Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Starting A New Garden

Wednesday, April 23, 2014
5:30 PM and the rain is pounding the standing seam roof and sending Karl the Wonder Dog into a frenzy. He doesn't like the sound of wind or rain any more than I do. Regardless of the rain, a large doe just brought her twins from last season into the lower field with her for a supper of barely green grass. They are busy eating and occasionally paw three or four times in the same place apparently trying to dislodge a root, maybe a piece of chicory which they really like.
During the past two weeks I have had two email inquires asking for guidance on starting a new garden. In each case the writers had hayfield kind of situations they wanted to turn into new gardens and I could tell they wanted the gardens to look garden book perfect before this season is over. Last week I attended the New England Wild Flower Society Northern Gardening Symposium at Vermont Technical College. During a presentation by Miriam Goldberger who was introducing the topic of wild flower gardening with her new book Taming Wildflowers, she was asked the same question with a little more detail. The inquiry included a hillside of weeds that the gardener wanted to turn into a wild flower garden so it no longer had to be mowed, had some nice color and did not succumb to erosion during the growing process.

So-o-o-o with this persistent, annual question in mind, here is my response which is probably in line with what many others have said. In any case there is the long way and the short way, the chemical way and the non-chemical way. No matter what method you employ you will find that over time weed seeds will infiltrate again and pieces of weed root, even if rototilled to theoretical oblivion, will find the strength to root and grow again.

Let's start at the top with the picture. I took this picture in 2007 when I just purchased the five acres which has become the "new" Vermont Flower Farm on Route 2 here in Marshfield. If you look closely you can see wet areas, swamp grasses of various types, bittersweet, Joe Pye weed, alders, willows, box elders, a few elm and three butternuts. There were dozens of  terrible weeds too but I had a vision that this could become a shade garden and a wet garden of sorts so I was prepared to change it. Today it is still a work in progress. At times it has discouraged me because for three consecutive years it has been the brunt of terrible attacks by Mother Nature ranging from Tropical Storm Irene to two additional major floods and a major wind event last May. Just the same it is making progress and I maintain a vision of where I want it to be. Keep the picture in mind if you stop by to compare notes.

With a project of this nature, the big stuff must go first and then you work into the grasses and small shrubs. I chain sawed all the alders and other small trees and removed all the trash trees like the box elders that had to go. Box elder is a member of the maple clan and they self seed easily as if big families are the way to go. The female trees encourage bazillions of box elder beetles--not nice-- and the trees have a short life span which means that as soon as they get tall and provide the shade you were looking for, they begin to rot and topple over on the plants that you covet the most. Just a fact. My neighbor suggested I make a big pile of brush and wood and grass and torch it all but I loaded it on the truck and each night took home a load to put into long term decay at the house. That was a laborious task but your goal on a new garden is to get the area as clean as possible before you even touch the soil.

Getting rid of the well established grasses is a chore, no two ways about it, and you can go several routes. Now days people are very impatient and want everything yesterday. That's why many folks like to resort to chemicals. I have no intent of starting a war here on use of chemicals. I want to mention two and you go from there.

A widely know herbicide by the Monsanto Company, Inc. named Round Up came into use years and years ago. It was one of the first non selective herbicides billed as human safe and it came after 2-4-D (the Agent Orange of Viet Nam) and other herbicides that worked well with American impatience in years before they knew what they were up against. It always surprised me how quickly it was put into use even though the impact of DDT was still obvious everywhere. 

 In about the year 2000--don't quote be on that --the patent was up and many other companies began manufacturing the product under their label. The main ingredient, a salt named glyphosate, was mixed at a rate of 47-52% per volume and the price fell from the days of Monsanto's production. I will say a couple things about Round Up. I have used it, I don't like it, it does kill plants and it may be the choice you make for opening up a quick plot of land with a one time application to knock down the top weeds and shrubs. Before you use it you might want to read Jane Goodall's book, Seeds of Hope. She discusses Round Up/glyphosate and in not too many pages you will be enlightened.

Another herbicide which you might consider is named GreenMatch. It is OMRI  (Organic Materials Review Institute) certified and it's available in Vermont from North Country Organics in Bradford Vermont. It's chief control agent is d-limonene which is a residual from the citrus industry where rinds containing a lot of oil used to go to waste. d-limonene is now used a great deal in the cleaning industry--partially because of its citrus fragrance but it is also used as a non selective herbicide which can be used right away in areas where food crops for human consumption are scheduled to be grown. The OMRI background info is well documented and this offers another possible solution to your weed and grass problem.

If chemicals are not for you, covering the plot with plastic and waiting for the sun to burn the plants to death will work too. I have written about plastics before. Construction grade 6 mil plastic comes in white, black and clear and each has benefits. The clear degrades from the sunlight the quickest, the black the slowest. The clear heats up the quickest and shows the quickest results but be sure to get the plastic rolled up and disposed of within 6 weeks or it will be a mess of pieces everywhere. The black blocks out all sunlight so it holds in the heat, encourages the weeds to grow quickly in their search for sunlight and at the same time dehydrate and die.

If you are still impatient, don't like chemicals and don't want to wait for the plastic covering to work, you can rent a flame torch and fry the weeds. I have no idea what the cost benefit is on the rental, the LP gas and the stress of carrying around 30 pounds of gas and trying not to set your place on fire.....but....the result is the same as with the plastic only quicker.

Some gardeners think that plowing and harrowing or rototilling with a tractor or with a smaller rototiller is the way to go. I am not sure. I did this at the flower farm and found that reseeding by weeds and their roots occurred in years two and three after I planted flowers and the problem was that the weeds came on quickly. There is more and more documentation now on repeated tilling and plowing of our soils. Two thoughts that have always come to mind with me is how much of the important soil organic materials and beneficials does tilling bring to the surface where they can be blown away or are killed through immediate exposure to air and oxidation. I'm not sure about this but I am experimenting this year with greater use of leaves and wood chips for mulching. The leaf mulches are a good idea, the wood chips not a good idea because they require rob lots of nitrogen from the soil as they oxidize.

The list of alternatives goes on and on. Your goal is to have soil that is free of stones, roots and other debris. Healthy soil that is well amended will grow fewer weeds and better people crops than poor soil and that soil health should be your concern. There's plenty to read on the subject and I suggest that be the place to start. I also know I don't like the old saying "There's never time to do it right, but there's always time to do it over." We should enjoy our gardening or our farming and that means being knowledgeable stewards. It's not easy but give these options some thought.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where Gail is mad at a neighbor who has been target practicing for an hour with a very big handgun. We shoot too but not at dinner time.  I have to scoot. If you have questions about starting a new garden, pass them along. I'll attach this to Facebook and Twitter too so more gardeners get to offer thoughts. Happy gardening!

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








Monday, April 14, 2014


A beautiful morning here on the mountain. The mourning doves are cooing to each other from various white pines around the house and the morning is busy with male goldfinches wearing their new colors. Robins are ferreting out the last of the crab apple seeds from shriveled fruits dangling from the tree branches or scattered about the ground where early winter's irruption of gosbeaks left them. It's a great time of year because we have broken through the below zero cold and the big snow storms and although we will have more cold and perhaps more snow, it is apparent that our thoughts can turn to the flowers that many of us cherish.

New gardening books precede the spring season and they encourage us to reevaluate how and what we garden. There is something about fresh pictures and new ideas that jump starts us into the planting season again even if the real labor early each spring includes raking and till-turning chores that provides aches and pains along with the reward. It matters not as we accept those responsibilities in our quest for "There's no such thing as too many flowers."

This coming Saturday, April 19th, the New England Wild Flower Society reappears at Vermont Technical College in Randolph, Vermont like crocus in the spring. This year the Northern Gardening Symposium will feature three outstanidng speakers including Miriam Goldberger, author of Taming Wildflowers. Although the event is only a few days away, registration is still open and I encourage you to rethink your plans an get to this special event. Miriam has titled her presentation  "Taming Wildflowers From Seed to Vase:  A Celebration, Guide and Users' Manual". 

I have read Taming Wildflowers twice through which must seem crazy for a guy who already has lots of irons in the fire..... but......Miriam writes what needed to be written and she writes in a manner suggesting that you're standing in a field at her flower farm picking flowers for yourself, a friend, your table, a wedding. The feeling of "being there" is as welcome as the way the text flows and you absorb the detail, the instruction, the encouragement to go do it all yourself. 

Everyone has plant favorites and Miriam offers up 60 of hers but not before explaining seed germination instructions for "No pre-treatment Necessary", "Seed Needs Scarification" and "Cold, Moist Stratification". These are incedibly valuable words to my ears because the world of wild flowers has led more and more gardeners to try growing them from seed each year. I know this first hand as being a flower farmer myself, I am open to questions from everyone and Gail and I field weekly questions including "Why didn't my seeds grow?" If you know that your zone is apporpriate to growing a plant to maturity and you know how to bring it into germination in the first place, you're on your way to success.

Taming Wildflowers mentions pollinators with some good descriptions and appropriately so. As we all become more aware of the problems facing our planet, we want more information on how to exist with the pollinators, their pollination work, and resulting seed dispersal. These are all very important to insuring that the perennial plants you coax into growing the first year will grow again and multiply in subsquent years.

Miriam mentions anual flowers and grasses she likes and she offers an excellent section on design work and flowers for weddings. I really hope that she will write a book soon just on flowers for weddings because this is a very popular topic now and there is so much that brides need to understand before embarking on the "let's do our own flowers" route.

I'm happy that Miriam mentioned two of my favorite wild flowers, Veronicastrum virginicum, Culver Root, and Vernonia fasciculata, Ironweed. There are many varieties of each of these. They are tall flowers in nature with strong stems and they provide the designer with that tall verticle opportunity that affords easier design mechanics and show stopping attention.

I knew before I even opened  Taming Wildflowers for the first time that it would not disappoint. I had heard great things about St Lynn's Press and I knew for certain that Miriam's experience and St Lynn's perfection would be the match that it has become. So buy the book right now but jump on-line to the New England Wild Flower Society and register for this Saturday's symposium. It will be very special! I guarantee it! Gail and I will look for you there!

Writing from the mountian above Peacham Pond where the morning temperature now reads 65.7° and a 3 mph wind melts the snows of winter and encourages me to head to our flower farm to begin uncovering our potted perennials. Come visit!

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
On Twitter as vtflowerfarm
On Facebook as Vermont Flower Farm and Gardens ( Like us)
Also on Facebook as George Africa for more gardening ideas
And always here to help you grow your green thumb!