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

winter landscape January

Frozen lake in January

“Feeling a little blue in January is normal”

  • Marilu Henner

The one thing I like about January is that at least the days are getting a teeny bit longer. We still have the cold weather and probably a bunch of snows will fall, but the nights are shorter and I am fooled into thinking spring will soon be here. While I like to escape into the wilds in the warmer, more colorful months, it can be a more difficult enterprise now. Snows may not allow an easy walk in the woods, but the roads are clear, and they will have to do as a means of checking out the January happenings outdoors.

winter stream

A winter stream and beech trees still holding onto their leaves

Although cold, the air is nice and clean (it seems!) and crisp, providing a refreshing change to an extended existence in an indoor environment. And there is still much to see in the winter. Bird species may not be as abundant, but the ones that are still here provide a nicer experience for me than watching fish in a tank would.

Coot Pamm Cooper photo 2016

Coot sporting its ivory bill

Pileated woodpeckers may be elusive, but they are quite vocal, and so they often give away their location as they gad about in the woods. Water birds are still around- a kingfisher is still finding stuff to eat in areas of open water- and mallards and Canada geese are, too. Coots may be seen in open water near the shore, and merganzers and ruddy ducks can be found in small or large flocks in the coastal areas. And Cooper’s hawks, as well as sharp-shinned hawks, small accipiters that prey on birds, can be seen buzzing bird feeders for easy pickings on a winter’s day.

Coopers hawk in yard Jan 8 2018

Cooper’s hawk waiting near a bird feeder

In my town, there is a large population of black vultures now, which is a remarkable development as just a few years ago avid birders would ‘flock’ to an area where a black vultures was reported to be. During the 1990’s, black vultures were considered very rare visitors to Connecticut, but in the last few years, they are definitely staying year- round and breeding here. You can tell black vultures from turkey vultures in flight by the white bands on wing tips, versus the half silver wing undersides of the turkey vultures.  Up close, the gray faces of black vultures are readily distinguishable from the bald, red faces of turkey vultures. Black vultures will often congregate on chimneys on cold days.

black vulture in 5 degrees

Black vulture on a 5 degree January day

vultures

Turkey vulture spreading wings- black vultures in the foreground

We had very cold weather the last two weeks- down in single digits on a few mornings and not much above the teens the rest of the time. Today, it is raining and fifty two degrees. If warm conditions keep up for a few days, fireflies may come out from their winter hiding spots in bark crevices, Look for them on sunny sides of trees in wooded areas. They will not fly, too logy for that, and will return to their resting places as the weather gets cold again.

fireflies in winter

Fireflies out on a warm winter day

When we have snow cover, that presents an opportunity to check out animal tracks in the snow. Deer tracks require no great hunter-like skills to figure out, but others may be tricky. I get a kick out of mouse tracks- don’t’ know why- maybe because they are one of the few animals that leave a tail print between the footprints.

two mice headed for a tree trunk as seen by their tracks in the snow

Two sets of mice tracks leading to a tree

 

Two of my favorite native plants that give interest to the monotone winter landscape are the redosier dogwood, Cornus sericea and winterberry, Ilex veticillata. Both plants offer a splash or red to a snowy landscape, and winterberries offer a food source for many birds and some small animals. Winterberry is found in the wild along edges of woods and swamps, and redosier also prefers similar areas in the wild.

red twig dogwood winter color

redosier dogwoods in winter

Even though it is not a native plant, I do love the Norway spruces when they have established mature stands. Red squirrels, at least, also appreciate the seeds that are one of their important food sources in the winter. You may come across piles of the spruce cone scales where the little pissant red squirrels take off the scales to access the seeds inside.

Norway spruce forest in winter 2-27-16

Stand of Norway Spruce in the winter

Indoors, though, it is warm, as well- lit as you may desire, and a better relaxing environment in January. Until the warm weather comes, perhaps an orchid in flower may providing a charming blush of living color, while we wait for nature to do the same.

Pamm Cooper

orchids in January