Stewartia blossom

Life get really busy sometimes and gardens get neglected. This has happened in my yard this year, but my garden has not neglected me. I was able to take a breath, and a walk, and found the garden has gifted me beauty and kindness in its offering of June blooms even without my close attention to the plants. Rain has fallen, sun has shined, and weeds have not overtaken very much. Perennials have produced and some annuals have reseeded defying this lax gardener.

I took first notice of the Japanese Stewartia, (Stewartia pseudocamellia) tree in the front yard as it began to flower. As the common name implies, Stewartia is native to Japan. It is a smaller tree with white, camellia-like blossoms along the branches. The each flower only last a couple of days, but more buds will open over a few weeks’ time extending the display. This is the most flowers I have had yet on this ten-year-old tree.

Gloriosa Daisy (Rudbeckia Hirta) is listed as a short-lived perennial and a reseeding annual. I can’t tell which is true as I have them pop up in various places as well as in the original spot. These originally migrated by seed from the neighbor across the street that had them growing in the cracks of her walkway. She said if they were that determined to grow there, she would let them. The birds love the seeds in the fall and obviously ‘deposited’ some in my yard. I love the random color patterns on the various different plants. They make good cut flowers for grand-kids to create arrangements and their sturdy stems even survive the ride home to bring a bouquet to their mom.

Around the back the Rose Campion (Lychnis Coronaria), was a mass of magenta flowers and grey, fuzzy leaves outgrowing its intended spot while keeping the weeds at bay. Thank you, Rose Campion for working so hard when I didn’t. This plant is another short-lived perennial or biennial that sets copious amounts of seed creating new plants which are easily moved to more desirable locations. They look great planted in mass drifts. I cut them back after the flowers fade, leaving a few to make seed for scattering in barren spots. I have been known to toss these seeds out the car window in areas that could use a little love and color.

The bumblebees were loving the pale pink flowers of the None So Pretty also called Catchfly, (Silene armeria). None So Pretty is a reliable reseeding annual in my yard. The seed hitched a ride in a plant gifted from a garden mentor over twenty years ago. She told me “Once you have it, you always will” while speaking of the dainty plant. Sure enough the next year her seeds grew from the soil included with the hosta she shared with me the year before. This is a testament to the large amount and viability of the seed production of this Catchfly. It is called Catchfly due to the sticky sap produced on the underside of each flower thought to catch flies, although I have never seen any insects stuck to it.

The pale-yellow hollyhock by the back door always makes me smile. It is in the driest spot in my yard with the worst soil yet it still grows tall and loaded with blossoms. It survives and shines calling me back to the garden and welcoming me into the morning light. History recalls hollyhocks as the perennial used to plant around the outhouse since it grew tall and wide. Visitors did not have to request the location of the ‘facilities’, just look for the hollyhocks.

Coral bells are an extremely reliable and long-live perennial that needs very little care. Its round-lobed leaves create a mounding base, excluding weeds and competition for nutrients and water. Long flower stems rise up from the base holding the tiny bell-shaped flowers. Humming birds and bees of all kinds feast on the nectar contained. they have a very long bloom time of a month or more, only needing to prune out a few stems which fall over.

Last year I planted four Borage, (Borago officinalis) plants in the vegetable garden to attract pollinators as I had read borage was good for them. Boy were they right! The bees and other pollinators flock to the blue, dangling flowers. It also reseeded this year without any assistance from me. I have not watered, nor weeded and the bed is full of borage plants, calling far and wide for insects and humans to take a look at its beauty. The flowers are edible and can be used in salads or as a garnish.

I find it comforting to know a time away from the garden did not end in disaster or mass amounts of work. My garden survived without me, and welcomed me back in its best way possible.

See you in the garden,

Carol

Shasta Daisy with green basal leaf growth and spent stem and flower heads.

The month of December can be dark and cold with its reduced light levels and drab, muted colors. Counteract the dreary outlook by getting outside on sunnier days to take stock of the many things still happening out there in the land beyond your backdoor. Some plants are still slightly active, as are a few hardy insects. Cut back brown parts of perennial plants, leaving any green if they are still showing. In the spring, these plants will have a head start on photosynthesizing.

Yellow globe turnip roots still in the ground.
Thanksgiving harvest of yellow globe turnip

My vegetable garden is hanging on with winter hardy kales, yellow globe turnips, and purple carrots. The root crops will store in the ground until needed. We ate turnips for Thanksgiving, and with a hearty layer of straw to be laid over the carrots for insulation, we will be able to harvest for Christmas dinner.

Purple carrots below soil, green tops above.
Kale is hardy enough to grow throughout the with colder weather.

Garlic shoots are a little taller than I’d like for cloves planted mid-October. This is a good sign the roots are taking hold and developing below ground. A thick layer of leaves will provide protection though the winter and weed control come spring.

Garlic shoots.

The empty vegetable beds were sown with a mixed cover crop to enhance the soil microbial life and retain the valuable topsoil. Come spring, the top-growth will be cut back to kill the plants, leaving it in place to act as a mulch. Vegetable plants will be planted right through it, into the soil.

Outside of the garden a pile of tree branches and damaged shrub trimmings are piled in the nearby woods to provide a good spot for wild animal burrows. We have populations of predators including fox and fisher cats that help to keep the rodent population down.

Brush pile provides a home for predators.

Another home is visible on the ground, showing a small night crawler worm hole and pile of excrement, called castings, left right beside the hole. Night crawlers are solitary worms, living alone in a deep tube-like hole in the soil. The worm comes out at night to find food and to mate, then retreats back down the hole with its bits of leaves and organic matter. The stretching actions and squeezing back into the hole causes the worm to leave its poop behind.

Worm hole with pile of castings(excrement) are signs of active life in the soil.

Warmth and sun even in early December will bring out some late insects. I found this lone earwig crawling on the black driveway. Not sure where he was headed, but he paused long enough for me to take its photo.

Earwig on a sunny day in December.

We have had quite a few reports and inquiries about tiny congregating insects outside in mass numbers. The insects are commonly called springtails. They too, are doing some sunbathing, soaking up the warmth, especially after a cold rain. Springtails are in the primitive order of Collembola, naturally living in the soil or high moisture, organically rich areas such as the forest floor or compost piles. They are important decomposers, breaking down organic matter. No need to worry if you find them, just observe in awe of a healthy ecosystem at work.

Globous springtail, photo from NC State University.

This fall was a good year for fungus to send up some funky fruiting structures. Puffballs showed up in an area of our yard where some trees were removed a few years ago. Fungus underground is actively feeding the decomposing roots. When the fungus is ready to reproduce, it sends up a mushroom or structure containing it spores. When ripe, these puffballs will shoot the spores up and out in the winds to hopefully drift to new fertile ground and spread the fungal colony. Sometimes humans, animals and even hard rain will dislodge the puffball enough to release the spores.

Puffballs with release holes to emit the spores.

Searching for signs of active life can be done in any season whether it be animal, vegetable or fungal. Even in colder weather finding signs and activity can be enjoyable and rejuvenating.

by Carol Quish

 

new year new start

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

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

container-gardening_14_520914843

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

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

garden journal

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

mgs

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

trailhike

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

books

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

-Carol Quish

maple tree color

Fall has settled in finally, bringing its colors and cool weather. Some foliage colors were mediocre this year, always to due to the weather. It stayed hot for a long time and we did not get the cool night temperatures which help to trigger the trees to slow down and get ready for dormancy with the side effect of changing leaf color. Still there were some nice sights around the state. Japanese maple ‘Full Moon’ is a reliably consistent beauty sporting bright red leaves for a week or more before dropping its foliage.

Full moon Japanese Maple

Full Moon Japanese Maple

Evergreen trees also drop foliage, but not all needles at once. The newer green needles will remain on the branches for several years. Eastern white pines will shed their oldest, inner most bundles of needles each year by first turning yellow, then brown and drop. Notice the healthy, younger green needles are retained on the growing ends of the branches.

Fall is time of seed and fruit production in the cycle of life of plants. Crabapples are a great source of food for birds and animals throughout the winter. Some trees have very persistent fruit, hanging on throughout the season, ensuring feathered and fur beings a meal. Viburnum species also are in fruit as are winterberries.

Another interesting tree producing seed pods is the Japanese pagoda tree, Styphnolobium japonicum. It also goes by its other common name Chinese scholar tree due to it commonly being planted around Buddhist temples in Japan. It is native to China and Korea. Panicles of scented white flowers are produced in late summer, turning into strings of pop bead looking yellow seed pods in fall. Pods then turn brown staying on the tree though winter. Japanese pagoda tree makes a great, small specimen tree in yards and larger gardens.

Japanese pagoda tree

Japanese Pagoda Tree

Fall is a good time to gather dried seeds from annuals and perennials you wish to grow again. Many reseeding annuals drop their seed and seem to pop up as weeds. Collect the seed in paper envelopes or containers to grow them where you want them next year. Cleome, Verbena bonariensis, dill and fennel are just a few that consistently popup all over my gardens. The annual yellow and orange gloriosa daisy evens spread to my adjacent neighbors from the birds eating the seed heads I leave up for them. Some hybrid seeds will not come back the same if you save and plant the seed the following year. Every year I plant blue or blue striped forms of morning glory to climb up the gazebo. They set tons of seeds and drop to the ground to sprout and grow the next year. Unfortunately, they come back a deep purple, not the blue. If I don’t rouge out the volunteers from the new blue flowered plants I put in each year, I will have a mixed show of the blue I newly planted and purple that reseeded themselves. I consider the purple weeds, but others might disagree.

Speaking of weeds, I noticed it was a banner year for Pennsylvania smartweed, Persicaria pensylvanica,   formerly called Polygonum pensyvanicum . Smartweed loves it moist and it responded well to all the rain we had this spring and summer, growing like gangbusters and producing a multitude of seed. On the positive side, songbirds love the seed and will be well fed during their time here. Too bad the prolific seed production is going to add to the seed bank in the soil for following years.

lady's thumb weed

Pennsylvania Smartweed

This year of moisture also lead to much fungal production. Tomatoes were more likely to succumb to early blight and Septoria leaf spot due to leaf wetness aiding disease development and spread. Fungicides applied before fungus hits can protect plants. So will proper spacing of plants and pruning branches to increase airflow and dry leaves. High humidity and lots of moisture ensures mildews, too. Lilacs will develop powdery mildew during mid-summer, but still come back strongly the next year. I just chose to not look at them after August.

lilac powdery mildew

Lilac leaves with powdery mildew

Insects are always a part of the garden be it vegetable or perennial. We need the insects for pollination and cycle of all life. The pest ones were not too bad this year as I kept up the removal and scouting for eggs on the squash and squishing caterpillars and worms on the kale, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. Tomato hornworms made a brief appearance, but I caught them in time before much damage was done. Thankfully the cucumber beetles were low in numbers this year and manageable with hand picking them off. I am often fascinated with the beauty and intricacies of insects. I found the delicate dragonfly dead on my breezeway and could not help but marvel at its color and patterns on its body. Dragonflies dart about the yard zigging and zagging at breakneck speed while feeding on the tornado of gnats in the very late afternoon. I call it the dance of the dragonfly and now I see they come dressed in their finery for the occasion.

Dragonfly head

 

The season wasn’t all work, nor should it be. We made time to enjoy the fruits of our labor and spaces we created, and hope did also. With summer and the main growing season are behind us, I hope it left mark on your heart and memories for your mind, until next year when we can all try again, try some new plant and find a new adventure.

-Carol Quish, all photos copyright C. Quish

boat wake trail in ocean

 

lime-bag-homedepot

Bag of Lime

Many Connecticut residents spread limestone on their garden beds and lawn as an annual ritual. Why do we do this? Some do it because their parents did it, or the guy at the garden center told them to and sold them the limestone. How much should be purchased and applied is another mystery to most. The real answers of limestone’s why, how much and when lies in the science of soil.

Soil is made up of sand, silt, and clay. The percentage of each of these three determine the soil’s texture, which will determine how the water will move through it, or hold on to moisture. More clay equals wetter soils; more sand, better drainage. The sand, silt and clay are tiny pieces of rock, broken off of bigger pieces over much time by weathering. The rocks that makes up much of Connecticut has a naturally low pH in the 4.5 to 5.5 range. Other areas of the country and world have different rocks with different pH ranges. Acid rain falling onto the ground lowers pH levels, as does the action of organic matter decomposing which produces organic acids. Even the normal function of respiration by plants mixing oxygen and water together produces carbonic acid in the soil. More acid equals lower pH. No wonder why we need to test, monitor and fight the natural tendency of our soil to stay in a low pH range.

Most plants we want to grow require a pH range of 6 to 7. This means we have to change the pH to grow plants like grass, tomatoes, peppers, squash or garlic by adding limestone which raises the pH level. The only plants consistently happy with our native range are native plants! They have evolved in the local soil. This is why blueberries, oak trees and mountain laurel fill our forests and wild areas. Pines are another tree preferring our lower pH.

Why do the grass and vegetables prefer the 6 to 7 pH range? Because more of the nutrients that these species of plants need are available when the soil pH is in that range. The easiest way to think of pH is it is a measurement of the amount of hydrogen ions in the soil. The more hydrogen ions, the more acidic the soil is. The pH of the soil affects the availability of all plant nutrients. Just as plants have ideal moisture and light requirements, they have a preferred pH range as well.

The pH range numbers 0 to 14. The middle is neutral at 7. Pure water has a pH of 7. 0 is acid or bitter; 14 is alkaline or sweet. Old time farmers used to taste the soil to determine if it was bitter (acid, low) or sweet (high, alkaline). I am glad we have pH meters and laboratory soil testing equipment now!

0_________________________________________7_____________________________________14 Acid (Bitter)                                                                           Neutral                                                                  Alkaline (Sweet)

Soil pH levels also affect other life in the soil such as insects, worms, fungi and bacteria. The soil is alive with more than just plants. It is an entire ecosystem sustaining many life forms all interacting with each other. The pH level is probably the most important place to start when trying to provide the best environment for whatever plants you are growing.

Have your soil tested for pH and nutrient levels at the UConn Soil Nutrient Laboratory www.soiltest.uconn.edu. Have the $12.00 basic test for Home Grounds and Landscapers done. Forms and directions are on the website. We will be offering free pH only tests at the CT Flower Show February 23-26, 2017. A half cup of soil is needed. If you don’t have snow covering your ground now, go gather some soil now and hold it until the show. Once you know the pH of your soil, we can tell you how much limestone to apply in the spring. Fall is the best time to put down lime as it needs about six months to fully react and change the soil pH. Never put limestone down on frozen or snow-covered soil to avoid it running off to areas you didn’t intend to lime, like the storm drain. Limestone will not soak into frozen soil.

ph-meter

pH Meter

-Carol Quish

Silene

Silene stenophylla, regenerated from a 32,000-year-old seed.
(Photograph: National Academy of Sciences)

The dry little speck that develops into a magnificent plant is one of those miracles that happens so often that it’s easy to take it for granted. But, if we stop and consider the way plants guarantee that a new generation will carry on their genes, we have to marvel at the elegance of nature’s design. Protected by a tough coat, seed can tolerate conditions much harsher than its living parent could ever survive, and it can wait years for the proper conditions to germinate. In the case of Silene stenophylla, proper conditions were scientists removing its seed from a 32,000 year-old squirrel burrow in the Siberian permafrost and growing it. This “delicate” arctic campion grew, bloomed and set seed after millennia of patient dormancy. Other reports of Jerusalem date palm and lotus seed remaining viable for a mere thousand years is testament to the phenomenal adaptation and resilience of plants. (At the other end of the spectrum, some tropical seed remains viable only briefly, and must be sown fresh for good results.)  In order to make management of a crop easier, agricultural seed has been selected to germinate all at the same time, a characteristic that would be disastrous for wild species. Ordinary garden seed, collected the previous year and packed and stored in dry conditions, is a valuable resource for gardeners.

Growing plants from seed allows the gardener a much broader range of plant choices than you’ll find at your local garden centers. With all the offerings online, in seed catalogs or on the racks in the big-box stores, the choices can be overwhelming. When selecting varieties, consider not only appearance, but yield, disease resistance and flavor. Gardeners’ reviews in internet forums can be useful in making a decision.

Tomato seedling 'High Tower' (Photo: Rutgers)

As the time for starting seeds for the vegetable garden approaches, a few pointers may be helpful:

  • Start tomatoes on St. Patrick’s Day, or thereabouts (Eight weeks is standard lead time before planting in the garden, but if mid-May is still too chilly, plants can always be held a couple more weeks.) The majority of garden vegetables can be started from seed at this time. Cabbage can wait a few weeks, and for the vines, (cucumber, melon, squash, etc.) delay indoor planting until the last week of April, because setting out these heat-loving plants too early will only retard their growth.
  • Root crops should be sown directly in the garden.
  • Growing annual and perennial flowers from seed is an economical way to grow large numbers of plants and also to try unusual varieties. Be aware that some perennials require stratification (periods of cold that break dormancy) before they will germinate.
  • Seed saved by friends and neighbors in your area are often a good bet. They’ve been tested by others who have about the same conditions as yours.
  • Start small seeds in flats and larger seeds in cell packs, using commercial potting soil. (The garden books advise sterilizing the cell packs if they’ve been used before, and also using sterilized growing medium; I do neither and have never had a problem.) Garden soil can contain weed seeds and pathogens; potting mix is the safer choice.
  • Don’t trust your memory; identify flats with popsicle sticks labeled with indelible marker.
  • Germinate seeds in a warm room. Bottom heat aids germination; a table over a baseboard or radiator is excellent, as long as it’s not too hot.
  • Cover germinating seeds with a sheet of plastic to retain moisture. (Dry cleaner’s bags work well, held in place with something light – I use chopsticks.) Monitor closely to be sure soil is damp, not wet. Remove plastic as soon as seeds break the surface. Allow one week beyond the germination times stated on the seed packet. If germination is disappointing or absent, resort to Plan B.
  • The humidity that is conducive to seed germination is also the perfect environment for the growth of fungi and bacteria that can attack seeds or seedlings in a condition called damping off. Keep soil moist, but not wet; excessive moisture is the primary culprit of this disease. A small fan running on slow speed (placed well away from the seedlings) or a slightly open window on warm days will help by circulating air and keeping surfaces dry.
  • Move sprouted seeds immediately to the brightest light available. A sunny window is good; or artificial lights (fluorescent or LED) hung on a chain can be positioned a few inches from the growing plants and moved as necessary.
  • After sprouted seeds have their first set of true leaves, they may require thinning. Plants that are too crowded will compete with each other and none will flourish, so don’t skip this step. Cutting off unwanted plants with small scissors is preferable to pulling because it won’t disturb delicate roots.
  • When plants outgrow their cells or small pots, move up to a 2.5-3” pot, using a plant stake or plastic spoon to separate and lift the seedlings. Water thoroughly with a dilute water-soluble fertilizer.
  • Vine crops (cucumbers, melons, squash, etc.) are best started in peat pots because they can be transplanted without disturbing their temperamental roots. Peat pots are mushy when wet, so at planting time, soak them well, tear them gently open and plant directly into the ground. Trim off any pot that will protrude above the soil; this will cause wicking action that can rapidly rob moisture from the plant.
  • Harden off plants before planting out in the garden, gradually exposing plants, over the course of a couple of weeks, to increasing sunlight and cool weather.

For those who haven’t tried it, growing your own plants from seed is a gratifying experience – there’s no better way to tune in to a plant’s requirements and hone your horticultural instincts, and it’s an economical way to try new varieties and keep your garden interesting.

J. McInnis