By guest writer, Christine Anderson
Profuse pollen isn’t our only proof of warmer winter temperatures.
We can see all around us: early perennial blooms, self-sown annuals already in bud, and whopping—weeds! That’s easy. But can somebody forecast what else to expect? Experts and the rest of us have lots to say. Mothers Day weekend turns out to be a great time to pose the question:
What have you seen, or what do you think can we expect as a result of our warmer winter?
I’m hoping to get information from growers and gardeners on one of the busiest retail days. Figuring to skip the mad rush for hanging baskets elsewhere, I visit Harkness Memorial State Park (at the lower end of our shared Atlantic weather corridor) for the annual Friends of Harkness plant sale. A lucky encounter with Park Ranger Denise Bouchard leads me to Eric Hansen, also on staff.
According to The Farmers Almanac, our climate region, the Atlantic Corridor, exists within a line drawn from Boston to Hartford--and the coast. From there the line curves southward, ending at Richmond, Virginia.
Equipped with a degree in horticulture, he says he hasn’t been out much in the gardens—not yet. He doesn’t expect to see much difference. He allows that “the daffodils came early—but they also lasted a long time because the weather was still cool.” About trees and shrubs, he says, “The saving grace was that we didn’t have a 5-degree cold snap in the midst of the warmer weather—so the flower buds didn’t freeze.”
Denise, the ranger who works in the protected nesting areas of the park added that it’s been “coated” with ticks. I hear this, yet I make my way across a grassy meadow to the plant sale.
In the courtyard of the Harkness property, Friends of the park offer up picnic tables filled with award-winning daylilies cultivated in the fabled gardens, deep red dahlia bulbs like your grandmother may have grown, and divided perennials from their own plots and gardens.
“I’ve had lots of mole and vole damage in my own yard,” says Gladys Stadnick, head of the horticulture volunteers, “but that’s about grubs, as usual….The daffodils here are already gone.” I turn around. I’ve just crossed that field, which is usually packed with yellow. It shows not even the spent flower stalks--just tall grass in the stiff breeze.
“The weeds are earlier and bigger,” sighs a volunteer garden weeder.
“My parsley made it through the winter,” says another, brightly. “It’s never done that.”
Cheryl Paganucci, originally from the Boston area, was ready for the question. “Many of my vegetables came back. And I’ve already planted my garden. The azaleas were early, the lettuce is growing.” She is careful to add that she uses a (handy) portable cold frame to bridge the temperature gaps.
Katherine O’Hara, a board member, was surprised to see annuals and lettuce already growing in her garden. “I’m originally from mid-state New York, so this is not something I’m used to.”
“I have beetles that resemble lady bugs on my lilies,” said another. “But without spots.”
“Are they, uh… uh lily—leaf beetles?” I stammer, remembering them from central Massachusetts about ten years ago. Nobody picks up on it.
I visit my local garden center to ask about winter moths (a general description), the larvae of which damage flowering and fruiting trees. Green Survival Gardens owner, Hendrik Verkade III, tells me that his nursery stock is monitored for them, part of a study by the State of Connecticut. The moths overwinter in leaf debris, and come out earlier after warmer winters.
However, the conversation shifts when he says,
“Everything is out of whack.”
I ask Brenda Cammarata, who works there, what she thinks is different this year.
“The flowers seem more vibrant,--at least it seems that way.”
But Verkade, still part of this conversation, is skeptical. He suggests that this observation is part of our collective anticipation: We want spring to come. “Yes, well, we have more blooms, earlier.” That’s clearly real, he agrees. “People are always anxious come spring; plants don’t use a calendar like we do. “Mother’s Day is also planting day,” he cautions, “it is still too early for many annuals and vegetables to go into gardens.”
He thinks for a minute and closes with this sobering thought, “Lily beetles are the new gypsy moths.”
I make another mental note: Look this up.
TERRI SMITH of Smith Acres in Niantic concurs with Gladys’s vole reports.
“Which seems strange,” she says, “because the winter before we had lots of snow, and predators couldn’t see them. But this year, we had hardly any [snow]. So, where are the predators now?”
After some easy digging, I find from university extension services (i.e. University of Vermont) that the flea beetle (a general description), which also winters over in leaf debris, has a head start this year. They are very small (about 1/8” in length), and their powerful hind legs allow them to jump quickly from plant to plant. Infestations are fast—and devastating. You can find out more about them, as they bother different classes of garden crops. The most important factor will be to scout them out—and maybe to stagger your planting of certain vegetables so that they miss the insect’s most active phase.
I look up lily beetles, too, and find, unfortunately, that they also winter over in leaf debris. Nobody has mentioned them, at least not by name.
Left: How does the garden grow? Big.
Wayne Paquette, owner of, Quackin’ Grass Nursery in Brooklyn CT agrees with what I’ve heard and read.
“The ticks barely rested, and we’ve seen them earlier than ever” adding that he needs to check his cat daily, who comes in with at least two or three each day. “Mosquitoes are also out early, and since there are virtually no bats around, that’s a problem,” he adds, “especially if we have wetter weather coming.”
His advice is that we protect ourselves this year, “especially at dawn and an hour to an hour and a half at dusk.” The risk of more disease-bearing mosquitoes is quite real, he warns. The gnats are early too, but only annoying.
On a mission to speak also with a farming family nearby, I visit Scott’s Farm stand and find three small pots of brilliant orange begonias. A staff person, busy watering plants, confirms that the early crops are ahead by at least three weeks. “ Strawberries for sure—but I’m not sure about the blueberries,” she said, and, nodding her head toward my flowers, “Don’t put those in the ground yet.”
“Got it,” I think to myself.
So what can we expect when we’re expecting …summer?
Here’s the short list: The usual results of voles and moles. Unusually large families of bugs that bite and others we’ve barely met. And earlier—but only the early—crops.
The rest will be about scouting for the unfamiliar, protecting against ticks and mosquitoes—and asking questions of your own favorite, local garden authorities.
Of course, watching the weather is also big on the list. We know what to expect there.
Christine Anderson,a former Central Mass resident, is an avid gardener and writer.