Wednesday, November 19, 2014

STUFF IT! A Guide to Thanksgiving Compromises

~Jessica S. Herwick

We humans like to fill things up.  It’s true.  We stuff our pockets, backpacks, purses until they overflow. We can’t ignore holes in the lawn.  We fill grocery and garbage bags alike to the very top before we realize their weight.  Ever have to sit on your suitcase to zip it closed?  We’re all guilty of it in some way.  Many of us have competed with friends to fit the most of some small edible treat in our mouths.  I myself won the skittles contest we held on the wing of my college dorm during a blizzard.  Eighty-nine at one time!  It would’ve been 90 but I accidentally swallowed one. Why, exactly, we feel this impulse is unknown.  Personally, I believe scientists and sociologists will someday discover there is a gene - a stuffing gene - that compels us to fill empty spaces, like gangs of eternal optimists.  This primal urge doesn’t just apply to pockets and holes in the wall.  Our most favorite place to stuff is… well, you know where.
 Photo by Jared B. Herwick
Something about food filled with additional flavor and texture generates a feeling of adventure, decadence, and brings an overall unique quality to that eating experience.  Even a green olive becomes more intriguing with that little piece of pimento peeking out at you.  It would make sense, then, for the most special of meals, we go the extra mile to build those exact qualities into the feast.  As our traditions have evolved, so has our understanding of how food works.  There are a few questions out there that seem to arise annually, just about this time of year, when chefs and home cooks are planning out the big menu.  Really, it’s all about the stuffing, right?  Or do you call it dressing?

I set out this year in search of some answers and some solutions to the ever-evolving Thanksgiving debates.  Although I will not be able to help you with arguments about who’s going to win the big game, we might be able to settle a few other looming questions before that debate begins.  To help me out with this task, I enlisted the advice of Mike Chowansky, graduate of Johnson & Whales University, who lives with his wife and two children in Havertown and has over 10 years of experience in the Philadelphia food scene. He’s also most often the Thanksgiving Dinner chef, so he knows his turkeys.  According to Chowansky, “There are more recipes for stuffing than there are pizza shops in New York City.  It is the quintessential Thanksgiving dish that everyone makes, has a secret recipe for, and is used to judge the overall Thanksgiving feast.”  No wonder we take it so seriously!

A Little History…
Like gravy on mashed potatoes, stuffing has a long history of appearing on dining tables throughout centuries of celebratory banquets all over the world.  The earliest recorded mention of stuffing our food appears in the oldest cookbook on record, ‘Apicius de re Coquinaria’, as recorded by Roman gourmet Apicius, so we’ve been doing this for a very long time.  Somewhere around the 1st century AD, Apicius and other Romans were stuffing dormouse, hare, pig and chicken.  Stuffing recommendations such as herbs, nuts, spelt, chopped liver, and occasionally brains were part of these early recipes.  The Native Americans and Pilgrims most likely stuffed the first Thanksgiving turkey, but according to assumptions by specialists, they used herbs and vegetables (most likely onions), to fill the cavity and flavor the meat.  It was not meant to be a separate dish for consumption.

The Bedouins may take the cake… or the camel as the case may be… for the most outrageously aggressive stuffing recipe in history, the Traditional Bedouin Stuffed Camel.  Yes, you heard that right... a camel.  According to legend, and a few travelers who claim to have witnessed such feasts, the traditional wedding dish served at the marriages of sheiks and of their family members was a whole camel, stuffed to unbelievable proportions and cooked for several days, much like a pig roast.  Mentioned by T.C. Boyle in Water Music, the Guinness Book of World Records as “the largest item in any menu in the world, occasionally served at Bedouin wedding feasts” and appearing on a “Breakfast Tips” card included with the remastered CD version of Pink Floyd’s album Atom Heart Mother, the recipe goes something like this.  Medium sized camel.  Skinned, trimmed and cleaned.  Stuffed with sheep - stuffed with seasoned bustards – stuffed with carp – stuffed with eggs and/or dates, and baked on hot coals for several days.’  Take that, Turducken!  

So Is It Dressing or Stuffing, Then?
According to the National Turkey Association, the terms stuffing and dressing can be used interchangeably.  I didn’t want to believe this was true.  So, once again, I sought out my expert.  And to my dismay, Chowansky agrees definitively, “Tomato, Tom(ah)to.  Stuffing.  Dressing.  It’s all the same!”  Whether you are passing the dressing or the stuffing, they are both “used to fill the cavity of the bird.  Dressing comes to us from the much more refined folks living below the Mason Dixon Line.  They wouldn’t be caught dead saying stuffing.  That was much too common.”  So, there you have it. This is a personal decision having nothing to do with where the filling cooked, but where the cook was born and raised.

To Stuff or Not To Stuff…
Photo By Jared B. Herwick
No matter what you call it, where you put it does matter, and will dictate the timing of your meal.  You’ve heard the warnings and concerns regarding the potential food safety issues related to cooking your stuffing inside your turkey.  

FACT – Turkeys and other animals contain bacteria that will make us humans sick.  The bacteria dies at certain temperatures, which is why we are so careful about cooking them. 

FACT:  These bacteria, especially those living in the turkey before you cook it, love your grandma’s stuffing as much as you do.  You may wish to bathe in it, but the bacteria don’t have to wish, they soak in it - at least until everything reaches 165°F.  And that means everything, right down to the center of the stuffing inside the cavity.  

Mike says it’s safer and tastier to cook them separately.  The culinary artist in him says, “I would never stuff a bird.  You have to cook it much longer when stuffed to properly heat and kill the bacteria that was living in the bird and that now resides in your stuffing.  Longer cooking time equals dry bird.”

Ready to Separate the Bread from the Bird? 
If you’re ready to start new stuffing... or dressing... traditions, and you're ready to roast the bird all by himself, consider these tasty tricks and compromises. 
*  Place fresh herbs such as sage, marjoram, thyme, rosemary or even thin slices of lemon if you like citrus directly under the skin of the bird before you put it in the oven to cook. 
*  When you make your stuffing, adding an egg (if you don’t already) will keep the bread moist and fluffy. 
*  If you miss that “wet stuffing” texture, try covering the stuffing with foil as soon as it’s finished baking to create a tight seal.  Do not remove until you serve.  The foil will condense and lock in moisture, increasing that “wet” feel as if it’s come from the bird (although you are giving up those crispy little ends.)  If left standing too long it can get soggy.  Keep your eye on it!   

Not Quite Ready? 
If you’re steadfast in your stuffing/dressing/filling traditions, know that the safe-zone for internal temperature is 165°F, for turkey AND the very center of the inserted filling.  See the following links for information on the USDA and National Turkey Association pages to ensure you’re meeting safety standards!  Always use a meat thermometer, and ensure the thermometer is calibrated.

Penn State Extension Publication:  Safe Turkey Handling Practices

National Turkey Federation Homepage:

Consider Putting It Somewhere Else Entirely!
I’m a vegetarian, so I agree with Mike, but for my own completely selfish reasons.  Keep the stuffing separate.  I can’t eat it if it’s come out of the bird (even if I secretly want slap it on my plate and slather it with turkey gravy).  I realize that’s a lot to ask at times, depending on whose table I’m joining. I often bring my own.  

So many traditional dishes all over the world stuff some form of pepper or other sturdy vegetable common to the various regions.  Spanish, Mexican, Mediterranean, Indian, Middle Eastern and Romanian cuisines all brag their own special blends of grains, herbs, spices and meats for their traditional stuffed vegetable dishes.  From dolma to pimientos rellenos, there’s quite literally a whole world of recipes out there to fill your fruits and veggies.  This time of year it seems most of the fruits and veggies in autumn harvest are practically cooking vessels by design.  
Over the years, I have experimented with a variety of recipes like this, seeking to replace some of those familiar comforts of the Thanksgiving feast without forgoing all the comfort.  Veggies are delicious, but they aren’t very cozy all by themselves.  With the debates about the food safety issues presented by our modern holiday habit of filling the raw turkey and cooking the stuffing inside, I thought it might be time to share some of my more refined recipes for bacteria-free stuffed fare and encourage all you chefs out there to consider a shift in your perspective on Thanksgiving stuffing.  You don’t HAVE to stuff the bird.  You don’t HAVE to stuff an animal at all!  Go ahead and remove that apple from the piggy’s mouth, carve it out, and put something delicious in there. 

The food is the casing, the insides that you dig out become part of the recipe, can at times be set aside for later use (like roasting your squash seeds), or go right back into your compost pile.  No waste.  At the end of the meal, if anything remains of your apples, squashes and peppers, you can rinse the remnants well and place them into the compost pile as well!  I like to think of it as eco-thankful!  And in a way, a return to tradition.  It’s easy to appreciate the sustenance of the harvest when the beauty of the pumpkins, peppers and apples are roasted and set on the table in their colorful original form.  This is much closer to the way our ancestors thought about and utilized their food back on that fateful day in Plymouth.  Neither Native American nor Colonist was interested in wasting any part of the food that would soon become scarce.  They might have stuffed their fowl with onions and garden herbs instead of bread cubes, but they utilized every possible piece.  I often wonder this time of year what the first people who sat for that Thanksgiving feast would think of our modern grocery stores and walk-in freezers.

Here are some of my favorite recipes that would not only fit right in at your holiday table, but have definite potential to become a traditional feasting favorite.  Prepare to hear requests when the next holiday rolls around.  It’s all stuffed!

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Bread Pudding Stuffed Apples (Serves 4)

List of Ingredients:  
4 large, crisp apples (carved and insides diced).  1 egg slightly beaten.  1 cup milk or half and half.  1 cup 1-inch moist bread cubes (one-inch cubes best).  2 tsp Vanilla.  3 tbs cinnamon.  1 tbs dried sage.  1 tbs   ¼ teaspoon nutmeg.  ¼ teaspoon cardamom.  1/8 tsp salt.  ½ cup brown sugar.  ¼ cup raisins (optional).  Muffin Tin.  Butter for greasing tin.

List of Instructions:  Preheat oven to 300°F

Prepare the Apple:  Cut apples at top like a jack-o-lantern.  Gently cut out most of the cores and set aside for compost.  Be sure to leave the bottom ½” of the core at the bottom as support for the body of the apple.  Gently cut or carve out the meat inside the apple making a cavern for the batter, leaving a thick layer of meat (at least ¼” thick) against the skin.  Set apple pieces aside, and chop into small pieces to add to batter.  Rub the skin of the apple lightly with olive or vegetable oil and place in muffin tin for support while baking. 

Prepare the Stuffing:    Combine all above ingredients in a bowl.  Stir until well blended with a wooden spoon or spatula. Do not use a mixer for this. Continue folding until bread cubes soak up the liquid and begin to break apart.  Allow batter to sit for a few minutes until all the liquid is completely soaked up and batter is fluffy.  Fill each apple half-way and sprinkle a little brown sugar on top.  Place in oven.  Bake until apple is soft (but not falling apart) and the stuffing rises and is no longer runny.  Serve warm with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. 

Cook’s Notes:  This batter expands to almost double in size.  Consider this when filling your apples!  Sometimes it is easier to use a fifth apple to make the diced apple portion.  Depends on how good you are at carving out the meat.  I always keep and extra apple set aside when making this.  For grown-up deserts, you can substitute Baileys, Kahlua or Cask and Cream for the milk.   

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Pumpkin Pie Stuffed Roasted Pumpkin (Serves 4)

List of Ingredients: 4 mini-baking pumpkins about 4 inches in diameter.  If your mini pumpkins are 5-6 inches in diameter, double the recipe and bake what remains in muffin tin or custard cups.  8 oz cream cheese softened.  1/3 cup brown sugar, 1 egg plus 1 additional yolk.  1/3 cup pumpkin puree.  1 teaspoon vanilla.  1 tsp cinnamon.  ¼ tsp sage.  ¼ tsp cardamom.  ¼ tsp nutmeg.  (1/4 tsp cloves.  I leave them out due to certain allergic reactions cloves can cause).

List of Instructions:  Preheat oven to 350°F

Prepare the Pumpkin:  Cut top off and gut like a jack-o-lantern, leaving a thick layer of the pumpkin meat to support the frame.  Set seeds aside to be roasted later on.  

Rub the outside & tops of the pumpkins with vegetable oil. Set in lightly oiled baking dishes for support.

Prepare the Stuffing:  Mix the cream cheese, sugar, egg and yolk until they form a soft paste.  Add pumpkin, vanilla, herbs & spices and continue to mix until smooth and well blended. Pour mixture into hollowed out pumpkins about halfway (2/3 if the pumpkins are closer to 6”)  Bake in oven until filling rises and sets like a cheesecake, about 25-30 minutes.  Remove from oven.  Chill for at least an hour before serving.  Top with whipped cream and pieces of shortbread pie-crust cookies. 
Cook’s Notes:  This batter will expand to at least double in size (if not more before it cools and settles).  


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Fancy Cheese Stuffed Cherry Hot Peppers (or any pepper) (serves 4)

List of Ingredients:  12-16 (depending on size) small to medium sized cherry hot peppers, fresh. 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese, 6-8 oz. goat cheese.  ½ cup soft bread cubes diced.  3 tbs vegetable broth.  1 tbs fresh oregano chopped.  1 tbs fresh parsley, chopped.  ¼ tsp ground pepper.  ¼ tsp ground sea salt.  

*You can add 1/4 cup vegetarian crumbles or cooked, ground beef to these. I like them without.
List of Instructions:  Preheat oven to 375°F

Prepare the Cherry Hot Peppers:  Cut the top off the peppers and scrape out seeds and pithy white insides.  Peppers can be cut at the top or down the middle.  Rinse peppers and dry.  Set each pepper in a muffin tin, or line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.  Rub the peppers inside and out with olive oil and set on baking sheets.

Prepare the Stuffing:  Combine bread cubes, vegetable broth and parmesan.  Stir until the bread breaks down and blends into itself.  Add goat cheese, oregano, parsley, salt and pepper.  Stir until well combined.  Fill cherry red peppers on baking sheets.  Sprinkle bread crumbs over the tops.  You can also use parmesan or mozzarella if you're playing with flavors.  Bake for 15-20 minutes until edges of peppers are soft and starting to crisp on the edges, topping is turning golden brown, and mixture is no longer bubbling heavily.  Let stand for 5 minutes and serve. 

Cook’s Notes:  When preparing the cherry red hot peppers, USE GLOVES!  Also, if you can work in a well-ventilated area, you should.  As soon as the seeds hit water and you continue to agitate the pepper releasing those oils, the fumes will cause skin, nose, eye and even throat reactions.  I like to serve the cherry hots with a little sour cream on the side for those who don't enjoy the good burn of a hot pepper quite as much as I do. 

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Soup in a Gourd (or Pumpkin) (serves 4)

List of Ingredients:  One very large baking pumpkin, hubbard squash or butternut squash.  4 small shallots, diced.  1 small apple, peeled, cored and diced (no more than 1 cup diced).  1 large clove garlic, diced.  1-2 cups vegetable broth (start with 1 cup and add depending on size of gourd).  1/2 cup heavy cream.  1tbs unsalted butter.  4 - 8oz goat cheese.  2 tbs fresh chopped sage.  2 tbs fresh chopped thyme. 2 tbs fresh chopped parsley.  1 tbs kosher salt.  1 tsp. ground black pepper.  Casserole dish to support pumpkin(s).  Emersion mixer.  Vegetable oil to rub pumpkin skin and top and grease casserole dishes.   
List of Instructions:  Preheat oven to 375 °F

Prepare Pumpkin as you would for a jack-o-lantern.  Gut, set seeds aside, leave as much meat as possible lining the edges of the pumpkin.

Prepare the soup:  Place broth, cream, apples, garlic, shallots, butter, salt and pepper directly into the pumpkin and stir lightly.  Place top back on pumpkin and bake in oven for 1 1/2 hours.  Remove from oven.  Stir gently.  Add goat cheese, sage, thyme, parsley and use a soup spoon to gently scrape the now softening pumpkin meat into the soup (careful not to dig too deep or cut through the pumpkin).  Stir, place top back on pumpkin and return to oven to bake for another 25-30 minutes.  Remove from oven, using emersion mixer, blend the contents directly inside the pumpkin (again, careful not to compromise the pumpkin shell) until it becomes a creamy, smooth liquid.  Serve immediately (in bread bowls if you have the time!)

Cooks Notes:  If you are reserving the pumpkin seeds, they make a great garnish all roasted up!
Click the link to connect to the Winter Squash Seed blog for a how-to.  

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

JB Kelly School garden tours

Michele K. Koskinen

In late Sept/early October the teachers at  J.B. Kelly school were given the opportunity to sign their classes up to tour the expanded school garden. 9 classes from K to 2nd Grade with their teachers were taken through the garden for what I call an adventure in vegetables.

Although I had a class on growing and vegetables prepared, the garden was full of  bees and butterflies. Therefore, I switched gears and allowed them to wonder, ask questions and answer my inquiries about two types of bees they were seeing.  When asked what they were doing many answered "getting nectar" which was a delight.

And finally, the importance of bees in the garden for honey and pollination and how their are also different kinds of bees. And no we can't pet them or touch them as well as running and swatting at them.
A Bumblebee

A bee on the………Can you say "Aslepias"?

Next were the ohhhhh and ahhhh of the Monarch, Cabbage Butterfly, Painted Lady Butterfly sightings and yes we found a few caterpillars.

The pollinator garden
has become the most exciting part of the students experience. The teachers have done a great job preparing them with words like pollen, nectar and other adjectives to describe things they see, smell and touch. Having the fence is a wonderful way for the students to take a peak during recess and see what is visiting at that time. They are looking for the we Some of the students are very protective of them when others students that have not had the tour want to touch them or pick them up. "Remember they are delicate and need to eat to grow into a butterfly."
Monarch visiting the Zinnias was a lesson not planned
but a great opportunity for learning

Another Butterfly lesson in how butterflies are
different just like we are. A Painted Lady has four eyes on its wing
an American Lady has 2 eyes can you tell which one this is?

A lesson in what is growing in the garden.

Tasting, touching, smelling and, as one teacher said, "use your eyes to observe" are all lessons that the students take back to the classroom for discussion. The interest of the students can be seen in their excitement and wanting to touch and smell and also taste those foreign vegetables like swiss chard, kale, and yuk mustard greens. Smelling and tasting basil and mint and, of course, can I have a flower from the Garden?

How do you eat these vegetables, raw in salads, cooked, as a "herb" for making it taste better.  Do you like spicy? Basil is used in spagetti and pizza, mint for tea and candy are ways of exploring and using critical thinking. What do you think

This is called a turban squash does anyone know why?

This is beginning of year 3 for the garden and the many changes have occurred since the spring of this year. Thoses changes have made this area not only a garden but the beginning of an outdoor learning center for the school and its students. It will take a few more volunteers to make it a true learning center for nutrition, and horticulture but it can be accomplished. School gardens can become an invaluable teaching tool not only by science teachers and health nutrition teachers. They can begin to change the entire schools culture and provide the students and community with a point of pride.

While looking for information on school garden resources, I found several online sites of interest. If you are thinking of starting a school garden, these may help in inspiration.

In Pennsylvania contact your local Penn State EXTENSION office for possible Master Gardener help or in the Philadelphia area PHS for their Green CityTeachers Workshop

Online resources you may like:

For more stories about the Kelly Green Project check our previous blogs.

June 2014 PHS collaboration for Green City schools workshop

2014 School year report

2013 School year report

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Put The Garden To Bed With Your Own Personal Style!

~ Jessica S. Herwick

With autumn weather (and the related temperature decline) on the horizon, many farmers and gardeners are harvesting the last of the summer goodies and looking toward winters arrival.  The idea of putting your garden to bed for the winter is a simple concept that is guaranteed to reap huge rewards when it’s time to wake your ground up the following spring.  Following these easy steps, you can improve the overall health of your growing medium.  If you’re diligent, you’ll even be able to get a jump on planting and be the first on your block to start plucking early season bounty next spring!
From this Mid-October photo of my backyard garden, you can certainly see that the summer is over! 
You may have heard of “The Three C’s”, which is an easy way to remember the three general tasks necessary to properly prepare the garden... 
* Clean Up, Compost, Cover*   

Note the many levels of disease and decay enjoying these fall leaves!
You have a few options within each step, giving you some creative license to design your own unique set of procedures that will work best for the needs of your garden space or flower beds.  Follow The Easy Method…  If you keep a small lawn, garden space, or flower bed, without access to compost or other recycling methods, or simply don’t have enough time in the day.  Continue Going That Extra Mile… if you’re a gardener with access to compost bins or maintain a green space and wish to increase the sustainability of your space and further reduce your carbon footprint a smidge. 

There are a few preliminary tasks you can add to that agenda, outlined below, to help you get the ball rolling.  Combined with your personal choices within each “C”, you are more than equipped to start tucking in your garden.    Ready to design your new secrets to success?  Here we go.

PRELIMINARY STEP ONE: Order Your Soil Testing Kit and Test Your Soil!
Best practices recommends testing your soil now, before the frost sets in so you can dig deep enough for a hearty sample.  PA residents can order a soil kit (which comes with directions) and have your sample sent to the lab for a much more in depth report that you’d discover from a store- bought kit.  Penn State Extension will provide you with an informative report about the quality and composition of your soil and important soil nutrients.  The report is typically accompanied by a short list of recommendations to remedy deficiencies or level out your PH.  There is a small fee for the processing, but the insight you gain to the land where you grow can shed light on all sorts of possibilities for improving your soil and your gardens production.  It is also really fun to secretly know what is going on underneath the surface.

How to Obtain A Soil Test Kit?
More information about Penn State Extension Soil Tests for gardens. 

Philadelphia Residents can pick up a soil test kit through the Extension office at the Penn State Center, located at 675 Sansom St., Philadelphia, 19106.  
Call ahead (215) 471-2200 for office hours & availability of stock.

I admit I’ve fallen victim to this more than once and I regret it every time.  I tell myself, “Well of course I’ll remember where I planted everyone next spring!  I’ve been staring at these rows for months!  How could I forget!?”  But after a few growing seasons pass, it’s difficult to recall where the tomatoes were 2 or three years back.  If you aren’t the kind of gardener who keeps sketches or writes out plans each year, it’s a good idea to quickly make a list of what you are growing and where for crop rotation next season. 
HINT:  Be sure to mark off any areas that contain perennials or other areas you prefer to leave undisturbed until Spring.  Some gardeners choose to allow flowers to go to seed and plants to die back naturally, delaying some cleaning until Spring.  


Pretty self-explanatory.  Most of us clean as we go, and its common sense to clear debris, annuals that have died back and old plants that have past their prime as they continue to meet their end.  But let’s look at that one, last concerted effort you make just before the snow comes.

Whether you go the all natural route keeping the majority of plants in the ground, are closing your pristine flower beds full of annuals, or somewhere in between, there are some general tasks that should be done around the garden before winter. Cleaning up is the MOST important.  

Benefits:  Helps prevent disease and pests; Keeps the garden looking pretty and the neighbors happy; Sets the stage for composting and fertilizing the soil (which occurs a little further down the road, in the second C). 

1.  Rake and remove all dead growth including leaves and discard.
The Easy Method:  Literally, get in there, rake out all debris and discard. It’s best to use lawn and garden bags (big brown paper bags you can buy at the hardware store) if you are throwing all that potential compost away.   
Going That Extra Mile: Once you rake out the debris, Remove anything that is diseased or could seed inside the compost bin and discard.  Move all “healthy and clean” debris to the compost bin.   Chop up large plants for faster decomposition.  You can separate fall leaves from this mess if you have enough to make it worthwhile.  Pile the leaves on your lawn, run your mower over the pile a few times, rake that up and mix it with your dried grass clippings for a fabulous mulch.  

2. Disturb Your Rocks (or pots or other surfaces sitting directly on your garden soil)
The Easy Method:  Move all large rocks and check underneath for signs of disease or pests that might be lurking.  Remove all the rocks, spray them with a hose and let dry or wipe dry, then relocate them where they are not making direct contact with soil or the corners of your home.  This will prevent pests from collecting underneath.  This way you don’t have to watch the soil so carefully.
Going That Extra Mile: Some people remove all their stones for the winter but I choose to keep mine in the garden.  I grow cold weather crops and so I use them to collect a little extra warmth around root systems.  If you keep your rocks in, you have to be a bit more diligent and check under there from time to time, before and after deep winter freeze or intermittently during mild winters.  Ants and other pests may try to use them as cold weather shelter and tunnel right into your spring veggies before you even know the ground has softened.

3.  Move Your Mulch
The Easy Method:  If mulch is in your garden, rake it to the side on a clean area in a loose pile, preferably in a sunny spot where it can fully dry out.  Remove any mulch that is breaking down or contains mold.  The rest of your mulch can be returned to the garden during the last step.
Going That Extra Mile:  Limited amounts of older (healthy) mulch can be turned into compact soil and can be added to compost (But be aware of amounts.  Keep your green/brown balance.)

4.  Pull the Weeds, ALL the Weeds.
The Easy Method:  Remove all weeds by pulling them out, doing your best to remove their roots.  Don’t give them a head start next spring!  They can also collect pests that will come back to haunt you.  Use hand tools to really get in there.
Going That Extra Mile: Pulling weeds is pulling weeds.  You either pull them all or you pull some of them.  Going that extra mile in this case would simply be applying additional care and diligence to ensuring you’ve destroyed and removed the root systems as much as possible. 

5.  Remove Your Old Growth
The Easy Method:  Pull all dead plants or those that are almost dead.  There’s no hope for them now.  Ensure you have removed root systems by turning the soil around the area and pulling out the entire root system (if you don’t turn your whole bed or have raised beds).  If you maintain perennials in your beds, do not follow this step for those plants. Treat according to their needs for returning next season.
Going That Extra Mile: Chop up old/dead vegetable plants for compost. Remember to remove diseased portions of the plant first.  Hint:  Including the root systems in your compost with some soil still clinging will help speed up the process of your composting.  Soil contains microbes and other living organisms that stimulate decomposition.

THE SECOND C: COMPOST (Feed the soil):  Now that you’ve cleared the way, it is time to feed 
Compost ready to be chopped, turned and covered.
the soil before regular frost sets in.  It has been working very hard for you and has depleted much of its resources growing your berries and zucchini.  Think of this as your soils yearly flu shot, or 

vitamin boost.  Some gardeners do this in early spring, but its good practice to think about how you can supplement in Fall.   

Benefits:  Replenishes nutrients into soil and improves soil quality; Can assist in balancing PH levels (if you had your soil tested!); Increases nutrient availability to plants next spring.  Feeding your soil now will allow the nutrients to work their way into the soil naturally, wintering-over, so they will be immediately available to your plants next spring.

Options:             Fertilizer                    Compost                   (homemade or store bought)

Fertilizer:  You can find all sorts of fertilizers packaged for easy use online or at your local garden center and often your local hardware store.  Organic and non-organic products exist in liquid, granule, water soluble, and a multitude of other forms.   Depending on what zone you’re in, what you’ve grown and what you plan to grow, you can purchase or make a variety of fertilizers.  Best to refer to your soil test results!
The Easy Method:  Bring your soil test results to the local garden center, nursery, hardware store, or check in with the e-version of the Hort. Hotline to get assistance from a Philadelphia County Master Gardener.  Present them with the test results.  Ask them to recommend fertilizers (this is the time to stress organic or non-organic preferences) and follow the instructions.  These professionals can assist you in determining what your soil needs most and often times they will make recommendations about how to apply.  This takes all the guess work out of fertilizing your soil.
Going That Extra Mile:  Typically an enthusiastic gardener employs a variety of fertilizers, turning them into the soil, then turning and covering with compost.  Organic gardeners and non-organics have many options.  We will explore fertilizer options soon in further blogs.  It should be noted that some fertilizer products contain high amounts of salts which can be harmful to the garden in the long run despite immediate benefits of fertilization.  Check the salts content on packaging to know what you’re using!                 

Contact the Penn State Extension Philadelphia Master Gardener Hortline with your questions: 
By E-mail Year Round    with "Hortline" in the subject line.
In content of your email give your question, name and contact phone number. Include photos if needed!
By Phone From March through October, you can call 215-471-2200 ext. 116  
Leave a message with your question and a Hortline Master Gardener will get back to you. 

Close up of uncut compost.  October 2014.
Compost:  Let’s be honest.  Compost isn’t for everyone.  But those of us who make it and utilize it swear by its effectiveness.  You can opt out of compost and use store-bought fertilizers instead.  Some supply stores will stock pre-packaged compost just like potting soil.  I recommend calling around before you drive out to make your purchases.  It’s not a typical product, although I see it more and more.   
The Easy Method:  Remove the guess work like crabgrass, and bring your soil sample test results along with the measurements of your garden space to your local supply store (or ask a Master Gardener through the Philadelphia Hort Hotline e-service how much you will need).  Tell them you want to purchase compost for your garden and inquire about options and follow the directions.
Going That Extra Mile:  If you keep a home compost bin or outdoor pile, this is the moment you have been waiting for all year!  It is time to pull the finished compost from your bin/pile and lay it out on your garden beds.  You can add a variety of fertilizer products to supplement for nutrients your compost may not provide.  But if you make compost, you should be sure to return that nutrition packed organic matter back to the garden soil, before covering.  You can lay it on top and scratch over the soil, or dig into the top layer of your garden bed.  I like to water once or twice after turning my compost in, before making any further moves in the space.  The organic matter is a wholesome way to deliver aeration and amendments to soil. 

THE THIRD C:  COVER.  You want to be sure that none of your soil is fully exposed to the elements through the winter.  There are a variety of ways you can accomplish this, but we will look at the top 3 choices.  Why consider covering the soil at all?  Why not just pull the plants and leave it?

Even during mild seasons, the weathering and temperature fluctuations can deplete any nutrients left in the soil.  Especially if you have gone through the trouble and expense of cleaning and feeding your soil, don’t let those efforts wash away!  

Benefits: Protects bare soil where the ground would otherwise remain exposed until spring; Helps prevent unwanted weeds; Protects perennials from harsh, cold, freezing temps; Helps return organic matter to the soil and retain nutrients; Aids in the prevention of run off.

Options:              Fabric Coverings                  Mulching                  Cover Crop (known also as ‘green mulch’)

Fabric Coverings:  This option is The Easy Method, but buyer beware!  
Raised bed covered with plant protecting fabric. (100% Cotton)
Coverings made from recycled materials, plastics, breathable fabric blends, and a whole slew of other components can be found online or anywhere you purchase garden supplies around this time of year.  I’ve known people to use cardboard or camping tarps with success.  The basic covers are less expensive than standard mulches and require the least amount of time for this last step but there are some pitfalls. Fabric or plastic covering works great if you are trying to stomp out weed infestations or severely treat soil.  However, many of these materials do not discriminate so as effective as they are at stomping out weeds, they are equally effective at stomping out new growth from established perennials in and preventing early volunteers from popping up.  It will also hinder early bulbs if not removed soon enough and can draw ants and other pesty infestations before you’re ready to uncover your plots. 

Natural wood chips mulching the hardy Rosemary. 
Mulching:  You have many mulching options.  You can select from hay, straw, wood chips, shredded leaves and grass clippings among other options to create a warm, protective shield for your soil.  Mulching works as a protective cover but has the added benefit of returning some nutrients to your 
soil, depending on how complicated you want to make things.  You can get fancy and use the variety of texture and color options to create interesting bedded garden spaces.
The Easy Method:  Return to your helpful garden center, nursery, or hardware store, where you have now become friends with the home and garden employees, and tell them that you need bagged mulch for your garden.  You will have to decide ahead of time what kind of mulch you want to add.  Clean Straw (a straw product that is sanitized and prepackaged usually by the CUFT), Licorice Mulch (which is local!) or Hardwood Mulch are the most typical choices in the Pennsylvania arena.  

Dyed red mulch, natural wood chips, licorice mulch,
shredded cedar and clean straw!  So many options!
These three mulch options are usually naturally organic, add some nutrients but do not require you to consider them fertilizer and are easy to remove, turn into the soil or relocate in the spring. 
Going that Extra Mile:  Think of this as an opportunity to further feed your soil.  Keep that soil testing report handy when you return to your supply store and inform them of any fertilizers or compost you’ve already added so you can keep a balance, but ask for recommendations to continue adding necessary nutrients for your garden goals.  Your local professional will recommend what is best.  This is also a great time to rely on the Hort. Hotline if you haven’t found a reliable home and garden source by now.

Cover Crops (Green Mulch):     Cover crops require some research, timing and extra effort.  There is
White clover working as a late cover crop for Kale.
no easy method for implementation, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor.  This year, it is a little late to seed your plots and get crops a good start before frost comes.  But, they are unendingly valuable so keep reading.

Typically a cover crop is a plant you grow over the entirety of your garden to create a strong stand where roots and cover crops protect, clean and even continue to provide the garden soil with nutrients.  Before planting season, typically you cut out, pull out and/or often turn the cover crop into the soil as an amendment. Farmers have been using cover crops to 'sweeten' their soil for generations, using special blends and techniques for specific crops.  This can be done in a small space too!  You have to make some adjustments for an urban garden space, but it can be done! Watch for future blogs that explore this topic to learn more. 

Don't Forget Your Tools!
The VERY LAST STEP for closing down your garden is to collect all outdoor and indoor gardening tools.  Clean with soap and water then wipe with rubbing alcohol or rinse with a bleach/water solution to kill disease.  Use steel wool or light sand paper to remove rust, wipe clean and then rub lightly with vegetable oil to prevent further rust.  Store in a dry place for the winter, all except for the rake and the snow shovel!

Now you’re ready, fellow gardeners!  Let winter bring its harsh temperatures, intense storms and wintery mixes. You can rest easy through hibernation, knowing that your soil will be improved in quality, protected from the weather, and it might even be fighting off pests and weeds while you slumber.  Share with us here what choices YOU make for closing down your garden this time of year.  We'd love to hear your tricks and tips!

Consider the Free Method!     Free isn’t always easy, but it’s cost effective and great for the environment!  Check out some of the free compost available in the Philadelphia Area!  Fairmount Park and others offer tested compost, wood chips, and other materials that you can drag away at no charge if you bring your own containers and transportation.  See the following links for some of your options. 

The Fairmont Park Recycling Center... accepts and allows Philly residents to pick up free compost, wood chips, mulch and herbivore manure. They also accept drop offs. 
See the link for details and location.

The Dirt Factory... University City boasts the fabulous Dirt Factory where residents can access free composting pick up and drop offs.  (For University City residents only)

Looking to Learn More?
Penn State Extension information about backyard composting.