Thursday, January 31, 2013

Recycling...... New Beginnings Birdhouse

by Patty Lattanzio
Now that winter is upon us, our thoughts often turn to holidays, vibrant seed catalogs, and resolutions for the New Year.  What better way to bring in a New Year than creating a haven for the spring nesting season with a birdhouse made from recycled parts!   Old windows have many stories to tell and their charm can live on in the gift of shelter for our feathered friends.  Pallet wood, often abundant and underused, can be recycled, too, into functioning artistic projects to support wildlife.  While making a birdhouse from recycled materials does require some skill in planning, measuring, cutting, and using power tools, it is not beyond the scope of the resourcefulness of  Master Gardeners. 

My purple martin birdhouse didn't start out as a birdhouse at all.  It started with a problem and found its way as a solution.  The problem was that I needed immediate privacy from a neighbor's direct line of view from a kitchen window into my home (after all of their trees and shrubs had been cut down).  The thought of removing my deciduous trees to plant an evergreen screen did not sit well, along with permanently closed curtains, privacy fencing, hanging bedsheets, etc.  The solution was blocking the line of sight from just the correct height and width from an object that would not be intrusive, but seemed to be there with a purpose.  Alas, a large martin birdhouse mounted to a pole was the solution!   
After some physics, sketches, and ideas on paper, I constructed a rough plan to undertake the project.  The old windows that were used served as the front and back sides of the birdhouse.  They came from a 200 year-old stone farmhouse near Collegeville, PA and the owner wanted them re-purposed.  I said that I had a plan!  The windows' copper stripping was reused as roof edging, the metal strips were used as edge guards, old nails and screws found rejuvenated purpose, metal bars were used as interior supports, and new life was hammered and drilled into historic salvage.  The sides and bottom of the birdhouse came from discarded wood cuts at my local home improvement store (with permission). The roof was made from old pallets just waiting for rebirth.  Some caulk, exterior old paint and stain pulled together the finished project.  Flea market finds of art deco metal added a finishing touch as exterior decor. 
From old things, there are often new beginnings.  Whether it is old windows, pallet wood, or dusty old metal pieces, there is purpose to what we find in hidden treasures.  As we dream and plan about the tomorrows in our lives, find inspiration in where you have been and where you seek to go. Don't forget the little things of the past, whether trinkets or old windows, because their story, too, can bring new beginnings to the natural beauty around us.

PS:  While purple martins are migratory birds and require large open spaces to nest, the martin birdhouse is housing the local birds in my small neck of the city. 

For more information:
             on purple martins
             beneficial birds in the garden  Best birds for your garden

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Houseplant Basics......Light

Michele K. Koskinen

How do you enhance your home or work environment? Consider buying a houseplant. Indoor plants give our living or working spaces a sense of beauty and softness by providing a different focus than the harsh lines of building interiors. Some plants provide better indoor air quality and most just a connection with nature. 

Before selecting and purchasing a houseplant the requirements for growing the plant successfully should be considered. Most of us buy a plant because it attracts us and do not think of the growing requirements until we get home. Light, water, humidity, and space all needed for a healthy growing environment are factors important in selection. Depending on the location and the plants posible poisonous implication for pets or children should also be taken into account. So before you buy think
of where that plant will be in your home.

Light and water are the most important factors in growing houseplants successfully. Many homes have little natural light that is bright enough to grow many plants. There are formulas for measuring light from each window that can be found in many books or websites. The direction of the light N_S_E_W and the time of year all impact the light requirements. You can also use artificial light for growing certain plants.    
                 Q&A on light               Lighting and Houseplants

The top plants for low light (the most common condition indoors) are usually the same 10 to 15 that are recommended. This list would be a good start to your shopping trip.

If search for low/medium light plants these are the most mentioned in books and websites.  You will find low and medium light plants are known for their folage and texture. Flowering plants need more natural light or artificial light.

For a pdf download on .....Caring for Houseplants

Chinese Evergreen (Aglaomena modestum) Mottled leaves little water

In the bathroom about 5 feet from the window. The marking of the leaves becomes more pronounced with more light. No direct sun.

Dumbcane  (Dieffenbachia)    Large leaves tolerates dry soil

Golden Pothos (Epepremnum)  Hanging or trailing plant... water lightly

This plant sits at the bottom of a stairwell with virtually no light in the winter. It becomes more colorful in the summer when I put it outside under an awning.

Snake Plant  (Sansevieria)     Tall tongue like foliage...
dry soil little water.

A dark space with light at times.

ZZ Plant   (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) Fleshy leaves low water requirements

Ordering seeds for your garden

Michele Koskinen

It is that time of year when many gardeners are ordering seeds and planning their gardens. In doing so they are looking at a multitude of seed catalogs and wondering what would be best for their gardens or what they would like to add or change. Some will choose the same variety they have had success with in prior years, others will look for new varieties of favorites or new plants to try. Every year new varieties come on to the market and many look so inviting and new. What should you do?

There is a science to what we plant. The success of our garden is usually specific to our growing conditions which includes soil, climate, disease, and ease of care. As a Master Gardener I know that Penn State Extension as well as other extensions around the country do research on varieties of vegetables, annuals and perennials suited for their particular state. In doing so they give the gardener information without alot of digging arouund on your own.

Penn State has free publications for the Pennsylvania gardener.
        The best vegetable varieties for Pennsylvania gardeners. Link to a pdf
        Information on seed packet.  Link to pdf

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Philadelphia Gardeners' Information Resources

January is the time for seed catalogs coming through your mail box and for planning the coming summer’s campaign in the garden.

To expand your knowledge and keep up to date with the latest thinking and practices in horticulture, take advantage of the fantastic range of free resources available from Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, and similar resources from nearby state universities.

Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences has a big publication program — many publications are free, others are for sale (inexpensively) and many can be downloaded as PDFs. Go to to search for publications and to browse lists.

The Vegetable & Small Fruit Gazette is Penn State's monthly newsletter for commercial vegetable and small fruit growers. Although it is directed at commercial operations it has lots of information useful to gardeners. Send a blank email to to subscribe.

If you have never done it, plan to do a soil test of your yard this spring. Go to for information. While you are there, download a copy of the valuable Philadelphia Planting Guide, which has a detailed calendar of planting and seeding times especially tailored to Philadelphia’s climate.

Our neighboring states also have excellent information programs. The News Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station lists its publications at University of Delaware Cooperative Extension Fact Sheets and Publications are available at

Thursday, January 10, 2013

My MG Volunteer Work at Mander

Kristin Lacey

It was April and the clock was time was running out to find my Master Gardener volunteer activity. I had about 10 down. 40 hours to go. Educating kids was my goal and then Jackie Simon’s email arrived in my inbox. She touted a 4-H opportunity which included working with kids at the Mander Recreational Center in the Strawberry Mansion section of the city. “Perfect,” I thought, “I already know and work with these kids!” For the last 2 years I have been volunteering with Urban Blazers, getting kids outside hiking in Fairmont Park while teaching them about nature.

To get started, I met with the folks at EPRA (East Park Revitalization Alliance) as they run the education piece of the Mander after school program. They also run an orchard and 2 farm sites, a farm stand, and they help link the kids to the farmers who are already providing produce to this community. Nicole Sugarman is EPRA’s farmer in chief. So, I joined forces with her to educate the kids about what was happening real time in the gardens and then link it with a corresponding nutrition/cooking lesson.

First up were potatoes! We needed to get some in the ground, easy enough, but it was raining so we couldn’t have the kids walk the several blocks to the farm site. So for our backup plan: I grabbed some potatoes from my kitchen and some cornmeal. Nicole and I met the kids at the rec center and got the oven hot in the rec center’s kitchen. We handed out sheets naming the parts of the potato plant and the kids colored them in. This fostered a great conversation about all the different colors of potatoes there are. Laughter erupted with the kids’ disbelief that there are purple potatoes. 

Back to the kitchen: We had the kids dredge the potato slices in a mix of cornmeal, salt and pepper. Then we baked them. The kids liked them. Even the kids who were at first not interested in helping us in the kitchen, found their way in to try the potatoes and then eat seconds!  

The next week it rained again! No hands on planting that day for the kids. But head farmer Nicole harvested kale that day for our second cooking class. This time we made kale chips! The kids loved ripping the kale into pieces and tossing it with oil, salt and pepper. With green kale in their teeth they asked for more! All summer long the kids learned more about veggies and fruits, harvesting and taking home produce to share with their families. The kids’ excitement and interest was reward enough but Nicole was patient and kind as she answered my never ending questions about organic veggie and fruit farming.

Oh! I forgot to mention that EPRA and the kids run a farm stand with all their farms’ bounty. Check out these great pictures of Mander and neighborhood kids at the farmstand.

EPRA also runs a food pantry all year round. The pantry is always in need of non-pershable food donations. Bring canned goods or extra peanut butter, etc. to the next Master Gardener meeting and I will take them to the pantry.

Not a Master Gardener? Feel free to drop off donations at EPRA’s office:
East Park Revitalization Alliance
1737 N. 31st St.
Philadelphia, PA 19121
(215) 869-4208

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Longwood Gardens at Christmas

Michele K. Koskinen

I recently visited Longwood Gardens for the Christmas Lights and profusion of decorated trees,poinsettias and other holiday plants. It never fails to make me happy. Along the way I found the legacy of this garden started with the Pierce family in the 1600's and then was purchased by Pierre Dupont in early 1900's to save the trees slated to be cut for timber. In the ensuing years, he made a garden worthy of the most beautiful European gardens like Versailles.

If you have not visited, I encourage you to go and ramble. The conservatory is full of wonderful plants and specimans that show true botanical diversity. The gardens displays change with the seasons and there are often performances in the warmer months. I have included a few photos of my visit and a link to the gardens. Enjoy.

For more information on Longwood Gardens:
Story of Longwood

Terrariums Basics

Michele K. Koskinen

At the recent year end party for the Master Gardeners, Kate Halus and Lorraine Busch prepared and showed the group how to make a miniture terrarium. They received their training from another Master Gardener Lori Hayes in a class presented by PHSBelow are the directions.

A workshop will be presented in late 2013 at the Second Saturday workshop. For more information:
Second Saturday workshops

A terrarium is a collection of compatible plants grown in an enclosed or partially enclosed clear container. They are most useful for small plants requiring high humidity that do not adapt well to normal home atmospheres. Once the plant is established, the terrarium begins to create a climate of its own. The plant transpire moisture through the leaves, which condenses on the glass, and flows back into the soil.
The "rain effect" allows the terrarium to go for weeks without watering.

Terrariums should never be grown in full sun.

Terrarium history:
The use of transparent containers for growing plants dates back at least 2,500 years in Greece. In the United States, terrarium culture is believed to have originated in New England, where housewives placed squawberry (partridge berry) plants in hand blown glass bowls.
The invention of the terrarium as we know it is credited to Dr. N.B. Ward, a 19th-century London physician, who was interested in growing many types of ferns in his backyard but had not been successful. While studying a sphinx moth emerging from a chrysalis he had buried in moist earth in a closed bottle, he was amazed to see a seedling fern and some grass growing inside. He watched them grow for four years, during which time not one drop of water was added nor was the cover removed.
He also developed the  “Wardian cases,” which were large, enclosed containers for growing delicate plants in the home or transporting precious plants over long distances. The terrariums most often used today are small ornamental versions of the Wardian case.

 Terrarium Containers:
Containers can be purchased or found. The can be bottles, jars, aquariums, bandy snifters, fish bowls, or other clear containers with or without lids.  A wide mouth container is best for beginners.
How to plant a terrarium:
The base layer is for drainage. Place a 1" or more layer of gravel, pebbles, or very coarse sand at bottom of container.
On top of the drainage layer put a thin layer of horticultural charcoal (not grilling briquettes). This layer cleans the air and keeps the terrarium "sweet".
The third layer consists of sphagnum peat moss or a layer of sheet peat moss. This helps absorb extra water and keeps the growing medium from mixing with the drainage layer.
The last level is the soil layer. Use a sterile potting mix and some coarse builder sand or a purchased terrarium or cactus premix. Never use beach sand.
Planting - Remove plant from pot and place in a pre-dug hole and gently pat soil around the plant. Use a spray bottle to water plant.   Soil should not be soggy. Wipe off any soil on glass. Do not use glass cleaner on inside of the terrarium.
Landscaping - Use special stones, figurines, colored sand, or other decorative items. Insure all are clean.
Plant Selection:
Use plants that are slow growing and require low to medium light.  Classic closed terrarium can include small ferns, bromeliads, pothos, dracaena, mosses, and baby’s tears.  To add color, you can layer in miniature African violets, croton, prayer plants, or lipstick plants.  For a full lush appearance, include ivy, creeping Charlie, and creeping fig. 
Open terrariums require more frequent watering since the moisture escapes into the air. Plants like philodendron, piggy-back plant, and begonias.  For filler plants, consider peperomia and ivy.  Any cactus or succulents should be grown in open terrariums to meet their lower humidity requirements.
Terrarium Maintenance:
Check the terrarium often for the appearance of condensation on the glass. If large water drops appear on the glass, leave the container open until any excess moisture evaporates.
A completely closed terrarium rarely needs water but if water is needed use very small amounts. A spray bottle is a good tool for watering.
Don't let soil get soggy. Soggy soil breeds disease.