By Sarah Bailey, State Coordinator, UConn Extension Master Gardener Program and CT Hort member
Winter is a good time to plan for the upcoming growing season; taking stock of last season’s disappointments and delights and mapping out this year’s garden plans. Catalogs tempt with descriptions of new plant varieties and must-have tools, and that promise to not buy any more plants is seriously challenged.
Along with the fun new stuff, now is also a good time to familiarize yourself with the dark side of the garden world. Each year, new invasive flora and fauna make their debut in the northeast US. As gardeners, we are up close in the great outdoors and in an excellent position to catch sight of these unwelcome visitors early. Diligent scouting not only protects your own garden, but also may help slow down the spread of these pests throughout the state.
There are, unfortunately, plenty of invasive plants and insects to contend with but here we’ll look at three recent arrivals in Connecticut. Early detection is key to minimizing the damage from these unwelcome visitors, so take some time to learn to recognize them and how to manage them.
SPOTTED LANTERN FLY (Lycorma delicatula)
Only two have been found in the state in the last two years and luckily one was dead. They both were most likely hitchhikers, as the vehicles they were found on had come from what is essentially ground zero for Spotted Lanternfly (SLF).
These startlingly beautiful insects are in the Hemiptera, or planthopper order, the same as aphids, cicadas and leafhoppers. Originally from
Southeast Asia, they were first sighted in southeastern Pennsylvania in 2014. Since then, they have spread to New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, New York and, now, our state. A dead SLF was found in Farmington in October 2018 and one live one was found in Southbury in October of last year.
Spotted Lanternfly feed on an extensive variety of plants. Their favorite source is the invasive Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) which is the only positive attribute. They use their piercing/sucking mouthparts to feed on many common shade trees, including red and sugar maples, chestnut oaks, tulip trees, and American sycamore. They are a particular problem for growers of grapes and hops, with some affected vineyards reporting losses of 75-90 percent.
In addition to the feeding damage, SLF also secretes honeydew, which encourages the development of sooty mold. Overall, plant damage includes oozing sap, leaf curling and loss of photosynthesis due to excessive sooty mold. They also tend to congregate in very large masses and can cover entire plants.
What to do? Right now SLF is a reportable insect in Connecticut. If you find one, dead or alive, report it immediately through ReportSLF@ct.gov. For more information, go to https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/resources/pests-diseases/hungry-pests/the-threat/spotted-lanternfly/spotted-lanternfly.
CRAZY WORMS (Amynthas agrestis and two other species)
These are not the newest arrival, as they have been here for several years. They are, however, reaching a population size that is becoming problematic for many locations.
Almost all earthworms in New England are not truly native, but these jumping or crazy worms are destructive invaders who damage or destroy the organic matter in our soil. These worms grow bigger (1.5 to 8 inches long), faster, reproduce more quickly and consume the organic matter at a rate that is not sustainable. In heavily infested areas native plants, amphibians and birds have started to decline.
Their best-known characteristic is the thrashing, jumping and gyrating they do when handled. These movements are more similar to a snake’s defensive response than that of other worms. The best way to identify them is by collar, or clitellum, near the head. This smooth, light-colored band completely encircles the worm, whereas the more familiar “common” worms have a pink, raised clitellum that doesn’t generally go completely around.
What to do? Again, there are no widespread control methods, so it’s up to the individual gardener to respond. In my case, I have taken to carrying a bucket of water along as I garden, and any I find are unceremoniously drowned. The carcasses then go in the trash, just to be thorough. Some folks use them to make a worm tea.
Prevention is the real key here. Any plant I get from a plant sale, a neighbor, or an unknown source are removed from their soil and washed to bare-root status before planting. This not only eliminates any mature worms but reduces the chances of eggs getting established in my garden.
For more information, go to http://ccetompkins.org/resources/jumping-worm-fact-sheet.
PALMER AMARANTH (Amaranthus palmeri)
This is really a problem for farmers, but it is such a problem that it’s valuable for home gardeners to keep a sharp eye out for it. This highly aggressive species of pigweed outcompetes many different crops and is toxic to livestock. It was found in two pumpkin fields in East Windsor last fall. This annual broadleaf weed is native to the southwestern US and Mexico, but considered invasive in our region.
There are other pigweeds the New England gardener is more familiar with, the most common being redroot and smooth pigweeds. Palmer amaranth grows faster, produces more than 100,000 seeds per plant and is developing herbicide resistance. It can grow six to eight feet tall, can grow two to three inches per day and can reduce crop yields by 70 – 90 percent. There are several identifying characteristics, with perhaps the two simplest being that the stems of our common pigweeds are hairy while Palmer is smooth. Palmer foliage often has red or white marks on the upper surface.
If you believe you’ve found Palmer amaranth, contact the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in Windsor. For more information: https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/CAES/DOCUMENTS/Publications/Press_Releases/2019/CAES-Press-Release-Palmer-Amaranth-November-13-2019.pdf.
Invasive species are an unfortunate fact of the gardening world. In an age of almost instant communications, we now have the ability to learn about the threats more quickly and learn what to look for before it’s a huge problem. It’s an uphill battle but if we all act as sentinels we may be able to slow the invasions down. Who knows? One of these days we may actually stop a new incursion in its tracks. That’s a winter daydream to work towards.