Just Do the Soil Test

You’ll be glad you did

Soil test picture

Do you have an area of your yard that is not doing as well as you’d like? Or maybe you’re considering creating a new planting area? Have you tested the soil in your vegetable garden in the past 5 years? Or ever?

A soil test can give you valuable (and sometimes surprising) information. Proper soil nutrients create healthy plants that are better able to fend off diseases and pests without any intervention. Knowing the state of your soil can help prevent the expense of excess fertilization, not to mention the environmental damage that excess fertilizer can cause.

Now is the perfect time to get that soil test.  If the soil test indicates that your soil is too acidic, you can apply the lime in the fall so it has time to alter the soil pH over the winter. If your soil is low in organic matter, you may decide to grow a cover crop over the fall and winter.

 Any needed fertilizers should be added in the spring before planting.

Soil test kits can be purchased from the Penn State Extension Office in Smeadley Park. Follow the directions for sampling carefully – your test results are only as good as your sample.  You will receive a soil report sent directly to your home with all the recommendations for improving your soil.  If you have any trouble interpreting your test report, you can always contact the Master Gardener Hort Line for help.

Want more information? Here are some links:

Penn State Extension: Soil Testing Overview

Penn State Extension: Don’t Guess… Soil Test

Penn State Extension: Interpreting Your Soil Test Reports

Penn State Extension: Soil Test Results: “What’s Next?” Guide for Homeowners

Glorious Garlic

Garlic is planted in the fall – the same as ornamental bulbs like tulips and daffodils. In Southeastern PA, garlic is generally planted in mid-October. The timing is based on giving the bulbs time to create a good root system before cold sets in, but not so much warmth that they sprout before winter.  

There are many varieties of garlic which fit into two main types, hardneck and softneck. Hardneck varieties are generally more hardy and easier to grow in our climate, but it never hurts to experiment.  Garlic bulbs for planting can be purchased from many places where you would purchase fall bulbs.

Garlic bulbs should be broken into individual cloves and planted about 2 inches deep, 6 inches apart in an area with fertile, well-draining soil in full sun.  Like other bulbs, your garlic will sprout in spring and grow through the beginning of summer.  To get the largest bulbs, keep your garlic well fed, watered in times of drought and weed free. The flower stalks (or scapes) of hardneck garlic should be removed to maximize bulb size.  They are edible!

Garlic is harvested when the leaves start turning brown. You want at least 4 of the leaves still have some green, otherwise the bulbs will split open, start to lose their papery wrappers and will not store well. Garlic is usually ready for harvest in our area by mid-July.

Harvest the bulbs carefully as they bruise easily when fresh. Allow them to dry for two to 3 weeks in a well-ventilated, shaded area. Then brush off any soil, cut off the dried tops and roots and store in a cool, dark location.

You can save some of your garlic bulbs to plant again next year. Save the largest bulbs to get the biggest crop.

Want more information? Here are a couple links:

Penn State Extension: Growing and Using Garlic

Penn State Extension: Garlic Production

Gardening by Phone

Article by A. Goldman

Phone photo

With the plethora of new gardening gadgets, there is one that pretty much everyone has in their pocket or purse; your phone…or more specific the camera on your phone.

Since we are winding the garden season, now is a good time to document both your garden and also your purchases for the 2019 season. 

When purchasing plants throughout the season, I group the plant tags together and snap a picture just in case they are lost.  If you are extremely diligent, this can be done for specific planters, especially if the combos are ones you like and want to replicate next year. 

I also document plants that I might want to buy in the future but may not remember the name or cultivar.  You can also research a plant easily while still in the store using any search engine.  This may or may not save you money! Flowerchecker  is an app for handy identification as well as NatureGate which will ID plants, birds, fish, and butterflies. 

Everyone’s garden goes through many changes both good and bad so take a few pictures of areas that you are really pleased with, plant combos that worked out, plants you think you should buy more of or need to repeat again for a continuous look, areas that could use some spring, summer, or fall bulbs, or maybe even some garden art to spice things up. 

Areas of your garden that are looking peaky (rundown), overgrown or in need of something different, having a picture with you can help you make wise decisions when shopping those fall ½ sales!  Just looking at a picture sometimes will give you a fresh perspective on what that area needs.

Once the garden season is over and winter sets in, download and establish files for plants and sections of your garden for future reference.  Winter is a good time to start your lists for next season’s garden, which can easily be done with your phone’s apps.  When the 2020 garden catalogs start arriving, I sometimes snap a picture of a new variety to be on the lookout for.

Your phone can help you in the garden in many ways but try not to lose it in the garden.  It will be of no use then. 

Second Saturday Review – Colonial Medicine

Article by Barbara Raczkowski

Photo courtesy of Clarissadillon.info

Did you ever meet anyone, who owned their own still?  Then…..you discover that the owner of this apparatus is an 86yr. old woman, attired in period clothing, who has a PhD. in history from Bryn Mawr College.” Oh, my….this is going to be interesting.”

This was my experience when I met the speaker at the Master Gardener’s “Second Saturdays” event, which was held on Aug. 10.   Her name is Clarissa F. Dillon, whose scholarly knowledge covers two continents….North America and Europe.  She talks about 17th and 18th century housewifery. Standing behind her still, which she calls her penguin as it does indeed look like a copper bird, Clarissa began her lecture talking about “Dr. Mom”. Colonial women besides being wives and mothers were also doctors, nurses and apothecaries.

The lecture was illustrated by a table filled with colonial artifacts….tool, syrups, compresses and herbs, referring to different objects Clarissa lead us through a mesmerizing and fascinating lecture.

Our colonial ancestors evolved from the belief that an evil life style caused  disease, (the devil made me do it…..blood letting anyone?) to a more enlightened and scientific approach of cause and effect.

What I found particularly fascinating was that Clarissa goes back and studies first hand, original documents.  She told us that it was customary for colonial women to notate their experiments and their results and very often the “successful cures” would be passed down from generation to generation and often from friend to friend.  She has researched hundreds of these documents from ordinary citizens.  In addition, she jokingly told us her PhD and scholarly acclaim have also given her access to some colonial celebrity healers such as  Ben Franklin’s first wife….whose name was Guilelma Springett.

Even more fascinating is the fact that she then goes back like the scholar that she is and duplicates all the receipts (recipes) which she researches.  She shared many interesting things including the fact that there are three different plants which, when applied to a bleeding human body, will stop the blood flow.

If you are interested in learning more about her, you can go to her web-site: Clarissa Dillion.info

And just for the record, Clarissa has a permit for her still, which holds less than a  gallon of liquid…..and uses it for scientific and historic purposes only…..and she never served us any “refreshments” although Second Saturdays are always accompanied by tasty treats !  Hope you will join us for some upcoming events……

Fall Fest Sneak Peek

A great event for gardeners

Fall Fest is coming soon – so be sure to save the date: Saturday, September 28 from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm. Registration for workshops is now open.

Fall Fest registration

Join us for educational sessions and hands on workshops, plant sale, garden marketplace, information booths and more.  There is no charge for general admission to the event.

A series of reasonably priced workshops are available. We’ve summarized them below – simply register for the ones that interest you. We have 3 sessions each with different topics to choose from.

Session 1: 9:00 – 10:15 am

Lecture A –Picking Prolifically Pleasing Perennials

Ray Murphy, Master Gardener & Nemours Estate Gardener

Perennial garden

So many perennials, so many choices! Let’s take a look at both popular and lesser known perennials for your garden. We’ll discuss their care, and some of the different conditions to consider that will make your yard look beautiful! Fee: $20

Workshop A – Corn Husk/Sunflower Wreath

Beth Folkomer, Master Gardener


Join Beth and create your own Harvest Rustic Wreath to adorn your front door or gate. You have two choices to select (with your own creative touches, of course) a plain corn husk wreath or a sunflower corn husk wreath with pinecone seed pod. All supplies included. Limited to 15. Fee: $20

Workshop AA – Fern Propagation

Mary Tipping, Curator & Plant Recorder, Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College


Discover with other fernophiles how to cultivate fern species from spores – which is much easier than you think. Spores of two different fern species, related cultivation items, and an overview of fern reproduction will be provided in this class. Limited to 15. Fee $20

Session 2: 10:45 am – 12:00 noon

Workshop B – Natural Impressions in Air Dry Clay

Gerri Eunson, Alyce Zellers & Catherine St. Clair, Master Gardeners

Learn how to use air dried clay to capture nature. We will be creating a necklace with a pendant and a holiday ornament. You will leave with completed projects plus additional items to dry and finish at home. All supplies included. Limited to 15. Fee: $20.

Workshop BB – Tool Maintenance

Liana Baurele, Master Gardener

Tool sharpening

Looking for a simple sharpening method to bring your garden tools back to good form? Look no further. Armed with a complimentary sharping stone and illustrated directions, Liana can show you how to put a sharp edge on your dull garden tools. Bring 2 tools of your choice to work on. Limited to 15. Fee: $20.

Session 3: 1:00 pm – 2:30 pm

Lecture C- Compost Forum

Sam Barnett, Chris Coulter, Teia Harding, Chantel Wildman, Master Gardeners

compost bin

Learn from our panel of master gardeners all of the correct steps required to produce your own ‘Black Gold’ from garden and kitchen scraps along with the different techniques to achieve this rich organic product. Fee: $20

Workshop C – Succulent Pumpkin Centerpiece

Gerri Eunson, Alyce Zellers & Catherine St. Clair, Master Gardeners

Succulent pumpkin

Create a stylish, fall themed decoration to celebrate the season. In this hands-on workshop, we will combine live succulents, moss, seed pods and dried flowers with pumpkins to create a festive centerpiece that will last through Thanksgiving. All supplies are included. Limited to 15. Fee: $20. This session is filled.

Workshop CC – Autumn Craft Workshop for Children & Adults

Teresa Albers, Master Gardener

This workshop consists of two activities geared to children (8 years +) and adults. Leaf rubbing is both fun and educational as children and adults learn together about leaf structure and identification while creating a leaf rubbing collage. Decorating mini pumpkins offers children and adults shared sensorial exploration and creative expression. Come and join Teresa in these Fall activities of joyful, creative self- expression. All supplies included. Limited to 5 adults & 10 children. Fee: $5 per child

You can also register for a boxed lunch, available at the event. Classes fill quickly to sign up soon.

End of Season Plant Sales

The good, the bad and the ugly

Those end of season plant sales can be very exciting. The prices are so great, you can finally fill all those “holes” in your landscape.  But how can you tell if a great price is also a great value? Here are a few things to consider.

Make sure the plant in question matches the planting conditions you have, is hardy in your zone and will fit into your landscape. Its not a bargain no matter the price if you can’t grow it well in your yard.

While you can expect some leaf and branch damage by the end of the season, wilting or burned plants, or rotting ones, that have obviously not been cared for are risky. Extremely stressed plants may not survive in spite of your best TLC.

Don’t be surprised if perennials have been cut back. The stems may be shorter but they should still be intact. A gentle tug may tell you if stems are rotting. The exception to this are spring ephemeral perennials that are going dormant. These may have naturally lost many of their stems making it a bit more difficult to access the health of the plant. Nursery staff should be able to tell you if a plant is a spring ephemeral.

Check carefully for any pests or diseases you do not want to introduce into your garden. In some cases this can include noxious weeds (Hairy Bittercress – I’m looking at you!).

Don’t be afraid to carefully slip the plant from its pot and check the root system. There should be evidence of live roots. At the end of the season, you can expect some root wrapping around the pot edges, but if a plant is extremely root bound and feels hard as a brick, consider carefully. You will need to cut and tease those roots out in order to plant properly. This is difficult with extremely root bound plants.

Be aware that clearance plants may not have the same warrantee as full price plants, best to check with the nursery.

Try to plant your finds as soon as possible so they can begin establishing themselves. Mulch them, but do not fertilize.  You may be able to divide some perennials that have been growing in a pot all season when you plant.

Be sure to keep the plants watered throughout the fall.  Squirrels are notorious for digging up transplants in the fall so keep an eye out. Sometimes fall planted specimens are more susceptible to frost heave so be prepared to tuck them back in during winter thaws if need be.

Want more information? Check out this Penn State article.

Penn State Extension – Garden Bargain or Bust?

Plant Profile: Rudbeckia laciniata

A tall, native coneflower

Rudbeckia laciniata is commonly known as cut leaf coneflower or green headed coneflower.  It is a stately native perennial that can reach 9 feet tall under the right conditions but generally grows 5-7 feet tall. Its preferred location is full to part sun in moist soil. It naturally occurs in moist woodland clearings or along stream beds. It is adaptable to average garden soil, but may wilt during periods of drought without supplemental water.

Like many plants, there are both pros and cons to adding Rudbeckia laciniata to your garden.

On the positive side, this rudbeckia provides plenty of sunny flowers and has a long 2 month bloom time – July through September.  The size and bright coloration of this plant creates a strong accent in the garden at a time when some other perennials are starting to wane.

The flowers are attractive to bees (both native and domesticated) and butterflies, providing a late season nectar source.  They have attractive seed heads and the flower seeds provide food for finches in the fall.  This coneflower is generally pest and disease resistant and can handle hot, humid summer weather.  It is considered deer and rabbit resistant.

Because of its tolerance for moist soil and periodic flooding, it is a good plant for flood prone areas or rain gardens. Given space, it can create a (very tall!) groundcover. The root structure provides good erosion control.

However (here come the cons), in moist sunny areas this coneflower can spread somewhat aggressively by underground rhizomes. Plants should be edged or divided in spring to control the spread.

In fertile soils, more shade or windy areas the plants will probably need staking to keep it upright. 

While the plants will probably survive drought, the lower leaves will droop and brown. Drought stress can occasionally result in powdery mildew.

If you can give this plant a bit of moisture and some room to grow, it might be a great addition to a pollinator friendly landscape.

Want more information? Here are some links:

Missouri Botanical Garden plant profile – Rudbeckia laciniata

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center –  Rudbeckia lancinata