Gardening


Figs are a delicious, exotic tasting fruit that many people don’t know can be grown right here in Connecticut. Yes, our winters are too harsh for this warmer climate plant but with a little know how and some effort, you can grow a successful fig crop year after year.

Violette de bourdeaux is a popular variety of purple fig Photo: C. Johnson

Selecting a variety

While no one variety is completely resistant to the cold temperatures we experience as New Englanders, there are some varieties that are more resilient than others. Chicago hardy, Brown turkey, Celeste, and White Marseilles are just a few examples. Flavor preference is another factor to consider after cold hardiness. Figs range from light green, to brown, to dark purple, with some variation in size between varieties. If you’re not sure what you like, you might try looking in the produce aisle of your local grocer and see if there’s a range to sample from there. Although this is rarely the case, most grocery stores in New England will only carry figs seasonally and even then, it is a narrow selection. This only adds to the appeal for home gardeners wanting to produce their own crop. There is a large market for purchasing pre-established plants of all different fig cultivars. However, many fig enthusiasts choose to share cuttings among each other as this plant propagates so easily.

A semi hardwood cutting showing root proliferation.
Photo: C. Johnson

Propagation

Figs can be propagated via vegetative cutting with relative ease. Green cuttings tend to be less successful than woodier cuttings with the sweet spot being at about 1 year old. At that age, the propagule will have some woodiness to it but not so much that it is no longer pliable. Cuttings can be taken almost any time of year but semi dormant to fully leafed out branches are ideal. Some rooting hormone and placing shallow wounds on either side of the stem can go a long way towards rooting (as seen in the photo).

Growing conditions

Figs do best in a hot, full sun location. If you are planting in the garden or placing in a container, be sure to give them as much sun and warmth as possible. A relatively fast draining media will also go a long way towards producing a healthy fig crop as figs prefer not to remain wet for extended periods of time. Figs do well in moderately fertile soils with minimal need for fertilization in the garden. Plants grown in containers will experience a higher rate of nutrient leaching and therefore will require some fertilization during the growing season.

A spring breba crop on Ficus carica ‘Ischia’. Photo: D. Nordby

Overwintering

Figs are not adapted to our cold winters so measures must be taken to protect these plants during the cold season to ensure they survive to see spring again. Techniques for overwintering figs range in difficulty and complexity. The simplest option, which mainly applies to container plants, is to simply move them into a semi heated structure such as a garage or basement. This can be done with plants that are in the ground by digging them up and wrapping the root ball. There are also several methods of mulching and wrapping that have been proven to be successful. Overwintering methods have been covered in depth by Dr. Charles R Vossbrinck at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. See his article here.

Symptoms of mosaic virus showing on Ficus carica ‘letizia’. Photo: D. Nordby

Pests and diseases

The two most common diseases of figs in Connecticut are rust and fig mosaic virus. Rust can be prevented through good moisture management practices. Pruning and spacing plants to increase air flow as well as careful watering to keep foliage dry will go a long way towards preventing rust. Mosaic virus can cause some decline in overall plant health and appearance, but healthy plants often outgrow this virus. Be sure to clean pruners with rubbing alcohol in between cuts to prevent the spread of this virus.

C. Johnson

Germination of seeds is one of life’s most beautiful phenomena. You take this dead, rock looking thing, put it in some soil, water it, and a beautiful, living, green plant begins to grow. This was always a fascination for me as a kid, and even now as a well-seasoned adult, it is still like watching a bit of magic. Seeds truly are one of nature’s evolutionary breakthroughs. When the plant is near the end of its life cycle (annuals), or is approaching a harsh season (perennials), they go to seed and thus carry on the species by giving rise to the next generation. The seeds then just sit there dormant, waiting for environmental conditions to improve, biding their time patiently. 

Seemingly lifeless tomato seeds waiting for environmental conditions to be right so they can germinate. Photo by mrl2021.

When the time is right, and all the abiotic (non-living) parameters line up correctly, the seeds will germinate. Seeds are a bit like Goldilocks and the porridge in that respect. Too hot or too cold and it is a no go. However, when seeds find themselves in the correct temperature range with the right amount of moisture, they spring into action. It is important to note that there is a range at which seeds can germinate. The trade off, though, is that it generally takes longer to germinate at cooler temperatures. That being said, if we increase the temperature, germination will be sped up considerably. There is an upper end to this range, however, and if it gets too warm they will not germinate either. 

Note that each plant has its own optimal germination temperatures. It truly is not one size fits all, so it behooves the gardener to research the proper germination temperatures for the vegetables you are trying to grow. The nice part is that we can manipulate the process to occur much faster than it would have normally. Many vegetables take seven to fourteen days to germinate, assuming you are using room temperature. Any colder than that will either lengthen the germination time, or inhibit germination all together. 

The best way to speed up the germination process is by adding bottom heat. This is accomplished by using a heat mat. These can be really pricey, but once purchased can be reused year after year. Unfortunately that is not all you will need. These heat mats need to be controlled by a thermostat (control box). Do not attempt to use them without one as it will ensure disaster.  These are many times just as pricey as the heat mat itself. There are a number of different heat mat companies out there. There are some differences so do your research and find the one that matches what you are trying to accomplish. Heat mats come in many different sizes to accommodate the needs of the grower. There are mats suited to one standard 10×20 plant tray, or mats that can hold up to ten of those plant trays. Of course there are many sizes in between those extremes, so you should be able to find one that can fit your space. If you are trying to decide between two sizes, I always recommend going bigger if you can as with any hobby or endeavor humans generally like to expand.  

A heat mat. Photo by mrl2021

You have to choose your seed starting location carefully. First of all, you will need access to an electrical outlet. Extension cords may be okay to use, but make sure they are sized to handle the electrical needs of your mats. The more mats you have, the more amps you will be pulling. Read the information on the electrical cord packaging to determine the proper gauge and buy the shortest cord possible. I always go with a bigger gauge just to be safe. You will plug the mat or mats into the thermostat, and the thermostat into the wall outlet. The thermostat will have some type of mechanism which allows you to set the temperature so read the instructions on how to adjust it and set to the proper temperature for your plants. Don’t forget to change the temperature once you switch crops, if needed. These seed mats work great, but they do have their limitations.  They generally cannot raise the temperature more than twenty degrees above ambient. So while the basement may seem like a great place to start your seeds, it may end up being a little too cool if unheated in the late winter or early spring. The heat mats should be left on for twenty four hours a day until the seedlings are up and well on their way.    

A thermostat used to control the temperature of the heat mats. They will not function properly without one. Photo by mrl2021

The thermostat will have a probe on it to sense temperature. This can only be inserted into one tray, so it is assumed all the trays that fit on that mat will be the same temperature. You want to make sure that the probe has good contact with the soil, and is neither too deep nor too shallow.  One word of caution – the seed starting medium must be kept moist for two reasons. First, if the soil dries out then the seeds won’t germinate. Second, if the soil gets too dry, the probe will not be able to sense the temperature properly and your thermostat will not function properly. This could end up cooking your seeds or not working at all. At the very least, it is best to check the moisture levels twice a day, but three times is even better. I like to water my plant trays with a spray bottle. You have to be very careful not to disturb the soil too much as this may dislodge some sprouting seeds. 

The probe attached to the thermostat senses the heat in the seed trays. Make sure to keep the growing medium moist to ensure proper function. Photo by mrl2021

To help prevent the drying out of the growing medium, you can use plastic wrap over the top of the trays. There are also commercially available clear plastic domes made to fit over the 10×20 standard trays. They are fairly reasonable in price so I just use those, but the plastic wrap will work just as well. Once the seeds are up, it is best to take off the domes in order to prevent an overly humid environment which can support the growth of some harmful fungi.  ‘Damping off’ is a common fungal disease that causes the death of many seedlings. It looks like the plant rots right where the little sprout goes into the soil. Once the plants have started to grow you can remove them from the heat mats. Leaving them on too long can be detrimental and cause them to get tall and leggy, and even flop over. Remember that the heat mats are only for speeding up germination time. At this point you can move your seed trays to an area with really bright light.  Avoid window sills as these are usually cold and drafty. If needed, supplement with overhead lighting set a few inches above the plants. Adjust the lights as the plants grow. Soon it will be time to harden off your transplants and set them out for a bountiful harvest.

The heat mat, probe and thermostat in action warming the soil to speed germination of some vegetable seeds. Note the clear dome to retain moisture. Photo by mrl2021.

by Matt Lisy, UConn 2021

Although their name may suggest otherwise, perennial beds and borders do change with time. Every few years they need to be reevaluated. Plants may need to be moved to a different location where they will either look or grow better. A great number of perennials (at least the ones I grow) benefit from division. Perhaps those trees nearby have extended their branches enough to alter the amount of sunlight now available. Or maybe you lost part or all of a shade tree in last year’s wind storms. Maybe that cute little 4-inch pot of doronicum you planted has laid claim to more than its fair share of the garden. Even your tastes in colors, design ideas or seasons of bloom may have changed. Whatever the reason, spring is a good time to overhaul the perennial garden.

Elm broken by last year’s wind storm. Photo by dmp2020

Before you begin to pick up that spade and begin digging, you need to decide on the type of look you are aiming for. Your site conditions will likely dictate your choice of plant material. Try as you might, perennials like gaillardia, lavender and dianthus will not do well in soggy soils, while hellebores will wither away in hot, dry exposed sites. Consult one of the many splendid books or websites on perennials, talk to a knowledgeable person at a local garden center, or give us a call if you are in doubt about a plant’s cultural requirements.

Another factor to consider is the maintenance many perennials require for their best display. Delphiniums in all but the most sheltered areas need to be staked. Yarrows and evening primroses should be divided every couple of years. Garden phlox must be religiously deadheaded so its usually magenta colored progeny do not take over the world. Lilies need the once over just about every day to patrol for lily leaf beetles. And, some plants like columbine, rudbeckia and agastache just seem to have relatively short life spans, at least in my yard, and require regular replacement whether through self-seeding or store purchase. I don’t believe a plant exists that does not require at least occasional attention but if you are limited in the amount of time you have to deadhead, stake, divide, and control pests, you will definitely want to choose less demanding perennial species.

Birdhouse garden with desired coral colored phlox and self-seeded magenta phlox. Photo by dmp2009

When redoing your perennial beds, keep in mind also the season of bloom. Many perennials, for all their loveliness, have a tendency to bloom over a short 3 to 6-week span of time. A few will provide color, or at least interest from early summer until frost. These include plants like hostas, coral bells, Russian sage, and some dwarf daylily cultivars. Some gardeners strive for a riot of color for mainly one time period, say the month of June, while others prefer smaller portions of color that extend over the whole growing season. Spring flowering bulbs and annuals can provide interest either by complementing the flowers of perennials or as fillers when little else is blooming. 

Sedum, coral bells and artemesia provide a long season of color. Photo by dmp2012

Spring is generally a great time to divide mid and late season flowering perennials with the early fall being better suited for the early spring bloomers. If you cannot replant the divisions immediately, pot them up, or heel them in somewhere not in full sun. Perennials with a long tap root like baby’s breath and echinops do not appreciate being moved so place them carefully. Asters and some others in the composite family tend to die out in the center. Just transplant the new growth surrounding it and discard the woody middle part. If you need to move Oriental poppies, wait until they go dormant, usually in July or August.

Asters multiply quickly and benefit from division every 3 years or so. Photo by dmp2012.

Think about what bulbs you might like to see blooming with your early season perennials and make a note to purchase them for fall planting. Place the bulbs behind sprawling perennials so that the dying bulb foliage will be camouflaged.

Daffodils and other bulbs in the birdhouse garden and white garden. Photo by dmp2013.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and, most of all, don’t be afraid to rectify any unsatisfactory plantings. Unlike, permanent tree and shrub plantings, a perennial garden can be modified to suit your needs and desires.

Happy Spring!

Dawn P.

Shamrocks are the official plant of St. Patricks Day symbolizing the country of Ireland. History and folklore state St. Patrick used the three-leaved plant to explain the concept of God being three in one: father, son and holy spirit. He used Ireland’s native clover(Trifolium repens) commonly called shamrock to give a visual to the idea for the spreading of Christianity. Today a similar shamrock-looking plant, Oxalis, is sold as ornamental houseplants to celebrate the holiday, adding a bit of the green to our homes when it is sorely needed at the end of winter.

Two colored Oxalis.

Plant breeders have even found a way to add a little purple in this ‘shamrock’ plant for sale at the local grocery store. I wonder what St. Patrick would think!

White clover. photo White-clover-leaf1 MSU.edu

White clover (Trifolium repens), has become a widespread common lawn weed in the United States. Normally it has only three leaves, but occasionally the plant produces a fourth leaf proclaiming to provide luck to its finder. Many a child has spent a busy afternoon searching for their own four leaved clover to press between the pages of a book to preserve it. Clover is a fascinating plant in the legume or pea family Fabaceae which takes nitrogen from the air and deposits it in nodules on the roots. When the plant dies and breaks down naturally, the nitrogen is slowly released for other nearby plants to use. Clover is great for building soil nutrients and adding a bit of luck to your garden or lawn.

Oxalis stricta, photo from Umass.edu

Oxalis or yellow woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta), is another lawn weed reminiscent of shamrocks with its trifoliate leaves. It is the wild cousin of the well-bred Oxalis houseplants. This one has yellow flowers rather than the white, and is a native annual that sometimes lives through a mild winter.

I wish you luck in finding your shamrocks on this St Patrick’s Day!

photo Idaho.gov

-Carol Quish

“March brings breezes loud and shrill, stirs the dancing daffodil.” 

― Sara Coleridge 

Bald eagle
bald eagle

This winter started off warmer than usual, settled down to a white and cold normal one, and now it seems to be in a hurry to get as warm as possible before April can get all the credit for bringing in the welcome green of spring. By the end of the month spicebush may be blooming and perhaps the marsh marigold.

marsh marigolds in a woodland bog

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) are one of the first wildflowers to bloom and the plant is very conspicuous as it grows in swamps, along streambanks, and sometimes directly in the water in wet woodland habitats. There may be no leaves on other plants yet, and  brown leaf litter may cover the ground, but the splash of bright green highlighted with yellow flowers is a welcome herald of what will come.

Birds have been singing their morning and evening songs, plus their territorial daytime calls as well. Male turkeys have begun their strutting, hissing and stamping routines which are somehow alluring to the hens.

male turkeys
Male turkeys fanning display

Bald eagles have built a nest in my town, and the pair have been seen sitting together along busy roads where they have chosen to raise their young. A nearby open river has provided food for them all winter, and the high traffic volume and large number of people watching this pair does not seem to bother them at all.

Killdeer, one of our first birds to return from their winter vacation homes have been back since late February this year. The early bird gets the worm… They lay their eggs directly on the ground in open gravelly areas and their young are born covered with down and ready to run around with the parents.

Killdeer
Killdeer

Like the killdeer, blackbirds and grackles have been back since late February, but wait until females arrive a month or so later to breed. They can be seen together in large flocks where seeds are abundant.

While hiking in the woods, my sister and I came across some peculiar damage to quite a few mature trees in a widespread area. Bark had been scratched and clawed off, sometimes shredded, and areas damaged were about three feet off the ground. This was the work of a black bear, new to this particular area and now residing in the woods by the looks of it. Marking trees with teeth and claws, especially in  spring is thought to either mark territory or just be from normal stretching and scratching activity.

Scratching and tooth mark damage to tree
Claw marks from black bear

Along the shore ruddy ducks usually can be seen floating in large groups along the in Old Saybrook causeway. These cute little ducks can be recognized by their small size, blue bills of the males, and the perky little tails that are sometimes held straight up. Sometimes little coots can also be seen along the Connecticut shoreline now.

Spiffy little ruddy ducks
Coot showing off its wonderful clodhoppers

Sweet ferns Comptonia peregrina, a native shrub with aromatic foliage, is showing its flower buds unfurling at this time of year, and  some of our pussy willows are almost blooming. I have a black pussy willow that is almost in full bloom, and that is a sign that Collettes inaequalis, a small, handsome, native ground-nesting bee, will be out and about soon.

Black flower variety of pussy willow

 

Sweetfern flower and leaves unfolding

I can hardly wait for green to be the primary color in the landscape again, and I strongly share this person’s sentiment:

  “Winds of March, we welcome you, there is work for you to do. Work and play and blow all day, blow the winter wind away.” ― Unknown

Pamm Cooper

Painted turtles enjoying a warn, sunny march afternoon
David Cappaert, Bugwood.org

Veteran houseplant owners and novices to indoor gardening alike, have most likely, at one time or another, experienced the plague that is a fungus gnat infestation. These tiny insects begin their lifecycle in the potting media of houseplants that have been consistently overwatered. Once established, fungus gnats multiply quickly, with populations usually localized to a certain plant, or group of plants.

This insect is not known for causing excessive damage to the plants themselves, fungus gnats are more annoying and unsightly than they are damaging. However, the larvae feed on organic material found in the potting media, which can sometimes include the roots. Another reason root damage is less likely is because fungus gnat larvae reside in the top 2-3” of the soil. These insects are attracted to moisture as that is where they lay their eggs. It is not uncommon for fungus gnats to attempt to fly into your mouth. Anyone who has experienced this knows that fungus gnats are not something you want to leave unchecked in the home.

Fungus gnat larvae. Photo by Richard Lindquist
Overwatered potting soil, perfect for fungus gnats. Photo by C. Johnson

Controlling moisture is key to controlling fungus gnats. Populations are most abundant when there is an overabundance of moisture in the area, usually this is caused by overwatering. Over saturated media is the perfect egg laying habitat for this pest. Managing your irrigation goes a long way towards managing this pest, letting soils get as dry as possible before watering is a highly effective yet simple control method. It is important to note, this technique can be damaging to some plant species that may require consistent moisture in their growing media. If that is the case there are other options for control. Bottom watering just enough so that the bulk of the root ball is wet but the top of the soil remains dry is also effective. This can be tricky and requires some experimentation to get right.

A butterfly shaped sticky trap. Photo C. Johnson

A popular method for monitoring as well as controlling fungus gnats and other flying insects is the use of yellow sticky cards. Insects are attracted to the bright yellow color and are then entangled once they land on the trap. I use these in my houseplants even when I don’t have a sever problem as they let me know what insects are present just by looking at what’s stuck to the trap. Adding these traps to an already established infestation will help reduce the  breeding population of flying adults. There area also chemical controls available for this pest in the form of pellets which are placed on top of the potting media. Bacillus thuringensis var. Israeliensis is a strain of bacteria that is also effective at controlling gnats and can be applied to the soil via drenching. Ensure that any chemical controls being applied are labeled for fungus gnats and that you follow manufacturer’s directions for indoor home use.

Carl Johnson

UConn Home & Garden Education Center, 2021

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Dean of the College, Cooperative Extension System, University of Connecticut, Storrs. The Connecticut Cooperative Extension System is an equal opportunity employer and program provider. To file a complaint of discrimination, write USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, Room 326-W, Whitten Building, Stop Code 9410, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20250-9410 or call (202) 720-5964.

Vegetable gardening is very popular these days, and even more so since the COVID outbreak.    Anyone new to this hobby is quick to hear some terms being thrown around when describing different types of vegetables. Knowing the meaning of these terms gives prospective gardeners some key information that helps them pick varieties of vegetables most suited to their needs. All living creatures, known to man, are classified according to species and genus. So for instance, all tomatoes are classified as Solanum lycospersicum.  

To start off, I already used the term “variety”. This term is used rather loosely in horticulture and is incorrectly interchanged with “cultivar”. Both refer to the differences in the species of plant you have chosen. Varieties refer to naturally occurring deviations from the original species. They typically come true to seed. Cultivars have been purposely cross-bred from two or more different species. Plants must be either vegetatively propagated or started from hybrid seed each year. These varieties or cultivars have names and are associated with specific characteristics.  For example when I say “Sweet Millions” tomatoes, a person familiar with this cultivar knows that they are cherry tomatoes, indeterminate, very flavorful, and highly productive. For the sake of this article, I will stick with tomato examples, but these terms could apply to many vegetable species and cultivars. 

Tomato ‘Sweet Millions’. Photo by dmp2018

Our tomato plants contain both male and female flower parts. Because of this, they are easily pollinated by wind or bees. This is problematic for greenhouse tomato growers, so they will hand pollinate the tomatoes with paint brushes or even special electronic devices that shake the flower to accomplish pollination. Fortunately for us outdoor gardeners, we do not need to do anything special for pollination to occur. 

Two different types of vegetable pollinator wands for use in the greenhouse setting. Photo by mrl2021.

Probably the best place to start is talking about “open pollination.” This is essentially how Mother Nature does things. There is a large population of organisms that have genes for individual traits, or characteristics. If we stick with our tomato example, think of: size, color, growth habit, disease resistance, plant height, etc. In my example, the population of tomatoes living in the wild in a certain area would have a lot of genetic diversity. As we all have experienced, the weather can vary from year to year. Genetic diversity in the population is nature’s way of ensuring that some organisms will survive and reproduce. Likewise, different parts of the country (or the world) will have different weather, climates, and microclimates.  Certain traits or characteristics are an advantage or a disadvantage depending on where you are living.  Over time, a population of tomatoes will see an increase in the genes that help it survive in the local environments. These would be considered different varieties of tomatoes.   

Some growers like to have open pollinated plants. They see which tomatoes produce the best and then save seeds from those plants to be planted the following year. In this way, the gardener is essentially developing a variety of tomato that is perfectly suited to living, growing, and even thriving in that particular area of the world. In addition, the gardener may also select for certain traits he or she prefers, like low acid, yellow tomatoes for example. Over time, the gardener may select and replant only the seeds of the plants that conform to certain pre-determined criteria.  Eventually the plants will breed true, or have the same set of characteristics, year to year.

This little cherry tomato was not planted by the gardener. It came from last year’s hybrid varieties. If desired, seeds could be saved and a new variety selected over time. Photo by mrl2020.

For the next term, I would like you to think of a young man that proposes to his girlfriend and while doing so presents her with his Grandma’s diamond ring. This piece of jewelry was passed down through the generations in his family. We call this ring an heirloom. Well there can be heirloom plants as well. These are varieties that have a specific set of characteristics and have a documented history. One of my favorite examples is the Brandywine tomato. This variety dates back to the late 1800s, and is noted for its exceptionally unique flavor, reddish pink coloration, and potato-shaped leaves. Heirloom varieties are open pollinated as well. What sets them apart from regular open-pollinated varieties is their documented history of being passed down through the generations, by name, with those specific characteristics. Many people fall in love with the idea of planting something so “valuable” that has been passed down through the generations.  Unfortunately, many of the heirlooms are not disease resistant and have a hard time growing in our modern world. Growing in containers with soilless media or in new planting areas are best suited to heirloom plantings. As long as there was no cross pollination (closely planted varieties of the same plant or active bees could do this), you should be able to save the seeds and get the same variety the following year.

Heirloom tomato, ‘Cuore di Bue’ Photo by dmp2019

This brings us to the next name to learn, and that is “hybrid”. A hybrid variety is formed by crossing two specific parent types. These parent varieties are usually kept secret. This produces a certain set of characteristics in the offspring. Examples include ‘Big Beef Hybrid’, ‘Better Boy Hybrid’, ‘Lemon Boy Hybrid’, etc. These can be particularly useful, and have specific qualities for which a gardener is looking. A gardener must pick carefully, as some of these hybrids are selected to transport well, delay ripening, or some other trait desirable for commercial production but not the fresh picked home-grown experience. The big advantage of hybrid tomatoes is the disease resistance they can have, although not all hybrids have the same disease resistance profile. I prefer to patronize companies that describe the disease resistant characteristics of the hybrid seeds I am purchasing. The downside to growing hybrids is that if you save the seeds and replant the following year, they will look nothing like the parent plants! They essentially would be like starting with an open pollinated version year one and it could take many, many years to get a tomato that breeds true (has a consistent set of characteristics from generation to generation).  Some people do not like to use hybrid seed as it forces you to buy new seed from the seed company each year. Others believe it is a small price to pay for disease resistance and known characteristics one can count on. Knowing the specific attributes of the plants before planting can be highly important for the home gardener and commercial grower alike.

Tomatoes that are ideal for transport to retail settings have different characteristics selected for compared to the home garden varieties. Photo by mrl2021

The next type of tomatoes has been used by commercial field and greenhouse growers for years.  Within the past ten years or so they made their way into the retail markets. These are “grafted” tomatoes. The grafting process goes back for many thousands of years for various reasons depending on the crop species. For tomatoes, simply put, we cut the above ground portion off and stick it onto the root stock of another variety. This can be done with our heirlooms. The top portion retains the qualities of taste, color, and style while the bottom root portion of a different variety, attribute’s resistance to many soil borne pathogens. The reason these have not really caught on too well in the retail market is the price. There is a lot of labor involved with this process, and for every one plant you sell you actually have to grow two plants (one for the top, and one for the roots). While a packet of thirty seeds or four plants may sell for three or four dollars, a single grafted plant of the same variety can sell anywhere from eight to thirteen dollars.  This is assuming you can find what you are looking for locally as none of those prices include shipping!

The final topic I wanted to cover was Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs.  These organisms have had their genetic material altered in a way that is not natural. Normally, we get new gene combinations through egg and sperm formation and the resultant reproductive event that follows. With genetic modification, genes can be altered, removed, or added in. Scientists can also cross genes from different species of plants or animals. Plant hybridizers have been crossing closely related, but nonetheless different, species for centuries. As such, the public is generally not as resistant to this “more natural” activity. For example, you can cross two different species of Echinacea coneflower in order to create a new color variety. Where the public gets worried, is when a gene from a distantly related organisms is inserted into the genome of another. For example, Glofish were made by inserting a gene from a coral into a fish.  There is no realistic way that would happen in nature. Due to the fears described above, there are currently no GMO tomatoes being sold on the market. This is not due to any known hazard to humans, but rather due to the public being wary of a technology that is new, by a process unknown to many, and not having enough time to see what will happen with these “experiments” long-term. There are, however, many other examples of vegetables that are GMO, like soybeans some corn, and canola for example.

So given all this information, what category of vegetable do you pick? Well, the simple answer is that it depends on what you want to do, and how good you are as a gardener. For anyone new to the endeavor and looking to plant tomatoes, I would recommend starting off with the disease resistant hybrids. These are generally the most forgiving. Once you have a good idea of how to grow the plants, maybe you would want to try an heirloom variety or two in addition to your regular stock. Open pollinated plants can be fun as well as you can save your seeds each year and select for certain traits, but you need patience and time. This gives you the power to essentially create something new and unique suited to your specific needs or desires. No matter what you decide, get out there and plant! As I always suggest, get a soil test first for best results!        

Matt Lisy

According to language of flowers so popular during the 1800’s, the violet represents modesty and decency, qualities sorely lacking in modern society some would argue. There may be 500 or more species of violets as not only does this family include sweet violets, bedding violas and pansies but its members are naturally rather promiscuous and have also been crossed by breeders. Violets are mostly native to temperate Northern Hemisphere regions and the ones most commonly found in our yards probably originated in Europe.

Pansies by Lisa Rivers

Most violets are small perennial plants although some are annuals. Small clumps of heart to kidney-shaped leaves grow from compact stoloniferous rootstocks.  Half-inch flowers may be purple, bluish, white, yellow, pink, maroon, bicolored or speckled. Solitary flowers arise from leaf axils in April and May and consist of 5 sepals and 5 petals.

Violet ‘Freckles’ by dmp2016

Violet flowers are rather curious. We notice the flowers above ground but there are also hidden flowers beneath the soil surface of several species that never open but self-pollinate and produce fertile seeds in large numbers. These flowers are called cleistogamous flowers and they are why we often find so many violet seedlings each year surrounding our established plants. The seeds may be ejected several feet away from the parent plant as well which explains why violets can so easily spread throughout a lawn area.  

Common purple violet. Photo by dmp2016

Not all violets are fragrant although the ones that are can take me back to my younger days helping Grandma gather bouquets of sweet violets (Viola odorata) from her garden. The most common blue violet (V. sororia) which spreads vigorously throughout my gardens and lawn, and probably yours as well, has no scent that I can detect.  

Lore and legends surrounding violets go back at least to the times of the ancient Greeks when Zeus turned his lover, Io, into a heifer to protect her from the jealous Hera. He provided her with pastures filled with violets to feast on. The flower was, at one time, a symbol for Athens.

Violets were also a love token between Napoleon and his empress Josephine and later became his political emblem. During troubadour times in Toulouse, France, they were given as a poetry prize and in the Middle Ages in southern Germany, discovery of the first violets of spring was celebrated in dance.

Violet bouquet from http://www.depositphotos.com

Ancient herbalists Herodotus and Pliny ascribed medical virtues to violets, and they were recommended for gout and spleen disorders and in later times used to treat respiratory disorders. The leaves and flowers were found to have both antiseptic and expectorant properties. Flowers also contain vitamins A and C as well as some antioxidants.

The flowers of the sweet violet (V. odorata) are edible and have been used for garnishes and in salads, jams, jellies, liqueurs and baked goods. They are often candied and used as decorations on cakes, chocolates and other sweets. Other species are edible as well but be sure to positively identify plants before consuming. 

Candied violas from http://www.foodnetwork.ca

Violet water is made by weighing down and steeping violet leaves and flowers in water. The softly fragrant water is used in cooking to flavor tea breads, fruit compotes, chilled soups, ices and cupcakes. Both violet water and candied violets can be purchased. 

For a long time, violets were prized for their aromatic qualities. They were widely used in perfumes until the advent of synthetic fragrances. There are still some perfumes made from violets, but it may take a bit of searching to locate them.

Typically, violets prefer somewhat moist and shaded areas, but I have found them growing in garden beds in full sun which get little supplemental irrigation. Our common blue violet along with its white and hybridized relatives such as ‘Freckles’ are tough plants and compete well in the Northeast. I find that they are easier to dig up from unwanted areas in my garden then to get rid of in a lawn. Personally, I find a lawn awash in purple and white quite a lovely spring sight.

Violets in lawn. Photo by dmp, 2020

Many Connecticut residents are aware that pollinating insects are declining in numbers because of several factors including pesticide use, loss of habitat and climate change. Violets are a pollinator plant because the larvae of several butterfly species including the large yellow underwing and the silver bordered fritillary as well as the giant leopard moth and the Setaceous Hebrew character moth feed on violets. 

In general, violets need little care in terms of watering or fertilizing. Occasionally rabbits will nibble on the foliage, but it always grows back. Enjoy their short-lived blooms and consider using them as a groundcover under deciduous trees where turf grasses struggle.

Dawn P.

Wintertime brings more cut flower arrangements into my home. I need to have flowers inside when it is too cold to grow them outdoors. Flowers are used to communicate. ‘I love you’, ‘I’m sorry’, ‘Get well’ and ‘Thank you’, are all sentiments conveyed through flowers. Birthday, anniversary, and holiday arrangements help to celebrate special occasions. Extending the life of the bouquets makes the celebration continue. It is always a disappointment when the first rose head begins to nod like a broken bobble head dog in the back window of a car. Trying to prop up the blossom never works so removal ensues with rearrangement of the remaining blooms and greenery in a hopeful attempt to prolong the dying process. What can be done to eliminate or diminish the natural decomposition process of the bouquet? There are a number of steps you can take.

Lots of beautiful flowers to chose from. Photo by dmp2021

First, flower selection is important. Buy fresh flowers and they will naturally last longer. Shorter time spent in the florist’s bucket means longer time in your home. Whether purchased in the grocery store or flower shop, smell the water in the holding container. If it smells at all, then bacteria have begun to grow. Bacteria equal deterioration to a cut flower. Fungus, yeasts, and algae can also grow in the vase water. Flower stems have cells that move water up by capillary action, a constant pull upward towards the blossom. Bacteria and other organisms clog these cells restricting the uptake of water resulting in wilted flowers. Start with a clean vase. Remove any leaves from stems that would sit below the water surface to lessen areas for the organisms to feed and reproduce. Change the water every two days to reduce colonies of bacteria available to be sucked up the flower stem.

Remove any foliage that would be below water line. Photo by dmp2021

Air bubbles are another detriment to water uptake. If the flow of water it not continuous but interrupted by an air bubble, water flow will stop. Once home, cut the stems of the flowers under running water or in a sink or container filled with water with a sharp, non-serrated knife or scissors. Enough water will cling to the 45-degree angled cut while you quickly place it in the water filled vase to secure a continuous flow of water. Use warm water (110 degrees) in the vase to encourage faster movement up the stem. Enough water will cling to the cut surfaces during water vase changes so re-cutting of stems is usually not necessary. Never let the water level fall below the bottom of the stems.

Recut stems at an angle under water. Photo by dmp2021

Placing additives in the water is a common practice for cut flower arrangements. The commercial floral preservatives often distributed with purchased flowers are meant to be a vase water additive. They contain a sugar to feed the flower, a biocide that kills bacteria, fungi and yeasts that feed on the decomposing greenery and sap that seeps from flower stem, and an acidifier. The acidifier lowers the pH of the vase water retarding bacteria, fungi and yeast growth and also help move the water up the stems.

Use the floral preservative provided for longer vase life. Photo by dmp2021

Some home treatments of vase water are said to work on the same chemical principles as the commercial preservatives. A 1/4 teaspoon of bleach per quart of water will act as a disinfectant to kill the bacteria and algae. One tablespoon of sugar acts as a food source. A penny contains copper which is a fungicide. To create an acidic condition in the water, add one aspirin tablet or two tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar to one quart of water. Non-diet lemon-lime soda will add sugar and create acidic conditions when added to water. Use one part lemon-lime soda to two parts water. Keep in mind, however, that it is generally easier, cheaper and more effective just to use the floral preservative that comes with your flowers.

If possible, consider storing your arrangements in a cool place or even a refrigerator when they are not on display. Temperatures between 33 and 36 degrees F will keep many cut flowers fresher longer. However, if your arrangement contains tropical blossoms like heliconia, bird of paradise or ginger, temperatures should not fall below 50 F.

Vector set tropical flowers. Jungle exotic strelitzia, anthurium, hibiscus, plumeria, orchid and ginger flower.

Keep arrangements away from ripening fruit which releases ethylene gas that will age flowers faster. Place bouquets out of direct sunlight and out of drafts. Use lukewarm water for most flowers but cold water for bulb flowers like daffodils, tulips and hyacinths. Flowers that release a milky sap from the stem when cut benefit from sealing by passing the cut stem ends over an open flame or dipping the cut ends into boiling water for 20 seconds. This stops the stems from oozing. Some flowers naturally have a longer vase life than others including alstroemeria, aster, celosia, cosmos, gypsophila, lavatera, rudbeckia, scabiosa, snapdragon, statice, sunflower, yarrow and zinnia. Hollow stem flowers wilt the quickest.

Enjoy your beautiful arrangement. Photo by dmp2021

So as these long days of winter leave you longing for summer, head to the flower shop armed with all this information to make the beauty of cut flower arrangements last a long time in your home.

Here’s to an early spring!

Carol Q.         

Cooper’s hawk watching for prey

“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.”
William Blake

Getting outside in the winter can take some serious nudging if the cold is a factor, but when prodding has done its work, expect to find things of interest as you walk, hike or even drive along. A backyard or a hiking trail can provide more interesting viewing than television programs offer and things we see will probably pique our curiosity as well.  

Cladonia arbuscula lichen

Cladonia arbuscula is a fruticose lichen, that is, its shape resembles a tiny shrub. Highly branched, it occurs on the ground in open acidic areas, sometimes forming large areas of tufted mats. It is one of many lichens commonly referred to as reindeer lichens. It is light gray-green or cream and has a puffy appearance.

Princess pine, Lycopodium obscurum, a flat-branched species of club moss, is a  common forest understory plant  of North America. It is actually neither a low- growing conifer nor a moss but is instead  closely related to ferns and horsetails. They have green scale-like leaves and yellow to tan sporophylls on branch tips that produce spores.  

Princess pine covering the ground in the Connecticut woods
Princess pine sporophylls

Sometimes when hiking in New England woods you come across stone walls. In the past, these were probably erected as borders along the edge of woods on farmland. Over the years, as farms are abandoned or fields are no longer cultivated, the land cleared for fields has returned its original woodland habitat. Robert Thorson, a landscape geologist at the University of Connecticut, estimates that there are more than 100,000 miles of these old stone walls which could circle the globe 4 times.

Stone wall in the deep woods

On a recent trip to the shoreline in Old Lyme, right after a strong winter storm, there were tons (probably!) of shells washed up above the normal high-tide mark. If you find a tan, spiral string of cases, check this out. These are the egg casings of a whelk and contain a bunch of tiny whelks in each case. Sometimes people open one up and think it is just sand inside, but if you look carefully you may see any remaining whelks inside.

Spiral egg cases of a whelk

Broomsedge bluestem Andorpogon virginicus is a native grass that turns bright orange in late fall and remains upright throughout much of the winter season, often standing tall above snow cover. Seeds are a source of food for birds and small animals. This plant also supports various Skipper butterfly larva and small butterflies obtain nectar from the flowers.

Broomsedge in winter

Telling the difference between red and pitch pines has become easier as I have learned that red pine needles are in bundles of two, and pitch pine needles are in bundles of three, and are often twisted. Red pine has smaller cones and lack the stout spines on individual scales that characterizes those of pitch pines. Also, red pine bark peels away on upper trunk and branches revealing a nice red color.

Pitch pine cone has stout spines on the scales
Image of red pine- cone has no spines on the scales and needles are in bundles of two
Peeling red pine bark on older tree

Other things I came across recently include melted snow where deer had bedded down, a red-shouldered hawk in the neighborhood and a Cooper’s hawk perched on a dead tree looking for prey, a trunk of a small tree damaged by a deer rubbing its antlers, interesting cloud formations and a Promethea moth cocoon dangling from a spicebush twig. As my nephew, Ben, once stated when observing nature as a small boy, “the excitement never ends”.

Red shouldered hawk in a landscape tree
Promethea moth cocoon structure
Tree with bark rubbed off by a buck rubbing its antlers
Clouds lined up in a winter sky

Pamm Cooper- UConn Home and Garden Education Center

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