April 2021


So, its not just me admiring the spectacular tulip displays this year. It’s not that I’ve been traveling by more of them; the flowers are just so vibrant, cheery and beckoning. And, they have been so duly noted by the New York Times and Boston Globe. Perhaps it is a sign of new hope after a long, long year of illness, anxiety and isolation. Whatever the reason, do slow down and enjoy the short but glorious tulip prime time show.

Cool hued tulips. Photo by dmp, 2019

Few flowering bulbs put on as spectacular a spring display as tulips. Most species are native to Turkey, Afghanistan and Iran where they have been cultivated for more than a thousand years. According to Persian legend, tulips sprang from the blood of a distraught lover who took his own life. About 400 years ago, bulbs from Central Asia were sent to Holland to the Flemish botanist, Clusius and planted in the botanical garden at the university at Leiden. The precious bulbs, that he was both displaying and doing research on, were stolen, twice, and were distributed throughout Holland. Clusius was trying to determine the reason for distinctive stripes or ‘breaks’ in the petals of some of the tulips. The craze that followed was dubbed ‘Tulipomania’ and finally the government was forced to put an end to this expensive obsession. Towards the latter part of the eighteenth century the Dutch began hybridizing tulips and created the majority of varieties planted today.

Tulip Carnival de Rio sports a flamed bicolor pattern not caused by a virus. Photo by dmp, 2019

Tulips are divided into two main classes. Species or botanicals are derived from the wild forms and are best for naturalizing as they are usually true from seed. Hybrids, which are most commonly purchased here, have been bred specifically for color, bloom time and other desired characteristics and are propagated by offsets. While hybrids are bold and beautiful and hard to resist, please try to find a place for their wilder and often more dainty or whimsical looking ancestors. A recent news thread was entitled, “Who Cares About Kyrgyzstan’s Threatened Tulips?” Many of the 27 tulip species in this country are at risk from overgrazing, over harvesting, mining and urbanization, not to mention climate change. Animals may be able to move to more amenable environments as their habitats are affected by climate change; plants move on a much slower scale that puts many species in imminent danger of extinction. Two Connecticut bulb companies that do offer nice selections of species tulips are www.vanengelen.com and www.johnscheepers.com.    

Tulipa tarda, a species tulip. Photo by dmp, 2020

Early blooming tulips include Kaufmanniana, also known as waterlily tulips, Fosterana tulips, and single and double early tulips. Kaufmanniana tulips are generally bicolored and grow only 6 to 9 inches tall. Many have lovely mottled or striped foliage. The Fosteranas are the tallest of the early tulips reaching up to 20 inches. They are noted for their beautiful cup-shaped flowers and wide assortment of colors.

Kaufmanniana tulips with mottled foliage. Photo by dmp, 2021

Both single and double early tulips last longer than other early blooming varieties with the singles being quite fragrant and suitable for forcing.

Single early bloomers were crossed with late bloomers to create the midseason triumph tulip. “Apricot Beauty’ with its rosy, peach blossoms on 14 inch stems is one of my favorites, doubling as an excellent cut flower. Greigii hybrids are shorter midseason tulips known for their mottled or striped foliage. A recently developed midseason variety are the Darwin hybrids, a cross between late blooming Darwins and early Fosteranas featuring extremely large, colorful blooms. Rembrandt tulips are related to the Darwins and are grown for their vivid stripes and blotches caused by a nonpathogenic virus.

Late season Darwins are perhaps the most popular of tulip varieties. Colors range from pure white to almost black. Tall cottage tulips with their 3 foot stems and delicate looking lily-like flowers are also late bloomers. An interesting subdivision of the cottage tulips are the viridiflora, distinctive because of their bright green flares dividing the center of each petal.

Except for the species, tulips are not notably long lived plants and in formal beds they are best treated as annuals and discarded or placed in a less conspicuous spot after bloom. The bulbs break down into smaller bulblets and the flower size is reduced after a year or two. Varieties touted as perennial are usually jumbo Darwin hybrids and will provide you with 3 or 4 seasons of top quality blooms although I have had some coming back for 15 years now.

Some of these tulips planted 15 years ago still come back each spring. Photo by dmp, 2006

Plant tulips shortly after purchasing in the fall to ensure good root establishment. Planting at 8 to 10 inch depths is said to prolong the life of the bulbs. Tulips look best planted en masse so use at least a dozen of each color and limit yourself to 2 or 3 colors per bed for a nice effect. Underplanting with pansies, alyssum, or low growing spring flowering perennials like rockcress or silver mound artemesia will help camouflage the dying tulip foliage.

For a real treat to the senses, visit Wicked Tulip Flower Farms (www.wickedtulips.com) in Exeter, RI or Bantam, CT. Walk through their acres of tulips, pick your own bouquet or order online for curbside pickup. Regardless of where you are or traveling to, be on the look out for vibrant, colorful tulips to bring some cheer into your spring and brighten our year to come.

Wicked Tulips Flower Farm, Photo by dmp 2019

Happy spring!

Dawn P.  

Star Magnolia

The return of spring bring flowering trees and bulbs to rejuvenate the human spirit. The bluebirds are nesting in my yard, but too fast and cautious for me to capture with the camera. I love this time of year, even though it brings the return of weeds and some plant diseases year after year.

A favorite flowering tree of mine are magnolias. The star magnolia flower is pictured above and the tree below.M. stellata was introduced to the United States in the 1860’s originated from Japan.

Star Magnolia Tree.

The saucer magnolia, Magnolia × soulangiana, is a hybrid cross between M. denudata and M. liliflora developed in France in 1826.

Flowering Quince

This is a close up the beautiful blossoms of a flowering quince, Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Scarlet Storm’ and tends to only look good while flowering. It is a messy shrub, gangly and awkward looking the rest of the year. I find it also sends up shoots a few feet away from the plant needing removal attention unless you want a loose, erratic hedge.This native to Asia.

The peonies are about a foot tall already with tiny buds atop insuring June flowers will be here. The red tinged foliage produces dark red flowers in my garden. The green leafed one is a light pink variety. I do not know the names as these were shared from my aunt’s garden. Peonies can live for decades in the same spot! Peonies are native to China.

Grape hyacinths, (Muscari armeniacum,) are delightful little spires of blue bells emanating from a bulb below ground. They certainly brighten up the landscape, but can become a nuisance if allowed to go to seed and spread. I have them popping up in the lawn and garden where they did not start out. Their native range is western Asia and southeastern Europe. Best to plant in the fall at same time as daffodils and tulips.

Bluets.

Bluets, (Houstonia), is a native wildflower often found in wetter areas of lawns and around streams and ponds. These were battling for space in the lawn untreated with herbicides. They appear around the same time as the pollywogs in the nearby stream. Both wonderful signs of spring.

In the vegetable garden the kale made it through the winter and is growing well. Spring greens for supper!

Kale overwintered on its own.

The asparagus is coming up, although this spear is curled indicating asparagus beetles fed on the developing stalk under ground. Thankfully others were fine. Be on the look out for striped and spotted asparagus beetles on the stalks.

Curled asparagus stalk from beetle feeding.

Along with the good comes some bad: weeds. Hairy bittercress had a great year this spring. It is a cool weather annual that will die out with heat. The elongated seed pods shoot its seeds out to make new plants next year. Hand pull or mow if in the lawn.

Today’s rain spurred cedar apple rust galls to awaken and grow. They look like an orange jelly ball with tentacles. They will dry and release spores that will float on the wind to infect new apple tree leaves with cedar apple rust spots. Those apple leaves will yellow and drop leaving a bare tree. If you can reach the orange galls at this stage, cut them off and put them in the garbage to interrupt the lifecycle of this two host disease.

Spring often bring good winds. Great for wind power and kite flying!

Enjoy!

-Carol Quish

Tiny spring azure butterfly on a bluet flower

“April hath put a spirit of youth in everything.”

― William Shakespeare

April is the time of Hyacinth, tulips, apple and cherry blossoms, and, usually, April showers. Although we caught up from the drought of last year, this spring has been dry and we clearly need rain. Waking up on April 16, it was really no surprise to find it snowing as weather guessers reported it would get cold enough to turn last night’s rain to snow by this morning (but not in our area- ha!). In recent years there seem to be late snow events that have coincided with various trees and shrubs bloom time. Hopefully, this snow will not damage their flowers and buds.

Hyacinth under the snow

Bloodroot flowers have mostly come and gone and bluets have just started blooming heralding the expected return of some of our thrushes, such as the veery. Tiger swallowtail butterflies often visit bluet flowers, as do many native bee species.

Returning veery among some bluets

The six-spotted tiger beetles are out running along woodland trails. This small, predatory beetle is a brilliant metallic green, so it is hard to miss against a brown background of a woodland trail.

Six-spotted tiger beetle

The other day while walking up a woodland hill trying to find a barred owl family, I came upon a really nice surprise. Just poking above the leaf litter were these tiny purple-blue flowers that were new to me. The plants each had unusual leaves with three rounded lobes. Flower and leaf stems were hairy, and this small area was the only place they could be found. They are Hepatica americana, round-lobed Hepatica. A native buttercup family member, they can bloom March-May and are found on leafy woodland slopes with higher calcium content than most of our Connecticut woodlands

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Round-lobed Hepatica flower and leaf

Walking along the banks of a woodland double pond, there was evidence of recent beaver activity. A nice dam was getting some restructuring by the beaver, plus there were tree felling operations along the edges of the pond. Some nice moss was at the base of some  trees that so far are not in this beaver’s line of fire.

Moss under trees in a woodland pond
Beaver toothmarks and gnawed bark

I found what I thought were clam shells along this woodland pond’s banks, but found out they are really the shells of freshwater mussels that were eaten by a river otter, muskrat or some other animal and left behind for people like me to find. Freshwater mussels spend the first part of their life as a tiny glochidium on a host fish. Afterward, they fall off and drop to the bottom of the lake, pond, stream or river bed where they remain partially buried. They help keep water clean by filtering it as they eat algae and other small water organisms.

Freshwater mussel shell

Bee activity has been somewhat slow this spring, but recently a small Andrena nasonii ground-nesting bee was just emerging from under a landscape shrub where it had overwintered underground. This species often emerges when snow is melting and sometimes days before their foraging plants have flowered.. Most of our solitary native bee species are not aggressive, and this female rested on my finger for a while.

Native Andrena bee

Native eastern red cedar Juniperus virginiana is in flower along the shoreline in Connecticut. Male and female flowers are cone like structures called strobili, borne on separate trees. Male cones are oval to egg shaped, with yellowish brown scales that hold the pollen, and they are located at the tips of 2nd year branches.

Male flowers of eastern red cedar

Turkeys are still stomping, hissing and fanning their tails, mourning doves have just fledged their first brood, kit foxes are playing around their dens and spring azure, mourning cloak and comma butterflies are flying around, so April has succeeded in its modest enterprise of pushing new life out of its winter slumber.

Kit fox near its den

I agree with the sentiment of Hans Christian Andersen- “Just living is not enough… one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower. “

Pamm Cooper

Round- lobed Hepatica flower

Figs are a delicious, exotic tasting fruit that many people don’t know can be grown right here in Connecticut. Yes, our winters are too harsh for this warmer climate plant but with a little know how and some effort, you can grow a successful fig crop year after year.

Violette de bourdeaux is a popular variety of purple fig Photo: C. Johnson

Selecting a variety

While no one variety is completely resistant to the cold temperatures we experience as New Englanders, there are some varieties that are more resilient than others. Chicago hardy, Brown turkey, Celeste, and White Marseilles are just a few examples. Flavor preference is another factor to consider after cold hardiness. Figs range from light green, to brown, to dark purple, with some variation in size between varieties. If you’re not sure what you like, you might try looking in the produce aisle of your local grocer and see if there’s a range to sample from there. Although this is rarely the case, most grocery stores in New England will only carry figs seasonally and even then, it is a narrow selection. This only adds to the appeal for home gardeners wanting to produce their own crop. There is a large market for purchasing pre-established plants of all different fig cultivars. However, many fig enthusiasts choose to share cuttings among each other as this plant propagates so easily.

A semi hardwood cutting showing root proliferation.
Photo: C. Johnson

Propagation

Figs can be propagated via vegetative cutting with relative ease. Green cuttings tend to be less successful than woodier cuttings with the sweet spot being at about 1 year old. At that age, the propagule will have some woodiness to it but not so much that it is no longer pliable. Cuttings can be taken almost any time of year but semi dormant to fully leafed out branches are ideal. Some rooting hormone and placing shallow wounds on either side of the stem can go a long way towards rooting (as seen in the photo).

Growing conditions

Figs do best in a hot, full sun location. If you are planting in the garden or placing in a container, be sure to give them as much sun and warmth as possible. A relatively fast draining media will also go a long way towards producing a healthy fig crop as figs prefer not to remain wet for extended periods of time. Figs do well in moderately fertile soils with minimal need for fertilization in the garden. Plants grown in containers will experience a higher rate of nutrient leaching and therefore will require some fertilization during the growing season.

A spring breba crop on Ficus carica ‘Ischia’. Photo: D. Nordby

Overwintering

Figs are not adapted to our cold winters so measures must be taken to protect these plants during the cold season to ensure they survive to see spring again. Techniques for overwintering figs range in difficulty and complexity. The simplest option, which mainly applies to container plants, is to simply move them into a semi heated structure such as a garage or basement. This can be done with plants that are in the ground by digging them up and wrapping the root ball. There are also several methods of mulching and wrapping that have been proven to be successful. Overwintering methods have been covered in depth by Dr. Charles R Vossbrinck at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. See his article here.

Symptoms of mosaic virus showing on Ficus carica ‘letizia’. Photo: D. Nordby

Pests and diseases

The two most common diseases of figs in Connecticut are rust and fig mosaic virus. Rust can be prevented through good moisture management practices. Pruning and spacing plants to increase air flow as well as careful watering to keep foliage dry will go a long way towards preventing rust. Mosaic virus can cause some decline in overall plant health and appearance, but healthy plants often outgrow this virus. Be sure to clean pruners with rubbing alcohol in between cuts to prevent the spread of this virus.

C. Johnson

Germination of seeds is one of life’s most beautiful phenomena. You take this dead, rock looking thing, put it in some soil, water it, and a beautiful, living, green plant begins to grow. This was always a fascination for me as a kid, and even now as a well-seasoned adult, it is still like watching a bit of magic. Seeds truly are one of nature’s evolutionary breakthroughs. When the plant is near the end of its life cycle (annuals), or is approaching a harsh season (perennials), they go to seed and thus carry on the species by giving rise to the next generation. The seeds then just sit there dormant, waiting for environmental conditions to improve, biding their time patiently. 

Seemingly lifeless tomato seeds waiting for environmental conditions to be right so they can germinate. Photo by mrl2021.

When the time is right, and all the abiotic (non-living) parameters line up correctly, the seeds will germinate. Seeds are a bit like Goldilocks and the porridge in that respect. Too hot or too cold and it is a no go. However, when seeds find themselves in the correct temperature range with the right amount of moisture, they spring into action. It is important to note that there is a range at which seeds can germinate. The trade off, though, is that it generally takes longer to germinate at cooler temperatures. That being said, if we increase the temperature, germination will be sped up considerably. There is an upper end to this range, however, and if it gets too warm they will not germinate either. 

Note that each plant has its own optimal germination temperatures. It truly is not one size fits all, so it behooves the gardener to research the proper germination temperatures for the vegetables you are trying to grow. The nice part is that we can manipulate the process to occur much faster than it would have normally. Many vegetables take seven to fourteen days to germinate, assuming you are using room temperature. Any colder than that will either lengthen the germination time, or inhibit germination all together. 

The best way to speed up the germination process is by adding bottom heat. This is accomplished by using a heat mat. These can be really pricey, but once purchased can be reused year after year. Unfortunately that is not all you will need. These heat mats need to be controlled by a thermostat (control box). Do not attempt to use them without one as it will ensure disaster.  These are many times just as pricey as the heat mat itself. There are a number of different heat mat companies out there. There are some differences so do your research and find the one that matches what you are trying to accomplish. Heat mats come in many different sizes to accommodate the needs of the grower. There are mats suited to one standard 10×20 plant tray, or mats that can hold up to ten of those plant trays. Of course there are many sizes in between those extremes, so you should be able to find one that can fit your space. If you are trying to decide between two sizes, I always recommend going bigger if you can as with any hobby or endeavor humans generally like to expand.  

A heat mat. Photo by mrl2021

You have to choose your seed starting location carefully. First of all, you will need access to an electrical outlet. Extension cords may be okay to use, but make sure they are sized to handle the electrical needs of your mats. The more mats you have, the more amps you will be pulling. Read the information on the electrical cord packaging to determine the proper gauge and buy the shortest cord possible. I always go with a bigger gauge just to be safe. You will plug the mat or mats into the thermostat, and the thermostat into the wall outlet. The thermostat will have some type of mechanism which allows you to set the temperature so read the instructions on how to adjust it and set to the proper temperature for your plants. Don’t forget to change the temperature once you switch crops, if needed. These seed mats work great, but they do have their limitations.  They generally cannot raise the temperature more than twenty degrees above ambient. So while the basement may seem like a great place to start your seeds, it may end up being a little too cool if unheated in the late winter or early spring. The heat mats should be left on for twenty four hours a day until the seedlings are up and well on their way.    

A thermostat used to control the temperature of the heat mats. They will not function properly without one. Photo by mrl2021

The thermostat will have a probe on it to sense temperature. This can only be inserted into one tray, so it is assumed all the trays that fit on that mat will be the same temperature. You want to make sure that the probe has good contact with the soil, and is neither too deep nor too shallow.  One word of caution – the seed starting medium must be kept moist for two reasons. First, if the soil dries out then the seeds won’t germinate. Second, if the soil gets too dry, the probe will not be able to sense the temperature properly and your thermostat will not function properly. This could end up cooking your seeds or not working at all. At the very least, it is best to check the moisture levels twice a day, but three times is even better. I like to water my plant trays with a spray bottle. You have to be very careful not to disturb the soil too much as this may dislodge some sprouting seeds. 

The probe attached to the thermostat senses the heat in the seed trays. Make sure to keep the growing medium moist to ensure proper function. Photo by mrl2021

To help prevent the drying out of the growing medium, you can use plastic wrap over the top of the trays. There are also commercially available clear plastic domes made to fit over the 10×20 standard trays. They are fairly reasonable in price so I just use those, but the plastic wrap will work just as well. Once the seeds are up, it is best to take off the domes in order to prevent an overly humid environment which can support the growth of some harmful fungi.  ‘Damping off’ is a common fungal disease that causes the death of many seedlings. It looks like the plant rots right where the little sprout goes into the soil. Once the plants have started to grow you can remove them from the heat mats. Leaving them on too long can be detrimental and cause them to get tall and leggy, and even flop over. Remember that the heat mats are only for speeding up germination time. At this point you can move your seed trays to an area with really bright light.  Avoid window sills as these are usually cold and drafty. If needed, supplement with overhead lighting set a few inches above the plants. Adjust the lights as the plants grow. Soon it will be time to harden off your transplants and set them out for a bountiful harvest.

The heat mat, probe and thermostat in action warming the soil to speed germination of some vegetable seeds. Note the clear dome to retain moisture. Photo by mrl2021.

by Matt Lisy, UConn 2021