As the trees shed the last of their leaves in preparation for the coming winter, New England gardeners are collecting the last of their harvests or preparing plants like parsnips for in-ground harvest throughout the cold winter months. We have had several frosts and a tad of wet snow which is fine for the Brussels sprouts that I am harvesting this week for Thanksgiving dinner. Exposure to frosts sweetens them up a bit. Also picked this past weekend were a handful of leeks which were made into a potato leek soup flavored with caraway seeds and dill – served with an herb and onion bread. It is one of my favorite cold weather meals. There is still some chard, broccoli and another kohl rabi left and they will be dealt with shortly. With the relatively mild winter we experienced last year, several Swiss chard plants made it through the winter to provide early spring greens much to my delight so I will leave a few plants to see if my luck continues.

November 8th dusting of snow on Brussels sprouts

 November is often such a gloomy month that any burst of color is a welcome relief from the drab browns of dying vegetation. A definite attention getter is Winterberry (Ilex verticillata).  This native is commonly found in moist areas and can grow up to 15 feet tall. Bright red berries persist well into winter and are a sought after food source for dozens of species of birds. The native species tends to be rather loose in form but there are many cultivars and selections that are more compact and fruitful. There are also selections with yellow berries.

There are two things to keep in mind when planting winterberries in the landscape. First, like all hollies, they are dioecious which means that there are separate male and female plants and both are needed for the flowers to be pollinated and red berries to form. Usually one male plant is purchased for every half dozen or so females. If you have some winterberries growing nearby and producing berries, you must have a male pollinator in the vicinity so you may not need to purchase one. Secondly, although winterberries do tolerate and even produce some berries if grown in part shade, a much heavier crop will occur when plants are grown in full sun.

Winterberry brightens the November landscape

 Another favorite plant of mine this time of year is the witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) which is the last plant to bloom. Flowers consist of four, curious, yellow, strap-like petals and are produced after the leaves fall from the branches. Our native witch hazel is not as flashy as the cultivars but it gives the wooded areas in which is grows a soothing, golden haze making a very pretty scene when touched by the early morning sun. 

 Many folks do not know that Connecticut is the witch hazel capital of world, with East Hampton being the epicenter. A minister named Thomas Dickinson opened the first witch hazel distillery in Essex, CT back in the mid 1800’s. Family feuds ended up with the establishment of a second distillery in East Hampton and rival brands. In the 1970’s the East Hampton distillery was bought by a non-family member. It was automated in the 1980’s and this was the beginning of the end for the Essex facility which closed in 1997.

Presently, hundreds of tons of witch hazel stems are needed each year for witch hazel production and as of 2008, only about 8 families in Connecticut are responsible for most of the harvest. It is a perennial crop which takes just a few years to regrow after the stems are harvested.

Native Americans used witch hazel as a cure-all for a number of ills, many of which it is still used for today. Some of the cosmetic and pharmaceutical products which contain witch hazel include various shampoos and conditioners, bath gels and soaps, shaving creams, suntan lotions, aftershave lotions, deodorants, acne care products, psoriasis creams, hemorrhiodal products, mouthwashes, topical anti-bacterials as well as a number of veterinary products.

I am so excited about this year’s graduating class of UConn Master Composters! What’s a Master Composter you ask? Developed along a similar line to the UConn Master Gardener program, a UConn Master Composter attends 6 to 7 educational sessions on composting which typically include classroom learning, hands-on demonstrations and activities, and at least two field trips. In exchange for this training on the many aspects of composting, they are asked to participate in two University-sanctioned, educational, outreach activities within one year of their training program. My first class of Master Composters consisted of 10 individuals, 9 of whom completed their outreach requirements. Their total volunteer outreach hours reached over 200 hours towards community composting education. We had a very nice (and delicious) pot-luck graduation luncheon at the Middlesex County Extension Center in Haddam on November 7, 2010. The next Master Composter class will be starting up in March in Bethel. Plans for the class are being set up now and will be available on our website, shortly.

Lastly, I am thankful for many things this past year. I am thankful that we only had 8 weeks of drought and the rain came before my well went dry; I am thankful for the 3 little bunnies that decimated my beets and lettuce but were so tame I could get within 6 feet of them for photographs: I am thankful for no late blight on my tomatoes this year so I had plenty for homemade chili sauce, I am also thankful for the pollinators that gave me a bountiful harvest and the birds whose choruses delighted me while I battled weeds and insect pests. I will admit, however, not being thankful for those pesky chipmunks who dug up about a quarter of all my transplants last spring. Please tell me why a few zinnias can’t be left to grow in peace? !!!

Interesting Fish Bowl Bed at out Thanksgiving Dinner Host's house

 Wishing you all a happy and delicious Thanksgiving!