Category Archives: Ecology

An Aggressive Aquatic Plant Invades The State

by Categorized: Botany, Ecology, Invasive Species, Plants Date:

HydrillaThis is an alarming development: Hydrilla, a highly invasive species, has been found in Coventry Lake. Invasives displace native plants and can dramatically alter the environment and food chain.

Boaters, in particular, should be on the lookout for Hydrilla and take steps to prevent it from spreading further.

David Moran has the story:

Food For Thought, And For The Earth

by Categorized: Composting, Ecology, Food, Gardening, Recycling, Sustainability Date:

Food can get you thinking. So much goes into producing it. From the seed or plant or animal itself to the time and energy and planning and muscle to feed, water, cultivate, harvest, sort, cull, transport, market, stock, promote, sell and finally get that product home in our refrigerators — and then prepared in a meal.

All those valuable resources that go into producing food make me a passionate composter whenever there are peelings or leftover scraps on a plate.

But I’ve got a garden, and I love the idea of plowing those resource-rich extras back into the soil. Composting is a bit of a minor miracle. It doesn’t take much work, just some time.

Still, it’s not for everyone. Some people don’t garden. Others just don’t have room for a compost bin.

November 2013 153Communities like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, have city-wide curbside food scrap collection programs. The food waste is recycled into soil-enriching compost.

And in Connecticut, many food distributors, big supermarkets and other significant generators of food scraps are going to have to start recycling their scraps — if they aren’t already doing so — under a law going into effect at the New Year.

But what about the typical household?

Susannah Castle, who recently launched Blue Earth Compost, a residential food scrap pickup service in Hartford and West Hartford, says households are significant contributors of food waste to the waste stream. By some estimates, we throw out about 40 percent of the food we purchase.

Her new, hyper-local effort will help ensure that these resource-laden food scraps don’t go to waste but instead are used to nourish the soil and enhance our ecology.

“We can transform the state of our soil,” she says. “I’d love to see this community really develop a visionary mind-set toward becoming a zero-food-waste community – a community with spectacular soil, at least on the domestic scale. It’s a no-brainer.”

Click here for my complete story.

Photo of Susannah Castle by Nancy Schoeffler







Berries So Lovely, Yet So Insidious

by Categorized: Botany, Ecology, Invasive Species Date:

It’s come to this. Oriental bittersweet is now such an invasive plant in the state that the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has  issued a release urging residents not to use it in holiday decorating.

Gabelman UConn bittersweet fruits top lr

Use a native plant like Winterberry holly (below) instead, DEEP recommends.

Gabelman winterberry UConn 2013 lr

Sad to say, we have a spectacular mass of the berry-filled branches of Oriental bittersweet high in an immense rhododendron. I admit the berries are gorgeous, and years ago, when I didn’t know any better, I would have been thrilled to use them in a wreath or centerpiece. Now I’m glad they’re out of reach to other holiday decorators who might spot them and be tempted to clip a few.

As soon as there’s enough snowcover on the ground, I’m going to try to pull down the mass of berries using a telescoping pruner. I figure the snow will help me spot where they land. For now, I know the birds are feasting on the berries, which only contributes anew to the continuing spread of the invasive plant.

For years I’ve chopped at the vines of Oriental bittersweet, which have a vexing habit of wrapping around branches and girdling them. The plant just keeps popping up with a vengeance. It’s a never-ending battle.

Logan Senack, the state’s invasive plant coordinator, says Oriental bittersweet is “certainly one of the 10 most common [invasive species in Connecticut], and it certainly has a dramatic and negative impact on ecosystems.”

While it’s not new — it’s been here since the 1860s — and is fairly widespread, there still are parts of the state where Oriental bittersweet isn’t a problem.

And that’s why DEEP wants to keep it from spreading.

It’s actually against the law to sell or move Oriental bittersweet. A state law that went into effect in 2004 prohibits moving, selling, purchasing, transplanting, cultivating or distributing 80 invasive plants — with fines of $50 a plant.

Logan says that while the law has been on the books for a decade, no one could “write a ticket” until 2010 when DEEP was given the enforcement authority. And DEEP does get complaints, but so far, Logan says, they have been resolved with education and voluntary compliance.

As far as eradicating Oriental bittersweet, Logan says you can pull up smaller plants by hand — the bright orange roots are easy to identify. A larger patch or bigger plants might require a professional. You can cut plants that have large woody stems at the base and then apply an herbicide (labeled for woody vegetation) at just the cut portion.

For more information — or if you find someone selling invasive plant species —  contact Logan Senack, at 860-208-3900 and

And the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group’s website at has lots more information on invasive plant species in Connecticut.

PHOTOS: Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), at top, and Winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), both by Nicole Gabelman, via DEEP.


Adventures In Composting

by Categorized: Composting, Ecology, Gardening, Insects, Sustainability Date:

After a summer of hardly gardening at all because of an injured foot, I had such a pent-up desire to get back to the garden. The past few weeks have been spent catching up on chores — weeding, trimming and trying to restore a modicum of order after months of neglect.

allium moly white flower farmBut Sunday, I happily planted bulbs. The weather was balmy and I got them all in the ground. (Somewhat manic when I was still limping, I had accumulated a lot of them: tulips, daffodils, purple Allium ‘Globemaster,’ yellow Allium moly, crocuses, snowdrops, grape hyacinths and scilla campanula.)

At one point I started planting daffodils in an area where we had taken out two ailing hemlock trees. The soil there was pretty depleted and lifeless, so I thought I’d dip into our compost bin and enrich it a bit.

Tulips2We compost in two places: up the hill in a fairly casual heap that does a very slow breakdown, and in an efficient rolling bin we bought years ago at Smith and Hawken, when it still was in business. We keep the rolling composter closer to the house, which is particularly handy during snowy weather. Every spring it is filled with beautiful, rich compost.

On Sunday, though, I almost had a stroke when I started digging in the bin for some compost for the bulbs and noticed scores of pale gray, segmented insects.

larvae-wikipedia commonsMy immediate panicky thought was that I’d tossed in some diseased houseplant that contained a few of the torpedo-shaped grubs or whatever they were, and that they were multiplying and destructive and soon would take over like some backyard version of the insects in “The Matrix.”

At times like these, I thank the stars for the internet.

Turns out our compost bin was rich with black soldier fly larvae. And that’s a wonderful thing.

The larvae are apparently excellent composters. They soldier through decaying food waste, voraciously consuming it and turning it into rich food for the garden.

There’s even a Black Soldier Fly blog — — and at I can buy 2,000-plus of the larvae for $29.95 (if I weren’t accidentally raising my own).

beneficial-51C-GCMGA14284-black_soldier_flyOn the Modern Homestead blog I learned that the larvae’s high level of feeding activity concentrates such considerable nutrients that the resulting black soldier fly — a wasp-waisted fly with smoky black wings, Hermetia illucens — hardly needs to feed at all. It won’t bite or sting or come buzzing around and isn’t a vector for diseases but mostly spends its time resting on leaves in the sunlight. A fly I could love! (Here’s a fascinating fact sheet.)

And a grub I could love. Watch the larvae go to town in this time-release video, “Black Soldier Fly Cucumber Festival”:

Anyway, what probably attracted them to our compost is that we throw in a lot of coffee grounds.

Tulips1I took a peek in the bin this morning, when temperatures were in the 20s. I hope the larvae were burrowed deep into the warm pile of stuff in there. I don’t know what will become of the larvae when it really freezes. While I’ve composted for years, I’ve never really dug into what actually was occurring as rotting food scraps were magically transformed into black gold. I’m talking with a West Hartford composting expert on Friday, so I’ll let you know what more I learn.

Meanwhile, maggots in my compost? I’m just lucky, I guess.

Photo of Allium moly, via White Flower Farm. Photo of tulips by Nancy Schoeffler. Photo of black soldier fly larvae by Dennis Kress, via Wikimedia Commons. Photo of black soldier fly, via Galveston County Master Gardener Association.  “Black Soldier Fly Cucumber Festival” video, via Black Soldier Fly blog. Photo of tulips by Nancy Schoeffler.

In The Garden With Margaret Roach: Worth Watching

by Categorized: Composting, Ecology, Garden Design, Gardening, Gardens, Insects, Nature, Weeds Date:

Margaret-Roach-and-Joe-Lampl-photo-by-Carl-PenningtonGarden writer Margaret Roach whose invaluable blog, A Way To Garden, is one of my favorites, is featured this week in public TV’s “Growing a Greener World” with Joe Lamp’l. Here’s the link.

It’s a delight to “visit” her garden — the shoot was in August — and the episode is filled with insights, on everything from how she uses gold in the garden, why she painted her house olive and red, how she keeps weeds under control, garden design with your windows in mind and much more. Joe even talks about Margaret’s composting technique: She uses a wind row.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Margaret a few years ago about the 365-day garden and her delight in the garden in winter. Here’s a link.

M_Roach_fall-foliage-DSC_3682LLPhoto courtesy of Margaret Roach, via “Growing A Greener World”

Margaret garden winterA century-old apple tree behind Margaret Roach‘s home in Copake Falls, N.Y. is outlined in snow. Photo courtesy of Margaret Roach.

Master Gardener Application Deadline Is Extended

by Categorized: Botany, Ecology, Gardening, Horticulture, Invasive Species, Plants, Trees Date:

Bartlett Arboretum

Master Gardener Application Deadline Extended

Just about every truly serious gardener I’ve met in Connecticut is a Master Gardener; it’s a credential I aspire to and hope one day to find the time to attain. It takes serious commitment.

The UConn Extension System’s 2014 Master Gardener program, which begins the first week of January, provides horticultural and environmental training to people who want to expand their gardening know-how and share it with the public through volunteer activities.

The program includes more than 100 hours of classroom work — in 14 all-day class sessions once a week — covering botany, plant pathology, entomology, integrated pest management, herbaceous and woody ornamentals, edibles, turf grass, invasive plants and diagnostic techniques. Classes can be taken at the Bartlett Arboretum in Stamford, or at the County Extension Centers in Norwich, Torrington, Hamden or Vernon.

Students also do supervised research — on identifying insects and plants, diagnosing plant diseases and providing recommendations — and participate in community outreach projects, such as community gardens, educational booths at Earth Day events and county fairs, and working with the Connecticut Invasive Plant Group. In all, it involves about 60 hours of volunteer work.

The fee is $415, and partial scholarships may be available, depending on need.

The deadline for postmarking applications has been extended to Nov. 8. Details about the program and the application form are available at the Home and Garden Education Center’s website at and at County Extension Center offices.

Photo: Bartlett Arboretum