Sue Myers gently lifts a small square photo out of an envelope. The old black and white image shows her as a little girl with hoe in hand, working in the family garden on Mt. Lebanon Boulevard.
Myers is director of horticulture and conservation at the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden near Settler’s Cabin Park in Oakdale and still lives in Mt. Lebanon, on Kewanna Avenue.
“I was outside most of my childhood,” she said, smiling, “spent a lot of time in one particular cherry tree and exploring an abandoned farm. It was a wild place and it was wonderful.”
Even then she was a conservationist, she objected to developers turning that farm into a housing plan. “I wrote a letter asking where the deer would move, where the box turtles would live and what would happen to the salamanders?” she said.
It was Myers’ mother who taught her to carefully tease the roots apart when transplanting flats of annuals. The two also spent many hours in the family’s extensive vegetable garden. “I remember her telling me she learned to garden from her dad, who grew four o’clocks.”
It was all the time she spent outside that inspired her love of nature. “I don’t see gardening as separate from the rest of nature. I see it as a continuation of our relationship with nature,” said Myers.
Myers sat at the base of the Hillside Pollinator Garden that is filled with mostly native plants that are there for their beauty but also as a help to beneficial insects and other wildlife. “Our whole approach is ecological landscaping,” she said. “That’s been the mission since I started here.”
With pollinators in decline for various reasons, this garden is specifically designed for the good bugs. The entire campus though, helps send an important message.
“We want everyone who comes to the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden to see this as a model as something they can do in their landscape. No matter how big or small, they could do it. It’s achievable.”
One important aspect of the garden is using safe techniques in dealing with pests, using a technique called integrated pest management. “The premise is to have a really good understanding of any pest. You start at the lowest toxicity level and work your way up the toxicity ladder,” she said.
That means using cultural or mechanical controls as one of the first lines of defense. Handpicking cabbage worms and feeding them to the chickens over in the Heritage Homestead area is one example. “I feel it’s a very important mission to share that philosophy, those examples, because people are trained by the chemical companies to reach for a product,” she said.
Over the last several years, the botanic garden has grown substantially with the addition of the Garden Of The Five Senses, Hillside Pollinator Garden and a brand new 7,500 square-foot Welcome Center, gallery, classrooms, café, along with additional plantings throughout the site.
The garden sits on 460 acres with 65 open to the public. Other gardens and woodlands include the Celebration Garden, Asian Woodlands and Japanese Garden, Allegheny Plateau Woodland, European Woodland, Heritage Homestead and Margaret Lawrence Simon Dogwood Meadow, along with miles of trails and an apiary.
Currently on display is Carbon Cycle: An Earth Art Exhibit, designed by W. Gary Smith, an internationally known environmental artist. It tells a story of the rebirth of the garden from coal mining to beautiful landscaping.
Next up for Myers is the White Oak Garden which will be planted with shade lovers in mind.
Like most gardeners, Myers is plagued with a forest filled with deer. Physical barriers like perimeter fencing, surrounding certain plants with netting and deterrents like Liquid Fence and coyote urine are used to keep them at bay.
Myers explains that when the gardens are created, many of the native dogwoods, white oak trees and other plants are kept in place. “That’s a pretty big theme at the garden, designing around what nature has already provided,” she adds.
When it comes to trees, she’s obsessed with native dogwood and black gum. “They forget what a wonderful landscape tree it is,” she said of the black gum. “It provides a lot of those ecosystems services I was mentioning and it has gorgeous fall color.”
Myers’s master’s degree project at Ohio University was on wildflowers, studying four different species to see what would work best on the side of the road in Ohio. “I do think that people should embrace how easy they are to grow in addition to being beautiful,” said Myers of wildflowers.
For sun-loving native perennials, she loves purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).
Mixing the sizes, colors and shapes of flowers is a good idea, too, she said. “Everyone should pick a native milkweed and get it established in their garden. They won’t have to wait very long, because the butterflies will come.”
Myers would love her Mt. Lebanon neighbors to include some natives in their garden, but there’s something even more important on her mind. “Stop using chemicals on your grass,” she said. “If I could pick one thing and shout it from the rooftops, I would message that strongly to everyone. Why are smart people putting neurotoxins in their yards? I just want people to understand it’s not important (for) people to have weed free lawns.”
Part of her job is to make sure the gardens look their best, but also help create a landscape with a purpose.
“We’re the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, we want to bring out that unique voice. We’re not trying to replicate another garden,” Myers said.
“We want plants that are ornamental, but we also want our plants to work hard and provide ecosystem services. They are good for pollinators. They sequester carbon. They feed wildlife and control storm water.”