Like many children, I found the Christmas season to be full of excitement and anticipation. What would we get from Santa? Would my parents and siblings like the gifts I got them? Did we make enough cookies for the neighborhood Christmas Eve carol stroll? Would there be snow on the ground? We never had to wonder about the Christmas tree, however, as my Dad always came home with a freshly cut, heavily scented balsam fir.

balsam fir & me

Balsam firs were our family’s traditional tree. Photo by dmp.

For years after leaving home, I followed this family tradition. After working in the horticultural industry and visiting local tree farms, I discovered a host of evergreen species that also would fit that perfect Christmas tree bill. Over the years, holiday décor included a Scots pine, white spruce, Douglas fir, a living Colorado blue spruce (planted in the white garden) and Fraser firs. Of them all, Fraser fir became our favorite.

Wh Gar 07

Colorado blue spruce planted in white garden years ago. Photo by dmp.

And, it is not just so with our family as according to several sources, Fraser firs are the nation’s most popular Christmas tree with Douglas fir and balsam fir running second and third, and the species most frequently chosen as the Christmas tree at the White House. As Fraser firs have such a limited native range, their rise to popularity is quite remarkable and the cultivation of this endangered species assures it will live on.

fraser fir needles

Fraser fir needles. Photo by dmp, 2018.

The Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) is a small to medium size evergreen tree named after the Scottish botanist, John Fraser (1750 – 1811) who made numerous botanical forays into the Appalachian region. It is endemic to a small, high elevation portion of the southern Appalachian Mountain range extending from eastern Tennessee to southwest Virginia to western North Carolina. This species grows in a biome referred to as a cool temperature rainforest distinguished by 75 to 100 inches of annual precipitation with summer highs in the 60s F and winter lows around 30 F. It grows on steep slopes with shallow, acidic soils and it is crucial to watershed protection.

At higher elevations, it grows in relatively pure stands but at lower heights it is associated with red spruce, yellow birch, pin cherry, mountain ash, eastern hemlock and yellow buckeye. Aside from its key role of holding onto the shallow soils and providing a beautiful scenic backdrop, Fraser fir seeds are a major food source for red squirrels. According to the Global Tree Campaign, Fraser firs are also essential to several other rarer species including the Weller’s salamander, the spruce-fir moss spider, the northern flying squirrel and also rock gnome lichens and (American) mountain ash.

Carolina northern flying squirrel from

Carolina northern flying squirrel. Photo from

Typically, Fraser firs grow about 50 to 60 feet high with a trunk up to 2 feet in diameter. The average lifespan is 150 years. They are noted for their dark green, fragrant foliage with one-half to one-inch long needles arranged spirally around the stem. This species is monecious meaning that both male and female flowers (strobili) are produced on the same tree. The flowers are pollinated by wind and cones form the same year. They ripen in fall and the winged seeds are wind dispersed some falling up to a mile away.

fraser fir cones from uconn plant database

Fraser fir cones from UConn Plant Database.

Seeds do not seem to require a cold stratification for successful germination but the rate of seeds that germinate appears to be related to their maturity. Seeds released or collected from cones later in the season germinate at a higher rate than those collected or released earlier in the fall. The seeds can germinate on bare soil, moss, peat, tree stumps or litter but moisture is the key. Moss and peat stay moist longer and are better germination beds. Fraser firs are very shade tolerant so some seeds will germinate under the parent trees but the rate of growth is incredibly slow (2 to 3 feet in 20 years) until eventually exposed to sunlight whether due to windthrow or the death of parent trees. Fraser fir grows relatively fast on sunny sites, however, easily reaching 6 to 7 feet in less than 10 years.

The greenish brown bark of younger trees has resin-filled blisters on it. Because of this trait, sometimes Fraser firs were referred to as ‘she-balsams’ and distinguished from their less resinous companion species, the red spruce that were called ‘he-balsams’. Greyish fissures appear with age.

fraser fir bark 2

Fraser fir bark with blisters and fissures. Photo by dmp, 2018

Last year, the Mother Nature Network listed Fraser firs as one of the 11 most endangered trees in the U.S. The demise of the natural range of the tree is due to man-made causes such as air pollution and acid rain but mostly because of an invasive insect, the balsam woolly adelgid. This tiny, sucking insect was discovered on Mount Mitchell in North Carolina in 1957 and has spread pretty much through Fraser fir’s native range killing millions of trees. The insects attach themselves to stems, needles and bud bases relieving the tree of its vital fluids and resulting in the death of the tree in about 2 to 5 years. Even if they just weaken the tree, they open it up to attack from other insects such as bark beetles as well as diseases. Unfortunately, no one has found an economical way to treat Fraser firs against this insect in their natural habitat. At the present time, the young seedlings that are rising up as the overstory dies out are being watched for signs of attack by or resistance to the adelgids.

While it is true that Fraser fir is fighting for its life, so to speak, in the wild, we Fraser fir Christmas tree lovers are making sure that this tree species will never die out. Millions of Fraser firs are grown throughout the United States and Canada as well as in the United Kingdom because of its lush, soft, green needles, its perfect conical shape, its woodsy fragrance and best of all, its long needle retention.

Not only does Fraser fir make an ideal indoor Christmas tree, but it also makes an ideal outdoor one. Back in 1993, I worked at the first New England Grows, which I believe was held at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. As we were disassembling our exhibits, one of the growers was giving away seedlings of various evergreens and I brought home two foot-tall Fraser firs. After a few years, we started decorating one with white lights and continued to shape it year after year while leaving the other unpruned. It’s pretty amazing to think that the tree on the far right and the one on the far left are the same age – a little more than 25 years old. Right now the pruned tree is about 14 feet high and the unpruned one maybe about 35 feet tall.

2 fraser firs plus turkeys

The evergreen trees on far right and far left are 2 same aged Fraser firs. Photo by dmp, 2018.

So, if you aren’t already a Fraser fir aficionado, consider introducing yourself to one at your local Christmas tree farm. You may find yourself joining the fan club and at the same time encouraging the cultivation of an endangered species and supporting your local farmer.


Fraser fir lit up with wooden animals around it. Photo by dmp, 2018.

A happy holiday season to all!

Dawn P.`


Lemon Scented Geranium, photo from

As cold weather arrives, my garden focus switches to houseplants. I am particularly fond of growing scented geraniums inside the home. They are easy to grow and smell great, releasing aromatic oils into the air when their leaves are gently stroked, refreshing the stale scents of enclosed houses. Houseplants in general are a great way to increase the moisture level of dry, winter-heated air as water is added to their soil, and some moisture will evaporate into the air surrounding the plants.

Scented geraniums are in the genus Pelargonium, the same as the annual geranium with the large red, white or pink ball of a flower head. Even though both of these types of Pelargonium are have the common name of geranium, neither are related to the true perennial geranium (Geranium maculatum), commonly called cranesbill. Pelargonium species are not hardy in areas with cold winters. Scented geraniums can be planted outside and treated as an annual in addition to being a houseplant. They are native to South Africa, and were introduced to Europe in the 17th century by plant collectors as was popular at that time. Scented plants were especially prized in that era of limited sanitation and personal hygiene. Leaves and flowers were used in tussy-mussies to be carried by ladies whom wanted to smell better. The plant flower a smaller pale colored flower, usually pink or lilac depending on the specific variety.

scente geranium, arnold arboretum, historical print


by J.

mosquito_citronella_geranium_pelargonium_Barbara H. Smith, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension.jpg

photo by Barbara H. Smith, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Today scented geraniums are prized house plants for a sunny window or greenhouse. Leaves are edible, can be tossed in a salad or used as a garnish without fear of toxicity. Leaves are used as tea, and can be added to baked goods. Lining the bottom of a greased cake with artistically arranged leaves, then gently pouring in the batter creates a pretty and tasty dessert. Add one cup of fresh crushed leaves to simmering apple juice to make into flavored apple jelly following apple jelly recipe on pectin container. Dried leaves can be added to pot pourri and added to muslin sachet bags to place in a drawer. Sachets can also be used in hot baths or a relaxing spa experience.

The flavors or scents of scented geraniums are broken into several groups. The Rose Scented Group contain a number of different varieties with strong, clear rose scents to ones with a softer rose fragrance. Atomic Snowflake has a lemon-rose scent. Another scent group is the Citrus Scented geraniums. Lemon Crispum has a strong lemony fragrance, while Lime smells like a key lime pie. Prince of Orange sports crinkly leaves to emit its orange scent. The Fruit and Spice Group contain plants that smell like ginger, nutmeg apple and even strawberry. These are especially good in baked goods. The Mint Group, true to its name, has different plants with varying grades of minty scents. Peppermint, a peppermint lemon and a pungent peppermint with rose notes are all different. The last group is the Pungent Group with musky, oak, and camphor fragrances. It is best to feel the leaves and smell the plants before deciding to take one home to be sure it is agreeable to your nose and palate.

scented geranium, white flower farm photo

Scented geranium varieties, photo

Growing requirements for all scented geraniums are fairly easy. They need a sunny south or west window or fluorescent lights, and well drained, light potting mix. Water them when the soil is dry to the touch. If the soil is keep soggy, the roots will rot. Drain any water from the saucer below the pot to avoid over saturation. Temperatures for optimum growth are in the range of 55 to 70 degrees F. Fertilize with a basic houseplant fertilizer every three month. Too much fertilizer leads to weaker growth and less scent production. Prune back the plant if it begins to grow too large, saving the trimmings of course!

Lemon Scented geranium at FS, DPettinelli

Lemon Scented Geranium on display at the flower show. photo by D. Pettinelli.

“Better to see something once than hear about it a thousand times”

  • Asian proverb

There are so many places of interest in our small state of Connecticut that we should never lack for something new to do, or even to  do  again, if one really enjoyed it the first time. Here are some of the excursions that I have really enjoyed- and some of them have the added attraction of being free-of-charge, once you get there.

The West Cornwall Covered bridge is a wooden covered truss bridge built over the Housatonic River in Cornwall, Connecticut. You can drive over the bridge or walk over and take in scenic views upstream and downstream. On the eastern side there is a paved walking trail that follows the river for several hundred yards up the river on the eastern bank. This bridge is found at the junction of routes 7 and 4.

looking upstream from the Cornwall covered bridge Pamm Cooper photo

looking upstream while midway across the Cornwall covered bridge

Kent Falls State Park, located on Route 7 in Kent, features a series of waterfalls that that cascade down 250 feet through the woods. The Falls Brook from the town of Warren is the stream that feeds this series of water falls, and it enters the Housatonic River a quarter mile away after completing its journey down. A hiking trail a quarter mile long is alongside the falls and, although it is steep, it is not a hard walk. There are scenic vantage points and steps built in places along the way.

Kent falls lower section Pamm Cooper photo

Kent Falls at its lowest section


Spikenard abounds in the open woods alongside kent Falls

Also along route 7 in Kent is Bull’s Bridge, a covered bridge that opened in 1842 and which spans a gorge along the Housatonic River.  There is a hydroelectric dam outlet just upstream from the bridge that the water passes through with enormous power. There is a small trail along the river’s edge where the noise and power of the raging water can be viewed safely.

gorge below Bull'S Bridge

Gorge rapids just above Bull’s Bridge

The Thimble Islands are a group of small islands in Long Island Sound in the harbor of Stony Creek in Branford.  These islands are made up of pink granite bedrock, and they are actually the tops of hills that existed prior to the last ice age, rather than deposits of rubble that make up most islands that resulted from retreating glaciers. They are thus very stable islands and many are privately owned, and may have one to several summer homes on them.  There are tour boats that will take you on a 45 minute trip around the islands for under $20.00.

two of the thimble islands Pamm Cooper photo

Two of the Thimble Islands Branford, Ct.

A Thimble Island

Another of the Thimble Islands

Another good trip for people who don’t mind a boat ride and a little maritime history is the Light House Cruise out of New London. Taking approximately 2 hours, this trip is rich with history and scenic views along the Thames River and into Long Island Sound. Some of the lighthouses featured are the New London Harbor lighthouse, on the west entrance to New London Harbor, the Latimer reef lighthouse on Fisher’s Island Sound, and the Race Rock lighthouse, which is part of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act.

Race Rock lighthouse Pamm Cooper photo

Race Rock Lighthouse

In Collinsville, there is an old factory, the Collins Company, which was a world-renowned manufacturer of cutting tools, like axes, machetes, picks and knives. Sited on the Farmington River, this picturesque factory opened in 1826. There is a trail for walking and biking along the Farmington River not too far from this old factory that can be accessed in various places on route 4.

collins company factory

Old Collins Company in Collinsville

Downtown Hartford has many points of interest including Bushnell Park, conceived by the Reverend Horace Bushnell and designed by Hartford native Frederick Law Olmsted. There are many beautiful specimen trees including the state champion turkey oak, and a double-trunked gingko. While at the park, you may want to ride the famous carousel, which is one of only three left in existence that feature the horses carved by Russian immigrants Stein and Goldstein. Downtown Hartford is within walking distance of the park and has many buildings of interest, including the blue windowed 18-story,skyscraper  at the northeast corner of Pearl and Trumbull streets.

State champ[ion turkey oak Quercus cerris Cirumference 17 feet Bushnell Park

State champion tree-turkey oak in Bushnell park

Carousel horse- Bushnell Park in Hartford

Carousel in Bushnell Park in Hartford

gold building reflections downtown Hartford pamm Cooper photo

Building reflected from the Gold Building windows in downtown Hartford

Blue glass skyscraper behind the Mechanics Savings Bank in downtown Hartford -Copyright Pamm Cooper 2013

Skyscraper with blue tinted windows on Pearl Street in Hartford- Pamm Cooper photo

Another good day trip is a visit to Harkness Park in Waterford. Featuring flower gardens, panoramic views of Long Island Sound, and the Roman Renaissance Classical Revival mansion of the Harkness family, this place has something for everyone. There are four 111 year old full thread leaf maple tress creating a stately grove near the owners’ dog cemetery, plus numerous themed gardens with statuary and other features. There is a stretch of beach where you can sit or take a walk, but no swimming is allowed, or you can fish if you like.


Annual cutting garden at Harkness Park

There are many more places of interest in Connecticut that make for interesting day trips, and since we have such a small state, several destinations that are near each other can be undertaken in a single day. Old Wethersfield and Old Main Street in South Windsor both have wonderful old colonial era buildings, for instance, and are a hop, skip and jump away from each other. Most of the places and trips mentioned above require little hiking, and have either dramatic or peaceful sights and sounds unique to their place in the outdoors- like rushing water, views of the sound, boat horns and perhaps the fragrance of flowers.

Newberry rd S.W.

Farm on Newberry Road off historic Main Street in South Windsor

Pamm Cooper



In my blog of October 11, 2018, I shared images and some information on various flora that are found on Bermuda and promised to talk about some of the species that have become invasive. You may wonder why invasive species on Bermuda might be relevant to us in Connecticut. Islands as small as Bermuda or as large as Australia may have species that are unique to their location and that have fewer defenses against introduced plants, animals, fungi, or microorganisms. These places are great concentrated studies in the effects of introduced species.

We have seen many invasive species become hot topics as they moved from other parts of North America or even other places on the planet into non-native locations in the Northeast. The Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group lists over 80 plants that are currently problems, some of which moved into our region in just the course of a decade. Transported wood that is infested with the Emerald ash borer or the Asian longhorned beetle has enabled these insects to move easily from state to state.

Japanese barberry image, UConn Plant Database, EAB image, CT DEEP

The isolated volcanic islands of Bermuda were not subject to invasive species for most of its history. There were only 165 species of vascular plants, 5 species of bats, a species of skink and another of turtle on the islands when Bermuda was discovered. Over the next several hundred years thousands of plant and animal species were brought by ships to the islands, sometimes intentionally but more often not. Some came as stowaways as seeds in hay or soils, on ocean currents, as insects in food stores, or in the bilge water of the ships themselves.

Bermuda cedar (Juniperus bermudiana), Bermuda maidenhead fern (Adiantum bellum)

Until Bermuda was visited by the first Europeans in 1505 there had been no human-related importing of flora or fauna to the archipelago so it is a great microcosm of the effects of species introduction. When settlers come to a new place the first thing that they attempt is to make it ‘home-like’. The introduction of rabbits to Australia in 1788 by British penal colonies. Within ten years they numbered in the millions and ate enough vegetation to cause widespread erosion issues.

5 Rabbits Australian National University

Rabbit around a waterhole, image from 1938/Australian National Museum

One of the first species introduced to Bermuda were the pigs that were released on Bermuda in the late 16th century. By the time a European settlement was established in the early 17th century the pigs had become abundant and feral. You may wonder why pigs were released in the first place. It was because the islands were used a place to replenish food and water, kind of a 17th century truck stop by ships. The pigs did untold damage to seabird and turtle breeding colonies.

Cockroaches, Periplaneta americana, came to Bermuda as egg cases in the bilges of a ship in 1621. Wireweed, Sida carpinifolia, was already a rampant invasive in 1669 when then-governor John Heydon was calling for tenants to pull it up by hand.

6 Gary Alpert, Harvard University,

American cockroach (Periplaneta americana) egg case image

Many of the introduced species were brought in to control other species. The Jamaican anole, Anolis grahami, arrived in 1905 to control the Mediterranean fruit fly, Ceratitis capitata, and has since become naturalized. A beneficial introduction came in the form of honey bees, Apis mellifera. A beekeeping record dated May 25, 1617 stated that “The bees that you sent doe prosper very well.”. The Bermuda palmetto (Sabal bermudana), a native plant, is one of the main nectar sources for these bees. The giant Cane toad, Bufo marinus, an introduced species, was brought in to control garden pests but unfortunately consumes a lot of bees.

Honey bee, Bermuda palmetto, Cane toad

The Indian laurel, Ficus microcarpus, an ornamental garden tree was not considered an invasive species until the 1980s when a pollinating wasp was introduced to the island. Known as a strangler fig like its cousin the banyan, Ficus benghalensis, the Indian laurel can crack through walls and water tanks. It is a primary food source for the starling, an introduced species that does a lot of damage as they spread invasive seeds from the Brazilian pepper, Schinus terebinthifolia, the asparagus fern, Asparagus densiflorus, and the Indian laurel.

Indian laurel &  banyan trees

Casuarina, Casaurina equisetifolia, over-shades native plant species and causes soil erosion. It was introduced from Australia in the 1940s as a windbreak but no plants grow beneath it. Kudzu, Pueraria montana, is familiar to Connecticut gardeners as it is also on the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group list.

Casaurina & kudzu

With 23 of the top 100 invasive species in the world, Bermuda is still at risk of additional invasive species as most of their food and consumer goods are brought in by ship. Visitors or traveling Bermudians also bring plants, fruits, and seeds on to the islands. When you travel anywhere in the world and see warnings about bringing back fruits and plants or prohibitions against moving wood, visiting farms, or petting livestock it is for the good of all to heed that advice.

Susan Pelton

Nitrogen is an essential nutrient required for the production and growth of all plants, vegetation, and living organisms. It makes up 78% of our atmosphere; however, that only accounts for 2% of the Nitrogen on our planet. The remaining 98% can be found within the Earth’s lithosphere; the crust and outer mantel. The Nitrogen found within the nonliving and living fractions of soil represents an unimaginably low fraction of a percentage of all the Nitrogen on our planet. That tiny percent of all total Nitrogen found in our soils is what we can interact with to help or hinder plant production.

To be considered an essential nutrient, an element must satisfy certain criteria:

  1. Plants cannot complete their life cycles without it.
  2. Its role must be specific and defined, with no other element being able to completely substitute for it.
  3. It must be directly involved in the nutrition of the plant, meaning that it is a constituent of a metabolic pathway of an essential enzyme.

In plants, Nitrogen is necessary in the formation of amino acids, nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), proteins, chlorophyll, and coenzymes. Nitrogen gives plants their lush, green color while promoting succulent growth and hastens maturity. When plants do not receive adequate Nitrogen, the leaves and tissues develop chlorosis. However, over-application of Nitrogen can cause even more problems, including delayed maturity, higher disease indigence, lower tolerance to environmental stresses, reduced carbohydrate reserves, and poor root development.


Chlorotic corn. Image provided by T. Morris, 2018

The Nitrogen Cycle describes the movement of Nitrogen through a landscape. Nitrogen undergoes numerous changes that affect its availability to certain plants and organisms.


The Nitrogen Cycle. Image provided by T. Morris, 2018

Nitrogen undergoes numerous transformations within a landscape; each transformation represents a distinct chemical reaction or process that acts to further Nitrogen within the cycle. The different transformations are shown in the image provided, but some important ones to keep in mind are Mineralization (organic N -> NH4+), Immobilization (microbial), Denitrification (NO3 to a gaseous form), and Leaching (the loss of dissolved Nitrate into groundwater). There are factors that determine the rates and occurrences of all Nitrogen transformations including pH, temperature, saturation, etc… All of these transformations determine how much Nitrogen is available in your soil for plant uptake. Leaching poses a big problem, when too much Nitrogen is applied via fertilizer, NO3 can be transported in the soil water. Excess leaching can lead to Eutrophication.

Most plants take in Nitrogen as Nitrate, NO3, and Ammonium, NH4+. Generally, Nitrate is absorbed much more than Ammonium, but it is all plant-specific. The combination of both of these forms of Nitrogen can help to improve over-all plant growth when compared to intake of just one. Some plants use symbiotic N2 fixation, where they supply C for fixed Nitrogen from bacteria, actinomycetes, and cyano-bacteria (blue-green algae). This process involves the transformation of N2 to NH3. For instance, Legumes use Rhizobia inside their root nodules to convert N2 to NH4.


Nitrogen Fixing Nodules. Image from NC State University

Applying the correct amount of Nitrogen is key in reducing leaching, and ensuring your plants are getting the perfect amount for maximum yields. Nitrogen testing proves to be difficult because of the constant transformations it undergoes. Getting your soil tested for other micro and macro nutrients can help provide information on overall soil health, and from there, proper Nitrogen fertilizer recommendations can be made. Talk to anyone from the UConn Soil Nutrient Lab or Home & Garden Education Center for more information on Nitrogen fertilizers and soil testing.

An alarming piece of new research shows decreasing Nitrogen availability with continued global warming. As CO2 levels increase in the atmosphere, essential nutrients are becoming less available to plants. As essential nutrients become less available, forests and ecosystems that usually absorb CO2 would be unable to do so, further increasing the CO2 in the atmosphere. Oligotrophication is the term coined to describe the decreasing productivity of a forest due to the unavailability of Nitrogen. You can read more about this process in the paper “Isotopic evidence for oligotrophication of terrestrial ecosystems” in Nature Ecology & Evolution by Andrew Elmore and David Nelson from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and Joseph Crain of Jonah Ventures.

Joe C.

This past Saturday I was fortunate to be a part of the CT Envirothon Soils Workshop team coordinated by State Soil Scientist, Deb Surabian, from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Our mission was to share our soil science knowledge with the high school students and their teachers or advisors enrolled in the CT Envirothon program. Students gain an appreciation and understanding for the vital ecosystem roles soils play and learn how to classify and describe them. They will then go on and use this knowledge for the annual State Envirothon Competition to be held May 16, 2019.


CT Envirothon Banner. Photo by dmp.

For those unfamiliar with the Envirothon, it was first conceived in the late 70s in Pennsylvania by the state’s Conservation Districts. They believed in the importance of a statewide environmental program aimed at high school students and focused on key natural resources including soils, aquatics, forestry and wildlife. Within a few years, Massachusetts, Maine, New York and Ohio had started Envirothon programs and the first National Envirothon Competition was held in 1988 in Pennsylvania. By the time 2000 came along, more than 40 states as well as several Canadian provinces were competing in the national contest.

Connecticut’s first statewide competition was held in 1992 and 15 schools participated. That number climbed to 46 schools in 2000 and over the past 2 years there was about 25 schools competing. Several high schools have multiple teams, however. The CT Envirothon is open to public, private, vocational and home-schooled students.

Soil pit 2018 Topsmead St Forest 2

Envirothon participants describing soil pit at 2018 CT State Envirothon Competition at Topsmead State Forest. Photo by dmp, 2018

Typically, a high school teacher, advisor or other student advocate will gather a team of 5 environmentally enthused students (plus 2 alternates). Once registered in the CT Envirothon, teams will receive study guides, curriculum materials and notice of the 4 training sessions – one on each of the natural resources areas of interest mentioned above. These training workshops are presented by professionals in their respective fields including soil scientists, wildlife ecologists, aquatics biologists, foresters and others. Both students and teachers benefit by interacting with these professionals by gaining knowledge, networking and exploring career opportunities in the natural resources fields. Students keep us professionals current (and on our toes!) and truly it is invigorating to feel that the time we take to share our knowledge is valued and will be put to good use.

The CT State Envirothon Competition is held each May in varied locations throughout the state. Teams compete in all 4 natural resources areas plus in a short oral presentation on the year’s current issue. This year’s current issue is ‘Agriculture and the Environment, Knowledge and Technology to Feed the World’. After morning competition, all gather for a luncheon cookout and then the award ceremony. Winners are announced in each of the 5 categories as well as the overall winning team who will go on to represent Connecticut in the national North American Envirothon. The winners will go up against approximately 60 teams from the U.S. and Canada and the 2019 competition will take place in Raleigh, North Carolina from July 28th through August 2nd.

This year’s Soils Workshop was held at the Tolland Agricultural Center in Vernon and consisted of 4 hands-on stations plus a presentation by USDA NRCS Soil Conservationist, Bill Purcell. Bill tackled the current issue and talked about the importance of soil health in agricultural systems and management practices like no-till, cover cropping and conservation tillage that keep our farmland soils healthy and productive.

Bill Purcell

USDA NRCS Soil Conservationist, Bill Purcell. Photo by dmp 2018

Deb Surabian was charged with familiarizing students with map reading and interpreting soil data. In recent years, the old soil survey manuals were converted into an electronic Web Soil Survey. According to the USDA NRCS, it provides access to the largest natural resource information system in the work with soil maps and corresponding data available for 95% of the counties in the U.S. at this time with a soon to be reached goal of 100%. After selecting your ‘area of interest’, one can find out information about what soil series are present in the area, their characteristics, land use suitability and more. And, there’s an App for that – free for Android or iPhones.

Deb Surabian, CT state soil scientist

Deb Surabian, USDA NRCS State Soil Scientist CT/RI demonstrating how to use the web soil survey. Photo by Jean Laughman

Retired USDA NRCS Resource Soil Scientist, Lisa Krall along with Bill Purcell brought examples of soils from both well and poorly managed fields so students could examine the difference in structure and erodibility. They created mini soil filtration systems that showed how differences in vegetative cover impact soil erosion. Many may not be aware that half the Earth’s topsoil has been lost over the past 150 years. With an ever increasing population, how will we feed ourselves without taking care of our soils? All life is dependent on the soil.

Lisa Krall & Bill Purcell soil health

Retired USDA NRCS Resource Soil Scientist, Lisa Krall & USDA NRCS Soil Conservationist, Bill Purcell exploring soil health with students. Photo by Jean Laughman

The original plan was for Jacob Isleib, USDA NRCS Soil Scientist to lead the students in a hands-on soil description in one of the soil pits on the TAC property. Because of the heavy rainfall we were experiencing this past weekend, he had to use trays of soil and soil monoliths as well as some Powerpoint illustrations, to show the students how to describe and categorize a soil. Students learned how to designate soil horizons and ascertain soil properties in order to evaluate the position of that soil series in the landscape and be able to interpret potential uses as well as limitations.

Jacob Isleib

USDA NRCS Soil Scientist, Jacob Isleib teaching Envirothon participants how to describe soils using monoliths. Photo by Jean Laughman

And me, as a UConn Assistant Extension Educator as well as a soil scientist, worked with students to practice how to assign soils colors using the Munsell Color System as well as how to hand-texture a soil. During the competitions, students will be shown a soil in a previously dug pit and need to be able to delineate the horizons and characterize them by texture and color among other properties. There are 12 textural classes according to the USDA textural triangle. The students’ favorite soil to texture is the silty clay loam because as the name implies it contains clay and therefore is moldable. It is also sticky and I lose a lot of this soil at every workshop as it sticks to everyones’ hands and ends up running down the drainpipes. Fortunately, the UConn Soil Lab, which I manage, recently received dozens of Puerto Rican soils which are mostly silty clay and clay loams so for now, the clay loam coffers are full. While many people believe they have clay soils, realistically in Connecticut they are rather rare. What people really have most of the times are compacted soils.

Dawn soil texture 2

Dawn Pettinelli reviewing how to hand texture soil. Photo by Jean Laughman

Another topic I cover is invasive earthworms. While there are no native earthworms in Connecticut as they were all wiped out by the glacier fifteen thousand or more years ago, the more recent introduction of Asian species of earthworms is a significant problem both in home gardens and forested ecosystems. Not that we can even control the invasives that are highly visible like purple loosestrife and bittersweet but students and their advisors need to know that any time a non-native species is introduced into a native ecosystem, there are consequences.


Crazy snake worm (Amynthas spp). Photo by dmp, 2018

It has been a decade since I was first invited to assist the USDA NRCS soil scientist crew with the CT Envirothon Soils Workshop. While I sometimes grumble at the early hour I need to arise on a Saturday, at the end of the day I am a happy, and sometimes humbled participant, in an effort to pass the soils torch on to the next generation of environmental professionals.

Dawn P.

maple tree color

Fall has settled in finally, bringing its colors and cool weather. Some foliage colors were mediocre this year, always to due to the weather. It stayed hot for a long time and we did not get the cool night temperatures which help to trigger the trees to slow down and get ready for dormancy with the side effect of changing leaf color. Still there were some nice sights around the state. Japanese maple ‘Full Moon’ is a reliably consistent beauty sporting bright red leaves for a week or more before dropping its foliage.

Full moon Japanese Maple

Full Moon Japanese Maple

Evergreen trees also drop foliage, but not all needles at once. The newer green needles will remain on the branches for several years. Eastern white pines will shed their oldest, inner most bundles of needles each year by first turning yellow, then brown and drop. Notice the healthy, younger green needles are retained on the growing ends of the branches.

Fall is time of seed and fruit production in the cycle of life of plants. Crabapples are a great source of food for birds and animals throughout the winter. Some trees have very persistent fruit, hanging on throughout the season, ensuring feathered and fur beings a meal. Viburnum species also are in fruit as are winterberries.

Another interesting tree producing seed pods is the Japanese pagoda tree, Styphnolobium japonicum. It also goes by its other common name Chinese scholar tree due to it commonly being planted around Buddhist temples in Japan. It is native to China and Korea. Panicles of scented white flowers are produced in late summer, turning into strings of pop bead looking yellow seed pods in fall. Pods then turn brown staying on the tree though winter. Japanese pagoda tree makes a great, small specimen tree in yards and larger gardens.

Japanese pagoda tree

Japanese Pagoda Tree

Fall is a good time to gather dried seeds from annuals and perennials you wish to grow again. Many reseeding annuals drop their seed and seem to pop up as weeds. Collect the seed in paper envelopes or containers to grow them where you want them next year. Cleome, Verbena bonariensis, dill and fennel are just a few that consistently popup all over my gardens. The annual yellow and orange gloriosa daisy evens spread to my adjacent neighbors from the birds eating the seed heads I leave up for them. Some hybrid seeds will not come back the same if you save and plant the seed the following year. Every year I plant blue or blue striped forms of morning glory to climb up the gazebo. They set tons of seeds and drop to the ground to sprout and grow the next year. Unfortunately, they come back a deep purple, not the blue. If I don’t rouge out the volunteers from the new blue flowered plants I put in each year, I will have a mixed show of the blue I newly planted and purple that reseeded themselves. I consider the purple weeds, but others might disagree.

Speaking of weeds, I noticed it was a banner year for Pennsylvania smartweed, Persicaria pensylvanica,   formerly called Polygonum pensyvanicum . Smartweed loves it moist and it responded well to all the rain we had this spring and summer, growing like gangbusters and producing a multitude of seed. On the positive side, songbirds love the seed and will be well fed during their time here. Too bad the prolific seed production is going to add to the seed bank in the soil for following years.

lady's thumb weed

Pennsylvania Smartweed

This year of moisture also lead to much fungal production. Tomatoes were more likely to succumb to early blight and Septoria leaf spot due to leaf wetness aiding disease development and spread. Fungicides applied before fungus hits can protect plants. So will proper spacing of plants and pruning branches to increase airflow and dry leaves. High humidity and lots of moisture ensures mildews, too. Lilacs will develop powdery mildew during mid-summer, but still come back strongly the next year. I just chose to not look at them after August.

lilac powdery mildew

Lilac leaves with powdery mildew

Insects are always a part of the garden be it vegetable or perennial. We need the insects for pollination and cycle of all life. The pest ones were not too bad this year as I kept up the removal and scouting for eggs on the squash and squishing caterpillars and worms on the kale, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. Tomato hornworms made a brief appearance, but I caught them in time before much damage was done. Thankfully the cucumber beetles were low in numbers this year and manageable with hand picking them off. I am often fascinated with the beauty and intricacies of insects. I found the delicate dragonfly dead on my breezeway and could not help but marvel at its color and patterns on its body. Dragonflies dart about the yard zigging and zagging at breakneck speed while feeding on the tornado of gnats in the very late afternoon. I call it the dance of the dragonfly and now I see they come dressed in their finery for the occasion.

Dragonfly head


The season wasn’t all work, nor should it be. We made time to enjoy the fruits of our labor and spaces we created, and hope did also. With summer and the main growing season are behind us, I hope it left mark on your heart and memories for your mind, until next year when we can all try again, try some new plant and find a new adventure.

-Carol Quish, all photos copyright C. Quish

boat wake trail in ocean