Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Monarch and the Milkweed

Kalie Wertz

Monarch Butterflies nesting in Pismo Beach, California

Image from the

Growing up on California’s Central Coast, I was surrounded by Monarch Butterflies. There was a monarch resting habitat, inconspicuous along the highway, and my family would stop there every year to gaze among the pale eucalyptus trees for the familiar bright orange.

After moving to Pennsylvania, I thought my visiting days with monarchs were over, until I learned that Monarchs exist both east and west of the Rocky Mountains. As one of the recognizable species, it is not difficult to identify the Danaus plexippus, as it is not often confused.
Monarch Sanctuary in Pismo Beach, California
Image from TripAdviso
Additionally, I was not aware that, depending on which side of the mountain range they are on, they will migrate to a different part of the world. The Monarchs I had been seeing in my childhood had been making a journey from the Canadian border, down the Pacific Coast to stay the winter in California, between Eureka and San Diego - an impressive couple hundred of miles. They harbor in the Eucalyptus found everywhere on the Central Coast, as well as Pine and Cypress found in more Northern California areas. They were on the hunt for tall trees where they can roost with the most wind protection, but with enough sunlight let in to warm their bodies. Monarchs also are in need of spaces with enough moisture for hydration, and prefer areas that are foggy and humid, and the Central Coast is known for their mild climates and particularly chilly foggy mornings.

However, the Monarchs on the east of the Rockies are actually a larger population than those on the west. They spend their time in southeastern Canada and northeastern United States before making a several thousand mile journey to a very specific overwintering site in Mexico. The Michoacan State in Mexico hosts fir trees that provide the preferred climate for the Monarchs during the winter. Because this journey is so long, it often takes several generations to complete the full loop from North to South and back again.

What I don’t remember seeing growing up is milkweed. We were taught in class that milkweed was the Monarch’s food of choice, but we were never taught how or where to plant it and make sure it was abundant. This has cost the Monarch, who relies almost entirely on the plant for food and reproductive space. Monarchs lay eggs at the end of their life, and having milkweed abundant when they are ready to do so it vital to their ability to reproduce. Additionally, milkweed is not only used by Monarchs, but many other butterflies, bees, and pollinators.

Milkweed, or Asclepias L., need plenty of light but are otherwise easy to grow between other plants. With colorful flowers, they are typically an annual within the Northeast region, with seeds that can be replanted in the spring for summer blooms. They can be propagated from either seeds or cuttings, started outdoors or indoors. If started indoors, make sure they stay warm and get plenty of light, either with a grow light or natural sunshine, and wait 4 to 8 weeks to transplant them, at a time after the frost has passed.

Monarchs on Milkweed
Image from
Monarch Butterflies certainly need spaces where they can migrate to and from, as the milkweed they use for food along the way is incredibly important. If you’d like to learn more about planting milkweed to support this important pollinator, check out Penn State's Gardening for Butterflies.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

4 Easy Steps for Homegrown Garlic

Shannon Pacilli

We use a lot of garlic in my house. In fact, we use it in almost everything!  It’s ALWAYS on my shopping list.  The difficulty with having this garlic addiction is:

  1. organic garlic can be expensive 
  2. you can't always find garlic when you need it at the supermarket or farmer's market and
  3. sometimes what you can find, doesn't look so great.  
For those reasons, this motivated me to grow my own. Below, you will see the step-by-step process to grow your own organic garlic.

The goal to growing garlic in moderate climates like Philadelphia, is to get enough top growth in fall, so the garlic has a good start in the spring, but not TOO much tender growth before winter.  Garlic will survive if it gets frozen back to the ground once. If it happens a second time, it decreases the yield.  

1.  First, choose your largest cloves.  Lay them out at your planting site, approximately 4-6 inches apart.

2. Plant cloves about 2 inches deep.  Pointy side up!  And here's a pro tip, use your thumb, which is roughly 2 inches long, to create the space for your garlic cloves. 

3.  Cover with 2-4 inches of mulch, (i.e. hay, straw, shredded leaves) and water accordingly.

4.  Harvest in mid-summer (late June-July) when leaves turn yellow/brown by driving a digging fork straight down to loosen soil around garlic and lift out.  Avoid damage to the bulb.
Things to consider:
  • Site Selection 
    • Garlic prefers full sun
    • pH of 6.5 to 7
    • fertile and well drained soil
  • Type
    • Hardnecks  tolerate a deeper freeze.  They produce garlic scapes (flower stalks) that should be harvested (and eaten) before they flower. These varieties are spicier and produce bigger bulbs that are easier to peel
    • Hardneck garlic “”

    • Softnecks are milder and produce more cloves per bulb.  They store longer and are the ones that can be braided.
    • Softneck Garlic “ Schmied” 
  • Irrigation
    • You will need to apply at least 1 inch of water per week during dry periods through mid-June.
    • Reduce irrigation after mid-June to encourage clove maturation and to discourage bulb diseases.
  • Curing
    • Garlic can be cleaned and eaten as “spring” garlic as soon as it’s harvested.
    • The rest can be cured in a dark spot that is cool and dry, either braided and hung or laid flat, for about 4 weeks until a papery wrapper forms.

      " Yu"

    • It helps to harvest your garlic when it has 4-6 leaves that are still green, to get a good wrapper layer.
  • Inter-planting
    • Garlic can be grown where you will plant your warm weather crops (e.g. tomato, eggplant and peppers) for the next year.  Just inter-plant those sun-loving veggies in late spring and the garlic will be ready for harvest before the warm weather crops grow big enough to shade them out.
  • Seed Saving
    • After your harvest, remember to set aside your biggest and best bulbs for next year’s “seed” stock. 
    • These bulbs have acclimated and are now uniquely suited to the conditions of your garden.

The next thing to do is use your organic and freshly grown garlic in some great recipes! Here are few suggestions below:

Balsamic Vinaigrette
Yield: 1 cup

3/4 cup - extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup - balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons - mustard, brown or Dijon
3 cloves - garlic, minced
1/2-3/4 teaspoon - salt

Combine all ingredients in a clean jar and shake vigorously.

And if you REALLY like garlic, try:

Roasted Garlic Dressing
Yield: about 1 1/2 cups

4 heads - garlic
3/4 cup - extra virgin olive oil, plus a drizzle
1/4 cup - apple cider vinegar, plus 2 tablespoons
2 tablespoons - mustard, brown or Dijon
3/4-1 teaspoon - salt

Cut off the top 1/4 inch of the garlic heads.  Drizzle with olive oil and roast in a covered pan for an hour or until very soft when pierced with a knife.  Add garlic to the food processor by squeezing the root side to remove the cooked cloves from the wrapper.  Add vinegar, mustard, salt and blend well.  With the food processor running, add oil until just combined.  Don't over blend.

Try this variation if you want MAXIMUM garlic flavor, to beat a cold or to drive away a vampire.  Add 1-3 cloves of raw garlic, along with the roasted garlic, when blending.  Enjoy!


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Overwintering with Houseplants

T.W. Hardy

Initially, this blog post was going to focus on preparing your zone 7 and 7B gardens for the overwintering process. However, after performing some initial research, I learned that there has been an unimaginable amount of reputable information written and published on this topic. After the last cold hardy cultivars are removed and garden beds are put to rest for the season, gardeners have many options to get through the winter doldrums.

Figure 1. My home shelving unit for overwintering
Many commercial growers are developing new and exciting cultivars that are hardy for zone 6 and below. This is exciting for gardeners who prefer to keep their hands dirty through the late fall and winter seasons. Many gardeners take the winter months to peruse seed catalogs and plan their garden for the spring. However, for some this will simply not do. This brings us to our lush from the summer sun, houseplant cultivars. Fall and winter provide excellent opportunities to give our air-enriching plants some extra attention.

We can begin by gathering all those plants that may still be outside or in winter light-lacking and relocate them to locations throughout our homes and sun rooms. I chose to place all of my plants onto one shelving unit and provide supplemental light and moisture as needed, depending on plant health.

The following links provide sound overwintering tips:
And for those who like to stay warm indoors, preparing for next year’s growing season click here!

And for those who may desire to turn their homes into amateur laboratories, propagation provides another layer of houseplant enjoyment. There is ample information and articles available on the topic of propagation. A super easy plant to get started with is the "Spider plant" Chlorophytum comosum. I have seven plantlets growing from the specimen in the picture above. If I can propagate, I am confident that you can too!  
There are many gardening options available for us gardeners outside of tropical regions. Given the chance, our houseplants can provide us a nice distraction from “Old Man Winter” and the falling temperatures and precipitation that follows.

What houseplants are you growing? Have you propagated any lately? Please share your story in the comment section below. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Winter Storage of Tender Bulbs

Michele K. Koskinen

There are bulbs you leave in the ground to multiply and there are bulbs that must be stored for the winter. Those fanciful bulbs that grow in our spring and summer gardens like caladiums, elephant ears, gladiolus, canna and others are considered "tender bulbs". They are mostly tropical or warm growing plants that will not survive the cold northern winters.

Although they are not technically a "bulb" they are called that for convenience in many growing markets and this blog. Tender plants usually are from corms, tubers, roots, and rhizomes and must be stored for the winter as they are not winter hardy. Many, like a recent elephant ear purchase, are expensive so it is worth the effort to store them for the winter. Some will grow as houseplants if you have the right light and humidity in your home, it is worth considering.

Using my garden as a giant experiment from year to year, I am going to attempt to lift and save the tender bulbs in my containers. Canna, begonia and caladium are favorites on my deck. This year I also purchased a beautiful elephant ear. So time to research the how. The why is curiosity and getting started a little early and for those that have many tender bulbs, the cost of repurchasing every year also can become a reason to lift and store these bulbs.

Tender Bulbs should ideally be dug after the foliage has dried or a light frost has killed the foliage. 
The bulbs should not be allowed to freeze. They should then be "cured" before storing in the medium of choice. This year the foliage is just beginning to dry in my garden and a light frost is expected. I will be removing the bulbs and hope for the best in the curing process. Late November is upon us     

A few thing to remember:

          1. Storing these "bulbs" require two major requirements with other guidelines for specific plants. Cold and Dry is the name of the game and additionally lifting them right before or after the first frost is best for survival.

          2. Locate the bulb, and then using a fork inserted a few inches away gently pry the plant from the ground. Shake off the excess soil and allow the foliage and bulb to completey dry "cure" in a sheltered warm space.When digging up the bulb from the garden, dig gently so as not to damage the plant. Cuts on the bulbs before storage can bring in disease. 

          3. Make sure your bulbs are free of disease and fungus. Some resources recommend sprinkling an insecticide-fungicide on the bulbs.


To make your efforts more successful be mindful of temperature and storage materials. I only grow caladiums, canna and begonia so my information will only cover those plants. Follow the direction for storage for each individual plant cultivar, and use the links below to gain additional information for your project.

I have compiled and combined storing instructions for my specific plants.

    • Tuberous Begonia: Allow a frost to kill the tops, but do not allow the tubers to freeze. Lift and let tubers dry for one week, with about 5 inches of the foliage still in tact. Remove excess soil and foliage and store in peat moss or sawdust at 50 degrees F. Repot in early spring and keep warm, 68 - 75 degrees F. Move to a sunny spot when shoots appear. Keep evenly moist, but not wet. Plant outside after all danger of frost.
    • Caladium: Lift caladium plants before frost and allow them to dry in a warm spot. Cut back the foliage after it dies. Caldium bulbs don't like to be stored in cold temperatures. Keep at 50-60 degrees F. Pack loosely in peat moss. Repot up in early Spring, about 2 inches deep, knobby side up. Keep the soil moist and warm - 75 - 80 degres F. Move outdoors after all danger of frost.
    • Canna: Allow frost to kill the tops, but do not allow the rhizomes to freeze. Carefully lift the plants and cut off the dead tops . Hose off excess soil and allow to dry. Rhizomes can be wrapped in newspaper and stored in paper bags or cardboard boxes, at 45 to 50 degrees F. Very easy to overwinter. Cannas can be divided by hand. Break apart, insuring there are at least 3 eyes per division. Repot in early spring or plant directly in the garden once the temperatures remain above 70 

Videos that are helpful

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Questions from the Master Gardener Hort Line: Soil Testing, How Do You Get One and What Does It Mean?

by Pat Vance

Volunteers for the Philadelphia Master Gardener Hort Line have researched and answered some interesting questions. From time to time, we'd like to share some of those questions with you.

If you have a question about gardening, call us at 215 314 8711 or send an email to

There are more questions about soil testing than any other topic on the Hort Line. We get questions about how to have testing done as well as how to interpret the results.

Soil Test Kits

Getting a soil test is simple. Stop by any Penn State Extension office to pick up a kit. The address for the Philadelphia office is 675 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, PA and the phone number is (215) 471-2200. Call ahead to make sure someone will be there. The cost for a basic soil fertility test is $10. The kit consists of a sample bag, envelope, and form to be completed for your garden.

You can also print a pdf of the form, collect samples in your own plastic bag, and mail it in your own envelope. This is the ink to instructions on submitting samples:
To print the form, go to this url:
Open and print the pdf for “Individual Submission Form for Turf, Home Garden, Noncommercial Fruit, Flower, Woodlot, Christmas Trees and Landscape Plants.”
Include a check payable to “The Pennsylvania State University” along with your sample and completed form.

Complete the entire form as instructed.

Different plants have different nutritional requirements. Read the list on the second page of the form and choose the one that most closely describes your garden. Include the serial number from the bag if using a kit from the office. You can leave that space blank if you are using your own bag.

Any clean garden trowel will work to collect samples. Collect soil from the top 6 to 12 inches from 5 to 10 different spots in the garden to get a good representative sample. Remove plant debris and stones. Dry the soil on clean newspaper and then place it in your sample bag.

Be sure to label the bag with your name! And mail it to the address on the form.

If you have multiple beds, each with a different use, you may want to submit more than one sample, with a completed form and fee for each one.

Test Results

Your report will arrive in about 2 weeks. There will be a text box labeled “Soil Nutrient Levels” that will list pH as well as phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, and calcium levels. Look at the bar graph to see whether those levels are below optimum, optimum or above optimum. The lab will adjust this for your stated garden use. The actual values are listed in a box at the bottom of the page. If any item is not within the optimum range, there will be suggestions in the text box below.

Choosing a Fertilizer

To address nutrient levels, there will be a recommendation for fertilizer. Fertilizers available in garden centers will have an N-P-K value consisting of 3 numbers.  The first number is the total percentage of nitrogen (chemical symbol N), the second for phosphate (chemical formula P205), and the third for potassium (chemical formula K2O), usually in the form of potash.

For example, a fertilizer with an N-P-K value of 5-10-50 would consist of 5% nitrogen, 10% phosphate and 50% potassium. Fertilizers come in a variety of compositions of these chemicals. Typical combinations include: 5-10-50, 5-10-10, 10-10-10, 8-0-24, and 6-6-18. You can see that these fertilizers would give very different results in the garden. Your soil test will help you decide which of these would be best for your garden.

Keep in mind, though, that chemical fertilizers must be applied correctly. Too little will have minimal effect, and too much can harm rather than help. Follow directions on the package carefully.

Also, chemical fertilizers don’t have a long-term effect on the soil. The addition of compost and/or composted manure can make more permanent improvements. You can add bone meal to increase phosphates and kelp to increase potassium. These are available at garden centers. Compost will take longer to improve your soil than chemical fertilizers, so you may want to add fertilizer for a year or two while the compost does it’s magic.

pH Analysis

Another important part of your soil test is the pH analysis. The lists on the back of the submission form shows that plants vary widely in their optimum pH level. pH also affects how well your plants take up nutrients.

pH is a measure from 1 to 14 that indicates acidity or alkalinity. Low pH is acidic and high pH is alkaline or basic. Neutral pH is 7.0, where a substance is neither acid nor basic. pH units change by an order of 10, so a pH measurement of 6.0 is 10 times more acidic than a pH of 7.0.

Generally, vegetable gardens should be about pH 6.5, or a little lower than neutral. But some plants, such as blueberries like to grow in acidic soil, while clematis, for example, thrives in slightly alkaline soil. You will need to do a little research on your plants to be sure you are working toward the correct pH.

As with nutrients, there are actions you can take to change pH. Your soil report will recommend an amount of lime to increase the pH of your garden. The addition of sulfur will decrease pH but this has the same short-term effect as chemical fertilizers. Compost and other organic matter will decrease the pH of soil more gradually, but will be a more long-term fix.

More Information

For more information on building healthy soil, go to these links:

If you have any other questions and are not sure where to turn, ask the Hort Line! If we don't know the answer, we know someone who does!