botanic garden

In the late 1980s, when a group of like-minded horticultural professionals started congregating at Max’s Allegheny Tavern on the North Side to talk shop, it didn’t take long for their conversation to turn to the idea for a new botanic garden in Pittsburgh.

Nearly 30 years later, the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden—a 640-acre green space on the lower third of Settlers Cabin Park in Pittsburgh’s South Hills suburbs—will offer everything from educational resources on the environment and history of the region to organically revived ecosystems and publicly available event space.

It opens to the public on August 1.

The garden’s welcome center will sit on the reinforced foundation left over from a barn constructed in 1855. Organizers originally wanted to save and repurpose the barn, but restoring the structure proved prohibitively expensive.

“When we leaned on the house, the house leaned with us,” says Kitty Vagley, the botanic garden’s development director. “We’re bringing in a modular building that mimics the original farmhouse and will sit on the original foundation.”

Though they couldn’t save the old barn, they salvaged all the reusable materials they could and are using the reclaimed wood to build a shed for the garden’s heritage sheep—a historically preserved breed of animal akin to those which settlers raised on the land in the late 1700s. The sheep, Vagley says, will serve as lawnmowers for the garden’s throwback apple orchard—a grove of Spitzenburg apple trees, all of old lineage, which in early America, produced Thomas Jefferson’s favorite variety of the fruit.

A cabin on the grounds built in 1784 is getting a new roof and being recast as an old-fashioned, one-room schoolhouse. Adjacent to it will be the “three sisters garden”—a plot of corn, beans and squash common to farms in the late 18th century. Additionally, the adjacent forests and their ecosystems have seen a measured resurgence since work on the garden began.

“What we’ve seen is an extraordinary increase in the rodent and snake populations, which has in turn brought in all kinds of hawks and owls. Our bird count is now at 100 different species,” Vagley says, adding that’s nearly twice the number of species organizers surveyed when they first leased the property in 1998.

While the site will ultimately be one of the nation’s great thriving, rehabilitated green spaces, creating it wasn’t easy.

The site contains several old, abandoned coal mines, which saw deep mining in the 1920s and strip mining in the 1940s. When the remnants of Hurricane Ivan swept through town in 2004, the mines flooded, spilling acid drainage into the park’s ponds and streams.

To help make the site more viable for a large garden project, Allegheny County re-worked its lease with the botanic garden and the state stepped in to help. The botanic garden also enlisted the help of Pittsburgh-based MTR Landscape Architects in devising its master plans for redesign.

Additionally, the people who owned the mineral rights to the old mines gifted those rights to the garden’s operating non-profit, which through a process called reclamation is extracting the last of the coal, collapsing the tunnels and using profits from the sale of the coal to pay for the work, which costs about $200,000 per acre.

The irony of mining and selling coal to complete one the country’s largest gardens isn’t lost on Vagely.

“We’ll be the first botanic garden sitting on an abandoned coal mining site,” she says, adding that the garden will begin re-foresting the former mine sites as soon as this fall, and that it will be the first site in Pennsylvania to use the replanting guidelines developed under Appalachian Reforestation Research Initiative. “You’ve got to work with what you’ve got and figure it out!”

While construction crews and volunteers put the finishing touches on the garden in advance of its August opening, interested parties may sign up for sneak peek tours of the space on the garden’s website.

“This has to be a garden for everybody,” Vagley says. “We’re trying to broaden the appeal and make sure people can appreciate the beauty of these woodlands.”

Matthew Wein

Matthew Wein is a local writer, editor, blogger, storyteller and proud native Pittsburgher. Once described as "a man of things," he covers city design, spirits and craft beer for NEXT, where he keeps all of the editorial meetings light-hearted and interesting. His interests include sorting books, looking at old things and candles which smell like old-growth pine forests.