UConn Garden Conference

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

sunset Henry Park Vernon Autumn 2015 copyright Pamm Cooper

Sunset at Henry Park

“I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house”   Nathaniel Hawthorne

“Autumn seemed to last forever this year. Colors were especially vibrant on many species because the conditions that are clear, dry and cool but above freezing result in the best fall colors. Coupled with dry conditions this spring, plants produced chemicals that would result in more colorful leaves later in the year. Trees kept their leaves in color longer than usual and warm temperatures were somewhat responsible for this. Many oaks whose leaves are brown to yellowish brown in the fall were brilliant shades of red instead.


Scarlet red oak leaves November 2015

A sudden, severe drop in temperature during an abnormally warm October resulted in sudden leaf drop on some species of trees. In particular, gingkoes and black walnut had most of their leaves drop like stones while they were still green. Others had the leaves turn brown and shrivel up without falling to the ground. Especially hit this way were Japanese maples, locusts, chestnuts and some hickories. This anomaly happened because when the leaves on these species were about to turn color and finish the transition into late autumn dormancy, the leaf abscission process was interrupted or bypassed. Trees and shrubs that turned color before or after the cold snap completed the natural abscission process, while leaves are still clinging to some that could not.

Japanese maple leaves after major cold snap and frost October 2015

Japanese maple leaves shriveled and remaining on tree November 2015

New England experienced mast crops of acorns and hickory nuts this year and apples and crabapples were loaded for bear. Because of the great acorn supply, deer and turkeys are keeping a low profile so far, staying in the woods where the acorns are abundant. Some people that have chronic deer issues on their evergreens rake up acorns and deposit them within a wood line where deer can easily find them and stay off the rest of the property (maybe!).


Fully loaded crabapple tree

Birds that were eating winterberry and crabapples at this time last year- robins and cedar waxwings, among others- have left these fruits untouched. Part of the reason is because cedar berries and many seeds have also been available in large numbers. Worms were still near the surface of the ground recently and robins could snap them up. Moles have been troublesome this fall because of the worms and other insects that have remained high in the soil profile, but the weather has taken a turn as of mid- November, so that will change.

red breasted nuthatch copyright Pamm Cooper

Red-breasted nuthatch- a visitor from the north

Look and listen when outside this fall and winter. Many birds such woodpeckers, chickadees, brown creepers and nuthatches are very vocal in the fall and winter. Pileated woodpeckers have a notable clarion call and can be seen easier while the leaves are off the trees. Red-breasted nuthatches sometimes remain this far north for the winter and may appear at suet feeders. Look for bluebirds where there is plenty of open ground or old orchards. While some migrate, many are still here in the winter. Along the Connecticut shoreline it can make for an interesting day of birding as many coastal birds arrive for the winter. Look for a stray snow goose among flocks of Canada geese.

Female pileated copyright 2015

Female pileated woodpecker

If horseradish, radishes, as kale, Brussels sprouts or other brassica vegetables are still flourishing, be on the lookout for the imported cabbage worm caterpillars. They are still feeding and should be in the final caterpillar instar. Look for chewed leaves with veins remaining. Swiss chard and other leafy vegetables may also be under attack by armyworms and cutworms, which will feed on foliage this time of year before finding overwintering spots.

cabbage worm on horseradish November 14, 2015

Imported cabbage worm on horseradish November 2015

Bagworm alerts are in order. Check out arborvitae, junipers and other ornamental evergreens for the bags fashioned from pieces of the host plant’s foliage. Remove by hand if this is practical as the eggs are laid inside the bags and will hatch out next year and begin a new feeding frenzy of the caterpillars. When they finish eating the foliage of one plant, they will move off that plant and proceed to the next. In this way, they sometimes defoliate an entire hedge or other planting. This is not a surprise attack- a little vigilance will reveal the onset of this pest.

bagworms on ornamental evergreen copyright

Atlas blue cedar with bagworms

Check out the sky at dusk and dawn as spectacular reds, pinks and lavenders rule the northeast during the cold months. Extended dry conditions made leaves that much lighter and easy to rake, but Connecticut is about 5-6 inches below normal rainfall. Maybe winter will provide enough snow to make up the difference, but I opt for autumn rains to accomplish that job.

turkey in the snow


Pamm Cooper                                     All photos © 2015 Pamm Cooper

For more years than I have been employed at UConn, the Perennial Plant Conference has been held on the Storrs campus during spring break. The Perennial Plant Conference was geared to the professional horticulturist – those that grow, sell, plant, maintain and otherwise make their living dealing with plants, with an emphasis on herbaceous perennials. So much interest for a similar program was shown by non-commercial garden enthusiasts that a few years ago a second conference day was added with just that audience in mind.

This year’s Garden Conference was held last Friday, March 12 and featured five phenomenal speakers. The day started off with UConn alumni, Karen Bussolini speaking on ‘Designing with Elegant Silvers’. Karen is a garden photographer as well as author and lecturer and her slides were gorgeous. I like silver leaved plants because they look good in my white garden but also because they are less appealing to deer. After hearing her talk I got some great ideas of more ways to use silver colored plants in the garden and in the landscape. Check out her book, aptly entitled Elegant Silvers, to view some of the pictures and ideas she presented at the Conference.

With all the rain that began last Friday here in Connecticut, the presentation, ‘Gardening with Rain’ given by Heather Crawford was most appropriately timed and an eye opener for many in the audience. I’m pretty sure a rain garden would not be able to help the poor folks that got 10 inches of rain dumped on them this weekend, especially those living in flood plains. However, rain gardens are effective tools for managing storm water generated by a more typical rain event.

Just think about what happens to the rain that falls on your property. That which falls on soil surfaces can be absorbed and infiltrated into the ground. Vegetation, mulch, natural forested areas all have a great ability to accept most of the rain that lands on them. Runoff can occur, however, on compacted soils, during times of excessive downpours, and when the soil is already saturated. Then there are impervious surfaces such as roads, driveways, parking lots, roofs, and the like where rainwater will always run off. According to the EPA, the pollution carried in stormwater runoff is the number one water quality problem in the United States.

What’s polluting our waters? I think most of us have figured out that some of the pesticides used for food crops, lawns or ornamentals might end up in water sources but other chemical sources of pollution vary widely from those cleaners used in a typical home, to pharmaceuticals in human waste, to automobile exhaust and fluids, to improperly disposed of industrial waste products and the list goes on and on as there are tens of thousands of chemicals in use in today’s world. Another source of water contamination is from nutrients either applied to crops in the form of fertilizer or the resulting manure from animal production. When these are overly or improperly applied, excess nitrogen and phosphorus find their way into ground and surface waters. Faulty septic systems can also contribute to phosphorus pollution as well as the potential contamination of water bodies with pathogenic organisms. Any type of fecal material, whether from humans, pets, farm animals or wildlife has the potential to contaminate water sources with pathogens leading to beach closures and shellfishing bans.

There is also pollution from sediment, non-biodegradable trash, and thermal pollution which occurs when runoff is carried over hot asphalt or rooftops in the summer months and can result in overheated water bodies which would likely limit the ability of some native plants and animals to survive. Invasive plants often find these situations appealing, however.

As you can see there are many reasons to keep storm water runoff at a minimum and a great way to do this is by creating a rain garden on your property. Individuals might think what good can one person do? While one cent might not get you to far these days, one hundred cents or a dollar gets you a cup of coffee at McDonalds, one thousands cents or $10 buys you 5 or more packets of vegetable seeds which might supply you with sustenance for a month or more – the bottom line being that each little effort adds up to a big one that really does make a difference, in this case to water quality.

Off my soap box now to tell you where to learn more about building rain gardens. Check out,  http://nemo.uconn.edu/tools/stormwater/pdf/WI_Rain_Garden_Manual.pdf for a good review of how to site, build, plant and maintain a rain garden at least in the Northeast.

Not to short any of the other 3 speakers who were all inspiring in their presentations. I really enjoyed talking to and hearing from Lois Berg Stack from the University of Maine. Her talk was on ‘Twenty Steps Toward Becoming a Green Gardener’. I actually consider myself fairly ecofriendly and conscientious, especially in my gardening practices but she even gave me food for thought. Some suggestions I am going to take her up on are using groundcovers around some trees and shrubs instead of mulch which I do have to replenish at least every other year, and thinking about planting native plant communities instead of just a native plant here and there to substitute for an exotic one.

Rosalind Creasy is the author of a handful of books all focusing on the buzzword that I think can be attributed to her, Edible Landscaping. We all too often relegate the vegetable garden to the back yard. With a little creativity and perhaps some examples, so nicely photographed in her books, it really is not hard to combine edible herbs, vegetables, flowers and fruits into the landscape. Her presentation featured edible theme gardens such as a children’s garden, an Italian vegetable garden, a culinary herb garden, a garden of edible flowers and so on. I especially liked her blueberry hedge idea. After all, these plants grow to a nice height for privacy, produce small whitish flowers in spring that bees adore, are covered with plump luscious berries loved by both humans and wildlife, and the foliage turns a lovely red in the fall.

Last, but certainly not least, was Steve Silk, renowned garden photographer, former managing editor and now contributing editor for Fine Gardening magazine, great garden writer and also the VP for the CT Horticultural Society(http://www.cthort.org/). His topic was ‘The Crazy, Mixed-Up Border’ and I just adored his witty presentation and gorgeous pictures of lush, tropical looking gardens. He likes bold and bright plants and continually experiments with different plant forms, colors and foliage shapes. Many gardens could use just this jolt now and he encourages gardeners to take a chance and not play it safe. It was a great way to end a wonderful conference and judging from the evaluations we got back, most attendees felt this way too.

Two other conference features that I must not fail to mention are the College’s CIT Resource Store (http://www.store.uconn.edu/)  whose hard working staff supplied us with a plethora of gardening books, including those authored by our speakers. Tables were set up so one could get their newly purchased books autographed. We have also been joined for the past several years by Ballek’s Garden Center (http://www.balleksgardencenter.com/). They bring with them a very tempting and choice selection of hardy perennials and houseplants. This year I went home with a snow drop anemone, Anemone sylvestris, but I also loved their cheerful selection of primroses with showy blooms signaling SPRING.         

Cheery yellow primroses offered by Ballek's