Pittsburgh Botanic Garden in Settler's Cabin Park opens for previews

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Small children from Turtle Creek clustered around Kitty Vagley in July, holding their hands very still so a curious Cabbage White butterfly would land upon them. All except one little girl. Standing bewildered in the sunlight, she cried.

"She was very unhappy being in this wild space," Ms. Vagley recalled. "There was nothing here for her."

The girl, who had never been in a natural meadow before, illustrates why we need the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, said Ms. Vagley, its director of development. The 460-acre attraction adjoining Settler's Cabin Park is open for Peek and Preview Tours at 1 p.m. today and on Nov. 11, 21 and 29. Actually, the tours continue through Dec. 28, but now is the time to see autumn leaves.

OK, so you can see colorful leaves anywhere these days. Why drive west to North Fayette and Collier? Because there's more than woods and meadows at the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden. There are 3 miles of trails, an 1870s barn, a 1780s log cabin, a Colonial apple orchard, a storybook cottage, a maze whose walls are made with woven branches and a bird's nest big enough to accommodate 27 kids. By next summer, there will be even more to do and see, and eventually, it will contain 18 theme gardens, five types of woodlands, nine interactive play areas, an amphitheater for outdoor performances, and rental space for weddings and other celebrations.

Most important, the botanic garden will be a living museum where anyone can find hundreds of species of plants and wildlife thriving upon what was once farmland and a coal mine.

Ms. Vagley, who was hired in January 2011, said she learns something new every time she walks through with wildlife experts. From ornithologist Bob Mulvihill, she learned how a male bluebird's smallest twitch says "Come hither" to a female. From naturalist Shane Miller, she discovered that bats sometimes roost in the spaces beneath shagbark trees' ragged skin. And from Mr. Mulvihill, who works at the National Aviary, she learned that the lines of tiny holes in the bark of some trees are the work of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, which feast on the bugs attracted by the sap that seeps out.

On a sunny fall day last week, Ms. Vagley showed a reporter and photographer a pond whose water used to be "somewhere between battery acid and vinegar water" after years of acid mine drainage. Treatment with 450 tons of limestone increased its pH to the point that tadpoles and dragonflies could live there this summer. Its quality will improve even more once the aluminum and other heavy metals are removed. Soon, it will become a lotus pond at the foot of the Asian Woodlands next to a graveled zen garden.

So far volunteers and staffers have cleared 20 acres of invasive species, mostly bittersweet and multifloral roses, and planted more than 5,500 native trees, shrubs and perennials, and an equal number of bulbs. The upper section of the property, known as the Woodlands of the World, will include areas containing trees and other plants native to Eastern Europe, England and the Appalachian plateau, which includes Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Last year, an artist began a cob dragon, and this year apprentices from the Carpenters Training Center built the Read-Aloud House with bookshelves. Looming over it is a 226-year-old white oak and a 150-year-old black walnut that survived the strip and deep mining that scarred the land from the 1920s until the '50s.

Much of the land, including the 8-acre Dogwood Meadow, was once cultivated by the Walker and Ewing families. James Nelson Ewing built the 1850s farmhouse and Samuel Walker Ewing put up the 1870s barn across Pinkerton Run Road. The farmhouse can't be salvaged but the chestnut-beamed barn will become the Bayer Welcome Center, which will be adjacent to the planned wedding garden and an outdoor kitchen whose stone fireplace is already built.

A rustic apple orchard featuring 'Spitzenberg' and other heirloom fruit varieties has been built next to the log house that Isaac Walker built in 1784. The small trees are caged to protect them from heirloom sheep and chickens that will arrive next year.

Nearby is the Dogwood Meadow, where nine bluebirds made their home this summer, living among more than 500 dogwood trees and a sea of goldenrod. At the edge of the woods is the Meadow Maze with walls of wattle fencing and a planned tunnel of Virginia creeper. Terra Design Studio, which has finished the first of nine Family Moments play areas, has designed a child-sized hermit hut to be built at the center of the maze.

The hut will be waiting for the little girl from Turtle Creek when she comes back. She never could hold still enough for the butterfly, but it taught her that nature is nothing to fear.

"By the end of the day, she was sitting on the ground," Ms. Vagley said.

The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden (www.pittsburghbotanicgarden.org) welcomes visitors for free Peek and Preview Tours but would appreciate a call at 412-444-4464 or email info@pittsburghbotanicgarden.org. The address for GPS is 1082 Pinkerton Run Road, Oakdale 15071. Individual memberships are $35, $50 for families. A $2 million state grant will match any donations.

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