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A Happier Valley

Penn State's new H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens, free to the public, are just the first flush of a grand arboretum plan.

Bright Adirondack chairs await strollers in a wild section; they’re hardly the only spots of color in the new H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens at Penn State in State College, opened in April. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)
Bright Adirondack chairs await strollers in a wild section; they’re hardly the only spots of color in the new H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens at Penn State in State College, opened in April. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)Read more

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - It's not often you get to watch a new public garden literally rise up out of the mud. But that's happening just down the road from Pennsylvania State University's Beaver Stadium, on the site of a former parking lot for football games.

The H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens, on the corner of East Park Avenue and Bigler Road in State College, officially opened in April. As the only public garden in central Pennsylvania, it's now part of the legacy that has established this region of the country as the horticultural center of the United States.

For those willing to make the three-hour-plus drive from Philadelphia, the Smith Gardens are free and open from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year, for sitting or walking, for weddings and other functions, and for what will surely become frequent concerts, children's programming, art shows, classes, and interpretive displays.

"We've got many years to go here," acknowledges Kim C. Steiner, professor of forest biology and director since 1999 of the Arboretum at Penn State, of which the new gardens are the initial phase.

First proposed in 1914, the idea of a university arboretum gathered and lost momentum over the decades, depending on money and political will. "There were always other priorities," Steiner says, but in the early 1990s, the notion took hold in a serious way.

Robert Berghage, associate professor of horticulture, recalls that when he arrived at the university 15 years ago, he used slides in his classes because there were so few ornamental plants on campus to show the students. But in the last few years, "there's been a strong emphasis on beautifying the campus and making it a better green space.

"There are gardens and planters all over the place now," he says.

With 17,000 native and exotic plants, the new botanic gardens fill five of the arboretum's 370 pastoral acres, which are surrounded by the Nittany, Bald Eagle, and Tussey Mountains. Twenty-five more acres have been improved with new trees and lawns.

There's an Overlook Pavilion, with offices, rest rooms, storage, and a tentlike area that takes full advantage of the wide, wooded vistas. Demonstration gardens showcase annuals and perennials, and a pollinators' garden lures butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, and moths.

An unfinished rose and fragrance garden is destined to be a favorite. The walkways are lined with tall bearded irises, such as "Yaquina Blue," that are sublimely colorful and fragrant.

The lotus pool in the oasis garden awaits the lotuses, but the yellow-groove bamboo is shooting up, the tangerine- and mustard-colored Adirondack chairs are in place, and the fountain is, in Steiner's words, "like a magnet" for visitors.

Plans call for an additional $70 million worth of features, including a 10,000-square-foot glass conservatory with a cupola on top and a $20 million price tag; an education and visitors center; an orchard; and medieval, Asian, meadow, and children's gardens.

About $1 million of the $4.5 million needed for the one-acre children's garden has been raised, but fund-raising goes on.

"This is a long-term project," says Steiner, who's aiming, down the road, for more than 100,000 visitors a year. He thinks it's doable.

Consider that late last year, when there wasn't much to see in the gardens, a couple of hundred people a day came by. And that the gardens are across the street from Central Campus, next door to the law school, and downwind of the stadium, unquestionably the university's biggest draw.

It's not too crazy to think that someday the arboretum, too, could attract not just gardeners, but football fans and others. There are, after all, 285,000 alumni in Pennsylvania and more than 26,000 in New Jersey and Delaware.

"I know about Penn State football and its alumni and what that means to them," says Dan Stark, executive director of the American Public Gardens Association in Wilmington. "But I think it wouldn't be surprising at all among their football fans to find people who support the garden hugely."

Chris Igo, a textile restoration specialist and master gardener from State College, is one of 40 volunteer docents at the arboretum. She thinks the gardens will eventually become a tourist attraction and a popular venue for business and social events.

"Even if you're not so much a plant enthusiast, it's a peaceful place, an educational place," she says.

Time will tell. But there's little mystery about this: Creating a new public garden is tough, given the financial stresses on government, foundations, schools, and potential donors.

"I think it's amazing that Penn State has done this," Stark says.

The arboretum's first phase, the gardens, was financed by $3.2 million from the university and $10 million from Charles H. "Skip" Smith of State College, Class of 1948. Smith made the donation, part of which will go toward an endowment, in honor of his late father, Harry Ohmit Smith, also a graduate and a State College contractor and real estate developer.

Though brand-new, the gardens have already lured art students to sketch, horticulture and landscape architecture students to observe, and English classes to be inspired. Knowing that the arboretum will never be staffed like a Longwood Gardens, Steiner thinks of mining the talents of "3,000 faculty members across the street" for programming, research, and scholarship.

And to generate publicity.

"People have no clue we're here," Steiner says. To date, the arboretum's fledgling marketing efforts consist of brochures at the Centre County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

One recent afternoon, as the university's graduations were winding down, several celebrators came to the gardens with their families to pose for pictures or explore.

Martha Butler, who had just been awarded a Ph.D. in meteorology after a 10-year haul, strolled happily among the blooming roses and alliums with Charlie and Rosalie Peirce, her brother and sister-in-law from Sarasota.

"This is beautiful," she said.

But there are rules: No drinking, pets, or picnicking, no in-line skates, boards, or bikes. And something else that may sound strange to ears all over State College:

No football.

Read garden writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at