Friday, December 2, 2011

Plan and Plant

Winterberry holly bent badly in the October snow storm. It recovered.
 What to do in the yard and garden in December? While we might putter around with the compost pile, rake up the last leaves or finish clean up from that October snow storm, the list of possible gardening tasks is pretty short. Now is a great time to begin planning for next year’s spring planting…..especially tree and shrub planting.

Japanese Zelkova after the storm... beyond repair
  Many of us have been forced to think about tree replacement as a result of the late October Snow storm. Six to eight inches of snow applied to trees full of leaves was devastating. On the other hand…the weaklings were weeded out!

Southeastern Pennsylvania certainly could use more trees. In fact, research done in 2002 showed an alarming loss of tree cover in the metro Philly area. In response, Tree Vitalize was born. This private/public partnership has the goal of establishing one million new trees. Quoting from the Tree Vitalize website... “An additional goal is to train 10,000 volunteers in basic tree biology and tree care to assist their communities in establishing and maintaining new plantings. Ultimately, the goal of TreeVitalize is to establish strong urban forestry partnerships in all 14 Pennsylvania metropolitan areas and to build local capacity for sustaining the urban forest resource.” If I am reading the website correctly 296,952 trees have been planted so far. It is a wonderful program. Check it out at . The volunteer portion of the program is called Tree Tenders and training is ongoing in many communities. See this for details.

Tree Vitalize and Tree Tenders are great programs for communities that want to establish trees. They are not designed to assist private property owners.

Bucks County Master Gardeners plant bare-root Tree Vitalize trees
 Penn State Master Gardeners have planted about 75 Tree Vitalize trees at Neshaminy Manor Center, home of the Penn State Extension office. We’re calling our planting The Almshouse Arboretum and it consists of Tree Vitalize trees, some existing trees, as well as specimens we have added on our own. Most of the trees are labeled so you can do a self-guided tour. Or, contact us to have a Master Gardner give you or your group a personalized tour.

OK. Back to your yard….Maybe you have other reasons to plant trees and shrubs. Still trying to sell that house? Realtors will tell you that well landscape properties have exceptional value. Whatever your motivation, tree planting is a good idea. So where to start….

Penn State has lots of help. Trees for Pennsylvania Landscapes and Shrubs for Pennsylvania Landscapes are two excellent references. They describe great plants and categorize them by size and other characteristics such as flowering habit, fall foliage, etc.
Now is a great time to consider where to locate new landscape plants. Your local garden center/nursery usually has a landscape designer on staff to talk this through with you. Check out the Penn State publication Landscaping Home Grounds for some basic principles of landscape design and you’ll be a step ahead when you begin this conversation.

Finally…the actual planting. You can let the professionals do this or tackle it yourself. Planting and After Care of Community Trees will give you good guidance. Or, for a great, short video on the tree planting process, just watch the video produced by the Penn State Master Gardeners of Berks County at this site.
Alright, you’ve got all winter to read, study, talk and plan for tree and shrub planting this spring. Unique, beautiful, long-lived, wildlife-supporting plants are ready and waiting for new homes. It’s up to you to do your part.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Thousand Cankers Disease threatens Black Walnut.. and some businesses

Thousand Cankers Disease (Geosmithia morbida ) on black walnut (Juglans nigra ) - 5406067
A species is at stake. Businesses are at stake. Both may survive but damage has already been done and the future is uncertain.

Black Walnut, Juglans nigra, is an important tree species in the eastern United States. In July of this year, Thousand Cankers Disease (TCD) was detected in Pennsylvania for the first time. We now join two other states east of the Mississippi with confirmed cases of a disease which is deadly to black walnut. A quarantine has been established by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture in an effort to slow the spread of the disease. The quarantine prohibits the movement of walnut out of Bucks County, the only county in Pennsylvania where detection has occurred. All firewood and wood chips are also subject to the quarantine since segregation of walnut from these potential infection sources cannot be assured.

Here are some questions and answers about Thousand Cankers Disease

Q. Where did it come from?

A. New Mexico, California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and a few other western states began detecting the disease about ten years ago. In 2010 it was found in Tennessee... in 2011 Virginia and Pennsylvania. It is likely that movement of walnut logs or other walnut wood brought the infestation from the west to the native range of black walnut…. the eastern United States. Both the walnut twig beetle, Pityophthorus juglandis and the fungus Geosmithia morbida which are involved in the disease, are thought to be native to the southwestern United States where they originally infested/infected other Juglans species.

Q. How are black walnut trees affected?

A. A beetle about the size of a sesame seed, called the Walnut Twig Beetle, bores into trees. Actually thousands of beetles infest individual trees. The beetle’s larvae tunnel in the bark and at the same time infect the tree with a fungus which kills the plant tissue. These dead areas are called cankers. Many cankers combine to girdle and kill the stems. The numerous feeding sites and cankers give rise to the name Thousand Cankers Disease. Infested walnut trees exhibit yellowing, wilting and dieback in the crown or upper branches of the tree. Within 10 year of infestation, and three years from the time symptoms develop,  the tree dies. The best diagnostic sign will be numerous tiny (2 mm) holes in the bark of branches. Beneath the bark, darkly stained, cankered, wood indicates the activity of the fungus. Most Juglans species are susceptible to TCD but Black Walnut appears to be most severely affected.

Q. Are there treatments to cure affected trees or prevent infestation of healthy trees?

A. Not at this time. The nature and habits of the beetle present a great challenge to those who want to control this pest. For instance, adults are active from March through October and can fly 1-2 miles. Even if beetles are partially controlled, the fungus may still cause damage. Research is underway to better understand both the beetle and the fungus involved in the disease.

Q. Why has quarantine been established?

A. The quarantine is an attempt to slow the spread of the disease and preserve this important tree species, both within Pennsylvania and also in states that are currently uninfested.

Q. What businesses are affected by the quarantine?

A. It is unlawful to move any walnut wood (except kiln dried lumber or finished furniture) out of Bucks County. Since it is impractical to distinguish walnut from other wood in loads of firewood or wood chips, they are subject to the quarantine and may not be moved out of Bucks County. Walnut lumber is also quarantined unless it meets certain requirements including kiln drying.

Q. What is being done about the problem?

A. A task force involving regulatory and research experts is creating an action plan to manage TCD in Pennsylvania. Compliance agreements with those affected by the quarantine are being investigated in an effort to find a way to allow them to continue business activities without presenting a threat to walnut outside of Bucks County.

Q What do I do if I think my walnut trees have TCD?

A. Collect a sample of branches with wilting and dieback symptoms. If they exhibit many tiny holes in them, contact Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture 1-866-253-7189 or Penn State Extension.

Q. How can I learn more about the disease and its symptoms?

A. Call  (215-345-3283) for a fact sheet or see this website.

In summary, a new disease of Black Walnut threatens an important tree species. Sadly, we’ve seen situations like this before…. Chestnut Blight, Dutch Elm Disease (DED), Hemlock Woolly Adelgid. Perhaps Dutch Elm Disease is most similar because in both cases a beetle vectors a fungal pathogen. Decades after Dutch Elm Disease was introduced, we still have some elms, but the once loved American Elm has been seriously impacted. Many differences exist between DED and TCD but its probably a good place to start as we contemplate the effect of TCD in Pennsylvania. How the story of Thousand Cankers Disease of Black Walnut will play out remains to be seen.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Hot summer weather means tasty produce

Sunshine makes sugar. So it should not be a surprise that peaches, melons, sweet corn and other summer produce is near perfection in this hot growing season. Dry conditions are a challenge for all farmers and we certainly could use a few more timely rainfall events. But there is no doubt that the abundant sunshine we have experienced so far this year is making for especially sweet fruits and vegetables.

Most folks know that Bucks County still has a viable farming community. But others are surprise to learn that we produce some of the best peaches and nectarines money can buy. A tree ripened peach beats those that are shipped in any day. Same story with melons. A cantaloupe that fully ripens on the vine simply tastes better than those that are harvested for wholesale shipment because they are allowed to continue to accumulate sugar. Same story for many other crops we enjoy. So, buying fresh, local produce often means better quality for you.

August is the prime time peaches, melons, tomatoes and sweet corn. While some early season varieties are available in July, the main crop comes in August. So these crops are in abundance now. Get them while they are in season locally. Our Fresh form Bucks County Farms directory can lead you to dozens of locations where you’ll find these and other treats.

What’s up next? Grape growers know that hot dry season mean exceptional grape and wine quality. Could 2011 be an exceptional vintage year? Too soon to tell but it’s something to look forward to….. along with pumpkins and apples… fresh from Bucks County Farms.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Kiss Your Ash Goodbye?

By now many Southeastern Pennsylvania residents have noticed bright purple boxes hanging along roadsides. Tree lovers may have noticed that those gizmos are hung in ash trees. They are traps designed to detect the arrival of the latest invasive tree pest, Emerald ash borer (EAB), Agrilus planipennis.

Emerald ash borer has been moving east from Michigan since 2002, where is it was first detected in the U.S. EAB is native to Eastern Russia and Asia and was probably introduced on wooden pallets or other wooden packing material.
It was found on the western border of Pennsylvania in 2007 and central PA in 2009. For more info about EAB see this Penn State site. States that have lived with the infestation longer, such as Ohio, also have excellent information. For some nice color pictures of the insect and its damage, see this.

I have very little good news about this insect but read on if you are still interested.

Good news… No Emerald Ash Borers have been detected in Southeast PA as of June 21, 2011.
Bad news… Expect a detection any day now.

Good news…Only ash trees will be affected by this insect.
Bad news…. EAB has killed about 40 million ash trees so far. All ash species are susceptible and EAB kills most ash in its path.

Good news… Ash trees make up small percentage (3-4%) of the trees in Pennsylvania.
Bad news… Southeast Pennsylvania has a much larger percentage of ash. Ever since I learned about EAB, I have been impressed with the number of ash in Bucks County. See this to learn what ash looks like. I blogged about this in 2008.

Good news…. Ash can be protected from EAB infestation. Several insecticide options are available. Arborists are prepared to do the work. Do-it-yourself is possible.
Bad news…. Insecticide applications ain’t cheap and will require annual re-treatment with most products. Also, it will be impractical to treat all but the most important ornamental trees. Woodland ash are going to be toast.

Good news…Ash makes excellent firewood.
Bad news… The cost of tree take-downs is significant

Good news… Woodpeckers eat EAB larvae.
Bad news… Not fast enough to prevent tree death.

Good news…Entomologists are working to introduce parasites and predators to control EAB
Bad news.. .This stuff takes a long time and the beast is at the door.

Good news....Land Grant Universities in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and our Own Penn State have posted a tremendous amount of excellent EAB information. See above.
Bad news… none of it will stop expanding range of this destructive insect

Good news…. Many wonderful tree species remain in our woods and landscapes
Bad news… You can kiss you ash goodbye.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Fresh From Bucks County Farms

Just in time for the start of the 2011 growing season, Fresh From Bucks County Farms, a local listing of 75 places where you can buy local produce is available from Penn State Extension.

This popular guide identifies farmers markets, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), and roadside markets where hungry consumers will find locally produced fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, wine, cheese and other agricultural products.

Fresh From Farms is available at all Bucks County libraries and on request from Penn State Extension- Bucks County by calling 215-345-3283. It’s on the web at

Strawberries are a popular, season-starting crop that is abundant locally. Usually beginning in late May, some growers already have early production for sale. Pick-Your Own- PYO is a great way to enjoy a farm experience and harvest berries at a great price. Fresh Form Farms list more than a dozen strawberry growers, most of which offer PYO. Get ‘em while they last… strawberries are only in season until late June.

Community Farmers markets are another great way for consumers to connect with a variety of produce. Doylestown, Ottsville, Lower Makefield, Langhorne, New Hope, Plumsteadville, Wrightstown and Feasterville each has a weekly market. At least one of these markets is open Tuesday through Saturday. Each market has a unique blend of vendors. Find locations and detail in Fresh From Farms.

Monday, March 28, 2011

10 Steps Towards a Better Vegetable Garden

Step one – Soil test. Yes, this may be getting repetitious for anyone who follows Penn State Extension but getting handle on basics soil fertility is so fundamental that is really needs to be Step One. A Penn State soil test will provide information about soil pH as well as the levels of phosphorus, calcium, magnesium and potassium. These four elements are most likely to be lacking in typical Pennsylvania soils. pH influences the uptake of these nutrients and also influences soil biology. So, don’t guess, soil test. Cost is nine bucks. You can’t beat that. You can download the forms needed at or stop by our office for a pre-addressed “kit’ to submit samples.

Step 2 – Build soil organic matter levels. Organic matter is a soil textural cure-all. Organic matter creates large pore spaces that improves soil aeration. That’s good for root growth. In addition, organic matter increases beneficial biological activity, adds essential nutrients and improves “workability” or tilth of the soil. Manures and compost are the most common ways to add organic matter. Green manure and cover crops, too. Good gardeners never miss a chance to add organic matter and actively seek it. High organic matter levels are probably something all great gardens have in common.

Step 3 – Study the requirements of the crops you grow. Each species that we grow has a unique set of cultural requirements …cold hardiness, heat tolerance, spacing requirements, ideal planting date, optimum harvest time, etc. Seed packets provide the basics. For a more complete story find a good reference such as Vegetable Gardening, a new publication from Penn State.

Step 4 - Study the lives of garden pests. You are not the only one interested in those tomatoes, squash and your first born strawberry. In fact, for many garden pests this is a matter of life and death… shear survival. You will share your production with them. Question is.. how much. Get to know the insects, diseases, weeds and mammals that are sure to take a bite out of your garden. Learn which ones are most likely to take the biggest bite and plan strategies to manage them. In some cases this will be simple. For instance, choosing disease tolerant varieties solves a host of fungal problems. A no-brainer! Cabbage worms… Bt! On the other hand, some pests require so much attention that it may not be worth the battle. Sweet corn worms… I’ll leave that to Farmer Brown to handle. Visit any .edu websites for solid pest management information.

Step 5 - Use insect and disease resistant varieties. We mentioned this in step 4 but it bears repeating. Plant breeders have performed miracles by incorporating natural resistance to key pests in virtually all of the crops we grow. Early blight, late blight, powdery mildew, wilts, rots spots… become minor issues rather than devastating losses for many crops. Take advantage of this free form of pest control!

Step 6 - Mulch, Mulch, Mulch. Both organic and synthetic mulches do wonders for gardens. They conserve moisture, control weeds, moderate soil temperatures, and improve soil quality. Straw, tree leaves, wood chips and many other organic mulches have great uses in the garden. Plastic mulches, in my opinion, are under-used by home gardeners. Heat loving crops such as tomato, eggplant and peppers as well as the vine crops love the heat. Try some. Bio-degradable and paper mulches are also available if that suits you better. Similar results.

Step 7 – Plan and record your garden activities. What was that great bean variety I grew last year? I know I planted 3 kinds of garlic out there, which is which? Are the Japanese beetles going to arrive when we go on vacation? A garden journal or notebook provides useful information and is fun off-season reading.

Step 8 – Try something new each year. How about those floating row covers? Can I really grow onions from seed? Can I plant shallots in the fall? Are figs hardy around here? There is only one sure-fire way to find out. Give it a try. Over time, your experiences become rich garden knowledge.

Step 9 – Start composting. Composting is a simple way to recycle garden and kitchen refuse. Doesn’t need to be elaborate. A simple “heap” of decomposing stuff does the trick. Type the word composting into the search box at for more details.

Step 10 – Read and study a wide range of garden folklore and science-based reports. We garden for pleasure so it’s a great way to explore the unknown, experiment and learn. Garden magazines, blogs and associations of specialists are easy to find. Did you know there was Pennsylvania Nut Growers Association? A garlic newsletter? Several huge tomato tasting events every year within easy driving distance? Subscribe, visit and learn.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Grow Your Own

It seems that interest in growing more of your own food continues to gain steam. It’s hard to say what is fueling this phenomenon. Concerns about food quality? Trying to save a buck or two? Fretting over the environment? I don’t know. There must be a survey out there somewhere that sheds light on this.

For many years, gardening has been identified as America’s leading hobby. Add to this the growing interest in food and you’ve got something special. Farmers markets are springing up everywhere. Locally grown food is automatically gourmet. Suddenly, every other person you meet wants to keep honey bees…. my introduction to beekeeping course is sold out.

The good news is that Penn State Extension is ready, willing and able to help. We’ve been teaching people how to grow food for about 100 years. Publications are a good example of this. This fall, a brand new guide to vegetable gardening, authored by Elsa Sanchez, Associate Professor of Horticulture and her co-horts at Penn State was published. Fifty eight pages of research-based, (but user-friendly) information on the vegetable crops we love. It is cleverly titled Vegetable Gardening. Hey, if you want the sizzle rather than the steak your local Land Grant University is not the place to go… but we do have the goods.

An equally good publication for fruit growers, Fruit Production for the Home Gardner is 186 pages of powerful information on strawberry, raspberry, blueberry and other fruit culture.
These two are good examples but just the tip of the iceberg. Go to the College of Ag Sciences web site and dig for more. We can teach you how to grow just about anything. Livestock, too.

Some folks learn better with a bit classroom instruction. In Bucks County, we’ve been conducting a short course called Living on A Few Acres for about 25 years. Now it is being offered throughout southeastern Pennsylvania. In this course you not only learn how to pick a ripe watermelon, you’ll find out how to tell if that hen is laying eggs, too! Call us at 215-345-3283 for registration information on the Bucks County course or this site in other counties.

Some folks have an urge to go to the next level. Start farming. That’s a big step up from gardening. But it happens all of the time. Penn State recognized this need and is now engaged in a major effort to help those who want to grow food for profit. You can check out the extensive list of course offerings and more at the Start Farming website.

Got kids? Are they between the ages of 8 and 18? If so, they can get a real fine, agricultural, hands-on experience through our 4-H youth program. Sheep, chickens, beef, turkeys, tomatoes, you name it. Ask for Bob Brown when you call our office. Hit this site for a directory of counties in Pennsylvania and their local program. I’m a bit biased, I’ll admit, but observing the impact 4-H has on kids for more than 30 years has convinced me that it is one of the best youth programs available... and about the only one that will get your kid involved in agriculture. Learn by doing… what a concept!

Want to grow your own… just a little or enough to live on? Penn State Extension is a great place to get started.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Cold your garden

There’s nothing like eating stuff from your own garden. This pleasure is usually confined to the growing season. Juicy tomatoes, salad ingredients that were alive minutes before you ate them, ripe melons…

But some crops maintain good quality after harvest... if given proper storage conditions. Cold and moist is usually what is required . Root crops may be the best example of garden produce with excellent storage life …if they are kept cold and moist. Beets, carrots and parsnips, are good candidates. The cabbage family works well this way, too. The text book says 32 degrees F and 95-100 percent humidity is ideal. Cold but not frozen. Very high humidity.

This can be tricky to achieve in most homes, cellars and garages. The simplest way to hold these crops is to plant them so they mature at the end of the growing season and then just mulch them heavily, in place, with something like straw. In our mild winters the soil does not freeze too deeply, and if given some protection, you can continue the harvest thru winter. But you’ve got to literally dig them up.

While visiting my pal Graham in Rhode Island this December, I see that he has taken the next step in “in-ground’ storage. He simply dug holes to accommodate two five-gallon pails. The pail tops are about level with the surrounding ground. Drilled some holes in the bottom of the buckets to allow any surface water to exit. He filled the pails with carrots and beets after the fall harvest in late October, lidded the pails and covered them with a bale of straw. You can see the results.

You’ll have to trust me that the carrots were very tasty. Roasted. With some nice salmon. And a crisp white wine. Didn’t get around to the beets but they were solid as a rock. Sure, some sprouting had occurred but it did not seem to have influenced quality.
Something to think about as you plan for next year’s garden. The virtues of planning for a fall harvest can be extended into the shortest days of winter.

The picture at the top shows rutabaga or swedes, as my friend Graham calls them. Very tasty.

For a list of storage conditions and some more ideas about vegetable storage, see this from Cornell University.