I have been asked before what my process is for identifying plant pathogens – fungi and bacteria that cause disease on plants. Although there are different techniques to identify different pathogens, often the most straightforward approach is to culture them until morphological characteristics are obvious enough to identify using keys. In other words, I grow the pathogens until they produce structures that can be identified!

You may ask, what does it mean for the pathogens to be “cultured”? While I may not be playing Beethoven’s fifth for the pathogens, I am providing them an enriching environment in the form of proper nutrition and a favorable environment. Diseased tissue can be isolated from healthy tissue, placed on a nutritious media, and allowed to grow in a warm protected environment until identifiable reproductive structures are produced.

First, diseased tissue is photographed and examined to see if identifiable signs of the pathogen are already present. An example of such would be a fungus that has grown enough on the submitted plant tissue to be actively producing reproductive spores (see fig.1 and fig. 2). For samples with minor, ambiguous, or fastidious fungal growth, some extra encouragement for growth may be necessary.

Fig. 1. Alternaria fruit rot and spot of pepper is caused by Alternaria solani, a common fungal pathogen.
Fig. 2. A magnified photo of Alternaria solani spores pulled from the pepper lesions in Fig. 1.

In instances where the identity of the pathogen is not immediately obvious, the sample is dissected. Some tissue that was surrounding the symptomatic area is excised and (usually) surface sterilized using a diluted bleach rinse. The remainder of the diseased tissue is placed in a sealed “humid chamber” to allow the pathogen to continue to grow on the submitted tissue. Humid chambers can easily be made by putting a clean, damp paper towel in a plastic deli container, placing the sample inside, then sealing and labeling the container. The sample can be checked each day to see how the pathogen is (or isn’t) developing.

The excised tissue then be placed on a substance called “agar” for the pathogen to incubate and grow. Agar is a product derived from red algae, commonly Gelidium amansii. It is a dense, jelly-like substance and is a common replacement for gelatin in vegan recipes. It is also a common ingredient in many East Asian desserts, such as boba teas. The agar is mixed with nutrients and certain chemicals to discourage non-target organisms from growing, heated and sterilized in an autoclave or pressure cooker, then poured into petri dishes to solidify (see fig. 4).

The tissue is placed on the agar using sterilized tools under a biological safety cabinet, a machine that maintains a sterile environment and protects the user from exposure to harmful agents or accidental contamination (see fig. 3). This process is often called “plating” as the tissue is being placed on petri plates. Once finished, the petri plates are labeled and may be sealed with a film to further reduce the risk of contamination. The finished plates are placed in a warm chamber, like an incubator, to allow the pathogen to grow until spores or other desired structures are produced.

Fig. 3. A biological safety cabinet with a HEPA filtration system and unidirectional airflow protects the user from contaminating samples or exposure to harmful agents.
Fig. 4. A sealed, labeled petri plate with significant fungal colonization.

Once the spores or other desired morphological characteristics have been produced, they may be photographed under a microscope and compared to references or subjected to further testing (this is usually only necessary for bacteria) for identification. When the pathogen has been identified, the used plate is securely stored until it can be sterilized via autoclave and discarded appropriately.

Until next time!

– Nick

Nick Goltz, DPM – Director of the UConn Plant Diagnostic Lab

This year is going to be different! I say that every year. It always seems that as I sit inside in the early evening (it gets so dark so quickly at this time of year), next year’s gardening seems so easy. I envision a thriving, beautiful garden in the summer with a bountiful harvest in the fall.  Then, reality happens.  It never seems to work out as we thought it would. Last year was a disaster, in many respects, due to the never ending rainfall. Connecticut recorded it’s third wettest summer on record. There were some crops, however, that seemed to do well.  Anyway, we cannot control nature, but we can manage our time and efforts. This is a list of my New Year’s resolutions for the garden. See how many can help you as well.

I have to say I am off to a good start. The warm weather, defined by me as non-frozen ground, has really inspired me. I started a big tool reorganization project in my garden shed and hung a board that will hold all my tool holding hooks. This should make it easier to find what I need right away, saving a lot of time, and less frustration when I go in that shed, as I will no longer trip over the tools! Daylight is limited, so I will have to finish this project another day.

The New Year’s Resolutions are off to a good start as the author planted all his garlic, even if it was in January. Photo by mrl2022.

Another thing we frequently overlook is a soil test. This is really the simplest thing a gardener can do to ensure success, but we so frequently do not think about it (at least until April). We also need to give the lab time to do the tests, and then get the results back to us (usually a week except during spring rush when it might take 3). In a warm January where the ground is not yet frozen (may be by the time you read this), this may be the perfect time to gather our soil samples. The second most important part to a soil test is following the recommendations for soil improvement. If you are deficient in some nutrients but do not add them, anticipate plants may struggle. Give yourself the time needed to source and purchase the proper amendments. 

A portion of my soil test results from three years ago showing nutrient levels and liming recommendations. It may be much different for your yard, but the only way to know is to test. Photo by mrl2022.

My next resolution is to open more ground. I always wonder where my limit will be. There is more space to garden left untapped. If I am careful with my time, I can open up more ground to plant. Now is actually a great time to start prepping the soil and mapping out new gardening areas. Remember, the ground is not frozen and the snow has not fallen (yet). It does look like we will be getting really cold though. This unseasonably warm time cannot last forever. At the very least we can plan out where the new plots will go and measure the square footage of our new patch. This information can help us know how much of something we need to purchase/ add based on the recommendations from our soil test. 

Probably the most important resolution is to weed when the weeds and plants are small.  Weeding when the ground has not frozen is easy, compared to later in the year when the weeds are tall and the roots are deep. If you do not weed until your plants are overgrown, the weeds have already competed with your plants for nutrients, and may have even shaded them out, and/or stunted their growth. If this situation is left unchecked, we may lose our plants. 

Mulching can significantly reduce and almost eliminate weeds.  Mulching should be done right after planting.  Leaving that ground uncovered will only encourage weed seed germination.  If not done, you will only have to pull all the weeds out by hand, and then mulch later on.  Why make all that extra hard work for yourself?  In the mean time, your plants will have their growth negatively impacted.  Do yourself, and your plants, a favor and weed in the early spring or even during winter thaws.

My next resolution is also off to a good start – planning. Over this past weekend, I did a complete inventory of the seeds I have, the seeds I need, and updated my list by what performed well in the garden (or not). I also tried to save some money by cutting out the species that did not seem to perform well. This also saves some time, because why plant some varieties that just do not seem to do well in the garden?  Right now, I am in the process of figuring out my ground preparation and planting schedule. This should save me some time in the long run and help ensure successful crops. 

One example of poor planning last year was my sweet potato crop. I did not have the soil ready and when they came in, they sat for too long before planting. To make matters worse, they seemed to not have come in that good so they were already stressed. Whether it was the excess rain or too long of a holding time before planting, I experienced a total crop failure. This will not happen again this year.

The other thing that can happen, and even more so to the experienced gardener, is that you acquire your plants too quickly, and there is a build up of plants waiting for placement in the ground. I had this happen once a few years ago with my tomatoes. They so needed to go into the ground, were suffering nutritional deficiencies, and were highly stressed. Now, I knew how to fix this situation, but growth and production certainly were impacted. Try and pace yourself, and plant what you get as soon as possible.

A small fraction of the seeds ordered by the author for the 2022 gardening season. Seeds do not last forever so be careful of using old seed. Photo by mrl2021.

I think some additional time and attention is due after the crops are planted. I really want to make sure that I water at correct intervals. Last year, I think I only had too water twice at the beginning of the season.  After that, it started raining and never stopped. Many times, I have people ask me about how much or how often they should water. That is a difficult question to answer because it will depend on soil structure and composition. Fine-textured silty or clayey soils tend to hold moisture while sandy soils tend to dry out. One inch per week is a general guideline, but you really might want to poke your figure into the soil to see how wet it is below the surface. I am always surprised at how a dusty, dry surface can be nice and moist a half inch down. There are also moisture meters you can buy to help with this task and provide a numerical value if you prefer.

In general, plants benefit from some drying between waterings. In addition to the one inch of water per week, it is better to put a lot of water down at once, rather than short, frequent waterings. The thought is that the roots will go deeper if watered less frequently, and therefore the plant will be better able to tolerate dry periods. A rain gauge can assess how much water your garden received. This is a great way to measure how much water your sprinkler puts out during a given period of watering time as well.    

Watering and precipitation can affect soil nutrient levels. Too much water can leach nutrients from the garden. This may mean you would need to fertilize more frequently. Organic fertilizers are often more resistant to leaching than conventional ones. Once again, your soil test will dictate how much fertilizer to put down. You cannot just take a guess and hope for the best. The manufacturer of your choice of fertilizer will make some recommendations for how often to put it down. Without a soil test, follow the application suggestions on the fertilizer package.

While plants may grow without additional fertilizer, they are typically more productive, show better disease resistance, and are less susceptible to insect pressure when they have proper nutrients. I have found that many times I get busy during the growing season and either forget to fertilize at the proper interval, or I knew I should, but did not. This seems counterproductive as the whole reason for planting crops is to enjoy the harvest. A few missed fertilizer applications can severely impact your harvest. Adding soil amendments, such as compost, can supply plants with many of the nutrients they need. Do keep in mind that the nutrients present in a compost depend on the materials used to make it, so not all composts are created equal. Soils amended with compost can be tested every 2 to 3 years and if nutrients are lacking, they can be added before planting. Unfortunately, because of its complexity, UConn does not offer compost testing. However, once compost is incorporated into the soil, a composite sample of the mixture can be sent to the lab to determine pH and nutrient levels. I resolve to be more diligent this year in my application of fertilizers (if needed).      

A portion of my soil test results discussing fertilizer amendments. Photo by mrl2022.

The last two resolutions go hand-in-hand. I resolve to harvest my crops at the right time. This is another “easier said than done” situation. It is better to harvest cherry tomatoes right before a big rain to avoid cracking. Green beans are best harvested young, or they can get tough and stringy.  Zucchini is really a wonderful vegetable when small, but gets a tough skin and is really seedy when they gets large. Get it while the picking is good or you might need to compost the crop.

Many times, the rains affect our ability to harvest. Keep an eye on the forecast and try and build some time to harvest into your week.

The second side of this coin is food preservation. There is nothing better than being in the middle of a long, cold winter (they always feel like they will never end – except for this year when it just is starting), and having a nice dinner made with vegetables harvested from your garden. The down side is that it takes a lot of time to prep and preserve the literal fruits of our labor. When it is warm and sunny, who wants to stay inside and can, blanch, freeze, etc.? Maybe set up an outdoor workstation? 

This year I am really going to try and stick to my New Year’s resolutions. If I do, I should have the most amazing garden, and plenty of food to eat and share. We all know that life happens and not everything will get done perfectly. I think the most important part of this story is that not everything will go perfect, not everything will get done on time, but most things will. If the occasional watering does not get done on time, a fertilizer application goes down a little late, that is not a very big deal. If waterings are missed repeatedly, or fertilizer applications (based on soil test results) are regularly missed, the plants will not grow very well and production will be severely impacted. Try to not miss the same things all the time.

 Do your best. Enjoy your gardens and the fruits of your labor!

Raise a glass of that canned tomato juice or peach shrub to the New Year! 

Matt Lisy

The holidays bring with them a wealth of traditions. Culinary delights, seasonal decorations and family gatherings all take on special meaning during this season of celebration. Plants too are part of the holidays and have been for centuries.

Two plants, in particular, are associated with the Christmas season, the Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) and the Winter Rose (Euphorbia pulcherrima aka poinsettia). Both plants have similar holiday legends attributed to them. Madelon, a country girl visiting the Christ Child is forlorn because she has no gift to bring but an angel brings her outside, touches the ground and forth springs the first Christmas rose (Hellebore), her humble gift.

In the second legend, a poor Mexican girl named Pepita had no gift to bring to baby Jesus at Christmas Eve services. Her cousin tried to comfort her by telling her that even the smallest gift if given with love would make Jesus happy. She made a small bouquet out of some weeds and when she entered the church and laid them at the altar, they turned into bright red flowers. Church goers were sure they witnesses a miracle and to this day poinsettias are known as the ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’ or ‘Flores de Noche Buena’. 

Over the past decade or so, hellebores have been a horticultural hit. They are indigenous to mountainous regions in southern and central Europe and typically found on chalky, stony clay soils. There are about 20 species of evergreen or herbaceous hellebores. They can be found in colors ranging from white to cream, green, and pink to purple. Newer introductions have expanded the range of pinks and purples and introduced doubles, bicolors, spotted blossoms and variegated foliage.

Hellebores come in a wide color range. Photo by dmp, 2008

All hellebores are poisonous containing cardiac glycosides, saponins and ranunculosides. In fact the Latin name of the species known as the Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, comes from the Greek ‘elein’ meaning ‘to injure’ and ‘bora’ meaning ‘food’. Niger refers to the black color of its roots. Despite being poisonous, this plant has been used for centuries as a medicinal herb to cure mental disorders, intestinal worms, convulsions, tumors and various other ailments.

In its native habitat, the Christmas rose blooms from December to April, its buds opening as snow melts around its planting site. Here bloom times are also weather dependent with earlier blossoming during milder winters. Plants reach about a foot in height.

Helleborus niger sending up buds 12/28/21 in East Hartford. Photo by Louise Carroll, 2021

Hellebores in general do best in partially shaded sites with moderately moist soils. They can tolerate full sun but I find they need water on a regular basis or they do not grow much. Plan on planting hellebores in groups of 3 to 7 plants for a nice show. Plants spread slowly by rhizomes and seed. While not plant is 100 percent deer resistant, hellebores are usually not bothered by deer and other herbivores.

When happy, hellebores slowly form good sized patches. Photo by dmp, 2012.

Evergreen hellebores tend to look a bit ragged coming out of the winter and some leaves may need to be trimmed when new ones start to emerge. There are two basic groups of hellebores – those that have leaves on stems (caulescent) and those like the Christmas rose that have some leafy bracts on flower stalks but otherwise basal leaves (acaulescent). What most people associate with the alluring flowers are 5 petal-like sepals which surround a ring of yellow nectaries which are modified petals that hold nectar. The sepals last for months although their color fades. Leave them on the plants as they are thought to contribute to the development of seeds.

Poinsettias (Euphorbia pulcherrima) are beloved holiday plants and just like the hellebore, the colorful part of the plant that most associate with the blossoms are actually modified leaves called bracts. The real flowers are the small, yellow, bud-like structures in the middle called cyathias. There have been rumors about the poinsettia being poisonous but it is not. The white, latex sap, however, may produce skin irritations for some people.  

Poinsettia ‘Christmas Confetti’ bred by Bob Shabot, UConn. Photo by dmp, 2009

The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Joel Robert Poinsett, first brought the poinsettia to the states in 1825. It was a tall lanky plant that tended to drop its leaves but produced these beautiful red bracts in the winter. It was not until almost 100 years later when Paul Ecke of California developed a poinsettia that could be successfully grown as a houseplant. Now more than 34 million poinsettias are sold each year.

Breeders have expanded the color range to include pinks, creams, salmons, yellows, whites and bicolors. Some have touches of bronze and cinnamon. One of the Paul Ecke Ranch’s more recent introductions is the Winter Rose™ series of multi-petaled poinsettias. They were developed by Franz Fruehwirth who retired in 2000 after 38 years as a breeder for Ecke.

Poinsettia ‘Golden Glo’. Photo by dmp, 2021.

The first Winter Rose™ was a dark red and it was released in 2003. Each colored bract is puckered and inward curly looking like a rose in full bloom from a distance. After Winter Rose™ Dark Red was introduced, followed wonderful cultivars in light and dark pink, cream, yellow and most recently a cultivar called ‘Marble’ with soft pink bracts tipped in cream.

One of the outstanding features of the Winter Rose™ series is that the plant look great for many weeks, even months. Since this series has smaller leaves and reduced leaf area as compared to other types of poinsettias, it has a lower water requirement so forgetting to water plants occasionally is not as detrimental to them.

Winter Rose poinsettia. Photo by dmp, 2009

Poinsettias as a rule enjoy bright, indirect light, temperatures in the 60s F and enough water so that pots are moist but not overly wet. Often pots come wrapped in decorative foil. Make sure pots can drain well either by removing the foil and setting the plant in a saucer or by making holes in the foil to allow excess water to drain away. Keep poinsettias away from drafts and heat sources and they will look good until Valentine’s Day when you just might receive a bouquet of real roses.

Happy Holidays!

Dawn P.

It looks like many of us here in Connecticut are having a “White Christmas”! Enough snow fell the morning of the 24th to require shoveling. With freezing rain in the forecast for Christmas Day however, most people will probably choose to spend the day indoors, ideally by the fire with a warm drink and a book. While I didn’t have a yule log burning, this year I tried my hand at preparing some mushroom cultivation logs between other holiday festivities.

The idea to try growing mushrooms at home came to me earlier in the year when I wanted to buy some shiitake mushrooms for a recipe I was making. I was able to get them from a supermarket nearby and found that they had been grown here in New England. I was delighted to know that the mushrooms had been grown nearby and wanted to take a shot at growing them myself. With a little research, I found I had most of the tools I needed already at home.

Unlike oyster mushrooms and some other types that are easily grown in compost substrate, shiitake are more easily grown using hardwood logs. When selecting a log, choose one that is solid and freshly-cut, with no symptoms of disease. An ideal choice would be an oak or maple log, 2 to 4 feet long and 4 to 8 inches in diameter. Fortuitously, I did not need to purchase any such logs this year as a neighbor removed a few branches from a healthy oak that had been overhanging the street and was happy to share.

The “perfect log” was a fortuitous gift from a neighbor dealing with yard waste. It is about 20in long with a 5in diameter.

Once the proper logs have been collected and cleaned, they are ready to be inoculated with shiitake “spawn”. This refers to the shiitake mycelium – the threadlike “body” of the fungus that produces mushrooms after sufficiently colonizing the log. Many hobbyists sell this spawn growing on hardwood sawdust or on hardwood dowels. I chose to use dowels to inoculate my logs, which I purchased from a reputable online vendor.

I drilled holes barely larger than the inoculation dowels at regular intervals across the log. Since this was my first time, I used plenty of inoculation dowels to increase the likelihood of the mycelium rapidly and uniformly colonizing the log. I placed each inoculation dowel over the hole and gently hammered it in place using a rubber mallet. When hammering the dowels, I realized that some of the holes I drilled were a little too narrow and the dowel would not completely fit.

I drilled the holes in my garage to keep my workspace tidy. The holes were just barely larger than the inoculation dowels I was planning to use. A clean dowel without mushroom spawn is placed near the log for illustrative purposes.

Conversely, a few of the holes I drilled were too large and there were some small gaps around the dowels. These gaps create easy entry points for other fungi to enter the log and compete with the shiitake for resources, so it is important to seal them. I used melted beeswax to cover the holes. Although I just poured the beeswax over the holes with success, this was a somewhat messy process. I reviewed some tips online and found that many people use a horsehair paintbrush to “paint” the melted wax over the holes. I will probably do the same moving forward for easier cleanup and a nicer appearance. I recommend using a brush if you plan to gift the mushroom log to a loved one.

Holes that are too large for just the dowel need to be sealed to prevent other fungi from colonizing the log. An example of such a hole is shown here.
I used white beeswax pellets to fill the gaps around the dowels. Other non-toxic sealants and waxes may also be used, such as paraffin wax, but beeswax is what most hobbyists use. The beeswax I chose to use was not cosmetic-grade, so it was affordable and easy to find.

When the dowels are finished, label and date the log. I chose to use a permanent marker to label the cut end of the log, but some people prefer to attach labeled tags to the logs. Many hobbyists online recommend coating the cut ends of the log in wax to reduce the likelihood of other fungi colonizing the log. This seems to be especially recommended for people keeping the logs in warm, humid environments with lots of fungal pressure, such as in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern states. I did not coat the ends of my log initially, but I may choose to do so before moving them outside in the spring.

My labeled log is all ready to go! I used permanent marker to ensure that the label will not wash off when the log gets wet. Covering the end with beeswax would help the log retain moisture, protect it from other fungi, and have the added benefit of protecting the label from being damaged or discolored.

It is important to protect the shiitake logs from freezing temperatures while they are initially being colonized. For this reason, my logs will be spending the winter in my garage. They need to be kept moist, so I will water and turn them once each week when I water my other houseplants. The bark should dry out completely between watering.

When there is no longer a risk of freezing temperatures, I will move the logs to a shady area in my yard. The logs will not need to be covered unless there is a risk of them drying-out (e.g., intense heat wave) or if there is a severe storm that could flood or damage the logs. After the logs produce their first “batch” of mushrooms, they should be considered fully colonized and will not need to be protected from the cold. With a little luck, the logs will produce mushrooms once or twice each year for about 5 years.  

I’ll report back next year on the success of my efforts and any additional tips or trick I pick up in the process.

Happy holidays!


Beautiful gills

Nature alone is antique, and the oldest art a mushroom.
– Thomas Carlyle

This fall while I was hiking through woods and woodland trails, for some reason a little light seemed to go off in my consciousness that directed my eyes toward the mushrooms that seemed to be growing everywhere. Because of the rains and warm temperatures, mushrooms seemed to have popped up all at once – in lawns, leaf litter on and around trees, on logs and stumps, and on bare soils. I was never terribly interested in fungi before, but that has all changed now. I bought a good mushroom field guide (Peterson’s Field Guide to Mushrooms of North America) and I have been on a tear ever since.

Cauliflower ruffles Sparassis spathulata mushroom

I had no idea that mushrooms can have pores or teeth rather than gills, so that is now the first focus when trying to narrow down the field in identification. Now the first thing I look for is if the cap has gills, pores, teeth or is just a capsule with spores inside, as with puffballs.  I have a little mirror that I can slide under the caps to see the reproductive structures without having to damage the fruiting body in the process. I learned that boletes have pores, Amanitas and fly agarics have gills,  and if a mushroom has gills, for instance, it cannot be a bolete. It narrows the field right away for identification purposes.

Pepper Bolete Has Pores
Distinctive gills of the viscid violet cort

There are several gill types- decurrent, attached, open, in relationship to the stalk and widely spaced or tightly spaced. Some can be waved at the edges of the cap. Pores can be small, large, rounded or angular, and both gills and pores can have distinctive colors, both of the tissue itself and the spores.  

Cantharellus cinnabarinus cinnabar chantertelle has decurrent gills that run down the stalk

Amanita mushroom with typical membranous veil on the stipe

Toothed mushrooms are least common, I think, and they are very interesting as well. Teeth can be flattened, pointed, or somewhere in between. The stacked tooth fungus Climacodon septentrionalis, is a parasitic fungus that can grow quite large in the space of a few months. They form a tight stack like pancakes on trunks of living trees like maples.

Stacked tooth mushroom on a sugar maple
Yellow teeth of the stacked tooth mushroom with brown spores on left

Some mushrooms have strong associations with particular tree species, such as the Leccinum scabrum– birch scaber stalk. Stems of the birch scaber stalk bolete have wooly scales and base can have blue- green stains. Pores are white, then age to gray-brown and the cap is brown. The chunky false tinder conk Phellinus tremulae is associated with aspens and resembles a horse’s hoof.

False tinder conks have killed this aspen

The most spectacular mushroom, which I saw for the first time, was the bear’s head tooth fungus, which looked like a mass of tiny icicles dripping down the side of a living tree.

Hericium americanum bear’s head tooth fungus

Another first find for me were the diminutive Calostoma cinnabarineum puffballs, which have a cap like an acorn atop a thick stalk. The whole fruiting body is covered with a cinnamon-red gel which slowly slides off. Inside the capsule is a mass of dust-like white spores.

Calostoma cinnabarineum puffball is on a gel covered stalk

Lycoperdon perlatum puffball

Coral mushrooms do not have caps, but they have branches or a clublike form. Spores form on the surface of these clubs or branches and fall off. Cup mushroom have concave caps which may be curled or wavy

Orange Ascomycete Cup Fungus

Coral fungi

Stinkhorns are often smelled before they are seen. They usually have a stinky slime on the top that contains the spores. Flies are attracted to this offensive mess and spread the spores when they leave. Ravenel’s and the dog stinkhorn Mutinus caninus have a definite phallic form and stalks with a styrofoam or spongy texture.

Ravenel’s stinkhorn
Stinky squid

There are so many mushrooms yet to encounter, and I can’t wait until warmer weather arrives again next year. In the meantime I will dream of finding fairy inkcap crumble mushrooms and red and white fly agarics.

Pamm Cooper

False turkey tail bracket fungi

Talk to any gardener, and chances are you’ll find their hobby has morphed into a passion. And, they probably already have a library full of garden books and a shed full of tools. As a result, deciding what to give your favorite garden geek for the holidays can pose a real challenge. To help you find the perfect gift., we took a survey of the elves around the Home and Garden Education Center and came up with a number of gift suggestions we think any gardener would love to have. So, without further ado, here are our selections for the best gifts for the gardener in your life – even if that gardener is you!

Dawn Pettinelli, Associate Cooperative Extension Educator, heads the UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Lab and oversees the UConn Home & Garden Education Center and thought these would make great gifts.

Dawn Pettinelli

A soil test kit. After all, healthy soil makes for a healthy plant, and UCONN can do the test! Call (860) 486-4274 to find out how to get one.  

Soil test collection kit. Photo by Patrick McIntosh

A new pair of gardening gloves (or two, or four).  Because you can never have enough.

Gardening gloves. Image from http://www.backyardnatureproducts.com

Dawn’s favorite suggestion is an assassin shovel. She says it’s great for digging and separating perennials. 

Assassin shovels from http://www.amleo.com

Dr. Nick Goltz, Assistant Cooperative Extension Educator and Plant Pathologist heads our Plant Diagnostic Lab. In addition, he teaches pathology to our Master Gardener interns. Here are a few of his favorite gift ideas:

Dr. Nick Goltz

 A good ceramic or cement planter; terracotta is also very nice to have.  What gardener wouldn’t love a nice planter for their favorite plants?

Terra cotta pot from https://plantaddicts.com

A compost bin OR materials to make your own compost area. That could be a very nice gift for any budget.

Compost bins. Photo courtesy of http://www.joegardener.com.

Last but certainly not least, (and a personal favorite of mine), a mushroom growing kit. Imagine having an endless supply of mushrooms? The kit could be purchased, or it could be a great DIY gift. A gift that keeps on giving. How fun is that?

Pamm Cooper, who splits her time with the Home & Garden Education Center with teaching entomology and turf to UConn Master Gardener interns, suggests a few must-haves for any gardener:

Pamm Cooper, UConn Home & Garden Education Center

Pamm swears by her Hori Hori knife. It is used for weeding, seeding, transferring bulbs, digging the perfect hole and cutting branches.

Hori Hori knife from https://holistichabitatclt.com

Pamm also loves a pair of pocket snips. These are perfect for dead-heading and pruning perennials.

Pocket snips from http://www.gardeners.com

And last, Pamm recommends a straight edged blade for edging garden beds, weeding, digging and planting. A must have for her tool bag.

Straight edge shovel from https://bullytools.com

Me? My ultimate gift- and dream car- is a Kubota BX 1880 subtractor with bucket loader, (Please Santa, I’ve been a very good girl.)

Marie Woodward, UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Marie’s dream car! From https://powersportscompany.com

But short of that (and a lot less expensive), I like the Paper pot maker. An environmentally friendly way to make starter pots, no plastic!

Paper pot maker. From http://www.bestnest.com

But my favorite gift for any gardener? Why not a tree? More specifically, a flowering tree! What a wonderful way to give a gift that the gardener will enjoy year after year? Get a gift certificate now, and plant in the spring.

Easter redbud from http://www.thetreecenter.com

Lastly, when you just can’t think of the perfect gift for the gardener in your life? A gift certificate to their favorite garden center never fails.  Any of the above gifts (except the Kubota) can be purchased at your local nursery or online. I think the Kubota requires a visit to a dealer. Still, it may fit in Santa’s sleigh – forever the optimist!

That rounds out the gift list for this year. All of us at the UConn Home and Garden Education Center want to wish you and yours the happiest of holidays with peace, love, and pest-free and productive gardens throughout the new year.

Happy Holidays!

Marie Woodward

So here we are in the cold, finally seeing some snow. It is hard to think about wanting to go outside and do any yard work. This time of year, however, is one of my favorite times! We are now experiencing ideal times for tree and shrub trimming for a number of reasons. The first is the most obvious – the leaves are off the trees. This can be both an advantage and disadvantage.  With the leaves off, we cannot tell which branches are alive or dead. To me, this is less of a concern as I am more focused on bigger issues of tree shape and proximity to my house and outbuildings. Dead limbs can be trimmed at any time of year. What is advantageous is bare limbs allow us to get a good view of the tree as a whole and find the exact point we want to cut. It allows us to see the tree as a whole and not just a branch sticking out to one side. This way we are less likely to cut the “wrong” branch and end up with an oddly shaped tree.

Overgrown trees next to a house can lead to many costly repairs and possibly increased insurance costs. Photo by mrl2021.

The cold weather provides many additional advantages. For one, the tree is in a dormant state.  The flow of sap is toward the roots, so cutting will not harm the tree’s health now. When cut in the summer in full leaf, the sap may flow out of the tree and rob it of energy/nutrients. This can also attract many of the tree’s pests. The cold weather also provides solid ground for us to stand on, or put a ladder on. This gives us much more safety and stability when we attempt to cut some branches. The third reason I like cold weather cutting is that I do not have a lot going on outside in the garden. During other times of the year, I am very active in the vegetable and flower gardens while also trying to keep up with lawn maintenance. What generally ends up happening is that the tree trimming does not get done. Here in the winter, however, I have more time. The only exceptions is that I would not recommend trimming in deep snow. The obstructed view may prove dangerous when you are trying to set up a ladder. Another word of caution is to watch out for ice!

Not trimming the trees by your house, shed, barn, or other outbuildings can lead to many disasters! Not only that, but your insurance company many also increase your rates should they come out to inspect the property (a more common practice nowadays). Tree branches that touch the side of your house can damage it in multiple ways. The simplest is rubbing the paint or finish off of your siding. In the case of brick or aluminum siding, rubbing branches may leave some permanent marks in them as well, negatively affecting the appearance of your house when the tree is finally cut or if it dies/falls. In extreme cases, I have seen holes rubbed into wood siding, which may invite birds to nest, or even worse – squirrels (more on them in a minute). Hanging tree branches that touch your roof can ruin your shingles. Branches blowing in the wind can rub on the shingles and wear them away over time, or the branches may actually pry off or break shingles when blowing in a big storm. Even if the branches do not touch the shingles directly, they may shade the roof and not allow it to dry sufficiently. This moist situation can invite moss to grow, which breaks down your shingles through mechanical and chemical action. All these situations can lead to premature failure of the roof, which is a very costly repair. Lastly, branches touching or coming into close contact with a building may invite squirrels. Although cute looking, they cause a lot of destruction and costly damage. If you patch up one of their holes, they will simply and quickly chew another one. The best way to avoid this war is to prevent their access to your structures by keeping the branches beyond jumping distance (six feet or more). 

These woody shrubs rubbing on the garage can remove paint and wear away the wooden siding over time. Photo by mrl2021.

So many people worry about the “proper” way to trim trees. Although you will find no shortage of advice on the subject, in general there is no perfect way to trim. The worst thing you can do is nothing, and then have your buildings ruined. Trees will grow back over time, and any mistakes will soon disappear. Different types of fruit trees may have different ideas or patterns of cutting (consult a good fact sheet, book, or internet search for your specific type), but most of our trees are for landscaping. There are Japanese maples, weeping willows, and certain ornamental trees that have a specific shape. Be careful trimming these to preserve their growth pattern. Conifers should generally be left alone unless trimming is absolutely necessary. What I will talk about here is generalized cutting tips for deciduous trees (these lose their leaves in the fall) and shrubs.  To start off, cut away any branches that are coming into contact with the building. Rather than cut back each branch, it may be better to go back to a common node (growth point) from which all the branches sprout. In general, cut in a way that looks pleasing to the overall shape of the tree. Decide how you want things to look before you start, rather than making it up as you go along. I like to start by cutting out any branches that are growing toward the center of the tree or shrub and rubbing together. These can injure the tree and allow pests and/or diseases to enter.  Also, a pattern of a trunk with branches at the top works the best. Balance out the number of branches on each side. Leaving the lower part of the tree with short stubby branches is not too visibly appealing. Lower limbs should be cut back all the way to the trunk. When trimming a branch, it is a good idea to make a shallow cut underneath, and then move to the top of the branch and slightly outward toward the tip to make the actual trim cut. If done properly, when you are cutting through the branch and it starts to break off, it snaps off nice and clean instead of ripping bark off the remaining branch. One last note of caution – make sure you are not underneath the branches you are trimming.This way when limbs fall, they will not hit into your ladder, or anything/anyone else!

When you cut tree or shrub branches, you want to cut a significant amount off. For example, if I have a mature tree touching my house and I cut 6 inches of a branch off, by mid-summer the tree will have sent multiple new branches toward my house. Trees can be a little like the mythical hydra. Cut off one branch and two grow back into its place. This has to do with the meristem tissues. Basically speaking, when you cut off the apical meristem (tip), the two lateral meristems at the previous node (growth points) will sprout. So, with all that in mind, when you cut a branch back on a mature tree, you should decide how many feet you want to cut off, not inches. There is only real exception to the late fall/early winter trimming. Do not trim azaleas, rhododendrons, forsythias, or other early spring flowering shrubs. They set their flower buds late in the year for the following spring. If trimmed at this time, you will essentially be cutting off flower buds. Too much trimming will leave a very lopsided bloom, or no blooms at all. These plants are best trimmed right after they get done flowering. Hopefully you can find the time!          

These Rhododendrons are best trimmed in the spring after flowering. The dormant flower buds can be seen at the tips of the branches. Photo by mrl2021.

There are more tools than a person would know what to do with for trimming trees. I will discuss some of my favorites here. While hand-held pruning shears are nice, they will not really be very effective. Most of the branch diameters that you will trim will be larger than they can cut through. The basic, most useful tool is the two handled loppers. The long handles give the leverage needed to more easily cut through larger diameter branches. These come in two styles: anvil and bypass. The anvil type has a blade that comes down and rests on the solid piece below (anvil). I do not like these as they have a tendency to crush the stems, and sometimes do not completely cut through the branch. The bypass type has the blade cut past the bottom non-moving blade. These seem to work very well and make for nice cuts. Make sure to keep the blade sharp! There are a number of sharpeners for sale to help with this. 

The hand held pruners (left) are not really big enough for tree and shrub work. The bypass loppers (right) make the work much easier. Photo by mrl2021.

A number of people like bow saws. These are great for cutting down Christmas trees as the construction allows the blade to flex a little while using it. Another advantage is the blades are easily replaced. It usually takes a bit of effort to use them, and I tend to prefer a pruning saw instead. The pruning saws have a lot of really sharp teeth in multiple directions that allows the cutting to happen rather quickly. I find these take a lot less effort to use, and they stay sharp for many years.

The bow saw (top) is best for cutting down Christmas trees. The pruning saw makes trim work quick and much easier than traditional saws. Photo by mrl2021.
A close up of the sharp, multidirectional teeth on a pruning saw. Photo by mrl2021.

For tall trees or high limbs, there are pole saws. This tool’s name is also its description. It consists of a saw on the end of a long pole. Usually you end up positioning the blade on the tree limb and then pull a rope to get the saw to cut. Better yet is an electric or gas powered pole saw.  This is essentially a mini chainsaw on the end of a long pole. These are much easier to use, but as would be expected cost more money. Many times you can buy an extra extension piece to allow for a longer reach. Be careful of falling limbs when using pole saws. The use of a hard hat is recommended. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for use and safety concerns.

A gas powered pole saw. Photo by mrl2021.

The last few tools are much more expensive and increasingly more dangerous to use. Recently, the major hand-held power tool companies have come out with one handed Sawzall battery operated tools. There are special pruning blades that can be used in these that will make short work of your trimming duties. One of the newest tools is a mini battery powered chainsaw that you operate one handed. These would be used for smaller diameter pruning options. Last, but not least, is a good old-fashioned chainsaw. These may be gas or battery powered. They need to have oil to lubricate the chain. These cut through lumber like butter (unless your chain gets dull).  They are much easier to use, but very dangerous. If you choose this option, make sure to educate yourself on proper chainsaw safety. In some situations, this tool may be too large for the job.       

A gas powered chainsaw. This tool may be too big for many of our trimming projects. Photo by mrl2021.

Well hopefully this helps you get motivated to use this cold weather downtime to get some yardwork done! Many of these items would make for great holiday gifts for an avid gardener or landscape enthusiast. These items can be found at most big box stores, hardware stores, equipment dealers, and even some online retailers. There is nothing better than the proper equipment when you have job to do. Happy trimming! 

Matt Lisy

As the late fall days get shorter and the woody plants shed their colorful autumnal wardrobes, any touch of color is a welcome sight in tour mostly brown landscape. While we can’t slow the coming of winter, we can brighten our yards by using plants that produce interesting fruits. Aside from adding color to a rather drab landscape, many berry producing plants also lure avian visitors.  

On the way to work each morning, I pass mass plantings of several species of viburnum; their branches loaded with bright red berries, technically called drupes. Most likely they are either the European (V. opulus) or American (V. trilobum) cranberrybush viburnum. Both are somewhat upright in form with lovely white flowers in the spring and brilliant, small but plentiful red drupes. They have 3-lobed, maple-shaped leaves that redden come fall. The fruits hold well into the winter and are sought by many birds and other forms of wildlife. They can even be made into jams.

Cranberry viburnum. Photo by dmp2021.

Two other viburnums with red fruit have similar characteristics, but one may exhibit some invasive characteristics according to the UConn Plant Database (https://plantdatabase.uconn.edu/). Both the linden (V. dilatatum) and the Wright viburnum (V. wrightii) are multi-stemmed shrubs reaching up to 10 feet in height with clusters of creamy flowers in the spring, handsome, toothed, green foliage in summer changing to shades of red in the fall and persistent red fruit in the fall. Linden viburnums have been found to spread both from seeds as well as by layering, naturalizing on sites from the mid-Atlantic region into New York and Connecticut outcompeting native plants.  

Wright viburnum at UConn. Photo by dmp2009.

The wayfaring tree (V. lantana) and the nannyberry (V. lentago) produce bluish-black berries. While blackish berries may sound rather drab, the fruit undergoes a beautiful color change from yellow to pinkish before realizing their final color. Often all colors are present at one time making for a great show.

Both deciduous and evergreen hollies are also at their best this time of year. Many excellent cultivars of deciduous hollies (Ilex verticillata) are available in compact and heavily fruited forms. You will notice their native parents in wet areas with their red berries, attractive but less abundant and not as compact as the cultivars. While red berried forms are most common, orange and yellow berry cultivars are also available.

Winterberry. Photo by dmp2010.

The Meserve blue hollies and the China hollies are reliably hardy evergreen varieties with spiny leaves and red berries. Our native American holly (I. opacum) is not as cold hardy but does well in protected areas and in the southern part of the state. The species reaches 15 to 30 feet tall but numerous cultivars including dwarf and columnar forms might be a good match for your site. Keep in mind when purchasing hollies that males and females are separate plants. One male can pollinate 3 to 10 females depending on the species. Be sure to purchase both sexes if you want berries.

Blue Princess holly berries. Photo by dmp2021.

Cotoneasters are plants for all seasons. They have neat, oval leaves of a glossy green, white or pinkish flowers in spring, and lots of colorful red berries that last well into winter. Especially notable is the rockspray cotoneaster (C. horizontalis) with its arching branches. Cotoneasters are useful in foundation plantings and look lovely when their branches cascade over walls. The only downside to cotoneasters is the time it takes each spring to pluck wind blown leaves from their grasp. 

Cotoneaster berries at UConn. Photo by dmp2021.

Hawthorns are often overlooked in the landscape. Many species and cultivars are available with not only persistent, bright fruit but attractive flowers and foliage as well.

The red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) is native to the U.S. and produces a great crop of red or in the case of black chokeberry (A. melanocarpa) – blackish purple berries that last well into winter. As the name suggests, they are rather astringent, but also high in polyphenols, which have been shown to have beneficial health properties. One can purchase numerous over the counter products containing aronia compounds. These plants are tough, adaptable plants that grow well from full sun to part shade and form 3 to 5-feet tall colonies as they spread by suckering. Birds will feed on berries as they soften over the winter. Fall color is notable in burgundy, orange and crimson shades.

Red chokeberry. Photo by Mark Brand, UConn.

Another intriguing plant is the beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) which bears large clusters of iridescent purple berries on the tips of arching stems. This more southern native fruits best in USDA hardiness zones 6 – 10 or in more sheltered areas of zone 5. Plants are 3 to 8 feet tall and wide and work well in mixed borders. They tolerate heat and humidity well. Stems often die back over winter, much like butterfly bushes, so cut back when new growth is noticed in the spring. Berries are attractive to birds and other wildlife.

Brilliant purple callicarpa berries. Photo by dmp2009.

`Don’t over look our native bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica). Berries are silvery white with a delicious fragrance – no match for those artificially scented candles. Bayberries tolerate sandy, infertile soils but will thrive when given a choicer location. Like hollies, bayberries are also dioecious meaning that plants are either male or female and both sexes are needed for berries to be produced. Purchase plants in the fall so you can see which ones produce berries. Typically, males are taller plants, reaching up to 12 feet in height while females top out at 5 to 6 feet. Plants tend to sucker and either should be placed in a dry, sunny area where they can spread or make a note to remove unwanted sprouts a couple of times a year.  

Dawn P.

Thanksgiving is a time when family and friends gather to give thanks and share the bountiful feast of turkey with all the trimmings. For many families, it’s also time to share another tradition, seeking, choosing and purchasing the perfect Christmas tree.  Nothing symbolizes the start of the holiday season better than seeing vehicles of all kinds carrying home their prized Christmas trees.

“Christmas Tree 2008” by Brent Flanders CC BY NC-ND-2.0 .jpg

Whether artificial, precut, fresh cut or living, there’s a type of tree for every taste. But is there one variety of tree that stands out as the perfect Christmas tree? Kathy Kogut, president of the 235 member CT Tree Farmers Association, who’s members sell on average 150,000 holiday trees every year, says each variety of evergreen has its particular strengths. 

For that long Christmas tree fragrance, for example, the Balsam Fir is a popular choice. Douglas Fir has light green and soft needles and is a good choice for the budget minded. but not a good choice for heavy ornaments. White pine has dense soft needles and is a good choice for those with tree allergies. Spruce trees are not as popular due to their poor needle retention. Blue spruce has the best needle retention of all spruce trees, but its stiff needles come with an ouch factor. 

Outdoor evergreens can also be decorated for the holiday season. Photo by dmp2017.

Before purchasing a tree, Kogut recommends measuring the space where you plan to place your tree and taking those measurements to the tree farm along with a tape measure. This will help you avoid a common mistake, buying too big a tree. When choosing your tree, inspect all sides so the best side is displayed and make sure the base of the tree allows for 6-8 inches to fit into the stand.

Once home, before bringing your tree into the house, make a fresh cut one inch above the butt end, and place the tree in a stand that can hold at least one gallon of water. A good rule of thumb is to make sure your tree stand can hold one quart of water for each inch in diameter of trunk.

“Martin Family CHristmas Tree 2013” by C J Martin CC 2.0

Inside the house, make sure you choose a location for the tree away from heat sources like TV’s, fireplaces, radiators and air ducts. Maintain the water level above the tree base at all times. The tree will take up at least one quart of water a day, so checking for water daily is important to keep the tree fresh. No additives are needed. Plain water is completely adequate.

Kogut suggests that if you decide to purchase a precut tree from an urban lot, the same advice applies to measuring, and cutting before placing it in the tree stand. However, buyers should be aware that those trees may have been cut down weeks earlier, come from out of state and may have been. exposed to drying winds in transit. This may shorten the trees’ freshness and result in premature dropping of needles. 

Living trees, though beautiful, are, Kogut says, not good choices as a Christmas tree.  But, if you decide to use a living tree, don’t leave it in the house for more than a few days. Otherwise the warmth of the house could bring on new tender growth, which might kill the tree when brought outside to the harsh winter environment after the holidays.

“Wildlife – Recycled Christmas Tree” by danielle.brigida is licensed under CC BY 2.0.jpg

Lastly, consider recycling your Christmas tree. Many transfer stations will take the tree at no charge and turn them into chips. Or, consider placing your tree in the backyard and place suet and peanut butter covered pine cones, or bread in it for birds.

To learn more about Christmas trees, (https://ctchristmastree.org/) or contact UConn Home and Garden Education Center, (http://www.ladybug.uconn.edu/).

Marie Woodward

November sunrise on Horsebarn Hill UConn

November comes and November goes with the last red berries
and the first white snows.
With night coming early, and dawn coming late, and ice in the bucket
and frost by the gate.

-Elizabeth Coatsworth

While driving along country roads, walking in the woods, or simply getting up early in the morning and stepping outside, any day can offer an opportunity to come across interesting or unusual sights. Fall is the time of bird migrations, splashes of leaf color and beautiful sunrises and sunsets. November seems like a last hurrah with some lingering warm days before the cold settles in for the winter. On a recent morning bare treetops in the pre-sunrise light looked like they were full of leaves, but it was actually thousands of blackbirds. One bird must have started something because the whole lot of them began at once to make a terrific noise, and then they took off in unison. I remeber the day when it could take several minutes for these flocks of blackbirds to pass over the morning sky.

Blackbirds taking flight just before sunrise

This November has been unusually warm, but leaves have finally fallen or changed color as in the case of our dawdling oaks and dawn redwoods. Fallen leaves can cover the ground for a while to restyle a scene with winsome texture and color. Things hidden by foliage in the summer are now revealed- wasp and bird’s nests, fruits and other things.

Dawn redwood fall color before needle drop

Sometimes something that was dull can suddenly get interesting when light and visibility change in what seems like an instant. This happened when a dingy looking shelf fungus growing on a sugar maple had the sun strike it just as I was driving by. Getting my attention, I got out and took a closer look. It turned out to be a stacked tooth fungus, a mushroom new to my experience. They form a tight stack like pancakes and instead of pores or gills, they have fine teeth from which spores are released.

Climacodon septentrionalis stacked toorh fungus
Underside showing the teeth, or spines, of the stacked tooth fungus

On the same ride where I saw the amazing tooth fungus, there was an old Lincoln Zephyr on display in someone’s front yard. Down the same street was an old farmhouse with an impressive front porch and a remarkable sugar maple whose leaves covered the ground around it. In the same area was a grain storage building with old trains and their cars cluttering the tracks, perhaps some still used for transport, and some obviously no longer in service.

Lincoln Zephyr
Old Lincoln Zephyr

Old Farmhouse
Trains at a grain storage facility
November is also the time of final hay cutting and baling operations

There is a home in Glastonbury or Portland that has the most bee hives I ever saw in one place in Connecticut. According to the owner, the hives near the house were requeened this summer and will form a new colony. When queens no longer produce enough eggs, a new queen is introduced and the old is, sadly, released from her earthly duties. Some of these hives are used at a local orchard in the spring, while a majority are placed along the Connecticut River where food is very abundant.

On hike through a nature preserve woods early this month there was the remains of an old car which was probably from the 1930’s and dragged here when the area was a field. This car was almost 20 feet long and had a folding luggage rack on the trunk. Headlamps must have been the size of dinner plates.

On the trunk of a dead aspen along the side of a country road, it was clear what had killed this tree. On the trunk were false tinder conks Phellinus  termulae shelf fungi . No other fungi with this characteristic fruiting body are found on aspen. The woody conks are hoof-like, brown to black, and have a cracked upper surface. Pores are tan or white. The spores of P. tremulae are blown through the air and can enter fresh wounds on aspens, where the fungus attacks the heartwood and causes white trunk rot.

False tinder conks Phellinus  termulae shelf fungi

Still out and about are praying mantids and some dragonflies and bees. This female mantid was on a sidewalk near a flower garden. Her eggs have been laid, so she will perish shortly.

t is the time of warmer jackets, bleaker vistas, perhaps, and chilly days. I am not by nature a puddleglum, so all this is not a deterrent to enjoying the shorter days and the coming cold. There will still be spectacular sunsets and sunrises, snowy landscape coverings and bluer skies that will cheer my heart on occasion. Now is a also good time to read all those books that there was little time for when the outdoors beckoned strongly for all the attention. Maybe I’ll put on a colorful scarf or something…

The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.
The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

-Emily Dickinson

Maybe I’ll just light a sparkler.

Pamm Cooper