May 2022


Star Chickweed blooming in May Connecticut College woodland garden

Among the changing months, May stands the sweetest, and in fairest colors dressed.”

James Thomson

For good or bad, nature has its own comprehensive coordination of flora and fauna, and all play the perfect instrument in the classical themes of nature. Mozart in his glory had nothing compared to nature and its symphony of birdsong, and Monet has an inferior palette to that which nature offers. In May, nature is at its beginning and its best is yet to come.

Red oak flowers

Pin cherry is a native small tree that occurs in sandy clearings, along shorelines of ponds and lakes, often with aspen and white birch. It has a straight trunk with shiny reddish-brown to grayish-brown bark with numerous horizontal lenticels. Another tree with interesting bark is the striped maple, Acer pennsylvanicum. This maple is aptly named for its colorful green and cream colored stripes on the trunks of younger trees.

Pin cherry bark
Bark of a young striped maple trunk

In mid- May I took a trip to New London to visit the Edgerton and Stengel woodland wildflower garden at Connecticut College. In May there are creeping phlox, tiarella, swamp azaleas, trilliums, shooting stars, star chickweed, Virginia bluebells and many other woodland plants in bloom. Pitcher plants in the bog were showing signs of flowering.

Pitcher plant ready to bloom

Before sunrise recently, there was a peculiar pink, upright band in the sky, which turned out to be one end of a rainbow. It lasted a good 20 minutes and was an interesting start to the day. Later a line of thunderheads moved in, but no rain was in the mix in our area. In the afternoon in mid-May It looked like a rainstorm was happening just across the Thames River in new London, but it was actually a fog bank rolling in along the eastern shore.

Pre-dawn rainbow

While birding for the Audubon spring census, my sister and I came across two species of rare violets classified in Connecticut as  rare and endangered species. Viola enduca, or hook-spurred violet was one of them. This purple-flowered violets bears a slight resemblance to a bearded iris in that its lower side petals are bearded. The second species was Viola renifolia, the kidney-leaved violet, which has a sweet white flower with deep purple striping.

Rare Viola anduca hook-spurred violet
Kidney-leaved violet

There are always interesting galls to be found, and a favorite of mine is the maple eyespot gall caused by a midge. Spiffy red and yellow spots are caused by a chemical response to the egg-laying of the female midge. Cedar-apple galls on cedar were also starting to open.

Maple eyespot gall

For some unknown reason there has been a strong attraction to bucket loaders for a lot of birds, this year. A mockingbird uses the backhoe on a farm for a fine perch to sing away on and at the golf course, a robin built her nest on ours. Every time the loader is used, the nest is taken off and placed in a safe spot nearby. After parking it for the day, the nest is returned, and the robin has resumed laying eggs. All seems well for the moment

Robin’s nest on back hoe
Mockingbird singing from atop a bucket loader

Turtles should be heading for the hills soon to lay eggs. They are surprisingly fast on land when given a reason to press on, especially in egg-laying season. Otherwise, they can be seen relaxing on logs and rocks in calm waters.

Painted turtle laying eggs
Painted turtles soaking in the rays

Trees and shrubs starting to bloom include Viburnum plicatum, Carolina allspice and Fraser magnolia, while horse chestnuts are ending bloom. Oaks are wreaking havoc as flowers have a load of pollen right now, but flowers should be falling soon.

Horsechestnut flowers

As May draws to a close, I am looking forward to more bee and insect activity, a profusion of new life in the form of baby birds and animals, and more color as wildflowers make their mark in the landscape. Altogether, they will become a natural symphony of coordination of sight and sound in their own special place on the earth. I intend to enjoy what remains of this spring. You never know what you will see or come across…

Pamm Cooper

It’s been a tumultuous week. We had unexpected home expenses, a heatwave we weren’t quite prepared for, and both a birth and a death in the family.  Life can be tough sometimes, but I find that having a perspective of gratitude (even when I feel I’m forcing myself to have one) can really help me navigate difficult situations. Being grateful for the positive things in life can help to smooth over the potholes along the way. While I normally like to write more “functional” blog posts, this week I’ll discuss some plants for which I am grateful.

I moved to Connecticut from Florida in 2021. While my partner and I generally love our new state, it has taken some adjusting. We were nervous to be in our 130+ year-old rental for our first New England winter, so we began house hunting in the early fall. We were lucky enough to find a home in September, and while it had/has a few minor areas in need of some improvement, it has good bones, a great kitchen, and is in a quiet neighborhood.

Being a self-described plant nerd, I immediately began to think of how most of the plants outside needed caring-for, and how many would need to be replaced. There were some dead trees in the back yard that needed (and still need) to be taken down, a sad rose bush that had blackspot on the leaves and dead canes throughout, two diseased boxwood bushes, a carpet of sick pachysandra, and more than a dozen clumps of ugly Hostas surrounding the house, all riddled with holes from the many slugs that make our wet yard their home.

That’s not to say that there weren’t some beautiful, healthy plants too, but I went into the winter believing that I would need to do some major landscaping in the spring. Over the winter I gave a lot of attention to my houseplants – many of them remind me of Florida (read some descriptions below if you’re curious).

I did some yard work when the weather wasn’t too bad. I pruned out the smaller dead trees and some of the inconvenient ones, and I trimmed-up the sad rose bush (likely for the first time in its life). I also cleared away the dead bits of Hosta leaves, thinking I would dig-up and remove their rhizomes when the ground thawed and I had something else to put in their place.

I’m happy to say that I never found the time.

The Hostas grew back this spring and are now the best-looking plants surrounding our home. I went out to mow the lawn and do some weeding last weekend and was struck by how full, vibrant, and fresh they looked against our house. The previous homeowners even planted a few different cultivars – I can only guess which they are, but most seem healthy. I tested the only clump not growing properly for Hosta Virus X (thankfully it tested negative).

I’m grateful for my healthy plants and I’m grateful to have the knowledge to deal with my unhealthy plants too. Even a small thing like caring for plants can be fulfilling and grounding in its own way, much like caring for a pet or loved one (just with lower expectations). When you are having a tough week, I encourage you to be grateful for the people, places and things that are important to you. Even the plants that help brighten your day.

Nick Goltz, DPM

Each year we go out and get the garden ready for planting. To many people, this means getting out the tiller and turning over the soil. We definitely are creatures of habit, but repeated tilling may actually be doing more harm than good. It is important to remember that a tiller is a tool that has a specific purpose, but should only be used when needed.

The author’s rototiller ready for work, but only if it is needed (photo by M. Lisy).

Soil erosion is one of the biggest threats to farmland worldwide. Although our smaller scale gardens are less susceptible to this, it is something that should be of concern. If you till and then we receive heavy rain, it could wash away some of the nutrient rich top soil that took years to build. Excessively dry soil may end up blowing away in the wind. When the soil is too wet, tilling can create hardpan below the tilled layer. This layer of compacted soil limits water infiltration, nutrient availability, beneficial organism movement, and plant root growth. 

I do not want to give the impression that tilling is inherently bad. As stated before, it is a useful technique in certain situations. If your soil test results indicate the need to add limestone, then tilling is the best way to incorporate it into the soil. Simply applying lime on the surface and waiting for nature to work it into the soil is futile. Likewise, if your soil is deficient in key nutrients, you may need to incorporate some fertilizers. 

There are other situations where tilling is beneficial. The first is if you have an excessive amount of weeds that cannot reasonably be removed by hand, left over crop residue from the previous growing season, cover crops from the previous winter, or simply want to convert an area of lawn into garden. Tilling is the quickest and easiest way to do this. Compost or other organic matter may be incorporated into the soil by tilling too. Tilling may also hasten soil warming in the spring in addition to allowing greater air infiltration.   The result will be beautiful, uniform soil that is easy to plant. The other benefit to tilling is that it can break up pest life cycles. Many pests will over winter in the soil, and larvae may be safely lurking underground until you till. 

So, given all this information, it begs the question, “Why would we not want to till?” That answer is a bit complicated! There are natural soil assemblages of beneficial insects, bacteria, and fungi. There is also an abiotic (not living) soil structure that works best. In soil that is left intact, water is transported through more efficiently, worms aerate it, and the activities of other beneficial organisms actually can produce nutrients our plants use. These organisms work hand-in-hand with our organic fertilizers, producing a synergistic effect (greater than each one alone).  In order to preserve this natural state, keep adding mulch, or better yet compost, throughout the year so weeds don’t stand much of a chance. If some weeds do pop up, don’t let them get a foot hold. Pulling them when young is a lot easier than waiting until they have deep roots.  Alternatively, use a hoe to easily disrupt their growth when newly sprouted. Whatever you do, do not let weeds go to seed! 

There are alternatives to tilling if you are starting a new garden bed. You could lay black plastic down. This will heat up the ground underneath, killing any vegetation and weed seeds. It does harm beneficial organisms as well, but these should quickly recolonize from adjacent areas. You could leave it in place and plant right through the plastic. There are also special fabrics that block light but allow air and water to pass through that work fairly well too. Another option is lasagna gardening. This uses cardboard or newspaper placed directly on the vegetation. On top of that you put a thick layer of mulch. The vegetation is denied light and it dies. When it is time for a new year’s crop, simply move the mulch aside and poke a hole right through the cardboard. The cardboard eventually breaks down over time, and the thick mulch bed continues to block weeds.  Simple hoe work can keep it weed free. You continue to layer mulch as needed.  Hopefully this information will help you decide when and when not to till! 

By Dr. Matthew Lisy, UConn Adjunct Faculty

May 1 – 7, 2022 is International Compost Awareness Week. Check out guest blogger, Dan Martens’ tips for composting using a standing plastic bin:

It’s safe to say that no two home composting systems—or home composters—are the same. The following is based on my experience composting in my Connecticut backyard (Zone 7).

When starting anything new, it’s reassuring to have a mentor. I was fortunate to have excellent advice from the University of Connecticut’s Master Composter program. Although I’ve long been  composting garden debris, I didn’t focus on composting household food scraps until my town offered a program to purchase a freestanding plastic backyard compost bin. I’ve been composting for three years now, and have produced beautiful rich compost.

Plastic bin by Compost Coyote

Here are my tips and observations—as with any new hobby, the fun is in learning for yourself, so see what works best for you.

Collect compostables. Start collecting food scraps in a container with a lid a month or two before you start to fill your compost bin. Do not add foods such as meat, fish, dairy, oils and grease; they can attract animals or restrict airflow in your pile. Food scraps can be frozen until you’re ready to build your first pile. Make a brown leaf pile that you can pull from all year. Do not include any leaves that have been treated with herbicides or other chemicals. You’ll also need sticks and/or bulky wood chips for the base of the pile and a good amount of food scraps and leaves for the first build.It’s best to start simple with a step-by-step approach, so just focus on two feedstocks—food scraps and leaves.   

Assemble tools. You’ll definitely need a watering can, pitchfork, rake, compost aerator, containers and a garden cart.

Select bin. A compost bin with a removable lid is a simple way to keep compost neat, safe from animals, and protected from the elements. I think a 3’x3’ bin is the minimum size for getting a good pile going.    

Locate spot. Place your bin on level ground in a sunny to part shady location. If you do not have a flat spot, grade one with a shovel, then make a second flat spot adjacent to the bin.  

Start building. I build/rebuild my pile with the layering or “lasagna” method. Start with bulky sticks or wood chips next to the ground, then add a 4-inch layer of leaves. This base provides air flow and insulation. Everything the pile will need is in the feedstocks (food scraps and leaves).

Layer feedstocks. Place a layer of food scraps on top of the leaves; add another layer of leaves and lightly sprinkle with water. Continue alternating the layers: leaves/food scraps/water and repeat. Your layers should have 2 to 3 times more leaves than food scraps. So, in your compost lasagna, the leaves are like the noodles. Sprinkle with water after each set of layers, but do not oversaturate.

Color coded pile layers – leaves, compost, food scraps, water. Place food scraps in the middle.
  • Build the middle. Keep the layers going until you run out of food scraps. Spread the food scraps evenly, but always keep them toward the middle of the layer. If you don’t have enough food scraps, use mostly leaves; you can balance the pile over time. Finish the pile with a layer of leaves, about 5 inches from the top of the bin, to allow air flow. Do not finish with a food scrap layer. Food scrap layers should only be in the middle which discourages animals from trying to gnaw into the bin, and also helps build heat. If you don’t have enough food scraps to get started and you do have garden greens, it’s fine to use them as long as they have not gone to seed. A high nitrogen fertilizer, like blood meal can also be used – 1 cup for every 4 to 6 inch layer of leaves.
  • Keep microbes happy. The microbes in the organic matter (feedstocks) are key to decomposition; it’s important to feed them a proper carbon-nitrogen ratio. The goal is to have a balanced carbon-nitrogen meal. Think of leaves as the carbon source and food scraps as the nitrogen source. The food scraps and the leaves should be roughly equal by weight. However, food scraps weigh more than leaves, so for a good balance you will need about 2 to 3 times more leaves than food scraps. A balanced recipe provides a good meal for your microbes; they will eat it all, and the compost at the end will be balanced. If you add a 1-inch layer of food scraps, then add about a two to three-inch layer of leaves. The correct ratio will prevent most basic problems with the pile and will keep the microbes happy.
  • Aerate. After the food scrap layers have had time to break down from the build, you can aerate the pile. What is the proper time to allow before aerating? If your pile has dropped down 25%, or if a couple weeks have passed, give it a fluffing. Your geographic climate or season impacts your pile’s unique composting rate. If you aerate too soon, you may disrupt both the layering from building the pile and the heat generated by decomposition. There are no hard and fast rules; however, neglecting your compost is not a good idea. If you maintain the pile, you will avoid some smelly problems. I generally aerate every 1 to 2 weeks and add some water. To aerate, use a compost aeration tool or just push in a strong stick and wiggle it around. You don’t want to mix the pile and upset the layers; just loosen it up so that some air can get in. If you set your compost table, the microbes will have a party!
Compost aerator with some finished compost. Photo by Compost Coyote
  • Feed. Remember decomposition takes time, so have patience. With a closed bin, you have two options for feeding your pile: the weekly add-in process or the batch process. If you add food scraps weekly, put them in the middle of the pile with plenty of leaves of top to conceal odors. When I first began composting, I used the weekly option, adding twice the amount of leaves than food scraps. This was a good way to start because I had more leaves in my pile than food scraps. Getting the pile going strong was tempered by the weekly interruption and the small mass of the inputs. Now I use the batch process. I save four or more weeks of food scraps in a closed pail and then feed the pile when my pail is full, about once a month in summer, then once in late in fall and once in late winter. In winter, on a warmer day, I add food scraps, leaves and water to the middle of the pile. I try to aerate the pile in winter unless it’s really freezing (then I don’t disturb it). My pile probably goes dormant, but I have never seen it freeze.
  • Prepare to turn & rebuild. When the pile has exhausted its composting activity, it’s time to turn and rebuild. How do you know when to turn your pile? I turn and rebuild my pile when my food scrap pail is full. In the summer, this is every 4 to 6 weeks, but in the winter I store my food scraps in the freezer until a nice late winter day. To make rebuilding your pile easier,have your components close at hand: full food scrap pail, leaf pile, watering can, pitchfork and rake. You’ll get dirty, so when you finish, wash off your tools and hands.  
  • Turn & rebuild. Lift the plastic compost bin straight up and off the pile and place it on the flat spot you made adjacent to your current pile. Now, with the bin empty, start the rebuild. The current pile, now exposed, will be about 30% smaller than the bin. It will sit in a neat column until you are ready to rework it with your pitchfork. Take materials from the current pile plus add new feedstocks to make a lasagna in the empty bin. Build the new pile in the empty bin the same way you started, but now add active compost as one of the layers. Repeat the original process: some bulk on the bottom, such as sticks, wood chips and leaves, followed by layers. On top of the base, add fresh compost from the pile, food scraps, leaves, more compost, and water. Repeat. Depending on the amount of new food scraps I have, I add in materials from the old pile that need more time, mixing them in with the new feedstocks in the middle of the pile. I finish with a topper of leaves and a light watering.
Turning out compost. Photo by Compost Coyote
  • Harvest. If you need to make room in your bin, or you want to harvest in early Fall, do so as long as you maintain a full compost bin with a rebuild so that you can maintain a full bin through winter. How do you know when compost is ready? Examine it. When the feedstocks are not recognizable as their original material, you have immature compost. Remove this good stuff and set it aside for curing and screening.  
  • Cure and screen. When you remove compost, it is immature. Let it sit for month to allow any active microbes to settle down and to balance the pH. I screen my compost to remove twigs or small stones. At first, I screened fresh compost straight from the pile, but it was damp and messy, so now I wait for it to dry a bit. Transfer the compost to a breathable container (or pile) to hold it for resting. Loosely cover the container so rain doesn’t wash the compost away. I screen with a homemade screen made from 1/4-inch wire cloth tacked to a 2 x 4-foot frame. I rub the compost through by hand.    
Dan screening his compost. Photo by Compost Coyote
  • Optimize!   
    1. Remove produce stickers before saving food scraps.
    1. Make sure there are no rubber bands, foil or plastic in food scraps.
    1. Chop food scraps and shred leaves to facilitate short-term heat build.  
    1. Aerate pile weekly without disturbing layers too much. Make sure to add water.
    1. Monitor temperature in the middle of the pile using a compost thermometer. After the first temperature spike, wait a week, then turn the pile, adding new materials as a chopped-up mixture mix of food scraps and leaves.    
  • Remember the goal.  Diverting food scraps from trash makes home waste management much more efficient and less smelly, plus diverting organic matter from household trash turns valuable organic matter back into healthy soil to fertilize gardens the natural way.
A favorite book of the author’s. Photo by Compost Coyote.

Learn as you go and find out what works best for you as you help the planet.  

Dan Martens, UConn Master Composter

Phosphorus is one of the at least 18 essential nutrients that plants need to grow. Without phosphorus, a plant cannot complete its life cycle. In plants, the most important functions of phosphorus are energy storage and transfer, regulation of protein synthesis, roots development, seeds and fruits formation. Basically, phosphorus is important for every metabolic reaction in plants. Sufficient phosphorus availability can strengthen structural tissue such as wheat straw and tomato stems. When deficient in phosphorus, plants look stunted in growth, and often show an abnormal dark-green or reddish-purple color that first shows up in older leaves.

Reddish-purple color of canola P deficiency symptom that show up in older leaves first. Photo by Haiying Tao

The abnormal color normally shows up early in the spring and may disappear when weather warms up. Note that reddish-purple color of plant is not always an indicator of phosphorus deficiency. Other stresses, such as cold, insect, herbicide injury can also cause reddish-purple color. Some plant cultivars have been bred for purple or reddish foliage as well.   

Reddish-purple color of corn P deficiency symptom that show up in older leaves first. Photo by Haiying Tao

Plants take up phosphorus via the roots from soil. Native soils contain phosphorus but the amount of phosphorus that is available for plants varies from soil to soil. Application of fertilizers and soil amendments that contain phosphorus, return of grass clippings or other plant residue, like leaves or through compost, can also introduce phosphorus to the soil. To verify if your soil is sufficient in phosphorus for plants, you can send your soil samples to University of Connecticut Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory (UConn-SNAL) for testing. The lab provides guidance on how to take soil samples for phosphorus testing as well as collecting and shipping soils to the lab. Fertilizer and limestone recommendations are made based on soil test results as long as the crop is provided. Such information can be found at https://soiltest.uconn.edu/.

The functions of phosphorus in the plants cannot be replaced by any other nutrient. Therefore, if your soil test results indicate that your soil is deficient in phosphorus, you should apply fertilizers based on the recommendations provided by the UConn-SNAL. There are many types of phosphorus fertilizers available on the market, but they vary in their nutrient analysis depending on the source. This information would be found on the label of the containers or bags. It is important to read the label of the fertilizer that you purchased and calculate out the right amount of phosphorus to apply so that enough phosphorus will be available for plants but not overapplied. Excessive phosphorus application to soils can potentially cause phosphorus pollution to the environment. Phosphorus can be lost from the soil via leaching, subsurface runoff, and surface runoff. And the loss of phosphorus can increase dramatically if soil test values are higher than the soil’s capacity to hold on to this element.

Phosphorus is the number one source of inland freshwater pollution in Connecticut. Our native soils are low in phosphorus so any phosphorus entering water bodies comes from human activities – mostly overapplying this element whether through fertilizers, manure, composts, or other sources. Nutrient pollution is one of the most widespread, costly, and challenging problems in our environment. When phosphorus enters waterbodies, it supports fast growth of algae and other aquatic plants, to levels that exceed the capacity of our ecosystems to handle. The large growths of algae (called algal blooms) and other aquatic plants can cause degradation of ecosystem services of waterbodies, such as reduced water quality for recreation, unsafe drinking water quality, illness or killing of fish and other aquatic life.

Algal bloom in wetlands below athletic field in Amherst, MA. Photo by D. Pettinelli

For commercial or home garden crops, the best way to apply phosphorus fertilizers is to band (place) it close to the seeding or seedling row but not in the row. Phosphorus moves very slowly in the soil, which means only the phosphorus that is near roots will be taken up by plants. So, banding near the seeding row or next to transplants can ensure accessibility of phosphorus to the roots and can double the phosphorus use efficiency compared with just broadcasting phosphorus throughout the soil.

Avoid applying fertilizer along with seeds in the seed rows or in planting holes for transplants as the fertilizers may hinder germination and damage seedlings. For perennials, like lawns, perennial beds and shrub plantings, surface broadcast applications are most common. Since phosphorus legislation was passed in Connecticut around 2013, the use of fertilizers containing phosphorus on established lawns has been banned unless a soil test within the last two years recommends this element. Phosphorus can be used when seeding, sodding or over seeding lawns, however. For those unaware of the phosphorus legislation, please read ‘Your Lawn and the New Phosphorus Legislation ( https://soiltest.uconn.edu/documents/Phosphoruslawlawnstmclean.pdf)

If you have questions about phosphorus and lawn applications, feel free to contact the lab at (860) 486-4274.

Haiying Tao Ph. D, UConn Assistant Professor

Soil Fertility and Soil Health