Welcome Terrence-UTC’s New Chester Farmer

IMG_1274UTC is excited to welcome our first ever Community Engagement Farmer, Terrence Topping-Brown, who will be joining us as the cornerstone of our new Farm and Education Program, funded by the Chester Housing Authority, at the Ruth Bennett Homes in Chester, Pa.  A native of Upper Darby Township, Terrence grew up in the neighborhood next to Haddington and still has strong connections to the area.  He presently coaches track at Upper Darby High School, his alma mater, and is excited to be working with folks near his hometown to build food security.

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Wild Edibles at the Farm


Chickweed as it is going to flower.

While there is not a lot that can endure the dogged days of winter, there is one wild edible that can be seen holding tenaciously to the frozen ground, reaching its limbs through cracks in the ice and breaks in the snow, and populating the pathways in our high tunnels.  UTC/NF farmer Rachel de Vitry shares her insights on Chickweed, a surprisingly resilient cold hardy vegetable that makes a happy home on our farm:

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UTC partners with Bennett Compost or Your Food Becomes Your Food

Tim Bennett, founder of Bennet Compost at Neighborhood Foods Farm

Tim Bennett of Bennett Compost making a delivery to Neighborhood Foods Farm

When Ryan, UTC’s agricultural director, told me that we’re now partnering with Bennett Compost, I got really excited! As a person who’s been recycling and composting for many years, I love hearing about Tim Bennett’s Philly composting business. He picks up his customer’s buckets filled with  disintegrating vegetable remains by night (“our compost fairies come in the night and whisk away your food waste, leaving the empty container for you to retrieve in the morning”) and uses sites around the city to convert the stuff into usable, rich compost.  Not only does the service help people to lessen their trash load, but reducing the amount of  the methane that would normally be generated by the vegetable waste   is huge. As the Bennett Compost website says “methane emissions from landfills are a leading contributor to climate change.”  PLUS he employs teens in the neighborhoods where his composting sites are located to turn the steaming piles every week!  It’s definitely a win, win, win situation!

DSC_0073Ryan gathered a bunch of ever useful free pallets and together Tim and farm crew members Que and Raheem  constructed the bins at the Neighborhood Foods Farm.  With Tim’s weekly vegetable scrap deliveries, coffee grounds collections and reserved fall leaves, the bins are really filling up. We’re looking for a willing neighborhood teen to do the turning.


Speaking of steaming piles, you can tell that the mounds at the Farm are indeed composting. A thermometer with a long probe  inserted into the middle of one reads (click to enlarge) 140 plus degrees!

In a matter of weeks, the finished compost will get mixed into the soil to nourish the spring crops. We invite you to check out Bennett Compost and sign on for the service as a way to recycle your vegetable leftovers and to join Neighborhood Foods CSA to partake of the bounty of our locally grown food.

Your food becomes your food!

– Sue Witte, UTC’s volunteer coordinator

How Long Should I Store My Seeds?

While preparing for the upcoming crop season, I had the privilege of sorting through our large seed collection. It turns out we have seeds going back to 2006. I was not sure how well those would do for planting. However, if you are a plant enthusiast such as myself, and interested in saving & collecting seed here are a few guidelines I found on the Ohio State University Extension page on seed saving:


Asian greens – three years

Bush and pole beans – two years

Beets – two years

Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, and Kohlrabi – three to five years

Carrots – three years

Collards, Kale – three to five years

Sweet Corn – one year

Cucumbers – three years

Leeks, Onions – two to three yearsDSC_0019

Lettuce – three years

Melons – three years

Parsley – two years

Parsnips– one year

Peas – two years

Peppers – two yearsphoto

Radishes – four years

Rutabagas – three years

Spinach – one season

Swiss Chard – two years

Squashes – three to four years

Tomatoes – three years

Turnips – four years

The authors also mention that annuals are generally good for one to three years; perennials for two to four years.

 Happy seed saving!

– Awinda Otieno-Pala, Horticulturalist, UTC staff

The Heart of a Healthy Hive: Teamwork!

A busy frame in springtime, with worker bees, young larvae, and capped drone brood

A busy frame in springtime, with worker bees, young larvae, and capped drone brood

Of all the teamwork at Urban Tree, nothing can beat the workings of a bee.  The two resident honeybee colonies of our farm have stayed strong and healthy through the 2012 season, pollinating our crops and gathering nectar which they use to make honey.  After the loss of our hive last year, we got two new hives this March in the most unlikely way possible: through the U.S. Postal Service!  The bees quickly settled into their new homes at 53rd & Wyalusing, raising thousands of young to prepare to collect the springtime nectar flow.

Que dons the veil and gloves for a hive check-up

Que dons the veil and gloves for a hive check-up

As the season progressed, the hive was a view into the variety of the urban ecosystem.  In the cells of the honeycomb, the bees stored pollen in a range of yellow, orange and red hues.  Seasonal flower variation also came through in the honey, with lighter honey in the early summer and darker honey in the fall.  Sometimes the bees got defensive and stung the beekeepers intruding in their home.  After a particularly swollen eyelid, we decided to invest in a bee suit.

Kalib zips Ryan into the bee suit

Kalib zips Ryan into the bee suit

With protective gear on hand, more staff joined the ranks of UTC beekeepers. Ryan helped with the springtime colony installation and Que overcame his fear of bees, leading many successful hive inspections throughout the summer.

Bees arrive at the hive with heavy loads of pollen on their hind legs

Bees arrive at the hive with heavy loads of pollen on their hind legs

The bees, in their highly organized mini-society, have taught us so many lessons about working together towards a common goal.  Worker bees perform various jobs, from foraging for nectar to sealing up cracks in the hive to feeding the larvae.  But when there is a need for extra hands (or wings) on deck for another job, the bees don’t hesitate to step up.  At the height of summer, when the hive overheats, many workers stop what they’re doing to fan their wings at the hive entrance, circulating air.

Teamwork, initiative, diligence and flexibility are all essential characteristics found in our amazing team of farmers, landscapers, chefs, activists, librarians and teachers that keep our collective of gardens buzzing with energy.  We left the bees with ample honey stores to survive the winter, and they leave us with much food for thought as we work towards building our own, cohesive, healthy community.

-Annie Preston
UTC’s Program Director
(Photos by Sue Witte and Robert Berliner)


An update on those peppers

A few days ago at the Farm we discovered that one of those Chapeu de Frade peppers, growing in great abundance on several huge plants (well, huge for pepper plants!), had turned an bright orangey-red.  Que politely refused a taste but Skip, Raheem and I, curious to see if it differed from the lime green ones, divided it up.  It was definitely sweeter but as we ate the flesh close to the seeds and stem, it was fairly hot!

Skip holding the remaining stem with seeds after the pepper tasting. “Whoa, this is hot on the inside!”

Chapeu de Frade pepper looking like a UFO

I think we figured out where these plants came from, too. Eric Blasco, professional gardener and friend of UTC, helped us out with seed-starting this spring. He is a seed saver and is especially interested in heirloom vegetable varieties.

Let’s hope we don’t have a frost too soon.  The plants are loaded with peppers that are still green and we’d like to see a bunch of those turn red!

Peppers or UFOs?

Everyone’s been wondering about the odd shaped peppers growing at the Farm. Que calls them mutants and Skip says they’re Martian peppers. Not only do they look like flying saucers but they’re growing on plants that are as big (and as wide!) as azaleas.  The farmers – Ryan, Q and Raheem aren’t quite sure how they got there.

Trying to figure it out, I typed in “odd shaped peppers” at a google search. Looking through the images our mystery pepper was indeed there!  Turns out it’s called Chapeau de Frade which means nothing in French or more correctly Chapeu de Frade which means “the friar’s hat” in Portuguese. Not surprisingly it’s a native of Brazil.

One of the online seed catalogs says: “This may be one of the most unusual peppers you can grow. Each 3-4 foot plant  sets dozens of these UFO-shaped fruits at a time. They are 2-3 inches in diameter and turn from lime green to yellow to red orange. The flesh is mild and sweet. The heat is in and around the seeds.” And another mentioned, “The plants produce 30 to 50 extremely weird, 3 or 4 flat winged, wrinkled, almost flying saucer like pods. The flesh of each pod is thin athough crisp to taste and they mature from green to red in approximately 90-100 days.” The Latin name is Capsicum baccatum var. pendulum.

It looks like there are two varieties – one mild and one pretty hot.  We must have the mild one because even the flesh around the seeds is only very slightly tangy. We’ve been crunching on them ourselves and offering them at our Neighborhood Foods  stand at the Rittenhouse Market where everyone is loving the shape and the taste.  When (and if) they turn red will they have some heat?

Ryan says he’ll save some seed for next year as they’re so unusual.  They seem to be extremely drought tolerant and reportedly set fruit in the hottest of weather – just the kind of plant we need if next summer is as hot as this one!