cobrahead weeder and red gloves

It is harvest time in the vegetable garden, doing end of season gathering of squash this week. The vines of the honeynut butternut and spaghetti squash have all withered and dried signaling the squashes are ready to be picked. Once the color deepens and skins toughen the fruit should be cut from the vines and cleaned up. I wash them in a slight bleach solution to remove any fungi and bacteria that might cause rot once they are placed in storage in my cool hatchway to the basement where they will not freeze. Wrapping each in a sheet of newspaper to keep them from touching is an added measure to help retard decomposition.

Squash harvest 2019

Back in the garden I pulled all of the vines to add to the compost or burn any diseased plant remains. Insect problems from this year might over winter in the plant debris so cleaning up the beds is recommended. While I am there, I scrape the soil with my 20 year old CobraHead hand-weeder, my favorite tool. When held horizontally it only disturbs the top inch or so of soil while I remove any weeds without bringing up many weed seeds from deeper in the soil which might germinate next year. Even though I am only disturbing shallow depths of the ground, some insects come crawling, wiggling and moving out of what they thought was a safe place to spend the winter. It is amazing to sit on my little garden stool and watch the life emerge from what at first glance, appears to be lifeless or dormant.

cobrahead weeder

First to emerge from the soil was a crazy snake worm, (Amynthas agrestis). They are an invasive species from distant lands of Korea and Japan, and do not belong in my New England garden. They move in an ‘S’ pattern and rather quickly, but they are no match for my fast, gloved hand to grab and toss into a repurposed ricotta container rescued from the recycle bin to live another life as a worm container of death. A few more swipes of the CobraHead and several more make an appearance only to be promptly deposited to the dreaded, dry plastic vessel too tall from them to slither out.

snakeworms 2

Normally worms are considered a beneficial being in the soil, but not snake worms. They damage the soil by eating large amounts of organic matter and leaving behind their castings (poop) which resembles Grapenuts cereal, small granules of black matter. Their castings change the micro biome of the soil making plants less likely to survive. There are not legally allowed control measure for obnoxious invaders except for hand removal of them. There is some research work being done at the University of Vermont and more around the Great Lakes as the snake worms are having a very large detrimental effect on the forest floor in those areas. Crazy snake worm adults will die when the ground freezes, but they leave behind their eggs, called cocoons, which will survive the cold to hatch next spring.

The next critter that made an appearance was an earwig. My gardens have always had a lot of these brown decomposers of dead plant material, but occasionally I they will feed on live leaves, flowers and fruit. Normally they do very little harm, despite their fierce looking pinchers on their butt end. They use their forceps for defense and offense, and will pinch skin if you hold one in your hand. Earwigs overwinter in the adult stage, coming out of their dormant period in the spring to ensure their population continues yet another year.earwig 10-19

Grubs are the larval stage of beetles. There are many beetles which inhabit soil and above ground spaces. Most lays eggs in or on the soil, which hatch into grubs that feed on plant roots. Grubs in the lawn can cause significant damage, so do grubs in the vegetable garden when they feed on the roots of my vegetable plants. As a general rule, I squish grubs when I find them in my vegetable beds, even though some adult beetles may be considered beneficial by feeding on other pests. In my garden, the Asiatic garden beetle is the predominate one, causing lots of feeding damage on my leaf crops. They love basil, effectively stripping plants seemingly overnight.

The vibrations of my scraping the soil seemed to bring armies of squash bug nymphs and adults to surface where I was working and to adjacent areas yet to be disturbed. This was the squash bed and I expected the squash pests to be where the cucurbit crop was grown, but I didn’t anticipate the crowd that came to see why I was unearthing their winter abode. Only the adult stage is listed as overwintering, but I found many nymphs not yet developed to their mature adult stage. I hope the cold will kill them so I don’t have to squish many more.

squash bug adult 10-19

Adult Squash Bug

 

The final insect I found while digging wasn’t crawling or moving. It was the resting stage of a moth, which species, I do not know. It was the pupa without many identifying features. I have yet to find a book just on moth pupae, but I am still looking. Once I found the pupa of a tomato hornworm, identifying itself by the hookshaped ‘horn’ on the end of the pupal case. I wish I had taken a photo of that one!

pupa, moth 10-19

-Carol Quish

 

zinnias 10-19

 

Springtime usually means long hours at the UConn Soil Testing Lab often keeping me there until 6 pm or later. Upon leaving one night I noticed a large creamy colored moving object in the lawn area in front of the lab. At first I thought maybe it was a dog but when it turned, I could see that it was a rather large eastern striped skunk. I am guessing it may be a male as they are reportedly larger than the female and this is really a good sized animal. He does not seem to mind me observing or photographing him although I must say, I have not ventured any closer than about 50 feet!

Easterm striped skunk looking for food

Easterm striped skunk looking for food

As expected, the skunk was digging up the grass in search of earthworms, grubs and other insects. They also eat fruit, grains, nuts, small animals, eggs and garbage. I thought I would find the ground all torn up the next day but there were just some shallow, cone-shaped holes. The lawn area here is somewhat sparse anyways so damage would probably be more noticeable on a lush, healthy lawn.

Skunk damage in lawns

Skunk damage in lawns

Eastern striped skunks are found throughout the U.S., except in the dry Southwest, and also in southern Canada. They are very adaptable creatures and are found both in urban and suburban settings. They prefer low bushy habitats.

They typically have one litter a year which averages 6 pups. I will keep an eye on for mom and any young’uns. Skunks are a member of the Mustelid family which also counts weasels, minks, martins, otters and fishers as members. While all these animals produce a strong-smelling liquid in their scent glands, only skunks can spray this liquid on perceived threats. While I have not attempted to verify this, apparently a perturbed skunk will stamp its feet and arch its tail over its back before spraying.

Dogs seem not to understand this and often get in the line of fire, including one of mine, years back. After shampooing her several times with dishwashing soap, the smell still lingered. My husband, at that time, thought some men’s cologne would cut the scent and to this day every time I smell this particular fragrance, I only think of skunk!

Whenever skunks or moles are found digging in the yard, many people’s first thoughts are to treat for grubs. We encourage folks to first find out whether or not they have a grub problem and then to treat it in the most efficacious way possible. Contact the horticulturists at the UConn Home & Garden Education Center for help on determining whether grubs are a problem and when the best time for treatment is.

Whether walking along side roads, biking or driving, one can’t help but notice the proliferation of wildflowers now in bloom – trilliums, wood anemones, bloodroot, bluets, dog-tooth violets and those pretty white flowers. Those pretty white flowers are an invasive species from Europe, garlic mustard. It may have been brought over to use as a food plant or for medicinal purposes.

Four petaled garlic mustard flowers with triangular leave on flower stalk.

Four petaled garlic mustard flowers with triangular leave on flower stalk.

Garlic mustard has rounded and toothed basal leaves but as the flower stalk emerges the leaves on it are toothed and triangular. The white flowers have four petals, like other mustard family relatives and are about a quarter inch in diameter.

The problem with garlic mustard, like many non-native plant species, is that it spreads rapidly in shady, moist habitats outcompeting our native plants. It does this several ways. First up to 7,900 seeds can be produced by a single plant! So, even if just a fraction of the seeds germinate and the seedlings survive, that is often enough to populate an area. In general, garlic mustard plants are biennial in growth habit. That means that seeds germinate and the plant grows vegetatively in year one followed in the second year by production of flowers and seeds. This tough plant begins second year growth almost as soon as the snow melts in March and April and it forms a decent size basal rosette of leaves which cover and shade out any nearby smaller and slower growing native plants.

Garlic mustard produces many flowers which result in many seeds.

Garlic mustard produces many flowers which result in many seeds.

Mature garlic mustard plants are believed to exude allelopathic chemicals which interfere or harm neighboring plants and also beneficial fungi that form symbiotic relations with our native plants. There is also a possible earthworm and garlic mustard connections. As non-native earthworms consume forest floor duff layers, they make these areas more amenable to the germination of garlic mustard seeds. It is also possible that increased earthworm activity may increase the soil pH slightly and since garlic mustard growth is retarded on extremely acidic soils, any increase would be to the benefit of garlic mustard. Another factor in its spread is that deer won’t eat this plant!

But garlic mustard can be consumed by us humans and frankly, the early young shoots are not that bad tossed into salads and stir fries. There are a number of recipes on-line. Do think about where you would be collecting them from as garlic mustard is an abundant roadside plant but soils in those areas could contain lead, gasoline and other contaminants.

If eating this invasive is not to your tastes, then consider starting a Garlic Mustard Challenge. This is a contest each spring to see which group of individuals can pull up the most garlic mustard plants. If you do notice garlic mustard on your property or in other areas that you care for, pull it up and bag it, flame it, dig it up, or spray it with an herbicide. This invasive species is doing much damage to our native plant populations and biodiversity in Connecticut.

Good gardening to you!

Dawn P.