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: http://extension.udel.edu/lawngarden/master-gardener-volunteer-educators/become-a-master-gardener/  or contact Carrie Murphy at 831-2506.

Article by Margo McDonough

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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.

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Native Gifts for the Holidays

December 15, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Gift certificates for UDairy Creamery ice cream make a great holiday treat.

The holiday season is right around the corner. Some folks wrapped up their shopping on Black Friday but plenty haven’t finished the task – and some haven’t even started.

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

From spices to vines 

A few years ago, New Castle County Master Gardeners began offering winter workshops in addition to their regular fall and spring classes. “The response was overwhelming,” says Carrie Murphy, the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension horticultural agent for New Castle County. “January and February aren’t good for gardening but they’re perfect for learning new ways to garden and planning for the season ahead.”

Winter workshop topics include vines and espaliers, downsizing your garden, and the origin of cooking spices. For the complete list, go to this website.

To purchase a gift certificate for a Master Garden workshop, call 302-831-COOP.

Keep warm with Delaware wool

UD’s flock of Dorset ewes get 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 animal science professor Lesa Griffiths 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 in two styles — a lap throw and a queen-size version.

The blankets have plenty of heft — each lap throw requires four pounds of wool and the queen-sized contain 12 pounds.  The lap size is $100 and queen-size $175. Buy them at the UDairy Creamery on UD’s South Campus. For creamery location and hours, see the website.

A gift that lasts all year

Surfing at Indian River Inlet and swimming at Fenwick Island. Hiking at Alapocas Run and biking at White Clay Creek. Pond fishing at Killens Pond and surf fishing at Cape Henlopen. Give them an annual pass to Delaware’s state parks, where they can enjoy their favorite outdoor activity — or try something new.

Annual passes range in price from $12 for a senior citizen to $54 for an of-state resident. For more info, or to buy a pass online, go to the state parks website.

UD profs and other experts at Longwood

Don’t let “Tips for Turf Diagnosis: Insect and Disease Management” scare you. Sure, Longwood Gardens’ continuing education program has serious classes for pros. But there’s also “beginning bonsai” and “orchids for beginners.” Your gift recipient doesn’t even have to be a gardener — birding, photography, art and flower arranging classes also are offered.

UD prof Sue Barton teaches the fundamentals of sustainable landscape design in a five-session class; UD adjunct instructor Jon Cox presents the secrets to photographing water in an all-day session. For the full schedule of classes go to the Longwood website and click on “education.”

Longwood gift cards can be purchased on Longwood’s website or at the Kennett Square, Pa., gardens.

Give ‘em Delaware River Mud

Mud pie ice cream, that is.

Delaware River Mud Pie is the most popular flavor at the UDairy Creamery, according to manager Melinda Litvinas. This ice cream pairs vanilla and chocolate cookie with swirls of fudge.

Plus, the creamery offers seasonal selections, including peppermint bark, eggnog, gingerbread and peppermint hot chocolate. Gift certificates are available in $5 denominations, perfect for stocking stuffers.

You may want to pick up All Nighter for yourself. This concoction of coffee ice cream and cookie dough chunks, crushed cookies and fudge swirl won a recent flavor creation contest. It was concocted by UD senior Kate Maloney. According to her contest entry, “Every college student has to pull an all-nighter at some point… [this ice cream] gives you the sugar rush you need to survive a 24-hour cram session.”

All Nighter could be just thing for assembling toys late on Christmas Eve, too.

The UDairy Creamery is located behind Townsend Hall on the Newark campus. The creamery closes on Dec. 23 at 5 p.m. (and re-opens Jan. 3). For more information, see the UDairy Creamery website.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

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Native Delaware: Beneficial Spiders

October 27, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

A big, furry, fake spider, dangling over a doorway or front porch, should produce a few screams from unsuspecting trick-or-treaters — before they dissolve in giggles when they discover that this particular arachnid is made of plastic.

As for real spiders, people don’t have much to fear, especially here in Delaware, according to Brian Kunkel, an entomologist with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension.

Most large, hairy, and scary-looking spiders, such as the wolf spider, will hurt a fly but they won’t hurt you.

“Delaware’s native spiders are more friend than foe,” says Kunkel.  “Only one poisonous spider is found in Delaware, the black widow. Of course, for those who are allergic, any spider bite can be a problem.”

Spiders are considered beneficial because they keep insect populations in check. Insects and spiders are both classified as arthropods but insects have three body parts and six legs, while spiders have two body parts and eight legs. In addition, spiders have two hand-like appendages called pedipals that they use to hold food. The pedipals contain sensory organs that allow spiders to taste their food. These sensory organs also are found on the spider’s legs.

The majority of spiders have eight eyes but despite all those eyes most spiders have bad vision, says Kunkel.  An exception is the jumping spider, which relies on its keen eyesight to locate its next meal. After spotting its prey, this spider takes a flying leap and, if successful, lands right on top of it. The wolf spider also captures its prey by hunting and chasing it down, though it’s more a sprinter than a jumper.

Another group of spiders captures its prey by using the ambush method – they just hang out, motionless, until a tasty little insect comes along into easy grasping range.

Constructing a web is the most common method that spiders use to capture prey. Web spinners in Delaware include the orb weaver, comb-footed, sheet web and funnel web spiders.

When it comes to dining habits, spiders are generalists, meaning they’re a lot like the guy at the smorgasbord sampling one of everything. In contrast, the monarch butterfly caterpillar is a specialist because it eats milkweed and only milkweed. If you want to attract spiders to your yard – so they’ll gobble up all the bad bugs – plant a variety of plants and plant types, says Kunkel. Use as little pesticide as possible; it can kill spiders as well as the pest insects.

“Spiders are a sign of a healthy garden,” says Kunkel. “They are often the most important biological control of pests in the home landscape as well as on cropland. In addition, spiders are a good source of food for birds and small mammals, particularly in winter and spring.”

Doug Tallamy, chair of UD’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, can personally attest to the role of spiders in controlling pests. The first summer he lived in his house it was overrun with flies, thanks in part to a nearby horse barn.

Then Tallamy and his wife began transforming their barren yard. “When we moved in, the yard supported little more than mustard grass and ragweed,” he says.

After he planted a wide variety of native trees and plants, the wildlife came – everything from bluebirds to spiders.

“One predator, in particular, that I saw pouncing on the flies is a species of jumping spider,” says Tallamy. “These small but powerful spiders learned that our windows are great hunting grounds for flies.”

Because our trees and shrubs have grown since that first summer, the jumping spider now has plenty of places to hide and lay its eggs. And our native plantings provide an alternative food source, as well.”

So go ahead and scare someone with a fake spider this Halloween – just don’t scare off the real, beneficial spiders in your yard and garden.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Evan Krape

View the original post on UDaily by clicking here.

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Stink Bug Season

October 3, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Pull up the welcome mat; they’re back. It’s early fall in Delaware, which means pumpkins on the vine, apples on the trees and stink bugs in the house.

“Last year, I got a flood of calls about stink bugs during the last week of September,” said Brian Kunkel, an entomologist with the University of Delaware’s Cooperative Extension. “Sure enough, this past week, Extension has been hearing from homeowners trying to get rid of stink bugs.”

“As the days grow shorter and the evening temperatures cooler, Delawareans are discovering these uninvited houseguests in their garages, porches and decks, as well as inside the house,” Kunkel said. “The brown marmorated stink bug becomes a nuisance pest when it heads inside to find overwintering sites.”

While merely an annoyance to most homeowners, the brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB) poses an economic threat to Delaware agriculture. Fruit crops seem to be at greatest risk, especially peaches and apples. About 18 percent of the mid-Atlantic apple crop had stink bug damage last year, according to the U.S. Apple Association.

“West Virginia apple orchards experienced significant crop loss last season because of the BMSB,” Kunkel said. “Here at UD, we’re doing everything we can to make sure that we don’t see the kind of crop loss that West Virginia had.”

Several of Kunkel’s colleagues in Extension and UD’s College of Agriculture and Nature Resources are researching BSMBs in soybean, lima bean, sweet corn, field corn and sweet pepper fields.

Two of the most active researchers are Joanne Whalen, the Extension’s integrated pest management specialist, and Bill Cissel, an Extension associate who is investigating stink bugs as part of his graduate studies.

Cissel and Whalen, assisted by two interns, are examining stink bugs in conditions similar to home yards and gardens, too. In UD’s Garden for the Community, a one-third-acre plot on the Newark campus, the duo surveyed stink bug nymphs, adults and egg masses on plants commonly grown in home gardens — tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers, eggplant, sunflowers and bell peppers. Plus, they’re studying a plot of ornamental plants to see which plants stink bugs use as hosts.

Rutgers University, Virginia Tech, the University of Maryland and the Delaware Soybean Board are some of the partners on one or more of these projects.

Although Delaware has several native stink bugs, BMSBs originates in Asia and were accidentally introduced to the United States. First collected in Allentown, Pa., in 1998, BMSBs have been spreading across the eastern half of the U.S. ever since.

Kunkel said spiders and birds have been known to eat BMSBs (he’s heard reports of house cats eating them, too) but the pest has no recognized natural predator here.

The USDA Beneficial Insects Introduction Research Lab, housed on UD’s campus, is investigating biocontrol measures. Biocontrol introduces natural predators into an environment to control, if not eradicate, the pest problem. But the rigorous research process and government approvals needed for biocontrol measures can take years, even decades.

Delaware’s farmers are asking for help now. So the focus of Whalen and Cissel’s research is on monitoring to determine when to control stink bugs, as well as which insecticides provide the best control.

Field observations in 2010 indicated that stink bug infestations usually start on the perimeters of fields, Cissel noted. “We’re studying whether perimeter applications of insecticides will prevent stink bugs from penetrating the interior parts of soybean fields,” he said.

“In our corn research, we are trying to determine how much damage stink bugs are causing and when the plant is most sensitive to damage — is it when it’s silking, during grain fill or closer to harvest?”

Insect research projects typically run for two to three seasons, and most of the UD studies are in their first year. So it’s too early to discuss preliminary results, Cissel said, especially since the BMSBs weren’t as active this summer as previously.

“We had a really large outbreak last year,” Kunkel said, “but we’re not seeing those kinds of numbers this year.”

Tell that to Kathy Fichter, a resident of Chadds Ford, Pa.

“It’s just as bad as last year and it’s only the beginning of stink bug season here,” said Fichter, who always has a tissue at hand, ready to scoop up stink bugs. “My two sons won’t go near them, and these are boys who like bugs,” she said.

“Our neighborhood seems to be a ‘vacation destination’ for stink bugs. They come here by the hundreds, maybe even thousands,” she added. “My neighbors are in the same predicament. Yet, a few miles away, they aren’t such a nuisance.”

Kunkel isn’t surprised by Fichter’s stink bug woes, even though regional conditions are generally better. “Stink bug outbreaks — and insect outbreaks in general — tend to be localized,” he said. “We often hear of one neighborhood getting slammed while another neighborhood a half-mile away will have very few bugs.”

If the BMSB already has arrived at your house — or you want to make sure it doesn’t — take control measures now. The best thing you can do, Kunkel said, is to seal all cracks around windows, doors, siding, utility pipes and chimneys. Often overlooked, he said, are the cracks that can appear around dryer vents and gaps around window air-conditioning units.

“Try to look on the bright side,” Kunkel said. “Stink bugs that get inside are helping you to winterize your house. Wherever they got in today is where the cold winter winds will, later this year.”

Article by Margo McDonough

This post also appears on UDaily.

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An apple a day

September 22, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

As Hurricane Irene approached Delaware, those of us who weren’t ordered to evacuate searched for ice, gas and batteries, and secured lawn furniture and trash cans. But at Highland Orchards in North Wilmington, there wasn’t time for anything but harvesting.

“It was all hands on deck – the goal was to pick apples, peaches and everything else that was ripe or near ripe before the storm blew through,” recalls orchard co-owner Ruth Linton. Her 10-year-old daughter, Katya, picked apples while her 82-year-old mother, Elaine Linton, cut flowers that are sold in the orchard’s retail shop.

For several days straight, the Lintons and their employees labored to save the early apple harvest and, for the most part, were successful. But they couldn’t do a thing but about the mid-season varieties, which weren’t ready to pick.

Those apples – galas, ginger golds and Paula reds – blew right off the trees. A few tree limbs came down, too, but not many, thanks to Linton’s pruning work last spring. “Pruning out smaller limbs protects from wind damage because it gives the larger limbs more room to sway,” she says.

Like many Delawareans, Linton lost power during the storm; in her case for three days. That meant no cold storage for all those just picked apples. Fortunately, she was able to rent a refrigerated truck but it took hours to move the apples from cold storage to the truck and eventually back to cold storage.

Today you’ll find an ample supply of apples at Highland’s shop, just not as many varieties as usual.

“Normally, we have about 10 varieties of apples in early September but we only had three varieties earlier this month,” says Linton. “Currently, we’re offering 10 to 12 varieties; usually we have 15 to 20 varieties in mid-September.”

Linton says that late-season varieties weren’t impacted by the hurricane because, at that point, those apples were small so they weren’t blown off the trees. As long as rainy conditions don’t persist she says the late-season crop should be good.

“It’s been a crazy weather year,” says Linton. “First it was wet, then very dry and then very wet.”

But the family has seen worse. “From ’33 to ’34 during the Great Depression we had total crop failure. There was a drought the first two years and then a hurricane knocked down all the trees,” she says.

“So, 2011 is not the worst weather we’ve ever seen, it’s just the worst in the last 75 years.”

Fifer Orchards, outside the town of Wyoming, fared a bit better than Highland. “We were very fortunate that we were able to harvest what was ready before the hurricane and that most of the apples remaining on the trees were fine,” says Mary Fifer Fennemore, a co-owner of Fifer’s. “We did have some fruit on trees get knocked around and bruised, and some apples ended up on the orchard floor. A few peach trees were blown over but all the apple trees remain standing. We really got lucky; the forecast had predicted a lot more wind.”

Despite hurricane hassles, Fifer Fennemore says that the 2011 apple season is going strong. But, if you have a favorite variety, don’t delay your trip to Fifer’s or to your favorite farm stand or farmers’ market. “The crop is running about 10 days early because of the summer heat,” she says.

The dwarf trees in Fifer’s U-Pick orchard are in particularly good shape and abundant with fruit now. U-Pick is only open on Fridays and Saturdays; when it re-opens this Friday, Fuji and Mutsu varieties should be available for picking and possibly Stayman. U-Pick began operations several years ago to expand on the orchard’s successful Fall Fest and other agri-tourism activities. Fall Fest, which starts tomorrow and runs through Oct. 29, features corn mazes, pumpkin painting and other seasonal fun.

But don’t let the tricycle and rubber ducky races fool you. Fifer Orchards is a working apple orchard, one of only two large commercial apple growers in Delaware. The other, T&S Smith, is located in Bridgeville. (In addition, there are a few smaller orchards that sell wholesale. Highland only sells direct to the consumer via its farm store.)

Even with just a handful of orchards, apples are Delaware’s most important fruit crop. More than 10.4 million pounds are grown here annually, according to Gordon Johnson, a fruit and vegetable specialist with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. Peaches, the No. 2 crop, trail behind at around 1.2 million pounds. A large part of the state’s apple crop is sent to processors to be turned into everything from cider to applesauce.

Fortunately, there are plenty of Delaware apples set aside for the fresh market. Look for local apples in area grocery stores and at farm stands and farmers’ markets. Go to the Delaware Department of Agriculture’s website, and click on farmers’ markets or on-the-farm-markets to find one near you.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

Also available online on UDaily

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Where the wildflowers are

September 22, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Spring blooms may have their legions of fans but Sue Barton unabashedly favors the flowers of fall.

“Fall is, by far, the more interesting time in Delaware’s landscape,” says Barton, noting the juxtaposition of flowers, grasses, foliage and fruit in shades of yellow, red, orange, blue, purple, white and more.  Barton, the ornamental horticulture specialist for University of Delaware Cooperative Extension, points out that the ever-changing colors make for a new and different landscape every week.

The autumnal equinox is Sept. 23 and the fall wildflower season already is shaping up to be a beauty.

“The fall wildflowers actually start around the end of August, are in abundance now, and continue through Thanksgiving, when the late-blooming asters put on final show of color,” says Barton.

Native wildflowers currently in bloom include goldenrod, tickseed, ironweed, goldentop, ladies’-tresses, some species of coneflower and asters.

One of the best places to see fall wildflowers is Mt. Cuba Center. Along the woodland paths and in the meadow you’ll find white wood aster, purple dome New England aster, golden fleece autumn goldenrod, fireworks wrinkle-leaf goldenrod, blue-stemmed goldenrod and showy goldenrod.

Other fall highlights include black-eyed Susan and two varieties of Joe-Pye weed, (Eupatorium maculatum ‘Gateway’) and (Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe’), according to Jeanne Frett, horticultural research manager of Mt. Cuba.

Plus, goldentop is abundant in the center’s meadow and ladies’-tresses dots the woods. One of Frett’s favorite fall wildflowers is Chelone, commonly known as turtlehead because the flowers are shaped a bit like a turtle’s head. The species that Frett prefers sports hot pink flowers and grows throughout Mt. Cuba’s woods.  She also likes Gentiana clausa,aka bottle gentian, which features vivid purple-blue flowers.

Winterthur Museum’s gardens also are a good place to check out colorful native wildflowers. The museum’s Quarry Garden woodlands feature asters and alumroot. Barton says that this woodland is a great place to observe the way that nature creates patterns in the landscape, such as the drifts of blooms often found under trees.

“For those plants that are dependent on distribution by birds, you’ll find a lot more plants directly under the trees or near the trees,” says Barton. “The birds distribute fewer seeds the further you get away from their nests.”

Barton enjoys looking for patterns — both natural and human-made — in the landscape. “There’s often an element of surprise, you wonder why a particular species is abundant in one spot and not another, and then you realize that the conditions are different in terms of moisture or sunlight or some other factor,” notes Barton.

“I like change in the garden and in the landscape,” she adds. “Natural patterns in the landscape provide that element of change, and so, too, do the varying colors of fall’s flowers, grasses, foliage and fruit.”

Mt. Cuba and Winterthur both offer wildflower walks. Events at Mt. Cuba include “Autumnal Wildflower Garden” tours through Oct. 2. For tour days and more information, go to www.mtcubacenter.org or call 302-239-4244.

At Winterthur, “Wednesday Garden Walks” are held each week; wildflowers can be seen on the Oct. 5 walk, titled “The Purple and Red of Sycamore Hill,” and on the Oct. 12 “Harvest-Time Hike.” For more information, go to www.winterthur.org or call 302-888-4600.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo courtesy Mt. Cuba

Also online on UDaily 

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Fall in bloom

September 8, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

“I love fall plants, fall temperatures, fall colors, fall sounds. I think it’s the best time of the year for gardening,” enthuses Suzanne Baron, a Master Gardener with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension.

The “third season” is ramping up for Delaware gardeners and many, like Baron, consider it the very best season. It’s starting to get cooler, especially early and late in the day, making it easier to accomplish garden chores. It also happens to be an excellent time of year to get plants in the ground, notes Sue Barton, ornamental horticulture specialist with UD Cooperative Extension.

“Fall’s cooler temperatures and typically higher rainfalls help plant roots become well-established. The soil is still warm and allows roots to grow until the ground freezes,” says Barton. “In contrast, plants may get off to a slower start in spring because the soil is cooler and in summer new plantings can become stressed from heat and drought.”

Planting for fall interest is easy because there’s a wide range of perennials and shrubs that exhibit good color, in addition to the dramatic foliage of many deciduous trees.

At the Teaching Garden at the county Extension office in Newark, Baron and her fellow Master Gardeners have planted thread-leaf irownweed, which already displays bright purple flower tufts that will continue through early fall.  Another purple bloomer, Joe Pye weed, also is in flower. And while the pale blue flowers of Bluestar are long gone, its leaves will soon turn bright yellow. Later in the season, the black gum trees will turn bright red and the aromatic sumac shrubs will display brilliant orange, red and yellow leaves. Plus, the Teaching Garden features one of Baron’s fall favorites, goldenrod.

Baron has planted many varieties of goldenrod — ranging in color from vivid yellow to deep gold — at her farmette outside of Middletown. “I keep adding different ones to fill different needs in my gardens,” says Baron. “The flower lasts a long time and even in late October bees visit it.”

“Goldenrod is a great source for nectar in the fall,” notes J.W. Wistermayer, a Master Gardener who strives for a “riot of color” in his Newark-area yard.

Goldenrod and other fall blooms don’t just add pizzazz to the landscape, they also help out bees and other insects.  “Fall is an incredibly important time to think about flowering plants in the garden so that insects have a supply of nectar and can make it through the winter,” says Wistermayer.  “A lot of people think about planting for the pollinators in the spring and summer but tend to forget about it in the fall.”

In addition to goldenrod, pollinator-friendly choices include asters, spicebush and Joe Pye weed. “Joe Pye Weed is awesome as a nectar source and the hollow stems can be used by native bees when they lay their eggs,” says Wistermayer.

Carrie Murphy, horticulture agent for New Castle County Cooperative Extension, says that her home garden in North Wilmington starts out strong in spring but can be iffy in summer. She says the garden invariably “comes back to life” in the fall.

Murphy designed her garden with fall interest in mind, including such colorful choices as Virginia sweetspire, viburnum, blueberry and oakleaf hydrangea. “The oakleaf hydrangea never disappoints with its exfoliating bark, beautiful blooms that dry and hang on through winter and great fall color — reds, yellows, oranges,” says Murphy.

Asters, goldenrod and thoroughwort are the primary fall bloomers on Barton’s 11-acre property in Landenberg, Pa. They are complemented by the foliage of sourgum (brilliant red), sassafras (bright oranges and yellows), sourwood (red), sugar maple (yellowish orange) and red maple (bright red) trees.  She also has planted lots of sweet gums, which turn purple and orange all on the same plant. Most of these trees are at their peak color in October.

Barton also takes a long-range view on fall gardening. “Everyone focuses on fall color — foliage or flower — but bark, branch structure and remaining flower heads can provide a lot of interest,” she says, “especially late in the fall when most of the leaves are gone.”

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley


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Enchanting Butterflies

July 18, 2011 under CANR News

Sheila Vincent may be the only person in Delaware who gets paid to catch butterflies. Every summer day, Vincent heads out with a net and collects butterflies, caterpillars and larvae to stock Ashland Nature Center’s Butterfly House.

As group program coordinator for the Delaware Nature Center, Vincent spends the bulk of her time teaching natural history programs and only about 15 minutes with her butterfly net. “I really look forward to butterfly catching. It’s a bit of peace and quiet during hectic workdays,” she says.

Last season was a “spectacular butterfly season,” according to Vincent and this summer looks to be shaping up to be a good one, too.

“Most years, butterflies are abundant in Delaware from June through August,” says Brian Kunkel, an entomologist with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension. “Mid-July to mid-August is typically the peak of activity.”

But bad weather or insufficient food sources can be game changers. Two years ago, the butterfly season was lackluster because of too many cool, rainy days. Other times, host plants may not be well developed.

Delaware is a good place for butterfly watching. There are about 120 species of resident breeding butterflies in the state. Some entomologists make a distinction between butterflies and skippers – in which case, there are 70 species of butterflies and 50 of skippers. Named for their rapid flight pattern, skippers have small, angular wings and bodies that are proportionately larger than true butterflies, says Kunkel. There’s even a skipper known as the Delaware skipper because it was first spotted here.

But speedy skippers aren’t good for teaching purposes. Monarchs are Vincent’s go-to butterfly for nature programs, especially when she’s working with kids. Monarchs are fairly slow, abundant and easily recognizable. Her own personal favorites include the pipevine swallowtail, a relatively rare species that has orange spots and iridescent blue wings. Vincent also appreciates what she calls the “somber beauty” of the mourning cloak butterfly, which is dark brown with yellow borders around the wings and a row of blue spots.

The black swallowtail butterfly, which has distinctive yellow and bright-blue markings, tops Kunkel’s list of favorites. His wife grows herbs on their deck and always plants dill or fennel, which attract black swallowtails and their caterpillars. Kunkel also likes the Eastern-tailed blue. The males are usually light blue and the females a charcoal color but some varieties are pink or purple.

When Kunkel was a boy, he saw scores of Eastern-tailed blues in his yard every summer. That’s because his parents weren’t perturbed by a bit of clover in the their lawn.

“The caterpillars of Eastern-tailed blues feed on clover,” says Kunkel. “If you eradicate every piece of clover in your yard, I guarantee you won’t see any Eastern-tailed blues.”

Kunkel says he’s a “lawn guy,” who loves a carpet of green, but he’s happy to let clover or wild strawberries coexist with turf. He also can handle a little leaf damage on ornamental plants for the sake of the butterflies.

“Don’t get overly excited about caterpillars on your plants,” he says. “Yes, they’ll munch on some leaves but if you want butterflies, you’ve got to have host plants for the larvae, too.”

Vincent has incorporated plenty of host plants for caterpillars, as well as food plants for butterflies, into her New Castle yard. Her perennials include butterfly weed, milkweed, phlox, asters and goldenrod.  She also plants parsley and fennel in the ornamental beds to attract black swallowtails.

If your yard isn’t lepidoptera friendly just yet, there are other places to spot butterflies. To see the largest number, as well as the most species, choose a sunny, open location – like a meadow or field – that features plant diversity. Vincent recommends the meadow at Ashland Nature Center, Middle Run Natural Area, and White Clay and Brandywine Creek state parks.

Kunkel suggests the UD Botanic Gardens, which opened its Lepidoptera Trail in 2009. This self-guided interpretative trail showcases trees, shrubs, wildflowers and native grasses that provide food for butterflies and moths during both the caterpillar and adult stages. Right now, the Trail is abundant with butterflies.

Special events

• Open House in the Native Plant Teaching and Demonstration Garden will be held Monday night, July 18. Join Kunkel for a plant, pest and beneficial insect walk. Get your questions answered about butterflies, caterpillars and other insects. New Castle County Cooperative Extension Office, Newark. 6-8 p.m. For more information, call 831-COOP or email cjmurphy@udel.edu.

• A Mid-Summer Night’s Stroll through the Gardens will be held Wednesday, July 20. Watch butterflies feast on natives on the Lepidoptera Trail and enjoy all the mid-summer blooms in the UD Botanic Gardens. Live steel drum music and light refreshments. 4-6:30 p.m. Reserve a spot by contacting Donna Kelsch, 831-2531 or botanicgardens@udel.edu.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photo by Danielle Quigley

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Sweet watermelons

July 15, 2011 under CANR News

Delaware watermelon connoisseurs are enjoying the moment – local watermelons are now ripe and ready to enjoy. Local watermelons are sweeter and tastier than the out-of-state melons available earlier in the summer, claim their aficionados.

“Local watermelons do taste pretty sweet. And buying local produce when it’s in season helps to support our local growers,” notes Phillip Sylvester, agriculture agent for Kent County Cooperative Extension.

The state’s watermelon crop typically ripens by July 10 and continues through Sept. 25, with the most active harvest period in mid-August.  Delaware’s watermelon industry has declined slightly in recent years but is still strong.  There are more than 2,700 acres of watermelon in Delaware, down from 3,000 acres five years ago. Crop production is currently valued at $11 million annually.

Sylvester always plants watermelons in his home garden in Felton but the bulk of commercial growing takes place further south, in and around Laurel. The well-drained, sandy soils in western Sussex County are excellent for watermelon growing.

This area has been the seat of Delaware’s commercial melon industry since the 1850s, when schooners loaded with watermelon traveled the Nanticoke River to Baltimore and points beyond. More recently, the Laurel Farmers’ Auction Market opened in 1940 to bring wholesale watermelon buyers and sellers together. At one time the price of virtually every Delaware watermelon was negotiated at the Laurel Market. Today, supermarket chains send brokers directly to growers but the market is still used by small- and medium-sized buyers.

Sylvester grows “Crimson Sweet” watermelons because he says they have an exceptionally sweet taste. But this striped heirloom melon will never win any popularity contests, tasty as it might be, because of what some view as an unforgivable downfall – its seeds.

“I don’t care if a watermelon has seeds,” says Sylvester, “but most people do.”

In the 1990s, less than 1 percent of watermelons were seedless. Today, about 75 percent of the watermelons sold in the U.S. are seedless varieties. A seedless watermelon plant contains three sets of chromosomes and is sterile so it must be pollinated by a second plant to set fruit. As a result, growers must pay strict attention to the pollination needs of their seedless watermelon crops. Most growers rent or own honeybee hives but some have started to use bumblebees. UD bee researcher Debbie Delaney and Cooperative Extension fruit and vegetable specialist Gordon Johnson are working with watermelon growers this summer to see if bumblebees improve crop productivity.

Kate Everts also is conducting watermelon research but her projects focus on combating Fusarium wilt. This pestilent pathogen causes one of the most economically significant watermelon diseases worldwide. It causes wilt and plant death early in the season and again when the plant is in fruit. Once a field exhibits severe Fusarium wilt, it’s off limits for watermelon growing for 15 or more years.

Everts, who holds a joint appointment at the University of Delaware and the University of Delaware, collaborates closely with Extension specialists Emmalea Earnest and Gordon Johnson. Her research team focuses on several areas: they’re developing plants resistant to Fusarium wilt, exploring chemical disease measures, and looking at how cover crops can suppress this nasty fungus.

Sylvester is diligent about helping commercial growers obtain maximum yields but when it comes to his own watermelon plot, he adopts a laidback attitude. Though the ag agent know his way around a garden, sometimes pests or weather get the best of his watermelons. Every spring he tells himself “maybe we’ll have watermelons, maybe we won’t.”

However, this summer he hopes for a bumper crop because his 1 1/2-year-old son, Henry, shows a liking for watermelon. What could be better than a “Crimson Sweet,” grown in the backyard by Dad?

Article by Margo McDonough

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