Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

2020 Winter Photo Contest Winners!

by cathym on November 3, 2020

Congratulations to all of the 2020 contest winners! The 2021 contest will run December 21, 2020 through March 20, 2021. Watch our Facebook page and upstategardenersjournal.com/winter-photo-contest/ for details on how to enter.

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: “MCC Morning” by Donna LaPlante | Rochester, NY
PLANTS: “Reach For The Sun” by Patrick Varley | Manlius, NY
WILDLIFE: “Raccoon in tree cavity” by Peggy Dempsey | Brighton, NY
SCENES: “February Snow Moon” by Marie Costanza | Webster, NY
ENHANCED: “A Mumford Morning” by Amy Carpenter | Mumford, NY
ONLINE FAVORITE “Lone Eagle” by Jeanne Klein | Onondaga Lake

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Tillandsias

by cathym on November 3, 2020

Story and photos by Carol Ann Harlos

You probably have heard of “air plants,” or tillandsias. Tillandsias naturally grow in drier areas of the southern U.S. to parts of South America.  You may have seen “Spanish moss” growing on trees (thus the term “epiphytic” meaning “on a plant”) in Florida or purchased some for use in wreath making.   Spanish moss is not really a moss but one of the many species of tillandsias. Spanish moss, like all tillandsias, loves humidity and grows tiny flowers since it is an angiosperm.  Tillandsias are bromeliads (related to pineapples) and are also monocots related to grasses and lilies.  Tillandsias are unique as they only open their stomates (leaf pores) at night to release oxygen, the byproduct of photosynthesis. This prevents water loss that would occur in the heat of the sun. At this time they also pick up the carbon dioxide necessary for photosynthesis occurring in the daytime. 

There are hundreds tillandsias that can grow without soil and require just the barest minimum of care.  Tillandsias absorb water through their leaves through hair-like structures called trichomes. Those commonly grown in homes are often called “aerophytes,” as they seem to live on air. The form of all tillandisas is really some type of rosette made up of overlapping leaves which accumulate dust particles. In a home these might include skin cells, hair, pet dander, bacteria, dust mites, bits of dead bugs, soil particles, and pollen. These make up the nourishment needed by the plants. The minute roots serve as anchors instead of absorbing water.  (This is important as I have met people who killed their tillandsias because they soaked the roots which subsequently rotted!)  I have tillandsias in both north and south windows. They thrive in both. The light is bright and the temperature changes little, which makes them quite happy.

The pictures included in this article are some of the author’s tillandsias. The one tucked into a sea urchin shell. Tillandsia harrisii, which originated in Guatemala, has doubled in size since it was purchased. It lives on a shelf in a northern window.

The T. ionantha ball is made of several tillandsias wired together. The ball thrives in the south window of a bathroom. Since I love warm showers I rarely water them. Several of the plants in the ball have flowered, a thrill to the author! In Guatemala the bright red flowers attract hummingbirds leading to pollination and seed formation. Since tillandsias are not self-fertile, this did not occur in my home.  Only mature plants flower. Pups (offshoots) form at the base of the “mother” plant after blooming finishes. The offspring then are clones of the parent plant.

T. ionantha ball with one plant in bloom

T. caput x brachycaulos, T. caput-medusae, and their crosses are often called “octopus plants” or “medusa’s head.”  They have rather thick, twisted leaves that grow from a “pseudobulb”… it looks like a bulb but isn’t.  It is said to bloom red. Mine have yet to bloom.

T. caput-medusae
T. caput-medusae x brachycaulos

T. tectorum is native to Ecuador and Peru. In nature it is found on cliff faces. This tillandsia has a more open form than the ones mentioned above. I find it needs less care than the other tillandsias, probably because it had to adapt to a tough dry sunny environment in the wild.  They seem to thrive in direct light in my home and require far less water to survive.  

T. tectorum ‘Peru’

Although Tillandsias are easy-care plants, all tillandsias don’t require the same care so pay attention to how the plants look … shrunken, browning, losing leaves, or firm. Some plants are thin, others fleshy. This affects their need for water.  I soak my Tillandsias in a bowl of water periodically for a few minutes or run tap water over them. If your tillandsias look shrunken simply soak them longer. Some people use dechlorinated water but I never have.  Take your cue from your tillandsias as you would any other plants. When I think of it I use a very dilute fertilizer in the water. That’s it!  

Many people place tillandsias in glass jars by themselves as they are architecturally intriguing. It is easier to simply mist these once in a while since putting them directly in water may be inconvenient. I have also seen tillandsias tucked into a pot containing entirely different types of plants simply for adding interest.

Carol Ann Harlos is an Erie County Master Gardener.

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Compiled and edited by Michelle Sutton; photos courtesy Noreen Riordan except where noted

Noreen Riordan lives in Henrietta and serves a greater Rochester territory as an arborist representative for Bartlett Tree Experts. Her territory includes Greece, Henrietta, Irondequoit, Webster, and some of Penfield and Brighton. Noreen is an ISA-Certified Arborist and Certified Nursery and Landscape Professional who has extensive experience with, among other things, Emerald Ash Borer. Noreen’s love of plants is informed by being an artist and her art is informed by her love of plants; she has a BFA in art and photography from Syracuse University. Here’s Noreen in her own words. 

Noreen calls this “a treasured place: Rocky Mountain, Inlet, NY. I’ve been climbing this mountain with family and friends for 50 years.” Photo by Deb Putman

When I got my first house, I really went bananas for gardening and haven’t looked back. I find gardening so gratifying in the way it allows me to bring in birds, bees, and other wildlife with the habitats I create. I’m grateful to my mom and grandmother for passing down the gardening gene! I’m especially into birds, and as I worked for nurseries and my own landscaping company for many years, I got more interested in trees and how miraculous and important they are. If you’re into birds, you’re likely to be into trees.  

I’m happy to say that both of my daughters, Molly and Emily, have gotten into birdwatching. We all have feeders, compare who visits them, and get jealous of each other’s birds. Eastern bluebirds are my favorite, but it’s my older daughter Molly who gets frequented by them. Meanwhile, I get all the chickadees, and my daughters are envious of that. It’s something fun to bond over. 

I had a home-based business retouching photos when my kids were little and did that while I raised them. When digital photography came into dominance, I made the career change to nursery and landscaping jobs. It was very exciting and a lot more physically and intellectually demanding than I thought—and so vast! Soils, light needs, native vs. exotic, spacing—there was a lot to learn. Around 2000, I achieved the Certified Nursery and Landscape Professional (CNLP) credential, my ISA Arborist Certification, and also became a NYSDEC Certified Pesticide Applicator.

Noreen has a BFA in Art and Photography from Syracuse University.

Beginning in 2009, I became intensely focused on Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) because it posed such a huge threat to our region’s many ash trees. I served on the Monroe County Emerald Ash Borer Task Force and did presentations to educate the public. Through my work, I did injections in ash trees; I became skillful in identifying which trees could be saved and prosper, and which ones weren’t worth treating—knowledge I use quite a lot to this day. It is gratifying to see ash trees that I injected thriving, beautiful, and providing all the ecosystem services they are capable of. 

That said, there are a lot of dead green ash (Fraxinus pensylvanica) trees near where I live now in Henrietta, which can be depressing. I worry a bit about the mature standing dead trees (snags) posing hazards to people. Woodpeckers do love the snags for nesting and food, but, over time, the EAB-decimated ash trees don’t stand up well. That said, where snags don’t pose a hazard to people or property, such as in homeowner woodlots, I think it’s cool when people keep them for bird habitat. 

It’s gratifying to realize at this point in my life that I know a lot about a lot of things and at the same time, I’m still learning. Through my job as Arborist Representative with Bartlett, I’m immersed in Plant Health Care (PHC) (see sidebar). If a client calls because they are having a disease or insect pest on a treasured plant, I have my knowledge base to look at everything and offer suggestions. But I also have Bartlett’s Diagnostic Lab at my disposal, which has been phenomenal in putting PHC into practice.  

What is Plant Health Care? 
From the International Society of Arboriculture: 
The objective of PHC is to maintain or improve the landscape’s appearance, vitality, and—in the case of trees—safety, using the most cost-effective and environmentally sensitive practices and treatments available. Plant Health Care involves routine monitoring, preventive treatment, and a strong working relationship between the arborist and the property owner.

Through PHC, I’m learning about the new diseases and insect pests and what treatments are available. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a critical component of PHC; IPM is all about proper timing for treatment. From experience with ash trees, I know that if an ash tree looks a certain way, I can tell it’s not going to respond to treatment so I’m honest with homeowners about that. But with other plants, I will frequently take a soil and foliage sample to send to Bartlett’s diagnostic lab at its Tree Research Laboratories in Charlotte, North Carolina to get highly detailed information about what nutrients and pathogens are in the soil and in the leaf sample. 

Why a leaf sample? The analysis of the foliage sample shows what soil components the tree is actually taking up through its vascular system. Sometimes a nutrient is present in the soil but is not available for uptake because of limiting chemical interactions. An example of this is manganese-deficiency chlorosis on red maples, which makes the leaves look yellowed. It may be that there’s not enough manganese in the soil, which means the addition of a manganese chelate is warranted, or there may be sufficient manganese in the soil, but the Bartlett lab may recommend we add sulfur to chemically free up the manganese to make it available for uptake. 

I’ve been flooding Bartlett’s diagnostic lab with samples! Reading those diagnostic lab reports is a great education and of course, I pass the reports along to my clients, along with my recommendations. Among many things, I’ve learned that lacebug in Japanese andromeda (Pieris japonica) shrubs is almost a given, but that it can be treated. I’ve learned about how vulnerable boxwoods in our region are to spider mites, leaf miners, and psyllids—so much so that several different appropriately-timed treatments are necessary if the plants are to thrive. I can help the homeowner decide if that’s the course they’d like to pursue.  

In 2020, our region wrestled with a huge infestation of gypsy moth (see photos), with Irondequoit as the epicenter and oak trees most affected. Injections for gypsy moth kill all caterpillars, not just the gypsy moth larvae. The bird-loving part of me thinks about how chickadees are so closely connected to oak trees, which have 249 types of caterpillars that feed this bird species, and how a chickadee needs 6000 caterpillars just to feed their first clutch of babies. I think about how valuable that caterpillar food source is. 

However, if the trees are decimated by gypsy moth year after year and the trees die, they’re not much good to the chickadees for nesting, cover, and other food sources, and they no longer provide shade and beauty for humans. Whole forest regions can be cleared by gypsy moths, which doesn’t serve anyone. So it’s a complicated line to walk. Also, I’m sympathetic to homeowners who have oak trees above their decks and are experiencing the unpleasantness of gypsy moth frass (excrement) falling on their patio and outdoor dining furniture. 

My experience with EAB comes to bear with the trees infested with gypsy moth. For instance, I had a client in Irondequoit who had 30 oak trees at risk, but she couldn’t afford to treat them all. I helped her prioritize which ones to keep based on those that had the best possibility of recovery and a long healthy life. I enjoy this work greatly, and I love getting to know the clients and getting to visit their unique properties. I’ve met so many nice people, many of whom are also into birds and are concerned about trees. The social aspect of my job is terrific. 


The most important accomplishment of my life is helping raise two intelligent, independent, empathetic women. My daughters are best friends. One is a school psychologist and the other is an immigration attorney. Both believe passionately in equality and civil rights. We attended several marches and protests together pre-COVID, and they continue to do so in their respective cities.
—Noreen Riordan


Noreen at Charlotte Pier on Lake Ontario last winter. Photo by Deb Putman
Cedar waxwings

On my property I’m enjoying taking out invasive plants like buckthorn and plants like privet that provide meager ecosystem benefits, and I’m replacing them with native plants that provide maximum services to wildlife. I put a rain garden in front of the house where there’s a swale—that’s doing really well. My yard is fenced in, high enough to deter the deer most of the time. I’ve left a snag tree up where it’s not a hazard, and that’s been home to tons of woodpeckers. I’m growing vegetables all over the place. 

My favorite movie is Moana, because it’s about a strong female character who is concerned for the environment and for her people. I find very poignant the lyric, “See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me.” I love the ocean, the beach, the Adirondacks. We are stewards of this beautiful planet and we need to do all we can to help the earth and one another, whether that be eating less meat, getting solar panels, reducing waste, being kind, or wearing a mask!  


Noreen Recommends 
By Doug Tallamy: Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants and Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard 

By Sy Montgomery: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration in the Wonder of Consciousness

By Richard Powers: The Overstory


Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, editor, and writer.

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