Thursday, March 31, 2016


 Thursday, March 31, 2016

An interesting morning here on the mountain. Now up to 40.9° with a 3 mph breeze.  The sky is clouded over but sunlight is just beginning to emerge. It is supposed to warm to 55°-60° by noon so I am trying to wind up inside chores and get outside. In another two days the temperatures will fall again and I won't be so eager to be outside. 

There has been plenty of discussion in the past 2-3 years about the importance of pollinators. The absence of the monarch butterfly has stimulated the discussion in the east where pockets of butterflies have been obvious but not like their absence in places such as the flower farm a couple years ago. Last summer the total count was about 13 but nothing like 10 years ago. Back then I used orange colored flags to mark off 12 X 50 foot garden plots I was preparing to rototill for daylilies. The monarchs were in good numbers then and they appeared around the garden sitting by or on the flags as if orange flags were their favorite friend. Never since have there been so many. 

 So for my part in a personal "Bring Back The Pollinators" campaign I have begun to plant flowers, some annuals, some perennials, that are proven to me to be pollinator magnets. Yesterday I ordered in three flats of 50 plugs each of  Vernonia noveboracensis, an ironweed sometimes commonly named New York Ironweed. I have never found it growing wild in Vermont but understand there are places in New England where it can be found. It caught my attention several years ago at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens where it was mass planted in groupings of 20-40 plants. It grows to be 6-7-8 feet tall and  that height in a large planting is an impressive standout even for long distance eyes.

This ironweed works well with the equally tall Eupatorium maculatum 'Gateway', any of the 3-4 foot heleniums, the 6-7 foot tall Helianthus 'Lemon Queen' , 5-6 foot tall Veronicastrum, and the 6'-7' tall annual Tithonia commonly referred to as Mexican Sunflower.  Grow some annual Verbena bonariensis in front of the entire mass and I guarantee you will be pleased with the color and will have plenty of butterflies, moths, bees, and hummingbirds to look at.  You do not have to do this all at once, as a plant here, a plant there will spread and get to the same grouping size over time. Just remember the mature sizes of these plants so they match your site.

If you stop by the flower farm this summer, ask me about pollinator plants. I'll point out what we might still have for sale and you can check out the garden plantings too.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where in the time I have written this the temperature has risen 6 degrees and the wind speed one mph. I better get going!

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
And always here to help you grow your green thumb!!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Eupatorium Joe Pye Weed

Friday, March 26, 2016

An off and on day that finally settled down in the afternoon and provided sunshine to suggest clearing sky and a nice weekend. This is a picture from last season of our hosta and shade garden. We think it's a very nice place to visit. It's still under construction after 6+ years but many of the hostas are mature at this point  and offer a first-hand look at where you will be in a few years if you start with a plant in a one gallon pot.

In 2011, we had three different floods on this property. Hostas can take a great deal of abuse including water as long as it finally subsides which it did. The real problem with the flooding was the introduction of millions of weed seeds. Some of these came from high in the watershed either up towards Walden or over towards Molly's Falls Pond, maybe even Peacham Pond and further towards the Groton State Forest. We were more fortunate than many farmers along the river that found themselves facing a bazillion new starts of Japanese Knotweed. Our problem has been eupatorium, also known as Joe Pye Weed. The native-to-Vermont eupatorium is a great magnet to pollinators just like the hybrids, but it is a more vigorous grower and it spreads quickly from its root systems and from seeds which are abundant. 

If you happen to live in proximity to a river where knotweed is common, keep vigil in your gardens for eupatorium too. In our image up top here, the eupatorium is the dark green plant, center picture, on the right side. Once it gets established to the size pictured, it is a bear to remove because the roots have taken hold and are already deep. It can be removed, it's just work! It's far easier to get going right away on the seedlings, but do beware that even their roots grow quickly and need persistence to remove.  If you are unfamiliar with eupatorium and want to see it first hand, ask me when you stop by and I'll show you the problem that it creates. 

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the late night is quiet even though the wind continues at 4 mph.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
On Facebook as George Africa and also as Vermont Flower Farm and Gardens

Always here to help you grow your green thumb!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Ash--A Favorite Tree!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

A strange day today with weather that changes with the wind that blows from 2 to 8 mph and then stops and starts. 32.1° now with occasional snow flakes floating around despite an earlier weather report that said we would see highs in the low forties by noon. Which noon? Not this noon for sure!

Another interesting article came through from the entomology group I subscribe to. This one is about the emerald ash borer. Ash has been one of my favorite trees since I developed a strong relationship with them as a young kid swinging a way-too-big splitting maul. We lived in a large farmhouse  with multiple wood stoves and on the good winter nights you didn't see your breath downstairs but when going upstairs to sleep, you could be assured that it would be cold. Firewood was part of my job. I loved ash because it burned hot, burned green, and split like butter. It was also lighter to handle than maple or beech, our other two predominant fire woods. Ash was also the wood from which my favorite Louisville Slugger baseball bat was made of.

Some years back it was reported that the emerald ash borer had invaded America and was heading north from Central Park NYC. The thought bothered me because the initial prognosis for trees infected with the borer was bleak. A couple years later purple box-like sticky traps could be found hanging from trees in Groton Forest and my fear of disaster grew. One day I found an emerald ash borer while on my hands and knees weeding one of my gardens. Somehow it dropped out of the ash tree and hit me enough to be noticed. I picked it up, identified it as an EAB and reported it to the state folks. They indicated they didn't need to inspect as the borers had not been verified yet. The inspectors had apparently never caught one on any sticky traps (above) and that was good enough for them.

Since that time emerald ash borers have been identified on the Vermont/Massachusetts line and in several southern counties of New Hampshire. That probably means they are moving north so if we really didn't have them, we really will. Here's the article which you might be interested in:

And in case you're wondering about the picture up top of this page, that's an ash tree with a wonderful example of the Lunge Lichen, Lobaria pulmonaria. That lichen can be found on white or black ash trees.  I took the picture at Marshfield's town forest on a January day that was warmer than today if you can believe it. Go see it!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the mourning doves are in the pine trees but the blue jays continue to work the grass under each feeder looking for leftovers from earlier month.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Aedes aegypti--Oh Boy!!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

A damp morning here on the mountain with a 44.2° temperature and a 2-3-4 mph breeze. The snow is about melted from the fields and woods around the house and it's hard to believe that winter never really materialized. My benchmarks involve how many times I put the  snowplow on the truck and this year it occurred just once. Memories of last year's gardens is what keeps me going this time of year when we are between seasons.

Looking out the office window at puddles of water reminded me of an article I just read on one of the entomology sites I subscribe to. It mentioned the Zika crisis and Aedes aegypti, the insidious mosquito that is actively involved in spreading disease and death. Some of the attributes of this insect served as reminder to the spring clean up that we should probably give more importance to. In Vermont, for years and years, we have had Vermont Green Up Day, a giant effort to pick up roadside and "public places" trash and make our state look nicer for the coming summer. It's a great event and in recent years I have noticed that some folks start the event earlier and keep their clean-up going longer. I like that. 

The Aedes egypti mosquito has been around for a long time. It was targeted for its links to dengue and yellow fever and also chikungunya and now has been identified relative to Zika. This mosquito is known to bite during days or nights and is described as a container breeder because the females lay eggs in small amounts of water found is trash, cans, bottles, old tires, and rain gutters. It takes little water to serve as a nesting site and their primary target is human blood. That explains the links between people and trash. 

Aedes aegypti are known to live in South and Central America so most would probably say that Vermont is a stretch. I suggest that maybe we should keep track of what climate change has done to animals and insects. We may not like it, but some critters seem to acclimate to new and unusual places. Large snakes are becoming very large problems halfway up the US coast now. As pets, they have been abandoned into the wild and although some have said that they cannot live where it gets cold, that just doesn't hold true. They may not make it in Vermont but in the past year wildlife control staff have had to deal with alligators and large snakes in proximity to Washington DC. The Charles River in Boston has long been the home of piranha, that toothy fish from South America that prefers schools of company and can devour a large cow in short order. Changes happen!

So as spring weather approaches, thoughts of Green Up Day may have a different meaning this year. Maybe just maybe, we should relate our clean up not just to sprucing up the roads and byways but to improving our likelihood of better health. As I walked along the part of our land that parallels Route 232 last week, I found 5 tires that had been rolled off someone's car and down the hill. Someone apparently thought "Out of sight, out of mind." and didn
't want to pay the recycling charge. Chances are good however that left there,  those 5 tires will become breeding habitat for insects after this week's rain and soon-to-come warm weather. Let's think this through and do a better job. And no matter what our opinion on Aedes aegypti, let's Green Up Vermont!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the ground outside my window is full of juncos as noisy crows discuss political news from nearby maples. Be well!

George Africa

The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm
On Facebook as George Africa and also as Vermont Flower Farm & Gardens
On Twitter as vtflowerfarm
And also writing on a variety of gardening sites and social media endeavors!

And remember, we're always here to help you grow your green thumb!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Bad Bugs and Climate

Thursday, March 10, 2016

52 degrees here on the mountain above Peacham Pond. The sky is dark and some more rain is en route for later today. I just checked an old weather journal I used to keep and the entries were interesting.  Today in 1977, it was 57°.  In 1999, March-to-date was 18° below the norm. March 10th was  -3° to start that day but it ended at +30° with sun. That year had a year-to-date accumulation of 61.9" of snow in Burlington, more here, and still had 83" of snow on Mt Mansfield.  This week often has had snow, rain, freezing rain, slushy roads and mud. Today the first grackles appeared.This is the last day that we will have the feeders out as the birds are actively taking down all the remaining suet.

There was a prediction a month ago that the months of March, April and May would be much warmer than usual. Clearly the winter has been on track with the warmest conditions since 1912. The warmer temperatures have been a more recent situation with talk of climate change supported by the readings we have seen. I have noticed the warming trends by way of insect populations. Bad insects. Different insects. Unknown insects. Lots of insects.

Today's Entomology Today has an interesting article on an insidious insect I don't like. The stink bug.  Take a look at the accompanying link and read on. There are a few different stink bugs in New England and research suggests they are impacted differently by warmer weather. Some findings are encouraging, some not so good for the summer to come.

Some place in my folders I have pictures of the brown marmorated stink bug that I really dislike.... but.... I cannot find them today. These are pictures (above) of the green stink bug but should suggest what you might have seen in your gardens. The next image is one copied from the article to remind you what to look for during spring garden clean up. Don't be surprised to find masses of stink bugs just hatching out but still piled on top of each other  as shown here.

We are a while away from spring clean up here in Marshfield. Lots of storms are expected before we get better weather but some readers are already well into clean up. Keep in mind your weather conditions and what insects you see as you rake leaves, pick up branches, see damage from voles or deer. If you live in this time zone, don't forget the clock this weekend.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where I just watched a neighbor unload car passengers, say a prayer and then gun the engine to get through the mud and to the top of the hill. If you're coming to see me today, park at the top of the hill and walk. A tow truck operator I do not aspire to be.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Writing on Facebook as George Africa
Writing on FB as Vermont Flower Farm & Gardens
Writing on Twitter as vtflowerfarm
Writing on various gardening related social media resources.

Always here to help you grow your green thumb!

Monday, March 07, 2016


Monday, March 7, 2016

I watched the Democratic debates last night to continue my record of watching every debate. Bernie Sanders is from Vermont and I worked with him very briefly in 1980, so my interest in his political career has always prevailed. Vermont is not a big state but our 620,000 inhabitants have always maintained a strong sense of their environment and the importance of protecting every part of it.

Part of the debate questioning of Clinton and Sanders last night involved fracking. My first introduction to fracking in Vermont was when a homeowner I knew drilled a 605 foot water well and never hit much water. The options were limited but the person was advised that with that much casing, hence almost 600 feet of pipe or stone filled with water, there could be enough water to maintain a small family. Another option was to install a large holding tank and the final choice was to frack the well hole. In this case, high pressure water and possibly chemicals would be directed to the walls of the well to free it of rock shards and dust that might be packing veins in the granite (common here). Those materials prohibited the flow of water out of the veins and into the well. The homeowner probably had that terrible vision of "How much money do I sink in an empty hole?" but he went with the fracking.  It was not a good story and it had to be done twice but a couple weeks afterwards the well opened up and the estimate was a gallon and a half a minute. To give you an idea of the probable cost of the well alone, I recently obtained an estimate to drill a well at the flower farm and that was in the $15K range. The depth estimate was comparable to the 605 foot well I just described. 

The concern with fracking involves the chemicals which are added to the process. Typically they are in great abundance and once introduced to the aquifer via the new well, there is no way they can be removed. People in the business might say the chemicals will come out with the water due to water pressure or they might be pumped out but where they actually move to within the aquifer is never known.  This is pollution. 

Sec. Clinton went  "round Robin's (Robin Hood's) barn" with her answer of how she would approve fracking and Sen. Sanders kept his response to a simple "NO!" as in "No good, not once, not ever." (my add-on). So why do I bring this up? Because water is very important to all of us, lack of water worldwide is growing in importance,  and for me, it has been a concern for many, many years. Here's a story.

In my early years of school, one of my teachers gave an assignment of writing a paper  that described a couple things that during my lifetime would have great significance to the planet. I thought about it and arrived at water and trash. But the paper didn't go too far, in fact, it received more laughs than atta-boys.  But in 2016, now 60 years later, if there was to be a "last laugh", I am the guy with the laughter. Water is critical and the trash we leave behind is too. Fracking leaves "trash" and unlike roadside trash, we cannot pick it up.

It's not for me to recommend how to vote but there may be merit to looking at the fracking question as a reminder to other issues equally important to us and the rest of the world. Give this some thought. Here at our house on Peacham Pond Road, our well is  200 feet deep, it produces over 25 gallons of water per minute and the water is clean as a whistle and tastes better than any I have ever had. Out back we have a spring that for over 200 years has been known as The White Spring because the water comes out  between granite boulders and immediately forms a stream bed that glistens with white granite dust. That spring runs at over 50 gallons per minute. We're lucky! No fracking ever involved--only Mother Nature!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where it has been snowing for a couple hours. It's 29.9° with a 4 mph wind. Warmer weather is on the way.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Writing on Facebook as a personal page, George Africa, and also as Vermont Flower Farm and Gardens
On Twitter as vtflowerfarm
Writing about gardening, flowers, the weather on other forms of social media. #feelthebern; #vtflowerfarm; #fracking; #water;

And always here to help you grow your green thumb!

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Caring For The Land

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Almost 7 am and the sun in just breaking through the gray band of clouds that hangs tight above Peacham Pond.  A +12.2° night should transform into a nice day and a warming trend that is expected to top 55° here by Wednesday noon. Crows call loudly from the compost pile as blue jays complain at my office window about a lack of seed in the feeders. There are an average of 20-25 jays a day at the feeders as well as 10-15 mourning doves so regardless of what other birds arrive to feed, the food supply quickly runs on "low".

On Mothers Day 2016 when we open Vermont Flower Farm for its ninth season on Route 2, there's a sense of accomplishment. This year will mark 27 years that we have grown flowers in Marshfield after moving from Shelburne and the shores of Lake Champlain. Our business has evolved over that time, partially due to a follow-up move from Peacham Pond Road to Route 2 and partially because of  being forced to discontinue being a New England leader in growing lilum due to the lily leaf beetle. Perhaps the single biggest influence on where the farm is now is the floods of 2011 which began with back to back spring floods and culminated with Tropical Storm Irene on August 28, 2011. So much of what we built and rebuilt had to be restructured after that date. Seeing ten feet of water flowing over your labors is a sight that can never be forgotten.

Since 2011, we have made a number of changes intended to strengthen the land and the gardens when floods occur again. We would hope that floods that exceeded 100 year levels would not arrive again but as the climate has changed and the Winooski River that borders our land has grown wider, we accept the reality that a repeat of the previous calamity is a given. 

On the east side of the property, we have planted trees and shrubs to change the water flow. This is a prayer as well as a plan because high water has a power that is difficult to harness. Rows of lilacs and hydrangeas on the east border, a new lilac nursery planting parallel to Route 2 and more trees and shrubs within the shade gardens seeks to keep in place the perennials we have replanted. We have half a dozen 16 foot tall hybrid maples, some lindens, a dozen golden locusts, Diabolo and Nugget Ninebarks, Gold Pillar barberries, Arctic Fire Dogwoods, North Pole Arborvitae, Japanese Fantail and Golden Curly willows all planted in hopes of holding soil and slowing the loss of perennials in our display gardens. This is a
"maybe, maybe not" affair, hopeful but unknown until the next disaster arrives.

As for the soil itself, we continue to work at making it better. There are five different soil times on this piece of land and each requires a special strategy to improve. During the past years we have added as much organic material as we can afford and in many places have added gypsum to work against the clay content. Over the past two seasons we have added tons of maple leaves covered with wood chips, wood shavings and pine needles. This material has been placed between the rows of perennials to slow water loss and wind-related soil erosion. We have reduced rototilling and lawn mowing and have tried to clean the gardens each fall of all leftover organic material that might serve as reproduction sites for fungal or insect problems. 
We continue to add lime and commercial fertilizer but at lesser rates. We are planting all the display gardens more intensively and have a couple new water management sytems that allow us to put water on potted plants  in a more useful and more conservative manner. 

The Winooski River runs along the flower farm's eastern and southern borders and it is our water source which is legal, free and good. Rivers in Vermont are allowed to run free and no longer are any restructured or deepened to manage water flow. As such the river widens more each year and takes more and more of our land. It's clearly a conflict of resources if you think about it because millions of dollars are spent each year cleaning up Lake Champlain while all Vermont's rivers erode millions of tons of soil each year, strip good agricultural land and deposit the residue in the lake where fisheries and other plant and animal life are destroyed and algae blooms impact all manner of  lake users.  Farmers are regularly blamed for polluting the state's waters but a sizeable portion of the pollution could be regulated with better control of streambanks. 

The water level of the river as it passes the flower farm is regulated by Green Mountain Power which uses the watershed resource to make electricity. This is a year-round event with the production of electricity contingent upon the availability of water and actual electrical need based upon population and seasonal temperature. Two dams in the immediate area control the watershed and are regulated by Green Mountain Power. The 2011 water events showed how fragile and poorly planned the regulatory structures are and to date no changes have been planned. This means there is a strong likelihood that the event will repeat itself and more land including the site of our flower farm will be lost. A Water Resources engineer told me that Governor Shumlin directed the Agency of Natural Resouces to leave all the rivers alone.  He also said after the next significant disaster, meaning after the flower farm has been completely wiped out, we could reapply for the State to consider changes to the river. We hope we don't have to experience a repeat of 2011, but the reality of our weather suggests otherwise. It is certainly a strange feeling to have others act so God-like with something that is not theirs. 

This spring we are planning more riverside plantings of willows in hopes of stemming the erosion that is about ready to take out our fences in the southwest corner of the farm. Over ten feet of the river bank on each side of the river has eroded in the 9 years we have owned the property. Our only hope is that the willows can catch and grow before the next disaster arrives. Instead of prayer, we are planting a possible solution. It takes time, money and labor but it is the best possible insurance we have. We will continue to plant along the riparian way with a variety of trees and shrubs that will not only help to stabilize the bank but provide refuge for wildlife and help to cool the river water temperatures which have gotten so warm that the fish population is almost nonexistent. 

All land needs a caring attitude and some dirty hands to protect it. Our philosophies may not be your philosophies but there is probably some overlap here someplace. If you are interested and have some time, stop by the flower farm this summer and we will show you around. The fields of flowers are a project that needs more time. Come visit!

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where the temperature has risen to 31.1°,  the sky has cleared and the bird feeders still have not been filled. I need a glass of juice and then I can get going. Have a pleasant day!

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