July 2022

On a recent visit with my cousin in New York (also a writer), she brought me for a stroll along the High Line, an old railroad line repurposed as a city green space in the city. I had read about it in several gardening magazines but none of the pictures in the articles or even in this blog do it justice. If you have the chance, go walk it yourself. In this major city of almost 19 million people, you can feel like you’re strolling in the woods, through a prairie and even in a water park. The design is clever, aesthetically pleasing, and practical – all at the same time.

One can see the Hudson River from the High Line. Photo by dmp2022.

First a little history. During the mid to late 1800s, freight trains delivering food ran on street level while creating dangerous conditions for pedestrians with some 540 people being killed by them. Despite attempts to warn folks of oncoming trains, it was decided to elevate the tracks in the 1930s. With the rise of trucking in the 1960s, train service was put on the sidetracks, so to speak, and some of the sections of elevated track stopped being used and were even demolished. By the 1980s, trains were no longer using these tracks and calls for their demolition were being heard.

In 1983, an idea for reuse of this structure first took hold as Chelsea resident, Peter Obletz, formed the West Side Rail Line Development Foundation that sought to preserve this structure. As fortune would have it, a bipartisan Congress pass the Trail System Act, which allowed for old rail lines to be converted into recreational areas.

Old railroad tracks are still visible in along the High Line. Photo by dmp2022.

For the next couple of decades, the future of the elevated railroad tracks was debatable, even dubious. Some areas of track were still being demolished. Even former mayor, Guiliani, called for their demolition. But some noticed a change in the landscape; these abandoned tracks were being colonized by native (and other adventitious) plants providing homes for themselves as well as the pollinators, predators and other wildlife. Among those who were credited with this discovery were Joshua David and Robert Hammond who founded Friends of the High Line, a non-profit conservancy that advocated for its preservation and reuse as a public space. 

In 2003, this organization hosted an ideas competition for ways this ‘park’ could be used and received 720 ideas from 36 countries. The finalists were landscape architecture firm James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf, whose mission was to transform the High Line into a welcoming public space. The first section of the High Line was opened to the public in 2009 and the last spur section in 2019. The High Line is now a 1.45 mile-long greenway featuring more than 500 species of plants.

The plantings on the High Line were predominantly inspired by the self-seeded landscape that predominated between abandonment and human reintervention. Plants that were chosen because of their qualities of hardiness, seasonality, texture and sustainability. Piet Oudolf, the landscape designer claimed, “My biggest inspiration is nature. I do not want to copy it, but recreate the emotion.”

It is quite amazing how natural the plantings look and fit into their citified surroundings. Plantings vary from the Washington Grasslands and Woodland Edge with its great patches of native grasses and prairie perennials like echinacea and my favorite, the compass plant (Silphium laciniatum). The bright gold flowers resemble sunflowers and open in midsummer on stalk that can grow 6 to 10 feet tall. I thought it was called the compass plant because the flowers seem to be facing the sun but after doing a little research, I found it’s name is from the belief that the deeply-lobed leaves point in a north-south direction, which is true some but not all of the time.

Compass plant. Photo by dmp2022.

If I didn’t have socks on, I too would have dipped by toes in the water feature on the Diller – von Furstenberg Sundeck. The water just ran over a shallow stone-like base. Even the pigeons, tried to get into the water to drink and cool down on a hot, sunny day. Especially interesting were the wetland plants growing in the raised steel planters. I loved the giant horsetail (Equisetum hyemale).   

This pigeon was enjoying the water as much as human travelers. Photo by dmp2022.
Giant horsetail. Photo by dmp2022.

Another wonderful section is the Donald Pels and Wendy Keys Gansevoort Woodland. This area is filled with shadbush and grey birch trees with underplantings of various perennials including variegated brunnera that lights up the shade. A magnolia with its seed pods caught my eye but when trying to identify which species it is, I am not sure as the seed pods look bigger and shaped differently than the three magnolia species on the plant list, the bigleaf magnolia, the umbrella tree and the sweet bay magnolia. Quite a magnificent plant, however.

Not sure which magnolia this is but the seed pod sure is interesting and the leaves are huge. Photo by dmp2022.

The High Line takes you on an almost magical walk through a variety of natural scenes amidst its urban surroundings. It really makes everyone who wanders down its pathways appreciate the goodness and the greenness of this world.

Dawn P.

Nothing inspires awe and good cheer like a dahlia. Native to Mexico and Central America, the dahlia is a member of the Asteraceae family. Its garden relatives include the sunflower, daisy, chrysanthemum, and zinnia. They are gorgeous flowers that bloom from midsummer through autumn and come in a rainbow of colors.  Dahlias’ size can range from petite 2-inch pompoms to giant 15-inch “dinner plates”. Many varieties reach 4 to 5 feet tall. They do best in rich, well-draining soil with a pH level of 6.0 to 7.5. 

Beautiful dahlia flowers by Marie Woodward, UConn

Dahlias can bring color to any garden, and dwarf varieties can be grown successfully in containers. Of course, they simply rule supreme in a cutting garden. (Growing vegetables? Put a row of dahlias on the border, where they will not shade your edibles.)

Dahlias are hardy to zone 8 and will survive in warmer climates if cut back and mulched heavily.  In colder zones, like Connecticut, dahlias can either be treated as annuals or dug up after the first frost and stored indoors for winter.  Dahlia tubers don’t like cold soil. They prefer a soil temperature of 60 degrees. A good rule of thumb many gardeners use is to plant dahlia tubers a few days after tomatoes are planted in the ground.  Some gardeners start tubers indoors in containers a month ahead to get a jump on the season.

Tuberous root of dahlia before planting. Photo by dmp2009.

To get the most blooms from dahlias and for a plant with a more bushy and rounded shape, it’s recommended that dahlias get “topped” when the plant gets to about 18 to 20 inches tall.  Topping means pruning the main stalk or trunk of the plant back to the third or fourth set of leaves. Even if there is a bud present at the top of the plant, it still needs to be removed, something some gardeners find hard to do especially after going through the effort of planting the tubers and waiting with anticipation for blooms to appear. But, doing this step will stop the main trunk of the plant from growing upward, encouraging the plant to develop lateral stems, making it a fuller, rounder shaped plant that is more stable and aesthetically more pleasing to the eye. And, of course, it will encourage more blooms.

When topping dahlias, one can use fingers and pinch the stem, use a knife, or a pair of small secateurs.  Location of the cut is important. Dahlias have sets of leaves that create a layer around the plant. The cut should be made above the third or fourth set of leaves from the bottom.

Use pruners or a sharp knife to make your cut. Photo by Marie Woodward.

It’s recommended that all dahlias that will grow to maturity above three feet get topped at the beginning of the growing season. Dahlias that don’t reach that mature height don’t need topping.  These dwarf varieties of dahlias will naturally produce lateral stems on their own. 

Some dahlias develop more than one stalk. This means the tuber has more than one eye on the tuber. Some dahlia growers believe that it is best not to have more than two stalks per plant. In any plant with more than two stalks, the extra stalks should be pruned down to the soil leaving only one or two main stalks. 

The most important thing to remember when topping dahlias is to watch the weather. Topping should not be done if there is a heavy rain in the forecast. Avoid watering dahlias heavily after topping, too. Why? because the main stalk on dahlias is hollow. If water gets into the stalk, this can cause the plant to rot. If water is present in the stalk, the dahlia will start to show signs of wilting. To fix this, take a clean sewing needle or pin and prick a hole on the side of the stalk to see if water runs out of the stalk. Then allow it to drain.

Stake dahlias or grow through wire mesh to keep top heaving plants from toppling over. Photo by Marie Woodward.

Topping dahlias, though counterintuitive to some, should be viewed as a “one step back, two steps forward” approach. It will benefit your dahlias, rewarding you with fuller, healthier plants with an abundance of blooms to enjoy from mid-summer to the first hard frost. And who wouldn’t want that?

Marie Woodward

“Nature is not a place to visit, it is home.”   
–  Gary Snyder

July is just the beginning of what I consider the most interesting part of the year, nature-wise. Birds have fledged a first brood, insects are abounding and plants are showing off their colorful flowers and fruits. Many turtles have laid their eggs, the majority of tadpole species have become frogs and brush foot butterflies are heading into a second breeding phase. AT my property. there are so many tiny toads and wood frogs, I could win a dance contest trying not to step on them.

Day old leaf-footed bug

Canada lilies, Lilium canadense, a native wildflower pollinated by ruby-throated hummingbirds, blooms at the same time as the native wood lilies Lilium philadelphicum. Both species can be found near woodland edges. Swamp candles are wetland plants with whorled panicles of yellow star-like flowers with red centers. Often they form large stands on wetland edges.

Canada Lily
Swamp Candle Flowers

Eastern wood pewees are medium sized flycatchers related to phoebes. They sit and wait for insects to fly, and then catch them in the air. One was recently following me as I mowed, swooping out to catch whatever moths were stirred up by the mower. Barn swallows will follow mowing equipment as well.

Eastern Wood Pewee

One insect that always is fun to find is the tiny partridge scolops planthopper Scolops sulcipes. In all stages, it has a protuberance on its head that looks like a horn. In adults, it is curved upward. Found in grassy areas with goldenrods, not a lot is known about this insect. Wing venation in adults has striking patterning.

Partridge Scolops Nymph

Blueberries are ripening, and there are plenty of them on many power line right-of-ways, along with native huckleberries. Recently, a female calico pennant dragonfly took a break and rested on some blueberries.

There is always something unusual to find- the excitement never ends, as my nephew once said- and this July has been no different. There was a mass of some type of insect eggs, perhaps a tree hopper, that had perfect little exit holes where the insects had hatched.

Egg Mass Perhaps of a Tree Hopper

Cleft-headed loopers are named for their cleft head, and they always remind me of kitty cat ears. Its moth is the famous peppered moth, which has been written about in textbooks throughout the world due to color variations that enable it to camouflage itself by day.

Cleft-headed Looper- Head on Left
Head of the Cleft-headed Looper

Butterflies have not been especially abundant so far, but the diminutive American coppers seem to be everywhere. The caterpillars are seldom seen, but may be found by looking carefully on their host plants- sheep sorrel or curled dock near where the adults are spotted..

American Copper on a Grass Seed Head

The slender long- horned flower beetle, Strangalia famelica can be seen on flowers obtaining pollen and nectar throughout the summer. There are many other species of flower beetles that look similar and also use flowers as a food source.

Strangalia famelica beetle

This year there have been quite a few walking sticks in varied habitats. Usually found on woody plants, two were in grassy areas with lots of forbs but no woody plants. Wonder what they were eating…

Early Instar Walking Stick

There are a lot more things of interest to discover as the summer progresses. Caterpillars tend to be larger and more colorful and interesting as foliage becomes mature. Fruits and seeds will attract lots of birds, sunrises and sunsets provide more color and interest than most television shows and perhaps all of us will be delighted by something new that we find that is not in a store. As Helen Keller noted “To me a lush carpet of pine needles or spongy grass is more welcome than the most luxurious Persian rug.”

Pamm Cooper

July Sunrise

Conifers are cone-bearing plants in the taxonomic clade Gymnospermae. Cedars, firs, hemlocks, junipers, larches, redwoods, spruces, and yews all belong to this ancient and noble group. Though less diverse than their angiosperm counterparts, gymnosperms are just as important ecologically. They provide homes and food for countless organisms, capture vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, and happen to make beautiful additions to managed landscapes.

Sequoia sempervirens, the coastal redwood, is an incredibly long-lived conifer (with many specimens exceeding 1,000 years in age) and the tallest species of tree. Photo credit – Nick Goltz, DPM.

Though conifers can serve countless roles in the landscape – from privacy screens, to topiaries, to majestic specimens, they are not without their fair share of pests, diseases and abiotic pitfalls. Here are a few such things to be on the lookout for as you maintain the health of your conifers (or consider planting one).

Like all plants, conifer species have their unique preferences for environmental conditions.  While some cedar and cypress species tolerate wet soils well, many others do not. Some popular ornamentals that hate “wet feet” (soggy soil conditions that lead to root damage) include arborvitae, yews, and many pine species. Winter damage, drought, and genetic issues also frequently impact conifers.

Many “dwarf” varieties originally began as “witches’ brooms” selected and isolated from specimens of their full-sized counterparts with a genetic abnormality. The opposite scenario may also occur, where dwarf varieties spontaneously grow “full-sized” branches. When either occurs unwanted on a managed plant, simply prune away the affected branches and monitor carefully.

Sometimes, dwarf varieties can display genetic “reversions” where non-dwarf branches begin to grow. Photo credit – Nick Goltz, DPM.

Sometimes, witches’ brooms can develop following heavy mite infestations. Besides mites, pines are susceptible to insect damage, including from scales, boring beetles, and bagworms. These pests can cause needle yellowing, defoliation, and sometimes vascular damage, girdling, and death.  Severe insect infestations may lead to increased susceptibility to various diseases and warrant management including insecticide applications.

Adult bagworm females (possibly the evergreen bagworm, Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis) are a common pest of conifers in New England. Photo credit – Nick Goltz, DPM.

Some of the more widespread and damaging diseases of conifers include root-rot diseases caused by oomycetes and fungi including Pythium, Phytophthora, and Fusarium. Others of significance include needle and tip blight diseases caused by fungi from the genera Pestalotiopsis, Mycosphaerella, Phomopsis, and others.

If you have branches browning mysteriously, consider the environmental conditions your plant is experiencing! If too much and too little water isn’t an issue, and you haven’t noticed any insect or mite pests, have your plant examined by a plant pathologist to see if diseases could be affecting your plant. Contact the UConn Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu to discuss your plant’s health and inquire about submitting a sample to the UConn Plant Diagnostic Laboratory.