The Mountain Times

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In this state: A couple’s journey gardening across the state

Moving a business is never easy. Moving it twice is in the realm of daunting, if not foolhardy. Moving it when your inventory is not on a shelf or in a warehouse but rooted deep in the ground is, well, a laborious form of lunacy.

You won't get any disagreement from George and Gail Africa, who now together own, operate, and are willing slaves to, the Vermont Flower Farm in Marshfield, which specializes in day lilies, astilbes and hostas and an ever-expanding list of other hardy home-grown plants.

Their path took them from Woodstock and Randolph Center, to Shelburne Bay, to two different plots in Marshfield.

"We're definitely in the workaholic category," concedes Gail, laughing. "Sometimes I wonder to myself, 'this is crazy'."

Of course, that is often the way with passions. In a state filled with people who often seem inclined to blow through rational arguments, financial and business obstacles and conventional wisdoms on their path to indulging their passions and creative endeavors, George and Gail Africa might as well be Exhibit One.

On the plus side, their 24/7 lifestyle as owners of a hands-on flower farm puts them outside every day, immersed in natural beauty and meeting an endless parade of people. At least that's a counter-balance to the endless days of potting, planning, digging and aching backs that mark six months of the year.

"I just love to meet people who are gardeners," explains George. He says he not only gets to pass along his floral knowledge, but introduce others to the flowers he feels passionately about and learn things from the people he meets.   

It's no little piece of irony that the Vermont Flower Farm, until recently, was really just a sideline  - albeit one that anyone else would consider a full time job from May through October. 

For the couple, the roots of their gardening passion were sunk long ago as children.

George Africa, 64, retired three years ago after spending more than 40 years in state government in human services, including stints in the corrections field. (Among his accomplishments was starting a garden for inmates at one of the state's correctional facilities.) All that time working for the state, his heart was in growing things.

George's introduction to gardening was "a matter of survival," he says, and one senses he is not entirely joking. His dad bought a ramshackle farmhouse in Woodstock, with eight acres, selling it to the family as a great deal. It turned out to have no indoor plumbing and needed six woodstoves to keep it warm.

"We lived that way for three years," he recalls. A farm neighbor taught them about raising vegetables, flowers and farming and helped them hang in the first few years. Through his dad's house painting business, George eventually met the wife of the dean of the Yale Law School, who had a summer home in Woodstock. She taught him a lot gardening and garden design, whetting his appetite for horticulture.

Gail's parents came from Groton but in her childhood her father ran a showpiece dairy farm for Hood in Beverly, Mass., where she clearly remembers the expansive gardens. Her father, Ralph Evans, eventually returned to Vermont to teach agriculture at Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center. Gail grew up there, went to Johnson State College, and then began a life working in greenhouses and flower shops.

Gail met George, a University of Vermont grad, in the early 1980s and they married their lives and passions, leasing a fertile 250-year-old farmstead along Shelburne Bay in 1983 to raise cut flowers and herbs, which they sold at the Burlington Farmer's Market. The land was incredibly prolific and the flowers grew so tall the couple needed a stepladder to harvest some of them.
"We did 1,200 stems of cut flowers every week and we both worked full-time jobs," Gail says.

But the extensive travel required by George's jobs and the hustle and bustle of Burlington began to wear after a while. Gail's parents had a 75-acre spread in Marshfield by Peacham Pond, and the couple uprooted themselves, moving there in 1989, starting a family - they have a son, Alex -  and their new business. This time they specialized in hardy no-fuss plants: daylilies, lilies, astilbes and hostas.

In a few expansive full-bore years, they became one of the state's landmark locales for lilies, joining such stalwarts as Vermont Daylilies in Greensboro, started by Lewis and Nancy Hill, and Olallie Daylilies in South Newfane. George estimates their farm grew to be more than 3,000 daylilies and at least 500 hostas. 

What distinguished their locale was George's blossoming interest in natural landscape design, using old fieldstone, granite boulders and old stone foundations in creative ways to make a peaceful, unique setting for the farm.

"I've always been really interested in stone," he says. "Stone may be hard, but when it's used in your garden, it softens everything."

As their business grew via word of mouth, however, another irony slipped in. They had so many visitors, peace and quiet became hard to find and their home turned into a summer-long exhibition and visiting space. George explains: "The sign said open 9-5, but you can't just tell people to leave when they say, 'oh, we'll just walk around'" after closing hours.

In 2006, a 4.6-acre farm field parcel came on the market just south of Marshfield village on busy Route 2 with river frontage on the Winooski. George jumped at the chance to  move the flower business to a higher visibility spot away from their home. Gail, not so much: She liked working close to home. And then there was the not-so-minor issue of moving the plants.

"All day long Gail would dig plants and mark them, and I'd come home and load up the pickup and plant them," says George, who also had a college student digging nonstop. He estimates there were between 3,600 and 3,800 lilies when they started the move, comprising at least 500 varieties, along with some 500 varieties of shade-loving hostas (the nickname for hosta is deer lettuce," George quips.)  

It was a rough beginning, since gas hit $4 a gallon that year and there were a lot of start-up expenses. But within two years, George says, they had paid off the cost of starting up the new garden locale. 

On a cool overcast April day, the couple are showing a visitor around the site, where dozens of fallow rectangular beds are interspersed with stones and interesting dwarf trees. The land dips to a lower, more shaded field nestled against the river with more planting beds. George notes the move hasn't been all roses: Irene and the spring floods of 2011 swept hundreds of hostas downstream.

Gail's newest passion is hydrangeas, which add to an expanding list that now include astilbes, ferns, huecheras, tiarellas, pulmonarias, hellebores and others. They've given up growing the fancy lilies, which have been devastated by the red Asiatic lily beetles ("We're just not chemical people," George says.)

By the end of April, a new season will begin, and at that point it's non-stop seven days a week until Labor Day.

"Sometimes around July, I do think, I could use a day off," Gail says. But that's what winter is for.  

Andrew Nemethy is a longtime writer and editor from Calais. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont's innovators, people, ideas and places.