Thursday, September 27, 2012

Drying Herbs for the Winter

Megan Bucknum
How to Keep a Bit of Summer Always in Your Kitchen

Recently, I have been looking at the group of herbs in my community garden and realized that I was a bit overzealous in my planting and,unless I plan on eating salads consisting only of herbs, I am never going to use all of these before our Philly frost date of mid-late October.  Instead, I have been cutting these and bringing them back to my apartment, where I have them hanging to dry, in small bunches hanging upside down.  When they are fully dry, and feel dry and  a bit crumbly (about 2-3 weeks), I am going to crush and create different spice blends to give as holiday gifts.

While my project has been a bit of trial and error (like most projects of mine), I wanted to share some tips and tricks that I found from in case you would like to this with some of the herbs in your garden.

The general rule of thumb is to try and remove any excess water from your herbs before you start the drying process.  This can be done by using towels to remove any water, as well as removing any of the dead foliage on the plant.  Next, gather small bundles of the herb and hang upside down in a dry, warm place out of the sun.  Smaller bundles allow for greater air circulation and hanging upside down allows the oils within the plant to flow from the stem to the leaf.  Some high moisture herbs -- like mint and basil -- require rapid drying or they will mold.  To keep some of the green leaf coloring, it is best to cover the bunch with a paper bag.  In a few weeks, check the herbs and if they feel dry, then start using them.  

Some recommendations said to keep them on the stem until right before use, but if you are going to use as a gift or do not have an area that you can keep them hanging, then crush them.  

Check out this website, where I found a lot of these tips as well as explanations of many different drying techniques.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Honeybee Curiosity from the Horticulture Hotline

Honeybee Curiosity From The Horticulture Hotline
- Jessica S. Herwick

You may have heard it mentioned that the Philadelphia Master Gardeners maintain a hotline stocked with experts who are available to answer your gardening and horticulture questions (click here for more information).  The hotline operators are well versed, and love the diverse and stimulating conversations that are sparked when callers bring their variety of questions. 
Some of you green thumbs out there have been calling up and asking all about honeybees, pollinator gardens, and providing support for these tiny but important creatures.  Some of you have been inquiring about beehives and how to learn more about beekeeping.  Pollinator gardens and beekeeping are steadily becoming more important to our ecosystem functions; not to mention the need for pollination to support the production of berries, fruits and veggies in our gardens and orchards.
The Master Gardeners would like to encourage all gardeners to consider this important part of our plants life cycles as they plan, plant and harvest their garden areas.  In response to your questions through the horticulture hotline, here is more information about honeybees, honey, beekeeping, and the plants that support this cycle. The Master Gardeners of Philadelphia hope you can find something in here to spark your interest.  It can be easy (and productive for your garden or landscape) to add plants, shrubs and herbs that will flower throughout the seasons and provide the much-needed supports for pollinators. 


 You may remember from your earth science classes that honeybees (and other pollinators such as butterflies and hummingbirds) are essential in pollinating our garden beds, flower gardens and orchards. Obviously, the pollinator responsible for concocting the nectar of the gods is the honeybee. The honey we eat is flower nectar that honeybees produce by collecting nectar, holding it in a special part of their body to process the nectar, and then dehydrating the potion to enhance its nutritional properties, finally storing this in their honeycombs to be used as food.
They use their long, tube-like tongues like straws (called proboscis) to suck the nectar out of the flowers and they store it in their stomachs and carry it to the beehive. While inside the bee's second ‘honey’ stomach, the nectar mixes with the proteins and enzymes it produces and converts the nectar into honey. The honey is dropped into the beeswax comb, comprised of hexagonal cells made of wax, produced by the bees. Bees fan their wings to evaporate and thicken the honey (note: nectar is 80% water and honey is about 14-18% water). When this is done, the bees cap the honeycomb with wax. This process is repeated until each comb is full.
Over the winter, blossoms, and therefore nectar and pollen, are nearly impossible to find for long periods of time. The bees will tap into the capped honeycombs to feed themselves. However, a hive only needs a small portion of honey to survive the winter, so the extra honey can be harvested by beekeepers and processed to sell and bring to your kitchens without damaging the natural life and feeding cycle of the honeybee hives.

PSU OFFERS AN ONLINE BEEKEEPING CLASS (for anyone who wants to learn)!

Whether you are an experienced beekeeper, a new beekeeper, or thinking about starting a backyard beehive, Penn State Beekeeping 101 is a one-of-a-kind completely online learning experience.
Expert instructors will walk you through all of the basic knowledge to start hives in your backyard.
Beekeeping 101 is suitable for both beginner beekeepers and those with experience who want continuing education.
Individual Registration costs $189.00
For more information or to register for this class, go to -


Outlined below are 5 suggestions that will attract and feed your pollinators, but will also result in numerous types of tasty honey if you’re an adventurous urban or rooftop beekeeper!  These 5 plants are some of my favorites.  As a matter of fact, I have 4 of the 5 growing in my yard at home!  Honeybees need an available source of nectar as well as pollen in order to sustain, so give them plants that provide a variety of both and keep them coming back for more.  Some of the suggestions below provide both pollen and nectar. Some provide only one or the other.   

1. Borage (Borago officinalis)
 Self-seeding, medicinal plant that can over-winter. Young leaves and blueish-purple  blossoms are edible and may be used in salads. Provides spring forage for honeybees, and blooms into the summer months.
Edible Annual, Nectar
2. Phacelia, Tansy (Phacelia tanacetifolia)
One of the best spring forage sources for honeybees. Blooms 45-60 days and continuously produces nectar throughout the day. Can be seeded several times per year. Prefers three feet of topsoil.
Annual, Nectar and Pollen
3. Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Prolonged bloom of 45 - 50 days generally in summer, but with occasional blooming in warmer, autumn seasons. Delicate honey with very light, pinkish color.
Perennial Edible Herb, Nectar
4. Elderberry Bush (Sambucus nigra)
Blooms for 10 - 15 days, but honeybees will flock to this shrub when it is in bloom. The annual variety of elderberry, Sambucus ebulus, is also a good honeybee plant. 
Edible Fruit Bearing Shrub, Nectar and Pollen
5. Bergamot (Monarda didyma)  Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Also known as bee balm or oswego-tea – hardy perennials topped by crowns studded with lipped flowers, blooming from summer into fall. There are many varieties of this perennial with a range of colored flowers from bright pinks and reds, to purple and even white.  Bergamots prefer a slightly moist spot with full sun.

WARNING - English Oak, Common Oak (Quercus robur )
Oaks are important trees for beekeepers to know about. They bloom in May or June and the nectar is poisonous for bees; when fed to larvae, the larvae can die. It is important to have other nectar sources for honeybees during the oak nectar flow. The nectar is not poisonous for humans.

Some Websites Where You Can Learn More…
About Honey, Honeybees and Beekeeping
PDF Guidebook created by the PSU Cooperative Extension,  Lots of detailed information specific to the Pennsylvania Climates!
This page describes beekeeping in urban and suburban areas, and tips on how to be a successful city beekeeper. Do not try at home without the proper instruction!

Honey From The Hood!
Check out the fabulous honey made right here in Philadelphia!

About Plants that attract, feed and support a variety of pollinators
PDF guidebook (printable) developed and published by the USDA Forest Service providing a guide to providing habitats for pollinators in the eastern United States.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Friend or Foe........Milkweed Bug

Nancy Ennis

Recently while working in the pollinator garden I observed orange and black insects in large clusters on several of the milkweed plants (asclepias). Thinking they were harmful, I snipped off the infested part of the plant. Later that morning, Kim and two 'pollinator experts' were touring the garden. When I questioned them about the insect they said that they were not harmful. Upon further investigation, this is what I found.

The insect is called a Small (or Large) Milkweed Bug. It is in the true bug (Hemiptera) order of bugs. True bugs have piercing-and-sucking mouthparts. The Milkweed Bug sucks nutrients from Milkweed seeds. Like the Monarch caterpillar, Milkweed Bugs are one of the few insects that can safely feed on the Milkweed plant. The toxins from the Milkweed give the Milkweed Bug and Monarch caterpillar a nasty taste to their predators. Unlike the Monarch caterpillar, with its voracious appetite, the Small Milkweed Bug will not strip the Milkweed plant of leaves but it can decimate the seedpod. So if you were interested in collecting seeds from the Milkweed plant then you would consider the Milkweed Bug a foe. If not, let it be.

Pollinators at work in the fall garden

Linda Grimwade

This photo from my front garden illustrates how bees and butterflies are attracted to Sedum Autumn Joy, also called stonecrop. It likes full or partial sun, sandy or clay soil, whatever the soil pH, so it is easy to grow. It is also rabbit-and deer-resistant, unlike my impatiens.

In the fall the light green foliage is topped with huge dusty-pink flower heads, which turn to a rich bronzy-red color. Even the dead heads are attractive in winter.
It is easy to propagate: any broken stem just seems to grow roots when stuck in the soil, so that you can transplant it to other parts of the garden.

Michele K. Koskinen
From my garden I have added a few more photos and a short video of pollinators on my Zinnia's

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Canning for the Uninitiated: A Step by Step Guide

Lauren McEwen

I'm not a huge fan of traditional cucumber relishes, but I loved this onion relish when I first sampled it at a canning lecture given by Lois Fischer (who has over 40 year of canning experience!). I got the recipe from Lois and decided that, since I loved it so much, it was time to learn the Boiling Water Bath Canning method so I could make some of my own.

I convinced my sister, who was also a canning newbie, and my mother, who hadn't done any canning since the 1970's, to spend a Saturday helping me out. We all had a good time and, since we doubled the recipe, there was lots of relish to go around. I wanted to share this delicious recipe with you as well as my documented experience.

Relish right out of the canner.

A Quick Note:

Canning recipes read like those from any other cookbook, up until the actual canning process begins. In fact, you can make this recipe and skip the canning entirely, but then you'd have to eat it all pretty quickly. That's the beauty of canning, it allows you to make a bunch of one thing, right when the produce is in season, and then enjoy it jar-by-jar throughout the year.

Recipe: Onion Relish  Makes about 4 Pint Jars
8 c finely chopped sweet onions
1 tbsp. pickling salt or kosher salt
1 3/4 c white wine vinegar
1 c sugar
1 tbsp.  minced fresh tarragon or 3/4 tsp crushed dried tarragon
2 garlic cloves, crushed or minced

  • In a large bowl, layer the onions and salt. Gently stir until well combined. Let stand for 4 hours.
  • Drain the onions thoroughly. Press out the excess liquid.
  •  In a 6- to 8-quart stainless steel pan, combine the vinegar, sugar, tarragon and garlic. Over medium-low heat, gradually heat the mixture, stirring constantly, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring the syrup to a boil. Add the drained onions to the syrup, reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove the pan from the heat.
  • Ladle the hot relish into hot jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Using a bubble freer or plastic knife, remove any air bubbles. If necessary, add more relish to maintain the headspace. Wipe the jar rims and threads with a clean, damp cloth. Cover with hot lids and apply screw rings. Process pint jars in a 212F (100C) water bath for 15 minutes.

In a large bowl, layer the onions and salt. Gently stir until well combined. Let stand for 4 hours.

First Things First: preparing the onions

We used a food processor to chop all of the onions. Even so, my eyes were watering like crazy until I put some bread in my mouth. Although perhaps just an old wives tale, I find it helps. After you combine the chopped onions and salt, you have 4 hours to kill. This long waiting period was an unexpected step for me, and why caning can take up your whole day. 

The oldfashioned way to heat up your empty canning jars is to boil them in a large pot of water. Today, you can use the convenience of your dishwasher. Keep in mind, hot relish needs to be poured into hot jars, so you do need to finesse your timing a bit. My dishwasher takes about an hour to run a full cycle, so we started it up after the onions had been sitting for 3 hours.

Time to Get Active

While we waited on the onions, we measured and prepped the other ingredients. We decided to mince the garlic and used dried tarragon, because that's what I had on hand. When the onions where done, we poured them into a colander placed in my kitchen sink to drain. We then started heating the ingredients for the syrup mixture over medium-low heat.

In a 6- to 8-quart stainless steel pan, combine the vinegar, sugar, tarragon and garlic.

After we let the syrup slowly heat up, we added the drained onions. Helpful hint: all of the pots, pans, and utensils used to make the relish need to be stainless steel or plastic.

Add the drained onions to the syrup, reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.

Ten minutes later and it's time to take the jars out of the dishwasher using canning tongs or oven mitts. To keep your jars from cracking, you need to add the hot relish to hot jars. I found that using a canning funnel made transferring the relish into the pint jars much less messy.

It is important to leave 1/2 inch of headspace when filling the jars. Headspace is the distance between the top of the jar and the top of the food. If too little headspace is left, food may boil up and out of the jar, preventing a seal. If too much headspace is left, the processing time may be inadequate to force out all of the oxygen in the jar, preventing a seal from forming.

Ladle the hot relish into hot jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace.
One jar at a time, use a bubble freer or plastic knife to release any air bubbles. This is an important step for your jars to seal properly. Next, wipe the jar rims and threads with a clean, damp cloth or paper towel. 

Lids are one time use only, but the metal lid rings can be reused unless they are rusty. (Undamaged jars may be used indefinitely.) Lids must prepared according to the manufacturer's directions. Most kinds need to be brought to a simmer and then left in hot water until use. Using the magnet tool, tongs, or your clean fingers, grab a warm lid and center it on a jar.

Gently screw a lid ring onto the jar just until its fingertip-tight. Gases need to escape the jar during the canning process, so use a light touch with just your fingertips to turn the ring, and when the jar begins to spin on the tea towel, you know it's tight enough.

Cover with hot lids and apply screw rings.

Yes We Can

 Fill your canner (giant enamel pot) with water and place the canning rack inside. I filled my canner so that there were three inches of space left from the rim. Remember that when you add the jars, the displaced water will rise up. Use canning tongs to lift the (hot) filled jars and lower them into the canner, making sure that they are covered by 2 inches of water when the rack is lowered. This recipe as is, only makes four pint jars. That means your canner will not be entirely full. Load empty jars to keep your relish from tipping over during processing.

Starting to load the canner.

Cover the canner and bring the water to a rolling boil. Lower the heat a bit, so the water doesn't boil over but there is still a lot of rolling action. Start your 15 minute timer only after the full rolling boil is reached.

It can take the canner a long time to start boiling, so you can actually start heating the water before you're done cooking the relish. If your canner comes to a boil before you are ready, just turn it down and then return it to a boil when you're ready to fill and begin processing your jars.

When your timer goes off, turn off the burner and remove the lid from the canner.

Let the jars cool in the canner for 5 minutes. The onion relish will still be simmering, and removing them prematurely can cause them to spurt.

After 5 minutes, use the canning tongs to lift the jars straight up out of the canner and set them on a dish-towel-covered counter. There will be a small pool of water on top of each jar. Resist the urge to tip the jars. They have yet to seal and you might spill some of the contents if you tip them. Then you will never get a proper seal!

The process was as hot and steamy as it looks.
As you lift the jars, you may hear the lids popping. This is good! That means they are vacum sealed shut. The jars need to sit out on your counter overnight to cool. The next day you can wipe the jars off with a damp cloth and label them with the contents and date. 

After your jars have cooled, remove the jar rings and press gently on the lid. If it doesn't budge, you have a good seal. If it pops or gives under your finger pressure, refrigerate it and use within a week. If they sealed properly and remain unopened, these jars will last up to 1 year in a cool, dark place. 

I particularly like putting this onion relish on Field Roast Sausages, but its great on sandwiches and burgers too. Yum!

For more information on Boiling Water Bath Canning, check out Virginia Cooperative Extension's website.


Ficas carica 'Orphan'
What is more delicious than a beautiful, luscious, lemony- colored fig, sliced in half, drizzled lightly with  honey and served with a bit of creamy gorgonzola? It is a dessert fit for the gods.With a minimum of trouble, figs can be part of your everyday menu in late August and early September. The common edible fig (Ficus carica), a deciduous shrub or tree depending on pruning, is easy to grow here in Philadelphia, either in the ground or containers.

There are over 200 fig cultivars grown in North America with a variety of fruit shapes and colors. What we commonly refer to as fruits are botanically not fruits at all but fleshy growths in which tiny flowers and fruits form when polinated by an itty-bitty specialized fly from the Mediterranean where figs are native. In selecting a fig for your garden, be certain to choose one that is self-pollinating . Most nurseries will only carry such cultivars. Figs are zone 8-10 plants if grown unprotected in the winter. Knowing that, you have two choices: plant in the ground and be prepared to winter wrap or grow in a container. Figs like a sunny location and require moist, well-drained soil that is slightly acidic. If you decide to plant in the ground, choose a cultivar that is adapted to cooler temperatures. 'Brown Turkey', 'Chicago' or 'Celeste' are good choices. Planting in containers and moving them indoors for the winter widens your choices in cultivars.

Ficas carica 'Orphan'
Wrapping in-ground plants for the winter should be done well after leaf drop when the first inch or two of soil begins to freeze. Prune any unnecessary branches, carefully pull the plant together tightly,  wrap with heavy paper, burlap or plastic and tie it together. Cover the bundle with straw and cover again with plastic. Make sure that water cannot enter the top. This is clearly a two person job. The wrapping should be removed in the early spring when the trees in your neighborhood are beginning to bud. Frankly, this process has always been more work than I am willing to do. Growing in containers seems much easier to me.

Ficas carica 'Niger'
Given how quickly figs grow -- my two "babies" can put on over three feet each growing season -- it is best to choose a large container with good drainage holes. Plastic is preferable to clay as figs like evenly moist soil. Plastic pots are also lighter in weight which can be an issue when moving the plant indoors for the winter months. A good quality potting mix with added compost will work just fine. A top dressing of compost will help maintain moisture. Figs fruit best when placed in a sunny location. I feed my figs about once a month with liquid seaweed, following the directions on the package. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizers as they will encourage foliage growth, not fruiting. I prune my figs hard every year in the late fall once the leaves have all dropped and the outside temperatures are cool enough that the plants are dormant. In addition, I root prune the plants every two years in the early spring before the new growth begins. Container grown figs in Philadelphia will need to be brought indoors for the winter. If you are lucky enough to have a greenhouse, you can bring them inside and have them stay green all winter. They may even bear fruit for you. Those of us that are not so lucky need to find a cool, relatively dark space to winter our plants. A garage where the temperature does not go below freezing will work. Or perhaps you can easily access an unheated basement to store the containers. Bring the containers in once the fig leaves have all dropped.  Plants that are stored in garages or basements will need a minimum amount of water during the winter months. It is wise to check them every so often to make certain that they have not completely dried out.

When the trees in your garden or on your block begin to show buds in the spring, it is time to haul those dormant figs out of the basement or the garage, place them in their summer home and dream of all the wonderful dishes you will be preparing at harvest time in the late summer. Well.... that is if those figs actually make it to the kitchen. I usually just pick and eat them immediately!!

Lois Fischer