March 2022


A vegetable garden is one of life’s greatest pleasures. There is nothing that beats the taste of something freshly picked, and nothing is more satisfying than having grown it yourself! Most people would agree with those statements, as would our furry friends. Although many of us would not mind the occasional sampling by Mother Nature’s creatures, they don’t just nibble.  All it takes is one night and our entire crop or garden can be wiped out, and the frustration can be overwhelming. Many weeks or months of hard work is gone in an instant.

A nice looking garden fence that does little to keep out rabbits because it is not tall enough, and there are gaps where the panels meet. Photo by mrl2022.

There are really only a few creatures that will cause an enormous amount of damage in a very short amount of time. The first are rabbits. While they look cute, they will get into your garden and within one night decimate your entire crop. When I was middle school age, I will never forget watching one literally bite all my tulips off and then seeing it hop on as it did not like them enough to eat. In the recent years, I had a whole crop of heirloom beans destroyed in one evening because of rabbits. The few that regrew got eaten a few nights later. Rabbits can be bold as they many times get used to our presence. I was out grilling one early summer’s night and a rabbit walked right up next to me, hopped over the fence, and started eating my lettuces as if they were his (or hers). 

Woodchucks are another difficult creature. They seem more intelligent than rabbits, and tend to revisit a place on numerous occasions until they wipe out the food source. If they have enough to eat, they may even set up a den nearby. Not only can they destroy our gardens, but their digging under our buildings, near our foundations, and around our decks can be hazardous. They cause a lot of property damage and therefore, money!

The third type of pest is deer. Now there is really no good way to keep them out of your garden, unless you are willing to build a twelve-foot fence around it! Two suggestions are to keep the garden closer to your home, and to fence it to keep out the other critters. Unless really desperate, deer do not like to jump into an enclosed space. Having your dogs do their business just outside the garden area does seem to work as well. Deer generally do not like humans or dogs, so our presence keeps them away a bit. But, as stated before, if they get really hungry and desperate, nothing but a twelve-foot-tall fence will stop them.

The old adage “An ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure” certainly applies here. Very rarely can a home garden exist without a fence. I have seen exceptions in highly urbanized areas where there is little habitat for wildlife, but these are rare. Any natural areas near your home can provide a refuge for our four-legged vandals. Because the home gardener packs a lot of plants into a relatively small space, gardens make attractive targets for wildlife. Fences are the only way to protect your crops from these animals, but not all fences are created equal.

1 inch by 2 inch welded wire will prevent rabbits from getting through, but will keep the material lighter and less expensive. Photo by mrl2022.

Fences have two purposes, really. The first is to protect our food, and second, to add to the appeal of the surroundings. Another consideration is how you will access the garden, so a door (or two) strategically placed is important. The problem, however, is that the two purposes usually do not coincide. The best fence for keeping critters out is not very aesthetically pleasing. After many years of experience, I find the best fence is 1×2 inch galvanized welded wire that is three feet high. The 1 x 2 inch mesh is small enough to keep the rabbits out, but large enough to keep costs down. I once watched a rabbit try in vain for about 20 minutes to jump over my fence. He was able to make it about 30 inches up, but not the full 36 inches. This fencing can be held up with metal “U” posts that have holes and tabs that allow you to attach the fence. These are usually green colored, and you want the 48-inch ones as the bottom foot will get pounded into the ground. You may want to get some galvanized wire to physically tie the fence to the post as well. You want to make sure the fence is securely placed, with no gaps between the bottom and the ground. I like to have some of the bottom tabs push the fence down as I pound them in the final inch, as it makes a tight-fitting barrier with the ground.

Woodchucks are more difficult to control than rabbits. They can easily dig under a fence, so it is recommended that you bury some of the wire in the ground. This can be easier said that done, and could require a taller roll of fence (remember you need at least 36 inches above ground). If you bought a four-foot-tall fence roll, you would need to dig a trench a foot deep. That is way too much back-breaking labor for me! On that note, I have seen gardeners bury the fence and then have the woodchuck climb right over it. They are best dealt with by having a dog outside near the garden a lot. Or you could trap the woodchuck and relocate it, but beware of rabies and local laws/regulations regarding trapping, transport and release of wild animals. 

A three foot tall roll of wire that is 100 feet long will fence in most home gardens. Photo by mrl2022.

There are a number of fences on the market with smaller spacing at the bottom, but larger spacing at the top. I do not recommend them as a rabbit could fit through the larger openings.  These fences have always failed me. Also, any wire larger than 1×2 will not work. I have seen 2 x 3-inch fence offered, but the rabbits can get through that. Many garden fences are only 30 inches tall. As said before, these are too short, and a rabbit can make it over that height. Don’t be tempted to go for the less expensive chicken wire. The wire itself is so thin that sometimes a rabbit or woodchuck can chew threw it, or it gets easily damaged by lawn equipment. One hole in a fence is all it takes and the critters will find it. Chicken wire also does not have much rigidity, so it deforms easily. It will also require more fence posts. 

So now that we have a fence that works, we have to discuss aesthetics. If done correctly, the metal fence and metal posts can look alright, but don’t expect to make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens. One alternative is to find a wooden picket fence that you like, install it, and then staple the welded wire to the inside back of it. Although your cost of fencing substantially increases, you get the pretty, classic fence look on the outside, but all the protection of the wire on the inside. Without the wire, the rabbits would simply slip under or between the fence pickets.  If you opt for the new plastic fences, it will be much harder to attach the metal wire fence to the inside, but it still could be done with any method listed above. Another alternative I have seen is that people make a rectangular box-type frame out of wood, then attach the welded wire to that frame, which sits between the posts. This can give a nice, neat, finished appearance and is much cheaper than a picket fence. 

Although the wire is only three feet tall, the posts will need to be four feet as a foot will get pounded into the ground. The bottom fins should be beneath the soil surface. Photo by mrl2022.

The next thing we need to discuss are the fence posts. This is more of a pick your poison kind of situation – literally. The temptation would be to use pressure treated lumber rated for ground contact. This certainly will last you a long time, but at a cost. The chemicals used to treat the lumber may leach out into your soil and get absorbed by your plants. The old pressure treated wood was injected with a copper chromium arsenic substance, that is toxic to life, which is why it worked so well at keeping the rot away.

Wood is now treated with alkaline copper quat (ACQ) and copper azole (CA-B). They both contain a fungicide and copper. Although some improvements have been made to lessen the toxicity of the chemical cocktail used to treat the wood over the years, some of the compounds used for treating the wood may still leach into the soil and therefore, they are not allowed in organic food production. There are some recently developed plastic post covers made to slip over the treated lumber in an attempt to stop (or reduce) this leaching process. I have not come across any studies on how effective these are, most likely because they are newer. Even so, the bottoms are still open and could allow a path for the lumber to leach toxins into your soil.

 I would recommend, and I do this, choosing the untreated Douglas Fir fence posts. This wood is somewhat rot resistant and can last up to 15 years (or more in some situations). It will not leach anything harmful into the soil, but it will not last as long either. I would rather change out my posts every so many years than put my family and I at risk of exposure to toxins. 

The last consideration is cost. This is a project you really want to plan out ahead of time. Be sure to price out your materials accurately and see if you have budget. Lumber is at an all-time high right now. Never in my life have I seen the prices so outrageous! A few years ago, the local home improvement store sold 2x4x8 framing lumber for $2.25 a board. Now they are selling for $7.98 each! The welded wire has gone up considerably too over the past three years or so. But remember, if you do nothing, you subject all your hard work to the belly of a beast in one evening! As a final suggestion for really tough critter situations, consider adding some electric wires to the top and bottom of your fence. I do not recommend this though if you have children and pets! A good fence will last at least 15 years, so the cost over time makes it worth it. This way, you and your family can enjoy the spoils of your labor without having to feed the local wildlife.   

Matt Lisy

Soil can provide plants with nitrogen through organic matter mineralization, deposition during rainfall events, and residual inorganic nitrogen in soil. However, plants often need more nitrogen than soil can provide to produce a crop yield of desired quality. As such, nitrogen fertilizers need to be applied.

When you purchase nitrogen fertilizers, you will notice that the guaranteed analysis for essential nutrients contained is provided on the bags or containers. For nitrogen, usually guaranteed analysis for percent of total nitrogen, urea nitrogen, nitrate nitrogen, ammoniacal nitrogen, water soluble nitrogen, water insoluble nitrogen, or slowly available nitrogen is provided. Depending on the fertilizer product, one or more of these forms may be contained. It is important that you read the guaranteed analysis label to understand the percentage and forms of nitrogen fertilizer because different forms of fertilizers behave differently in the soil and are lost from soils in different ways.

Ammoniacal nitrogen undergoes a series of transformations after being applied to soils. For example, ammoniacal nitrogen can be converted to a nitrate form, gaseous form (ammonia), or organic form. If you apply ammoniacal nitrogen on the soil surface when the soil is dry or high in pH, you will lose a significant portion of nitrogen to the atmosphere in the form of ammonia. Windy conditions also favor such loss. With dry or high pH soil conditions, the nitrate, slow release, or controlled release forms of fertilizers are better choices. If you inject ammoniacal fertilizers deep into the soil, then nitrogen loss to the atmosphere in the form of gaseous ammonia is very little. Under optimum soil temperature and moisture conditions, ammoniacal nitrogen can be converted to nitrate nitrogen quickly.

Injecting anhydrous ammonia into the soil. Photo credit: Haiying Tao

Nitrate nitrogen, either converted from ammoniacal nitrogen or being applied as a nitrate form of fertilizer, also undergoes a series of transformations in soil. Nitrate is water soluble, therefore, leaching is the major loss pathway – often during heavy irrigation, heavy rainfall, and snowmelt events. If your fertilizer product contains mainly a nitrate form of nitrogen, you should avoid applying the fertilizer before heavy rainfall to avoid leaching loss. If you have soil with poor drainage, applying a nitrate form of fertilizer in water logging condition should be avoided because significant portion of nitrate nitrogen can be converted to other gaseous forms of nitrogen and be lost (e.g. nitrous oxide or molecular nitrogen which makes up most of earth’s atmosphere).

Liquid fertilizer application equipment setup. Photo credit: Haiying Tao

Once applied in soils, urea is converted to ammoniacal nitrogen. If urea is applied on the soil surface, it is best if you apply urea fertilizer before rain or irrigation, so that urea is carried into the soils by water. By doing this, you can avoid nitrogen loss to the atmosphere in the form of ammonia gas. In general, it takes about 0.5 inch of rainfall within 24 to 48 hours after surface application to transport urea to the depth that will minimize volatilization loss.

Slow release or controlled release fertilizers reduce nitrogen loss by delaying nitrogen release into the soil. They gradually feed crops during the growth period. Generally, slow-release nitrogen is most beneficial when fertilizer is applied in cold temperatures, on the soil surface, in soil with high leaching potential, or at hillslope locations with poor drainage/high water ponding risk. Carefully managing application rate is still necessary for these fertilizers because excessive application can cause nitrogen loss. The portion of nitrogen that is converted to ammoniacal and nitrate forms but not taken up by plants can still be lost to the environment.

Knowing that nitrogen is not held by soil and can be lost if not taken up by plants, the timing of nitrogen application is important to minimize nitrogen loss from your soil. It is best that you synchronize nitrogen availability with plant requirements and look at weather forecasts before fertilizer application.

For questions on fertilizers, contact the UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory (email soiltest@uconn.edu or call 860-486-4274) or contact your local Cooperative Extension Center. For any other gardening questions, contact the UConn Home & Garden Education Center (email ladybug@uconn.edu or call 877-486-6271).

Haiying Tao, PhD

No gardening activity seems to instill as much trepidation in a novice gardener as pruning. While an improperly administrated pruning job can make your plants appear rather odd looking, unless you did something really drastic, any mistakes will eventually get covered by new growth. This is not to say that the job of pruning should be taken lightly. Indeed, a few well-placed cuts can do much to enhance your plant’s appearance and health.

Not all plants require the same degree of pruning. Very young ornamental plants and shade trees usually just need a judicious cut here and there to promote structural soundness. Basically, you are just looking to remove dead, damaged or rubbing wood. Branches growing into another plant or your pathway may also need some trimming or removal.

Larger trees may need a storm damaged limb occasionally removed, or perhaps a few lower branches trimmed to increase light to plantings below. Unless you are skilled in tree limb removal, your best bet is to call in a professional. If you decide to remove a branch or two yourself, keep in mind this is a several step process. The final cut should leave the branch collar undisturbed to promote quicker healing. Look for wrinkled rings of bark around the base of the branch where it attaches to the tree trunk. This is the branch collar. Most books on pruning do a good job illustrating it as well as showing you in diagram format how to make a proper cut.

As you might imagine, different types of shrubs require somewhat different pruning techniques although the final goal is similar in most cases. One generally prunes to control a plant’s size, improve its shape, remove unhealthy branches, and to increase light and air penetration into the canopy.

Late winter through early spring is a good time to prune most shrubs. Since there are no leaves on deciduous plants, the branch framework is obvious making it clearer where to place your cuts. As a general rule of thumb, evergreens, fruit bearing plants and summer blooming deciduous shrubs like rose of Sharon are pruned in now. Spring blooming shrubs like lilacs, forsythia and mock oranges are usually pruned after they bloom. They can be pruned now but realize you will be cutting off flower buds as well.

Make cuts to evergreens below a shoot. Photo by dmp2021

Before beginning, take a step back and observe the plant’s natural growth tendencies. Plants usually look and perform better when allowed to take on their natural forms. Forsythias, for example, want to be flowing fountains, the rose of Sharon tends to resemble an upright, half-opened fan, and many spireas grow somewhat globular.

Forsythias would rather be fountain shaped than square. Photo by dmp2019.

Some shrubs like privets and yews do respond better to repetitive shearing than others which is why they are often chosen for formal hedges. When purchasing new plants for your yard, you should consider their mature size and shape. While pruning can keep them in check to some extent, it does have its limits. Buy a rhododendron species that matures at four feet if it is to grow under a window rather than continuously fight with one that has lofty goals of ten to twelve feet in mind!

It’s a good idea to place plants at a proper distance from buildings rather than prune their backsides straight. Photo by dmp 2021.

Speaking of rhododendrons, for the most part, these and other broadleaved evergreens do not require heavy pruning. Just shape them lightly and pinch the growing tips if you want them to branch out more. Generally, these are not pruned until after flowering but don’t hesitate bringing in a few branches to force in early April.

Rejuvenate overgrown shrubs that have multiple stems by cutting out about one-third of the older stems at ground level. Repeat this procedure for the next two years allowing several younger stems to take their place. This works well with older lilacs as well as shrubs grown for their colorful young stems such as the red or yellow twig dogwoods.

Remove old brown stems from red or other colored stemmed dogwoods to encourage new colorful growth. Photo by dmp2018.

For shrubs that just need to be shaped, prune out the dead wood, rubbing branches and weak stems first. Then just head back or remove some to the branch tips to shape. Always use sharp pruning tools, make an angled cut to an outside bud and remember, mistakes will regrow!

Dawn P.

In 2019, while tearing down our bathroom for renovation, we discovered a treasure, a relic of an icon long gone from our U.S. forests. It was paneling from an American chestnut tree and it was beautiful. The panels were several feet wide, much wider than any lumber we can buy today, and the grain was long ad straight, with a honey tone. I was filled with mixed emotions – the excitement of finding something so rare and beautiful yet, sadness that these magnificent trees are no longer part of our forests.

Chestnut paneling. Photo by Marie Woodward

American chestnut (Castanea dentata) trees were once the largest and most abundant trees in the eastern half of the United States, stretching from Maine to Florida. They were estimated to be about four billion in number and considered a keystone species. A lot of wildlife depended on it for survival because it produced a steady supply of highly nutritious nuts every year.  Humans depended on these nuts, too, to feed their livestock and their families, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” was once a common practice, not just a line from a Christmas song. The wood from American Chestnut trees was long, straight, and rot resistant, so it was used to build houses and barns, which helped settle America (and created my hidden paneling).

Historical photo of a large American Chestnut from the Great Smokey Mountains of TN and NC.

But in 1904, a fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, better known as chestnut blight, entered the U.S. from imported Asian chestnut trees. Though the Asian chestnut trees were highly resistant to the blight they carried, the American chestnut had no resistance at all. The result was ecological disaster. Within half a century almost all of the country’s four billion American chestnut trees died, with disastrous consequences for both wildlife and the humans who depended on them.

Chestnut blight from http://www.acf.org

Today, the American chestnut, though not completely extinct, is considered functionally extinct. That’s because while American chestnut trees still emerge from long dead underground chestnut root systems, the blight kills them before they can grow to maturity. However, thanks to science and a nationwide network of volunteers, all is not lost.

Currently there are two programs that are having some success at developing a blight-resistant American Chestnut tree. The American Chestnut Foundation is heading up a breeding program where they are cross-breeding vulnerable early-growth American chestnut trees with blight-resistant Chinese chestnut trees in order to produce an American/Chinese chestnut hybrid with blight resistance. When the hybrid trees mature, through a process called back-breeding, they cross-breed the blight-resistant American Chinese hybrid chestnut with another American Chestnut tree. The goal is to breed out the characteristics of the Chinese chestnut tree, while keeping the blight resistance. This process has been continued for many generations, with the goal of producing a tree that will be 1/16 Chinese chestnut and 15/16 American chestnut. Such a tree, it is hoped, will have all the characteristics of the American chestnut while keeping the blight resistance acquired from the Chinese chestnut. This approach, of course takes much time and effort, but scientists say they are only one generation away from replanting the American chestnuts in natural forests.

Another exciting approach to reviving the American chestnut is underway at SUNY’S College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Scientists there have been working to save the American chestnut through a process called transgenics, which uses a bacteria, called Agrobacterium tumefaciens, to transfer genes from one species of plant to another species.

The SUNY researchers discovered that a gene in wheat detoxifies an acid (called oxalic acid) that is the same acid the chestnut blight fungus uses to attack American chestnut trees. Using transgenics, they have introduced this acid-fighting gene into the American chestnut tree with very hopeful results. The new gene enables the tree to neutralize the blight’s acid without taking on any characteristics of another tree species. The result is a virtually identical American chestnut tree species that can fight off the blight. Scientists hope to cross breed it with young chestnut trees in the wild that have not yet been attacked, and older trees that have survived the blight.

Their plan is to return this mighty species back to America’s forests through three approaches. They will use the new tree to reforest land previously deforested by mining. They will plant trees at historic sites associated with the American chestnut to recover what the landscape looked like historically; and they will encourage the public to plant trees on their own lands. You can join this effort, which has an active group of supporters right here in Connecticut.

To learn more about the Connecticut chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, visit www.ctacf.org.

By Marie Woodward

Crabapples in bloom along a driveway

“In the village, a sage should go about
Like a bee, which, not harming
Flower, colour or scent,
Flies off with the nectar.”
― Anonymous

As March begins and weather starts to warm up, not only plants are awakening from their slumber. Also beginning to stir are many native and non- native bee species including Collettes ssp. Bombus spp.Honey bees, Andrena spp. and Megachile spp. These bees need flowers available for nourishment and food stores for their nesting chambers starting as early as March. Plants that support bees in spring may be native and non-native, wild and cultivated, weeds or ornamentals. The following are just a handful of plants that can be especially helpful in supporting bees from March- May.

Native bee on a dandelion flower

There are several non-native plants that flower in early March and are visited by bees- crocus, Whitlow grass, dandelions, Cornell pink azalea and daffodils. In the early spring, blooms are few and far between, and while daffodils are not usually considered pollinator plants, bees like honeybees will visit daffodil flowers if there is not much else around. The Rhododendron mucronulatum ‘Cornell Pink’ azalea is one of the first azaleas to bloom here in Connecticut. Loaded with pink blooms, many species of pollinators, not just bees, will visit these flowers.

‘Cornell Pink’ Azalea is one of the first cultivated azaleas to bloom in the spring
Daffodils

Korean Spice Viburnum Viburnum carlesii blooms in April and has abundant clusters of extremely fragrant flowers that attract many pollinators. Arrowwood viburnum is also a spring bloomer and is native.

Korean spicebush Viburnum has extremely fragrant flowers

Amelanchier canadensis, shadblow serviceberry, is a small tree or multi- stemmed shrub that flowers in April. Both bees and butterflies will visit the flowers.

Amelanchier

Crabapples, black cherry and flowering plum attract many bee species and other pollinators in late April- May, including Osmia spp. like the red mason bee, Osmia bicornis. Cornus mas, Cornelian cherry, is a small tree or large shrub that blooms in late winter or early spring. Clusters of small yellow flowers appear before the leaves. Andrena bees, native specialist pollinators, visit these flowers.

Cornus mas

Dandelions and dead nettles, while considered weeds in a lawn, attract many spring pollinator species and a few in a lawn should not be the end of the world…

Bumblebee on dead nettle

Japanese andromeda, Pieris japonica, is a non-native evergreen shrub that can bloom from March- June, depending upon the cultivar. Flowers are white or shades of red and resemble the urnlike tubular flowers of blueberry.

Japanese Andromeda

Bloodroot is a low growing native perennial that can bloom in April. Many bees, especially Megachile spp. and Coletes spp. visit flowers of this open woodland species. There are many other native perennials that have early blooms that support bees. Including Solomon’s seal, Geranium maculatum (cranesbill), and columbine that are all shade tolerant.

Native bloodroot
Solomon’s seal attracts bumblebees and hummingbirds

Cornus florida, the native flowering dogwood tree blooms usually by mid-May. The native dogwood has white flowers and an open, layered form in forest understories, while cultivars may have pink to red flowers and various sizes and growth habits. Red maples are among the earliest maples to flower and bees will visit the flowers readily.

Flowering dogwood ‘Cheyenne Brave’
Red maple flower

There are many more plants that will support bees in the landscape whether natural or cultivated.  Consider planting a few of these, if you have the room and a desire for a little splash of color in the spring garden. I wonder if Ray Bradbury was right, when he wrote in “Dandelion Wine”-  “Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”?

Native columbine and Geranium Maculatum along a country road
Carpenter bee on native redbud

Pamm Cooper

A list of good plants for spring pollinators:

Acer (maples)         Phlox                    Lupine                        Alders              Lilac

Amelanchier           Violets                  Eastern redbud        Spicebush       Cornus spp.

Salix (willow)          Columbine           Cranesbill                  Sassafras         Currant            

Blueberry                Chokecherry        Cornus mas              Hyacinth          Raspberry  

Basswood                Crabapple            Trillium                     Dandelion       Phlox 

Crocus                      Viola spp.             Currant                    Dead nettle     Prunus spp.     

Huckleberry