May 2021


This week I was driving a local highway with the windows open in the car and was overcome with the sweet scent of flowers invading the car. Scanning the sides of the road revealed tall trees draped in white panicles of full flowers of black locust trees.

Black Locust Tree in Flower

Robinia pseudoacacia is the Latin name for this once a year proliferation of beauty and fragrance. Its bark is handsomely striped with interlacing furrows and rope-like ridges along its mature 50 to 70 feet tall trunk. Black locust is native to the central and southeastern United States, and not native to the northeast, but has happily made itself at home here. It spreads into colonies via underground roots and by seed, becoming naturalized in minimalized care areas. It is not a recommended tree to plant here due to its aggressive spread and its sharp spines. Black locust is considered an extremely aggressive spreader here and not recommended to plant in our area. It is listed on many states’ invasive plant lists, including Connecticut. I will slow down a little on the highway to take in the olfactory pleasure during this one week of the year it provides beauty while recognizing its negative attribute of invasiveness.

Another pleasant surprise was finding three native wildflowers while tending to grandchildren right in their own backyard. The flowers were going unnoticed next to the climbing gym and at the edge of the lawn in a wetter area of the yard. A teaching moment was offered to the children to look and love, but not pick the flowers, allowing them to completely their life cycle and find again next year.

The Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule), is a wildflower of special concern as its numbers are dwindling due loss of habitat and deer finding them a tasty treat. It is not illegal to pick them, but highly discouraged as they take many years to grow to a mature plant from a seed. Pink Lady’s Slipper needs a certain species of Rhizoctonia fungus to break the seed coat before germination can happen. This same fungus is needed it the root zone for the plant to survive, making transplanting to a new spot unsuccessful. It is a look and enjoy and leave it where you found it situation.

The second native find was a Jack-in-the Pulpit flower shooting up above the poison ivy. We did not get a close look due to the hazard of reaching it. Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is so named as it resembles a person covered with a hood. The maroon and green stiped spathe is held up and over its dark colored spadix covered with tiny flowers, once pollinated will turn into bright red berries in the fall.

Canada Mayflower

The final find of the day was a patch of Canada Mayflowers (Maianthemum canadense). They are a low-growing native wildflower with a spike of dainty white flowers. It spreads via root rhizomes into large colonies on roadsides and at the edges moist forest floors. It has a pale, red fruit in the fall eaten by a few species of birds.

Back at home in my garden I found the peonies had opened just in time for the much needed rain, which always seems to be the case every year. I chose to cut some and enjoy these beauties inside before the weather trampled them.

-Carol Quish

Juvenal’s duskywing on native Geranium maculatum

“The butterfly is a flying flower,
The flower a tethered butterfly.”
― Ponce Denis Écouchard Le Brun

May is a harbinger of things to come and the herald of things that are already here. Each May I look forward to the appearance of certain ephemeral wildflowers and butterflies that are worth the effort often necessary to search for them. For instance, small butterflies often have a limited flight range, and to find them, you need to know when they start to fly, what flowers they visit, and what the host plants are for their caterpillars. Some wildflowers can be hidden by taller plants surrounding them and a surprise when come across.

Eastern pine elfin on a blade of grass

The Eastern pine elfin, Callophrys niphon, is a tiny hairstreak butterfly  that has only one brood and a flight time that may go from mid-April- June, but is more likely to be found in  flying about in mid-May. Small enough to fit on your fingernail, this elfin is often seen nectaring on blueberry, huckleberry and wild strawberry near its caterpillar’s host plant, white pine.

Eastern pine elfin

Henry’s elfin, Callophrys henrici, is another small hairstreak with an early spring flight time. Mid May is a good time to look for males perching on host plants like redbud, huckleberry, blueberry and viburnums during the day. Nectar sources include willows, hawthorn and pussytoes. Where both species are found, you may come across both the eastern pine and Henry’s elfins in the same stand of wild blueberries or huckleberries.

Henry’s elfin

Horace’s duskywing, Erynnis horatiu,s is another small butterfly found in dry fields near oaks, which is the host plant of its caterpillar. Often confused with Juvenal’s duskywing which flies at the same time, Horace’s  has several larger glassy spots on the forewings. They have a rapid, darting flight and feed and perch with wings outstretched.

Horace’s duskywing

One flowered cancer root is an interesting parasitic wildflower that has no chlorophyll and depends upon a host plant for nutrients. An annual, once the seed germinates, a host plant must be found within a day. Hosts include the genus Sedum and members of the families Saxifragaceae and Asteraceae. The plant consists of a 3-10 inch stem with a single purple to white flower which is covered in hairs and looks like sugar crystals have been sprinkled on it. Look for this plant in May in wet fields or meadows among tall grasses with host plants nearby.

One-flowered cancer root

Garlic mustard, while an invasive plant and worthy of being pulled up, is still useful to bees as a pollen and nectar source. While of use to native pollinators, I still yank out any garlic mustard I can and hope native plants like Geranium maculatum will take its place.

Tiny bee on garlic mustard flower

Columbine and Geranium maculatum bloom for a long period of time and are visited by many pollinators, with columbine a favorite of hummingbirds as well. These plants are often found together along country roadsides and ditches, as well as power line right-of-ways. If at the edge of woods, nodding trillium may also be found nearby. This trillium has very large leaves which hide the drooping flower beneath them.

Columbine and Geranium maculatum

Fringed polygala, a diminutive wildflower that is no taller than 6 inches and has tiny pink airplane- like flowers is a personal favorite. Two of the flower petals unite to form a tube, with the third keeled with a pink fringe. They can be found along dappled wood lines in May or under pines.

Fringed polygala

Shrubs and small trees also can have striking flowers, and one is the nannyberry, Viburnum lentago. Tiny white flowers occuring downward curved panicles that can be 5 inches across. Flowers attract many native pollinators and later on the fruits are eaten by many bird species.

Blackhaw or nannyberry viburnum

The native pinxter is another shrub or small tree that makes itself known through its display of showy pink flower clusters that appear before its leaves and linger well after its leaves are fully out. Hummingbirds visit the flowers of this wetland plant.

Pinxterflower near a woodland swamp

This spring has had a good display of both native and ornamental flowering trees, shrubs, bulbs and early perennials. Butterflies are already more abundant than last year, and hopefully that will continue throughout the year. Spring is the forerunner of better things to come, but for right now, spring has enough for those of us who are wildflower and butterfly enthusiasts.

Pamm Cooper

Swallowtails like this spicebush swallowtail are in flight in May

Weeds are the bane of every gardener and farmer. Unfortunately, it is our cultural practices that often make a very inviting home for the weeds. So many times, people think about weeds during the peak of summer, when they are up to their ears in them. I spend very little time weeding, yet I grow a large array of crops. It all starts before one sets foot in the garden. With a little planning and forethought, you can spend more time enjoying your hobby, and less time weeding!

A nicely mulched garden bed that will almost totally eliminate the need for weeding. Photo by mrl2021

At the beginning of the season, we are very eager to get out there and clean things up. This is probably the most important time of the year, and instead of thinking of your crops, you should be thinking of weeds. Before I do anything, I think about how my actions will favor or discourage weeds. Many people like to rototill the ground. It makes the ground soft and airy, and very easy to work with afterwards. There are some down sides to this, however. The layer immediately below the tilled portion of soil can become compacted over time making it difficult for plant roots to penetrate. This is called a plow layer. Tilling also makes our soils vulnerable to erosion. The smaller, lighter tilled soil particles can be easily blown away in the wind. Also, heavy rains, which generally occur in the spring when the tilling is done, can also wash away our soil. These two actions rob the gardener/farmer of valuable topsoil – the layer that contains our nutrients.  The action of tilling also brings up weed seeds. The soil contains a seedbed of weed seeds just waiting for conditions to change. Tilling action brings them closer to the surface where they will now germinate.

A garden bed in bad need of rehabilitation. This will get tilled in the spring. Photo by mrl2021

Now I am not saying that I never till. If I have a grass area that I want to convert into a garden bed, I usually till it up. At that time, I amend the soil with limestone per recommendations on my UConn soil test results. Limestone is best incorporated into the soil, rather than simply left on the surface. This can also be a time to incorporate fertilizers (I prefer organic), compost, or any other soil amendments you choose. 

So, there are two options left to the gardener at this point – hoe or mulch. After my crops are planted, I like to put down a thick layer of mulch if possible. People debate what material is best, but I say use what is available to you. It beats pulling weeds all summer! For garden beds where I am going to do short growth crops like lettuce, I do not mulch. The lettuce will be pulled and eaten in a short amount of time and then replanted. I just don’t want to take the time to mulch around all those plants. In beds like these I like to periodically hoe up the ground. I use a stirrup hoe, which gently glides across the surface/subsurface of the soil and cuts off the weeds that start to grow.  You must be diligent, however, because if the weeds get too big, the hoe will not be easily able to cut the weeds down. Now you are back to pulling weeds (I try to avoid this at all costs).  I find with this set up, I hoe the area every two to three weeks depending on weed pressure. Other growers may recommend more frequent hoeing, but I find I am always pressed for time and this method seems to work fine for me. There are many other different styles of hoes which are meant to disrupt weed growth early on. There is no right or wrong one, but find one that works for you and most importantly, feels comfortable to use!

The author’s trusty stirrup hoe. Photo by mrl2021

For other beds that I limed and mulched heavily the year before, many times I will skip the tilling process. The mulch is still good at suppressing weeds, and also is breaking down and adding nutrients to my soil. I will go and spot weed where occasional weeds appear. In this case, you must be careful as now you have a space that is bare soil. That area should be re-mulched to prevent new weed growth. Although this does require some manual pulling of weeds, it is minimal and relatively easy if done in the spring.

A garden bed that needs only a little weeding but no tilling. Photo by mrl2021

The last trick is to tarp an area you want to convert into a garden. Silage tarps are great for this.  They generally are black on one side and white on the other. Face the black side up and leave it to cook in the sun. The vegetation below it is then killed by the heat. This can take some time, so don’t expect this to work in a few short weeks. I like to give it a few months. Also, if you need to incorporate some limestone, compost, and/or other soil amendments, you should do so at the beginning of the process, or after the vegetation is killed. Remove the tarp and till in your amendments, then re-tarp for at least a few weeks (longer is better). Remember tilling brings up those weed seeds. The tarp will keep the surface moist and warm which favors germination. The lack of light will then kill off those newly germinated seeds leaving you with clean ground when you are ready to plant.

A tarped ares that is the site of a future garden. Photo by mrl2021

The final trick is to plant cover crops after you harvest your main crop. Many times, the cover crops prevent weed seeds from taking over due to allelopathy (plant chemical warfare), or simply by occupying the space needed to grow and subsequently shading the remaining areas. Cover crops hold on to your nutrients so they are not washed away by rain, and protect your valuable top soil from erosion. Annual cover crops will winter kill and many times degrade sufficiently by spring. Perennial crops generally need to be mowed and/or tilled under in the spring. You could also tarp the area instead. Cover crops positively increase the amount of organic matter and nutrients in the soil. Certain cover crops can even be deep rooted and break up hardpan that has been created. By adding in organic matter once they are done growing, cover crops also work to break up heavy clay soil as well. 

So, there are my tricks for outsmarting the weeds. I hope this helps you spend more time enjoying your garden and less time working in it. Don’t forget to get a soil test to help dial in the proper growing parameters so all your efforts turn into time well spent!   

Matt Lisy