Pittsburgh Botanic Garden opening creates some space

| Friday, Sept. 7, 2012, 8:58 p.m.

When Diane Hill talks about one section of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden near Oakdale, she might as well be describing the whole, 460-acre area.

“It's all about creating spaces,” says the site volunteer as she stands next to boughs and branches that have been laid out in a box called the “birdhouse.”

“Creating spaces” could be the motto of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, part of which will open for tours Thursday. The opening will provide the first look at what has been a 24-year effort to establish an area that provides a home for study and growth of regional plants and the fostering of ecological thought.

But Kitty Vagley, the director of development for the garden, says the site will go way beyond that once it is done. The Woodlands of the World area, where the first tours will be offered, will feature plants and trees not only from the Appalachian Plateau but from England, central Europe and Asia as well. The plants from areas abroad will be chosen carefully for their non-invasive nature, and the grounds will be watched closely to make sure they do not spread incorrectly, Vagley says.

In addition, she says, a remodeled 142-year-old barn will become the Bayer Welcome Center and will be the site to classrooms and lectures as well as social events.

The whole garden project, she says, probably will cost about $50 million and take about 30 years to complete. About $150,000 has been spent so far, she says.

As part of the opening, organizers of the garden adjacent to Settler's Cabin County Park are bringing in Doug Tallamy, professor and chair of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware. He will present a talk at the nearby Airport Marriott.

He is the author of “Bringing Nature Home,” a book that discusses the need and importance of native plants in gardening.

After the talk, buses will take listeners for tours of the 60-acre woodlands site and there will be a reception and book-signing afterward.

Vagley says similar “Peek and Preview” tours will be offered at least weekly until the garden opens officially in 2013. Tours are scheduled into November and can be found at the website, www.pittsburghbotanicgarden.org.

Tallamy, who says one of his professional goals is to support the work of botanic gardens “new and old,” will be doing 13 such talks in September as part of about 100 he does a year. He says botanic gardens do a vital job in warning about the risks of non-native and invasive plants. Those dangers, he says, can upset the whole food chain.

For instance, he says the presence of Carolina chickadees can be threatened in an area with non-native plants that are not proper food for caterpillars. One chickadee needs 4,800 caterpillars to mature, he says, and their absence creates the beginning of a problem in the food-and-growth cycle.

Helping aspects of the ecological progression of life is another important part of the project, says John Warrick, a member of the advisor board of Pittsburgh Botanic Garden and a guide for the tours. He also is a professional landscape horticulturist.

The land for the site was turned over to the garden group for a 99-year, $1 lease by Allegheny County, he and Vagley say, because it was land that was impoverished and not wanted for any kind of project.

Great portions of it had been coal-mined and even parts that weren't were threatened by acid mine drainage. In the Appalachian Plateau region of the Woodlands area, he says, drainage had created a pond that was so foul even mosquitoes could not breed in it.

“So, we drained it, will be treating the drainage with limestone, and, eventually, will have a pond again,” Warrick says. “And this one won't be full of acid-mine drainage.”

Other parts of the plateau area are being restored — or are restoring themselves — in other ways. For instance, he says, areas that have been cleared of non-native and invasive plants have started to show signs of the first levels of native growth, called “pioneer” species.

Warrick says some of the remaining coal is being mined in great portions of the middle of the garden and that land being replaced so natural growth can begin.

Money raised by the mining will be used in the garden project, he says.

While work on the garden is in its early stages, enough has been done to point the direction of the efforts. It also is enough to make the tours possible.

Networks of trails lead up and down hills. The pathways were created by MTR Landscape Architects from West View, a company that also has worked on botanic gardens in Chicago, Missouri and Penn State University.

Along the paths, Warrick and Hill point out, will be areas called “Family Moments,” where topics can be explored. “Let's Get to the Root of the Matter” will be dominated by the roots of trees and allow children to discuss what happens at the forest's floor.

The wood-walled “birdhouse” is on a hillside above a trail, and was built to imitate the position avian creatures have over everything, Hill says.

An apple orchard and a meadow also are being restored in the plateau project.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bkarlovits@tribweb.com or 412-320-7852.

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