If you can’t be in awe of Mother Nature, there’s something wrong with you.

  • Alex Trebek
cecropia day of eclose

Cecropia moth made it to maturity from caterpillar raised in a sleeve

Sometimes, in the course of our lifetime, we may find ourselves in the right place at the right time to make a difference in the life of some living thing. Maybe it is just the simple act of putting a nestling bird back in the nest from which it has fallen. Or we may be able to transplant a native plant to a safe location just a few feet away from the reach of a roadside sickle bar. Once I had to scoop up with a towel a baby fox that had fallen asleep in a dangerous place on the golf course and put it back with its brothers (or sisters!) who had chosen their resting place wisely. While it may not always be a good thing to interfere, sometimes it may be the best thing.

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Box turtle was helped across busy road

Where I work, we often have a surprise when mowing early in the morning. This year when I was mowing a green with lights on just before sun-up, I noticed something that I thought was an earthworm moving in the path of the mower. At the last second before running it over, the creature starting running on little legs and I stopped in the nick of time. It was a tiny salamander. I put it in a plastic cup with a lid I always have with me and later on I put the little guy in the woods near a vernal pool.

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tiny salamander saved from a mower

In a similar way, the eft form of red-spotted newts often end up on greens or fairways the day after a rain. Being so small, they are often unable to make it back to the woods where they belong. So placement in a plastic cup keeps it safe until the opportunity comes to set the little eft on the forest floor. Like Shakespeare wrote- ‘all’s well that ends well’.

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Eft form of the red-spotted newt

Our giant silkworm moth caterpillars have a high percentage that are killed by introduced parasites meant to control the gypsy moth caterpillars. When I find young silkworm moth caterpillars in the wild, I like to raise them so prevent parasitism. When they form cocoons, I take them back from whence they came. Cocoons can be attached to twigs of the host plant with a bread tie or put in leaf litter below.

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First instar cecropia caterpillars found on alder and raised in captivity safe from introduced parasitic wasps

Turtles often are the recipients of human kindness, especially when they attempt to cross roads. Box turtles are frequently seen crossing roads the day after a summer rain, and many have been helped across by kind people. Some turtles travel great distances to lay their eggs and encounter similar hazards. Once we found three spotted turtle eggs while renovating a bunker. Carefully marking them to keep them right-side up, they were transferred to an aquarium and placed under sand. Within two months they hatched and were released on the banks of the pond where the eggs where originally laid. If it were possible for turtles to leap for joy, they would have.

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Spotted turtle hatched from egg just before release

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Another spotted turtle removed from harm’s way

If a baby bird is found on the ground, it is important to note whether it is a nestling, which has fallen from the nest prematurely, or a fledgling, which should be out of the nest. The cedar waxwing shown below was a fledgling found on the ground on a cart path. It was moved out of harm’s way to a low branch nearby where the parents easily found it. Unlike many other animals, parents will still feed and care for baby birds even after human handling.

cedar waxwing fledgling

Cedar waxwing fledgling moved from a cart path to a low branch

There are walking sticks I find every year on certain plants on a particular power line right- of- way. A lot of tree and shrubs were marked to be cut down to clear the lines including a small clump of filbert and viburnum that are the host plants for these insects. I wanted to try to save a few before the chain saws arrived, so I took my beating sheet and was able to find several tiny walking sticks that probably had hatched that week. They were raised that summer until work along the lines was complete. Since the host plants were left standing, the walking sticks were returned.

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Power line right-of-way after drastic tree removal. Walking stick host plants escaped the saw

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Walking stick just hatched removed from power line area, raised and released back after tree removal work finished

This year we had an interesting incident involving honey bees. Since it was late in the year and many flowers were no longer available, honey bees were very busy on black and blue salvia in a large planter outside the clubhouse. The problem was, someone had fallen into and smashed the salvia and it had to be removed. Our gardener noticed that over fifty honey bees were still swarming around where the plant had been, and they were even trying to get nectar from the petals remaining on the ground. Since a planting nearby along a stone wall also had the same salvia, we took small branches with the flowers and held them over the ground where the bees were. The bees immediately went for the flowers on the stalks and stayed there, or flew with them to the front planting. We shook the bees off, and they found the new flowers right away. We were able to get all the bees over there in this way. They probably would have found the other salvia on their own, but it was something to do…

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Transporting honeybees on a branch of black and blue salvia flowers

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Honey bees inside flowers and following branch as they are moved to a new nectar site

To help wildlife on your own property, include water dishes for toads, chipmunks, and other animals, birdbaths and perhaps bird and bee houses. Provide shelter for  birds such as small trees and shrubs, which may also double as food sources and nesting places.

bee nest house using bamboo tubes

Bee nesting house using bamboo tubes that should be sealed on one end with mud or another substance

When you are out and about enjoying  nature in the wild or in your own back yard, it is always satisfying and cheering to one’s own little self to see something else become better off because of what we may be able to do. Just think- you don’t have to be a nature expert to become, at least for a little while, a bee whisperer.

Pamm Cooper                                              all photos by Pamm Cooper

Every growing season brings a variety of inquiries into the UConn Home & Garden Education office, either by snail mail, email, or in person. This year was no exception and I would like to share some that I found particularly interesting.

As we are entering the Christmas season I will start with an image of a Christmas cactus with raised bumps on its leaves. Although they were the same color as the leaf they had a translucent appearance when viewed with the light from behind. These blisters are edema (oedema)are the result of a disruption in the plant’s water balance that causes the leaf cells to enlarge and plug pores and stomatal openings. Moving the plant to a location with more light and watering only when the soil is dry can control edema.

Edema on Christmas cactus

Christmas cactus with edema symptoms

The cold of winter can cause problems that sometimes aren’t apparent until later in the year. Tree trunks that are exposed to southern light during the winter can suffer from sunscald and frost cracks. Sunshine and warm daytime temperatures can warm a tree enough so that the sap begins to run but the nighttime temps will cause the sap to freeze and expand, weakening the bark and resulting in vertical cracks. Dogwood with sunscald (on left) and willow with frost crack (on right) are among the susceptible species.

 

There were several incidences of huge populations of black cutworm larvae emerging in the spring including a group that appeared to be taking over a driveway! The Noctuidae moth can lay hundreds of eggs in low-growing plants, weeds, or plant residue.

The wet spring weather that helped to alleviate the drought of the past two years also had an effect on the proliferation of slime molds, those vomitus-looking masses that are entirely innocuous. The dog stinkhorn (Mutinus caninus) is another fungus that made several appearances this year.

Hosta plants exhibited several different symptoms on its foliage this year and the explanations were quite varied, from natural to man-made. The afore-mentioned wet spring and summer or overhead watering systems can cause Hosta to have the large, irregular, water-soaked looking spots with dark borders that may be a sign of anthracnose (the below left and center images). In the image below on the right the insect damage that shows up as holes that have been chewed in foliage may be caused by one of Hosta’s main pests, slugs.

But one of the more enigmatic Hosta problems presented itself as areas of white that appeared randomly on the foliage. Several questions and answers later it was determined that the Hosta in question was very close to a deck that had been power washed with a bleach solution! Yeah, that will definitely give you white spots.

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That bleach bath also affected a nearby coleus (below on left). Coleus downy mildew (Peronospora sp.) also likes the cool the cool temperatures and humidity of spring (below on right). The gray-purple angular blotches of this fungal disease were first observed in New York in 2005. Fungicides can be helpful if used early and thoroughly, and overcrowding and overhead watering should be minimized.

The grounds of the residence where my in-laws live have a lot of flowering plants in the landscape and as we walked one evening I noticed that the white roses had spots of red on them. These small, red rings are indicative of Gray mold (Botrytis cinerea), a necrotrophic fungal disease that is also a common problem in grapes called botrytis bunch rot. The disease is a parasitic organism that lives off of the dead plant tissues of its host.

The fungus Gymnosporangium clavipes, cedar-quince rust, on Serviceberry warranted several calls to the center due to its odd appearance. The serviceberry fruit gets heavily covered with the aecia tubes of the rust which will release the aeciospores that infect nearby members of the Juniper family, the alternate host that is needed to complete the cycle of the infection.

Two other samples that came in, goldenrod (below on left) and sunflower (below on right), shared unusual growths of foliage. Sometimes plant aberrations can be the result of a virus (such as rose rosette disease), fungus (such as corn smut fungus), or, like these samples, phytoplasma. Phytoplasma is the result of bacterial parasites in the plant’s phloem tissue and can result in leaf-like structures in place of flowers (phyllody) or the loss of pigment in flower petals that results in green flowers (virescence). Phytoplasma parasites are vectored by insects.

A frequent question revolves around ‘growths’ of a different kind, in particular the white projections that can cover a tomato hornworm. These are the pupal cocoons of the parasitic braconid wasp. The female wasp lays its eggs just under the skin of the hornworm and the newly hatched larvae will literally eat the hornworm to death. As the larvae mature they will chew their way to the outside where they will spin their cocoons along the back and pupate. As the hornworm is effectively a goner at this point they should be left undisturbed so that the next generation of wasps will emerge to continue to help us by naturally controlling this tomato pest.

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Tomato hornworm with braconid wasp pupal cocoons

 

Another wasp that was caught in the act was the cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus), a large, solitary, digger wasp. Cicada killers, also called cicada hawks, are so called because they hunt cicadas to provision their nests. It is the female cicada killer that paralyzes the cicada and flies it back to her ground nest. The male cicada killer has no stinger and although its aggressive nature can seem threatening to humans, the male spends most of its time grappling with other males for breeding rights and investigating anything that moves near them.

Cicada killer wasp

A cicada killer wasp paralyzes a cicada

 

Speaking of noticing what’s going on around you, as my husband was walking past a False indigo (Baptisia australis) in July he heard a strange cracking sound and called it to my attention. The plant in question was outside of a gym on the Hofstra University campus where our son’s powerlifting meet had just ended. As many lifters exited the building amid much music and commotion we stood their staring at the Baptisia, heads tilted in that pose that is more often found on a puzzled dog. The bush was indeed popping and cracking as the dried seed pods split open!

 

But none of our inquiries approach the level of oddity reported by a retiree in Karlsruh, Germany, who thought that he had found an unexploded bomb in his garden in September. Police officers called to the scene discovered not a bomb but in fact an extra-large zucchini (11 lbs.!) that had been thrown over the garden hedge.

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This is not an unexploded ordnance!

 

I look forward to next year’s growing season with great anticipation!

Susan Pelton

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Photo: Joseph Berger, Bugwood.org

When you think of beetles, an image like the photo to the left probably comes to mind first. This is a common ground beetle. These are only one type of many in the diverse order Coleoptera.  The beetles come in a wide array of sizes, colors and forms. In addition, they occupy diverse habits, have food preferences ranging from dead organic matter to plants and other animals and even fungi, and have a variety of both harmful and beneficial roles, depending on your perspective. The ground beetle pictured here is a beneficial predator of other insects and small prey. One of the very interesting groups of beetles are the blister beetles in the family Meloidae.

The common name blister beetle refers to the skin irritation resulting from contact with an exudate produced by these beetles when they are alarmed or injured. It contains the toxin cantharidin, an odorless chemical found only in this and one other beetle family, Oedermeridae (false blister beetles). Skin contact in humans can result in blisters but they are reported to be only minimally painful if at all and to clear up on their own in a reasonable amount of time. There is a much greater risk associated with consumption of beetles (and the toxin) in hay by livestock, especially horses. Some blister beetle species are attracted to alfalfa, especially during bloom, and when cut for hay during this time, beetles can be killed and inadvertently fed to animals. Different blister beetle species produce varying levels of toxin and therefore have different levels of severity when ingested. Reports indicate that if a horse ingests only 5-10 beetles (or their toxin) it may be fatal.

Striped blister beetle (Epicauta vittata)Photo: Clemson University – USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series, Bugwood.org

What do blister beetles look like? They have a unique appearance. Wing covers (elytra) are generally shorter than the abdomen (note this in the photos featured in this blog). The neck (between the head and thorax) is very narrow and the thorax is wider at the abdomen than at the neck. Antennae are pretty long and look serrated or segmented. The striped blister beetle shown above is found in the eastern part of the US and southern Canada and the adults feed on some common vegetable plants and weeds, sometimes congregating in large numbers and causing damage. These and some other blister beetles are attracted to lights. As a group, the blister beetles are not nocturnal but are also not strictly diurnal.

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Meloe sp. by Joan Allen, UConn

So that’s the bad side of blister beetles (well, one of them anyway). An explanation of the life cycle of some of them in the genus Meloe (common name oil beetles) will shed some light on another somewhat negative impact. In blister beetles, the larval stages are typically predaceous while the adults feed on flowers or leaves. The earliest larval stage is called a triungulin. In many species, eggs are laid on or near the flowers of the host plant of the adult. After hatching, the triungulins attach to a male bee as it visits a flower and catch a ride to a female bee.  In some cases, large numbers of triungulins cluster together on flowers and emit a chemical attractant that mimics one emitted by the female of the target bee species to help attract males. Once transported to a female bee, the triungulins move from the male to her and accompany her to where she is building a nest, laying eggs and providing provisions for her young. There they leave the female and consume bee eggs, larvae and their provisions.  Adult Meloe sp. are easy to identify: their elytra are much shorter than their large abdomens as shown in the image above (possibly M. impressus or M. campanicollis).

As mentioned above, the adults are typically herbivores, feeding on plant material. Sometimes they will aggregate in large groups and cause significant but localized damage to food crops including those in the Brassicaceae, Amaranthaceae, Asteraceae, Fabaceae and Solanaceae. A couple of years ago there was a localized outbreak of Meloe campanicollis on Brassicas on farms in Connecticut (shown below).

Meloe campanicollis on Brassica leaves. Photo: Jude Boucher, UConn

Another type of blister beetle can be considered a bit more beneficial. Many in the genus Epicauta lay their eggs on or in the soil and the young feed on grasshopper eggs or even on the eggs of other Epicauta sp. The margined blister beetle (E. funebris) and the black blister beetle (E. pensylvanica) are examples of these beetles that occur in the northeast (and are widely distributed in the U.S. and southern Canada). Adult host plants preferred by the margined blister beetle include alfalfa, beet, eggplant, tomato, potato, and soybean. Black blister beetles are often found on goldenrod but will feed on many other plants too. See pictures below.

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Margined blister beetle (Epicauta funebris) by Pamm Cooper, UConn

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Black blister beetle (E. pensylvanica) on goldenrod by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org

 

Living in a developed nation, we have a tendency to take too many things for granted. We can just turn on the faucet and fill a glass with water. When illness occurs, antibiotics are often prescribed. Looking for a warm weather gift – what about cotton flannel pajamas or a wool cap? Drive down to the nearest store and a near mind-boggling array of food products greets you.

What do all of these things have in common? They are all affected by the soil and its properties. Among its functions, soil regulates the flow of water. Will it soak in and replenish groundwater tables or run off carrying valuable topsoil and nutrients? Many do not know that the soil contains millions of species of microbes that produce many unique substances including the antibiotic, streptomycin. Cotton and flax plants are used to make clothing. Sheep and alpacas graze on forage plants growing in the soil. Their fleece is spun into wool yarns. Whether vegan or omnivore, the vegetables, fruits and grains we consume, or feed eaten by livestock raised for meat or dairy products are grown in soils.

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Winter squash. Photo by dmp.

Soils not only sustain life both above and below the ground but they store and recycle nutrients. As plant or animal debris falls to the soil surface, microbes decompose these remains releasing essential elements for themselves and other organisms. Soil plays a large role in the nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur nutrient cycles. These nutrients are held on both organic and inorganic soil particles, and in the bodies of soil dwellers and eventually made available to both plants and animals.

While the uninformed may think of the soil as an inert substance, those familiar with working the soil and getting their hands ‘dirty’ can almost feel and often smell the life in every handful of healthy soil. That earthy odor that emulates from soil stirred or walked upon after a rainstorm is that of geosmin. It is a volatile organic compound produced mostly by soil organisms called actinomycetes. Scientists do not know what purpose it serves other than to clue us into the fact that the soil smells healthy.

Soil is a complex, dynamic living ecosystem. It is the soil organisms that give the soil life and upon which we also depend, whether we realize it or not. These tiny creatures have co-evolved with plants over billions of years and formed symbiotic relationships. In its simplest sense, plants feed the microbes and the microbes feed the plants. It is hard to fathom but in the top 6 inches of an acre of healthy soil, there may be anywhere from 1000 to 5000 pounds of soil organisms!

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Bare soil is subject to loss by erosion. Photo by dmp.

Aside from providing plants with nutrients and other essential life substances, certain microbes exude a sticky substance called glomalin. This substance is key to good soil structure as tiny particles of sand, silt, clay and organic materials are bound together to form soil aggregates. The aggregates give soil a granular or crumb structure with spaces for air and water and roots to travel. Well-aggregated soils allow more water to infiltrate them, are less compacted, have less runoff and erosion and encourage plant growth.

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Exudates from roots and microbes result in soil aggregates. Photo by dmp.

For microbes to do their jobs, they need food just like we do and microbes love organic matter. Our soils in many situations need organic matter too. Several sources have documented world soil organic matter levels declining over the years due to poor soil management. Not only is organic matter essential for soil microbes but it benefits the planet as it serves to sequester carbon. As some of the organic matter is processed by microbes, it is turned into complex, humus compounds that are very resistant to decay so carbon can be stored in them for years.

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Bark mulch on perennial bed. Photo by dmp.

Carbon is at the forefront of many discussions and research projects in regards to its contribution to climate change. As most people are aware, carbon and oxygen together form carbon dioxide (CO2) which is known to be a greenhouse gas meaning it has the ability to hold heat. The more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the more heat it can hold with the result being changing weather patterns often bringing with them unprecedented weather events such as hurricanes and droughts.

The carbon cycle is fairly simple. Carbon cycles through the atmosphere, the soil and living creatures be they plants, animals or humans. We can’t make more carbon. There are the same number of carbon atoms on the planet now as there was when it was formed. Carbon just moves through these three storehouses. The reason there is more carbon in the air is because it is being removed from the ground by the burning of fossil fuels (the remains of carbon containing plants and animals), deforestation, the conversion of solid carbon in the soil into gaseous carbon dioxide because of poor soil husbandry and other land management practices or decisions.

Increasing the amount of organic matter in soils, whether they be in your backyard or a farmer’s field or on natural sites, is one way to keep carbon where it belongs – in the ground. Leave the grass clippings on the lawn, use mulch or cover crops in garden beds, compost kitchen and yard wastes and consider using natural fertilizers. Yes, these are tiny efforts when compared to what is needed on a global scale, but every measure helps. Support larger scale initiatives to manage soils sustainably.

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Keep soil covered. Straw mulch in vegetable bed. Photo by dmp.

The Earth has 58 million square miles of land area but only about 11 percent is considered arable. When this is divvied up by the number of people living on this planet now, somewhere in the neighborhood of 7.5 billion, it means that there is about one-half an acre of arable land per person. Think about that for a moment. Perhaps this realization will find more people wanting to learn about creating healthy soils. It really is time to stop treating our soils like dirt!

Dawn P.

 

red barn in Glastonbury

Spiffy barn on Ferry Lane in Glastonbury

I like a man who likes to see a fine barn as well as a good tragedy.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the Connecticut landscape, there are so many barns that are reminders of the agricultural age that once, and still is a prominent component of the landscape. Sometimes all that remains of many farm properties is the original farmhouse and a barn or two. The barns that remain, whether still in use or not, are interesting to me mostly because of the quality of both the materials and the workmanship that went into building them. Also, in a nostalgic way, I grew up in dairy country in New York State and I used to play in and around barns where the smells of the grain and the animals were a major feature of daily life.

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Connected brown barns in South Windsor

A good site for investigating any barns is https://connecticutbarns.org/. You can click on the map to find barns in a particular town, and there is a picture and pertinent information as to past and present uses and historical interest, if any. This site is a valuable resource in identifying and learning about barns you may have an interest in.

One of the more familiar barns in Connecticut is the one at the Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry. A post and beam framed structure built in the 1760s, it is located on South Street. This barn is on the National Register of Historic Places in Connecticut. It is built in the English/ New England hybrid style which normally had a gable roof and vertical sheathing.

Nathan Hale Homestead post and beam barn c 1750s

Nathan Hale Homestead Barn

The Morse Farm barn in Scotland is listed on the National Register, the State Historic Resource Inventory and the State Register. This carriage house style barn has one and one half stories and features a gambrel roof design. A gambrel roof has two distinctive slopes on both sides, with the upper slope pitched at a shallow angle and the lower slope at a steeper angle. This allowed for more head room when working on the upper floor.  This barn had a combined use as a stable and   carriage storage.

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Morse Farm carriage house barn with gambrel roof

Jarmoc  Farms in Enfield, a tobacco farm, has a typical carriage house style barn, with one large front entrance with double sliding doors. As its names suggests, this style of barn was used to house carriages and tack, and horses were stabled nearby. These typically were open fronted, single story buildings, having the roof supported by regularly spaced pillars. The exterior or carriage house barns often echoed the style of the farmhouse.

barn with open door jarmoc farms Enfield - Copy

Barn with open door- Jarmoc Farms Enfield

On Newberry Road in South Windsor, there is a good example of a barn of the English bank structure. New England barns are usually a type of bank barn, built into the side of a hill giving ground level access to one side, but a ramp or rarely a bridge were used to access the doors. Roof and eave overhangs were typically one foot to protect walls from rain water. Ventilators and cupolas were added to some barns in the 19th century to reduce moisture build-up. Some barns had stairs, but most featured ladder access to the second floor.

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New England bank style barns in South Windsor

 A picturesque red barn with white trim and a cupola located on Main Street, South Windsor, is an example of an English/New England hybrid style barn. The English barn is a simple building with a rectangular plan, a pitched roof, and a door or doors located on one or both of the long sides of the building. The New England style barn, built after 1830, could stand alone or be connected to other farm buildings and had an often off-centered end wall door for wagons to enter.

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English/New England hybrid style barn with cupola in South Windsor

On Valley Falls Road in Vernon, the historic red barn, built between 1875 and 1920 features a gambrel bank style, a cupola and a timber frame structure. A milking stable was in the basement, featuring the typical cement floor and manure gutters and whitewashed walls.  Listed on the Local Historic District and the State Register, this historic barn features an annual Artist’s Day at the Farm event, with artists painting the barn and then auctioning the paintings later that same day.

Valley Falls red barn

Historic red barn on Valley Falls Road, Vernon

Across the street from the red barn is the Valley Falls Farm, featuring an historic English style barn that is also on the State Register. It features vertical sheathing and is painted white with green trim and has a huge bell on its precincts. Christian Sharps, inventor of the Sharps rifle, bought this farm in 1871. A Hungarian aristocrat, Hans Munchow built the horse stables and outbuildings after purchasing the property in 1910.

Valley Falls Farm barn

Valley Falls Farm barn and outbuildings

The Farwell Barn (Jacobson barn) located on Horsebarn Hill Road in Storrs, is a 19th century post and beam framed clapboard barn acquired by the Connecticut Agricultural College, which later became the  University of Connecticut . This New England bank style barn is listed on the National Register, number 00001649.

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Jacobson barn on Horsebarn Hill, Storrs

foggy morning red barn on Horsebarn Hill Road Storrs II Pamm Cooper photo 2-15-2017

Jacobson barn on a foggy winter morning

Gilbert Road in Stafford features an English Bank style of barn. Not too far away, on 425 Old Springfield Road in Stafford there is the Greystone Farm English style barn that features exterior siding of gray fieldstone, flushboard and vertical siding on other sections. The roof is a gable type.

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English bank style barn with matching birdhouse on Gilbert Road, Stafford

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Greystone Farm barn with fieldstone

The Sheridan Farmstead (c. 1760) on Hebron Road in Bolton is listed on the State Register of Historic Places and features a gentleman’s barn built in 1900. A gentleman’s barn had a dual purpose as a weekend retreat and a working farm. The white extended English bank barn features a stairway to the upper level, hay chutes, a brick chimney, rolling doors, an earthen ramp and horse stalls on the ground level.

Sheridan Homestead barn Bolton ct. gentlemans barn style built 1900

Sheridan Homestead gentleman’s barn Bolton, Ct.

Unlike most in our region, the tobacco barns were created with a single crop-single purpose in mind- gently drying and curing tobacco leaves. built in the rich Connecticut River valley, the barns pictured below are still used today.

Tobacco barn on the floodplain in Glastonbury

Tobacco barn in Glastonbury

tobacco barn South windsor

Tobacco barn in South Windsor

If a little interest has been sparked in our agricultural history and the barns that shaped its success, I hope you come discover some interesting barns in your travels.  It is hard to think that, in some way, there is any town in our little state that is not part of our rich farming history. Happy hunting!

Pamm Cooper                                                      all photos copyrighted 2017 by Pamm Cooper 

barn with a red door 2017 Main st South Windsor

Barn with a red door in South Windsor

Last week’s Ladybug Blog extolled the historical, cultural, and culinary delights of pumpkin. It seems as though you can’t step foot into a grocery store, candle shop, or cafe without being inundated with products that revolve around pumpkin spice. As ubiquitous as the combination of cinnamon, clove, and allspice have been the past few years I remember a time when the flavor of early fall was apple; from cider and cider doughnuts to pies and apple butter.

Many a school field trip or family outing revolved around a trip to an orchard to pick one of the many varieties of apples available in New England and return home laden with bags of this versatile fruit. The pleasure of these adventures was increased if the destination also had a working cider press. That sweet/sour smell of the overripe apples being pressed says fall much in the same way that a freshly-cut fir tree hints that Christmas is on its way.

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Enjoying a visit to Easy Pickins Orchard in Enfield, CT

Apple orchards have been a part of Connecticut and New England since cultivated apples (Malus pumila also known as M. domestica) were brought here by the European settlers in the 17th century. The first recorded apple orchard was planted in 1625 by the Reverend William Blaxton in what is now Cumberland, Rhode Island. Reverend Buxton cultivated the Yellow Sweeting apple which later became known as the Rhode Island Greening, a cooking apple that has a greenish-yellow flesh. Before that only the small, sour, wild apples which we know as crabapples grew in North America. Crabapples are used as ornamental trees in landscapes and as they are heavy bloomers are great sources of pollen for cross-pollination in apple orchards, are a good source of pectin, and as a rootstock that provides cold-hardiness to domestic apples.

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The crabapple tree at our first home bloomed beautifully every Mother’s Day (1991)

The use of crabapple or other apple varieties as a rootstock in grafting is very important in modern orchard farming. Apple trees grown from seed do not grow true to their parent plant and can be anywhere from 12 to 36’ tall, features that are not conducive to consistent apple production and ease of harvest. Therefore, grafting, the technique that combines the beneficial traits of 2 or 3 apple varieties is greatly beneficial. In the simplest of terms, grafting is the procedure by which a scion (a piece of last year’s growth that has 2-3 buds) is cut from an existing tree of the desired apple variety.

The scion is inserted into the cambium (vascular) layer of the understock (rootstock) of another apple variety that may bring traits such as disease resistance, crotch strength, adaptability to heavier soil, a slow growth rate, adaptability to espalier training, or the above-mentioned cold-hardiness. The new graft is generally bound with tape and a grafting compound. Detailed information on grafting can be found in books or online.

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Espaliered apple trees

Cider apples are usually a combination of cultivars that are grown specifically for use in cider production to have higher sugar and tannin levels and are often more astringent than the eating and baking varieties. These qualities contribute to a final product that has a deeper flavor. Among cider apple varieties are some that are higher in sugar which causes their cider product to ferment resulting in hard cider. In fact, hard cider was an important beverage at a time when refrigeration was unavailable. Most apple cider produced today is pasteurized, a process that heats the unfiltered apple juice to prevent bacterial contamination. It also destroys any yeast that would cause the juice to ferment creating a more stable non-alcoholic product. In fact, ‘Johnny Appleseed’, the folklore hero born as John Chapman in 1774, planted seeds that produced apples that were only good for hard cider (or applejack), not for eating.

In 1993 The Enfield Historical Society brought a manual cider press to the Old Town Hall Museum. Since we were members of the Society my husband Russ and some friends were enlisted to turn the press.

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Layers of burlap-wrapped apples are squeezed in the manual cider press.

It was a beautiful, sunny fall day, perfect for an outdoor exhibition. Our children and friends were among the crowd that gathered to watch the action. The resultant cider was not distributed as it had not been pasteurized but there were jugs of pre-pressed cider for the enjoyment of all.

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Crates of apples await their turn in the press.

Humans are not the only members of the animal kingdom that appreciate ripening apples. At this time of year, it is almost impossible to get near an apple tree without being in the presence of yellowjacket wasps as they forage for the sugars that are important to their developing queen in late summer. As overly ripe apples fall to the ground the yellowjackets will swarm the fallen fruit.

 

A beautiful Mutsu apple showed the scars of an encounter with yet another species that wanted to feed on the delicious ripening fruit. Although this apple was about 5 feet above the ground an animal, possibly a raccoon, had attempted unsuccessfully to get it.

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Mutsu apple with animal damage.

We, however, picked many Mutsu (also known as Crispin) apples, a very crunchy and sweet variety that is a cross between the Golden Delicious and the Indo cultivars that is great for eating and several pounds of Cortland destined for pies, crisps, and apple butter. Connecticut’s orchards are still going strong so visit the Connecticut Apples site to find one near you and enjoy some of the many delicious varieties that are grown in our state.

Susan Pelton

This time of year, pumpkins provide a cheerful splash of color where they are gathered for sale or on the front steps of a house. Did you ever wonder where pumpkins originated, how to cook pumpkin, or what it takes to grow your own?  Pumpkins have a long and interesting history in the cultures of people around the world.  They are members of the cucurbit family along with cucumbers, squash and melons.  The latin names include Cucurbita pepo, C. moschata, and C. maxima.   The name ‘pumpkin’ is derived from the Greek ‘pepon’ meaning large melon.  The French converted this to ‘pompon’, the English to ‘pumpion’ and the American colonists to ‘pumpkin’.

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Photo credit: Wikipedia.com

 

Pumpkins are thought to have originated in Central America. The oldest pumpkin-type seeds, found in Mexico, date back to 7000 – 5500 BC.  Native Americans used pumpkins for food and they dried strips of pumpkin which were woven into mats.   Strips of pumpkin flesh were roasted on the fire and eaten. Pumpkin pie got its start when the colonists cleaned the seeds and pulp out of the pumpkin, filled it with milk, spices and honey, and baked it in hot ashes.

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Photo credit: J. Allen, UConn

 

The history of the Jack O’Lantern comes from an Irish story about a man named Stingy Jack. Jack tricked the devil a couple of times and extracted a promise from him that he would not claim Jack’s soul when he died.  When Jack did die, the story goes that God would not accept such a soul into heaven but the devil honored his promise and would not accept him into hell.  The devil gave Jack a burning coal for light and Jack carried it inside a carved out turnip.  His roaming ghost was known to the Irish as ‘Jack of the Lantern’ which became ‘Jack O’Lantern’.  People began carving their own turnips or potatoes with scary faces to protect their homes from evil spirits. The English used large beets.  When immigrants from these countries traveled to the New World, they brought along this tradition and found that the native North American pumpkin made a great Jack O’Lantern.

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Photo credit: Wikimedia.com

 

When looking for a pumpkin (or a bunch!) to bring home, avoid those with damage or soft, rotten areas.   Pumpkins with the stem still attached will store longer than those without.  Most people use pumpkins for decoration or for Jack O’Lanterns.  For cooking, select a sweet or pie type pumpkin which are generally smaller and sweeter.

If you would like to cook the pumpkin, it can be boiled/steamed, baked or microwaved. To boil/steam: Cut the pumpkin into large chunks and rinse. Place in a large pot with a cup of water and cover, cooking for 10-12 minutes or until fork tender.  To bake: Cut in half, clean and rinse. Place cut side down on a cookie sheet and bake at 350°F for one hour or until fork tender. To microwave: Cut in half, microwave 15 minutes then 1-2 minutes at a time until fork tender.  After cooking, the peel is removed and the pumpkin can be pureed or mashed.  It freezes well and can be used in recipes that call for solid pack canned pumpkin.

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Photo credit: J. Allen, UConn

 

Here is a recipe for roasted pumpkin seeds from http://allrecipes.com:

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups raw whole pumpkin seeds
  • 2 teaspoons butter, melted
  • 1 pinch salt

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F (150 degrees C).
  2. Toss seeds in a bowl with the melted butter and salt. Spread the seeds in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for about 45 minutes or until golden brown; stir occasionally.

Nutritional Information 

Servings Per Recipe: 6    Calories: 83

Amount Per Serving

  • Total Fat: 5g
  • Cholesterol: 4mg
  • Sodium: 77mg
  • Total Carbs: 6g
  • Dietary Fiber: 6g
  • Protein: 3g