Spiffy Viola

“A gush of bird-song, a patter of dew / A cloud, and a rainbow’s warning / Suddenly sunshine and perfect blue / An April day in the morning.” – Harriet Prescott Spofford

Woodland fern frond underside loaded with spores

This April has been slow to warm up, but finally we are getting some warm days, and spring flowers and returning or migrating birds are beginning to make themselves known. Many birds, like Carolina wrens and bluebirds, have probably laid eggs already, or they will soon. Chickadees and some woodpeckers are tapping holes in trees to use as nesting chambers for rearing their young. A few early flowers are brightening up the landscape, and soon many others will follow.

A pair of chickadees made a hole in this dead tree trunk for a nest
Black and white warbler

On Horsebarn Hill, UConn’s pastureland, there are many birdhouses that serve as nesting sites for Eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, and sparrows. Early in the morning, birds can be seen sitting on top of the houses they have chosen.

Male and female bluebirds near their nest box on an April morning
The same pair after the male gave the female an insect as a gift

On Horsebarn hill, there are also young horses, cows and sheep that were born this spring. One is a friendly little colt I call Little Blaze- a friendly little chap with stellar markings.

Little blaze

Forsythias are nearing full bloom, and the early blooming Rhododendron mucronulatum ‘Cornell Pink’ have a profusion of pink flowers, being the first of its species to bloom here in the Northeast. Bees are visiting its flowers, as well as those of Cornus mas, another early blooming landscape shrub.

Forsythia used as a hedge
‘Cornell Pink’

Migrating birds that are passing through in early spring are just now arriving. Palm warblers, sweet little rusty brown warblers with a yellow chest with brown splashes can be found in wet arears like bogs that have a lot of trees and shrubs. They flit around looking for insects, wagging their tails when at rest.

Palm Warbler in boggy woodland area

Spring flowers like Coltsfoot, an introduced species, flowers as early as March, with yellow flowers appearing before their leaves open. Flower stalks have unusual scales. Seed heads are similar to those of dandelions, and silk plumes allow the wind to carry the seeds a distance. Birds use this silk for nesting material.


Twinleaf and bloodroot bloom very early. Twinleaf has an unusual leaf that is divided in half lengthwise. Bloodroot has a single leaf that appears after the flower and is wrapped around the flower stalk before opening. Both plants have similar bright-white flowers that stand out in the otherwise dismal landscape.


Turtles are enjoying basking on sunny days, and toads are around as egg- laying will begin soon. Spotted salamander eggs and wood frog eggs can be seen in some vernal pools already. The spotted salamander eggs differ from wood frog eggs in that the egg masses are covered with a clear or cloudy gel.

These painted turtles need a bigger log
Spotted salamander eggs

The Connecticut River is at flood stage, blueberries are just showing flower buds, and native willows are in full bloom, providing food for our early native bees. A few cabbage white butterflies can be seen floating by, and spring is about to go into full throttle.

A doughnut cloud…

“April hath put a spirit of youth in everything.”
― William Shakespeare

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.





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.



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.



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!



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.


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.


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

As I write this a frost warning has been issued for tonight (May 9th) in the Massachusetts county I live in. It’s hard to believe that last week Sunday it nearly hit 90 degrees F here! Just goes to show how fickle New England weather is. While some of the Soil Testing Lab’s clients were skeptical when we suggested to them they should wait until later in the month to plant tender vegetables, like tomatoes, I am willing to bet the folks that held back will probably be happy they did so. Tender vegetables and annuals at best sulk in this cooler weather and at worse can sustain light to severe tissue injury causing major setbacks in growth, if not their demise. Soil temperatures should be close to 50 degrees F and the extended weather forecast should be mild before planting many tender vegetable crops.

One can plant cool season vegetables like radishes, onion sets, turnips, peas, Swiss chard, lettuces and many other greens, kale, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts now. They can take a few cool nights as long as transplants are hardened off properly. Even so, new transplants would benefit from a row covering if frost is predicted. Seeds are probably okay. I have to admit, I have not planted my cole crops in the garden as of yesterday and I even brought the flats back inside last night.

I stopped at several garden centers on my way home from work last Friday in search of my absolute favorite, must have pansy, ‘Ultima Morpho’. The name is kind of odd but this beautiful pansy spots gorgeous primrose yellow-faced, lilac blossoms with whiskers. Often the flowers are almost 3 inches across and fragrant. No luck. I spotted one last 6-pack at the grocery store on Saturday and scarfed it up. For good measure I also picked up a ‘Whiskers Red-Gold’ pansy. There is just something about these bicolored, whiskered pansies that appeals to me. I planted three ‘Ultimo Morpho’s in an 8-inch pot to put in the wrought iron planters on the garage door (with no garage) and planted some of the ‘Whiskers Red-Gold’ in a half Maine bucket that hangs on the front gate. Pansies are quite cold tolerant but I will probably bring them in if the nights go into the 30’s just because I don’t know how hardened off they are.

Ultima Morpho Pansy

For the past two weeks now, I awake not to the sound of my alarm but to the sound of my cockatoo screaming since my husband has added 6 chicks to our fold. I suppose my calmness sounds odd and I would be as upset as my cockatoo is if these chicks did not have 4 toes and 2 wings. They are baby barred Plymouth Rock hens and as you can see from the photo, even our teenage son is enamored with them.  My cockatoo, however, is incensed at the arrival of these creatures. He is the king of the household (at least in his mind) and there should be no one at beck and call to these fuzzy creatures that are always going ‘peep, peep, peep’. It is only right (again in his mind) that he tells everyone so even at 6 in the morning.      

Chick in hand

I had heard that there was a growing interest in backyard poultry raising but we were surprised to find practically no chicks at our local farm supply store. They said that young chicks arrive on Wednesdays and that by the weekend (when we went), they were mostly gone. So the next week, we went down on Wednesday and did manage to get the breed of chicken we were looking for, the Plymouth barred rocks. These are hardy, black and white striped or barred birds. They are a good size and productive egg layers which is why we raise them.

Barred Plymouth Rock Chicks

Adult Plymouth Barred Rock Hen

This desire for backyard poultry got me thinking. Did folks purchasing baby chickens for the first time know what responsibilities lay before them? I could write pages but most of this information can be found online and in books. A few things to think about however – Neighbors might not appreciate your sense of self reliance. Make sure they support or at least acknowledge your ambitions. Even hens can be quite noisy, and also destructive if they get into garden areas.  Also check with your local zoning board to make sure that you are allowed to have chicken on your property and any regulations or ordinances that you must follow.

Chickens need shelter from the elements and from predators. Some kind of building or coop will be necessary. Insulation may be appreciated in the winter and good air ventilation in the summer. It will have to be cleaned out several times each year. Roosts should be built for the chickens to sleep on with areas below the roost filled with wood shavings or other bedding materials so that they can be cleaned on a regular basis. We add this material to our compost bins. Nest boxes are necessary for the hens to lay their eggs in and should be checked at least twice each day.

Chickens require fresh food and water every day – 365 days per year. You do not get a vacation from their care unless you can find a sympathetic soul or paid caregiver to deliver food, water and access to shelter.

Chicken feed is expensive! Young chicks require a special diet and that diet changes as they become mature. Be prepared to purchase their feed, any supplements and sometimes treats.  Even free-ranging chickens usually require a steady diet of egg-laying ration which is 16 to 18 percent protein.  

Chickens must be protected from predators. Our chickens are let out to free range in \a fenced in area during the day and are locked in their coop at night. You would think this would be sufficient to protect them but we have had hawks kill a chicken in broad daylight when we were just outside and a raccoon break into the fenced in area in the middle of the day. Predator patrol is hard and really the only safe chicken is the one inside a well built coop. Think about your options and how to keep your chickens safe from harm. Our neighbor lost some of their chickens unexpectedly to another neighbor’s dog.

Brrrr! In the winter, water freezes quickly and often fresh water needs to be supplied 2 or 3 times a day, if not more. Will you have the time and dedication to meet your chickens’ needs? 

What to do if your chickens get sick? Can you find a local veterinarian to examine and treat your chickens? What would you do if you found one of your chickens mauled by a neighbor’s cat or dog or a fisher cat or fox? All of these things plus much more should be thought about before acquiring chickens.  Part of me would like to urge everyone to try their hand at raising chickens and growing their own fruits and vegetables just to become familiar with some of the challenges that the farmers that feed us have to deal with. And then my sentient soul hopes that some will sort through these deliberations and come to a reasonable decision.

The bottom line is that raising chickens or other livestock requires a working knowledge of their needs, the desire to meet them and most importantly, the ability to do so.