Seeds germinating inside tomato, J.Copes photo

Seeds germinating inside tomato, J.Copes photo

Have you ever cut into a tomato and found white squiggly looking things inside? These are not worms or aliens that made their way to the center, but rather seeds of the fruit that have begun germinating. It is called Vivipary, Latin for Live Birth. It is the term for plants that begin growing while still inside  or attached to the mother plant.It is common in certain varieties of tomatoes, peppers, apple, pears and some citrus.

Same tomato a few days later.

Same tomato a few days later.

This tomato probably was a bit older and sat on the counter for a while in a warm kitchen. Vivipary happens when the  hormone controlling the seed dormancy is exhausted or runs out, letting the seed grow in the moist environment inside the fruit. This warm, moist environment is perfect for germinating seed to grow. If the tomato was left uncut in the warm conditions, the new plant sprout would eventually poke through skin of the now decomposing tomato. These new plants can be potted up and grow into a large tomato plant and even produce tomatoes. The tomatoes will not be a clone of the mother plant, because it grew from a seed that had to be pollinated by another tomato flower, introducing new parent genes into the seed that will produce the new plant. The tomatoes off of the plant are entirely edible and quite possibly delicious. Check out the seeds inside your fruit or vegetable the next time you slice into it.

-Carol Quish

 

 

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red- winged blackbird male Photo fcps.edu

Here we are on the first day of April and snow from yesterday is just melting away. I am  certain that we all hope that is the last of that stuff until next winter. But as March ends and April has arrived, so have some of the early birds of spring.

Every year the male red- winged blackbirds and the grackles arrive first- sometimes as early as February, like this year. Because of hard snow cover, they turn up at bird feeders until normal food supplies become available as the snow melts. This year there were horned larks again in February in the fields at Horse Barn Hill in Storrs, but snow cover pushed them out, probably to the shoreline. These birds are regulars in March in the fields around Meig’s Point at Hammonasset  State Park. They come and go early, so I time my visits accordingly.

Another early bird is the Eastern Phoebe, a flycatcher that I consider the true harbinger of spring. Once you see one, they seem to appear everywhere. They have a sweet “ peep “ call  and a raspy song that sounds like it is saying its name. I wonder if the bird was named for its call… These birds nest early and like flat sheltered spots like building eaves and bridge supports. These brownish gray birds have white undersides and  have a rather large head that may appear flat on top. They also wag their tails when perched. They are extremely active birds, darting from one small tree to another as they fly-catch. They often return to the exact same nesting site every year, so it can be easy to find out when they arrive.

Another bird making its appearance last week was the yellow- rumped warbler. This colorful bird has its more dapper plumage for the spring breeding season. Named for a splash of yellow on the rump, they also have a yellow and black patch on the

shoulder and a yellow crown. Upperparts are dark gray with black striping on the breast and back. The face sports a black mask and the chin is white. These birds usually travel in groups and can be discovered by observing birds that are foraging on the outer areas of the tree canopy or darting out from the canopy to capture insects on the fly. Listen for their sharp “ pick “ calls, coming from many birds moving through the trees.

In the fall, these birds lose their breeding plumage, but can still be identified by their flycatcing behavior, contact calls, and the yellow splashes on the rump and shoulders.

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Yellow-rumped Warbler in spring plumage Matthew Studebaker photo

 Palm and pine warblers are also among the earliest warblers to pass through our area on their way to northern breeding grounds. As the name suggest, the pine warblers are most often found where there is an abundance of pines. They can be easier heard than seen, so listen for a musical trill ( similar to a chipping sparrow or junco ) as they forage for insects and seed high up in pines. Palm warblers come in about the time when wild honeysuckle is leafing out and skunk cabbage is about eight to ten inches high. Listen for their weak trill and soft “ pick “ as they forage for food in swamps and bogs as well as in moist woods and areas of woodland ponds. They are dull brown on top with a rusty cap and yellow on the face and throat. Like the phoebe, the palm warbler also wags its tail revealing a splash of yellow under the tail.

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Palm warber in spring. Photo Kelly Azar.

I save the best for last- the American Woodcock a peculiar bird that is not soon to be forgotten when seen for the first time. It has a globular head with bill like a long, pointed straw and a plump oblong body. This woodland bird is superbly camouflaged in brown, black, buff and gray tones, and lying on the forest floor, it is virtually invisible. Twice I have almost stepped on one that was sitting on a nest, and only was aware of it as it flew away. Also found in scrubby fields, its diet consists largely of earthworms, which are found by probing the ground with their long, stout bill. Males can be heard in early morning or dusk as they use  a distinctive “ peent “ or “ beep “ call to attract females.

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American Woodcock John Ascher photo

They also have an acrobatic courting flight display that can be seen at dusk and dawn in the spring. After calling for a few minutes, the male takes off to a height a 100- 300 feet and then spirals down to the ground. In our area these birds have the nickname “ timberdoodles “. Some nature centers and birding clubs sponsor yearly outings to observe the male flight displays. The wood line on Horse Barn Hill Road in Storrs is one place to see these birds.

So spring is here at last, and the birds are coming in right on time. And the greener it gets, the more birds we will see. Enjoy!

 

Pamm Cooper

While there are many spectacular perennials that come back year after year, I really love annuals for that splash of long-lasting color they impart to the landscape. Fiery salvias, soft celosias, autumnal hued sunflowers and brilliant white cosmos are just a sampling of the huge selections of annuals to choose from. When planning your gardens, do take into account an annual’s floriferous nature and its ability to provide you with color over a large part of our growing season. Use annuals alone in flower beds, in containers, in combination with perennials and herbs, to set off shrub borders or to brighten up planting areas under trees.

Gomphrena 'Fireworks' with zinnias & chrysogonum

Gomphrena ‘Fireworks’ with zinnias & chrysogonum

One of my favorite jobs was that as a horticulturist at Old Sturbridge Village. We would spend the winter months pouring over seed catalogs designing annual displays for the dozens of exhibition beds. Seeds would be ordered and we would start 10 to 12 thousand in the greenhouses before hardening them off and setting the transplants in their designated beds as the weather warms. I still have not gotten out of that ritual although I only start 2 to 3 hundred seeds under my plant lights these days.

Love Lies Bleeding - a favorite flower at OSV

Love Lies Bleeding – a favorite flower at OSV

A few suggestions for those pondering what to plant. First, do plan your color scheme before purchasing your plants. Take into consideration what will be blooming nearby, the color of adjacent buildings and the annual’s mature size and texture. Sometimes primary colors are just what is needed to liven up drab spots. Other times, soft pastels are called for. Large plantings of a single color look more formal while a mixed color border can be designed to give the feel of an English cottage garden. Keep in mind, however, that too many different shapes, sizes and colors can lose their charm as the eye doesn’t know where to focus and the planting becomes more distractive than attractive.

Also, consider the distance from which the garden will be primarily viewed. Strong, vibrant reds, yellows, pinks and oranges can be seen from a long way off. Quieter purples, blues and pastel pinks tend to recede and need to be viewed up close for greatest appreciation.

Remember that an annual’s sole purpose in life is to produce seeds to perpetuate itself. Once it feels that it has made enough, your annual plants will begin to slack off on the flowering. That is why it is important to remove spent blossoms on a regular basis. If seeds are not set, the plants will keep on producing flowers. The removal of spent blossoms is commonly referred to as dead heading. Some vegetatively propagated annuals as well as tender perennials do not readily set seed. Others, like fibrous begonias, are relatively self-cleaning. These types do not need dead-heading.

When selecting annuals, match the plant’s growth requirements to the site. For hot, dry areas try dusty miller, statice, amaranthus, tithonia, Madagascar periwinkle, gazania, portulaca, salvia, creeping zinnia, globe amaranth and Dahlberg daisy. For an old-fashioned touch, use poppies, love-lies-bleeding, salpiglossus, celosia, four o’clocks, gomphrena, love-in-a-mist or bachelor buttons.

Annuals that do well in shady sites include coleus, begonias, impatiens, torenia, nicotiana, pansies, mimulus, browallia and polka dot plants. There have been problems with impatiens downy mildew so a lot of garden centers were cutting back on the amount of impatiens they are selling. I lost all my impatiens in 2012 to downy mildew so did not plant any last year but several 2013 plantings not too far from me seemed fine to me so I was going to try some again this summer.

Impatiens wall at Prescott Park

Impatiens wall at Prescott Park

Some possible color combinations that I find particularly alluring are pink zinnias, bells of Ireland and white sweet alyssum, blue ageratums combined with cream-colored (white) marigolds and peach celosia, and orange tithonia accompanied by blue salvia and pert yellow marigolds. Silvery dusty miller goes nicely with the cooler pastels as well as warmer reds and yellows. I’ve used it as a lovely border for orange zinnias as well as in combination with pink snapdragons and pink ageratums.

Front walkway with celosia one year & marigolds the next

Marigolds - Durango Orange Front walkway with celosia one year & marigolds the next

There are many reasons that I find annuals alluring but I think the most compelling one is that I can give my garden beds a new look each year.

Good Gardening To You!

Dawn

 

 

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Bluebirds

Beautiful and beneficial the population of the Eastern bluebirds declined in numbers from the late 1800s through the 1980s. One significant contributing factor to this decline was the lack of suitable nesting cavities. Competition for nesting cavities from introduced European starlings and house sparrows, the loss of open field habitats, pesticide use, and severe weather conditions have also played a role in the decline of bluebird populations. Sometimes artificial nesting structures provide more secure nesting places than any other site because artificial nesting can be constructed to resist predators, parasites and destruction of the elements. This is true of bluebird boxes. The bluebird box can be constructed with an entrance hole to exclude starlings and they can be equipped with a special predator guard on a mounting pole.

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 CT Audubon picture

Bluebirds prefer a semi-open habitat such as orchards, meadows, and other areas with scattered trees and short ground cover. They perch in the open, scanning the ground for their prey of insects and spiders. During fall migration and into winter their diets change to wild fruits and berries such as dogwood and viburnum berries are very important foods along with the fruits of Virginia creeper, eastern red cedar, sumac, bayberry, honeysuckle, winterberry, and many other berry-producing shrubs and vines. These plant species may be used to enhance vegetation that already exists in and along open areas. Adding these species to your currently existing garden will enhance both food and insect availability for these birds. Late spring freezes can endanger Bluebirds and other vulnerable species so stock up on insect feeder foods in early spring so you are prepared if assistance is needed.
Julia Cencebaugh Kloth

Composting Worms close up. Photo by C,.Quish

Composting Worms close up. Photo by C,.Quish

The basics of keeping a worm farm are easy. Explaining why you would want to have one is a little harder to justify to people, particularly family members. Having been a worm farmer for over twenty years, my family finally just accepts and then ignores the fact there is a bin in the laundry room holding more than dirty laundry.

Reasons I keep worms:

  • Composting indoors in the winter and all year round. (No smell)
  • For the the rich castings they produce for plants.
  • They are a very low input pet.
  • Free fish bait.
  • No yard needed.

To get started, a container, bedding and food is needed. For one pound of worms, a plastic bin two feet by two feet and at least eight inches high will work. Any size will really do as the worms are not that picky. Choose  one with light blocking sides as clear ones let in light. Worms do not like light.

Worm Bin with tray to catch drips. Photo by C.Quish

Worm Bin with tray to catch drips. Photo by C.Quish

Bin top with air holes drilled. Photo C.Quish

Bin top with air holes drilled. Photo C.Quish

Drill air and drainage holes through the plastic top, sides and bottom. The vegetable scraps will be of high water content, releasing moisture as they decompose to the point that the worms can digest it. This liquid can and will drain out of the bottom. Place a catch tray of any type under the bin to protect floor and surfaces. This drained water can be diluted in a watering can to be used on plants as a fertilizer.

Newsprint for bedding, photo C.Quish

Newsprint for bedding, photo C.Quish

Fill the bin with shredded newspaper, no glossy sections, colored and black and white print is OK. The worms will live in and eat this paper. Moisten the paper with water so it is as wet as a wrung out sponge. Worms breathe through their skin which must be kept moist. Feed the worms by pulling back some of the newspaper to bury the food scraps. The worms will find it. One pound of worms will eat one pound of food wastes each day! The food will not disappear right away. It will need to decompose a bit first. All food scrapes can be used except meat, dairy, oils, bones or pet waste.

The type of worm to use is not native to the Northeast, nor can you dig up worms from the yard and expect them to live in this confined environment. Red Wigglers is the common name of the composting worm best suited to life in a bin. Their Latin name is Eisenia foetida. They are available at bait shops and online. Ask for them by the Latin name to be sure of their identity. The Worm Ladies of Charleston, Rhode Island is a reputable seller of the correct composting worms. www.wormladies.com

Not all worms are alike. Nightcrawlers prefer to live a solitary life, alone in long tube going several feet deep. They only come out at night to feed and mate, retreating back alone into its hole by daybreak. Several other worms live in our soils, but they feed at different levels and move to different areas to find food. These mobile worms will not like living in a confined space either.

Eisenia foetida close-up. Photo by C.Quish

Eisenia foetida close-up. Photo by C.Quish

Harvest the castings after most of the bedding food has been transformed into dark brown, crumbly material. Dump the bin on a tarp outside on a bright day. Worms do not like the light and will move downward into the dark. Scrape off the top inch or so of castings to watch the worms move further down. Pretty soon you  will have a pile of wormless castings  and a pile of worms. Put the ball of squiggling worms back into the bin with new strips of newspaper moistened with water and begin the process again. The harvested casting can be used in the garden around the plants and worked into the soil. Your plants will thank you for it.

-Carol Quish

I felt lucky to see this little Carolina wren in my office at work this winter.  There is a small indoor arena in the building and it’s not uncommon for birds to find their way in there.  While unheated, it’s far warmer than the outside temperatures.  This is a good spot for a wren or a wren couple this year because we’ve had a very cold winter.  The Carolina wren is found along much of the east coast north to Massachusetts and west to states from Texas to southern Michigan but populations are usually drastically reduced after a severe winter.  

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Carolina wren indoors at UConn, Storrs, CT. J. Allen photo.

Thryothorus ludovicianus, the Carolina wren, is the second largest wren in the United States after the cactus wren.  It prefers a sheltered habitat with hiding places but this can be in a wide range of places including woodlands, swamps, farms, and residential areas. 

The males and females are similar in appearance, the male being slightly heavier and having a slightly longer beak, wings and tail.  The back is rusty brown in color and the belly a lighter brown.  The tail has dark bands or stripes and the wings have dark and white bands.  There is a prominent white stripe through the eye, a characteristic that distinguishes this wren from others.  Legs are pinkish.   The beak is long and slightly curved and the tail is relatively long.  Adults are about 5.5” long and weigh up to 0.75 oz. Young birds are similar to the adults but their colors are lighter.   The male is the only one to produce a song but the Carolina wren is known for being one of the loudest songbirds and they sing at any time or place.  One report says a captive sang 3000 times in a single day!   Listen to the wonderful song here on YouTube.

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Nicer photo of a Carolina wren by J.P. Myers, http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Carolina wren nest and eggs. Washtenaw County Audubon Society, http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu

The average lifespan of the Carolina wren is about six years.  They are monogamous so mated pairs stay together until one dies or disappears.  Males and females share in the building of the nest, using natural materials like twigs, weeds, pine needles or bits of bark and other found materials such as string or feathers.  Nests are built in a diversity of sheltered areas from branch crotches or holes in trees or stumps to mailboxes, windowsills, or discarded containers.   The breeding season is from March to October and there can be multiple broods per season, usually two in the northern parts of the range.  Nests are usually not reused. 

Once the nest is completed, which takes about a week, the female lays 3-7 eggs, usually 4.  The eggs are laid one per day, most often in the morning.   They are incubated for about two weeks by the female and typically hatch within an hour of each other.  During incubation, the male brings food for the female.  Once the babies have hatched, both parents feed them for a couple of weeks, then they are coaxed from the nest when the food deliveries are reduced by the adults.   While in the nest, young birds are fed caterpillars and other insects.  Adults continue to feed on insects and spiders, and even an occasional small salamander or frog.  They also feed on berries. 

Young wrens will be ready to mate the year following their birth.   Males have a ‘showy’ courtship routine that includes hopping in a circle around the prospective female with puffed feathers and a fanned tail.  They may even offer her a morsel of food.  

Predators of the Carolina wren include hawks, bluejays, raccoons, mink, fox and even squirrels and chipmunks.

If you have a small brown bird nesting somewhere on or near your home or property, it could be Carolina wrens.  Look for the white band through the eye and the rather long, slightly curved beak, and listen for the cheerful song of the male. 

J Allen

P1310839II

Cedar waxwings have been one of my favorite birds since childhood. I used to climb a tree near a swamp and sit quietly while small flocks of these birds would launch from nearby alders and swamp maples to capture the insects that flew above the water. They were so intent on pursuing the  smorgasbord of insects that abound in wetlands, that sometimes they would almost land on my head, veering away at the last minute. Like most birds that fly-catch they may seem unaware of your presence since all their focus is needed to catch zooming insects.

Waxwings have beautiful form and coloring. The body is a combination of a rich light brown and some gray with a lemon yellow underbelly. Some birds are accented by bright red wax- like tips on the wing feathers.Tails of adults are tipped with bright yellow, while fledglings may have an orange band. If they eat enough fruits from an introduced honeysuckle species, the tail tips of adults and juveniles may turn orange. Dapper with a crest like a cardinal and a black mask through the eyes, the waxwing is an striking bird. And their high pitched, thin whistles tell you when they are nearby or flying over.

waxwing showing wing tips 2-7-14 UConn campus photo Pamm Cooper

Some of the best places to find cedar waxwings are either around water- ponds, rivers, waterfalls, and lakes in the spring and summer where insects are abundant or around trees and shrubs that provide fruits and berries to eat in the fall and winter.

Cedar waxings get their common name from the cedar trees from which they obtain fruit and their red wing tip accents. They are mainly fruit eaters and ingest both the seeds and pulp, unlike many other birds that regurgitate the seeds. Even their young are fed a large amount of fruit and live to tell the tale. They do seem to switch to a more protein rich insect diet in summer, then return to fruits as they become more abundant in late summer and fall. They may eat sassafras, black gum and In winter, look for waxwings wherever there are winterberry, cedar, inkberry, crabapples and other fruits still remaining, especially after snowstorms. Sometimes waxwings and even robins can become intoxicated from eating berries or crabapples that have started to ferment.

cedar waxwings on crabapple 2-7-14 UConn outside Radclifef Hicks photo Pamm Cooper

Waxwings have an endearing habit of sharing food, sometimes even passing a berry down to the last bird in line. They are social, and seldom found alone. Sometimes their numbers can be so large that they can strip a tree of all its fruit in a matter of hours. They one thing I have noticed is that they take turns when in large groups. For example, one group will settle in to feed on crabapples, and another group will settle in to a treetop nearby. All of a sudden, the ones feeding will start whistling and fly off and the group that was patiently waiting without a peep will fly in to take their turn. This can go on all day, especially in the winter when food is scarce after a good snowstorm. Of course, they will still carry on this way even during the middle of snowstorm, making for a good photo opportunity as they are not particularly shy birds.

two waxwings sharing apple 2-7-14 photo by Pamm Cooper

Keep your eyes and ears open, and check out any trees or shrubs that still have fruit, and you may be rewarded with a great opportunity to observe these beautiful birds.

Pamm Cooper               All photos © 2014 Pamm Cooper

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