Pittsburgh Botanic Garden will open in August

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Close your eyes: Imagine walking down a lush, tree-lined path on a sunny day. The scent of fresh lavender fills the air as butterflies flitter about a new gazebo, where members of a wedding party can be heard laughing. A Japanese garden overlooks a clear pond as you stand on the bridge taking in a few deep breaths of fresh air. Now open your eyes.

The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden has made the seemingly impossible possible. A group of like-minded horticulturalists, greenspace enthusiasts and volunteers have reclaimed more than 460 acres, including a former strip mine, in Collier and North Fayette to repurpose the area as a huge public garden and natural woodlands.

A soft opening is planned Aug. 1 and a grand opening in May 2015.

"This grassroots movement of more than 1,000 volunteers has partnered with the state, with corporations and with foundations, all because a group of horticulturalists in 1991 were sharing concerns about the lack of green initiatives in Western Pennsylvania," says Kitty Vagley, director of development.

This will be the nation's first botanic garden built on reclaimed land, and it will be the fifth-largest botanic garden in the country.

Along the way there was a reclamation process to correct acid mine drainage leaking into streams from years of strip and deep mining and oil drilling. Remaining coal at the site was sold to help pay for the initiative. (Talk about working with what you have!)

There will be chickens and sheep (and even a llama) to allow children and adults to reconnect to the natural world. Trails will lead to a Storybook House in the Eastern European woodlands, a fairy hut (they are being built by children around the bases of trees) or a Japanese garden on the edge of a restored pond inside the Asian woodlands. The 40-acre Woodlands of the Worlds includes three other distinct areas -- the Appalachian, English and cove forest.

"The most amazing things have happened since restoring this land," Ms. Vagley said. "When we started the project, there were only 58 species of birds recorded in 1998. Now we have more than 100. As the land improved the rodents returned, which means the snakes have come back, and now we see the owls and hawks."

I was astounded by the number of butterflies and caterpillars everywhere, even joking that they needed their own crosswalks among the 3 miles of trails. In the winter, patrons will be able to cross-country ski as well as ice skate. An apple orchard is in place, which should make for some delicious cider this fall. And an 1870s barn is being restored to host weddings and other celebrations.

Members will have unlimited access to the gardens for $35 a year, while non-members pay $9 per visit. Allegheny County residents get a $1 discount Details: www.pittsburghbotanicgarden.org.

This is definitely #SEENMoneyWellSpent!

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