Wildlife


If you can’t be in awe of Mother Nature, there’s something wrong with you.

  • Alex Trebek
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Cecropia moth made it to maturity from caterpillar raised in a sleeve

Sometimes, in the course of our lifetime, we may find ourselves in the right place at the right time to make a difference in the life of some living thing. Maybe it is just the simple act of putting a nestling bird back in the nest from which it has fallen. Or we may be able to transplant a native plant to a safe location just a few feet away from the reach of a roadside sickle bar. Once I had to scoop up with a towel a baby fox that had fallen asleep in a dangerous place on the golf course and put it back with its brothers (or sisters!) who had chosen their resting place wisely. While it may not always be a good thing to interfere, sometimes it may be the best thing.

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Box turtle was helped across busy road

Where I work, we often have a surprise when mowing early in the morning. This year when I was mowing a green with lights on just before sun-up, I noticed something that I thought was an earthworm moving in the path of the mower. At the last second before running it over, the creature starting running on little legs and I stopped in the nick of time. It was a tiny salamander. I put it in a plastic cup with a lid I always have with me and later on I put the little guy in the woods near a vernal pool.

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tiny salamander saved from a mower

In a similar way, the eft form of red-spotted newts often end up on greens or fairways the day after a rain. Being so small, they are often unable to make it back to the woods where they belong. So placement in a plastic cup keeps it safe until the opportunity comes to set the little eft on the forest floor. Like Shakespeare wrote- ‘all’s well that ends well’.

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Eft form of the red-spotted newt

Our giant silkworm moth caterpillars have a high percentage that are killed by introduced parasites meant to control the gypsy moth caterpillars. When I find young silkworm moth caterpillars in the wild, I like to raise them so prevent parasitism. When they form cocoons, I take them back from whence they came. Cocoons can be attached to twigs of the host plant with a bread tie or put in leaf litter below.

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First instar cecropia caterpillars found on alder and raised in captivity safe from introduced parasitic wasps

Turtles often are the recipients of human kindness, especially when they attempt to cross roads. Box turtles are frequently seen crossing roads the day after a summer rain, and many have been helped across by kind people. Some turtles travel great distances to lay their eggs and encounter similar hazards. Once we found three spotted turtle eggs while renovating a bunker. Carefully marking them to keep them right-side up, they were transferred to an aquarium and placed under sand. Within two months they hatched and were released on the banks of the pond where the eggs where originally laid. If it were possible for turtles to leap for joy, they would have.

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Spotted turtle hatched from egg just before release

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Another spotted turtle removed from harm’s way

If a baby bird is found on the ground, it is important to note whether it is a nestling, which has fallen from the nest prematurely, or a fledgling, which should be out of the nest. The cedar waxwing shown below was a fledgling found on the ground on a cart path. It was moved out of harm’s way to a low branch nearby where the parents easily found it. Unlike many other animals, parents will still feed and care for baby birds even after human handling.

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Cedar waxwing fledgling moved from a cart path to a low branch

There are walking sticks I find every year on certain plants on a particular power line right- of- way. A lot of tree and shrubs were marked to be cut down to clear the lines including a small clump of filbert and viburnum that are the host plants for these insects. I wanted to try to save a few before the chain saws arrived, so I took my beating sheet and was able to find several tiny walking sticks that probably had hatched that week. They were raised that summer until work along the lines was complete. Since the host plants were left standing, the walking sticks were returned.

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Power line right-of-way after drastic tree removal. Walking stick host plants escaped the saw

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Walking stick just hatched removed from power line area, raised and released back after tree removal work finished

This year we had an interesting incident involving honey bees. Since it was late in the year and many flowers were no longer available, honey bees were very busy on black and blue salvia in a large planter outside the clubhouse. The problem was, someone had fallen into and smashed the salvia and it had to be removed. Our gardener noticed that over fifty honey bees were still swarming around where the plant had been, and they were even trying to get nectar from the petals remaining on the ground. Since a planting nearby along a stone wall also had the same salvia, we took small branches with the flowers and held them over the ground where the bees were. The bees immediately went for the flowers on the stalks and stayed there, or flew with them to the front planting. We shook the bees off, and they found the new flowers right away. We were able to get all the bees over there in this way. They probably would have found the other salvia on their own, but it was something to do…

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Transporting honeybees on a branch of black and blue salvia flowers

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Honey bees inside flowers and following branch as they are moved to a new nectar site

To help wildlife on your own property, include water dishes for toads, chipmunks, and other animals, birdbaths and perhaps bird and bee houses. Provide shelter for  birds such as small trees and shrubs, which may also double as food sources and nesting places.

bee nest house using bamboo tubes

Bee nesting house using bamboo tubes that should be sealed on one end with mud or another substance

When you are out and about enjoying  nature in the wild or in your own back yard, it is always satisfying and cheering to one’s own little self to see something else become better off because of what we may be able to do. Just think- you don’t have to be a nature expert to become, at least for a little while, a bee whisperer.

Pamm Cooper                                              all photos by Pamm Cooper

Last week’s Ladybug Blog extolled the historical, cultural, and culinary delights of pumpkin. It seems as though you can’t step foot into a grocery store, candle shop, or cafe without being inundated with products that revolve around pumpkin spice. As ubiquitous as the combination of cinnamon, clove, and allspice have been the past few years I remember a time when the flavor of early fall was apple; from cider and cider doughnuts to pies and apple butter.

Many a school field trip or family outing revolved around a trip to an orchard to pick one of the many varieties of apples available in New England and return home laden with bags of this versatile fruit. The pleasure of these adventures was increased if the destination also had a working cider press. That sweet/sour smell of the overripe apples being pressed says fall much in the same way that a freshly-cut fir tree hints that Christmas is on its way.

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Enjoying a visit to Easy Pickins Orchard in Enfield, CT

Apple orchards have been a part of Connecticut and New England since cultivated apples (Malus pumila also known as M. domestica) were brought here by the European settlers in the 17th century. The first recorded apple orchard was planted in 1625 by the Reverend William Blaxton in what is now Cumberland, Rhode Island. Reverend Buxton cultivated the Yellow Sweeting apple which later became known as the Rhode Island Greening, a cooking apple that has a greenish-yellow flesh. Before that only the small, sour, wild apples which we know as crabapples grew in North America. Crabapples are used as ornamental trees in landscapes and as they are heavy bloomers are great sources of pollen for cross-pollination in apple orchards, are a good source of pectin, and as a rootstock that provides cold-hardiness to domestic apples.

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The crabapple tree at our first home bloomed beautifully every Mother’s Day (1991)

The use of crabapple or other apple varieties as a rootstock in grafting is very important in modern orchard farming. Apple trees grown from seed do not grow true to their parent plant and can be anywhere from 12 to 36’ tall, features that are not conducive to consistent apple production and ease of harvest. Therefore, grafting, the technique that combines the beneficial traits of 2 or 3 apple varieties is greatly beneficial. In the simplest of terms, grafting is the procedure by which a scion (a piece of last year’s growth that has 2-3 buds) is cut from an existing tree of the desired apple variety.

The scion is inserted into the cambium (vascular) layer of the understock (rootstock) of another apple variety that may bring traits such as disease resistance, crotch strength, adaptability to heavier soil, a slow growth rate, adaptability to espalier training, or the above-mentioned cold-hardiness. The new graft is generally bound with tape and a grafting compound. Detailed information on grafting can be found in books or online.

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Espaliered apple trees

Cider apples are usually a combination of cultivars that are grown specifically for use in cider production to have higher sugar and tannin levels and are often more astringent than the eating and baking varieties. These qualities contribute to a final product that has a deeper flavor. Among cider apple varieties are some that are higher in sugar which causes their cider product to ferment resulting in hard cider. In fact, hard cider was an important beverage at a time when refrigeration was unavailable. Most apple cider produced today is pasteurized, a process that heats the unfiltered apple juice to prevent bacterial contamination. It also destroys any yeast that would cause the juice to ferment creating a more stable non-alcoholic product. In fact, ‘Johnny Appleseed’, the folklore hero born as John Chapman in 1774, planted seeds that produced apples that were only good for hard cider (or applejack), not for eating.

In 1993 The Enfield Historical Society brought a manual cider press to the Old Town Hall Museum. Since we were members of the Society my husband Russ and some friends were enlisted to turn the press.

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Layers of burlap-wrapped apples are squeezed in the manual cider press.

It was a beautiful, sunny fall day, perfect for an outdoor exhibition. Our children and friends were among the crowd that gathered to watch the action. The resultant cider was not distributed as it had not been pasteurized but there were jugs of pre-pressed cider for the enjoyment of all.

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Crates of apples await their turn in the press.

Humans are not the only members of the animal kingdom that appreciate ripening apples. At this time of year, it is almost impossible to get near an apple tree without being in the presence of yellowjacket wasps as they forage for the sugars that are important to their developing queen in late summer. As overly ripe apples fall to the ground the yellowjackets will swarm the fallen fruit.

 

A beautiful Mutsu apple showed the scars of an encounter with yet another species that wanted to feed on the delicious ripening fruit. Although this apple was about 5 feet above the ground an animal, possibly a raccoon, had attempted unsuccessfully to get it.

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Mutsu apple with animal damage.

We, however, picked many Mutsu (also known as Crispin) apples, a very crunchy and sweet variety that is a cross between the Golden Delicious and the Indo cultivars that is great for eating and several pounds of Cortland destined for pies, crisps, and apple butter. Connecticut’s orchards are still going strong so visit the Connecticut Apples site to find one near you and enjoy some of the many delicious varieties that are grown in our state.

Susan Pelton

There is a deciduous plant that grows as a small tree or shrub, is native not only to the Northeast but to most of the temperate Northern Hemisphere, is a popular ornamental species appreciated for its flowers and its fall color, and it produces a deep purple fruit that is both edible and delicious. George Washington had specimens of this plant on his Mount Vernon estate but even before that the Native Americans mixed the fruit with dried meats and fat to create pemmican, a food that is high in both energy and nutrition. This plant goes by many names, some of the more unusual ones are sarvis, saskatoon, and chuckley pear. Have you guessed what it is yet? Here are some of the more common monikers: wild plum, sugar plum, service tree, and shadblow. Have it yet? Let’s keep going. How about shadbush, serviceberry, or Juneberry? Now you know it, it’s Amelanchier.

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Serviceberries

In fact, there are so many bits of lore surrounding the etymology of all of the various names attributed to this plant. Is it called sarvis or serviceberry because the fruit is similar to the European Sorbus or because its bloom in the spring coincided with the time that Appalachian mountain roads became passable enough for traveling clergy to hold services? Or is it shadbush or shadblow because the flowers appear when the shad are running? Or Juneberry because, you guessed it, the fruit appeared in June? I think that my favorite name is saskatoon which is derived from the Cree name for Amelanchier, misâskwatômina, which also lends its name to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where the plant is native.

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The delicate blooms of Amelanchier captured by Pamm Cooper

 

One of the most common species of this plant that is found in New England is the Amelanchier canadensis, known as the Eastern shadbush. It comes as no surprise that this plant has so many names as there are between 6 and 33 species (depending on the source) due to the wide variety of hybrids and the fact that it is also found in Asia (A. sinica or Chinese serviceberry) and Europe (where the species A. ovalis is known as Snowy mesiplus).

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Amelanchier canandensis, aka Shadblow in its tree form, courtesy of Pamm Cooper

Adding to the confusion is that fact that this plant can be a small tree or a multi-stemmed clumping shrub. This happens when the new growth is heavily browsed by deer and rabbits and the plant takes on a tree-like shape instead of a shrub similar to many of the its fellow members of the Rose family. In full sun or part shade it can reach 20’ tall and has an airy, open look to it that is compounded by the fact that the white flowers emerge before the leaves in the spring. If it is left to its own devices then the suckers that are produced from the base of the plant can grow into a thicket.

The fruit that succeeds the flowers starts as a yellow, single-stone, berry-like ½” pome that hang in terminal clusters of 1 to 4 fruit. As the season progresses and the fruits ripen their color shifts to red, purple, and finally the deep almost black purple that signifies maturity. We have received several calls from the Connecticut Poison Control Center requesting identification of the Serviceberry fruit as it appears to be as attractive to children as it does to birds and wildlife. It is always nice to be able to report that it is in fact edible and harmless. When fully ripe the taste is sweet and a bit tart at the same time. I had a bowl of them in the fridge and my husband ate one, expecting that it was a grape, and was a bit surprised.

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The plum-like interior of the fruit

Amelanchier is not only grown for its fruit but as a popular ornamental shrub/tree. Although they are not drought tolerant and require good drainage and air circulation they do provide interest throughout the year. The delicate 2” white or pink blossoms appear in the spring around the time that the shad are running in the Connecticut River according to folk lore, generally in early April. The leaves follow the blooms and then the berries which are ripening now. Soon the leaves will turn from green to yellow to a beautiful orange or red and when they fall the tree will still provide interest in the form of its unusual grey bark which shows fissures as it ages.

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The interesting bark of Amelanchier

In addition to the aforementioned deer and rabbits Lepidoptera caterpillars and other insects also feed on Amelanchier. Among these are spider mites, sawflies, flatheaded borers, bark beetles and aphids. I did not see any aphids when I took these images but I did see a specimen that was heavily populated with Asian lady beetles, a heavy predator of aphids, in three different stages of development.

Amelanchier are susceptible to several diseases including Fire blight, Leaf spot, and Gymnosporangium rust, which affects the leaves, twigs, and fruit with distinctive orange lesions and spores. The alternate hosts of Gymnosporangium are juniper and cedar.

Another common affliction of stone fruit that also infects Amelanchier berries is Brown rot. Brown rot, or Monilinia amelanchieris, fungi persist in blighted blossoms, twig cankers, or on mummified fruit. In the cold winters of Connecticut it only survives by overwintering on fallen infected fruits. Apothecia are produced on berries that overwintered on the ground. These small mushroom-like structures release ascospores which can infect blossoms and cankers but not the fruit. In more temperate areas when early spring temperatures combine with moisture the conidia, the asexual reproductive spores, will be produced on cankers or mummified fruit that remained on the tree. The conidia of Monilinia form linked chains on the blighted tissue of blossoms or twigs from which the mature spores will detach to be spread by air, splashing water, or insects.

When vectored by feeding insects these spores will entire fruit through the open wounds. In the moist, moderately temperatured climate of the developing fruit the conidia will germinate in 2-4 hours although it may remain latent in green fruit. Mycelium, the vegetative part of the fungus that absorbs nutrients, and conidia, the spores, will sprout from the infected fruit causing the fruit to decay and turn brown.

When vectored by feeding insects these spores will enter fruit through the open wounds. In the moist, moderately temperatured climate inside the developing fruit the conidia will germinate in 2-4 hours although it may remain latent in green fruit. Mycelium, the vegetative part of the fungus that absorbs nutrients, and conidia, the spores, will sprout from the infected fruit as small, circular brown spots that cause the fruit to decay and turn brown. Within these areas tufts of greyish spores appear as the fruit mummifies. The fruit may remain on the tree or drop to the ground until the spring when the cycle starts again. Cleaning up dropped fruit and debris will help to cut down on reinfection and it is suggested that Amelanchier be planted in areas where the messy dropped ripe fruit is not an issue.

Better uses for the ripened fruit include jams, pies, wines, ciders, or dried like cranberries for use in cereals, trail mix, and snack foods. Or you could whip up big batch of that Native American favorite, pemmican, if you happened to have a load of thin slices of bison meat that have been dried in the sun and pounded into a powder, mixed with melted fat and the dried serviceberries and formed into patties. Just in time to store it away to delight your family at Thanksgiving!

Susan Pelton

groundnut August 13 2017

Groundnut flowers

“The brilliant poppy flaunts her head

Amidst the ripening grain,

And adds her voice to sell the song

That August’s here again.”

–  Helen Winslow

 

August means summer is heading for a subtle change. Evenings begin to get cooler, skies are less hazy, most birds are getting a break from chasing fledglings all over creation, and the sounds of crickets and katydids during the night have replaced the trilling of the tree frogs. Bats are seen more frequently now as many moths and other late summer night- flying insects are abundant. Trees and shrubs have ripening fruit, deer are eating acorns already and, to top it all off, we just had a solar eclipse. Now is a great time to get outside and see what is happening in the garden and in the wild.

female and male juvenile wood ducks Early August Airline Trail marsh Pamm Cooper photo

Juvenile wood ducks are on their own now

The tiger bee fly, Xenox tigrinis is a very large fly that can be seen flying about now. About the size of a quarter, this fly may fly low over lawns and can be mistaken for a wasp. It has large white markings at the end of its abdomen and they really stand out against the black color of the rest of the abdomen, resembling a bald faced hornet somewhat as it flies around, , apart from its size. Female tiger flies lay eggs near carpenter bee tunnels, and its larvae will eat the bee larvae that are developing within.

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Tiger bee fly

One of our larger spiders is the black and yellow orb weaver, Argiope aurantia. Commonly known as garden spiders, orb weavers are frequently found in gardens, meadows and fields. Their web has a zig-zag pattern at the end of a  thickened strip of silk that and may signal birds so that they see it and avoid flying through the web, thus saving the spider from major repair work. Who knows? Other creatures seem to miss that cue and end up as little morsels in the food “web”.

orb weaver spider

yellow and black orb weaver

Another orb weaver, the arrow spider (Micrantha sagittata), is much smaller the black and yellow one, and is one of only three Micrantha species found in North America. It has an interesting web composed on a rather permanent frame structure and then the orb section is built inside the frame at dawn every day. In the evening, the spider will consume the orb part of its web and have to start anew the next morning. The whys and wherefores of this behavior is one to be marveled at, if not at all understood by mere mortals.

Arrow spider Micrathena sagittata PAmm Cooper photo

Arrow spider

Butterflies are having a banner year- even giant swallowtails are being seen in northern Connecticut as of late. I just peeked inside the old stinging nettles leaf shelter of a red admiral butterfly caterpillar and found its chrysalis inside. One way to avoid predators is certainly to make oneself scarce. Monarchs, spicebush and tiger swallowtails and American ladies are abundant in numbers this year. Good plants for late season butterflies, especially migrators, are boneset, Joe-pyes, goldenrods, mountain mint, lantana, petunias, impatiens and bluebeard (Caryopteris). Mints and bluebeard are excellent for late summer pollinators as well. My gardens are humming with bee and butterfly activity right now as I have most of these plants in flower.

red admiral chrysalis inside nettle leaf shelter

Red admiral butterfly chrysalis inside a nettle leaf shelter

Venturing out where forbs and small shrubs abound, you may run across the groundnut, Apios americana a native perennial vine that right now is in flower. The sweet- scented flowers are wisteria- like in form, appearing in small clusters along the vine. Found climbing among small shrubs and perennials like dogwoods, goldenrods and ferns, this plant is sometimes only noticed because its flowers are so striking in both color and clustered among a green background form the plant derives its name from the edible tubers that were consumed by native Americans and early settlers.

Cardinal flowers are also in bloom along watercourses now, and their brilliant dark red blooms and rich nectar attract hummingbirds. Along with jewelweed, cardinal flower is a great source of food for these energetic little birds. If you wait long enough when these plants are flowering, a hummingbird or two should make an appearance.

cardinal flower in stream

cardinal flower

Giant silkworm moths are putting in a second appearance this year, meaning a second or partial second generation of caterpillars will soon hatch. Over the last three weeks, Polyphemus and Luna moths have been seen, and there are fourth instar Promethea caterpillars out. Since the giant silkworm caterpillars take so long to reach the pupal stage, they may run out of foliage as many of the trees they feed on may shed their leaves before they can form cocoons.

exhausted Polyphemus moth on leaf litter Pamm Cooper photo

Polyphemus moth

And be careful out there! This past weekend I found two saddleback slug moth caterpillars in two different areas of the state, both on foliage not far off the ground. Though small, these caterpillars have many urticating spines that can cause a sensation like being stabbed with hundreds of tiny red-hot hypodermic needles.

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Saddleback caterpillar

As we move into the end of summer, sunrises and sunsets should be more colorful as the skies get cooler and particles high in the atmosphere scatter the blue light to our west and east as the sun sets or rises. To the early bird, then, may you see a spectacular sunrise.  And to the observer at eventide, may you be rewarded with an equally breathtaking sunset.

August dawn GHills from 8 8-18-13

August dawn

 

Pamm Cooper          August 2017

 

 

 

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.

scorched

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

Mountain Laurel     IMG_20170711_115224655_HDR

IMG_20170711_113134395   Viburnum

Trumpet creeper           IMG_20170711_182901348_HDR

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

“ The world’s favorite season is the spring. All things seem possible in May.”

-Edwin Way Teale

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Crabapples along a fence highlight a driveway on Route 85 – May 2017

 

May is usually the time of warmer weather and sunny days that brighten the landscape again with flushes of green leaves and splashes of color from flowers. We look forward to another season of gardening and other outdoor activities, and the encounters with nature that are unavoidable as one ventures outside.

This May has been colder than I would prefer, but at least it has seen more rainfall than last spring. The reason this is especially good news is that the gypsy moth caterpillars have recently hatched, and the rains bring hope that the fungal pathogen, Entomophaga maimaiga, will help diminish populations of this pest. Last year they went unchecked for most of their caterpillar stage as drought conditions kept fungal spores from germinating.

wilsons warbler May 12, 2014

A Wilson’s warbler stopped by on its way north

Ferns are opening up now and their graceful forms are a welcome decoration wherever they appear. My personal favorites are the scented fern, cinnamon fern and the diminutive polypody which are often found growing together on rocks with mosses. Polypody work well in dish gardens coupled with moss and partridgeberry, and can be brought indoors for the winter, or left outside if that works better.

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Sensitive ferns in a wetland area

 

Most trees have leafed out by now, with the pokey sycamores and hickories lagging behind, as usual. With the flush of leaves come the migrating warblers. Caterpillars are now found eating leaves in the tree canopies, and this is where many of the warblers find some protein for their return to northern breeding grounds. Rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, orioles, and thrushes are all back and they have transformed the woodlands to a symphony of birdsong. Also, barred and great horned owls born in late winter and early spring have left their nests, and parents can often be heard calling to their young. Many robins have already hatched their first brood as of two weeks ago, so it must be true that the early bird gets the worm…

mother and two baby great horned owls Pamm Cooper photo 2017

These young great horned owls left the nest days after this picture was taken.

 

Dogwoods have had spectacular blooms this year, and crabapples and viburnums as well. Yellow water lilies, Nuphar lutea, are beginning to bloom. This plant closes its flower late in the day, trapping beetles or flies overnight who will pollinate it as they try to escape.

Yellow pond lilies Nuphar luteum Airline 5-14-16

Limber honeysuckle, Lonicera dioica, a native vine-like shrub that is infrequently encountered, is also starting to bloom. The tubular red flowers have distinctive yellow stamens and attract hummingbirds and native bumblebees. Fringed polygala, a small, pink native wildflower with flowers that make me think of Mickey Mouse with an airplane propeller, are just beginning to bloom and are often found together with stands of the native Canada Mayflower. Native columbine are also blooming now and native Pinxter azalea should be following shortly.

limber honeysuckle May 7 2017

limber honeysuckle

fringed polygala May 13, 2015 Pamm Cooper photo

Fringed polygala

Interesting galls are forming on the young leaves on wild cherry. Spindle galls, caused by the mite Eriophyes emarginatae, are red spindle-like structures of leaf materialcaused by the mites feeding within. These tiny mites begin feeding as soon as cherry leaves expand in the spring. Although they can occur in large numbers, the galls will not stop leaves from photosynthesizing, and the trees will put out new leaves after mites are inactive.

spindle galls on cherry

Spindle galls on a small black cherry

Giant silkworm moths such as Cecropia, Polyphemus and Luna have been overwintering in cocoons and should be eclosing any time from mid- May to June. These spectacular moths usually fly during the night, but are often attracted to lights. Since they cannot feed, if you find any lingering about in the daytime, don’t worry about what to feed them- just enjoy their company!

cecropia female 9p.m. same day as emrged from cocoon 5-31-13

Female Cecropia moth

Swallowtail, Painted Lady, American coppers, Juvenal’s duskywing and many other butterflies are out and about. Wherever you see them, check out larval host plants for caterpillars. Sometimes they are as close as your own backyard.

striped jack-in-the-pulpit for web site

Jack-in-the-pulpit

Here’s hoping for timely rains during the summer, warmer days to get our blood moving and an abundance of fruits, flowers and birds that to follow May’s fore-running to summer.

 

Pamm Cooper

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

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