May 3, 2016

The only downside of a bird-friendly landscape

This thick handful of Oriental bittersweet seedlings was growing under bird-feeders
One of the greatest satisfactions of being a gardener is seeing the birds, bees and other pollinators enjoy your flowers as much as you do. But when the birds are gobbling the seeds and berries you've encouraged, they are also making their own, ah, deposits. So it's important to check the soil under trees, shrubs, fences and bird feeders for the uninvited residue of those bird visits. Early spring is a great time to find seedlings, before perennials fill out and hide the invaders.

Invasive plants are often the first to leaf out, frequently ahead of more desirable shrubs and vines. That habit can make it a little easier to find the unwelcome weeds while they are small enough to remove easily. Hands and knees weeding can yield great results this week, in between the bouts of much-needed rain.

Public Enemy No. 1

Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) is the vine that creates a massive tangle, draped from even the tops of trees along highways and roads. It has pretty red and yellow berries in the fall, much loved by birds, which are a main way the plants spread. It also has bright orange roots, so you'll know instantly if you've pulled out an invader. The handful shown in the photo was growing under a bird feeder and took only minutes to remove. Wait a couple of years, and these little thugs would be big enough to strangle trees.

Some other bad actors

Dreaded garlic mustard in bloom now
Garlic mustard is growing explosively in New London right now. It has small white flowers and corrugated, heart-shaped leaves. It spreads by seed on its own, and doesn't need help from birds. Pull it before it sets seeds. You'll know it by its rank, onion/garlic smell when you bruise the stems or leaves. Pull every leaf you see, or your yard will be overrun in short order.

We can't blame the birds for Norway maple seedlings—the winged seeds helicopter in on the wind. If you live in New London, there is probably a Norway maple within a few feet of your house. Thousands of seedlings seem to sprout every spring. Pull those while they're babies, before you need loppers or a chain saw.

Privet, also spread by seed, is another pest emerging now. Yank it out when it's tiny. Privet was widely used as a hedge because it's easy to shear and grows prolifically.


Two armed invaders

Self-sown barberry, on the left,
growing into a thicket of multiflora rose,
on the right and in the background.
Barberry is a common garden plant, one of the few shrubs totally impervious to deer. It is well armed with painfully sharp spines, so it can be difficult to remove when it gets large. Birds spread it by seed. Another armed invader is the multiflora rose, which can form massive thickets. It has charming small white flowers and loads of hips, the seeds much enjoyed by birds. Some species of barberry are still available for sale in Connecticut, but have been banned elsewhere. You'll never find anyone selling multiflora, but it came to the U.S. for use as rooting stock for garden roses and managed to escape.   

Perfumed predator

A shrubby honeysuckle is about to bloom
Honeysuckle is another example of an invasive that is very early to leaf out—in fact, it's just starting to show flower buds in New London this week. Birds enjoy its succulent red fruits in summer, spreading plants far and wide. There are several species of shrubby honeysuckles that are problematic. They have fragrant flowers and a single shrub doesn't seem that troublesome, but one becomes hundreds within a few years. And that's a potentially big problem.

A native vine, trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), is not a pest. It's a strong grower, tolerates some shade, and is beloved by hummingbirds. Train one on an arbor, very sturdy trellis, or along a fence. 'Major Wheeler' is a gorgeous selection, with clusters of bright red blooms.

Find photos of trumpet honeysuckle and many other highly desirable shrubs, vines and perennials at American Beauties Native Plants, a Connecticut-based wholesale grower of native plants.

 Find more information

Not sure if a plant is your yard is desirable or a thug?
Find photos and descriptions of common invasive plants at

Visit the Connecticut Invasive Plant Group's UConn website for a list of banned and problematic plants.

April 12, 2016

Many hands make light work at Ocean Beach.

Two or three inches of wood chip mulch improves any garden bed in many ways:
  • suppresses future weeds
  • helps maintain soil moisture
  • improves the soil over time as microbes break down the chips into turn them into compost
  • looks good!
But spreading a mountain of mulch takes time. Fortunately for the Beautification Committee, #ConnecticutCollege generously provided us with some eager volunteers over the weekend. It was all hands on deck to weed and mulch the large beds at Ocean Beach.

Every spring, prospective students visit the campus for a weekend, and the college is happy to find ways for them to explore New London, meet local residents, see the sights, and give us a few hours of muscle.
 Rakes and 5-gallon buckets are the best tools for the job.
 The city provides the mulch, which the Public Works Department creates from the many tons of woody plant debris that's discarded every year. A giant chipper reduces the branches to a fine-grained mulch that's easy to spread. Instead of going to a landfill or being burned in a trash-to-energy facility, the waste becomes a valuable garden additive.
While some students and volunteers filled buckets and wheelbarrows, others attacked perennial weeds. Weeding is never-ending, but starting early helps us stay ahead of the challenge.
 A couple of hours later, and we're DONE!
Many thanks to the students from Conn College and to our own volunteers for a job well done. Now if only spring temperatures would come back!

June 5, 2014

Will Hydrangeas Bloom This Summer?

This mophead hydrangea at Ocean Beach was more than four feet tall last summer but shows barely a foot of new growth this week. The Beautification Committee will prune out all the dead stems shortly.
            The coldest winter in recent memory may be over, but its effects linger on in New London and surrounding towns. One of our most-loved landscape shrubs, the mophead hydrangea, was hit hard and is looking decidedly unlovely right now. This is the most familiar hydrangea, the one that is covered with large heads of blue flowers – the signature bloom of the shoreline.

            Most bigleaf hydrangeas were killed back nearly to the ground. Instead of being 4 to 5 feet of lush green by now, our hydrangeas are unlovely bundles of pale bare stems, with a few clusters of leaves near the ground.

The good news: the plants survived. The bad news: they likely will not flower this year.

            The most common varieties of this old-fashioned shrub flower on stems that grew last year. Because the buds died, the plants will probably be green mounds this year. The plants that don't flower this year will come back next year, unless we have two hideous winters in a row.

Many recent Mophead varieties flower on both last year's stems and this year's growth, so they will bloom, although later than usual. The biggest name in rebloomers is Endless Summer®. The flower heads are smaller and some folks find them less fabulous – but they bloom reliably, even in much colder parts of Connecticut than the shoreline. There is a whole line of branded Endless Summer® selections, widely available at good garden centers. Also look for 'David Ramsey' and 'Penny Mac', two  non-branded but very reliable rebloomers.

            So what should an unlucky gardener do? Start by trimming off the dead stuff. It may leave you with a very short plant, but those nude stems will never live again. Use pruners to remove the dead tissue, cutting just above a viable leaf. It's best to do this stem by stem, which may take a while, but is cleaner and better for the shrub than using power shears. If a stem or two winds up a lot taller than the rest, cut it back to a comparable height, always snipping just above a leaf.

            One of the Beautification Committee members, Cheryl Pappas, is a professional horticulturist and has a skilled hand with pruners. She reports she has found buds while working on sad-looking hydrangeas, so there may yet be good news!

            Go ahead and fertilize your hydrangeas too, spreading a few shovelfuls of compost around the crown. Or use a slow-release organic fertilizer such as Plant-tone, following the label directions. If the weather gets hot and dry, consider deep watering plants during drought. Then, alas, you'll just have to wait and see.

Alternate Hydrangeas

            Other, different species of hydrangeas came through the winter just fine. Panicle, oakleaf and arborescens hydrangeas all flower on new growth, so even the most vicious winter won't stop them. They bloom white or pink, however, not the true blue that is so appealing in mopheads.

            If you're considering replacing your hydrangeas or adding some new ones, here's a rundown.

Panicle Hydrangea

Limelight™ Hydrangea displays white flowers in August
'PeeGee' is the old standard Hydrangea paniculata, but the market is full of terrific alternatives. Limelight™ flowers open pure white, and the petals eventually fade to green, then tan. The bloom season is remarkably long, with plants looking good from July to October. Limelight™ gets to be BIG, easily 6 feet tall and wide in a few years, so site it with care. The flowers are terrific for cutting and for drying.

Other big, gorgeous varieties include 'Strawberries and Cream' and Pinky Winky™, whose colors vary from white to pink to wine over the course of a long bloom season.

Fortunately, breeders have also developed several varieties that are compact, reaching only 2-3 feet in height and width, while blooming prolifically. Look for Bobo™, Bombshell™ and Little Lime™.

Panicle hydrangeas can be cut back hard in late winter, to encourage more branching and blooming, but need little care once established.
By September, the flower heads of Limelight have turned green. Shown here with 'Kelvin Floodlight' dahlias

Oakleaf Hydrangeas

Native to the southeastern U.S. Oakleaf hydrangeas (H. quercifolia) also bloom on new wood and are reliable in Connecticut. The leaves have distinctive lobes, reminiscent of oak leaves (duh!) Flower heads tend to be elongated and open, gradually suffusing with pink and deep tones are they age. The foliage turns a vibrant burgundy in the fall and lasts until nearly winter. Oakleafs are more tolerant of shade, although they will bloom best with at least a few hours of sun.

There are a number of selections in the trade, but garden centers are likely to carry just one or two. Mature plants can be 6-8 feet tall and wide, but several dwarf varieties are also available.

Smooth Hydrangeas

H. arborescens used to be the only choice for gardeners in cold climates, if they wanted hydrangeas. The most common variety is 'Annabelle', with enormous pure white flower heads. They are the first hydrangeas to bloom in a normal season. Stems of all the smooth hydrangeas tend to be somewhat floppy, finding it difficult to support the oversize blooms. Typically, gardeners cut this type all the way to the ground in late winter.  

A couple of recent introductions are pink: Bella Anna™ and Invincibelle Spirit™. The individual florets are dainty but the heads are large. It does take several years for the smooth hydrangeas to deliver full-size heads, though. A delightful cut flower. 
Invincibelle Spirit™ is the soft pink flower seen in this mixed bouquet

Renée Beaulieu is a member of the New London Beautification Committee and a UConn Cooperative Extension Master Gardener who grows a lot of hydrangeas.