Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Monday, March 11, 2014 

The temperature has finally made it to 36.0° this morning and last night's 4" of snow is melting off the trees, car and truck. I just plugged in the glow plug on the tractor to get it started up as it's been sitting for several days. Alex and I are heading to the writers cottage later with a load of siding. People keep asking why the project is not finished yet but if you know me, you know I have a lot of irons in the fire and this is a lesser project to me now as it serves the purpose for which it was intended, with or without the siding.

The weather forecast seems to be up and down. Yes, we will get some snow tomorrow but how much is the question. Yesterday I heard everything from 8" to 24" but today it appears more like 8"-12" if you listen to the Burlington weather folks. I suspect it could be closer to a foot here on the mountain but I'll make a more firm prediction later today. A fine wet snow just started outside but it's still warmer than it has been for some time and a good day to get some outside work going. I have vowed to get to the nursery this afternoon and cut some Japanese fantail willows and some curly willows. Gail is begging for some forsythia to force too but the snow is so deep here around the bushes and I am not yet in the mood to put on the snowshoes to make her happy. Unless I get into some trouble with her this afternoon, I am putting the forsythia on the back burner. I've been known to be able to mess up a perfectly good day with her real fast so if you stop by and there are forsythia on the table, you'll know the story.

Sometimes people come to the flower farm and start amassing a collection of nice plants. I always interrupt things and ask where they are going. It's probably none of my business but you might not believe how many people wake up on a Saturday and say "I'm going to plant a garden today."  It's like they have been thinking about this for half a century and they want one to appear instantly. Drawing  from the singer Seal, they want "perfect imperfection", they just don't know it.

At times I  have volunteered to put the pots back in their displays while the would-be gardeners return home to get the garden ready for the plants. I discourage purchases--even though I love sales--to people who have to go home and dig up sod and remove roots and stones and debris, amend the soil, etc etc and then plant. It just doesn't make any sense not to have the soil fully prepared before you buy plants.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is what to do with the sod. It has to go  but the question is how to remove it without leaving roots around that will reroot in time and cover the new garden with grass and weeds among the plants--all within a couple years.

There are probably three ways to get started--maybe 4 if you could rototill yourself unconscious for a few weeks as you run over the proposed site for hours on end with a rototiller. The problem with that thinking is that the roots of everything you grind up are being ground up too. That means you'll have freshly tilled soil full of little pieces of weeds and grasses which will root within a couple weeks.

I recommend a different approach. They basically have the same outcome but each comes with a different philosophy. Plastic, serious herbicide use, or organic herbicide use.

Buy a piece of 6 mil plastic at a farm and garden, box store, ...that kind of place. It comes in clear, white or black. I use the black because it lasts longer and can be used on other projects before it gets torn and ratty and needs to be tossed. I like black because it heats up and holds the heat in so it actually cooks the weeds. I feel that being black, it absorbs sunlight faster and holds the heat longer into the night. There are proponents of clear plastic as the sun goes right through and fries the plants, grasses, weeds all at once. My problem with clear plastic is it appears to dehydrate quicker and when clear plastic begins to break down you have a mess of pieces flying around the yard. I don't care for it.

Roll out the plastic and weight it down with anything-- smooth stones, old lumber, logs. It takes about 4-6 weeks to completely cook the weeds and grasses to the point that rototilling can begin. The good thing about this method is that you have not added anything to the process by way of chemicals and you have eliminated problem vegetation. The heat and moisture at the beginning may have germinated some of the seeds but weeds and grasses have a way of working themselves into the soil over time and laying dormant. So although this process will eliminate most vegetation, some will return via seed.

Herbicides are not always a popular item to discuss but they work. The most well known and probably detested is Round Up. It is a non selective herbicide so what you spray it on days. End of story. There is lots of information suggesting that it never breaks down in the soil, is a giant polluter, causes cancer, etc etc. I am not prepared to debate the use of Round Up. I have used it and I will continue to use it for plants that I cannot have around that are very difficult to eradicate. Poison ivy is one example of that. If you are using Round Up it does not have to be mixed the way the label says. I use one third the recommended strength and still see the results I want. Before you even crack the cap on a container, be sure you are properly clothed, have plastic gloves on and have a full respirator and eyeglasses. be sure the respirator's filters will accommodate the type chemicals in not just Round Up but any product you might ever be spraying. When you are finshed, dispose of the gloves and wash your clothes and mask and change the filters so it's ready for the next use. Again, remember that this chemical does not discriminate so if you spray it, ti will die.

There are some very good organic herbicuides on the market now. They are more costly than even Round Up but they are organic and they have an OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) certification. One of these is named GreenMatch which is a citron or lemon grass derivitive. In our area of Vermont it's available at North Country Organics in Bradford,Vermont. It is a nonselective horganic herbicaide but again, it does not a weed from an expensive flower plant so use care. It does work!

There's another organic certified product named AXXE. It kills moss, liverwort, bittercress, bluegrass and other nuisance plants. I have not used it but the OMRI certification is interesting and something you have to be aware of if near a water source. Look into this one some more yourself and broaden your search. A new garden needs to be weed free at the start so you can manage it for the future. Questions? Drop me a line

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm

On Facebook as George Africa and also as Vermont Flower Farm and Gardens
On Twitter as vtflowerfarm
Always here to help you grow your green thumb!

Sunday, March 09, 2014

My Modern Design

Sunday, March 9, 2014

A bright morning with a clear sky, pink showing through the trees and crows talking loudly as they head for the reservoir. I have been busy--out twice with Karl the Wonder Dog, have fed the birds and have written three notes answering flower questions about potential orders from our website. Life is fine today!

The daylily pictured here is named Modern Design. I have liked it since I first saw it and it grows well. I don't think Gail got around to potting any more last fall but it is growing in the lower garden and available if you are interested. It is a dormant tetraploid so it grows very well into zone 3, probably zone 2, it's 26" tall, offers a 4" flower size and this past fall I was impressed with how long it blooms into cooler weather. Think about trying one.

What caught my attention this morning was the name as I am often asked about how I design gardens. Some of you may have seen me standing with a couple customers scratching out a plan on a clipboard with a pencil that never seems sharp enough. I employ what I call "modern design" but really it's just "my design."

New gardens to me have to give consideration to New England weather. When the snow melts, the back roads are muddy and the cold gives suggestion of leaving for good, people like to see color appear. They deserve it, they want it, they admire it if they don't have it. As such I try to think about what provides jump starts to the gardens and to birds and insects as weather warms and we see all kinds of animal life.

Native wild flowers are great additions and most have been hybridized now so they offer stronger and larger plants and different colors than we might be accustomed to. I favor trilliums and remember when I began an interest in them,  I referenced all my research to a book by  Fred Case and his wife Roberta. It was simply titled Trilliums and was published by Timber Press. At that time they spoke of 42 varieties but now days there are probably a couple times that many, perhaps more. Hepaticas are another plant that is becoming extremely popular. The colors and sizes make you want to forget the costs and just buy some.  Ashwood Nurseries in the United Kingdom is an example. Then there are Galanthus, our favorite snowdrops, that are like a hit on the music charts or a best seller on the NY Times list. They cannot be beat and no longer are just the whites we remember as kids as colors now include greens and yellows and fringes and doubles and all sorts of spring happiness. There are a couple very good snow drop groups on Facebook: Snowdrops and Galanthophiles,  and Snowdrops in American Gardens.  Trout lilies follow suit with some great hybridizing and orchids, oh the orchids by super hybridizers like Michael Weinert . This list goes on but the point is native wild flowers can get a spring garden going with a little effort. If you add spring bulbs, the colors and fragrances will carry on until the pulmonarias are working well, hummingbirds return (around May 5-6-7 here) and the other more familiar flowers, trees and shrubs bud and bloom.  Don't think about my "modern design, give yours a try!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where I notice that the American Goldfinch males are showing some minor color change and woodpeckers are pecking for insects underneath the plywood of my platform feeders. If you have some time this afternoon, get out and get some sunshine and look for the steam from a sugar house. Another sign of spring.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm
On Facebook as Vermont Flower Farm and Gardens and also my personal page George Africa
On Twitter as vtflowerfarm
And....... always here to help you grow your green thumb!

Tuesday, March 04, 2014



-14° here on the mountain this morning. Clear as a bell, windless, quiet except for two crows sitting atop the aging white pine, apparently suggesting to each other that I hadn't made it to the compost pile yet with yesterday's food scraps. Crows are very intelligent birds and I marvel at their behavior. There is one at the flower farm that was born last year and all summer it showed no fear of me and actually landed by me many times as I worked. I always made it a point to speak to it and to look straight at its eyes. This helped with any bonding that occurred. Scientists have studied crows in their pursuit of facial recognition which has become such a big part of anti-terrorism efforts. In the next few years as our credit cards fade into more sophisticated means of financial transactions, our eyes, our finger prints will become more important. Crows are already ahead of us and have actually helped with the road we are taking.

So just as crows may be playing a part in how we recognize each other and how we do business, there is a movement in America to look more closely at the distance between consumers and what they need to survive. I am not certain where the Buy Local movement started but it was probably related to food production and probably was encouraged by pollution, contamination, food delivery costs and other negative factors. Bad things often spawn good, the common example being that the tragedy of wars has led to some of the greatest medical advances, the best medical equipment developments in the world. 

A couple times a year I break out the box of letters for our road sign and put "BUY LOCAL" up top. I have never seen people stop because of what it says nor have I heard a customer ask my opinion or ask why I put the sign up. I am guaranteed of getting a lot more comment when I suggest on the sign that voters turn down a budget or postpone buying a new piece of equipment I don't think the town really needs. I continue to put out "BUY LOCAL" anyway in hopes that I might convert just one more family to thinking about where they buy their flowers. Movements  start slowly, take some time and require the faithfulness of the sign maker in me I guess, hence I continue.

I like to have people think about buying flowers locally for several reasons. The perennial flowers that we sell are flowers that we have grown on before we ever sell them. We like to insure that our plants have truly been zoned accurately as opposed to being marketed as if they are hardy for any climate. We like to be sure that what people buy will grow as successfully for them as it has for us. We like to sell things that haven't had regular baths in chemicals and we like to be able to provide the little pieces of growing information that doesn't come from a big box store plant tag or a  sales person that was working in the plumbing department yesterday or the appliance section the day before. 

Buy Local is not easy, especially with anything a farmer is involved in, flower farmers included. People have this thought that it's cheaper if it is local and it's cheaper if it's from a farmer. That may or may not be true. Sometimes people have no clue what anything costs and their only prior experience is buying fruit or vegetable produce that has been labeled "organic" which they determine translates to expensive. 

Buying locally grown flowers for example has advantages and disadvantages. If you are purchasing perennials, local should mean that the producer knows about the temperate zones and can assure you that the tree, shrub or perennial flower or herb will grow and be successful where you live. Locally grown annuals such as cut flowers offer positives and challenges depending on what flowers you want. Two days ago I received a call for sunflowers for a July 5th wedding. I cannot do this and the flowers will have to come from California, Mexico or South or Central America where the growing season will permit a good looking flower to be available then. Absent a greenhouse and sixty days prior growing time, there's no way I could come across with sunflowers by July first since we still have frost into early May here and the math just doesn't work. If you want roses, they need to be shipped in, if you want lilium they need to come out of a Vermont greenhouse, ...the examples go on and on. But during that rather brief window of late June into October there are flowers in Vermont that are being grown and will look very good at your special event. They will look better, last longer and be cleaner than anything else you can find and for those flowers there should be no choice in your mind but to buy local.

So as Spring approaches and you think more and more about your gardens, give local farmers more of a chance to teach you what they grow and what you might be very happy with. Respect the shortcomings of a zone four climate and the influences of a fluctuating jet stream and higher  (or lower) temperatures. If you are thinking about local flowers for an event later in the summer, plan ahead, find a local grower, discuss what you think you want and learn what will likely be available and what might be considered as back up should weather change, insects arrive, or critters eat the beautiful flowers you were counting on. Each of these examples can happen and that's what farming is all about.

I cannot guarantee whether or not it will rain on July 28th this year but I can guarantee that by discussing your proposed flower needs with a grower, you will get an up-front view of what is possible and you will know if those opportunities meet your needs. As we get a little closer to  mud season I'll try to write a few suggestions about what else is involved in buying local flowers for special events. It's not difficult but your goal is to have people say nice things about the flowers you use for special events, and to get there takes a little planning. We'll help!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where blue jays call for more food at the feeders as doves pick up odds and ends from the snow covered ground as flocks of grosbeaks come and go.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm
On Facebook as Vermont Flower Farm & Gardens  and as George Africa
On Twitter as vtflowerfarm
And always here to help you grow your green thumb!