Horticultural Advice


Like many landscaped yards in Connecticut our property has boxwood adorning our front yard, planted more than 30 years ago. This shrub is usually a minimal maintenance woody ornamental plant. It requires a bit of shaping once a season even though its slow growth habit doesn’t send out the random foot-long shoots that its neighboring Japanese maple does. In fact, the amount that is trimmed off is more like a ‘shaving’ of its foliage and the easiest way to collect the clippings is to place a tarp beneath the shrub (the tiny pieces of leaf are almost impossible to rake it up). We tend to do the shaping of the shrubs in the landscape somewhere near the end of June and beginning of July. I remember one year (and I’m sure that my daughter will never forget) trimming them on a hot humid day where we ended up wearing bits of foliage that stuck to our damp skin!

Over Memorial Day weekend this year as I walked past the boxwood that borders our driveway I was surprised to see it covered in a white fuzz. I stopped in my tracks for a closer look. Up and down the stems and in the leaf axils was a fluffy white coating that dispersed like a powder into the breeze when I touched the shrub.

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Using a macro lens, I took successively closer images until what looked like just white fuzz became individual clumps and then minute insects. These are the nymphs of the boxwood psyllid and the white fuzz was waxy strands of their crystallized honeydew secretions that is also called ‘lerp’. Yes, that is a real word. Boxwood psyllid (Psylla buxi) are in the family Homoptera, a suborder that also includes aphids, scale insects, cicadas, and leafhoppers.

The tiny orange eggs of the boxwood psyllid overwinter in the bud scales of the boxwood and will hatch when the temperature reaches 80 degree days, around the same time that the buds open. Degree days are an accumulative measurement that allow the prediction of insect appearances and plant blooming. For more info on degree days, visit the Cornell University site: Network for Environment and Weather Applications.

Enfield, CT reached 80 degree days on May 18th this year and between then and mid-June when we accumulate 300 degree days the psyllid nymphs will go through 5 instar (nymph) stages. They mature into winged adults as they finish their incomplete metamorphosis. It was a bit slower this year due to the cooler temperatures. The adults will mate and lay their eggs under the bud scales, there is only one generation a year.

Most of the damage from the boxwood psyllid is in the leaf cupping that happens as the larvae feed. They have sucking mouthparts and the leaves curl around the nymphs as they feed, a rather tell-tale sign of their presence. The psyllid doesn’t do any substantial damage.

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Meanwhile, another pest also made its appearance. A beautiful Goldflame honeysuckle, Lonicera x heckrottii that adorns our deck was getting its yearly aphid visit.

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As a relative of the boxwood psyllid the feeding damage of this aphid (Hyadaphis tataricae) is very similar. They love the flower buds and can feed inside the bud before you can even know that they are there. Aphid damage will stunt the growth of the flower buds and prevent the honeysuckle flowers from blooming.

And that would keep us from one of the pleasures of outdoor dining on a summer evening: watching the hummingbirds visit the showy pink and yellow tubular flowers as they search for nectar. The hummingbirds dart in and out so quickly but they occasionally stop for a brief respite, barely bending the vining stem as they weigh so little, often less than 1/10th of an ounce.

Bees and other pollinators such as the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) also spend lots of time going from flower to flower on the honeysuckle. It’s important to keep these visitors in mind when dealing with pests such as the aphids. A systemic insecticide should never be used during the period when a plant is flowering. These pesticides will target all insects that feed on the plant’s sap, drink the nectar, or gather the pollen regardless of whether they are beneficial or not.

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A strong spray of water may dislodge aphids and psyllids or an insecticidal soap may be used. An insecticidal soap works as a contact pesticide and as such there is no residual insecticidal activity once the solution has dried. It must sprayed directly on the soft-bodied insects that it effectively controls. It also degrades quickly and will wash off leaf surfaces so that it won’t affect non-target insects, especially pollinators, or the lady beetles that consume the aphids in large quantities.

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If you see (or have seen) psyllids or aphids you may want to do as I do and make a note of it in your calendar or your garden journal so that you can keep an eye out for them next year. Knowing when the aphids may show up on the honeysuckle gives me a bit of an edge in controlling them and allows the most blooms to come to fruition much to the enjoyment of humans, animals, and insects alike!

Susan Pelton

(all images and videos ©Susan Pelton, UConn Home & Garden Education Center)

One of the joys of the return to warm weather is seeing the plethora of flowering plants that suddenly spring up. From early flowering shrubs such as forsythia and azalea to the daffodils, tulips, hyacinth, and crocus it seems that we are suddenly inundated with color. I love to fill my window boxes and planters with the happy pansies and petunias that are able to withstand some of the cool temperatures that we can expect at this time of year.

 

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Pansies

 

These first selections of annuals are just the beginning of the possibilities that lay before us when it comes to choosing varieties for window boxes, planters and hanging baskets. Container plantings allow us select plants that may not be native to our location due to the severity of our winters, to try out new varieties and combinations, and to easily relocate colorful blooms from one spot to another in our yard.

It is not unusual for the window box planting to be delayed as we are compelled to allow nature to take its course. Female doves often set up their nests in our window boxes or empty hanging planters and what can you do other than wait it out?

 

Mourning dove

If you have containers that are family-free you can certainly get them ready for the season. Any planters that did not over-winter well, such as cracked or split pots, should be disposed of and replaced. Empty out any plant debris or soil that is left from last year and sanitize the containers with a 10% bleach solution. Rinse them thoroughly and allow to dry in the sun. I find that coco fiber coir liners do not last more than a season or two so this is a good time to assess and replace those also. Although this spring I have spotted sparrows and mourning doves pulling out the fibers for use in their nests so I may leave one or two liners where they can get to them.

 

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Vinca, evolvulus, lobularia

When selecting new containers keep their location in mind. Larger containers that contain a fig tree, a wisteria and a bi-color buddleia are placed on our ground level patio where it is easier to bring them into the garage for the winter. These plants don’t require much attention through the winter although I will water them every few weeks. Ok, I say that I water them but what I mean is I will dump the ice cubes from a depleted iced coffee into them as I walk by! They have started to show emerging greenery so I have pulled them into a shady area outside and will slowly bring them back into the full sun where they will spend the rest of the season.

 

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Bee visiting a bicolor buddleia

 

Hanging planters and railing planters can bring color and interest while not taking up valuable floor space on decks. Dining outside in the early evening is great when the hummingbirds and pollinators are so close by that we hold our breath lest we disturb them as they visit the flowers!

 

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Hummingbird moth on a petunia

Selecting the plants that will go into your containers is limited only by your personal preferences and by the sun requirements for the given plant. Containers give us an opportunity to bring some non-native plants into our yard, especially those that are not suited to our winters. I find mandevilla to be a lovely container plant. As a tropical species it loves the full sun location of our front porch, produces striking blossoms all summer long, and will overwinter in the house.

 

These plants are about as large as I will choose but there are so many options for really large planters. I love seeing what the landscapers on the UConn campus come up with each season. Coleus, Vinca, sweet potato vine, geranium and petunias will profusely fill out many containers.

Of course, most of us don’t have a team of landscapers at our beck and call so once you have made your container and plant selections the next step is maintenance. The sun and wind will dry out most container plantings more quickly than if the same plants were in the ground, especially when in porous containers such as clay pots. Plastic vessels will retain water a bit better but its best to check all pots on a daily basis.

It’s no longer recommended that rocks or stones be placed in the bottom of containers for drainage. This procedure actually prevents excess water from draining from the soil layer and may keep the roots too wet. A piece of screen or a coffee filter placed in the bottom of the planter is sufficient to prevent soil from washing out.

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Removing spent blooms and pinching back leggy plants will encourage plants to produce more flowers. Also, their fertilizer needs are different from the same plant in the landscape. Using a teaspoon of fertilizer to a gallon of water will help prevent the buildup of excess salt that can afflict container plantings (you know when you see that white crust forming on the surface of the soil or on the rims of clay pots). If it does appear just flush water through the soil until it drains out the bottom.

Container grown plants don’t have to be limited to flowering annuals. Using them for vegetables and herbs is a great option. A planter of herbs near the kitchen door provides really fresh additions to our meals and beverages in the form of rosemary, thyme and mint. It’s also a great way to contain mint which can easily take over a garden bed.

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Another edible planting from last year included mint in a container which had eggplant and the non-edible tourenia. The purple flowers and the deep aubergine of the mature eggplant complimented the stems and leaves of the mint and the purple of the tourenia.

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I have also grown the typical patio tomato plants and the not-so-typical potato plants in containers. It’s a great way to easily harvest the potatoes as you just dump the whole container out onto a tarp and ‘pick’ the potatoes. Controlling the insects and diseases that plague these plants is aided by the fact that you start out with a sanitized container and fresh soil each year. So, as you can see, there is no reason to contain yourself when it comes to container gardening.

Susan Pelton

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Pelton

Images NOAA, Old Farmer’s Almanac

 

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Bulbs in package, CQuish photo

If, like me, you are a gardener of good intentions, you probably have a few bags of spring flowering bulbs you never got around to planting. Well it is not too late! They can be planted as long as the ground is not frozen. It may not be as comfortable or enjoyable digging the holes in December as it would have been in early October, but better late than never. Bulbs not planted will not bloom.

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Tulip bulbs, plant roots down, point up. CQuish photo

Daffodils, tulips, crocus, hyacinth and scilla are commonly sold at garden centers, big box stores and through catalogs. Other species are available and all will need to be planted, and then experience a cold period of six to ten weeks to signal the bulb to bloom when the soil warms again in the spring. If the bulbs are not planted until next March or April, they will not bloom that year as they did not receive their needed chilling period. So get them in the ground now before we have to shovel snow.

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Crocus bulbs showing a little growth from the top, and roots from the knobby bottom. CQuish photo.

Larger bulbs such as daffodils and hyacinth should be planted four to six inches deep, or two to three times their height.  Smaller bulbs of crocus and scilla go two to three inches deep into the soil. Add a teaspoon of bone meal into the planting hole mixing it into the soil in the bottom of the hole. Then place the bulb in the hole, pointed side up and flat side down. The roots will grow out of the flatter side and grow down; the leaves and stem will grow from the pointed end and reach up. If you can’t tell which end should be up, lay it on its side and each will find their way where they should be.

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Scilla bulbs, notice the roots on the flat bottom. CQuish photo

Bulbs can be planted in pots in potting medium for forcing indoors, too. They will still need the about ten weeks of chilling period at 40 to 45 degrees F. They can be kept out doors in an unheated shed or porch, or placed in a refrigerator which does contain any fruit. Fruit gives off ethylene gas as it ripens which will retard or kill the growing flower inside the bulb. After the allotted time, bring out the pot and all to be placed in a bright window for the warmth of the house and light to signal the bulbs to grow. This provides a nice bit of spring in late winter inside the house. After they bloom, and later in the spring, these bulbs can be replanted outside.

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Potted daffodils, photo WS.edu

Annual care for bulbs planted outside is to leave the foliage on the plant. The leaves are the food factory for the bulb. Leaves are where photosynthesis happens, taking energy from the sun to convert it into carbohydrates to be stored in the bulb. If the leaves are green, let them be. Only remove them after they have yellowed and turned brown. Do not braid or wrap the leaves together either. The leaf is like a solar plate and must access the sunrays, which it cannot do if wrapped up. Flower stems should be trimmed off so energy is not wasted making a seed. Bulb beds can be fertilized after all foliage has turned brown. Fertilizing before flowering can cause disease to attack the bulb.

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Daffodil, CQuish photo

-Carol Quish

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Japanese Knotweed is a beautiful plant when in full, white flower stage. Too bad it is such a thug and invasive. It also makes a nice hedge, but quickly overtakes the properties if used as a boundary plant. Colonies can be seen just about everywhere along roadsides, in meadows and yards as it spreads so freely.

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Japanese knotweed is also known as Japanese bamboo, American and Mexican Bamboo due to its hollow stems with nodes on them. The plant is known by three different Latin names of Fallopia japonica and Polygonum cuspidatum Siebold & Zucc.  And Reynoutria japonica Houtt, but it all the same plant. No matter what you call it, it is aggressive, invasive and extremely hard to kill once established.

The plant was brought to the United States during the 1890’s from Asia as a solution to erosion. It will grow in just about any situation from full sun to complete shade, rich or lean soils, and dry or soggy soils. It tends to make a colony of plants, out-competing any and all other plants resulting in a monoculture. Since it evolved on another continent, it has no native predators, insect or animal that eats it enough to control its spread.

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It reproduces vegetatively. If digging it out, any tiny piece of root left in the ground will quickly send up a shoot to get reestablished.  Control measures are difficult. Heavy machinery can dig out large infestations and monitor for a new sprouts to pull or treat with herbicides. Herbicides which contain Glyphosate or Triclopyr are the most successful and should be used before the plants flower or sprayed on cut stems. It has been reported that monthly mowing for five years will finally eradicate a large area.

 

-Carol Quish

 

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

 

cracking of tomato, joey Williamson HGIC,Clemson.edu

Cracked Tomato

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

Blossom End Rot on Tomatoes, J.Allen Photo

Blossom End Rot, photo by Joan Allen.

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

yellowshoulder, hort.purdue.edu

Yellow Shoulders, hort.purdue.edu

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

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

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

 

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

-Carol Quish

 

It has been a dry few weeks in the vegetable garden resulting in dusty soil and slow-growing for those who are unable or unwilling to water. I have been watering only the vegetables in raised beds, which have responded nicely. Tomatoes are four feet tall with plenty of flowers and varying developmental stages of fruit. Cherry tomatoes seem a little behind this year compared to the hybrid larger plants.  For better fruit set and pollination, simulate the actions of a buzzing bee inside the flower releasing pollen by shaking the entire plant a little each day. This really works, especially if your garden lacks other flowering plants which attract pollinators.  A new trick I read about and will employ this year is to hang red Christmas balls on the tomato plants before fruit begins to ripen to fool the squirrels, chipmunks and birds into thinking those red orbs are not for eating.  Last year I had quite a few V-shaped holes in ripe tomatoes from bird beaks. Christmas ornaments in July might look a little silly, but worth it to keep the tomatoes free of bites except for humans. Shiny pinwheels placed around the garden to catch the wind works well, too. I found one plum tomato with blossom end rot today. Blossom end rot is caused by a lack of calcium in the soil, or an interruption in the delivery of calcium to the developing fruit. An interruption can be caused by uneven watering. Perhaps I was not as regular providing equal amounts of water as I thought!

tomato blossom end rot 2016, 7-8-2016

tomato blossom end rot

squash, yellow 7-2016

Summer squash

Summer squash and zucchini are doing very nicely. I have seen the squash vine borer adult flying among the plants, so I know I will have wilting vines about the time we are sick of eating squash casserole, breads and grilled zucchini. I should have planted extra squash seed every two weeks in another bed and kept it covered with row covers to replace the older plants which eventually die from the larva tunneling out the stems. (See an earlier blog for info on squash vine borer.)

Another squash pest easier to hand-pick and present also on my squash and cucumbers is the squash beetle. I scout for adults, eggs laid on top or bottom of leaves, and for the larval stage. I just squish all stages as my go to control measure. Cucumbers are climbing the trellis of arched cattle fencing re-purposed from a friend cleaning his garage.

Snow peas are just about finishing up after a late start and long spring. Flat leaf parsley needs to be picked and dehydrated or made into pesto and frozen on a cookie sheet in separate spoonfuls before storing in a ziplock and kept in the freezer. Easy way to take one or two and use in cooking.

 

Kale is growing faster than we can eat it! I find I can stay ahead of the cross-striped caterpillar and cabbage worm by interrupting their life cycle by cutting back all of the leaves except the growing tip at one time. I soak the leaves in a sink full of cold water with half cup of salt added to it. The caterpillars float to the top or sink to the bottom and the kale is clean. Although eating one or two after the kale is cooked won’t hurt us.

Kales, 7-8-2016

Kale

Hardneck garlic is proving to produce some pretty large bulbs this year, if the diameter of the stalk is any indication. I also pulled one a little early to check on the development. It was big. I am thinking the long, mild fall and winter let the root development go on a long time creating a healthy crop. Just waiting for half of the leaves to dry and turn tan signaling they are ready to be dug and hung to dry in the garage. Outside of the garden the gypsy moth caterpillars are pupating and emerging as the adult moths. The males are brownish, flitting around in a zigzagging flight seeking out the white, flightless females for mating.

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Hardneck garlic

I would love to spend the summer in my garden, but alas, I must return to work during the week. My interest in insects perks up when my basement office in a very old building surprises with the gift of a house centipede. While others may startle and run for a rolled up newspaper or fly swatter, I grab the camera for a picture to share with you. Don’t worry, they are harmless.

House centepede, 7-2016

House centipede.

-Carol Quish

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