Archive for September, 2011

At first glance the nests of fall webworms (Hyphantria cunea, Drury) and tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) might look identical, but the damage done to trees and shrubs by the residents of these nests is very different. 

Fall webworms appear in early fall and build their large, grayish, silky nests on the ends of tree branches. Often smaller branches and leaves will be enclosed by the nest. The caterpillars don’t leave the nest; if they run out of food they just make the nest bigger and enclose more leaves. They feed on the leaves of many species of trees, but do very little damage because by the time they begin feeding most trees have stopped photosynthesizing and are heading into dormancy. 

After about 6 weeks of feeding the larvae fall to the ground and pupate. Pupae usually over- winter in the ground but are occasionally found in old nests. Adults emerge in spring and lay their eggs on the undersides of leaves. After hatching in late summer or early fall the cycle begins again. 

Fall webworms have long white, off-white, or yellow hairs. The black headed variety is light greenish-yellow to pale yellow with two rows of black bumps down its body and the red headed variety is tan with orange to reddish bumps. 

Tent caterpillars appear in early spring as buds begin to open. They prefer fruit trees but can also be found on maples, hawthorn and others. Their nests are smaller and more compact than fall webworms and are found in the crotch of branches rather than at the ends. Often the caterpillars can be seen crawling over the outside surface of the nest. They feed in morning and early evening, and on warm nights. They do a lot of damage and can defoliate a tree in no time at all. Though the tree will usually grow new leaves it will have been severely weakened and may not bear fruit. As the larvae feed they will make the silky nest larger to enclose more foliage. 

Tent caterpillars are full grown in just over a month and leave the nest to make individual cocoons. As they search for a suitable spot to build their cocoon they can often be seen crawling on walks, walls, driveways, and tree trunks in late spring. After about 3 weeks an adult moth emerges from the cocoon, mates, and the female lays eggs on smaller branches. The eggs hatch in the spring and the cycle begins again.  

Tent caterpillars are black and hairy with a white stripe down the center of the back. They also have brown and yellow lines and a row of blue spots on their sides. 

Nests of either tent caterpillars or fall webworms can be removed by hand, wound on the end of a long stick, or pruned out of trees.  However they are removed, they should be destroyed afterwards.

 Photo of fall webworm nest on crabapple by the University of Illinois Extension Service

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The big difference between paperwhite narcissus (Narcissus tazzeta or papyraceus) and any other daffodil is that paperwhites don’t need a cool period, which means that they can be easily grown indoors as soon as you buy them with no extra work.

These bulbs are native to the Mediterranean region and are hardy only in zones 8 through 11. Here in the northeast if we plant them outside we have to treat them as we would any other summer flowering bulb, like dahlias or gladiolus. Paperwhites are available as soon as tulips and other spring flowering bulbs appear. When buying them, buy enough for a lengthy succession of bloom so you’ll have flowers throughout the winter.

To grow paperwhites all you really need is water, sunlight, and something to keep them from tipping over. (They can get quite tall if they don’t get enough sun.) I use shallow glass bowls about 4 inches deep and big enough to hold 3 to 5 bulbs. You should use a bowl with no drainage holes that is deep enough to contain the roots. I usually use plain pebbles or marble chips to give the bulbs support, but colored glass beads, washed gravel, or even colored aquarium gravel will work.  Put about an inch of gravel in the bottom of the bowl and nestle the bulbs down into it so the bulb sides are touching. Then fill around the bulbs with more stones or gravel until only about 1/2 to 1/3 of the bulb tops are exposed. Finally, fill the bowl with enough water to cover just the base of the bulbs. Set them on a cool, sunny windowsill and in about a month your house will be filled with their sweet fragrance.

  • Once bulbs are watered they should never be allowed to dry out or they may not bloom.  Check water level every other day with a finger if not using a see through container.
  • Pot up new bulbs every 2 weeks for winter long blooming.
  • As soon as bulbs set buds move them out of direct sunlight and they will blossom longer.
  • If the plants get too tall and begin to flop over, for your second bowl of bulbs follow the above directions but after a day of allowing the bulbs to absorb water, pour out any remaining water in the bowl. Immediately replace the water with a mixture of 9 parts water to 1 part alcohol. This can be vodka, gin, tequila, whiskey, or rubbing alcohol. Water the bulbs with this mixture from then on.  Researchers at Cornell University have discovered that alcohol affects the height of paperwhites but still allows them to bloom as usual. Do not use beer or wine as they contain sugar.
  • Paperwhites can also be planted in potting soil. Plant so 1/2 to 1/3 of the bulb is exposed above the soil line and keep constantly moist.
  • People bothered by strong fragrances may be sensitive to paperwhites. They are very fragrant and just 3 bulbs will fill an entire house with fragrance. You might try growing just one to start with if you have questions.

Photo copyright University of Florida Extension Service

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When planting bulbs in the fall it’s easy to forget how their foliage will look in the spring after the flowers fade. Let’s face it-ripening bulb foliage is not pretty, but since photosynthesis is the way the bulb makes and stores enough energy to bloom again the following season it is important that the foliage isn’t removed. Bulb foliage also shouldn’t be tied into bunches or flattened down to the soil surface either, because doing so will impede the process.

Unless planted in a bed dedicated only to bulbs, ripening bulb foliage is best hidden among the plants in a perennial bed or behind ornamental grasses. The foliage of bulbs planted between and behind perennials that reach a foot or more in height will be visible only until the surrounding perennials or grasses grow taller later in spring. From then on it will blend in and be much less noticeable.

If bulbs are planted in a bulb-only bed, their ripening foliage can still be hidden by planting taller annuals among them. Since most annuals have shallow root systems the holes don’t have to be dug so deep that bulbs are disturbed.

Another method of hiding ripening bulb foliage is moving the bulbs and “heeling them in” in another location. This is labor intensive and requires accurate labeling of the bulbs so they don’t get confused.  A label that says “Red Tulips” won’t be much help when re-planting in the fall, so variety, height and blooming time should be noted.

To heel bulbs in first dig a trench about six inches deep and as wide in a sunny spot. With a spade or fork, carefully lift the bulbs from their current location, keeping the foliage intact, and replant them in the trench. When the bulb foliage is brown and pulls from the bulbs easily the bulbs can be dug up and dried, out of direct sunlight in a spot with good air circulation like a carport or porch. Once dry the bulbs should have all loose soil brushed from them before they are stored in a cool, dry place until fall planting. Any soft or damaged bulbs should be discarded. As I said-labor intensive!

Bulbs that are naturalized, which is a process in which handfuls of bulbs (usually daffodils) are tossed on the ground and then planted where they fall, also need time for foliage ripening, so naturalizing should be done only in areas that don’t have to be mowed until early summer.

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I had written something else for today but I since frost is the hot topic I thought I’d talk about the weather instead. I know-everybody talks about it but nobody ever does anything about it!

All the signs were pointing to frost yesterday afternoon but we dodged a bullet here in suburbia. It’s mighty nippy out there right now at 6:00 am, (about 38°F) but I’m not seeing any frost. Since it’s always coldest (and darkest) just before dawn, I think the danger has passed. Yesterday we had falling temperatures through the afternoon with clear skies and no wind last night, and these are usually sure signs that frost is on the way, so I’m surprised. 

Clouds act like a blanket and keep temperatures from falling too fast, but clear skies allow radiational cooling, which just means that all the warmth escapes into the atmosphere. Wind stirs up the atmosphere and keeps cold air from settling and staying in one spot, but on windless nights the cold can pool in low spots and cause leaf surface temperatures to cool rapidly. When the surface of a leaf reaches 32° F water vapor can form ice crystals on it, and that is frost. Because cold air sinks, a thermometer 5 feet off the ground might read 40° F, while at ground level where plants are it can be freezing. This is when people ask how we can have frost when it’s so warm.

 A fact I find interesting is that cold air flows downhill much the same as water does. I once had clients who lived at the top of a hill and their first frost was always a week or two later than the unlucky folks at the bottom of the hill. I was also able to plant their vegetable garden much earlier in the spring because their higher elevation warmed earlier.

Speaking of vegetables, I hope everyone has their tarps or sheets ready. There was light snow on top of Cannon Mountain up in the White Mountains yesterday morning at an elevation of 4,080 feet, so it won’t be long before we see frost.

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From now until May, all bets are off!

I have already posted most of this in the September gardening guide on nhgardensolutions.com, but in case any of you missed it:

Though you may hear that it’s anywhere from the 11th to the 21st, tomorrow, September 15th is the traditional first frost date for this area and weathermen are calling for nighttime temps in the 30s by the end of this week. Though usually light and scattered at this time of the month, frost should be expected from now on. On average, in Keene, NH on September 15th the chance of frost is about 50%. By September 27th it is closer to 90%.

Gardeners should watch forecasts carefully and be prepared to cover their tender vegetables like tomatoes, annuals, and other tender plants with tarps, sheets, or even newspaper at short notice.  Hardy crops like those in the cabbage family, any root crops, most perennials, and garden mums will be fine uncovered.

If you are overwhelmed by green tomatoes and don’t want to cover them, pull the plants up by the roots, (or dig them) knock off all loose soil, tie some stout twine around the base of the stem and hang them upside down in a shed, garage or basement. Any bits of soil remaining on the roots will help keep them moist. Most of the tomatoes will still ripen in spite of such harsh treatment. This should be done before a frost kills the foliage, and they should be in a place where temps won’t fall below 32 degrees F after they are hung.

Over the previous two weeks house plants should have been slowly acclimated to growing indoors once again by being brought in over night. If not they should be brought in now or at least put undercover on a porch or in a garage.  Tropical houseplants will suffer any time the nighttime temperatures fall much below 55 degrees F and even a light frost can finish them off, so they shouldn’t be outside at night. Leaving the windows open during the day after they are brought in will also help them adjust.

Those wishing to do more planting or transplanting of spring bulbs, perennials, shrubs and trees shouldn’t despair because there is still plenty of time for new plantings to establish good root systems before the soil freezes solid in December.  It may seem like we’ve had a lot of rain lately, but new plantings should still be watered deeply at least once each week and more often if it hasn’t rained. Plants can lose a lot of moisture in winter and soil moisture amounts can be very deceiving at this time of year, so they should be monitored to make sure that soil is good and moist when it finally freezes. Don’t rush to put those hoses away!

I found the photo of frost rimmed leaves on a website that offered free nature screen savers .

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What do apples, quince, apricots, plums, cherries, peaches, pears, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and almonds have in common? They are all in the rose (Rosaceae ) family, and just like all their cousins, roses have edible fruit. If you don’t deadhead your roses they will produce red, orange, purple or black fruits which are known as a hips or haws. Rose hips can be smaller than a pea or as large as a cherry tomato. 

Rose hips are one of the richest sources of vitamin C known. During World War 2 vitamin C syrup was made from rose hips because citrus fruits were almost impossible to find. These days the easily made sweet and spicy syrup is very good on vanilla ice cream or pancakes.

Rose hips can cost as much as $25.00 per pound in health food stores, which is more than the price of a rose bush, so it is worth growing your own. The best rose hips for harvesting are found on Rosa rugosa, named for the wrinkled (rugose) surface of its leaves. The very tough Rosa rugosa is also called shrub rose, landscape rose, salt spray rose, old fashioned rose, or wild rose. The white, yellow, pink or purple blossoms can be single, semi-double, or double and are very fragrant. The 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inch blossoms appear at the ends of very prickly, 3-4 foot stems from June through frost. The best time to harvest rose hips is after the first frost because frost removes some of the tartness. Choose fruit that is firm and has good, deep color.

Fresh or dried rose hips can be used in many recipes, including a tea that is very soothing for a sore throat. Many recipes are easily found on line or in herbal cook books. No matter how they are used, the seeds inside rose hips should always be removed before use because they have a hairy covering that can be irritating. To prepare, trim the stem and blossom ends from the fruit and cut them in half, then remove the seeds. Most recipes call for boiling and straining the fruit so this will remove any seeds that were missed during cleaning.  Aluminum pans and utensils should not be used because they will react with and discolor the rose hips.

To Dry Rose Hips: Prepare as above and dry on screens in single layers. Allow good air circulation. When completely dry store in tightly closed containers.

Rose Hip Tea:  Cover and boil 2 tablespoons of fresh or dried hips per pint of water for 10-15 minutes in a glass or stainless steel pan. If whole fresh hips are used, after they have expanded and split, carefully strain through a fine mesh sieve to remove any seeds. Add sugar, honey or a mint sprig.

One final note: Birds love rose hips and rose blossoms attract bees and butterflies.



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The cooler temperatures and more frequent rains of September mean mushrooms will be popping up all over. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies (reproductive organs) of a fungus. Typically (though not always) they have stems, caps, and gills on the underside of the cap. Mushrooms are not plants and do not produce seeds. In the case of the gilled mushrooms, they produce spores on their gills. When the mushroom is ready to release its spores they fall from the gills to the soil surface where they appear as a powdery substance.

Mushroom spores can be white, brown, black, brownish purple, pink, yellow, off white and rarely red, but the color of the spores isn’t always the same color as the gills, and that’s where the fun of making spore prints comes in.

When the stem is broken from a mushroom and the cap is placed gill side down on a piece of paper, the spores fall onto the paper and make a spore print, which helps in identification. You never know what color the spores will be but most are white. I often start with black paper, but any dark color will do. Once the mushroom cap is on the paper I cover it with a small bowl to keep it moist. If it seems overly dry I sprinkle two or three drops of water on top of the cap to moisten it. This is important because a dry cap might not release its spores.  I leave it covered overnight and in the morning remove the bowl and carefully lift the mushroom cap straight up so as not to smudge the spore print. If everything has gone well, I see something like in the photo below. If a spore print isn’t visible the spores might be the same color as the paper or the cap might have dried out before I picked it. Or it could have already released all of its spores. In any case, I try again!


 Spore prints smudge easily before they’ve dried completely, so I let them dry covered for a day and then spray them with artist’s fixative (or hair spray). Fixative is used to keep charcoal and pastel drawings from smudging and can be found at any art supply store.  Then if I’m happy with the results I frame it, which transforms it into a very unusual art object.



 Note: Small children should always be closely supervised when working with any mushrooms gathered in the wild. Some, like the yellow Amanita muscaria in the photo at the top of the page, are extremely poisonous. It’s also a good idea to wash your hands after handling them and their spores.





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I was always partial to Macintosh apples until one day years ago I was given a half bushel of Northern Spy apples. Since then, Northern Spy has become the benchmark that all apples I eat are measured against. Once you have tasted the best of any food all challengers seem to pale in comparison. For my money the Northern Spy simply can’t be beat.

Northern Spy is considered an heirloom variety-the first seedling was discovered near Rochester, NY in 1800. It is still well known in upstate New York but, though grown in other states, is becoming increasingly difficult to find. There are several reasons for its increasing rarity; it can take a Northern Spy apple tree as long as 10 years to bear fruit and it is less disease resistant than other varieties. This means that small orchard owners are less likely to grow it. It also has a thin skin and bruises easily, which makes shipping difficult. This means that large growers are less likely to grow it. This is why it isn’t found in most grocery stores even though it is considered by many experts to be the best apple ever produced in the United States.

Northern Spies can still be found in this area if one is willing to do a little searching, and it is worth searching for.  It is crisp, crunchy and juicy, and sweet but somehow tart at the same time. It is higher in vitamin C than many apples, keeps well into the following spring in cold storage, and is one of the most sought after apples by professional pie bakers. “Spies for Pies!” is their mantra. Its superior quality is the reason it is also known as the Northern Pie Apple. Finally, as if all of that weren’t enough, Northern Spy is an outstanding cider apple and contains more antioxidants than any other apple except Red Delicious.

Locally, Northern Spies can be found at Alyson’s Apple Orchard in Walpole, NH and at Maple Lane Farm on Gunn Road here in Keene. But, there is no need to rush because it is a later variety and doesn’t usually ripen until mid to late October.  I have to warn you- once you have tasted one there will be no turning back. A few years ago a neighbor told me she “liked a good, tart apple.” Once she tasted a Northern Spy she couldn’t wait for them to ripen each fall.  

 Photo by Willis Orchard Company © 2011

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