Friday, May 20, 2011

Operation Garlic Mustard Dawn

I recently attended Operation Garlic Mustard Dawn, an event hosted by the Aspetuck Land Trust (ALT) to raise awareness of invasive plants. Catchy name. In this age of 24/7 noise, you need to do something to get people’s attention. News12, Hersam-Acorn newspapers and Connecticut Gardener were invited.

The Aspetuck Land Trust, a non-profit, manages 1,723 acres in Easton, Fairfield, Weston and Westport.

The event focused on two specific invasives: Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) and Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Volunteers pulled garlic mustard and Curt Naser demonstrated a professional, two-part approach to barberry removal. Naser cut the barberry near ground level with a brush saw and burned the remaining plant with a flame weeder. Naser is trained in the procedure, which took place on a rainy day at
 the LeGallienne Bird Sanctuary in Weston.

Leslie J. Mehrhoff, UConn,
Garlic mustard's first year's growth is a basal rosette. White flowers appear in the second year.
Garlic mustard leaves give off a strong garlic odor when crushed and the spikes with white flowers are easy to spot. First-year growth is a basal rosette. Flowers appear in the second year. The plant is allelopathic and produces chemicals that inhibit the mycorrhizal fungi that many plants require for optimal growth. It can also fool some butterflies into laying eggs because of its similarity to native species.

Left: Curt Naser cuts barberry to the ground with a brush saw. Right: Naser burns the remaining plant with a flame weeder.
Japanese Barberry is a public health concern because barberry infested forests are more likely to harbor ticks that carry the Lyme disease pathogen, Borrelia burgdorferi. Lyme disease is a serious public health problem in Connecticut.

A press release describes the project as “a pilot program aimed at awakening public understanding of the risks posed to conserved areas and homeowner property alike by invasive plant species.”

ALT has developed a three-prong plan:
• Identification and risk assessment
• Responsible plant eradication
• Habitat restoration

“Spring is the best time to start,” said Lisa Brodlie, ALT vice president and chair of its Land Management Committee. “Plants are young and easy to identify and remove.” Procedures get more complicated once the plants produce seed.

ALT is looking to partner with volunteers, like-minded groups and municipalities. As the project progresses, the plan is to create a database and add information on the management of invasives to its website,

“The social costs of invasive species to biodiversity in our ecology are enormous,” said Brodlie.

If you’d like to help, call (203) 331-1906 or email David Brant, ALT’s executive director, at

-- Will Rowlands

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Snow & Evergreens

Hedges of hemlock, arborvitae and yew guard the periphery of our yard. The picture wasn’t pretty the morning after the recent blizzard. They really looked like they needed help. The yew hedge, in particular, had taken a beating. I know some people are hesitant but, on occasion, it’s necessary. This was one of those times. The yew hedge below was simply crying out for help. I might be out there again tomorrow if the meteorologists are right.

At our previous place I had to clear hollies that bent right over to the ground when loaded with snow. We also inherited a bamboo grove that I also used to clear of snow. At the time I also considered myself a bamboo weaver. I would “reweave” the bamboo for air and aesthetic effect.

Before you begin the process of freeing your evergreens from the grip of a big snow, you need to consider the risks versus the rewards. The process will probably cause some damage, depending on the plant, instruments and degree of care you use. If you’ve got a lot of ice, you should probably just hope for a thaw.

I’ve experimented with different tools over the years. A light brushing motion with your hands or a broom is often recommended. Those are good approaches but may not work so well with large amounts of heavy snow or in hard-to-reach spots.

At first, I tried the convex side of a large plastic snow shovel. I didn’t hit the snow but rather used a soft upward pushing motion. This year, I tried a long piece of flexible PVC. Again, I didn’t whack at the snow as if I was beating a rug but rather, using the poles flex, set it to moving back and forth slightly in as gentle a manner as possible. I was surprised how well this technique loosened up heavy blobs of snow.

Using a flexible pole to remove snow from hemlocks.
The pole did no damage to the hemlocks or the arborvitae. There was, however, some minimal damage to the yew hedge in the form of small bits and pieces here and there. This is consistent with my past experience. No matter what tool I use on the yews, there always seems to be some damage. On the plus side, the damage is extremely minor in the scope of things and has never resulted in any noticeable harm to the hedge in the long run.

The major advantage of the pole is that I can get at hard-to-reach areas. I also found that I could free most of the low-lying snow-covered branches by sliding the pole underneath and applying gentle upward pressure. This worked particularly well on the hemlocks where there was no extra snow from plows or shoveling.

Of course, if the lower branches are really snowed in you’ll have to remove the overlying snow first. This was the case with the arborvitae and yew and, after a day or two of waffling, I decided I had to dig them out.

The next time, I’ll probably use my hands and/or a broom on the easy spots and a gingerly applied flexible pole here and there as required.

Just remember three things:
1) Leave them alone unless there's a lot of snow,
2) Whatever technique you use, be as gentle as possible to minimize damage, and
3) Observe the results of your work and stop if you’re doing more harm than good.

I’ve also changed my approach to shoveling. In our yard, there isn’t much room to put the snow from our driveway. It’s OK most of the time but it becomes a problem after a couple of big snows. I’ve started to use a wheelbarrow to wheel it away to another part of the yard.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Connecticut Gardener Meets CT Outdoors

We just drove up to Middletown to do “CT Outdoors” with Suzanne Thompson, a radio show that airs on WMRD 1150 AM in Middletown (and WLIS 1420 AM in Old Saybrook). It’s one of the few independent stations left in the country and the signal covers central Connecticut, on the shore from West Haven to Westerly, R.I., and north as far as Windsor Locks and south as far as parts of Long Island.

The show broadcasts live on Tuesday at 12:30 pm and typically replays Tuesday evening at 6:30 pm, Saturday at 1 pm and Sunday at 7 am.

Suzanne Thompson 
We’ve never done live radio before but Suzanne made us feel at home. Thompson has degrees in journalism and horticulture so we share similar interests.

Yes, AM radio still exists and, in this case, is offering some interesting local programming. I know everything is digital these days but I got a nice analog feeling from the whole experience.

To find out more about Suzanne and CT Outdoors, visit or email Suzanne at

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tomatoes in December?

Last year we were left with a ton of green tomatoes at the end of the season and made Chow Chow (green tomato relish).

This year, we didn’t have anywhere near as many on the vine when the cold weather arrived so, no Chow Chow.

Still, not wanting to see them go to waste (well, to the compost pile anyway), I picked every tomato I could find -- that was large enough and in decent condition -- and put them in the garage. Mature green fruit or ones that have already begun to ripen are your best bet. If you have the right spot, you can try hanging the entire plant so the fruit ripens on the vine.

I inspected them periodically and pulled out the ones that shriveled up -- usually the smallest ones -- and the ones that rotted. A week or two ago I moved them inside to the breezeway so as not to overlook the ones that ripened. I missed a few while they were in the garage.

They don’t all make it through but it’s a treat when they do.

Here it is, Dec. 7, and I’m still getting tomatoes!

Some people just place the tomatoes blossom-side down in a sunny window. Other methods make use of various containers: brown paper bags, cardboard boxes lined with newspaper, mason jars and plastic bags with holes, often with the inclusion of an apple or banana to speed up the ripening process. Experiment and see what works for you.

And, of course, you don’t have to wait until they ripen. You can always grab a green tomato, slice it, dip it in flour and fry it up. (Don’t forget to add your favorite seasoning.)


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fall Color with Staying Power

We had some rain storms and high winds blow through our area over the last week or so and the weather knocked out some of our fall color. Our weeping cherry, which sported a lovely palette of fall colors, lost all its leaves.

We have four notable examples in our yard that are still providing rich colors to our fall landscape: Common Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii), Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)  and Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica).

This native, ilex verticillata, which Anne planted along with its pollinator for birds, combines yellowish foliage with bright red berries and looks great against a green backdrop.

Common Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Even when it finally loses its leaves, the berries linger until hungry birds finish them off.

This dwarf variety of Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) displays a stunningly vibrant leaf color. It's also called Dwarf Witchalder.

Dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii)
Japanese Maples are ubiquitous but it’s easy to understand why. That deep, rich red is a fabulous fall highlight.
Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)
Parrotia persica is less well-known but one of our new favorites. It provides a mellow yellow that contrasts well with darker tones.

Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica)

- WR

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Scoop on the “Poop Loop”

We recently had the pleasure of hearing Todd Harrington speak in the Brubeck Room at the Wilton Library. If you’re interested in organic land care, he should be high on your list. Harrington helped write the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s “Standards for Organic Land Care” and has been in the business since 1987. He’s a pioneer in the field.

Todd Harrington speaking at the Wilton Library.

Harrington’s lecture was necessarily technical at times but was full of insider tips and outlined a number of good reasons for adopting an organic approach. It’s obviously healthier but, according to Harrington, can be cheaper in the long run. He points out that chemicals supply a quick fix that ultimately results in addicted plants and poor soil. “The solution is science,” he says.

Unfortunately, transitioning from a chemically dependent landscape may take some time. The interrelationships between soil chemistry, soil morphology, living organisms, and what he calls the "Poop Loop" are complex. That’s part of the journey.

Going organic, especially as far as lawns are concerned, means forgetting about immediacy and rethinking expectations. The results, however, can be personally rewarding as well as being kinder to the environment. If you can't put in a lot of time, effort or money -- and aren’t aiming for a perfect lawn -- you can even opt for a low-maintenance “freedom lawn.”

These days, Harrington is a consultant and president/owner of Harrington’s Organic Land Care. Anne and I hope to visit him in Bloomfield soon. His facilities include a lab that offers biological and chemical soil testing. “If you’re not testing, you’re guessing,” he says. Harrington’s also makes their own compost, compost tea and compost extract and sells a number of other organic products.

For more information, visit

NOFA’s “Standards for Organic Land Care” is available online as a PDF at


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Pruning Arborvitae: Taboo or Maintenance?

We have an arborvitae hedge on one side of our driveway that is almost as high as our house. I was eyeballing it one day and decided it needed to be cleaned up. Nothing drastic, a little trim here and there and maybe a little off the top.

Anne was skeptical, being of the general opinion that arborvitae (Thuja) shouldn't be pruned.

Well, I didn't really want to PRUNE them, I just wanted to neaten them up a bit.

When I researched the subject, I discovered a wide variety of opinion ranging from prune them whenever and however you want and prune them in the spring before new growth to don't cut back into wood more than a year old and arborvitae don't need to be pruned. Hmmm. That covers all of the bases.

Some say topping will encourage bushier growth, some say it won't. I guess the former is more likely with younger, smaller plants. If I were buying, I'd certainly be looking for bushy, not tall and spindly.

There is one recurring piece of advice: beware of pruning out all of the green growth in an area or you may be looking at a bare spot for some time, perhaps permanently.

After discussing the results of my research with Anne, we decided to go ahead. I did a subtle trimming of "fat spots" and took a little off the top. I made no attempt to equalize the height. In my opinion, the individual plant heights varied too much for that approach. And, besides, I didn't really want a straight edge anyway.

The hedge was looking a little ragged and I just wanted to smooth out the look. The amount I took off the top ranged from nothing to a foot or so.

The result was subtle but it accomplished exactly what I set out to do and I like the rounded-dome look on the tops. So far, there are no negative side-effects to report.

Maybe next year I'll try growing clematis on them …