reflections in a vernal pool showing spotted salamander eggs left, wood frog eggs top, and spotted salamander larva to the right. April 10, 2013 Photo Pamm Cooper

reflections in a vernal pool showing spotted salamander eggs left, wood frog eggs top, and spotted salamander larva to the right. April 10, 2013 Photo Pamm Cooper

Vernal pools are seasonally fresh- water flooded depressions, usually filling with water in the spring as water tables rise in the spring. Although some depressions are filled in the fall, and may be referred to as “ autumnal pools “, the vernal pool in Connecticut contains water for about two months during the growing season. It typically has no outlet stream, and no fish populations are found in them. Most years, vernal pools dry out completely by late summer.

Vernal pools are rich breeding areas for many amphibians. Some of these amphibians need to complete at least part of their life cycle in the pools before reaching adulthood. Look for eggs of the various amphibians that will be born there starting in late March through early April. Among them are wood frogs, spotted salamanders, marbled salamanders and gray tree frogs, and to some extent spring peepers, American toads and red-spotted newts.

Spotted salamanders and wood frogs lay their eggs in vernal pools in the spring, and the nymphs need time to develop into air- breathing amphibians before the pools dry up. A droughty spring can mean disaster if the early stages of the amphibians still have gills and the pool dries up. This spring started off droughty, but recent rains may have helped prolong the length of water retention in Connecticut pools.

If you are adventurous, spend some time looking under logs and leaves in areas surrounding vernal pools, even after the pools have dried up. You may be rewarded with some good finds. On one recent log rolling venture, my sister and I uncovered many red- backed salamanders. The day after a rain you may find red- spotted newt efts and box turtles, especially near woodland vernal pools.

The red- spotted newt has a complicated life- cycle. It hatches from an egg laid in the spring under decaying leaves in a pond, then lives as a carnivorous larvae with a finned tail and gills, much like the spotted salamander. But the red-spot undergoes metamorphosis into an eft form later in the summer where it has lungs and lives outside the water for several years. Then it undergoes a second metamorphosis into its final adult form where it finishes its life in the water.

Eft stage of the red- spotted newt photo by Pamm Cooper may 13, 2013

Eft stage of the red- spotted newt photo by Pamm Cooper may 13, 2013

Spotted salamanders on the other hand spend little of their time in the water. Eggs are laid in large clumps in vernal pools after adults migrate from burrows in the wood during winter rains. The aquatic form of this salamander can sometimes be mistaken for polliwogs by the casual observer. Their development into terrestrial forms depends upon the water temperature. The warmer it is, the faster these salamanders develop into the land- dwelling form. After they move to land, they are seldom seen as they are of a nocturnal habit, dwelling in hardwood forests and swamps. This salamander depends upon vernal pools or wetlands where no fish are found that would feed on the eggs and larvae.

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Wood frogs are among the first breeding animals to arrive at the vernal pool. Listen for their loud quacking and shortly after look for their Wood frogs lay eggs prolifically in vernal pools. The egg masses of wood frogs are usually attached to vegetation near the surface of the water and may-cover the surface of the pool if wood frogs are in abundance. They can survive in pools that dry up by August as the tadpole stage typically is completed by mid- June to mid-July in Connecticut.

Egg string of the American Toad Picture taken April 20, 2013 by Pamm Cooper

Egg string of the American Toad Picture taken April 20, 2013 by Pamm Cooper

There are many other things found in and around vernal pools that we can observe and appreciate. The next time you here incessant quacking in the woods in early spring, remember the wood frog. And think about all the drama about to unfold as the melting snow and rising water table provide the perfect environment for the unheralded amphibians of the woodlands.

Pamm Cooper

All pictures Copyrighted 2013 by Pamm Cooper

True, it had been a bit on the dry side but the cold and rainy weather can stop now so we can get back out into the gardens. I suspect many New England gardeners
are a bit behind in our garden chores. We in the Northeast, however, have much to be thankful for in terms of weather considering all those whose homes,
businesses and croplands are being submerged by the Mississippi River right now.

Also, Midwest wheat, corn and soybean farmers have had to delay planting many of their fields due to soggy conditions. I just heard on the news this morning
that in at least one area less than 50 percent of the fields were planted when typically more than 90 percent are by now. This is bad news for the farmers and
bad news for us in terms of food prices.

The unpredictability of the weather just strengthens the argument for broad support of local farms. The local food and community supported agriculture movement has
been growing and I encourage all to support it. Of course, many are bringing this message even closer to home by growing their own vegetables and fruits
either in the backyard or in community gardens.

Back to the problem of soggy ground. Experienced gardeners know not to work the soil when it is too wet because it will quickly become compacted and that makes for
difficult plant growing conditions. If every step you take leaves an impression that glistens with water (or if you have creatures, like this wood frog milling about the wet garden) – stop! Better to catch up on indoor chores.

Wood frog

That being said, there’s only so long one can wait to plant the rest of the lettuce and beet seeds, the potatoes, and the broccoli and cabbage transplants. In some
instances, planting can be done but conscientiously, and with considerations of soil conditions. If a handful of soil isn’t dripping when squeezed, transplants
can be gingerly set out taking care not to compact the soil around them. You could try sowing some seeds in a previously prepared seedbed covering them with
some crumbled, soil and not packing it down. If these areas seem to be compacted when they dry out, go over the soil lightly with a hand cultivator or
other tool.

Planting in wet soil and going back in to undo any damage when the soil dries out only really works for small areas. Spring weather is always unpredictable but there
are certain techniques one can work into the garden plan to give your gardens the best chance to an early start. Working the soil with a rototiller,
broadfork, or turning fork is not advisable when the soil is too wet even if amendments like limestone and fertilizer have to be added. This much activity
can cause severe compaction so either wait until the soil dries out or till in the fall so beds are ready for planting in the spring with minimal cultivation.
Necessary amendments can be applied to the surface and scratch them in as the soil dries. Permanent paths stepping stones, and raised beds help in areas that
are slow to dry in the spring.

On May 19th, the Connecticut Envirothon celebrated its 20th Field Day at Rocky Neck State Park in East Lyme, CT. Thirty-four or more high schools sent teams of students trained in various environmental topics to compete in the state Envirothon with the winner going on to compete in the National Envirothon which I think is being held in New Brunswick this year.  The wet weather made for some difficult questions at the soils station as the pit continued to fill up with water!

Soil pit at 2011 CT Envirothon Field Day filled with water - again!

Let’s wish for some nicer, drier spring planting weather but I have to say that this cool weather has made for a lovely, lengthy spring bulb show and primrose
blooms lasting almost a month.

Yellow and gold primulas brighten up dark, rainy days

Good gardening to you!

Dawn