Preserving Pittsburgh’s past with an Iron Garden
A young rabbit emerges from tall grass in front of Anna Johnson as she walks through the Iron Garden at the Carrie Furnaces National Historic Landmark site in Rankin. The bunny freezes for a second, then calmly hops across a path to the other side — finding refuge in patchy grass.
Johnson is exploring this garden with a group from Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, which runs the site. She’s fascinated with tough plants like those filling this garden at a former steel mill. She enjoys learning the plants’ secrets. How do they survive? How do they choose the place where they’ll grow?
“I’ve always been fascinated with the resilience of natural landscapes,” Johnson says. “To try and understand how ecosystems formed where they weren’t they before.”
Johnson is fascinating, too.
A post doctoral research fellow from the University of Pittsburgh’s biological sciences department, she’s also an ecologist, botanist and holds a PhD in geography. For her, understanding the human history and ecological stories of the Iron Garden is part of a complex story of discovery. She wants to discover why certain plants thrive in one area but struggle in another.
This garden is her spare-time passion.
It’s a non-traditional wild space filled with beautiful plants that grow in the shadow of the Carrie Furnaces 6 and 7 that stand at 92 feet apiece. A winding river of 4-foot white fleabane dance in the breeze, offering a stunning contrast to the stark reminder of Pittsburgh’s industrial past. The wind off the Monongahela River is ever present, rustling leaves from trees dwarfed by towering black furnaces.
One can only wonder what it might have sounded like 100 years ago.
“This is my dream garden right here,” she says. “When you step back, what you see are these washes of color that interlock and it all moves in the wind.”
This garden was the idea of Rick Darke, a famed garden author, photographer and landscape ethicist. He was inspired by the landscape after visiting the site. Placed throughout the garden to guide visitors are 10 iron-cast plaques with illustrations from the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation. Traditional garden chores (such as amending soil, watering and especially weeding) are unnecessary.
“A weed is a plant that is in the wrong place,” Johnson says, with a smile. To come here and realize the weeds are in fact the plants that have survived and thrived at this site, to remove them would just leave a blank hole.”
At home in this garden, Johnson is thrilled point out seasonal stars and recite common and latin names as if she was introducing old friends. In a month, they will have faded and given way to others blooming into fall.
Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare) might not be the prettiest name, but the sky blue flowers are luminescent. It’s an indestructible plant filled with honeybees, which is an added bonus.
Crown vetch is a reviled bully around the home garden, but was one of the first plants to get established here. Along with sweet clover and other nitrogen fixing plants, the vetch improves the soil to allow others to establish.
“If you grew this in your yard it would very quickly take over,” Johnson says. “But here, it just can’t quite get its footing in to become a dominant. Honeybees adore these sweet clovers.”
The silvery, soft grayish leaves of the 7-foot verbascum (V. thapsus) sets off the pretty yellow flowers as it begins to bloom. Often referred to as minor’s candle because the fiery blooms top the stems, goldenrod was not long ago considered a weed.
Now, there a several varieties in commercial cultivation. Wild varieties growing here provide wide swatches of yellow and give the pollinators what they need. They do it without causing hay fever; that’s ragweed.
“It’s beautiful,” Johnson says, while overlooking the garden.
“For me, it’s one of the most dynamic landscapes I’ve ever seen. I come here every month and each time it’s totally different.”
Being an ecologist isn’t always easy though.
Ours is a modern world featuring ecological change, invasive plants, habitat destruction, unwanted pathogens and more. But for Johnson, the Iron Garden is a place that provides hope for the environment.
“When you look at places like Carrie Furnace, you’re seeing a rebirth,” Johnson says. “You’re seeing something new developing. It’s about resilience and sustainability, what comes back after something bad happens.”
For $19, visitors can spend 90 minutes touring the garden with Johnson. The next one is Sept. 10.
This garden is just one fascinating component of a 35-acre site that preserves Pittsburgh’s steel-making legacy. This valley was filled with mills. These two furnaces were part of the Homestead Works, built in the early 1900’s.
Chris McGinnis, director of Rivers of Steel Arts, sits under a 75-foot roof in what was called the blowing engine house. He details the Carrie Furnace’s rich history as reason to preserve it.
“It would be a terrible shame to not have any physical remnants left to tell the story of what went on here and built the city that we know now,” McGinnis says.
After the mill was closed, it became a clandestine canvas. Urban graffiti artists visited along with guerrilla artists, scrappers and others. A group called Industrial Arts Coop created the famous Carrie Deer out of the old mill’s scrap. It’s a huge sculpture of the head of a deer.
These days, artists are welcomed to the site. There exists a wide array of programing, including metal casting, urban art, photo safaris, eco arts, heritage arts and much more. Some former former mill employees run tours and share stories.
“The closest thing you can get to it is to have the workers tell you about the sounds, the smells, the danger and the excitement about how it was to work here.” McGinnis says.
“Now it’s so serene and quiet and so different than what it was like in the past.”
He wants visitors to learn, explore and create at the Carrie Furnace. He is hopeful the visitors are excited to learn a little… or a lot about Pittsburgh history.
And, just maybe, Pittsburgh’s future.
“I hope they get excited about the legacy of Pittsburgh,” McGinnis says.
“But they also get excited about the potential of a place like this for the future and how they can be involved in continuing to tell the evolution of Pittsburgh through places like this.”
Doug Oster is editor of Everybody Gardens, owned and operated by 535Media. Reach him at email@example.com.