Plants


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.

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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.

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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!

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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

 

 

hardy silk tree UConn Wilbur

Hardy silk tree

July in Connecticut is an exciting time for me because of all the good wildflowers and insects that abound at this time of year. Insects get more interesting in summer and late summer, especially caterpillars that feed on older leaves. Plus, many birds have fledged their first brood by now, so the young birds are scattering around keeping their parents busy. Flowering trees are few, but in July sumacs, tree-of-heaven and the hardy silk tree bloom from mid to late July.

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Black walnut dropped fruit in July

 

While July is hot and sometimes dry, we have had an abundance of rain so far this year. This is a really good thing because the gypsy moth caterpillars severely defoliated many trees that now need rainfall to help put out new leaves before autumn. We hope next year will have less of these pests, especially since many of the caterpillars were killed by either a fungus or a virus.

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Bittersweet decorating a truck

Wildflowers like early goldenrod, swamp milkweed, bouncing bet, monkeyflower and nodding ladies tresses are in bloom now. And the peculiar Indian pipe, Monotropa uniflora, has popped up, especially under white pines. It occurs in rich, damp forests where there is abundant leaf litter. While this plant may appear to be a fungus due to its white color due to a lack of chlorophyll, it is not. It survives in a mutually beneficial relationship with a fungus in the soil where it grows. Blue curls are an interesting wild flower that can form colonies in sandy, infertile soils. Bloom time is normally late July through mid- August. Check out damps areas for stands of swamp milkweed- one of the prettier of the milkweeds, to me. All kinds of butterflies and bees may be seen getting nectar from its flowers.

 

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Indian pipe

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Blue curls

 

This year Eastern red cedars have put out a bumper crop of fruit, unlike the dismal amount of blue berries produced last year. This is good news for migrating birds like the yellow-rumped warblers that rely of this food as they fly south. And, of course, the cedar waxwings that derived their name from their fondness for cedar fruit, will enjoy any fruit that remains after the migrators have departed.

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cedar waxwing just out of the nest

Monarch caterpillars have been spotted, some in later instars, so that is good news for this favorite butterfly. Swallowtail caterpillars are also in later instars, and will have a second generation of butterflies later this summer. Check out small aspens for the caterpillar of the viceroy butterfly. This bird- dropping mimic will win no beauty contests, perhaps, but it is a good find nevertheless. Sphinx and many other moths are flying now, and bats are enjoying them during their night forays. Some of the geometers, or inchworms, have very pretty moths to make up for the drab larval stage.

chickweed geometer moth Bug Week insect hunt Pamm Cooper photo

Chickweed geometer moth

If anyone had their Joe-pye weed leaves chewed badly, it may have been the work of large populations of dusky groundling caterpillars. They are done feeding now, but keep an eye out next year if you had this problem. And aphid populations swell at this time of year as females give birth to live young by the truckloads. Sunflowers and milkweeds are just two of the plants that can have aphid populations that are very high.

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Dgroundling on Joe-pye

Enjoy yourselves out there in the garden, park, or wilds. Look up and down and all around, for things of interest that abound this time of year. And listen for the katydids as they start singing during the hot, summer nights.

Conehead katydid neoconocephalus ssp.

Conehead katydid

 

Pamm Cooper

 

 

IMG_20170702_114322695One of the best things about summer in Connecticut is the easy drive to the Connecticut shore as almost any point in Connecticut is no more than a 1 ½ hour drive to the Long Island Sound. Although Connecticut is the third smallest state area-wise (5543² miles) we are ranked either 17th or 20th in total ocean coastline. The 20th ranking is from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which includes tidal inlets and the Great Lakes in its calculations. Our 17th place ranking says that we have 96 miles of coastline while the 20th place gives us a grand total of 618 miles. In fact, if every citizen of Connecticut stood very close (and held our babies and toddlers) we could all stand along that 618-mile coastline! I must admit, as we walked along Sound View Beach over the 4th of July weekend it felt as if that scenario was taking place.

But walking a little further away from the sea of humanity is when the real appeal of the Connecticut shore happens for me. The diversity of the plants and vegetation that can be encountered never ceases to amaze me. Even though hydrangeas grow all over Connecticut, including in our yard in Enfield, they never seem as deeply blue as they do when there is a touch of salt in the air…

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…the honeysuckle smells sweeter…

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…and the beach rose hips are the size of cherry tomatoes!

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The Connecticut coastal region has a longer frost-free season than most of the state of Connecticut, 15-35 days longer depending on where you live. I would love an extra 35 days of growing time for my gardens but I don’t know if I would be willing to exchange those extra days just to worry about the salinity tolerance of my plants, sandy soils that may drain too quickly, or high winds. Those are all a part of the ecoregion along the Connecticut shore and each of those factors play a part in selecting plants for landscaping in that area.

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Salt can affect and potentially kill shoreline plants in two ways; either through salt spray that can damage leaves and plant tissues or through groundwater where salt water is brought in on daily tides. Where the groundwater is highly concentrated with salt water plant tissues can be damaged as with salt spray but additionally they will suffer with water uptake issues. When the concentrations of salt in the soil surrounding the roots of a plant become too high the plant may be forced to accumulate salts in its root cells to compensate for the higher levels outside. Expending energy to facilitate these functions means less energy will be directed toward the growth and vigor of the plant, sometimes causing the roots to go dormant, and resulting in a poor or stunted appearance.

Have you ever noticed how plantings along the shore seem to almost hug the ground? When salt is dissolved in water it separates into equal ratios of its two ions: sodium and chloride. It is the build-up of chloride ions in plant tissues such as the stems and leaves that will present as browned, bronzed, or ‘scorched’, leaf edges.

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Even the slope of the land or whether there is a sea wall present will influence the amount of salt damage that can occur. Within the same property or area several different salinity levels may be present as plants that are on the lower end of a slope may receive twice-daily infiltrations of seawater at high tide. And an area that slopes up will be more affected by salt spray. In fact, unlike the effect of elevated levels of salt in groundwater which tend to be localized, salt spray can reach plants several miles inland.

Fortunately, many species of plants that are native to Connecticut have developed the ability to thrive in these conditions and are categorized as highly salt tolerant, moderately tolerant, and least tolerant. Using plants that are highly tolerant as a buffer to shield less tolerant plants from salt spray, winds, or that simply increase the distance from areas of salty groundwater is a good option. The Connecticut Coastal Planting Guide from Connecticut Sea Grant/UConn has a great listing of trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, and groundcovers and their salt tolerance levels. Our recent trip to the shore showed some wonderful examples.

IMG_20170711_112627268   Sassafras

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IMG_20170711_113134395   Viburnum

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Through UConn, the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources has a resource that, through a step-by-step process, will help you prepare your site and choose plants that will have a better chance of survival in the coastal environment, prevent erosion, and provide needed food and protection to coastal wildlife such as this great white heron.

Susan Pelton

All images and videos by Susan Pelton 2017

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

“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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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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