Volunteer Spotlight: Marcia Johnson

Teacher and 4-H Volunteer Brings Gardening, Nutrition and Fitness to Students in the Classroom and Beyond

By Kim Markesich

Originally published by Naturally@UConn on January 26, 2016


students in garden
Nathan Hale students care for a garden bed.

Twenty-eight years as an elementary school teacher has not dampened the enthusiasm of 4-H volunteer Marcia Johnson. She’s upbeat, energetic and clearly excited about teaching. Five years ago, Johnson created a school gardening program for her students at John Barry Elementary School in Meriden. When Johnson took a position at Meriden’s Nathan Hale School, she created the 4-H Environmental Education and Garden Club. She says, “I love the 4-H curriculum, and the kids really enjoy it.” In 2013, Johnson brought the Junior Master Gardener curriculum to her program, and a year later, she decided to complete the 4-H volunteer training so she might bring 4-H to students in her after-school and summer clubs. This year, thirty students joined the club from grades three, four and five. High school students volunteer to assist with the program.

“I am by no means a gardening expert,”  says Johnson. “I am learning along with the kids. For two years before we planted our first seed, I collected information on gardening curriculum at every grade level. I’m always searching online for gardening ideas. I would love to take the Master Gardener Program at UConn.” The students planted eight raised beds filled with strawberries, eggplant, zucchini and yellow squash, basil and green beans, in addition to a few annual flowers chosen to attract pollinators. Johnson added a hydroponic tower to house a lettuce crop. She uses the harvested produce to teach the children healthy cooking and food preparation. Students are able to take produce home as well.

Umekia Taylor, associate extension educator with UConn Extension, was so impressed with Johnson’s program, she awarded the school a 4-H CT FANsIM mini grant that provided raised bed kits, curriculum materials and tools, as well as programming assistance. Over the summer, two 4-H CT FANsIM staff spent two days a week with Johnson’s students, providing fun activities that focused on gardening, nutrition and fitness. Cheyanne Stone, a former teen mentor and student at Green Mountain College in Vermont, worked as a 4-H leader and CT Fans IM public service specialist. Shawn Mogensen is a 4-H CT FANsIM graduate assistant from the College’s Department of Nutritional Sciences. “I can’t get over how fascinated the kids are to see things grow from a seed,” Johnson says. “We live in such a technological society where kids go to a restaurant and food suddenly appears. We rarely take the time anymore to teach children about nature.”

Marcia and group
Left to right: Donald Downes vice-chairman, Eastern States CT Corporators; Marcia Johnson; Jo-Ann Hall, parent of a former Nathan Hale student; Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO, Eastern States Corp.

Johnson is continually looking for new club activities to provide experiential learning for her students. She brought in chicken eggs to incubate in the classroom. After the eggs hatched, Johnson taught the students about caring for the chickens, and it was decided that the thirteen chickens would be given to local farmers with the knowledge and resources to raise them.

Kathy Olsen, a retired teacher from Meriden, now known as the Bee Lady, visited the students and spoke about bees and set up a honey tasting. Students were given bread sticks to dip in various types of honey. Johnson likes to involve parents in the club as well and brought Olsen in for a parent seminar.

In addition to Olsen, Connecticut registered beekeeper Robert Gavel, of Meriden, visited the club with an observation hive. “He teaches them everything from A to Z about keeping bees and the importance of bees,” she says.

Johnson never tires of working with her students. “It’s the best part of my day. The kids just love it and they never want to go home.”

Johnson received the 2013 and 2014 Connecticut AgriScience Award sponsored by the Connecticut Corporators to the Eastern States Exposition (The Big E).

She is also the recipient of the American Farm Bureau’s White Reinhardt Award and received a grant from the Connecticut Agricultural Education Foundation.

Teen Mentors Attend National 4-H Congress

4-H Congress group
Photo caption:  Top Row: Kirsten Krause, Alea Pettengill, Susan Dearborn and Paul Rouleau. Bottom Row: Victoria Footit, Jessica Roberts, Ciara Broggy, Yanis Aracena

CT 4-H FANs IM Teen Mentors, and Danbury High School seniors, Ciara Broggy and Yanis Aracena, were selected to participate in the National 4-H Congress held in Atlanta, Georgia, November 27th through December 1, 2015. Both attendees were required to submit an application and attend an interview. While at the National 4-H Congress, they enjoyed many activities including lectures, a dinner dance, interactive workshops, a tour of the Atlanta History Center and Atlanta Aquarium, as well as collaborative projects with other 4-H participants that included community outreach.

Both students found the event to be life changing. “My experience at National 4-H Congress has allowed me to gain a better understanding of cultural diversity,” Ciara says. “Throughout the week I had the chance to meet and talk with other 4-Hers from throughout the United States, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. I discovered that my focus on fitness, nutrition and gardening is very different from that of other 4-H participants. For example, I met 4-Hers who, participate in singing competitions, cattle showings and gymnastics. Despite these differences, we all still share a central bond within our 4-H community.”

Ciara and Yanis joined CT FANs IM as Teen Mentors at Shelter Rock Elementary School. They work with younger students in activities centered on fitness, nutrition and gardening.

“This opportunity has not only been a learning experience for the youth, but also myself,” Ciara says. “I have developed a deeper understanding about what it means to live a healthy lifestyle. The three branches of my 4-H program have become a part of my every day life. I strive to live a healthier lifestyle both physically and nutritionally. In addition, my leadership and speaking skills have increased dramatically through working with the youth. This has been a truly gratifying experience and has contributed largely to my self-confidence. I look forward to expanding my involvement in 4-H.”

Yanis agrees that her experience as a Teen Mentor has been an extremely valuable experience. “Working with CT FANs IM has helped me develop skills I did not have or was not confident in,” she says. “I feel much more confident with being able to speak in front of an audience, I have learned to enjoy working in a group, rather than by myself, and lastly I have gained valuable leadership skills. I hope to continue my involvement in 4-H.”

The students both plan to attend college. Ciara hopes to be accepted into UConn’s nursing program for the fall 2016 semester, while Yanis has not yet chosen a major, and is considering several colleges.

10 Tips for the January Gardener

house sparrow


  1. 2015 was a banner year for gypsy moth caterpillars in Connecticut. Check for tan gypsy moth egg masses on tree trunks and branches, scrape or brush off and destroy.
  2. When you are finished with holiday evergreen boughs, use them to mulch tender perennials and shrubs.
  3. Inspect stored bulbs, tubers and corms for rot or infestation. Discard those showing signs of decay or insect damage.
  4. Review garden catalogs for new vegetable varieties to try. Consider varieties with improved insect and/or disease resistance and drought-tolerant types.
  5. Winter is a good time to sign up for gardening classes or seminars offered by many garden centers, town recreation offices, or the UConn Master Gardener Program.
  6. Feed the birds regularly and see that they have water. Birds like suet, fruit, nuts and breadcrumbs as well as birdseed.
  7. Protect your young fruit trees from hungry mice that can chew the bark off at the soil line. Keep mulch several inches from trunks to keep the mice from hiding under it or consider putting wire-screen mouse guards around the trunks of the trees.
  8. When using salt to melt ice on walks and driveways, spread it carefully to avoid damage to nearby shrubs. Consider using sand or sawdust instead.
  9. Houseplants also will benefit from fertilizer applications once or twice this winter.
  10. Seasonal decorations of poinsettia or cyclamen will continue to bloom with proper care. Keep the soil moist but remove foil wrapping to allow the water to drain out. Place your plant in a cool (60 to 65 degrees F) location that gets plenty of light.

For more information, please visit the UConn Home & Garden Education Center or call 1-877-486-6271.


Year of the Pulse…As in Legume Seeds

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD

Senior Extension Educator, Food Safety

The 68th UN General Assembly declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses (IYP). The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations will conduct a variety of activities in support of this focus on a food product that is nutritious and sustainable. According to information on the web site,, the objectives of IYP are to:

  • Raise awareness about the important role of pulses in sustainable food production and healthy diets and their contribution to food security and nutrition;
  • Promote the value and utilization of pulses throughout the food system, their benefits for soil fertility and climate change and for combating malnutrition;
  • Encourage connections throughout the food chain to further global production of pulses, foster enhanced research, better utilize crop rotations and address the challenges in the trade of pulses.

So what exactly are pulses?

lentil seeds
Red, yellow and green lentils. Photo: Wikimedia

Pulses are the edible seeds of legumes. Legumes are members of the botanical family Papilionaceae within the family of Fabaceae (or Leguminosae), the third largest family in the plant kingdom. You are probably most familiar with dry peas and beans, lentils, chickpeas, soybeans and fava beans. Peanuts are also legumes. Generally, “pulses” refer to the dry seeds or grains produced by the legume plants: they do not include peas or beans eaten green or soybeans used for oil production.

Cuisines from all over the world rely on pulses as a source of high protein nutrition. In Kenya a family may sit down to a traditional meal of Githeri or Mutheri, a boiled mixture of maize and beans; in India, it may be Dal, a soup like dish made from lentils or a chickpea curry also known as chole or chana masala; baked fava beans from Greece or falafel or hummus from any number of middle eastern countries, made traditionally from chickpeas are all examples of how these legumes are a critical part of the world’s food basket.

In addition to being rich in protein, these foods are low in fat and are a great source of soluble fiber. Soluble fiber is one of two types of dietary fiber-the other is the insoluble form that is found in wheat bran, vegetables and whole grains. Soluble fiber attracts water and forms a gel. It slows digestion and has been associated with reducing the risk for heart disease, lowering blood cholesterol and helping to control blood sugar. According to the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, legumes contain “three times as much iron as meat, two times as much magnesium as rice, and four to five times as much potassium as meat.”

And, diets rich in these plant proteins are also contributing to a more sustainable food system. Cultivation of pulses is less dependent on fertilizers and fossil fuels because the plants are able to “fix” or get nitrogen from the atmosphere. This helps with soil fertility and long-term productivity of farmland. They are also drought tolerant.

Grow your own

So, why not try growing lentils, chick peas, fava beans or soybeans in your home garden? They can be relatively easy to grow. The difficult part may be finding seeds. Several online blogs and forums have participants who have had success with purchasing dry lentils and chickpeas in the grocery store and planting them. Some seed companies have “sprouting seeds” that you could try. And others do have seeds for growing soybeans, lentils and dry beans. Search through the seed catalogs or online.

Most legume crops like cooler growing areas and are somewhat drought tolerant. They do not like a rainy growing season. Lentils are more tolerant of frost than other legumes so may be planted earlier. If you grow these crops for several seasons, practice crop rotation to minimize disease. There are several Extension publications that you may refer to online. Try searching for “Growing Dry Beans: A Vermont Tradition” by Winston Way or “Growing Lentils in Montana” by Cash, Lockerman, Bowman and Welty.

The growing season is over and harvest begins when pods are dry and begin to crack open. Try to harvest after a dry period. If rain interferes, pull up the plants and hang until dry. Remove the seeds/beans from the pods and allow to dry at room temperature for a few weeks before storage. Sort through the beans and remove any that look shriveled or moldy. If you are concerned about the presence of any bugs, you may freeze your dry beans in an airtight freezer container. Otherwise, store in an airtight container (glass canning jars are good) in a cool, dark location.

But, remember, that if you would rather devote your garden space to fresh vegetables, herbs or berries, pulses are readily available at very low cost in any grocery store. Some of the more exotic options such as red lentils or fava beans may be found in stores that specialize in international cuisines. But why not try growing them just once?

For more information on growing, storing and cooking with pulses, contact the UConn Home and Garden Education Center at or 1-877-486-6271.

Warm December Weather May Spell Trouble for Plants

By Dawn Pettinelli, UConn Home & Garden Education Center


Photo: Dawn Pettinelli

Usually this time of year the UConn Home & Garden Education Center is flooded with calls about the care of holiday plants. Not so this year. Instead many of the calls have been about the unusual plant behavior Connecticut residents are noticing in their gardens and landscapes. Why are my PJM rhododendrons blooming? What will happen to my bulbs that I planted in September as the foliage is starting to emerge from the ground? Should I be worried that my Johnny Jump-ups as well as the dandelions in my lawn are blooming? How about those magnolia buds – they are getting pumper so will this warm spell affect their usual spring bloom? My garlic bulbs are beginning to grow so should I do something?

The bottom line is, of course, Mother Nature rules. There is not a whole lot we can do about the vagrancies of the weather. We had an unusually mild December with Christmas Eve feeling more like an early autumn day than a winter one with temperatures in the northeast somewhere between 15 to 30 degrees F above normal. In many places the December temperature records were broken. What does this mean for our plants?

Despite the fact that dandelions, Johnny-Jump-ups and sweet alyssum are still blooming in lawns and gardens, there is no need worry about them. Many residents would be pleased if dandelions were thwarted by winter cold but do consider the pollinators that depend on them and go on to fertilize our food plants. Fluctuating temperatures will not harm dandelions, chickweed or other perennial weeds. Unfortunately they will just use the mild days to continue to grow. Cold hardy annuals like sweet alyssum, calendula and snapdragons may get killed over the winter or sometimes hang on especially if a nice snow cover materializes.

The foliage of spring flowering bulbs, like daffodils, is beginning to emerge from the ground especially in more sheltered areas. Since the energy needed for flowering this spring is stored in the bulb rather than dependent on the foliage, any damage to the early emerging leaf tips will not affect this year’s blooms. Those with live Christmas trees may want to lay the branches over bulb or perennial beds to serve as a winter mulch.

On my way to Boston a couple of weeks ago, I noticed cherry trees blooming. On the UConn Storrs campus a few of the rhododendrons are sporadically blooming. What I haven’t noticed is our native trees and shrubs breaking dormancy. These have evolved over thousands of years with our regional climate variations according to Dr. Carol Auer, UConn plant physiologist. So likely they are less prone to responding to unseasonable warm weather as opposed to non-native ornamentals that have not had this adaptive opportunity.

UConn Associate Plant Science & LA professor Dr. Jessica Lubell reminds us that “Plants go into dormancy in the fall and break dormancy following exposure to temperatures of 32 to 45. Different species have different requirements for hours if chilling. Those requiring less chilling hours may begin partial bud break in warm periods like this. Generally plants such as these may receive slight damage to some shoots, but will likely be fine.”

Dormancy in woody plants is first triggered each fall by the declining hours of daylight. Deciduous plants will shed their leaves. Just as important are chemical changes in the cells in wood and bark. These occur in response to a decrease in temperatures. Cells lose some of their water to improve their freeze resistance. Then the fats and proteins in the plant change into forms that can survive the freezing winter temperatures. The plant in a sense makes its own internal antifreeze.

In order to achieve maximum cold hardiness the woody plants need to be exposed to a gradual consistent drop in temperatures ending with several days of cold, subfreezing temperatures and in most of the state, this has not yet happened.

On top of that, temperatures above 60 degrees F may have a negative effect on a plant’s chilling requirements. So the $64,000 question as far as the survival of our woody plants over the winter will be what does the forthcoming weather hold in store for them? A rapid, steep drop in temperatures may spell trouble for some. We’ll just have to wait until spring to find out.

If you have questions about the strange behavior of your plants this winter or queries on any other home and garden topic, contact the UConn Home & Garden Education at (877) 486-6271 or, or your local UConn Extension Center.

10 Tips for the December Gardener

Amaryllis Bulbs
Amaryllis Bulbs. Photo: LSU Ag Research Center
  1. Check for spider mites on houseplants by misting plants. If mites are present you will see water droplets clinging to the mite’s webbing. Control them by misting daily to keep humidity high after giving them a thorough drenching in the sink.
  2. Store your opened bags of fertilizer in a sealed plastic bag or plastic waterproof container with a snugly fitting lid in a dry location to avoid caking.
  3. Check fruits, vegetables, corms and tubers that you have in storage. Sort out any that show signs of disease and dispose of them.
  4. Tap evergreen branches gently to remove snow and prevent the branches from breaking. If ice forms on tree and shrub branches, don’t try to break it off – you’ll risk breaking branches. It’s best to let the ice melt naturally.
  5. Amaryllis bulbs may be started now. If they are established bulbs in old pots, two inches of soil should be removed from the surface and replaced with new potting mix.
  6. If you have a real Christmas tree, recycle it after the holidays are through. Cut off branches and use them as insulation over perennials. In spring, chip or shred branches to create mulch or add to the compost pile.
  7. Continue to harvest Brussels sprouts. They’ll typically keep even when buried in snow drifts.
  8. Don’t walk on frozen grass, especially if there is no snow cover. Without the protection of snow, grass blades are easily broken causing die-back in your lawn.
  9. Drain the fuel tanks of the lawn mower and any other gas-powered lawn tools. Check the belt and spark plugs, change the oil and sharpen the blades.
  10. Avoid using sodium salts or fertilizers to melt ice on driveways or walks. When possible use sand or kitty litter. This will help prevent salt damage to plant roots.


For more information contact the UConn Home & Garden Education Center at 877-486-6271 or

10 Tips for the November Gardener

Photo: Michigan State University
  1. Drain hoses and sprayers before cold weather sets in to prevent them from freezing and bursting.
  2. Wait to spread winter mulch until after the ground has frozen. Mulching beforehand can delay dormancy and makes a good home for voles.
  3. Do not store apples or pears with vegetables. The fruits give off ethylene gas which speeds up the breakdown of vegetables and will cause them to develop a strange taste.
  4. Clean the bird feeders and stock them with birdseed and suet.
  5. Use small stakes or markers where you’ve planted bulbs or late starting spring plants in the perennial garden, to avoid disturbing them when you begin spring soil preparation.
  6. Keep mowing your lawn as long as the grass is growing. Meadow voles and field mice may damage turf and nearby trees and shrubs if they have long grass for food and cover.
  7. Inspect your fruit trees. Remove any mummified remaining fruits, and rake up and dispose of old leaves.
  8. Protect roses from freezing temperatures by placing bark mulch around the base of rose bushes so that the first part of the stem (nearest the ground) is completely covered or mound with soil and protect with a purchased rose cone. Do this after the ground freezes.
  9. Clean and fill bird baths regularly and consider a heating unit to provide fresh water throughout the winter.
  10. Pull stakes and plant supports. Clean them with a 10% bleach solution before storing for the winter.

For more information please visit the UConn Home and Garden Education Center or call 877-486-6271.

10 Tips for the October Gardener

Iowa State mums
Photo: Iowa State Extension


  1. All houseplants need to be brought inside before the first frost. Connecticut had a frost over the weekend; if your houseplants aren’t inside, make a note on your calendar for next year.
  2. Pot up tulips, hyacinths and other pre-chilled bulbs and store in a cool, dark place until ready to force.
  3. Rosemary is not hardy in most areas of Connecticut. Bring plants in before temperatures drop too low but check plants thoroughly for mealybugs.
  4. Plant shallots and garlic outdoors.
  5. Beets, parsnips, and carrots can be covered with a thick layer of straw or leaves and left in the ground for harvest, as needed, during the winter
  6. Mulch perennial beds using a loose organic material such as bark chips or leaves to keep down weeds, preserve moisture and give roots a longer time to grow before the soil freezes.
  7. Avoid the spring rush and have your soil tested now by the UConn Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory.
  8. Add a touch of fall to your home and landscape with hardy mums, asters and fall pansies.
  9. If rain is lacking, continue to thoroughly water trees, shrubs, planting beds and lawn areas and recently planted evergreens. Plants should go into the winter well-watered.
  10. As tomatoes end their production cut down plants and pick up any debris and put in the trash or take to a landfill. Many diseases will over-winter on old infected leaves and stems so these are best removed from the property.


For more information, please contact the UConn Home & Garden Education Center at or 877-486-6271.

Squash Problems Gone Wild

Squash Problems Gone Wild, Or yes, Scouting in the Garden Matters

By Joan Allen

squashbugs2-jallen-768x1024This week’s blog photo is from my vegetable garden. I give lectures on the fundamentals of integrated pest management (IPM) and one of the first practices on the list is to scout or monitor your garden or field frequently to catch problems early, when you have a much better chance of keeping damage to a minimum.

Well, I am well aware of this recommendation, but failed to do it in my own backyard. So what happened? My zucchini has succumbed to hordes of squash bugs and both that and the cucumbers have been hit hard by powdery mildew.

Let’s start with how to check for these two major cucurbit problems, even though it’s too late this year in many gardens. In the case of squash bugs, look for the reddish groups of eggs on the undersides of the leaves. If found, squash them. You’d think this would be easy, although a bit disgusting, but they’re pretty tough. Squeeze hard. This can be done with nymphs and adults (shown in photo) too, or they can be drowned in soapy water. In the photo, there’s an adult in the upper left area of the group with a nymph on its back. Adults will have mature wings.

There are also some insecticidal products that are labeled for squash bug but they vary in effectiveness. Get the nymphs with insecticidal soaps. Avoid using any insecticidal products when bees/pollinators are active. The little yellow flecks on the leaves in the photo are caused by squash bug feeding. They pierce the plant cells and suck out the contents through straw-like mouth parts. You can see how all of these steps would be easier if you took the time to check early on, before the problem became all too obvious. Favored host plants are squash and pumpkins but other cucurbits may also be attacked. There is one generation per year and the adults overwinter in sheltered places.

Powdery mildew is a very common and damaging disease of cucurbit crops. As powdery mildew progresses, covering both upper and lower leaf surfaces with a white powdery growth, photosynthesis is reduced, impairing growth and reducing yield. Plants typically become infected around the time fruit begins to form and mostly on the older leaves.  The powdery mildew that affects cucurbits is not the same fungus that causes powdery mildew on other, unrelated, plants. Disease is favored by warm temperatures and high humidity. Promote good airflow around plants to reduce humidity using ample plant spacing or vertical supports for vines. Spores are wind-borne and can travel long distances so crop rotation is not effective in this case.

Good scouting for those first small white spots will alert you that it’s time to apply preventive fungicides. There are a variety of active ingredient options here including organic options such as biological fungicides (Bacillus subtilus QST 713), potassium bicarbonate, copper, or wettable sulfur. Conventional fungicides include chlorothalonil and others. These are preventive and must be used to protect plants, not as a curative solution. An alternative and effective solution is to look for powdery mildew resistant varieties for your garden.

Late Blight Now in CT

Article and update by Joan Allen for UConn Extension.

Late_Blight by JATomato and potato growers and gardeners: Protect your crops NOW from late blight infection. The disease has been reported in Litchfield County, Connecticut on July 18, 2015. With moist weather conditions the pathogen, Phytophthora infestans, will sporulate prolifically and spread rapidly on wind currents. Fungicide products can be applied preventively to protect plants. Active ingredients to look for include chlorothalonil, maneb, mancozeb, and copper formulations. Organic growers can use copper formulations. Symptoms of late blight include large brown leaf lesions, dark brown stem lesions, and brown, bumpy and firm lesions on fruits. During humid or wet weather, white sporulation will be visible within the lesions. Infected plant parts or plants should be removed and disposed of. Bag and place in the trash or bury about a foot deep. More information and photos are available in the fact sheet at this website.