One of the joys of the return to warm weather is seeing the plethora of flowering plants that suddenly spring up. From early flowering shrubs such as forsythia and azalea to the daffodils, tulips, hyacinth, and crocus it seems that we are suddenly inundated with color. I love to fill my window boxes and planters with the happy pansies and petunias that are able to withstand some of the cool temperatures that we can expect at this time of year.

 

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Pansies

 

These first selections of annuals are just the beginning of the possibilities that lay before us when it comes to choosing varieties for window boxes, planters and hanging baskets. Container plantings allow us select plants that may not be native to our location due to the severity of our winters, to try out new varieties and combinations, and to easily relocate colorful blooms from one spot to another in our yard.

It is not unusual for the window box planting to be delayed as we are compelled to allow nature to take its course. Female doves often set up their nests in our window boxes or empty hanging planters and what can you do other than wait it out?

 

Mourning dove

If you have containers that are family-free you can certainly get them ready for the season. Any planters that did not over-winter well, such as cracked or split pots, should be disposed of and replaced. Empty out any plant debris or soil that is left from last year and sanitize the containers with a 10% bleach solution. Rinse them thoroughly and allow to dry in the sun. I find that coco fiber coir liners do not last more than a season or two so this is a good time to assess and replace those also. Although this spring I have spotted sparrows and mourning doves pulling out the fibers for use in their nests so I may leave one or two liners where they can get to them.

 

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Vinca, evolvulus, lobularia

When selecting new containers keep their location in mind. Larger containers that contain a fig tree, a wisteria and a bi-color buddleia are placed on our ground level patio where it is easier to bring them into the garage for the winter. These plants don’t require much attention through the winter although I will water them every few weeks. Ok, I say that I water them but what I mean is I will dump the ice cubes from a depleted iced coffee into them as I walk by! They have started to show emerging greenery so I have pulled them into a shady area outside and will slowly bring them back into the full sun where they will spend the rest of the season.

 

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Bee visiting a bicolor buddleia

 

Hanging planters and railing planters can bring color and interest while not taking up valuable floor space on decks. Dining outside in the early evening is great when the hummingbirds and pollinators are so close by that we hold our breath lest we disturb them as they visit the flowers!

 

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Hummingbird moth on a petunia

Selecting the plants that will go into your containers is limited only by your personal preferences and by the sun requirements for the given plant. Containers give us an opportunity to bring some non-native plants into our yard, especially those that are not suited to our winters. I find mandevilla to be a lovely container plant. As a tropical species it loves the full sun location of our front porch, produces striking blossoms all summer long, and will overwinter in the house.

 

These plants are about as large as I will choose but there are so many options for really large planters. I love seeing what the landscapers on the UConn campus come up with each season. Coleus, Vinca, sweet potato vine, geranium and petunias will profusely fill out many containers.

Of course, most of us don’t have a team of landscapers at our beck and call so once you have made your container and plant selections the next step is maintenance. The sun and wind will dry out most container plantings more quickly than if the same plants were in the ground, especially when in porous containers such as clay pots. Plastic vessels will retain water a bit better but its best to check all pots on a daily basis.

It’s no longer recommended that rocks or stones be placed in the bottom of containers for drainage. This procedure actually prevents excess water from draining from the soil layer and may keep the roots too wet. A piece of screen or a coffee filter placed in the bottom of the planter is sufficient to prevent soil from washing out.

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Removing spent blooms and pinching back leggy plants will encourage plants to produce more flowers. Also, their fertilizer needs are different from the same plant in the landscape. Using a teaspoon of fertilizer to a gallon of water will help prevent the buildup of excess salt that can afflict container plantings (you know when you see that white crust forming on the surface of the soil or on the rims of clay pots). If it does appear just flush water through the soil until it drains out the bottom.

Container grown plants don’t have to be limited to flowering annuals. Using them for vegetables and herbs is a great option. A planter of herbs near the kitchen door provides really fresh additions to our meals and beverages in the form of rosemary, thyme and mint. It’s also a great way to contain mint which can easily take over a garden bed.

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Another edible planting from last year included mint in a container which had eggplant and the non-edible tourenia. The purple flowers and the deep aubergine of the mature eggplant complimented the stems and leaves of the mint and the purple of the tourenia.

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I have also grown the typical patio tomato plants and the not-so-typical potato plants in containers. It’s a great way to easily harvest the potatoes as you just dump the whole container out onto a tarp and ‘pick’ the potatoes. Controlling the insects and diseases that plague these plants is aided by the fact that you start out with a sanitized container and fresh soil each year. So, as you can see, there is no reason to contain yourself when it comes to container gardening.

Susan Pelton

“Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.”

– Benoit Mandelbrot, introduction to The Fractal Geometry of Nature

At this time of year many of the trees and shrubs in our landscapes are mere skeletons of their summer glory. Their beautiful canopies of leaves have been shed and they provide little visual interest. Unless you look a bit closer…

maple-tree

This is actually a great time to observe the branching patterns of deciduous trees. A closer look reveals that they are eerily similar to our own vascular and respiratory systems. As each system goes from the main trunk to the larger limbs to the smaller branches and then the twigs we see the same fractal branching that occurs in the network of blood vessels in our lungs. How incredible that such like systems are actually performing a reverse process. Trees are taking in our exhaled carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen (O2) into the atmosphere.  In turn, we inhale that O2 rich air into our lungs where it travels through the increasingly smaller vessels until it reaches the capillaries where it passes through into our bloodstream. As the oxygen-rich blood travels through our body our cells use the oxygen and release CO2 back into the bloodstream where it travels back to our lungs before releasing CO2 as we exhale.

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The important thing to remember is that for both of these systems to work well they need to cover a large surface area and fractal branching is the most efficient way for that happen. Fractal branching is a pattern that repeats itself in either larger or smaller scales, each step looking like a copy of the same overall shape. These patterns are called self-similar and are found in many areas in nature from trees to rivers and many more. Ferns are a great example of a self-similar fractal as each pinnate leaf is a miniature version of the larger frond that it branches off from although natural branching fractals do not go on infinitely as mathematical fractals can. Remember the Fibonacci Sequence from your high school math class?

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Most of the fractals that we are familiar with and see on a regular basis fall into the category known as spiral fractals. Spiral fractals are responsible for some of the most beautiful forms that can be found in nature. Many galaxies are spiral fractals. The marine animal known as the Nautilus is perhaps one of the most well-known examples of the spiral fractal. But there are also so many spiral fractals that we encounter in the plant kingdom on a daily basis.

Ferns exhibit fractal properties in two ways. The uncurling of a new fiddlehead in the spring is a lovely example of a spiral fractal while a mature Japanese Painted fern (Athyrium niponicumn) pictured above shows the self-similar pattern of a branching fractal.

The Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana)  has a most interesting growth pattern with each branch a continuing spiral of tough, scale-like leaves. Although native to Chile and Argentina, these images are of a specimen that is located on the Long Island campus of Hofstra University.

Closer to home are some plants that are in many of our gardens during the summer season. The compact spirals of Stonecrop, also known as Sedum, help to form the tight clusters of thick leaves that give it its distinguishing look. I always love the way that dew or rain collect in the in little cups that are formed.

Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), Gerbera (Gerbera) daisies, and Coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) show their spirals on a grand scale.

Decorative cabbage and kale (Brassica oleracea) are seasonal plants that bring their cold-resistant beauty to our fall landscaping and thus complete a full year of natural fractals that can be found all around us .

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Susan Pelton

 

 

Hibiscus in bloom

Hibiscus ‘Luna Pink Swirl’

Many of the perennials in our flower beds provide us beautiful groupings of color and beauty; from the sunny tulips in the early spring to the irises that maintain their showy blooms for weeks in June to the phlox and hydrangea with their masses of blooms. But there are few that can compare with the oversized outrageousness of the blooms of the Hibiscus laevis, also known as the halberd-leaf rosemallow.

Hibiscus Disco Belle

Hibiscus ‘Disco Belle’

Hibiscus are the genus of plants in the mallow family, Malvaceae. Other plants that are in this grouping may be familiar to you as ornamental species such as the China Rose (Hibiscus rose-sinensis), a tropical plant that is generally grown in containers in this zone, Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), a plant that is grown as a large shrub or small tree, depending on the manner in which it is pruned, or Sterculia foetida, also known as the wild almond tree, whose name is derived from Sterculius, the Roman god of manure. The petioles of this plant exude a foul smell although the roasted seeds are edible. Makes you wonder who the first person was that thought “Yes, it stinks, but I’ll bet the seeds are yummy”.

Other more well-known edible members of the mallow family include okra (notice the similarity to the hibiscus flower buds), kola nut, and cacao. The baobabs have both fruit and leaves that are edible. A deep crimson herbal tea can be made from the sepals of the Hibiscus sabdariffa which contains vitamin c and minerals.

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Okra

Also in this family but in the genus Malva is the Common Mallow, Malva neglecta, whose edible seeds are high in protein and fat. It is sometimes considered an invasive weed although it does not appear on the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group (CIPWG) current listing. I like it for its translucent delicate light pink to almost white flowers and for its foliage which has a crinkly edge.

Common mallow

Common Mallow

Great golden digger wasp on mallow

Great Golden Digger Wasp on mallow

But back to the hibiscus that grow along a sunny fence in our yard. 20 years ago I had 4 different varieties that each produced a different color flower/throat combination in shades from white to deep red. Unfortunately only two of those original plants remain to produce the 7-8” blooms that are so stunning. To say that they are the size of a dinner plate is barely an exaggeration.

Hibiscus Disco Belle

Each apical bloom unfurls its showy magnificence from a very interesting-looking bud (it almost looks like it has a decorative cage around it) for only a day and then they collapse. There are many buds in each grouping though so the flowers appear to be non-stop. I do my best to remove the spent blooms so that the plant will keep producing until September. If you don’t do this then it will put its energy into the development of large seed pods.

Buds close up

Bud close-up

I found a Grape colaspis, Colaspis brunnea, feeding on the foliage. Hibiscus is not listed as a usual host plant for this fellow but okra (which we learned is in the Mallow family) is an alternate host. I felt that it had done enough damage so I am sorry to say that it wasn’t around for very long after this video was shot.

 

Feeding damage

The larvae of the hibiscus sawfly (Atomacera decepta) are a bigger pest as they will generally be present in larger numbers and can defoliate an entire plant. Control methods should be limited to non-systemics and only applied when the flowers are not in bloom. Shown below are a fruit fly and a tumbling flower beetle that were also spotted on the hibiscus.

The foliage and some of the more tender stalks of the hibiscus will die back with a heavy frost. I usually prune back any of the older, woody stems in the early spring before any new growth appears. You may think that the plant did not survive the winter as it is sometimes late May before you will begin to see the new growth but it will quickly make up for lost time and will soon provide you with an abundance of beautiful ephemeral blooms!

Susan Pelton

 

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Monarch butterfly on Heliotrope

With a noticeable decline in imported honey bee and native pollinator populations, there is an interest in gardening to support these insects. While native plants are a better choice for native pollinators, any good source of nectar and pollen will help attract pollinators. The benefit of using native plants is their durability in the New England landscape.

When choosing plants for pollinators, consider the species that are visiting your property already and choose plants for their seasonal or year- long activities. Observe those pollinators that are in your area but maybe not visiting your property, and then choose plants that may attract them during their foraging seasons.

One of our early native pollinators is the Colletes inaequalis, also called the polyester bee. These handsome, small, ground- nesting bees can be active as early as March and prefer large sunny areas that have sandy soils. They are important pollinators of early blooming native plants. Females forage for both pollen and nectar which they put in a neat little “plastic” bag deep in a tunnel that they make in spring.  The egg is laid in the bag aid above the semi-liquid mix, and the larva will feed on that until pupating. Next spring the new adults will emerge

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Native Colletes inaequalis ground-nesting bee, an early spring pollinator

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There are many species of bumblebees here in Connecticut. Native bumblebees hibernate every year only as queens and every year they must establish a new colony, which will work to support the new queens born that year. Because of the long foraging period of bumblebees- early spring through early fall- provide season –long nectar and pollen sources in the garden or landscape. In the wild, bumblebees visit early blooming maples, dandelions and blueberry. Later on they visit Joe-pye weed, goldenrods, boneset, asters and other late-season native bloomers. They are of a more hardy lot that many other bees, so they are found out and about on chilly, windy days, even during periods of rain. Bumblebees “cheat” when obtaining nectar from some flowers, such as salvia. Short-tongued bees will cut a hole at the base of the flower to obtain nectar on long tubular flowers.

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Bumblebee Bombus ssp. on Caryopteris, or bluebeard

Sphinx moths are also native pollinators and are considered the most efficient of moth pollinators. While some fly during the day, many fly at dusk and during the night. These hawkmoths pollinate many plants with their exceptionally long proboscis including catalpa and horse chestnut. If you know these pollinators are in your area, plant corresponding larval host plants for the caterpillars. Honeysuckles (Lonicera) are both a good nectar source for the moth and a host plant for two clearwing moth caterpillars.

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Catalpa flower nectar guides turn from yellow to orange to signify when nectar is the best and steer pollinators to other unpollinated flowers that offer better nectar. Sphinx moths are pollinators of catalpa.  

There are many beetles as well as flies that pollinate flowers. While beetles may chew on flower parts as well as pollen, they still pollinate many flowers, especially goldenrods, pawpaw and daisies. Flies are attracted to flowers that smell like carrion- pawpaw, skunk cabbage and trillium among others. Little flower flies- syrphids- visit many native wildflowers. They are often confused with wasps because of their body shape and coloring.

long horned flower beetle on steeplebush flower July 19, 2009

Long-horned flower beetle on steeplebush

skunk cabbage flower and bee late April 2013

Normally pollinated by flies, this skunk cabbage flower is visited by a honey bee

Crabapples are a good source on both nectar and pollen for many pollinators, including beetles, flies and butterflies. Migrating spring butterflies can be found nectaring on crabapple blossoms, and ruby-throated hummingbirds usually arrive in time to nectar on the blossoms. Willows are early spring bloomers that attract a variety of pollinators- flies, beetles, bees and others and are host plants for several butterflies including the Mourning cloak and Viceroy.

An excellent draw for pollinators are native cherries- black, pin and choke species. Not only bees are found on the flowers. Butterflies are strongly attracted to native cherry blossoms, and several, such as the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail will Lay eggs on the leaves of smaller cherry trees.

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Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly on spotted Joe-pye weed

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Eastern tiger swallowtail caterpillar on black cherry, a plant that also serves as a nectar source for the butterfly in the spring. 

 

One of the best plants to attract bees is the Giant Blue Hyssop Agastache foeniculum. This long- season bloomer attracts native and non- native bees and has an attractive aroma as a bonus. Include long-season bloomers like alyssum, coneflowers (Echinacea), Lantana, Cosmos, Heliotrope, Buddleia and clovers. Late summer flowers such as goldenrods, Joe-pye, boneset, Stonecrop sedum, Queen Anne’s lace, Caryopteris, Salvia , and petunias will provide food for migrating butterflies bumblebee queens, and many other insects. Allium flowers are a wonderful attractant for all types of pollinators. And don’t forget milkweeds. Whether native or non-native, a good nectar source will not go unnoticed. Double-flowered varieties are usually bred for the flower at the expense of pollen and nectar, so avoid these plants in a pollinator garden.

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Stonecrop ” Autumn Joy” sedums are excellent for attracting pollinators of all kinds

The following link is an excellent source of plants suitable for Connecticut’s native pollinator.

http://www.ct.gov/caes/lib/caes/documents/publications/fact_sheets/entomology/planting_flowers_for_bees_in_connecticut.pdf

Happy gardening! And may pollinators increase in both their populations and their good works in the wild and in the residential landscape.

Pamm Cooper                                            All photos copyright 2015 Pamm Cooper

 

Late March and early April in Connecticut are the time of year that we gardeners dream about through the long, cold winter. The temperatures are on the rise, the days have lengthened, the soil is workable, and even if we do receive a snowfall it generally doesn’t last for long. The Lenten Rose (Hellebore) has bloomed and the crocus, grape hyacinth, daffodils are in their glory, soon to make way for the tulips which will follow. Yellow daffodils paired with the deep purple-blue of the grape hyacinth is one of my favorite combinations.

The pussy willows have come out and the forsythia is in bloom which means that it is the anecdotal time to put down the crabgrass preventer. The pre-emergent herbicide needs to be applied and watered in before the crabgrass seeds that were dropped last year germinate. Please visit our page on Crabgrass Control for more information on this yearly bane of homeowners.

Pussy Willow

For me this time of year is about planning this year’s vegetable garden and starting the growing season. It starts with plotting out the area that we have allotted for our vegetable garden (its 15’ x 25’) which includes four raised beds that are 3’ x 5’ each. There are many ways to do a garden plan. The simplest way, and the way that I started some years ago, is to put pencil to paper and sketch out a rough drawing.

The next step up is to use graph paper to plot out the actual footage available. This is the manner that I have progressed to over the years. With pencil, ink, and colored pencils I draw the placement of this year’s plantings. I refer to prior year’s plans so that I can rotate varieties among the beds as much as possible although I don’t have a very large space. There are several established perennial plantings, such as asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb, and chives that do not get rotated.

Chives

These crops are placed around the perimeters of the garden, mostly to the east and south, where they will not block the sun from other plantings. The asparagus spears are just starting to emerge, the chives are growing, and the rhubarb was a perfect size to divide and replant.

A recent post on our UConn Home & Garden Education Center  Facebook page shared a link to many vegetable garden planners that can be found on-line ranging from the very simple to those that allow you to enter your actual plot size, vegetable varieties and succession plantings. There is even an app!

So, plan in place, it’s time to start planting. There are so many crops that enjoy a cool weather start such as peas, spinach, kale, arugula, radishes, beets, bok choy, and carrots. I have been working with my daughter Hannah on some plans for garden beds that her early education class will be working on this spring. In doing research on some classroom-appropriate experiments I came across one that compares the growth rate of seeds germinated (prior to planting) vs. un-germinated (direct sown). I usually soak beet seeds before they are planted but this year I germinated all of the varieties that are planted in the early spring, laying the seeds out on a damp paper towel and covering them with another damp towel.

Pre-germination

Just a side note, did you know that each beet ‘seed’ is actually a hard shell that encloses 3 seeds? As they sprout you can not only see three distinct seedlings (the row on the left in the image below) but the colors reflect the variety of beet also, whether red or yellow.

2 Days Later

Within days most of the seeds were well-sprouted and I planted them in the garden in their selected spots. It will be interesting to see if this gives them a head-start and if Hannah’s class gets similar results. They will also be running an experiment that starts seeds in solutions of differing pH levels from base to acidic to see what seeds prefer. If you would like to know the pH level of your garden soil and what your crops require then a soil sample to the UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory.

One thing to keep in mind when planting is done as a classroom activity is the length of the available growing season. There is little point in planting vegetables that will need care and be ready to harvest during the summer months when school is not in session. Our choices therefore were cool-weather plants that would be ready to harvest before school dismisses for the summer. Among these are snow peas that will mature in 60 days, Indian Summer spinach (35 days), Little Finger carrots (65 days), lettuce, arugula and spinach (35-40 days), Early Wonder beets (60 days) and Cherry Belle radishes that will be ready to harvest in just 22 days.

Just think about it. In a little more than a month we can be enjoying a freshly picked, tasty salad that is the harbinger of more good things to come!

Susan Pelton

All images by Susan Pelton

 

Many years ago I received a flat of Iris rhizomes from a friend when she was dividing clumps that had outgrown the area in which they were planted. I planted them in the flower border that runs across the back of our yard. For many years they have bloomed, each year putting on a larger show. The past two or three years I have thought that it may be time to divide and replant them. Unfortunately that thought happens when the iris is in full bloom. When the appropriate time comes to divide and replant I have usually moved on to the many chores of summer not the least of which are the high demands of the vegetable garden. But not this year. Iris can be divided any time from late July through September so I ask: is September too late to keep a resolution? I don’t think so. This year I divide (and conquer) the iris.

A crowded planting

There are more than 200 species of iris but the most common in our area are the bearded and Siberian iris. Iris are easy to grow hardy perennials but if they become crowded then they are more disease and insect-prone and flower production is reduced.

I already know that the flower bed in our yard is a good spot for the iris as it is receives full sun and is well-drained. Selecting new areas to put the divided rhizomes into is not a problem. It is always best to have the new site ready to go so that the rhizomes aren’t drying out in the sun while a new plot is dug. The new hole should be about 5” deep with a small mound in the middle of the hole (you will see why in a bit).

The new hole, 5

The new hole, 5″ deep with a center mound

Also, have ready a few marked trays or buckets to put the rhizomes into if you would like to keep track of the different varieties/colors. I have plenty of pictures of the Iris in bloom so that I have a good idea of where the colors currently are in the bed even though all that I can see right now are the leaves.

Tools for the job

Tools for the job

So, what are tools needed for this job? A spade or a digging fork, a pair of shears, a sharp knife, and a bucket of 1:10 bleach/water solution. The first step in the actual dividing process is to cut the leaves back to a third of their height using a pair of garden shears, trimming them into a fan shape. Be sure to dip the shears into the bleach solution often to avoid spreading diseases.  

Cutting the leaves

Cutting the leaves

1/3 of the original height

1/3 of the original height

Next, lift out the entire clump that is going to be divided by getting underneath it with the spade or digging fork. You may need to work around it in a few areas to get under it.

Removing the clump

Removing the clump

Place the entire clump on the ground and take a look at it to decide where it should be divided. It is easy to see which rhizomes have new growth  and which are no longer supporting  any foliage. Using the sharp knife cut away each section of rhizome that will be replanted, dipping the knife into the bleach solution often to disinfect it. Each new rhizome section should have plenty of roots and a fan of leaves.

Cutting the new rhizome

Cutting the new rhizome

At this time it is important to check for iris borers and  the bacterial soft rot that often accompanies them. Each rhizome should feel firm when pressure is applied. If the rhizome gives way easily then that is a sign that there may be a borer. The adult iris borer is a brown and grey moth. It lays its eggs on the iris leaves and plant debris at the base of the iris in the fall where they will overwinter and hatch into tiny caterpillars in April and May. The new caterpillars will crawl up the foliage, chew pinprick sized holes and begin to tunnel their way back down toward the rhizome. Signs of their feeding are streaks that appear tan or water-soaked. By mid-summer the borers can be up to 2” in length and have reached the rhizome. Their feeding allows the entry of the bacterial soft rot that turns the rhizome into a smelly, mushy, mess. Late summer will see the borers moving into the soil to pupate, emerging as adult moths in the early fall. There are some varieties of the Siberian iris that are more tolerant to a borer attack.  

Possible borer activity

Possible borer activity

Scouting and sanitation practices can be the most useful controls.  Look for the tell-tale signs of chewing damage and water-soaked streaks in the spring when it is easy to crush the insect while it is still in the leaf or remove the leaf entirely. If the plant has above ground symptoms in July then dig up and examine the rhizome for signs of borer activity, discarding any that are infested. In the fall remove all plant debris where the eggs might overwinter. If you have an infestation that you feel is severe enough to warrant an insecticide then acephate (highly toxic to bees when freshly sprayed and as a residue) and spinosad (non-toxic to bees when it is dry) are generally recommended. Here is a link to the Virginia Cooperative Extension fact sheet which also includes some images: Iris Borer

And now back to the rhizomes. It’s time to place them into the prepared holes, putting one rhizome section on top of the mound in each hole. Spread the roots out and down and fill the hole with soil. Be sure that you don’t bury the rhizome; it should still be visible from the surface.

Iris rhizome in its new hole

Iris rhizome in its new hole

The fans of leaves are usually planted so that they all face in the same direction. Water each plant thoroughly and in years such as this one, more than once. Newly transplanted iris may need a winter cover of straw to keep the newly planted rhizome from coming out of its new location due to  the thawing/freezing cycles that can happen. Just be sure to remove the straw in the spring. These new plants may not bloom much the first year but after that they should be back to their normal, showy selves.

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Susan Pelton

Comfrey flower, photo by C. Quish

Comfrey flower, photo by C. Quish

Not all pretty flowering plants in small, four-inch pots siting on the nursery bench are as innocent as they appear. Beware the sneaky aggressor! About five years ago the delicate and rare clear blue color of the comfrey blossom, shyly wooed me into taking it home. What could one more plant hurt in the side garden abutting the wild side of the neighbor’s yard hurt? Well, it hurt plenty. I have been cursing the day I planted it.

Comfrey gone wild. photo by C.Quish

Comfrey gone wild. photo by C.Quish

Comfrey spreads incredibly fast. It is a hardy perennial with a deep and extensive root system. And its seed drop and are spread to create new plants elsewhere. The neighbor loves it and encourages its spread which doesn’t help my eradication efforts on my side of the property line. I suppose it makes a better fence than wood and nails, and he enjoys the view.  The bees enjoy the flowers, too. Dozens of honey bees can be found busily entering flower after flower, not caring how close I get to almost petting them.

Bee feasting inside comfrey flower. photo, C.Quish

Bee feasting inside comfrey flower. photo, C.Quish

Comfrey is botanically known as Symphytum sp. and is a member of the borage family. The Latin name means ‘grow together’.  It was first brought to America with the English as a healing herb. I contains a high level of the chemical allantoin which aids in cell formation, healing. It also is reported to contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids, known to cause liver damage when taken internally in large amounts. The leaves can be crushed or bruised to be placed on external skin areas to heal wounds and broken bones. I only use the plant as an ornamental and to spread into the neighbors neglected ‘wild’ area.

Comfrey has a tap-root, growing about 18 inches deep in the soil. It does a great job of breaking up compacted ground, accessing the minerals and nutrients out of reach of shallower plant roots. For this reason, comfrey leaves are a great addition to the compost pile, as those deep-seated nutrients of the ground are now taken up by the roots to be stored in the comfrey leaves. Once the microbes in the compost pile break down the comfrey leaves into its basic chemical elements, the nutrients are released into the compost and made available for use by other plants. Just don’t put any of those spreading roots into the compost pile. Keep any seeds out of the compost also.

So heed those enticing words on the plant labels when the just mention the words, ‘fast grower’ or ‘spreading’. Sometimes they really mean it!

-Carol Quish