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
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
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
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
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
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
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,"
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
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
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
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