October 2021

The days are getting visibly shorter. I cannot seem to get most of what I have to do done before it is too dark to see. Too bad I did not have time to install those new yard lights… Although the cold weather has not really hit yet, most people are not really thinking about gardening anymore.  I have been thinking a lot about gardening lately. This is probably one of the best times to get some projects done in the garden. Many of the items I discuss are actually for next year’s garden!

Although most people complain about the leaves in the yard, I just smile (then complain under my breath when I lose a whole day to leaf duty). Leaves make the most wonderful compost, especially if given a little attention along the way. It is best to chop the leaves into small pieces, if possible, otherwise they tend to mat when they get wet. I would also recommend placing them in an active compost site where the microbe populations are at their strongest. Mixing in a little mature compost into the pile will help as well. It is best to turn the compost pile often. I will do this every few weeks. You would be surprised how the heat of decomposition keeps the pile warm even in when the ground is frozen! I love to see the steam come off a freshly turned pile.  Not only does the turning process help aerate the pile and therefore aide in decomposition, it also helps more thoroughly mix the ingredients. There is a whole science to composting, but I always recommend to use what you have, and add as much to it as possible. Kitchen scrapes, including egg shells, can go a long way to enriching that rotting leaf pile.

The author’s large leaf pile half way through the yard leaf clean up day. This will be turned multiple times during the fall, early winter, and spring. Photo by mrl2021.

Another thing people generally do not think about this time of year is a soil test. Soil analysis labs are inundated with soil tests each spring. In reality, you might be better off testing in the fall.  You will probably get your results back sooner. In addition, you will have more time to make any amendments, and to plan out the ideal crops for that plot. The one amendment that comes to mind first is limestone. Connecticut soils, in general, are low in pH. Many gardeners do lime in the spring, but it is actually better to lime in the fall and mix that in so the soil is ready in the spring. Certain crops, like brambles (blackberries and raspberries) actually prefer this method of liming. 

It is important to note that limestone is not required each spring, and the amount you need to apply, if any, is determined by a calculation based on your current soil pH and the optimal pH needed to grow a specific crop. Luckily, most soil testing places will do the calculations for you.  All you need to do is send in the soil and they do the rest. Again, I want to emphasize that the most important thing to do is test the soil first. I so frequently run into people who just lime because they think they should. If a test is not done, you might be wasting your money. If your pH is correct and you lime, now it will be too high. If your pH is too low, you might not be putting enough lime on. Also, there to two different types of lime – calcitic and dolomitic. Their chemistry differs depending on the amount of calcium or magnesium in the mix. Your soil test results can indicate surpluses or deficiencies in those nutrients, which will help you to select the correct lime for your situation.  Collecting soil samples is not hard to do, but it does take a little bit of time.  The efforts will pay off when you are able to tune in the chemistry going on in your garden soil. 

A large area covered by a tarp to kill the weeds and grass. This will be pulled up and limed this fall, and a cover crop will be planted. Photo by mrl2021.

Another fall time garden activity that often gets overlooked is taking stock of crop performance.  So many times, we think we will remember what did good and what did not, but we forget when we go to order seeds or buy our plants the following year. It is helpful to write down that information as it will help you with your seed orders on a cold winter’s night! This is also a good time to plan out, measure out, and maybe even start to prepare the soil in a new garden site. Time is so precious in the spring, and it always seems like I get behind on gardening. The weather certainly throws us off schedule. This is why it is so important to try and save time by doing as much as possible now.

These Zinnias and Cosmos did great in my wife’s bouquets. Knowing what variety I planted is important for ordering seeds next year. Photo by mrl2021.

Don’t forget to harvest as well. Many times we get tired of going out to the field, or the time gets away from us and the sun is down before we know it. Make sure you get your potatoes and any shell beans that are remaining harvested. I have had a great year with volunteers. These are plants that came up from seed and were not planted intentionally by the gardener. Many times the seeds somehow make it through the winter and germinate. This past weekend I just harvested three pumpkins, and a big bowl of cherry tomatoes – all from volunteers. There are also some really big squash growing out the side of the compost pile that I have to get as well. 

Lima beans waiting for harvest. Photo by mrl2021.

My final suggestion is to weed. Normally this is the chore we hate the most, but even more so when it is a cold, wet, fall day. This will make life easier in the spring. Leaving some small grass clumps that came up this year will turn into large, hard to pull grass mounds by the spring. Remember, the goal is to free up time and make life easier next spring. It will be here before you know it so, as the old saying goes, “make hay while the sun shines!”

Can you find the horseradish in amongst the weeds? Photo by mrl2021.

Matt Lisy

Grasses with their feathery seed heads are synonymous with fall. Who can’t remember the soft rustling blades of grass as we crossed the fields of our youth? How many hours I spent sharing secrets with my best friend atop a craggy boulder overlooking acres of green turning to buff meadow, sadly now, a subdivision.

As luring as grass species may be, I’ve spent years keeping such marauders as crabgrass, quackgrass and even bluegrass (which always seems to grow better in the garden beds than in the lawn areas) at bay. Needless to say, the concept of ornamental grasses in perennial beds was slow to sink in.

While I still can’t quite give into to the temptation to plant the beautiful white and green gardener’s garters, Phalaris arundinacea picta, (beware of any grass labeled robust!) in my white garden, I’m enjoying several of the better behaved ornamental grasses.

Fountain grass, Pennisetum alopecuroides, ranks number one in my book. I have it interplanted with pink coneflowers backed by purple butterfly bush. Long flowing blades cascade gracefully so the grass is only 12 to 18 inches tall when not in bloom. Late summer heralds the soft, bristly inflorescences lasting into winter. This midsize grass integrates well with flowering perennials and bulbs like alliums. I especially like it because it was easy to start from seed and I haven’t had to divide it even after 15 years.

Pennisetum started from seed about 15 years ago. Photo by dmp2021.

For a little more drama, punctuate your plantings with varieties of miscanthus. Do be aware that some species of miscanthus are considered invasive in Connecticut. Make sure the cultivar you purchase is not on the invasive plant list. Most species are hardy to zone 4. Right now, I have two varieties, ‘Morning Light’ and zebra grass. Typically, miscanthus will reach between 4 and 8 feet with a similar spread. Soft fan-shaped plumes arise above the graceful, fine-textured foliage. Flame grass, M. sinensis purpurascens, is noted for its riveting, orangey-red fall foliage. All are slow growing clump formers, refined and attractive.

Zebra grass with flower heads in mid-October. Photo by dmp2021.

For shaded areas, explore the sedge family. ‘Bowles Golden’, Carex stricta, appears as dappled sunlight beneath a wooded canopy. White and green ‘Ice Dance’ steps lively along a path in my white garden. There are a number of other variegated sedges as well as the mysterious black sedge aptly named for its black colored flower stalks.

Carex ‘Ice Dance’. Photo by dmp2021.

Japanese blood grass foliage is green at the base, and then, a few inches up turns a striking red. Color is more intense in sunny areas. Cute blue fescues form small, fine-leaved tufts. These well behaved grasses require full sun. Quaking grass, Briza media, prefers poor soil. It is best known for its panicles of heart-shaped, plump, dangling seed heads used widely in dried arrangements.

Blue fescues. Photo by dmp2008.

The list of ornamental grasses goes on and on. A number of good reference books and websites are available to help you make your selections. Make notes when visiting other gardens or plant nurseries. When developing new plantings or renovating older beds, consider ornamental grasses for their texture, movement, and soft, rustling sounds as they dance with the wind.

Dawn P.

“Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree.” – Emily Brontë

Late September and early October signal the end of summer, but the weather has been warm enough for pleasant excursions that do not require a heavy coat. Lots of insects and flowers are still around, and not too many migrating birds are coming through so far. I am not a big fan of pumpkin spice anything, but I do enjoy leaf colors and cool, crisp mornings with a clear blue sky backdrop.

Light streams early in the morning in autumn 2021

Keep your eye on cedar trees with an abundant amount of berries on them for yellow-rumped warblers passing through, and other year-round birds as well. Crabapples, viburnums and hawthorns are also good food sources for birds late in the year. Today there were bluebirds, phoebes, white-throated sparrows, cardinals, mockingbirds and blue jays on a Cornus florida in my backyard.

Yellow-rumped warbler eating a cedar berry

Ludwigia alternifolia, also known as alternate leaved seedbox is a North American perennial wildflower found in wet areas- swamps, stream banks, edges of ponds and other places with damp soils.  Leaves resemble willow- slender and alternate along the stems. Yellow flowers resemble those of moth mullein and appear in summer for 2-3 months only blooming for a day. Seed capsules are a quarter of an inch square and rattle when they are shaken. Flowers of rattlebox are pollinated primarily by bees. 

Rattlebox seed pod flanked with sepals.
Tiny seed box of Ludwegia alternifolia

Wolf Eyes Kousa dogwoods are included as specimen plantings in many landscapes for good reason. These small trees have a nice form and attractive variegated foliage that is an outstanding backdrop for the strawberry- like fruit that appear in late summer.

Wolf eyes Kousa dogwood

Chickweed geometer moths are small, yellow with pink bands and markings. Caterpillars are inchworms and host plants include chickweed, smartweed. Because lawns may contain some of these plants, the small moths are often spotted resting on blades of grass.

Chickweed geometer moth

Stacked kites look like a lot of fun to launch and enjoy. Recently someone had several kite stacks flying at Harkness Memorial State Park, where the offshore winds are ideal for this hobby. This park has many things of interest including a cutting flower garden, 111 year old full moon maples, gardens, buildings and expansive grounds. There also is a very fragrant heliotrope garden that is worth a visit just past the main building.

Water tower and cutting garden

Stacked kites

This weekend along a forest trail, I was delighted to find two diminutive puffball species that were new to me. Both had stalks, and were on bare soil, and the stems had a gelatinous film covering them. From directly above, the caps looked like acorns with the tip side up. The aspic puffball Calostoma cinnabarinum had a red cap and the ghoul’s eyes puffball, Calostoma lutescens had a yellow- ochre cap with a red apical mouth resembling, I guess, the eyes of a ghoul.

Aspic puffball
Ghoul’s eyes puffball
Hericium americanum bear’s head tooth fungus looks like a tight cluster of tiny icicles

Some late blooming plants are providing food sources for pollinators that are still active. Lespedeza bush clovers, asters, some goldenrods and lots of annuals like lantana and salvias are important nectar and pollen sources for native and non-native beetles and bees.

Bumblebee on an aster flower
Pink flowered Lespedeza bush clover

Recently the gardener at the golf course and I were delighted to find an eft of the red spotted newt and a very small spotted salamander under some bushes being removed from a neglected landscape. After making sure they were okay, they were returned to a safe place. The excitement never ends…

Juvenile spotted salamander

We also discovered a small spicebush along a cart path that had 5 spicebush caterpillars on it. By the time all had left to pupate, there were only two leaves left uneaten.

Checking a small spicebush
Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar

As the weather cools and leaves begin to drop, many of the little creatures that brightened our day will soon head for a protected spot to overwinter. Although gray treefrogs are still hanging out on leaves, they will retire under leaf litter or other places until next spring. Hardy insects are slowing down to do the same. Sunsets may be more spectacular in cooler weather, but I will miss those surprise encounters with living things in the garden and the wild landscape.

Besides the autumn poets sing, a few prosaic days, a little this side of the snow, and that side of the haze.

Emily Dickinson

Path in the autumn woods

Pamm Cooper

The plants didn’t like it either!

Fall is finally here, and the air has been crisp and clear recently. Leaves are starting to change to beautiful hues of red and gold. The normally scenic drive I take to work each day is improving every day, creeping ever closer to that classic New England postcard of autumn foliage.

Fig. 1: A maple tree outside a house I pass on my way to work is heralding what will hopefully be a dry and temperate fall.

It has been so refreshing that one can almost forget the deluge of water the northeastern states have received this summer. Unsurprisingly, I’ve received several emails and calls recently about plants in distress. I figured a blog post would be a great opportunity to describe some of the common (and less common) symptoms associated with stress caused by excessive water.

First, many trees are dropping their leaves early (the invasive Norway Maple, Acer platanoides, has been illustrating this in particular). Many trees are also dropping their leaves without first changing colors as one would normally expect. This is a common and, in and of itself, harmless symptom associated with an extended period of water stress. The bark of some trees is even splitting after the cyclic swelling after frequent rains followed by full sun exposure and warm temperatures.

Reduce irrigation if present and monitor the plants closely in the spring to see if leaves flush out normally. If they do, there is likely no need for alarm.

Naturally, roots can be severely damaged by prolonged exposure to water. Diseases caused by root rot pathogens like Pythium, Phytophthora, and Fusarium species have been very common this year. Even when a tree appears healthy aboveground, root damage and disease can prove fatal to the tree and may cause it to topple unexpectedly (see fig. 2). Homeowners with large trees near their houses should be particularly careful to not provide too much water to their trees after the wet summer we’ve had here in Connecticut.

Fig. 2: A tree on Horsebarn Hill toppled after a heavy rainstorm. Note the small and damaged root ball at the base of the plant.

Trees are not the only plants that have been adversely affected by the excessive rain! Bushes, herbaceous annuals, and even water-loving grasses have been stressed. Not only have grasses been more susceptible to fungal diseases as well, but they are being damaged by the sun more quickly due to the more frequent mowing and general stress associated with the heavy rain.

Fig. 3 The grass at the UConn Avery Point campus looks mottled and sad after being cut. These symptoms appear more frequently when the grass is stressed!

Not sure if your plants are receiving too much water? Simply perform the “knuckle test”. Place your finger in the soil near the roots of the plant in question. If you can reach damp soil before your first knuckle (1 to 2 inches), do not water! Very few plants actually need to be watered every day, and most require less water as the weather starts to cool down. Even the most water-loving plants will let you know when they are thirsty. When their leaves start to droop and the soil feels dry to the touch, give them some water. Until then, let them enjoy the dry, crisp fall weather too.

Nick Goltz