March 2017


Trees and shrubs are showing signs of life as they swell in preparation of budding out. Let’s hope that they have survived the extreme cold that followed some unseasonably warm weather in February when they started to appear. Although we are still weeks away from seeing canopies of leaves and flowering shrubs the weather is becoming nice enough to enjoy a walk through the landscape. And without leaves and flowers to attract our attention our sight is drawn to other details that might normally go unnoticed.

As I was walking around the yard looking at the pussywillows and the lilac buds I noticed lichen growing along the side of the lilac trunk. We get many calls at the Home & Garden Education Center regarding grey-green growths along trunks and limbs of woody ornamentals. Most lichen are so unworldly-looking that the common misconception is that they must be causing harm to the host plant, especially since they are commonly first noticed when a tree is in distress. But a sparse canopy simply lets in more sunlight which is beneficial to the lichen.

Lichen on lichen

The truth is so different. In fact, lichen may be a benefit to the host plant by bringing extra moisture and environmental protection as the lichen take root. Further, removal of lichen may damage the underlying bark may create open wounds that would allow pathogens to enter. It is best left alone.

What are lichen, then? They not only live symbiotically with host plants, they can be found on soil and on rocks. Lichen are composite organisms and although they sometimes appear plant-like, they are not plants. They are algae (or cyanobacteria, a name that reflects their blue-green hues) that live among the filaments of fungi. They do not have roots to absorb water and nutrients but they can produce food through photosynthesis by the algae component. Lichen are sometimes called moss and may grow amongst them but they are not related. This image shows them on the same tree:

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Lichen can be correctly called an epiphyte though. Epiphytes grow harmlessly on other plants, only relying on the physical support for its structure and getting moisture and nutrients from the air and rain. Orchids are a beautiful example of an epiphytic plant and more can be read about them in the Ladybug Blog: A Visit to the Bahamas.

As lichen grow the forms that the thallus take determine the grouping that they fall within. The thallus are the obvious vegetative body parts and they can grow in a variety of ways and colors. On the left is the Parmotrema sp. in a foliose growth form. On the right is the Caloplaca sp. in a crustose growth form.

Lichen are long-lived but can have slow growth rate, as little as 2/100” in a year although there are varieties that can measured at 1 ½’ per anum. Lichen can be the first species to colonize freshly exposed rocks and can survive under the harshest conditions, such as arctic tundra and desert. It can survive a complete loss of water and then rehydrate when it becomes available. This moss has been growing on this rock for years. The cup-like structures are the apothecia, the fungal reproductive structure that produces the spores. While these spores will produce new fungi it won’t lead to new lichen. New lichen are formed when soredia are dispersed. Soredia are  clusters of algal cells wrapped in fungal filaments.

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So there is no need to panic when you see lichen. If the host plant does seem to be in decline, look for another cause. It could be due to an insect infestation (have Gypsy Moth caterpillars defoliated the canopy?), a vascular disease that has caused a general decline in vigor, or uneven watering practices. Check with the UConn Home & Garden Education for verification of any of these possibilities.

Susan Pelton

 

A common and potentially significant problem on a variety of houseplants, including both indoor ornamental and vegetable plants, is the two-spotted spider mite. Spider mites get their name from the wispy webbing they produce on infested plants.  Like spiders, they have eight legs so are not insects.

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Spider mite infestation on indoor pea plant. Note ‘stippling’, the tiny leaf spots which are mite feeding sites and the webbing (full of mites!) in the upper part of the photo. UConn photo.

Adult two-spotted spider mites, a common species both indoors and out in the northeast, are quite tiny at only about 1/50th of an inch long.  Because of this and their habit of feeding and reproducing on the undersides of leaves, they are often overlooked until populations are high and plants have sustained significant (easily visible) damage.

Both adults and the smaller, but similar nymphs feed on plant tissues by piercing cells with needle-like mouthparts and sucking out the contents. This results in cell death and a tiny yellow spot on the leaf. Once there are many spots, the leaf begins to look ‘stippled’ or off color and may die and fall from the plant. Many spots are bound to happen if conditions are warm and dry and the mites are not noticed early because they have a high rate of reproduction under these conditions.

If you see what could be early symptoms of a spider mite infestation, ie, leaves with a light amount of spotting or discoloration or a bit of webbing on the plant, check for mites by tapping symptomatic leaves over a sturdy white paper surface (a paper plate works great).  Mites will fall onto the plate and will crawl slowly allowing you to see them.

Where do spider mites on houseplants come from?  When it’s warm outside, they can easily hitchhike in on you, your pets, or even a breeze.  They may come in on any plant material brought in from outside or a newly introduced houseplant.  Because of their small size and the webbing they produce, they are easily picked up and moved around by air currents.

What can you do about them?  If you have an infestation as bad as the one pictured here (on indoor pea plants), the best solution is to dispose of the plants to protect others.  For a lighter or moderate infestation options for indoor plants include a spray of water in the tub or shower (a hand held water bottle can be used if the shower spray is too strong for the plant), insecticidal soaps, neem products or botanical oils.  Some soaps and oils can cause injury to sensitive plants.  If circumstances allow time, do a spot treatment on a few leaves and observe for injury (dead, browning or curling leaves) for a few days before treating the entire plant.  It’s important to get thorough coverage on the lower leaf surfaces, as that’s where many of the mites are.  Soaps and oils must coat the pest to be effective.  Typically, additional treatments must be made at approximately weekly intervals to clean up an infestation.  To avoid spreading mites to uninfested plants, avoid handling them after infested plants without washing your hands, gloves, tools, watering cans, etc. Note: If a plant must be treated in place (ie too large or delicate to move to the shower), protect nearby furniture, drapes and carpets with a covering.

When using pesticides, even organic or relatively safe products, always read and follow label instructions carefully.  Do not use products intended for outdoor use indoors.

By J. Allen

Last week the 2017 Rhode Island Compost Conference & Trade Show was held at Rhode Island College in Providence organized by Greg Gerritt of the Environmental Council of Rhode Island and Jim Murphy, the Director of Sustainability at the college. I suspect that when most people think of composting, they think about that pile in the backyard or perhaps a larger bin at the community garden or school year. Some of the workshops and exhibitors at the conference did focus on small scale composting but the takeaway theme was the need for a larger and more regionalized compost infrastructure.

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Sponsors of 2017 RI Compost Conference & Trade Show along with RI College Office of Sustainability

That does not necessarily mean larger composting operations but rather a larger network for moving compostable items to places where they can be composted and either used by the composter or distributed in some other manner.

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Greg Geritt welcoming folks to the conference

According to Rhode Island Food Strategy, about 35% of waste in that state consists of food and other compostables. Similar numbers have been cited nationwide. If not diverted from the waste stream, these items will end up in landfills or incinerators. Compostable trash not directly buried, may be incinerated first but then the ash is landfilled. Since the cost of hauling trash away depends on weight and food wastes are especially heavy, we as individuals or as a society are spending a lot of money burning and burying what really is the basis for an excellent soil amendment. Plus many landfills in New England are reaching capacity and the problems associated with them often makes them unwelcome neighbors. To this end, New England states including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island have all passed legislation in an attempt to divert organic materials from landfills to composting facilities.

Our two morning plenary speakers were from SCS Engineers, a national environmental consulting firm. They gave us an overview of some compost technologies from open windrow to aerated static pile to in-vessel. Depending on the technology used, composting can be quite controlled and operations can be successfully sited in more urban locations. A most engaging concept promoted by this company was sharing. Expensive equipment like windrow turners and mixers were purchased by SCS and contracted out to multiple mid-sized compost operations which greatly benefited by using this equipment but would not have the funds to purchase them.

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Aerated static compost bins. Covered bins keep pests out and odors contained.

One version of community composting was covered by Michael Bradlee of Earth Appliance who set up a Compost Depot at Frey Gardens. Using those large (65 gallons I think) lidded trash bins, he set up a composting system in a small community garden designing a pipe system to aerate the bins so they could stay closed. As part of an urban initiative, folks were encourage to bring their food scraps to the compost site in covered 5 gallon buckets. They could exchange their full one for an empty one. Michael mixed the food wastes with leaves and would aerate the bins with either a hand aerator or power auger on a weekly basis. He kept records of the temperatures and adjusted his aeration system to keep the composting process active year round.

Karen Franczyk, the Green Mission Coordinator for the North Atlantic Region gave a presentation on how Whole Foods manages food scraps and I must say I was quite impressed and wished there was a store in my area. First, they work with other agencies in the community and donate any leftover food items pretty much on a daily basis. I don’t know what the numbers are in other states but in Rhode Island, 12% of the population is food insecure which means that these people do not know where there next meal will come from.

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Whole Foods Grind2Energy holding tanks.

All discarded items are sorted according to whether they can be recycled, composted or put into the trash stream. Employees are educated about their disposal systems and the company has been participating in a zero waste day each year.

Some of the more urban stores have limited areas for storing compostables until they can be picked up so a Grind2Energy system is employed instead. All compostable food items are put through a large grinder, water is added when necessary and the slurry is stored in tanks outside the building. The slurry gets picked up and trucked to a dairy farm in Rutland, MA which uses it to produce methane to heat their operation and also as fertilizer.

The closing speaker was Lorenzo Macaluso from the Center for EcoTechnology. This private, nonprofit provides free assistance to help businesses and institutions implement programs to divert waste food from disposal. He noted that for food waste diversion programs to be successful they depend on policy, infrastructure, education, technical assistance and regulation. All these pieces need to be on the same page and working towards that goal.

If you are interested in learning more about food waste in America, check out the UConn Science Salon’s offering on April 6 at the Spotlight Theater in Hartford. The topic is ‘Throwing it All Away: America’s Food Waste Epidemic’. Find out how the excessive amount of food waste from production to consumer affects food security, resource conservation, climate change and more. Find out more at: http://sciencesalon.uconn.edu/upcoming-events/

Those interested in spreading the word about composting might want to consider enrolling in the UConn Master Composter Program held each fall. Information about program location, instructors and registration will be available in July at www.ladybug.uconn.edu.

Compost rules!

Dawn

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Black Knot Fungal Gall

Black knot of wild cherry and plum trees can easily be seen this time of year without leaves on the trees. The fungal disease manifests into large, black distorted growths called galls on the branches. The galls start on young, green tissue when an airborne spore lands on the newest branch tissue. A green swelling will enlarge the branch as the parasitic fungus develops inside, malforming the branch. By summer’s end, the swelling turns black, and can eventually girdle and kill any new growth beyond the site of infection. Black galls can enlarge and grow over several years. Young trees can be killed in a few years, while older trees can survive as long as some branches are not affected.

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Black Knot galls, photo by John Kehoe.

 

Black knot is caused by the fungus Apiosporina morbosa. Spores are discharged from the mature, black knots during spring rains. Optimal temperatures for spores to infect trees are 55 to 77 degrees F. This usually is the same time of bud swell. It can take two years for the gall to reach maturity and produce more spores.

Black knot

Domestic  flowering and fruiting cherry and plum species are common host plants, as are  wild Prunus species. Some varieties are labeled with some resistance; none are immune. Check any woods and forest nearby for possible wild sources to be removed to protect plants in your yard.

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Control measure are to cut out any knots or branch swellings at two to four inches below the infection site. Burn or put in the household garbage any pruned material to reduce amount of innoculum on site. Do not compost gall as they can continue to release spores which might cause reinfection. Fungicide can be used as a protection layer and should be applied at bud swell and stopped two weeks after full bloom. Follow label directions for number of times to use during the duration of susceptibility.

-Carol Quish

“The February sunshine steeps your boughs and tints the buds and swells the leaves within.”

– William C. Bryant

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Great Blue Heron in an open area of an otherwise icy pond February 25 2017

It feels, temperature-wise, that we are on the cusp of spring, and certainly the landscape is responding to the warmer and longer of February. Right now we are seeing spring try to break out a little early in some areas. It may still snow, of course, but maple trees are tapped at the usual time and birds have begun their morning and evening territorial calls in response to longer daylight periods. Skunk cabbages have been poking their heads up for a while, but it is still winter, and we may see temperatures go down to a more normal range for this time of year.

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Around the state, the spring blooming witch hazel, Hamamelis vernalis is blooming in areas along the Connecticut shoreline and further north in sunny areas. Native to the Ozark Plateau which ranges from southern Missouri through parts of Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, this witch hazel does well along gravelly or rocky stream banks and moist or dry soils in the landscape. It does best in full sun, but will tolerate some shade. Height is normally around eight feet as a mature plant, and about as wide.

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Hamamelis vernalis blooming on campus at Storrs February 26, 2017

We can tell where the native willows are now as they are starting to bloom now. Other spring bloomers, like the star and southern magnolias, have swollen flower buds. Here’s hoping that we do not have a repeat of last year, when snow and freezing temperatures in the low teens followed and destroyed the flower buds of many of our fruit and ornamental trees.

Whitlow grass, Draba verna, is flowering in sunny areas especially where the soil in lawns has open areas. Whitlow grass is not a grass at all, but a member of the mustard family, and it is one of the first herbaceous plants to flower before spring. It has tiny white flowers that may be mistaken for a chickweed, but this plant arises from a basal rosette. It is a winter annual and can form large mats that are evident in spring when the white flowers appear. Non- native, this plant has been around for over one hundred years.

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Whitlow grass and syrphid fly February 28, 2017

As ice melts from inland ponds, migrating ducks and wading birds may appear at any time. In late February, a great blue heron was in a little open area on a pond otherwise covered in soft ice. Ring- necked ducks and hooded merganzers have been seen also at inland ponds that are along their northern migration route. Song sparrows and cardinals are already singing their spring songs- song sparrows sing off and on all day perched on the tops of shrubs or small trees

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A male song sparrow just finished his song from atop a mountain laurel in the wild

Spring peepers were heard the last week of February when the weather was very warm during the day. I have not heard any since, though. Painted turtles have been sunning themselves on rocks and floating logs during the warmer days as well. And chipmunks are up and running. Woodchucks are also out and about, which is early for them. Unless there are some herbaceous plants greening up, they will probably head down below ground and extend their winter nap.

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Painted turtle getting its first sun bath of 2017

If you have any birdhouses that need cleaning, do it now. Although I have seen bluebirds build a nest on top of an old one in a nest box, which is the exception rather than the rule. Phoebes may be arriving any time, so keep an eye open for this early migrater. They have a distinctive call which you can hear by visiting Cornell University’s link: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Phoebe/id

Snow melt and recent winter rains have helped some vernal pools recover from the drought. Streams are also flowing with more water than they had last summer and fall. Check out vernal pools for wood frog and spotted salamander eggs before the end of March.

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Clark Creek in Haddam off Rte 154 has significant flow after February snow melt

And if a garden has been mulched over perennials and they have started growing, do not remove leaves or mulch as that has insulated the plants from the cold. Uncovering them too soon may invite damage if the weather returns to more seasonable temperatures below freezing. Winter is probably not over yet, but it will be soon. That cheers me up considerably.

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Pussy willow

Pamm Cooper                                                  all photos © 2017 Pamm Cooper