Monthly Archives: November 2013

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.

Holiday Inspiration in Essex

by Categorized: Decorating, Design, Holidays Date:


Make a date to get inspired about the holidays: The Essex Holiday House Tour, which benefits the Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut, is on Dec. 7 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Deanna Pinette, who owns Gather in Ivoryton, is helping several of the Essex homeowners who are opening their homes this year. The tour, Deanna says, “is a great girls’ day out. At that time of the season, most other people don’t have their houses decorated yet. So it’s kind of a jumpstart. You go home and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this!’ It inspires people.”

Here’s a link to my preview of the tour in this month’s issue of Hartford Magazine.




Essex-LisaPhotos by JOHN WOIKE, including Lisa Frese, above, with Charley and Walter.

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.

Seeding The Imagination, Now And Then

by Categorized: Gardening, Heritage, Seasons Date:

Before long, the seed catalogs will start to roll in, a virtual feast for imagining the garden pleasures to come. Poring over them is clearly something people have relished doing for a good long while.

What a treat to stumble upon the various blogs of Barbara Wells Sarudy, including one on Early American Gardens. As part of that blog, she regularly posts images of historic American seed and plant catalogs from the Smithsonian libraries.

They’re lovely, and sometimes quite amusing. Here’s the link.

And here’s a sampling:




A Shelton Spruce Makes The Cut: A Big-Time Star

by Categorized: Seasons, Trees Date:

Cutting down a tree can be a chore. Or a relief. Or a bittersweet moment. spruceWhen that tree is 76 feet tall, it also can be quite a spectacle.

A Norway spruce in Shelton, at the home of John and Louse Vargoshe, was cut down today and now heads for the bright lights, big city. It will reign over Rockefeller Center this holiday season, crowned in crystal Swarovski, and be the star of a two-hour TV special when it’s lighted on Dec. 4.

Rose Lichtenfels has the story, with photos by Patrick Raycraft here.