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

 

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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.

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pH Meter

-Carol Quish

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

Fresh-picked strawberries

We moved into our home in December of 1996 and by June of ’97 I had broken through the sod, tilled the soil, fenced in an area, and planted a new garden. One of the first additions to that garden was a strawberry bed. Even though it took up ¼ of the space and only produced fruit during June I was always happy to have it there. Over the ensuing years the plants have, at various times, bloomed, bore fruit, sent out runners for daughter plants, and died. Three years ago I renovated the plants and moved them to a different area within the garden. This year they started to bloom around Mother’s Day and there were already a few signs of small green berries within a week. The weather during that time was unseasonably warm with a few days of temperatures close to 90° By May 15th the rainfall for Connecticut was already 1.74” below normal. Like most fruiting plants strawberries require 1” of water per week during fruit set and the growing period. Most years this is not an issue but this season has required many trips to the slowly depleting rain barrel. At least it has been warm. Some years a soggy, cold spring has led to a very small harvest. Also, temperatures that dip into the 25-35° range require covering the plants as they are susceptible to frost damage. If you have pushed their winter mulch to the side you can just bring it back over the plants should there be a frost warning.

Early spring strawberry crown

There are three types of strawberries that are generally available for the home gardener: June bearing, everbearing and day neutral. June bearing, as their name suggest, produce fruit during a 2-3 week period in June although there are early, mid and late season varieties. Everbearing strawberries have three periods of flower and fruit production during spring, summer and fall.  For better productivity and fruit quality choose day neutral over everbearing. Day neutral strawberries produce fruit throughout the growing season with few runners. If your space is limited, the soil quality is poor, or you like to plant in containers or beds, then day neutral is a good choice. Day neutral strawberries are often grown as annuals and replanted each spring. If you choose to allow the beds to carry over to the next year you may see that the yields will decline.

Strawberry flower and green berry

Strawberries prefer well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter. They need full sun. Do not plant strawberries in an area that has had solanaceous crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant or peppers within the previous four years as non-host specific Verticillium root rot fungus also affects strawberries. Another soil-borne fungus that affects strawberries is Phytophthora fragariae (Red stele). Phytophthora fragariae is a very persistent fungus and can survive for up to 17 years once it has become established, even if no strawberries are grown during that time. Even varieties that are listed as resistant may succumb if planted in an area that has had a prior infection. Black root rot is another disease brought on by fungi, nematodes and environmental factors. Avoiding areas that become water-logged is very important when growing strawberries.

Berries from the garden

After you have enjoyed the fruit from June bearing varieties the plants should be renovated. This is the part that makes me cringe. Mow the strawberry plants to a height of 1 ½” above the crowns! It seems to go against every gardening intuition that I possess. Then fertilize with a balanced fertilizer. You may also need to narrow the plant rows to 10-12” and thin out plants that do not look healthy. Spread 1/2” of soil over all but do not bury the crowns. Be sure to continue watering through the fall.

Canned strawberry jam

Strawberries may require a bit of work but they are definitely worth the effort. Biting into a fresh-picked, still warm from the sun, strawberry is a bit of heaven. And then ladling lightly sugared berries over a biscuit with whipped cream? Yum. Or baking them into a crisp accompanied by rhubarb also fresh from the garden? So good. And of course, it doesn’t get any better than cooking them into preserves and hot water bath canning them so that they can be enjoyed all winter long. As of this week I had one 12 oz. jar left from last year’s batch. Now that I can see this year’s crop coming I popped the seal, put a nice spoonful on some cottage cheese and remembered all the reasons that I have strawberries in the garden.

The last of the jam!

Article and all images by Susan Pelton

Pile of earthworms. Urbanext.illinois.edu

The soils supporting our home lawns, vegetable and perennial gardens are improved by the presence and activity of earthworms. They are considered beneficial in the plant world. Earthworms move through the layers of soil creating tunnels for water and oxygen to reach the plant roots and channels for root growth. Their movement increases drainage and reduces compaction. Often called “nature’s rototillers”, earthworms feed on organic matter, bacteria, fungi and small soil particles in varying depths depositing their castings, or feces, in other horizons effectively turning the soil over. Castings are rich in nitrogen and nutrients easily absorbed by plants. Their feeding aids decomposition of organic matter, aerates soil, creates good soil structure and develops humus. The Rothamsted Experimental Station in England has done research finding as many as 250,000 earthworms per acre. That is a lot of subterranean work happening! Charles Darwin was one of the first scientists to recognize the benefits of earthworms. His last book written in 1882 is on the worm biology and behavior. His discoveries of earthworms are still being seen today.

Often after a rain, earthworms come to the soil surface then re-enter the ground head first. Some scientist think the worms come to surface for air if the ground is saturated. Others believe chemicals in the rain are inhospitable by changing pH and chemical amounts from acid rain. Still others think since the surface is moist, the worms come to the surface to mate. Earthworms are negatively affected by drying out by the sun therefore most surfacing happens at night. The action of tunneling back into the ground squeezes the worm leaving a pile of castings above ground. The casting look like tiny round balls piled up in a pyramid up to two inches depending on the size and type of the worm. Casting piles normally go unnoticed unless the turf is cut exceptionally short like that on golf course greens and tees. Home lawns should be cut to a height of at least three inches. Wet piles can stick to mowing equipment gumming up the blades and gears. The piles are easily dispersed once they dry.

Earthworms breathe through their skin. Oxygen is absorbed by mucous on the outside surface of the worm where it is transferred to the internal organs. This is called a gas exchange. The circulatory system of the earthworm contains five hearts or aortic arches. They pump fluids to blood vessels and capillary beds throughout the body circulating back to the hearts. The earthworm’s digestive system starts with its wide opening of a mouth that its throat or pharynx protrudes out of grabbing organic matter, soil particles and all that they contain. This food is swallowed down to a storage area called a crop. The food then moves to the gizzard where it is ground up by strong muscles and tiny stones and grit swallowed by the worm. Once the food is sufficiently ground, it moves to the intestines where digestive juices extract nutrients and some are absorbed by the worm. Excess digested food is then excreted as worm castings. It is these castings that are rich in nutrients readily available for plant roots to pick up. Earthworms don’t have eyes but are sensitive to light, vibration, touch and chemicals. They want to be in darkness and will move away from the light.

Chemicals added to lawn and garden can kill the earthworms. Preferred pH levels are neutral to 6.6. Adding lime in large doses can be too shocking of a change in their environment. Many earthworms will move to areas with better suited conditions or they may just die. Some insecticides and fungicides have lethal effects on earthworms. Researchers have also found earthworms within chemically treated soils to contain up to 20 times the toxin levels than the soil the worms inhabited. Stored toxins built up in the earthworms could then be passed up the food chain to animals using the earthworms as food.

Earthworms are classified as animal invertebrates. They are in the phylum group Annelida, meaning segmented worms.   Each segment contains four tiny setae or claw like bristles used to move through the soil.  Worms are hermaphroditic;  each worm has both male and female parts with the male pores located on the outside of the animal. Earthworms are not self fertile. They need another worm to mate and reproduce. Each worm is fertilized in the mating process called cross-fertilization.

The most common earthworms found in Connecticut are Lumbricus terrestris, called the Night Crawler, and Lumbricus rubellus called Red Worm. Night crawlers are known to venture deep into the soil in permanent vertical burrows. The will come to the surface to feed also. Red worms prefer to live in a manure pile or area with high organic matter. Both of these earthworms originated in Europe and were introduced to North America unknowingly on plant material, ship ballast, wheels and shoes of immigrants. Native earthworm finding are very rare. It is not known whether native types were wiped out by glaciers scraping the earth or if the new earthworm invaders displaced the old. Different theories exist. What is known is that the earthworms that are present today are many, active and busy decomposing and recycling organic matter in rich new topsoil.

There are some invasive worms originating from Asia that are causing problem in some areas of North America. They are such fast consumers of organic material they are changing the layers of soil and eliminating the forest floor called ‘duff’. Some birds nest in the duff areas to raise their young. Insects and animals that also reside and feed in the fast disappearing habitat are also finding it hard to live. The effect of the exotic worms in the local habitat really is upsetting the ecological balance. Some populations that depend on the areas the worms are ruining might vanish forever. Research is presently being done but much more needs to happen. So does education of the general public. Some fishermen are using invasive worms for bait, then just dumping the leftovers on the ground. They are unknowingly spread the invaders. ATV and off-road enthusiasts also can pick up soil, worms and eggs in tire treads, then depositing them far from the initial infected site. Hopefully in the not too far future, more information and education programs will be available. Keep watching!

-Carol Quish