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Cooking with Winter Squash

December 11, 2014

The garden may be mostly asleep now for the winter, but there are still local vegetables to be had.  Winter squashes are harvested in the summer but store well into the fall and winter, so whether you grew some yourself or find them at the store they are a healthy, delicious winter vegetable.

butternutThere are many kinds of winter squashes: acorn, butternut, delicata, pumpkin, etc.- but all are packed full of nutrients and vitamins.  Their orange colored flesh indicates their biggest perk- high levels of beta-carotene (which your body converts to vitamin A), shown to protect against heart disease and breast cancer, and is important for eye health.  They are also high in vitamin C, low in fat, a good source of fiber, and have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Butternut squash in particular has a sweet flavor, and can lend a creamy richness to many dishes.  When the cold has us craving warm comfort foods, think squash for healthier dishes without sacrificing flavor.  There are two squash recipes below to try, enjoy!

Squasharoni and Cheese (Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese)

  • 1 1lb box rigatoni or elbow pasta
  • 1 ½ lbs butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks (about 3 ½ cups)
  • 2 ¾ cups milk or water
  • 8 ounces smoked cheddar cheese, shredded (2 cups)
  • 2 small sweet onions, cut into chunks (optional)
  • 3 ounces breadcrumbs
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  1. Preheat the oven to 425°.  Lightly butter a baking dish; set aside.  Cook pasta according to package directions.  Drain; transfer to a large bowl.
  2. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan combine the squash and 2 ½ cups of the milk/water over medium-high heat.  Bring to boiling; reduce heat to medium, and simmer until the squash is tender when pierced with a fork, 18 to 20 minutes.
  3. Stir together the remaining ¼ cup milk/water and flour; stir into squash mixture.  Bring to boiling; cook until thickened, 2 to 3 minutes.  Stir in 1 ½ cups of the cheddar until melted; keep warm.
  4. Add onions to a skillet (if used); cover and cook over low heat 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Uncover and increase heat to high.  Cook 4 to 6 minutes more, stirring, until onions are golden.
  5. Add squash-cheese mixture and onions (if used) to the bowl with the pasta.  Toss well to combine, then transfer to prepared baking dish.
  6. Add breadcrumbs to a small bowl; mix with melted butter.  Sprinkle remaining cheddar and the bread crumbs over pasta mixture.  Bake until top is browned, about 14 to 15 minutes.  Cool 5 minutes.  Sprinkle with parsley.  Makes 6 to 8 servings.


November 10, 2014

They can be colorful, big, small, warty or smooth. They are the sign that fall has arrived; they are gourds! Gourds are related to melons, squash, pumpkins, and cucumbers, which are all members of the Cucumber family.

gourdsGourds have been grown for thousands of years. They have been used as utensils, for storage, as instruments and as ornaments. Native Americans used gourds for food, as canteens and for ceremonial rattles, once dried. They even used the seeds for medicinal purposes.

There are many types of gourds but the three most common gourds are the cucurbita, or ornamental gourds; the lagenaria or hard shelled gourds and the luffa, or vegetable sponge gourd.

The cucurbita include the colorful, ornamental gourds that are different shapes and textures and often used in fall arrangements. The lagenaria group includes birdhouse and bottle gourds. Lagenaria gourds are green on the vine and turn a dark tan as they dry. Luffas have an outer shell that can be removed to expose a fibrous interior. This hardened sponge -like material is often used for bathing.

Gourds are a warm-season crop taking from 100 to 180 days to mature. Planting should occur when the danger of frost has passed. Harvesting can take place after the vines have turned brown. Be sure to leave a bit of the stem attached to the gourd.

To cure gourds you will need a dark, dry place that has good air circulation. Drying gourds is similar to drying herbs. The gourds can be laid out in a dry, ventilated area and should be check to make sure that mold doesn’t form. The exterior drying can take up to one week; to fully cure a gourd it can take upwards of four weeks or more.

So considering what type of gourd you want and what you will be using it for should be part of your initial selection. The ornamental gourds are beautiful as is and can be incorporated into fall craft projects or arrangements. Another popular use for gourds is for birdhouses. Building and decorating a gourd birdhouse can be a fun, family project. It can take on endless creative directions and can be as simple or intricate as you like. It will serve the birds that are over wintering in Pennsylvania and allow the budding nature observer to watch these critters in action all winter long. Click here for step by step instructions on making a gourd birdhouse. Consider holiday painting themes like pilgrims or snowmen!


Homegrown Popcorn

October 31, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs outdoor activities decrease and we begin to retreat inside, what better way to celebrate the season (and watch a scary movie) then to curl up on the couch with a big bowl of homegrown popcorn. Varieties of popcorn have been grown for years in the US. Commercially most of the production is in the Midwest, in states such as Nebraska and Indiana. However, many of the seed companies that you would buy your typical vegetable seeds from also offer popcorn seed.

Popcorn takes the same cultural requirements that would go into growing sweet corn. The key to good popcorn though is to pick it when it is properly dried out.  At the end of the growing season the kernels start to harden on the ears and the husks start to dry.

When you think the kernels are dry enough, you can test it by picking one ear, peeling the husk off back, and giving the ear a hard twist between your two hands. A few kernels should come off of the ear; these will be you test kernels.

If you are popping it on the stove top you will need a sauce pot with a lid. Put enough oil in the pot to cover the bottom and then turn it on medium heat. When the oil is hot,  throw in a couple kernels and put the lid back on the pot. It will take a few seconds but the kernels will explode and transform into a small popped piece of corn. If the popcorn is to chewy it then needs more time to dry out, so leave the ears on the stalks a little longer and keep testing kernels until you have the popped kernels are light and crisp

Once you have all your ears harvested, they need to be stored in a cool dry place like a garage, but make sure they are protected from rodents.  You can either shuck the ears as needed, or shuck them all at once. While it’s a larger endeavor to do it all at once, it pays off in the end when you can simply take scoops of kernels whenever you want to pop some popcorn.

Next year set aside some space in your garden and grow some popcorn. You will be rewarded in the fall when you are curled up on the couch watching you favorite scary movie with a big bowl of your homegrown popcorn.

Fall Planting: Getting a Head Start on Spring

October 28, 2014

Some gardeners plant seedlings in mid-summer for a fall harvest, and some plant seeds or seedlings in the fall for a summer harvest.  But not many gardeners realize that you can plant in the fall for an early spring crop.

garlicOne popular fall crop is garlic.  Depending on what time the garlic seed goes in the ground, it will either send up vegetative growth or lay dormant until spring. If the garlic seed is planted in early to mid-fall, it will start to germinate and send up its first leaves. These green leaves will remain above ground through winter cold and snow, and then continue to grow as the spring days get longer and warmer.  If the garlic is planted later in fall, it will germinate in the spring.  A few other cold-hardy plants can make it through our tough winters this way, including scallions, a relative of garlic.

We can also take a clue from annual plants in getting a head start on the spring.  Have you ever let your lettuce plants go to seed in the summer, only to find some volunteer lettuce sprouting up the next year in another spot?  Allowing seeds to remain in the garden over the winter can mean earlier germination in the spring.  Try planting some English peas, lettuce, spinach or mixed green seeds in late fall, while the soil is still able to be worked, and cover the seeds with leaf mulch.  In the spring, when there is much more to do in the garden, you will have one less task to think about.

This doesn’t apply only to vegetables – you can also sow some wild flower mix in your garden. This will give you a nice show in summer when your tomatoes and peppers are flowering, attracting pollinating insects to help your fruiting yield.

Planning ahead will simplify your gardening tasks in the spring, and give you another thing to look forward to in the garden.  Good luck!

Putting the Garden to Bed

October 25, 2014

Fall is now well under way, and while gardening season is mostly over for our favorite summer vegetables, there’s still work to do!  Cleaning up the garden, amending the soil, and mulching now help make sure your garden is in the best shape for planting when spring comes around.

The first thing to do is protection and clean up.  There are some plants in your garden that just need to be tucked in for winter.  Kale, collards, beets, carrots, and other root crops just need a good mulching to protect them from frost.  While they won’t do much growing, they’ll happily stay tucked in until you’re ready to harvest them in late fall or early winter.

Warm season crops however, like tomatoes, squash, and beans, may be dying back already on their own.  If not, their growth halts with colder temperatures, and they will soon succumb to frost.  All weeds and plants that won’t survive winter should be removed, and if they’re disease free they should be composted.  If they are diseased you’ll want to dispose of them separately, so as not to harbor any diseases in your compost pile that could later affect your plants.


Adding leaves or straw can be an inexpensive way to mulch your beds and add organic matter

Once your garden is cleaned out, turn or gently till the top of your soil to expose pests (read more about reducing next year’s pests here).  Then, it’s a great chance to use mulch to amend your soil.  You can find great mulches right in your yard- fallen leaves, grass clippings and compost all make great mulches and will break down over the winter, enriching your soil.

Another option for mulching is to sow a cover crop (aka “green manure”), a crop grown to protect and enrich the soil.  Cover crops grow quickly, you can plant them in the fall, then in the spring turn them into your soil where they’ll break down, adding nutrients to the soil.  Cover crops also help improve soil structure and prevent erosion.  Good options are rye, wheat, and red clover.  Planting a cover crop is similar to planting grass seed- rake the area smooth, broadcast the seed at the rate the package recommends, lightly rake again, and water.

A little work in the fall will go a long way, and you’ll appreciate your forethought when spring arrives!

Fall Garden Clean-up Reduces Next Season’s Pests

October 22, 2014

Fall clean up plays an important role in a healthy garden and should be addressed from September to early November. Addressing pest issues in the fall, when insects are less active, can cut back on problems the following year.

Leaves In WheelbarrowsAt the end of the summer months when colder weather approaches, insects are faced with the option of going to warmer climates or staying tucked away until spring arrives.  The majority of insects will stick out the cold months by entering diapause, a phase of life that slows down development and allows for continued life at a much slower rate, often in the pupae stage.  Knowing when and where an insect enters diapause will help you find and remove potentially harmful insects before they find your favorite garden plants next year.

Ground cover, leaves, bark, twigs, and any sort of organic material, including this year’s plantings, can be an overwintering place for insects.  It is important to remove dead plant material and cut back perennials with a reputation for pest issues. 

The majority of insects who burrow into the soil to overwinter can be found in the top few inches.  Once the garden is cleaned up, turning the soil will help bring these pupae to the surface where they are likely to fall victim to both biotic and abiotic factors such as predator insects and cold temperatures.

Another step to kill any potential pests is to apply nematodes after turning the soil.  There are different nematodes specific to each pest, so correctly identifying the insect at hand is important.  Nematodes are commercially available through companies that include Arbico Organics, Bug Logical, and Planet Natural.  Once nematodes are applied, a layer of mulch can be applied to further reduce the chance of insects either burrowing into the soil or exiting, retain moisture for nematodes to work properly, and promote healthy microorganisms.  To make sure you correctly identify the pest, you can take its picture and send it to  to the Dr. Phipps’ Greenline email (greenline[at] or calling (412) 665-2364.  Phipps Master Gardeners volunteer to help sole your home gardening questions.

Fall pest control methods such as these take advantage of insects’ life cycle to give your garden an advantage through the next growing season.

Managing Raspberries

October 7, 2014

If you have ever seen raspberry brambles out in the wild, then you can understand why the thorny canes can present a challenge at harvesting time. But pruning techniques can affect the harvesting times and help to manage your berry patch. Each technique results in a different harvesting time and a different yield of berries. These techniques can apply to blackberries as well as raspberries.

Golden Raspberries

                          Golden Raspberries

The first pruning method is to prune the primocanes, or the first-year growth. Allow the canes to grow through the winter, then cut them down to the ground in January or February. A new flush of growth will come up – these are new primocanes. They will bear a large yield of fruit on the ends of the canes in the late summer or fall. Be ready to keep up with the harvest, because the canes will bear fruit for several weeks. This method results in an easier-to-pick harvest with just a single pruning, but the fruit arrives much later than the second method.

The second pruning method results in an earlier harvest. This method allows the floricanes to bear fruit. If you allow the primocanes to grow through the first year, overwinter, and keep growing into the second spring, they are now known as floricanes. These will send out leaves and flowers, then fruit. The floricanes will produce berries earlier in the summer. The challenge is that the plant will also send up new primocanes, which must be pruned out between the thorny floricanes. Many raspberry growers keep their berries in narrow rows to make it easier to thin out the new canes.

You can prune your raspberries the easy but late-bearing way or the more challenging but early-bearing way, and enjoy the sweet reward of raspberries in your own back yard.