Natural look advocated for Carrie Furnaces site
Blueweed (Echium vulgare) and crown vetch (Securigera varia) grow in a meadow near the Carrie Furnaces, a remainder of U.S. Steel's Homestead Works. PG slideshow: 'Leave It to Time'
Rick Darke, a nationally known horticulturist, photographer and author, shows a sample of vegetation at the 30-acre Carrie Furnaces site.
Carrie Furnaces seen from a helicopter in July 2006, showing how much of an unedited "wild garden" existed on the site five years ago.
Inside the abandoned Carrie Furnaces, spray-painted "artworks" mix with remnants of the Industrial Age.
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In a hovering helicopter without a rear door, horticulturist Rick Darke took photographs above the Monongahela River during the summer of 2006. While working on a botanical project, his eye caught 90-foot high steel towers and he asked the pilot to make a U-turn for a closer look.
From the air, Mr. Darke became enamored of the Carrie Furnaces. Built in 1884 and stretching over 30 acres that straddle Swissvale and Rankin, the mill was part of U.S. Steel's Homestead Works, turning out iron that was forged into steel across the river in Homestead, then used in the Empire State Building and the doors to the Panama Canal. The mill closed in 1982 and was designated a national historic landmark in 2006.
Mr. Darke, a landscape architect, photographer and author, loves the look of this relic of the industrial age. But he's even more captivated by the wild garden that envelops it. Around the furnaces, which are rare examples of pre-World War II iron-making technology, Mr. Darke notes meadows filled with St. John's wort, sweet clover and goat's beard as well as sycamore, poplar and sumac trees.
To Mr. Darke, the Carrie Furnaces are a palimpsest, a piece of parchment that's been written on many times and, though partially erased, is still legible.
"It's here as a monument to a period," he said, adding that we should "take what we've built and bring it into the modern narrative."
You can see what the Carrie Furnaces look like today on tours led by Rivers of Steel staff members at 9, 10 and 11 a.m. Cost is $25 per person. Other tour dates are Sept. 17 and Oct. 15.
Mr. Darke's idea for reinterpreting a mill site is an approach popularized by Irish horticulturist William Robinson in his 1870 book, "The Wild Garden." Mr. Robinson befriended scientist Charles Darwin and became a darling of British gardeners. He transformed the 1,100-acre grounds of Gravetye Manor in Sussex, England, and is known as the father of the English flower garden.
Mr. Robinson believed it made more sense for plants to adapt to a site rather than adapting the soil to them. He believed in placing plants "where they will thrive without further care." Henry Francis du Pont owned a copy of Mr. Robinson's classic and used it as his blueprint for shaping the vast grounds of Winterthur, his estate in Delaware.
Wild gardening is not passive; it does have a design element, said Mr. Darke, who served as curator of plants from 1986 through 1997 at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa.
"Wildness can be innocuous and desirable. Other times it needs to be worked with. The key is knowing when to do which approach."
The first step is to inventory trees and plants that are already thriving. Over time, plants that are not healthy can be eliminated.
"You introduce order by reduction. It's addition by subtraction," Mr. Darke said as he led a group of visitors on a tour of the Carrie Furnaces in June. This approach, he said, is far better for the environment and more economical given the cost of buying trees at nurseries.
A recent example of using wild gardening to transform urban spaces is the High Line, an elevated railroad line on New York City's West Side that opened as a park in 2009.
During his visit, Mr. Darke showed images of the High Line as well as the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, Mass. After an abandoned trolley bridge became the Bridge of Flowers, it sparked a revival of that community in the 1930s.
Mr. Darke, who lives in Landenberg, Chester County, believes the Carrie Furnaces can become a strong attraction for visitors. As comparable examples, he cites Escher Park, a former steel mill in Essen, Germany and Sloss Furnace, a national historic landmark in Birmingham, Ala.
Standing in the former ore yard of the Carrie Furnaces, a place where iron ore, coke and limestone were once delivered, Mr. Dark emphasized that British gardeners think of yards as utility spaces and gardens as places of beauty.
"No one is fertilizing, mowing, mulching or clipping this area," he said, adding that it would be a good place to build an outdoor theater for concerts and other live performances.
Poplars grow in the shadow of blast furnace No. 7 and should probably remain there, he said, because "sites like this are better off with a little bit of shade."
Throughout the walking tour, he pointed out plants worth keeping, including tree of heaven, which he said Frederick Olmsted Sr. first saw in Paris and planted in Central Park because he liked its shape.
"That tree works. Ecology is not just pristine meadows or woods or streams," Mr. Darke said.
While walking through a large field of wildflowers, he observed: "The site is so gargantuan, but the patterns change a lot when you move just a bit. Is this not a wild garden that we're in?"
He pressed on, noting goat's beard (Aruncus dioicus), sweet clover and a bluish purple flower called blueweed (Echium vulgare), which he has seen in West Virginia pastures. Goat's beard has a yellow bloom similar to a big dandelion.
Noting four sycamores that have landed in a row by accident, Mr. Beard praised nature's design.
"The cheapest way to plant trees out here is to do what happens accidentally. That plant sees this as its native habitat."
He sees pattern without control in a spreading meadow of wildflowers that includes blooming white thoroughwort (Eupatorium).
"This is sustainable. This is desirable even from a design standpoint," Mr. Darke said.
He acknowledges that some plants can be invasive but calls them "hyper-adapted natives from other countries."
Mr. Darke's early ambition was to be a mechanical engineer, so his fascination with the industrial age endures. He's awed by the mill structures that remain.
"Just look at the forms here," he said, pointing to the stoves that heated air to 1800 degrees.
Tourists have time to visit the oldest stationary car dumper, which was built in 1926. After carloads of coke or iron ore arrived, the cars were picked up by hooks, raised into the air, then inverted, dumping the ore or coke at a rate of 14 cars per hour. Before the car dumper was installed, cars filled with coke or iron ore had to be shoveled out by hand.
On the other side of the car dumper are iron weights that look like a giant industrial sculpture. It also serves as a trellis for Virginia creeper and oriental bittersweet, a vine Mr. Darke calls "public enemy one."
"That vine can climb up over trees, cover forests, choke out the sun and whole forests can collapse on themselves. Here, it's fine. It's not going to bother the structure."
First Published August 20, 2011 12:00 am