A woman pushes a stroller while walking through a botanical garden.
The Japanese Garden at Pittsburgh Botanic Garden includes Asian plants and a lotus pond which filter water from acid mine drainage. Photos by Doug Oster.

Gardening Green with Doug 

Pittsburgh Botanic Garden Provides Positive, Fun Nature Experience for Families

By Doug Oster


September 8, 2020

The sound of laughter fills the air as eight-year-old Elena Pucevich maneuvers the Spider Climber in the Garden of Five Senses at the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden. She’s playing with her siblings and friends in an area called Ready Set Go. Opened a little over a month ago, this new attraction is just part of the rapid growth this garden has experienced since opening in 2015.

Colleen Esteves is the Pucevich’s nanny and was excited to bring the children to the spot after a recommendation from a friend.

“She told us there are neat things kids can do here,” Esteves says while holding Bunsen, a cute, little white dog. “With school starting up, we want to be outside as much as we can,” she added. “I was looking forward to seeing all the beautiful flowers.”

Pucevich can’t pinpoint her favorite part of this garden saying, “I liked all of it.” But when hiking out with the group to the apiary display on the edge of the Margaret Lawrence Simon Dogwood Meadow, she found it to be fascinating. “Went to the bee part. It was cool,” she said with a smile. “You could open these drawers and you could see what equipment they wore.”

Children play in a garden behind a sign that reads "Ready, Set, Go!"
Elena Pucevich, 8, plays with friends in the Ready Set Go area of the Garden of Five Senses at the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden.
A man in a white shirt and jeans stands in front of a sign that reads "Garden of the Five Senses."
Pittsburgh Botanic Garden executive director Keith Kaiser stands in the newly opened Garden of Five Senses.

Phipps Botanic Garden Expands

It’s been quite a long journey for the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, which began with a meeting of the horticultural movers and shakers of Pittsburgh in the 1980’s at Max’s Allegheny Tavern.

Over 400 acres of land was finally leased from the county in 1998. Unfortunately, a string of unexpected problems delayed the start of the garden, but now it’s full speed ahead.

And it’s remarkable to see what’s been done in such a short time.

A county maintenance barn was converted into a beautiful rental space and welcome center surrounded by a pristine Celebration Garden. There’s a historic log house complete with chickens and heritage apple orchard. Visitors can enjoy three miles of trails, Japanese Garden with lotus pond, Hillside Pollinator Garden, and more.

A little boy waters a plant with a blue watering can.
Two-year-old Billy Englert waters plants in the Garden of Five Senses.

As children explore the Soothing Sounds exhibit in the Garden of Five Senses, playing wooden xylophones, executive director Keith Kaiser is all smiles, as this brand-new space is already filled with families.

“It’s very rewarding, it’s fun to see the planning, development and the growth, the planting of the plants. It’s here to give a very positive experience for guests,” he says.

A hickory tree, which fell on the property, is transformed into a discovery log. Kids use magnifying glasses to investigate the tree. Misting boulders release cool water as a surprise, while guests walk the path. The center of the Eye Spy display is filled with plants, which rotate and can be observed through a kaleidoscope.

“This is truly an adventure space for families and interactive area for all ages and abilities,” says Kaiser. “A place to get outdoors, use your muscles, and breathe fresh air.”

It’s also an educational area to learn about composting, storm water management, and where food comes from. It’s located in the shadow of the Weisbrod Learning Pavillion. The Pizza Garden shows kids where many of the ingredients for their favorite food originate.

There’s a simple, last-minute addition to this garden, that might actually be the most popular—galvanized containers filled with water and surrounded by translucent blue plastic watering cans. It was something newly-hired education director Mark Miller knew would be a hit.

“Through my experiences over the years, I have found that little kids love water,” he says. “It’s the number one thing they like to do.”

And that’s exactly what two-year-old Billy Englert is having fun doing. He takes the watering can over to the containers filled with plants and gives them a drink.

Chris and Bill Englert are members and enjoy a packed lunch on picnic tables, before letting Billy loose on the garden.

“He loves coming here, and the musical things (Soothing Sounds). His favorite thing is to throw rocks in the pond over at the Japanese Garden,” she adds with a laugh. “We really enjoy it, and I’m surprised more people don’t’ take advantage of it.”

A green plant connected to the viewfinder of a kaleidoscope.
Eye Spy is part of the Garden of Five Senses. The plants rotate and can be seen through a kaleidoscope.
A large plant with bright pink flowers in a garden.
The Hillside Pollinator Garden is filled with good bugs.

What’s next for Phipps?

There’s a huge building under construction, which will be the new welcome center. It includes a café, rooftop dining, classrooms, gift shop, and more. It adjoins a much needed, bigger parking area and will act as the entrance to the garden, when completed in the next few months.

Kaiser has supervised the additions to the garden, and there’s one more thing in the works for now.

It’s an Exhibit Garden installation from Toronto artist W. Gary Smith. It’s an Earth Art Exhibit which will be installed this spring in the former mining site, adjacent to the Japanese Garden.

When asked if he will get to rest after all this expansion, Kaiser doesn’t miss a beat.

“Not for a long time, he says laughing. We’re just going to take breaks in between. To think what’s going to happen in the next five years, it’s very exciting.”

The garden is 10 miles west of Pittsburgh, four minutes from Ikea, Kaiser adds. He has high hopes for what people get out of a visit to the garden.

“The number one goal of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden is connecting people with plants. Whether it’s touching wood instruments or smelling the fragrance of lavender,” Kaiser says. “Plants are very important to us. They are essential. We cannot live without plants on this Earth.”

Education director Mark Miller has some fun at the apiary display.


Doug Oster writes a weekly column for The Green Voice Weekly Newsletter. He also the host of The Organic Gardener Radio Show every Sunday morning at 7 a.m. on KDKA radio 1020AM. 

To see more garden stories, photos and videos go to dougoster.com.