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Arts & Extras: Science Museum garden to focus on food

Arts & Extras: Science Museum garden to focus on food


Butterflies may again make appearances in the Science Museum of Western Virginia’s Hidden Garden.

Yet, going forward, the attraction on the fifth floor of downtown Roanoke’s Center in the Square won’t be a butterfly garden.

With the help of volunteer organizations, the science museum is repurposing the space to focus on demonstrating methods of growing one’s own food.

“First and foremost we have to think about the educational impact of the space,” said museum executive director Rachel Hopkins. “Roanoke has a real issue with food deserts,” meaning it can be difficult for lower-income households to find affordable fresh foods. “We decided to shift our focus to food science.”

Pollinating insects will be part of the exhibition, but only at the times they naturally would be in the wild. The garden will showcase agriculture methods that can be done at home, even indoor methods like hydroponics. “Since we started this, the feedback has been excellent,” Hopkins said.

Displays will include a gardening technique called “three sisters” invented by Native Americans, planting corn, squash and beans together so that they intertwine and assist one another in flourishing. “With this garden we’re also focusing on Virginia history,” Hopkins said.

The museum is reassembling the garden with an eye toward Virginia Standards of Learning tests, and planning to hold weekend workshops on topics like building home hydroponic units.

“This is going to be great for adults, too,” said museum marketing director Koren Smith.

The project is coming together with help from the Roanoke Valley Master Naturalists, the Roanoke Community Garden Association and the Community Arboretum at Virginia Western Community College. “One of the ways that we’ve been able to get where we are is through collaboration,” Hopkins said.

The Hidden Garden is complemented by an aquaponics exhibit on the fourth floor that Hopkins designed, in which fish waste from a large aquarium fertilizes lettuce and cabbage in an adjacent cabinet.

The museum occupies the top two floors of Center in the Square, a nonprofit intended to provide free or low-cost housing to arts and culture organizations.

As Center underwent a $28 million renovation in the early 2010s, a new tropical butterfly garden was touted as one of the crowning attractions. Though it’s not easy to discern when you’re standing on it, an image of a giant butterfly adorns the floor of Center’s atrium.

Yet after Center and its tenants held grand re-openings in 2013, the museum struggled to maintain that butterfly garden. Housing non-native species required the museum to spend thousands of dollars purchasing new pupae every week to maintain the population. Because of U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, the museum could not permit the species to breed. The museum charged an additional admission fee for the garden to cope with the expense.

In 2017, the museum closed the garden, intending to switch over to native species. The full life cycle of the monarch butterfly was to be on display, and the goal was to talk about how insects help with pollination, a relevant topic given the decline of honeybee populations. In May 2018, the garden reopened with a butterfly release.

The pollinator garden idea ultimately didn’t work, Hopkins said. The monarchs stubbornly followed their internal clocks, even attempting to migrate south for the winter. To maintain a butterfly population year-round, the museum still would have needed to purchase new pupae every week.

“As a science museum we’re in the business of experimentation,” Hopkins said. “We experimented with that for approximately one year.”

For those managing the museum now, it makes sense to go forward with new programs and new experiments in that greenhouse space, Smith said.

Plans for the garden include beds for citrus trees, coffee, grapes, olive and pineapple trees, medicinal plants, rhubarb and more.

“We’re trying to create this natural environment. That’s what you’ll see inside,” Hopkins said. “I think we’re going to be able to produce food year-round.”

In the meantime, the staff has Easter egg hunts to prepare.

Starting Saturday, 10:30 a.m., there will be a sensory-friendly egg hunt for children who might find the stress and crowds of a typical egg hunt overwhelming. At noon, 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., the museum will hold glow-in-the-dark egg hunts for different age groups. Admission is $6.

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is $15; $13.50 for senior citizens, military, students and children ages 6-17; and $7.50 for children ages 3-5. For more information, call 342-5710 or visit

Wytheville writing contest

The Wytheville Chautauqua Festival, which takes place June 15-22, is hosting a creative writing contest that’s open to entries until May 23. For adults, there’s a $10 entry fee, with checks payable to Wythe Arts Council. There are contests for sixth- through ninth-grade students and 10th- through 12th-grade students that are free to enter. Categories are stories 5,000 words and under, essays 2,000 words and under, poetry up to 50 lines and songs of up to four minutes in length. Prizes range from $5 to $60.

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