“Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree.” – Emily Brontë

Late September and early October signal the end of summer, but the weather has been warm enough for pleasant excursions that do not require a heavy coat. Lots of insects and flowers are still around, and not too many migrating birds are coming through so far. I am not a big fan of pumpkin spice anything, but I do enjoy leaf colors and cool, crisp mornings with a clear blue sky backdrop.

Light streams early in the morning in autumn 2021

Keep your eye on cedar trees with an abundant amount of berries on them for yellow-rumped warblers passing through, and other year-round birds as well. Crabapples, viburnums and hawthorns are also good food sources for birds late in the year. Today there were bluebirds, phoebes, white-throated sparrows, cardinals, mockingbirds and blue jays on a Cornus florida in my backyard.

Yellow-rumped warbler eating a cedar berry

Ludwigia alternifolia, also known as alternate leaved seedbox is a North American perennial wildflower found in wet areas- swamps, stream banks, edges of ponds and other places with damp soils.  Leaves resemble willow- slender and alternate along the stems. Yellow flowers resemble those of moth mullein and appear in summer for 2-3 months only blooming for a day. Seed capsules are a quarter of an inch square and rattle when they are shaken. Flowers of rattlebox are pollinated primarily by bees. 

Rattlebox seed pod flanked with sepals.
Tiny seed box of Ludwegia alternifolia

Wolf Eyes Kousa dogwoods are included as specimen plantings in many landscapes for good reason. These small trees have a nice form and attractive variegated foliage that is an outstanding backdrop for the strawberry- like fruit that appear in late summer.

Wolf eyes Kousa dogwood

Chickweed geometer moths are small, yellow with pink bands and markings. Caterpillars are inchworms and host plants include chickweed, smartweed. Because lawns may contain some of these plants, the small moths are often spotted resting on blades of grass.

Stacked kites look like a lot of fun to launch and enjoy. Recently someone had several kite stacks flying at Harkness Memorial State Park, where the offshore winds are ideal for this hobby. This park has many things of interest including a cutting flower garden, 111 year old full moon maples, gardens, buildings and expansive grounds. There also is a very fragrant heliotrope garden that is worth a visit just past the main building.

Water tower and cutting

Stacked kites

This weekend along a forest trail, I was delighted to find two diminutive puffball species that were new to me. Both had stalks, and were on bare soil, and the stems had a gelatinous film covering them. From directly above, the caps looked like acorns with the tip side up. The aspic puffball Calostoma cinnabarinum had a red cap and the ghoul’s eyes puffball, Calostoma lutescens had a yellow- ochre cap with a red apical mouth resembling, I guess, the eyes of a ghoul.

Aspic puffball
Ghoul’s eyes puffball
Hericium americanum bear’s head tooth fungus looks like a tight cluster of tiny icicles

Some late blooming plants are providing food sources for pollinators that are still active. Lespedeza bush clovers, asters, some goldenrods and lots of annuals like lantana and salvias are important nectar and pollen sources for native and non-native beetles and bees.

Bumblebee on an aster flower
Pink flowered Lespedeza bush clover

Recently the gardener at the golf course and I were delighted to find an eft of the red spotted newt and a very small spotted salamander under some bushes being removed from a neglected landscape. After making sure they were okay, they were returned to a safe place. The excitement never ends…

Juvenile spotted salamander

We also discovered a small spicebush along a cart path that had 5 spicebush caterpillars on it. By the time all had left to pupate, there were only two leaves left uneaten.

Checking a small spicebush
Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar

As the weather cools and leaves begin to drop, many of the little creatures that brightened our day will soon head for a protected spot to overwinter. Although gray treefrogs are still hanging out on leaves, they will retire under leaf litter or other places until next spring. Hardy insects are slowing down to do the same. Sunsets may be more spectacular in cooler weather, but I will miss those surprise encounters with living things in the garden and the wild landscape.

Besides the autumn poets sing, a few prosaic days, a little this side of the snow, and that side of the haze.

Emily Dickinson

Path in the autumn woods

Pamm Cooper

The plants didn’t like it either!

Fall is finally here, and the air has been crisp and clear recently. Leaves are starting to change to beautiful hues of red and gold. The normally scenic drive I take to work each day is improving every day, creeping ever closer to that classic New England postcard of autumn foliage.

Fig. 1: A maple tree outside a house I pass on my way to work is heralding what will hopefully be a dry and temperate fall.

It has been so refreshing that one can almost forget the deluge of water the northeastern states have received this summer. Unsurprisingly, I’ve received several emails and calls recently about plants in distress. I figured a blog post would be a great opportunity to describe some of the common (and less common) symptoms associated with stress caused by excessive water.

First, many trees are dropping their leaves early (the invasive Norway Maple, Acer platanoides, has been illustrating this in particular). Many trees are also dropping their leaves without first changing colors as one would normally expect. This is a common and, in and of itself, harmless symptom associated with an extended period of water stress. The bark of some trees is even splitting after the cyclic swelling after frequent rains followed by full sun exposure and warm temperatures.

Reduce irrigation if present and monitor the plants closely in the spring to see if leaves flush out normally. If they do, there is likely no need for alarm.

Naturally, roots can be severely damaged by prolonged exposure to water. Diseases caused by root rot pathogens like Pythium, Phytophthora, and Fusarium species have been very common this year. Even when a tree appears healthy aboveground, root damage and disease can prove fatal to the tree and may cause it to topple unexpectedly (see fig. 2). Homeowners with large trees near their houses should be particularly careful to not provide too much water to their trees after the wet summer we’ve had here in Connecticut.

Fig. 2: A tree on Horsebarn Hill toppled after a heavy rainstorm. Note the small and damaged root ball at the base of the plant.

Trees are not the only plants that have been adversely affected by the excessive rain! Bushes, herbaceous annuals, and even water-loving grasses have been stressed. Not only have grasses been more susceptible to fungal diseases as well, but they are being damaged by the sun more quickly due to the more frequent mowing and general stress associated with the heavy rain.

Fig. 3 The grass at the UConn Avery Point campus looks mottled and sad after being cut. These symptoms appear more frequently when the grass is stressed!

Not sure if your plants are receiving too much water? Simply perform the “knuckle test”. Place your finger in the soil near the roots of the plant in question. If you can reach damp soil before your first knuckle (1 to 2 inches), do not water! Very few plants actually need to be watered every day, and most require less water as the weather starts to cool down. Even the most water-loving plants will let you know when they are thirsty. When their leaves start to droop and the soil feels dry to the touch, give them some water. Until then, let them enjoy the dry, crisp fall weather too.

Nick Goltz

The old adage, “variety is the spice of life” may be the key to successful gardening in less than optimal years.  Many times, I find that gardeners find their “favorite” variety of a crop, and plant that one type and nothing more. Occasionally there may be more than one variety, but only if they are different in type. For example, a person plants their favorite cherry tomato and favorite slicing tomato, but that is it. So, one kind of each type. Many times, this is done in response to limited space, which is understandable. This kind of gardening can leave you high and dry with virtually no crops on tough years, however.

The author’s family heirloom green bean variety performed extremely well compared to other green bean varieties. No wonder it has been around so long (photo by M. Lisy)!

COVID has inspired many people to garden lately. This stems from worries over food security to just having the extra time to enjoy this hobby. Some people find relaxation from growing plants in our busy, stressful world. Having said all that, it pains me to have a year like we did this past summer. Many experienced gardeners talk about what a disaster the summer has been for gardening. To a newcomer to the hobby, this type of experience can cause them to give up.

The key to ensuring a good harvest in the gardening world is diversity. This concept actually has its roots in ecological theory. We find that the most stable ecosystems are the most diverse ones.   Likewise, our gardens can benefit from diversity as well. There are almost too many diseases to count, and each crop has its own set to which they are susceptible. Now there are exceptional cases where people are continually plagued by a particular disease year after year, but in general, trying to guess which disease will be around next summer is many times a futile effort. This is where diversity comes into play. When you plant a number of different varieties, you increase your chances of being able to “weather the storm.”. It is like buying multiple lottery tickets in order to have a better chance of winning. In most years, all of your plants will produce. In bad years however, it may be only one or two varieties that can survive and produce. 

Although we focus a lot on disease, many times it is the environmental factors that contribute to how well a disease can survive. This past summer was extremely wet and humid. These parameters cause plants suffer from too much water and not enough sun, but the fungal diseases thrived. We essentially had a situation where the environment was optimal for many pathogens, and almost detrimental to our plants. 

To help illustrate this point, I will use a few examples from my garden this year. I normally plant three varieties of green beans: green, yellow, and purple. Historically, the purple has been the least productive, and we do not get very many to eat let alone preserve. This year, the purple are the all-stars, and we have a freezer full of the surplus. The green produced some beans, and the yellow variety almost nothing. Normally the green is the best, and it produces more than the yellow and purple combined. This data shows that the varieties of bean vary in more ways than just color. Out of the four cucumber varieties I planted, three did very well and one did almost nothing. In my tomato patch, I had some varieties produce very little and the plants withered and died. My yellow tomatoes, which are grown to liven up our dishes with a splash of color, were at the head of the pack as far as production goes. They essentially saved our season.    

Green beans a. Photo by mrl2021
Wax beans b. Photo by mrl2021
Purple beans c. Although all these plants are past their prime in these photos, there were distinct differences in productivity. The best was the purple green beans, c, followed by the green, a. The yellow, b, barely produced anything (photo by M. Lisy).

I hope this article convinces you to expand your horizons in the garden. You don’t need give up on your favorite, just find a few more. Develop the diversity mindset and you will ensure a harvest in almost any type of year. Every once in a blue moon there may be a year that is totally disastrous, but in most years this planting style will guarantee a harvest, and many years a bountiful one.    

Matt Lisy

In all my years of gardening, never have I failed to harvest a bumper crops of beans until this year and wouldn’t you know that the National Garden Bureau had declared 2021, the year of the garden bean! Beans are easy to grow. Beans are prolific. Fresh beans, just picked, lightly cooked, and served with a bit of butter and salt are delectable. Not to mention, they are essential items in 4 bean salads, green bean potato salad, and green bean casseroles. Also, they freeze nicely for winter soups and stews.

Usually I grow some bush beans and some pole beans. For bush beans, I am partial to Provider, Nickel and French Fillet although I do try others from time to time. I look for good flavor, big harvests, and disease resistance.

As far as pole beans go, I plant a mixture of green (Kentucky Blue) and wax beans (Monte Gusto) along with one scarlet runner bean (Lady Di) per pole. Three tree saplings are dug into the ground with their tops tied together forming a bean pole teepee. Six to 8 seeds are planted at the base of each pole.  I plant scarlet runner beans not for me but for the hummingbirds as they love those red blossoms.

Bean trellis before planting. Photo by dmp2021

This year the garden started off fantastic. Seeds of warm season crops like beans and zucchini were planted the weekend after Memorial Day (as you might remember that was cold and rainy). June was sunny and dry but with moist soils, so seeds germinated, and plants grew.

Beans looked great by early July. Photo by dmp2021

All was well until we spotted the cutest little rabbit nibbling on clover and plantain by the driveway. How much damage could one rabbit do? Every few years we would spot a rabbit or even two but usually they disappeared after a few weeks perhaps due to hawks, foxes, or other predators. Heavily forested land, in back of our property, was cleared this past year to put up solar panels and I have not heard nor seen the red-tailed hawks that used to patrol our property. Their nesting sites had probably been destroyed.  

Bunny eating clover. Photo by dmp2021.

There are two species of rabbits found in Connecticut and surrounding states. The New England cottontail is native to this area while the eastern cottontail was introduced. Both species look quite similar but apparently about half of the eastern cottontails have a white marking on their foreheads. Native New England cottontails, however, are in precipitous decline and CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has been creating and managing sites for early successional growth and young forests to encourage good habitat for this species.  

For a few weeks, the rabbits – now there were two – stayed out of the garden area. My bush beans were thriving and my pole beans were starting to climb. I was hoping they would quickly reach heights beyond a rabbit’s reach. All the rain in July lead to one soggy garden and the plants received too much water and too little sun to develop in a rapid manner.

Checking my garden after work one day, it looked like the bush beans had been discovered and feasted upon and all I was left with was a measly handful as my 2021 green bean harvest.

These were all the beans the rabbits left. Photo by dmp2021

Not really having proper fencing materials on hand, I surrounded my pole bean teepee with some short picket fencing with row cover draped over it thinking that should keep the rabbits out until the beans start climbing up the poles. The next day we could see bunny standing on his/her hind leg legs with the front paws on the makeshift fence and the day after that all the pole beans were gone to.

Rabbit by pole bean makeshift fence. Photo by dmp2021.

Between the rain, heat, and mosquitoes this has been a tough year on many gardeners. It was good for pesto, pickles, and peppers but the tomatoes and summer squash, in my gardens at least, succumbed early to disease. I decided to stop fighting Mother Nature and just start cleaning up the garden beds. Next year will be a more bountiful one – at least as far as beans go – says the ever-optimistic gardener!

Dawn P.

Along the country roads of Connecticut, drivers are likely to encounter a marker that, surprisingly, has become a fixture of the state’s agricultural scenery: The Connecticut Wine Trails sign.

CT Wine Trail (Source: ctwine.com/wineries)

Just a generation ago, Connecticut’s grape growers could only produce wine for their own consumption. But with the passage of the state’s Farm Winery Act in 1978, wineries were allowed to establish vineyards, sell wine to the public, and conduct onsite tastings. Today Connecticut boasts 56 vineyards. Not only do these vineyards and wineries serve up a surprising number of high-quality local varietals, they have become popular destinations for weddings, concerts and even yoga classes, and add $154 million to the state’s economy every year.

Connecticut’s Three Viticultural Regions – (Source ttb.gov/wine/ava-map-explorer)

As the distinctive qualities of Connecticut’s wines have evolved, their recognition has also increased. In 1984, the federal government recognized the state’s first official American Viticultual Area (AVA), the Western Highland Region, which includes all of Litchfield County, part of Fairfield, New Haven and Hartford Counties. This was followed in 1988 with creation of the Southern New England AVA region covering thirteen counties and three New England States; Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  Official appellation as an AVA provides benefits for wineries and consumers alike. Why? By recognizing a region’s distinctive climate, soil, and topographical features– all of which factor into the “character” and taste profiles of the region’s wines, winemakers can highlight the geographic pedigree of their products. Consumers, too, often seek out wines from specific AVAs because they prefer the unique qualities of that region’s wines. To be labeled as a wine from an AVA, at least 85% of the grapes in the wine must have been grown in the AVA, and the wine fully finished in the state where the AVA is located.  

In November 2019, the Eastern Highlands Region, which includes vineyards and wineries in parts of Hartford, New Haven, Tolland, Windham, New London, and Middlesex Counties, became the state’s third official AVA. This was the result of the extensive and painstaking efforts of Steven Vollweiler, owner of Sharpe Hill Vineyard in Pomfret, CT, who conducted the in-depth research on climate, soil, geography, and growing conditions required for the application.  The Eastern Highlands are distinctive in having a mineral-rich soil left by glaciers that moved through the area 10,000 years ago. It’s temperatures are not as mild as the Southern New England AVA nor as cold as the Western Highlands AVA. This distinctive profile has helped Sharpe Hill earn national and international recognition for its wines.   

(Courtesy Sharpe Hill Vineyard)

For all these reasons, my husband and I ventured with great interest to Sharpe Hill Vineyard, to taste wine grown in this new AVA. Located just 30 mins from our home, in the historic area of Pomfret, Sharpe Hill’s beautiful, vine-covered hillsides and colonial setting in The Last Green Valley seemed almost a world away. Both the oldest operating and the largest winery in the Eastern Highland AVA, Sharpe Hill was established in 1996 and produces about 15,000 cases each year.

Arriving at the restored colonial buildings that house the vineyards operations, we were enchanted by the beautiful farm setting and wonderful views of the vineyard, now near harvest. In that it was the first beautiful day after centuries of rain, we quickly  decided to forego fact-finding for wine tasting (with a cheese and fruit box). We started with their most popular wine, Ballet of Angels and ended with their signature port wine. Every sample provided ample evidence for why Sharpe Hill wines have won so many medals. What a thrill to discover such a gem so close to home. We can’t wait to return with friends for wine and cheese.

Husband Conducting Research

This is not the first winery we have visited in the Eastern Highlands Region AVA, and it definitely won’t be the last Our PLAN is to visit wineries from all three AVA’s to get a sample of the distinct characteristics each impart to their wines. It certainly is a nice way to travel through this beautiful state and I hope you have a chance to do so, too. To find a vineyard near you, go to www.ctwine.com.

Join me in raising a glass to toast to Connecticut’s newest American Viticultural Area, the Eastern Highland Region. Cheers!

Marie Woodward

Sunflowers along the edge of a field

“By all these lovely tokens, September days are here. With summer’s best of weather and autumn’s best of cheer.” – Helen Hunt Jackson

September arrived with a splash this year, and a big one at that. Hurricane Ida may have spared us her winds, but not the heavy rains and the flooding that came with it. Temperatures at least have dropped and people  have a reprieve from watering gardens and lawns.  

Saturated soils resulted in the standing water on this turf area.
Flooding and strong currents here at the Glastonbury ferry entrance ramp on the Connecticut River has stopped ferry service temporarily

The extended hot, humid weather has led to a burst of stinkhorn fungi in mulched areas and woodlands. These fungi have spores in a slimy material that is visited by flies attracted by the putrid odor. After visiting this stinky slime and getting nothing for their trouble, the flies move on, dispersing the spores as they go. The stinky squid fungi are small, orange and have three or four fingerlike “arms”. Spores are often in mulch that was added to gardens earlier in the year.

Stinky squid fungi in images above

I found a little 4-toed salamander far from its woodland domain the day after a rain- just missed it with a mower. This is Connecticut’s smallest salamander being only 2- 3 ½ inches long.  These salamanders are found found in both moist and dry woodlands and in wooded swamps. Sphagnum moss is usually present nearby and is often used by the female for nesting.

4-toed salamander

On a woodland trail, a female American pelecinid wasp flew by and landed on a leaf. They have a long ovipositor that they use to inserts eggs with especially where grubs are in the soil. These black wasps diet consists primarily of nectar, perhaps supplemented by some pollen and water.

Female American pelecinid wasp

Three weeks ago I came across an elm sphinx caterpillar on slippery elm. This caterpillar has four horns on the thorax and one on the rear, like most sphinx caterpillars. it can be green or brown, but this one started off green and then just turned brown this week. Food is exclusively elm.

Travelling through tobacco farmland this past week, there was a lot of harvesting activity. Drying barns are filling up with sun grown broadleaf tobacco leaves. Tobacco sheds are vanishing as the land is bought up for development and houses..

Drying shed with hanging tobacco leaves
Hay bales in a barn with green doors

There are so many native plants that have fruits now- viburnums, filberts, shrub and tree dogwoods, black cherry, winterberry and spicebush just to name a few. Along with many herbaceous plants like pokeweed and goldenrods, these fruits are valuable to all kinds of wildlife including migrating birds.

Arrowwood viburnum
Red osier dogwood fruit

Tansy, an introduced member of the aster family, is blooming now. Its yellow, button- like flowers have a striking pattern. The plans has a long history of cultivation for its medicinal qualities.

Of September, who can say it better than this?

“…there is a clarity about September. On clear days, the sun seems brighter, the sky more blue, the white clouds take on marvelous shapes; the moon is a wonderful apparition, rising gold, cooling to silver; and the stars are so big. The September storms… are exhilarating…”
— Faith Baldwin, 

Pamm Cooper

Waning Moon in September

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responding to a significant plant health threat and needs the help of everyday gardeners in our state. Please check your boxwood plants for the invasive and highly destructive box tree moth, Cydalima perspectalis. During the spring, several U.S. nurseries received potentially infested Canadian boxwood plants. This invasive pest feeds on the plants’ leaves, and can cause complete defoliation, eventually killing the plant.

(Matteo Maspero and Andrea Tantardini, Centro MiRT – Fondazione Minoprio [IT].)

Some Connecticut residents have already purchased and planted these boxwoods. If you bought a boxwood from a nursery this spring, you may have infested boxwood on your property. The USDA wants to prevent the box tree moth from spreading and establishing itself in Connecticut and beyond.

How you can help

If you bought a boxwood plant during spring 2021, please inspect it for signs of the moth and report any findings to your local USDA Office or State agriculture department. If State or Federal agriculture officials visit your home, please allow them to inspect your boxwood trees and place an insect trap. Box tree moths can produce several generations between June and October, so acting now is essential to prevent this pest from establishing itself in Connecticut.

Box tree moth adult (Courtesy of Matteo Maspero and Andrea Tantardini, Centro MiRT – Fondazione Minoprio [IT].)
Dark form of the moth. (Courtesy of Ilya Mityushev, Department of Plant protection of the Russian State Agrarian University – Moscow Timiryazev Agricultural Academy.)

The Importance of Boxwoods

Boxwoods are popular shrubs found all over the country. They are a common choice for hedges and topiaries.

Older boxwoods can hold great historical value. Many States have historical gardens containing boxwoods, which the box tree moth could devastate.

This pest threatens the thriving U.S. boxwood industry, as well as nurseries and other businesses that sell these plants wholesale and direct to consumers. Boxwoods have an estimated $141 million economic impact in the United States, according to one industry estimate.

About the Box Tree Moth

The box tree moth is native to East Asia. It has become a serious invasive pest in Europe, where it continues to spread. The caterpillars feed mostly on boxwood, and heavy infestations can defoliate host plants. Once the leaves are gone, larvae consume the bark, leading to girdling and plant death.

Damage caused by the box tree moth (Courtesy of Lavizzara, Adobe Stock.)

Females lay eggs singly or in clusters of 5 to more than 20 eggs in a gelatinous mass on the underside of boxwood leaves. Most females deposit more than 42 egg masses in their lifetime. They typically hatch within 4 to 6 days.

Egg masses. (Courtesy of Walter Schön, http://www.schmetterling-raupe.de/art/perspectalis.htm.)

Pupae typically first appear in April or May and are present continuously through the summer and into the fall, depending on the local climate and timing of generations. Adults first emerge from the overwintering generation between April and July, depending on climate and temperature. Subsequent generations are active between June and October. Adults typically live for two weeks after emergence.

Box tree moth pupa (Courtesy of Ilya Mityushev, Department of Plant protection of the Russian State Agrarian University – Moscow Timiryazev Agricultural Academy.)

Box tree moths are highly mobile and are reported to be good fliers. Natural spread of this moth in Europe is about 3 to 6 miles per year. One analysis from Europe concluded that natural dispersal from continental Europe to the United Kingdom was possible, suggesting sustained adult flights of over 20 miles.

USDA’s Response with State Partners

In response to the incident, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) issued a Federal Order on May 26, 2021, to halt the importation of host plants from Canada, including boxwood (Buxus species), Euonymus (Euonymus species), and holly (Ilex species).

In addition, APHIS has been working closely with the affected States, including Connecticut, to:

  • Find and destroy the imported plants in the receiving facilities
  • Trace sold imported plants to determine additional locations of potentially infected boxwood
  • Provide box tree moth traps and lures for surveys in the receiving facilities and other locations that received potentially infected plants
  • Prepare outreach materials for state agriculture departments, industry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agriculture Specialists stationed along the Canadian border, and the public

What you should look for when inspecting boxwoods:

Caterpillars and webbing (larvae can reach 1.5 inches long)

Larvae of the box tree moth (Courtesy of Matteo Maspero and Andrea Tantardini, Centro MiRT – Fondazione Minoprio [IT].)

Please report signs of infestation to:

Your USDA local office: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/planthealth/ppq-program-overview/sphd/connecticut

Or State Regulatory Officials: https://nationalplantboard.org/connecticut/

More Information:

For more information about the moth and boxwoods, or USDA’s response with State partners, visit: www.aphis.usda.gov/planthealth/box-tree-moth

Adapted from USDA coordinated response materials.

Nick Goltz DPM

I just love having chickens. They are such wonderful animals for so many reasons and can benefit you and your garden if kept properly. They also can beautify your property, be very entertaining, and contribute to a picturesque setting around your home. 

This beautiful group of young chickens is getting their adult feathers. The blue laced red Wyandottes can be seen here. Note the variability in the blue color (some blue, some very light, and some black). Some Black French Copper Marans and Lavender Ameraucanas are present as well. Photo by mrl2021.

The first and most obvious benefit to chickens is their eggs. Fresh eggs taste better than anything you can find in a store. They are generally more visually appealing as well with a nice orange-yellow yoke instead of the pale-yellow. If you prefer, you can feed your chickens organic feed and therefore produce organic eggs. The cost of organic feed is considerably more expensive, however. Chickens also like to eat kitchen scraps that normally go onto a compost pile. This prevents wildlife from having a food source on the pile, and converts it immediately into manure.  Chicken manure and old bedding enriches your compost pile and when incorporated into the garden the following spring will make for wonderful soil.

The best part of fresh eggs is that there is no need for refrigeration! There is a protective layer on the egg when it is laid. This allows the eggs to be stored at room temperature for a few weeks without harm. When you are ready to use them, wash the eggs in warm water first. This is very important as cold water causes the egg insides to pull in dirt from the shell, which causes bad tastes. Warm water will prevent this and make egg washing easier. The discarded shells should go right into your compost pile as they are a great source of calcium for the soil. If eggs are dirty and you wash them, store them in the refrigerator. Whichever way you store them, somehow note the date collected and use the older ones first. If you lose track of the collection date, put the egg in a glass of water. If it sinks, its good. If it floats, compost it.

Keeping nest boxes clean by adding fresh bedding when needed (pine shavings, hay, straw, etc.) helps keep eggs clean. Any heavily soiled eggs should be discarded. Commercially produced eggs are stored for an extensive period of time. Because of this, and the distances they are transported, the eggs are washed (therefore removing the protective layer) and refrigerated. The eggs also will lose water, and therefore have an expiration date. 

To reduce feed cost, you may want to free-range your chickens during the day. This is where you let them out of the cage to wander your property. This can be a troubling feeling at first, as you are basically opening the door to your pets’ cage. Chickens generally do not wander too far from home and will return there each night. You must get them used to their new surroundings for a few weeks before allowing them to free range to ensure they know where home is. 

Chickens will eat all sorts of bugs, worms, and anything else that we find disgusting. This can be very beneficial for the homestead. The birds are extremely useful at the end of the growing season where they can be left in the garden to clean up any insects, larvae, weed seeds, etc. They also scratch up the soil which interferes with insect pest life cycles. The whole time they are foraging, they will leave behind their manure which adds nutrients to the soil as well.

There are some challenges with chickens, however. If you free range (and you should), you must understand that the chickens do not understand the concept of a property line. There really is no good way to train them for this, and unless you have an extremely tall fence, they will go where they please. You should make sure your neighbors are okay with a stray bird or two in their yard.  Sharing some excess eggs may be just the thing needed to help them tolerate the occasional trespass. Flower beds, vegetable gardens, and lawns can be damaged by the scratching process.  Movable chicken housing will encourage them to explore other areas of your property. Fruits and vegetables will also be eaten by chickens, so care must be taken to protect your plants from your roaming birds. Chickens can easily jump a typical three foot garden fence. I have had some success with running/yelling at the birds that enter garden areas. This “scary experience” helps them avoid the area for a while. 

When out of their housing, your birds will be vulnerable to all sorts of predators. During the day, hawks are by far the biggest threat followed by dogs or coyotes. Either expect losses, and add new chickens to your flock periodically or figure out ways to create movable pens to protect them. Chicken egg laying slows after a few years. Old birds lay very few eggs and are not worth the cost of feed. I have had certain hens that continued to lay very well even at five years old, so it will just depend on the genetic quality of your birds and the diet they are fed. You should decide ahead of time what you will do with older birds. In the commercial world, they are replaced with younger ones. Some people will make a stew out of old birds, but many times we get attached to our small flock and just tolerate lower production in older birds. Having a flock of mixed age birds can help with this. Older birds sometimes end up eating eggs. Many times it can be linked to a nutrition problem, but these birds need to go before they “teach” the younger birds how to eat eggs.

Housing for chickens needs to be predator proof. It is beyond the scope of this article, but needless to say, there should be no way for predators to get in – especially at night. Chickens should have a coop with adequate ventilation, but tightly sealed against predators. A covered run during the day will provide protection as well. I like to only free-range when I am home to keep an eye on the birds, and an eye on the sky. I also do not use any treated lumber in the construction of my coops. As my family and I eat the eggs, it is not worth the risk of consuming the chemicals found in treated lumber.

The birds themselves can come in all sorts of colors and styles. There are bantams, which are about half the size of a regular bird, but so are their eggs. Pick a breed that you prefer, or get a combination of birds for the most eye pleasing flock. Roosters can be loud and crow early in the morning. You may not want to wake up to that, and your neighbors may not like this either.  Roosters will protect your flock of hens from predators – often to the death, so they can be beneficial. They are also beautiful to look at, but may be mean and possibly attack you or small children. A mean rooster is dangerous and should not be kept. There are laws and regulations in regards to keeping chickens so you should check into that before purchasing your birds. Certain breeds like the blue laced red Wyandotte can be interesting to keep. The blue coloration is tricky genetically speaking, and it can be neat when you have that perfect bird with a great looking pattern.      

So I hope this article inspires you to try chickens. A few hundred years ago every house would have had some. It is only in our modern day lifestyle that most people do not. Chicken keeping has been getting more and more popular though, and many towns allow a few hens on a small lot. Mail order requires shipping a larger amount of birds for safe shipping. In the warmer months the number may be reduced, but you will pay a small order fee. Heat packs are sometimes used to make up for the smaller number of birds in the box. The alternative is to find a feed store nearby that sells some birds, and you will be able to pick up a small group.  Regardless of how you acquire your birds, is typical to lose one or two as you raise them, so plan accordingly. Also, if you order hens, the sexing accuracy is about 90% at best, with some breeds being less, so you may end up with a rooster (or two), so be prepared for that as well. In the end, there is nothing better than the taste of a home grown egg! Why not add some chickens to your property?  

The author’s new group of “hens.” See the young rooster? Photo by mrl2021.

Matt Lisy

One thing just about everyone can agree on is that cheery, yellow sunflowers are a happy sight to see. The majority of the 70 or so species originated in North and Central America and they have been cultivated by Native Americans for perhaps the last 3 to 5 thousand years. Domesticated seeds were found dating back to 2100 BCE in Mexico. Supposedly, the Incas worshipped sunflowers because of their resemblance to the all life-giving sun.

Cheery sunflower. Photo by dmp2021.

In times past, sunflowers were especially valued as a source of food and medicine. Native Americans ground the seeds into meal which was used to make breads, soups and other food items. Sunflower infusions were brewed to treat various illnesses and the juice from the stems was applied to wounds. The seeds and flower petals were also used as dye plants.

When sunflowers were sent back to Europe in the early 16th century, they became much the gardening rage with all striving to see who could grow the tallest. For the record, the tallest sunflower to date was grown in Germany in 2014 by Hans-Peter Schiffer and reached a height of 30 feet 1 inch according to the Guinness Book of World Records.  

These coarse, leggy American natives, have been the subject of much breeding throughout the years. Large-headed varieties, grown for their seed, were first developed in Russia. The Russians appreciated this oil-rich food that was not banned during the Lenten season. Through their breeding efforts, the oil content of the seeds was doubled. Even today ‘Mammoth Russian’ remains an important seed producing variety along with ‘Giant Grey Stripe’ and ‘Super Snack’. This year about 1.4 million acres of sunflowers were planted in the U.S.

Annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) are quite easy to grow. Given full sun, a moderately fertile soil and adequate moisture, they will continue blooming until fall frosts halt flower production. Their Latin name is derived from the Greek ‘helios’ meaning sun and ‘anthos’ for flower. Keep in mind that the taller ones may need to be staked especially if late summer storms are expected. I have had luck grouping my sunflowers together and corralling them with tall stakes and rope.

Self-seeded sunflowers corralled to keep from toppling. Photo by dmp2007.

Sunflowers are best started from seed as they quickly produce deep roots to hold up their heavy stems and flower heads. Plant seeds early to mid-May, depending on the weather, about 1 to 1 ½ inch deep and at least 6 inches apart. Plan on thinning the plants to provide more space between them when true leaves develop. Spacing will depend on the cultivar so follow suggestions on the seed packet. Often sunflowers will self-seed. Transplant to desired location as soon as the first set of true leaves forms. If purchasing cell packs of seedlings, look for young plants and get them into the ground as soon as possible so a good root system can get established.

Curiously, sunflowers are heliotropic, meaning their flowers move to follow the sun. They face east in the morning and turn towards the west as the day advances. During the night, they reposition themselves to great the morning sun. This movement only occurs when the flowers are young and heavy seed heads have not fully developed. Eventually, the flowers just remain facing east. Perhaps they warm up earlier in the morning facing this direction, which may be more attractive to pollinators.

Sunflowers facing east. Photo by dmp2008

Depending on the variety, sunflowers will produce the larger black striped seeds desirable for snacking both by humans and larger bird species, or smaller black ones which draw many species of songbirds. If the intent is to supply a food source for winged creatures, one can simply leave the seed heads on the plants, and goldfinches, chickadees and others will feast on them.

Striped and black sunflower seeds. Photo by dmp2021

Seed heads can also be cut and hung to dry. Try using a fork or your hands to remove the seeds. Large-seeded varieties can produce a thousand or more seeds. Save some for replanting or birdseed. Seeds for snacking are typically rinsed, laid out to dry and stored in airtight containers. They can be roasted in a 300 F oven for 15 to 30 minutes if desired. Stir occasionally and take out when seeds start to brown. Sunflower seeds are high in calcium, protein, and many vitamins.

Ornamental sunflowers fall into several categories. Semi-dwarfs range from about 4 to 8 feet tall and are multi-stemmed or branching. They were primarily bred for cut flowers and many are pollen-less. Pollen-less sunflowers are male sterile hybrids. They do produce abundant nectar and enough seeds (if grown with pollen producing sunflower varieties) to keep our resident goldfinches appeased. Both cut flower growers and allergy sufferers appreciate the lack of pollen.

sunflower Strawberry Blonde. Photo by dmp2018.

The main reason I grow a few pollen-less varieties is for their colors. Look to fill your vases with ‘Sunrich Orange’, Lemon Aura’ and ‘Chianti’. Sunflowers look stunning combined with some of the newer rudbeckias and ornamental grasses, either in the garden or in arrangements.

Some purists prefer sunflowers that produce both nectar and pollen to encourage more of our native pollinator species. ‘Autumn Beauty’ ranks high on my list with yellow, bronze, and bicolor flowers on tall plants. ‘Italian White’ (H. debilis) sports lovely, medium-size, creamy flowers and produces abundant seeds.

Sunflower Italian White. Photo by dmp2007

For interesting foliage as well as delightful yellow blossoms, ‘Silverleaf’ (H. argophyllus) is a tall variety, native to Texas and the Gulf Coast, with silvery leaves, attractive even when not in bloom.

Double-flowered ‘Teddy Bear’, ‘Lemonade’ and ‘Goldy Double’ are a little shorter with powderpuff yellow or orangey-gold blossoms. Multi-stemmed varieties, only 3 to 5 feet high, with generously-sized blooms include ‘Moulin Rouge’, ‘Valentine’, ‘Chocolate’ and ‘Ikarus’.

Sunflower Ikarus. Photo by dmp2014

Last year I tried growing ‘Sunfinity’, a 3 to 4-foot high, branching new cultivar that was supposed to bloom throughout the summer. I don’t know if it was just too dry (although I did water regularly) but it only got to about 30 inches, bloomed in spurts and was difficult to deadhead. Claims of no deadheading were made but since it was planted next to an entrance, it needed to be neatened up from time to time. I will probably give it one more try in a large container or larger garden bed.

Sunfinity Sunflower. Photo by dmp2020

When there’s limited space, try dwarf sunflowers. ‘Sunspot’, ‘Big Smile’, ‘Suntastic Yellow’ and ‘Firecracker’ produce good size sunflower blossoms on plants typically less that 2 feet tall. While they may look disproportionate to you, your child will probably be enthralled with them. One of my favorite dwarfs for bedding is ‘Music Box’, a multi-stemmed two-footer with bicolored flowers in yellow, gold and mahogany. I grew it a few years ago, was quite pleased with how it did in the garden, but the stems were too short for cutting.

Perennial buffs looking for a late summer rush of delightful golden blooms, may want to try the perennial sunflower (H. multiflorus). Six to 8 feet tall, this species needs room to roam but what a striking sight in the setting late summer sun if you have the right spot.

Perennial sunflower and goldenrod. Photo by dmp2007.

Dawn P.

I often wonder what makes people become gardeners. What makes them want to get down and dirty and play with the plants, worms and other creatures of the earth? Is it something in their DNA, life experience, a moment, an epiphany? I think about this often while working in my own garden. I am at my happiest spending hours digging in the soil, getting my hands, knees and face dirty, coming in at the end of the day completely exhausted but utterly satisfied. For me, it’s all worth it because of the reward – a rose garden I love.

My 2021 garden surprise – a third bloom from my ‘Lady of Shalott’ roses. Photo by Marie Woodward, 2021

But what makes other people – people not as attached to roses as I am – decide to become gardeners? I think I got the answer (or at least part of it) recently when our local historical society hosted a home garden tour and asked if I would lend my garden as a tour site. Saying yes was quickly followed by doubts about my ability as a gardener. I’m no P. Allen Smith or Monty Don. Aside from having received a certificate as a Master Gardener (a license to learn) in 2018, I am by no means an expert in horticulture or design. I’m still a newbie, but I draw my inspiration from fond memories of childhood visits with my grandmother to the tucked-away “garden rooms” in the city parks of Glasgow, Scotland – magical secret gardens with lush greenery, cool waterfalls, and secret paths that made a city park romantic. It was my happy place, something I aspire to bring to the garden of our 240-year-old New England colonial home.

Despite my diffidence, the garden tour was a success. All the host gardens were rewarded with many curious and appreciative visitors. But it was the “after-party” the next day – when the hosting gardeners visited each other’s gardens – that proved most memorable to me, because it helped answer my question about why people become gardeners.

Every garden I saw is as unique as the gardener (or gardeners) who created it, and each person has their own unique story of how they became a gardener. There’s Lisa and Frank, who inherited their love of gardening from Italian parents. Cancer pivoted their focus away from traditional vegetable growing, however, to creating to a fully sustainable, organic farm that supports their now-vegan lifestyle. And, they designed it in creative ways that will allow them to garden easily as they age.

Frank and Lisa are creating a year-round, self-sufficient, sustainable, organic, vegan, age-in-place garden behind their 200 year old home. Photo by Marie Woodward, 2021

Then there’s Justin, who loves Japanese-influenced gardens and designed his garden with stones and large rocks in a small patch of forest. He asserted, amusingly, that his gardening style is organic, since, well, stone is as organic as you can get!

Justin’s Japanese Garden Pond. Photo by Marie Woodward, 2021

Paul and Ginny garden with raised beds to accommodate Paul’s motorized wheelchair. Rather than let Paul’s spinal cord injury deter them from what they loved to do, they designed a garden that lets them continue their life-long love of growing vegetables that are the envy of their neighbors.

Paul and Ginny’s Raised Bed Garden. Photo by Marie Woodward, 2021

Two extraordinary teenage brothers, Brandon and Colin, both at an age where social media can be all consuming, choose instead to garden as a way to honor their beloved grandparents. Carol is an engineer turned gardener who earned a degree in horticulture in retirement, and now expresses her love for native and nonnative plants and trees through an informal natural garden of amazing variety. Point out any plant and she will instantly provide complete and encyclopedic detail (complete with Latin genus and species). Amazing.

After seeing each other’s gardens, we gathered for refreshments and shared stories of our garden pasts and design plans for the future. It was a beautiful gathering of ideas and helpful hints for one another – Frank speaking with the boys about adding fruit trees; Justin proudly presenting a photo of his latest stone-sculpture acquisition, Carol offering advice on growing methods. No matter what we grew or how we approached design, we were all gardeners, and  new friends eager to share and learn from each other.

I think all of us were a bit sad to see the day end. But we all had gardens to tend, and I came away with a clear insight into my often-asked question about what makes people gardeners.” The answer is, there is no answer, or at least no single answer. We each garden for different reasons. There are no common expectations, no universal, standards. Each practitioner is completely free to design and create their own happy place. But one common thread unites us all – the deep satisfaction we receive because we are gardeners.

Marie Woodward