Gardening


It’s not over, not by any means. There is still plenty of time left to garden even though we just past the summer solstice on June 21st. There are many different kinds of plants that can go in as seeds right now and still produce a bountiful harvest before the end of the growing season. With oil prices up, food prices are up as well. Remember, it takes a lot of oil to grow, harvest, and transport our food. A good home garden is the most environmentally friendly way to deal with this, and you will save yourself a bundle in the process. Besides, you also cannot beat the fresh taste of home-grown food!

This weed filled garden bed can be turned into a nice, productive vegetable plot with a little effort. Photo by mrl2022.

The only problem with all I have said is that unplanted garden beds can look rather intimidating right now. My unplanted garden beds are filled with weeds that are almost as tall as I am – but I am not scared by this! Any area can easily be converted to planting beds in a few steps. For me, that means mowing down the high grass with either a push mower or a trimmer, and then tilling up the remaining vegetation. I then rake out the big clumps and shake all the dirt off before removal. Now it is time to limestone or add fertilizer, if need be, based on soil tests conducted earlier. If you do not have a tiller, you could pull out or dig out the roots with a shovel, spade or fork. With a bit of hard work, the beds will be all ready to go. Although gardening bed preparation may be a chore, seed planting is quick and easy.

Green beans are probably one of the easiest crops to plant. There are two basic types which have different growth requirements. The first is the pole-type. These will need some type of structure to climb up. It does not have to be pretty, however. Go grab a fallen tree limb and stick that in the ground and it will happily climb up that. In the olden times, people would take three large branches, tie them together at the top, and plant the seeds around the base of each. Cattle panels can work as well either bent over to form an arch, or two on their long side stuck together at the top with worm-gear clamps. Much easier are the bush-type beans as they do not need any support. With either type, keep them picked for two reasons. First, they will continue to produce more beans if you pick them regularly. Also, if the beans are left on the plant too long, they become woody, stringy, and generally unpleasant to eat. Other types of beans can also be planted now as well (Lima, Runner, etc.). All beans will benefit from an inoculation with beneficial bacteria. It is not essential but can help them grow larger and produce more. These inoculants are many times sold near the seed packets. 

Pole-type green beans that will grow up these cattle panels. Photo by mrl2022.

Summer squash is another favorite with plenty of time to produce. Examples include various zucchini types, crookneck, yellow, and pan types. These plants have a nice bush growth habit. I usually mulch the area before planting the seeds so there is no competition from weeds. By the time any weeds would get going, the plants are so large they shade them out. Planting summer squash later sometimes helps avoid the squash vine borers that usually finish egg laying by July 4th. If pests still are a problem in your area, floating row covers will work. These consist of thin fabric that essentially screens in the plants. Be sure to tuck the edges into the soil all around the bottom of the covers. Take the covers off once the plants start flowering so they can be pollinated by beneficial insects. Plant varieties resistant to diseases if you have had trouble in the past. Amend the soil with compost before planting and these veggies will thrive. Keep the plants well watered. It is best to water in the morning, especially when plants are setting fruit. Watering in the evening may encourage powdery mildew and similar diseases.      

Zucchini seedlings just sprouting through the layer of mulch. Photo by mrl2022.

Winter squashes like butternut, acorn, decorative gourds, and pumpkins all can go in now too.  You probably will probably not win the biggest pumpkin contest at the fair, but you can still produce plenty of fruit. These are generally vining types that require an ample amount of space to spread out. Some winter squash are available as a bush or semi-bush type if your space is limited. Read the back of the seed packets and pick the variety best suited for your situation.  These also benefit from incorporation of compost into the soil at planting time. Keep the area weed-free while they are establishing, and their large leaves will do the rest once they get going. 

Another plant that is commonly planted in succession to ensure continual harvest is corn. Now you could do one of the sweetcorn varieties, or you could do ornamental corn. Many people I know, myself included, like the variety of colors produced by the ornamental types. Just be sure to separate corn varieties by the distance recommended on the seed packages to avoid unintended cross pollination, which can have detrimental effects on the edibility of harvested sweet corn. Alternatively, you could plant them at different times to ensure they are out-of-sync at pollination time. 

I am planning on putting in many varieties of sunflowers in during the next week. For continual flowers, plant these at two-week intervals. There are many styles and varieties so you will have to do a little research. They literally come in all shapes and sizes. Plants may be a few feet to more than twelve feet tall. There are ones with a large flower at the top of the stem, or multiple flowers on each plant. If you are planning to use them as cut flowers, try some of the pollenless varieties as they will not release pollen on to your table. There are some kinds that are nice for bird food, and others that are nice for people food. Follow package directions and make sure you are purchasing the correct type for your planned use. Regardless, they all look beautiful in the garden.   

My last suggestion is somewhat of a generic category. Try putting in some flowers. Cosmos are great and quick to grow. Sprinkle a few seeds now and they will be flowering in no time!  Dahlias are also another possibility with their large tuberous roots. The plants may even be starting to sprout in the bag. You could even think about planting seeds of some perennial flowers like Shasta daisies or Echinacea cone flowers. They will not flower this year, but will look great next year. 

The lima beans are sprouting, but the bed needs some quick attention to prevent the weeds from overtaking them. Photo by mrl2022.

So, there you have some easy suggestions for quick, easy plants that can go in the ground now.  The warm soil temperature will help them germinate quickly provided you water them well every few days. Try and disrupt the weed growth with a hoe until crops get going. Most of the plants discussed here will shade the weeds out after that. Now I am going to go take my own advice and get more planting done!

Happy Gardening!

Dr. Matthew Lisy, UConn Adjunct Faculty

Spring in New England has been kind to us gardeners. Temperatures have been on the cool side; weekends were not washout; there was a fair amount of cloudy days, so a lot of gardening work was accomplished, at least by me. I was bitten by the gardening bug as a young child following my grandparents around their gardens when we visited. Throughout most of my life, time in the garden has been very therapeutic, this spring even more so with the unexpected loss of a much-loved spouse. While the veil of loneliness creeps over me inside the house, outdoors it dissipates as we were opposite gardeners. My husband was a morning person and would be out at 7 am or earlier weeding, watering, and tending to his vegetable garden or other outdoor chores. I needed a few cups of coffee to get going on the weekends and after finishing indoor chores, would head out later in the day and during hot weather tended to follow the shade. So, while being alone inside is still very sad and difficult, being by myself to tend to the gardens feels more normal.

Two of my indispensable gardening tools. Photo by dmp2022.

That being said, there is not enough time for one person to keep up with all the outdoor chores so not as many vegetables are being planted but more flowers are. It’s just delightful to be able to collect enough flowers to fill vases in the dining room, kitchen, bath and bedroom, especially colorful or scented ones. Plus, the local garden club I belong to has a ‘flower show’ at the town’s Old Home Day Festival over Labor Day weekend.

Some of the floral arrangements at the Charlton Garden Club’s annual flower show. Photo by dmp2021.

I had already started a number of tomato and pepper plants in late winter planning for lots of meals with stuffed peppers and jars of my special chili sauce as well as fresh and canned tomatoes.

The only consistent animal pest problem we have had is racoons raiding the sweet corn – of course on the night just before it is ready to be picked! So, my husband had erected a fence around the garden we grew sweet corn in but not around the other two beds as they were typically not bothered – until last year when the rabbits ate most of the beans. Our plan was to fence this section in this spring.

 In the fenced garden bed, I planted 11 tomatoes, 4 cultivars of sweet peppers, a couple of eggplants, sweet potato slips (Beauregard), 4 varieties of cukes plus some zinnias, carrots, beets and Swiss chard. To reduce the amount of weeding necessary, I lined the paths with newspapers covered with animal bedding and placed a heat-treated straw mix around the plants. Some weeds will inevitably poke through, but many can be suppressed by a light covering of some type of mulch.

Fenced in and planted vegetable garden number 1 by dmp2022.

Last weekend I tackled the garden plot by the shed. Except for the strip of rhubarb and green onion bed, which I had previously planted with greens and garlic, there were plenty of weeds to deal with.

Vegetable garden number 2 before weeding. Photo by dmp2022.

Among the weeds were hundreds of self-seeding annuals like tall verbena, nigella, nicotiana, tall ageratum, bupleurum, and a few ammi. I transplanted a few of each and added a bed with butternut squash and nasturtium seeds, one with Japanese white hull-less popcorn and filled the other two small beds with seeds of zinnia, cosmos, marigolds and some others. In part of the bed I planted brown mustard seeds. My sister made the best sage mustard recipe last year and I am hoping to be able to harvest seeds, we’ll see how that goes.

Planting popcorn seeds. Photo by dmp2022.

Most of the third vegetable garden I covered with black plastic as I am limited to how much time I have to tend all the gardens, the house, and work full time. I did plant one whole framed raised bed with sunflowers and calendulas though. A few volunteer sunflowers had already shown up so I thought I would plant more. The birds really enjoy the seeds (don’t grow all pollenless varieties) and I am thinking Mr. Rabbit, who I’ve been watching nibbling the clover in the lawn may be the culprit that chomped on a few of the sunflower leaves. I sprayed what was left with deer and rabbit repellent so here’s hoping for the best.

I struggle with the mulch to keep down weeds to save precious time and my back versus providing an organic fortified, cooler, moister situation favoring those invasive snakeworms. While 2 inches of any type of organic mulch would likely keep weeds to a minimum, this provides a perfect habitat for these ecosystem destroying invasive pests. So I typically apply only a light covering of mulch, be it shredded bark, cocoa hulls, shredded office paper, untreated grass clippings or purchased seedling/garden mulch straw products.

It was a bit disappointing this evening when I went out to water newly seeded vegetable hills and rows to notice blades of grass rising through the winter squash bed that I had covered with Lucerne Farms gardening mulch. Since this product claims to be heat treated, I suspect that the sprouting grass seeds might be from the Mainely Mulch I had placed around the tomatoes planted in this bed last year. The Lucerne product claims to be heat treated and therefore, free of weed seeds capable of germinating.  I had used Mainely Mulch in the past with no problems but with all the rain we got last year, it seemed like any seed left in the mulch germinated. My weekend plans are to go through all the beds I just planted and pull the weeds when small.

Finished vegetable garden number 2. Photo by dmp2022.

Oxalis in the mulched herb garden is another challenge – it is so ubiquitous. I pull and pull and still see more plants.

My plan is to just upkeep what I can, not to harvest more vegetables than I can handle or give away and enjoy lots of flowers (if the rabbit doesn’t eat them).

I hope all of you have had a much happier and productive spring than me but at least it is just mostly maintenance now and the planting is done.

Celebrate the summer solstice!

Dawn P.

Plants need at least eighteen essential nutrients to grow and develop. Deficiencies of any of these essential elements can cause reduced crop yield and quality. For instance, we know that a high protein content in bread flour is essential for quality bread baking while low protein contents in flour is critical for quality cake baking. Aside from genetics, soil fertility management has a big impact on protein content and types of protein in the wheat we use for baking bread or cakes as well as all other crops. Plant proteins contain, among other elements, nitrogen and sulfur. So having adequate supplies of nitrogen and sulfur in the soil for the crop being grown will affect the development of protein in plants. Sufficient amounts of these two elements will guarantee high grain protein content and bread baking quality, while low nitrogen and sulfur availability in soil can lead to low grain protein content and cause poor bread baking quality. Often plants exhibiting nitrogen deficiencies develop yellowing on their lower leaves.

Bottom leaves of tomato turning yellow often indicate nitrogen deficiency. Photo by dmp, UConn

A common problem that we often see in our vegetable gardens is blossom end rot in tomatoes, peppers and summer squash. When conditions are right, the fruits of these plants develop quickly and each new cell that is formed requires calcium. When not enough calcium is available to plants either because there is not enough in the soil or there is not enough moisture to move the calcium from the soil into the plant roots, a calcium deficiency develops and expresses itself as blossom end rot. Also, if you have seen internal brown spot in the potatoes growing in your garden, you may also want to check the calcium level in your soil. Typically, you would do this by checking the soil pH. Since limestone (calcium carbonate) is used to raise the pH as well as supply calcium, if your soil pH is in the 6s, there should be sufficient calcium present in the soil so if you are seeing blossom end rot, it would most likely be due to insufficient watering.

Blossom end rot on tomato. Photo by dmp, UConn

Potassium is another nutrient that crops like potatoes need in high quantity. Potassium not only influences potato tuber yield and size but also potato sugar concentration, hollow heart disorder, even coloring after cooking. Sufficient availability of micronutrients, such as zinc and iron, are important for plants growth and nutrition values. These micronutrients are also essential for human health, and you can often find them in supplements.

Tomato with possible potassium deficiency. Poor locules and thick, mealy walls. Photo by dmp, UConn.

How do we know if our soil is sufficient in these nutrients? Soil testing can give you an idea of your nutrient sufficiency levels in the soil and plant tissue testing can tell you if your plant is accessing these nutrients. Some potential issues that could impact nutrient uptake by your plants include low pH, excessive amounts of another nutrient, poor soil structure and drainage, compaction, and improper watering. For macronutrients, such as phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium, soil testing is sufficient while for micronutrients, such as zinc, copper, boron, manganese and iron, we recommend testing both your soil and plants if a nutrient deficiency is suspected. If you observe poor plant growth and good plant growth in the same garden or field, it’s best that you take soil and plant samples from both areas and get the samples analyzed separately so that you can compare nutrient levels in these areas. Keep in mind that many diseases have symptoms that mimic nutrient problems so it is always a good idea to send photos of the problems you are seeing to the horticulturists at the UConn Home & Garden Education Center (ladybug@uconn.edu).   

Is this a disease on cucumber or nutrient deficiency? Photo by dmp, UConn

For soil testing for garden crops, you can take soil samples at any time of the year, but fall is best. While taking samples before seeding, transplanting of annuals, and greening up of perennials is important to ensure timely application of fertilizer and soil amendment to provide your crops with sufficient nutrients during the whole growing season, keep in mind, that samples submitted in the spring take longer to process because of the higher volume. If samples are submitted in late fall rather than in early spring, recommendations are likely to be identical and if amendments such as limestone, which takes 6 to 18 months to work, are needed, they can be added in the fall so they can start working. Any fertilizer would be added in the spring before planting.

If you notice deficiency symptoms in your plants, it is important to take quick action to try and diagnose the problem and apply fertilizers, soil amendments, or change your cultural practices to deal with nutrient deficiency issues. Although your plant’s health may have declined because of nutrient deficiencies, a rescue application of nutrients can alleviate symptoms and put it on the path to good growth.

Plant tissue testing is primarily recommended for commercial growers because at the UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Lab, there are no recommendations for home gardeners, only commercial vegetable and fruit growers. For commercial growers submitting samples, it is critical to sample the correct plant part at the right growth stage. This is because the tissue test sufficiency ranges that are use to compare your samples are established for that specific plant part and growth stage for a given crop. For example, ten uppermost recent fully developed trifoliate leaves should be sampled from green beans in summer, fifteen compound leaves adjacent to the inflorescences should be sampled during midbloom for field tomatoes, and twenty-five mature leaves from new growth should be sampled during flowering – fruiting should be sampled for peppers. Prior taking your soil and plant samples, please visit University of Connecticut Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory https://soiltest.uconn.edu/ for guidance on when and how the samples should be taken. Feel free to call the lab at (860) 486-4274 if you are considering submitting samples for plant analysis. UConn also has a Plant Diagnostic Lab that can culture plants for diseases.   

Another important thing to remember regarding soil and plant tissue analysis is that it is important to send your samples to your local labs. This is because different labs use different testing procedures that are calibrated for soil types specific in their region and the plants grown in these specific environments. The standard sufficiency levels established are therefore different by state and by region. For example, there are many different soil test procedures being used in the US for soil phosphorus test, however, only modified Morgan testing procedure is used for CT soils due to specific characteristics of our soils in CT.

The bottom line for home gardeners and growers is to do your best to ensure your plants receive the correct amounts of nutrients as well as water to be able to supply the nutrients to our plants. Routinely monitor your plants for insects, disease problems as well as nutrient issues. We are here to help you so feel free to contact the UConn Home & Garden Education Center (www.ladybug.uconn.edu) or UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Lab (www.soiltest.uconn.ed) if you need help or have questions.

Haiying Tao, Ph. D. Dept of Plant Science LA, UConn

The last few years certainly have been a challenge for many of us.  One unexpected consequence of the pandemic? Many who were quarantined at home decided to become gardeners.  Seed companies reported a boom in sales during the pandemic and, unlike other trends, (zoom cocktails, sourdough starters or dress shirts with pajama bottoms), it looks like gardening is here to stay.  To those new to gardening and to those more seasoned gardeners, we are here to help you every step of the way.  

We are the UConn Home and Garden Education Center, which is made up of three branches; the education center; the soil nutrient analysis laboratory; and the plant diagnostic laboratory. The education center is your first point of contact, where you will be greeted by horticultural consultants Dennis Tsui, Pamm Cooper and Marie Woodward.  Our mission is to answer your questions about anything related to home gardens and landscapes.  Our goal is to give you the best science-based response. In addition, we often rely on our other two branches for information, but that’s just the start of the services they provide. 

Dawn Pettinelli

Good gardening begins with knowing all you can about your soil, and The UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory, headed by Dawn Pettinelli, Associate Cooperative Extension Educator, provides home gardeners a means to test the fertility of their soil and, through a comprehensive report, receive environmentally sound fertilizer and lime recommendations. 

Dr. Nick Goltz

Identifying the cause and nature of plant problems is often the key to maintaining healthy gardens and landscapes, and that’s where Dr. Nick Goltz, plant pathologist, comes in. He heads the Uconn Plant Diagnostic Laboratory and is an expert in diagnosing plant problems including diseases, insect pests and abiotic causes.  Dr. Goltz has a passion for plant health and integrated pest management, (IPM).  He especially enjoys working with homeowners to find holistic and comprehensive solutions for any plant problem they may have.

The three branches of the center are available to gardeners year-round.  To access our services, you can reach us by phone, (860-877-6271), by email, (ladybug@uconn.edu), or you can visit the center the Radcliffe Hicks Arena, 1380 Storrs Road, unit 4115, Storrs, CT. Our hours are Monday- Friday 8:30am -4:30pm.

Collecting and Submitting Samples

One of the most common questions we are asked is how to collect samples that are of good diagnostic quality.  Each laboratory website has detailed instructions on how to do so.  For the Soil Nutrient Analysis lab, there is a page with instructions on how to submit a soil sample at:

Soil Sampling Instructions

The plant diagnosis laboratory has a form with instructions on how to collect plant sample at the bottom of the submission page: 

Plant Submission Form

Samples can be mailed in or brought into our center during our office hours, (see above).

Emailing us with a question?

If you’re emailing us with a question or problem, it can be helpful, (but not necessary), to include a few photos with it.  This can help us determine our response. 

To learn more, you can visit our website: http://www.ladybug.uconn.edu/ where you will find the latest news, blogs and fact sheets about all things for your home garden.  We are ready to help make your home garden a success year after year. 

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

One early spring afternoon three years ago I came home from my annual physical, pleased about my clean bill of health. Four hours later, I was admitted to the hospital with a temperature of 104 degrees, blinding headache, and muscle soreness. It took two days and many tests and retests to determine the cause. It was a tick-borne disease called anaplasmosis. That was the first time I ever heard of it. I had heard much about tick-borne Lyme disease (who in Connecticut hasn’t) but anaplasmosis? Who knew?

The good news was that it was that my disease was treatable with antibiotics, and I fully recovered in just a few days. What was the source of my disease? In all likelihood, a tick I picked up while doing the spring clean-up in my garden. I vowed thereafter, I would be much more careful about ticks whenever I gardened, or ventured outside my yard into the woods to walk my dogs. I tell this cautionary tale as a reminder that ticks are all around us and this spring – and throughout the year – it’s important to take measures to protect you, your family, and your pets as well. 

To date, there are eight known tick-borne diseases in Connecticut. They are spread by only three tick species: the Blacklegged (“deer”) tick (Ixodes scapularis), the Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum), and the American Dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis). The good news is that the measures you need to follow to avoid tick diseases are the same for all three species According to the CDC website Ticks and Their Body Buddies , there are steps to take before you go outdoors, after you come in, and  if, despite your best efforts, you find you’ve become a tick taxi.

Adult female lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum) https://www.neregionalvectorcenter.com/lone-star-tick.php

Before You Go Outside

1. Know where ticks are mostly likely to be. Ticks live in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas or they can be carried in on animals. Make sure your furry children are treated with tick medicine.

2. Treat clothing and gear before you spend time outside. Products sprays that contain 5% permethrin can be used on clothing, boots, camping gear and will stay on for several washings.  Alternately, some clothing and gear that contains permethrin are available for purchase.

3. Use EPA- insecticide repellents. Always follow Product instructions. EPA advises children under three years of age not use Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE) or para-methane-diol, (PMD).

4. Be sure to avoid areas with high grass and leaf litter. When hiking stay in the middle of the path.

After You Come In

1. Check your clothes, gear and pets for any tick stow-a-ways.

2. Take a shower within two hours of coming inside. It may wash off any unattached ticks. 

3.Check your whole body for ticks. Use a mirror to check under arms, in or around ears, inside the belly button, back of knees, around the hair, between legs and around the waist.

American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis) https://www.neregionalvectorcenter.com/american-dog-tick.php

Oh _______! It’s a Tick!

If, despite your best efforts you do find a tick has taken up residence on you or a loved one:

1. Use clean, fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.

2. Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you cannot remove the mouth easily with tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.

3. After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.

4. Never crush a tick with your fingers. Dispose of a live tick by:

5. Putting it in alcohol,

6. Placing it in a sealed bag/container,

7. Wrapping it tightly in tape.

8. Save the tick and monitor the affected area for a rash or in case you develop a fever.

9. If you develop a rash or fever within several weeks of removing a tick, see your doctor. Tell the doctor about your recent tick bite, when the bite occurred, and where you most likely acquired the tick.

If you WANT to have the tick tested, Connecticut Veterinary Medical Diagnostic laboratory offers testing:

https://cvmdl.uconn.edu/tick-testing/options/

Avoid folklore remedies such as “painting” the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly, or using heat to make the tick detach from the skin. Your goal is to remove the tick as quickly as possible–not waiting for it to detach.

Kirby C. Stafford III, Ph.D. Vice Director, Chief Entomologist, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, New Haven has put together a Tick Management Handbook, which provides  comprehensive information on ticks to Connecticut residents:

https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/CAES/DOCUMENTS/Publications/Bulletins/b1010pdf.pdf?la=en

Garden season means tick season, but with a bit of prevention and a lot of attention, you can have a full year of garden joys –  without the tick-borne trip to the hospital that made me want to write this blogpost.

Marie Woodward

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