Spring in New England has been kind to us gardeners. Temperatures have been on the cool side; weekends were not washout; there was a fair amount of cloudy days, so a lot of gardening work was accomplished, at least by me. I was bitten by the gardening bug as a young child following my grandparents around their gardens when we visited. Throughout most of my life, time in the garden has been very therapeutic, this spring even more so with the unexpected loss of a much-loved spouse. While the veil of loneliness creeps over me inside the house, outdoors it dissipates as we were opposite gardeners. My husband was a morning person and would be out at 7 am or earlier weeding, watering, and tending to his vegetable garden or other outdoor chores. I needed a few cups of coffee to get going on the weekends and after finishing indoor chores, would head out later in the day and during hot weather tended to follow the shade. So, while being alone inside is still very sad and difficult, being by myself to tend to the gardens feels more normal.

Two of my indispensable gardening tools. Photo by dmp2022.

That being said, there is not enough time for one person to keep up with all the outdoor chores so not as many vegetables are being planted but more flowers are. It’s just delightful to be able to collect enough flowers to fill vases in the dining room, kitchen, bath and bedroom, especially colorful or scented ones. Plus, the local garden club I belong to has a ‘flower show’ at the town’s Old Home Day Festival over Labor Day weekend.

Some of the floral arrangements at the Charlton Garden Club’s annual flower show. Photo by dmp2021.

I had already started a number of tomato and pepper plants in late winter planning for lots of meals with stuffed peppers and jars of my special chili sauce as well as fresh and canned tomatoes.

The only consistent animal pest problem we have had is racoons raiding the sweet corn – of course on the night just before it is ready to be picked! So, my husband had erected a fence around the garden we grew sweet corn in but not around the other two beds as they were typically not bothered – until last year when the rabbits ate most of the beans. Our plan was to fence this section in this spring.

 In the fenced garden bed, I planted 11 tomatoes, 4 cultivars of sweet peppers, a couple of eggplants, sweet potato slips (Beauregard), 4 varieties of cukes plus some zinnias, carrots, beets and Swiss chard. To reduce the amount of weeding necessary, I lined the paths with newspapers covered with animal bedding and placed a heat-treated straw mix around the plants. Some weeds will inevitably poke through, but many can be suppressed by a light covering of some type of mulch.

Fenced in and planted vegetable garden number 1 by dmp2022.

Last weekend I tackled the garden plot by the shed. Except for the strip of rhubarb and green onion bed, which I had previously planted with greens and garlic, there were plenty of weeds to deal with.

Vegetable garden number 2 before weeding. Photo by dmp2022.

Among the weeds were hundreds of self-seeding annuals like tall verbena, nigella, nicotiana, tall ageratum, bupleurum, and a few ammi. I transplanted a few of each and added a bed with butternut squash and nasturtium seeds, one with Japanese white hull-less popcorn and filled the other two small beds with seeds of zinnia, cosmos, marigolds and some others. In part of the bed I planted brown mustard seeds. My sister made the best sage mustard recipe last year and I am hoping to be able to harvest seeds, we’ll see how that goes.

Planting popcorn seeds. Photo by dmp2022.

Most of the third vegetable garden I covered with black plastic as I am limited to how much time I have to tend all the gardens, the house, and work full time. I did plant one whole framed raised bed with sunflowers and calendulas though. A few volunteer sunflowers had already shown up so I thought I would plant more. The birds really enjoy the seeds (don’t grow all pollenless varieties) and I am thinking Mr. Rabbit, who I’ve been watching nibbling the clover in the lawn may be the culprit that chomped on a few of the sunflower leaves. I sprayed what was left with deer and rabbit repellent so here’s hoping for the best.

I struggle with the mulch to keep down weeds to save precious time and my back versus providing an organic fortified, cooler, moister situation favoring those invasive snakeworms. While 2 inches of any type of organic mulch would likely keep weeds to a minimum, this provides a perfect habitat for these ecosystem destroying invasive pests. So I typically apply only a light covering of mulch, be it shredded bark, cocoa hulls, shredded office paper, untreated grass clippings or purchased seedling/garden mulch straw products.

It was a bit disappointing this evening when I went out to water newly seeded vegetable hills and rows to notice blades of grass rising through the winter squash bed that I had covered with Lucerne Farms gardening mulch. Since this product claims to be heat treated, I suspect that the sprouting grass seeds might be from the Mainely Mulch I had placed around the tomatoes planted in this bed last year. The Lucerne product claims to be heat treated and therefore, free of weed seeds capable of germinating.  I had used Mainely Mulch in the past with no problems but with all the rain we got last year, it seemed like any seed left in the mulch germinated. My weekend plans are to go through all the beds I just planted and pull the weeds when small.

Finished vegetable garden number 2. Photo by dmp2022.

Oxalis in the mulched herb garden is another challenge – it is so ubiquitous. I pull and pull and still see more plants.

My plan is to just upkeep what I can, not to harvest more vegetables than I can handle or give away and enjoy lots of flowers (if the rabbit doesn’t eat them).

I hope all of you have had a much happier and productive spring than me but at least it is just mostly maintenance now and the planting is done.

Celebrate the summer solstice!

Dawn P.

The days are getting visibly shorter. I cannot seem to get most of what I have to do done before it is too dark to see. Too bad I did not have time to install those new yard lights… Although the cold weather has not really hit yet, most people are not really thinking about gardening anymore.  I have been thinking a lot about gardening lately. This is probably one of the best times to get some projects done in the garden. Many of the items I discuss are actually for next year’s garden!

Although most people complain about the leaves in the yard, I just smile (then complain under my breath when I lose a whole day to leaf duty). Leaves make the most wonderful compost, especially if given a little attention along the way. It is best to chop the leaves into small pieces, if possible, otherwise they tend to mat when they get wet. I would also recommend placing them in an active compost site where the microbe populations are at their strongest. Mixing in a little mature compost into the pile will help as well. It is best to turn the compost pile often. I will do this every few weeks. You would be surprised how the heat of decomposition keeps the pile warm even in when the ground is frozen! I love to see the steam come off a freshly turned pile.  Not only does the turning process help aerate the pile and therefore aide in decomposition, it also helps more thoroughly mix the ingredients. There is a whole science to composting, but I always recommend to use what you have, and add as much to it as possible. Kitchen scrapes, including egg shells, can go a long way to enriching that rotting leaf pile.

The author’s large leaf pile half way through the yard leaf clean up day. This will be turned multiple times during the fall, early winter, and spring. Photo by mrl2021.

Another thing people generally do not think about this time of year is a soil test. Soil analysis labs are inundated with soil tests each spring. In reality, you might be better off testing in the fall.  You will probably get your results back sooner. In addition, you will have more time to make any amendments, and to plan out the ideal crops for that plot. The one amendment that comes to mind first is limestone. Connecticut soils, in general, are low in pH. Many gardeners do lime in the spring, but it is actually better to lime in the fall and mix that in so the soil is ready in the spring. Certain crops, like brambles (blackberries and raspberries) actually prefer this method of liming. 

It is important to note that limestone is not required each spring, and the amount you need to apply, if any, is determined by a calculation based on your current soil pH and the optimal pH needed to grow a specific crop. Luckily, most soil testing places will do the calculations for you.  All you need to do is send in the soil and they do the rest. Again, I want to emphasize that the most important thing to do is test the soil first. I so frequently run into people who just lime because they think they should. If a test is not done, you might be wasting your money. If your pH is correct and you lime, now it will be too high. If your pH is too low, you might not be putting enough lime on. Also, there to two different types of lime – calcitic and dolomitic. Their chemistry differs depending on the amount of calcium or magnesium in the mix. Your soil test results can indicate surpluses or deficiencies in those nutrients, which will help you to select the correct lime for your situation.  Collecting soil samples is not hard to do, but it does take a little bit of time.  The efforts will pay off when you are able to tune in the chemistry going on in your garden soil. 

A large area covered by a tarp to kill the weeds and grass. This will be pulled up and limed this fall, and a cover crop will be planted. Photo by mrl2021.

Another fall time garden activity that often gets overlooked is taking stock of crop performance.  So many times, we think we will remember what did good and what did not, but we forget when we go to order seeds or buy our plants the following year. It is helpful to write down that information as it will help you with your seed orders on a cold winter’s night! This is also a good time to plan out, measure out, and maybe even start to prepare the soil in a new garden site. Time is so precious in the spring, and it always seems like I get behind on gardening. The weather certainly throws us off schedule. This is why it is so important to try and save time by doing as much as possible now.

These Zinnias and Cosmos did great in my wife’s bouquets. Knowing what variety I planted is important for ordering seeds next year. Photo by mrl2021.

Don’t forget to harvest as well. Many times we get tired of going out to the field, or the time gets away from us and the sun is down before we know it. Make sure you get your potatoes and any shell beans that are remaining harvested. I have had a great year with volunteers. These are plants that came up from seed and were not planted intentionally by the gardener. Many times the seeds somehow make it through the winter and germinate. This past weekend I just harvested three pumpkins, and a big bowl of cherry tomatoes – all from volunteers. There are also some really big squash growing out the side of the compost pile that I have to get as well. 

Lima beans waiting for harvest. Photo by mrl2021.

My final suggestion is to weed. Normally this is the chore we hate the most, but even more so when it is a cold, wet, fall day. This will make life easier in the spring. Leaving some small grass clumps that came up this year will turn into large, hard to pull grass mounds by the spring. Remember, the goal is to free up time and make life easier next spring. It will be here before you know it so, as the old saying goes, “make hay while the sun shines!”

Can you find the horseradish in amongst the weeds? Photo by mrl2021.

Matt Lisy

“Rain, rain, go away, come again some other day.” We used to sing that song as kids. After starting the spring and summer with some of the driest weather we have had for some time, we are now inundated with rain. The only advantage to this is that seed starting was easier, but only because the soil was heated up a lot by the time this rain hit. Otherwise, all the seed would have rotted. Unfortunately, we seem to be getting more rain than we bargained for…

7-15 Rudbeckia falling over ML

This perennial Rudbeckia patch is flopping over due to recent heavy rains. Photo by mrl2021.

A good soil will hold moisture and therefore help the plants survive between rain spells. In our garden, we water long before the plants would suffer. When it rains as much as it has, the soil can become waterlogged, leaving no space for air. This is a horrible condition for our plants to grow in. Unfortunately, there is not much we can do about it now. Raised beds help excess water drain away from our plants, but those would have had to be installed before planting in the spring. There really is no way to cover the plants to prevent the rain from hitting them as the water table is so high it would not matter (not to mention the plastic and humidity would make matters worse).

Mold, mildew, and fungus thrive in this kind of environment. Don’t be surprised if your cucumbers, squash, and phlox become covered in it this year. There are sprays that help, but I generally do not do anything and hope for more sunlight. Soil borne diseases that affect the roots will be greater in number this year as well. Hopefully we dry out soon before this becomes a bigger problem. Pollinators are limited when the rain comes, and because of this we should expect lower pollination rates for our vegetables for the time being. 

Your plants may appear to have the lower leaves yellowing. This is normal when they are given too much water. Once again there is no way to stop the rain so just hang in there. Yellowing can also be a symptom of nutritional deficiency (particularly nitrogen). Rain continually washing through the soil many times can wash away nutrients. This is called leaching. You would be wise to put some fertilizer down to replace what was lost, but try and not put it down before a big rain storm. Organic fertilizers tend to work better in this case as they are less prone to leaching. 

7-15 Yellowing Zuchinni plant ML

Yellowing of lower leaves of this zucchini plant caused by too much water. Photo by mrl2021.

Another thing to watch out for that you can do something about, are the weeds! The moisture and warm soil will help them germinate as well. Weeds may outgrow our plants in certain conditions. Get out there while the weeds are still small with a stirrup hoe or any hoe you prefer and get them before they get too big. When they are small, the hoe can cut or disturb weeds in a way that kills them. In many cases, if left unchecked, the weeds will grow taller than our plants and shade them out. A few weeks from now our prized plants may be totally outcompeted! Manually remove any weeds too big to hoe up. The wet ground usually makes weeds easier to pull so at least there is some good that comes from all this precipitation.

7-15 Weedy peppers ML

The pepper patch is in need of the hoe. Photo by mrl2021.

7-15 Raspberry and tall grass ML

This spring-planted raspberry patch is being overtaken by grass – time to weed before it gets shaded out completely. Photo by mrl2021.

Over saturated ground may also cause trees to uproot – especially pine trees. Be very careful if you see trees that seem to be leaning over. Hard, frequent rain can also cause washing out of the yard where the grass may not have been that thick.

7-15 Washing out in thin grass ML

This area of the yard was due for reseeding but now has washed out. Photo by mrl2021.

Tall annual and perennial plants may also get pushed over by the heavy rains. You may be able to tie them up with some string, as they probably will not stand up on their own again this year. If perennial, they will come back next year and have a normal, upright growth pattern so no worries there.

7-15 Cosmos spilling into the lawn ML

The Cosmos are spilling over into the lawn. They will need to be tied up before mowing. Photo by mrl2021.

7-15 Crocosmia flopping over ML

The Crocosmia is flopping over this year. I could tie this up after the rains end. Photo by mrl2021.

Hopefully this blog helped you understand what is going on around you. With the exception of weeding, there is not much we can do about it other than pray it stops raining so much! This will all end sooner or later and will be a distant memory. I guess we should be happy we did not have to lug around the garden hose. Be ready to fertilize when the rain ends and tie up some of your prized plants. This is all part of what we have to deal with when gardening. In many respects, although outside of the norm, it is nothing new. Maybe one day soon the lawn will be dry enough to mow!

Matt Lisy

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

The end of the summer is bitter sweet. Although our gardens are usually producing lots of produce during this time, our gardening days are numbered. It is tempting to just not worry about much and simply enjoy the harvest. However, this is a crucial time to deal with weeds! Weeds left to their own devices are going to produce lots of seeds, which will overwinter and come back to haunt us in the spring. In a few years’ time, a garden can quickly evolve into a weed farm. To combat this, you should be aggressively pulling out those weeds now. When the crop is done, it is a good idea to pull out the remaining vegetation as well to help stop crop-specific diseases.  After weeding and cleaning up the crop residue, now is also time to put down a cover crop.  Cover crops hold on to lots of nutrients, protect against soil erosion, and also prevent weeds from taking hold. Some have even been found to have an allelopathic effect, which means they secrete chemicals that interfere with or suppress weed growth. Cover crops also help build the soil, deepen the top soil layer, break up the hard subsoil, and support the flora and fauna needed for a successful garden. I also like the appearance of a cover crop, because the garden still appears to have life even after our crops are gone.

Large garden patch ready to be weeded. If left until next year, weed seeds will become incorporated into the soil and become a problem. Photo by mrl 2020

This is also the time of year when volunteers present themselves. These are plants that were not planted by the gardener, somehow overwintered from a seed produced the previous year, and germinated in our garden this past spring. Many times, these are the strongest of the previous year’s crop, are adapted to your site conditions, and occasionally have attributes that make it worth saving the seeds. For example, last year I had a volunteer pumpkin. It was a wonderful size for kids and was perfectly round. I saved the seeds for planting the following year. This year I have tiny round, yellow, miniature, cherry-type tomatoes about the size of a large blueberry. I like the mild flavor of them and will save some seeds this year. Now, there is no guarantee that the plants will come back the very same way, but after selecting for a number of years, you may be able to produce plants that will breed true to form. 

Some volunteer small, yellow, blueberry-sized cherry tomatoes. Photo by mrl 2020

Although we tend to think of things as winding down in the fall, now can be a perfect time to plant for a fall harvest. Many of the crops typically planted in early spring can be replanted now like peas or lettuce, for example. Most people have seeds left over from the spring anyway, and fall is a great time to use them up. It is also time to preserve what you have grown. For some reason, it seems I am most busy at this time of year and many times not all of the food gets preserved. Freezing, canning, cold-storing, and drying are some common ways to enjoy your harvest year-round. See the previous ladybug blog post for a discussion of some of these.

Leftover pea seeds from the spring -more than enough for a fall planting. Photo by mrl

Other than weeding and planting cover crops, one of the best things a gardener can do is to write down where everything was planted this last year. It is important to rotate crops to stop the disease life cycles. Any pest that preyed on your crop will generally lay eggs or overwinter in the same area. If you replant the same crop in the same spot next year, when the pest emerges as the weather warms in the late spring/early summer, it will have a bounty of food to eat. By moving crops to a different area of the garden or yard, it eliminates the food source for the pest, or at least makes it harder to find. It seems easy to know what was planted where at this point in time but gets harder hard to remember next spring when you are planning your garden. Before I got into the habit of writing crop locations down, I frequently found myself playing detective in the spring looking for clues as to the crops planted there. I also will write notes about what fertilizers or soil additives I used in the area as well. Although annual soil tests are not a bad idea, it helps to know what was done to the soil when planning which crop will go there the following year.  For example, if I just limed a patch the year before, I would not want to plant a crop with a lower pH requirement. On the other hand, if I have not limed a patch in a while, I would not want to plant a high pH crop in the area as it would take a lot of lime to bring the soil up to the correct level. 

Large bag of winter rye that is ready to be sown. Photo by mrl

A garden is only as good as the soil it contains. Compost is a great way to enhance the soil, but not all compost is created equal. There are many books written on how to properly compost, and I will not discuss in great detail here, but a few of the more important components will be covered. Turning compost will help ensure uniformity throughout. It also helps to ensure that weed seeds get buried and “cooked.” The other thing that can be done is to add more organic materials to the pile at this time. For example, if you compost a lot of grass clippings, maybe layer in some dry leaves this fall. Some well composted material can also be layered into a new pile to help inoculate the material with proper microorganisms.  If done correctly, you will have lots of nice compost in the following spring.

Large compost pile in need of turning and ready for the addition of some fall leaves. Photo by mrl 2020

Putting it all together in a nutshell, harvest your crops, preserve the excess, weed, plant your fall crops, plant cover crops, write down what you did and where you did it, and turn the compost.  This will get you off to a great start next spring.  In reality, the spring of next year starts this fall…

Matt Lisy

Lilac in snow 3

These are some crazy times lately. Snow in the second week of May just adds to the disruptions in our lives right now. Folks are looking to their yard and gardens to bring stability to the upheaval in their lives, and snow and cold weather does not ease the mind. However, mother nature has a way of healing the plants and in doing so, shows us we will heal, too.

Some blossoms will sustain damage without the entire plant being lost. Some plants will succumb to the freeze, but these plants are ones that grow naturally and natively in much warmer areas which would not experience snow or freezing weather. If tomatoes or marigolds were planted out in the garden, they most likely were killed from the freeze. See packets and transplant labels state to wait to plant after all danger of frost has passed. For us in Connecticut, May 15th is the average last frost date. I err on the side of caution, waiting until Memorial Day when the soil as warmed considerably before planting cucumbers, peppers, petunias, squash and tomatoes. Putting these plants into cold soil will shock and stunt them for the rest of the growing season.

Perennial plants in our area are like old friends, returning home after a long absence. The familiarity of finding them in walk abouts, makes the world seem normal. Even some stalwart rhubarb laden with snow gives me hope we will weather  our storms. Rhubarb is a hardy perennial vegetable, providing pies and baked goods from its leaf stalk. Don’t eat the leaves as they contain a high level of oxalates the body doesn’t handle well. Better to use the leaves in the compost or lay them on the ground in the vegetable garden to keep the weeds down. They cover a lot of area.

Rhubarb in snowEarlier in the week, I removed a flowering stalk from the rhubarb plant, to conserve the plant’s energy by not producing seed. Removal of the flower helps the clump grow bigger and get stronger.

rhubarb flower stalk

Cut the rhubarb flower stalk at the base of the plant and compost it or use it in a flower arrangement.

Lilacs are a long-lived, woody shrub capable of with-standing freezes and snow. The flower buds were encased with ice and snow, but should bounce right back; only time will tell. The plant itself can live for over 100 years!

Lilac in snow one bud open

Magnolia is  another woody tree that lives a long time, but its flowers are often damaged by frost and cold weather. The photo below was taken before the snow  but after a frost, of Magnolia x soulangeana, showing the damage to the open blossom and the newly opened flower that was in bud at the time of the frost. After today’s snow, the petals have all fallen.Magnolia flower and cold damaged one

Flowering quince is a hardy shrub tolerant of late freezes. Its scarlet flowers didn’t blink with a covering of snow, shaking them off to shine brightly by noon once the sun came out. Each blossom should be appreciated up close for its rose like shape. Unfortunately, it is a pretty scraggly and unkempt specimen the rest of the year. She reminds of a  disheveled  and gangly teenage boy that cleans up nicely for prom, but only once a year.

quince flowering

Clove current is blooming, and before the snow released its spice scented aroma to soft wind. Hopefully, once the warmer weather returns so will the shrub’s offering to those in backyard.


Clove current flower

I spoke of plants returning like old friends, expecting nothing from you except your company. They don’t try to change you or bring you around to around to their new found way of processing the world. Plants would never talk politics with you. They are just happy with your company. I think people could take a lesson or two from plants. Even weeds are consistently reappearing, each in their own time bringing a sense of comfortable familiarity. Chickweed has arrived, budded up with blossoms open in sunnier spots.


Bedstraw aka catchweed is entwining the old-fashioned shrub roses rescued from a 1600’s cemetery on Cape Cod. The paving truck was laying an asphalt walkway right over the rambling mass of thorny branches. I had to at least save a few in the way of its destructive path. The bedstraw always appears only in these bushes, making me think they must be old friends, too. I pull a few but don’t have the heart to remove them all, plus I like their airy foliage mixing with the deep pink roses once they bloom in June.

bedstraw at rose base

Milkweed shoots are up, promising a food source for many caterpillars and other insects. The monarch butterfly used milkweed species exclusively on which to lay eggs and for its larva. Common milkweed can become weedy as it spreads via seed and root, enlarging its colony each year.

Milkweed shoots


I hope you find the return of old friends in the garden and maybe add a few new ones this season.

-Carol Quish

Every year at the UConn Home & Garden Education there are a few topic of interest that we get a lot of calls about. Several years ago we fielded a lot of calls about the drought situation in Connecticut that occupied many people’s thoughts in 2016. In fact, that encompassed two years as we started to feel the effects of it in 2015. On the tail end of the drought, and perhaps in part because of it, many parts of the state were visited with an infestation of gypsy moth caterpillars. When we have a wet spring the fungus Entomophaga maimaiga, a natural control of the gypsy moth caterpillar, can flourish. The fungus overwinters as spores in leaf litter and in the soil. It then reactivates in the spring when there is sufficient rainfall. Although we were receiving an adequate amount of rain by 2017 it happened to occur a bit late for the fungus to be fully effective against the voraciously feeding caterpillars. So the summers of 2016 and 2017 were dedicated to answering many questions about the gypsy moth caterpillars and the damage that they wreaked.

As those two events have wound down a new concern arose for many of our clients. Thanks in part to press releases and an interview that aired on NBC CT in June the giant hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum, (below images) jumped to the front of the queue. The Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group (CIPWG) issued a warning about this invasive species which was first spotted in Connecticut in 2001. Most of the populations of giant hogweed are under control and none of the reported sightings in 2018 were positive.

There are many look-a-like plants and it is those species that we are asked to identify. Starting in early-June calls and emails began to come in to identify large herbaceous perennials that were striking fear into Connecticut residents. This is in part due to the pretty noxious nature of the giant hogweed sap. Within 24-48 hours after skin has been in contact with the sap painful blisters may appear in individuals that are sensitive to it. Three things need to be present for the reaction known as phytophotodermatitis to occur. First, direct contact between the skin and the sap. Second, the skin must be moist as from perspiration, for example. Third, the contaminated area must be exposed to sunlight. If you are working in an area that contains giant hogweed it is easy to imagine that all of the criteria could be easily met.

Before attempting to remove giant hogweed from an area the first step should be positively identifying it. As I mentioned earlier, there have not been any confirmed sightings in Connecticut yet this year. It may be that the suspected plant is one of the following instead.

The first plant that is most commonly mistaken for giant hogweed is fellow member of the Heracleum genus: cow parsnip, Heracleum maximum, (images below). Unlike giant hogweed which was introduced to the United States 100 years ago from the Caucasus region of Central Asia, cow parsnip is native to North America. A tall herbaceous perennial that can reach up to 10 feet in the shade, nowhere near the 18 feet possible height of the giant hogweed, cow parsnip bears its flowers in in the flat-topped or rounded umbels that are characteristic of other members of the carrot family, Apiacea. Both species have compound deeply-lobed, toothed leaves but the cow parsnip lacks the red veining and leaf stalks common to giant hogweed. Cow parsnip also contains chemicals that cause phytophotodermatitis.

The next most common look-a-like is angelica, (below images). A first cousin once-removed, it shares its family, Apiaceae, with the giant hogweed and cow parsnip but is in the genus Angelica. Angelica grows 3-9 feet tall and also has large umbel flower heads. The compound leaves of angelica are what distinguish it from giant hogweed as they are bipinnate, meaning that they are compound leaves in which the leaflets are also compound (think honey locust leaves). Often used as a medicinal herb, angelica is the least toxic of the hogweed look-a-likes although it may still cause a skin reaction.

Queen Anne’s lace, Daucus carota, (below images) takes compound leaves one step further to tripinnate, having pinnately compound leaves that are bipinnate. The more levels of pinnation, the more delicate the overall effect. The airy-looking leaves of D. carota are what give it the ‘lace’ part of its name and are similar to its subspecies, the domestic carrot. Queen Anne’s lace has an umbellate flower head atop a much slimmer stem than giant hogweed, cow parsnip, or angelica. The sap from the leaves and stems can cause a phytophotodermatitis reaction although the flowers are used to make jelly similar to the yarrow jelly from our June 26th blog post.

The native Lactuca species includes wild lettuce (Lactuca Canadensis),

prickly lettuce (L. serriola), hairy lettuce (L. hirsute), and the blue lettuces (l. biennis, L. floridana, L. pulchella, L. villosa).

These tall plants start out from a basal rosette of leaves and can grow to 7 feet tall with large alternating broad leaves.  They have pale blue insignificant flowers compared to the dense clustered heads of the previous plants.

Finally, giant ragweed, Ambrosia trifida, has also made a plant identification appearance.  This 6-foot tall annual herb is a noxious weed that has become invasive in other parts of the world as it out competes native species in much the same way that the giant hogweed has here.

As plants and seeds have spread across the globe through human, animal, mechanical, or water means many species have landed in non-native locations and taken root there. If you are a fan of podcasts, check out the Infinite Monkey Cage’s Invasion episode where scientists and comedians take a look at the problems caused by alien (plant) invasions.

Susan Pelton, UConn Home & Garden Education Center

All images by CIPWG and UConn



After a long, busy day at work, I like to find an hour or two most evenings to work out in the garden. It is cooler then and sometimes a soft breeze can be had. I do have a bit of hand watering to do with 32 thirsty container plantings but then I can plunk myself down in the aromatic herb garden or amidst the vegetables or in one of several perennial/shrub beds and pull up weeds. While it sounds crazy to most, this is relaxing horticultural therapy for me. It gives me time to let my mind wander and pleasure at seeing a weed-free garden bed, and also keeps me in touch with what is happening in the garden and in the yard.

Ideally, mulch of some kind would get put down after weeding but this does not always occur in a timely fashion. A few beds were mulched with a bark mulch but with the hot, dry weather, the surface of the mulch has become hydrophobic (water resistant) and one has to either keep the sprinkler on for a long time or ‘prime’ it by poking a few holes in the mulch around the base of the plants to let the water penetrate and not roll off. I am having this problem because of late plantings (some last weekend –great summer sale at local garden center!). So I have overgrown 6-pack plants in small holes in very hot and dry weather. The root zone needs to be soaked every day and the bark mulch is repelling water.

Back to weeding. I found 3 Large Cabbage White caterpillars in one of my ‘Gonzales’ mini-cabbages. They were promptly removed and squished. Two other caterpillars to look for on members of the cabbage family are the imported cabbage worm and cabbage looper. They all seem to like green cabbages better than red ones. Hopefully that goes for Brussels sprouts too as I planted “Rubine’ red ones this year.

Damage from cabbage moth larvae

Dill self-seeds itself throughout the garden. This is great when drying the leaves for culinary purposes but there is a limit as to how much dill weed one can use. Many dill plants are weeded out but not before I check to see if there any eggs or larvae of the black swallowtail butterfly – aka parsley worm. Plants with caterpillars on them are left alone.

Parsley worm on dill

Not one honeybee to be seen but in these later evening hours, bumble bees and other native pollinators are still active. They really like the leeks that made it through the winter and are in full bloom. Good reading on the decline of our native bumble bees and what to do about it can be found in Conserving Bumble Bees. Guidelines for Creating and Managing Habitat for America’s Declining Pollinators from the Xerces Society.

In the herb garden I get to munch on pineapple strawberries and bronze fennel leaves while weeding. A cocoa hull mulch will go on this weekend. Most years there is a leopard frog or two living in the thyme bed but this year only grasshoppers are jumping about. Garlic chive seedlings are prolific as that October snowstorm dashed seedheads to the ground before they were deadheaded. Two of the four tri-colored sage plants overwintered but curiously several branches of plain-colored sage emerged from each plant and are now blooming. I suppose I should cut them off but the bees are so enjoying the blossoms.

Last year all leaves were variegated – this year plenty of green!

Early evening also brings avian visitors to the yard. The bird baths and feeders get filled then and cardinals, goldfinches, chickadees, nuthatches and more line up for food as if knowing what they don’t eat now will probably be consumed by the squirrels in the morning. The past few days a couple of juvenile red-winged hawks have been chasing each other in the back woods and putting up quite the ruckus. A wren perches on the tomato stakes as if to check out my work. The spicy perfume of nicotiana permeates the area. Crickets softly chirp. Life is good!

A very bad picture of a very noisy young hawk!

(Uh oh – mosquitoes buzzing – time to go in!)

Soil –fully yours!


October is in its  second week, bringing the first hard frost to the middle of Connecticut. This seasonal mile stone is my cue to plant garlic. I know, planting anything in mid October seems like the wrong thing to do and a bit backward, but now is the correct time to plant the strong scented bulbs. There are about six weeks left before the ground freezes, giving the garlic ample time to develop a good root system without producing any top growth that will be killed with the freezing weather.

Pick the right spot.

Garlic needs a full sun spot with well drained soil rich in organic matter. Full sun is 6 to 8 hours of sun a day. Add a one inch layer of well rotted manure or compost and mix in with existing soil. Loosen soil to about a foot deep. Have a soil test done to determine pH and nutrient level after compost or manure has been added. Garlic grows best in a soil pH of 6.5 to 7.0. Add lime and any amendments as soil test results recommend.

Break the head of garlic into individual cloves. Leave the papery skins on the cloves. Plant with the root end down and the pointed tip up, three inches into the soil, with each clove spaced six inches apart. A fluffy mulch of straw covering the bed for the winter will provide protection from heaving during the freezing weather. The goal is the encourage root growth this fall, not top green growth until spring.  Once warm spring weather initiates green growth next spring, side dress with a little 5-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of 1/2 pound for 50 garlic plants.

Pick the right garlic.

There are three different types of garlic:   softneck,   hardneck   and elephant. Choosing the correct type to grow for your area will bring the most success.

Soft neck garlic is not well suited to grow through our cold New England winters. It has a soft neck, papery neck of a stem good for braiding. Soft neck garlic is most often the type seen for sale in the grocery stores, shipped in from California where it is grown. Do not plant this in Connecticut.

Hardneck garlic is best suited for New England gardens. It has a hard, almost woody center stem with six to 12 cloves surrounding the central stalk. This type will produce an edible scape that if left on the plant, will produce a flower. The flower will sap strength from the bulb making the cloves smaller. Cut off the scapes before they bloom in May or June. Common hard neck varieties include ‘German White’,  ‘Music’, and ‘Spanish Roja’. Hard neck garlic can be purchased through seed catalogs and most commonly available at farmers’ market during September and October. They are sold to eat, and these can be used as seed stock for planting.

Elephant garlic are very large heads the size of tennis balls with a mild taste.  It is not actually a garlic but closer to the leek family. I have not had much luck getting elephant garlic to live though the winter successfully. Stick with the hard neck varieties!

Harvest and Storage.

During the month of May, the each plant will put up a tall scape with a bud at the tip containing a future flower. As stated earlier, don’t let it flower. Cut the scapes off of the plant about two feet above the ground. The scapes are the first harvest provided from the plants. Garlic scapes are sharp in taste, considered a spring delicacy in stir fries or made into a pesto.

The real harvest of the bulbs comes when the greenery begins to turn yellow and papery. Each above ground leaf is a layer of papery sheath for the cloves below. Handle the plant carefully without damaging the protective paper covering of the head of cloves. When about half of the leaves have turned yellow to brown, harvest the bulbs. Gently dig the heads and lay them in the shade  to dry for two or three days. Protect from night dew to promote the drying. Good airflow is essential. Leave the roots, stalk and leaves on the plant for a month. Set out of the sun, in a covered airy location to cure the garlic. The curing develops the taste and keeping quality.   Do not wash with water. After curing and drying, cut the roots to half inch and bush off any dirt.Garlic can be stored in mesh bags or braided by the stems.


photo by Carol Quish

photo by Carol Quish

Crabgrass is overtaking some lawns by this time of late summer. It is an annual grass weed with wider blades and lighter yellowish green color than the preferred lawn grasses. Crabgrass seeds that germinated last spring are large spreading plants by September. The cooler soil temperatures at the end of summer trigger new plants to sprout, adding to the crabgrass population. All crabgrass plants will die with first the hard frost. As stated above, they are annual plants meaning they grow from a seed to plant, produce seed and die all in one year. Each year, new plants grow from seed make up the entire crabgrass population. Knowledge of the plant’s growth cycle is useful for using the correct control measure.

The first line of defense against crabgrass is healthy soil and a dense stand of turf. Soil pH for turf should be 6.5. Connecticut soils usually are in the below 6 range. A soil test will determine your particular yard’s pH level as well as reveal the nutrients available. Soil testing how to’s can be found at www.soiltest.uconn.edu. After receiving results by mail, make recommended additions to bring your soil into optimum grass growing condition. Turf needs oxygen and water also to support a healthy lawn. If soil is hard to dig and compacted, now is the time to core aerate. Aeration machines remove a small plug of turf and soil, depositing it on the lawn surface. Leave these plugs on top, do not rake them up. Rain or watering and wind will breakup the plugs, redistributing the soil microbes into the top layers. If you want to add more organic matter to the soil, spread a thin, (1/4 inch), of compost over the entire lawn. Compost will add rejuvenating microbial life to the root zone of the grass.

Mid September is the ideal time to overseed bare and thin turf areas. Choose a grass seed mixture that contains a high percentage of fescue grass. Some bluegrass and perennial rye grass is usually included in the mix. Do not chose one with annual ryes as these will die with the cold weather.  Rake the bare spots to break up any crust to give the seed good contact with the soil. Tamp down after spreading seed. Keep seed moist during germination occurs and new seedlings are two inches tall. Next spring, this new grass should fill in nicely.

To keep the crabgrass seed from germinating in the spring, use a pre-emergent herbicide. Crabgrass begins to germinate when the soil temperatures reach 38 to 40 degrees F. Forsythia blooms at the same soil temperatures making it a good plant indicator to help with remembering the timing of herbicide application. Pre-emergent herbicide does not kill the non-germinating seed, only the new little pip emerging from the seed. This new tissue, the pip, is very tender and susceptible to the chemicals in the pre-emergent herbicide. Not all the crabgrass seeds will germinate every year. Some will stay dormant for many years, creating a seed bank. Each year crabgrass is allowed to grow and produce seed, it adds more seeds to the seed bank. Read the label of the pre-emergent to see how long it will last. Some formulations will last two months, some last six months. These anti-germinating chemicals halt the germination of all seeds, broadleafed and grasses. Only one, Tupersan allows desirable grasses seed to germinate. Tupersan only works on the crabgrass seed, but it doesn’t last long, two months most labels advise. An organic option of pre-emergent herbicide is corn gluten meal. Timing is the same as with a synthetic pre-emergent.

Fertilize with the amounts indicated on the soil test report. Starter fertilizer may be used at the seeding stage.

So to recap the step needed to thicken the turf and reduce crabgrass:

1. Soil Test – apply lime as recommended

2. Core Aerate

3. Top dress with compost.

4. Seed with high fescue seed mix.

5. Keep moist.

6. Next spring when forsythia blooms, apply a pre-emergent herbicide.

Result is a lush healthy lawn.