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Botanic garden takes shape in North Fayette

| Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014, 9:48 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Chris Massimino, an ethno botanist, removes dead branches and debris from along the shore of a recently restored pond at the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden site in North Fayette on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. The pond is part of the Asian Woodland section of the garden, which makes up some of the 60-acre Phase One project that is scheduled to open this summer.

A silvery woodland pond in the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden in North Fayette will be the centerpiece of a Japanese-style garden.

The pond was dead not long ago, due to acid mine drainage that stemmed from flooding during Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

“The question was, do we abandon the site or do we tackle the issues?” said Kitty Vagley, Pittsburgh Botanic Garden development director.

Garden officials chose to continue developing the 460 acres in North Fayette and Collier that they began leasing from Allegheny County in 1998 for $1 a year. Now, the pond has been improved and about a fifth of the botanic garden site is to open to visitors late this summer.

“The motto has been ‘In our lifetime,'” said Greg Nace, botanic garden president.

Reclaiming the former mine areas on the garden site next to Settlers Cabin Park has added seven years to the development work. Leaders of Pittsburgh Botanic Garden restored the pond recently with a limestone drainage system that purifies the water.

So far, $10 million from donations, grants and government funding has been spent on the botanic garden project, including federal and state money for the reclamation.

County officials adjusted the lease and the owner of the coal rights, Ray Bologna, donated those rights to the organization. Both were key factors in allowing the project to continue.

Leftover coal is being taken out, and its removal not only will prevent further acid mine drainage but sales of the fuel help pay for reclamation work, Vagley said.

Nace said the reclamation project comprises 132 acres on two ridge tops at the site, formerly part of the county park. Reclamation costs $200,000 an acre.

“Reclamation will not only give us gardenable land, but also reduces the acid rain drainage pouring into the Chartiers Creek watershed,” Vagley said.

Allegheny County's Department of Economic Development has given the botanic garden a $175,000 grant from its Community Infrastructure and Tourism Fund for the Asian Woodlands.

Designs for that area are due this spring, Vagley said, and after a construction contract is signed, the Japanese garden will be built starting in the summer.

Nace said 60 acres of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden will open to visitors on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays beginning in late July or early August.

Among sections to open are five woodland areas: Appalachian Plateau; Cove Forest, which encompasses two ridges; Eastern European Woodlands, with a Balkan atmosphere; English Woodlands and the Asian Woodlands.

Also scheduled to open will be Dogwood Meadow, with dogwood trees that were growing on site; a “storybook house” in Bookworm Glen; a gazebo in a celebration or wedding garden; a 1784 log house; a heritage apple orchard where chickens and sheep eventually will be kept; and three miles of woodland trail.

One mile of the trail will be accessible to people with disabilities. And a barn will be renovated for events and rentals.

The botanic garden will have areas called “family nature moments” designed by Cindy Tyler, a local children's garden designer.

When the entire botanic garden is built, decades from now, the final cost will be about $70 million, Vagley said.

Nace said the Chicago Botanic Garden recently was completed, after 40 years of work.

“This is a real grass-roots project,” Vagley said of the North Fayette garden. Boy and Girl Scouts undertook projects, the Greater Pittsburgh Regional Council of Carpenters built the storybook house, for example, and several companies made donations or sent volunteers.

Sandra Fischione Donovan is a freelance writer.

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