The land surrounding Vermont Flower Farm in Marshfield is still brown and muddy as it begins to emerge from a seemingly endless winter. But in a few weeks it will be lush and full of shiny hostas and sunny daylilies, thanks to the hard work of owners George and Gail Africa.
George Africa, 66, worked for the state in various capacities, from human services to vocational rehabilitation, for more than 40 years. But gardening has been a lifelong passion; he even started a garden for prisoners in South Burlington when he worked with the Department of Corrections in the late 1970s.
The Africas have been cultivating and selling blooming beauties since 1983, first at the Burlington Farmers Market and then on their five-acre nursery in Marshfield. They expanded the business in 1992 and today have more than 500 varieties of daylilies and almost as many types of hostas, with display gardens and fields surrounding their small office emblazoned with the company sign.
The farm has survived severe weather, including 2011's Tropical Storm Irene, which battered the Africas' gardens alongside the Winooski River. Floods engulfed the flower fields and destroyed half of the hosta crop that year. In 2006, the Africas were among the professional and backyard gardeners across Vermont who had to stop growing their beloved Lilium, a type of fragrant lily, because of the invasive lily-leaf beetle.
But George Africa says he expects a good season this year, partially because interest in local flowers is, well, growing. Advocates say buying local supports the regional economy and reduces the fossil-fuel footprint. Choosing local flowers is an extension of the locavore lifestyle.
During a recent visit to his farm, the flower guru talks about his gardening obsession and explains what a "hoeknocker" is and how to turn a black thumb green.
SEVEN DAYS: How'd you get started in the flower business?
GEORGE AFRICA: My dad moved us from New York when I was 5 years old next door to a century-old dairy farm, and the [farmers] essentially kept us alive for a few years. They taught my parents how to garden so we could raise some vegetables, and I was part of the deal. At 6 years old, I learned a lot of stuff about gardening. Part of it was a need to survive, to eat. The other was just an interest that never left me.
I just continued with my whole gardening thing. And then, in 1983, I was living in Shelburne and had worked with a guy who had a piece of land right on Lake Champlain [near Bay Road]. I went down and asked him if I could rent the land. And he said, "Well, you can have the land." And then he said, "The only thing is that it doesn't have a hoeknocker anyplace."
SD: What's that?
GA: That's what I said.
So, if you were hoeing and you got a weed or a piece of clay or, you know, something on your hoe, normally you look for something to whack it, and it falls off and you keep working away. But the place was completely devoid of any rocks. It also had been a farm for over 200 years and [had] the most incredible soil. So my wife and I started raising herbs and flowers, and we did the Burlington Farmers Market. Some [of the flowers — delphiniums] grew so tall, we had to use a ladder to harvest them.
SD: Are Vermonters becoming more conscious of where their flowers come from?
GA: It's one of the things Vermont is starting to do a much better job [at]. People want to know. I think with food, we've already done a pretty darn good job of marketing. Even a couple years ago I heard people ask, "Where do your flowers come from?"
SD: Has your business grown as a result?
GA: I believe so. I'm expecting a pretty good year.
SD: What's your best-selling flower?
GA: I'll tell you, it's amazing how many requests come as a result of what's in any home-and-garden magazine. We're known here now for our daylilies because we have a great selection. And we give good-sized plants and good information, and people like that. We have an outstanding selection of hostas. And we've always tried to offer a good selection of shade plants, because Vermont is the third shadiest of the continental states.
SD: What's your main tip for a new gardener in Vermont?
GA: Soil test. You need to know where you're starting. You buy a kit [and send to the University of Vermont Extension]. And in a few days, you get a beautiful profile of what your soil looks like. You can get a good idea of what you have to do, and how much.
SD: Do you believe in the green thumb? Do people sometimes have a natural knack for growing flowers, or is it just the result of hard work?
GA: What I have found is that people who tell me they have a black thumb, they need a shot of confidence. I really do think it's an education thing. People used to get it, just as a matter of living. Nowadays they've got to learn it.