Horticultural Advice


This is the time of year when summer-blooming bulbs appear in every garden shop, hardware store, or even grocery store. Like a kid in a candy store, I can look at them for ages, dreaming of the colors and shapes that could appear in my garden. Recently the image on a package of Asiatic lily bulbs jumped out at me.

Dark Lady blend 2

The mix of antique-looking purples, creams, and pinks would be a beautiful addition our garden bed where limelight hydrangeas, pale drift roses, and a Dogwood Cornus florida with its pale cream blossoms touched with pink.

Asiatic lilies, along with Easter lilies, are true lilies in the genus Lilium and Fritillaria, in the genus Fritillaria, are members of the family Liliaceae. The trumpet-shaped blooms of the Asiatic lily flower in early summer and may face upright atop stems that have long, slim whorled leaves.

Oriental lilies, on the other hand, have flowers that are outward and downward facing and flower in late summer, including the very appropriately named hybrid ‘Stargazer’ lily whose outward-facing flowers appear to be looking up.

Stargazer 1

The Oriental lilies are more fragrant than the Asiatic so they are a better choice if that is what you desire in your garden or home. Both are great options for cutting and look lovely in containers with lower growing plants surrounding them. In addition, when grown in containers they can be swapped out with other plants after blooming or grow both groups in the same planter for a succession of blooms.

However, the bane of any true lily grower’s existence is the Lily leaf beetle, Lillioceris lilii. Both the larvae and the adult Lily leaf beetle feed on the foliage of true lilies, in fact they can totally defoliate a plant in a matter of days. This pest was first documented in the United states in Cambridge, MA, in 1992. In the subsequent years it became a major agricultural and economic pest of growers. The Lily leaf beetle is also known as the Scarlet lily beetle due to its bright red coloring.

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This insect lays its eggs and completes its entire life cycle on the same plant and can cause damage to both the stems and leaves. The bright orange-red, oval eggs are laid in groups of about 12 on the underside of the leaf in May. In 7-10 days the eggs will darken and then hatch out, allowing the larvae to feed on the underside of the leaf before moving to the upper leaf surface and the buds. They can be hard to control with insecticides as they use their own frass (excrement) as a barrier to cover themselves.

In another two weeks they will drop to soil to pupate emerging a week and a half later as adults.  The adults will continue to defoliate and weaken the plant. Neem can be used as a control but must be applied every 5 days or so. Scouting and handpicking are often the best option and I find that holding an open container below them as I scout helps to catch them if they attempt to drop to the ground. Fun fact: they will make a squeaky noise if squeezed or disturbed.

If you don’t enjoy the monitoring that is required to deal with the Lily leaf beetle or the disappointment of walking past your flower beds only to discover that your lilies have been stripped clean you may want to consider planting another dependable perennial bulb: the daylily.

Flower bed

Daylilies used to belong to the same family as the true lilies, Liliaceae, were reclassified in the family Asphodelaceae in the genus Hemerocallis. Since it was first formally described by Carl Linnaeus in the mid-eighteenth the Liliaceae family kept expanding until it encompassed over 300 genera and 4500 species. Most of these were grouped into Liliaceae simply because they had six tepals and a superior ovary. From 1998 to 2016 a phylogenetics (evolutionary history and relationships) study by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group was key in recognition of the family Asphodelaceae. Within Asphodelaceae is the sub-family Hemerocallidoideae and the genus Hemerocallis in which resides the daylily.

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The ephemeral blooms of the daylily give it both its common name and Latin name as Hemerocallis comes from the Greek words hemera (day) and kalos (beautiful). To keep daylilies blooming longer I remove any spent flowers and also any of the large, bulbous seed capsules that may appear. Daylilies will grow in full sun or part shade in most soil types although like it slightly acidic, perfect for Connecticut gardens. A bit of a 5-10-5 fertilizer at planting and then each spring when growth appears is all that it needs.

The one pest of daylilies that I have to deal with each year is the metallic-brown Oriental beetle (Anomala orientalis). The adult beetles are attracted to the open blooms and will nestle themselves right down into the center of the blooms.

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Its another pest that I control by handpicking, dropping them into a container of insecticidal soap. I don’t mind though as this activity gets me up close and personnel to the beautiful blooms and also reminds me to deadhead as I go along.

Susan Pelton

All images by S. Pelton, UConn

 

ringneck pheasant in early springIt has been a very long winter with little sight of spring even though it is the end of March. Normal spring garden chores are difficult to get done as the garden is under snow or still has frozen soil. Although the snow provided a good back drop to see a ring necked pheasant wandering through my yard this past week. They are non-native game birds that are sometimes released for hunting purposes, but flocks rarely survive to create sustained populations, it looks like this male made it through the winter just fine.

Some of my garden perennials were not so lucky this winter. It appears the voles and chipmunks have been busy feeding and tunneling their way through parts of the garden. The moles have created lots of heaved up tunnels in the lawn which sink when step on or tripped over. The heuchera below will need to be dug up and replanted. Fill in any tunnels such as the one on the right. Mouse traps sent in the runs might as a control measure. Cover the trap with an up-side-down bucket to keep out birds and cats.

Antsy gardeners can do much harm to the soil by working the ground if it is frozen or wet. Compaction will result and soil structure will be ruined. Soil structure is the way the soil parts are arranged and adhered together. Soil parts do not stack neatly like Legos or Lincoln Logs. They are non-uniform shapes with needed air spaces in between the particles to provide spaces for oxygen and water to hangout that are necessary for roots to access. Working wet or frozen soil squishes out those spaces, cramming the soil particles tightly together resulting in compaction. Once compacted soil dries, it is like a lump of cement. Plant roots have a very hard time breaking through compacted soil. Lightly rake to remove last year’s foliage, taking care to not damage new emerging shoots can satisfy the need to be outside and work in the garden.

daffodil foliage emerging

Daffodil foliage emerging.

crocus

Crocus

If you do have an area of compacted soil, deep tap-rooted plants are a great natural way to break it up. Plants with deep tap roots are strong and thick, working their way down to access nutrients deeper in the soil. Nutrients are moved through the plant up to the leaves, stems and flowers which will eventually senescence, dropping dead above ground parts on the top of the soil. Those plant parts will decompose leaving their nutrients in the upper range of the soil where weaker rooted plants will be able to reach them. Kind of like a natural rototilling moving soil nutrients. Plants with deep taproots are dandelions, comfrey and horseradish.

dandelion 1

Dandelion helps break up compacted soil.

Rhubarb is the earliest of the three perennial vegetables to awake in the spring. Horseradish follows shortly after, and asparagus takes at least another four weeks to send up shoots. Make each of these areas to avoid damage to their crowns. Better yet have designated beds for each crop. Horseradish can be an aggressive traveler so planting it away from other crops is recommended.

rhubarb emerging 2018

Rhubarb emerging March 30, 2018.

There is still time to remove, crush and kill gypsy moth eggs from tree bark. Hope for a wet spring to develop the fungus that infects the young caterpillars after they hatch from any egg masses which were left.

 

Gypsy moth egg cases, p.cooper photo.jpg

While cleaning up garden debris, watch for beneficial insect overwintered eggs like the praying mantid’s egg case below. Carefully remove the stem and egg mass to a safe place outside so it can hatch naturally when the weather warms. Do NOT bring it into your home unless you want it to hatch inside your heated house!

praying mantis egg mass

Praying Mantid Egg Case

Another spring chore can be done inside the home. Cut the top six inches off of leggy houseplants to give them a good pruning. Repot any that need it to get them ready for another year of growing. Stick some cuttings in a vase of water to get them to produce roots. Some plants do respond better than others and it is worth a try to produce new, free houseplants to share with friends.

roots in water

Pothos cuttings rooting in water

-Carol Quish

 

 

 

 

‘An herb whose flowers are like to a Lions mouth when he gapeth.’
Copious Dictionary in three parts by Francis Gouldman

After the 5th mildest February in Connecticut on record for the past 113 years it felt as if we were going to just saunter into spring this year. Walking around the yard on the first day of March I saw the usual signs of late winter including the new buds of Hellebore peeping through last year’s old foliage and even a brave little slug that had emerged from the soil.

But the next day March came in like a lion with winds gusting to 74 mph at the Ledge Lighthouse in Groton courtesy of a Nor’easter that also brought snow and drenching rains, days later we had 12-18” of heavy, wet snow across the state and today, another 6-10”. Fortunately, hellebore is able to withstand a little bad weather.

Helleborus is known as winter rose, Christmas rose, and, most familiarly to me because of when it blooms, Lenten rose. Its scientific name was given by Carl Linnaeus in 1753 and comes from the Greek ‘helléboros’ which breaks down into heleîn ‘to injure’ and borά ‘food’ due to the toxic nature of all parts of the plant. Two kinds of hellebore were known before 400 BCE:  the white hellebore of the Family Melanthiaceae was believed to have been used as a laxative by Hippocrates and the black hellebore, melanorrhizon (black-rooted), a member of the Ranunculaceae family. It is the latter group that most garden hellebore belongs to, one that also gives us Delphinium and Clematis (below), Buttercups, Ranunculus, and Anemone.

Hellebore originated in the mountain areas and open woodlands of the Balkans but some species also come from Asia (H. thibetanus) and the border of Turkey and Syria (H. vesicarius). In the centuries since hellebore has found its footing in gardens around the world where it continues to be a favored choice as a ground-cover with dark, shiny, leathery leaves.

It is so popular that Helleborus x hybridus was chosen the 2005 Perennial Plant of the Year from up to 400 nominations by the Perennial Plant Association. Plants are chosen by the PPA for their low-maintenance, wide range of growing climates, multiple season interest, availability, and relatively pest and disease-free care. It’s no surprise that Hellebore made the cut.

Helleborus by Dawn Pettinelli

Image by Dawn Pettinelli

It grows in USDA zones 5a to 8b which makes it very well-suited to Connecticut even though it is not native. It can tolerate shade to part-shade and does well in moist, well-drained soil with a pH range of 5.7-7.0.  Lower pH levels can lead to calcium and magnesium deficiencies. Interestingly, once established, hellebore is very drought-tolerant and even drooping leaves will bounce back unharmed when they are re-hydrated. Due to the fact that its leaves contain nasty-tasting alkaloids it does not get eaten by deer or rabbits and is considered toxic to humans and animals when ingested.

Helleborus orientalis late winter

 

Those same alkaloids can be a problem for people with sensitive skin so it is wise to wear gloves when working with hellebore. I trim the foliage back in late winter, at the start of March if there isn’t any snow cover, so that the emerging flower buds aren’t hidden by the old growth.

If Botrytis cinerea, a grey mold, was a problem on hellebore foliage then infected plant material should be removed in the fall so that it doesn’t overwinter.  Late winter is also a good time to apply a slow-release, balanced fertilizer that will ensure ‘blooms’ that will last for a month or more.

 

I say ‘blooms’ because what appears to be petals are actually tepals that protect the small, barely noticeable flower buds. Sepals are usually green but when they are similar in appearance and color to petals they are called tepals. Other plants that have colored tepals are Orchids, Day lilies, Lilies, Lily of the valley, Tulips, Magnolia and Tulip poplar.

On the hellebore the vintage-looking colors of the tepals range from a pure white to a dusky rose to a deep, almost black, plum. Most tepals become green-tinged as they age and many are veined, spotted, or blotched with shades of pink, purple, or red. The 2-3” ‘blooms’ generally hang or droop down so it is sometimes hard to see the nectaries that provide food for the early pollinators.

There are few insects that bother hellebore but one is the Hellebore aphid which will feed on sap from the flowers and foliage, excreting the honeydew that may lead to the growth of sooty mold. Cucumber mosaic virus can be vectored by feeding aphids and shows itself in light and dark green mottling on Hellebore foetidus.

HL

Image by RHS

 

 

H. foetidus, also known as stinking hellebore or dungwort is found in the wild in southern and western Europe in addition to cottage gardens. Its foliage gives off a pungent smell when crushed and it has another insect pest particular to it, the Hellebore leaf miner, which, as its name suggests, will tunnel into the foliage creating the damage shown to the left.

 

 

There are many commercially available varieties of hellebore and hybridizing has created a color palate that now includes reds, grays, yellows, and greens. The Picotee variety have narrow margins of a darker color. Semi- and double-flowered hellebore have two or more extra rows of tepals and the anemone-centered variety have a ring of shorter curved petals closer to the center which drop off after pollination. A visit to your favorite nursery or garden center is sure to provide you with many selections.

Helleborus by Lisa Rivers

Image by Lisa Rivers

You can put them into the ground as soon as it is workable. As Hellebore do not grow more than 18” high and have flowers that hang down they are best appreciated when viewed from close proximity. Plant them in an area that you walk past often and enjoy them for years to come.

Susan Pelton

All images by Susan Pelton unless noted

Cornell Pink Azalea and Steeple

Spring is just around the corner bringing a fresh year to begin new gardening activities. Composting is a great way to recycle weeds, food waste and just about anything that was once a plant. Composting home and garden waste is one way to reduce what is picked up by the garbage truck, reducing your carbon foot print, and saving money for you if garbage collection is charged by bag, or your town in tipping costs. Tipping costs are the amount municipalities have to pay per ton to use regional trash plants. Every little bit helps. The benefits of the end product of compost can be used in gardens and lawns, returning nutrients and increasing organic matter to the soil resulting in healthier plants.

compost finished

Finished Compost.

Composting is controlled decomposition. Everything eventually rots, but by knowing a bit of the science of how things break down, we can make rot happen quicker, getting more compost faster. Every compost pile or bin needs carbon, nitrogen, air and water, and soil organisms to do the dirty work of decomposition. Micro-organisms are the fungi and bacteria which feed on the stuff in the pile. They are most efficient when the pile contains a ratio of 30 carbon to 1 nitrogen.

Browns are the carbon and are from dead plant material. They are the browns of the pile. Fall leaves, newspaper, scrap paper, woodchips, dry hay, straw sawdust dried grass clippings and weeds without seeds are all browns.

newspaper for composting

leaves and caroline Dry leaves are carbon.

 

Newspaper is carbon. No glossy sections.

Greens provide nitrogen the microbes need to process the carbon. The nitrogen will be given back to the pile after the microbes use it, and also release more from the carbon material. Greens are green leaves, grass or weeds without seeds. Also fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, tea leaves and even coffee filters as they are paper, which comes from trees.

compost pile

Things  not to put in a compost pile include meats or dairy products, fats and oils, bones, weeds with seeds, diseased plant material, and dog or cat manure. Also no pesticide treated plant material.

dog, rye

Pet waste is not recommended.

Water should be added to keep the pile as moist as a wrung out sponge. Too much water and microbes drown. Too little moisture and the microbes will dry out and die. Turning the pile will incorporate more air, helping the pile to dry if too moist.

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Piles can be out in the open just as a heap on the ground or contained with wire or fenced sides.

Closed container can also be used and must have drainage holes to allow water to escape it the inside become too wet from rain or watering the pile. Some containers are mounted so they can be turned, effectively turning the contents inside. Turning the container or the pile incorporates more air and distributes moisture, both of which the microbes need to do their work of decomposing. If a container is used to compost, add a few shovels of soil or finished compost to introduce healthy microbes into the organic matter of greens and browns.

Finished compost can be screened through a 1/4 inch piece of hardware screening stapled to a square made from 2×4 inch boards. Shovel the compost in, and shake or move it around to keep the larger sticks and debris out of the finer end product. Through the larger pieces back into the pile for further breaking down.

compost screened

Happy composting!

-Carol Quish

snow and tree

As I sit here inside, watching the cold wind blow and snow pile up outside the warmth and safety of my little writing spot, I wonder just how all those living beings outside are surviving. Trees are swaying in the wind, and birds trying to visit the feeder are forced to alter flight plans while sporting ruffled feathers. The only animals I see are hunkered down squirrels. And just where did the insects go?

A little research tells me all of the annual plants are dead. They completed their life cycle in one year going from germinating a seed to producing seeds which are waiting winter out to make new plants in the spring. In my vegetable garden I call them volunteers. You know those tomato seeds that germinate from last year’s rotted tomato fruit that dropped to the ground and its seed volunteered to grow where I didn’t put this year’s crop. The seed survived through the winter, not the plant. Annual weeds drop seed in this manner, too.

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Perennial plants are a different story, although their seeds can do the same overwintering as annuals, the existing plant can live through the winter to grow another year, hopefully for many years more. Trees and shrubs are woody perennials that have woody above ground structures and roots that overwinter. Herbaceous perennials overwinter their roots and crowns only. The above ground portion of the plant dies back, but the crown and roots are alive at level or below ground. Perennial plants go dormant, living off of stored food until warmer weather returns. Storage organs of plants are the thick roots, rhizomes and bulbs. Just how they prepare themselves to make it through the winter happens at the cellular level long before freezing temperatures begin.

Plants are triggered by the amount of light and the amount of dark they experience, and lower night temperatures signal to get ready for winter rest and dormancy. Different species have varying light and temperature levels signals. Deciduous trees and shrubs must begin the process of losing their leaves by first stopping the production of their food. We notice it in slower growth and in the leaf color. The leaves are the food factory of the plant where photosynthesis happens. Carbohydrates are made then stored in roots and woody parts of the tree or shrub. Lots of light and water results in good growth and food storage, but when light amount lessens, leaves slow down production. Chlorophyll is also produced during photosynthesis, giving the leaf a green color. Once the leaves stop working, no more chlorophyll is produced and the other plant pigments of red and yellow are exposed now that there is no green chlorophyll to cover them. This is when we see beautiful fall foliage. The next change happens in a specialized layer of cells at the point where the leaf stem (petiole), attaches to the twig called the abscission layer. These cells enlarge and harden to choke off water flow to the leaves and the leaf slowly dies and falls off.

tree in fall

The next cellular change is called cold hardening. It happens within the vascular system containing the plant juices and water. If water inside the cells freeze, it will rupture the cells, permanently damaging the plant. The cold hardening process increases the sugar content of the water, and makes other protective chemicals, lowering the freezing level of the plant liquid. Basically the plant makes its own antifreeze. Cell walls are also changed to allow water leakage into spaces just outside the cell so if crystals do form, damage will be avoided. The acclimation of all these changes makes the plant able to tolerate below freezing temperatures. Fall pruning or fertilizing with nitrogen during August and September stimulates new growth interrupting the cold hardening process.

Evergreen trees and shrubs have thick leaves with waxy coatings to prevent moisture loss. Some broadleaved evergreens have gas exchange openings called stomata on the underside of the leaf. In very cold weather the leaves will curl as the stomata close to prevent moisture loss. Rhododendrons are a good example. Evergreen plants will continue to photosynthesize as long as there is moisture available, but much more slowly during the winter.

rhododendron curled in snow

Animals and insect have the ability to move, unlike plants. They can migrate, hibernate or adapt to winter’s cold. Certain birds migrate to warmer areas and better food sources. Hummingbirds, osprey, wood ducks and song birds fly south, and some birds from far north in Canada come south to spend the winter here. Juncos, snowy owls and bald eagles summer at a higher latitude and spend the winter nearer to us. They go where they can find food.

Some animals go into a winter dormancy or hibernation. This phase consists of greatly reduced activity, sleep or rest, and lower body temperatures while their bodies are sustained from stored fat. Bears, woodchucks, skunks, bats, snakes and turtles all have true hibernation, not waking until light levels increase and food sources begin to be available again. Bears and bats find caves, woodchucks, and skunks dig tunnels, snakes and some turtles burrow into soil and leaf litter, all in protected sites.

woodchuck at entrance to tunnel

Woodchuck at the entrance to his tunnel where he will spend the winter.

Other animals such as chipmunks have underground burrows lined with stored nuts and other food. Beavers do the same in lodges they build just above water, and line with stored logs to feed on during the winter. They sleep for long periods, only waking to eat and if maybe take a short walk above ground before returning to their den. Fur bearing animals will grow a thicker winter coat to help keep them warm, and may be a whiter color to provide camouflage in the snow.

Voles are active all through the year. In winter, they will tunnel through the snow, just on top of the ground looking for plants material to eat. They will strip the bark off of young trees and eat the roots. Voles store seeds and other plant matter in underground chambers. Mice are active and breed year round, living in any protected nook or cranny they can find, including our homes. They store food in hidden spots away from human and predator activity. Check for mice tracks around your foundation after a freshly fallen snow to see if mice are using your house for their winter quarters. Moles are active deep underground, below the frost line, in an elaborate array of tunnels. They feed on soil dwelling insects throughout the winter. I guess you could say they go ‘south’ in the soil profile during cold weather of winter.

Squirrels do not migrate nor hibernate, they adapt. They are active all winter, raiding bird feeders, and feeding on stored nuts. They grow a thicker coat of fur and fat for winter. Squirrels make great nests high in trees, well insulted with leaves. Several grey squirrels will share a nest to keep warm. They are often too quick to get a close up photo!

squirrel tail

Insects as a group are very large and diverse. Some migrate in their adult stage such as monarch butterflies and some species of dragonflies. Others overwinter in pupal stages like the chrysalis’ of spice bush swallowtails or cocoons of Cecropia moths.  Others adult and immature insects, depending on species, enter a state of diapause, similar to hibernation in animals, to overwinter during the winter. Diapause is a dormant semi-frozen state for some insects.  And like plants, changes at the cellular level occur, too. These insects produce an alcohol-like chemical and added sugars to the moisture in their bodies to prevent freezing, just like vodka will not freeze when placed in our home freezers. Insects will first seek out a protected place in the soil, leaf litter or under lose tree bark or rotten logs.

The brown and orange woolly bear caterpillar burrows into the forest floor to spend the winter as in its larval stage. In spring it will come out of its dormancy to pupate, later becoming an Isabella tiger moth.

woolly bear

Other insects lay eggs singly or in mass groupings, which are equipped to live through the winter and hatch when conditions are good again. Gypsy moths spend the winter as egg masses, tolerating down to -20 F temperatures. Crickets are another insect group which lays eggs in the fall on the ground that will provide a new generation of night songs for us to enjoy the next summer.

Gypsy moth egg cases, p.cooper photo

Gypsy moth egg mass will overwinter on this tree bark. Hatch will be in late spring.

-Carol Quish

tulips

 

 

 

   “The grass on the rock, the flower of the heath, the thistle with its beard are the chief adornments of his landscape.” Ossian.

Well, here we are. 2017 has come to an end and 2018 lays before us. We are at the darkest time of the year as the winter solstice, which occurred on December 21st, brought us only 9 hours and 8 minutes of daylight on that day. That is 6 hours and 5 minutes less daylight than on June 21st! Its no wonder that this time of year is referred to as ‘hibernal’, a time when the deciduous trees are bare, the dropped leaves begin to decay, and birds and wildlife have settled into their winter homes and habits.

Squirrel on the suet feeder
A squirrel on the suet feeder      Image by S. Pelton

In Connecticut winter-time means that most plants have either died back or gone dormant. The evergreens hold onto their leaves and needles but they are not actively growing. Some of the more common evergreen landscaping plants for zone 6 such as the (clockwise from the top left) the rhododendron (Rhododendron sp.), the Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), the mugo pine (Pinus mugo), and the white spruce (Picea glauca) add so much to the barren winter landscape.

                                                                                                Images by S. Pelton

The non-evergreen perennials can also be of interest during this time. From the top left clockwise, the American pussy willow (Salix discolor), the stonecrop (Sedum sp.), and the hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) all add some textual variety to the landscape.

                                                                                                         Images by S. Pelton

 

Their monotone appearance doesn’t really catch the eye like the very appropriately named winterberry (Ilex verticillata) does. One of the deciduous hollies, winterberry looks especially outstanding after a snowfall. As with most hollies the winterberry is dieocious and requires a male and a female plant to produce these beautiful red drupes which will remain on the plant through a good part of the winter to the benefit of small mammals and more than 40 species of birds.

                                                                                        Winterberry images by S. Pelton

But I would like to talk about an evergreen shrub that holds not only its leaves but its flowers all winter. Known as spring or winter heath (commonly but incorrectly called heather) Erica carnea has the most delicate, bell-shaped pink flowers and whorled, needle-like leaves that are barely ½” long. The family Ericaceae also includes the true heathers that were once included in the genus Erica but are now in the genus now called Calluna. Calluna heathers are called summer or autumn heathers and can be identified by their smaller, scale-like leaves which are in opposite pairs and their flowers which emerge in late summer. It is the heather Calluna vulgaris that evokes images of wide expanses of Scottish highland moors that appear to be covered in a pink mist.

5391978-PPTJohn M. Randall, The Nature Conservancy, Bugwood.org

It was the winter heath, Erica carnea, that stood out as I walked through our yard on a recent sunny but bitterly cold day. Its tiny pink flowers don’t seem capable of withstanding the arctic temperatures of the past week yet there they are.

heather in winter closeup 2                                                                                 Erica carnea close-up       Image by S. Pelton

The compact, or dwarf, size of most heath helps to limit the amount of air circulation through the plant and it creates its own microclimate whereby the plant is not as vulnerable to the cold as a taller, more openly branched plant. Its low growth habit does expose it to the possibility of frost when very cold air settles near the ground but it’s likely that in Connecticut a cover of snow may insulate it.

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                                                                                E. carnea in the snow    Image by S. Pelton

Early spring and early fall are the best times to plant, feed, or prune heath. When planting in full sun or slight shade in the early spring or fall do not allow these shallow rooted new plantings to dry out before they can establish themselves. Some gardeners amend the soil with peat moss, which can hold more than 20 times its dry weight in water in its cells, to help retain moisture. If you do add peat moss your heath plantings will receive an added benefit as the moss takes up calcium and magnesium from the surrounding soil and releases hydrogen. This action, called cation exchange, acidifies the soil. Heather prefers acidic soil which means that they are well suited to Connecticut. Plant them in area that will not be affected when you lime your lawn. Give them a dose of Holly-tone once a year when fertilizing other acid-loving plants such as rhododendron, azalea, or holly making sure that it doesn’t adhere to the foliage and reaches the drip line of the plant. As with any fertilizer it should be watered in.

                                                     Heath and heather images by the UConn Plant Database and S. Pelton

Spring is also good time to do any pruning of heath before the plant sets its flower buds or has new growth. Prune just to control any unwanted spreading and avoid pruning in the late fall as open cuts can collect water that will expand during a freeze and cause the stems to split. True heather (Calluna sp.) should be pruned annually in the spring as the flower buds do not set on old wood and the plants will become leggy and unattractive. Prune C. vulgaris at the base of old flowers.

Caliuna vulgaris heather

                                                                                   Calluna vulgaris      Image by S. Pelton

Other than needing occasional pruning heath and heather are very low-maintenance plants with few issues. You may find that deer or rabbits will feed on it as will the larvae of the Lepidopteran order which includes butterflies and moths or moths in the Coleophora genus. All in all, these plants are a wonderful addition to any yard or landscape as they unobtrusively add a swath of pink flowers and deep green foliage year-round. Perhaps 2018 is the year to add some year-round color to your landscape!

Susan Pelton

For additional information visit the UConn Plant Database: Calluna vulgaris (Scotch heather, Common heather) and Erica carnea (Spring heath, Winter heath)

As the gardening season is winding down, produce is piling up in the kitchen. Potatoes have been dug, peppers are picked and squash is in a basket. Now is the time to store the rewards of your hard won labors.

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Photo from PSU.edu

When I was a child, my grandmother’s home had a root cellar with a dirt floor and field rock walls. It was the ‘room’ between the wooden stairs up to the outside and the cellar, which was filled with scary, old things that made loud noises,  smelled of kerosene and musty clothing, and housed the occasional snake.  I did not like the cellar, but loved going into the root cellar. It smelled of the earth, like soil and the hay bales we placed to hold wooden boxes off of the floor. The boxes were filled with clean sand for the keeping of carrots, beets and turnips buried in the damp sand. None of vegetables where supposed to touch each other to prevent a rotten spot from occurring or spreading to the adjacent root vegetable.  Cabbages were laid on other hay bales, up off the floor, as were wooden boxes of winter squashes and pumpkins. Onions were braided together hand hung from nails on the beams overhead or put into burlap grain bags repurposed. The root cellar was dark and moist, perfect for holding vegetables. Yes, we had a refrigerator but it wasn’t as large as today’s, nor did it provide enough room for all the garden excess intended to get us through the winter. The root cellar was a form of primitive refrigeration using the cool and constant temperature of below ground to store food. Our modern day homes don’t come equipped with root cellars, but we can still store the bounty of our gardens.

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Photo from University of Maine Cooperative Extension

Winter squash and pumpkins need curing for long storage of several months. Squash will last longer is the stems are left on. After picking, let them lay in the sun off the ground, on a picnic table perhaps, for about a week. Turn them over every couple of days to make sure all sides are exposed to the sun. Curing hardens the skin of the squashes, making them less likely to rot in storage. Once cured, brush off any remaining dirt, then wash the squash with a 10 percent bleach and water solution, or a 50/50 vinegar and water mix. Either mixture will disinfect any fungi or bacteria which harm the squash once stored. Wrap each squash in newspaper and place in a basket or box with slats or openings on the sides to promote ventilation. The newspaper will create an air space between each squash. Store in a cool, dry area of the home that will not go below freezing. 50 degrees F is optimum. I put mine on the bottom step of my basement hatchway.

winter squash storage

hatchway storage

Potatoes must be cured also. After the foliage has died back, dig up the potatoes. They need to cure and be stored in the dark, out of the sun or they will develop green spots on the skin that can have toxic properties. A dark tool shed or garage without windows will work well. After digging, lay tubers on newspaper in the dark space for about two weeks at 50 to 60 degrees F. Potatoes should not touch during the curing process. After the two weeks, wipe off any dirt without washing at all. Remove any tubers with spots or damage to eat first as they will not store well. Place storage potatoes in a bushel basket or cardboard box. Cover with newspaper or burlap to exclude any light. Place in a space that will not freeze and not get above 50 degrees F for longest keeping quality.

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Potatoes, photo by Carol Quish

 

Onions can be dug and laid right on top of the ground for about a week as long as there is no danger of frost or rain. If rain is threatened, move them to a shed, porch or garage with good ventilation.  Necks will dry and brown. They can then be braided together or kept in mesh bags or bushel baskets as good airflow is needed. Keep them out of the light and a cool, 35 to 35 degree F location.

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Photo from University of Georgia Cooperative Extension

The root crops of carrots and beets can be dug, wiped clean and stored in airtight freezer bags in the refrigerator. Leave an inch of the green tops on the vegetables and do not cut off any root material from the base. Cutting into the flesh gives fungi and bacteria a place to enter. An alternative method of storage is in damp sand just like in the root cellar with a temperature of 35 to 40 degrees F. Some people leave them right in the ground, only digging up what they need before the ground freezes. Covering the in-ground crop with a thick layer of hay or straw will delay the ground from freezing until it gets really cold.

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Carrots, photo by Carol Quish

Green tomatoes can be gathered before the first frost. Select only fruit with no bad spots. Get out the newspaper once again, to wrap each tomato for protection and airflow. Alternatively, lay tomatoes in single layers separated with layers of newspapers. Keep out the light and keep in a cool spot below 50 degrees F. Check them all once per week to remove any that develop rot. Hopefully they will ripen by the New Year.

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Tomatoes not ripe yet, Photo by Carol Quish

One crop I gather to remind me of years gone by and out of style is Quince. My local orchard has a quince tree as most farm houses had outside its kitchen. Quince fruit has a very high pectin content which was commonly boiled along with any fruit to make a jelly or jam before powdered or liquid pectin was commercially available.

Surejell and Certo has made the backyard quince tree fall out of favor. I admit I don’t use the quince fruit to make my jellies and jams anymore, but at least I am still preserving the harvest in an updated manner.

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-Carol Quish,  photos copyright, Carol Quish

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