Community News

Balmy Breezes, Freezing Temps: What’s a Plant to Do?

It’s a confusing world out there these days. Even plants, arguably the most rooted of the Earth’s denizens, can be baffled by our changing environment, with balmy temperatures teasing them into emerging too soon, only to be hit by freezing blasts that frost their tender shoots. But the USDA, which just updated its Plant Hardiness Zone Map for the first time since 2012, thinks it has some answers.

The horticultural season is already underway—if you count the flood of catalogs clogging mailboxes, enticing the gardeners who peruse them in eager anticipation. But what plants will fit into our changing environment? Which of the delightful confections brightening the catalog pages will thrive in our yards?

The new Plant Hardiness Zone Map shows Northwest Connecticut now falls in Zone 6, where average winter lows can be expected to be between five and 10 degrees below zero. This is considerably warmer than its previous designation as 5, where lows of 20 degrees below zero were possible.

For gardeners, this shift might seem modest, but it carries considerable implications, especially in how it relates to the year’s first frost. Knowing when to expect that first frost—which often freezes and kills plants—is vital for deciding when to bring vulnerable plants indoors or when to prepare the garden for the changing season. 

But a word of caution is in order. Nash Pradhan of Ginger Creek Nursery, a horticulturalist with more than 40 years of experience in Norfolk’s chilly climes, says he advises against “pushing the envelope” when using the new hardiness map to choose perennials. 

“Norfolk is different because of all its microclimates,” he cautioned. “I’m not going to change anything. I will plant the same perennials, the same trees.”

The key to successfully raising plants is selecting the right plant for the right location and planting it correctly, he continued. “It depends on your location. What kind of exposure do you have? Are you in a valley? Are you near water?”

He now exclusively plants native plants, which have a high survival rate because they have adapted and thrived under local conditions for millennia. “I will not plant invasives or potentially invasive plants,” he said. “Burning bush has beautiful fall foliage, but it is so invasive that I removed mine 20 years ago and I still find seedlings in the woods.”

He admits that there is uncertainty about what the warming temperatures will mean in future years. “There are some rare plants that grow here. Will they disappear? We don’t know,” he said. 

The rising temperatures have lengthened his season. “Things have certainly changed,” he observed. “There is almost no frost in the ground this year. I was still planting until the first week in January, when my season usually ends in late October or early November.”

But while the winter has delivered unusually warm weather, plants can still be affected by the variable temperatures. That late February day when he offered his insights to this reporter temperatures hovered around the 5-degree mark. And the lack of snow in recent years is also problematic as snow insulates plant roots, allowing them to withstand lower temperatures.

He suggested that gardeners who want guidance about what plants would do well in their landscapes consult with the Berkshire Botanical Gardens  in Stockbridge, Mass., which offers a number of informative classes, or contact the UConn Home & Garden Education Center.

Newsletter Editor

Bears Emerging Early During Warm Winter

Norfolk is known as the Icebox of Connecticut, but this winter has felt more like March. March is when bears begin to emerge from their winter dens, but this year the shaggy bruins have been rushing the season, making their presence known in early February.

One South Norfolk resident recently found footprints in the snow that pointed to a bear as the culprit behind her ruined bird feeder. 

But is this normal? Has the warm winter thrown off their sleep cycle, and can they thrive if they emerge before there is adequate food?

Don’t worry, says Melissa Ruszczyk, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “When they go into torpor, their bodies just slow down, their metabolism and breathing slow, and their body temperature drops. They are fully capable of living off their fat reserves for four to six months.”  

Prior to going into torpor, bears enter hyperphagia, increasing feeding activity to fatten up. “They can require up to 20,000 calories a day,” said Ruszczyk. Those calories are supplied by foods such as acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts and black walnuts. “They eat the heavy fats and pack on a lot of weight,” she said. 

Fat and happy, they look around for a den, which may be a recess in rocks, a slash pile or a nest created at the base of a tree. They may even choose to den under a deck or shed if there is a ready supply of food nearby.   

Ruszczyk said their bodies become highly efficient factories producing their own nutrients. 

“True hibernators wake up every couple of days for water and have different things they collect and keep in their dens. But a bear can lie there and live off its fat. It doesn’t defecate or urinate—they recycle waste as proteins. There’s almost no muscle atrophy and they can get up at the snap of twig and run if they need to,” she explained.

Getting up for a snack does not mean they will want to stay up. Such behavior may be more common where there is the hope of human-related food, she reported, but in more rural areas a couple of 50- or 60-degree days may not cause them to stir.

Females are more likely to remain in their dens because their babies are born in January, and they will not leave them. “They probably won’t come out until late March or early April because the cubs can’t keep up with mom. She might move them a couple of yards because she’s hungry, but she won’t leave them until they can climb a tree.” 

So, does a bear who has put in a restless winter feel grumpy in the spring? Ruszczyk said that bears have acclimated to human society and are unlikely to launch an unprovoked attack. “Bears view people differently than dogs,” she said. “Dogs are a concern. We have reports of people saying their dog treed a bear and they think it’s funny. It’s not. You were lucky your dog wasn’t hurt or killed. Dogs are protectors and they will rush a bear.”

Bears living near neighborhoods do not generally fear humans. ““That’s not to say they couldn’t attack a human, but they are becoming habituated,” said Ruszczyk. “They have a good sense of hearing and smell and, generally, they are fully capable of getting away. They usually don’t have a reason to fear us.”

Habituation is “not good for our bears or good for the public,” she said, adding that people should be alert for warning signs that a bear is becoming annoyed. “She might sit at the base of a tree and make huffing noises and slap the ground,” Ruszczyk said. “I would think anyone would know that is a warning.”

Ruszczyk is not an advocate of feeding wildlife at any time. The vast majority of bear conflicts result from improperly stored trash or bird feeders. To help restrain bird feeding, there is a statewide ban on intentionally feeding dangerous wildlife and nine Connecticut towns have ordinances forbidding behavior that attracts bears.

The Connecticut bear population is heaviest in western Connecticut, but 165 out of 169 towns reported sightings in 2023. At present, there is plenty of natural forage for bears in western Connecticut but, because the population is larger here, there are more frequent and closer conflicts between humans and bears—including 35 home entries in 2023.

“There are monetary issues with home entries,” Ruszczyk said. “Often there is food loss and the cost of cleaning up. I would say we have biological carrying capacity in Litchfield County, but we have reached our cultural carrying capacity and we could sustain a hunt. Hunting is a piece of the puzzle, but it isn’t the whole thing. It’s about managing people, too.”

Hunting has been weighed by the state legislature, but to date, the only provision is for the removal of nuisance bears. DEEP launched Be Bear Aware last year, a campaign using billboards and digital media messages to reduce conflicts by addressing food habituation. As bears begin to emerge from hibernation, the Be Bear Aware will ramp up again.

—Newsletter Editor

Solar Array To Be Built This Year

CTEC Solar, a Bloomfield-based company, is preparing to install infrastructure for a 13-acre solar array at the Norfolk Transfer Station.

“They have already done the survey and cleared the trees,” said First Selectman Matt Riiska. “Now they are clearing away the stumps and getting ready to build the array.” He predicted installation will begin in late spring or early summer.

New Jersey Resources, that state’s equivalent of Eversource, has leased the land from the town and will pay the community $40,000 a year. The proposal was passed at a town meeting two years ago.

Riiska said that residents’ experience of using the landfill will not change. “When they drive in the entrance it will look the same,” he said. “There is still a buffer along the road and in summer you won’t see the panels.” 

The solar array will encircle the transfer station, but Riiska said there is no danger of the town not having enough land for its own purposes. “We don’t need more room,” he said. “We have cleared an area for people to put brush and debris and we have an area for compost. We have plenty of land. We will just get $40,000 a year for land we can’t use.”

He said New Jersey Resources is responsible for all costs and permitting and will have to maintain the trees around the site to prevent any of them falling on the equipment. 

Newsletter Editor

Farmers Market Committee Focuses on Garden

The Farmers Market Committee recently discussed the future role of the market in the community and decided to focus on the community garden behind Botelle School as its primary mission, offering children an educational opportunity for growing and learning about food.

The committee took over stewardship of the gardens last May. 

Members said they would confer with school officials to determine how they can collaborate with Botelle School and Chairman Lisa Auclair is to confer with the agriculture department at Northwestern Regional School #7 to discuss working with its students again this year.

“At our meeting, we ran through many different ideas for how we can integrate the ag department students as well as the kids that attend Botelle in growing, harvesting and selling or producing food items for sale this year,” said Auclair. “We are still very much in the development stages, but very excited about the prospects.”

Last year she set up four work parties with the ag students to prepare the community garden for planting. Two to four students joined Auclair each time, as did committee members and some neighbors, to help weed, clean out the shed, move mulch for the space between the beds, repair the beds and to replenish them with fresh soil and plantings.

Auclair said that last year the committee bought a quantity of plants from the Region 7 agriculture program, which has a large greenhouse and sells plants in the spring for reasonable rates. The Farmers Market Committee also sold some of agriculture department’s plants and flowers at the weekly farmers markets.

Each agriculture student must put in four hours of community service per quarter for credit in the FFA. A couple of the girls also volunteered during the Farmers market Kids Day event last summer, handing out popcorn, running games and assisting in selling produce grown in the garden.

Instead of weekly markets on the Town Hall grounds this summer, three pop-up markets are planned: the first at Botelle School on February 24 during Winter Weekend in Norfolk, a second in early August, during the summer version of WIN, and one at Christmas during the December Holiday Market. Locations and exact dates for the latter two have not been determined.

Twenty vendors have rented spaces for the February 24th market and the PTO will cater food. Music will be provided by Andy Styles.

The future of the Farmers Market was thrown into question last fall when, after 17 years at the helm, committee chairman Lisa Auclair announced her desire to step down. Market manager Angie Bollard also announced her retirement. In December, however, local resident Chelsea Ryll stepped forward and offered to manage the pop-ups. In turn, Auclair agreed to serve another year as chairman and Bollard joined the committee.

Newsletter Editor

City Meadow Is a Haven for Winter Birds

Of the 60 bird species listed in Norfolk’s Natural Resource Inventory as having been observed here during the winter months, 10 were seen in City Meadow during the 2023 Great Backyard Bird Count.

The count is part of a global effort to watch and count birds using local volunteers. The findings are then sent to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird citizen science database. 

“Of course, there are more birds to be seen in spring and summer,” said Shelley Harms, co-president for the Norfolk Land Trust Board of Directors. “But I would think there are more birds using [City Meadow] now than in prior years, now that some of the invasive plants have been cleared out and nest boxes have been put in.”

With only one year’s observations in hand of winter bird populations, she said she does not have sufficient data to prove that. Still, last year’s bird count listed mourning doves, downy woodpeckers, a common raven, black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, European starlings, bluebirds, robins, dark-eyed juncos and song sparrows.

“People from all over the country do the backyard count over three days in February,” said Ayerslea Denny, a passionate bird watcher who leads many bird walks in the area. “Last year, we met at City Meadow, which is the town’s big back yard, but we haven’t done the Backyard Count at the meadow for more than three years [in a row] so we don’t know whether there really is a change. A couple of years ago there was an old Baltimore oriole nest made mostly of plastic. Orioles often return to the same area, but we haven’t found another nest.”

City Meadow “is a great spot” for people as well as birds, Denny said. “I’ve really been pleased with how it turned out. It gives people a place to walk. Yesterday I went down to look, and I thought, ‘Where are all the birds?’ Then I looked up and there was a red-tailed hawk, so that is why none of them were there.”

Denny and Laurie Foulke-Green, another long-time birder, will lead a group of volunteers through City Meadow Saturday, February 17, at 8:30 a.m. as part of this year’s count. Participants should bring their own binoculars and dress warmly, with good shoes for winter walking. After the count, they can enjoy hot beverages at the library.

The local effort is being sponsored by the Norfolk Library and the Green Team from the Church of Christ Congregational. The count will be held weather permitting. 

There is good reason for humans to keep tabs on the bird population. The Connecticut Audubon “State of the Birds” report for 2023, released in December, reports that there are 3 billion fewer birds in the United States than there were in 1970. Much of the avian devastation is caused by birds crashing into windows and by pet cats. 

Last year, Audubon and other environmental groups successfully lobbied for a law requiring non-essential lights in state buildings to be shut off after 11:00 p.m. during periods when birds are migrating. Billions of birds that migrate at night are confused by the lights and crash into windows and are killed. Connecticut, which is the fourth most densely populated state in the U.S., has 37 percent of its land in urban development and conservation groups are encouraging other building owners to join in the Lights Out campaign.

Happily, outside its cities and suburbs, the state is also among the most forested in the nation, ranking 14th for forest cover. About 83 percent of Norfolk’s land remains undeveloped, but only a relatively small portion of it is permanently protected, so habitat like City Meadow is important for protecting bird species. 

Indeed, Norfolk’s Natural Resource Inventory recommends the development and implementation of conservation plans for town-owned open spaces to provide protection of wildlife species. It also recommends sound conservation practices such as mowing hayfields later in the season to allow fledging birds to leave their nests, scheduling tree removal for when it will least affect wildlife and planting natural food sources for wildlife. 

The NRI also recommends protecting lands that provide, or potentially provide, wildlife habitat—including large blocks of mature forest, grasslands, wet meadows, vernal pools and other wetlands.

Newsletter Editor

Norfolk Land Trust Acquires Lovers Lane Parcel

Over the past 42 years, the Norfolk Land Trust (NLT) has gathered about 4,000 acres of land under its protective umbrella, preserving large tracts of natural resources for future generations, either through direct ownership or conservation easements. For nearly all of those 42 years, NLT has hoped to preserve 82 acres on Lovers Lane linking its Barbour Woods and Spring Hill preserves. 

This week the NLT will acquire that special parcel, home to headwaters for the Blackberry River, a critical habitat, and more than a dozen rare species, opposite its Barbour Woods preserve. Barbour Woods, a lovely 200-acre haven whose tranquil silence attracts bird watchers, hikers and dog walkers, was given to the NLT in 1998 by Alison Barbour Fox. 

Now, the preserve will be augmented by the new parcel across the road, described by NLT co-president Elizabeth Borden as a “beautiful piece of property, filled with old-growth forest, wonderful caves, a spring house and trails that people can enjoy.”

“We only acquire land that has conservation value,” she added.

Borden purchased the property when it went on the market and held it while the NLT arranged financing. “We try to acquire contiguous properties,” she said, “which is important for the wildlife part of conservation.”

Many wild creatures—avian, mammalian and amphibian—are declining in numbers because they require large, uninterrupted tracts of open space and forest. 

The NLT also maintains a series of trails throughout its holdings. “We are very proud of our trail system,” said Borden. “We have more than 22 miles of trails that we maintain on our own properties and on state land.” The trails, which are located throughout the town, and which provide a range of hiking experiences, are frequently used by residents and visitors alike. 

“People sometimes grumble because they think we are taking land off the tax rolls,” Borden said, “but the actual tax reduction is very low because most of it is already classified as forest land [under Connecticut Public Act 490] or is held by a 501(c) 3 and is tax exempt.”

According to the state’s website, Public Act 490 provides an assessment of land classified as either forest, farm, open space or maritime heritage that is only a fraction of the value of residential or commercial assessments, providing a financial incentive for landowners to maintain the land.  

When land is preserved by the land trust through conservation easements, it is protected in perpetuity, but continues to be the property of the landowner and remains on the tax rolls. The NLT assumes stewardship of the land, monitoring it at least once a year. 

“We are accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission and our third accreditation is coming up this year,” said Borden. “That is an important thing for land trusts.” 

Every accredited land trust completes a rigorous review process to demonstrate its fiscal accountability, strong organizational leadership, sound transactions and lasting stewardship of the lands it conserves. 

NLT funding for land acquisition and maintenance comes from donations, government grants, and grants from foundations.   

Borden said the NLT “reaches out to the community in all sorts of ways. We have a big presence on social media and are always seeking input.”

This weekend, it holds its annual meeting on Saturday, February 17, at 2:00 p.m. at the Norfolk Library. Members will vote on directors for the coming year. Even if you cannot vote, visitors are welcome to enjoy a talk by Carl Safina following the brief business meeting. Safina will speak on “Beyond Words – What Animals Think and Feel.” 

“It will be a very good family afternoon,” Borden said. “It’s a fun, positive organization.”

NLT has also participated in the annual Friday Nights on the Green events, has hosted hikes along its trails and hosted a program last fall for Botelle School children on Dennis Hill.

—Newsletter Editor

Karl Nilsen Named Zoning Enforcement Officer

When the Planning and Zoning Commission reconvenes its hearing on the proposed firehouse next Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in Town Hall, there will be a new Zoning Enforcement Officer helping to guide the commission in its deliberations.

Karl Nilsen has previously worked in New Hartford, Colebrook, Burlington and Canaan, and “is very knowledgeable,” according to First Selectman Matt Riiska. He follows in the footsteps of Michael Halloran, who retired from the position this week. 

Marinell Crippen, who has served as secretary for both the P&Z and the Inland Wetlands Agency, will become office manager, working in Town Hall for two or more afternoons a week, taking charge of clerical work and directing calls to Nilson. Dates the office will be open are still to be decided.

The changes in staffing were suggested by Halloran during the Selectmen’s January meeting, when he said he believed the town’s needs could be served by eight to 10 hours of office help each week, with a ZEO being present in town once or twice a week.

Riiska noted during the meeting that it is becoming harder and harder for small towns to fill positions such as land use administrators, assessors and building inspectors because they do not generate the same amount of business as larger communities. 

“Unfortunately, it’s a situation that will only get worse because there is not enough work to keep them employed full time and the state wants more and more certification,” he observed.

Aquarion Starts Relocating Pipes on Route 44

Aquarion Water Company has begun the first stage of work associated with replacement of the retaining wall along Route 44 west of Norfolk. The company is testing the soil quality under the pavement as it prepares to move water lines prior to the extensive work the DOT will do to restore the wall. 

Sewer lines and overhead wires will also have to be moved. 

A state spokeswoman said Thursday that relocation of infrastructure could result in one-lane traffic while the work is underway. 

Because of the relatively narrow passage along that section of road, with a steep hill on the north side and homes and businesses on the south, it is expected that subsequent phases of the project will be intensive and will take as many as five years to complete.

“Everyone is hoping for four years,” said First Selectman Matt Riiska, “but there is a lot of work to be done in that area. It’s going to be a very disruptive project.”

The state spokeswoman said that the mafia blocks that currently stabilize the bulging stone retaining wall behind them will be removed and the hillside will be trimmed back, slightly widening the road and making it safer. “But there is not a lot of room there,” she said, observing that there is a cemetery on top of the hill. 

She said no contracts have been let yet and that the contractor that is selected will control the construction schedule.

Further complicating life in that section of town is the stalled work on River Place Bridge, which has been under construction since March 2022. The project hit a snag when it was discovered that the north headwall was not stable. The bridge has been redesigned but Riiska was informed last fall that it would take another year to complete the work.

“I’ve talked to them and asked them when they will get started on that,” he said. “It’s been going on forever.”

On a much happier note, he reported that the reconstruction of Maple Avenue steamed ahead through the winter months, making up for the months-long delay caused by remediation of the gas spill. He said he hopes the installation of the new drainage system will be complete by the end of the month.

“We might have to hold back a bit before we put in the sidewalks, depending on how wet the spring is,” he said. “If it is a dry spring, they will jump right in and form the sidewalks. Then they will have to remove the asphalt on the road, get the roadbed stabilized and put down the binder paving before doing the curbing. We hope to have things buttoned up by the end of May or in early June.”

He added that a benefit of working during the winter has been reduced disruption of traffic during the slower winter months and less dust getting into people’s homes.

Riiska Talks Trash and Future of Waste Disposal

America is a land of plenty, and it produces plenty of waste.

What to do with the mountains of garbage generated by American households is a pressing issue for Connecticut municipalities, especially with the final dissolution of MIRA (the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority) scheduled to take place no later than July 1, 2026.

MIRA, which once had a trash-to-energy burn plant in Hartford, receives and processes solid municipal wastes from 23 Connecticut towns. When its aging burn plant closed in 2022, refuse was (and is) loaded on trucks and shipped over the state’s borders to landfills in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The matter weighs on member towns in the Northwest Hills Council of Governments, where a committee has been formed to formulate a plan. “We’re working on a plan for after the fact,” said First Selectman Matt Riiska, a member of the committee. “Part of it is becoming part of a regional authority that would cover many of the Northwest Corner towns.”

Riiska said Norfolk produces about 750 tons of solid waste annually, another 300 tons of bulky waste and 165 tons of recyclables. “When I became first selectman in 2017, we were paying $72 a ton for solid waste disposal,” he said. “Next year, we will have to plan on paying $131 per ton, so it has gone up considerably.”

He said it is hoped that a regional authority can continue to use the Torrington hub. “We’re looking at that as a way station for the stuff to be taken out of state,” he said. “There are no landfills in Connecticut. Why are we dumping our trash on Ohio and Pennsylvania? It’s just like driving down the road and throwing your garbage out of the window.”

He said the state “desperately needs” a trash-to-energy generation plant. “I was under the impression that they had a group looking into it,” he said, “but I found out last week that they are not.”

“This is not going away—at all” he continued. “Anyone who thinks we can recycle our way out of this is very naïve.”

He said Norfolk is proactive about recycling trash, offering residents the opportunity to sustainably discard textiles, electronics, tires, metal, paper and single-stream plastic, metal and glass containers. “We don’t do a bad job in Norfolk, but some of the larger cities and towns won’t have the same response,” he said.

Other countries, even some American states, have tried alternate methods to encourage recycling. “One way is pay-to-throw,” he explained. “You buy biodegradable trash bags from the town. It’s the only bag you can use, and you can only put so much in them. It makes people think before they throw something away.”

Another possibility is to have community containers for organic kitchen waste that would be then be picked up by commercial composting services. Such services are used at the Salisbury/Sharon transfer site and in Falls Village. “But we don’t have a lot of restaurants or private schools,” he observed, saying the volume of material would be less in Norfolk. 

“If we didn’t have such a bad bear issue, we could put a composting bin at the transfer station, but we would need a lot of DEEP permitting.”

EDC Seeks More Ideas About Development

The town Economic Development Commission is pushing forward with its effort to identify priorities for future development in the center of town.

In a letter distributed this week, Co-Chairs Elizabeth Borden and Michael Selleck invited residents to participate in the planning process. They noted that the EDC has a mandate from the town Plan of Conservation and Development to encourage economic development and to attract more young people to town. 

“Achieving these goals will require far more than any commission or committee can accomplish,” they wrote. “It will take all of us to support new and existing businesses in town and to welcome young…and make sure they have what they need to thrive.”

The EDC met with townspeople and business owners last month to discuss the issue and review a list of suggestions submitted earlier. A working meeting will be held February 29 at the Norfolk Hub to strategize about how best to accomplish the defined goals.

In the meantime, the EDC is asking residents to make additional suggestions by describing what they want to see in Norfolk. Ideas should be submitted by February 15 by clicking here. Residents can send as many ideas as they wish.

Those who want to be a part of the process should contact Borden (Libbygp@aol.com) or Selleck (mks2548@gmail.com).