One of the first " signs of spring" Porter Street Manchester early March 2015

One of the first ” signs of spring” Porter Street Manchester early March 2015

Well, this has been an endless winter it seems, at least, in New England. Snow, snow, and more snow, and today is the first day of spring and we may get more. But at least we have seen patches of ground lately as the snow is returning to the sky as water vapor or seeping through the soil as water. At least spring snows leave in a timely manner.

Still the winter was not a complete bust. I came across a nice little planting of Red- osier dogwood while snow still covered the ground and made a nice backdrop so the brilliant red twigs could show off their splendid colors. Its winter contrast to the white snow cover is one of the reasons to consider this plant for your landscape. This variety may be Cornus sericea “ Kelsei, which is a dwarf having very slender branches, and growing only a couple of feet high and wide. Or perhaps it is ” Midnight Fire” or “ Cardinal ”. Some red-osiers should be regularly pruned back to keep older branches from changing to a dull gray and to encourage the younger red twigs to develop instead.

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Red-osier dogwoods along a stone wall in Connecticut- March 13 ,2015

I always look for Horned Larks, Eremophila alpestris, around the end of winter and the beginning of spring as large grassy areas become open as snow melts. A common migrant and winter visitor to Connecticut, these  birds can be found nearly every year in the fields near the Meig’s Point Nature Center at Hammonasset State Park. They just arrived this week as pastures lost large amounts of snow cover along Horse Barn Hill Road on the UConn campus. This open upland bird is threatened as habitats are being lost due to reforestation or other events. It walks along the ground and can be difficult to see as it blends in with the brown dormant pasture grasses. It is named for its little, black “ horns “, which are really just tufts of feathers and may not always be visible as sometimes they are flattened against the head.

Horned Lark at Meig's Point March 13, 2015

Horned Lark at Meig’s Point March 13, 2015

Phoebes are one of our first migrating breeding birds to arrive in Connecticut, often appearing well before any insects are available to eat. These are members of the fly-catchers, and can be recognized by their rather large head, gray back, wings, and tail, and whitish belly. They have a sweet “ pick” call and distinctive raspy “ phoebe “ song. When they perch, they wag their tails. Some were already reported as arriving along the coastal areas of Connecticut last week. Haven’t seen or heard any up in my area yet.

Deer are also becoming more frequent visitors to some backyards now that they can travel through substantially less snow cover than w had all winter. Many people reported seeing no deer at all since last December. Well, if any did not starve to death, they are once more returning to their favorite haunts, which may include your own backyard. Two days ago three deer  (out of a formerly larger group that would be seen together) came by my back yard, browsing for what little understory plants or acorns they could find. Two ended up bedding down in the yard for most of the day, enjoying the sun and its welcome warmth plus the peace and quiet that comes from having no dogs bopping around to trouble their calm.

Deer napping in the sun in my backyard

Deer napping in the sun in my backyard

 

 

 

 

Same deer cleaning its feet

Same deer cleaning its feet

If you get to any swampy areas, you can see the skunk cabbages starting to appear out of the snow and ice. The skunk cabbage is one on many thermogenic plants that has the ability to raise their own temperatures above that of the air that surrounds them. Thus, this is one of the first plants to bloom in the spring, starting as early as February and continuing until May. Because the flower grows so quickly, enough warmth is generated to heat the soil around it and cause snow to melt as the soil is warmed.

So it is out with the old, in with the new, and the new should be much better and more fun than old man winter…shouldn’t it?

 

Pamm Cooper                              All photos copyright 2015 by Pamm Cooper     Use by permission only

Tracks in the snow are signs that somebody has been out and about. Cold and snow tends to keep us humans inside warm homes, but animals stay active in search of food and mates, especially as their circadian rhythms turn to spring thoughts. After a fresh snow is the ideal time to go out looking for prints.

Animals walking leave their foot prints, often identifiable by their shape, and walking or running pattern. Larger birds coming in for a landing will leave wing prints in powdery snow. Turkey wing prints are especially beautiful. Tunnels can sometimes be noticed when they are freshly made or more often, noticed as the snow cover melts. Tunnel trails are tale tell signs the area is home to voles and mice.

A blanket of snow can be deceiving, bringing us to the thought most animal is sleep.  A walk around the Storrs campus this week found a few tracks below proving animals are active.

Deer have a distinctive cloven hoof. They place the majority of their weight on the front portion of the hooves, leaving a deeper imprint towards the front.

Deer Track, UConn 2-4-2014, C.Quish photo

Deer Track, UConn 2-4-2014, C.Quish photo

Deer Tracks leading to tree branch, UConn, 2-4-14, CQuish

Deer Tracks leading to tree branch, UConn, 2-4-2014 C.Quish photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I watched this squirrel bound through the snow, leading up and off the ground with his front paws. He landed with the front first, then with his back feet almost touching the front, his back arched and legs springing him forward once again. This action left the prints below.

 

Squirrel tracks, UConn 2-4-2014, C.Quish photo

Squirrel landing tracks, UConn 2-4-2014, C.Quish photo

Squirrel track leading to tree, UConn 2-4-14,CQuish

Squirrel track leading to tree, UConn 2-4-14,CQuish

Mr Squirrel UConn 2-4-14 Pamm Cooper

Mr Squirrel UConn 2-4-14 Pamm Cooper photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spotted a serpentine trail winding its way over a large, open lawn area. It originated from a stone wall that ran parallel with the sidewalk. Upon closer inspection, I found it to be raised up snow from a tunnel below the snow. There were a couple of open holes where it appears the small rodent popped up from the tunnel for a look around. A vole or mouse probably made the trailing tunnel.

 

Vole tunnel in the snow, 2-4-2014, UConn, Pamm Cooper photo

Vole tunnel in the snow, 2-4-2014, UConn, Pamm Cooper photo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Carol Quish

 

Bare spring stick just pushing out buds. Photo Carol Quish

Bare spring stick just pushing out buds. Photo Carol Quish

During the winter, my hydrangea looks dead. It has lost all of its leaves, as it should, but I am now left with a bunch of bare sticks. Normally when you see this, the urge is to cut them back to the ground. DON’T prune them now. Those dead looking sticks contain the buds for next year’s flowers. If you prune now, you will be cutting off all of the flower buds. Sometimes the deer will come along and eat the tips, producing the same effect as if you pruned them. Other years with very cold sustained winter temperatures below zero, the flower buds will be killed by being frozen. Big leaf hydrangea’s, Hydrangea macrophylla, is only borderline hardy in zone 6. During warmer winters big leaf Hydrangea fare much better. They also will not lose their flower buds closer to the shore and ocean areas as the climates are more moderated by the ocean temperatures which are warmer than the air.

So to recap:

Do not prune big leaf hydrangea in fall, winter or spring. Only prune after flowering as flower buds are produced in late summer and carried on the sticks until the following summer bloom time.

Deer may eat the flower buds held at the tips. Use spray deer repellents monthly or cover with burlap. Protect from snow buildup that could break the branches.

Site Hydrangea in a south-facing or protected area of the yard to reduce colder temperature exposure.

Hopefully, next summer your hydrangea plant will bloom beautifully.

Bigleaf Hydrangea

-Carol Quish

For the past month or so I have just been visited by a myriad of bird species along with at least 3 gray squirrels that have feasted on seed and suet provisions from several feeders throughout the yard. It is really enjoyable to provide food for wild birds as they benefit from the supplemental food sources and are really a joy to behold. A window feeder in the kitchen gives me ample opportunity to look up in the Audubon field guide exactly who is coming for breakfast (or lunch or dinner!). I was really excited to see a red-bellied woodpecker working on the bacon fat last week and reports are that since some tree seed sources are scarcer in Canada this winter, we might find some more northern species at our New England feeders this year. Native plants in the yard and surrounding woods provide food as well.

Mr. or Ms. Rabbit has also been exploring and probably sampling the various forms of vegetation in the yard most likely holed up in a large azalea planting. Except for munching on my last bush green bean planting, I was able to ignore the small amount of rabbit damage done to the vegetable garden this past year. Probably it helps that the lawn has lots of clover growing in it. Now he is likely nibbling on bark, buds and seeds and grass in the shoveled path to the compost pile.

Because of the open winter last year, no deer damage was done to any of my plantings. I see this year, that will not be the case as on New Year’s Day, feeding is already evident on the yew hedge. We received about a foot of snow a few days before so the open areas the deer were feeding in are covered in white. Also some of the buds are missing on my deciduous azaleas – the ones with the most amazing spicy floral scent, of course!

Foraging For Food

Foraging For Food

                                       

Deer feeding signs on yew hedge

Deer feeding signs on yew hedge

                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Because there is not a lot of deer damage in my gardens during the growing season, I probably am a bit more tolerant of their nibblings than gardeners who are constantly at war with them. I draw the line at this one arborvitae, however, that is recovering nicely from being on the deer menu a couple of winters back when the snow cover was heavy and persistent. Hopefully the trellising and soccer net will keep them away! Chicken wire works well too but it is best wrapped around the shrubs before they are covered with snow.

Deer Damaged Arborvitae with protection

Deer Damaged Arborvitae with protection

Except for physical barriers, reviews of deer repellents are mixed. The thinking goes that if the deer are hungry enough, they will eat just about anything. Probably this is true of most animals. A number of commercial products as well as homemade remedies can be found that may deter some deer from feeding. http://www.ladybug.uconn.edu/factsheets/tp_05_deercontrol.html Switching products and reapplications may be the best method of limiting feeding.

Humans crave vegetation too and the cold winter months are perfect for homemade soups and stews filled with winter vegetables and dried herbs from the garden. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to make vegetables a much larger part of our daily meals. Using fresh vegetables does often require a bit more prep time when making dinner but the final result is worth it both in taste and nutrition. A dish that recently went over well with guests was a lentil stew filled with onions, garlic, winter squash, carrots, beets, turnips, kale and parsley. As you peruse the new seed catalogs and think about what to plant in your garden this year, try a few winter storage vegetables. Here’s hoping the New Year will provide us all with bountiful gardens and good memories.