David Cappaert, Bugwood.org

Veteran houseplant owners and novices to indoor gardening alike, have most likely, at one time or another, experienced the plague that is a fungus gnat infestation. These tiny insects begin their lifecycle in the potting media of houseplants that have been consistently overwatered. Once established, fungus gnats multiply quickly, with populations usually localized to a certain plant, or group of plants.

This insect is not known for causing excessive damage to the plants themselves, fungus gnats are more annoying and unsightly than they are damaging. However, the larvae feed on organic material found in the potting media, which can sometimes include the roots. Another reason root damage is less likely is because fungus gnat larvae reside in the top 2-3” of the soil. These insects are attracted to moisture as that is where they lay their eggs. It is not uncommon for fungus gnats to attempt to fly into your mouth. Anyone who has experienced this knows that fungus gnats are not something you want to leave unchecked in the home.

Fungus gnat larvae. Photo by Richard Lindquist
Overwatered potting soil, perfect for fungus gnats. Photo by C. Johnson

Controlling moisture is key to controlling fungus gnats. Populations are most abundant when there is an overabundance of moisture in the area, usually this is caused by overwatering. Over saturated media is the perfect egg laying habitat for this pest. Managing your irrigation goes a long way towards managing this pest, letting soils get as dry as possible before watering is a highly effective yet simple control method. It is important to note, this technique can be damaging to some plant species that may require consistent moisture in their growing media. If that is the case there are other options for control. Bottom watering just enough so that the bulk of the root ball is wet but the top of the soil remains dry is also effective. This can be tricky and requires some experimentation to get right.

A butterfly shaped sticky trap. Photo C. Johnson

A popular method for monitoring as well as controlling fungus gnats and other flying insects is the use of yellow sticky cards. Insects are attracted to the bright yellow color and are then entangled once they land on the trap. I use these in my houseplants even when I don’t have a sever problem as they let me know what insects are present just by looking at what’s stuck to the trap. Adding these traps to an already established infestation will help reduce the  breeding population of flying adults. There area also chemical controls available for this pest in the form of pellets which are placed on top of the potting media. Bacillus thuringensis var. Israeliensis is a strain of bacteria that is also effective at controlling gnats and can be applied to the soil via drenching. Ensure that any chemical controls being applied are labeled for fungus gnats and that you follow manufacturer’s directions for indoor home use.

Carl Johnson

UConn Home & Garden Education Center, 2021

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Dean of the College, Cooperative Extension System, University of Connecticut, Storrs. The Connecticut Cooperative Extension System is an equal opportunity employer and program provider. To file a complaint of discrimination, write USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, Room 326-W, Whitten Building, Stop Code 9410, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20250-9410 or call (202) 720-5964.

Vegetable gardening is very popular these days, and even more so since the COVID outbreak.    Anyone new to this hobby is quick to hear some terms being thrown around when describing different types of vegetables. Knowing the meaning of these terms gives prospective gardeners some key information that helps them pick varieties of vegetables most suited to their needs. All living creatures, known to man, are classified according to species and genus. So for instance, all tomatoes are classified as Solanum lycospersicum.  

To start off, I already used the term “variety”. This term is used rather loosely in horticulture and is incorrectly interchanged with “cultivar”. Both refer to the differences in the species of plant you have chosen. Varieties refer to naturally occurring deviations from the original species. They typically come true to seed. Cultivars have been purposely cross-bred from two or more different species. Plants must be either vegetatively propagated or started from hybrid seed each year. These varieties or cultivars have names and are associated with specific characteristics.  For example when I say “Sweet Millions” tomatoes, a person familiar with this cultivar knows that they are cherry tomatoes, indeterminate, very flavorful, and highly productive. For the sake of this article, I will stick with tomato examples, but these terms could apply to many vegetable species and cultivars. 

Tomato ‘Sweet Millions’. Photo by dmp2018

Our tomato plants contain both male and female flower parts. Because of this, they are easily pollinated by wind or bees. This is problematic for greenhouse tomato growers, so they will hand pollinate the tomatoes with paint brushes or even special electronic devices that shake the flower to accomplish pollination. Fortunately for us outdoor gardeners, we do not need to do anything special for pollination to occur. 

Two different types of vegetable pollinator wands for use in the greenhouse setting. Photo by mrl2021.

Probably the best place to start is talking about “open pollination.” This is essentially how Mother Nature does things. There is a large population of organisms that have genes for individual traits, or characteristics. If we stick with our tomato example, think of: size, color, growth habit, disease resistance, plant height, etc. In my example, the population of tomatoes living in the wild in a certain area would have a lot of genetic diversity. As we all have experienced, the weather can vary from year to year. Genetic diversity in the population is nature’s way of ensuring that some organisms will survive and reproduce. Likewise, different parts of the country (or the world) will have different weather, climates, and microclimates.  Certain traits or characteristics are an advantage or a disadvantage depending on where you are living.  Over time, a population of tomatoes will see an increase in the genes that help it survive in the local environments. These would be considered different varieties of tomatoes.   

Some growers like to have open pollinated plants. They see which tomatoes produce the best and then save seeds from those plants to be planted the following year. In this way, the gardener is essentially developing a variety of tomato that is perfectly suited to living, growing, and even thriving in that particular area of the world. In addition, the gardener may also select for certain traits he or she prefers, like low acid, yellow tomatoes for example. Over time, the gardener may select and replant only the seeds of the plants that conform to certain pre-determined criteria.  Eventually the plants will breed true, or have the same set of characteristics, year to year.

This little cherry tomato was not planted by the gardener. It came from last year’s hybrid varieties. If desired, seeds could be saved and a new variety selected over time. Photo by mrl2020.

For the next term, I would like you to think of a young man that proposes to his girlfriend and while doing so presents her with his Grandma’s diamond ring. This piece of jewelry was passed down through the generations in his family. We call this ring an heirloom. Well there can be heirloom plants as well. These are varieties that have a specific set of characteristics and have a documented history. One of my favorite examples is the Brandywine tomato. This variety dates back to the late 1800s, and is noted for its exceptionally unique flavor, reddish pink coloration, and potato-shaped leaves. Heirloom varieties are open pollinated as well. What sets them apart from regular open-pollinated varieties is their documented history of being passed down through the generations, by name, with those specific characteristics. Many people fall in love with the idea of planting something so “valuable” that has been passed down through the generations.  Unfortunately, many of the heirlooms are not disease resistant and have a hard time growing in our modern world. Growing in containers with soilless media or in new planting areas are best suited to heirloom plantings. As long as there was no cross pollination (closely planted varieties of the same plant or active bees could do this), you should be able to save the seeds and get the same variety the following year.

Heirloom tomato, ‘Cuore di Bue’ Photo by dmp2019

This brings us to the next name to learn, and that is “hybrid”. A hybrid variety is formed by crossing two specific parent types. These parent varieties are usually kept secret. This produces a certain set of characteristics in the offspring. Examples include ‘Big Beef Hybrid’, ‘Better Boy Hybrid’, ‘Lemon Boy Hybrid’, etc. These can be particularly useful, and have specific qualities for which a gardener is looking. A gardener must pick carefully, as some of these hybrids are selected to transport well, delay ripening, or some other trait desirable for commercial production but not the fresh picked home-grown experience. The big advantage of hybrid tomatoes is the disease resistance they can have, although not all hybrids have the same disease resistance profile. I prefer to patronize companies that describe the disease resistant characteristics of the hybrid seeds I am purchasing. The downside to growing hybrids is that if you save the seeds and replant the following year, they will look nothing like the parent plants! They essentially would be like starting with an open pollinated version year one and it could take many, many years to get a tomato that breeds true (has a consistent set of characteristics from generation to generation).  Some people do not like to use hybrid seed as it forces you to buy new seed from the seed company each year. Others believe it is a small price to pay for disease resistance and known characteristics one can count on. Knowing the specific attributes of the plants before planting can be highly important for the home gardener and commercial grower alike.

Tomatoes that are ideal for transport to retail settings have different characteristics selected for compared to the home garden varieties. Photo by mrl2021

The next type of tomatoes has been used by commercial field and greenhouse growers for years.  Within the past ten years or so they made their way into the retail markets. These are “grafted” tomatoes. The grafting process goes back for many thousands of years for various reasons depending on the crop species. For tomatoes, simply put, we cut the above ground portion off and stick it onto the root stock of another variety. This can be done with our heirlooms. The top portion retains the qualities of taste, color, and style while the bottom root portion of a different variety, attribute’s resistance to many soil borne pathogens. The reason these have not really caught on too well in the retail market is the price. There is a lot of labor involved with this process, and for every one plant you sell you actually have to grow two plants (one for the top, and one for the roots). While a packet of thirty seeds or four plants may sell for three or four dollars, a single grafted plant of the same variety can sell anywhere from eight to thirteen dollars.  This is assuming you can find what you are looking for locally as none of those prices include shipping!

The final topic I wanted to cover was Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs.  These organisms have had their genetic material altered in a way that is not natural. Normally, we get new gene combinations through egg and sperm formation and the resultant reproductive event that follows. With genetic modification, genes can be altered, removed, or added in. Scientists can also cross genes from different species of plants or animals. Plant hybridizers have been crossing closely related, but nonetheless different, species for centuries. As such, the public is generally not as resistant to this “more natural” activity. For example, you can cross two different species of Echinacea coneflower in order to create a new color variety. Where the public gets worried, is when a gene from a distantly related organisms is inserted into the genome of another. For example, Glofish were made by inserting a gene from a coral into a fish.  There is no realistic way that would happen in nature. Due to the fears described above, there are currently no GMO tomatoes being sold on the market. This is not due to any known hazard to humans, but rather due to the public being wary of a technology that is new, by a process unknown to many, and not having enough time to see what will happen with these “experiments” long-term. There are, however, many other examples of vegetables that are GMO, like soybeans some corn, and canola for example.

So given all this information, what category of vegetable do you pick? Well, the simple answer is that it depends on what you want to do, and how good you are as a gardener. For anyone new to the endeavor and looking to plant tomatoes, I would recommend starting off with the disease resistant hybrids. These are generally the most forgiving. Once you have a good idea of how to grow the plants, maybe you would want to try an heirloom variety or two in addition to your regular stock. Open pollinated plants can be fun as well as you can save your seeds each year and select for certain traits, but you need patience and time. This gives you the power to essentially create something new and unique suited to your specific needs or desires. No matter what you decide, get out there and plant! As I always suggest, get a soil test first for best results!        

Matt Lisy

According to language of flowers so popular during the 1800’s, the violet represents modesty and decency, qualities sorely lacking in modern society some would argue. There may be 500 or more species of violets as not only does this family include sweet violets, bedding violas and pansies but its members are naturally rather promiscuous and have also been crossed by breeders. Violets are mostly native to temperate Northern Hemisphere regions and the ones most commonly found in our yards probably originated in Europe.

Pansies by Lisa Rivers

Most violets are small perennial plants although some are annuals. Small clumps of heart to kidney-shaped leaves grow from compact stoloniferous rootstocks.  Half-inch flowers may be purple, bluish, white, yellow, pink, maroon, bicolored or speckled. Solitary flowers arise from leaf axils in April and May and consist of 5 sepals and 5 petals.

Violet ‘Freckles’ by dmp2016

Violet flowers are rather curious. We notice the flowers above ground but there are also hidden flowers beneath the soil surface of several species that never open but self-pollinate and produce fertile seeds in large numbers. These flowers are called cleistogamous flowers and they are why we often find so many violet seedlings each year surrounding our established plants. The seeds may be ejected several feet away from the parent plant as well which explains why violets can so easily spread throughout a lawn area.  

Common purple violet. Photo by dmp2016

Not all violets are fragrant although the ones that are can take me back to my younger days helping Grandma gather bouquets of sweet violets (Viola odorata) from her garden. The most common blue violet (V. sororia) which spreads vigorously throughout my gardens and lawn, and probably yours as well, has no scent that I can detect.  

Lore and legends surrounding violets go back at least to the times of the ancient Greeks when Zeus turned his lover, Io, into a heifer to protect her from the jealous Hera. He provided her with pastures filled with violets to feast on. The flower was, at one time, a symbol for Athens.

Violets were also a love token between Napoleon and his empress Josephine and later became his political emblem. During troubadour times in Toulouse, France, they were given as a poetry prize and in the Middle Ages in southern Germany, discovery of the first violets of spring was celebrated in dance.

Violet bouquet from http://www.depositphotos.com

Ancient herbalists Herodotus and Pliny ascribed medical virtues to violets, and they were recommended for gout and spleen disorders and in later times used to treat respiratory disorders. The leaves and flowers were found to have both antiseptic and expectorant properties. Flowers also contain vitamins A and C as well as some antioxidants.

The flowers of the sweet violet (V. odorata) are edible and have been used for garnishes and in salads, jams, jellies, liqueurs and baked goods. They are often candied and used as decorations on cakes, chocolates and other sweets. Other species are edible as well but be sure to positively identify plants before consuming. 

Candied violas from http://www.foodnetwork.ca

Violet water is made by weighing down and steeping violet leaves and flowers in water. The softly fragrant water is used in cooking to flavor tea breads, fruit compotes, chilled soups, ices and cupcakes. Both violet water and candied violets can be purchased. 

For a long time, violets were prized for their aromatic qualities. They were widely used in perfumes until the advent of synthetic fragrances. There are still some perfumes made from violets, but it may take a bit of searching to locate them.

Typically, violets prefer somewhat moist and shaded areas, but I have found them growing in garden beds in full sun which get little supplemental irrigation. Our common blue violet along with its white and hybridized relatives such as ‘Freckles’ are tough plants and compete well in the Northeast. I find that they are easier to dig up from unwanted areas in my garden then to get rid of in a lawn. Personally, I find a lawn awash in purple and white quite a lovely spring sight.

Violets in lawn. Photo by dmp, 2020

Many Connecticut residents are aware that pollinating insects are declining in numbers because of several factors including pesticide use, loss of habitat and climate change. Violets are a pollinator plant because the larvae of several butterfly species including the large yellow underwing and the silver bordered fritillary as well as the giant leopard moth and the Setaceous Hebrew character moth feed on violets. 

In general, violets need little care in terms of watering or fertilizing. Occasionally rabbits will nibble on the foliage, but it always grows back. Enjoy their short-lived blooms and consider using them as a groundcover under deciduous trees where turf grasses struggle.

Dawn P.

Wintertime brings more cut flower arrangements into my home. I need to have flowers inside when it is too cold to grow them outdoors. Flowers are used to communicate. ‘I love you’, ‘I’m sorry’, ‘Get well’ and ‘Thank you’, are all sentiments conveyed through flowers. Birthday, anniversary, and holiday arrangements help to celebrate special occasions. Extending the life of the bouquets makes the celebration continue. It is always a disappointment when the first rose head begins to nod like a broken bobble head dog in the back window of a car. Trying to prop up the blossom never works so removal ensues with rearrangement of the remaining blooms and greenery in a hopeful attempt to prolong the dying process. What can be done to eliminate or diminish the natural decomposition process of the bouquet? There are a number of steps you can take.

Lots of beautiful flowers to chose from. Photo by dmp2021

First, flower selection is important. Buy fresh flowers and they will naturally last longer. Shorter time spent in the florist’s bucket means longer time in your home. Whether purchased in the grocery store or flower shop, smell the water in the holding container. If it smells at all, then bacteria have begun to grow. Bacteria equal deterioration to a cut flower. Fungus, yeasts, and algae can also grow in the vase water. Flower stems have cells that move water up by capillary action, a constant pull upward towards the blossom. Bacteria and other organisms clog these cells restricting the uptake of water resulting in wilted flowers. Start with a clean vase. Remove any leaves from stems that would sit below the water surface to lessen areas for the organisms to feed and reproduce. Change the water every two days to reduce colonies of bacteria available to be sucked up the flower stem.

Remove any foliage that would be below water line. Photo by dmp2021

Air bubbles are another detriment to water uptake. If the flow of water it not continuous but interrupted by an air bubble, water flow will stop. Once home, cut the stems of the flowers under running water or in a sink or container filled with water with a sharp, non-serrated knife or scissors. Enough water will cling to the 45-degree angled cut while you quickly place it in the water filled vase to secure a continuous flow of water. Use warm water (110 degrees) in the vase to encourage faster movement up the stem. Enough water will cling to the cut surfaces during water vase changes so re-cutting of stems is usually not necessary. Never let the water level fall below the bottom of the stems.

Recut stems at an angle under water. Photo by dmp2021

Placing additives in the water is a common practice for cut flower arrangements. The commercial floral preservatives often distributed with purchased flowers are meant to be a vase water additive. They contain a sugar to feed the flower, a biocide that kills bacteria, fungi and yeasts that feed on the decomposing greenery and sap that seeps from flower stem, and an acidifier. The acidifier lowers the pH of the vase water retarding bacteria, fungi and yeast growth and also help move the water up the stems.

Use the floral preservative provided for longer vase life. Photo by dmp2021

Some home treatments of vase water are said to work on the same chemical principles as the commercial preservatives. A 1/4 teaspoon of bleach per quart of water will act as a disinfectant to kill the bacteria and algae. One tablespoon of sugar acts as a food source. A penny contains copper which is a fungicide. To create an acidic condition in the water, add one aspirin tablet or two tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar to one quart of water. Non-diet lemon-lime soda will add sugar and create acidic conditions when added to water. Use one part lemon-lime soda to two parts water. Keep in mind, however, that it is generally easier, cheaper and more effective just to use the floral preservative that comes with your flowers.

If possible, consider storing your arrangements in a cool place or even a refrigerator when they are not on display. Temperatures between 33 and 36 degrees F will keep many cut flowers fresher longer. However, if your arrangement contains tropical blossoms like heliconia, bird of paradise or ginger, temperatures should not fall below 50 F.

Vector set tropical flowers. Jungle exotic strelitzia, anthurium, hibiscus, plumeria, orchid and ginger flower.

Keep arrangements away from ripening fruit which releases ethylene gas that will age flowers faster. Place bouquets out of direct sunlight and out of drafts. Use lukewarm water for most flowers but cold water for bulb flowers like daffodils, tulips and hyacinths. Flowers that release a milky sap from the stem when cut benefit from sealing by passing the cut stem ends over an open flame or dipping the cut ends into boiling water for 20 seconds. This stops the stems from oozing. Some flowers naturally have a longer vase life than others including alstroemeria, aster, celosia, cosmos, gypsophila, lavatera, rudbeckia, scabiosa, snapdragon, statice, sunflower, yarrow and zinnia. Hollow stem flowers wilt the quickest.

Enjoy your beautiful arrangement. Photo by dmp2021

So as these long days of winter leave you longing for summer, head to the flower shop armed with all this information to make the beauty of cut flower arrangements last a long time in your home.

Here’s to an early spring!

Carol Q.         

Cooper’s hawk watching for prey

“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.”
William Blake

Getting outside in the winter can take some serious nudging if the cold is a factor, but when prodding has done its work, expect to find things of interest as you walk, hike or even drive along. A backyard or a hiking trail can provide more interesting viewing than television programs offer and things we see will probably pique our curiosity as well.  

Cladonia arbuscula lichen

Cladonia arbuscula is a fruticose lichen, that is, its shape resembles a tiny shrub. Highly branched, it occurs on the ground in open acidic areas, sometimes forming large areas of tufted mats. It is one of many lichens commonly referred to as reindeer lichens. It is light gray-green or cream and has a puffy appearance.

Princess pine, Lycopodium obscurum, a flat-branched species of club moss, is a  common forest understory plant  of North America. It is actually neither a low- growing conifer nor a moss but is instead  closely related to ferns and horsetails. They have green scale-like leaves and yellow to tan sporophylls on branch tips that produce spores.  

Princess pine covering the ground in the Connecticut woods
Princess pine sporophylls

Sometimes when hiking in New England woods you come across stone walls. In the past, these were probably erected as borders along the edge of woods on farmland. Over the years, as farms are abandoned or fields are no longer cultivated, the land cleared for fields has returned its original woodland habitat. Robert Thorson, a landscape geologist at the University of Connecticut, estimates that there are more than 100,000 miles of these old stone walls which could circle the globe 4 times.

Stone wall in the deep woods

On a recent trip to the shoreline in Old Lyme, right after a strong winter storm, there were tons (probably!) of shells washed up above the normal high-tide mark. If you find a tan, spiral string of cases, check this out. These are the egg casings of a whelk and contain a bunch of tiny whelks in each case. Sometimes people open one up and think it is just sand inside, but if you look carefully you may see any remaining whelks inside.

Spiral egg cases of a whelk

Broomsedge bluestem Andorpogon virginicus is a native grass that turns bright orange in late fall and remains upright throughout much of the winter season, often standing tall above snow cover. Seeds are a source of food for birds and small animals. This plant also supports various Skipper butterfly larva and small butterflies obtain nectar from the flowers.

Broomsedge in winter

Telling the difference between red and pitch pines has become easier as I have learned that red pine needles are in bundles of two, and pitch pine needles are in bundles of three, and are often twisted. Red pine has smaller cones and lack the stout spines on individual scales that characterizes those of pitch pines. Also, red pine bark peels away on upper trunk and branches revealing a nice red color.

Pitch pine cone has stout spines on the scales
Image of red pine- cone has no spines on the scales and needles are in bundles of two
Peeling red pine bark on older tree

Other things I came across recently include melted snow where deer had bedded down, a red-shouldered hawk in the neighborhood and a Cooper’s hawk perched on a dead tree looking for prey, a trunk of a small tree damaged by a deer rubbing its antlers, interesting cloud formations and a Promethea moth cocoon dangling from a spicebush twig. As my nephew, Ben, once stated when observing nature as a small boy, “the excitement never ends”.

Red shouldered hawk in a landscape tree
Promethea moth cocoon structure
Tree with bark rubbed off by a buck rubbing its antlers
Clouds lined up in a winter sky

Pamm Cooper- UConn Home and Garden Education Center

Seedlings under a fluorescent light. Photo: D. Pettinelli

The reasons for providing artificial light for your indoor plants can vary greatly depending on what you’d like to grow. Sometimes a light source is provided temporarily to help a plant get through the winter or to give seedlings a head start before spring plantings. Other times artificial light is added to create a permanent growing environment for ornamental houseplants or indoor crops such as microgreens and hydroponically grown vegetables. Lighting technology has come a long way in the past few years, enabling hobbyists and professionals to get even more out of their light source than ever before, often at an affordable price and reasonable rate of energy consumption. Listed below are the most common types of light used for indoor plantings along with some considerations for each type. Choosing grow lights is not a one size fits all scenario and selecting the right one can be a daunting task; use the information below to help make a more informed decision before making the investment.

One of the first things to consider is whether or not, a grow light is actually necessary to achieve the desired outcome. Being able to recognize the symptoms of insufficient lighting will help determine if adding artificial light is the right decision. Some of the symptoms that you  may begin to see when plants are not given enough light include: stretching, loss of lower or even all leaves, slowed growth, diminishing leaf size as the plant grows, and chlorosis or yellowing of the leaf surface. Seedlings that are straining to reach for more light will flop over as they grow overly tall. Plants that are not photosynthesizing will use little to no water, causing them to sit in wet media for too long, resulting in root health issues. Conversely, too much light can result in burning of the leaf and stem. This is something that typically occurs when a high-powered grow light is added to a space without first acclimating the plants. When a new light source is added, monitor for symptoms of burning and add light incrementally if possible, either by using a dimmer switch, keeping the light further away to start, or keeping it on for shorter intervals of time. All these techniques can help plants acclimate to increased light levels.

A fluorescent light fixture with a mixture of bulbs. Photo: C. Johnson

Fluorescent: Fluorescent tubes have been the standard for indoor plant lighting for several decades. They are versatile and have become more energy efficient with the invention of new bulbs and improved ballast designs. These lights are great for giving your seedlings a head start or growing microgreens year-round. Fluorescent light does not have the ability to penetrate a lush plant canopy like some of the higher-powered light sources, but it does provide an excellent source of gentle light for young plants. Fluorescent lights give off a relatively low amount of heat and have become more energy efficient as bulb technology has progressed. One of the more exciting inventions in the world of fluorescent lighting has been the CFL (Compact Fluorescent Light) bulb. These bulbs act similarly to the traditional tube style with one major difference; they can be screwed into the standard light bulb outlet used on most lamps and light fixtures. This means that a desk lamp could be turned into a small grow light with the use of a CFL bulb. Most of the standard size bulbs are of a lower wattage and would require multiple fixtures to provide the same amount of light as one fluorescent tube. Standard fluorescent bulbs and CFL’s both come in a variety of light spectrums, which are sometimes referred to as color temperature. It is important that you purchase bulbs that give off the proper spectrum for plant growth. This is key in purchasing any grow light.  Some growers will mix fluorescent bulbs of different spectrums to achieve the correct light spectrum. Bulbs that mimic the full spectrum of sunlight are available but tend to be more costly than mixing regular bulbs of varied spectrums.

Incandescent bulb in a protective housing. Photo: C. Johnson

Incandescent: The classic incandescent lightbulb is not commonly used as a grow light due to several reasons. One of the primary reasons is that they give off too much heat while producing a limited amount of PAR (photosynthetically active radiation) light waves. To get noticeable plant growth from this type of bulb, you would have to place it so close to the plants that they would be at risk of injury from the heat. These bulbs also tend to be rich in red spectrum light but poor in blue, which is what makes them not ideally suited for photosynthesis. In recent years, incandescent bulbs have become less common as they have been replaced by CFL bulbs. As described above, CFL bulbs make for much better grow lights and are much more energy efficient than their incandescent counterparts.

Purple light emitted from a mixed spectrum LED grow light. Photo: C. Johnson

LED: Newer to the houseplant lighting scene are LED lights. LED stands for light emitting diode. The number of diodes in an LED fixture can vary greatly depending on the size and wattage of the light. Some research is required when selecting an LED light that is both functional and safe. A quick search will reveal that there are many companies producing this style of light but not all bulbs are well built or designed; this can cause a lot of variation in the output of the light. Reputable sellers will provide a chart showing the amount of light that will reach plants at varying distances. The light amount is measured in a unit called PPFD (photosynthetic photon flux density). This is usually a better indicator than wattage and will provide a more accurate idea of how powerful the light is before it is purchased. Like other lights, LEDs come in a variety of spectrums; with warmer temperature lights to promote flowering and cooler temperature lights to promote vegetative growth. A blend of the two, resulting in a bluish/purple light spectrum is a popular and effective option.

HPS grow light in a production greenhouse. Photo: C. Johnson

HPS (High Pressure Sodium) and HID (High-intensity Discharge): These grow lights use gas filled bulbs that create a powerful amount of light. They have been the standard grow light in production greenhouses for many years; only recently have LEDs begun to takeover. While these lights are extremely effective at encouraging plant growth, there are a few factors that make them less practical for your home lighting needs. One factor is that these lights produce a lot of heat. This can be hard to manage in a home and may even become dangerous if not properly vented. Another is cost, both for operating the light as they are not very energy efficient and for replacement bulbs and hoods. The bulbs have a shorter lifespan than LEDs and the hoods wear out over time making the light less efficient. Cost aside, this is the most high-powered option when it comes to grow lights. The light that these bulbs put out is able to penetrate the canopy to a higher degree than other lighting options. In a production setting, where plants are being produced for profit, this light is still considered a practical choice.

Mechanical outlet timer. Photo: C. Johnson

How long to light: A helpful item to purchase alongside a grow light is an on/off timer. Trying to remember to turn your grow light on and off each day can become tedious and impractical. It can also result in an irregular day length for your plants; this can cause irregular growth patterns. Changes in day length, as well as temperature in some cases, triggers physiological responses in some plants. This is known as photoperiodism. Notable changes in plants that respond to variations in day length include fruit production in citrus, or color change in poinsettias. Keep this in mind when setting the light timer. Learn about the lifecycle of the plant being grown and how changes in day length will affect it when deciding how long to light its grow space. In general, it is recommended that one supplement any natural light with artificial light to create a 12-hour day for most plants. This will keep them actively growing throughout the short-day winter season.

UConn Home & Garden Education Center, 2021

Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Dean of the College, Cooperative Extension System, University of Connecticut, Storrs. The Connecticut Cooperative Extension System is an equal opportunity employer and program provider. To file a complaint of discrimination, write USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, Room 326-W, Whitten Building, Stop Code 9410, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20250-9410 or call (202) 720-5964.

There is nothing better than sitting by the fire on a cold winter’s night with a brand new seed catalogue that just came in the mail. Even better, a good half dozen or more! It seems this year is going to see even more people planting than the previous. Last year, due to COVID, more people were home than ever before. Pair that with unfounded worries over food security and it was a great time to be in the seed business. Many online retailers simply were “out of stock” with just about everything. I thought this year would be a little different with the rollout of the vaccine;  apparently people like their newfound hobby. Although stock seems to be better this year, I am still seeing “out of stock” on some favorites. I guess people will be planting again. The good part is that the retailers seem to be ready for this, not getting caught off guard like last year. I hope this trend continues, as one of the most environmentally friendly things we can do is grow our own food and support local farmers for the rest. Don’t forget, when we buy seed we are helping to support agriculture as well. Take a look at where the seeds come from – you might be surprised how many companies are located near you. 

Some ‘Amethyst’ green bean and ‘Mammoth’ sunflower seeds waiting to be planted this spring. Photo by mrl2021

So the question becomes, why would someone want to start their own flowers and vegetables from seed? The reasons are many. For some, it is a hobby, and a way to get into gardening before the outside is ready to cooperate. For others, it is a bit of security and a stress reducer, as they know they will have the plants they want this spring. It sometimes can be a cost savings, although by the time you buy the seed, the potting equipment, lights, other supplies, and electricity, you probably will not save much. Of course, if you continue this tradition year after year, it probably does save money in the long run. For me, it is a nice way to get the varieties that I want when they are not commercially available, and that is priceless!

The first thing to know about seed starting is that timing is everything. If you start too early, your plants get tall, fall over, and may run out of key nutrients. When you go to plant them, they are already so stressed and nutrient deprived and may not fare well. On the flip side, if you plant too late, your plants will be tiny with a poorly developed root system. As a result, they may not be able to withstand the stress of transplanting. Check your last frost date and read the information on the seed packets or seed catalogue and mark your calendar. You also will need to adjust from year to year depending on your lighting type and intensity. Each crop will have its own timing, so what works for one may not work for all. In addition, not all plants can tolerate transplanting.  Beans, squash, and cucumbers, for example, are best sown directly in the garden. Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant are less sensitive and can handle the transplanting process much better. If you must start delicate plants indoors, I would recommend using peat pots which can be placed directly into your garden, and will break down during the growing season. I usually rip some holes in the pots before planting, being careful not to disturb or break up the roots.  

In order to germinate, seeds need the proper moisture and temperature. It is a little like the story of Goldilocks and the porridge. Although the parameters are not as narrow, they do need to be in the right range. Germination can be sped up with a heat mat underneath. These heat mats, however, are pricey and need to be used with a controller to set the proper temperature. Even without a heat mat, seeds will germinate fine at room temperature (it will just take longer).  Don’t forget to take into account the time it will take for the seeds to germinate when you are estimating how far ahead to start your seeds. One other consideration is the size of the container you will germinate the seeds in. Although you can use pots, you might run out of space rather quickly. Many people prefer to use plug trays. There are different sizes for different sized seeds and growth requirements of the specific crop. Standard sizes include 128, 72, 50, etc. These refer to the number of plants you can fit into the tray. For really large seeds or large plants, you will need to switch from plug trays to actual pots. Plants must be sized to the appropriate sized plug or pot. Too big and the soil will fall apart when transplanting, too small and the plant will have stunted root growth and/or dry out too quick. Use any commercially available seed starting medium to fill your plug trays or pots. In addition, seeds may just be sprinkled into an open tray for sprouting and transplanted on from there.

A 72 plug tray. Photo by mrl2021

The plug trays will need to be kept in some kind of basin that holds water if you are starting them in the house. Be careful when purchasing/ordering these bottom trays so they do not have holes in them. Greenhouse growers prefer the holes so the water can drain freely. In the home, that could ruin the table or counter the trays are sitting on. You must be careful not to overwater.  Soggy seed starting medium leads to a plethora of diseases. One of the most common ones is “damping off” where your plants seem to rot right where the stem goes into the soil. Good air circulation and watering only when necessary can prevent a lot of trouble. Generally, the seed starting medium only needs to be kept moist during the germination process. Once the plants are up and growing, allow some drying between waterings to prevent many diseases.

A solid bottom tray with no holes. Photo by mrl2021.

After the seeds sprout, you need to give them light. The ambient room light will certainly not be enough, nor will placing the plants near a window (in most cases). Fortunately, it is easy and relatively cheap to provide lights for the plants. A simple old-school four-foot shop light is all that one needs. You’ll want to hang the lights a few inches above the growing plants. For bulbs, you can use one “cool white” and one “warm white” light bulb. If you are willing to spend some more money, you could buy a specialty plant grow bulb and a daylight deluxe light bulb. All of these bulbs have different spectral outputs (different colors of light) and are beyond the scope of this blog topic. Simply put, plants need lots of red and blue light to grow well. You can even find special LED plant lights with blue and red LEDs. These fixtures are much more expensive, but the bulbs are long lasting and do not lose output like the fluorescent ones. Either way, as your plants grow, you can raise the lights above them to accommodate their height. If you have different types of plants, some may grow faster than others. Do your best and develop a method that works for you. Follow the advice given here and enjoy the process! This should be an exciting and fun adventure. In a few months it will be time to put in the cool weather crops, so if you haven’t purchased your seeds yet, now is the time. Many local garden centers as well as big box stores carry a large selection of seeds. There are many mail order companies out there as well. The best part is, once you order from them, they will send you a catalogue the next year.  Not all companies are the same, and some specialize in certain types of plants. A word of warning – it is easy to imagine yourself planting away in the spring garden from your favorite chair during the winter. Buy what you can reasonably plant in a season, otherwise you may find yourself with a lot of leftover seeds. Use the information in the catalogue to figure out how many seeds you need for your space. Unused seed may germinate the next year, but they must be stored properly. Different plants have different lengths of time the seeds are viable. 

Fluorescent lights (daylight deluxe and plant grow bulbs) set up over houseplants overwintering in cellar. Photo by mrl2021.

Hopefully this post has inspired you to try starting some flowers and vegetables from seed. I recommend starting off small, with only one or two types or varieties of plant. Tomatoes are probably the most forgiving of our garden plants and are a great place to start.  As always, I recommend a soil test before planting out for best gardening results! 

Matt Lisy

Although it really has not been a bad January weather wise, the dull, cold days find me searching for that bit of green. Thoughts turn to inside plants and sprucing them up a bit. Most houseplants respond well to some grooming and repotting. This is also a good time to take a hard look at any dish gardens and terrariums that were made several months or years ago and if the plants have outgrown their space allotment, the planter can be redone. Such was the case of my poor terrarium.

Overgrown terrarium

Houseplant popularity has been on the rise for several years now and many enjoy displaying their plants attractively in dish gardens and terrariums. Our modern day terrariums stem from a discovery by a London doctor, Nathanial Ward (1791-1868). He discovered healthy ferns growing in a glass jar he was using to study moths and caterpillars. The air inside the jar was cleaner than polluted London air and growing conditions could be controlled. The invention of these portable, glass containers, known as Wardian cases, meant that botanists and other scientists could transport plants from their foreign habitats back to Europe for study in a manner more conducive to their survival.

Wardian cases from http://www.wikipedia.com

While the Wardian cases were closed containers, modern day terrariums can be either open or closed. Closed terrariums work best with plants that tolerate or thrive in relatively high humidity and enjoy indirect light. Care must be taken not to overwater and they should not be set in direct sunlight. I remember filling brandy sniffers with mosses, partridge berry, wintergreen, and small ferns during my high school days. After sealing with plastic wrap, these microcosms of the forest floor would share my desk space for months while I did my homework.

Enclosed terrariums are enchanting but lately I have just made open topped ones because it is easier to monitor moisture levels and humidity; lower humidity lessens the chances of disease. Also, if a plant or two sends its stems over the top, it’s a clear, distinct signal that my plants need attention. Usually I wait until winter to redo the terrarium as this is my favorite time to visit greenhouses for that glimpse of spring warmth amid winter’s chill. Last weekend I traveled to Stone Hedge Gardens in Charlton, MA. This is a small family run operation with a delightful selection of herbs and small houseplants, just perfect for terrariums and dish gardens. You can purchase ready-made dish gardens or individual plants to make your own creations. They also sell seasonal plants, silk floral designs, fairy garden accessories, and potting supplies.

Lots of potential terrarium plants at Stone Hedge Gardens in Charlton, MA

For my terrarium makeover, I found an artillery fern, a goldfish plant, an alternanthera and truthfully, I forgot the name of the fourth plant. Try for plants that have similar light and moisture requirements or at least tolerance. Keep in mind that regardless of how cute they look when purchased, just about all plants will grow bigger. That’s what they are programmed to do. Once they have outgrown a pot or dish garden or terrarium, they need to be moved into larger living quarters. If that is not an option, cuttings can be taken, or they can simply be composted. 

New and old terrarium plants

To make or remake your terrarium, first you need a glass container. Be as creative as you like. Look around the house for what containers could be repurposed or go explore a local antique shop for unique finds. I recycled an old acid bottle. Unlike potted plants, no drainage holes are necessary.

Then, gather supplies. Often small rocks or glass pebbles or even colored marbles are used to line the bottom inch or so. To keep the potting media from getting in between the rocks, some place a layer of sphagnum moss but since I did not have any right now, I use a circle cut out of leftover row cover material and placed that over the rocks.

Terrarium supplies

There are plenty of recipes for terrarium potting mixes, but I just find Pro-Mix works fine. I moisten it and mix in a tablespoon of activated charcoal before placing a shallow layer over the row cover. The charcoal is supposed to retard growth of unwanted microbes but I have made terrariums without it and not had problems.

Next carefully remove the plants from their pots and place on the potting mix, filling around the sides with extra mix and gently firming in place. Plants can then be watered moderately. It is easy to apply too much and even though the excess will drain into the rocks below, too much water makes plant roots susceptible to root rot. A mister can be used to remove any potting soil from the leaves of your plants. I usually only water my terrarium twice a month but I do check it more often in hot weather or when the heat is constantly running. Mine sits in a north window and gets turned on Fridays so the plants will not reach for the light.

Finished terrarium – good for another year

Once the planting and watering is finished, add any touches that tickle your fancy. I set in a fairy size gazing globe. Enjoy your creation and once it overgrows its bounds, get some new plants and start anew.

Dawn P.

January is my time to pay more attention to my houseplants. Crowded pots need dividing and give me the opportunity to share plants with friends. Some folks even sell their newly propagated plants on social media sites hopefully for enough money to cover the potting soil and pots. If you are using old pot, wash them with a 10% bleach and water solution to eliminate any old plant diseases. Use fresh potting soil. I buy a larger bag from my local independent garden center. Woodland Gardens near me sells their own bagged mix I love. It is well draining and I have great success with it. Well draining is key to keep the roots from being too wet and giving opportunity for root rot diseases to invade.

Pots need drainage holes.

Pots need to have drainage holes in the bottom to allow excess water to drain into a saucer or dish. Always poor off any water from the saucer after watering. Never let the pot sit in water or the dreaded root rot can happen.

Fill pots to within 1/4 inch of the top edge.

Use a bowl to hydrate the dry potting mix from the bag. Give it a few minutes to soak the water, then spoon or trowel it into the pot being used as the home for the new plant. Fill the pot to within a 1/4 inch of the top lip of the pot. This ensures good air movement over the surface of the soil and leaves just enough space so that the water will run out of the planter over its edge.

Christmas cactus cuttings in water.
Christmas cactus leaf cuttings after several root of sitting in water to develop roots.

From the Christmas cactus above, I twisted off a few leaf segments. I prefer to set them in water for a few weeks to initiate roots to grow, then plant them in potting mix. Another option is the stick the cuttings directly into moistened potting mix allowing the leaf pieces to set roots directly in the soil and container. The soil must be kept damp until the roots have grown enough to anchor in the soil. Both ways work.

Make a hole.

Make a hole to insert the cutting or cuttings.

Three cuttings are placed in this one pot.

It may look a little sparse in the above plant, but it will fill in soon.

Haworthia

Haworthia is a wonderful succulent that sets baby plants at its base. These baby plants can be twisted off the mother plant and stuck directly in moistened soil. Again keep soil moist to develop a new root system. Examine the mother plant to see if it needs repotting if it is root bound. Sometimes just removing the newly produced babies will give the old plant enough room without repotting.

Removed Haworthia baby plant.

Above photo shows the Haworthia baby right after being twisted off of the mother plant. See the attachment point where new roots will emerge once replanted.

Newly planted Haworthia babies.

Keep damp to get roots to grow. Rooting hormone can be used on the bottom tip, but not necessary as they root so easily.

Spider plant.

Spider plants send out long shoots with new plants at the end. Shoot growth will continue to grow adding more baby plants as they extend their reach. In the wild, the new plants will land on a fertile spot and anchor in via new roots produced from the baby plant. As a houseplant these babies can be cut from the shoot and planted directly in moist potting soil or rooted in water. Spider plants are very easy to grow and propagate in vegetatively.

Close up of shoot and new spider plant baby.
Rooting babies in water for a few weeks.
Potted up new spider plants.

by Carol Quish.

Winter is not a season, it’s an occupation.”

― Sinclair Lewis

A piece of birch bark on the forest floor

In the otherwise drab winter landscape here in New England there are still things of interest to be found when we tramp around outdoors. Whether in your own backyard, woods, on nature trails there will be something of interest to see. I especially like the woods in winter, whether there is snow cover or not, because something will always turn up that will keep it worth tolerating the cold.

Animal tracks in the snow often tell a story

Owls and woodpeckers are among the most common birds we come across in the woods or in backyards with trees, especially during the winter when trees have lost their leaves and the birds are easier to see. A barred owl flew by as I stood in the woods recently and landed in a tree nearby. It must have been its usual roosting spot as owl pellets were on the ground under this tree. Owls cannot chew and swallow prey whole or in chunks, regurgitating pellets of undigestible material. Pulling pellets apart may help identify what animal or bird was eaten.

Owl pellet, likely from a barred owl
Cooper’s hawk

Pileated wood[peckers often are noisy and when heard, can be easy to spot. They often visit the same trees frequently where they have drilled holes for extraction of insects living inside the tree. Characteristic features of these holes are a rectangular shape. Often they are made on white pines where borers are feeding within trunks and branches, or on dead or dying trees with carpenter ants living inside.

Pileated woodpecker hunting for insects
Pileated holes in a white pine

A little winter visitor that may be found foraging in the winter woods is the golden crowned kinglet. This tiny song bird can be found in mixed coniferous and deciduous woods. Listen for its high- pitched see- see-see call on one note as it hunts for insects on tree branches and twigs. It flutters and hovers as it looks for morsels in tree tops or nearer the ground. It has wing bars and a golden crown of feathers capping the head in females, while males have a bright orange cap. Kinglets may flash these feathers if they are alarmed.

Golden crowned kinglets are acrobats while searching for insects

Winter is a great time to look for any bird’s nests that still remain in deciduous trees and shrubs. Baltimore oriole nests are probably the easiest to identify as they hang down from moderately high branch tips, and often are decorated with purple or orange ribbons. If you have bird house, especially for bluebirds, make sure to clean them out by early March, as bluebirds start early staking out a suitable nesting site. They will use old woodpecker holes, high or low in the tree trunk, in the woods or on the wood line. Often house finches or tree swallows use bluebird houses.

Bird's nest of unknown bird cleaned out of bluebird house has blue jay, hawk, goose and other feathers
Bird’s nest of unknown bird cleaned out of bluebird house has blue jay, hawk, goose and other feathers
Bluebird nest was cleaned out of a box in November. This nest was on top of another nest that had 5 eggs in it.

Just before sunset or sunrise, check the skies for interesting and sometimes spectacular color shows. There may also be sundogs or 22 degree halos if atmospheric conditions are right.

If you go to the woods on a fairly warm winter day, a Mourning Cloak butterfly may flutter by. These  butterflies overwinter in “ cryo-preservation” mode in tree bark crevices, sheds, tree cavities or anywhere else they can escape winter winds and snows. They may venture out on warm, sunny days in winter, but return to their protective spots before dusk.

Mourning cloak out basking in winter

There are numerous fungi and ferns that are interesting to find in the winter. A favorite fern is the diminutive polypody ferns that are usually found on rocks rather than on the surface of the ground. They are often found on woodland edges where there is some sun. Partridgeberry is a creeping groundcover that can still have its red berries in the winter. Used with polypody ferns and moss, partridgeberry makes a wonderful indoor dish garden.

Polypody ferns growing on a rock
Aptly named turkey tail wood decay fungus

Also visible in the winter landscape are wasp nests, cocoons and eggs casings of mantids. Mantid egg casings can be easily identified during the winter. They look like tannish foam blobs attached to twigs on trees or shrubs or stems of herbaceous plants such as goldenrod. Inside are hundreds of eggs that will hatch in mid to late May the following spring.

Mantid egg case
Promethea moth cocoon

The days are getting a little bit longer and, not soon enough for me, landscapes will be warming up and once more will be full of color.  But even when it is not so bright and cheery outside, as Charles Dickens wrote- ‘ Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own”

Pamm Cooper

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