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August: Share the Bounty

August 1, 2014

Are you new to Homegrown Challenges?  If so, click here for more information.

August is a month of bounty for the vegetable gardener- tomatoes and peppers ripen, green beans are ready, basil is full and fragrant, and many other vegetables are ready for harvesting.  When your garden is at its peak, it’s a great opportunity to share!  There are lots of reasons to share your garden produce with others- maybe you have more zucchini than you know what to do with, you want to share the joy of a fresh picked tomato with a friend, or help make sure everyone has a chance to eat healthy veggies at home.

Follow the August challenges below to share the bounty.  When you do, snap a photo and let us know.  Submitted challenges count towards admission to a free celebration at Phipps Conservatory, and entry into this month’s drawing to win four free passes to Phipps!

TASTE: Host a potluck with friends.

It’s always fun to share food with friends; consider a theme like a pico potluck!

GARDEN: Share some of your garden produce with neighbors.

VISIT: Volunteer at a garden, or with an environmental organization.

MAKE: Collect produce and other foods for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Phipps’ Tomato and Garlic Festival supports the Food Bank; donate your collected food at Phipps, and stay to enjoy the festival!

Have another idea?  If you have an idea for a different activity, or you want to take it a step further, go ahead!  Just send us a description and photo, and if it relates to the theme we’ll count it.

All submissions should be sent to, and include a photo, your name, and the challenge(s) you completed.


Pick Your Pico

July 31, 2014

The peak time to harvest many delicious summer vegetables is approaching, as is the time to finally enjoy the vegetables growing in your garden! One quick and easy way to utilize your harvest  while engaging your children in the process is to make a simple pico de gallo, which is a traditional salsa common in Mexican cuisine. Typically, a pico de gallo recipe will include tomatoes, onions and peppers, but there are infinite possibilities based on what you have in your garden and the preferences of those involved. Ask the children in your family to be creative! See if they have any ideas for fun fruits, vegetables or herbs that they would like to try in the salsa.

pico de galloPicking fresh vegetables together is a great way to involve children in garden activities and helps them to understand the garden to table process. Kids can pluck cherry tomatoes, pinch off basil leaves or pull out onion bulbs.  Children can also help to prepare the salsa.  If you own a Slap Chop or a hand-held veggie chopper, your children can help to chop up the veggies because with both choppers there are plastic rings protecting their little hands from the blades.

We recommend having a simple tasting with your children!  Have them try your homemade salsa and some store-bought salsa, prompting them to discuss the similarities and differences between the two.  Ask them which one they prefer and why they enjoy that salsa more.

This time of year, your tomatoes, garlic, basil, peppers and onions should all be relatively mature in the garden and ready to be used in salsa. You could also throw in some chopped peaches or strawberries for a bit of sweetness if you’re feeling adventurous. With a squeeze of lime and a pinch of salt, your pico will come together perfectly.

If you do not have your own garden, August is the perfect time to make a fresh pico de gallo using produce from your local farmer’s market! Check out Farmers at Phipps every Wednesday (through October) from 2:30-6:30p.m.

Remember that sharing is caring! Host a “pico potluck” and ask your guests to bring their favorite salsa. Another way to share is to simply bring your pico into work, have your kids bring it to school or camp, or give some to your neighbors.

Allowing your children, friends and family to see the amazing flavors of seasonal produce will help everyone to discover the benefits of homegrown foods!

For inspiration, here’s a simple pico de gallo recipe you and your children can make using your veggies. Feel free to experiment and have fun with it!

Pico de Gallo (8  servings)

2 tomatoes, chopped

1 onion, finely chopped

1 jalapeño, chopped finely with seeds removed (use your best judgment for this, especially with kids! Some children are especially sensitive to spicy foods.)

3-4 sprigs of fresh cilantro or basil, finely chopped

Pinch of salt

Pinch of pepper

Juice of one lime

Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl.  Add more salt and pepper to taste.  It’s delicious as is, but refrigerating the pico for an hour or two really helps to bring out the flavors-Enjoy!

Beneficial Insects

July 15, 2014

Knowing and recognizing insects is an important step to expand gardening expertise.  Correctly identifying an insect will help the gardener to decide if it is a good bug or a bad bug.  The majority of insects found are not harmful, but it’s important to take note when the occasional pest finds its way to your garden.  Proper identification is important to maintain a good predator-prey population ratio and to avoid killing a beneficial.

Green_lacewingGreen lacewings are a common insect that is generally seen around house lights at night.  This is due to lacewings being crepuscular or nocturnal.  These insects obtain their name from the delicate, lace like wings that rest on their abdomen.   As larvae, green lacewings are voracious predators, feeding on all sorts of insects for 1-3 weeks before pupating and becoming an adult.  Plants that help lure these marvelous creatures to your garden include plants in the Apiaceae family such as dill (Anethum), and those in the Asteraceae family such as sunflowers (Helianthus) and Coreopsis.

Whirligig mites are another common insect and move with notable quickness in tiny small circles, which is where the common name is derived from.  These mites are predatory and help to control small arthropods which include spider mites, aphids, and other insect pests.  They can be found on common garden plants such as Duranta, and can generally be found scattering about through leaf litter and foliage.

Lady-beetle-close-upLadybeetles are a familiar sight and are one of the few insects that are frequently viewed as a favorable insect to have around.  Morphological aspects of ladybeetles can vary in color, spot location and quantity.  The larvae parallel the aggression and mobility of lacewing larvae, feasting on small bodied arthropods viewed as pests that can affect plant vigor and aesthetic value.  Companion plants that can serve as an attractant to ladybeetles include marigold, Queen Anne’s lace, dill, and alyssum.

Jumping spiders, although not insects, are often found on a warm summer days moving about in broad view in sunlit areas.  They are active day hunters, using silk as a means of a tether, securing themselves before leaping for prey or simply moving amongst foliage.  Their vision is unparalleled when compared to other spiders, and they use it to their advantage to seek prey or mating partners, as opposed to using intricate webbing.  Friendly to people, you can often observe them up close carefully taking in its surrounding, giving a sense of an anthropomorphic spider.




Solar Oven

July 3, 2014

The sun and rain are important resources that are often overlooked or taken for granted. Harnessing the power of these natural resources is an important practice for improving our relationship with the environment and our role in conservation efforts.

There are many productive things we can do with the energy from the sun and cooking food is one of them! Solar cooking is safe, simple, and convenient. The moderate cooking temperatures help preserve nutrients and won’t burn your food. Using a solar oven eliminates the need to consume fuels or be exposed to smoky cooking conditions which can irritate eyes and lungs or cause disease. It is free to use the sun’s energy, it does not waste any of our limited natural resources, and it is without pollution!

Solar ovens work by letting UV light rays in and converting them to infrared light rays that cannot escape. Infrared radiation has the type of energy that makes the water, fat and protein molecules in food vibrate and heat up. This process is very similar to the way that a greenhouse retains heat or a car heats up quickly in the sun when its windows are up.

A good activity to complete at home is to build your own solar oven. Use recycled materials or household items in order to reduce waste. Then you can really test the power of the sun by trying out a few recipes.

solar oven closeupLet’s get started. You will need:

  • Pizza box
  • Aluminum foil
  • Plastic wrap
  • Newspapers
  • Black construction paper
  • Utility knife or scissors
  • Ruler, wooden spoon, or “prop”
  • Clear tape

Follow these simple steps to build your own solar oven:

  • Use knife to cut flap in lid of pizza box. Cut along 3 sides, leaving about an inch between sides of flap and edges of lid. Fold flap out so it stands up when lid is closed.
  • Cover inner side of flap with aluminum foil. Fold smoothly and tape to back of lid.
  • Use plastic wrap to create airtight window for sun to enter pizza box. Open box and tape double layer of plastic over opening that was made when you cut the flap. Tape down securely, sealing out air.
  • Line bottom of box with black construction paper.
  • Insulate by rolling up sheets of newspaper and place on bottom of box. Tape down to form a border around the cooking area. Make sure lid can still close and there is seal inside box so air cannot escape.
  • Set up oven when sun is overhead. Adjust flap until most sun is reflecting off foil and onto plastic covered window. Use roller to prop flap in the right place.
  • Reposition oven when needed so it faces direct sunlight.

Now that your oven is complete enjoy some of these tasty treats that can be prepared with only the power generated from our sun.


  • Small pitas
  • Tomato sauce
  • Grated cheese
  • Mushrooms, peppers, pepperoni, etc (toppings of choice)

Spread sauce on pitas, sprinkle toppings and cover with cheese. Place in solar oven that has already been sitting in the sun (pre heated) and cook until cheese melts.

Peanut Butter Cookies:

  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup of smooth peanut butter
  • 2/3 cups of sugar

Combine egg, peanut butter, and sugar in a bowl. Stir until mixed. Put heaping teaspoons of dough on an oven proof plate or mini muffin tin. Press down with fork. Place in oven and check every half hour or so. Dough will not brown but cookies should be done in an hour.

Apples with Cinnamon:

  • Apple
  • 1 teaspoon of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of cinnamon
  • Splash of water

Core and slice apple then place in a baking pan. Add sugar, cinnamon, and little bit of water. Stir. Place in solar oven. Stir and check every 30 minutes. Bake for several hours until apples are softened and warm all the way through. You can serve over ice cream.


Rain Play

July 3, 2014

playing in rainAn incredible and essential function of the Earth is something many of us take for granted everyday: rain.  Rain gives plants life, provides electricity to humans (hydropower) and gives us fresh water to drink.  Although rain and “bad” weather can be disappointing at times, rain is an important and crucial component to life!

A way for you to further study rainfall in your own area or garden is to create your own rain gauge.  Rain gauges are used to measure the amount of rainfall over a specific period of time, allowing you to understand how much rain your yard, garden, farm or town is receiving.  Rain gauges are especially interesting for young children, as they can discover how much rain a storm or shower actually generates.  Below are instructions to create your own rain gauge out of items you probably have around your home!  One fun activity to do with children and a rain gauge is to ask them to guess how much water came from the storm.  Then, have them go out and check their rain gauge.  Another activity is to ask how much rain your gauge will collect during a short, heavy storm and during a long, light rainfall.  Use your rain gauge to measure your results.  Other thought-provoking questions to ask children are:

-What do you think happens to the rain after it hits the ground?

-How much rain do you think we get in a week? A month? A summer? A year?

-Why is rain important for the planet? Why is rain important for you and me?

-What changes do you notice outside after it rains?

-What do you like to do in the rain? (If they answer “stay inside and watch movies” suggest building a mud castle, splashing in puddles, or dancing and singing in the rain!)

To make a rain gauge yourself, all you need is an empty, plastic soda bottle, scissors, tape, labels (follow the link at the end of the post for more information).

  1. First, cut the top off of your soda bottle (the top, funnel-like part)rain infographic
  2. Flip the top over and tape it upside down to the opening (this is a funnel for your rain!)
  3. Print the scale labels (see link below) and tape it to the side of your gauge.
  4. Fill the gauge with water up to the 0” mark, which will keep the gauge from tipping over.
  5. Collect your rain and discuss your results!

For more detailed instructions and images, follow the link:

July: Embrace the Power of Sun and Rain

July 3, 2014

Are you new to Homegrown Challenges?  If so, click here for more information.

In the outdoor garden, your plants get their energy largely from the elements: sun and rain.  Both are powerful, and you need the right amounts of sunlight and water for a successful garden.  While we can’t control the weather, we can harness the power of the sun and rain to help us.  Turning on the faucet or the oven indoors uses energy, which is largely produced from fossil fuels- non-renewable resources whose use often pollutes the earth.  So whenever possible, it’s great to use the sun or rain instead- to cook, water, or dry.

Follow the July challenges below to embrace the power of sun and rain.  When you do, snap a photo and let us know.  Submitted challenges count towards admission to a free celebration at Phipps Conservatory, and entry into this month’s drawing for four free passes to Phipps!

TASTE: Cook with the sun.

Brew sun tea, or make and cook with a solar oven.

GARDEN: Use a rain gauge to measure rainfall in your garden.

You can purchase a rain gauge, or make one at home.  Try recording the rainfall your garden gets for a week, and use the information to water accordingly.

VISIT: Attend a rain barrel workshop and/or install one at your home.

MAKE: Set up a clothesline, and use it to dry clothes instead of your dryer.

Using a clothesline saves energy and money!  Place your line in the shade, to keep colors from fading.


Have another idea?  If you have an idea for a different activity, or you want to take it a step further, go ahead!  Just send us a description and photo, and if it relates to the theme we’ll count it.

All submissions should be sent to, and include a photo, your name, and the challenge(s) you completed.


Scouting for Bugs

June 5, 2014

The transition of spring to summer is one of the best times to spot emerging insects that have been overwintering. If you’re curious as to what friendly neighborhood insects you have patrolling your backyard, grab your best magnifying glass and take some time to venture outside. Depending on the time of day and weather conditions, you’re bound to find a different array of insects.

Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus)

Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus)

The morning is one of the best times to spot insects due to limited activity from low sunlight and cooler temperatures. Insects at this time of day will be slow moving, allowing greater time for visual inspection. They will most likely be found at the base of plants or on the undersides of leaves. Early summer inspections will result in beetle larvae, caterpillars, and various true bugs that have overwintered as adults, such as stink bugs. It is important to note that a majority of insects at this time of year will be early in development, so a once familiar-looking adult insect may not be as distinct as remembered. A common way to identify an insect is to first identify the plant. A majority of insects are host specific, meaning they will only feed on that particular plant and can be distinguished accordingly.

By noon on a sunny day, a different assemblage of insects can be discovered. Flowers will hold many different pollinators that include bees, wasps, ants, beetles, and plant bugs. A commonly found insect are sweat bees. These are small, brightly colored bees with often a metallic abdomen or thorax. The underside of flowers can sometimes hold crab spiders, ambush bugs, wheel bugs, or jumping spiders. These predatory arthropods use their camouflage to their advantage as they sit in wait for an unsuspecting meal to arrive. If observing the soil, centipedes, millipedes, sowbugs, and springtails are just a few arthropods to name you might find. Centipedes are quick and predatory insects with one leg per segment, whereas millipedes are slow detritivores (feeding on decayed matter) with 2 legs per body segment. It is important to have a sense of what the insect is, and helps to carry around a field guide for further identification. Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America by Arthur Evans is a great field guide if you’re looking to better your understanding of the insects around you.


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