November 2022


Despite the summer’s drought, this was a great growing season for sweet potatoes. While they are tropical plants and typically associated with being grown in more southern climates, many varieties do well here in New England. They are not related to potatoes but rather, morning glories.

Sweet potato flowers look like morning glories as they are part of that family. Photo by dmp2022.

Not only are sweet potatoes a highly nutritious vegetable, they are easy to grow with few pests in this area. Native to the Americas, sweet potatoes contain high levels of vitamins A and C along with supplying iron, potassium, and dietary fiber. An average sized sweet potato only has around 120 calories.

To harvest a good crop, sweet potatoes need a growing season of between 90 and 120 days depending on the variety. My favorite choice is ‘Beauregard’, which matures in 90 days so if we have a colder than average spring, there is still enough time for a sizeable harvest. ‘Georgia Jet’ in another variety that matures in 90 days and ‘Centennial’ in 100. ‘Bush Porto Rico’ takes a little longer to mature (110 days) but is a more compact variety for smaller gardens and containers. All of these varieties have dark orange flesh but for those looking for something different, sweet potatoes can be found with white, yellow and even purple flesh.

Rule number one when growing sweet potatoes is to give them enough room to run. Once the warm weather hits, the vigorous vines cover a sizeable area. I planted 12 slips in a 6 by 15-foot bed and they still rambled into neighboring beds and out into the lawn area.

Sweet potato vines escaping from the garden. Photo by dmp2022.

While potatoes are started with pieces of the actual tuber, sweet potatoes are started from slips, which are basically cuttings off a mother plant with a small amount of root and a few leaves. The sweet potatoes that we eat are the plant’s tuberous roots.

Sweet potato slip. Photo by dmp2022.

Being of southern origin, sweet potatoes can take the heat and even some drought and need to be grown in a sunny site with well-draining soil. If your soil is on the sandy side, so much the better as well-aerated soils promote the formation of more roots. I grow them in a slightly raised bed but have seen directions for creating small mounds to grow them in if your soil is rocky or compacted.

Not many garden centers carry edible sweet potato slips or plants so your best bet would be to order them from a seed/plant company online. Order early, like in January, to ensure you get the variety you want. A dozen slips will easily feed a family of four and usually that is the smallest amount one can order. When the slips come in, place them in a container of water for a day or two to hydrate them before planting.

Hopefully the arrival of your sweet potato slips will coincide with good planting weather. Ideally they should be planted 3 or 4 weeks after the last spring frost or when the soils warms up to 65 degrees F. I have held them for a week all together in a pot with some soilless media in a bright but not full sun window.

Plant the slips deep enough to cover the roots, usually 6 inches deep or so. Space plants about 30 inches apart to allow plenty of room for tuberous root formation. Plants could be watered in with a high phosphorus liquid fertilizer. Keep them moist for the first two weeks to ensure good root establishment. After that, water when the soil dries out and no rain is predicted. Avoid planting in soils that have recently had manure added. Do not overfertilize with nitrogen as plants may produce lots of foliage and not a lot of sweet potatoes.

Harvest after the frost starts to blacken the foliage. Cut back the vines and gingerly start digging with a trowel or small shovel about 18 inches from plant crowns. The crowns can be tugged upon and if the soil is loose, where the sweet potatoes are is often obvious and they can be removed from the soil.

Sweet potato foliage blackened by frost. Photo by dmp2022.

While some sources say not to wash them, this year with all the rain made them pretty muddy so I washed them off and set them in the sun to dry.

Fresh dug sweet potatoes covered with mud. Photo by dmp2022.

Try not to bruise them and store in a humid place around 55 degrees F. Curing at 80 degrees and high humidity for 10 days is suggested to improve storage but it is hard to find these conditions during a New England fall. I just let them dry and wipe off any soil that was clinging to them and store in a bin in my cool basement. My sweet potatoes really varied in sizes with some being quite large – probably just need one for a sweet potato pie.

Some huge sweet potatoes! Photo by dmp2022.

I learned my lesson in past years not to leave them in the ground too long after the frost kills back the vines. Voles and slugs also find sweet potatoes delectable and will start nibbling on them if not harvested in a timely fashion.

Portions of my sweet potatoes were feasted on by slugs or voles. Photo by dmp2022.

So if you are looking for something different to grow as you peruse 2023 seed/plant catalogs, why not try sweet potatoes. Except for some feeding damage on the potatoes, I did not have any other insect or disease problems. After they were established, I just mulched and did not add any additional water this year and got quite a good size harvest, despite the summer’s drought.  

Dawn P.

Cover cropping is becoming a practice used by many farmers for its benefits to soil health and sustainable agriculture. Cover crops are crops that are commonly planted after the primary cash crop is harvested in order to avoid periods of bare soil. Sometimes cover crops are planted before the cash crop harvest to extend the growing season for the cover crops. Cover crops offer several important ecosystem services, as well as improved yield and quality of subsequent crops. There are many different crops that are used as cover crops and each type offers their own strengths. Specific cover crops can be grown alone or can be grown in mixtures to gain maximum benefits, as well as shape the mixture to the specific needs of the agricultural system. Legumes, such as clovers and vetch, are known for their association with nitrogen-fixing microorganisms and their ability to increase soil organic matter. Grasses, such as ryegrass, barley, and cereal rye, are well known for their ability to prevent erosion, suppress weeds, and capture residual nutrients. Brassicas, such as canola, rapeseed, daikon radish, turnips, and mustards, are commonly implemented as cover crops for their benefits in erosion control, weeds suppression, water conservation. In addition, their deep and strong taproots can alleviate soil compaction and take up nutrients deep in the soil profile that the cash crops left behind.

Mixture of cereal rye and dailon radish. Photo by Nora Doonan, UConn

Cover cropping is a useful tool for preventing the leaching of nutrients because pf their ability to take up the residual nutrients. Non-legume cover crops, like grasses and brassicas, are commonly used to withdraw nutrients from the soil to be used for biomass that would otherwise be susceptible to leaching. Mixtures of legume and non-legume cover crops are a great method for both supplying the soil with nitrogen through biological N fixation by legumes and the capturing of that nitrogen by non-legumes. After the cover crops are terminated, the residue will decompose overtime and some of the nutrients will be released becoming available for subsequent cash crops.

Growing cover crops can increase soil organic carbon. Soil is one of the major reserves of carbon on land. Using cover crops for their benefits in carbon sequestration can help to mitigate climate change by removing excess CO2 from the atmosphere via photosynthesis. The rate and amount of carbon accumulation in soil from cover crops depend on several factors, such as cover crop biomass production, the number of years in which cover crops have been implemented into the system, tillage practices, the species of cover crop, initial soil organic carbon, climate, etc. In order to enhance the potential of cover crops to sequester carbon, biomass production is one of the most important factors. It is necessary to ensure that the cover crops have maximum number of growing days possible. This can be achieved by planting your cover crops immediately after cash crop harvest and terminating cover crop late or at the subsequent crops’ planting. Another practice related to biomass would be to interseed cover crops with standing crops.

Single species of cereal rye in fall. Photo by Nora Doonan, UConn

There are a few methods commonly used for cover crop termination, including natural winter kill, chemical termination, incorporation, burning and mechanical termination (such as rolling/crimping). Cover crops may also be grazed or harvested as silage. When rolling/crimping method is used, it is important that the cover crops are terminated at the right growing stage because it impacts the efficiency of killing the cover crops. For example, more than 90% rye was killed if terminated at milk stage compared with 20% rye kill if terminated at flag leaf stage, three weeks after rolling/crimping. Regrowth can occur if mowing in early growth stages. Herbicide termination is more flexible in terms of when the cover crops can be terminated. Burning can cause loss of carbon, nutrients, and turn soil surface to be hydrophobic.

Cover cropping, specifically multi-species mixtures, are an excellent method for increasing agroecosystem diversity, which serves many benefits in weed and pest management and nitrogen retention. Whether grown as a single species stand or in polyculture, it is clear that cover crops can be used as a tool to achieve specific goals necessary for promoting soil health.

Home gardeners can practice cover cropping on a smaller scale. Winter rye, buckwheat, oats, beans, peas and some alfalfa species can be planted before, during or after harvest depending on the purpose of the cover crop.

Nora Doonan, Graduate Research Assistant, University of Connecticut

For many gardeners, dahlias are the superstars of the garden. Big, beautiful, long-blooming, and rich in a rainbow of colors, dahlias make summer to fall a colorful ball. And with just a little special care, the dahlias that made this summer special can come back next year to do an even better job.

Dahlias by Marie Woodward

Proper winter care of the tuberous roots of dahlias (which for this blog we will just refer to as tubers) will determine their success in the growing season. With careful preparation and regular vigilance, gardeners can enjoy this year’s dahlias for many years to come. Just follow these sometimes surprising instructions:

First, don’t dig up dahlia tubers until after a killing frost. Tubers can be left in the ground from a few days up to a few weeks after the frost as long as the ground itself doesn’t freeze. The longer you leave the tubers in the ground the larger the eyes (growth buds) will swell, making the plant’s tubers easier to divide. A good indicator it’s tuberous root digging time is when the flowers die and turn brown. 

Dahlias blackened by frost. Photo: The Martha Blog

When you are ready to dig up the tubers (they’ll be in clumps), use a pruner or lopper, and cut the plant’s stem to about 4 inches above the ground. The stem will serve as a handle to help lift the tubers out of the soil. Next, using a long shovel or garden fork, (the latter is preferred), dig a circle around the plant about one foot away from the stem. Dig deep, and gently lift the tubers up to the surface from below the plant. If you had stuck labels in the ground when planting dahlias, be sure to keep the label with the roots so you know what you are planting where next year.

Holding the stem, shake any loose soil off the tuber clumps. Then rinse them gently with water. (A clean tuber is a happy tuber.) This can be done with a garden hose or in utility sink. Leave the tubers to dry, but for no more than 24 hrs. Caution; Don’t let them dry to the point of wrinkling (a sign of dehydration) which could cause damage to the tuber. Also don’t leave them to dry outside in freezing weather.

After they dry, carefully inspect each tuber clump. Trim any roots growing from the end of the tubers. If one or more tubers in a clump are damaged or show signs of rot and cut the affected tubers off. Such damaged tubers can spread rot to other tubers. (think of that one bad apple – thanks, Osmond Brothers).  

Once the clumps are dry and inspected, cut the stem (your former handle) low enough so it’s not hollow and make sure it’s free of any rot.

At this point you must make a decision. Some gardeners like to divide tubers in the fall (to increase the number of dahlias they have) because they are easier to cut. However, it’s hard to see the “eyes”- the swelling that shows where next year’s growth will come from – in the fall. A tuber without an eye will never flower That’s why other gardeners prefer to wait till spring to divide their tubers when the eyes are swollen. The plant is more difficult to divide after winter hardening, but in spring the eyes are easier to see. 

Whichever you decide, carefully consider the pros and cons of each approach.

After the tubers are dug out, rinsed off, dried, and inspected (and perhaps divided), it’s time to make a nice bed for them to sleep in through the winter. Almost any non-plastic container will do so long as it’s not airtight.  Plastic containers are not a good choice because they won’t provide circulation. Cardboard boxes or a crate will do just fine. 

Dahlias tucked in for the winter. Photo: Dahlias.com

Line the bottom and sides of the box or crate with about 8-12 layers of newspaper. (Burlap is another good choice if newspaper is difficult to come by.) Then, choose a medium to nest the tubers in. Freshly purchased peat moss, pine shavings, or coarse vermiculite are all good choices. The American Dahlia Society even suggests wrapping tubers in saran wrap:  https://www.dahlia.org/docsinfo/articles/no-fuss-store-your-tubers-in-plastic-wrap/

No matter what medium you choose, it’s critical that it be moist without being wet. A five-gallon bucket of vermiculite mixed with one cup of water, for example, will give tubers an ideal moisture content for storage 

Line the bottom of the box with medium and nest the tubers or clumps of tubers in the mix, giving them plenty of space between each clump. If the box is deep enough, you can layer the clumps but, make sure you have plenty of medium between the layers. Next, cover the tuber layers with the medium, and cover the medium with paper bags to keep light out. Store tubers on a shelf in an area with a temperature between 40-50 degrees.  It’s very important not to let the tubers freeze. Freezing will destroy them.

 Also, DO NOT store tuber boxes or crates on cement. Cement will draw moisture out of the medium and dehydrate the tubers. Check your tubers about once a month. If they show any sign of shriveling, spray the clumps and medium lightly with water and keep an eye on the temperature. One trick to help monitor temperature is to keep a spray bottle next to the tuber box. If the bottle shows signs of frost crystallizing, move the box to a warmer area. You can also monitor temperature using a remote wireless thermometer. Keep your dahlias dry, unfrozen, and in the dark till spring, and you’ll be ready for a dahlia explosion in the summer to come. The process of preparing dahlias for winter is not hard. It just requires more steps to ensure success for the next growing season. I’m sure, like me, you will find the reward of seeing your dahlias blooming happily in the garden well worth the winter effort. 

Marie Woodward

“The leaves fall, the wind blows, and the farm country slowly changes from the summer cotton into its winter wools” 

– Henry Beston

Travelling around the Connecticut landscape in the fall is full of colors, interesting buildings, signs that the growing season is coming to a close and, quite often, little surprises that can make crabapples smile. For instance, driving along country roads, you may see example of a whimsical trend where dead branches and tree trunks are used as “sculptures”.  One is even incorporated into use as a mailbox holder.

Leaves are turning and oaks are just about the only trees with leaves now. While perhaps not as colorful as maples, aspens, birch and other tree leaves, oak leaves offer a last look at autumn leaf color. Gingko trees also hold their bright yellow, fan-shaped leaves into November.

Oak leaves over a woodland pond
Fall color of a gingko on the UConn Campus

A local sand and gravel company is the home to bank swallows, who excavate holes in the exposed sand banks to use as nesting chambers. Every year the bank is dug into by machinery, leaving a fresh canvas for these birds. Holes resemble New Mexican pueblo structures, in a way.

Barn swallow excavations in a sand bank

Fields are mostly harvested by now, with some winter squash and pumpkins left behind until needed. As long as the stems are left intact, they can last a while longer in the cold before they rot or become deer chow.

This summer was one of drought and heat conditions that extended into early September. In late October parts of the state had heavy rainfalls of 3-5 inches, though, so some relief came. Two days after those rains, the Housatonic River was raging, as were the waterfalls at Kent Falls, and the waters shooting through the gorge near Bull’s Bridge. Both of these places are along Route 7 in Kent.

Covered bridge in West Cornwall
Triple waterfalls at Kent Falls
Raging water through the gorge just above Bull’s Bridge

Beavers are active all year, and my sister and I recently found a lot of small river and sweet birch felled by one of theses animals along the Scantic River. Birch and aspen are favorites of beavers because they can easily gnaw off the thin bark on saplings and young trees and eat it.

Beaver has gnawed bark off this small birch tree

A visit to Diana’s Pool in Chaplin was a first for me, and, like General MacArthur,  I will return. The trail along the Natchaug River is not hard to hike, and the pool formed by large boulders that trap the water is quite large. There are two sets of waterfalls along the trail.

View along the Natchaug River- Diana’s Pool- in Chaplin
Diana’s Pool

A large, stacked tooth fungus has interested me enough to revisit the old sugar maple where this large parasitic fungus has made its home in recent years. It takes a full season for it to reach its mature size, pushing its fruiting bodies outside the cavity where the fungal body makes its living. By fall, the teeth of this fungus are ready to release their spores.

Stacked tooth fungus fills a hole in a sugar maple where it originates from

Around East Windsor, Broad Brook and Enfield there are many farms, tobacco barns, old tree nurseries and horse stables. There is a place where old trains seem to be collected and left right on old tracks in a boneyard of sorts near a small grain elevator that still receives deliveries from newer trains. An old, retired engine has a spiffy rounded roof over the cab.

Old train in the boneyard

Weathervane on the roof of Coventry Library is the replica of the library
Barn on the way to the Cornwall Covered bridge

Autumn will gradually fade away into the sunset and winter will arrive with all that cold and snow that defines its season. Until then, I am looking forward to getting the most out of my November ramblings. I am of the same mind as whoever said this (credited to Unknown, so it could be any of us!)

“A September to remember. An October full of splendor. A November to treasure”

 

Pamm Cooper

This spicebush swallowtail caterpillar needs to hurry up and pupate before leaves are all gone

Deep in the mountains of the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, Norway, lies a massive vault of ice and stone. An international treasure lies inside—seeds of over 1 million varieties of 4000 essential food crops. The Svalbard seed vault, named after the Svalbard archipelago that includes the island of Spitsbergen, was constructed in 2008 to preserve unique local crop varieties in the event of large-scale disasters. The seeds are stored at a frosty -18°C to maintain their viability for decades to thousands of years. 

The Svalbard Seed Vault. credit: regjeringen.no 

In our changing climate, preservation of local crop varieties will become more and more important for maintaining food security, since these varieties are often well suited to stressful growing conditions. In contrast, GMOs and other commercially produced seeds are not well adapted to all areas where they are grown and may require more fertilizer and water. With optimal water, fertilizer, and sunlight, commercial varieties have very high yields, but in stressful environments they can have lower yields than local varieties. Climate change will threaten the viability of commercial varieties as growing conditions become more extreme, with an increase in floods, droughts, or extreme heat predicted in many regions. Meanwhile, some local varieties may better withstand these stressful conditions, so it is valuable to save their seeds for the future.   

Gardeners can participate in preserving local varieties by saving their own seeds instead of buying new each year from large seed companies. In the US, many commercial seeds are grown on the West Coast, where growing conditions are very different from here. So why are CT farmers and gardeners growing crops best suited to another region?  

This concept was introduced to me during a visit to Assawaga Farm in Putnam, CT. The owners, Yoko and Alex, explained how saving seeds for even one generation can result in better yields than the commercially grown seeds of the same variety. Their saved seeds were more tolerant to stressful growing conditions, such as limited water and fertilizer, than the original crop. Over multiple generations, growers can also select for more specific traits, such as color or flavor. 

When choosing crop varieties to save seeds from, growers must be careful to use only open-pollinated or heirloom varieties, which are open-pollinated varieties that have been around for decades. Open-pollinated crops are those that ‘breed true’ each generation, meaning the offspring they produce will resemble the parent plant.  In contrast, hybrid crops do not produce offspring that resemble the parent plant (or they don’t produce viable seeds at all), so they cannot be used for seed saving.  

Be sure to check your seed packets for whether your crop is an open-pollinated, heirloom, or hybrid variety. credit: Len Schott

Looking for local heirloom varieties to get started with? Try contacting your public library—many have small seed libraries where seeds can be ‘checked out’ or donated. 

While the methods for seed saving vary, there are some common instructions that apply to all crops: (i) only save seeds from the largest, tastiest, healthiest plants, (ii) allow seeds to dry fully before storing, and (iii) store seeds in cool, dry conditions. Beyond this, the techniques for seed saving depend on the characteristics of the crop being grown. Some crops are very simple, while others require very specific methods to produce viable seeds. 

As a novice seed saver, the crops that I’ve had the most success with are arugula and marigolds (and garlic, which isn’t a seed but is still an easy crop to propagate).  

Photo credit: Len Schott, UConn

Mature, dry seed pods of arugula (left) and marigold (right). credits: graduallygreener.wordpress.com and ohapricity.com 

For arugula and marigolds, wait for the seed pod to mature on the plant; you can tell it is matured when it becomes brown and dry. Peel the seeds out of the pod and store them in a paper envelope to use for next year. For garlic, save the largest cloves to replant in late fall or early spring. Winter squash seeds are also easy to save (so long as you can resist roasting and eating them…). The seeds inside of a ripe winter squash are already mature and only need to be dried. 

Some difficult crops for seed saving include tomato and cucumber seeds. Both require fermentation before the seeds are viable, to replicate the natural processes that occur in rotting fruits. Fermentation removes germination-inhibiting substances from the outside of seed. Saving seeds from summer cucurbits (zucchini, cucumbers, pattypan squash) also requires that you leave the fruit on the vine to become overripe. Unlike winter squash, they are eaten as immature fruits and must be left longer on the vine for seeds to fully develop. 

Biennial crops, such as onions, broccoli, and carrot, are also tricky to save seeds from, since they don’t produce seeds until thier second year. In the meantime, the plants take up valuable space in the garden and risk not surviving the long, cold Connecticut winter. 

Once you’ve successfully saved seeds from your garden, consider using a hot water seed treatment to eradicate pathogens that may be infesting your seeds. Hot water treatments give your seedling a strong start and may prevent infections of these pathogens during the growing season. However, hot water treatments cannot be done on large seeds, such as peas, cucumbers, and corn, since eradicating pathogens from them would also harm the seed. The UConn Plant Diagnostic Lab offers hot water seed treatments for over 25 common vegetable and herb crops, and the UConn Home & Garden Education Center can provide free horticultural solutions. For more information, please contact us by emailing ladybug@uconn.edu

Len Schott