Hitting the Pittsburgh Garden Trail in 1 whirlwind day
The cool glow of fluorescent lights fills the office of Helena Nichols, the associate director at Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanic Gardens in Oakland, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh. She’s growing a variety of threadlike grains for the theme to garden, “Abraham the Shepherd: The Search for Grains & Grasses.”
When I met her last year for a story on the garden, she mentioned the Pittsburgh Garden Trail, an initiative which includes seven unique gardens in the region. As Nichols and I talked about the new venture, I thought it would be fun to try and see all seven in one day and create a video of the experience to chronicle the journey.
The gardens include:
• The Rodef Shalom Biblical Botanical Garden
• Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
• The Frick Pittsburgh Museums and Gardens
• Chatham University Arboretum
• Carrie Furnaces, Rivers of Steel site
• The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium
• The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden
When stopping during the daylong tour of the gardens, Nichols had been preparing beds for planting. She’s hopeful being part of the garden trail will entice more visitors who can experience this beautiful and educational landscape.
“Just to find a beautiful, peaceful and contemplative place,” she says. “The founders of the garden wanted a place where anyone, regardless of religion, could come and experience beauty and serenity.”
Ron Baraff stands in the shadow of a former working steel mill while in the Iron Garden at the Carrie Furnaces National Historic Landmark site in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Rankin. It is one of the more unique gardens on the trail with wild plants and trees growing on this industrial site. Sitting on a large stone next to a sculpture with an old mill behind him, the sounds of song birds fill the air as they fly from tree to tree.
“There’s nothing better than being here early in the morning,” he says smiling. “It’s almost impossible to believe that 40 years ago this was an all sensory overload. Nothing lived here, nothing grew here; it was a very tough environment. All of this is just great testament to the fact that nature is a very, very strong force and will come back if given half a chance.”
One surprise for people might be The Frick Pittsburgh Museums and Gardens. It includes six acres of beautiful plantings and trails. Every shelf in the Victorian style greenhouse is filled with interesting plants in a rainbow of colors. The trails are lined with fragrant lilacs, roses, classic garden benches and perennials. Many of the plants will soon be paired with the art in the museums. There’s even a new mobile app to help visitors experience the grounds available for free at the iTunes or Android stores.
Chatham University’s Arboretum might be another hidden garden treasure for some gardeners. Native redbud trees put on a show along with ground-hugging purple epimediums and spring bulbs. Kristen Spirl and her team care for 60 historic acres. She wants visitors to enjoy the gardens and get ideas, too.
“I hope they can see that native plants along with introduced species can have a place if they are planted in the right area,” she says. “I work in the city, but you never know the city is on the other side. I have over 120 different species of trees that I couldn’t see in the city by being at one location, as well as a lot of history of the city of Pittsburgh is on this campus.”
The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium uses plants to help create the proper environment for animals and also for the pleasure of those who come to see the exhibits.
“Animals are deeply intertwined with their habitat,” says Frank Pizzi, “and what we try and show here is how important those wild spaces are to the health and well-being of the animals we have here on display.”
There are also plantings all over the zoo of perennials, shrubs, trees, spring bulbs and annuals to please the visitors. There’s an important meaning though for all the plantings here.
“Wild spaces are in fact important and worth keeping and certainly worth protecting,” Pizzi says. “That’s our key message.”
Deep commitmentto sustainability
Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is probably best known for its seasonal flower shows, but there’s a lot more going on there, including the exhibits in the Tropical Forest that change every three years to highlight a different eco-region of the world.
“We are the only botanic garden in the country that features these large rotating exhibits,” Jordyn Melino says.
The current show highlights Cuba, where she visited for weeks to research the flora and fauna of the country. Another thing people might not know is that Phipps has a deep commitment to sustainability — the Center For Sustainable Landscapes building is actually zero net energy and water.
“That’s extremely important in what we do here at Phipps,” Melino says, “connecting people to nature, but also being responsible to nature as well.”
Our last stop was the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden to talk to executive director Keith S. Kaiser, who is also the coordinator for the Pittsburgh Garden Trail.
“Sixty acres are open to the public right now,” he says of the more than 400-acre space, “with a nice combination of woodland areas and formal gardens that are being developed. We’ve been open for three years.”
Standing next to thousands of blooming tulips, he explains one of the important aspects of the Pittsburgh Garden Trail.
“All of our gardens have that same important message of getting the world of plants into everybody’s lives.”