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Still Time to Plant a Fall Crop

September 17, 2014

Just as the mid-summer vegetable garden is at its zenith, starting in mid-July, you can start preparing for fall and winter crops. As the summer crops dwindle away, harvest them, top-dress with compost, and directly replace them with seed or seedlings. This is a great way to keep your planting beds full throughout the year. You may want to hang onto the last cucumber on the vine, but to have a successful fall garden, rip out the last of the summer crops and fill out the bed with something you will enjoy later.

Radish and Spinach Sprouts

Radish and Spinach Sprouts

While summer is ideal to start your fall garden veggies, you can also find success in the fall with quick crops typically associated with the Spring.. The Brassicaceae, or cabbage family, provides a lot of options for fall planting. This family includes cabbage, broccoli, kale, collards, radishes, mustard greens and turnips, and all of them can be planted in the fall. Diversity can also help your garden by promoting healthy soil, so break up the brassica planting with carrots, beets, onions, peas, lettuce or spinach.

Some of these leafy greens can be harvested “cut and come again” style. After they are initially cut for harvest, they will keep sending out leaves for multiple harvests. Greens such as mizuna, baby kale and leaf lettuce can be harvested throughout the fall. Planting for fall is a great way to keep your family eating fresh for a longer period throughout the year.

September: Think Ahead

September 1, 2014

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

In September we’re in the thick of gardening season; cold temperatures and next year’s garden still seem far away.  But, now is the time to think ahead!  We can use the bounty of today to prepare for the coming months- to plant new crops for cooler temperatures, fill the pantry for winter, or get ready for starting seeds next year. 

Follow the September challenges below to think ahead.  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: Try a local canned good from the farmer’s market.

Look for jams, jellies, salsas, or other delicious local canned goods.  Click here to find a Farmer’s Market near you in the Pittsburgh region.

GARDEN: Save seeds from your crops, or plant fall vegetables.

Click here to learn how to save seeds from different vegetables, then try making your own seed packets!  We also have tips on planting for a fall harvest and late fall gardening.

VISIT: Attend a seed-saving class, seed swap or canning event.

MAKE: Preserve something you grew or bought at the farmer’s market.

Put up some of your harvest for later by freezing, canning, or pickling.  Try our recipe for pretty pickles or simple strawberry jam

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.

Make Your Own Seed Catalogs

August 29, 2014

As the end of the summer harvest season draws near, it’s time to think about what your family can do to prepare for next year’s growing season.  One fun way to involve children in the delightful cycle of home gardening is to allow them to help you save your seeds!  Seeds from homegrown fruits and vegetables are easy to save, and you’ll be able to enjoy fresh produce next year without having to buy all new seeds. Most seeds are simple to save, as long as you dry them completely. Your children can help to scoop the seeds from your fruits and veggies or help you wash them and lay the seeds out to dry! Remember that hybrid seeds cannot be saved but open-pollinated seeds can.  Some examples of open-pollinated seeds include heirloom tomatoes, peppers and peas. To learn about how to save them, read our blog post here.

If the seeds you have are a bit more complicated to preserve follow this link here, which has detailed instructions for a budding seed-saver.  

Seed PacketsAnother way to engage your children is in the botanical side of seed saving. Have them compare and contrast the shapes, sizes and textures of different seeds.  After some discussion, prompt them to see if they can identify seeds or ask them to describe the differences between a tomato seed and a pepper seed.

Designing seed envelopes is also a fun, artistic activity for kids that gets them more involved in the gardening process.  If your children are interested in decorating the packets, start with plain, white paper (a thicker variety will be hold up better, similar to scrapbooking paper or cardstock).  Otherwise, use whatever colored or patterned paper you would like.  After you have your paper, follow the design instructions here

seeds in envelopeCome next spring, a great way to see if your seeds are still viable (able to grow) is to make seed necklaces, a fun craft we often do here at Phipps! Simply have your children take a seed, wrap it in a piece of a moist paper towel (about one square inch) and enclose the entire seed in a small Ziploc bag.  They can then poke a hole through the bag (or an adult can poke the hole for the little ones!)  Next, thread a piece of yarn, string or ribbon through the bag.  Once the necklace is completed, tie it loosely around the child’s neck.  The heat from their body and the dampness of the paper towel will cause a viable seed to germinate! If this seed germinates, the others in the same packet or group likely will as well.

If you decide to try out saving your seeds, send a picture of your family and their seed-saving activities to

Saving Seeds

August 29, 2014

Before we could purchase seeds out of a catalog the only way to continuously plant crops year after year was to save seed to sow in the next season; we have been saving seeds since the Stone Age. There are still many reasons why we should save our own seed for future planting.

    • Save money- spending money on seeds when you have your own supply seems silly, doesn’t it?
    • Quality- Large seed companies will sell all seed instead of selecting for superior plants and traits. You can choose the best plants to save seed from and you will have control over the consistency and quality.
    • Adaptation- Many commercial seeds unfortunately are selected to adapt across many geographical regions because they depend upon synthetic fertilizers instead of local conditions. If you use seed from your best quality plants grown on your land you will eventually grow varieties that are adapted to your soil, climate, and conditions.
    • Seed Security- Due to large scale farming and monoculture, we have lost many varieties of seeds. By saving your own seeds you can continue growing unique varieties that may be discontinued or lost forever as the seed industry continues to consolidate varieties and focus on non organic hybrids.



In order to save your own seeds they must be dried and stored correctly. You know your seeds are dry if they break rather than bend when you apply pressure. There are different methods to prepare plants for seed saving. Try to use open-pollinated varieties for seed saving so you know the next generation will be true to the parent plant and you are not using a hybrid.

Tomatoes and Cucumbers – are both coated in a gel so they need to be fermented before saving.

  • Fermentation process:
    • Remove the gel covered seed mass and place in a waterproof container
    • Add enough water to equal the volume of the seed mass
    • Place container in warm spot but not in sunlight
    • Stir contents once a day (it will smell bad!)
    • In a few days viable seeds sink to bottom and bad seeds, mold, and debris will float to the top
    • Wait 5 days for all good seeds to drop
    • Wash viable seeds in several batches of fresh water
    • Lay out in single layer on a plate or screen
    • Place plate in warm place until seeds are completely dry (may take several weeks)


  • Brush seeds off the central stem
  • Place on a plate or screen in a single layer
  • Put aside to dry


Melons and Squash

  • Rinse seeds (rub between fingers to remove all debris and fiber)
  • Place seeds in a single layer on a plate or screen
  • Put aside to dry


Peas and Beans

  • Pick brown-pods from the vine and remove the seeds
  • Place in single layer on plate or screen
  • Air dry for 6 weeks





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.





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