In early September, 50 volunteers helped in the first major round of planting at the Arboretum at Penn State’s bird and pollinator garden, which has been under construction since 2019.
The garden will be the largest expansion to the H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens since 2009, increasing the total acreage by roughly 60%, as estimated by Kim Steiner, the Arboretum’s director and a Penn State professor of forest biology.
"My goal has always been to have it be the best one in the world,” Steiner said. “That’s sort of a hard claim to lay hold on to, but I think it’s a fair statement to say we’ll have a state-of-the-art garden."
After a several month long hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Arboretum at Penn Sta…
After several months of delay due to halted construction, work on the garden resumed early this summer. And after the initial round of hardscaping, September’s planting session was the next big step toward the garden’s completion.
According to Steiner, The session was part of a larger effort to plant the estimated 90,000 total plants needed to fill the garden.
Beyond volunteer efforts, the bird and pollinator garden project has “engaged faculty from several departments on campus in planning for this,” Steiner said.
Steiner has been involved with the garden since its inception and has helped coordinate the many multifaceted aspects of the large project.
He estimates the garden’s hardscaping will be completed by early winter 2020, and the sidewalks and remaining construction will be finished by December. Although, he said the final planting won’t be done until May.
Although the project has been hindered by pauses in construction, funding hasn’t been a problem.
In 2019, the Arboretum received two seven-figure donations from outside individuals, which, in addition to multiple smaller donations, fulfilled the project's total budget “several million dollars,” Steiner said. All of the donations for the new garden have come from outside, non-university individual donors, he said.
Once complete, Steiner said the garden will provide a diverse habitat for numerous native species of pollinating insects and birds.
“We've been working with the Center for Pollinator Research to design the insect-focused elements of the garden, and with Shaver’s Creek and Penn State’s ornithology faculty to design the bird-focused elements,” Shari Edelson, the Arboretum’s director of operations, said via email.
Edelson said the primary advantage of having a diverse pool of talented people working on the project has been the ability to take “a science-based approach” to the garden’s design, with a focus on “creating complex communities of plants that will support pollinators and birds throughout their life cycles.”
Edelson expects the bird and pollinator garden to become a “major new attraction.”
“[It provides] the opportunity to learn about the incredible biodiversity of our region — the hundreds of insect and bird species that make their homes here, and the plants and ecosystems that support them,” Edelson said.
Currently, the Arboretum sees roughly 150,000 visitors each year, Edelson said.
While the Arboretum will continue to focus on tourism, the new garden will give many unique opportunities for research, according to the Arboretum’s Director of Pollinator Programming Harland Patch.
Since one of the main groups of visitors to the garden is elementary school students, Patch has designed programs with their interests in mind.
For younger visitors, this will consist of activities for kids visiting with their families, such as little science experiments and educational experiences to just get with the natural world.
Penn State students will also have a chance to get involved in the new garden with internships and grant projects, as well as mentorship opportunities.
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These undergraduate projects will be “more self-directed projects to fulfill certain kinds of honors and degrees,” he said.
“Designed to push the limits of science, how we think about landscape design, ecology and the environment,” Patch said grad students will have more advanced research opportunities.
Since Centre County has such a high concentration of farmers, the bird and pollinator garden will emphasize agriculture research, Patch said.
To study pollination thoroughly, a section in the new garden will have miniature examples of plants that are of particular interest to farmers.
In addition to pollinator research, the Arboretum is also planning to host a variety of short classes for farmers on different aspects of ecology and wildlife science.
“Humans live in a biodiverse world, and this garden is the same, and with this we want to bring biodiversity and nature closer to humans,” Patch said.
One of the ways this is accomplished is with a hollow disk-like area in the garden, in which visitors can get on eye level with plants' root systems, Patch said.
Patch said this is intentional, as most people do not “get on their hands and knees to look at insects on the plants.”
“My hope… is to have it be a beautiful place,” Patch said. “We want people to actually plant some of these plants in their garden and create an environment they actually want to be in… it’s going to be one of the coolest places you’ve ever been to.”