Take a look back to 2014, when the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden was first opening their gates. Popular Pittsburgh had the pleasure of speaking with the Director of Development at the time for an inside scoop.

With the opening of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden (PBG) in 2014,  Pittsburghers may have gained a paradise. Located in the Collier and North Fayette Townships, the botanic garden sits on ~460 acres of abandoned mining land. When completed, it will be one of the largest botanic gardens in the world, and the only one in the United States constructed on reclaimed land.

The garden has been two decades in the making. It will open in stages with a target date of 2025 or sooner for its completion.  The idea of establishing a botanic garden in Pittsburgh first sprouted in 1988. A group of garden enthusiasts—including Frank Pizzi, the curator of horticulture at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium—were out to dinner when the discussion began. There was one thing that the group knew would be essential to making this garden a reality: affordable land located near Pittsburgh. The group formed as a nonprofit in 1991, and eventually found the perfect location. Allegheny County had an abundance of unused acreage, including abandoned mining land near Settlers Cabin Park. In 1998, the non-profit signed a $1/year renewable lease for 99 years.

The Making of the Botanic Garden

“For many years, people thought this garden was not going to happen,” said Kitty Vagley, Director of Development for the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, “but this is a grass-roots effort on the part of Pittsburghers. The people here are working to make it happen.”

And the garden is happening on a grand scale. The nationally acclaimed landscape architectural firm, Marshall, Tyler, and Rausch, completed the project’s master plan in 2002. The design is in accordance with PBG’s vision to inspire growth of mind, body, and spirit with the wonders of nature. PBG is on a mission to promote good stewardship of the land, raising horticultural standards, educating about plants, gardening, and the environment, as well as fostering appreciation of native plants of the Western Allegheny Plateau.

The garden will include 18 distinct gardens, five diverse woodlands, a visitor’s center, an amphitheater for outdoor concerts and performances, a celebration center to accommodate outdoor or indoor weddings and corporate events, and a center for botanic research.

One of the greatest challenges has been reclaiming the land. To the untrained eye, the site seemed a bucolic tract with streams for irrigation. However, on closer inspection it became clear that three of the four streams were polluted with acid mine discharge. To complicate matters, Hurricane Ivan (2004) wreaked havoc on the area. Six inches of rain flooded the mines, which caused further pollution and landslides.

A party of shareholders developed a plan to reclaim the land and remove the mine. The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, Allegheny County, PA Department of Environmental Protection, and the U.S Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation all have stakes in this venture. The combined group decided that a process called “day-lighting” would need to be done. Soil was removed from atop the mine so that residual coal could be extracted. From there, the mine was collapsed and soil was replaced. The sale of the coal covers the cost of its removal, but the process is time-consuming and costly. In fact, has been a major factor in the extended length of time it has taken for the garden’s construction.

Garnering Awards

The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden is already garnering awards. “The garden received the 2014 Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence for the restoration of our pond,” said Ms. Vagley. It would be too costly to use public water to irrigate the garden so reclaiming water on the land was imperative. Subsequently, a passive water treatment system with a limestone bed was installed in 2013. This system filters the polluted water flowing through a pipeline from an abandoned coal mine into the pond. Previously, the acid-mined discharge water entering the pond had an acidity level of pH 2.9, which is akin to vinegar. Within two days of the water treatment system coming online, the water’s pH level improved to a life-sustaining pH 7.1. But the beauty of the filtration system is that no one will ever know it’s there by looking at it. Instead, all that is seen is a Zen rock garden.

“With the purification of the water and the removal of invasive species, the web of life is reasserting itself in the garden,” said Ms. Vagley. This area of the country is home to 120 native tree species. However, only 30 species were found to be present when the land was surveyed. Now, there are more than 80 species present. Birds and other creatures are returning, too. “We have seen coyotes, fox, and deer,” said Ms. Vagley.

More than 1,000 volunteers, including girl scouts and boy scouts, have been working to bring the garden to life. Woodlands of the World will be the first area opened to the public. It features five distinct woodland experiences: Asian, Eastern European, English, Appalachian Plateau, and Cove Forest. The Asian Woodland includes 64 Asian species along side their American cousins. A place for children to stop to read a tale is a featured scene in the Eastern European Woodlands. Three miles of trails in this area also pass through the Margaret L. Simon Dogwood Meadow.

Historic Site

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The area is a historic site dating back to 1784. Isaac and Gabriel Walker, of Walkers Mill in Collier twp., settled here. The Walker cabin sits adjacent to the Bayer Welcome Center. The center is a converted barn from the 1870s. Likewise, the log house has been converted into a classroom. An occupied sheep shed and three-sisters garden sit on the property, next to the Walker House. Native Americans shared the concept of a three-sisters garden with settlers.  It consists of planting corn, beans, and squash together as these plants complement each other. The corn provides a pole for the beans to climb, and the low-growing squash acts as living mulch with the spiny squash repelling predators.

A botanic garden on this scale is sure to attract tourists and be a boom to the local economy. “This will be a four-season destination,” Ms. Vagley said. “In spring, all the trees bloom, then we have the summer when everything is alive and growing. The fall will bring a riot of color, and then in winter, we will have ice skating and cross-country skiing.”

Memberships to the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden can be purchased at different levels. Both members and non-members can take part in a variety of tours, including night tours, as well as year-round events. “Come on a tour, and the next time, bring back others,” said Ms. Vagley.

Read The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden is Growing to hear how it has changed.