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TUES., JULY 30; 9 A.M. – 3:30 P.M.
Summer Short Course: From Dirt to Gold: The Science of Composting and Soil Health

Join Phipps, Penn State Extension and local experts for a full day of exploration in soil care and characteristics.

Presented in Partnership with

Course Schedule

8:45 – 9:15 a.m.


9:15 a.m.

Welcome and Introductions

9:30 – 10:45 a.m.

Composting Principles for Organic Plant Production | Lily Means and Jesse Barrett
Composting is one of the most crucial aspects for organic plant and crop production. The act of composing returns valuable nutrients to the soil and diverts organic waste from landfills where those nutrients are lost. This presentation will address the processes of producing and harvesting compost to be used to increase the health of your soil and the health of your plants.

10:45 – 11 a.m.


11 – Noon

Soil Texture, Soil Structure, and Compost | Margaret Sams
Soil health depends on the interaction of microbes, invertebrates, plant roots and fungi with soil mineral particles and organic matter to create a healthy soil structure so plant roots can access water and nutrients. Good soil structure allows for better air exchange and the infiltration and drainage of water. Developing good soil structure can improve growing conditions in any type of soil, whether it is high in clay or sand. How does soil structure develop, and how can we speed along that process?

Noon – 12:15 p.m.

Community Composter School | Dora Walmsley
In partnership with Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, Grow Pittsburgh runs a 6-module series on all things compost! Community Composter School is an opportunity for individuals or organizations who work with an existing compost site (often at a community garden) to become advanced compost managers and skilled compost educators. Learn more about this innovative program.

12:15 – 1 p.m.

Lunch and Book Sale

1 – 2 p.m.

Digging into Common Contaminants in Urban Soils | Hayly Hoch
Learn about characteristics of urban soils, common contaminants found in urban soils with an emphasis on heavy metals, soil testing options, as well as mitigation and remediation strategies for minimizing risk of exposure when working with contaminated soils before an open Q&A. The presentation will also give an overview of Allegheny County Conservation District’s Urban Soils Program impact across Allegheny County through free heavy metal screening services, outreach and research.

2 – 2:15 p.m.


2:15 – 3:30 p.m.

Using Compost | Dr. Elsa Sánchez
Compost is a fantastic soil amendment that can improve soil quality and provide nutrients for your garden plants. However, over-applying compost can cause unwanted consequences, including contributing to poor plant health and negative environmental impact. Join us as we discuss how to use compost to make the most of this amazing material.

3:25 – 3:30 p.m.

Closing Remarks


Attendees are welcome to explore Phipps Conservatory on their own until 5 p.m. 

Register for Short Course

About the Speakers

Jesse Barrett

Jesse Barrett has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from William Paterson University of New Jersey. Soon after college, Jesse spent over fifteen years as a high-volume kitchen and farm-to-table, fine-dining restaurant manager. His experiences as a restaurant manager led him to the realization that there were major flaws in how our food system operates. Passionate to make a change, Jesse is now a Farm Operations Specialist and looks forward to improving our local and national food system through regenerative organic agriculture. Most recently, Jesse has been training as a compost production specialist for Rodale Institute. This includes the management of the compost yard and maintaining the compost production in accordance with the National Organic Program standards.

Lily Means is the assistant farm manager at the Rodale Institute, a non-profit organization whose focus is to conduct agricultural research and improve soil health through the implementation of regenerative organic farming practices. At Rodale, Lily works with several research projects, as well as the on-site composting operation. She has been farming in the southeastern region of Pennsylvania for 10 years, with a focus on organic vegetable production.

Hayly HochAllegheny County Conservation District's Natural Resource Outreach Educator, manages the Urban Soils Program and provides Urban Grower Technical Assistance in the Pittsburgh region. Her background in urban agriculture, green infrastructure, youth education and community development provides a solid foundation for working to protect, restore, and preserve Allegheny County's soil and water resources. 

Margaret Sams holds a master’s degree in soil science from Penn State University, and is a Certified Professional Soil Scientist. While working at an environmental consulting firm to revegetate strip mines and landfills, she was asked by the firm's archaeologists if she could determine the relative age of soil profiles in areas where they were finding Native American artifacts. This resulted in the marriage of two disciplines - archaeology and soil science, to identify soils with a high potential to hold prehistoric occupation sites, which has kept Margaret busy since 1985. Thirty-three years later, she wanted to get back to the basics of actually growing plants, so she joined the Washington County Master Gardeners in 2018 and has climbed back into the science of gardening!  

Dr. Elsa Sánchez’s extension program is focused on the production of vegetable crops with a particular focus on environmental sustainability. The goal is to develop and disseminate science-based information to assist gardeners in making informed nutrient decisions. She works in both organic and conventional vegetable systems. Her focus is on studying production issues including cultivar evaluation, nutrient management with organic nutrient sources and cultural pest management strategies. 

Dora Walmsley, Grow Pittsburgh’s Director of Community Projects, supports the Community Projects team in starting new and supporting established community gardens while working to protect land use in our region for the long-term. Dora's work over the past two decades has largely focused on food security, community development and entrepreneurship. She currently serves as co-chair to the Three Rivers Agricultural Land Initiative Steering (TRALI) Committee and is an appointed board member of the Redevelopment Authority of Allegheny County (RAAC).

This Summer Short Course is presented to you by Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens and Penn State Extension. Reservations are required in advance, so sign up today online or by phone at 412/441-4442, ext. 3925.

Register for Short Course

Fee: Summer Short Course (Tues., July 30) registration costs $95 on or before Sun., June 30.  After June 30, the cost is $105. 

Short Course registration includes morning coffee, as well as a lunch buffet with vegetarian and gluten free options. If you have additional dietary requests, please contact us to ensure we can meet your needs.

Location: The Short Course will take place at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. The Conservatory address is: One Schenley Park, Pittsburgh, PA 15213

Continuing Education Credits: This conference counts for Master Gardener Continuing Education credit, and elective hours for Phipps certificate programs: Sustainable Horticulture and Landscape and Garden Design. Inquire about additional professional CEUs.

Cancellation Policy: In order to receive a full refund, less a $10 administrative fee, you must cancel by Tues, July 16. After this date, there will be no refunds.

Questions? Email

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