Environment


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Cedar waxwings on a crab apple in winter

“He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter.”
-John Burroughs

 

Winter is a good time to get out and about as weather and gumption allow. Depending on where you go, there can be interesting things to see, and there no lack of books or other resources to help you learn about whatever you find. I like the shore and the woods in winter, especially on sunny days.

Ring-necked ducks can be found in small ponds or flooded fields during the winter. These small ducks dive to for mollusks, vegetation and invertebrates, and may be seen in small groups or in pairs. Males are more dapper than females, having a glossy dark head with a purple sheen, black chest and back and silvery sides. The bill is boldly patterned with a white ring near the dark tip and a base outlined with white.

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Male ring-necked duck

Another small duck that overwinters along the Connecticut coastline is the ruddy duck. They can be found in coastal estuaries and brackish rivers and streams near their entrances to the Sound. Males congregate in small to large in large flocks resting on the water during the day, heads tucked under a wing. Tails may jut nearly strait up and males have blue bills and a contrasting white cheek patch. More cute than handsome, they are also a diving duck.

Another bird that may overwinter here as long as food is available, is the red- breasted nuthatch. This cousin to the white-breasted is mainly found in coniferous woods or patches of pines, spruce, hemlocks or larches. They have black and white striped heads, slate-blue wings and back and reddish underparts. They sound similar to the white-breasted nuthatch, but their voice is more nasal and often more repetitive. They creep up and down trunks and branches probing bark for food, and may visit suet feeders.

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Red breasted nuthatch

Winter is a great time to look for any bird’s nests that still remain in deciduous trees and shrubs. Baltimore oriole nests are probably the easiest to identify as they hang down from moderately high branch tips, and often are decorated with purple or orange ribbons. Birds are often very particular as to what materials they will use- dog or horse hair, lichens and mosses, grasses etc. Cattail or cottonwood down is a must for yellow warblers and American goldfinches. I am lucky to have found two ruby-throated hummingbird nests, tightly woven tiny cups constructed of spider webs with lichens decorating the sides.

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Nest made of grapevine bark and colored trash- possibly a catbird nest

If you have bird house, especially for bluebirds, make sure to clean them out by early March, as bluebirds start staking out a suitable nesting sites early. They will use old woodpecker holes, high or low in the tree trunk, in the woods or on the wood line. Just be sure to have no perch below the nesting box hole as bluebirds like to cling to the hole while feeding their young and seldom use a house with a perch.

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Male bluebird on nesting box

Fireflies have been out during the warmer, sunnier days of winter. Check out the sunny sides of tree trunks. Another insect that may be out on warm days is the Mourning Cloak butterfly. These butterflies overwinter in tree bark crevices, sheds, tree cavities or anywhere else they can escape winter winds and snows. They may be encountered flying around the woods on sunny, warm winter days.

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Fireflies on a sunny tree trunk during January

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Mourning cloak butterfly

Just before sunset, check out the surrounding trees for a characteristic orange glow. Caused by clear skies to our west and the scattering of blue light, houses and trees can reflect the bright winter oranges as you look toward the east. Lasting only a few minutes, if that, it is one of the winter highlights for me.

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Pre-dusk winter glow

This winter, many paper wasp nests were unusually small. Not sure what to make of that, except maybe the wasps had a lack of food, or were out too late last January and were not able to acclimate properly to the sudden cold. As for snow, so far not much to speak of in my part of the state. But I’ll take the rain over the snow as long as the ground isn’t frozen. While snow can be pretty, I simply don’t miss this ….

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Winter 2010

Pamm Cooper         all photos copyright 2017 Pamm Cooper

 

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Bag of Lime

Many Connecticut residents spread limestone on their garden beds and lawn as an annual ritual. Why do we do this? Some do it because their parents did it, or the guy at the garden center told them to and sold them the limestone. How much should be purchased and applied is another mystery to most. The real answers of limestone’s why, how much and when lies in the science of soil.

Soil is made up of sand, silt, and clay. The percentage of each of these three determine the soil’s texture, which will determine how the water will move through it, or hold on to moisture. More clay equals wetter soils; more sand, better drainage. The sand, silt and clay are tiny pieces of rock, broken off of bigger pieces over much time by weathering. The rocks that makes up much of Connecticut has a naturally low pH in the 4.5 to 5.5 range. Other areas of the country and world have different rocks with different pH ranges. Acid rain falling onto the ground lowers pH levels, as does the action of organic matter decomposing which produces organic acids. Even the normal function of respiration by plants mixing oxygen and water together produces carbonic acid in the soil. More acid equals lower pH. No wonder why we need to test, monitor and fight the natural tendency of our soil to stay in a low pH range.

Most plants we want to grow require a pH range of 6 to 7. This means we have to change the pH to grow plants like grass, tomatoes, peppers, squash or garlic by adding limestone which raises the pH level. The only plants consistently happy with our native range are native plants! They have evolved in the local soil. This is why blueberries, oak trees and mountain laurel fill our forests and wild areas. Pines are another tree preferring our lower pH.

Why do the grass and vegetables prefer the 6 to 7 pH range? Because more of the nutrients that these species of plants need are available when the soil pH is in that range. The easiest way to think of pH is it is a measurement of the amount of hydrogen ions in the soil. The more hydrogen ions, the more acidic the soil is. The pH of the soil affects the availability of all plant nutrients. Just as plants have ideal moisture and light requirements, they have a preferred pH range as well.

The pH range numbers 0 to 14. The middle is neutral at 7. Pure water has a pH of 7. 0 is acid or bitter; 14 is alkaline or sweet. Old time farmers used to taste the soil to determine if it was bitter (acid, low) or sweet (high, alkaline). I am glad we have pH meters and laboratory soil testing equipment now!

0_________________________________________7_____________________________________14 Acid (Bitter)                                                                           Neutral                                                                  Alkaline (Sweet)

Soil pH levels also affect other life in the soil such as insects, worms, fungi and bacteria. The soil is alive with more than just plants. It is an entire ecosystem sustaining many life forms all interacting with each other. The pH level is probably the most important place to start when trying to provide the best environment for whatever plants you are growing.

Have your soil tested for pH and nutrient levels at the UConn Soil Nutrient Laboratory www.soiltest.uconn.edu. Have the $12.00 basic test for Home Grounds and Landscapers done. Forms and directions are on the website. We will be offering free pH only tests at the CT Flower Show February 23-26, 2017. A half cup of soil is needed. If you don’t have snow covering your ground now, go gather some soil now and hold it until the show. Once you know the pH of your soil, we can tell you how much limestone to apply in the spring. Fall is the best time to put down lime as it needs about six months to fully react and change the soil pH. Never put limestone down on frozen or snow-covered soil to avoid it running off to areas you didn’t intend to lime, like the storm drain. Limestone will not soak into frozen soil.

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pH Meter

-Carol Quish

 

If you could pick a superpower what would you choose? Extraordinary strength? Extrasensory perception? Exceptional intelligence? How about the ability to predict the future?  Or at least the weather? It would be so much easier to plan and plant a garden each year if we only knew what the growing season had in store. Is it going to be a very long, cold, and wet spring with a frost at the end of May? Then the warm weather crops shouldn’t go into the ground until the start of June when the soil will be warm and dry enough to encourage germination of seeds such as beans which do not like cold, wet feet. Will a lack of precipitation stunt plant growth and require more supplemental watering than usual?

It’s no surprise to anyone at this point that Connecticut is experiencing drought conditions that range from abnormally dry to extreme drought conditions in the western part of the state according to the USDA. The National Weather Service Seasonal Drought Outlook only extends through February 28, 2017 at this point but it predicts that the drought will persist in the Northeast based on “subjectively derived probabilities guided by short- and long-range statistical and dynamic forecasts”. Say that three times fast!

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The National Weather Service, which is a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was formed in 1970 under President Richard E. Nixon’s administration. Prior to that date they were known as the Weather Bureau (forms 1870) and before that, the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey (formed 1807). It’s safe to say that NOAA has the most up to date weather technology including geosynchronous satellites, Doppler weather radar, and undersea research centers. But even with that technology most predictions are only up to 90% accurate for 6-10 days out. Past that it becomes probable trends based on current and past information.

And yet, for 225 years, there has been a resource that claims that its weather forecasts are 80-85% accurate. Since 1792 the Old Farmer’s Almanac has been a go-to resource for weather, astronomy, gardening, cooking, and predictions of trends in food, fashion, and technology.

About that weather accuracy claim: the Old Farmer’s Almanac has a closer to 50% predictability rate. But that doesn’t stop thousands of readers, especially in the pre-National Weather Service days, from using it as their planting and growing guide. Its folksy character is a large part of its charm. Not to mention its compact size and unique punched hole in the upper left-hand corner for hanging from a nail or string in the outhouse. I pause for a second to express gratitude for modern indoor plumbing.

And now, spoiler alert, here are the Northeast predictions for 2017 from The Old Farmer’s Almanac: Although there will be lower precipitation than normal in January it will be at or above normal for February through July with temperatures 1-4° below normal for most of that period. Pretty much the opposite of what 2016 brought us. But what stands out the most is the blizzard accompanied by bitter cold that is predicted for February 11-17. Let’s hope that one isn’t correct!

Susan Pelton

Images NOAA, Old Farmer’s Almanac

 

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Some red maples still had leaves late in the fall in 2016

 

“ November comes
And November goes,
With the last red berries
And the first white snows.”

– Clyde Watson

This fall was spectacular in its color displays both in the leaves and in the skies.And we are not done yet. A relatively indifferent  landscape can turn charming or spectacular when autumn colors abound as they have this year. Since a pictures is said  to be worth a thousand words, I will save you much reading…

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Canada geese on a pond splashed with early morning fall colors Pamm Cooper photo

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American Lady butterflies migrate south for the winter, along with sulphurs, monarchs, cabbage whites and red admirals

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Delicata squash- one of the smaller winter squash varieties

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Old house in the background with Oriental bittersweet on the left and an old Japanese maple on the right . Location is heading south from the Goodspeed Opera House on Rte 154

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Mushrooms on a dying sweet birch in early November 2016.

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Mourning Cloaks overwinter as butterflies and may be seen flying about near or in the woods on warm winter days

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It is obvious where the barberry is in these woods. Photo taken near the Gillette Castle State Park

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Honey bees are visiting mums and witch hazel this week, as well as any Montauk daisies that are still blooming

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November 6 2016 dawn over Glastonbury, Ct.

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Here is a good example of thinking ahead when planting. A sugar maple on the left and a Japanese maple on the right were probably planted over 30 years ago and are the perfect companions for great autumn color.

Take some little trips this season in our little state. There is still some good color out there, but it may not last much longer. And you may not have to go very far to get some great visual  compositions. Perhaps just as far as your own back yard.

Pamm Cooper                                          All photos by Pamm Cooper

 

 

What’s a butterfly garden without butterflies?  Roy Rogers

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Tiger swallowtail visits a butterfly bush

 

Planting a butterfly garden is a hopeful enterprise which often has its rewards in the future and not in the same year of the planting. Typically, a couple of years is needed to provide abundant blooms and the subsequent attracting of butterflies. In my experience, the best butterfly gardens are those that include, as much as possible, the host plants that visiting butterflies will use for laying eggs for their caterpillars. Try planting a few blueberry bushes as several hairstreak butterflies us this as a host plant.

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Striped hairstreak on common milkweed. Host plants for caterpillars include blueberry and oaks

When butterflies start to visit the garden, try to identify them and see if they may be laying eggs on already existing plants (like oaks and cherry, for instance, if tiger swallowtails are present). Having nectar sources nearby  the host plants for the caterpillars is a strong factor in what attracts butterflies to an area. So I say, if you plant it, they will come. Maybe. Sometime. They have to find it, so it can take time. If they are already passing through and laying eggs on suitable host plants, then nectar will keep their offspring coming back  to do the same.

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Black swallowtail caterpillar with egg just underneath the leaf- Cohen pollinator and butterfly garden in Colchester

I have planted a native willow for Mourning Cloaks that come through the property every year. A sassafras that appeared several years ago has now become a regular host plant for the spicebush swallowtails that visit the garden for nectar. When you see any butterflies, egg laying should shortly follow, if it has not already taken place. This is why host plants in the vicinity of nectar sources is so important when planning a butterfly garden.A lone tiger swallowtail visited my garden late this spring and three weeks later I found its tiny caterpillar on a small black cherry sapling I had transplanted earlier that spring. It was barely in the ground and already had become a host plant.

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The Cohen Woodlands Butterfly-Pollinator Garden in Colchester. Parsley in the foreground attracts black swallowtail females.

 

Three of the best butterfly gardens I have been to this year are the one at the Tolland County Agricultural Center in Vernon, the Cohen-Woodlands pollinator- butterfly garden in Colchester, and the Fletcher Library Garden in Hampton. The one thing all these gardens have in common is a good selection of three season nectar sources and nearby host plants. Four monarch caterpillars were on the butterfly weed in the Fletcher Library just two weeks ago, and one was on milkweed in the Cohen garden on September 5th. That is great news for the Monarchs which have suffered from devastating population declines in recent years.

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Monarch caterpillar on milkweed at the Cohen Woodlands butterfly- pollinator garden

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This Monarch caterpillar just left its butterfly weed host plant in search of a suitable spot to pupate at the Fletcher Library garden in Hampton

Plant parsley, fennel or dill if black swallowtails visit a garden. Small cherry and spicebush attract tiger swallowtails and spicebush swallowtails, respectively. Viceroys will lay eggs on willow and poplar and red- spotted purples lay eggs on cherry. Skippers for the most part prefer grasses for their larva, but the silver- spotted skipper, a frequent visitor to any garden, likes legumes. Pearl crescents like asters, and these flowers are visited by many migrating butterflies as most other nectar sources are going by in late summer.

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Wild Indigo Duskywing on Salvia. Plant Baptisia for its caterpillars.

A must plant for pollinators, butterflies and hummingbirds is Caryoptersis, also known as bluebeard. This perennial blooms from late- summer until fall. Lantana is a terrific annual for all butterflies, providing blooms until frost. Combined with asters, these plants are ideal nectar sources for fall migrators. Goldenrods, spotted Joe-pye, liatris, zinnias, obedient plant, alliums, butterfly bush, milkweeds, obedient plant and veronicas are also good selections for butterfly gardens. And there are so many more.

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Silver-spotted skipper on bluebeard

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Tiger Swallowtail on obedient plant, a favorite of butterflies, bees and hummingbirds

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Spicebush swallowtail nectaring on a pink Coreopsis. Sassafras nearby is a host for the caterpillars.

Annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs should all be under consideration when deciding what to plant for butterflies. My garden has been redesigned for birds, butterflies, pollinators and, just a little bit, for me. Although, I guess, it really is mostly for me because of the enjoyment I get watching these little visitors getting some use from the plants that were selected with them in mind in the first place. Of course, woodchucks were not in the equation (as squirrels were not either when putting out the BIRD feeder) …

Pamm Cooper                              All photos copyright 2016 by Pamm Cooper

 

 

Cracks in tomatoes, black rotten spots on the bottom of tomato fruit, and a hard yellow or white area on the inside walls of ripe tomatoes are all physiological problems, not caused by insects or disease.  It is a sad sight for gardeners investing so much time and energy to see the actual fruits of their labor turn into less than perfect tomatoes.

 

cracking of tomato, joey Williamson HGIC,Clemson.edu

Cracked Tomato

Let’s start with why tomatoes crack. Higher moisture levels after a dry period, such as lots of rain after a time of drought, will cause the inside cells to swell and grow faster than the outside skin will grow, resulting in splitting of the skin. To prevent cracking, keep soil evenly moist by watering, and use a mulch to prevent evaporation and keep soil cooler. Cracked tomatoes are still very edible, but not so pretty. Sometimes the cracks are deep, allowing rot to happen inside the meat of the fruit. Plan to use split tomatoes before rotting happen.

Blossom End Rot on Tomatoes, J.Allen Photo

Blossom End Rot, photo by Joan Allen.

Blossom end rot is expressed by a black, sunken area on the bottom, the blossom end, of the tomato. It is caused by a lack of calcium reaching the fruit. The soil could be lacking calcium which can only be determined by having a soil test done for nutrient levels. UConn does a basic soil test for $12.00 at soiltest.uconn.edu. New England is not usually lacking calcium in its soil, it is more likely the cause of blossom end rot is an interruption in the delivery of calcium from the soil to the fruit via water uptake. This is caused by irregular watering, letting the soil dry out, then watering or having a big rain event. Occasionally, high levels of potassium or magnesium fertilizers will compete with calcium uptake by the plants. Only use a balanced fertilizer to avoid an excess of individual nutrients and provide even water levels to the soil to avoid blossom end rot. Portions of the tomato not rotted are also still edible if you cut away the bad part.

yellowshoulder, hort.purdue.edu

Yellow Shoulders, hort.purdue.edu

Yellow shoulders disorder occurs on the top part of the tomato when areas never turn red, but stay yellow. The flesh underneath can be tough and corky. It can occur only on the top portion or can occur as a grey or white wall just under the skin around the whole fruit.This problem is caused by a number of different circumstances or combinations of them. We do know it is a problem at the cellular level that happens very early as the fruit is forming.  Cells in the area are smaller and not aligned normally, and the green chlorophyll areas do not develop red pigment. Causes are thought to be high temperatures over 90 degrees F at time of fruit formation, and possible pH levels over 6.7, and potassium, magnesium and calcium competition among each other. Again, a balanced fertilizer is needed.

tomato with white walls, yellow shoulders, photo by Becky M.

Tomato with white walls, yellow shoulders, photo by Becky M.

 

The take away message for all of these physiological problems are to have an adequate soil fertility and soil pH without over fertilizing, and have even soil moisture. Hope for summer temperatures to stay at or below 90 degrees F and your harvest baskets will be full of beautiful, delicious tomatoes.

-Carol Quish

 

 

 I love insects. They are amazing.”  Andrea Arnold  

The UConn Bug Week programs were held over the last week of July this year and for our particular Bug Week event on July 30, we started early on in the season acquainting ourselves with the world of insects and searching high and low for specimens we could find and then bring home with us to raise. While rearing insects, you learn a lot about what they do, what they eat, how they behave and what their life cycles are.

Some of the fabulous volunteers -Bug Week 2016 Amy Estabrook photo

Some of our Master Gardener Volunteers- Amy Estabrook photo

We had several bug hunts from early June on and went to specific areas searching for specific insects and any surprises that might turn up. Volunteers from the Master Gardener program spent two months looking for and raising insects in the hope that they would be available as live specimens for our event on July 30. Of course, many pupated and that was that. But we still had a lot of wonderful specimens to show all the people that attended our program. We had display boards that our volunteers made for their particular insects, and with the live specimens, people got to see insects up close and personal.

Bug Week 2016 Suzi Zitser photo of Debbi Wright's display board

Debbi Wright’s fabulous display for the Virginia Creeper sphinx moth- Suzi Zitser photo

Our event was held at the Tolland County Agricultural Center, home to the Tolland County UConn Extension Office. There are over 35 acres of woodland, wetland and open environments, plus pollinator and butterfly- friendly plantings all over the property, so we were able to go outdoors and take advantage of all the gardens and wood lines to search for insects.

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Volunteers show visitors our insects. Photo by Earl Parent

Among the insects we had for specimens and displays caterpillars of the clear dagger moth, mottled prominent, Virginia creeper sphinx, milkweed tussock moth, Monarch butterfly, stink bugs of all kinds, Imperial moth caterpillars (just hatching that day), tobacco hornworms on their favorite tomato host, beetles, John Suhr’s moth and butterfly collection plus the UConn Natural History Museum brought some specimens from their fabulous collection. Other specimens included red-lined panapoda caterpillars and orange-striped oak worm caterpillars. We also had two walking sticks which were found in early June when they were the size of a thumbnail.

walking stick and friend bug week 2016 Earl Parent photo

One of our walking sticks out for a walk- Earl Parent photo

AMy Estabrook photo of Leslie and friends and a walking stick Amy Estabrook photo

Amy Estabrook took this photo of Leslie showing our walking stick to two small guests

We had three bug walks as well, and found interesting insects of all kinds- a Buffalo treehopper, leaf-footed bug nymph, silver-spotted skipper caterpillar, an apple maggot fly, a salt marsh tiger moth and a chickweed geometer moth just to name just a few. Many butterflies were also floating by  as we did our walks and we ended up seeing them again  when we got to the butterfly garden.

Bug Hunt with Jean Laughman

Jean Laughman finds some good insects on her beating sheet

 

The TAC Center has one of the best butterfly gardens going, and has been well maintained by Tina Forsberg and Jean Laughman. It has a spicebush in the center of one side and on it we found 6 spicebush swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, one of which was only a couple of days old. Hummingbird moths, swallowtail, crescent, skipper and, brush foot butterflies were there, and we even found a tiger swallowtail egg on a small black cherry.

chickweed geometer moth Bug Week insect hunt Pamm Cooper photo

Chickweed geometer moth Pamm Cooper photo

Butterfly garden walk with Tina Forsberg

looking for bugs in the butterfly garden

saltmarsh tiger moth Estigmene acrea found resting in the butterfly garden

Salt Marsh Tiger moth found in the butterfly garden- Pamm Cooper photo

Thanks are in order for all our Master Gardeners and Master Gardener interns for a job well done. Without your efforts, this would not have been a success, nor as interesting an event as it was. Also, thank you Joan Allen, for your talk on vegetable insect pests, and Dave Colbert for bringing terrific specimens from the UConn Museum of Natural History.

Euthochtha galeator leaf footed bug nymph 7-30-16 Bug Week hunt Pamm Cooper photo

Leaf- footed bug nymph found on a bug walk- Pamm Cooper photo

 

After all our hard work raising insects and running around finding host plant material to feed them, and after many long insect hunts in 90 degree weather, I guess we were all happy, in a way, to see Bug Week draw to a close. My dining room table is no longer a laboratory and that is how it should be. And yet, I do miss the pitter-patter of tiny little feet…

 

Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

 

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