“The February sunshine steeps your boughs and tints the buds and swells the leaves within.”

– William C. Bryant

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Great Blue Heron in an open area of an otherwise icy pond February 25 2017

It feels, temperature-wise, that we are on the cusp of spring, and certainly the landscape is responding to the warmer and longer of February. Right now we are seeing spring try to break out a little early in some areas. It may still snow, of course, but maple trees are tapped at the usual time and birds have begun their morning and evening territorial calls in response to longer daylight periods. Skunk cabbages have been poking their heads up for a while, but it is still winter, and we may see temperatures go down to a more normal range for this time of year.

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Around the state, the spring blooming witch hazel, Hamamelis vernalis is blooming in areas along the Connecticut shoreline and further north in sunny areas. Native to the Ozark Plateau which ranges from southern Missouri through parts of Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma, this witch hazel does well along gravelly or rocky stream banks and moist or dry soils in the landscape. It does best in full sun, but will tolerate some shade. Height is normally around eight feet as a mature plant, and about as wide.

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Hamamelis vernalis blooming on campus at Storrs February 26, 2017

We can tell where the native willows are now as they are starting to bloom now. Other spring bloomers, like the star and southern magnolias, have swollen flower buds. Here’s hoping that we do not have a repeat of last year, when snow and freezing temperatures in the low teens followed and destroyed the flower buds of many of our fruit and ornamental trees.

Whitlow grass, Draba verna, is flowering in sunny areas especially where the soil in lawns has open areas. Whitlow grass is not a grass at all, but a member of the mustard family, and it is one of the first herbaceous plants to flower before spring. It has tiny white flowers that may be mistaken for a chickweed, but this plant arises from a basal rosette. It is a winter annual and can form large mats that are evident in spring when the white flowers appear. Non- native, this plant has been around for over one hundred years.

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Whitlow grass and syrphid fly February 28, 2017

As ice melts from inland ponds, migrating ducks and wading birds may appear at any time. In late February, a great blue heron was in a little open area on a pond otherwise covered in soft ice. Ring- necked ducks and hooded merganzers have been seen also at inland ponds that are along their northern migration route. Song sparrows and cardinals are already singing their spring songs- song sparrows sing off and on all day perched on the tops of shrubs or small trees

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A male song sparrow just finished his song from atop a mountain laurel in the wild

Spring peepers were heard the last week of February when the weather was very warm during the day. I have not heard any since, though. Painted turtles have been sunning themselves on rocks and floating logs during the warmer days as well. And chipmunks are up and running. Woodchucks are also out and about, which is early for them. Unless there are some herbaceous plants greening up, they will probably head down below ground and extend their winter nap.

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Painted turtle getting its first sun bath of 2017

If you have any birdhouses that need cleaning, do it now. Although I have seen bluebirds build a nest on top of an old one in a nest box, which is the exception rather than the rule. Phoebes may be arriving any time, so keep an eye open for this early migrater. They have a distinctive call which you can hear by visiting Cornell University’s link: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Eastern_Phoebe/id

Snow melt and recent winter rains have helped some vernal pools recover from the drought. Streams are also flowing with more water than they had last summer and fall. Check out vernal pools for wood frog and spotted salamander eggs before the end of March.

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Clark Creek in Haddam off Rte 154 has significant flow after February snow melt

And if a garden has been mulched over perennials and they have started growing, do not remove leaves or mulch as that has insulated the plants from the cold. Uncovering them too soon may invite damage if the weather returns to more seasonable temperatures below freezing. Winter is probably not over yet, but it will be soon. That cheers me up considerably.

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Pussy willow

Pamm Cooper                                                  all photos © 2017 Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Some red maples still had leaves late in the fall in 2016

 

“ November comes
And November goes,
With the last red berries
And the first white snows.”

– Clyde Watson

This fall was spectacular in its color displays both in the leaves and in the skies.And we are not done yet. A relatively indifferent  landscape can turn charming or spectacular when autumn colors abound as they have this year. Since a pictures is said  to be worth a thousand words, I will save you much reading…

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Canada geese on a pond splashed with early morning fall colors Pamm Cooper photo

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American Lady butterflies migrate south for the winter, along with sulphurs, monarchs, cabbage whites and red admirals

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Delicata squash- one of the smaller winter squash varieties

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Old house in the background with Oriental bittersweet on the left and an old Japanese maple on the right . Location is heading south from the Goodspeed Opera House on Rte 154

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Mushrooms on a dying sweet birch in early November 2016.

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Mourning Cloaks overwinter as butterflies and may be seen flying about near or in the woods on warm winter days

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It is obvious where the barberry is in these woods. Photo taken near the Gillette Castle State Park

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Honey bees are visiting mums and witch hazel this week, as well as any Montauk daisies that are still blooming

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November 6 2016 dawn over Glastonbury, Ct.

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Here is a good example of thinking ahead when planting. A sugar maple on the left and a Japanese maple on the right were probably planted over 30 years ago and are the perfect companions for great autumn color.

Take some little trips this season in our little state. There is still some good color out there, but it may not last much longer. And you may not have to go very far to get some great visual  compositions. Perhaps just as far as your own back yard.

Pamm Cooper                                          All photos by Pamm Cooper

 

 

As the trees shed the last of their leaves in preparation for the coming winter, New England gardeners are collecting the last of their harvests or preparing plants like parsnips for in-ground harvest throughout the cold winter months. We have had several frosts and a tad of wet snow which is fine for the Brussels sprouts that I am harvesting this week for Thanksgiving dinner. Exposure to frosts sweetens them up a bit. Also picked this past weekend were a handful of leeks which were made into a potato leek soup flavored with caraway seeds and dill – served with an herb and onion bread. It is one of my favorite cold weather meals. There is still some chard, broccoli and another kohl rabi left and they will be dealt with shortly. With the relatively mild winter we experienced last year, several Swiss chard plants made it through the winter to provide early spring greens much to my delight so I will leave a few plants to see if my luck continues.

November 8th dusting of snow on Brussels sprouts

 November is often such a gloomy month that any burst of color is a welcome relief from the drab browns of dying vegetation. A definite attention getter is Winterberry (Ilex verticillata).  This native is commonly found in moist areas and can grow up to 15 feet tall. Bright red berries persist well into winter and are a sought after food source for dozens of species of birds. The native species tends to be rather loose in form but there are many cultivars and selections that are more compact and fruitful. There are also selections with yellow berries.

There are two things to keep in mind when planting winterberries in the landscape. First, like all hollies, they are dioecious which means that there are separate male and female plants and both are needed for the flowers to be pollinated and red berries to form. Usually one male plant is purchased for every half dozen or so females. If you have some winterberries growing nearby and producing berries, you must have a male pollinator in the vicinity so you may not need to purchase one. Secondly, although winterberries do tolerate and even produce some berries if grown in part shade, a much heavier crop will occur when plants are grown in full sun.

Winterberry brightens the November landscape

 Another favorite plant of mine this time of year is the witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) which is the last plant to bloom. Flowers consist of four, curious, yellow, strap-like petals and are produced after the leaves fall from the branches. Our native witch hazel is not as flashy as the cultivars but it gives the wooded areas in which is grows a soothing, golden haze making a very pretty scene when touched by the early morning sun. 

 Many folks do not know that Connecticut is the witch hazel capital of world, with East Hampton being the epicenter. A minister named Thomas Dickinson opened the first witch hazel distillery in Essex, CT back in the mid 1800’s. Family feuds ended up with the establishment of a second distillery in East Hampton and rival brands. In the 1970’s the East Hampton distillery was bought by a non-family member. It was automated in the 1980’s and this was the beginning of the end for the Essex facility which closed in 1997.

Presently, hundreds of tons of witch hazel stems are needed each year for witch hazel production and as of 2008, only about 8 families in Connecticut are responsible for most of the harvest. It is a perennial crop which takes just a few years to regrow after the stems are harvested.

Native Americans used witch hazel as a cure-all for a number of ills, many of which it is still used for today. Some of the cosmetic and pharmaceutical products which contain witch hazel include various shampoos and conditioners, bath gels and soaps, shaving creams, suntan lotions, aftershave lotions, deodorants, acne care products, psoriasis creams, hemorrhiodal products, mouthwashes, topical anti-bacterials as well as a number of veterinary products.

I am so excited about this year’s graduating class of UConn Master Composters! What’s a Master Composter you ask? Developed along a similar line to the UConn Master Gardener program, a UConn Master Composter attends 6 to 7 educational sessions on composting which typically include classroom learning, hands-on demonstrations and activities, and at least two field trips. In exchange for this training on the many aspects of composting, they are asked to participate in two University-sanctioned, educational, outreach activities within one year of their training program. My first class of Master Composters consisted of 10 individuals, 9 of whom completed their outreach requirements. Their total volunteer outreach hours reached over 200 hours towards community composting education. We had a very nice (and delicious) pot-luck graduation luncheon at the Middlesex County Extension Center in Haddam on November 7, 2010. The next Master Composter class will be starting up in March in Bethel. Plans for the class are being set up now and will be available on our website, www.ladybug.uconn.edu shortly.

Lastly, I am thankful for many things this past year. I am thankful that we only had 8 weeks of drought and the rain came before my well went dry; I am thankful for the 3 little bunnies that decimated my beets and lettuce but were so tame I could get within 6 feet of them for photographs: I am thankful for no late blight on my tomatoes this year so I had plenty for homemade chili sauce, I am also thankful for the pollinators that gave me a bountiful harvest and the birds whose choruses delighted me while I battled weeds and insect pests. I will admit, however, not being thankful for those pesky chipmunks who dug up about a quarter of all my transplants last spring. Please tell me why a few zinnias can’t be left to grow in peace? !!!

Interesting Fish Bowl Bed at out Thanksgiving Dinner Host's house

 Wishing you all a happy and delicious Thanksgiving!

 Dawn

As I was heading out to Stamford the other day to teach the Master Gardener class on Soils, Plant Nutrition and Fertilizers, I noticed that the snowdrops at the base of the foundation were already in bloom. I haven’t checked on my black pussy willow yet but as I strolled through aisles of vendors at the CT Flower & Garden Show in Hartford yesterday, I noticed bunches of soft, fuzzy pussy willows for sale, a sure sign spring is on the way.

For the last decade, at least, the UConn Home & Garden Education Center and the UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory have had a joint booth at the Hartford Flower Show. We offer free soil pH testing for anyone who brings in one-half cup of soil or so (yes I know some years it is hard to collect a soil sample in February!) and both UConn staff and UConn Master Gardener volunteers are at the booth to answer gardening questions from the public. If we don’t know the answers on the spot, we will research the question and phone, mail or email our findings to you. We also take this opportunity to let folks know about our Perennial Plant and Garden Conferences to be held March 11 and 12 at the Storrs campus as well as the CT Master Gardener Association Conference held March 27 at Manchester Community College (http://www.ctmga.org/ ).

Gardening and soil questions and comments are of course received by us all year long. Upon returning from a talk a few weeks ago, I found a message to call back a homeowner who had something very important to tell us. When I called back, the person described to me a most interesting plant. It seems she had purchased a witch hazel, Hamamelis mollis ‘Pallida’ for its late winter, airy, golden blossoms. One branch of her shrub, however, had red flowers which had begun opening last November.

I suspect this was because the plant was grafted and the red flowering stem arose from the root stock. I have seen this happen on roses where there is a red rose on the end of a stem but all the other stems are producing yellow roses. The person was nice enough to send me a photo of her curious but delightful plant.

Bicolor witch hazel

On another note, finish up those seed orders! I just came across some information stating that cucumber seeds might be in short supply because of the terrible seed-growing season last year on both sides of the Atlantic. There should be enough seeds to start with but procrastinators may be faced with limited variety selections the longer they wait to purchase seeds.  

Purchase cucumber seeds early!

 Dawn