Meet the winners of the 2021 Sustainable Gardening Awards from Phipps Conservatory

As Southwestern Pennsylvania moves into autumn, Phipps Conservatory has again bestowed its Sustainable Gardening Awards on five wonderful gardens. The awards were established last year to recognize local gardeners and garden spaces that embody the principles of sustainable landcare which Phipps employs in their education programs and their own garden maintenance.

Winners were chosen in five categories, each displaying a different style of organic gardening. All of the 2021 winners found peace and joy in the spaces that they created and nurtured, and they hope to expand their efforts in the future.

Pam Dickinson

Winner, Gardens for Personal Retreat (Small)


Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review

Pam Dickinson at her home garden in Aspinwall.


Pam Dickinson has found comfort in gardening since childhood, and her current space in Aspinwall is no exception. “My little urban plot is my living sanctuary,” she said.

The cycle of life and growing in the garden is a big part of what brings her peace, from watching butterflies burst from chrysalises to watching plants bloom and die. “I love that it teaches and surprises me every day while I’m working. I’m involved in creating a living tapestry, with nature setting the guidelines.”

Pam also finds solace in stepping into nature to escape the harshness of everyday life. “It is such a relief and immense pleasure to step away from the news, the pandemic, the stress.” Her garden is filled with plants, sentimental objects, a pond and fountain, and plenty of creatures to join her in her natural retreat.

Carrie Casey

Winner, Gardens for Personal Retreat (Large)


Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review

Carrie Casey at the water garden of her home in Fox Chapel.


Carrie Casey has made it a priority to bring native plants and trees into her Fox Chapel garden, especially ones to support birds. “It’s not uncommon to see certain plants covered with bees and bugs. We now see and hear lots of woodland birds,” she said.

Working in her large garden is relaxing for her, especially during the pandemic. “Gardening is therapeutic. If you have a bad day, just change your clothes and go outside and start weeding or planting a few flowers.”

The garden features a bridge over a creek on their property and an area of trees she describes as “an enchanted forest.” Carrie and her husband, Bill Leemhuis, are adding more native trees and plants each year.


Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review

Waffles, the dog of Carrie Casey and Bill Leemhuis, in the Fox Chapel garden.


Lyn C. Babcock

Winner, Native Plantings and Wildlife Gardens


Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review

Lyn Babcock outside her Mt. Lebanon home with her dog, Kipp.


Lyn Babcock started her garden in an effort to brighten a barren backyard. “We moved into this house a little over six years ago and there was nothing in the backyard,” she said of their Mt. Lebanon home. “There was grass and weeds.”

She and her husband transformed the space into a colorful oasis, one that is friendly to local insects. “I am not a proponent of herbicides and pesticides in my garden. If there’s a few insects, a lot of time they’re food for the birds, so that works for me.”

They brought many native plants when they moved from Shippensburg, and they have continually expanded. These days, she finds peace in her outdoor space. “I love to weed now. I’m out in my garden probably almost every day.”


Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review

In the garden of Lyn Babcock’s Mt. Lebanon home, a honey bee takes pollen from a Pycanthemum mutism flower.


Elena Kessler

Winner, Micro-Gardens


Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review

Elena Kessler in her backyard garden in Bloomfield.


Elena Kessler describes her garden, packed into a concrete space of only 20 feet by 25 feet in Bloomfield, as “small, but mighty.”

In college, she studied biology and had a job maintaining the campus rooftop greenhouse. Now, she grows both edible plants and flowers, and delights her community with her bounty. “Growing your own food provides instant access to fresh nutritious produce, and this is especially important in the city where many food deserts still exist.”

The community nature of urban gardening is so important to Elena that she works with several local organizations and gardens, including the edible garden at Children’s Hospital.


Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review

Elena Kessler shows a tomatillo green in her backyard garden in Bloomfield.


Melani Cheers

Winner, Abundant Edible Gardens


Melani Cheers in her garden in Troy Hill.


Melani Cheers is on a mission to turn a vacant lot into a thing of natural beauty. After her childhood on a farm outside Pittsburgh, she and her husband moved into a home in Troy Hill that was surrounded by dilapidation and neglect.

Making lemons into lemon trees, they have turned the vacant lot beside their house into a paradise of edible plants. “We have two little boys now and it’s great. They pick cherry tomatoes and they’re so excited to see pear and apple trees developing, and taking bowls of this stuff to our neighbors. They’re so proud,” Melani said.

She will admit that the garden isn’t easy, but that the results are worth it. “It’s just really fun, to go outside your door and pick what you need for dinner.”


Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review

Harvested fruit and vegetables from the home garden of Melani Cheers in Troy Hill.


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