Archive for ‘Gardening’

January 6, 2015

Home Connections: Bringing the Forest Inside with Terrariums

by Melissa Harding


The winter is a hard time to be a plant person, especially a gardener. No one wants to putter around in the yard when the wind chill is below zero and, no matter how beautiful a fresh snowfall is, it is hard to plant flowers in a frozen ground. One way to cure the winter blues and feel more connected to nature is through the use of houseplants. Houseplants are beautiful and make a house feel homey; additionally, caring for houseplants can reduce stress and the plants themselves earn their keep by cleaning toxins out of the ambient air. Houseplants are a real winner and the winter is a great time to invest in some new ones! One of the ways that we get our students excited about houseplants in the winter is by planting terrariums. Children love to take home plants; planting a beautiful terrarium garden is a great way to combine the fun of taking home a plant with learning about tropical ecosystems, the water cycle and clean air plants.

Terrariums are not only on trend, but are a great way to give kids the experience of having their own greenhouses. Typically a terrarium is a closed ecosystem, with the water recycling itself over and over again. However, not every terrarium has to have a lid; in fact, sometimes it is better to leave the lid off if you are planting anything that would easily die from overwatering.  Plant selection is important in this regard. Some of our favorite plants to put in a terrarium with children are: mosses, spider plants, Pothos, and Philodendron. Make sure that the plants you choose are short enough to fit in your container, as it will look a little silly if it is not all the way inside the glass. Remember that after you add soil, there is significantly less space for your plant. If you want to mix it up, try some succulent plants in a lid-less “desert” terrarium.

Any clear glass container will make a great terrarium; finding jars that are uniquely shaped or particularly beautiful is fun, but a spaghetti sauce jar works just fine as well. This is also a chance to repurpose a recyclable item and give it new life, rather than purchasing something new. The same goes for plants; try taking a cutting or two from your favorite houseplants and propagating them within the terrarium, as the moist environment is great for root growth. Pothos and Philodendron are especially great plants for propagation.

To make your own terrarium, you will need:
Glass jar (lid optional)
Activated charcoal (available in pet stores near the aquarium section)
Potting soil
Small stones or gravel
Other decorative objects (optional).

1. Fill an inch of the bottom of a clean jar with charcoal.
2. Layer some small stones over the charcoal, followed by a layer of potting soil; this is necessary to assure proper drainage.
3. Plant your plants.
4. Give them a small drink of water. (Remember, the water that you add will remain in the terrarium until you open the lid, so just add a little.)
5. Add any decorative objects you wish and close the lid.

This is a great time to get creative – anything that will not decay in a wet environment is perfect for adding to a terrarium; plastic animals are a favorite of ours. You can also get creative by decorating the lid or the jar itself, taking care not to block too much of the light.

Terrariums are easy to make from materials that you already have. No activated charcoal, no problem! Feel free to improvise and have fun with your project. The goal is to have some fun with plants and create something that will inspire you and make you feel connected to nature for the cold months to come!

To read more about how nature, including plants, can make us happier, check out this post.

If you are interested in creating a fancy terrarium, check out Terrarium Ideas and Inspiration at By Stephanie Lynn. Very pretty!

Photos by Science Education and Research staff.

December 18, 2014

Fairchild Challenge at Phipps: Examining the Relationship Between People and Edible Plants

by Melissa Harding


Nowhere else is the relationship between people and the environment more obvious than in the food that we consume. During the latest challenge of the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps, middle and high school participants were asked to examine this in the context of the plants that we eat on our plates every day. Using photography as a means of reflection, students were tasked with creating a photo story that illustrates the relationship between people and edible plants. They were also asked to research the plants that they featured and to write a short caption explaining their photos. Over 465 students participated in this challenge, with interesting results!

In the middle school category, the first place entry was titled “Homegrown Healthy Happiness” and featured photos of the participants’ younger siblings enjoying homegrown fruits and veggies. The plants shown included apples, carrots and bell peppers and the essay enumerated the health benefits of each. The second place entry featured the author’s mint plants as they transformed from growing plant, to harvested herbs, to steaming in a mug of tea! The author’s essay explains that not only does she grow mint in her yard, but also many other herbs and vegetables. She loves taking care of her plants and thinks they taste great! Finally, the third place entry featured potatoes, from the author’s trip to the grocery store to a photo of his friend enjoying some mashed potatoes.

In the high school category, the first place entry explored plants from the Sichuan region of China and featured plants such as bitter melon, lemongrass, and ginger, from whole produce to their use in traditional cuisine. The author visited that region during a stay in China and has been in love with the food ever since. The second place entry featured herbs from the school’s herb garden, which inspired students to share a meal together. Students harvested herbs, created butter from whipping cream and combined it with the herbs to create fancy herb butter, which they enjoyed on homemade biscuits. Plants featured included mint, sage, chives, and basil. Finally, the third place entry focused on the author’s father harvesting plants from the garden. Featured plants included sunflower, eggplant, fennel, kale and green beans.

Not only did this challenge help participants to look deeper at their relationships to plants, but it also prompted some exciting fun-related projects, from picking vegetables with family to cooking class. We congratulate all participants on taking the time to reflect on the role of plants in their lives (and on their plates)!

The winning entries are:
Middle School
First Place: Schaffer Elementary
Second Place: The Ellis School
Third Place: David E. Williams Middle School
Honorable Mentions: Keystone Oaks Middle School and Shaler Area Middle School

High School
First Place: North Allegheny Senior High School
Second Place: Shaler Area High School
Third Place: North Allegheny Intermediate High School

Unfortunately, because some of these photos featured faces of children, we cannot show them here. However, please enjoy the rest of the photos in the slideshow below:

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The first place winners of all middle school challenges will be invited to appear on the Saturday Light Brigade radio program. The Saturday Light Brigade can be heard every Saturday morning on WRCT 88.3 FM. It also streams live at where the interview will be archived under Neighborhood Voices. Join area middle school students on Saturday, December 27th at 10:35 a.m.! Check out the broadcast here.

Pictures of the entries taken by Science Education and Research staff.

November 6, 2014

Phipps Hosts “STEM in Action” Teacher Workshop with the Pittsburgh Regional Center for Science Teachers

by Melissa Harding

Welcome Center Night_CREDIT Denmarsh Photography Inc

Careers in STEM are a hot topic right now. There is an increased emphasis on improving and increasing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills among our citizenry and students in order to help them navigate the modern world and access the opportunities it affords. Research shows the clear benefits of a STEM related post secondary education in the current job market. However, many educators are wondering how they can help their students develop an interest in science and guide them towards this career path. Last night, as part of the “STEM in Action” series sponsored by the Pittsburgh Regional Center for Science Teachers, Phipps offered an evening workshop for local K-12 teachers focused on STEM-based careers at the Conservatory.

Staff from all over the organization volunteered to spend their evening talking with teachers about their work at Phipps and tell the stories of how they ended up here. Melissa Harding, Science Education Specialist, spoke about how Phipps connects families and children to nature; Matt Quenaudon, IPM Specialist, took participants on a tour of the production greenhouses and explained the integral role that pest management plays in the health of our plants; Chris Stejskal, Display Horticulturalist in charge of the Tropical Forest, explained how we maintain such a huge exhibit and took participants on a tour of some of our most interesting and beautiful plants; Dr. Emily Kalnicky, Director of Science Education and Research, spoke about her work studying the human/nature connection all over the world; and Adam Haas, Interpretive Specialist, took participants on a tour of the Center for Sustainable Landscapes and spoke about the importance of interpreting our mission to a diverse audience. The participants all commented on our passionate and articulate staff, all of whom gave great presentations.

Thanks to everyone who helped make this evening a success!

 The above photo was taken by Denmarsh Photography.

October 16, 2014

We Proudly Open the Newest CSL Art Exhibit: Photos from the 2014 Summer Internship!

by Melissa Harding

Group photo

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the new photo exhibit in the Center for Sustainable Landscapes is a story of the summer! Last week, the 2014 summer high school intern cohort returned to Phipps for a celebration of their internship during the opening reception for the gallery. The photos displayed represent the interns’ experience over the course of the summer and their unique perspectives. Joining the interns at the opening reception were their family and friends, as well as friends of the program Nancy Hanst and Alyce Amery Spencer, of Slow Food Pittsburgh, and gardening guru Doug Oster. It was so wonderful to have the interns back at Phipps again; we know that they have taken their experiences here with them into the school year!

Throughout the summer internship, local gardening columnist and author Doug Oster very kindly taught the interns basic principles of photography, from composition to lighting and everything in between. The interns had a wonderful time working with Doug and clearly they learned well, as the photos displayed in the exhibition are lovely indeed.

Check out the slideshow below to see all of the photos from the show:

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To read more about this past summer’s internship, including the first annual Youth Garden Summit, click here.

The above photos were taken by Kate Borger and the 2014 summer high school interns.

August 22, 2014

Summer Camp Recap: We Like Dirt!

by Melissa Harding

10-Dirt Day 4 024

Summer Camp Recap is our seasonal segment featuring our summer camp programs. This is the place for camp parents to find pictures of their campers in action and see all the fun things we did all week. It’s also a great place for educators to pick up craft, story and lesson ideas for their own early childhood programs!

We Like Dirt is our last camp for the summer. A fitting end, since it is one of our favorites! This week, campers learned what dirt is, where is comes from and who lives in it. They spent the week exploring the ecosystem under the ground, playing games, singing songs and crafting with mud. Campers created mud pies, dug for bugs, and even decorated T-shirts with “muddy” animal footprints. They loved making friends with worms and learning all about how they turn plants into soil.

Check out the slide show below for more images from the week!

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For more pictures from Summer Camp, check out our Facebook page!

The above photos were taken Science Education and Research staff.

August 18, 2014

Summer Camp Recap: Art Outside

by Melissa Harding

23-Day 5 034

Summer Camp Recap is our seasonal segment featuring our summer camp programs. This is the place for camp parents to find pictures of their campers in action and see all the fun things we did all week. It’s also a great place for educators to pick up craft, story and lesson ideas for their own early childhood programs!

Art Outside turns traditional art camps on their heads by focusing on the plants and materials that make the art, rather than the art itself. Campers learned why using recycled materials in art projects is important, how the plants they pick for their projects grow and why storytelling is a great way to share what you learn. Throughout the week, campers made potato puppets, nature weavings and tie-dyed T-shirts. They created art journals and used them to sketch plants in the Conservatory and complete observation and drawing exercises.  Campers loved putting on puppet shows and gathering flowers in the gardens.

Check out the slide show below for more images from the week!


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For more pictures from Summer Camp, check out our Facebook page!

The above photos were taken Science Education and Research staff.

August 15, 2014

From the Ground Up: Final Project Video

by Melissa Harding

Community Feast 028

As part of the Museums Connect program, made possible by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by the American Alliance of Museums, Phipps partnered with the Gidan Makama Museums in Kano, Nigeria to provide an immersive experience for 15 local high school students in each city. Participating students learned about nutrition, cooking and cultural food traditions by following local food from farm to table and communicated with students at their partner institutions. This project lasted September to June 2014, resulting in the creation of a community cookbook that was designed and created by participating students. Students also met each month for a Saturday workshop involving activities designed to get them thinking critically about their food system and food culture. Calling themselves the Global Chefs, this group of students learned more about what food means in their lives.

Our final video summarizing the From the Ground Up program is finally here! This short movie shows the love of learning and the spirit of collaboration that infused this project. We are so proud of the work that our students have done throughout the entire program and grateful for the opportunity to have such a wonderful cultural exchange.

To read about the entire project, check out our From the Ground Up posts.

The above video was a collaboration project of Phipps staff, interns and volunteers.


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