Friday, September 26, 2014

Chili Peppers: Some Like It Hotter

By Master Gardener Marianne McNiel

Harvest time is upon us! Farmers and gardeners, including myself, are extremely busy this time of year.  In my garden, the peppers are especially prolific. My peppers were a bit late to ripen. This might have been caused by the cooler weather. My husband and daughter are happy about the abundant peppers because they absolutely love hot chili peppers! I think they are a bit crazy and have some strange genetic defect of their taste buds. This year, we grew ‘Biker Billy’ jalapeño (Capsicum annuum), a hot chili pepper from Portugal and two types of habañero (Capsicum chinense ‘Habañero’): standard and ‘Caribbean Red’.  My family made two batches of hot sauce that I was afraid to try (and I grew up eating spicy food in Texas)!

Capsicum or peppers is a genus of flowering plants in the nightshade family Solanaceae. Although hot chili peppers have been eaten and used for medicinal purposes by native people in South and Central America for thousands of years, the chili pepper was first discovered by Europeans, including Columbus, in the Caribbean. These early explorers learned the flavor of this fruit was unique and spicy! The hot chili peppers that are used in Indian and Thai cuisine are also thought to originate from Central and South America.  Today, many varieties of chili peppers are available at your local farms, farm stands and markets!

It seems that hot chili peppers have become increasingly popular in our area during the last few years. This has been partly due to the efforts of Meadow View Farms and the Bowers Pepper Festival in Berks County.  If you haven’t attended this delightful event, and you are a spicy food lover like my husband and daughter, what are you waiting for?  The festival was in its 11th year and there were almost 100 vendors from states as far away as Illinois. Of course, there is live music and a jalapeño eating contest! It is very well attended so we arrived early to beat the crowds. We bought jalapeño relish, hot mustard and pickled hot green tomatoes. We also toured Meadow View Farms where nearly 100 varieties of peppers are grown for you to pick, including some unusual varieties like the ‘Chocolate’ or black habañero that takes a long time to mature, and the Trinidad moruga scorpion (Capsicum chinense), one of the hottest peppers in the world. This scorpion pepper is so named because of its hot flavor and its little curled “tail” at the end that looks like a scorpion tail.

The “hot” taste of chili peppers is caused by chemical compounds known as capsaicinoids. Many folks have become so fascinated by hot chili peppers that it is now fashionable to argue about what pepper is actually the hottest. This led to the development of the Scoville Organoleptic Test. This test was invented by an American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912. In the test, human subjects taste a series of prepared samples to determine the heat level. The samples are diluted in the laboratory until the heat can no longer be detected by the tasters. A single unit of dilution is called a Scoville Heat Unit (SHU). This is a somewhat subjective test since it depends on the tasters and their constant exposure to hot flavor. Now, a more exact chemical analysis known as high-performance liquid chromatography can be performed, but this test is quite expensive.  Years ago, it was thought that the habañero was the hottest pepper around. Later, the ghost or bhut jolokia pepper (hybrid of mostly C. chinense with some C. frutescens genes) was ruled the hottest. The Trinadad scorpion (Capsicum chinense) was declared the hottest in 2007, but now the ‘Carolina Reaper’ (hybrid Capsicum chinense) is thought to be the hottest (according to the Guinness Book of World Records). I really don’t care which pepper is the hottest because a pickled jalapeño is about the hottest that I can stand to eat.

Chili peppers are also grown for their ornamental value and you can find them at local nurseries this time of year. They come in a variety of beautiful colors from yellow, orange, red to purple. If you buy fresh chili peppers from the market or at a farm stand you should wear gloves when handling them. The seeds are especially a problem for some people when handling. For the hottest types, I would avoid using the seeds in any sauces or dishes for normal consumption! Peppers can be frozen, canned, marinated, pickled or dried. I have attached a link to a Penn State Extension article concerning the steps for safe preservation of peppers. If you are in the mood for some hot peppers, you still may be able to get some at Meadow View Farms in Bowers. You may want to call first to determine availability. So go pick a peck of peppers for pickling!

Origin of Domesticated Chili Peppers

Bowers Pepper Festival:

Measuring Chili Pepper Heat:

Pepper Production and Preservation:

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Yummy Blueberries and Raspberries Galore!

By Master Gardener Marianne McNiel

As I sit here eating some delicious blueberries on my high-fiber, whole-wheat cereal, I can say that there is nothing better than fresh blueberries and raspberries from one of our local farms.  Now is the time to look for these beauties at farm stands and farmers’ markets throughout the Lehigh Valley.

The blueberry plants grown on most of our local farms in the Lehigh Valley are known as northern highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum).  These blueberries are grown commercially in much of the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. There are several varieties of highbush blueberries grown here in Pennsylvania. Some varieties will produce fruit well into September. In New England, a low-growing or lowbush blueberry is grown wild and commercially. If you have ever spent time in Maine during the summer months then you have probably sampled this smaller, sweet blueberry.

Raspberries are part of the Rubus genus, commonly known as brambles. Blackberries are also part of this genus, but the thornless variety of blackberry that is usually grown commercially cannot withstand our cold winters. Some local gardeners have had success with thorny or trailing blackberries but you might not see many of these growing at our local farms. On the other hand, raspberry production is common on many local farms and you will find them at your local farm stand or market. There are two types of raspberries: red and black. Yellow raspberries are a mutation of red and black while purple raspberries are a cross between red and black. However, 75% of raspberries grown in the US are red.

For the local farmer, blueberry and raspberry production are specialized skills with high stakes.  The initial investment in a planting is relatively high. Good management skills are needed to produce quality fruit, and substantial labor is required. Both plants require acidic, well-drained soils with regular applications of organic matter. Frequent mulching of plants is also recommended. Raspberry plants require trellising. Both raspberry and blueberry plants require pruning every year to increase the quality of the fruit. Raspberry plants require the most pruning since their canes (the part of the plants that produces the fruit) will die after each year’s production.  When properly cared for, the plants will produce fruit for many years.

If you are searching for some local berries then you may choose to find a farm where you can pick them yourself. This is a wonderful summer activity that I have enjoyed many times with my children.  I have included a link to a great website for locating local farms where you can pick berries.  The site is frequently updated but you may want to call first before venturing out to the farm to ensure the crop is available. We have had a cool spring so berry-picking dates may be a little later than normal.  Blueberries are usually available from late June until August. Raspberries are usually available from July until October.  After picking (or purchasing), raspberries should be eaten within a few days. Blueberries can last up to 14 days in your refrigerator, but they taste better when used within a few days.

If you want to sample blueberries in a festive atmosphere, the city of Bethlehem is host to a wonderful Blueberry Festival at Burnside Plantation.  This year, it runs from July 18th to 20th. Here you can sample homemade blueberry pies, strudel and blueberry swirl ice cream!

Blueberries and raspberries are delicious and in season locally. You can buy them at farm stands or markets, pick them or celebrate them at a fun festival! One additional benefit of eating blueberries and raspberries is that they are both high in nutrients and antioxidants. So your doctor may miss seeing you and your family if you eat more of these wonderful local berries. Go berries!

Pick-your-own farms in Eastern PA:

Bethlehem Blueberry Festival:

Highbush Blueberry Production

Raspberry Production:


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Prolong Your Harvest

By Meara Hayden, Penn State Extension Intern      

We are nearing the peak of summer, and you’ve probably got plenty of fruits and vegetables either ready to harvest or close to it. But you likely did not have happy, full plants in early spring, nor will you in late fall. It is often desirable to extend the growing season several weeks on each end, so you can have harvestable plants long after and before they are usually ripe.

Extending the growing season is a well-practiced art, one that has been around for hundreds of years. Simply covering the soil with a thick layer of mulch can help keep the plant’s roots warm and moist for longer. It is also helpful to overwinter plants, or to start seedlings inside.

Planning for a long growing season can take a lot of work, and you should be very familiar with your area’s microclimate. Many gardeners like to order seeds online before they are available in stores. You should be aware of the germination time and time to harvest. Late or early crops will often take longer to mature, and you may end up with plants that refuse to produce if you aren’t careful.
Cold frames protect greens from frost
If you’re planning on building a structure, you should consider greenhouses as well as hoop houses or floating row covers. With a greenhouse, you could have cool weather crops like kale, lettuce, and beets year round. Hoop houses allow you to plant the crop in the ground, instead of containers. They are usually made of plastic stretched over hoops made of metal or PVC piping, with enough room for the gardener to stand. The sides are rolled up during the day to allow for ventilation. They are cheaper than greenhouses, but usually don’t have heating, and they are non-permanent. Floating row covers are just cloth, like specially made remay or even a sheet, placed on small hoops, like half a hula hoop or bent wire. They “float” above the plants, keeping warm air and moisture in, and pests out.
To learn more about the many ways you can extend your growing season, and about the pros and cons of the different gardening structures, come to the workshop “Grow Longer: Extend the Growing Season,” part of the Lehigh Valley Backyard Homesteading Series. The workshop is at Red Cat Farm in Germansville, at 8:30 am on Saturday, July 12th. Come out and learn how you can have fresh produce late in the fall and early in the spring!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Growing Healthy Tomatoes for Canning

By Meara Hayden, Penn State Extension Intern

While I love a good, ripe salad tomato, there is nothing better than having homegrown, homemade salsa or tomato sauce late in the winter. Tomatoes are high-acid foods, which makes them easy to can and keep for the dead of winter, when you’re just dying for something with flavor. But before you can start canning, you’ll have to grow healthy, happy tomatoes.

When purchasing your plants, ask for a determinant variety if you have canning in mind. That means that the tomatoes will get ripe all at once, instead of having a season-long crop, making processing and canning all the fruit easy. Make sure they’re planted in full sun, and far away from any source of weed killer, from your lawn or your neighbors. When you’re planting, strip all the blossoms off the plant and don’t put fertilizer directly in the planting hole, it will fry the roots. Make sure your stakes are in before the plant goes in, you don’t want to hurt their growing root system. It’s also a good idea to continue to strip the blossoms until the plant has enough foliage to support fruit.

Remember, there is no cure for late blight, only prevention. A fungicide containing copper should be applied early and often, and if one of your plants is infected, destroy it immediately. Late blight spreads very quickly.

Once you have buckets of ripe fruit, you’ll want to know how to can it. If you’re new to it all, check out Canning 101: a workshop with master gardeners, June 26, from 6-9pm, at Cedar Crest College. The workshop covers hot water bath canning, no pressure canner required. Learn to can high-acid foods like tomatoes, pickles, and other fruit. Register here:

Happy Canning!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Growing Hops

While some of my friends may turn up their noses, I absolutely love a hoppy beer, especially on a hot day.  Here are a few facts about the plant that produces such wonderfully citrusy and bitter flavors:

Hops are perennial plants with climbing stems, called bines, which can grow up to 20 or 30 feet long.  The bines die back each year and re-grow the following year. 

Hops are planted not by seed, but by planting rhizomes (thick underground stems that have roots and shoots growing from it).   Only rhizomes from female plants are used since the hops are harvested for their female cones.   

For decent yields, hops need to be trellised.  Backyard growers can make do with a shorter trellis, a side of a garage or a chimney.  Most hop farmers use an overhead trellis system, which consists of 15-foot-high poles spaced every 5 plants.  The poles are connected by overhead wire cables that run both down and across the rows.  On average, hop farmers have approximately 55 poles per acre. 

Large acreages of hops are mechanically harvested with specialized equipment.  Small acreages are generally hand-harvested by removing individual cones as they mature utilizing a ladder or a cherry picker.  The bines could also be cut, pulled down and harvested all at once.

In 2013, Washington state produced about 80% of the U.S. hop crop.  Across the country, there were 35,244 acres in hops yielding a harvest of 69,343,900 pounds!

Grow Your Own: Want to learn to grow your own hops or brew your own beer?  Join us at  Funk Brewing Company on June 7th from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. for our Crafting Beer 101 Workshop.  For more information or to register, visit

Friday, May 16, 2014

Cool, Clear Water: Irrigation

With lots of young plants in the ground and a few consecutive days of warm, sunny weather the past few weeks, I’ve been making the most of my 3 rain barrels to irrigate my garden.  My irrigation system is a bit archaic – I fill up a watering can and water plant by plant, row by row.  It takes a lot of time and I know there are more sophisticated systems out there (farmers certainly don’t water plants individually).  One day I’ll upgrade, but for now, my water brigade works just fine for my garden.

Most vegetable farmers use drip or trickle irrigation to water their crops.  In a nut shell, drip irrigation consists of a number of hoses transporting water to drip lines, which are thin-walled, perforated polyethylene tubes.  Water is pumped through the lines, which rest along plant roots, and slowly seeps into the ground.  Drip irrigation is an extremely efficient system since water is targeted to the roots and not lost to evaporation.  Farmers can also use this system to apply liquid fertilizers.    The disadvantage is that it takes a considerable amount of initial set up and installation time.  Some farmers, such as sweet corn growers, use traveling gun systems, which consist of a big sprinkler mounted on a wheeled cart.  The cart is then pulled by a cable through the fields.   This type of irrigation makes sense for much larger plots, but a considerable amount of water is lost to evaporation and never makes it to the plant roots, since the water is intercepted by leaves.

So where do farmers source their water? Some farmers may be lucky enough to have a pond or a perennial stream to pump water from.  If they don’t have a water feature on their property, they could use a fire hydrant with permission from their local Water Authority or install a well.  Either of those options could be quite costly, so they’ll need to do the math to balance water costs and harvest profits. 

Save Water in Your Own Yard! If you’d like to build your own rain barrel to water your plants, join Penn State Extension Master Gardeners and Master Watershed Stewards on Wednesday, May 21st at the Seed Farm in Emmaus.  You can choose between 3 sessions: 5:30 – 6:15 p.m.; 6:15 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.; and 7:00 – 7:45 p.m..  In this workshop, volunteers will guide you through the process of constructing your own, fully functioning rain barrel. The workshop fee of $40 includes a plastic 55-gallon drum and all the necessary parts and assistance to build your own barrel. The workshop also includes a tour of The Seed Farm, an organization that is growing new farmers by providing them with training, equipment, and land which eliminates the top three barriers to farm entry and opens the doors for a new generation of farmers.  To register, visit


Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Local Asparagus at a Farm Near You!

By Master Gardener Marianne McNiel

I love asparagus. As a child, I refused to eat this vegetable that my mother loved, but after years of trying she would be happy to hear that it is one of my favorite vegetables, along with those little cabbages called Brussels sprouts. I can usually find asparagus at a local farmers' market from late April into June. This year with the cold spring weather, you may not see it until well into May. Here are some interesting facts about this great cool-season vegetable.

Asparagus has been eaten as a vegetable and used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years.  It is thought to be native to Russia, the Mediterranean and British Isles.  It was first cultivated by the Romans, and the oldest surviving recipe book has a recipe with asparagus! It was brought to America by the early colonists, but it was not grown commercially until the 1850s.

Asparagus officinalis is a perennial vegetable and one of a few vegetables that are monocots or single seed leaf (cotyledon). Corn is also a monocot, but it is a grain and not a vegetable. Asparagus used to be classified as a member of the lily family along with onions and garlic. In 2003, the lily family was split and asparagus is now classified in its own family, Asparagaceae.  No matter how we classify it, it still tastes great steamed, grilled or stir-fried.

Green, purple and white asparagus are all grown in Pennsylvania. Purple asparagus spears are a newer variety and white spears are produced by removing light from the spears when they first appear. Our Pennsylvania farms produce about 500 acres of asparagus valued at $2.5 million dollars. However, Oceana County, Michigan claims to be the Asparagus Capital of the World and the National Asparagus Festival is held there every June.  Asparagus festivals are also held in several places in California. Presently, the United States is the largest importer of asparagus, but asparagus fresh from our local farm field is fresher and tastes best!

For a farmer, asparagus is an investment crop because the plants are not fully mature for 5 years, but the plants will last up to 20 years.  Asparagus crowns will rise up as they grow and exposed crowns will die. For this reason, asparagus is planted in trenches or furrows that are 6 to 8 inches deep. Mature asparagus plants are harvested for 6 to 7 weeks. The spears are cut when they are about 7 inches long and a diameter of at least 5/16 of an inch. Select spears at your farm stand or market with slight purple tips that are not wilted. Asparagus should be refrigerated immediately after harvest. You can keep asparagus fresh in your refrigerator in a moist towel or with the tips pointed up in a cup of cold water. Spears will last 7 to 14 days in your refrigerator.

Asparagus spears are loaded with nutrients.  They are a great source of fiber, folate and vitamins A, C, E and K.  What about that smell after eating asparagus? The smell is caused by our bodies converting asparagusic acid into sulfur-containing compounds. Scientists have recently learned that all individuals do not experience this strange odor after eating asparagus. It is in our genes to either process asparagus a certain way and to be able to detect the smell, the asparagus gene. So mind your mothers and eat that delicious local asparagus. Find out if you have the asparagus gene!


Michigan Asparagus and Festival:

Asparagus and Urine Smell: