Thursday, January 22, 2015

Eating on the Wild Side: Selecting the Most Nutritious Varieties of Fruits & Vegetables

Stephanie Rukowicz

Just in time for seed ordering season, some food for thought. Which varieties of fruits and vegetables offer the most nutrition? Last month, I attended the Selecting Seeds for Healthy Vegetables workshop at the Penn State Extension office. It featured discussion of Jo Robinson’s Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health and an investigation into which seed vendors offer specific nutrient dense varieties. The majority of attendees were urban farmers looking to select the best varieties to grow and offer to their communities.
As a broad summary of the text, Robinson discusses how, historically, cultivated plants have been bred for maximum flavor, appearance, storage and durability, with little thought given to nutritional content. Over the past several thousand years, nutrition has been bred out of our food. Only recently have scientists started investigating bioavailability of phytonutrients (like antioxidants), sugars, and proteins.

Workshop attendees spent time researching which specific varieties noted by Robinson are currently offered in 2015 seed catalogs. High Mowing Organic Seeds included the greatest overall number of varieties listed by Robinson (see below for a catalog excerpt of High Mowing's beet varieties).
The four circled beet varieties are said to be highest in phytonutrient content
(except from page 8 of High Mowing Organic Seeds 2015 Catalog).
Robinson generalizes that the closer a variety looks or tastes to its relative found in the wild, the more nutritious it should be. Often this means that a more nutritious variety is more colorful in appearance (think purple potatoes over white) and possibly less sweet or more bitter (think Granny Smith over Golden Delicious). She recognizes that there are exceptions to the rule, noting the example of white-fleshed peaches having twice the nutrients than yellow-fleshed. The choices are not always intuitive, so she recommends shopping with a list to select the most nutritious varieties.

A short list of varieties for seed selection can be found on her site (, with a more in-depth list found in her book.

Not ordering seeds this year? Robinson also offers tips on how to select varieties for maximum nutrition when shopping at the grocery store as well. A PDF of Robinson’s Shopping Guide for optimum health can be found on her site (

To learn more about the book and the author's research, listen in on an interview she did in 2013 with NPR's Science Friday (

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Your Lovely Tree is Dying from the Inside Out

Kimberly Labno

I consult with urban dwellers on their horticultural needs. Recently, I met a client with two gorgeous mature white oaks flanking the entrance of his Center City residence. One of the trees had a fungal growth at the base, about 12 inches in breadth and maybe 1.5 inches in height, and it had been routinely removed for appearance sake by the owner's house staff. The tree had an overall strong canopy. Even though the wound was shallow and there was little wood rot in the trunk, I knew the tree was dying.
                                                               (courtesy of RHS)
The tree fungus is Ganoderma sp., commonly known as shelf or bracket fungi. The fungus causes what is called butt rot and root rot. It has significant impact on oaks, and potentially especially those near the end of their life expectancy of 65-85 years old - note this expectancy is based on trees in naturalized settings, not urban tree pits. The visible fungus is a fruiting body, which means that the fungus is systemic.

If it helps, you can visualize a flowering shrub with infected roots and flowers in bloom- the fungus has established in the base and/or roots of the tree and the visible fungus is the flower in bloom. There is no cure and removing the fruiting body has little to no impact on control of spread, outside of reducing the number of spores released that may enhance disease spread from say tens of millions to just millions in number. The plant is dying from the roots outward. Eventually, the tree will show signs of sickness like leaf dieback and discoloration. Based on the literature, the lifespan of a tree with this fungus is something on average like between several and ~ 10 years. In natural settings, most trees with this rot meet their end from breakage or toppling in winds/storms.

The client was a sad about losing the trees and although the tree was leafing out well and he could play a waiting game for the infected tree to die- and infect the neighboring oak, he choose to seek removal estimates from professional arborists. The arborist concurred with my diagnosis and outlook and recommended replacement trees that are probably familiar to many as reliable street trees.

To learn more, here are a handful of references.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Constructing a Small Rain Garden

Constructing a Small Rain Garden
By Pat Vance
The Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) has made a strong commitment to controlling erosion and excess run-off in the city, including some imaginative and innovative large-scale projects. I found an inexpensive, simple PWD project I could do in my own yard with just a shovel!

The house I moved into a few years ago had a half-sized basketball court in the backyard. I briefly considered removing it until I calculated the expense and work involved. Then I decided to
make the best of it. However, after a couple of heavy rains, I realized I would have to do something about the rain water run-off.
I consulted a web site from the PWD with guidelines for building a rain garden. 
Here is the url:
A rain garden is a swale or depression surrounded by a berm, positioned where rain run-off can be temporarily held until it can infiltrate into the ground.  Rain from impervious surfaces such as roofs, parking lots, or the occasional basketball court can be diverted into the garden rather than causing erosion or ending up in the storm sewer. The water is held only temporarily. A rain garden is not a pond or water feature. The water will drain into the ground over a fairly short time.
There is a link on the PWD site for a PDF with guidelines for building a garden. It lists some guidelines for the selection of a good site:
1. The garden should be at least 10 feet from building foundations. This guideline is the most important to follow, even if it means that rain garden may fall short in some of the other considerations.
2. Position the garden to accommodate most, if not all of the water draining from the surface. In my case, if I built my garden along the entire edge of the court, I would place it too close to the foundation of my house. So I restricted the size accordingly.
3. The garden should be at least 20% of the surface area of the drainage area. The area of the space I had available was just slightly over 20%, but even if I had not been able to build a garden quite so large, I figured that whatever I did would be helpful.
4. Drainage should be adequate to allow infiltration of rain water collected. The PWD web site also includes a simple way to test this. Here's the URL:
Remove the top and bottom of a coffee can and then push or hammer the can a couple of inches into the ground. Measure the side of the can above the ground and fill the can with water. Start a timer and one inch per hour, the site is adequate.
calculate the time it takes for the water to drain from the can. Repeat this test a few times to assure accuracy. If the drainage rate is at least
Now some guidelines for shaping the garden.
1. The depth of the swale should be 6-8 inches.
2. The height of the berm should be at least 4-6 inches.
3. The height of the berm above grade, should be no more than one-third the width of the berm. My berm was 3 or 4 inches high, so I made sure it was at least a foot wide.
To construct the garden, I placed a row of stakes along the court, and another row on the opposite side of the garden. I ran string between the rows of stakes and adjusted it to be level with the court. Then I measured the stakes at the outside of the garden for the height of the berm
A note of caution: Be sure it is safe to dig! Contact Pennsylvania One Call system by dialing 811 to be sure you are not disrupting utility lines! Hitting one would be extremely dangerous!
As I dug out the swale, I used a ruler to measure down from the string. As I removed the dirt from the swale, I placed it on the berms.
When I had the garden shaped correctly, I used a hose at full force to watch where the water flowed
from all angles of the court.
The final consideration: Which plants to use? All the usual considerations for planting a garden apply with one notable addition: the soil will be very wet at times, so be sure to choose plants that can tolerate that. The PWD pamphlet has a list of some possible native plants, but I decided to go with what I had available.
A friend was splitting a large patch of Japanese Iris, a plant that can tolerate high moisture. Another friend was splitting Athyrium or Lady Fern and I used those as well.

And the results? A resounding success! This inexpensive, simple project has drastically reduced the run-off from the court, and I have a garden that's lovely to look at.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

America Recycles Day at PHL

Stephanie Rukowicz
On November 13th, in anticipation of America Recycles Day, Philadelphia International Airport organized and hosted many different local groups to present different methods of recycling to travelers and airport employees at the food court in Terminal B/C.

Benjamin Cromie, Master Gardener and consultant to the PHL recycling program, invited the Master Gardeners to set up a table at the event to talk about composting as a way to recycle food and yard waste. Ilana Grubin and I attended the event on behalf of the Master Gardeners and were pleasantly surprised by the number of employees and travelers who stopped by our table and took the time to talk with us about how to get started or to troubleshoot any issues they might be having.

Ilana showed off the compost sample from her at home bin.

The attendees had wide range of composting experience, from those who weren't sure what composting was, to others that already had a successful system in place. We talked to residents and assured them that yes, it is possible to compost in the city. The at home composting methods we talked about included:
  • Prefabricated compost bins - Earth machines, tumblers
  • Pile system - no equipment needed
  • DIY bin system - create out of garbage cans or free pallets
  • Vermicomposting - can be done indoors
  • Trench composting - bury your food waste to improve your soil
 We promoted the city's yard waste recycling sites and also talked with a few people about the city's hearing on food waste recycling that took place the day before (Nov. 12th). The Philadelphia Prison System had a table next to us, and they were also talking about food waste recycling through composting, and the work they do at their facilities to divert tons of food waste from the garbage stream. Note that they offer free finished compost for pick up. The compost they make consists of food waste from prepared foods and wood chips from a neighborhood tree removal service.

Curby, the Streets Department Recycling
mascot, made an appearance at PHL.
The Streets Department had the most
popular table, as they were giving away

free blue curbside bins.
Here are some links with info about the city's hearing:
 Although curbside food waste pick up (like that found in San Francisco) might be a long way off for Philadelphia, there are options for city residents who want to recycle their food waste, but aren't interested in maintaining an at home system:
  • Bennett Compost offers $15/month weekly curbside pick up
  • The Dirt Factory is open to University City residents twice weekly for drop off
  • The Compost Coop is open to Fishtown and Kensington residents for an annual membership fee of $25-$50 for drop off, included in the fee is finished compost

For more information on composting:

For more on the extent of food waste in our garbage:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Community Orchard Planting

~ Rebecca B. Frimmer

On a beautiful November sunny day with a brisk autumn breeze, I had the opportunity to volunteer with Philadelphia Orchard Project to plant the beginnings of an urban food forest in Gorgas Park, in Roxborough.  The orchard was going to be a joint community urban farming effort between Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP) and Roxborough’s Northlight Community Center, and Teens 4 Good.  The Gorgas Park property borders the fence of Roxborough High School, and the gate to the orchard is right next to the school, with hopes that the biology classes will get involved.  Penn State Extension Master Gardeners have taken on the role of helping to maintain some of these new urban orchards in their neighborhood parks.


Last year, the Extension Philadelphia Master Gardener class hosted Phil Forsyth, the Executive Director of Philadelphia Orchard Project, to teach about fruit trees, and ask for Master Gardener trainees to come volunteer at their plantings or even be a liaison for a new orchard.  Liasions for POP take on a volunteer role to help organize orchard maintenance and volunteer days, keeping on top of communications between the community organization's host site and POP.  POP has planted over 35 orchards – almost 700 fruit trees, not to mention thousands of shrubs, vines and perennials.  From persimmons to hazelnuts, POP isn’t shy about planting interesting and delicious fruit and nut varieties that are not widely commercially produced in our region. It is really exciting to introduce people to elderberries and kiwi berries while also seeing their delight in delicious favorites like apples and raspberries. 

Many of the Master Gardener trainees participated in the orchard planting behind the horticulture center in Fairmount Park last year. That Food Forest will be maintained by the Master Gardeners along with their Edible and Pollinator Demonstration gardens nearby. 

For more information:
Food Forest Horticulture Center     Food Forest Horticulture Center Part 2            

It all came full circle last Saturday at the orchard planting.  At the outset, all three community organizations shared their missions with us, followed by a tree planting demonstration, and then the planting itself.  The morning culminated in a group of a dozen happy volunteers proud of their plantings, sharing soft pretzels and local apples, looking forward to seeing the next phase of the food forest in the spring.  At that time, POP will come back and plant the understory of herbs and perennials to truly make this orchard site into a food forest.   

The Orchard Planting:

Philadelphia Orchard Project’s Executive Director Phil kicks off the day by offering a tree planting lesson.  We dug wide holes 2-3 times the width of each plant pot, and matched the depth to the current planting depth of the plant in its pot.  The orchard site and volunteers are watching the lesson here:

As you can see here, Phil is removing some of the topsoil because the tree is planted too deep.  He’s pulling the topsoil back to just above where the main root branches horizontally. Sometimes nurseries can even plant too deeply, when planting a tree its important that the depth is right, many novices have a tendency to plant just a little too deep for optimal results.

Once we were finished planting all of the fruit trees inside the gate, and berry bushes around the perimeter, we spread mulch around all of the fresh plantings, with a well to hold some water.  Here, Corrie Spellman, Teens 4 Good farmer who will be managing the site, gets ready to spread some mulch.  The volunteers also helped water in these new trees.


The orchard included Asian Pears, Currants, Raspberries, Blueberries, Sweet Cherries and Sweet Goumi. I’ve never had a Goumi berry before, but supposedly they are a sweet and sour red berry that is very high in Vitamin A & E and has the highest lycopene content of any food – even more than tomatoes!  I am looking forward to sampling some Goumi in the spring.

A Little More About The Orchard Hosts:

Philadelphia Orchard Project: The Philadelphia Orchard Project plants orchards in the city of Philadelphia that grow healthy food, green spaces and community food security. POP works with community-based groups and volunteers to plan and plant orchards filled with useful and edible plants.

Teens4Good: Teens 4 Good, a program of the Federation of Neighborhood Centers, is a youth-led entrepreneurial farm and nutrition business that transforms vacant lots into urban farms, improving access to healthy food for communities, creating meaningful jobs for at-risk youth and empowering youth to become healthy responsible stewards and leaders who give back to their communities.

Northlight Community Center: Their mission is to enable people of all ages and abilities in our communities, especially those most in need, to reach their full potential as productive and responsible citizens through initiatives that support and enrich children, teens, and families.