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City of Steel, growers of gold

Jessica Walliser
The native plant area next to the Rivers Casino, leading down to the Ohio River.

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Friday, Aug. 23, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

In August of 2014, Pittsburgh will host the international conference of the Garden Writer's Association. Hundreds of garden writers will come to our beautiful city and learn how “green” Pittsburgh truly is — in every sense of the word. It's a great honor to have the opportunity to show the world what an amazing city we have. But as a reminder to us all, I thought I'd share my thoughts on why Pittsburgh is a great place to garden.

Let me start with a confession: I am not a native Pittsburgher. I moved to this city 20-some years ago, fresh out of college, with a horticulture degree in my pocket and a new boyfriend at my side.

In the years since, I've learned a lot of stuff. I've learned that in-the-field training sometimes means more than that degree in your pocket. I've learned that good boyfriends can turn into husbands ... if you're as lucky as I was. But most importantly, I've learned that Pittsburgh is a City of Gardeners. All kinds of gardeners.

We've got 90-year-old ladies on the South Side Slopes living in houses practically chiseled into the hillside. They garden side-by-side with statues of the Holy Mary and pink flamingos and sunflowers and pots of Dusty Miller. And they smile the whole time.

We've got multi-million-dollar estates in affluent neighborhoods where gardeners tend to immaculate rose gardens, apple orchards, conifer collections and perennial borders that will knock the black-and-gold socks clean off your feet.

We've got multiple university and hospital campuses that have shunned chemical pesticides and herbicides in favor of organic practices.

We've got the Rivers Casino, which has nothing to do with gardening. But what they do have is the most beautiful “backyard” in the entire city. The steps leading from the casino down to the Ohio River are graced with what is, in my opinion, the most spectacular native planting inside the city limits. Though it might not be intended to support and attract beneficial insects of all sorts, that's precisely what it's doing. On any given day, you'll find ladybugs, praying mantids, syrphid flies, lacewings and about a billion other “good” bugs.

We've got green walls and green roofs and green grocers and green houses.

We've got the Bidwell Training Center, a horticultural training facility unparalleled in this country. They take those without careers, those looking to change careers, and those with challenges of every sort, and teach them how to grow orchids that will melt your jaw right to the floor.

We've got small, postage-stamp gardens with espalier pear trees and insanely beautiful water features and pergolas draped with Concord grapes that are hand-pressed into wine by the little old Italian man who lives there.

We've got Phipps Conservatory, one of America's “greenest” public gardens, and its tremendous collection of plants from every part of the world. At Phipps, you'll find the Center for Sustainable Landscapes. This building is one of the most eco-friendly structures on Earth.

We've got 77 farmers markets in and around our city that sell everything from honey and cherries, to Cinderella pumpkins and goat cheese.

We've got trails to bike, rivers to kayak, mountains to climb, and bridges to cross. More bridges, in fact, than any other city in the world — including Venice, Italy.

But more than all that, we've got people with hearts of steel, and sweetness and congeniality that you won't find anywhere else on this planet. We are indeed a City of Gardeners.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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