Horticulture Articles

Let the Games Begin!

CFNews June 2023 - July 2023

There is a Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) in my garden that was planted before my time.  It is not a shrub I like because, in addition to reseeding itself prodigiously, it is favored by the dreaded Japanese beetles.   After mating in the flowers, the pesky beetle couples head right over to my vegetable garden for their nuptial feast of green bean foliage.  Grrr….  I am tolerant of most insects but give no quarter to non-native ones.  Having recently conceded defeat to the red lily beetles by digging out all my Asiatic and Oriental lilies, I am not about to surrender to the Japanese beetle.

I believe that one should know one’s enemy so I have studied their lifecycle and am presently girding my loins for battle.   As you read this, the little suckers are emerging to eat, mate, and lay eggs.

Japanese Beetle Lifecycle

Actually Japanese beetles are just one of a number of non-native pesky beetles including Asiatic, Oriental and European chafer beetles.   Here are their mugshots.   They all have very similar lifecycles though Asiatic beetles are the sneakiest, hiding during the day and feeding on foliage at night.  Unlike Japanese beetles which tend to skeletonize leaves, Asiatic beetles notch the edge of the foliage so keep an eye out for that damage with no apparent culprit around.

As bad as the adults are, the larvae can be worse.  The developing grubs spend a year underground feeding on

Asiatic Beetle

organic matter and roots.  If you are a person who likes a pristine lawn, you get twice the fun.  Not only will a large community of grubs create great swaths of dead grass; the moles, skunks and raccoons will aerate your lawn in search of a grub snack.

So what is an organic, tree-hugging gardener to do?   Well, kill them of course!   The only question is when and how.

Plan A.   The Ten Fingers of Death

Trying to spray the beetles with pesticides is a non-starter as the most effective

insecticides are very toxic to insects I like.  So, my summer mornings are spent handpicking the suckers off my plants and plopping them into soapy

Oriental Beetle

water (they don’t swim as long as the jumping worms).  It is easier to handpick beetles in the morning when they are not quite as quick.  If you suspect Asiatic beetles, sit outside at night with a light on, sip a glass of wine and wait till they come to the light.  This, as you might suspect, is not real effective but you will feel relaxed and the mosquitos will be happy.

What about those traps you ask?   Well there are two types of traps you can buy.   One uses a bait that mimics the smell of virgin female beetles and of course attracts male beetles.  The other bait has a yummy food smell and attracts both sexes. These traps will bring in hordes of horny and hungry beetles and kill a good number of them.  Unfortunately, the ones that escape death will happily mate and increase the population in your

European Chafer Beetle

garden.   Sigh, this is the law of unintended consequences known as perverse results.

Plan B.  The Mercenaries

The adult females you did not get in Plan A have now laid their eggs in the soil.  Once the eggs develop into larvae, the wretched little pests will head toward the surface of the soil and start feeding.  Time to bring in the enemies of our enemy which are bacteria and nematodes.

In the past, milky spore bacteria was the only game in town but it is not considered that effective in Connecticut and only kills the Japanese beetle grubs.   The new darling bacteria is Bacillus thuringiensis galleriae (Btg), a strain that produces a toxin that affects both adults and larvae.   When consumed the bacterium disrupts the gut lining causing the pests to stop feeding and gradually die.   Sorry but yeah!   The most advanced products in this space are grubGONE! and beetleGONE! from Phyllom BioProducts.

Japanese Beetle Grub

Some earlier Bt products are only effective against 1st instar grubs (the grub immediately after hatching) but grubGONE! is also effective against the larger 2nd and 3rd instar (more mature grubs) which appear later in the season.    So grubGONE! can be used as an early season curative or a late season preventative.    Once the soil cools, the grubs move deeper into the soil and go dormant.

beetleGONE! is sprayed on the foliage that the beetles are eating and can also be mixed into the soil to control grubs.  It is compliant with organic growing standards and in fact, treated vegetables, fruits and herbs can be eaten the day of application (nothing will happen to your gut).  The chart below gives you an idea of timing.

Our friends the nematodes (the species you want is Heterorhabditis bacteriophora) are microscopic, soil dwelling worms that will bore into the grubs, release a bacterium and kill them within 48 hours.   Isn’t the natural world just so clever and deadly?    Nematodes are usually purchased online and as they are living organisms, care in their handling and storage is critical.  They must be applied in heavily overcast or rainy conditions as they are not too keen on sunlight and need moisture in the soil to travel.  They need to be applied around mid- to late-August so if we have a drought like last year, pre-irrigating with at least a half an inch of water is a must.  One online source for nematodes is North Country Organics.

Biological controls require patience as it may take more time to terminate your enemies.  If you want them to drop dead quicker, you will find many grub control products containing pesticides. The active ingredient in Scott’s GrubEx is Chlorantraniliprole (0.08%) and should be applied in the early spring.  The active ingredient in Bayer Grub Killer Plus is Trichlorfon (9.30%) and should be applied in the summer or early fall.

I am staying organic with beetleGONE! and will see how it goes.  If it doesn’t help, well, I never liked that Rose of Sharon anyway.

Renee Marsh, FGCCT Horticulture Chair


Native Plants vs Native Cultivars – Plant Choice Matters

CFNews June 2023 - July 2023

When choosing plants for the benefit of pollinators, birds and other wildlife, it is important to remember that a native plant lives and grows in a particular region without human intervention. “These plants are part of the balance of nature, developed over hundreds of thousands of years to a particular region.” – USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. True natives are referred to as straight species or wild-type natives because they have not been modified through selective breeding. True natives do not have fancy names like ‘double delight’ or ‘butterfly kisses’, dead-giveaways that these are cultivated plants.

Native plants shrewdly evolved over time to develop flowers that attract specific pollinators with unique shapes, sizes and colors to ensure pollination and reproduction. The relationship between plants and pollinators is very complex. There are short-tongued and long-tongued bees, hummingbirds, flower flies, butterflies and moths, all seeking different flower shapes and sizes for obtaining nectar. Additionally, specialist bees are looking for pollen from specific plants to raise their young. These symbiotic relationships work rather well without human interference.

So, why do we insist on creating cultivars of native plants? – AKA native cultivars or nativars*.   I think it’s our nature to want to control things… make something bigger and better. But what are we losing? A double flower, for example, while attractive to us, is totally inaccessible to pollinators. Some cultivars have no pollen or nectar at all. Nectar guides, the lines on flower petals meant to direct a bee to a flower’s nectary are not always visible to the human eye. However, a bee’s ability to see ultraviolet light gives him an advantage when seeking nectar. You can guess what happens if these guide lines are erased in the process of cultivation.

Annie White with the University of Vermont has done research on native flowering plants vs native cultivars. She concluded that when particular nativars varied significantly in color, bloom time, size, or shape from their wild-type, they provided less ecological service to pollinators. She also stressed the importance of avoiding double flowers when planting for pollinators.  (Echinacea purpurea ‘Pink Double Delight’ pictured)

Ms. White also did a study on cross-breeding Blue Lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica with Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis to create the cultivar, Lobelia x speciosa ‘Fan Scarlet’. What she found was that this cultivar contained 20% less nectar than both straight-species. She reported that the quality of this nectar was not sufficient to support pollinators and other beneficial insects that might be attracted to this flower. And, she cautioned that this cultivar should be avoided when interested in attracting hummingbirds.

While it is true that pollinators are attracted to many kinds of flowers when seeking nectar, more research is needed to determine if the nectar and pollen of individual cultivars provide the same nutritional value to pollinators as the straight native species. Or, are they just providing a “Happy Meal”.

Doug Tallamy, professor at the University of DE, stresses the importance of providing plants that are hosts for caterpillars because they are an extremely important food source for most bird species. His study on woody plants at Mt. Cuba revealed that cultivars with purple leaves were avoided by caterpillars due to toxic anthocyanins. Tallamy also believes plant structure and density are hugely important for birds seeking shelter and when choosing nesting sites.  Both White and Tallamy agree that we need to proceed cautiously with native cultivars when seeking to maximize benefit to wildlife.

One final thought concerning cultivating plants by cloning. Clones are often created using plant cuttings rather than growing the plant from seed. This method is a much faster way of propagating a plant and each new plant is identical to the parent plant – a clone.  This may sound like a good thing.  Trouble is, if all you have are these cloned plants in your landscape, they are all subject to the same disease and pest problems. “It is a bad idea to load the landscape with cultivars that have no genetic variability”, Tallamy says, “I think the safest policy right now is to encourage the use of straight species.” Genetic diversity in nature is extremely important in fostering healthy ecosystems that support all life on earth. No doubt about it.

* Native cultivars/nativars can be hybrids or products of two or more plants intentionally selected by breeders and crossed to create desirable traits or are clonally-produced copies of a plant.

Holly Kocet, Garden Club of Newtown & Co-Chair, Conservation Committee, FGCCT

Making the Cut

CFNews April 2023 - May 2023

The April/May issue is always a challenging one to write for.  Let’s face it – we are all out in our gardens getting our spring fix.  Intoxicated with flowers and green leaves, why read this article?   Unless it is raining maybe?   Anyway, I am glad you are and thank you.  Now, as to the topic.  Since I cannot compete with the glories of spring, I decided to talk tools, specifically pruning tools.  I attended this year’s Flower & Garden Show in Hartford and love to see what tools folks are selling.  Some are useful, some are silly, and some are downright stupid.  There was one vendor demonstrating how to cut through a sizeable limb with a ratcheting lopper.   In my experience, ratcheting devices are heavy and require the upper body strength of a sizeable gorilla.   Try holding that up to a tree or shrub and ratcheting the multiple times needed to get through a large branch.  Hah!

So, I have decided to share my humble opinion on the subject.  It is based on my tools rules which are the following:

  1. Use the right tool for the right job.
  2. Buy high quality tools with replaceable parts.
  3. Buy tools that fit your hands. (Pink is not a size, it is a marketing ploy.)
  4. Don’t buy that many tools. More tools means more maintenance (see next rule).
  5. Maintain your tools – yes, really – clean, oil, sharpen, repeat.
  6. Be honest about what you can handle as you age. Face it, most of us can’t even open a jar anymore.

I have buckets of tools that I bought in big-box stores (who will remain nameless because Home Depot, Costco and Walmart won’t like it).  When I started really working in horticulture as an 8 hours a day job, I learned quickly how awful – and painful – they were.   So, here is my lineup of tried and true pruning tools based on my years as a manual laborer.

Pruners (or secateurs for those of you who think the British still rule) 

There are three types:  bypass, anvil and ratchet.  Anvil pruners have one blade that cuts like a knife, with the blade pushing through a stem onto a lower block – think a knife on a chopping board.   This tends to crush live stems so it is recommended for dead limbs only.   Don’t bother unless you are Morticia Addams and prune mostly dead things.   Ratchet pruners have either anvil or bypass blades and feature ratchet springs and mechanisms to “ease effort” and cut through a stem in a series of stages. You have to repeatedly squeeze and release the handles to cut the branch.   While they are sold as useful for gardeners who lack strength, believe me, the constant squeezing will kill your hands in no time.

Bypass pruners have two blades, with a sharpened blade crossing over a thicker metal platform just like a pair of scissors.  They give a clean cut which minimizes damage to the plant.   They should be sharp as razors which means sharpening them constantly if you are doing a lot of pruning.   If you get anything out of this article, remember this … they come in different sizes to fit your hand.  Gorilla size pruners (I hope that is politically ok) lead to tired hands, aching forearms and carpel tunnel syndrome.    My recommendations:


  • Okatsune: You have to give it to the Japanese for forging quality tempered steel that is razor sharp and incredibly durable.   Think of this as your own little Samurai sword.  The design is incredibly simple with a V-shaped spring that distributes the load over the blade (and does not pop out) and a locking system that is easy to release and close.  The result is a really weightless pruner.  It comes with a cute little holster that you might seriously consider.  They will punch a hole right through the bottom of a rubber garden trug if you aren’t careful!    They come in three sizes; I use a 101.  There is a link at the end of the article to a website that shows the sizes.   This is for stems up to roughly ½ inch.   Will they cut larger?  Yes but don’t do it.

Felco:  This is my second favorite and comes in many sizes as well; I use a Felco 6.    Felco products are what one expects of the Swiss – quality and long term reliability.  All parts are easily replaced so their products will last a lifetime.  I find that the blades don’t hold an edge as well as my Okatsune though.  Felco has many permutations of pruners for various types of pruning but really, just get the basic one.


This is the tool you use when the job is too large for a pruner.   My favorite is the Felco 200C-60 lopper.   The number one reason is the carbon fiber handles that make them lightweight (1 lb. 9 oz. to be exact), and a joy to use.    Shock absorbers soften the impact on the wrist and hands. The curved cutting head reduces the effort needed for cutting.  They will cut branches up to 1.4 inches diameter at which point I go to my next tool.

Pruning Saw

This little folding saw, the Felco F-600, will cut branches up to about two inches.   This is a pull-stroke pruning saw which means it cuts on the pull stroke, not the push stroke. You start the cut with the back end of the blade.  It gives clean, precise cuts with little effort and folds up to fit in your pocket.


Reciprocating Saw

There was a time I was a real purist and eschewed power tools.  Then I got older, wiser, and weaker.   Enter the handheld, battery operated reciprocating saw.  Mine is a Milwaukee M12 Hackzall complete with the additional batteries and charger – and just the cutest little red carrying bag.  One good reason to get the extra battery packs is that they are smaller and lighter for those little jobs.   You can get pruning blades of various lengths at any of the usual hardware places.   By the way this works really well for cutting roots too – which is a bit rough on the blades so use older ones.    Eat your heart out tool guys.

Shrub (Hedge) Shears

My Okatsune 217 shears are categorized as short handled with medium-long blades.   They are razor-sharp and very lightweight with ash handles that absorb vibrations.  At 22 inches long, they are perfect for light hedge clipping yet tough enough to prune small branches.    There are longer-handled ones and longer bladed-ones but keeping with Rule # 4, this can cover all the bases just fine.


The Art of Creative Pruning

And finally, maintenance.   There are lots of tools for sharpening blades like files and whetstones but my hands-down favorite is the iSTOR Professional Swiss sharpener.  Watch the videos online and it is a breeze.

So there you go, time to prune your little hearts out!   If you are as obsessed with pruning as I am, check out Jake Hobson’s book “The Art of Creative Pruning”.

Of course, there are other experiences and opinions out there so if there are tools you love, let me know at hortchair@ctgardenclubs.org.  I am always willing to try something new and to share your feedback.




https://felco.com/en_us/     **Check out the article on counterfeits on Amazon on the homepage**

 From a Reader, the View From YOUR Garden: 

Martha Doshan writes “On one of my walks I picked up a strange growth, on a small branch, and wondered what it was. After reading your article, I figured out that I had an old horned oak gall. I ‘ve attached a picture.”

Renee Marsh, FGCCT Horticulture Chair

What Galls!

CFNews February - March 2023

Horned Oak Gall

Weird and abnormal things fascinate most of us … I think … at least they do me. So whenever I am out in the garden and see something “different,” I just have to go investigate. The most amazing and oddly beautiful things to me are galls. Galls are abnormal growths that can occur on any part of a plant — leaves, stems, twigs, branches or flowers. They can be caused by various organisms such as bacteria, fungi, nematodes and mites but most are caused by insects. Insect galls occur in many forms, colors and shapes from bumps and warts to spiny projections and woody structures. They can be beautiful, like the wooly oak leaf gall, or downright alien, like the horned oak gall.

Wooly Oak Leaf Gall

Each insect, be it a wasp, midge, moth, fly, aphid or beetle, attacks specific tissues on a specific plant producing a unique and distinctive gall. They do this by secreting chemicals that cause rapid cell multiplication in the affected area of the plant tissue. The insect, known as a gall maker, essentially reprograms the plant growth, transforming ordinary plant parts into fantastical structures. Galls can only form on growing tissue so gall-making activity occurs in the spring or early summer. Mature plant tissues are usually not affected by gall-inducing organisms. Interestingly, of the more than 700 species of gall-forming insects in the United States and Canada, nearly 80% form galls on oaks.

The gall serves several important purposes for the gall maker. It shelters the egg, larva, pupa and emerging adult from the weather and predators, and provides food for the larva. Eventually, the mature insect emerges, usually through a small exit hole made through the wall of the gall. After the gall-making insect leaves, the gall can remain on the plant through the season. Other insects and beneficial organisms, such as beetles or caterpillars, may move into the abandoned gall for shelter or to feed.

Moss Rose Gall

A common gall for those who grow roses is the mossy rose gall aptly named because it occurs on roses and looks like moss. The gall maker is a cynipid wasp. These tiny wasps are the largest group of gall- making insects, and produce most of the galls on oak trees and plants in the rose family. In the spring the female looks for new leaf tissue on which to lay eggs. The eggs hatch and the feeding of the larvae induces the gall to form around it. The wasp overwinters as a larva in the gall and in early spring, the adult wasp matures and chews out of the gall. If you want to let nature do its thing, you can leave the galls on the rose bush over the winter. Gall-making insects have their own biological controls in the form of parasitoids and predators which will maintain balance in your ecosystem.

Cynipid Wasp

Most insect galls do not seriously affect the vigor of healthy plants so control measures are not necessary. They can be less than aesthetically pleasing for garden perfectionists but they do not directly kill the plant. It would be virtually impossible to time an insect application to prevent the insect from laying the eggs and once a gall begins to form, nothing can stop its growth. It will continue to form even after the insects die. Remember the gall is a part of the plant itself so spraying with insecticides will not make it go away. Leaf galls will fall off in autumn and woody stems can be pruned out if you find them objectionable. And yes, there are plants that don’t get galls, but what is the fun in that?

Oak Apple Galls

Two galls that I commonly see on my winter walks are the oak apple gall and the goldenrod ball gall.   The oak apple galls look like brown ping-pong balls hanging from oak branches. They have paper-like, firm outer skins and are soft on the inside. The gall maker is a small wasp and there is usually a small hole in the gall made by the adult wasp when it emerged in the summer.

Goldenrod Ball Gall with Fly Larva

Now the goldenrod ball gall is caused by a tephritid fly which completes its entire life cycle only on goldenrod. There are distinct races of this species that are specific to different species of goldenrod.  The fly larvae lives inside the gall all winter and emerges in the spring. Even within their galls, the larval flies are not always safe from harm. Two species of chalcid wasps are parasitoids of the larvae. The adult female wasp deposits her eggs into the interior chamber with a long ovipositor and after hatching, the wasp larvae feed on the fly larvae. The following spring a tiny black adult wasp will emerge instead of a fly. There is also a tiny beetle whose larvae will feed on the fly larvae inside the gall. Finally birds, especially Downy Woodpeckers and Black-capped Chickadees, will break into the galls to get to the fly larva. So much for all the best laid plans of gallmakers…

Much goes on in our gardens that we never see. Galls are a reminder of the complexity and interconnectedness of life — and our calling as gardeners is to appreciate it and let it be. I am inspired by this thought from Howard E. Evans, a Connecticut-born author and entomologist who was a specialist on wasps…  “I do believe that an intimacy with … their kind can be salutary — not for what they are likely to teach us about ourselves but because they remind us, if we will let them, that there are other voices, other rhythms, other strivings and fulfillments than our own.”

By Renee Marsh, FGCCT Horticulture Chair

Deck the Halls (with Holly!)

CFNews December 2022 - January 2023

Deciding what to write can be a torturous task. As you may have noticed, I like to explore the often overlooked parts of the garden world. This time however, I decided to be conventional (yawn) and chose the most obvious plant for December, holly.

Sounded like it would be easy but nope, I soon found that Ilex is a very large genus. Even narrowing it down to the major ornamental species that thrive in Connecticut, left way too many plants. There are natives species: Inkberry (I. glabra), American holly (I. opaca), and winterberry (I. verticillata). Then there are the non-native species: Japanese holly (I. crenata) and the myriad hybrids. Ironically, the species that epitomizes Christmas, English holly (I. aquifolium) with its deep green, vicious spiny leaves and red berries, is marginally hardy to zone 6b. Not relevant for those of us up in the hills.

To keep this article from being unbearably long — we all have holiday shopping to do — I decided to focus on the non-natives species. Yes, yes, I know this will offend the nativists but, as we are steeped in the European holiday tradition, it’s only fair. No one ever sang “deck the halls with boughs of winterberry”. And as it all traces back to the Druids who believed that holly offered protection against evil spirits, evergreen holly with red berries it is.

Big animal picture … these evergreen hollies prefer sun with some moderate shade tolerance, prefer acidic soil, don’t like it too cold or too hot but in general, they aren’t overly fussy. One notable characteristic of holly is that it is a dioecious plant which means the male and female reproductive parts are on separate plants. The flowers are white and not of much interest unless you are a bee, in which case you are happy to gather the pollen of the male flowers. Any male plant can pollinate any female plant IF the flowering time overlaps. Most holly plants are paired (boy & girl) to ensure that happens. If it does, the resulting fruit is botanically speaking a drupe – not a berry – but I will just call them berries.

The freewheeling exchange of pollen is why there are many hybrid hollies which are crosses of different species. It is these hollies we will explore here starting with the Blue or Meserve hollies. Here is a great story of a woman in horticulture. Kathleen Meserve, an enthusiastic 20th century amateur gardener on Long Island, wanted to create cold hardy hollies with red berries. She crossed a Japanese species (Ilex rugosa) with the English holly and created a hybrid called Ilex x meserveae which is hardy to Zone 4. The foliage of this hybrid is so dark green it looks bluish, thus the name, Blue Hollies. There is ‘Blue Prince’, ‘Blue Boy’, ‘Blue Stallion’, ‘Blue Princess’ and ‘Blue Maid.’ You need one male for every four to five females to get a bumper crop of red berries. Cultivars vary in size but, by and large, they are sizeable shrubs growing to 5 – 12 ft. tall and 6 ft. or more across. They can be used as a foundation plant if you don’t mind pruning. Luckily they take to pruning very well and also make awesome hedges (take that, boring Arborvitae).

Ms. Meserve continued her matchmaking and crossed Chinese holly (I. cornuta) and English holly producing ‘China Boy’ and ‘China Girl’ (Ilex x meserveae ‘Mesdob’ & ‘Mesog’). They have a rounded, dense form growing to 7-10 ft. tall by 5-8 ft. wide. They too are hardy to Zone 4.

Then a German nursery man, Hans Hachmann, crossed ‘Blue Prince’ and English holly. The resulting blue hollies were trademarked with “Castle” names. They are smallish for hollies, hardy to zone 5 and best of all, way less spiky with softer deep green foliage. ‘Castle Spire’ (I. x meserveae ‘Hachfee’) has bright red berries, dark glossy foliage and a narrow, pyramidal form reaching 8 – 12 ft. tall and 3 – 4 ft. wide. The male, ‘Castle Wall’ (I. x meserveae ‘Heckenstar’) is a bit shorter at 5 – 8 ft. tall. An even shorter guy is ‘Castle Keep’ at 3 – 5 ft. tall and wide; he has a rounded habit that needs no pruning to keep it shape.

Then there is my favorite, ‘Dragon Lady’ (Ilex x aquipernyi ‘Meschick’), a cross between English and Perny holly (I. pernyi). She is a looker with a narrow pyramidal form, 20 ft., tall but only 4 – 5 ft. wide. She has the deeply spiked, glossy leaves and bright red fruits of her English parent in a hardier, leaner package. Also on the smaller side is ‘Red Beauty’ holly (I. ‘Rutzan’) who hails from Rutgers University and is a cross of Blue and Perny holly. She is the same width as ‘Dragon Lady’ but half the height at 7 – 10 ft. tall.

Lastly, the grand dame of the hybrids is ‘Nellie R. Stevens,’ a cross of English and Chinese holly. She is monumental and will quickly reach a mature height of 15 – 25 ft. and width of 8 – 15 ft. She tolerates drought, air pollution, and heat but is only cold hardy to Zone 6. She will produce large, bright orange-red berries without a male pollinizer but a male Chinese Holly will increase the berry set.

Beyond being decorative, hollies provide protection for nesting birds and the flowers, though small, are loved by pollinators. In Celtic mythology the revered holly tree is considered the evergreen twin of the oak. The oak is the controller of the light half of the year and the holly controls the dark, winter months. Happy winter solstice!

By Renee Marsh, Horticulture Chair, Federated Garden Clubs of CT