Native Delaware: January is planning time for area vegetable gardeners

January 9, 2013 under CANR News

Native Delaware BeatsThe wind howls at the windowpanes. The sun makes a brief appearance but departs before the workday is over.  In the woods, the white-tailed deer huddle together for warmth.

In January, it’s easy to believe that spring will never arrive. But some folks, like Master Gardener Rick Judd, disregard the signs of winter around them and already are gearing up for spring.

“I’m making my seed selections now,” says Judd, who gardens on a small but prolific plot at his suburban Newark home. “You’d be surprised how early you can plant. By mid-March, I’ll be direct seeding onions, scallions, radishes, spinach, beets, peas, kohlrabi, several types of lettuce and more.”

Judd will be out in the garden even earlier – usually by the first of March – pulling weeds, raking the soil, and amending with fertilizer so he’s ready for planting day.

An avid gardener for more than 20 years, Judd knows that vegetables are divided into two major groups – cool-season and warm-season crops. Cool-season veggies can handle chilly conditions and even frost. In fact, the biggest threat to cool-season crops is warmth. Gardeners must plant these veggies early enough that they reach maturity before temperatures heat up too much. In contrast, warm-season crops, like tomatoes, corn and watermelon, can’t be planted until after the last frost. Since the warm-weather growing season is fairly short in Delaware, these veggies are usually transplanted into the garden rather than directly seeded.

Judd realizes that many new gardeners are clueless about these distinctions. They mistakenly think that nothing can be planted until after the risk of frost has passed. More experienced gardeners may understand the difference between cool- and warm-season crops but are tomato or sweet corn snobs. They couldn’t be bothered getting out in the garden early to grow watercress, chive, endive and other “little, green things.”

Judd hopes to get more gardeners juiced about cool-season crops at a “Grow Your Own Spring Salad” Master Gardener workshop on Jan. 29. He’ll reveal his secrets to success, from choosing the right cultivars for local growing conditions to scouting for pests.

He’ll also share the surprisingly long list of cool-season vegetables that can be grown. In addition to his staple crops of lettuces, radish, spinach, beets, scallions and onion, Judd says he often plants “several more exotic choices, like arugula or kohlrabi.”

Other cool-season vegetables that can be grown in Delaware include beet, bok choi, broccoli, Brussels sprout, cabbage, cardoon, carrot, cauliflower, celery, chard, chicory, fava bean, fennel, kale, pak choi, kai-lan, parsley, peas, Swiss chard, turnip and watercress. Plus, there are a number of perennial cool-season selections, including asparagus, rhubarb and horseradish.

Overwhelmed? No need to be. First, while it may sound obvious, grow the stuff you like, says Judd. If you don’t like chard from the supermarket you probably won’t like it even when it’s grown in your own backyard.

Secondly, “plant stuff that’s reasonably easy to grow,” says Judd. Leafy greens are probably the easiest cool-season veggies to grow. This includes all types of lettuce, especially leaf lettuces.

The good news is that, in general, cool-season vegetables are some of the easiest plants to grow.  “This isn’t like growing orchids,” notes Judd. “God was good to us in that he made a lot of our foods fairly easy to grow.”

Learn More

“Grow Your Own Spring Salad” will be held Jan. 29, 7- 9 p.m., at the New Castle County Cooperative Extension office in Newark.  The workshop costs $20. To register, call 831-COOP.

Want to be a Master Gardener?

If you’d like to share your gardening knowledge with others, like Rick Judd does, train to be a Master Gardener. The 2013 training program in New Castle County will be held from March to May on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Applications are available at:  or contact Carrie Murphy at 831-2506.

Article by Margo McDonough


These unique holiday gift ideas have a First State focus

December 17, 2012 under CANR News

blanket_yarnHaven’t finished your holiday shopping yet? You’re not alone. Only 47 percent of Americans have their shopping wrapped up by the second week of December, according to the National Retail Federation. But the clock is ticking.

No worries. We’ve rounded up some great gift ideas. Best yet, many of these choices have a uniquely Delaware focus. Some – like soil test kits and garden gloves – are tailor-made for outdoorsy types. Other gifts – like Delaware wool blankets — work equally well for couch potatoes who just gaze at the landscape from their windows.

Sure-fire way to get owls in the backyard

The young – and young at heart – will love Hoot the Owl, a chubby creature made from sunflower seed, with apple and apricot rings for eyes and an almond for the mouth.

“I stuck one in my backyard and set up a time-release camera,” says Charles Shattuck, who, with his wife Kathy, owns Wild Birds Unlimited in Hockessin. “I’m getting a wide variety of birds feeding at it. By late December, I expect ‘Hoot’ and my other feeders will be attracting white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches; downy, red-bellied and hairy woodpeckers; and yellow-bellied sap suckers.”

At $9.50, Hoot the Owl is a good choice for a stocking stuffer or gift exchange at work.

Wild Birds also stocks black oil sunflower seed in bulk that is grown locally, by Jamie Hicks of Kennett Square, Pa. Buy a pound or several pounds for the birdwatcher on your list.

Most serious birdwatchers prefer black oil seed. It has a higher oil content than other varieties so it provides the birds with more calories. Plus, small birds have an easier time cracking its thinner shell.

Or, consider a $22 hand-painted ornament by Dover artist Marcia Poling. Choose images of bluebirds, woodpeckers and warblers, as well as deer, rabbit and other mammals.  “They’ve been selling well,” says Shattuck.

Warm and woolly choices

The University of Delaware’s flock of Dorset ewes are sheared every spring before going out to summer pasture. Previously, their wool was sold at a regional auction to wool processors. Then farm superintendent Scott Hopkins and Lesa Griffiths, professor of animal and food sciences, put their heads together and, soon after, Blue Hen Blankets and Yarn was born. Now, after the sheep are sheared, the wool is sent to a Canadian mill to create cozy blankets.

A lap throw style, the blanket has plenty of heft — each requires four pounds of wool. Get one for $100 at the UDairy Creamery on UD’s South Campus. For creamery hours go to the website.

Hori hori knives and other garden gear

When it comes to garden tools, Carrie Murphy is a minimalist. A UD Cooperative Extension horticulture agent, Murphy gets by with a few common tools plus one that’s a bit more exotic. “I use my hori hori knife all the time,” she says.

In Japanese, the word “hori” means to dig and that’s exactly what Murphy does with her knife, plus pruning and weeding and a whole lot more. It’s the Swiss army knife of gardening.

At Gateway Garden Center in Hockessin, the hori hori is usually just called a soil knife, says owner Peg Castorani. She likes it for dividing perennials. A stainless steel version in a case costs $39.99.

Finding garden gloves that fit well can be hard, especially for women, but Castorani likes Womanswork brand. “They make form-fitting, athletic style garden gloves,” she says. The $25 gloves come in purple, lime green and other bright colors.

A plastic bag sounds like an odd present until you learn what that bag can do. Gateway stocks test kits from the University of Delaware Soil Testing Program. The $10 kits include plastic bags to obtain the necessary samples. After UD analyzes the samples, your gardener will know whether pH or fertility problems are making it more difficult to grow plants.

Bring the outside in

Native Americans used birch bark to make canoes and cover their wigwams. Today hobbyists continue to take advantage of birch’s flexible nature to craft household items, ranging from baskets to picture frames. Wilmington resident Danielle Quigley makes handcrafted wood items when she’s not working as a photographer for UD. (Quigley regularly shoots the photos for this column.) One of her best-selling items is a $325 table light featuring a birch bark shade mounted on a vintage glass base. Quigley’s personal favorite is a $150 luminaire made from silver birch bark. Check them out at the website.

Article by Margo McDonough

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.


UD researcher works to ensure Delaware’s wild turkey population proliferates

December 13, 2012 under CANR News

Wild turkeyIn colonial times, the Eastern wild turkey was abundant in Delaware. But by the late 1800s, wild turkeys were gone, eradicated by over-zealous market hunters and habitat destruction.

Usually, that’s the end of the story for a species.

Sometimes, however, species can be re-introduced to their original habitats. Such has been the case with the Eastern wild turkey, one of Delaware’s greatest conservation success stories, says Matt DiBona, a wildlife biologist with the Division of Fish and Wildlife in the state’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC).

In 1984, 34 Eastern wild turkeys from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Vermont were given new homes in the woodlands of Sussex. In the 1990s, 100 wild turkeys from New York were released; in 2002 they were joined by another 33 birds from South Carolina and Virginia.

Throughout this period, turkeys in Sussex were captured and released further north to ensure distribution statewide.

This starter stock of 167 birds and their descendants have been prolific. “Today, Delaware’s wild turkey population is established and continues to spread,” says DiBona. “The population established so quickly that seven years after re-introduction we were able to offer a limited hunting season. We’ve continued to hold an annual four-week spring hunting season for gobblers.”

However, the Eastern wild turkey’s re-introduction to Delaware hasn’t been an unequivocal success story. About 20 years ago there was a population decline. It wasn’t widespread and numbers picked up after that. But Division of Fish and Wildlife officials realized the agency needs to better understand the population dynamics of wild turkeys.

Three years ago, the Division of Fish and Wildlife teamed up with Jake Bowman, a University of Delaware associate professor of wildlife ecology, to get a better handle on potential limiting factors affecting turkey production. “This is especially important because the number of turkey hunters is continuing to increase each year,” notes DiBona. “We thought it prudent to do research on these birds now to help provide some context for our harvest data.”

“The research project focused on hen reproduction, including the number of eggs laid and the survival rate of the poults (the babies), to determine reasons for population decrease,” says Bowman.

But you can’t figure out how many eggs a particular hen laid if you can’t distinguish her from the other hens – or find her, for that matter. That’s where turkey backpacks come into the story.

Seventy-six hens at Redden State Forest, near Georgetown, were equipped with little backpack transmitters. The transmitter, which is fastened under the hen’s wings with elastic cords, produces a radio frequency that can be detected up to a mile away.

During breeding season, Bowman’s grad students were at the state forest every day and at least several times a week other times of the year. Although Bowman’s teaching responsibilities kept him busy, at least once a week he participated in the fieldwork.

“You’re out there at all hours of the day and night, when it’s raining, when it’s hot,” he says. “But it’s great. I find research into native species such as the wild turkey more rewarding than study abroad trips I lead to places like Tanzania and Cambodia. There you’re just observing. But with research like this, you’re the one trying to find the answers.”

And Bowman and his team have found some of those answers. They’ve discovered that hens that nested on private land hatched more nests than those on public land, probably because of a difference in vegetation. They discovered that the average number of eggs per nest was eight, compared to the 10-14 eggs per nest seen in other states. Nesting success rates in Delaware are low compared to nearby states. In 2011 just 19 percent of the nests resulted in poults. The research team also discovered that fox and owl predation is a big problem, not only for the poults but for the mother hens.

There is good news to report, too. “Poult survival is greater in Delaware compared to other states, allowing for new birds to be recruited into the population,” says Bowman.

Although Bowman is wrapping up his project, the Division of Fish and Wildlife continues to track data in a variety of ways, including its seasonal Wild Turkey Survey.

“This is a citizen-scientist project; you don’t need to be a wildlife biologist to contribute,” says DiBona. “If you see wild turkeys on your drive to work or when you’re walking on a Sunday afternoon, we want to know about it.”

For example, Jason Beale, manager of Abbott’s Mill Nature Center, reported that he saw an adult hen with seven poults on Aug. 8. He’s participated in the survey for the past two years.

“I’ve lived in Delaware since 2006. I know that in 2011 and 2012 I saw more wild turkeys than in all the other years combined,” says Beale. “We see them in Lee Meadow here at Abbott’s Mill. Isaacs-Green Preserve is another good spot to see them.”

“Even when you don’t see them, you know they’re here,” adds Beale. “At overnight camps we can hear them gobble at dawn and dusk and we routinely see turkey tracks on the trails.”

How to help

To participate in the 2013 Wild Turkey Survey, contact Matt DiBona at 735-3600 or

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Bob Eriksen

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.


University of Delaware Botanic Gardens offers mini-series on small flowering trees

December 7, 2012 under CANR News

It will be four long months before the pink, purple and fuchsia blooms of the Eastern redbud burst forth. Even longer before we’ll see the light pink and white blossoms of serviceberry or the snow white blossoms of native dogwood.

What’s a gardener to do until spring arrives?

For Catherine Buckminster, of Newark, the answer is simple – learn. “I’ve earned a certificate in ornamental horticulture from Longwood, I take Master Gardener workshops, and, coming up in January, I’m enrolled in a mini-series on small flowering trees offered by the University of Delaware Botanic Gardens,” says Buckminster.

John Frett talks about small flowering treesLast year was the first time that the UD Botanic Gardens offered a January lecture series and the response was excellent, says Valann Budishak, volunteer and education coordinator for the gardens.

The beginning of the year can be a hard time for local gardeners, says Budishak. In late fall and early winter, leaves can be raked and composted, fall cutbacks can be completed, and other garden tasks accomplished. By January it’s usually too cold to do outside work while it’s a bit too early to start seeds indoors. The mini-series fills a void for Buckminster and other gardeners who are eager to stay engaged in their hobby.

UD Botanic Gardens Director John Frett teaches the series and he’s designed it so that each of the three lectures stands alone. The series also includes a Saturday lab held in the botanic gardens and UD greenhouses. At that session, he will show off some of the cultivars previously discussed. And, rest assured, there will be plenty to admire, even without a single flower in bloom in the gardens.

“The structure of the trees, shrubs and woody plants are more evident in winter when there are fewer things competing for your attention,” he says.

Like Frett, Buckminster appreciates the form, texture and structure of small flowering trees just as much as the blooms. “People want flowers all season long but most trees are only in bloom a short time,” notes Buckminster, who is a member of the UD Botanic Gardens Friends’ group and a frequent volunteer at the gardens. “I select trees with a nice branching structure – like dogwoods – that are going to look good after the blooms are gone.”

Which is not to say Buckminster doesn’t appreciate a pop of color in the landscape come springtime. Her half-acre Newark yard already has many well-established, larger trees so she is currently developing the understory of smaller shrubs and trees.

“I want a better understory for visual effect, as well as to provide food and shelter for birds,” says Buckminister.

Currently, she has redbuds at the perimeter of her backyard, growing at the edge of woodlands, and dogwoods as specimen plantings throughout the property. She’d like to add some more small, flowering trees in the front, underneath larger trees, to enhance the curb appeal.

At the lecture series, Frett may suggest that she consider the wide variety of magnolias that thrive in Delaware, including native sweetbay magnolia. Like all native magnolias, the sweetbay is a late bloomer – depending on the cultivar, it blooms from May to early summer.

He’ll spend a portion of the Saturday lab session showing off the UD Botanic Gardens’ magnolia collection, which has been expanded to 100 taxa of magnolia, with some 125 magnolias in all. Magnolias are widely scattered throughout the UD gardens but large groupings can be found between Townsend and Worrilow halls, south of Townsend, and also north of UD’s outdoor pool.

For those who have very limited space, Frett suggests the M. virginiana “Perry Paige” cultivar of sweetbay – this new dwarf variety tops out at only five to eight feet tall.

Other small flowering trees that Frett will discuss include native serviceberry and hawthorn and native and non-native cherries.

About the series

The UD Botanic Gardens’ small flowering trees mini-series takes place Jan. 9, 16 and 23, from 6:30-8:30 p.m., with a lab on Jan. 19 from 9-11 a.m. Cost for the public is $35 per lecture or lab; if you sign up for all three lectures the lab is free. To register, or for more info, call 831-2531.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.


Holiday time means American holly, Delaware’s state tree

November 29, 2012 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Shirley Duffy is a recent transplant to Delaware who is proud of her new state. And as an avid gardener, she knew just the way to show her state pride — by planting an American holly in her Newark yard.

The American holly (Ilex opaca) has been the state tree of Delaware since 1939. Back then, the holly was an important cash crop to the state, says Carrie Murphy, a horticulture agent with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension.

Holly grew in abundance in the wild, particularly in Sussex County. Savvy entrepreneurs, such as Milton fertilizer salesman Charles C. Jones Sr. recognized that there was money to be made from this broadleaf evergreen. He began shipping wreaths and other holly products throughout the U.S. and abroad. By the 1930s, Delaware had become the leading supplier of holly in the nation. The town of Milton produced more holly wreaths and decorations than any other town in the world.

With the advent of artificial decorations, as well as wage law requirements for piecework businesses, the state’s commercial holly industry declined and ceased entirely by the 1960s. These days, the only holly harvesting in Delaware is in backyards like Duffy’s. A UD Master Gardener, Duffy likes to take holly cuttings throughout the winter, not just at Christmas time.

“I use holly for both indoor and outdoor arrangements,” says Duffy. For an easy but eye-catching decoration she arranges cut holly boughs down the length of her dining room table.

Ed Stevenson, a Master Gardener who lives in North Wilmington, also turns to the hollies in his yard for seasonal decorations. However, he uses holly judiciously because it does have a few downsides.

“We cut holly branches and use them for a Christmas table centerpiece,” says Stevenson. “However, once holly is cut, the leaves start to shrivel and the berries slowly darken. The branches should either be cut close to Christmas, or, if they are cut earlier and show signs of aging, they can be replaced with newly-cut branches.”

“Because we expect our Christmas door wreath to last about a month – early December through mid-January – we don’t use holly in it. Also, keep in mind that the sharp leaf spines of the holly can scratch wood finishes so don’t put it directly on wood,” he says.

Hagley Museum horticulturalist Renee Huber used plenty of American holly for the “Christmas at Hagley” display, which opened Friday and continues through Jan. 6. She fashioned it into swags, as well as wreaths.

“Being our state tree I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to include it in the decorations,” notes Huber. “Plus, my great-great-grandfather, who was a farmer on the Eastern Shore, supplemented his income at this time of year by making American holly wreaths. I guess I don’t fall far from the tree.”

Huber had to decorate not only Eleutherian Mills, but also the Belin, Soda and Gibbons houses. To fill all these spaces, she roamed the museum’s 235 acres for just the right cuttings of hollies and other evergreens. But the bulk of her plant material came from a cutting garden maintained specifically for decorating purposes. It’s planted with a variety of evergreens, winterberry and other perennial favorites.

Since most of us don’t have the luxury of a cutting garden, it’s important to carefully clip branches from hollies – and all your shrubs and woody perennials — so that your landscape still looks good when you’re done.

Cut back to the trunk or another branch, says Murphy. If you put up your holiday decorations early, check throughout the season to see if anything needs to be replaced. If evergreens get dried out they can become a fire hazard.

If you don’t have any holly on your property, plan now for spring planting. “Holly makes a great specimen planting and over time will fill out to screen unpleasant views,” says Murphy. “It’s a slow grower but eventually can reach 30 feet tall.”

To produce the American holly’s distinctive red berries, you will need to grow both male and female plants. Although the male plants never produce fruit, they must be sited near the female plants to provide pollen needed for fruit production. Bees and other pollinators will do the work of transporting the pollen from the male to female plants.

Ironically, Duffy had trouble finding Delaware’s state tree at local garden stores. Many stores said they could special order it, and she knew that online shopping was another option.

But she wanted to see various cultivars before she selected her plants, so she eventually found a New Jersey-based online nursery that was holding an open house.

“Internet descriptions of ‘stiff, glossy’ leaves and ‘large’ berries mean nothing,” notes Duffy. “You have to see the plants yourself.”

A great place to see the plants for yourself is at the University of Delaware Botanic Gardens. Some 50 species and cultivars of holly grow there, with the largest concentration of hollies found in the Clark and Fischer Greenhouse gardens. The UD Botanic Gardens maintains research data on its holly collection and is a test arboretum for the American Holly Society.

At Hagley one of the best places to see hollies is in the field across from Eleutherian Mills, by the gatehouse, according to Hagley arborist Richard Pratt. At least half the hollies there sport red berries.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.


Stewart studies birds to understand trade-offs between reproduction, immunity

November 20, 2012 under CANR News

Does parenting take a toll on the immune system?

If you’ve ever been the parent of a newborn who demanded to be fed every three to four hours, your gut instinct tells you the answer is an absolute, unequivocal yes.

University of Delaware post-doctoral researcher Ian Stewart is conducting research to answer this question a bit more scientifically. His subjects – tree swallows – make human parents look like slouches. Both the mother and father tree swallow feed their hatchlings every five minutes, 12 hours a day.  (It should be noted, though, that their parenting gig is much shorter than ours — after 17 or 18 days the young leave the nest.)

Stewart is studying these small, migratory birds to better understand the trade-offs they make between reproduction and immunity. His research could potentially help scientists who study human biology better understand our own immune system and its stressors.

Stewart is part of a young but growing interdisciplinary field called ecoimmunology, which combines aspects of immunology with ecology, biology, physiology and evolution. He chose to focus his research on tree swallows and bluebirds because both are fairly tolerant of human interaction. “Some birds don’t like being observed but tree swallows and bluebirds don’t get stressed from being watched or handled,” notes Stewart.

There’s another very important benefit to working with these birds — since they nest in boxes, not up in the trees, they’re a heck of lot easier to catch.

Throughout the breeding season, Stewart catches the parent birds, injects them with a harmless antigen and releases them. Then, he re-catches the same birds a few days later to take blood samples and assess each bird’s immune response to the antigens.

“Some of the tree swallows work harder at parenting,” notes Stewart. “It may be because the bird has four hatchlings to feed instead of just three. Other times, the bird is simply more energetic at taking care of its hatchlings, regardless of brood size.”

“We’re monitoring the reproductive effort of the adults – mostly the rate at which they feed their nestlings – so that we can test whether the adults that are working harder produce weaker immune responses,” he says.

Stewart is conducting his research at Coverdale Farm Preserve, a 352-acre tract in Greenville owned by the Delaware Nature Society. The preserve already had 50 bird boxes in place last spring, when Stewart began his field work, and he installed another 50 boxes.

Now that it’s autumn, Stewart spends most of his time in the lab, crunching the data and performing immune assays on the samples he collected.  But earlier this season, he was at the preserve by 7 a.m. every day and after a full day of catching and observing birds, would head to the lab each evening to centrifuge the blood samples for storage.

“Prof. Mike Moore is overseeing my research and I had a grad student, Andrew Hydrusko, assist me, but I worked alone a lot,” he says. “So I enjoyed it when school groups passed by the bird boxes and there was time for them to learn a bit about my bird research. They loved to help catch the birds.”

“Ian’s work is quite interesting,” says Chris Williams, a UD associate professor of wildlife ecology. “One might think that having more offspring would improve your chances of passing off your genes to the next generation. However, if the parent’s health is compromised to make such an effort, natural selection may have something else to say about it. The evolutionary trade-offs between maternal health and maximum number of young ultimately produces optimal clutch sizes.”

So what’s the verdict — do parents shortchange themselves if they devote more resources to their offspring?

Stewart is still analyzing this year’s data and has another year of field research to go. But the preliminary answer, for tree swallows, appears to be yes. As for humans, he will defer to sleep-starved parents of newborns and let them have the final word.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.


Asters keep UD Botanic Gardens colorful through November

November 12, 2012 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Some of autumn’s pleasures are fleeting. Like the sight of migrating broad-winged hawks soaring on thermals in the September skies. Like the golden leaves of the ginkgo, which drop from the tree in a few days or sometimes mere hours. Like the big, orange, once-a-year occurrence of the harvest moon.

But other autumn pleasures – like asters – endure all season long. Asters start blooming at the same time as such early fall wildflowers as goldenrod and thoroughwort. But long after many other blooms have turned brown, the aster is still going strong.

Of course, no one species of native aster blooms straight through from September to November. Most bloom for a few weeks and then, as they die off, other varieties began to flower. Some of the native varieties that bloom the latest include aromatic and heath asters.

“It’s not unusual to see aromatic, heath and other species of asters blooming in late November,” says Sue Barton, an ornamental horticulture specialist with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. “Asters continue to add a splash of color to the landscape in late autumn, when little else is blooming in Delaware.”

There are 33 native species and varieties of the genus Aster in Delaware, according to Bill McAvoy, a botanist with the Delaware Natural Heritage Program. Several of these varieties are classified as rare in the state. Asters are found in a wide range of habitat – woodlands, swamps, marshes, wet meadows and old fields. Some species are tall and bushy; others are groundcovers. Most prefer sunny conditions but some do well in shade.

Asters are tough and reliable, which is why they are popular with both home gardeners and commercial landscapers. “Asters – both natives and non-natives – are some of the easiest perennials to grow,” says Barton. “They don’t require much watering, fertilizing or other care.”

Doug Tallamy likes asters because they contribute to healthy local ecosystems. Asters are a valuable food source for a variety of pollinators, including native bees, honeybees, butterflies, beetles and flies, says Tallamy, chair of UD’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology and author of Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens.

“As one of the latest blooming widespread plants, asters are very important as a carbohydrate energy source for butterflies, bees, beetles and flies,” says Tallamy.

If you’re looking for a good aster to plant in Delaware you couldn’t do better than talking to Jeanne Frett, a research horticulturalist at Mt. Cuba Center. A few years ago she conducted a performance evaluation of asters in conjunction with Victor Piatt, the center’s former trial area gardener.

The duo evaluated 56 different asters over a two-year period for such factors as color, bloom period, foliage quality, disease resistance and more.

Varieties that got top marks include smooth aster, prairie aster and calico aster. A late bloomer that scored well is the large-flowered aster. Some years, this aster may start in mid-October and finish by Halloween. Other seasons, it doesn’t flower until mid-November and then continues blooming past Thanksgiving.

You can see these varieties of asters – any many more – at Mt. Cuba. Public garden tours are held Thursdays through Sundays; registration is necessary. The University of Delaware Botanic Gardens also has a great selection of asters. Late bloomers there include Aster oblongifolius “Raydon’s Favorite,” a showy variety that sports a profusion of blue-lavender flowers with yellow centers.

Mt. Cuba Center is located at 3120 Barley Mill Road in Hockessin. For more information, call 239-4244.

The University of Delaware Botanic Gardens is located on the grounds of Townsend Hall off South College Avenue in Newark. The garden is open dawn to dusk daily and is free of charge. Parking is available at meters or by purchasing a parking permit for $3 online. To learn more, call 831-0153.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.


Master Gardeners help others discover uplifting benefits of nature

November 2, 2012 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

When Terry Tse was growing up in Hong Kong, her bedroom was always full of plants. Living in the midst of this exciting yet chaotic city, Tse knew that plants brought tranquility.

“Flowers make you calm,” she says.

Today, Tse is helping clients of the Delaware Psychiatric Center discover the uplifting benefits of nature. She and fellow University of Delaware Master Gardeners assisted in the development of a therapeutic garden at the center two years ago.

The project has grown to include a sensory garden for the visually impaired and a farmer’s market that sells produce fresh from the garden. And that’s just some of what was accomplished at the Department of Health and Social Services New Castle campus. Plus, the Master Gardeners helped to establish a garden at the Delaware School for the Deaf in Newark.

For their efforts, this Master Gardener team received a Governor’s Outstanding Service Award at a ceremony held this past Thursday. In addition to Tse, recipients included Fred Hillegas, Mary Ellen Hillegas, Bill Horne and Carmela Simons. Duane Ashley, who is not a Master Gardener but was an active project volunteer, also shared in the award.

“The Master Gardeners were immediately interested in this project and the potential that these gardens had to impact the clients and staff at these sites,” says Carrie Murphy, horticultural agent for New Castle County Cooperative Extension. “They provided both technical expertise and educational programming. They presented workshops for clients and staff on topics like composting, identifying garden pests and how to enjoy a sensory garden.”

The Master Gardeners also rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty. Bill Horne offered his creative skills for the therapeutic garden’s design but he also pulled weeds and harvested vegetables. Mary Ellen and Fred Hillegas helped the center’s clients run the farmer’s market on Fridays, and when they couldn’t make it, Tse filled in. In the last two years, the market sold 1,693 pounds of produce and what wasn’t sold – 525 pounds in all – was donated to the Food Bank of Delaware.

From the get-go, the Master Gardeners knew that they wanted these projects to be driven by the needs and desires of the clients. At the Delaware Psychiatric Center, a residential client named Jack wanted popping corn in the vegetable garden. Others requested tomatoes, pumpkins, sweet corn and peppers. Clients also helped with the selection of ornamentals. One individual fondly recalled lilac from a childhood home so the Master Gardeners included a lilac bush in the garden design.

As for the sensory garden, it’s a feast of sounds, fragrances and textures, as well as sights. In winter, switchgrass rustles in the wind. In spring, the velvety leaves of lamb’s ear plant beg to be touched. Come summer, the earthy smell of basil entices. And in fall, black seedpods of baptisia rattle loudly at the slightest shake.

Some of the clients who come to the Division of Visually Impaired’s New Castle office for vocational rehab or independent living services are in wheelchairs or have other physical limitations. So the Master Gardeners designed wider pathways to allow for wheelchair access, and many of the beds are raised and feature a grid pattern.

“With a grid pattern, a blind or visually impaired person can, for example, count two squares down and three over and know they’ve found the mint that they wanted to pick,” notes Horne.

The vegetable garden at the Delaware School for the Deaf was installed last November. Tied into grade-level curricula, the garden promotes healthy eating habits and new vocational options.

Mary Ellen Hillegas, who was a counselor at the school before retirement, says the garden also serves an important social function. “Ten to 12 students will be in the garden at any given time and they’ll need to come to consensus on planning tasks and sharing tools and other cooperative behavior,” she says. “The garden has tremendous possibilities as a teaching tool.”

Organizations that collaborated with the Master Gardeners include UD’s Center for Disabilities Studies, Delaware Center for Horticulture, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Delaware Department of Agriculture. For the school garden, the nonprofit group Healthy Foods for Healthy Kids partnered with the Master Gardeners.

Delaware Department of Agriculture staffer Faith Kuehn spearheaded the therapeutic garden projects and she nominated the Master Gardeners for the Governor’s Outstanding Service Award.

“What impresses me most about these Master Gardeners is that it comes from the heart,” says Kuehn. “They aren’t doing it for the volunteer hours or the recognition. They really want to make a difference.”

Jack, who grew his own popping corn this summer, and other individuals who have benefited from the gardens, would say that the Master Gardeners are doing exactly that.

Article by Margo McDonough

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.


Now’s the time to watch migrating raptors, says UD’s Williams

September 27, 2012 under CANR News

If seeing a kettle of birds is on your bucket list, head to Hawk Watch at Ashland Nature Center or Cape Henlopen State Park ASAP. If this natural phenomenon isn’t on your bucket list, perhaps it should be.

“Kettle” is the word that birders use to describe a group of birds wheeling and circling tightly in the air on a thermal updraft, says Chris Williams, a University of Delaware associate professor of entomology and wildlife ecology. Nature photographer M. Timothy O’Keefe speculated that the term comes from the fact that these furiously flying flocks look like “something boiling in a cauldron.”

Your jaw is bound to drop the first time you see hundreds of birds swerving and soaring inside a thermal bubble as it rises aloft. (It’s still pretty jaw-dropping the sixth or sixteenth time you see it.)

Now’s the prime time to catch a kettle. That’s because broad-winged hawks are currently passing over Delaware on their fall migration to the neo-tropics. Although all raptors utilize thermals to make their flights more efficient, certain species, such as broad-winged hawks, are known to be frequent users of these air currents.

Large kettles of broad-winged hawks started showing up in Delaware in mid-September – more than 2,000 broad-wingeds were spotted at Ashland on Sept. 11 alone – and will continue through the end of the month.

“When it comes to the fall migration, my favorite species is actually the golden eagle,” says Jim White, associate director of land and biodiversity management for the Delaware Nature Society, which owns Ashland Nature Center. “The golden eagle is the ‘holy grail’ of fall bird-watching,” adds White. “But, in terms of pure spectacle, nothing beats the broad-winged hawk migration and the sight of hundreds and hundreds of hawks overhead.”

Long before the leaves turn or the autumnal equinox even occurs, the fall bird migration gets underway. “In August and September, songbirds migrate, beginning with hummingbirds and kingbirds and followed by warblers,” says Williams. “Slowly a parade of migrants work their way south, some leaving our area while others are coming in. Expect to see the shorebirds leave first followed by teal passing through and finally wintering waterfowl setting up shop.”

Now through October is peak season for the raptors – birds of prey, including hawks, eagles, falcons, ospreys and owls. However, every raptor flying overhead isn’t necessarily a migrant.

“Some raptors migrate south; others in the same species choose to overwinter here in Delaware,” notes White.  “For example, there is a pair of resident bald eagles that nests at Hoopes Reservoir. If you’re up on Hawk Watch Hill and see two bald eagles just monkeying around, flying low over Ashland’s Treetop Woods, then it’s probably these residents and not migrants. We train the Hawk Watch coordinator to exclude resident raptors from the counting records.”

The Hawk Watch sites are each staffed by a coordinator who is there to educate visitors as well as to count birds. Both programs are funded by the Delmarva Ornithological Society with additional support from other nature organizations.

Williams finds value in citizen-scientist initiatives such as Delaware’s Hawk Watch program. “These programs offer useful data for ornithologists,” he says. “Bird populations are dynamic and constantly in flux. No single researcher or team of researchers working alone could document the distribution and movements of so many fall migrants the way Hawk Watch efforts throughout the nation do.”

Of course, you don’t need to be part of a formal citizen-scientist program to track fall migrants. Just ask Ethan Harrod, a 5-year-old North Wilmington resident who counts birds with the help of his trusty field guide for young birders.

“Ethan sighted a red-tailed hawk on the Wilmington waterfront and he saw a sharp-shinned hawk fly over our backyard,” reports his father, John Harrod, who is manager of the DuPont Environmental Education Center in Wilmington. “He loves to try to id a bird and then check his field guide to see if he was right.”

The elder Harrod also has been seeing lots of migrating raptors in recent days. “I went kayaking on the Christina recently and spotted a northern harrier, a bald eagle and an osprey,” reports Harrod.

Make time to get out to a Hawk Watch site soon. The best time to visit is on a sunny, clear day when there is a breeze from the north or northwest, says White. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a kettle or two of broad-wingeds flying overhead.

Hawk Watch sites

Ashland Hawk Watch is located at Ashland Nature Center in Hockessin. Cape Henlopen Hawk Watch is at Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes. For more information about either hawk watch contact Anthony Gonzon at 735-8673 or go to this website.

Article by Margo McDonough

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.


Fall wildflower season is in full force in Delaware

September 26, 2012 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

The herbaceous garden at the University of Delaware Botanic Gardens is an outdoor laboratory where students and researchers study plants, insects, landscape design and plant pathology.

It’s also one of the best go-to spots for eye-popping fall color.

Walk through the garden this month and you may encounter a student scrutinizing the Solidago rugosa‘Fireworks’ for an upcoming quiz. But there’s no need to memorize the growth habits, hardiness or soil requirements of this native goldenrod cultivar to enjoy its fluffy yellow blooms.

“The herbaceous garden is one of my favorite places to see fall color,” says Sue Barton, ornamental horticulture specialist for UD Cooperative Extension. “And it looks even better this season, now that a re-design of the garden entrance is almost complete.”

Fall wildflowers are blooming earlier this year at the herbaceous garden and throughout Delaware, reports Barton. “Fall wildflowers typically start around the end of August, are in abundance now and continue through November when late-blooming asters put on a final show of color. But many species are flowering ahead of schedule this year.”

Native perennials currently in bloom at the herbaceous garden include sedums in coral, salmon and other shades of pink, says Valann Budischak, volunteer and education coordinator for the UD Botanic Gardens.  Purple and lavender varieties of Eupatoriumare in full flower, too. Even after the blooms are done, the seed heads still look great, notes Budischak.

Early asters also are starting to pop up, and will be followed by late varieties, such as Aster oblongifolius “Raydon’s Favorite,” a showy aster that sports a profusion of blue-lavender flowers with yellow centers.

When planning for fall color in your own yard, Barton suggests thinking low as well as high. Without a doubt, many of her native fall-blooming perennials are lofty. For example, some of her New York ironweed is taller than she is – it has soared to six feet tall. Its deep purple flowers already are in bloom and will continue through the end of the month.

Although this ironweed makes an eye-catching display, Barton also likes the fall color that’s closer to the ground. Like the brilliant red foliage of Virginia creeper, a vine that can be trained to crawl, and the mottled blue-green leaves of Allegheny pachysandra, a mere six inches high.

“There are many native, low-growing groundcovers that provide great fall color,” says Barton. “Sometimes it’s the flowers that provide interest, such as the white blooms of white heath aster, which blooms from late summer into fall. In other cases, like Virginia creeper and Allegheny pachysandra, it’s the foliage that’s noteworthy.”

Groundcovers are an excellent alternative to something Barton doesn’t have much use for – mulch.

“Mulch is fine when establishing landscape beds but you should work toward having a mulch-free garden, or just small areas that are mulched. It shouldn’t be added to beds year after year,” says Barton. “Groundcovers offer the same benefits as mulch – they help regulate soil temperatures, control erosion, and help the soil retain moisture. But, unlike mulch, they also provide food and/or cover for wildlife. And you don’t have to keep buying more – groundcovers spread over time.”

Native warm-season grasses are another source of fall color that Barton utilizes widely in her yard. She especially likes the “Shenandoah” cultivar of red switch grass. In early summer, its leaves are tipped with just a bit of red but by fall the leaves are burgundy, topped by pink plumes.

Warm-season grasses are versatile. They’re well adapted to warm, sunny open spaces. Barton plants her warm-season grasses with an eye toward back lighting — taking advantage of light from the setting or rising sun.

“Ornamental grasses look particularly beautiful when back lit – the trick is position them so the light shines through them,” says Barton.

About the UD Botanic Gardens

The 15-acre UD Botanic Gardens is open to the public free of charge, from dawn to dusk daily. It’s located on the grounds of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources off Route 896, in Newark. Obtain a visitor parking pass online for $3 at this website or use the metered parking near the UDairy Creamery. For more info about the UD Botanic Gardens, go to the UDBG website or call 831-0153.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Rick Darke