Beware of Bittersweet in Your Autumn Decorations


We often don’t consider the impact of grabbing something from the woods to add to our Autumn decor this time of year, so if you weren’t aware of the potential spreading of this highly invasive plant, beware of bittersweet.

I spotted bittersweet twined around some branches in the woodlands by my home, and took a quick photo yesterday. It is not difficult to spot. The yellow and orange coloring stands out in the landscape especially as other trees begin to loose their leaves.


Asian bittersweet, also known as Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), is a non-native plant, invasive and listed on Connecticut’s Invasive Plants list.

Chokes Off Other Plants

Bittersweet climbs by twining around trunks of trees and other branches. It can strangle its host over time. While the colorful berries are easy to spot, the leaves may have fallen from the plant by the time you spot the berries in Autumn, which is the case at my home – Thus, distinguishing this species from the American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens also used in fall decor) may be challenging. American bittersweet is said to not be as much as a problem, but it can quickly grow to 20-30 feet long or more, so you decide. Both types can and will usually attach to another plant or structure.

Leaves are Variable in Shape

Oriental or Asian bittersweet leaves are variable in shape (egg-shaped, oblong, round, tapered, etc) so distinguishing it from American bittersweet may be a little confusing upon a quick glance if you get tempted to take some for your decorations, but I would suggest using caution either way. Oriental bittersweet plant grows well in shade so you will find it embedded in woodland areas or around branches of native shrubs. Its one of those plants that will find a way to continue growing even when you tear it out by its shallow roots because every little piece left in the soil or torn pieces will grow more shoots.

Birds and Humans Move Them

Birds also carry the seeds to other locations. When the fruit on this plant splits open, you see the yellow parts on the outer parts which reveal the seeds in the center covered in orange fleshy coatings. This is nature’s way of moving it around, but humans may unknowingly move it to their yard too when they attach it to grapevine wreaths to put on the doors in the fall, or take it inside to put on the table as a centerpiece coloring. After all, it can be found for free in the wild because it is invasive and usually easily spotted. If you decide to use it in the home, be sure to dispose of it in the trash and not in your compost.

How Did It Get Here?

That’s a long story – which you may read about here: Untangling the Twisted Tale of Oriental Bittersweet by Peter Del Tredici. You may wonder how it gets to your yard – and one way is by not knowing it can spread in the pieces you take away from the woodlands. This is one of the cases where using fake plants is better.

Cathy Testa






Infographic – The Devil’s Greenhouse – Shows Poisonous Plants

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The Devil’s Greenhouse – A Great Title of a Great Infographic
by Ava’s Flowers

Infographic - The Devil's Greenhouse

An Infographic caught my eye this morning via a Tweet. This one is posted on Avas Flowers website at
Would you think Foxglove or Lily of the Valley has poisonous plant parts or scary flowers? Both are common and used in gardens. However, don’t let the fact plants are poisonous scare you though – unless you plan to learn the chemistry behind them to cause harm, or eat them as an appetizer to your meals – I think there is nothing to fear and many of these plants are interesting looking and dramatic in container gardens, BUT – of course, if you have animals and they are chewers of plants, there is cause for concern and you should always investigate any plant they may be tempted to eat. This Infographic depicts many and you may find it helpful.

For more of Infographics I find helpful – See my Pinboard:

Cathy Testa
Located in Broad Brook section of East Windsor, CT

A plant blogger obsessed with container gardening, patio pots, and combining nature with art for outdoor living.

Cathy T in Hawaii, spotted big elephant ears on road side, pulled over! A plant that is poisonous if not cooked properly.

Cathy T in Hawaii a few years ago, when she spotted big elephant ears on a road side in an area with invasive plants, and of course – pulled over to get this photo. Some parts of elephant ears (the tubers) are edible – but it must be cooked properly. Don’t eat any plant without investigating and getting advise from an expert – otherwise, grow it in a pot for its beauty and dramatic affects.

Petasites japonicus (butterbur) – Awakens in a Pot every Spring


Did you know that some plants are big time troublemakers in the garden (invasive, prolific spreaders, aggressive) but they are amazing STARS in patio pots and container gardens?

My blog page titled “Troublemakers Turned Stars” talks about which troublemaker garden plants you may use in container gardens. And, it starts with this plant:

Petasites japonicus (butterbur)

Two pots, one on a table behind the other

Two pots, one on a table behind the other

Its key feature: HUGE ruffled green leaves reaching 32″ wide.  It prefers shade and may be used in water gardening because it likes moisture – lots of it. In fact, in a container garden, you need to provide it with a nice long watering to soak the soil well daily in the heat of hot summers.

Why it’s a star in container gardens and patio pots:  Because of its huge leaves.  I like lush foliage, so this one is a keeper. And because you can overwinter it very easily in a big container garden or patio pot just by moving it into a sheltered location after the season is over towards the end of Autumn.

My storage location for this plant growing in large patio pots is my little shed or unheated garage. I’ve been moving pots with Petasites in it for 3+ years now at the end of the season to store them over the winter.  It is best to cut back all the foliage after it gets hit by a light frost in Autumn.

In the Spring, roll it back out, position it somewhere to show the big leaves off which follow its flowering cycle. This plant is interesting. It shoots out flower buds first and leaves start coming out in various places in the pot after.

Here is a photo below taken this month of the flower pods rising. Once you have this pot outdoors, be sure to cut off the flower heads before they start to set seed because you do not want it to be carried by wind to your landscape to take hold because in the ground, this baby spreads like wildfire and is hard to control. You don’t want it in places where it will take over the landscape unless you know how to control it very carefully. And one way to control a plant like this is to use it in container gardens and patio pots.

Petasites japonicus, variegatus

Petasites japonicus, variegatus

Why it’s a troublemaker:  This plant has rhizomes at the base, and they grow rapidly via a spreading habit.  In the garden, they would easily take over an area and invade. They can be a problem to remove.  In fact, in a container garden, sometimes the roots will creep up to the top of the pot or out of the bottom of the pot’s drainage holes.  They are ambitious. One way to provide extra reinforcement is to sit the pot on top of another as shown here.

Place the Pot with Petasites on top of another

Place the Pot with Petasites on top of another

Moved into the shed for winter after a haircut

Moved into the shed for winter after a haircut

Caution:  If you decide to use this plant in a container garden, be aware when it flowers, the seeds can self-sow in the garden. Sometimes, I’ve kept mine raised above the ground on an elevated deck, so this has not been an issue. Or again, as shown above, situate it on top of another pot filled with soil so if the roots escape, they will go into the soil in the pot below it.

At the end of the season, rolling these back into a sheltered location such as a garage, shed, or other space is plenty of protection to keep it alive in a dormant state until the climate and conditions are favorable for reappearance each spring.

This is why I love using perennials which return every year in pots – they save you money – and become treasured specimens.  In many cases, troublemaker perennial plants are great candidates for container gardening.

To see more about Petasites japonicus, click HERE.  It is a blog posting I wrote a couple years back with more photos of the plant’s flowers, root structure, and habit.

A Returning Petasites for Several Years

A Returning Petasites for Several Years

The leaves on this plant grow to dish plate size which make them very showy. When you put them away at the end of the season, it is helpful to moisten the soil so there is a bit of moisture, and visit it maybe once during the winter to put some snow on top to melt into the soil – this is what has worked for me.

Variegated Petasites (butterbur)

Variegated Petasites (butterbur)

Here’s a variegated Petasites I scored last year from The Garden Barn and Nursery in Vernon, CT. I’m glad to see the variegation on the leaves returning right now in my blue pot. After a few years, this pot may require a refresh of new potting soil – and a division of the plants.

Perennials like this are wonderful candidates in container gardens, and reasons why perennials will be discussed at this year’s Container Garden Workshops on May 16th and May 23rd, 2015. To learn more about the workshops in Broad Brook, CT, see HERE.

Detailed information about the plant and characteristics can be located HERE at the Missouri Botanical Garden website.

Stay tune for more about “Troublemakers Turned Star” plants for container gardens and patio pots.

Cathy Testa

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Plants Never Give Up – So, Why Should We?


After a crazy busy schedule, I thought I would have one last big item to get through on my work list for the end of this summer season, and then I thought I could take a deep breath and maybe a little break before the fall and winter activities kick in, such as the Oct 4th Hypertufa Making Class and the Dec 6th Evergreen Kissing Balls & Holiday Creations class.

But oh no…, a hacker entered my midst, and soon after a laptop problem occurred – all leading to a big delay in my work schedule and activities. It made me put on the breaks, and literally – take a BREAK.

But the good news is, I found a great tech, got things rolling again – and, as of today, it is back to business and back to blogging.

The interruption to my schedule certainly caused some nuisance problems and a rescheduling of an important class to November, for the Advance Master Gardener program, but the MG coordinator understood.  You see, she’s been there with computer issues too recently, not just on her home computer but on her work computer at the same time.

And, I think in general, gardeners or people dealing with plants as a career, well, they seem to know how to handle interruptions or mishaps when things happen with plants – maybe it gives us some patience skill building – like when we have a failure of a plant due to an insect attack, a virus or unexpected damaging weather – Our reaction can be similar – as in, first you go running, screaming, and venting – then you take a deep breath and work through it using the tools and experience you possess.

I will say this – I am super glad plants don’t rely on technology like computers do. OMG, I really don’t know how the techie heads keep up with all they need to know to manage all the problems one can encounter on the web, etc.


Fly on Milk Thistle Bloom

Fly on Milk Thistle Bloom

Milk Thistle Brings On Unusual Surprises

I thought about how I didn’t expect to collect seeds from one plant I put into a container garden this summer, but about a week ago, a Milk Thistle plant started to burst open its gone by flower heads and release fluffy white appendages attached to their blackened seeds within.  I carefully cut off the top of the flower head, and pulled the seeds from the center to store them for the winter to use next spring.

This Milk Thistle, called Silybum marianum, is new to me – and the only reason I grabbed one plant one day was I liked the speckled striking pattern of creamy white on its bright green leaves.  Knowing nothing about it (other than it resembling Canada Thistle, which is considered invasive in CT), I got it as a spontaneous purchase.

Creamy White Marbled Foliage on Milk Thistle, Silybum marianum

Creamy White Marbled Foliage on Milk Thistle, Silybum marianum

How it Grew and Changed Over the Season

As the plant grew, I discovered it has nasty thorns on its leaves, and if you happen to be near it or working around it – it can poke you easily.

It grew fast and wide, and took up a lot of space in the pot.  But the label said it would get 4 feet tall – and no way was it that tall when it first was growing in the pot.

Finally one day, around mid-summer, a stalk with a flower bud appeared to form and started to pop up from the base of the wide foliage, and within days, the stalk shot up fast to at least 2-3 feet tall.

Plant Rises Tall as soon as Flowers Grow

Plant Rises Tall as soon as Flowers Grow

It was like one minute, it was short and wide, and then two days later, this very tall flower rose above it – amazing fast growth in height. That was surprise #2 about this plant. So, it does reach four feet tall after all.

I was happy to see the beautiful purple-violet flowers open up and found them to be very pretty – when I posted a couple photos of it on Instagram, I got comments right away.

Blooms of Silybum marianum

Blooms of Silybum marianum

One person asked if it was Silybum marianum, and said they wanted that plant for medicinal purposes.  Even a nurseryman asked if I had “seeds to share.”

Flower Head Cracking Open

Flower Head Cracking Open

But it was not in my plan to actually harvest the seeds, however, I began to do so this month once I saw them pop open, and realized it could be a popular plant for some folks.

Seeds escaping to survive

Seeds escaping to survive

It is stated on the plant tag, “Legend has it that the variegation arose from the milk of the Virgin, which fell on this plant, hence the botanical name.  The flower heads are often eaten as artichokes and the seed is used to medicinally cleanse the liver.

Collecting Seeds of Milk Thistle

Collecting Seeds of Milk Thistle

Plants never give up – They continue to set flowers to set seeds, despite weather changes, attacks by insects or viruses, and it was just a thought which popped into my head this morning – as I dealt with technical problems with my laptop the past week and got “back to business” today with a functioning computer fixed finally.  A plant never gives up – despite its challenges, then neither should I. Cause believe me, the delays were testing my perseverance at the end of a busy season, right at a moment when I wanted to breath a sigh of relief.

Cacti Pots Like These Will be Moved Inside Soon

Cacti Pots Like These Will be Moved Inside Soon

Time to Start Moving in the Cacti

Now that fall is coming upon us, it is time to consider getting some seasonal color in the landscape with mums and other fall blooming plants, and maybe adding some fun autumn decor in the mix.  But, I really don’t want to let go of the plants on my deck yet!

However, the nights are getting quite cool so it is time to considering moving in the cacti or succulents, as the tender fleshy growth may rot at the base if the soil in your container stays damp in this cool weather.

My recommendation is to reduce watering greatly for your plants outdoors in container gardens, and move any pots with succulents or cacti, which you may have purchased at the May Container Garden Party Class, to a sunny location on your deck or patio this week if they are not already in full sun.

Let the sun warm and dry out the soil somewhat before you transition any of these types of plants into your home as houseplants, which should be done soon, in the next week or so.

Once indoors, reduce the watering of your cacti plants over the winter months, and be sure you put them near a sunny window, not in a very shady spot in your home, if possible.

For more information, attendees should refer to the handout from the May Big Container Garden Class about the “Must Not Do’s with Succulents and Cacti.”

Tree Like

Angel Trumpet from Prior Years – Move inside before frost if you want to keep as a houseplant

Time to Reduce the Watering of Others

You should also reduce the watering of your Canna, Elephant Ears, or Banana plants in your container gardens.  If you were watering them daily, reduce it to every 4 days or so.  The cool nights will slow down the plant growth as we transition into the fall season, and if you allow the soil to dry out somewhat, it will be easier to either move your pots into your home if you plan to do so, or remove the rhizomes and tubers below the soil after the first frost hits them in October.

The canna, elephant ears, and banana plants are still booming beautifully right now, and I plan to enjoy them up to the time I have to disassemble my pots to remove the rhizomes or root bases.  BUT, if you want to take those plants inside as a houseplant, you want to do so before our first frost in October.  Once hit by frost, they blacken and turn to mush.

Watch the weather for the frost warnings in the coming weeks as we get closer to October. And in regards to the Angel Trumpets (Brugmansia), which someone asked about recently, if you wish to move them inside the home, do so before any frost too.  Or you can cut this plant back hard and move the pot to the basement.

More details on this will be posted soon – check back in often!

Cathy Testa

Plant Details:

Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)
Annual Herb, Sun Exposure
Height: 4 feet, Space in the Garden: 24″
Uses:  Ornamental (my reason for getting it), Medicinal (learned from friends), and Culinary
Gilbertie’s Herbs was the grower I got it from this year.
Use a big pot if you plan to grow one in a container (22″ in diameter recommended as min.)


Pondering Ponds ‘Walk and Talk’ Reveals Many Unexpected Surprises


Hi Everyone,

First, thank you to our hostess and guests!

First, a great BIG thank you to our host, Rhonda Rafferty, for sharing her personal experience of starting her pond garden with one level, and then growing it by adding two more levels, as explained during our most recent “Walk and Talk” garden event, held last weekend.

Rhonda’s pond gardens are situated in her backyard, and they are visible from her deck patio area adjacent to her house.  At the base of her pond gardens is a beautiful sitting area flanked with a pergola.

Cathy T and Rhonda's reaction to a funny intro story!

Cathy T and Rhonda’s reaction to a funny intro story!

The sounds of the water trickling from decor spitting fishes and fountains in the ponds are enough to draw you from inside her home to the great outdoors in her backyard.

We had 15 attendees which made this tour a great success. Many of the attendees were from local areas, some folks from a new South Windsor church gardening group, and several attendees from Cathy T’s Classes.

Pondering Ponds Photos by Debut Cinematic_0012

Started with a kit, and built two more sections

Rhonda explained how she started her adventure with pond gardening by using a pond kit to build level one, or the very first tier of the current 3-tiered pond garden area in her yard. As soon as it was ready, her husband bought ten goldfish and put them in it, and of the ten, seven goldfish survived. All of the other goldfish in her ponds today, hundreds of them, are the offspring of the initial seven goldfish.

When Rhonda had shared pictures prior to the tour of her pond gardens, I had assumed the fish were Koi fish. They are rather large and very active in all three levels of her pond gardens, rising to the surface quickly and swimming around rapidly as you approach the water’s edge.

Pondering Ponds Photos by Debut Cinematic_0007

Rhonda explained the first level of the pond garden is rather shallow but the middle level is approximately 5 feet deep and 20 feet long.  Each pond section is structured a little differently, and they are not connected but adjacent to each other in a three-tiered pattern.

Attendees Listening to Talk by Rhonda

Attendees Listening to Talk by Rhonda

Spring and Winter Cleanup Routines

For maintenance, Rhonda drains the ponds completely in the spring.

The goldfish (which stay dormant in the winter months in the bottom of the ponds) are relocated to a 100 gallon horse troth until she’s done performing spring clean-up activities.

Easter is when Rhonda usually opens the ponds if the weather is warm enough.  She can tell when the lilies start growing that it is time to get moving and working on her ponds.

Water lettuce, Lilies, and Lysimachia near goldfish

Water lettuce, Lilies, and Lysimachia near goldfish

All the muck, which built up and decayed in the bottom of the ponds over the winter, is removed with a special muck vacuum she purchased because her ponds are so large.

Also, Rhonda noted using ‘Microbe-Lift‘ in the water filter to add good bacteria to the water.  This will keep her pond healthy throughout the season.

Pondering Ponds ContainerCrazyCT_0001

At one time, Rhonda used a power washer to clean the liner, but she no longer uses a power washer because she wants to keep the algae growing on the liner, and the power washer was removing it – so she uses a garden hose instead.

The algae helps the natural ecosystem get established after a complete water change, and provides food for the fish because you can’t feed them until the temperature of the water reaches a consistent 55 degrees.

There is a special ‘Spring & Fall’ food for cooler temps of approximately 55 – 75 degrees.

However, once the temperatures reach 75 degrees, Rhonda changes to feeding the fish a summer staple food.  Rhonda also noted she uses special UV filters to control bacteria so that the water stays clear during really hot temperatures in season.

During the fall season, the food is changed again when it gets cooler outside, and she stops feeding at 55 degrees.  She also turns off the filters when she stops feeding for the fall and winter months.

Standing at Level One, Rhonda talks about products used to keep water healthy

Standing at Level One, Rhonda talks about products used to keep water healthy; Photo by C. Testa

In the winter, she leaves all the water in the ponds, but will remove the filters and clean them for storage.  She basically washes them down with water because she avoids getting any chemicals in the filters.  She also cuts back all the hardy water lilies and plants, and sinks them to the bottom of the pond in her deepest tier.  A small low watt pond deicer, which floats on top of the water for the winter, is used.  This will create a small patch of open water in the ice to allow gases to escape in the winter.

Water Plants, Floating Plants, Perennials and Tropicals

Rhonda has a mix of plants in and around her pond gardens, and she noted, many have appeared on their own. Some self-sowed or got there perhaps by bird droppings of digested seeds, and even a few ferns arrived to her garden naturally. It is as if the plants know this is the right spot for them.

Elephant Ear (Colocasia)

Elephant Ear (Colocasia)

In the water of her pond gardens, she has water lettuce, elephant ears (one showing off a bloom on it during our tour) – Colocasia esculenta ‘Illustrious’, canna plants, hardy water lilies, papyrus (herbaceous perennial), and mosaic plants (Ludwigia sedioides, an aquatic perennial grown as an annual).

Some of the plants she overwinters by placing them in a fish tank in her home, and others are stored by division of rhizomes or corms, such as done with the canna and elephant ears, or by saving off-sets.  And some are allowed to sink to the bottom to decay or regrow the following season if hardy (as she noted above in maintenance comments.)

Rhonda mentioned Garden’s Dream in Enfield, CT as one place she purchases plants from because they started carrying water type and aquatic plants.

Other plants and bees

There is no doubt the bees are enjoying the plants, for not only could we hear water trickling, see fish moving, there were also many bees visiting the blooms of her coneflowers and other plants surrounding her pond gardens.

Pondering Ponds Photos by Debut Cinematic_0002

Perennials, such as Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower), and various ornamental grasses are planted in the ground near the ponds, and one plant many attendees noticed planted in a pot sitting on a rock in the center of the pond was Amaranthus tricolor, an edible annual with bright red and yellow foliage, which grows rather tall and is showy.

Plant with red and yellow foliage in pot seen in background -Amaranthus tricolor

Plant with red and yellow foliage in pot seen in background -Amaranthus tricolor

When everyone asked me what it was, I drew a blank on the plant name, but Rhonda said she got her first plant of this variety from me a couple years ago and loved it – fortunately, she remembered the name of it.  Rhonda said she’ll never forget seeing this annual at my home in a container garden because she uses Amaranth flour as one of her gluten-free ingredients in her recipes at home.

Papyrus tops


Other plants in the pond gardens, as noted above, were the elephant ears (can sit in water), papyrus (not technically a water plant but also can sit in boggy like water or on water’s edges in pots), and the aquatic water lettuce, hardy water lily, and more.  One we all found fascinating, and is relatively new in Rhonda’s pond gardens, is the mosaic plant (Ludwigia sedioides).  It is an herbaceous perennial (winter hardy to Zone 10) which floats and rests somewhat flat on the surface of the water and has a pretty mosaic like pattern to it.

Mosiac Plants - Photo by C. Testa

Mosiac Plants – Photo by C. Testa

Root Mass Demonstrated 

Another surprise is when Rhonda reached into the water to pull up a huge mass of hardy water lily plants bound together by one root system, explaining how quickly plants grow in her water gardens.

Root Mass of Hardy Water Lilies

Root Mass of Hardy Water Lilies

She also noted another plant found by her husband in the wild, upon with, I gave a little caution to the attendees to be very careful with water plants or any plants you may find out in the wild if you do not know what it is.  There are invasive species in the wild or in natural ponds, which you should never relocate to your pond or home gardens by mistake, especially if it can run off to another water system nearby your home.  So just a note – know what you are planting, and if you decided to get rid of a rampant plant growing your gardens because it became out of control, and don’t know what it is, toss it in the garbage and not in the woods where it could potentially spread.  This is something I learned more about as a kayak-er, where you must be careful to not accidentally bring home an invasive aquatic plant after visiting a lake with your kayak or boat, as discussed in a previous blog here.

Floating Containers – Another Big Surprise of the day 

I’ve written about all types of containers to use in and around the gardens, but have never considered the type Rhonda had in her pond garden.  There was one container floating around in the pond garden, moving here and there gently in the water, and without hesitation, Rhonda lifted her floating container out of the water to show our attendees.  It is made of a black Styrofoam base with individual open sections where pots may be inserted easily.

Pondering Ponds Photos by Debut Cinematic_0006 Pondering Ponds Photos by Debut Cinematic_0007 Pondering Ponds Photos by Debut Cinematic_0008

Garden Art is wonderfully displayed around her pond garden — this little pig in the corner, spitting fish here and there, and other surprises as you look and observe.

Pig by Pond; Photo by C. Testa

It is an adventure to spot them.  We all could imagine the days or evenings when she and her family has sat there to enjoy all the hard work put into the pond gardens at her home.

Pondering Ponds Photos by Debut Cinematic_0005

Sources for Pond Supplies is an online source Rhonda uses to order supplies. She gets her liner, filters, pumps, and water treatments from them. Shipping is pretty fast.  Orders arrive within 5 business days.

Rhonda started her first pond garden 12 years ago, and continues to learn and expand it.

We all could appreciate the amount of effort but how her efforts also equals the relaxing moments by the pond gardens enjoying nature, goldfish, and sounds.

Pond Gardening is Not for Weenies

Water or pond gardening is not for weenies – it takes some effort to get it cleaned and prepared every season, but the payoff is grand. And if you were wondering, one of the reasons we were laughing in the above photo is because I shared a story of how Rhonda and I met during our corporate days – when we decided to take a motorcycle riding course together, and how we would ride into work side by side on our Harley Davidson motorcycles.  Rhonda still rides today, I, however, gave it up so you can see – she’s no weenie!  Makes sense to me that she manages to maintain such a diversity of plant life, fish, and more in her pond gardens.

Hostess Rhonda; Photo by C. Testa

Hostess Rhonda; Photo by C. Testa

Pondering Ponds ContainerCrazyCT_0013

Also, as for pH of the water, Rhonda noted she doesn’t monitor it – she lets nature take its course.  That sounded good to us – and fits the overall rule of the ‘Walk and Talk’ Garden events – it doesn’t have to be perfect for us to enjoy hearing and seeing what any homeowner has created in their backyards.

Pesto and Passion Flowers

The last big surprise of the hour was the handing out of freshly made pesto by one of our attendees — Thank you Linda C.

Pondering Ponds ContainerCrazyCT_0015

What a treat, and additionally, we all saw, on the way out for the day, Rhonda’s beautiful blooms on her passion flower (Passiflora) vine located at the front of her home. She said it returns every year via self-sowing (or perhaps she has one that is noted to be survive winters, Passiflora incarnata.)  It certainly looks like it!

Passion Flower; Photo by C. Testa

Passion Flower; Photo by C. Testa

She has seen fruit growing after the flowers pass, but wasn’t aware it is passion fruit until we discussed this fascinating flower further.

See here to also learn about this plant’s religious significance, which I looked up via my iPad and pointed out to everyone – each part of the flower has a special meaning – and is believed to represent symbols of Christ’s passion and cross.

Next Walk and Talk 

Our next ‘Walk and Talk’ event is scheduled on August 16th in East Granby, CT at 10:00 am.  This one will feature a sunny hillside garden where the homeowner will share her experiences on what thrived and what didn’t when it comes to the plants she has tried in a very informal, loose and spreading garden on a full sun hill which receives lots of heat in the midst of summer, and wind.  As per our rules, the garden is not perfect but a great place to learn directly from a home gardener with a particular passion.

For more information on planting aquatic plants, check out this post by

Thank you,

Cathy Testa

P.S. If interested in showcasing your home garden on our Walk and Talk tours, please feel free to contact Cathy Testa, author of this blog, and coordinator of these events.

Special note of thanks to Professional Lifestyle Photographer, Karen Ladany of Debut Cinematic, for attending to take various photos of the gardens.  She is currently located in East Windsor, CT.

New Page: Troublemakers Turned Stars

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Photos by Cathy Testa

Photos by Cathy Testa

We all know everyone has a good and a bad side, and so do plants!  Thus, I’ve added a new sub-menu to my blog called Troublemakers Turned Stars.  Visit this page and my Pinboards to see more images and photos of the plants discussed.  If you have questions, just let me know – I’ll share my plant experience to date with you – or perhaps you have a story to share how the plant caused you some trouble in your gardens or landscape.  But the point of this information is many plants which are troublemakers in the garden have the opposite effect in container gardens and patio pots. They turn into star performers – so why not use them to capitalize on their bad side?  You will be amazed how useful and attractive they become.


Photos by Cathy Testa

Photos by Cathy Testa


Photos by Cathy Testa

Photos by Cathy Testa

Photos by Cathy Testa

Photos by Cathy Testa


Photo by Cathy Testa

Photo by Cathy Testa

See my Page, Troublemakers Turned Stars, to read the details, why the plants are problems or a nuisance in the garden, yet turn into star performers in container gardens and patio pots.  More will be added routinely to keep you ‘posted.’

Written by Cathy Testa

Kayaking, Plants, & Nature at Crystal Lake in Ellington, CT

Clear Waters at Crystal Lake

Clear Waters at Crystal Lake

I’ve traveled past Crystal Lake, located in the towns of Ellington and Stafford, CT, many times on my way to Stafford Springs and Ashford, and I have admired the lake from the hills off of Sandy Beach Road at a housing development where I’ve done some landscape designs as well. But my recent passion for this lake has grown since I’ve glided over its smooth waters on tranquil mornings during of my off-time on my new kayak.

Crystal Lake is perfect for beginners, such as myself, because it is not too big, nor too small (FYI, a website indicates the lake area is 183 acres).  I’ve tour the lake within an hour or so. However, paddling back to return to the public access boat launch is not always easy because I usually don’t want to leave.

I describe kayaking like, “getting a massage.”  The calm mornings, the sounds of wildlife, and the feeling of being relaxed as nature surrounds you, is part of the kayaking experience for me.  It has become an addictive hobby, and it turns out to be a great way to see plant life up close and personal.  Occasionally, a fish may splash in the water, or birds will fly overhead to land on plant life nearby. You may even have a pack of geese following your kayak, which happened to me one morning.

Most of the waters in Crystal Lake are crystal and clear, but there are some areas of the lake tucked in near a dam, and in cove nooks where water spots are low, filled with plant life.  Plant growth and mucky swamp like waters exists in these side areas, and it is not a suitable swimming area, but a kayak can find its way carefully to adventure close by, should you not mind a bit of muck smell and bugs.  The lure of lily pad blooms drew me into the area.  I wanted to get some up-close shots of blooms.

View from my kayak in the center of the lake

View from my kayak in the center of the lake

The pond like area was a quieter section of the lake because it is surrounded by trees and part of inner nooks, and the birds were chirping and perching on plant life everywhere.  As I carefully paddled nearby, it did cross my mind to be careful to not collect any plant parts or plant drippings on my paddles and to use caution, not only for myself (because this is a place you do not want to tip over your kayak), but because there was a lot of foliage and silt moving around me, and I wondered if this could be disturbing the plant live too much.  It occurred to me maybe I was breaking a rule.

Bugs spotted

Bugs spotted

On my way through some of the water plants, I discovered some rather bizarre looking insects.  They didn’t seem to notice me at all as I took a few close up shots.  They sat perfectly still on top of a lily pad.  As I took the photo, I was thinking when I return home, researching these plants and the lake online was my priority to educate myself more.  I left a message with the Crystal Lake Association to obtain more information, because certainly as a plant person, I didn’t want to contribute to the spread of an invasive species.

Sun captured in the bloom

Sun captured in the bloom

There were two types of blooms happening, one was a white water-lily and the other, yellow pond lilies.  In researching websites, I believe they are Nymphaea odorata (American white water-lily) and Nuphar variegata (Common yellow pond lily). Without my kayak, getting close up shots would be near impossible.

Bloom happening on a common yellow pond lily

Bloom happening on a common yellow pond lily

When I left that day, I read the poster by the public boat launch warning boaters to not bring invasive species plant parts along with them on their boats or equipment.  My mission is to find out more about how the area is protected.  Because the lake is so beautiful everywhere else, this has to be a priority, and my guilt has not yet subsided for venturing into the lily pad area to take photos.

Sign warns everyone use caution

Sign warns everyone use caution

When you go to the lake, you can find the public access road off Rt 30. Finding the street sign can be a challenge one way as a big tree is hiding part of the sign for West Shore Road.  The road dips a bit and leads you to the public boat launch.  A small parking area is available across the street for a few vehicles.  In the mornings, it has been available but during busy peak season time, it may be impossible to find a spot. There is also a beach, called Sandy Beach (see below for information).

Road to public boat launch at Crystal Lake

Road to public boat launch at Crystal Lake


Crystal Lake Association can be found on Facebook here.

Information on how to handle your boats to prevent spread of invasive species can be found here.

Safe boating practices for the lake can be found here.

An Aquatic Plant Survey map for Crystal Lake can be found here.


There are two outhouses in the parking area across from the public boat launch.


SANDY BEACH information from the “Town of Ellington Website” below:

Sandy Beach is located on Crystal Lake on Route 140 in the northern end of town. Our beach offers swimming and sunbathing opportunities on hot summer days. The normal operating schedule for the beach is weekdays from 12 noon to 6:30 pm and on the weekends from 11:00 am to 6:30 pm. Ellington residents may purchase seasonal passesfrom the Recreation Department at a cost of $40.00 per family (Ellington Resident), $25.00 per single (Ellington Resident), $10.00 per senior citizen (Ellington Resident) or enter the beach on a daily basis.

Daily Fees: Ellington adult residents are $ 2.00, children 6 years and older are $ 1.00. Out of town guests are charged $ 5.00 per adult and $ 3.00 per child 6 years and older. All children 5 years and younger are free.

Downtown Stafford Springs, CT

Downtown Stafford Springs, CT


If you decide you would like to venture on some more after boating in the morning, Stafford Springs center has done a bit of revamping, and you can find some nice artsy shops and a wonderful coffee shop serving lunch in town, called Middle Ground Cafe. It is about 5 miles from the lake, continuing on Rt 140, until you hit the center of Stafford, which you will recognize with the brick buildings.  Look for the cafe on your right, at 42 Main Street, Stafford Springs, CT, (860) 851-8900,  They offer great teas, coffees, and a mix of light lunch entrees and sandwiches.  Stop into “The Chocolate Moose” at 72 Main after for dessert, and be sure to visit the quaint art shops.  I bought some tiles at “Stained Glass Creations & Beyond” by “Art by Stefanie” across the street.  Old newspaper prints related to agriculture with plant images stamped on them caught my attention.  There were also some nice pottery items by other artists, hand-made soaps, jewelry, and paintings on the wall.

Downtown art shop, Stafford Springs, CT

Downtown art shop, Stafford Springs, CT

P.S. I will be adding information to this post once I get my call back from the lake association on my questions about the invasives to share with you, and for me to learn more!

Update:  I heard from Mark Mickiewicz, President of the Crystal Lake Association.  He said “the invasive plants grow from the bottom and rise to the surface, and they are trying to prevent power boats from going into those areas because it can cut the plants, detach, float, and repopulate into other cleaned out areas.  They are asking to be “careful” and not to pull, cut, detach or damage the plants.”  (Basically it is not strictly prohibited to enter for kayakers, but requested to stay out of the invasive cove areas if possible to prevent any spread, but some people do venture there to fish, etc.)  For questions, call 860-875-1001.

Cathy Testa
Container Crazy Cathy T
(860) 977-9473

Gardens and Social Media face the Same Challenges

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Recently, my email account got hacked.  A friend told me, “Don’t sweat it, it happens to everyone.”

I contacted my e-mail service provider, changed my password, and thanked Facebook friends for alerting me.

Right after that, I discovered one of my clients responded to the hacker’s e-mail, writing she didn’t believe they were Cathy T.

They sent her a reply, a very convincing one, insisting it was me.  And continued with how they desperately needed money for a cousin’s kidney transplant.  I was supposedly in Belgium.

That’s it, I thought.  I’m terminating this account right now.

Was the termination a bit drastic?  Yes, it was.  From what I’ve read, there’s no need to kill your e-mail id, but I wanted to eliminate this problem because I didn’t want anyone to fall prey to a scam.

This whole situation got me thinking about how gardens and social media face the same challenges. Both are grown in open and linked environments subject to threats and invasions.  You can do lots to deter them, but many will break their way through when you let your guard down.

So, what can you do to reduce the occurrence of painful incidents by hackers or pests?

From cutting to a monster friend in the garden

From cutting to a monster friend in the garden

No. 1)  Don’t accept “every” friend or plant

A gardening friend stops by to offer you a freebie plant from their garden.  It may be a cutting, division, or seeds from a flower. Before you accept their donation, think of it just as you would for a request of a “new friend” in Facebook.  Ask yourself, “What’s the story behind this plant?  Does it have a nice personality or an aggressive one?  Why are they offering it up?” You may be surprised to find out; donations or requests for acceptance usually come from a plant posing a problem in your friend’s garden. It could be invasive, it might be an aggressive spreader via underground suckers, or it is a prolific seed-producer. Think of plants like bamboo, mint, willow, or datura – all pretty or unique, but some species take over fast, thus become a nuisance.  Bottomline, don’t accept it right away without asking about its history, behavior, and characteristics. Same goes for friends on blogging sites, Facebook, and Twitter.  Do a little bit of research before you click accept.

No. 2)  Don’t overcrowd your garden spaces or sites

Ever feel like you have so many friends on Facebook, you don’t even know who they are anymore, and it would take forever to sort them out?  Same thing with e-mail; your inbox is so over loaded, you don’t recognize some of the senders.  Overcrowding can invite problems; create hiding places for stalkers, and ends up in chaos. Too many plants in a gardening space reduce air circulation around your plants; if the foliage remains wet, they get diseases.  Plants requiring sunlight may receive too much shade, limiting their ability to thrive.  Nutrient competition will arise as well.  And “you” might not be able to even enter your garden for routine maintenance.  A full and flush garden is spectacular, and a full inbox may make you feel popular, but keep in mind, it provides the phisher with opportunities just like it gives a critter a chance to pass through without notice.

Bugleweed, a spreader and seed producer.

Bugleweed, a spreader and seed producer.

No. 3) Be Inspector Clouseau when buying a plant in person, or on-line

Get out your reading glasses and open your eyes.  Inspect your plant before purchasing it from a garden center, especially if they are on a sale rack.  Just as you would look over a new app for your smart phone, carefully look it over first before clicking install.  Look for any bad signs.  On perennials, look for unusual spots, insect holes or trails on leaves, shriveled or blotched tissue, and partially eaten foliage.  Check woody plants for tears or cracks in the bark.  Any wounds in the bark can negatively affect the flow of water in the plant.  You may even want to shake the plant to see if insects fly away from it; whiteflies are tiny feeding insects on the undersides of leaves. Look at the top and undersides of the leaves, and if possible tap it out of the pot to inspect the roots.  Healthy roots have white tips; they are not dark brown and mushy. If the potting mix smells of rot – this is a clue.  A white powdery substance on the leaves could be disease, known as powdery mildew caused by a fungus.  Or it could be hairs on the plant’s leaves, which is normal.  The point is – check it before you succumb to the temptation of the flashy dings and whistles.  Some problems on plants are treatable or may be minor; others are an invitation to future problems in your gardens.  For on-line plant purchases, do a little research to find out their reputation.  Read about how they ship their plants, what to expect when they arrive in the mail, and how to care for them upon arrival.  Make sure they are legit.  You don’t want to be buying from Mr. Belgium.

Damaged bark areas, how long has it been in this whittle pot?

Damaged bark areas, how long has it been in this whittle pot?

No. 4) Keep your garden tools and links sterilized

Some gardeners don’t realize they are spreading invisible problems with unclean garden tools. A malicious link, hyperlink, or shortlink in an email will do the same.  With a quick click, it will move the vector just as a infected garden pruner, shovel, or weeding knife will spread a disease, insect, or viruses from one place to another.  And in this case, you are helping to transport them on their adventure.  Wash your tools with soap and water, or soak in a bleach to water ratio.  Heating your tools is another method, but that is something I haven’t tried.  At the end of each season and beginning of spring, take the time to clean tools before using them.  Remember, operator error is often the number one cause for the problem getting into your scenario.  In our midst of excitement or wanting to get it done now, we forgo the process of cleaning our tools. Clean up old debris around you garden too.  Insect pests may spend the winter in the debris to come alive in spring.  And pause before clicking on links from friends.  If they are not showing a visible sign of why they sent you the link, their implement of transportation is executed without you knowing – at first.

If you can, do not use or use correctly.

If you can, do not use or use correctly.

No. 4) Use the correct “…..-cide” and anti-virus software

A common habit of an anxious gardener is to assume one insecticide, pesticide, or herbicide fits all.  You are wasting your money and time if you do not read the label and follow directions exactly for the plant you are trying to cure of a pest or plant you are trying to rid in the garden.  Harming the environment unnecessarily comes into play as well, and we don’t want to do that as gardeners.  Remember, a pesticide is a “chemical” used to kill an organism considered a pest.  There are organic methods believed to be safer, but either way, use the correct type suited for the plant.  If you spray too much, more than required, or sometimes apply on a hot day or in direct sun, you can harm the plant more than the pest or insect has. When it comes to anti-virus software, consult your tech support expert.  That is where my advice is weak.  I probably have made the same assumptions with anti-malware as a gardener does with a pesticide.  Please read the label first before application or installation of either.  With anti-virus software, it is important to stay up to date. Too late, the culprit breaks in.  Timing is important when treating pest insects as well.  They have a pattern and stages, so pay attention to their life cycle because they populate according to specific seasons.  Exact timing is key.  If the insect is not doing major harm, planning a short stay, avoid using a chemical all together.  Remove it by hand instead.  And continue to follow Number 1, 2, and 3 above.

Red and bright, should I fight?

Red and bright, should I fight?

No. 5) Take a hiatus or terminate

Just the other evening, a news station reported statistics indicating people are taking temporary breaks from their Facebook activity.  The demands for attention are starting to exceed the pleasure.  We become obsessive, realizing we have spent the majority of our day browsing pages.  Same can happen with our gardening addictions. Unable to let go of your dream vision of a perfect garden, spotted in the latest garden magazine or favorite blog site, you become engrossed.  You spend every available minute worrying why it didn’t come out exactly as planned, even though you did everything right up front.  You picked the right place in your yard for your plant, you tested the soil and amended it appropriately with nutrients and organic matter, you nurtured it with water, and selected resistant cultivars, but alas, that deer jumped the barrier, the insect found a tasty treat, or a critter burrowed below creating new pathways to enter and destroy.  So what are you to do in your moment of peril?  Cry by the garden’s edge, consider hiring a deer hunter, or reach for the wrong pesticide?  As a last resort, you might do the impulsive thing – like I did with my hacked e-mail.  Rip it all out, terminate.  Yet, I wouldn’t recommend that.  Fix the immediate problem, and then take a Hiatus – preferably one where you aren’t weeding and tweeting.

Cathy T on a Hiatus

Cathy T on a Hiatus

Container Crazy Cathy T
New email: To be posted

A Major Invasive Pest Arrives in CT

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Have you ever heard of EAB?  It stands for “Emerald Ash Borer” — and it has been detected in Prospect, CT for the very first time.

However, unless you are involved in keeping up with insect news, trees or invasive plants, you probably have no clue what EAB is — or how you can unknowingly contribute to its spread.

This is why I thought it is important to share, in its entirety, the memorandum below recently issued by the CT Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES) of New Haven, CT, with their permission.  It was issued to Master Gardeners on Thursday, July 26, 2012.

The memo below details the detection of EAB, a small shiny metallic green wood boring beetle, in Prospect, CT on July 16, 2012.  This is the first record of this pest in our state, and it was a confirmed identification by federal regulatory officials.

Again – this is the first record of this pest, the Emerald Ash Borer, in Connecticut.

Although the EAB insect is small, approximately 1/2″ long and 1/8″ wide, it has been very destructive to ash trees, killing millions of them in other states, such as MI, OH, and IN.  Its larvae tunnels under the bark leading to eventual death of the trees.

Ash trees, as noted in the CAES Press Release linked below, make up about 4% to 15% of Connecticut’s forest and is a common urban tree.”  

Because EAB was destructive in other states, special detection measures were put in place by authorities and volunteers here in our state. One detection method was the installation of purple traps by the University of CT Cooperative Extension System.  In fact, I wrote about seeing a purple trap hanging from a tree one day on Facebook last year.  Some Facebook friends may remember I posted comments and a link about them.  Other Facebook friends said they had seen them too, wondering what they were.  The purple traps are shaped like a prism box and contain a chemical lure.  These traps help to locate three EAB in Prospect, CT –  but the traps were not the only detection methods used.

Another method was by way of monitoring ground-nesting wasps, as detailed below in the memorandum.  The wasp collects the bodies of beetles, and long story short – EABs were found in the wasps nests.  This was a method of following the hunters trail, so to speak.  And it was successful due to the efforts lead by “Wasp Watchers” networks, also detailed in the memorandum below.

Now comes our potentially harmful role, as humans of spreading the insects.  Firewood.  And don’t we know…?, we have a great deal of stocked firewood around this season as a result of last October’s damaging storm, and other rainstorms this summer.  Many trees have been chainsawed by homeowners and piled up for sale.  Imagine, for a minute, if those trees were ash trees, and some had the beetle larvae under its bark?

If you attended any agricultural fairs recently, you may have seen pamphlets asking folks to not move firewood – especially from state to state or to campsites across state lines.  Moving firewood from state to state can be an very easy way of spreading invasive insects.  Well, you get the idea, you could be helping to spread a pest to another uncontaminated state.

This is why I requested the permission to release the full details of EAB’s detection, description, harmful potential to trees, and regulations outlined in this memorandum below.  It was emailed by Katherine Dugas and Rose Hiskes of the CT Agricultural Experiment Station to Master Gardeners.  And I appreciate their quick response of approval to share the memo, so I could share this news to gardeners and tree lovers.

Also, I’d like to note important credit to Dr. Rutledge and her team of “Wasp Watchers” — as they have been coined, for they are responsible for finding the EAB via their efforts.  And because of them, and many others, we and our CT trees have a head-start on action plans to prevent major distribution or destruction of ash trees.  As the press release indicates, “this pest attacks all species of ash trees.”

Well, I’ve tried to explain this new EAB pest news as best I could above, but should you want to read the complete formal details – here they are below.  Please read on and share the story of the EAB and firewood where and when you can.  Thank you – Cathy T

MEMORANDUM from CAES to Master Gardeners:

Hello Volunteers and Listserv Members,

EAB has arrived. It has been clear for a while that discovering EAB in Connecticut was only a matter of time, and that time was last week. The beetle arrived at CAES on Monday the 16th and was sent off for confirmation to various federal agencies (USDA in Michigan and then DC). Final confirmation was received on Wednesday the 18th. You can read the full CAES press release here:

This find is special. Unlike other EAB finds which have been from purple traps, the first official CT EAB was found in the posession of a small native ground-nesting wasp, Cerceris fumipennis. Dr. Claire Rutledge of CAES has been conducting biosurveillance for EAB using this native wasp for the past few years with the help of US Forest Service funding and a network of hardworking volunteers, known collectively as the ‘Wasp Watchers.’

Biosurveilance with this wasp started in Canada with Dr. Steven Marshall, Dr. Bruce Gill, and Phillip Careless, M.S. The program has since been expanded into multiple networks of Wasp Watchers in many states and regions. For more information about the program, go to<>.

The wasp has no official common name, but it has affectionately been nicknamed the “Smokey Winged Beetle Bandit” (this name has now been submitted to the Entomological Society of America’s committee on common names!). Female Cerceris dig nests in hard packed sandy soil in areas that are near a wooded area and in full sunshine (Baseball fields are ideal). The wasp will then stock her nest with the paralysed bodies of Buprestid beetles, a family of beetles of which EAB is a member. The idea is that if EAB is present in the area, then the Cerceris will eventually encounter them, capture them, and bring them back to the nests. The Wasp Watchers intercept the female wasps on their way back from hunting trips and collect the paralyzed beetles (the wasp is released). The beetles can then be identified.

The first EAB came from a Cerceris colony in Canfield Park, Prospect. So far Dr. Rutledge and her Wasp Watchers have found 34 more from the same area, as well as 3 more at Fusco Field (about 1 mile away). Subsequent examination of the purple traps in the Prospect area found that one of them also caught 3 EAB. A trap in adjacent Naugatuck has also yielded 3 additional beetles.

…so where do we go from here? From an outreach standpoint, our message remains unchanged: limiting the movement of firewood prevents the long-distance spread of EAB and other invasive species. From a regulatory standpoint, CAES and DEEP are now working to put the following measures into place:

A quarantine zone that would prohibit the movement of certain wood products out of New Haven County, the area in which EAB has now been detected

A ban on the importation of firewood into Connecticut through New York or Massachusetts – unless it is properly certified or has not come from an area of infestation

Additional detection traps in the Prospect area to monitor the presence of EAB and help assess their presence

A “delimiting” survey to help determine the area in which EAB is present and the extent of the infestation

Suspension of all timber contracts and firewood permits for state forest lands in New Haven County

A survey with federal agencies to determine how long the EAB infestation has been present in our state, information which will help determine best strategies for addressing it

For more information on these measures, see the joint CAES/DEEP press release here:

Needless to say, it is going to be a very interesting year for outreach! We’ll keep you posted with any new updates. Thank you all again for all your support and interest!

Katherine Dugas and Rose Hiskes
The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station
123 Huntington Street Box 1106
New Haven, CT 06504
Insect Inquiry Office: (203) 974-8600

Update to this Post:

Last nite, as I browsed a horticulture magazine for professionals, I read insecticide trial protected ash trees in Chicagoland communities, with a survival rate of 95 percent.  Nearby trees died from the EAB/emerald ash borer heavy infestations.  The link to the magazine is not working properly this morning, so I did not share here yet.  Cathy T

Plant Pathology


A customer came into a nursery to ask what was the problem with his plant.  He was holding a dried-up dead (unidentifiable) perennial with bits of roots dangling below.  I had no clue.

Diagnosing plant diseases can be particularly challenging, unless there is an obvious symptom or sign.  A learning the difference between the two is equally important, and not always simple to do. 

  • A symptom is a reaction as a result of a disease, like wilting, galls, chlorosis (yellowing tissue), dieback, blotches, etc.  It is a change in the plant’s growth or exterior in response to a living (or non-living, such as extreme weather) destructive factor. 
  • A sign is the pathogen or its parts visible on the host plant, like a fruiting body, bacterial ooze, slime, or other yucky looking things!  It is direct proof of a damaging factor.

Understanding the difference between a symptom and a sign can help you arrive to a potential identification of the disease or problem, the cause, and how to prevent it in the future.

In December during a walk along a river, I spotted some wild flower stalks with odd round balls about half way down the center.  My husband accompanying me on the walk thought they were part of the plant and found them interesting.  Since we were collecting dried flower and cones for upcoming holiday container garden arrangements, I happen to have a pair of pruning shears with me.  Cutting open the ball revealed a quick learning opportunity for my husband.  Inside was a little tiny single insect surrounded by soft papery-like tissue from the plant’s reaction to insect’s home.  The round expansion on the stem was actually a gall.  A symptom.

A symptom

In October during our trip to Hawaii, I saw, for the first time, dodder on plants.  I learned about dodder last season during my master gardener classes.  Although these parasitic plants can a problem in CT, I’ve never seen or heard of it before.  However, on the Big Island of Hawai’i, it was visible on plants in many places during our travels.  A sign. 

Determining disease causes is not my favorite part of horticulture.  After all, it makes plants look out of character.  But learning about plant diseases is a necessity in this business.  Let’s face it.  Plant diseases are not normal thus they are not much fun to look at, but they must be addressed to improve the health of your garden, and the health of the gardener’s pride!

There are some common problems, like powdery mildew or downy mildew.  But even those can be uncommon to the general homeowner.  A woman’s reaction once when I told her she had powdery mildew on her plant was curious.  She backed away slowly, and said, “What the heck is that?!”  I felt useful during that conversation as I assured her it wasn’t contagious to humans. Then we discussed a plan of action, how to dispose of the plant properly, and plant varieties with resistant or tolerant traits.

Because of our very snowy season in CT, I suspect – as you may as well, we are going to have a very wet spring.  Moisture can be a big attributing factor to speeding up some disease problems.  Another big factor is temperature.  Both persuade the disease bad guys (organisms) to take action.  Timing is everything too.  Some diseases occur only during certain times of the season or year, and on specific plants. 

Repeat Snow

During plant studies, students learn about the big three needed for diseases to set it.  They are a “favorable environment” (like the extreme wetness soon to come), “susceptible host” (a plant that gets the disease easily), and a pathogen (the bad guy that causes the disease).  Without all three, your chances of disease incidences are greatly reduced.  Since we can’t control Mother Nature (as we CT folks were reminded the past couple months), we need to focus on the other two elements:  the plants we select and how we manage them. 

When you shop at your local nursery or consult with your professional designer this spring, like moi – Cathy T, ask about resistant varieties.  Think about things such as how to provide good air circulation around your plants and in your gardens, which products to use to amend your soil for proper drainage, and start off with the right plant in the right place.  Watch out for waterlogged places which can affect roots.

If you left a mess in your garden before winter, such as old debris and things that will remain wet, start to move them out early.  And start to consider what is normal or abnormal.  When my husband saw the galls on the wild flower stem, he thought it may be a seedpod.  It was not – it was abnormal. 

And other times, you just need to wait.  If a plant has winter injury, it may look awful at first, but it may also come back slowly.  As I said, diagnosing plant diseases can be a challenge.  Determining the problem, looking for patterns, plants affected, and gathering clues will be helpful if you go to a specialist for advice.  Be Inspector Clueso first.  Take note of things around the plant.

A book I found useful this year, introduced to me by my master gardener coordinator is, “What’s Wrong with My Plant? (And How do I Fix It?),” by David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth.  I also like “The Ortho Problem Solver” manual for its images and description of plant problems, not necessarily the chemical application suggestions – but for determining what is wrong with the plant. 

But should you not want to look things up on your own, as my client, you can come to me, Cathy T.  I’ll do my best to help you this spring!