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


new year new start

The start of the New Year is a good time to start new in the gardening year too. There is always something new to plant or try, or a method of gardening to embrace. The down-time of winter offers the opportunity to seek out something new.

Start a new plant. Visit the warmth of indoor greenhouses to lift our moods and possibly find a new houseplant. Succulents are readily available and easy to grow if you have a sunny window. Use a well-draining potting mix formulated especially for cactus and succulents to get them off with a good beginning. Water only when the top inch or so of soil is dry.


Another popular houseplant with many different varieties and forms is Peperomia. They come with solid green or variegated leaves, some with white and others with reddish hues. Textures of the leaves vary by species with some smooth and others crinkled.  All plants in the Pipericeae family are non-toxic making them safe for homes with pets and small children. Known for its low-maintenance requirements, they will happily grow in bright, non-direct light and moist but well-drained potting medium. They have a slower rate of growth, keeping them in bounds of the container for a long time before the need to repot in a larger size container.

Start a garden journal. By tracking the bloom times and placement of perennials and trees, you might see a new combination to try. Having the plant’s location marked on paper helps one to find it in the garden in late fall or early spring, when it is the ideal time to move. Monitor and record the sunlight amounts throughout the year to see how shade increases over time as neighboring trees grow taller. A sunny yard can change to part or full shade over a decade or two. Vegetable garden journals and keep track of that exceptional tomato grown last year, or maybe the one that didn’t produce as advertised. This information will help plan the next vegetable garden with better or continued success.

garden journal

Start a new class to add you knowledge base of horticulture. UConn Master Gardeners offer advanced, topic specific classes around the state. These Garden Master classes are offered to the general public at a slightly higher price than UConn certified master gardeners, and well worth it. Topics range from woody plant identification to botanical drawing. Visit the garden master catalog to view classes.


The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection offer a wide range of outdoor classes and activities. Safety in outdoor sports is heavily reinforced if you interest is in boating, fishing, trapping or hunting. Their goal is education for you to keep yourself safe while starting a new outside activity. Classes on the environment and educational hikes are offered around the state at seven different educational facilities. 


Start a new book. New publications in the non-fiction realm of plants include three winners from the America Horticultural Society. One is about bees and native plants needed to feed them, another on the subject of a cut flower farm, and the third is about trees of North America. There is many other great garden and plant books to start you own self-guided learning on subjects of interest to you. I was gifted the two below written by Carol J. Michel which look entertaining and educational.


Start anew by joining a group of like-minded plant people. Garden clubs offer talks and friendship with other members, and some have civic minded projects involving gardening, usually by town. The CT Horticultural Society offers monthly lectures to state wide members and others, for a fee, and occasional hands on workshops. They list their scheduled speakers on their website. Other groups are focused on one subject, such as the CT Valley Mycological Society where you can learn all about mushrooms and fungi. There is also the Hardy Plant Society, and the CT Rose Society. If your tastes are more specific, check out the Iris Society or the CT Dahlia Society.

-Carol Quish

“Gonna find me a bluebird, let him  sing me a song
‘Cause my heart’s been broken much too long.”

– Marvin Rainwater, Gonna Find Me a Bluebird Lyrics, 1955

I have worked at two golf courses, both in Hartford County, and on both properties and in the areas surrounding the courses, bluebirds are found in abundance. having large, open areas and woodland edges, undisturbed waste areas, abundant numbers of fruiting shrubs and trees, and sources of open water, the golf course is an ideal environment for many birds, including bluebirds. While they  seemed to disappear from New England as farmland and other large open areas were lost to development or reforestation, bluebirds have made a dramatic comeback in recent years. Virtually unseen at our golf course, in the 1990’s, we saw our first mating pair in 1995. Since that time, we have put up numerous bluebird specific nesting boxes, and if tree swallows, house sparrows, or flying squirrels don’t get to them first, the bluebirds are in at least half of them. We sometimes see as many as 30 birds at a time flocking together as they have successful broods year after year.


Above: photo of male and female bluebirds- credit FNAL Fermi Lab

Eastern bluebirds are very social, and often large groups of them are seen flying from tree to tree or from tree trunk to the ground as they hunt for insects and fruit. They are adept at clinging to the trunks of trees, often perching there until they spot an insect to eat on the ground nearby. If you see a bird fly to the trunk of a tree, check it out. It may be a nuthatch, but perhaps you will discover it is a bluebird. I have found that, where there is one, there is often at least one more nearby. In the fall they are often seen together eating berries together with groups of cedar waxwings on cedars, Virginia creeper, and black gums, which are all naturally occurring native plants on our golf course. As both species of bird are social in nature, they don’t seem to mind each other’s presence on the same food plants.

During the summer, almost 70% of their diet consists of insects. They were a welcome addition to orchards in the past as they consumed many pests of fruit trees. This is why they are often found in old, neglected orchards as the insects are more abubdant because control measures for these pests have been abandoned along with the orchards themselves. Eastern bluebirds also eat fruits, including those of fruit of blackberry, elderberry, honeysuckle, dogwood, raspberry, mountain ash, pokeweed, Bradford pear, wild grapes and many other plants. In the fall they find berries of black gum, buckthorn, Eastern red cedar, Virginia creeper, and other trees and shrubs. Many bluebirds remain all winter, surviving on American holly, inkberry, winterberry, sumac, and other berries that remain throughout the winter monthes. Power lines can be a good place to find bluebirds during any season, as many food sources are available year- round.

This year many people reported seeing them on their suet feeders for the first time, perhaps due to the blizzard in february that covered many of the smaller trees and shrubs that would have provided some food. Every year can bring different conditions that may be extremely difficult for birds to survive, or perhaps make it much easier if fruit is especially abundant. As a side note to that- this year acorns were practically unavailable for squirrels, oaks having produced little because of cold weather during the flowering period. So squirrels were reduced to eating crabapples in the fall, leaving few for the birds that normally would eat them toward the end of winter.


Above: photo of male bluebird perched on tree trunk.  Photo

Males bluebirds will select holes for nesting purposes that have been excavated by flickers, woodpeckers or chickadees, as well as properly constructed and mounted nest boxes. If your property has large open areas bordered by an area of woods with a rather open understory, place a bluebird house on a post or the remains of a broken tree trunk of a size similar to a fence post. Be sure the box is near the edge of the woods where it will get some sun during the day. Or place it out in the open, especially along fence lines in open fields. If possible, face the opening toward a perching spot, such as the next fencepost or a nearby tree with open, low branches. Avoid facing the hole toward the afternoon sun if the box is out in the open- face the hole to the north or east if possible. Also, keep the opening from facing prevailing winds. The ideal situation is to face the opening toward a tree or shrub that is within 100 feet of the box. This will provide the fledglings with a safe destination for their first flight. The first time I saw a nesting pair, they had selected a rotten trunk of a tree about 6 feet high and 5 inches in diameter about twenty feet inside the woods. The entrance hole was at least four inches in diameter.  So you can see that nesting preferences are not necessarily ”  by the book”.

Bluebirds do not need a perching post under the nest box hole to enter or leave the box and may avoid nesting in boxes that have such perches. Leave the inside surface rough so birds will be able toget a grip to exit the house. Drill a few vent holes on the upper sides, and drain holes on the bottom. Insert a hardware wire support to keep the nest  about 1 ½- 2 inches off the bottom of the box. This may help keep blow fly larvae from crawling back on the nestling birds.

Photo above left:                               Photo above right:

After the bluebirds have successfully fledged the first brood, clean out the old nest. The birds will build another if they have a second brood. If you forget, do not worry. I have actually opened a box in the early spring to clean it out only to find a female sitting on eggs in a second nest she had built on top of the old one. But is certainly best to keep the box clean. If other undesirable birds start to build their nests in the boxes, keep pulling the stuff out. We put three nest boxes within thirty yards of each other and get a family of tree swallows, one of house sparrows, and one of bluebirds every year. After cleaning them out, the birds select their nesting sites, and all are satisfied.

If you want to see bluebirds, check out the area along Horse Barn Hill Road where they usually can be found year- round. Another spot is the little cemetery on Bone Mill Road in Mansfield where they often perch on top of the old gravestones, especially from late March on through summer. Or just keep your ears tuned in for their distinctive ” wheedle wheedle ” as you are out and about. Happy hunting!

Pamm Cooper  UConn Home & Garden Education Center