Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Parsnip

by Michelle L. Dauberman

Winter is the perfect time to start planning your garden and if you’re a seasoned gardener you’re probably thinking about your favorites like the flavorful heirloom tomato, spicy pepper, veritable squash, crispy lettuce, aromatic herbs and super-foods like kale and spinach.  So this year why not add parsnips to your garden.

Beyond their sweetness and relation to that other root vegetable, the carrot, it’s worth mentioning how long you can safely extend the parsnips’ harvesting season.  At a time when most of the garden has gone quiet you can dig your parsnips from unfrozen ground long into the winter months and even into early spring.

As you go from garden to table imagine how warm and tasty a side dish of roasted or fried parsnips would be on a cold winter’s day.

For more information on parsnips visit this PSU Extension page:

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Peppers with a Purpose

By Chuck Richards

In late November, I finally committed to the bittersweet task of cleaning up what was the backyard edible garden. Being the Northern Hemisphere’s time to weather the Earth’s 23 degree tilt away from our energy source, my tomato stakes came down, and the remaining plant material went to compost. In the midst of this annual exercise of mind and body, I once again found humor in the absurd amount of hot peppers that I produce annually. By the time I was finished the chore, I had a more than fifty final hot peppers for 2016.

If my wife, our two toddler girls, and I solely ate hot peppers, I would never again have to wait behind that guy at the Giant who uses self-checkout with an overflowing shopping cart when the rest of us behind him have a few things in a small basket. But outside of me, no one in this house eats hot peppers. One can only push so many hot peppers on friends, family, and colleagues before people begin to talk. So, each year, I am committed to finding creative ways to utilize all those hot peppers and, lately, equally committed to being pleasant in the self-checkout line at the grocery store.

After I have made as many salsas as I can dream up, or tried every sandwich or variation of grilled chicken or burger with roasted hot peppers, or even spiced up a tomato sauce; eventually, there are still too many peppers and not enough time. Since they don’t keep forever, I have a few favorite ways to utilize them throughout the winter and all the way into the next growing season.

Crushed Red Pepper

I use my bright red cayenne peppers to make homemade crushed red pepper.  It’s very easy to do and pays long-term dividends with the spice and flavor it can add to many winter meals.

Here’s how to do it:

1. Remove stems, and cut the peppers in half;

2. Spread the peppers across a cookie sheet. Feel free to include some seed too;

3. Bake at 200° F (or less if your oven settings and time allow) for several hours. Use a fan or crack the oven door when you can, as air circulation is important for the process;

4. Crush! When the peppers are fully dried, place in food processor or take a rolling pin or knife to them;

5. Place crushed pepper in a shaker (I just clean out a used shaker and make my own label).

That’s it. It’s that easy. Just make sure they are fully dry, or they are more difficult to crush/dice.

Diced Peppers for Freezing

I use freezer sphere molds…banana, jalapeno, cayenne, serrano, habanero, etc. They are such a simple “add” to any dish throughout the winter when all you have to do is open up one of these molds and stir them in as you begin cooking or thaw and utilize uncooked in many different meals.

Save the Seeds

You can use these seeds for next year’s plants. I’ve been planting for years without buying any seed. Simply separate all the seeds and set on a surface to dry for a few days. Then, put them in a small paper bag, label it, and put it in a plastic storage in the back of the fridge until it is time to plant in the spring!


I think the most important tip is to be careful throughout these processes. I’m often too stubborn to use gloves, but it is a good idea to use some sort of protection from the capsaicin, which is the oily chemical responsible for the "hot" in peppers (genus capsicum)

Capsaicin is difficult to wash/scrub off as it is hydrophobic, and even after you think you are in the clear, you’ll rub your eyes and be instantly and very uncomfortably reminded why you should have been less stubborn.

If you are using the oven to assist your drying process, be sure to either have a window cracked for good circulation, and consider evacuating loved ones and pets prior to oven drying. That capsaicin can begin permeating your living space to the point of irritability. 


Search “OC Spray” on YouTube for a few examples of what a military/law enforcement dose of a capsaicin-based spray does to these poor individuals. Sure, these are extreme examples, but maybe they’ll help you remember these safety tips.

Hopefully this helps you enjoy these healthy and delicious hot peppers year-round!

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Passyunk Gardens

A view of Passyunk Gardens from across Wharton ST.
Still productive in late October. 
By Stephanie Rukowicz

In addition to the productive edible food demonstration garden at the Horticulture Center, a second MG edible demonstration garden was added to the project list in Spring 2015: Passyunk Gardens. Located in South Philly at the corner of Wharton ST and East Passyunk AVE, this demonstration vegetable garden is maintained by volunteers.

Established in 2011, the garden is all container. It began with high-raised beds that have no contact with the ground and, over time, additional tub containers have been added to maximize the use of space. Increasingly, perennial plants have also been added around the containers to develop a permaculture.  It is an interesting experiment in what's possible with these true urban conditions.

Passyunk Gardens is a community garden yet different from a typical community garden. All beds and containers are tended and harvested collectively. This togetherness allows for more community interaction, rather than the traditional community garden where individual plots are assigned and the majority of time spent at the garden is by individuals working in and harvesting from individual plots. Produce is shared with neighbors, gardeners and partner organization United Communities. In 2016, the garden donated over 200 lbs of produce to United Communities' food pantry.

A view inside the garden in July 2016.
Photo from garden's Facebook page

One of two murals that brighten the garden space.
PHS City Harvest program provides plants and gardening supplies which are supplemented by neighborhood donations and the support of Passyunk Square Civic Association. Plants are selected with community member interests in mind and experiments are encouraged. The garden has an established bed of hops (which are turned into beer for the annual neighborhood holiday party), grape vines, berries, horseradish, sunchokes (aka jerusalem artichokes), and a variety of perennial pollinator plants.

Trials have included store bought garlic vs. seed garlic, growing tomatoes in woolly pockets and hay bales, experimenting with sorgham from the Experimental Farm Network, a three sisters garden in 2015 and a four sisters garden in 2016 (sunflowers, corn, pole beans, squash), and testing different methods of planting potatoes and sweet potatoes in containers.

There is an extensive herb garden that features flavors from the diverse cooking traditions of its neighbors including lemongrass, papalo, and basil. The garden has also coordinated with neighborhood chefs from East Passyunk Avenue to feature plants of special interest to seasonal menus. Garden leaders are always ready to make bed or container space for new and interesting growing projects.

Make Music Philly Event at Passyunk Gardens in June 2016.
Photo from garden's Facebook page

Workshops and demonstrations are held at the garden during the growing season. Topics have included: seed starting, companion planting, seed saving, organic pest control, wintering the garden, cooking with an herb garden, and sauerkraut making and canning. The garden also hosts nearby schools and youth organizations for tours and hands-on workshops. Art and music events, potlucks, barbecues all play a role in the success of community involvement in this demonstration garden.

During the growing season, workdays are scheduled the first Saturday of the month. All Master Gardeners and trainees are welcome to join.

The garden hosts open hours throughout the growing season on Sundays from 4:00-6:00pm and all who pass by are encouraged to stop in and enjoy the space: an oasis in South Philly.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

How to “Start Over” Your Lawn Grass

Chuck Richards

Each year, I toil with the notion of how much of the yard I am going to be able to surreptitiously convert from lawn grass to some new and exciting flower or vegetable garden area without it ending in unnecessary marital stress. While I shape up garden borders here and there, there is a standing compromise that there will be an actual yard, and not all garden. So, since I have to have a front yard, I wanted it to be nice, and ours has been very far from that for years.

It’s worth considering a “Start Over” if your lawn grass is 50% or more A) overtaken by stubborn weeds year after year, B) suffering widespread pest or disease damage, or C) just unsightly for any combination of those and other causes.

As is quite common in men, I suffer from a degree of color-blindness, which is not ideal for someone who spends countless hours gardening. That said, even I can tell that the below photo of my front lawn grass is an ugly, spotty, dull, green and brown mess.

We  had moved into our home several years ago, and the grass lawn had been completely neglected for what must have been a long time. It was full of weeds and suffered terrible grub damage. A shovel full of soil revealed dozens of grubs treating the grassroots like it was soft-serve ice cream at an Old Country Buffet. After a couple seasons of failed attempts to rehabilitate, focusing on the worst spots, I decided it was time for a more drastic measure. It was too far gone. I needed to “Start Over.”

Between fall 2015 and spring 2016, I had used leaves, cardboard, and mulch to snuff out old grass to form the border of the front walkway and garden area next to it (pictured in next photo). That method translates nicely into creating a garden, as it can be left in place and planted through. However, to “Start Over” a larger grass lawn area, I wanted to use something a bit more uniform and easier to put in place. Also, I didn’t want to use leaves or mulch, since it would be a place for new grass after the doomed weed lawn below the cover was killed off. I do not use chemicals, so spray was not part of the plan. The purpose of my plan was to both avoid chemicals leaching through the soil and into the local system, and also avoid sheering off valuable layers of soil by digging the grass out.

So, I started by mowing it down as low as I could and giving it a good soaking. This puts the remaining turf, which can be stubborn, in best position to fail. Then, after a modest investment in 20 mil plastic sheeting, which I spread across the lawn, I utilized all kinds of objects found around the house to hold it in place. Next, I just let late summer heat coupled with no sunlight or water for about 6 weeks to kill off the messy, old neglected lawn.

Avoiding chemicals is a great option, but the tradeoff is harder work, and more neighbors, joggers, dog-walkers, mail carriers, and everyone else interrogating you about the 1.5 months of a black, plastic for a front yard. I made sure to take the opportunity to explain the entire project to the many people stopping to ask before continuing on to the park across the street.

When average temperatures were between 60 and 80 degrees (best for grass seed), the plastic came up, and I got right to pulling up the dead grass, weeds, and roots. Not every spot was as simple to tackle as others, so again, I don’t want to gloss over the hours of hard work involved in this part of the project.

It was not easy or fun, but the payoff kept me going. Also, I noticed spectators were now making an extra trip or two, slowing down to see progress and check on my well-being at times where I was struggling a bit with the effort.

I was able to pick up a tiller on the cheap, capitalizing on a summer inventory-clearing situation at my local Lowe’s. I figured this would be a good machine to have for other PSU Master Gardener events. It will travel nicely in the old Jeep.

Hand tools will work, or local hardware stores rent out tillers, too. Once all the old grass was removed, the soil tilled and raked (the grubs didn’t survive the process!), it was time to seed, continually water, and await germination.

I took help where I could get it. My daughter was excited about turning 3 and showed it off by helping daddy grow new grass by watering while I sat down and rehydrated. Allow the new grass to grow at least four inches before even light traffic or mowing. The loose soil does best if you can avoid any compaction as new roots are forming. Those roots are the reason fall is an ideal time to do this. Come spring, you’ll have a head start when your dormant grass “wakes up” and grows even more root base than spring seeding would produce before the summer heat puts stress on the grass.

This is the new lawn in late October. There are a few spots that are a bit lighter, but overall, this new lawn grass is in great shape heading into the winter dormancy. In the spring, those few spots will be addressed, as well as taking good care of the rest, and 2017 will finally show the full long-term success of a lawn grass “Start Over!”


There are plenty of resources out there with more details about the types of grass blends to choose, especially for our area. There are guides that go into greater detail about the steps involved. Don't expect a “one size fits all.” Shop around and take what you like and leave what you don't. Good luck with your “Start Over” if you choose to commit! It is a very rewarding project.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Last of the Basil

Stephanie Rukowicz

The basil in my yard was looking great until the last week in October, and with colder weather on the way, I knew it was best to harvest the remainder of my basil and preserve accordingly. Last year, there was more basil than I could preserve at my community garden. I made several batches of pesto to freeze, then spent three days using my low-end dehydrator to dry a total of two quarts to use over the winter. 2015 was the first year I dried basil and wow, what a taste difference I found from the store bought version! I attempted the microwave version, but found I was easily distracted from a process that needed to be watched closely. If I had a nicer dehydrator, I'm sure the process would have gone much more quickly.

My basil harvest, end of season 2016.
This year, someone beat me to the end-of-season basil harvest so I just had a couple bunches from my yard.

I also had some spinach to use up so I decided to make a double batch of pesto. I make a vegan version (no cheese), and like to cut the richness of basil with another green. Here I used spinach, but my favorites are basil with arugula and basil with broccoli rabe leaves.

Recipe adapted from La Dolche Vegan! by Sarah Kramer, p. 177
For 1 lb of dry pasta use:
1.5 c fresh basil, packed (I use leaves, flowers and tender stems)
1.5 c spinach (or kale, arugula, broccoli rabe leaves)
1/2 c walnuts (I use raw, but toast walnuts for more flavor. I've also used cashew or almond, you can soak first for more creaminess)
2 large or 4 small to medium garlic cloves
1/4 c nutritional yeast (optional)
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/4 c olive oil

Add ingredients to blender in order listed. Know your blender--if you don't have a Ninja or Vitamix you may want to chop garlic instead of adding whole cloves. Add water slowly (1 to 4 T) if needed to desired creaminess. Makes approximately 1c, enough for 1 lb pasta and some fresh tomatoes - sliced or diced.

I think next year I will try the recipe for basil dipping oil that Michele posted a while back. Infused olive oil can be pricey, but it is so delicious. I would love to master my own version.