Monday, December 22, 2014

Winter Solstice- Out of the Darkness

by Carol Kagan, Master Gardener

Sunday at 6:03 PM (EST) was the Winter Solstice. This is an astronomical event that occurs because our world is tilted on its axis with respect to our orbit around the sun, a fact that explains the seasons in our temperate zones.

Late dawn. Early sunset. Short day. Long night. The shortest day and the longest night of the year. It marks a turn in the seasons as the length of the days get longer.

Courtesy of NOAA
If the days begin to get longer, why do the coldest days of the winter season fall after the Winter Solstice? According to the National Climatic Data Center the coldest days fall between December 1 and March 31 with 83% of those from December 20 to March 31.

The Washington Post’s Weather Gang reports that “even though daylight slowly increases after the solstice, many places don’t see their coldest days until mid-January. This happens because the Northern Hemisphere continues to lose more heat than it gains for several more weeks. The oceans – which take longer than land to heat up and cool down – play a role in this seasonal temperature lag. Only after the Northern Hemisphere starts to receive more solar energy than it loses do average temperatures begin their upward ascent.”

Doug Wenztel of the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center says there’s a bright side as well. This is an opportunity to go out and explore your local areas and see a different landscape.

A walk along a favorite summertime wooded path reveals the shapes of trees and their branching patterns. Sit still and quiet for 15 minutes and soon you will see the birds that stay with us all winter. Discover mosses and evergreen ground covers nestled against the rocks near the path or check the edges of a pond for ice crystals.

You most likely will hear the rustle and rattle of dead leaves still clinging to the branches of some trees. In an earlier Penn State post, “Winter Leaves that Hang On,” Jim Finley asks if you have ever wondered why some trees hold their leaves into the winter months.

“Marcescence, the term used to describe leaf retention, is most common with many of the oak species, American beech, witch hazel, hornbeam (musclewood), and hophornbeam (ironwood).

Normally, as deciduous trees (which include hardwoods and some conifers) prepare to shed their leafy summer coats, cells at the interface between the twig and the end of the leaf stem release enzymes and form an abscission layer that “unglues” the leaf – separating it from the vascular bundles, allowing it to fall free.

All trees shed leaves, even conifers; however, they generally retain their needles for more than one year. Leaf drop benefits deciduous trees by reducing water loss and allows them to develop leaves that efficiently use available sunlight during warmer seasons.”

Read Finley’s full article for more information on why trees may retain their leave through the winter months and he makes a good point when he says, “… think about the bit of shelter they provide for wintering birds as they perch among the rattling leaves, away from winter’s wind.”

For other information about the Winter Solstice

State Winter Solstice Marks Beginning of Stormy Season

Friday, December 19, 2014

Water: Beyond the Garden - What's in Your Well Water?

by Carol Kagan, Master Gardener
As gardeners we most often worry about water QUANTITY - how much or how little water our plants get. But for others in our community water QUALITY is of utmost importance.

George Hurd, Environmental/Resource Development Educator for Penn State Extension, Franklin County, provides information on well water and calls to our attention that in Pennsylvania those who own private wells are responsible for checking on their water quality.
Water may need to be tested on a regular basis (Photo: José Manuel Suarez)
Do you rely on a private well for your drinking water? If so, when is the last time you had your water tested? Private water supplies in Pennsylvania are not monitored by any regulatory agency.

This article is a simple reminder that if you live in Pennsylvania and you rely on your own well for drinking water, it is your responsibility to ensure the quality of that water. In general, you should test your water annually for coliform bacteria and every three years for pH and total dissolved solids.

If you are concerned about potential pollutants or if you are experiencing aesthetic problems such as staining, taste, or odor, more extensive testing is warranted. It is important that all water tests be performed by a water testing laboratory certified by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). A full list of certified water testing laboratories in Pennsylvania is available from DEP.

Penn State's Agricultural Analytical Services Laboratory is accredited by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for drinking water analysis. The goal of Penn State's Drinking Water program is to promote well water testing and to educate homeowners on its importance.
Have water samples tested by Penn State (Photo: Michael Melgar)
To submit a drinking water sample to Penn State’s laboratory, you must first obtain a Drinking Water Test Kit. Kits are available at many county extension offices or may be obtained directly from the laboratory. For more information, contact your county extension office or visit Penn State's Agricultural Analytical Services Laboratory water testing webpage at:

Not just people are affected by water quality

Penn State Extension is one of the few unbiased, research-based resources to help meet the water needs of Pennsylvania's large, rural population. In 2015, Penn State Extension will offer “Home Water and Septic System” workshops around the state to educate homeowners about safe drinking water and the proper management of their on-lot sewage disposal systems.

To find out if there is a workshop scheduled for your area, go to: and click on “Courses and Workshops” or contact your county extension office.  Also at this website are links to information on drinking water, water treatment, septic systems and water conservation. This includes fact sheets, webinars and other useful drinking water resources.

The Penn State Natural Resources Water Quality Team are extension educators located around the state and at the university who can be contacted by email or by phone to provide educational assistance with water quality issues. Their information is also available at this link.

So drink a toast to the New Year and make a resolution to check your water supply to keep a healthy resolution.

Other links on this topic:
PA Dept. of Environmental Protection- Bureau of Safe Drinking Water
PA Dept. of Environmental Protection-Private Water Wells
Penn State Extension: Water Testing
EPA: Safe Drinking Water Hotline

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

January Workshops for Families and Early-Start Gardeners

by Carol Kagan, Master Gardener

What are the Master Gardeners up to during the cold winter?


Please note that workshops fill quickly. Call now to register. 717-263-9226

Sat., Jan. 10,  9-11 am: For the Birds (Family Friendly) - Make a birdfeeder and learn about attracting birds. $10 adult, $15 family

Sat., Jan 17, 9-11 am: Winter Sowing - One of our most popular workshops. Sign up early. Learn how to sow seeds outdoors in recyclable containers in winter and early spring. Make one to take home. $10

Sat., Jan. 31,  9-11 am: Fairy Gardens - Learn about scale, plants and maintenance in this informative program. $10

Tue., Feb. 3,  6:30-8:30 pm: Decoding Seed Catalogs - Learn how to read plant and seed listings to select the right plants for our area and your landscape. $10

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Rosemary- Spending the Winter Inside

by Master Gardener, Carol Kagan

Flowering Rosemary Indoors at Barb P's house
Master Gardener Barb P. shared photos she took of the flowering rosemary plant in her sunroom. This reminds us about overwintering rosemary outdoors in our area, more information at a 2012 entry. But what about bringing it indoors?

Another photo from Barb
Bringing rosemary (and other herbs and plants, typically tender perennials) indoors for the winter requires some different attention than when they were outdoors during the milder seasons.

Rosemary in a container outdoors in summer. (C. Kagan)


Because rosemary does not overwinter well in our area, it is advisable to treat it as a container plant which makes it infinitely easier to bring indoors. However, if you have rosemary planted out, you may pot it up using appropriate potting soil (not garden soil) and pot size with a drainage hole and tray. Follow recommendations about preparing your plants to bring them inside.

If possible, acclimate the plant to the indoors by bringing it inside a few weeks before the first expected frost date, October 15 here in S. Central PA. If you can open the windows and keep the indoor temperatures lows, it will make the transition easier than suddenly bringing it into a warm house.


All I want is for my rosemary to make it through the winter in living condition, so I can drag it back outside when the weather gets warm next year.

Fertilizer and Pruning: I don't encourage my rosemary to grow during the winter so I don't fertilizer or prune, except for a snip here and there. Rosemary will go dormant during the winter.

Light: Rosemary needs 6-8 hours of light as it did outside. A good south facing window may well do but you may have to supplement it with artificial light. A fluorescent light or grow light can help.  Rotate the plant every week or so to keep the plant growing evenly on all sides.

Temperature: As a native Mediterranean, mild-region plant, rosemary will expect cool winters (not freezing) temperatures. An area that is consistently 55 to 60°F is good.

Watering: As with most plants brought in to overwinter, consistent watering is one of the important keys to keeping it alive. Water when the surface is dry, usually once every 2 weeks until the soil is wet and water comes through the drainage hole.

After about an hour, empty the water from the saucer so the roots are not sitting in water. Rosemary will benefit from misting. A tip for watering all indoor plants is to allow tap water to sit in an open container overnight to allow the chlorine to dissipate.

Air Circulation: Good air circulation can alleviate some problems with mildew and mold. If you have several plants overwintering indoors, make sure there is good spacing between them.


Rosemary is the herb of remembrance. Although today we typically think of it as remembering loved ones that have passed, the Greeks thought it increased memory. Greek scholars were said to wear wreaths of rosemary around their heads when taking exams to help them remember their lessons.

The name rosemary derives from the Latin for dew-"ros"- and sea -"marinus;" thus, dew of the sea. A legend says that the Virgin Mary spread her blue cloak over a white-blossomed rosemary bush when she was resting causing the flowers to turn blue. The shrub then became know as the "Rose of Mary."

Other Links of Interest:

University of Illinois Extension: Rosemary
Overwintering Rosemary

Friday, November 21, 2014

Pumpkins Turned Into Centerpieces

by Carol Kagan, Master Gardener

The 4-H Garden Club, having put this year's vegetable garden to bed for the winter, have turned to some fall and holiday crafts using garden and natural materials. Earlier this November they used cornhusks from their popcorn plants to make cornhusk dolls and dream catchers.

This week we used small pumpkins, hollowed and cleaned, as vases for Thanksgiving centerpieces.
Let's start by looking at all the great creations and smiling faces.

Master Gardener Denise Lucas described the main parts of creating a floral arrangement.
Denise Lucas demonstrates the steps to making a floral arrangement.
Master Gardeners and 4-H families contributed evergreen cuttings and dried materials such as milkweed pods, teasel, ornamental grasses and flowers as well as pine cones and dried berries.
Here's a few shots of the creative process.
Next meeting we will pop the popcorn we grew and enjoy snacks, including some popcorn, while we string popcorn and cranberries for holiday decorations.

Special thanks to the 4-H parents who always stay and help as well as Master Gardener Barb Petrucci our regular volunteer.

Happy Thanksgiving from the 4-H Garden Club.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Gass House Garden Celebrates Completion of Phase I

by Carol Kagan, Master Gardener

Sign Recounts Patrick Gass' Life
A long view of the garden area
Today 39 people gathered for the formal opening of the Patrick Gass Garden. Borough Commissioners, Master Gardeners, local Historical Society members, and others heard a brief presentation about the concept and development of the Garden highlighted today by the recently installed sign.
Key coordinators of the Gass Garden
Arrowheads, a small knife and a number of coins were found at the site.

Bill Stead revealed to all, including Cindy Stead, archeological finds unearthed during work in the garden. Coins dating back to the 1600's plus arrowheads and a small knife.
Information about the Lewis and Clark Expedition on reverse of sign
After the presentation, attendees were treated to refreshments and had an opportunity to look at display materials about the Garden and the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Patrick Gass Historic Marker at the Site
Photos by Master Gardener Trey Gelbach

More information on Gass Garden
Gass Garden Background
Gass Garden - Timberrr
Gass Garden-Sod Busting and Soil Prep
Gass Garden Spring 2012 Planting
The Patrick Gass Garden
Gass Garden Spreads Its Wings

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Decorating with Holiday Greens

Shared by Carol Kagan, Penn State Master Gardener, Franklin County
Last year Master Gardener Annette Macoy posted this helpful article about Decorating with Fresh Greens for the Holidays. It has lots of good information.
One of our nicest winter holiday traditions is decorating with fresh greenery. Evergreens such as cedar, ivy, pine and holly add a natural look and fresh fragrance to our homes; for many, they represent life everlasting and the coming renewal of spring. Your own landscape is a great place to look for holiday greenery. You may have a variety of materials unavailable at a store, and what you gather will be much fresher. Just remember that you are actually pruning the plants as you gather greenery, so consider carefully which branches you can trim to preserve the natural form of the tree or shrub.
Proper Conditioning of Greenery 
Conditioned greens will last for quite a while in arrangements.
  • Immerse entire evergreen branch in warm water for 12 hours or overnight. This will prolong the life of the branch and also clean the foliage.
  • Remove all lower leaves to ensure that there is no soft material below the water level where it can rot and form bacteria.
  • Re-cut the stem ends at an angle to provide a large surface area for the maximum absorption of water.
  • Stand all branches in water in a cool, dark place until ready to use.
  • Change the water every 2-3 days. A few drops of bleach may be added to the water to prevent bacteria formation.
Check your decorations often, and replace any greenery that becomes dry. Keep greenery away from heat sources and out of direct sunlight. Some popular decorating materials have toxic berries or leaves, so keep holiday decorations out of the reach of children and pets.

Suggested Varieties for Decorating

Needled and broadleaf evergreens include white pine, juniper, Douglas fir, cedar, fir, spruce, ivy, holly, mountain laurel, boxwood, evergreen magnolia, arborvitae, evergreen viburnum, Leyland cypress, nandina, Cryptomeria, hemlock, and Chamaecyparis.

Other plant parts such as berries, dried flowers, cones, seed pods, and twigs can add color and texture to holiday arrangements. Some possibilities include: acorns, bittersweet, holly berries, hydrangea blossoms, magnolia pods, nandina berries, pine cones, pyracantha berries, rose hips, sweet gum balls, bayberry, redtwig dogwood, and fruits such as lemons, limes, crabapples, seckel pears, kumquats, and pineapple.

Annette Macoy, Penn State Extension of Cumberland County