With the opening of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden located in Collier and North Fayette Townships, Pittsburghers may have regained paradise. The sprawling 460-acre garden is situated on 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 and will open in stages with a target date of 2025 or sooner for its completion. While many cities, even those much smaller than Pittsburgh, have botanic gardens, the region did not have one until now. In 1988 the idea of establishing a botanic garden in the Pittsburgh area sprouted when a group of garden enthusiasts were out to dinner. Among the group was Frank Pizzi, the curator of horticulture at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. The group knew that for the garden to become a reality it needed to be located near Pittsburgh and the land needed to be affordable. Allegheny County had an abundance of unused acreage. Abandoned mining land adjacent to Settlers Cabin Park would be perfect. The group, which had formed as a nonprofit in 1991, leased the property in 1998 from the county for 99 years on a renewable lease.
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. In 2002, the master plan for the project was completed by the nationally acclaimed landscape architectural firm, Marshall, Tyler, and Rausch in accordance with the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden’s vision of being good stewards of the land, raising horticultural standards, educating about plants, gardening, and the environment, and 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, in 2004 Hurricane Ivan wreaked havoc on the area, dumping six inches of rain and flooding the mines, causing further pollution and landslides.
To reclaim the land, the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, Allegheny County, PA Department of Environmental Protection, and the U.S Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation developed a plan to remove the mines. In a process known as “day-lighting,” soil is removed from atop the mine, the residual coal is extracted, the mine is collapsed, and the soil is replaced. The sale of the coal covers the cost of its removal, but the process is time-consuming and costly, and has been a major factor in the extended length of time it has taken for the garden’s construction.
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 an imperative. In 2013, a passive water treatment system with a limestone bed was installed that filters the polluted water flowing through a pipeline from an abandoned coal mine into the pond. 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 it is barely evident as it is masked by 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. When the land for the garden was surveyed, only 30 species were present. Today, that is increasing and now there are more than 80. Birds and other creatures are returning, too. “We have seen coyotes, fox, and deer,” said Ms. Vagley.
More than 1,000 volunteers, including girl and boy scout troops, have been working to bring the garden to life. The first area of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden to open is the Woodlands of the World, which features five distinct woodland experiences-Asian, Eastern European, English, Appalachian Plateau, and Cove Forest. The Asian Woodland includes 64 disjunct pairs-Asian species with their American cousins. The Eastern European Woodlands features a Storybook House, where children can stop to read a tale. The three miles of trails also passes through the Margaret L. Simon Dogwood Meadow.
The area is also a historic site dating to 1784. The Walker brothers Isaac and Gabriel settled here. Their log house is adjacent to the Bayer Welcome Center, a barn dating to the 1870s, which has now been renovated to accommodate events. The barn wood interior and original chestnut beams have been preserved. The log house has been converted into a classroom, and on the property are a sheep shed with heritage sheep and a three sisters garden. A three sisters garden is a planting concept given to the settlers by the Indians and 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 a 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.”
A variety of tours, including night time ones, and events are scheduled throughout the year and memberships can be purchased at different levels. “Come on a tour, and the next time, bring back others,” said Ms. Vagley.