The new Pittsburgh Botanic Garden will weave together the past, present and future, eventually showcasing 452 acres of our region’s botanic treasures on land first settled in the 1700s. The first phase—the 60-acre Woodlands project, including three miles of trails—opened last month. In July, members of Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy got a sneak preview of the garden, which is located next to Settlers Cabin Park on land that was originally farmed and later mined for coal. They trekked the garden’s expansive woods and meadows, learning about the challenges and victories of the planners, staff and volunteers who have worked to
“reclaim” the land, which sat atop mine shafts and foul water, and turn it into an educational retreat.
The garden is still a work in progress. Evidence of recent construction and freshly cut trails is everywhere. One of the first sights that greets visitors reveals the garden’s centuries-old roots. A 1784 log cabin built by one of the first-known homesteaders sits atop the stone footers of a dilapidated 1800s farmhouse that was razed. The log house, which eventually will replicate a period schooolhouse, is surrounded by a heritage apple orchard and herb garden, a sheep pen and a shed that suggest how life might have been when the land was first cultivated.
Beyond, the woodlands invite exploration. Bird songs punctuate the cool serenity that seems to stretch on and on. The woods have been left as natural as possible, with wild grapevine, bittersweet and other invasives left to range in much of the inner forest. But along paths, areas are carved out for “family moments stations” that provide a close-up look at the botanical specimens.
Though trees abound, new ones are added routinely; 1,800 are slated for planting this fall alone. These native trees will partly replace trees that were removed during early reclamation efforts. The trees will educate visitors about trees indigenous to Western Pennsylvania forests. They also will restore balance to the damaged ecosystem by attracting native flora and fauna. Inventories of butterfly and bird populations already have shown encouraging increases in the numbers of species seeking habitat in the garden.
Mt. Lebanon’s Greg Nace joined the botanic garden’s administrative staff as president in spring 2010. Prior to coming to the Pittsburgh, Nace was the associate director of the historic Sarah P. Duke Gardens, a premier public garden at the Duke University in Durham, North Carolina and was active in planning and advancing the major themes of the Duke Gardens (and many botanic gardens): education, accreditation, conservation, sustainability, and historic preservation. Nace helped write that garden’s strategic plan and vision statement and incorporated best management practices, skills he now shares with Pittsburgh Botanic Garden’s staff and its board, chaired by Beverlynn Elliott.
The garden could not have reached this first significant milestone without the work of committed volunteers, who take pride in helping turn the badly damaged environment into a once-again healthy and beautiful place. Hundreds of volunteers—on Earth Day 560 strong—have contributed ideas, raised money and done hands-on work, and the need for volunteers will grow in the coming years, as the scars and abuses of early 1900s strip mining continue to be erased. Recently the Woodlands pond restoration project got under way, eliminating acid mine drainage.The water, flushed through leaching beds with the help of solar-powered timers, now runs pure enough to support fish and water plants.The freshwater Lotus Pond is the centerpiece of the Japanese-style garden in the Asian Woodlands section.
When the remaining 400 acres are developed—probably over several generations—there will be 18 unique gardens, five woodlands, an amphitheater, the Fred Rogers Garden of Make Believe, an Orangery, a wedding celebration center and a center for botanical research.
The time required to regenerate the land speaks to the fragility of natural spaces that are so easily and deeply damaged. However, a quicker regeneration takes place in the minds and spirits of those who visit the Woodlands. It is a place to breathe in nature, and the restorative effect lasts long after leaving the garden.
To learn more about the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden including hours of operation, costs and tours, visit www.pittsburghbotanicgarden.org or call 412-444-4464.
See more photos of the Botanic Garden here.