Nature


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Groundhog in field. pcooper photo

February brings groundhog day at its beginning and some longer day-length and light at the month’s end. It is always a little exciting to watch silly weather-men and women  with a groundhog waiting to see if it will cast a shadow on February 2. If the groundhog sees his shadow, it is believed he will go back to sleep for we will have six more weeks of winter.  We in Connecticut should know it is still too early for this hibernating animal to wake from its winter slumber deep underground if it were left to its own in a natural environment. Thankfully we have a few nature centers caring for rescued animals that would otherwise not survive in the wild. Some have a groundhog or two to share with the public on this most ceremonious day of weather prediction. And the annual tradition continues with much lightheartedness bringing needed smiles and community, and a 50 50 chance of accuracy.

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Punxsutawney Phil (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

How they get the groundhog to participate is a great feat, because after all, it is a wild animal most people encounter feeding on lawn and gardens, or on sides of highways in open land. They are those brown, ground hugging mounds moving in the grassy areas along the roads.

Other names for groundhog are woodchuck and whistle pig. They do make a whistling sound when alarmed and a ‘chuck chuck’ sound both inspiring their common names. Their Latin name is Marmota monax and are a rodent in the squirrel family. These ground dwelling rodents dig tunnels two to five feet deep and up to 30 feet long. They usually produce one generation per year in litter numbers of two to six born in April or May. At six weeks of age, young are free to forage for themselves and leave the den on their own. That is a lot of woodchucks for one small, suburban lawn!

I personally have a running summer battle with a family of groundhogs determined to scale the fence surrounding my vegetable garden and eat just about everything I grow.  Fencing should be left loose and angled out and away from the garden so the climbing animal will fall out rather than into the garden. Bury the bottom of the fence 1 1/2 to  2 feet deep to prevent digging under the fence. Stringing an electric fence wire four to six inches above the ground in addition to the fence will give the animal a shock, providing it with a lesson not to return. Animal repellents of hot pepper, garlic, sulfur and predator urine can all be sprayed around areas you want to protect. These usually need to be reapplied after hard rain. It is illegal to put out any poison which targets woodchuck. Trapping is allowed according to the Connecticut DEEP, with relocation onto State managed wildlife areas or forests. However, DEEP does not recommend relocating nuisance animals as it is very stressful for the animal. It will not have housing, food or water and usually ends in death of the animal. DEEP recommends humane euthanization.

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Woodchuck in trap. Pamm Cooper photo

Groundhog, woodchuck or whistle pig, whatever you call them, they can do a lot of damage. Below is a picture of a pretty old weeping cherry tree on the great lawn of the UConn campus in Storrs. I have been watching the steady decline and eventual death of this specimen tree due to the extensive tunneling and den building, excavating under the roots. There are large soil mounds and a wide hole giving access and  protection. UConn has many such areas providing shelter to the ever-growing population of these animals, which can be common place to see all over campus. Stepping in one of holes can also be a danger. Farmers have long battled with woodchucks making holes in pasture and field, especially dangerous for horses and cows which could break a leg.

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Death of weeping cherry due to woodchuck tunneling under root system. Pamm Cooper photo.

If control measures of fences, repellents and traps still leave you with a groundhog problem, there is always the option of hiring a Nuisance Wildlife Control Operator licensed by the State. http://www.ct.gov/deep/lib/deep/wildlife/pdf_files/nwco/nwcodir.pdf

-Carol Quish

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Cedar waxwings on a crab apple in winter

“He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter.”
-John Burroughs

 

Winter is a good time to get out and about as weather and gumption allow. Depending on where you go, there can be interesting things to see, and there no lack of books or other resources to help you learn about whatever you find. I like the shore and the woods in winter, especially on sunny days.

Ring-necked ducks can be found in small ponds or flooded fields during the winter. These small ducks dive to for mollusks, vegetation and invertebrates, and may be seen in small groups or in pairs. Males are more dapper than females, having a glossy dark head with a purple sheen, black chest and back and silvery sides. The bill is boldly patterned with a white ring near the dark tip and a base outlined with white.

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Male ring-necked duck

Another small duck that overwinters along the Connecticut coastline is the ruddy duck. They can be found in coastal estuaries and brackish rivers and streams near their entrances to the Sound. Males congregate in small to large in large flocks resting on the water during the day, heads tucked under a wing. Tails may jut nearly strait up and males have blue bills and a contrasting white cheek patch. More cute than handsome, they are also a diving duck.

Another bird that may overwinter here as long as food is available, is the red- breasted nuthatch. This cousin to the white-breasted is mainly found in coniferous woods or patches of pines, spruce, hemlocks or larches. They have black and white striped heads, slate-blue wings and back and reddish underparts. They sound similar to the white-breasted nuthatch, but their voice is more nasal and often more repetitive. They creep up and down trunks and branches probing bark for food, and may visit suet feeders.

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Red breasted nuthatch

Winter is a great time to look for any bird’s nests that still remain in deciduous trees and shrubs. Baltimore oriole nests are probably the easiest to identify as they hang down from moderately high branch tips, and often are decorated with purple or orange ribbons. Birds are often very particular as to what materials they will use- dog or horse hair, lichens and mosses, grasses etc. Cattail or cottonwood down is a must for yellow warblers and American goldfinches. I am lucky to have found two ruby-throated hummingbird nests, tightly woven tiny cups constructed of spider webs with lichens decorating the sides.

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Nest made of grapevine bark and colored trash- possibly a catbird nest

If you have bird house, especially for bluebirds, make sure to clean them out by early March, as bluebirds start staking out a suitable nesting sites early. They will use old woodpecker holes, high or low in the tree trunk, in the woods or on the wood line. Just be sure to have no perch below the nesting box hole as bluebirds like to cling to the hole while feeding their young and seldom use a house with a perch.

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Male bluebird on nesting box

Fireflies have been out during the warmer, sunnier days of winter. Check out the sunny sides of tree trunks. Another insect that may be out on warm days is the Mourning Cloak butterfly. These butterflies overwinter in tree bark crevices, sheds, tree cavities or anywhere else they can escape winter winds and snows. They may be encountered flying around the woods on sunny, warm winter days.

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Fireflies on a sunny tree trunk during January

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Mourning cloak butterfly

Just before sunset, check out the surrounding trees for a characteristic orange glow. Caused by clear skies to our west and the scattering of blue light, houses and trees can reflect the bright winter oranges as you look toward the east. Lasting only a few minutes, if that, it is one of the winter highlights for me.

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Pre-dusk winter glow

This winter, many paper wasp nests were unusually small. Not sure what to make of that, except maybe the wasps had a lack of food, or were out too late last January and were not able to acclimate properly to the sudden cold. As for snow, so far not much to speak of in my part of the state. But I’ll take the rain over the snow as long as the ground isn’t frozen. While snow can be pretty, I simply don’t miss this ….

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Winter 2010

Pamm Cooper         all photos copyright 2017 Pamm Cooper

“Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.”

– Benoit Mandelbrot, introduction to The Fractal Geometry of Nature

At this time of year many of the trees and shrubs in our landscapes are mere skeletons of their summer glory. Their beautiful canopies of leaves have been shed and they provide little visual interest. Unless you look a bit closer…

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This is actually a great time to observe the branching patterns of deciduous trees. A closer look reveals that they are eerily similar to our own vascular and respiratory systems. As each system goes from the main trunk to the larger limbs to the smaller branches and then the twigs we see the same fractal branching that occurs in the network of blood vessels in our lungs. How incredible that such like systems are actually performing a reverse process. Trees are taking in our exhaled carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen (O2) into the atmosphere.  In turn, we inhale that O2 rich air into our lungs where it travels through the increasingly smaller vessels until it reaches the capillaries where it passes through into our bloodstream. As the oxygen-rich blood travels through our body our cells use the oxygen and release CO2 back into the bloodstream where it travels back to our lungs before releasing CO2 as we exhale.

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The important thing to remember is that for both of these systems to work well they need to cover a large surface area and fractal branching is the most efficient way for that happen. Fractal branching is a pattern that repeats itself in either larger or smaller scales, each step looking like a copy of the same overall shape. These patterns are called self-similar and are found in many areas in nature from trees to rivers and many more. Ferns are a great example of a self-similar fractal as each pinnate leaf is a miniature version of the larger frond that it branches off from although natural branching fractals do not go on infinitely as mathematical fractals can. Remember the Fibonacci Sequence from your high school math class?

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Most of the fractals that we are familiar with and see on a regular basis fall into the category known as spiral fractals. Spiral fractals are responsible for some of the most beautiful forms that can be found in nature. Many galaxies are spiral fractals. The marine animal known as the Nautilus is perhaps one of the most well-known examples of the spiral fractal. But there are also so many spiral fractals that we encounter in the plant kingdom on a daily basis.

Ferns exhibit fractal properties in two ways. The uncurling of a new fiddlehead in the spring is a lovely example of a spiral fractal while a mature Japanese Painted fern (Athyrium niponicumn) pictured above shows the self-similar pattern of a branching fractal.

The Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana)  has a most interesting growth pattern with each branch a continuing spiral of tough, scale-like leaves. Although native to Chile and Argentina, these images are of a specimen that is located on the Long Island campus of Hofstra University.

Closer to home are some plants that are in many of our gardens during the summer season. The compact spirals of Stonecrop, also known as Sedum, help to form the tight clusters of thick leaves that give it its distinguishing look. I always love the way that dew or rain collect in the in little cups that are formed.

Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), Gerbera (Gerbera) daisies, and Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) show their spirals on a grand scale.

Decorative cabbage and kale (Brassica oleracea) are seasonal plants that bring their cold-resistant beauty to our fall landscaping and thus complete a full year of natural fractals that can be found all around us .

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Susan Pelton

 

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Bag of Lime

Many Connecticut residents spread limestone on their garden beds and lawn as an annual ritual. Why do we do this? Some do it because their parents did it, or the guy at the garden center told them to and sold them the limestone. How much should be purchased and applied is another mystery to most. The real answers of limestone’s why, how much and when lies in the science of soil.

Soil is made up of sand, silt, and clay. The percentage of each of these three determine the soil’s texture, which will determine how the water will move through it, or hold on to moisture. More clay equals wetter soils; more sand, better drainage. The sand, silt and clay are tiny pieces of rock, broken off of bigger pieces over much time by weathering. The rocks that makes up much of Connecticut has a naturally low pH in the 4.5 to 5.5 range. Other areas of the country and world have different rocks with different pH ranges. Acid rain falling onto the ground lowers pH levels, as does the action of organic matter decomposing which produces organic acids. Even the normal function of respiration by plants mixing oxygen and water together produces carbonic acid in the soil. More acid equals lower pH. No wonder why we need to test, monitor and fight the natural tendency of our soil to stay in a low pH range.

Most plants we want to grow require a pH range of 6 to 7. This means we have to change the pH to grow plants like grass, tomatoes, peppers, squash or garlic by adding limestone which raises the pH level. The only plants consistently happy with our native range are native plants! They have evolved in the local soil. This is why blueberries, oak trees and mountain laurel fill our forests and wild areas. Pines are another tree preferring our lower pH.

Why do the grass and vegetables prefer the 6 to 7 pH range? Because more of the nutrients that these species of plants need are available when the soil pH is in that range. The easiest way to think of pH is it is a measurement of the amount of hydrogen ions in the soil. The more hydrogen ions, the more acidic the soil is. The pH of the soil affects the availability of all plant nutrients. Just as plants have ideal moisture and light requirements, they have a preferred pH range as well.

The pH range numbers 0 to 14. The middle is neutral at 7. Pure water has a pH of 7. 0 is acid or bitter; 14 is alkaline or sweet. Old time farmers used to taste the soil to determine if it was bitter (acid, low) or sweet (high, alkaline). I am glad we have pH meters and laboratory soil testing equipment now!

0_________________________________________7_____________________________________14 Acid (Bitter)                                                                           Neutral                                                                  Alkaline (Sweet)

Soil pH levels also affect other life in the soil such as insects, worms, fungi and bacteria. The soil is alive with more than just plants. It is an entire ecosystem sustaining many life forms all interacting with each other. The pH level is probably the most important place to start when trying to provide the best environment for whatever plants you are growing.

Have your soil tested for pH and nutrient levels at the UConn Soil Nutrient Laboratory www.soiltest.uconn.edu. Have the $12.00 basic test for Home Grounds and Landscapers done. Forms and directions are on the website. We will be offering free pH only tests at the CT Flower Show February 23-26, 2017. A half cup of soil is needed. If you don’t have snow covering your ground now, go gather some soil now and hold it until the show. Once you know the pH of your soil, we can tell you how much limestone to apply in the spring. Fall is the best time to put down lime as it needs about six months to fully react and change the soil pH. Never put limestone down on frozen or snow-covered soil to avoid it running off to areas you didn’t intend to lime, like the storm drain. Limestone will not soak into frozen soil.

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pH Meter

-Carol Quish

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Cedar waxwings in a Hawthorn tree, an important food source for birds in the winter

I love the outdoors and have spent a lot of time off the beaten track exploring since I was a young adult growing up in the Chenango River valley in New York. The way to get acquainted with nature is to get out in it. And I have done so all my life. This year was a good one for me personally as far as observing nature in all its glory. Even though the weather was colder in the spring and hotter and drier in the summer, and perhaps was the hottest year on record, there was a lot going on, both on a typical and uncommon level.

The first surprise was a pleasant one- a larger than average number of foxes spotted in all kinds of places. Innumerable times I saw foxes in the wee hours of morning returning with prey for their young. Whether in rural or residential areas, these animals were having a great year. The ones I saw had healthy skin and fur, and certainly had no trouble finding food. On the golf course where I work, there was a pair of foxes that had a den of kits just inside the woods by a tee. Every day like clockwork, they had a specific route they traveled going from the den to hunt, and they had a specific, different, route returning to the den with their quarry. The good news was they killed a lot of troublesome landscape troublers- mice, voles and even several woodchucks.  Later on, the parents would be accompanied by the kits as they learned to hunt.

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Cooper’s hawk patrolling near a bird feeder

Although a dry year, the two or three thunderstorms we had brought out a few creatures the next day. One of my favorites is the eft form of the red- spotted newt. These tiny, bright orange amphibians sometimes  venture out of the woods after a rainy night and sometimes can’t seem to find their way back. Several fairways tend to have these guys on them in the mornings, so I am on the alert for them as I mow. Box turtles are also known to put in a similar appearance on days after summer rains. This year I was able to help a granddaddy of a box turtle get across a very busy road safely. This particular turtle  was one of the most ornately marked ones I have ever seen.

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Eft form of the red- spotted newt happily returns to the woods

Another creature that had an exceptional year was the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly. The previous year, they were few and far between, but in 2016 they had a banner year. The host plants of the caterpillars are spicebush and sassafras and careful examination inside leaves  folded lengthwise reveal the larvae of this butterfly. It seemed like whenever you came across  a host plant, at least one of these caterpillars was somewhere on it. On one small spicebush in a butterfly garden there were six caterpillars from eggs laid by six different females.

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Two spicebush swallowtail caterpillars found on the same sassafras sapling

Fall leaf color wasn’t great at first- perhaps because of the drought- and some red maples that turned early were actually yellow or brown in color. But there was a snap of cold in early October and a day later the leaves were at peak color, a sudden surprise after a drab start. Oaks were also beautiful this year- not dominated by the browns of last year. Red and white oaks had striking reds, and some red oaks produced yellow or tan. Acorns were not particularly abundant, but enough were around to keep deer, turkeys, squirrels and chipmunks in good supply. This was actually good for the squirrels and chipmunks because in late September and early October they were not able to find many maple seeds to eat because of the sudden freeze in April that caused many maple flowers to drop early.

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Willow leafing out in the snow on April 3, 2016

While insect populations, especially caterpillars, seemed low this year, bumblebees and other native bees abounded. Late season bloomers like mums, asters and goldenrods provided many insects with a good source of pollen and nectar. I found a small goldenrod in full bloom after Thanksgiving, which was very unusual. Bumblebees, some small native bees and honeybees were active up until Thanksgiving week, at least here on the UConn campus and in my backyard garden because alyssum, some hydrangeas and a few obedient plants were still in flower. And the caterpillars of the imported cabbage worm butterfly abounded late this season- even into December- especially on certain ornamental cabbages. A good find this year was a scarlet malachite beetle- on a blade of grass near my front step. This was only the second one I have ever seen, so it was a noteworthy event. The excitement never ends…

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scarlet malachite beetle

This year there was a pair of barred owls that had a nest inside a standing dead tree trunk on the side of a country road I travel on every day. In the pre-dawn when I passed by on my way to work, the parent owls would often be bringing the last protein nuggets of the night’s hunts back to their young. In the afternoon, both parents would be guarding the nest from perches nearby. In the pre-dusk twilight, the young owls would appear at the entrance of the nest hole and let it be known that they were hungry. And so the hunts would begin, to continue until the following dawn. I missed them all when they fledged and went off into the wild blue to learn to be on their own.

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Barred owl guarding her nest during the day

Wild blueberries were especially abundant this year, as were huckleberries. Noticeably fewer were dewberries, which are produced by plants that creep along the ground. Late in the season, migrating birds had few cedar berries to eat (unlike the bumper crop of last year), but at least black gum, poison ivy and Virginia creeper were loaded with fruit. Migrating warblers such as the yellow- rumped warblers are especially fond of these fruits. And if you have a bird feeder and some woods nearby, keep on the lookout for small raptors like the Cooper’s or the sharp-shinned hawks which prey on other birds. If birds around the feeder scatter suddenly, there may be a good reason, apart from a cat. During the winter, check out any hawthorn or crabapple trees that still have fruit. Robins and cedar waxwings are common winter visitors to these trees.

And as a final note, enjoy what is left of the year. And have a Merry Christmas! Or whatever you may celebrate at this time of year…

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Highland Park Springs Manchester, Ct.

 

 

 

 

 

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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