One of the first " signs of spring" Porter Street Manchester early March 2015

One of the first ” signs of spring” Porter Street Manchester early March 2015

Well, this has been an endless winter it seems, at least, in New England. Snow, snow, and more snow, and today is the first day of spring and we may get more. But at least we have seen patches of ground lately as the snow is returning to the sky as water vapor or seeping through the soil as water. At least spring snows leave in a timely manner.

Still the winter was not a complete bust. I came across a nice little planting of Red- osier dogwood while snow still covered the ground and made a nice backdrop so the brilliant red twigs could show off their splendid colors. Its winter contrast to the white snow cover is one of the reasons to consider this plant for your landscape. This variety may be Cornus sericea “ Kelsei, which is a dwarf having very slender branches, and growing only a couple of feet high and wide. Or perhaps it is ” Midnight Fire” or “ Cardinal ”. Some red-osiers should be regularly pruned back to keep older branches from changing to a dull gray and to encourage the younger red twigs to develop instead.

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Red-osier dogwoods along a stone wall in Connecticut- March 13 ,2015

I always look for Horned Larks, Eremophila alpestris, around the end of winter and the beginning of spring as large grassy areas become open as snow melts. A common migrant and winter visitor to Connecticut, these  birds can be found nearly every year in the fields near the Meig’s Point Nature Center at Hammonasset State Park. They just arrived this week as pastures lost large amounts of snow cover along Horse Barn Hill Road on the UConn campus. This open upland bird is threatened as habitats are being lost due to reforestation or other events. It walks along the ground and can be difficult to see as it blends in with the brown dormant pasture grasses. It is named for its little, black “ horns “, which are really just tufts of feathers and may not always be visible as sometimes they are flattened against the head.

Horned Lark at Meig's Point March 13, 2015

Horned Lark at Meig’s Point March 13, 2015

Phoebes are one of our first migrating breeding birds to arrive in Connecticut, often appearing well before any insects are available to eat. These are members of the fly-catchers, and can be recognized by their rather large head, gray back, wings, and tail, and whitish belly. They have a sweet “ pick” call and distinctive raspy “ phoebe “ song. When they perch, they wag their tails. Some were already reported as arriving along the coastal areas of Connecticut last week. Haven’t seen or heard any up in my area yet.

Deer are also becoming more frequent visitors to some backyards now that they can travel through substantially less snow cover than w had all winter. Many people reported seeing no deer at all since last December. Well, if any did not starve to death, they are once more returning to their favorite haunts, which may include your own backyard. Two days ago three deer  (out of a formerly larger group that would be seen together) came by my back yard, browsing for what little understory plants or acorns they could find. Two ended up bedding down in the yard for most of the day, enjoying the sun and its welcome warmth plus the peace and quiet that comes from having no dogs bopping around to trouble their calm.

Deer napping in the sun in my backyard

Deer napping in the sun in my backyard

 

 

 

 

Same deer cleaning its feet

Same deer cleaning its feet

If you get to any swampy areas, you can see the skunk cabbages starting to appear out of the snow and ice. The skunk cabbage is one on many thermogenic plants that has the ability to raise their own temperatures above that of the air that surrounds them. Thus, this is one of the first plants to bloom in the spring, starting as early as February and continuing until May. Because the flower grows so quickly, enough warmth is generated to heat the soil around it and cause snow to melt as the soil is warmed.

So it is out with the old, in with the new, and the new should be much better and more fun than old man winter…shouldn’t it?

 

Pamm Cooper                              All photos copyright 2015 by Pamm Cooper     Use by permission only

The Return of the Grackles

This has been a very cold and snowy winter but spring is right around the corner. There is nothing better than a walk around the yard looking for the first signs of the crocus pushing up through the sometimes still snow-covered ground. Or cutting forsythia branches to bring inside where the warmth of our home will force the buds into blooms of yellow sunshine. And each year we look forward to the return of the grackles, a sure sign to us that winter is losing its grip.

image 1         Since 1996, when they arrived on March 6th, my daughter Hannah has been tracking the reappearance of the grackles each spring. Her journal entries document this harbinger in a way that only a child could. Her entry in 1998 at the age of 8, complete with a drawing, is priceless.

diary 1

diary 2

diary 3

The dates have fluctuated from the earliest sighting on February 20, 2005 to the latest on March 21, 1999. The temperatures also have ranged from 33 degrees on that same day in February in 2005 (although it had been close to 50 degrees in the days prior) to 68 degrees on March 17, 2003. There have been years where snow still covered the ground.

diary 4diary 6

Everyone may not be as happy to see the grackles as we are. Although primarily ground feeders they will clean out a bird feeder in no time at all if there is still snow cover. Between them and the starlings it can be a chore to keep the suet and feeders full for the other birds that have been feeding all winter. The grackles move into this area as their breeding grounds after wintering just a bit to our south in Pennsylvania and all the way to Florida. They forage and roost in large communal flocks of up to a million individuals and can therefore have a huge impact in an area. Grackles will eat ripening corn as well as corn sprouts and are the #1 threat to the corn crop causing damage in the multimillion dollar range.

Hannah went off to college in 2008 but we still look for the grackles to return and I send her a picture at the first sighting each year.

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image 3

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If you are interested in tracking birds or other species in your area there are a couple of great options. The USA national Phenology Network is an organization that collects such data from researchers, students, and volunteers as a tool to understanding and adapting to variable and changing climates and environments. Please visit their site for more information: USA-NPN. Also, mark your calendars for February 12-15, 2016 for the next Great Backyard Bird Count as another way to help track bird species in your area.

Susan Pelton

All images by Susan Pelton

A lot of snow cover during the winter can be both good and bad. Good because it’s beautiful and nice for winter sports. It also insulates overwintering perennial roots from temperature fluctuations and extremes. One of the negative impacts is that the snow provides cover for the activity of voles. These small mouse-like rodents feed on the bark of roots or lower trunks of woody plants during the winter and they are likely to feed where protected by shelter, including snow.

Vole tunnels left in turf grass during winter under the snow. (Photo: USDA Forest Service – North Central Research Station Archive, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org )

As the snow melts in the spring, look for tunnel-like tracks in lawns and gardens that are telltale signs of their activity in the area. If plants that were healthy last season are weak or fail to leaf out completely this year, look for evidence of vole damage as shown in the photos.

Meadow vole damage.  Photo: Robert L. Anderson,  USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org (upper photo)   Vole damage to a large fruit tree root; note teeth marks. Photo: Paul Bachi, Univ of KY Research & Educ. Ctr., Bugwood.org (lower photo)

Two voles species are common in our area, the pine vole and the meadow vole. Pine voles feed primarily on the roots below ground while meadow voles prefer to feed on bark above the soil line. More information on vole damage and control is available in this Cornell University fact sheet.

By J. Allen

The UConn Perennial Plant Conference, held March 5th 2015 at the Storrs campus, had a number of inspiring topics and speakers. There is always a new plant I have got to try (Phlox ‘Minnie Pearl), a new perspective on gardening (I don’t have time for namby pambies either) and perceptions to ponder (what the public thinks about local vs. organic vs. eco-friendly).

A session that I found quite interesting was Dr. Mark Brand’s talk on UConn’s plant introductions. I was familiar with a few of them but had no idea how many plants the dedicated and passionate breeders at the College had created or discovered, evaluated and released over the years.

As a horticulturist at Old Sturbridge Village, I remember planting the parking lot beds with basil ’Dark Opal’ and surrounding the lovely, purple-leaved plants with pink zinnias. Little did I realize that this 1962 All America Selections winner was bred by UConn’s John Scarchuk. He and other researchers at the Lee Farm in Coventry, CT worked with ornamental basils, peppers, lettuce and squash.

Dark Opal basil AAS winner 1962 from www.allmericaselections.org

Dark Opal basil AAS winner 1962 from http://www.allmericaselections.org

Dr. Sidney Waxman’s work was primarily focused on dwarf conifers which he grew from witches brooms. These are dense masses of shoots, caused by a disease or other irregularity, emerging from a single growing point and typically found on woody plants. Dr. Waxman was known to shoot these down from trees and propagate the stems. For almost 4 decades he planted and evaluated countless plants and introduced perhaps 40 to 45 cultivars. Much work was done with eastern white pine and we have Dr. Waxman to thank for cultivars such as ‘Coney Island’, ‘Blue Shag’, ‘Sea Urchin’ and ‘Old Softie’ along with larch ‘Varied Directions’ and Japanese umbrella pine ‘Wintergreen’. See the link for an article by Dr. Waxman on 4 of his selections.

http://digitalcommons.uconn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1068&context=saes

Determination and vision for a more compact and floriferous Madagascar periwinkle drove Dr. Ronald Parker to plant 30,000 seeds each year for more than a decade. This massive effort resulted in four All America Selection winners that were featured on the cover of Smithsonian magazine. ‘Pretty in Pink’ (AAS 1991), ‘Pretty in Rose’ (AAS 1991), ‘Pretty in White’ (AAS 1992) and ‘Parasol’ (AAS 1991) brought these plants into the contemporary bedding plant world and were the largest royalty earning invention at UConn. Dr. Parker was also responsible for ‘Pacifica Red’ and the Tropicana series and began the quest for a yellow impatiens and developed the Sea Shell series.

Pretty in Pink, 1991 AAS winner, photo from www.allamericaselections.org

Pretty in Pink, 1991 AAS winner, photo from http://www.allamericaselections.org

Dr. Gustav Mehlquist created UConn White Sim No. 1 using irradiation in 1962. This white carnation cultivar was extremely well received and at one time it accounted for about 75% of the white carnations produced worldwide. It is likely that its genes remain in the white carnations grown for cut flowers today.

A passion for rhododendrons led to Dr. Mehlquist’s quest for a yellow, cold hardy rhododendron. He worked for almost 25 years using 4 main species of rhododendrons and introduced ‘White Peter’, ‘Connecticut Yankee’ and ‘Firestorm’ as well as the Raise the Roof series (that Dr. Brand worked on as well) which was featured on the cover of a HortScience Journal issue. The Raise the Roof series was named, by the way, at a past Perennial Plant Conference while tuning into a UConn basketball game. ‘March Madness’ and ‘Slam Dunk’ are already available through Monrovia Nursery (www.monrovia.com) but yellow ‘Buzzer Beater’, ‘Huskymania’ and ‘Hoopla’ will be offered in the future.

Buzzer Beater yellow rhododendron, photo by Mark Brand, UConn

Buzzer Beater yellow rhododendron, photo by Mark Brand, UConn

Throughout the 1980’s, Dr. Mark Bridgen was breeding alstromerias for fragrance and cold hardiness. He introduced several cultivars including ‘Sweet Laura’, ‘Freedom’ and ‘Liberty. I planted ‘Sweet Laura’ last year and this winter will sure be a test for her cold tolerance. I suspect that more winter mulching and a milder winter might be required for survival in my yard.

Dr. Brand introduced one of my favorite trees that is presently growing in my white garden, Carolina silverbell ‘UConn Wedding Bells’ (Halesia carolina) which is covered with lovely white bell-shaped flowers each spring. He also bred ‘Ruby Ribbons’, a fantastic blue-green ornamental grass (Panicum virgatum) that turns burgundy as the season progresses. Combine it with rosy autumn flowering sedums and white asters.

Dr. Mark Brand with Ruby Ribbons, UConn photo

Dr. Mark Brand with Ruby Ribbons, UConn photo

While butterfly bushes (Buddleia spp.) are not considered an invasive plant in Connecticut, they are in more southern states where the plants have time to set seed. Dr. Brand, along with UConn graduate student, Bill Smith while looking at seedlings produced by EMS mutation  introduced ‘Summer Skies’, a variegated buddleia and have since evaluated a number of dwarf forms for their growing habits and seed producing abilities, with the goal being few or no seeds. Some of these new dwarf butterfly bushes will be introduced as part of the Better Homes and Gardens Program through Walmart in 2016.

Summer Skies variegated butterfly bush. Photo by Mark Brand, UConn

Summer Skies variegated butterfly bush. Photo by Mark Brand, UConn

Two invasive species in Connecticut, barberry and burning bush have gotten much attention from UConn plant breeders. Dr. Brand for a number of years now has grown and evaluated numerous Japanese barberry cultivars for seed production (how he got those grad students to harvest berries off those prickly plants is beyond me) and come up with several cultivars with nice ornamental foliage and few if any seeds. Dr Yi Li has been working on developing sterile cultivars of burning bush.

Another facet of plant introductions focuses on native shrubs. Dr. Brand has been working with both upright and prostrate forms of aronia for ornamental purposes as well as fruit production. UC166 is a more upright form that may lend itself well to commercial harvesting. Aronia berries have many nutritional qualities including a very high content of antioxidants.

Compact aronia, photo by Mark Brand, UConn

Compact aronia, photo by Mark Brand, UConn

After hearing about ninebark ‘After Midnight’ (Physocarpus opuliolius), which reaches only 4 feet tall, I am definitely digging up ‘Diablo’ which keeps throwing long shoots up into the motion detector only to have my better half chop the bush back so that it never flowers and replacing it with this UConn introduction. Both Dr. Brand and grad student, Bill Smith had a hand in this compact, nearly black and powdery mildew resistant cultivar.

After Midnight ninebark, photo by Mark Brand, UConn

After Midnight ninebark, photo by Mark Brand, UConn

Since Dr. Jessica Lubell joined the UConn Plant Science & Landscape Architecture Department, she has teamed up with Dr. Brand and together they developed viburnum ‘Plum Pudding’ with a delightful purple fall foliage color and are working on a more compact female bayberry which would be great for those of us who love the scent of these native plants with their waxy white berries but don’t have the room for large plants. Dr. Lubell also discovered a lovely variation of our native American hazelnut (Corylus americana). ‘Brave Heart’ has a burgundy splotch on the leaves which fades to a lighter green reminding us that Mother Nature always has a surprise or two up her sleeves. Consider also what other plant breeders worldwide have contributed to our lives – enjoy the fruits of their labors and be grateful.

Dawn

Every once in a while, I come across some new way to garden I was unaware of before. At the Hartford Flower and Garden Show a visitor asked what I knew about Hugelkultur, and I had to tell him “Nothing, tell me what you know.” There is always something new to learn, research and read about in all endeavors, but I especially love new gardening ways and tips. He offered what he knew, and I promised to find out more and pass it on.

Hugelkultur is a German word meaning hill culture; the process of planting a garden or plants over or near buried  logs  decaying below the surface. While the logs are  composting below ground, they are holding moisture like a sponge which the plant roots can access. Nutrients are also released from the decaying wood and made available to surrounding plants. It is like planting your garden over your compost pile to feed the plants over a long period of time.

from permaculture.com.uk

from permaculture.com.uk

 

This centuries’ old way to garden is making a comeback with permaculture enthusiasts. It is a self-sustaining  practice, replacing the nutrients which the gardeners remove when vegetables are removed from the garden. It is also thought of as forest gardening. Nobody fertilizes or feed the soil in the forests, but no one is removing the fallen leaves and dead wood; they just rot in place, helping the new seedlings to grow.

Nutrient cycle, from Oregon State University.

Nutrient cycle, from Oregon State University.

The size of the pile should be at least three feet wide and three feet deep or high. Piles can be made above ground is location is in a wet area, just cover the pile with soil several inches thick whether above or below ground. Over the  years, a depression will develop as the material below decomposes. More soil can be added to raise the level for easier gardening. The composting process gives off some heat which rises through the layers to benefit the plants above, perhaps allowing a little bit earlier planting in the spring and some frost protection in the fall.

black walnut fruit , hort.uconn.edu

black walnut fruit , hort.uconn.edu

black walnut leaf, hort.uconn.edu

black walnut leaf, hort.uconn.edu

One word of caution on the species of log used; do not use black walnut as this species of tree releases a toxic chemical called juglone which inhibits plant growth. Juglone is present and active even in dead wood. Other species of wood will not produce juglone. Soft woods such as pine will rot more quickly and hard woods will take longer. Wood will decay more slowly underground where there is less oxygen than it would if sitting on top of the ground and exposed. Be sure any wood used is dead to prevent sprouting from the wood used. Species of wood that works best are alders, apple, aspen, birch, cottonwood, maple, oak, poplar, willow.

When the hugelkultur system is first getting started, the soil microbes will be using nitrogen from the soil in order to do their work of breaking down the wood and organic matter. The microbes will eventually return the nitrogen plus more nitrogen from the wood, into the pile. Adding a sprinkling of blood meal to the pile will feed the fungi and bacteria doing the decomposition getting them off to a strong start.

-Carol Quish

 

 

 

 

 

Mourning Cloak Butterfly- out on a sunny winter day 2012

Mourning Cloak Butterfly- out on a sunny winter day 2012

During the cold New England winter months, we are blissfully ignorant of all the survival drama going on in the natural environment, at least as far as insects are concerned. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. While we have heated homes, running water and warm winter clothing, insects have only the bare necessities required to survive temperature extremes. Those that do not, such as the Monarch butterflies and some dragonflies, may migrate to more insect- friendly climates. Those insects that remain have special survival mode states or processes that will see them through even the toughest icebox conditions nature may throw at them.

While many butterflies can overwinter in the chrysalis form, there is one that ecloses as an adult in the fall and remains a butterfly for the winter. That champion of the deep freeze is the Mourning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa). This butterfly find shelter under loose tree bark, in open sheds or tucks away in wood piles. Freeze tolerance is accomplished by small ice crystals that form outside the cells of vital organs. The small size of the crystals keeps them from damaging chemicals in the insect’s blood as well. Thus, the Mourning Cloak can survive freezing and thawing episodes and can even be seen flying about open woods during warm winter days.

Some insects produce chemicals resembling anti-freeze, like glycerol, that lowers the freezing point of the insect’s blood. Somewhat like cold- hardening that plants undergo, insects subjected to rapid freezes may die, but those that are physiologically prepared will tolerate the same conditions. When fully hardened to the cold, insects can survive in bark crevices or under mulch. Some, like lightning bugs, may come out from inside bark cracks if the winter temperatures rise above 40 degrees, especially on the south- facing sides of tree trunks. A few years ago, the winter was especially mild. On sunny days you could find many lightning bugs on trees, barely able to move, but still making a brief appearance

Lightning bugs (beetles) on the sunny side of a tree trunk in January 2012

Lightning bugs (beetles) on the sunny side of a tree trunk in January 2012

.Some insects survive by retreating in the soil below the frost line. Bumblebee queens, ants, beetle grubs and termites do not even have to go that deep in soils if there is as little as six inches of insulating snow cover. This is how scarab beetle grubs are able to return in the spring and resume feeding on lawn grass roots.

The Common Green Darner dragonfly migrates south and its offspring come north in the spring

The Common Green Darner dragonfly migrates south and its offspring come north in the spring

The social honeybees profit by their cooperative efforts to keep the queen war. The worker bees do this by crowding together around the queen and shivering so that their muscles generate heat. As the periphery cools, the worker bees constantly shift positions so each has a timely turn in the warm inner parts, the ultimate example of  the “ gung ho” principle in action.

The life cycle of insects may include a phase known as diapause where dormancy, similar to the hibernation period of some animals, keeps the insect in a state where it can survive adverse environmental conditions for long periods of time. This may include surviving as an egg or inside a puparium. Aphid eggs are often laid in twig or bark crevices or underneath growth buds. Moths often survive by pupating in leaf litter, under the soil or in leaf shelters. Woollybear and other tiger moth caterpillars survive winters under leaf litter and snow.

Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly caterpillars survive winter living together in a tent of leaves

Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly caterpillars survive winter living together in a tent of leaves

A final look at insect survival in our cold winters involves aggregation, which may also cause  aggravation, if they do so in our homes. Lady beetles and Box elder bugs are two such insects that utilizes this strategy, which is really more like a hop, skip and jump migration into a warmer place. A short flight to enjoy the  “Florida” of our homes until survivable outdoor conditions return.  While in a torpor, they may be well hidden, needing no food for the entire winter. Occasionally they venture out of hiding, but often fade away back into the shadows. It could just be a little spot check to see what is happening, with a quick retreat as they discover that nothing is.

As spring arrives with warmer temperatures, the little world of insects will slowly make its appearance, whether for good or bad. So enjoy their absence, or look forward for their return, as you see fit.

Pamm Cooper                   All photos © 2015 Pamm Cooper

 

This has certainly been a very cold winter and so many of the feathered species that remain in Connecticut rely on backyard feeders for a good amount of their nourishment. If you are providing for the birds in your yard (as we are) you are probably going through quite a bit of bird food. Have you ever noticed the variety and attractiveness of the seed bags? The images on the bags are quite lovely and so colorful. And the bags themselves are both waterproof and durable as they need to keep the seed dry and contained during the storage time.

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In 2010 my fellow Master Gardener, Ellen Bender, showed me instructions that she had found on-line that would recycle empty birdseed bags into durable tote bags. I made several of the tote bags that were sold as fundraisers for the UConn Tolland County Extension Office. These bags are great for carrying damp gardening gloves and boots or bathing suits and towels. If you have a sturdy sewing machine, an empty birdseed bag, and about an hour’s time you can construct one for yourself. I use a #16 needle (such as you would use to sew denim) and heavyweight thread. The instructions are as follows:

Step 1: Depending on the size of the bag you may want to trim material horizontally from the top, bottom or both. This will be used to construct the handles so you want a piece that is at least 3″ wide. Try to keep as much of the image as possible.

Step 1

Step 2: On the top edge, fold it over twice (as if you are hemming jeans) and sew it.

Step 3

Steps #2 & #3

Step 3: On the bottom edge cut 1″ notches from the corners. Sew the bottom seam and then zigzag stitch it to finish it.

Step 4: Fold the bag at the notches so that the bottom seam is against where a side seam would be then stitch and zigzag.

Step #4

Step #4

Step 5: Using the trimmings, cut two strips to be used as handles. Fold in the edges and stitch down both long sides.

Step 5

Step #5

Step 6: Fold the ends of the strips under an inch. Evenly space the handles and sew them on the outside of the front and back of the bag.

Completed bag   101_0324

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Please check our archives for the blog posting from January 16, 2014 entitled ‘Eating Like a Bird’ for information on caring for our feathered friends during these cold winter months.

Susan Pelton

All images by Susan Pelton

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