Thursday, May 17, 2012

Amaryllis – Don’t let your bulbs die

By Sandy Grimwade

The amaryllis you bought, or received as a present, has flowered magnificently, and you would like to see it blooming next year, and for years after. A few simple steps will ensure that your amaryllis will thrive and multiply.

Firstly, after the blooms have faded, cut the bloom stalk with a sharp knife just above where it enters the bulb. It may “bleed” a little, but it will soon dry up and die.

Like all bulbs, next year’s flowers are formed in this year’s bulb, and it is important to make sure that you have strong leaf growth over the summer so that a large bulb will develop. If you are planning to keep the bulb in a pot, repot it in a large pot with good potting soil. The bulbs you buy in the store are usually in small pots and in a medium with poor nutrition. Alternatively, you can plant the bulbs outside after the danger of frost is past. It is better to plant in a partially shaded spot, as amaryllis leaves can burn in the full sun of July (though this does not seem to do them much harm). I plant mine in the shade of my tomato plants. Make sure that there is plenty of compost in the soil. Whether planting indoors in a pot or outdoors in the ground, the bulb should be only 50-60% covered with soil. The top of the bulb needs to be well clear of the soil surface to avoid rotting problems. When you are replanting the bulb you may find that small bulblets have formed round the sides. These can be carefully removed and planted separately. They will form new flowering bulbs in a year or two.

Now is the time for patience. Make sure that your bulbs are kept watered and that the leaves grow tall and strong. Once the weather turns cold in October, but before any serious frost, it is time to dig up the bulbs. Again, you may find small bulblets have formed and these should be carefully separated from the main bulb. With a sharp knife cut of the leaves about 1 inch from the top of the bulbs and cut off the roots. The bulbs must now rest in a cool dry place for at least 6 weeks. This is vital if you want the bulbs to flower well in the spring. I leave mine on newspaper in the garden shed until just before the winter holidays.

Now you can repot the bulbs in potting mixture in pots just large enough for the bulb. Bulbs of 2½  inches in diameter or more are very likely to flower. Several smaller bulbs can be potted in a “nursery pot” where they can grow, but probably will not flower. Again, plant the bulbs shallowly, and water from below.

In 2 – 3 months, depending mostly on the temperature they are kept at, the bulbs will flower. Now you can repeat the process. You will be amazed how the bulbs will multiply up and you will soon have plenty to give as presents to your friends.

Second Saturday Muffin Series

The month of May's Second Saturday Gardening Series was about fruiting trees. I was inspired to create a muffin that used a tree fruit and a garden herb at the same time. Why a garden herb in a muffin? Well, mainly because I think the thyme does add a nice fresh herb flavor, it is often misunderstood in baked goods and because I happened to have an abundance of it at home and I love to make use of my abundances, dont you? Heres an idea of what to do with that surplus of cherries and thyme. These are very good, and the balance of flavors is quite nice as the addition of thyme and lemon means that the cherry does not overpower.
Whole Wheat Cherry, Lemon, and Thyme Muffins

1 cup Whole Wheat Flour
1 cup All Purpose Flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 stick or (1/2 cup) unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 cup fine granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 cup plain yogurt or buttermilk
1 cup fresh cherries, pitted
zest of 1 lemon
leaves of 6-8 thyme sprigs

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Grease and flour or line
muffin tins.
Mix together the flours, baking powder and baking soda.
Separately cream the butter and white and brown sugars,
then add the egg. Add both mixtures together. Then add
the yogurt. Gently fold in the cherries, then add lemon zest
and thyme leaves. Add to muffin tins.
Bake at 450 for 10 minutes, then turn heat down to 400 and
bake for another 5-10 minutes or until toothpick comes out
clean. Let cool, Enjoy!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Why Heirloom Tomatoes are Worthy

By Eileen Kull

This year, I decided to sell my surplus of heirloom tomato plants with a little business I started called fruits d' heritage. Why only grow heirlooms you ask?

First of all, you are probably wondering what makes a plant an heirloom. Age is definetly a factor, growers and breeders describe a plant bred more than fifty years ago as an heirloom or heritage variety. Being open pollinated is another key trait, which means the variety will grow true to type from seed  and can be handed down through generations. This means you can start growing one year and save your seeds for the next and so on, making them less expensive for you (even though they are also already less expensive when you get them from seed saving organizations because they are not engineered in a laboratory which is an expensive process).

Heirlooms are also easier to grow because they use less chemical additives and less water. They behave that way because they are better adapted to local conditions (much like a native plant) and they are better able to tolerate stresses such as pest pressure, drought and other abiotic factors making them a better choice for the environment. Who knew that by planting heirlooms you were increasing the biodiversity of our ecosystem!

 Heirlooms are also awesome because they provide a continual harvest, unlike hybrids, that are genetically engineered to grow at the same pace- meaning seeds planted at the same time will be ready for harvest at the same time. This is a more ideal situation for the home gardener that would enjoy a continual harvest and an extended growing season. Heirloom vegetables are also more nutritious and taste better. The development of hybrid seeds has increased crop sizes and created larger yields, but in doing so, they have sacrificed taste. We tend to dissassociate words like genetic engineering and delicious, with good cause.

 Recent research has revealed that in many cases, hybrid vegetables are significantly less nutritious than heirlooms. Finally, heirlooms are cool because they are a piece of history. Every vegetable has a story behind it, where it originated and how it got to America. When you grow heirlooms you are preserving a piece of that history. So I urge you to go to seed saving suppliers or heirloom plant suppliers near you and get started on your own history!

High Tunnel Alliance Connects Urban Farmers to More Efficient Growing

ByJill Stankiewicz

High tunnels, also known as hoop houses, help urban farmers to produce more food.  Penn State Extension in Philadelphia County in cooperation with the Department of Horticulture has established a High Tunnel Alliance in the City of Philadelphia with 10 partnership community based agencies. The tunnels are funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, and the alliance supports Philadelphia’s urban farms committed to increasing food security. Their simple yet effective design, basically a plastic-covered greenhouse, helps to insulate crops against low temperatures in the spring and fall.  This extends the growing season for many crops and adds more control to the growing environment which helps reduce pesticide use and retain the soil’s nutrients. 

Heritage Farm at Methodist Home is an active member of the High Tunnel Alliance.  Heritage Farm was established in 2011 to support the 200 children and adults affiliated with the campus.  Heritage Farm is in the process of executing its plans for a complete food growing operation, cut flower Community Sustainable Agriculture program, and community kitchen.  The addition of Heritage Farm to the Methodist Home campus will help to foster healthy eating and lifestyles among its residents while providing opportunities to build work skills.  Clients and residents will also be invited to take classes on vegetable and fruit growing, children’s gardening, and food preparation and nutrition. 

Interested in creating your own high tunnel?  Help may be available from the USDA.  Please visit for more information. 

Our Extension office has been integral to the process of Alliance building, since its inception about 3 years ago, and has been a steward from concept/design to construction and use. As this shape shifting has taken place, Master Gardeners have begun the process of volunteering at these sites, first with Overbrook Environmental Center and next hopefully with Methodist Homes. Want to help with this initiative?  Please contact Kim at    

Friday, May 4, 2012

Making garden space from compacted soil.

By Patricia Beynan

Our community garden members chose to either make raised beds and fill them with topsoil, compost, and peat moss,  or to dig out the compacted soil to a depth of  about 18 inches, sift the soil that was removed, breaking up the clay, and mixing it with compost and peat moss.  The garden managers kindly provided a a few loads of compost from Fairmont Park for our use, available from a big pile at the edge of the garden.

I found both options daunting.  I was on my own in creating the 12 x 12 garden from soil that had been paved over for nearly 100 years.  It was not only compacted to rock solid status, but it also was covered with the gravel layer that had been under the asphalt and chunks of the newly removed asphalt.  The garden steering committee offered help and advice, and provided giant screens to use for sifting.  

The dig out option involved the pick and shovel approach, and the raised beds were a building project.   I wanted another option, and as I was removing the top layer of chunks, and watching the pick and shovel folks strain and groan I decided I would find some middle ground.  After the asphalt was gone I imperfectly raked the gravel to the edges to make paths between my plot and the neighbors.  I decided the remaining gravel was good for drainage, and started wheelbarrowing in compost.  Over the course of several sessions I brought about 15 loads over from the rapidly diminishing pile.  I raked that into the top layer the gravel clay surface and decided I could work with that.  

I got a few more loads of compost and dumped them at one end of my plot.  Now it was time to plant.  I had three kinds of  lettuce, red and green cabbage,  eggplant, peppers and tomatoes in little pots, and cucumber, peas, cantaloupe, carrots, and green beans in seeds.  My plan evolved as I worked.  I dug through the compost layer, then put the hose on the clay for a minute, making an instant pond.  After it soaked in I dug out about eight inches, mixed that clay with the compost, put half back in, then my seedling, then more of the mix, tamping it down.  The improved area was only about 6 inches in diameter. Would it work?

Worked like a charm.  I could barely keep up with the output of my spot amended soil.  Everything flourished, and my only failure was cantaloupe, but that may have had more to do with the monsoons of August than the soil.  

This year I'm adding more compost, digging new holes to spot amend, and rotating the plant locations.  I have high hopes.

Early Spring Crops: Common and Uncommon

Submitted by Megan Bucknum and Michele Sokoloff

Along side the large greenhouse at the Horticulture Center in Fairmount Park sits our Demonstration Garden called The Edible Garden. Master Gardeners have been sprucing the area up since February 2012. The winter labor has included: digging out old, rotted sign posts, clearing leaves and debris, serious weeding, mulching and edging. We created a compost area with wood pallets and we put together a  6’ X 4’ Green Wall structure sewn by a MG’s mother with fleece and mesh. Other weekly tasks have included uprighting the brick and stone that surround each planting bed. 

We have also given attention to the area on either side of the steps leading down to the Demo Garden. This is a 3-tiered area that has overgrown plantings and beds. The 3-tiers extend many yards on either side.  It has been cleared, weeded, pruned and planted with new Pachysandra and Hostas making it a cleaner, nicer entrance to the Edible Garden. With 9 separate growing bed areas, we began planting cold crops by seed in March.  

The spring bounty began with the tall, green showinf of asparagus shoots. Other early spring crops growing are rhubarb, a variety of lettuce greens, broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and peas. Overwintered herbs such as oregano, thyme, rosemary, lavendar, mint and sage are in abundance

There are two  less frequently consumed crops that make us scratch our heads wondering how to use them. They are cardoon and sorrel.

Cardoon can be referred to as an artichoke thistle and is native to the western and central Mediterranean region.  It’s in the same species as the globe artichoke (what we more frequently eat).  It appears that this whole plant can be consumed!  The bud of the flower can be prepared similarly as the artichoke.  The large leaf stalks, which can resemble celery stalks, can be braised or steamed and carry with them the same artichoke flavor with which we are accustomed. For a quick recipe on how to eat cardoons when they are young and tender.Bagna-Cauda

Sorrel is a perennial herb that can be cultivated as a garden herb or leaf vegetable.  At maturity, sorrel will grow about 60 cm high and has roots that run deeply into the ground supporting the oblong leaves that are slightly arrow-shaped at the base, with very long petioles.  There are many uses for this plant and they have an “interesting” flavor that has been linked to similarities of kiwi fruit or sour wild strawberries.  Most of the Edible Garden team are not too keen to this vegetable, as it does have a sharp taste.  Further research reveals that this taste is from the presence of oxalic acid -- naturally found in spinach, rhubarb, chard and beet greens -- which in large quantities is not safe for consumption, but small quantities is harmless.  This vegetable is commonly made into sauces to serve with fish.  See below for Alice Waters’ Sorrel Sauce recipe.

Sorrel Sauce
from “Chez Panisse Vegetables Cookbook,” Alice Waters

Use about 24 large sorrel leaves
                                                2 shallots
                                               ½ cup heavy cream
                                               Salt and pepper
                                              Lemon juice

Wash the sorrel in plenty of cold water.  Remove the stems and drain well.  Cut the sorrel into  rough pieces.  Peel and dice the shallots and put in a nonreactive pot with the cream.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 5 minutes.  Add the sorrel and cook for another 3 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.  Sorrel sauce can be pureed.  Serve it with fish, chicken or potatoes.

We’ll keep you posted on this blog as to what is going on and provide some additional research for you to ponder. 

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why Do Soil Testing?

A recent article in Fine Gardening Magazine explained why we gardeners should do soil testing. Here is the article and also the information for obtaining a soil test kit from Penn State Extension in Philadelphia.
The soil will be sent to the Penn State Lab and a report sent back to you.

To get a soil test kit from the extension go to and look under the Hort Line tab on the left.

A video on how to do your sample:

Soil Testing is Worth the Effort

by Lee Reich     from Fine Gardening
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, even in the garden. Depending on your soil’s native fertility and what you grow, your plants might perform for years without needing additional fertilizer. But sooner or later, the free lunch ends. Hungry plants won’t squeal like starving pigs, but they eventually will show their unhappiness by displaying stunted growth and, depending on the particular nutrients they lack, off-color leaves. A periodic soil test lets you catch nutrient deficiencies before they progress that far. Besides indicating nutrient deficiencies, a soil test can also provide information on soil acidity, the percentage of organic matter in your soil, and your soil’s texture. But it will not tell you anything about poor soil drainage, insufficient sunlight, or insects and diseases. These threats to plants also can cause off-color leaves and stunted growth, so rule them out first before moving on to a soil test.

Know what to test for

Whether you’re testing the soil at home or sending it to a laboratory, you’ll have to decide what to test for. At the very least, test your soil’s pH, which is a measure of how acidic your soil is. If the pH level isn’t in the correct range, plants cannot take up nutrients in the soil. You should also test for phosphorus and potassium because plants require both of these nutrients in relatively large amounts. A complete checkup would include tests for nutrients that are essential but needed only in minute quantities, such as iron, manganese, and zinc. If you regularly enrich your soil with an abundance of compost and other organic materials, micronutrient problems are unlikely.
Some laboratories are also set up to test soils for toxic elements. For example, if your house is more than 50 years old, you might want to test the soil for lead from lead-based paint that has flaked or was scraped off the siding. On former farm sites, you might want to test for DDT or arsenic. Although neither is approved for home agricultural use, both are persistent pesticides that were widely used in the past.

A proper sample is critical

Proper sampling technique is an important part of soil testing. Even in a modest-size garden of 1,000 square feet, 1 cup of soil—the amount typically used for a test—represents only about one one-thousandth of one percent of the top 6 inches of ground. So that 1-cup sample had better be representative of the whole area.
To get a truly representative sample, dig in a few random spots around the test area and mix the soils together. Avoid sampling any anomalous spots such as near a fence or where you fill your fertilizer spreader or once had a compost pile. If the test area itself seems insufficiently uniform because of, say, a large, wet, sunken portion, then divide the area into two or more separate test areas. Areas devoted to different kinds of plants, such as vegetables and lawn, require separate samples. Vegetable and flower gardens, though, may be sampled together.
Collect soil to a depth of 6 inches, which is approximately the depth of most plants’ feeder roots. Before you dig, remove any surface debris such as wood chips, compost, plant residues, or sod, then make a hole to the required depth. Discard the first shovelful of soil. It’s a cone-shaped slice, so it contains a greater proportion of soil from the surface than from lower down. Take another slice, uniformly thick from top to bottom along the edge of the hole you just made.
Throughout your sample preparation, avoid contamination from dirty hands or utensils. Gather together samples from each test area into a clean, plastic bucket, then mix and crumble them, discarding stones, sticks, insects, and other debris as you mix. Spread the soil on a clean baking pan to air-dry for a day, then remove about a cup for testing.
If you are sending your samples to a lab for testing, you will get a recommendation for fertilizer and for amounts of lime or sulfur needed to adjust the pH level. Fertilizer recommendations are based on what is in the soil and the kinds of plants you intend to grow. Follow these guidelines closely because too much of any nutrient can be as harmful as too little, causing nutrient imbalances, even death, to plants.

Nitrogen skips the soil test

Soil tests rarely determine nitrogen levels, even though this is the nutrient for which plants are hungriest. Nitrogen is readily lost from soil, puffing away as a gas or leaching from rainfall beyond the reach of roots. The stuff is simply too evanescent to make testing for it meaningful at any single point in time.
Most soil nitrogen is locked up in organic matter, so determining the percentage of organic matter in your soil offers an idea of the amount of nitrogen potentially available. I say “potentially” because nitrogen becomes available as soil microbes chew away at organic matter; the amount that plants actually get waxes and wanes as weather conditions influence microbial growth. If your soil contains about 4 percent organic matter, you probably have an acceptable level of nitrogen.