It’s a feast for the senses, and there’s nothing virtual about it. For kids, the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden’s new Garden of the Five Senses is all about digging in, smelling, listening and looking deeply at plants.
“It has been in the planning stages since before the Garden opened in 2015,” says Beth Exton, development director for the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden in Oakdale. “The idea has always been to create a way for individuals to connect to nature through their senses. Is it listening to leaves rustling, to how trees make sounds? Is it digging in the soil to learn what’s growing in the soil by actually touching it?”
There’s a sandbox to dig in, with things to discover buried within. There’s a log from a tree that’s decomposing, and magnifying glasses to see the tiny things living inside it. There are boulders that spout cooling mist, and things hidden in the forest to find, like a fox’s den.
“In Soothing Sounds, you’ll be able to play a giant flower that’s actually a drum,” says Exton. You bang on them like cymbals and they play different tones and sounds.”
Then there’s the Pizza Garden. Everything you need to make a pizza is growing there, from herbs for the topping to the wheat that makes the dough. Kids can fill up little watering cans and help water all the plants.
There’s even an Eye Spy section with a giant kaleidoscope, adds Exton. The ground is planted with various annual flowers and as you spin and look through it, you see all the colors collide.
As part of the Garden of Five Senses, the open-walled Weisbrod Learning Pavilion is for school field trips and adult learning programs. That’s where you’ll find the Sniff and Savor Garden off to the side where you can see vegetables growing and smell fresh basil.
The Garden of the Five Senses was designed for kids on the autism spectrum to be able to appreciate it.
“It’s for everyone, but we made specific things within that garden to make sure a child on the autism spectrum is comfortable there,” says Exton. “Just the fact that there are different zones — if a child is hypersensitive to sounds, they don’t even have to go to that area. And they can be able to experience nature to the best of their abilities, in the area that works for them.”
The Garden of the Five Senses cost $1.7 million to build, with funding from individuals and foundations, including Colcom Foundation.
The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden sits on 460 acres of land once heavily damaged by surface mining and strip mining — but now being carefully reforested and restored. Currently, 60 acres are open to the public.
The big show-stoppers are still the peaceful Lotus Pond and the Japanese Garden, as well as the Celebration Garden, frequently a spot for weddings.
There are other new things happening, too.
“We also recently installed the Pollinator Trail,” says Exton. “There are interactive panels from the Hillside Pollinator Garden to the Apiary, which is where we house our bees, that teach about the importance of pollinators and why we need them in the world and different things you can do to make their lives better.”
“The Hillside Pollinator Garden — this is its second season, so it’s looking really really good. It’s filled in a little bit. It takes plants a couple years to really reach their potential.”
They are also building a new welcome center, nestled back in the woods. It will be used for admissions, and will house an expanded gift shop, a classroom and a new cafe with outdoor seating. It’s scheduled to be completed in November.
“When you enter the lobby area, there will be glass all along the other side, so you’ll see the woodlands immediately,” explains Exton.
The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden is a showcase for the possibilities of gardening.
“We really take the natural landscape of our region and we are demonstrating what the home gardener can do with it,” says Exton. “So anything we have growing here, you can do in your own backyard.”
It’s also a place with restorative powers, she notes.
“Gardens provide a sense of healing to people. Both a physical and emotional grounding can happen in a garden, and being outdoors. During this pandemic, what you can do is be outside.”