Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Master Gardener Story in Volunteerism.

Patty Latanzio

As Master Gardeners, we often keep a critical eye out on the vast array of flora around us.  Whether we look at plant species, form, growing space, etc....we assess and evaluate the beauty and the beast of plants and their spaces. This is a quick story about inspiration and change.  It is also a reminder about civic pride, volunteerism, and how one person can make a difference, directly and indirectly.  It's the essence of us, the Master Gardeners.

The area in these photos is a heavily congested place of pedestrians, traffic, and Septa Bus routes.  On the northwest corner of Bustleton and Grant Avenue in Philadelphia stands a wooded lot, now for sale.  At some point, a massive tree had fallen into the street, which was cut down years ago, leaving the stump.  After several years of sucker growth from this stump, a new urban jungle had emerged.  The limbs went vertically and horizontally, covering the sidewalk and jetting out into the turning lane of a major avenue.  Pedestrians had to navigate a dangerous sidewalk, where the only safe passage was a small footpath in the dirt of the lot.  When the tree has fallen, it lifted the sidewalk with its roots, almost as if to say that some trees are not meant to be contained.  For us, it is a harsh lesson on Right Plant, Right Place.  
Perhaps people accepted the fate of the tree and resulting sidewalk/street situation as maybe someone else will take care of it, it's not my responsibility, the city is out of money and no one will do anything, etc...On a recent clear, crisp autumn day, I brought my Felco pruning saw and pruners to start making a difference in what public service for the betterment of our city means.  After assessing the situation, I pruned the sucker growth from the tree stump, removed the suckers from other standing trees along the block, raked leaves, and picked up trash.  What stands out are not the "after" photos but the people I have met in the short few hours that I was there.  People waiting for Septa, elderly people with canes navigating the dirt path, teens walking by, seniors going shopping....these citizens were curious.  What was this woman doing and why? 

As Master Gardeners, we educate people and not always in a structured classroom.  The brief conversations touched upon tree structure, pruning techniques and why we prune, photosynthesis, etc....but it also brought out something else. People want to be engaged. They want to see purpose and a plan.  Most were intrigued that one person can decide to do something for the good of other people and the plan often starts with themselves.  The conversations made people aware that they are the community and they can do something about their space, whether through direct action, making a phone call, or inspiring someone else.  One elderly gentleman, in particular, stated that he was proud of the little people behind the scenes who make good changes for others.  

As anonymously as I came into the picture as one of those "little people", I left with a renewed sense of community spirit and Penn State Extension pride in having learned about horticulture and how to approach and solve a problem in the green world.  The sidewalk has been reported to the city and the local councilman's office has been informed of regeneration growth from tree  

Sometimes, it does start with us. We are often that first domino of change.  Be strong, and prune onward.......

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mr. Yuck, In the Cabinet, With the Poison...

~ Jessica S. Herwick
Now that the weather is getting cooler, and school has started, it’s more likely that children will get bored and experiment with household items.   You are also more likely to have collected household items that are considered toxic or hazardous to humans due to your seasonal gardening, lawn or other household maintenance duties.  Many garden insect sprays, bottles of cleaner, bleach, pesticides, and even your organic fertilizers can be hazardous when ingested by young children.

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, Mr. Yuk™ stickers were law in my household.   I am not saying that my sister, brothers and I NEVER got into the hazardous materials, but we were much less likely to invade anything labeled with that ‘yucky’ green face.  My parents slathered bottles, cans, and containers of all shapes and sizes for a number of years throughout my childhood.  My siblings and I are first hand proof that this program works! Curious about those helpful little stickers?  So was I, and so I did a little research.  
Mr. Yuk (seen above and right, if you haven’t already recognized him) was the first poison education symbol in the nation, launched in 1971.  He was created by the Pittsburg Poison Control Center as a means to educate families about poisonous materials and prevent improper use of hazardous household materials (including ingestion).  Every Mr. Yuk sticker is labeled with the name of the nearest poison control center, and the national toll-free poison help telephone number (which is  1-800-222-1222).  
The Pittsburg Poison Control Center (PPCC) employs highly trained toxicology nurse specialists who respond 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to an estimated 150,000 poison emergency phone calls every year.  And that’s not all they accomplish for Pennsylvania!  The Pittsburgh Poison Control Center serves nearly 6 million residents in 44 counties of Pennsylvania. They consult with national businesses and industrial corporations regarding poison control and safety, and developed a hospital-based poison treatment system involving 70 hospitals in western Pennsylvania. 

Mr. Yuk is still used in households all over the country.  Each state has a Mr. Yuk that keeps residents in touch with their closest Poison Control Center.  For residents of Pennsylvania, The Penn State Cooperative Extension can help you prevent poison emergencies by linking you to the Pittsburg Poison Control Center, and those wonderful stickers!
To get a sheet of Mr. Yuk stickers, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to:
Penn State Pesticide Education
Attention Mr. Yuk

222 Special Services Building
University Park, PA 16802

Teachers and other presenters/lecturers can obtain bulk quantities of poison prevention materials, Mr. Yuk stickers, and more information about the Pittsburg Poison Control Center at

For those of you who may feel a bit nostalgic upon seeing that old familiar face, the original commercial that ran in the early 1970's during the Mr. Yuk campaign launch has been cleaned up from an old VHS recording and posted on YouTube by a fan.  Click on the link below to view.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Sweet Potatoes Recipes and Thanksgiving

Michele K. Koskinen

With Thanksgiving just a few days away everyone envisions their favorite part of the annual Thanksgiving meal. My two favorites are pumpkin pie and sweet potatoes. This was not always true. As a child growing up those orange potatoes were scorned. Out of the can, into the oven with marshmallows, or brown sugar and butter all the more to entice us to taste them. Yuck they are orange. 

Many people relagate sweet potatoes to Thanksgiving and fall dinner. Today after trying them numerous times as I matured I have come to enjoy this root vegetable all year long in a variety of ways. The nutritional benefits of this root vegetable are often touted with the big three being  Vit A, Potassium and Vitamin C.  It's versatility has made it a healthier alternative as a side dish or vegetarian entree. It can be baked, mashed, made into a casseroles (maybe with meringue), tarts and of course pie.  Adding honey, fruits, and just reducing the butter and sugar make the dish healthier for you. So if you are adventuresome try something different this year. Your children may actually like it.

Here are a few to try.

sweet-potato-appetizerKate Sears 

                         Sweet Potato Spread

    Meringue-Topped Sweet Potato Casserole

      Sweet Potato, Red Onion & Fontina Tart

For the gardener that want to try growing sweet potatoes here is some information culled from a few resources.

What is the difference between a sweet potato and a yam? 

Sweet potatoes Ipomoea batatas are defined by wikipedia as   A dicotyledonous plant that belongs to the family Convolvulaceae. Its large, starchy, sweet-tasting, tuberous roots are a root vegetable. The young leaves and shoots are sometimes eaten as greens.

They should not be confused with Yams.     A yam is the common name for some plant species in the genus Dioscorea that form edible tubers. These are perennial herbaceous vines cultivated for the consumption of their starchy tubers in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Oceania. Wikipedia

  • Why the confusion? In the United States we tend to call all orange fleshy potatoes yams or sweet potatoes.This came about because the two names became interchangeable due to labeling requirements of the FDA. Most yellow or orange skinned potaotoes found today in the supermarket are sweet potoatoes. To find Yams you would need to find and international market. For more historic information  Difference between yams and sweet potatoes.
  • How do you grow and store sweet potatoes? 

    Growing sweet potatoes seems to be quite easy according to all of the directions I have found online and in my vegetable gardening books. As a child you may have sprouted sweet potatoes in a glass with toothpicks as a science project. You can still use this method to produce your slips and plant them but need to make sure your potatoes have not been treated for sprouting. Organic potatoes are not treated or you can purchase slips from a nursery or online.

    If you have a large garden you can plant them in rows with hills, or plant them in a container or the new bags with a trellis.

    From Organic Gardening grow guide. (
    In the garden, on a trellis, or in a container, sweet potatoes are a beautiful plant—delicious tubers in the fall are an added bonus to the lovely foliage and flowers.

    Sweet potatoes grow well in a sunny vegetable garden, but you can also grow them in other parts of your home landscape. Try them as a temporary groundcover or a trailing houseplant. In a patio planter, a sweet potato vine will form a beautiful foliage plant that you can harvest roots from in fall.

    Sweet potatoes will grow in poor soil, but roots may be deformed in heavy clay or long and stringy in sandy soil. To create the perfect environment, build long, wide, 10-inch-high ridges spaced 3 1/2 feet apart. (A 10-foot row will produce 8 to 10 pounds of potatoes.) Work in plenty of compost, avoiding nitrogen-rich fertilizers that produce lush vines and stunted tubes. In the North, cover the raised rows with black plastic to keep the soil warm and promote strong growth.

    It's best to plant root sprouts, called slips, which are available from nurseries and mail-order suppliers. Or you can grow your own, by saving a few roots from your previous crop or by buying untreated roots (store-bought sweet potatoes are often waxed to prevent sprouting). About six weeks before it's time to plant sweet potatoes outdoors in your area, place the roots in a box of moist sand, sawdust, or chopped leaves in a warm spot (75º to 80ºF). Shoots will sprout, and when they reach 6 to 9 inches long, cut them off the root. Remove and dispose of the bottom inch from each slip, as that portion sometimes harbors disease organisms.

    Sweet potatoes mature in 90 to 170 days and are extremely frost sensitive. Plant in full sun 3 to 4 weeks after the last frost when the soil has warmed. Make holes 6 inches deep and 12 inches apart. Bury slips up to the top leaves, press the soil down gently but firmly, and water well.

    If you're not using black plastic, mulch the vines 2 weeks after planting to smother weeds, conserve moisture, and keep the soil loose for root development. Occasionally lift longer vines to keep them from rooting at the joints, or they will put their energy into forming many undersized tubers at each rooted area rather than ripening the main crop at the base of the plant. Otherwise, handle plants as little as possible to prevent wounds that might be invaded by disease spores.

    If the weather is dry, provide 1 inch of water a week until 2 weeks before harvesting, then let the soil dry out a bit. Don't overwater, or the plants—which can withstand dry spells better than rainy ones—may rot.

    You can harvest as soon as leaves start to yellow, but the longer a crop is left in the ground, the higher the yield and vitamin content. Once frost blackens the vines, however, tubers can quickly rot.

    Use a spading fork to dig tubers on a sunny day when the soil is dry. Remember that tubers can grow a foot or more from the plant, and that any nicks on their tender skins will encourage spoilage. Dry tubers in the sun for several hours, then move them to a well-ventilated spot and keep at 85° to 90°F for 10 to 15 days. After they are cured, store at around 55ºF, with a humidity of 75 to 80 percent. Properly cured and stored sweet potatoes will keep for several months.

    For further reading:
    how-to-plant-and-grow-sweet-potatoes DIY

  • Thursday, November 21, 2013

    Tender bulb storage in our zone 6-7

    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 botany 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 frost has not affected my plants. I will be removing the bulbs next week and hope for the best in the curing process. December 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. 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. 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.

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

    Elephant Ears

    I only grow caladiums, canna and begonia so my information will only cover those categories. Follow the direction for storage for each individual plant cultivar. Temperature and storage material will make your efforts more likely to succeed. To find directions for your cultivars I have linked to several sites you might begin your search,

    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 14, 2013

    November check list.

    Michele K. Koskinen

    November Check List for zone 7

    Mulch over your vegetables beds for overwintering crops with straw.

    Put the leaves in your compost bin or mulch the leaves and use as mulch around your garden
    or in a handmade wrap for large potted plants.

    Plant the last of your spring bulbs. Try some in pots to bring inside to force.

    Cover the spinach, lettuce, and other cold hardy plants with a row cover to give them a few more weeks to grow

    If you haven't put out your bird feeder do so. Our feathered friends will be looking for food before we know it.

    Continue planting trees and shrubs.

    November Check list for zone 6

    Cut back perennials, finish cleaning out the beds.

     Mulch  over your vegetables beds for overwintering crops with straw.

    Put the leaves in your compost bin or mulch the leaves and use as mulch around your garden.

    Harvest the cool weather vegetables after the light frost.

    Plant the last of your spring bulbs. Try some in pots to bring inside to force in Januaryand February.

    Do not cut back perennials with seed heads or grasses. They are good for the birds and other garden creatures and for winter interest.

    Continue planting trees and shrubs.

    If you haven't put out your bird feeder do so. Our feathered friends will be looking for food before we know it.

    Thursday, November 7, 2013

    Food Forest in Fairmount Park Part 2

    Michele K. Koskinen

    In a previous blog  I reported on the orchard that was planted at the Horticulture Center in Fairmount Park. This collaboration between the Department of Parks and Recreation, The Philadelphia Orchard Project and the Penn State Philadelphia Master Gardeners is an opportunity for the community to see growing a Food Forest in an urban environment. With thousands of visitors every year it is likely that people who have no knowledge of Food Forest will learn of the importance of these orchards in the overall sustainability of our forest and creating a food source for our communities.

    Phil Forsyth of the Orchard Project writes: 

    "Imagine a Philadelphia where every community regardless of location or wealth has access to fresh, healthy fruit grown right in the neighborhood. The Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP) is working with partner groups across the city to transform neglected urban spaces into vibrant community orchards full of edible and useful plants. We welcome your help in remaking our city as a green and bountiful paradise for all."

    Joan S. Blaustein, Director
    Urban Forestry and Ecosystem Management Division, 
    Philadelphia Parks & Recreation states:

    "One of the first pilot projects to be implemented is the Agroforestry Edges, which by creating food forests,will enhance and expand edge conditions along forested areas to enhanced tree cover along wooded edges that promote woodland function, while supporting productive landscapes (nut or fruit harvest), community engagement and awareness. We selected the location at the Horticultural Center for a number of reasons:  it is a highly visible location where we can educate the public about permaculture and food forests, we have the active participation of the Penn State Master Gardeners 
    who will maintain the forest, and easy access. " 

    For more information on the Parkland Framework in Philadelphia  Parkland Forest Management
    or to see her entire background piece go to  Previous blog


    The plan for this site is to be completed over three planting events. The first event saw the orchard planted in October. In the spring the area will be sheetmulched around the trees and a wide variety of berry bushes will be planted.  In fall 2014, perennials and groundcovers will be added to complete the planting.  For more info about the food forest concept, see the Urban Eco-Orchards summary sheet below. 

    As with all of POP's plantings, the goal is to educate and expand access to healthy food in communities throughout the city.  The plant list was chosen to demonstrate a wide range of fruit that can be grown in Philadelphia. Perennials and groundcovers were also chosen for ecological value in attracting beneficial insects and building soil quality, as well as food, medicine, and beauty.

    So come out and see the addition to the Demonstration Gardens at the Horticulture Center. 
    Directions to Horticulture Center

    For additional information on POP or to volunteer visit their website at

    The Philadelphia Orchard Project is a non-profit that plants orchards in the city of Philadelphia that grow healthy food, green spaces, and community food security. 
    POP plants fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, and useful and edible perennials in partnership with community groups across the city.  Since 2007, we’ve planted 34 orchards with a wide variety of partners including schools, churches, and community gardens.  POP provides orchard design assistance, plant materials, training, and long-term support in orchard care.  Our community partners maintain and harvest the orchards and distribute the produce within their community.  Together, we are building a permanent infrastructure for food-growing in the city and expanding the local food movement to neighborhoods that have thus far been excluded. 


    The Urban Eco-Orchards planted by the Philadelphia Orchard Project are examples of a style of planting called Edible Forest Gardening. The basic idea is to create a functioning, diverse ecology in the orchard that mimics that of a natural forest. By working with nature instead of against it, these orchards are healthy and productive with relatively less main- tenance required by their stewards. The concept of edible forest gardens developed in Permaculture, a movement of sus- tainable design that originated in Australia in the 1970’s. However, many native cultures across the world have tradi- tionally grown food in a similar manner.
    The Urban Eco-Orchard consists of far more than rows of fruit trees. Like a natural forest, many layers of plants grow in an Edible Forest Garden.
    Seven different levels have been identified:
    By planting a multi-layered orchard, positive relationships are created between plants (see multiple functions, below). All ecological niches are occupied, so there is less opportunity for weeds to invade. With yields from so many layers, overall production is increased. Yields can also be harvested from other layers in the short term before fruit and nut trees mature.
    In addition to a diversity in plant levels, the Urban Eco-Orchard features a diversity of plant choices within each level. For example, instead of just planting apples in the low tree level, the orchard might feature apples, pears, cherries, and more unusual choices like figs, persimmons, and serviceberries. If one crop fails in a particular year, this diversity en- sures that the orchard will still be productive. Pests are also often very plant specific, so a diverse orchard becomes a less attractive target.

    Urban Eco-Orchard plants often serve more than one of the following functions:

    FOOD: Fruit, nuts, culinary herbs, greens, mushrooms, edible flowers, roots, and shoots. Di- versity of production makes for a long season of harvest. Don’t forget value-added items like jam, juice, and cider!

    MEDICINE: Herbs, barks, mushrooms, etc. For teas, tinctures, extracts, and poultices. SOIL-

    BUILDING: Through a relationship with soil bacteria, certain plants (mostly in the legume family), actually pull nitrogen from the air and fix it into the ground, thus fertilizing themselves and the plants around them. Other plants are nutrient-accumulators with roots that pull essen- tial nutrients from deep in the soil and make them available to the plants around them. Fungi have recently been shown to have vital ecological functions in soil, protecting plants from dis- ease, transporting nutrients, and more.

    PEST CONTROL: Some flowering plants, especially those from the umbel and aster family, serve as a nectary, attracting beneficial insects that help control potential pest problems.
    Other plants make good habitat for beneficials to live and lay their eggs. Other strong aromatic plants, including many herbs an onion relatives, are good at confusing and repelling pests. OTHER: Woody plants can be harvested or coppiced for fuel and some yield valuable timber for construction or furniture-making. Trees and other orchard plants provide many environ- mental benefits, including absorbing carbon and other pollution, reducing stormwater runoff, and providing neighborhood cooling. Beauty in flowers, foliage, and fruit is another important function of Eco-Orchard plants.

    One of the most important aspects of creating a functioning orchard ecology is creating healthy, living soil. Worms, insects, fungi, bacteria, and many micro-organisms have vital roles in supporting happy, productive plants. There is actually a greater total mass of life below the surface than what is seen above. One technique for encouraging healthy, living soil is sheet- mulching, a particularly valuable approach for city lots with poor, weed-covered soil. The basic idea is to cover the surface with a layer of cardboard or newspaper topped with many layers of organic materials like fallen leaves, compost, and salt hay. The newspaper or cardboard serve to choke out existing weeds or grass, then decompose along with the other organic materials to provide abundant food and habitat for worms and other soil life.

    Recommended Forest Garden Books
    Creating a Forest Garden, Martin Crawford
    Edible Forest Gardens, Dave Jacke & Eric Toensmeier Gaia’s Garden, Toby Hemenway

    Recommended Orchard Books
    The Holistic Orchard, Michael Phillips
    Growing Fruit Naturally, Lee Reich
    The Pruning Book, Lee Reich
    The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Insect & Disease Control, Ellis & Bradley The Backyard Orchardist, Stella Otto

    The Backyard Berry Book, Stella Otto

    Recommended Eco-Orchard Plant Sources (Philadelphia & Mail Order)                                                                 

    Thursday, October 31, 2013

    End of summer Tomato Jam

    Michele K. Koskinen

    The end of the tomato season leaves me a bit sad as I enjoy tomatoes more than any other fruit (vegetable) in the summer. I wait for them to grow, pick them and often pop them in my mouth as I am tending the garden. I have put up tomato jam, green dilled tomatoes, whole tomatoes, salsa, and recently a new recipe, yellow tomato and basil jam.

    Stopping at a local farmer’s market for gourds, I spied lovely yellow tomatoes and decided to try a new jam. I grabbed apples for butter and sauce, plum tomatoes, and the yellow tomatoes. A day spent preserving is on the schedule. Just enough produce for a few small jars to go along with all of the other foods I have canned over the summer.

    I use recipes from a book on small jar canning and also the Ball book on canning. You can also find a multitude of recipes on small batch canning today on many blogs and cooking sites. It is the modern way of enjoying preserving food for the entire year. No longer putting up dozens of quarts many, including me, simply do small batches of pints, or 4 and 8 oz jars. 

    Before you begin to can or preserve using the hot water method, you should read carefully and follow the sanitary instructions for food safety. Careful preparation of your jars and food temperature is important to prevent foodborne illness.