Star Chickweed blooming in May Connecticut College woodland garden

Among the changing months, May stands the sweetest, and in fairest colors dressed.”

James Thomson

For good or bad, nature has its own comprehensive coordination of flora and fauna, and all play the perfect instrument in the classical themes of nature. Mozart in his glory had nothing compared to nature and its symphony of birdsong, and Monet has an inferior palette to that which nature offers. In May, nature is at its beginning and its best is yet to come.

Red oak flowers

Pin cherry is a native small tree that occurs in sandy clearings, along shorelines of ponds and lakes, often with aspen and white birch. It has a straight trunk with shiny reddish-brown to grayish-brown bark with numerous horizontal lenticels. Another tree with interesting bark is the striped maple, Acer pennsylvanicum. This maple is aptly named for its colorful green and cream colored stripes on the trunks of younger trees.

Pin cherry bark
Bark of a young striped maple trunk

In mid- May I took a trip to New London to visit the Edgerton and Stengel woodland wildflower garden at Connecticut College. In May there are creeping phlox, tiarella, swamp azaleas, trilliums, shooting stars, star chickweed, Virginia bluebells and many other woodland plants in bloom. Pitcher plants in the bog were showing signs of flowering.

Pitcher plant ready to bloom

Before sunrise recently, there was a peculiar pink, upright band in the sky, which turned out to be one end of a rainbow. It lasted a good 20 minutes and was an interesting start to the day. Later a line of thunderheads moved in, but no rain was in the mix in our area. In the afternoon in mid-May It looked like a rainstorm was happening just across the Thames River in new London, but it was actually a fog bank rolling in along the eastern shore.

Pre-dawn rainbow

While birding for the Audubon spring census, my sister and I came across two species of rare violets classified in Connecticut as  rare and endangered species. Viola enduca, or hook-spurred violet was one of them. This purple-flowered violets bears a slight resemblance to a bearded iris in that its lower side petals are bearded. The second species was Viola renifolia, the kidney-leaved violet, which has a sweet white flower with deep purple striping.

Rare Viola anduca hook-spurred violet
Kidney-leaved violet

There are always interesting galls to be found, and a favorite of mine is the maple eyespot gall caused by a midge. Spiffy red and yellow spots are caused by a chemical response to the egg-laying of the female midge. Cedar-apple galls on cedar were also starting to open.

Maple eyespot gall

For some unknown reason there has been a strong attraction to bucket loaders for a lot of birds, this year. A mockingbird uses the backhoe on a farm for a fine perch to sing away on and at the golf course, a robin built her nest on ours. Every time the loader is used, the nest is taken off and placed in a safe spot nearby. After parking it for the day, the nest is returned, and the robin has resumed laying eggs. All seems well for the moment

Robin’s nest on back hoe
Mockingbird singing from atop a bucket loader

Turtles should be heading for the hills soon to lay eggs. They are surprisingly fast on land when given a reason to press on, especially in egg-laying season. Otherwise, they can be seen relaxing on logs and rocks in calm waters.

Painted turtle laying eggs
Painted turtles soaking in the rays

Trees and shrubs starting to bloom include Viburnum plicatum, Carolina allspice and Fraser magnolia, while horse chestnuts are ending bloom. Oaks are wreaking havoc as flowers have a load of pollen right now, but flowers should be falling soon.

Horsechestnut flowers

As May draws to a close, I am looking forward to more bee and insect activity, a profusion of new life in the form of baby birds and animals, and more color as wildflowers make their mark in the landscape. Altogether, they will become a natural symphony of coordination of sight and sound in their own special place on the earth. I intend to enjoy what remains of this spring. You never know what you will see or come across…

Pamm Cooper

It’s been a tumultuous week. We had unexpected home expenses, a heatwave we weren’t quite prepared for, and both a birth and a death in the family.  Life can be tough sometimes, but I find that having a perspective of gratitude (even when I feel I’m forcing myself to have one) can really help me navigate difficult situations. Being grateful for the positive things in life can help to smooth over the potholes along the way. While I normally like to write more “functional” blog posts, this week I’ll discuss some plants for which I am grateful.

I moved to Connecticut from Florida in 2021. While my partner and I generally love our new state, it has taken some adjusting. We were nervous to be in our 130+ year-old rental for our first New England winter, so we began house hunting in the early fall. We were lucky enough to find a home in September, and while it had/has a few minor areas in need of some improvement, it has good bones, a great kitchen, and is in a quiet neighborhood.

Being a self-described plant nerd, I immediately began to think of how most of the plants outside needed caring-for, and how many would need to be replaced. There were some dead trees in the back yard that needed (and still need) to be taken down, a sad rose bush that had blackspot on the leaves and dead canes throughout, two diseased boxwood bushes, a carpet of sick pachysandra, and more than a dozen clumps of ugly Hostas surrounding the house, all riddled with holes from the many slugs that make our wet yard their home.

That’s not to say that there weren’t some beautiful, healthy plants too, but I went into the winter believing that I would need to do some major landscaping in the spring. Over the winter I gave a lot of attention to my houseplants – many of them remind me of Florida (read some descriptions below if you’re curious).

I did some yard work when the weather wasn’t too bad. I pruned out the smaller dead trees and some of the inconvenient ones, and I trimmed-up the sad rose bush (likely for the first time in its life). I also cleared away the dead bits of Hosta leaves, thinking I would dig-up and remove their rhizomes when the ground thawed and I had something else to put in their place.

I’m happy to say that I never found the time.

The Hostas grew back this spring and are now the best-looking plants surrounding our home. I went out to mow the lawn and do some weeding last weekend and was struck by how full, vibrant, and fresh they looked against our house. The previous homeowners even planted a few different cultivars – I can only guess which they are, but most seem healthy. I tested the only clump not growing properly for Hosta Virus X (thankfully it tested negative).

I’m grateful for my healthy plants and I’m grateful to have the knowledge to deal with my unhealthy plants too. Even a small thing like caring for plants can be fulfilling and grounding in its own way, much like caring for a pet or loved one (just with lower expectations). When you are having a tough week, I encourage you to be grateful for the people, places and things that are important to you. Even the plants that help brighten your day.

Nick Goltz, DPM

Each year we go out and get the garden ready for planting. To many people, this means getting out the tiller and turning over the soil. We definitely are creatures of habit, but repeated tilling may actually be doing more harm than good. It is important to remember that a tiller is a tool that has a specific purpose, but should only be used when needed.

The author’s rototiller ready for work, but only if it is needed (photo by M. Lisy).

Soil erosion is one of the biggest threats to farmland worldwide. Although our smaller scale gardens are less susceptible to this, it is something that should be of concern. If you till and then we receive heavy rain, it could wash away some of the nutrient rich top soil that took years to build. Excessively dry soil may end up blowing away in the wind. When the soil is too wet, tilling can create hardpan below the tilled layer. This layer of compacted soil limits water infiltration, nutrient availability, beneficial organism movement, and plant root growth. 

I do not want to give the impression that tilling is inherently bad. As stated before, it is a useful technique in certain situations. If your soil test results indicate the need to add limestone, then tilling is the best way to incorporate it into the soil. Simply applying lime on the surface and waiting for nature to work it into the soil is futile. Likewise, if your soil is deficient in key nutrients, you may need to incorporate some fertilizers. 

There are other situations where tilling is beneficial. The first is if you have an excessive amount of weeds that cannot reasonably be removed by hand, left over crop residue from the previous growing season, cover crops from the previous winter, or simply want to convert an area of lawn into garden. Tilling is the quickest and easiest way to do this. Compost or other organic matter may be incorporated into the soil by tilling too. Tilling may also hasten soil warming in the spring in addition to allowing greater air infiltration.   The result will be beautiful, uniform soil that is easy to plant. The other benefit to tilling is that it can break up pest life cycles. Many pests will over winter in the soil, and larvae may be safely lurking underground until you till. 

So, given all this information, it begs the question, “Why would we not want to till?” That answer is a bit complicated! There are natural soil assemblages of beneficial insects, bacteria, and fungi. There is also an abiotic (not living) soil structure that works best. In soil that is left intact, water is transported through more efficiently, worms aerate it, and the activities of other beneficial organisms actually can produce nutrients our plants use. These organisms work hand-in-hand with our organic fertilizers, producing a synergistic effect (greater than each one alone).  In order to preserve this natural state, keep adding mulch, or better yet compost, throughout the year so weeds don’t stand much of a chance. If some weeds do pop up, don’t let them get a foot hold. Pulling them when young is a lot easier than waiting until they have deep roots.  Alternatively, use a hoe to easily disrupt their growth when newly sprouted. Whatever you do, do not let weeds go to seed! 

There are alternatives to tilling if you are starting a new garden bed. You could lay black plastic down. This will heat up the ground underneath, killing any vegetation and weed seeds. It does harm beneficial organisms as well, but these should quickly recolonize from adjacent areas. You could leave it in place and plant right through the plastic. There are also special fabrics that block light but allow air and water to pass through that work fairly well too. Another option is lasagna gardening. This uses cardboard or newspaper placed directly on the vegetation. On top of that you put a thick layer of mulch. The vegetation is denied light and it dies. When it is time for a new year’s crop, simply move the mulch aside and poke a hole right through the cardboard. The cardboard eventually breaks down over time, and the thick mulch bed continues to block weeds.  Simple hoe work can keep it weed free. You continue to layer mulch as needed.  Hopefully this information will help you decide when and when not to till! 

By Dr. Matthew Lisy, UConn Adjunct Faculty

May 1 – 7, 2022 is International Compost Awareness Week. Check out guest blogger, Dan Martens’ tips for composting using a standing plastic bin:

It’s safe to say that no two home composting systems—or home composters—are the same. The following is based on my experience composting in my Connecticut backyard (Zone 7).

When starting anything new, it’s reassuring to have a mentor. I was fortunate to have excellent advice from the University of Connecticut’s Master Composter program. Although I’ve long been  composting garden debris, I didn’t focus on composting household food scraps until my town offered a program to purchase a freestanding plastic backyard compost bin. I’ve been composting for three years now, and have produced beautiful rich compost.

Plastic bin by Compost Coyote

Here are my tips and observations—as with any new hobby, the fun is in learning for yourself, so see what works best for you.

Collect compostables. Start collecting food scraps in a container with a lid a month or two before you start to fill your compost bin. Do not add foods such as meat, fish, dairy, oils and grease; they can attract animals or restrict airflow in your pile. Food scraps can be frozen until you’re ready to build your first pile. Make a brown leaf pile that you can pull from all year. Do not include any leaves that have been treated with herbicides or other chemicals. You’ll also need sticks and/or bulky wood chips for the base of the pile and a good amount of food scraps and leaves for the first build.It’s best to start simple with a step-by-step approach, so just focus on two feedstocks—food scraps and leaves.   

Assemble tools. You’ll definitely need a watering can, pitchfork, rake, compost aerator, containers and a garden cart.

Select bin. A compost bin with a removable lid is a simple way to keep compost neat, safe from animals, and protected from the elements. I think a 3’x3’ bin is the minimum size for getting a good pile going.    

Locate spot. Place your bin on level ground in a sunny to part shady location. If you do not have a flat spot, grade one with a shovel, then make a second flat spot adjacent to the bin.  

Start building. I build/rebuild my pile with the layering or “lasagna” method. Start with bulky sticks or wood chips next to the ground, then add a 4-inch layer of leaves. This base provides air flow and insulation. Everything the pile will need is in the feedstocks (food scraps and leaves).

Layer feedstocks. Place a layer of food scraps on top of the leaves; add another layer of leaves and lightly sprinkle with water. Continue alternating the layers: leaves/food scraps/water and repeat. Your layers should have 2 to 3 times more leaves than food scraps. So, in your compost lasagna, the leaves are like the noodles. Sprinkle with water after each set of layers, but do not oversaturate.

Color coded pile layers – leaves, compost, food scraps, water. Place food scraps in the middle.
  • Build the middle. Keep the layers going until you run out of food scraps. Spread the food scraps evenly, but always keep them toward the middle of the layer. If you don’t have enough food scraps, use mostly leaves; you can balance the pile over time. Finish the pile with a layer of leaves, about 5 inches from the top of the bin, to allow air flow. Do not finish with a food scrap layer. Food scrap layers should only be in the middle which discourages animals from trying to gnaw into the bin, and also helps build heat. If you don’t have enough food scraps to get started and you do have garden greens, it’s fine to use them as long as they have not gone to seed. A high nitrogen fertilizer, like blood meal can also be used – 1 cup for every 4 to 6 inch layer of leaves.
  • Keep microbes happy. The microbes in the organic matter (feedstocks) are key to decomposition; it’s important to feed them a proper carbon-nitrogen ratio. The goal is to have a balanced carbon-nitrogen meal. Think of leaves as the carbon source and food scraps as the nitrogen source. The food scraps and the leaves should be roughly equal by weight. However, food scraps weigh more than leaves, so for a good balance you will need about 2 to 3 times more leaves than food scraps. A balanced recipe provides a good meal for your microbes; they will eat it all, and the compost at the end will be balanced. If you add a 1-inch layer of food scraps, then add about a two to three-inch layer of leaves. The correct ratio will prevent most basic problems with the pile and will keep the microbes happy.
  • Aerate. After the food scrap layers have had time to break down from the build, you can aerate the pile. What is the proper time to allow before aerating? If your pile has dropped down 25%, or if a couple weeks have passed, give it a fluffing. Your geographic climate or season impacts your pile’s unique composting rate. If you aerate too soon, you may disrupt both the layering from building the pile and the heat generated by decomposition. There are no hard and fast rules; however, neglecting your compost is not a good idea. If you maintain the pile, you will avoid some smelly problems. I generally aerate every 1 to 2 weeks and add some water. To aerate, use a compost aeration tool or just push in a strong stick and wiggle it around. You don’t want to mix the pile and upset the layers; just loosen it up so that some air can get in. If you set your compost table, the microbes will have a party!
Compost aerator with some finished compost. Photo by Compost Coyote
  • Feed. Remember decomposition takes time, so have patience. With a closed bin, you have two options for feeding your pile: the weekly add-in process or the batch process. If you add food scraps weekly, put them in the middle of the pile with plenty of leaves of top to conceal odors. When I first began composting, I used the weekly option, adding twice the amount of leaves than food scraps. This was a good way to start because I had more leaves in my pile than food scraps. Getting the pile going strong was tempered by the weekly interruption and the small mass of the inputs. Now I use the batch process. I save four or more weeks of food scraps in a closed pail and then feed the pile when my pail is full, about once a month in summer, then once in late in fall and once in late winter. In winter, on a warmer day, I add food scraps, leaves and water to the middle of the pile. I try to aerate the pile in winter unless it’s really freezing (then I don’t disturb it). My pile probably goes dormant, but I have never seen it freeze.
  • Prepare to turn & rebuild. When the pile has exhausted its composting activity, it’s time to turn and rebuild. How do you know when to turn your pile? I turn and rebuild my pile when my food scrap pail is full. In the summer, this is every 4 to 6 weeks, but in the winter I store my food scraps in the freezer until a nice late winter day. To make rebuilding your pile easier,have your components close at hand: full food scrap pail, leaf pile, watering can, pitchfork and rake. You’ll get dirty, so when you finish, wash off your tools and hands.  
  • Turn & rebuild. Lift the plastic compost bin straight up and off the pile and place it on the flat spot you made adjacent to your current pile. Now, with the bin empty, start the rebuild. The current pile, now exposed, will be about 30% smaller than the bin. It will sit in a neat column until you are ready to rework it with your pitchfork. Take materials from the current pile plus add new feedstocks to make a lasagna in the empty bin. Build the new pile in the empty bin the same way you started, but now add active compost as one of the layers. Repeat the original process: some bulk on the bottom, such as sticks, wood chips and leaves, followed by layers. On top of the base, add fresh compost from the pile, food scraps, leaves, more compost, and water. Repeat. Depending on the amount of new food scraps I have, I add in materials from the old pile that need more time, mixing them in with the new feedstocks in the middle of the pile. I finish with a topper of leaves and a light watering.
Turning out compost. Photo by Compost Coyote
  • Harvest. If you need to make room in your bin, or you want to harvest in early Fall, do so as long as you maintain a full compost bin with a rebuild so that you can maintain a full bin through winter. How do you know when compost is ready? Examine it. When the feedstocks are not recognizable as their original material, you have immature compost. Remove this good stuff and set it aside for curing and screening.  
  • Cure and screen. When you remove compost, it is immature. Let it sit for month to allow any active microbes to settle down and to balance the pH. I screen my compost to remove twigs or small stones. At first, I screened fresh compost straight from the pile, but it was damp and messy, so now I wait for it to dry a bit. Transfer the compost to a breathable container (or pile) to hold it for resting. Loosely cover the container so rain doesn’t wash the compost away. I screen with a homemade screen made from 1/4-inch wire cloth tacked to a 2 x 4-foot frame. I rub the compost through by hand.    
Dan screening his compost. Photo by Compost Coyote
  • Optimize!   
    1. Remove produce stickers before saving food scraps.
    1. Make sure there are no rubber bands, foil or plastic in food scraps.
    1. Chop food scraps and shred leaves to facilitate short-term heat build.  
    1. Aerate pile weekly without disturbing layers too much. Make sure to add water.
    1. Monitor temperature in the middle of the pile using a compost thermometer. After the first temperature spike, wait a week, then turn the pile, adding new materials as a chopped-up mixture mix of food scraps and leaves.    
  • Remember the goal.  Diverting food scraps from trash makes home waste management much more efficient and less smelly, plus diverting organic matter from household trash turns valuable organic matter back into healthy soil to fertilize gardens the natural way.
A favorite book of the author’s. Photo by Compost Coyote.

Learn as you go and find out what works best for you as you help the planet.  

Dan Martens, UConn Master Composter

Phosphorus is one of the at least 18 essential nutrients that plants need to grow. Without phosphorus, a plant cannot complete its life cycle. In plants, the most important functions of phosphorus are energy storage and transfer, regulation of protein synthesis, roots development, seeds and fruits formation. Basically, phosphorus is important for every metabolic reaction in plants. Sufficient phosphorus availability can strengthen structural tissue such as wheat straw and tomato stems. When deficient in phosphorus, plants look stunted in growth, and often show an abnormal dark-green or reddish-purple color that first shows up in older leaves.

Reddish-purple color of canola P deficiency symptom that show up in older leaves first. Photo by Haiying Tao

The abnormal color normally shows up early in the spring and may disappear when weather warms up. Note that reddish-purple color of plant is not always an indicator of phosphorus deficiency. Other stresses, such as cold, insect, herbicide injury can also cause reddish-purple color. Some plant cultivars have been bred for purple or reddish foliage as well.   

Reddish-purple color of corn P deficiency symptom that show up in older leaves first. Photo by Haiying Tao

Plants take up phosphorus via the roots from soil. Native soils contain phosphorus but the amount of phosphorus that is available for plants varies from soil to soil. Application of fertilizers and soil amendments that contain phosphorus, return of grass clippings or other plant residue, like leaves or through compost, can also introduce phosphorus to the soil. To verify if your soil is sufficient in phosphorus for plants, you can send your soil samples to University of Connecticut Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory (UConn-SNAL) for testing. The lab provides guidance on how to take soil samples for phosphorus testing as well as collecting and shipping soils to the lab. Fertilizer and limestone recommendations are made based on soil test results as long as the crop is provided. Such information can be found at https://soiltest.uconn.edu/.

The functions of phosphorus in the plants cannot be replaced by any other nutrient. Therefore, if your soil test results indicate that your soil is deficient in phosphorus, you should apply fertilizers based on the recommendations provided by the UConn-SNAL. There are many types of phosphorus fertilizers available on the market, but they vary in their nutrient analysis depending on the source. This information would be found on the label of the containers or bags. It is important to read the label of the fertilizer that you purchased and calculate out the right amount of phosphorus to apply so that enough phosphorus will be available for plants but not overapplied. Excessive phosphorus application to soils can potentially cause phosphorus pollution to the environment. Phosphorus can be lost from the soil via leaching, subsurface runoff, and surface runoff. And the loss of phosphorus can increase dramatically if soil test values are higher than the soil’s capacity to hold on to this element.

Phosphorus is the number one source of inland freshwater pollution in Connecticut. Our native soils are low in phosphorus so any phosphorus entering water bodies comes from human activities – mostly overapplying this element whether through fertilizers, manure, composts, or other sources. Nutrient pollution is one of the most widespread, costly, and challenging problems in our environment. When phosphorus enters waterbodies, it supports fast growth of algae and other aquatic plants, to levels that exceed the capacity of our ecosystems to handle. The large growths of algae (called algal blooms) and other aquatic plants can cause degradation of ecosystem services of waterbodies, such as reduced water quality for recreation, unsafe drinking water quality, illness or killing of fish and other aquatic life.

Algal bloom in wetlands below athletic field in Amherst, MA. Photo by D. Pettinelli

For commercial or home garden crops, the best way to apply phosphorus fertilizers is to band (place) it close to the seeding or seedling row but not in the row. Phosphorus moves very slowly in the soil, which means only the phosphorus that is near roots will be taken up by plants. So, banding near the seeding row or next to transplants can ensure accessibility of phosphorus to the roots and can double the phosphorus use efficiency compared with just broadcasting phosphorus throughout the soil.

Avoid applying fertilizer along with seeds in the seed rows or in planting holes for transplants as the fertilizers may hinder germination and damage seedlings. For perennials, like lawns, perennial beds and shrub plantings, surface broadcast applications are most common. Since phosphorus legislation was passed in Connecticut around 2013, the use of fertilizers containing phosphorus on established lawns has been banned unless a soil test within the last two years recommends this element. Phosphorus can be used when seeding, sodding or over seeding lawns, however. For those unaware of the phosphorus legislation, please read ‘Your Lawn and the New Phosphorus Legislation ( https://soiltest.uconn.edu/documents/Phosphoruslawlawnstmclean.pdf)

If you have questions about phosphorus and lawn applications, feel free to contact the lab at (860) 486-4274.

Haiying Tao Ph. D, UConn Assistant Professor

Soil Fertility and Soil Health

One early spring afternoon three years ago I came home from my annual physical, pleased about my clean bill of health. Four hours later, I was admitted to the hospital with a temperature of 104 degrees, blinding headache, and muscle soreness. It took two days and many tests and retests to determine the cause. It was a tick-borne disease called anaplasmosis. That was the first time I ever heard of it. I had heard much about tick-borne Lyme disease (who in Connecticut hasn’t) but anaplasmosis? Who knew?

The good news was that it was that my disease was treatable with antibiotics, and I fully recovered in just a few days. What was the source of my disease? In all likelihood, a tick I picked up while doing the spring clean-up in my garden. I vowed thereafter, I would be much more careful about ticks whenever I gardened, or ventured outside my yard into the woods to walk my dogs. I tell this cautionary tale as a reminder that ticks are all around us and this spring – and throughout the year – it’s important to take measures to protect you, your family, and your pets as well. 

To date, there are eight known tick-borne diseases in Connecticut. They are spread by only three tick species: the Blacklegged (“deer”) tick (Ixodes scapularis), the Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum), and the American Dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis). The good news is that the measures you need to follow to avoid tick diseases are the same for all three species According to the CDC website Ticks and Their Body Buddies , there are steps to take before you go outdoors, after you come in, and  if, despite your best efforts, you find you’ve become a tick taxi.

Adult female lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum) https://www.neregionalvectorcenter.com/lone-star-tick.php

Before You Go Outside

1. Know where ticks are mostly likely to be. Ticks live in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas or they can be carried in on animals. Make sure your furry children are treated with tick medicine.

2. Treat clothing and gear before you spend time outside. Products sprays that contain 5% permethrin can be used on clothing, boots, camping gear and will stay on for several washings.  Alternately, some clothing and gear that contains permethrin are available for purchase.

3. Use EPA- insecticide repellents. Always follow Product instructions. EPA advises children under three years of age not use Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE) or para-methane-diol, (PMD).

4. Be sure to avoid areas with high grass and leaf litter. When hiking stay in the middle of the path.

After You Come In

1. Check your clothes, gear and pets for any tick stow-a-ways.

2. Take a shower within two hours of coming inside. It may wash off any unattached ticks. 

3.Check your whole body for ticks. Use a mirror to check under arms, in or around ears, inside the belly button, back of knees, around the hair, between legs and around the waist.

American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis) https://www.neregionalvectorcenter.com/american-dog-tick.php

Oh _______! It’s a Tick!

If, despite your best efforts you do find a tick has taken up residence on you or a loved one:

1. Use clean, fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible.

2. Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don’t twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you cannot remove the mouth easily with tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.

3. After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.

4. Never crush a tick with your fingers. Dispose of a live tick by:

5. Putting it in alcohol,

6. Placing it in a sealed bag/container,

7. Wrapping it tightly in tape.

8. Save the tick and monitor the affected area for a rash or in case you develop a fever.

9. If you develop a rash or fever within several weeks of removing a tick, see your doctor. Tell the doctor about your recent tick bite, when the bite occurred, and where you most likely acquired the tick.

If you WANT to have the tick tested, Connecticut Veterinary Medical Diagnostic laboratory offers testing:

https://cvmdl.uconn.edu/tick-testing/options/

Avoid folklore remedies such as “painting” the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly, or using heat to make the tick detach from the skin. Your goal is to remove the tick as quickly as possible–not waiting for it to detach.

Kirby C. Stafford III, Ph.D. Vice Director, Chief Entomologist, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, New Haven has put together a Tick Management Handbook, which provides  comprehensive information on ticks to Connecticut residents:

https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/CAES/DOCUMENTS/Publications/Bulletins/b1010pdf.pdf?la=en

Garden season means tick season, but with a bit of prevention and a lot of attention, you can have a full year of garden joys –  without the tick-borne trip to the hospital that made me want to write this blogpost.

Marie Woodward

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.

Coltsfoot

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.


Bloodroot
Twinleaf

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

Spring thunderstorms are a part of life in New England. While we know to prepare our homes, pets, and livestock for inclement weather when it hits, we may not think to secure our beehives for bad weather as well. It is important for beekeepers to adequately prepare for storms to minimize colony losses and damage to hives. This is especially necessary in early spring when colonies tend to be less strong due to the combination of winter recovery and reduced nectar flow. Following the steps below will ensure that bees will be equipped to handle a significant storm. Large-scale operations with many hives may want to follow additional recommendations for severe storms and hurricanes provided by the USDA.

  1. Place hives in an ideal location to handle the storm – If a severe weather event is forecast, consider moving your beehives to a secure, offsite location that will not be directly impacted by the storm. Hives should be placed on high, level ground and moved away from areas where water could accumulate. Though trees may provide a windbreak to offer some protection, hives should not be placed directly under trees that could drop branches on them. Any debris near hives should be removed as they could become projectiles if winds are sufficiently strong. If you have access to a shelter location, such as a fortified shed or barn, hives may be moved there. Close the entrances of the hives to prevent bees from escaping in the building. Never keep bees in a storage area attached to where humans or animals live, such as a garage. Move the bees back to their normal location as soon as safe to do so.
  2. Provide colonies adequate resources – Colonies should be equipped to handle intense rain and a short period without access to nectar. Repair any damages to hive exteriors and apply fresh weatherproof paint if needed. Ensure the colonies are supplied with honey or other sources of food and water, such as a sugar solution. Top feeders may not be a good choice for hives remaining outside as they can be blown off, increasing likelihood of water infiltration.
  3. Secure hives in place – For hives that remain outside, it is essential to minimize the risk of them toppling over. While it may seem best to raise hives off the ground using stands to prevent water infiltration, this effort may be counterproductive if it increases the risk of the hive falling over. Use packing crates weighted with cinder blocks if flooding is likely and the hives cannot be relocated. Bricks or stones placed on lids of hives are not an ideal choice as they are surprisingly easy to be blown off with intense winds, increasing risk of damage to hives. Instead, use ratchet straps or quality rope, securely anchored to the ground, to hold hives in place. Cinder blocks may be left on lids if they are strapped securely (through the hole) to the top.
  4. Secure supplies – Place all beekeeping supplies in waterproof containers. Gloves, veils, smokers, hive tools, etc. should be placed in a sealed, waterproof container that can be easily accessed after the storm. Similarly, unused frames, wax and honey extraction tools and any other pieces of equipment that may carry an odor (which may attract pests) should be placed in a sealed, waterproof container that may be further reinforced with duct tape or another sealant.
  5. DO NOT:
    • – Cover hives with plastic (suffocation, drowning, or overheating may occur)
    • – Remove propolis from hives before the storm (propolis reduces water infiltration)
    • – Place hives next to or inside residential buildings (even if they will be evacuated prior to a severe storm)
    • – Place hives under trees that could drop limbs or fall on them
    • – Raise hives off the ground with unstable stands (this increases the likelihood of them falling over)
    • – Clean up or repair damage until safe to do so and all damage has been documented (for insurance purposes)

References and Further Reading:

Until next time,

Nick Goltz, DPM

A vegetable garden is one of life’s greatest pleasures. There is nothing that beats the taste of something freshly picked, and nothing is more satisfying than having grown it yourself! Most people would agree with those statements, as would our furry friends. Although many of us would not mind the occasional sampling by Mother Nature’s creatures, they don’t just nibble.  All it takes is one night and our entire crop or garden can be wiped out, and the frustration can be overwhelming. Many weeks or months of hard work is gone in an instant.

A nice looking garden fence that does little to keep out rabbits because it is not tall enough, and there are gaps where the panels meet. Photo by mrl2022.

There are really only a few creatures that will cause an enormous amount of damage in a very short amount of time. The first are rabbits. While they look cute, they will get into your garden and within one night decimate your entire crop. When I was middle school age, I will never forget watching one literally bite all my tulips off and then seeing it hop on as it did not like them enough to eat. In the recent years, I had a whole crop of heirloom beans destroyed in one evening because of rabbits. The few that regrew got eaten a few nights later. Rabbits can be bold as they many times get used to our presence. I was out grilling one early summer’s night and a rabbit walked right up next to me, hopped over the fence, and started eating my lettuces as if they were his (or hers). 

Woodchucks are another difficult creature. They seem more intelligent than rabbits, and tend to revisit a place on numerous occasions until they wipe out the food source. If they have enough to eat, they may even set up a den nearby. Not only can they destroy our gardens, but their digging under our buildings, near our foundations, and around our decks can be hazardous. They cause a lot of property damage and therefore, money!

The third type of pest is deer. Now there is really no good way to keep them out of your garden, unless you are willing to build a twelve-foot fence around it! Two suggestions are to keep the garden closer to your home, and to fence it to keep out the other critters. Unless really desperate, deer do not like to jump into an enclosed space. Having your dogs do their business just outside the garden area does seem to work as well. Deer generally do not like humans or dogs, so our presence keeps them away a bit. But, as stated before, if they get really hungry and desperate, nothing but a twelve-foot-tall fence will stop them.

The old adage “An ounce of prevention worth a pound of cure” certainly applies here. Very rarely can a home garden exist without a fence. I have seen exceptions in highly urbanized areas where there is little habitat for wildlife, but these are rare. Any natural areas near your home can provide a refuge for our four-legged vandals. Because the home gardener packs a lot of plants into a relatively small space, gardens make attractive targets for wildlife. Fences are the only way to protect your crops from these animals, but not all fences are created equal.

1 inch by 2 inch welded wire will prevent rabbits from getting through, but will keep the material lighter and less expensive. Photo by mrl2022.

Fences have two purposes, really. The first is to protect our food, and second, to add to the appeal of the surroundings. Another consideration is how you will access the garden, so a door (or two) strategically placed is important. The problem, however, is that the two purposes usually do not coincide. The best fence for keeping critters out is not very aesthetically pleasing. After many years of experience, I find the best fence is 1×2 inch galvanized welded wire that is three feet high. The 1 x 2 inch mesh is small enough to keep the rabbits out, but large enough to keep costs down. I once watched a rabbit try in vain for about 20 minutes to jump over my fence. He was able to make it about 30 inches up, but not the full 36 inches. This fencing can be held up with metal “U” posts that have holes and tabs that allow you to attach the fence. These are usually green colored, and you want the 48-inch ones as the bottom foot will get pounded into the ground. You may want to get some galvanized wire to physically tie the fence to the post as well. You want to make sure the fence is securely placed, with no gaps between the bottom and the ground. I like to have some of the bottom tabs push the fence down as I pound them in the final inch, as it makes a tight-fitting barrier with the ground.

Woodchucks are more difficult to control than rabbits. They can easily dig under a fence, so it is recommended that you bury some of the wire in the ground. This can be easier said that done, and could require a taller roll of fence (remember you need at least 36 inches above ground). If you bought a four-foot-tall fence roll, you would need to dig a trench a foot deep. That is way too much back-breaking labor for me! On that note, I have seen gardeners bury the fence and then have the woodchuck climb right over it. They are best dealt with by having a dog outside near the garden a lot. Or you could trap the woodchuck and relocate it, but beware of rabies and local laws/regulations regarding trapping, transport and release of wild animals. 

A three foot tall roll of wire that is 100 feet long will fence in most home gardens. Photo by mrl2022.

There are a number of fences on the market with smaller spacing at the bottom, but larger spacing at the top. I do not recommend them as a rabbit could fit through the larger openings.  These fences have always failed me. Also, any wire larger than 1×2 will not work. I have seen 2 x 3-inch fence offered, but the rabbits can get through that. Many garden fences are only 30 inches tall. As said before, these are too short, and a rabbit can make it over that height. Don’t be tempted to go for the less expensive chicken wire. The wire itself is so thin that sometimes a rabbit or woodchuck can chew threw it, or it gets easily damaged by lawn equipment. One hole in a fence is all it takes and the critters will find it. Chicken wire also does not have much rigidity, so it deforms easily. It will also require more fence posts. 

So now that we have a fence that works, we have to discuss aesthetics. If done correctly, the metal fence and metal posts can look alright, but don’t expect to make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens. One alternative is to find a wooden picket fence that you like, install it, and then staple the welded wire to the inside back of it. Although your cost of fencing substantially increases, you get the pretty, classic fence look on the outside, but all the protection of the wire on the inside. Without the wire, the rabbits would simply slip under or between the fence pickets.  If you opt for the new plastic fences, it will be much harder to attach the metal wire fence to the inside, but it still could be done with any method listed above. Another alternative I have seen is that people make a rectangular box-type frame out of wood, then attach the welded wire to that frame, which sits between the posts. This can give a nice, neat, finished appearance and is much cheaper than a picket fence. 

Although the wire is only three feet tall, the posts will need to be four feet as a foot will get pounded into the ground. The bottom fins should be beneath the soil surface. Photo by mrl2022.

The next thing we need to discuss are the fence posts. This is more of a pick your poison kind of situation – literally. The temptation would be to use pressure treated lumber rated for ground contact. This certainly will last you a long time, but at a cost. The chemicals used to treat the lumber may leach out into your soil and get absorbed by your plants. The old pressure treated wood was injected with a copper chromium arsenic substance, that is toxic to life, which is why it worked so well at keeping the rot away.

Wood is now treated with alkaline copper quat (ACQ) and copper azole (CA-B). They both contain a fungicide and copper. Although some improvements have been made to lessen the toxicity of the chemical cocktail used to treat the wood over the years, some of the compounds used for treating the wood may still leach into the soil and therefore, they are not allowed in organic food production. There are some recently developed plastic post covers made to slip over the treated lumber in an attempt to stop (or reduce) this leaching process. I have not come across any studies on how effective these are, most likely because they are newer. Even so, the bottoms are still open and could allow a path for the lumber to leach toxins into your soil.

 I would recommend, and I do this, choosing the untreated Douglas Fir fence posts. This wood is somewhat rot resistant and can last up to 15 years (or more in some situations). It will not leach anything harmful into the soil, but it will not last as long either. I would rather change out my posts every so many years than put my family and I at risk of exposure to toxins. 

The last consideration is cost. This is a project you really want to plan out ahead of time. Be sure to price out your materials accurately and see if you have budget. Lumber is at an all-time high right now. Never in my life have I seen the prices so outrageous! A few years ago, the local home improvement store sold 2x4x8 framing lumber for $2.25 a board. Now they are selling for $7.98 each! The welded wire has gone up considerably too over the past three years or so. But remember, if you do nothing, you subject all your hard work to the belly of a beast in one evening! As a final suggestion for really tough critter situations, consider adding some electric wires to the top and bottom of your fence. I do not recommend this though if you have children and pets! A good fence will last at least 15 years, so the cost over time makes it worth it. This way, you and your family can enjoy the spoils of your labor without having to feed the local wildlife.   

Matt Lisy

Soil can provide plants with nitrogen through organic matter mineralization, deposition during rainfall events, and residual inorganic nitrogen in soil. However, plants often need more nitrogen than soil can provide to produce a crop yield of desired quality. As such, nitrogen fertilizers need to be applied.

When you purchase nitrogen fertilizers, you will notice that the guaranteed analysis for essential nutrients contained is provided on the bags or containers. For nitrogen, usually guaranteed analysis for percent of total nitrogen, urea nitrogen, nitrate nitrogen, ammoniacal nitrogen, water soluble nitrogen, water insoluble nitrogen, or slowly available nitrogen is provided. Depending on the fertilizer product, one or more of these forms may be contained. It is important that you read the guaranteed analysis label to understand the percentage and forms of nitrogen fertilizer because different forms of fertilizers behave differently in the soil and are lost from soils in different ways.

Ammoniacal nitrogen undergoes a series of transformations after being applied to soils. For example, ammoniacal nitrogen can be converted to a nitrate form, gaseous form (ammonia), or organic form. If you apply ammoniacal nitrogen on the soil surface when the soil is dry or high in pH, you will lose a significant portion of nitrogen to the atmosphere in the form of ammonia. Windy conditions also favor such loss. With dry or high pH soil conditions, the nitrate, slow release, or controlled release forms of fertilizers are better choices. If you inject ammoniacal fertilizers deep into the soil, then nitrogen loss to the atmosphere in the form of gaseous ammonia is very little. Under optimum soil temperature and moisture conditions, ammoniacal nitrogen can be converted to nitrate nitrogen quickly.

Injecting anhydrous ammonia into the soil. Photo credit: Haiying Tao

Nitrate nitrogen, either converted from ammoniacal nitrogen or being applied as a nitrate form of fertilizer, also undergoes a series of transformations in soil. Nitrate is water soluble, therefore, leaching is the major loss pathway – often during heavy irrigation, heavy rainfall, and snowmelt events. If your fertilizer product contains mainly a nitrate form of nitrogen, you should avoid applying the fertilizer before heavy rainfall to avoid leaching loss. If you have soil with poor drainage, applying a nitrate form of fertilizer in water logging condition should be avoided because significant portion of nitrate nitrogen can be converted to other gaseous forms of nitrogen and be lost (e.g. nitrous oxide or molecular nitrogen which makes up most of earth’s atmosphere).

Liquid fertilizer application equipment setup. Photo credit: Haiying Tao

Once applied in soils, urea is converted to ammoniacal nitrogen. If urea is applied on the soil surface, it is best if you apply urea fertilizer before rain or irrigation, so that urea is carried into the soils by water. By doing this, you can avoid nitrogen loss to the atmosphere in the form of ammonia gas. In general, it takes about 0.5 inch of rainfall within 24 to 48 hours after surface application to transport urea to the depth that will minimize volatilization loss.

Slow release or controlled release fertilizers reduce nitrogen loss by delaying nitrogen release into the soil. They gradually feed crops during the growth period. Generally, slow-release nitrogen is most beneficial when fertilizer is applied in cold temperatures, on the soil surface, in soil with high leaching potential, or at hillslope locations with poor drainage/high water ponding risk. Carefully managing application rate is still necessary for these fertilizers because excessive application can cause nitrogen loss. The portion of nitrogen that is converted to ammoniacal and nitrate forms but not taken up by plants can still be lost to the environment.

Knowing that nitrogen is not held by soil and can be lost if not taken up by plants, the timing of nitrogen application is important to minimize nitrogen loss from your soil. It is best that you synchronize nitrogen availability with plant requirements and look at weather forecasts before fertilizer application.

For questions on fertilizers, contact the UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory (email soiltest@uconn.edu or call 860-486-4274) or contact your local Cooperative Extension Center. For any other gardening questions, contact the UConn Home & Garden Education Center (email ladybug@uconn.edu or call 877-486-6271).

Haiying Tao, PhD