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Why you need to visit the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens

In Roman days, genius loci referred to the protective spirit of a given place. Today, we refer to it as the atmosphere or general “feel” that a location has. I’ve been to public gardens all over the country, and while they’re all beautiful I’ve never been to one that embodies its location quite like the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens.


Pittsburgh is one of my favorite cities. There’s just an honesty to Pittsburgh that you don’t get with newer, shinier, more sparkly towns. There’s beautiful architecture and some amazing culinary and cultural happenings, but underneath it all you can just feel that this is a city built on hard work. You no longer have to change into a clean shirt halfway through the day (yay, pollution controls!) but you can still feel the city’s industrial legacy. So naturally when MJ said she had a conference there, I happily agreed to make the 4.5 hour drive with her. I hit up my networks and Denise Schreiber, a fellow GWA member, got me a tour of the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens.

Martha Swiss took us around and gave us not only the grand tour, but the history of, and vision for, the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens. What started as an all-volunteer effort in the 80s has grown into the early stages of a great public garden. Our tour took place in early March so there wasn’t a whole lot of plant-based awesomeness happening but it was still a terrific tour that whetted my appetite for a return visit. Here are some key points that will help you understand what I mean by the garden’s genius loci (or terroir, if you’d rather drink your concepts. *hic*).

Developing the next generation of plant geeks

On our visit to Pittsburgh we hit a whole bunch of museums and attractions and they all did a fantastic job of providing activities and exhibits aimed at kids. The Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens are no exception.


This playhouse is the anchor for a sensory garden. While everyone loves a sensory garden, these can also be helpful for children on the autism spectrum. Plus, it looks really cool.


Located minutes from the city, the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens serves as a field trip destination for inner-city kids. One thing that they quickly learned was that for many of these kids, the woods were a terrifying place. The smart folks at the gardens introduced decorative elements to make the wooded paths less scary. I love this so much.


As soon as MJ and I saw this storybook cottage we both had the same reaction: “ohmygosh I would have had to have been DRAGGED out of this thing when I was a kid!” Inside are places to sit and books for kids to enjoy.


Using trunks from felled trees (this site was affected by Emerald Ash Borer), the craftspeople involved in the gardens have added to the magical fairytale feel of this part of the property.

Nature + Arts = awesomeness

I mentioned how strongly the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens are tied to the city. One of the ways the gardens have forged this bond is by inviting local artists and artisans to contribute.


A theme that ran through a lot of Martha’s tour was the idea of re-using as much from the site as possible. This sculpture was made from a tree that, due to disease, has to be felled. Its fairy tale appearance works beautifully in the storybook garden.


This dragon is maintained by the artist, and adds a touch of the unexpected as you walk down the wooded paths.

Coal country, baby

Pittsburgh grew as a city because of coal and steel. The Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens are built on an old mine site, much of which is still undergoing reclamation. In fact, the majority of the gardens haven’t been started yet because they’re waiting for the reclamation work to be completed. As you walk through the gardens you see evidence of the site’s past. Pipes and other industrial artifacts show up between trees, and mine carts and other abandoned tools have been discovered. Where practical, these have been left in place to remind visitors of what once was here – which I love. For me, the centerpiece of the gardens’ history, as well as a testament to what is happening here, is the lotus pond.


Coal mining exposes iron pyrite. When this is exposed to oxygen and water you end up with what’s called Acid Mine Drainage. According the folks at the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens the pH of this discharge is around 2.8. If you recall high school chemistry class that is crazy acidic. Adult fish can’t survive below 3.0 to 4.0, and their reproduction is impacted at even less of an acidic environment. Because water flows downhill, the site of the lotus pond was a toxic soup devoid of life.


The decision was made to bring the pond back to life. A system was devised whereby this discharge water would feed through buried chunks of limestone. Limestone is alkaline, and will therefore neutralize acid. Using this brilliant process, the Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens have turned this pond into a clean body of water that supports life! It’s amazing, and I can’t wait to see the lotus pond fill up with beautiful blooms.


The Pittsburgh Botanic Gardens took a site that was ravaged by decades of mining activity. They’re now fixing the problems past stewards of the land caused, all while maintaining the heritage of the site but looking to the future. If that’s not a terrific metaphor for everything that’s right with Pittsburgh, I don’t know what is.  


As a bonus, on this trip we went to the Heinz History Center where they have a whole bunch of sets from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. How could I turn down a picture with King Friday XIII?


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