Weeds are the bane of every gardener and farmer. Unfortunately, it is our cultural practices that often make a very inviting home for the weeds. So many times, people think about weeds during the peak of summer, when they are up to their ears in them. I spend very little time weeding, yet I grow a large array of crops. It all starts before one sets foot in the garden. With a little planning and forethought, you can spend more time enjoying your hobby, and less time weeding!

A nicely mulched garden bed that will almost totally eliminate the need for weeding. Photo by mrl2021

At the beginning of the season, we are very eager to get out there and clean things up. This is probably the most important time of the year, and instead of thinking of your crops, you should be thinking of weeds. Before I do anything, I think about how my actions will favor or discourage weeds. Many people like to rototill the ground. It makes the ground soft and airy, and very easy to work with afterwards. There are some down sides to this, however. The layer immediately below the tilled portion of soil can become compacted over time making it difficult for plant roots to penetrate. This is called a plow layer. Tilling also makes our soils vulnerable to erosion. The smaller, lighter tilled soil particles can be easily blown away in the wind. Also, heavy rains, which generally occur in the spring when the tilling is done, can also wash away our soil. These two actions rob the gardener/farmer of valuable topsoil – the layer that contains our nutrients.  The action of tilling also brings up weed seeds. The soil contains a seedbed of weed seeds just waiting for conditions to change. Tilling action brings them closer to the surface where they will now germinate.

A garden bed in bad need of rehabilitation. This will get tilled in the spring. Photo by mrl2021

Now I am not saying that I never till. If I have a grass area that I want to convert into a garden bed, I usually till it up. At that time, I amend the soil with limestone per recommendations on my UConn soil test results. Limestone is best incorporated into the soil, rather than simply left on the surface. This can also be a time to incorporate fertilizers (I prefer organic), compost, or any other soil amendments you choose. 

So, there are two options left to the gardener at this point – hoe or mulch. After my crops are planted, I like to put down a thick layer of mulch if possible. People debate what material is best, but I say use what is available to you. It beats pulling weeds all summer! For garden beds where I am going to do short growth crops like lettuce, I do not mulch. The lettuce will be pulled and eaten in a short amount of time and then replanted. I just don’t want to take the time to mulch around all those plants. In beds like these I like to periodically hoe up the ground. I use a stirrup hoe, which gently glides across the surface/subsurface of the soil and cuts off the weeds that start to grow.  You must be diligent, however, because if the weeds get too big, the hoe will not be easily able to cut the weeds down. Now you are back to pulling weeds (I try to avoid this at all costs).  I find with this set up, I hoe the area every two to three weeks depending on weed pressure. Other growers may recommend more frequent hoeing, but I find I am always pressed for time and this method seems to work fine for me. There are many other different styles of hoes which are meant to disrupt weed growth early on. There is no right or wrong one, but find one that works for you and most importantly, feels comfortable to use!

The author’s trusty stirrup hoe. Photo by mrl2021

For other beds that I limed and mulched heavily the year before, many times I will skip the tilling process. The mulch is still good at suppressing weeds, and also is breaking down and adding nutrients to my soil. I will go and spot weed where occasional weeds appear. In this case, you must be careful as now you have a space that is bare soil. That area should be re-mulched to prevent new weed growth. Although this does require some manual pulling of weeds, it is minimal and relatively easy if done in the spring.

A garden bed that needs only a little weeding but no tilling. Photo by mrl2021

The last trick is to tarp an area you want to convert into a garden. Silage tarps are great for this.  They generally are black on one side and white on the other. Face the black side up and leave it to cook in the sun. The vegetation below it is then killed by the heat. This can take some time, so don’t expect this to work in a few short weeks. I like to give it a few months. Also, if you need to incorporate some limestone, compost, and/or other soil amendments, you should do so at the beginning of the process, or after the vegetation is killed. Remove the tarp and till in your amendments, then re-tarp for at least a few weeks (longer is better). Remember tilling brings up those weed seeds. The tarp will keep the surface moist and warm which favors germination. The lack of light will then kill off those newly germinated seeds leaving you with clean ground when you are ready to plant.

A tarped ares that is the site of a future garden. Photo by mrl2021

The final trick is to plant cover crops after you harvest your main crop. Many times, the cover crops prevent weed seeds from taking over due to allelopathy (plant chemical warfare), or simply by occupying the space needed to grow and subsequently shading the remaining areas. Cover crops hold on to your nutrients so they are not washed away by rain, and protect your valuable top soil from erosion. Annual cover crops will winter kill and many times degrade sufficiently by spring. Perennial crops generally need to be mowed and/or tilled under in the spring. You could also tarp the area instead. Cover crops positively increase the amount of organic matter and nutrients in the soil. Certain cover crops can even be deep rooted and break up hardpan that has been created. By adding in organic matter once they are done growing, cover crops also work to break up heavy clay soil as well. 

So, there are my tricks for outsmarting the weeds. I hope this helps you spend more time enjoying your garden and less time working in it. Don’t forget to get a soil test to help dial in the proper growing parameters so all your efforts turn into time well spent!   

Matt Lisy

Just as the addition of a colorful bow dresses up a gift, both mulch and perennial ground covers can add the finishing touch to garden beds. When used to cover bare soil, both mulch and living ground covers discourage weeds, control soil erosion, and stabilize soil temperature and moisture. The advantage of one over the other comes when considering that mulch must be reapplied regularly, and ground covers, once established, reproduce themselves and need only periodic attention to thin or control some that wander. Often, it’s the final vision the gardener has for the landscape that  will determine which to use.

Ground cover types range from slow growers to ones that are true invasives. Slow growers include several varieties of shade tolerant phlox such as the creeping phlox (Phlox stolinifera), and the woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata).  The moss phlox (Phlox subulata) enjoys sunny spots as does candytuft (Iberis sempervirens).

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Moss phlox-bugwood.org photo

Candytuft John Ruler University of Georgia Bugwood.org

Candytuft photo by John Ruler University of Georgia Bugwood.org

If you are an impatient gardener, moderately speedy popular plants include sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), spotted dead nettle (Lamium maculatum), wild ginger (Asarum canadense), and Chinese astilbe (Astilbe chinensis var. pumila).  Each of these plants prefers shady areas for best growth, and they generally do well in moderately moist, fertile soil.

Other moderate creepers that do well in part-shade to sunny locations include bugleweed (Ajuga reptens), low growing sedum, such as Sedum rupestra, periwinkle/myrtle (Vinca minor), and creeping thyme (Thymus praecox). These plants prefer moderately moist soil except for the thyme, which prefers a somewhat dry soil.

IMG_0567 ajuga

Ajuga

This group of plants also includes the familiar pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis). It grows by rhizomes that form stems that spread underground, producing roots that send up new plants. In ideal growing conditions it can be aggressive but can be controlled by removing the roaming underground rooted stems by hand.  It grows in partial and full shade as well as partial sun, but full sun causes poor growth. It needs a moist, well-drained soil and does not tolerate drought.

IMG_0593 pachysandra under elderberry

Pachysandra under trees and shrubs

A group of plants that should be avoided in home gardens includes those that are very aggressive growers. One in this group, goutweed/bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria), is on the Connecticut Invasive Plant List. It is said to need a mechanical barrier surrounding it to prevent it from wandering beyond its intended space.

goutweed, varigated

Variegated goutweed

green_leaf goutweed (1)

Goutweed- green leaves

A plant of similar aggressive habit, gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides), required hours of work to remove a mature patch –  little volunteers are still popping up weeks later! While attractive when massed in open spaces, it is so aggressive that “Perennial Gardens” author Allan Armitage wrote that the right place for this plant “happens to be an island bed surrounded by concrete.”  Two plants also bearing the loosestrife name, garden yellow loosestrife (Lysmachia vulgaris), and purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria,), are included on the Connecticut Invasive Plant List and cannot be sold in the state.

Sometimes mulch is the preferred ground cover. If a perennial bed has plants with attractive foliage or flowers that deserve attention, or where it would be hard to provide needed moisture, mulch can be a good option.

IMG_0587 mulch cover 5

Natural cedar mulch

Mulch can be organic, from shredded tree products, straw, salt march hay, dried grass clippings, compost, or pine needles. To be effective at slowing weed growth, helping retain soil moisture and moderating soil temperature, organic mulch must be replaced regularly.  However, it is not necessary to remove older mulch before adding a new layer. Often older mulch develops a crust-like surface so it should be loosened with a rake or other pronged tool so water will penetrate the surface. Some prefer using a color-treated mulch, which is not harmful to plants since the color comes from vegetable dyes.

Some problems that can come from using organic mulch include making the layer thicker than 3 inches, which prevents water and oxygen from penetrating the soil, and putting the mulch too close to the base of shrubs and trees, which encourages snails, slugs, burrowing animals and wood boring insects to settle in.

Inorganic mulch includes crushed stone, gravel, black plastic or landscape fabric. Depending on the choice of material, inorganic mulches have various advantages and disadvantages. Some allow water and oxygen to penetrate the barrier and keep weeds from breaking through. Some last for many years but some break down when exposed to sunlight and don’t allow water and oxygen to penetrate. Some are inexpensive, and others are expensive.  Budget can be a deciding factor.

When it comes to choosing between use of a living ground cover or a type of mulch, the final decision depends on the reason for using the ground cover, how much energy the gardener has to maintain the ground cover and even what image the gardener wants to project for the garden beds. In the end, the choice should consider how the ground cover will benefit the plants that are growing in the garden.

Jean Laughman, UConn Home and Garden Education Center

Image

The fragrant white flowers of the Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum giganteum) are a traditional symbol of the season. In its native southern Japan and Ryukyu Islands, the plant blooms in July but in cultivation, it is forced into earlier flowering for the Easter trade.  Also known as the Bermuda lily (L.l. eximium), it was a supplier of bulbs in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Japan then dominated as the world’s largest grower until WWII. Attempts to regain its market share after the war failed due to the emergence of the growers here on the California-Oregon border, who now produce 95% of the bulbs for the U.S. and Canadian market. U.S. production began with Louis Houghton, who introduced hybrid lilies to the south coast of Oregon in 1919, where conditions for cultivation are ideal. When the Japanese source of bulbs was interrupted during the war, lily bulbs increased in value and a new industry was born.

 Although the Easter lily has a sales window of only two weeks, it is the fourth largest potted-plant crop in the United States, following poinsettia, chrysanthemum and azalea. Because of its superior characteristics, the cultivar most commonly grown for the past 40 years or so has been ‘Nellie White.’

Buying

When choosing a lily, look for a high-quality plant that has a couple of open or partly-opened flowers and several unopened buds.. Foliage should be dense, dark green and extend to the soil line, indicating a healthy root system. Inspect the flowers, foliage and buds for any signs of insects or disease. Unless they were just delivered, avoid Easter lilies displayed in paper, plastic or mesh shipping sleeves; plant quality will deteriorate if these sleeves are left on too long. Soil should be moist, but not wet; a wilted, waterlogged plant may be suffering from root rot.

Indoor care

At home, position your Easter lily near a window that gets bright, indirect daylight, away from direct sunlight; a daytime temperature of 60 to 65° F is ideal. Avoid exposure to excess heat or dry air from appliances, fireplaces or heating ducts. Keep the potting medium moist, watering lightly only when the soil becomes dry. If the pot is wrapped in decorative foil, don’t allow the plant sit in trapped, standing water. As the flowers open and develop, remove the yellow anthers with small scissors before the pollen starts to shed. This increases the life of the flower and prevents the pollen from staining the flowers or tablecloths. When a mature flower starts to fade and wither, cut it off to keep the plant looking attractive.

Toxic to Cats

If you see your cat eating the Easter lily plant, call a veterinarian immediately. The kidneys are affected, with symptoms including increased urination, depression, stomach upset and dehydration. The sooner emergency treatment is initiated, the better the chances that the cat will recover. If more than 18 hours elapses after consumption, the cat may not survive, even with emergency care.

In the garden

Easter lilies can be planted outside after the blooms have faded and the danger of frost has passed. Remove old flowers, leaving the stem and leaves. Select a sunny spot with well-drained soil and dig a hole deep enough so the top of the bulb will be six-inches below the soil surface.  Amend the soil in the planting hole with some organic matter and lime. Good drainage is critical to success with lilies. Lilies prefer a cool soil environment, so mulching with a 2-inch layer of compost, pine straw, or shredded leaves helps conserve moisture in between waterings, suppresses weed growth, keeps the soil cool and provides nutrients as it decays.

Lilies are not reliably hardy throughout Connecticut and will benefit from a generous layer of protective mulch once they’ve gone dormant. (If you like the look of white lilies in the garden, or for cutting, other options are Lilium candidum, Madonna lily or Oriental Lily ‘Casa Blanca.’)

With proper protection, Easter lilies that were forced into flower in March or April under controlled greenhouse conditions will flower naturally in June or July the following and subsequent years, reaching a height of about 3 feet.

In recent years, a new pest of lilies has appeared in Connecticut: the Lily Leaf Beetle.  See the URI fact sheet for description and control measures here: http://www.uri.edu/ce/factsheets/sheets/lilyleafbeetle.html

 

J. McInnis

The arrival of fall brings the end of warm weather crops in the vegetable garden and some yearly chores to accomplish. The list below gives some guidelines and reminders of items happen before the snow falls!

1.     Soil Test – Fall is the best time to soil test. Labs are slower, receive results faster. Amendments applied now have all fall and winter to work. Lime takes 6 to 9 months to fully react, causing a change in pH.  UConn Soil Test Lab, www.soiltest.uconn.edu $8.00 fee provides levels pH, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, micronutrients, organic matter level and soil texture plus recommendations for plants growing in that soil.

2.     Clean up – Remove all brown plant material; leaves, stems, fallen fruit. Exceptions are seed heads that provide wildlife seeds as food. Removing last year’s top growth removes disease and insect hiding places. Many insects overwinter on plants where they fed. Bury diseased plants in compost pile or discard in the garbage.

3.     Cultivate Soil – Turn over the soil or scratch soil up with a hand fork or hoe to expose pest insects to birds and cold weather. Try to disrupt the top inch or so of soil to wreck overwintering insect’s cozy homes.

4.     Use a Mulch – After Thanksgiving, pile chopped leaves or other natural mulch around plants. By now the ground is frozen and rodents have found other winter homes. If mulch is put on earlier, chipmunks and mice think you put it there for them! Placing mulch on frozen ground insults the soil keeping it from freeze and thaw cycles. The goal is stop the plants from heaving out of the ground not to keep the plants warm.

5.     Sow cover crops in empty vegetable and annual beds to prevent soil erosion. Cut back and till in the soil in early spring. Winter wheat, oats and rye are good choices.

6.     Clean Tools – Oil wood handles, clean and oil metal parts with vegetable oil. Drain hoses and nozzles, freezing temperatures will crack them. Service mowers and blowers. Store all for winter.

7.     Grow Garlic! – Hard necked garlic can be planted in October, mulched with straw, harvested next June. Plant single cloves one inch deep and three apart.

8.     Cut back iris and discard leaves even if green to eliminate iris borer eggs laid during the fall. September is also the month to divide peonies if needed.

Enjoy the slower time of autumn in the garden now that the work is done.

photo from UConn Brand plant database

_Carol Quish

When I got in my car to run to campus around noon today the temperature read 98 degrees F! It is hot! While we can go inside air conditioned buildings (and cars), our plants do not have that luxury and each night I come home to some pretty thirsty plants. I have 29 containers (hey, I’m down from the 32 that I had last year!) and they do require daily watering in this heat. Plus as I mentioned last time I am running behind the ideal planting schedule and I am still putting a few plants here or there (Hockanum Greenhouses, http://hockanumindustries.org, in Mansfield has a buy 1, get 1 free sale going on right now for annuals and herbs). These plants require daily attention and as they are scattered throughout the gardens, it isn’t possible to just turn the sprinkler on. 

There’s not too much I can do besides water the containers and the newbies, but for the rest of my beds, having them mulched really saves me a lot of watering time. I generally use several types of mulches each year depending on what effect I want plus what’s available to me. For general ornamental/perennial beds shredded bark is fine. I generally prefer hemlock or cedar because it lasts longer – 2 to 3 years and I like the natural color. Only 4 to 6 yards a year are ordered, at around $36 per yard, so it is not too huge of an investment. I like to think the bark mulch is a by-product of the lumber or paper industry but it is hard to find a supplier that knows where their bark mulch comes from. I have read articles that suggest cypress mulch is not sustainable as the cypress groves on the gulf coast are not able to reproduce with great success once the mature trees are harvested. Plus, I think that contamination from the BP oil well will be another challenge for many plant species in that area.

Shredded bark mulch around flowers and ornamentals

When my parents lived in Woodstock, CT they were able to go to their town waste recycling center and get all the shredded mulch they wanted for free. When the roadside crews removed and chipped the trees and shrubs along the side of the roads, they piled it high at the transfer station and it was free to all residents who wanted to haul some away. This option is not available in my town but I would definitely see if it was available in yours. Yes, the mixed hardwood mulches do not last as long as the phenol- and resin-laden softwood ones but it is reusing and recycling at the local level.

For my herb garden I admit to liking buckwheat hull mulch, which has become harder to come by, and have settled for cocoa hull mulch which has a similar texture. The finer texture of the mulch blends well with the finer textures of herb plants. Three bags serve me well for a year as it is not a terribly large garden. In the pathways of the herb garden I use crush stone. For paths in my White Garden and the Woodland Garden, I like the large bark chips. They take forever to break down and hold up well when trampled. These have become a little harder to obtain in recent years and right now I am searching for a source of replenishment.

Cocoa hull mulch in the herb garden

The vegetable garden gets whatever’s available. Generally I get free wood shavings from my neighbor who is a finished carpenter and grass clippings from a few lawn cuttings during the growing season. So in the paths of my raised bed gardens first I put down newspaper and then I cover it with a couple of inches of wood shavings. This keeps weeding the paths to a minimum. Around the vegetable plants I generally put the grass clippings which are a good source of nutrients including nitrogen (usually the grass clippings are left in place but I do collect them for mulch 2 or 3 cuttings per year). The following year I incorporate what is left in the paths into the raised beds, along with a nitrogen fertilizer, and put down new newspaper and wood shavings.

Just recently, I struck pay dirt or pay mulch, so to speak. Someone called the soil testing lab and offered 15 bales of straw mulch in the next town over. They were readily collected (not on salaried time) and distributed among fellow UConn gardeners, the student gardeners at Spring Hill Farm at UConn and one lucky soil test lab customer at the right place at the right time. I brought home the 3 bales that I could fit in my car and have been spreading it right after watering parts of the vegetable garden not covered by grass clippings. Hopefully I will finish this task this week and everything in the vegetable garden will be mulched!

Straw mulch around the cukes with wood shavings between raised beds

Why mulch? Mostly to keep the weeds and watering frequency down but also an organic mulch can reduce soil temperatures, increase the soil organic matter as it decomposes, provide food and energy for necessary soil microbes, decrease the incidence of plant diseases, supply plants with nutrients, improve soil structure, and the water and nutrient holding capacity of the soil, among other benefits. So my question would be why not mulch? See our fact sheet at http://www.ladybug.uconn.edu/factsheets/tp_05_mulchbasics.html

Another gardening task that I missed the deadline for was pruning the raspberries. After years of growing the summer-bearing, purple-fruiting ‘Royalty’, I tore them out and replaced the small row with 6 ever-bearing red raspberry ‘Heritage’ plants. “Caroline’ would have also been an excellent choice. The reason I picked an everbearer is because you can chop all canes to the ground in late fall and the new canes produced in the spring will fruit come September or so. Well after doing good for about a decade, I did not get to it last fall so right now I am harvesting dozens of plump, juicy, flavorful red raspberries each time I go out into the garden. Unfortunately between me and the robins and catbirds, few are making it into the house! I will cut down all canes this autumn as I like the larger, later harvest from which I can make jam or at least a raspberry pie. Also, this cuts down on disease problems.

For years, because of the typically unwanted and uninvited canine and feline visitors to our property, we were lucky, I suppose, to avoid any feuds with chipmunks, voles and rabbits. Now that this neighborhood strike force has died out and been replaced with indoor cats and invisible fences, the rodents seek revenge and have been devastating many of my gardens. For weeks I have been replanting and watering daily the annuals that the chipmunks have decided are an invasion of their turf. Voles dig up the sunflowers, eat their roots and leave the stems with the leaves attached at the site as if to signal their superiority. Rabbits leave me with topless plants and seem partial to zinnias, Swiss chard and snow-on-the-mountain. I suspect I would tolerate their nibbling except that snow-on-the-mountain is one of my favorite self-seeding annuals and zinnias are among my favorite cut flowers. Right now, I only have one snow-on-the-mountain seedling left and I have surrounded it with chicken wire.

So cute but boy they eat a lot!

What to do? For the present time I am using hot pepper dusts and sprays but I’ll keep you posted if this escalades. Another promising control is an increasing population of native snakes now that the cats that used to prey on them have gone to that giant catnip patch in the sky!

Stay cool! Stay vigilant in the garden.

Dawn

Mid August brings heat and harvest chores.  I must pick daily to keep up with the plants. Cucumbers, summer squash, beans, peppers and tomatoes fill the baskets. It seems the vegetables are growing fast but then I see the weeds are growing faster!

I went to Maine for a visit to the Coastal Maine Botanical Garden. I highly recommend a visit if you find your self in the Boothbay area. I saw gardens of all kinds and sculptures artfully placed in outdoor spaces. Children are invited to create fairy houses with natural material for the fairies that live in this glorious setting. Another excursion was to Endless Summer Flower Farm, a dahlia and perennial farm located in Camden, Maine. Owner Phil Clark graciously engaged us with his 230 varieties of dahlias, all growing in his back yard and side field. Just glorious, enticing me to purchase tubers to be delivered in the spring. A flower bouquet of cut dahlias was brought back to my hosts. The flowers were very beautiful. Maine gardeners have a slightly shorter growing season and many of the same weeds as I do in Connecticut.

Now is the time to keep up the the weeds. Any plant allowed to produce will become weeds in the next several growing years. This year I discovered cilantro in every nook of open soil. While I didn’t mind the herb earlier in the season, now they have all grown four foot high with seed pods containing the spice coriander. I am trying to collect the seeds in paper bags before they burst. Once captured I store them in glass jars in the spice cabinet for crushing the seed with a mortar and pestle when I have a recipe calling for ground coriander. The leaves can be dried and saved as an herb, but should be done before the flowers form. Dill spreads in much the same way as cilantro. Both herbs have become a weed in my vegetable garden.

Other weeds having a ‘field day’, (pun intended), are crabgrass and galinsoga. Galinsoga will set flowers at the tender age of eight weeks.  It produces over 7500 seeds per plant. Seeds require no cold period, so they can germinate as soon as they mature and drop to the ground. Many seeds will overwinter, germinating next year and in subsequent years. Crabgrass is an annual that will die with the first hard frost. If allowed to produce seed, you can be sure seed produced this year will germinate in early spring next year making the weed problem worse.

I use mulch in the pathways to keep the weeds down, but the wood chips brought in harbored their own set of weed seeds. I now have fox grape, a semi-woody vine, that is difficult to pull out. I feel I will be fighting this one for a few years to come. Some people use hay on the gardens as mulch. Use straw instead, it contains less seed. Hay will add not only weed seeds but grassy seeds intended as animal food. Straw is more woody, breaks down slower than hay and is usually cut before it gets to the seed production stage. Bark mulch is a great alternative usually not infected with any weed seeds. A living mulch of clover can be used in pathways, especially if you have raised beds. Once the clover grows taller, mow or weed wack it down to a desirable height.

All of this pick of produce and pulling of weeds makes some glad the summer season is closing. But the fall growing season is just beginning. As the weather cools down, all the crops grown in the spring time can be grown again in the fall. They are, after all, cool weather crops. I start lettuce, spinach and kale directly in the garden for fall harvest. Root crops of carrots, beets, parsnip and turnip can be planted now. If the ground temperature is too warm for germination, start flats inside the house out of the sun’s direct heat. Transplant when at the two leaf stage.

I keep a bed of mixed lettuce specially chosen for cold tolerance. The other half of the bed is put in spinach. I have a 2 x 4 wood frame attached to PVC pipes covered with painter’s plastic to create a small greenhouse tent. Hinges were added so it can be easily lifted and opened. This fall crop of greens will keep producing well into December before it goes dormant for a few months. Come the last week of February and the first bit of longer sunny days, and these same plants come back to life. I prop the cover open on bricks if full sun is in the forecast so the plants don’t overheat. 100_8306100_8303

– Carol