumb!