Horticultural Advice


 

new year new start

The start of the New Year is a good time to start new in the gardening year too. There is always something new to plant or try, or a method of gardening to embrace. The down-time of winter offers the opportunity to seek out something new.

Start a new plant. Visit the warmth of indoor greenhouses to lift our moods and possibly find a new houseplant. Succulents are readily available and easy to grow if you have a sunny window. Use a well-draining potting mix formulated especially for cactus and succulents to get them off with a good beginning. Water only when the top inch or so of soil is dry.

container-gardening_14_520914843

Another popular houseplant with many different varieties and forms is Peperomia. They come with solid green or variegated leaves, some with white and others with reddish hues. Textures of the leaves vary by species with some smooth and others crinkled.  All plants in the Pipericeae family are non-toxic making them safe for homes with pets and small children. Known for its low-maintenance requirements, they will happily grow in bright, non-direct light and moist but well-drained potting medium. They have a slower rate of growth, keeping them in bounds of the container for a long time before the need to repot in a larger size container.

Start a garden journal. By tracking the bloom times and placement of perennials and trees, you might see a new combination to try. Having the plant’s location marked on paper helps one to find it in the garden in late fall or early spring, when it is the ideal time to move. Monitor and record the sunlight amounts throughout the year to see how shade increases over time as neighboring trees grow taller. A sunny yard can change to part or full shade over a decade or two. Vegetable garden journals and keep track of that exceptional tomato grown last year, or maybe the one that didn’t produce as advertised. This information will help plan the next vegetable garden with better or continued success.

garden journal

Start a new class to add you knowledge base of horticulture. UConn Master Gardeners offer advanced, topic specific classes around the state. These Garden Master classes are offered to the general public at a slightly higher price than UConn certified master gardeners, and well worth it. Topics range from woody plant identification to botanical drawing. Visit the garden master catalog to view classes.

mgs

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection offer a wide range of outdoor classes and activities. Safety in outdoor sports is heavily reinforced if you interest is in boating, fishing, trapping or hunting. Their goal is education for you to keep yourself safe while starting a new outside activity. Classes on the environment and educational hikes are offered around the state at seven different educational facilities. 

trailhike

Start a new book. New publications in the non-fiction realm of plants include three winners from the America Horticultural Society. One is about bees and native plants needed to feed them, another on the subject of a cut flower farm, and the third is about trees of North America. There is many other great garden and plant books to start you own self-guided learning on subjects of interest to you. I was gifted the two below written by Carol J. Michel which look entertaining and educational.

books

Start anew by joining a group of like-minded plant people. Garden clubs offer talks and friendship with other members, and some have civic minded projects involving gardening, usually by town. The CT Horticultural Society offers monthly lectures to state wide members and others, for a fee, and occasional hands on workshops. They list their scheduled speakers on their website. Other groups are focused on one subject, such as the CT Valley Mycological Society where you can learn all about mushrooms and fungi. There is also the Hardy Plant Society, and the CT Rose Society. If your tastes are more specific, check out the Iris Society or the CT Dahlia Society.

-Carol Quish

geranium_lemon, missouri.edu

Lemon Scented Geranium, photo from Missouri.edu

As cold weather arrives, my garden focus switches to houseplants. I am particularly fond of growing scented geraniums inside the home. They are easy to grow and smell great, releasing aromatic oils into the air when their leaves are gently stroked, refreshing the stale scents of enclosed houses. Houseplants in general are a great way to increase the moisture level of dry, winter-heated air as water is added to their soil, and some moisture will evaporate into the air surrounding the plants.

Scented geraniums are in the genus Pelargonium, the same as the annual geranium with the large red, white or pink ball of a flower head. Even though both of these types of Pelargonium are have the common name of geranium, neither are related to the true perennial geranium (Geranium maculatum), commonly called cranesbill. Pelargonium species are not hardy in areas with cold winters. Scented geraniums can be planted outside and treated as an annual in addition to being a houseplant. They are native to South Africa, and were introduced to Europe in the 17th century by plant collectors as was popular at that time. Scented plants were especially prized in that era of limited sanitation and personal hygiene. Leaves and flowers were used in tussy-mussies to be carried by ladies whom wanted to smell better. The plant flower a smaller pale colored flower, usually pink or lilac depending on the specific variety.

scente geranium, arnold arboretum, historical print

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mosquito_citronella_geranium_pelargonium_Barbara H. Smith, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension.jpg

photo by Barbara H. Smith, ©2018 HGIC, Clemson Extension

Today scented geraniums are prized house plants for a sunny window or greenhouse. Leaves are edible, can be tossed in a salad or used as a garnish without fear of toxicity. Leaves are used as tea, and can be added to baked goods. Lining the bottom of a greased cake with artistically arranged leaves, then gently pouring in the batter creates a pretty and tasty dessert. Add one cup of fresh crushed leaves to simmering apple juice to make into flavored apple jelly following apple jelly recipe on pectin container. Dried leaves can be added to pot pourri and added to muslin sachet bags to place in a drawer. Sachets can also be used in hot baths or a relaxing spa experience.

The flavors or scents of scented geraniums are broken into several groups. The Rose Scented Group contain a number of different varieties with strong, clear rose scents to ones with a softer rose fragrance. Atomic Snowflake has a lemon-rose scent. Another scent group is the Citrus Scented geraniums. Lemon Crispum has a strong lemony fragrance, while Lime smells like a key lime pie. Prince of Orange sports crinkly leaves to emit its orange scent. The Fruit and Spice Group contain plants that smell like ginger, nutmeg apple and even strawberry. These are especially good in baked goods. The Mint Group, true to its name, has different plants with varying grades of minty scents. Peppermint, a peppermint lemon and a pungent peppermint with rose notes are all different. The last group is the Pungent Group with musky, oak, and camphor fragrances. It is best to feel the leaves and smell the plants before deciding to take one home to be sure it is agreeable to your nose and palate.

scented geranium, white flower farm photo

Scented geranium varieties, photo WhiteFlowerFarm.com

Growing requirements for all scented geraniums are fairly easy. They need a sunny south or west window or fluorescent lights, and well drained, light potting mix. Water them when the soil is dry to the touch. If the soil is keep soggy, the roots will rot. Drain any water from the saucer below the pot to avoid over saturation. Temperatures for optimum growth are in the range of 55 to 70 degrees F. Fertilize with a basic houseplant fertilizer every three month. Too much fertilizer leads to weaker growth and less scent production. Prune back the plant if it begins to grow too large, saving the trimmings of course!

Lemon Scented geranium at FS, DPettinelli

Lemon Scented Geranium on display at the flower show. photo by D. Pettinelli.

maple tree color

Fall has settled in finally, bringing its colors and cool weather. Some foliage colors were mediocre this year, always to due to the weather. It stayed hot for a long time and we did not get the cool night temperatures which help to trigger the trees to slow down and get ready for dormancy with the side effect of changing leaf color. Still there were some nice sights around the state. Japanese maple ‘Full Moon’ is a reliably consistent beauty sporting bright red leaves for a week or more before dropping its foliage.

Full moon Japanese Maple

Full Moon Japanese Maple

Evergreen trees also drop foliage, but not all needles at once. The newer green needles will remain on the branches for several years. Eastern white pines will shed their oldest, inner most bundles of needles each year by first turning yellow, then brown and drop. Notice the healthy, younger green needles are retained on the growing ends of the branches.

Fall is time of seed and fruit production in the cycle of life of plants. Crabapples are a great source of food for birds and animals throughout the winter. Some trees have very persistent fruit, hanging on throughout the season, ensuring feathered and fur beings a meal. Viburnum species also are in fruit as are winterberries.

Another interesting tree producing seed pods is the Japanese pagoda tree, Styphnolobium japonicum. It also goes by its other common name Chinese scholar tree due to it commonly being planted around Buddhist temples in Japan. It is native to China and Korea. Panicles of scented white flowers are produced in late summer, turning into strings of pop bead looking yellow seed pods in fall. Pods then turn brown staying on the tree though winter. Japanese pagoda tree makes a great, small specimen tree in yards and larger gardens.

Japanese pagoda tree

Japanese Pagoda Tree

Fall is a good time to gather dried seeds from annuals and perennials you wish to grow again. Many reseeding annuals drop their seed and seem to pop up as weeds. Collect the seed in paper envelopes or containers to grow them where you want them next year. Cleome, Verbena bonariensis, dill and fennel are just a few that consistently popup all over my gardens. The annual yellow and orange gloriosa daisy evens spread to my adjacent neighbors from the birds eating the seed heads I leave up for them. Some hybrid seeds will not come back the same if you save and plant the seed the following year. Every year I plant blue or blue striped forms of morning glory to climb up the gazebo. They set tons of seeds and drop to the ground to sprout and grow the next year. Unfortunately, they come back a deep purple, not the blue. If I don’t rouge out the volunteers from the new blue flowered plants I put in each year, I will have a mixed show of the blue I newly planted and purple that reseeded themselves. I consider the purple weeds, but others might disagree.

Speaking of weeds, I noticed it was a banner year for Pennsylvania smartweed, Persicaria pensylvanica,   formerly called Polygonum pensyvanicum . Smartweed loves it moist and it responded well to all the rain we had this spring and summer, growing like gangbusters and producing a multitude of seed. On the positive side, songbirds love the seed and will be well fed during their time here. Too bad the prolific seed production is going to add to the seed bank in the soil for following years.

lady's thumb weed

Pennsylvania Smartweed

This year of moisture also lead to much fungal production. Tomatoes were more likely to succumb to early blight and Septoria leaf spot due to leaf wetness aiding disease development and spread. Fungicides applied before fungus hits can protect plants. So will proper spacing of plants and pruning branches to increase airflow and dry leaves. High humidity and lots of moisture ensures mildews, too. Lilacs will develop powdery mildew during mid-summer, but still come back strongly the next year. I just chose to not look at them after August.

lilac powdery mildew

Lilac leaves with powdery mildew

Insects are always a part of the garden be it vegetable or perennial. We need the insects for pollination and cycle of all life. The pest ones were not too bad this year as I kept up the removal and scouting for eggs on the squash and squishing caterpillars and worms on the kale, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. Tomato hornworms made a brief appearance, but I caught them in time before much damage was done. Thankfully the cucumber beetles were low in numbers this year and manageable with hand picking them off. I am often fascinated with the beauty and intricacies of insects. I found the delicate dragonfly dead on my breezeway and could not help but marvel at its color and patterns on its body. Dragonflies dart about the yard zigging and zagging at breakneck speed while feeding on the tornado of gnats in the very late afternoon. I call it the dance of the dragonfly and now I see they come dressed in their finery for the occasion.

Dragonfly head

 

The season wasn’t all work, nor should it be. We made time to enjoy the fruits of our labor and spaces we created, and hope did also. With summer and the main growing season are behind us, I hope it left mark on your heart and memories for your mind, until next year when we can all try again, try some new plant and find a new adventure.

-Carol Quish, all photos copyright C. Quish

boat wake trail in ocean

Every year at the UConn Home & Garden Education there are a few topic of interest that we get a lot of calls about. Several years ago we fielded a lot of calls about the drought situation in Connecticut that occupied many people’s thoughts in 2016. In fact, that encompassed two years as we started to feel the effects of it in 2015. On the tail end of the drought, and perhaps in part because of it, many parts of the state were visited with an infestation of gypsy moth caterpillars. When we have a wet spring the fungus Entomophaga maimaiga, a natural control of the gypsy moth caterpillar, can flourish. The fungus overwinters as spores in leaf litter and in the soil. It then reactivates in the spring when there is sufficient rainfall. Although we were receiving an adequate amount of rain by 2017 it happened to occur a bit late for the fungus to be fully effective against the voraciously feeding caterpillars. So the summers of 2016 and 2017 were dedicated to answering many questions about the gypsy moth caterpillars and the damage that they wreaked.

As those two events have wound down a new concern arose for many of our clients. Thanks in part to press releases and an interview that aired on NBC CT in June the giant hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum, (below images) jumped to the front of the queue. The Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group (CIPWG) issued a warning about this invasive species which was first spotted in Connecticut in 2001. Most of the populations of giant hogweed are under control and none of the reported sightings in 2018 were positive.

There are many look-a-like plants and it is those species that we are asked to identify. Starting in early-June calls and emails began to come in to identify large herbaceous perennials that were striking fear into Connecticut residents. This is in part due to the pretty noxious nature of the giant hogweed sap. Within 24-48 hours after skin has been in contact with the sap painful blisters may appear in individuals that are sensitive to it. Three things need to be present for the reaction known as phytophotodermatitis to occur. First, direct contact between the skin and the sap. Second, the skin must be moist as from perspiration, for example. Third, the contaminated area must be exposed to sunlight. If you are working in an area that contains giant hogweed it is easy to imagine that all of the criteria could be easily met.

Before attempting to remove giant hogweed from an area the first step should be positively identifying it. As I mentioned earlier, there have not been any confirmed sightings in Connecticut yet this year. It may be that the suspected plant is one of the following instead.

The first plant that is most commonly mistaken for giant hogweed is fellow member of the Heracleum genus: cow parsnip, Heracleum maximum, (images below). Unlike giant hogweed which was introduced to the United States 100 years ago from the Caucasus region of Central Asia, cow parsnip is native to North America. A tall herbaceous perennial that can reach up to 10 feet in the shade, nowhere near the 18 feet possible height of the giant hogweed, cow parsnip bears its flowers in in the flat-topped or rounded umbels that are characteristic of other members of the carrot family, Apiacea. Both species have compound deeply-lobed, toothed leaves but the cow parsnip lacks the red veining and leaf stalks common to giant hogweed. Cow parsnip also contains chemicals that cause phytophotodermatitis.

The next most common look-a-like is angelica, (below images). A first cousin once-removed, it shares its family, Apiaceae, with the giant hogweed and cow parsnip but is in the genus Angelica. Angelica grows 3-9 feet tall and also has large umbel flower heads. The compound leaves of angelica are what distinguish it from giant hogweed as they are bipinnate, meaning that they are compound leaves in which the leaflets are also compound (think honey locust leaves). Often used as a medicinal herb, angelica is the least toxic of the hogweed look-a-likes although it may still cause a skin reaction.

Queen Anne’s lace, Daucus carota, (below images) takes compound leaves one step further to tripinnate, having pinnately compound leaves that are bipinnate. The more levels of pinnation, the more delicate the overall effect. The airy-looking leaves of D. carota are what give it the ‘lace’ part of its name and are similar to its subspecies, the domestic carrot. Queen Anne’s lace has an umbellate flower head atop a much slimmer stem than giant hogweed, cow parsnip, or angelica. The sap from the leaves and stems can cause a phytophotodermatitis reaction although the flowers are used to make jelly similar to the yarrow jelly from our June 26th blog post.

The native Lactuca species includes wild lettuce (Lactuca Canadensis),

prickly lettuce (L. serriola), hairy lettuce (L. hirsute), and the blue lettuces (l. biennis, L. floridana, L. pulchella, L. villosa).

These tall plants start out from a basal rosette of leaves and can grow to 7 feet tall with large alternating broad leaves.  They have pale blue insignificant flowers compared to the dense clustered heads of the previous plants.

Finally, giant ragweed, Ambrosia trifida, has also made a plant identification appearance.  This 6-foot tall annual herb is a noxious weed that has become invasive in other parts of the world as it out competes native species in much the same way that the giant hogweed has here.

As plants and seeds have spread across the globe through human, animal, mechanical, or water means many species have landed in non-native locations and taken root there. If you are a fan of podcasts, check out the Infinite Monkey Cage’s Invasion episode where scientists and comedians take a look at the problems caused by alien (plant) invasions.

Susan Pelton, UConn Home & Garden Education Center

All images by CIPWG and UConn

 

 

praying mantid 2

Praying mantids have hatched and are busy staking their claim in all areas of the garden looking for any insect to eat. They are fun to watch and photograph. So glad I noticed their egg masses and relocated them when cutting back the garden last fall.

clove current berries

The clove currant is producing berries, first green then ripening to black. The birds are eating them faster than I can take a photo them almost. Good plant for wildlife, and a hand-me-down plant from my husband’s grandmother’s home. The Latin name is Ribes odoratum for those doing a search to find one.

swallowtail butterfly

This swallowtail butterfly was very busy feeding on the nectar of the very floriferous bottlebrush buckeye blooming on campus. Bottlebrush buckeye, Aesculus parviflora, is a fabulous, large shrub which sends up panicles of white flowers with red anthers and pinkish filaments.

spinach bolting 2

The summer’s heat is causing the cool weather crops of the spring to bolt and go to seed. Once this happens, the leaves become bitter and plants should be pulled and composted. Planting fall crops of carrots, beets, peas, kale or beans make good use of then now available space in the garden.

Robber fly

This robber fly was resting in the garden, probably waiting for an easy insect meal. They are predatory on all types of insects and considered a beneficial insect.

cross striped caterpillar on cale

If your kale or other cole crops are being eaten and showing a lacy appearance of holy leaves, look for the cross-striped cabbage worm. One caterpillar can eat quite a lot. Bt is a good control measure when they are small, or insecticidal soap. Rotate where brassica plants are located next year, and grow under a row cover to keep the adult moth from laying her eggs on the leaves.

garlic

Garlic is ready to be harvested during July, once half of the leaves have turned brown. After carefully loosening the soil with a spade, pull the garlic bulbs by the stems and dry on an open rack in out of the sun and under cover for three weeks. A shed or garage are best for the drying. After they are dry, brush off the dirt, cut off the roots close to the bottom of the bulb, and cut back the stem end leaving about one inch. Store in the home in a dry, dark spot. Save the largest bulbs for planting next October through November.

gypsym moth females and egg masses

Gypsy moth adults are busy mating. Females do not fly, only able to crawl. The males are flitting around, flying to females to mate. Females will lay the buff colored egg masses which will last through the fall, winter and spring, to hatch next summer. Egg masses can be  crushed or scraped into a container of soapy water.

-Carol Quish

All photos are copyrighted by Carol Quish, UConn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

According to the language of flowers, the rose belongs to the month of June symbolizing love and passion, gratitude and appreciation. Well I am passionately in love with and greatly appreciate all of June’s flower blooms, including roses.

Rose, red climbing-1

Roses can be found in home gardens, public gardens and even commercial parking lot plantings, usually as tough shrub rose varieties needing little care. Hartford is the proud location of Elizabeth Park, the oldest municipal rose garden in the United States established in 1904. Within its boundaries are beds and arches filled with hundreds of rose plants loving tended by professionals and volunteers, all taking pride in creating a beautiful and scent filled space for all to enjoy. http://elizabethparkct.org/gardens-and-grounds.html

 

Check rose plants carefully as gypsy moth caterpillars are feeding on leaves currently. Hand pick off and kill the little buggers by squishing or dropping in a container of soapy water. Signs they were there and left are shown by them leaving their shed exoskeleton after they molt.

gypsy moth caterpillars and rose

Gypsy moth on rose leaf, C.QuishPhoto

gypsymoth molted exoskeleton

Gypsy moth caterpillar shed exoskeletons. A sign gypsy moths were here. CQuish photo

Not all roses are a considered a ‘bed of roses’ or a good thing. The multiflora rose, Rosa multiflora, is an invasive species of rose, overtaking and displacing native plants. It was introduced to the U.S. from Asia in 1866 for use as rootstock and later widely planted as hedgerows and living fences.  Due to its very thorny nature, animals did not attempt to cross. Multiflora roses can be identified by its fringed petioles which differ from most other rose species. When in mass  blossom, the make the June air incredibly sweet.

Rose, multiflower, C.Quish

Fringed petiole of multiflora rose, C.Quishphoto

A few other fabulous flowers caught my eye and camera lens this month so far. Lunchtime walk on the Storrs campus I found an unusual shrub in front the Castleman building. False indigo, Amorpha fruticosa, was sporting spires of purple and orange flowers similar to butterfly bush. I had never seen it before, and after researching its identity, I am glad I haven’t as the CT Invasive Plant Working Group has it listed as ‘Potentially Invasive’. It seems well behaved in the restricted spot surrounded by buildings and pavement, but pretty still the same.

False indigo bush cquish

False indigo, CQuish photo

The perennial Helen Elizabeth Oriental poppy is a lighter pink, eschewing the brazen orange color of traditional oriental poppies. Helen Elizabeth is softer on the eyes and blooms a little bit later than the orange one.

 

Annual poppies are just beginning to bloom in my garden. If you let them go to seed and collect the seed once the pods go brown, dry and rattle, you will have an incredible amount of seed to save, share or spread the beauty in other areas.

 

Foxgloves, Digitalis sp, are shooting up their towers of flowers in different colors. Some species are biennial and others are perennial. The spots on the throats of the flowers are believed to be nectar guides showing the bees and other pollinators the way in to find the location of the nectar.

Visit local, independent garden centers and nurseries for unusual plants not found in the big box stores or chain centers. I found the annual Popcorn Plant, Cassia didymobotrya, whose leaves smell like buttered popcorn when stroked, at Tri-County Greenhouse on Rt. 44 in Storrs Mansfield. A treasure trove of unknown annuals and surprising perennials, and large variety of tomatoes and vegetables were all over the sales yard. I especially love the philosophy of the place hiring very capable people with intellectual disabilities along with some great horticulturists.

June also brings disease and insects to the garden. A few of the things we are seeing from submissions for diagnosis to our office are shown below. Azalea galls were sent in from South Windsor and are being reported around the state. The fungal disease, Exobasidium vaccinii, develops from an overwintering infected plant part of azalea leaf, twig or flower, and malforms the plant tissue into a curled and thickened gall.  As the gall ages it turns white releasing more spores to infect fresh tissue. Control should be to hand cut off and destroy galls before they turn white.

Azalea gall, b.zilinski 2

Azalea gall, B.Zilinski photo

Another sample image sent in were sweet birch leaves with bright red growths called Velvet Galls. These red patches are soft felt-like growths made by the plant in response to  to wall off the damage by a tiny eriophyid mite feeding on the leaves. The red patch is called an erinea. Unsightly while still being pretty, the damage is considered only cosmetic and causes no lasting harm to the tree. Thanks to Jean Laughman for her photos.

velvet gall on birch 2 Jean Laughman photo

velvet gall on birch,Jean Laughman photo, 6-8-18

Another great photo was sent in by Shawn Lappen for insect identification. The Dusky Birch Sawflies were striking a classic pose while eating the heck out of the leaves of a birch tree. Sawflies are stingless wasps whose larvae are plant feeders. The larvae are not caterpillars as this insect is not in the butterfly and moth order of Lepidoptera. Feeding damage usually does not cause much damage to a tree in good health. If control is needed, insecticidal soap will suffocate the larvae when sprayed on them.

Dusky Birch Sawfly, from Shawn Lappen

Golden tortoise beetles are attacking morning glory and sweet potato plants. They look like a little drop of gold but their beauty belies their destructive nature. Hand picking and dropping into a container of soapy water will kill them quickly.

Golden Tortoise beetle

Be on the lookout for Luna moths during the month of June. It is one of the largest silk moths and is attracted to lights at night. After mating, the female will lay her eggs on one of the host plants for the caterpillars including white birch (Betula papyrifera), persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), hickories (Carya), walnuts (Juglans), and sumacs (Rhus). The photo below was sent in to us last June 4 by A. Saalfrank.

Luna moth A.Saalfrankphoto 6-4-2017

Leave the light on to attract Luna Moths

-Carol Quish

This year I had the opportunity to work in the UConn Soil and Nutrient Analysis Laboratory during the ‘spring rush’. During this time the Soil lab can get up to hundreds of samples a day. These samples may come in one at a time from homeowners with established lawns or garden beds who are looking to maintain their plantings or from new homeowners who have never planted or cared for a landscape before, or dozens of samples from commercial landscapers on behalf of their clients, or from commercial growers.

For over 50 years farmers, greenhouse growers, and homeowners have been served by the UConn Soil Lab. With more than 14,000 samples coming in on an annual basis, that is a lot of soil! Soil fertility is the first building block of plant health. If a plant is not growing in soil that has the proper proportion of available nutrients then it will not grow as well as it could. Poor soil health leads to stressed plants with stunted growth and stressed plants are vulnerable to insect and disease issues.

Iron deficiency on buddleia

Buddleia with iron deficiency

There are a minimum of 16 elements that have been deemed necessary to vigorous plant health. In order by atomic weight they are: hydrogen, boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, magnesium, phosphorus, sulfur, chlorine, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, copper, zinc, and molybdenum. Some other elements that may not be used by all plants are sodium, silicon, vanadium, and cobalt. The big 3 are, of course, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Represented by their symbols from the periodic table as N-P-K, they are the prime ingredients in most fertilizers. The seedlings below show signs of nutrient deficiency and are in need of a weak solution of a balanced fertilizer.

 

Also essential to healthy plant growth is the pH of the soil. It won’t matter how much fertilizer is applied if the soil pH is not in the correct range for the host plant. pH stands for potential of Hydrogen and is represented by a scale that runs from 0-7 for acidic solutions and from 7-14 for the alkalis. The higher the concentration of hydrogen ions, the more acidic the sample is. All soil test results will recommend the addition of either limestone to raise the pH, sulfur to lower the pH, or no action required if the pH falls into the acceptable range for the plant/crop.

All standard nutrient analysis tests begin their journey in the same way. For each area to be tested one cup of soil is sent or brought to the lab along with the soil sample questionnaire. The standard test will provide soil pH, the macro and micro nutrients, the total estimated soil lead, and basic texture and organic matter content. Many homeowners and growers request additional tests or only require specific information in the form of textural analysis, organic matter content (measured by Joe in the images below), soluble salts, a pH only test, saturated media analysis (for soil-less potting media for greenhouses), or nitrate testing (for commercial growers).

 

This spring was very cool and wet, as we all know. Many samples were sent in later than usual and a good many were very much wetter than usual. It is important then that the first step requires that soils be spread onto paper toweling and allowed to dry.

1. Spread soils on drying rack

Once the soil has adequately dried out it must be sieved so that any rocks or bits of organic matter are removed. This step may also involve some pounding to break up any chunks of soil as shown by Skyley.

 

From there a small amount of each sample is placed in a paper cup by Louise to be tested for its pH. It is mixed into a slurry with a small amount of distilled water, the calibrated testing meter probe is placed in the mixture and the pH level is stored in the computer program for later retrieval.

 

In a manner similar to a coffee pour over, some of the soil is placed in filter paper that is resting in a test tube in preparation for the nutrient analysis. A Modified Morgan solution is the liquid used for this extraction method.

 

The nutrient analysis is done by a machine called the ICP which stands for Inductively Coupled Plasma. This machine would be right at home in Abby’s lab on NCIS! When I was in school back in the 70’s we were taught that matter existed in three states: solid, liquid, and gas. But matter has a fourth state and it is plasma. It doesn’t exist on Earth under normal conditions but we do witness it every time we see a lightning strike.  Plasma can be generated by using energy to ionize argon gas.

The plasma flame is hot. Really hot.  6000 Kelvin.  For some perspective, the surface of the sun is approximately 5,800 K.  The solution from the individual tube samples is passed through a nebulizer where it is changed to a mist that is introduced directly to the plasma flame. A spectrometer is then able to detect the elements that are present in the soil sample.

 

Additionally, the testing for phosphorus is done with this machine shown below, the Discreet Analyzer.

 

Some soil samples come from outside of CT and those may present a particular set of problems. The USDA has quarantines in several states to limit the spread of certain invasive insect pest species such as the imported fire ant, golden nematodes, and even a few plant species. For more information visit the Federal Domestic Soil Quarantines site.

Working at the UConn Soil Lab has been a great experience and quite an eye-opener. Who knew that there was so much behind a soil test?

Susan Pelton

All images by S. Pelton, 2108

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