Nature Oddities


After two summers of drought conditions it is great to see how well the vegetable garden is doing this year. The lack rain and the elevated temperatures of last summer meant that I was lugging the watering cans from the rain barrel to the garden every other day. This year, it has been less than once a week as Mother Nature has provided precipitation in abundance. The zucchini, summer squash, tomatoes, peppers, kale, Swiss chard, green beans, carrots, and beets are all living large.

IMG_20170813_110722472_HDR

The first batch of ratatouille has already been enjoyed, a delicious blend of tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash and eggplant that is diced, tossed with olive oil and a pinch of salt, and roasted to perfection in the oven. The vegetables that provide the greatest depth of flavor in this recipe are the tomatoes and eggplant. These vegetables are found in the umami taste category (along with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter). Umami, by definition, is a Japanese word that means ‘pleasant, savory taste’. It is also known as glutamate and has been a part of the vernacular since 1985 which explains why it was not on any of the sense of taste diagrams that I saw in science class in the 70s.

IMG_20170813_195216822

Foods that contain umami such as tomatoes, eggplant, spinach, celery, and mushrooms will all have their flavor improved by just a touch of salt (or fish sauce, which is also high in glutamate) making them great choices for anyone trying to reduce their sodium intake. I recently had a Thai dinner of a spicy eggplant dish that had such an incredibly savory taste due to the combination of the eggplant and the fish sauce that I ordered it twice that week.

In fact, eggplant is one of my favorite vegetables. It is used in so many cuisines around the world. I believe that my first exposure to eggplant was through my Italian heritage in the form of Eggplant Parmigiana, a staple of every holiday meal and a prime choice when ordering from Franklin Giant Grinder on Franklin Avenue in Hartford. Those breaded sliced rounds, fried in olive oil, baked in a tomato sauce, and covered in mozzarella cheese were umami with a capital U!

Fast forward to the 1990s and the exposure to so many more dishes that use eggplant, including vegan and vegetarian recipes where it is a good substitute for meat. In the Mid-east, baba ghanoush is eggplant that is roasted whole, scooped out when cool and mixed with tahini, garlic, and a little olive oil and eaten as a dip with vegetables or pita bread. The already mentioned ratatouille is a stewed dish that comes to us originally from Nice, France, where eggplant is known as aubergine. Eggplant can be pickled or made into chutneys in India or stuffed with rice, meat, or other fillings in the Caucasus.

One thing about eggplant that separates it from most other vegetables is that it is basically inedible when raw, having a very bitter taste and an astringent quality. Early cultivars required the slices to be salted, pressed, rinsed, and drained before they could be used in a recipe but modern cultivars such as the large purple variety have less bitterness.

The three varieties that I am trying this year are the classic plump purple ‘Black Beauty’, the green skin ‘Thai Long Green’, and the white skin ‘Caspar’. It would appear that we are not the only ones finding the eggplant interesting this year.

The first pests that I noticed in July were the eggs and larvae of the False potato beetle (Leptinotarsa juncta), often confused with its cousin the Colorado potato beetle, (Leptinotarsa decemlineata). The bright orange eggs which are found standing upright on the underside of the leaf are not as tightly packed together as the eggs of the squash bug generally are. It wasn’t until I looked at an enlarged view of the below image that I noticed that I had actually captured a larva emerging from an egg!

InkedIMG_20170715_194007276_BURST000_COVER_TOP_LI

The pale larvae will feed on the foliage of most Solanaceous plants for 21 days as they go through 4 instar stages and then drop to the soil to pupate.

After 10 to 15 days the adult beetle will emerge and lay eggs. There are usually two generations a summer in Connecticut.

Then there were the larvae of the Clavate tortoise beetle (Plagiometriona clavate), awesome masters of disguise, who use their own frass (poop) as a camouflage. The rear abdominal segment of the larva has a special fecal fork that allows the attachment of the dried fecal matter and holds it over the larva, hiding it effectively. Even if the frass is pulled back it will pull it over again.

These small, green larvae with their flattened bodies and fringe of white spikes did a bit of damage to the eggplant leaves, leaving them quite pockmarked.

A few more visitors are not as Solanaceous host-specific as the False potato beetle and the Clavate tortoise beetle. The 14-spotted lady beetle (Propyleae quatuordecimpuctata) has been in North America since it came to Ontario by way of Europe in the 60s. It can out-consume the native North American lady beetle species, eating insect pests such as aphids, mites, and scale, landing it on the Invasive Species Compendium list.  Every garden needs pollinators and the bees love the big purple blooms of the eggplant.

This grasshopper nymph posed on an eggplant leaf, casting a very artful shadow. Grasshoppers are not picky eaters and can be found on every plant in the garden although squash and tomatoes are their least favorite. This one may have just been taking advantage of a bit of August sunshine. Can’t say that I blame it!

Susan Pelton

 

woodchuck-in-pasture

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.

groundhog-day-ap-photo-gene-puskar

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.

p1360100oodchuck-in-trap

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.

woodchuck-and-dying-ornamental-tree

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

“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…

maple-tree

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.

2012-11-23_07-39-50_640

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?

japanese-painted-fern

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 .

ornamental-cabbage-2

Susan Pelton

“In summer the empire of insects spreads.”
― Adam Zagajewski

elderberry borer Birch Mt Rd PL 6-20-15

Elderberry borer

 

Toward the end of spring and the beginning of summer, I find that the most interesting insects are to be found. While spring offers some really good forester caterpillars and their attractive moths, among other things, nature seems to me to save the best for last, it seems to me. From beetles to butterflies, moths and their caterpillars, from June on there are some fabulous finds out there.

I have to admit to being a caterpillar enthusiast, and am partial to the sphinx, dagger, slug and prominent caterpillars and then the butterfly cats as well. Last year the swallowtail butterflies were few and far between, but this year our three main species- black, spicebush and tiger- are clearly more numerous. If you know where to look, you can find them.

I like to turn over elm leaves and search for two really spectacular caterpillars. The first is the double-toothed prominent, whose projections along its back resemble those of a stegosaurus. Along with its striking coloration and patterns, this is a truly remarkable find for anyone who takes the time to look and see. The second one is the elm sphinx, sometimes called the four- horned sphinx. This caterpillar has both a brown and a green form, and has little ridges running along its back. It is a behemoth, as well, like many sphinx caterpillars- robust and heavy.

double tooth

Caterpillar of the Double-toothed prominent moth

 

Long-horned beetles are out and about. Impressive because of their long antennae, these members of the Cerambycidae family of beetles can be impressive both in color and size. The larvae are round-headed borers, and are often plant specific as in the case of the pine sawyer. One of my favorites (but not because I love the larvae) is the elderberry borer. A pest of elderberries, the beetle is a brilliant metallic blue with orange bands on the elytra. This impressive beetle was featured on a postage stamp once upon a time, probably promoted by someone who did not have any elderberries in their garden.

eyed click beetle  Ruby Fenton picnic table 6-15-14

Eyed click beetle- a beneficial click beetle

Tussock moth caterpillars are in a class by themselves. Some here in Connecticut are a sight to behold, with the tussocks of hairs on their backs, long pencils front and rear (sometimes) and long setae along the body. The white- marked tussock moth caterpillar is a favorite among insect enthusiasts, resembling Bozo the clown in a way with its red head and wild hair. Found on many plants, both woody and herbaceous, these guys can be pests if enough of them are on the same plant. Blueberries are a favorite, but they can appear on almost anything. The yellow- based tussock is especially interesting because the final instar has hairs that appear frosted. Some of the tussock moths have pretty markings, the hickory tussock moth and banded, for example, and many are attracted to lights.

white- marked tussock moth caterpillar  Pamm Cooper photo

White-marked tussock caterpillar

yellow- based tussock moth caterpillar Ii

Yellow-based tussock moth caterpillar

white furcula caterpillar Pamm Cooper photo 2016

Walking sticks and mantids can be found resting on vegetation during the summer. Right now, walking sticks are small- one inch to two inches, and they develop slowly. Mantids develop slowly as well, and are especially found on goldenrods as the season progresses, as insect life abounds on these plants.

milkweed beetle taking off copyright Pamm Cooper

Milkweed beetle

Other insects of note are the hoppers, of which the tree hoppers are especially interesting. The buffalo tree hopper is easy to identify- look at its head to see how it got its common name- and many tree hoppers have interesting projections on their pronotums. Assassin bugs can be found along with their insect prey on the milkweeds, which are just starting to bloom now. The common milkweeds abound with the color of butterflies and milkweed beetles, the activity of bees, and the scent of the flowers themselves.

Buffalo hopper

Aptly named buffalo tree hopper

Get out now and discover the fascinating world of insects. You may need only venture as far as your own backyard.

 

Pamm Cooper                   All photos copyright 2016 Pamm Cooper

 

 

IMG_3916

January can be a disappointing month for vegetable gardeners if they are used to eating fresh food they produce. An unusual crop to get us through this  lean growing time can be mushrooms. I received an exciting Christmas gift of a home mushroom farm making it possible to grow a crop or several crops of mushrooms in my home. These kits are readily available online and sometimes at better garden centers. The one I received is sold by Backtotheroots.com. This is not an endorsement of any one product, just reporting on the one I am using. Other companies also have different varieties of edible mushrooms available. Mine grows oyster mushrooms, comes with several recipes and enough growing medium impregnated with spores for at least four consecutive crops.

Directions said to remove the front cardboard panel revealing the plastic bag filled with growing medium and mushroom spores. After cutting an X in the plastic, I removed the bag from the box, placing it in a bucket of warm water, cut side down, for eight hours. This is to moisten the growing medium. At the end of allotted time, I replaced the bag into the box, cut plastic side exposed through the hole in the cardboard. It said to scrape the exposed surface of the medium, which I did. Included in the kit was a small water misting bottle for spraying the area twice per day to keep the medium and spore well hydrated.

Mushroom Farm in a box, Day 1, photo C. Quish

Mushroom Farm in a box, Day 1, photo C. Quish

The newly formed mushrooms were growing fast. By day four, grey tips and white stems could be recognized as future oyster mushrooms. And I envisioned mushroom risotto, mushroom and pasta toss, and mushroom soup. I was not sure of the overall numbers and weight I could expect from this one foot tall box of a ‘garden’, but I had hope.

Day 4 spore germination.

Day 4 spore germination.

Day 4

Day 4

 

By day seven, the shape of the oyster mushroom was clear. I kept misting with water, kept the box on the kitchen counter pointed away from the west-facing window, and things seemed to be going well.

Day 7

Day 7

On day ten the mushrooms had grown so much the box opening was crowded to point harvest was needed. Picking was easy by just cutting off the stem at the base. New mushrooms should sprout to give another crop in 10 more days.

Day 10

Day 10

Oyster mushrooms are kind of airy, light in weight, but flavorful. After all that dreaming of incorporating my mushroom crop into many different recipes, I decided to just saute them in a little butter and olive oil, low and slow in a cast iron pan. We savored every one of them, enjoying my little harvest during January from the kitchen counter.

Mushrooms in pan

Adventures in mushrooms will continue as I keep misting and monitoring. After a second crop on this side of the bag, directions instruct to open the other side of the bag with an X and begin again to keep the ‘shrooms’ coming. I may get more adventuresome by trying other varieties sold in kits and others already grown and being sold at markets.

Mushrooms for sale at Farmer's Market, photo by C.Quish

Mushrooms for sale at Farmer’s Market, photo by C.Quish

-Carol Quish

 

 

 

sand sculpted by a wave on Watch Hill beach December 2015

Sand sculpted by a wave at Watch Hill in early December

December 2015 in New England has been a nice blend of above- average temperatures, green grass, and a few timely rains to compensate for a droughty year. Getting outdoors for some fun has been easy and comfortable this year, especially for walks in the woods. So, just for fun, here are some things I came across in the woods near my home and in a small village near the Connecticut River.

alyssum full bloom December 28 2015

Alyssum in full bloom December 27, 2015

Here’s a very common fungus in America – the “turkey tail”- which is named after its resemblance to the tail feathers of the native wild turkey which Benjamin Franklin sought to have named our national symbol. Hmm… eagle versus turkey- no contest I think. Sorry, Ben. The Latin name Trametes versicolor is a fitting name as this fungi varies considerably in color. The chestnut brown and the bold white outline make a striking contrast in this species of polypore mushroom.

turky tail polypore shelf fungi.

Turkey tail fungus

The green- hued Mossy Maze Polypore (Cerrena unicolor), is one of many wood decay fungi that are critical in nutrient cycling in temperate forests. These bracket or shelf fungi are in the phylum Basidiomycota. Large colonies of this fungus can be found going along a log. Spores get into the wood when a female horntail wasp picks them up while drilling holes to deposit her eggs into logs and trunks of hardwood trees.

Mossy maze Polypore shelf fungi 12-27-15

Sometimes the pre-dusk sky takes on a peculiar glow that bathes trees and houses in a wash of orange that is singular to the season. This happens when shorter wavelengths of light (blue) are scattered quickly, leaving only the orange-red part of the spectrum.

pre- sunset December glow 12-3-15
Human touches of the season were in evidence in rural and municipal settings, and proved amusing at times. But then, I can be easily amused. As with this driftwood and found object sculpture. Note the snake on the right, a small owl in a bole, and oyster shells that look like shelf fungi.

driftwood sculpture from found objects.jpg

Snowmen were a scarce commodity because of snow challenges this year, not that I am sorry to have it so. Someone of an original and resourceful mind bypassed the use of snow as a raw material and put on their Yankee thinking cap instead. The result was a monumental “ snow” man made of hay baled in plastic and topped with a hat made of drainage pipe material. Good job!

snow man made of hay bales wrapped in plastic and drainage pipe hat

And let us not forget the decorations. Some people have a more aesthetic bent than others, and it is nobody’s fault. Comparing efforts (or lack thereof) is not always an admirable enterprise, but still can provide some amusing moments. Look at how holly has been used to spruce up a window box…

great use of holly in a windowbox

 

Pamm Cooper

213

The UConn Home and Garden Education Center offers information on all things horticulture. Our mission is to give the public answers to their plant and insect related questions by our well-trained horticulturists and staff via phone calls, emails and in person. We provide outreach from UConn to the citizens of the State of Connecticut and many other states, through the Cooperative Extension System and the Plant Science and Landscape Architecture Department. We may be contacted at:

UConn Home and Garden Education Center

Room 4, 1380 Storrs Road

Storrs, CT 06269-4115

 

877-486-6271

 

Ladybug@uconn.edu

 

 

Powdery Mildew on Squash Leaves, C.Quish photo

Powdery Mildew on Squash Leaves, C.Quish photo

Milkweed Beetle, C.Quish photo

Milkweed Beetle, C.Quish photo

We diagnose plant diseases and identify insects, and solve plant problems. Samples of plant material and insects can be mailed or brought to our office located in Storrs on the UConn campus. If a physical sample is received, there is a lab fee of $15.00. There is no charge for emails, phone calls and advice. All of us truly love our jobs, and could (and do) talk about plants all day long!

pdl

IPhone and IPad App –  The UConn Home and Garden Education Center’s Plant Diagnostic Lab in conjunction with Purdue University, has developed an IPhone and IPad App for folks to submit photos of plant problems.If you don’t have an IPhone, email us directly. All submissions may include plant disease or insect problems, and plant or insect ID. It is a free service and free to download. To find the app, search for ‘plant diagnostic sample submission’ at the app store. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/plant-diagnostic-sample-submission/id669269520?mt=8

When we are not busy helping people, we write about gardening to keep you informed. New research and current happenings in the environment will be made known to the public through our many ways getting the news out. Several of us develop and present talks to garden clubs and other groups around the state. Some also lecture in the The UConn Master Composter Program and the UConn Extension Master Gardener Program. We have a booth at the CT Flower and Garden Show in Hartford during the month of February each year.

 

UConnLadybug Blog – If you are reading this, you already know we have a weekly blog! Our well-versed group of five take turns writing about gardening, plants, pest, insects, birds and just about anything we think might interest our nature centered audience. We each have a little bit different style to enlighten and educate. https://uconnladybug.wordpress.com/

 

Newsletter Subscription

Home and Garden Newsletter Subscription

 

Home and Garden Newsletter – A quarterly paper newsletter mailed to you home contains timely and accurate information from faculty and staff throughout the college and eight Extension Centers who contribute their knowledge and expertise on a wide variety of issues such as entomology, food safety, drinking water, soil testing, home horticulture, lead poisoning, indoor air quality, septic system management and family financial management. Cost is $10.00 per year. http://www.ladybug.uconn.edu/newsletter/index.html

 

Pettinelli_12_2858736675

E-Update monthly newsletter – Dawn Pettinelli, our manager, scours the internet for science based, university researched and accurate articles and tidbits of timely information, to gather all that knowledge in one place which is then sent out through our listserv to those wishing to receive it. She also includes what is happening in the landscape during that particular month. It is informative and comforting to know others may be having the same problems and how to handle them. If you wish to have your email added to our Listserv, send an email request to Ladybug@uconn.edu.

Soil Testing in Process

Soil Testing in Process

UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory – Have soil tested for pH and nutrient levels, lead screening, organic matter content and soil texture by visiting  UConn Soil Testing Lab Their goal is to increase the public’s awareness of the benefits of soil testing and the necessity of environmentally sound soil fertility management programs. The lab also functions as a teaching resource where CANR graduate students learn to run their samples on sophisticated equipment and as a base for numerous outreach activities.

 

Facebook – We are on facebook as UConn Home and Garden Education Center. Please Like us to see great photos and more current happenings in the natural world around us.

hg_logo

Website – Last, but not least, we have a website. Our fact sheets are located here,  as is a lot of other information. We are the midst of creating a new one, but are leaving the original in place until the new website is unveiled. http://www.ladybug.uconn.edu/index.html

 

-Carol Quish

Next Page »