Tag Archive for winter in Connecticut

It’s berry time in bluebird land.

With a bit of advanced planning, snow cover, and fortuitous timing, you may be able to catch sight of berry time in bluebird land.

Bluebirds love juniper berries … something I learned quite by accident many years ago after I had gathered berry-laden juniper branches to decorate a winter wreath hanging on my front door. The door, near my office window, attracted a lot of bird activity on a  snowy-covered February day much like today. When I investigated I found bluebirds visiting the wreath for a mid-winter snack.

Since then I’ve tried to collect berry-laden juniper branches for each winter’s outdoor decorations. It’s a delight when a flock of bluebirds brighten a winter landscape.

Some of the most common plants are those most valuable to native wildlife.  Juniperus virginiana, more commonly known as Eastern Red Cedar, in tree and spreading forms, as well as creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) are three extremely valuable North American natives growing in Connecticut. Ellen Sousa, author of The Green Garden, a great how-to book for creating wildlife habitat in New England gardens  (I reviewed it two years ago), shares more on the benefits of junipers in this post at Beautiful Wildlife Garden.

But, beyond juniper berries, bluebirds will feast on holly berries at this time of year.

This afternoon was berry feasting time around my house and I managed to catch a couple of bluebirds in photos. They are not good photos – taken through a screen from an inside window without using a tripod. I apologize for the fuzziness. I had to catch these active bluebirds while I could. Bluebirds are not likely to sit still for a photo shoot and, once spooked, do not return until they are good and ready.

So, in fuzzy images, I present some of my bluebird visitors.

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They pulled at the holly berries until it was their turn at the winter-decoration juniper berries in nearby basket. (There was no way for my camera to catch any bluebirds at the juniper berries.)

The photos do not do justice to the wonderful sight of a bright bluebird against the pure white of newly-fallen snow but, hopefully you get the mental picture.

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I hope these mediocre photos will entice you to plant shrubs that bluebirds love. I’ve actually transplanted some small Eastern Red Cedars from the inconvenient places they self-sowed to more favorable spots, hoping they will eventually produce their own crop of berries to keep the local bluebirds fed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA But I also have a few hollies growing in a deer-protected location. If you plant hollies be sure to include at least one male plant in the Ilex family to pollinate any female berry-producing Ilex in your yard. I have just one male that pollinates four different female Ilex shrubs, including two winterberries on the opposite side of the house.

You’ll be happy you included junipers and hollies in your landscape when you get to witness berry feasting time in bluebird land.

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Heavy Snow, Heavy Load

Anyone who has shoveled knows just how heavy snow can be, especially when it’s not the perfect powder. Wet, heavy snow is also a burden on shrubs and trees. It’s a heavy load that needs some tending.

Gardeners should step in to prevent heavy snow loads from damaging prized shrubs and small trees. It’s not difficult. All you need is a broom and the correct technique.

It’s tempting to brush snow from the tops of shrubs … but don’t. Pushing downward with any pressure may cause additional damage or breakage. Instead, gently maneuver the broom – either the business end or the long handle, depending on the amount of room available – under each snow laden branch. Gently … and I mean gently … lift upwards with a shaking motion.

I tend to start at the bottom branches to ease their load. If you start at the top of a shrub you are only adding to the already heavy load on lower branches. By starting at the bottom you release the load from the bottom up. Then you can go back and remove any snow that’s fallen from upper branches to those below.

My Pieris japonica had already suffered the loss of a small branch before I could remove its snow load. It looked a lot happier with the snow removed.

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This small mountain laurel was really buried. I could almost hear a sigh of relief as I cleared snow from its branches.

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Beech trees are really susceptible to snow loads. Stand back when gently shaking snow from their branches, or be prepared to become snow covered yourself.

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Even the woody shrubs without leaves benefit from having heavy snow gently cleared from their branches.

Connecticut gardens are sure to see more heavy, wet snows this season.  Make it a habit to pay your shrubs a bit of attention after each heavy snow. It’s a good reason to get a bit of fresh air and you just may save your shrubs from serious damage.

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Winter Review: Frost Heaving

Winter is the ideal dream time for cold-climate gardeners, but it’s also a perfect time to review good gardening practices and increase your gardening knowledge. For this Winter Review we’ll examine frost heaving.

Frost heaving can occur when winter weather brings wide temperature swings for days on end. Soil, originally frozen when cold temperatures settled in, will thaw. When the soil refreezes the ice that forms in the previously thawed layers expands. When this occurs at the base of some plants it can cause the crown and root systems to rise – or heave – from the soil, which exposes the roots to cold and drying temperatures.

If this happens multiple times, a plant can be pushed completely out of the soil. The result is a significantly stressed or dead plant.

Now factor in multiple frost/thaw cycles with heavy rainfall during an extended thaw cycle. Some of the rain settles into the top layers of soil making it even more likely to heave during a subsequent freeze.

The wide temperature swings we’ve experienced in Connecticut this winter, coupled by the lack of a constant heavy snow cover, has led to significant frost heaving. Shallow-rooted perennials – think strawberries, heuchera and scabiosa – are very susceptible to frost heaving, as are any plants in naturally moist soils and late-planted shrubs and perennials that did not have adequate after-planting time to extend their roots far into surrounding soil.

A heavy snow cover helps mitigate frost heaving. I noticed very little frost heaving after last winter, when three feet of snow blanketed my gardens and held soil temperatures constant throughout the winter. I’ve likewise found little frost heaving during winters that remain cold but have little snow cover.

If you’re a fan of frost heaving – which no right-minded gardener would be – this 2013-2014 winter weather has been ideal. We had cold temperatures and 3” to 5” snowfalls in early-mid December, but on the first day of winter outdoor temperatures were in the 50’s. By the first of January it was again cold, but all snow was long-gone until 5” fell on  January 3rd. That snow melted when heavy rains, along with a few days of temperatures in the 40’s and 50’s, followed.

January 15 brought frosty morning fog, quickly dissipated by the rising sun, and afternoon temperatures warm enough to entice this little caterpillar guy to wander.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow, on January 22nd, we’re back to a deep freeze – a low of about 5 degrees this morning – and 10” of new snow.

I hope this snow blanket remains – and is replenished – until spring begins to push this fickle Old Man Winter away. Though all my plants are well mulched, which offers some protection from frost heaving, I’ve already noticed heaving of one late-planted lavender and in the strawberry bed.

Sometimes there is nothing a gardener can do to prevent frost heaving, but a good blanket of snow until spring may help protect heaved plants from further damage – it may even save them from demise.

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