The Arboretum at Penn State will soon open its newest project to the public, the Pollinator and Bird Garden, a space that aims to foster relaxation as well as education.

The garden has been under construction since 2019, and Arboretum Director of Operations Shari Edelson says The Arboretum hopes to open the garden for visitors by the end of June, though an official date had not been set as of mid-May.

In addition to adding something beautiful for the community to enjoy, Arboretum Director Kim Steiner says the garden aims to accomplish something no researcher has attempted before: to attract each one of Pennsylvania’s native pollinators.

These pollinators include insects like beetles, bees, flies, butterflies, and others, as well as the ruby-throated hummingbird. No one knows for sure how many different kinds of pollinators live in Pennsylvania, says Harland Patch, The Arboretum’s director of pollinator programming — but he notes that there are hundreds.

Patch is a research professor in the entomology department and Steiner is a professor of forest biology.

The garden “is both of course designed to be quite beautiful, but it’s also designed from the biological standpoint, to attract as many native pollinators that exist in central Pennsylvania,” Patch says. “So we used a lot of science, a lot of data, a lot of research, to sort of shape that ultimate goal.”

The plants will be used to attract the insects, and then the insects will attract the birds, Patch explains.

To achieve the team’s goal to attract hundreds of pollinators, the garden needs a “pretty particular palette” of plants, creating a very diverse garden, Steiner adds.

At its completion, the garden will have about 100,000 plants, according to Edelson, each planted by volunteers.

“It kind of gives you a sense of how powerful volunteer commitment and volunteer service can be,” she says. “We absolutely could not have done it without the help of all those volunteers.”

‘Real, hardcore science’

The garden will add 3.5 acres to The Arboretum’s existing 7 acres of botanical garden, essentially enlarging the space by 50 percent, Edelson says.

The project has a lot of moving parts, with contributions from workers at The Arboretum, researchers from the university’s Pollinator Research Center, landscaping experts, and volunteers, among others.

“It’s certainly something to Penn State’s credit,” Patch says. “Institutions that can support and have the vision are very particular and very special, so I feel very lucky to have been part of a much larger group – everybody from engineers who figure out concrete, to the flower planting designer and all the teams, to have worked with such a dynamic, engaged team that was open to bringing science, real hardcore science, to the general public.”

In addition to the variety of plants, visitors will be able to observe the garden’s immersive landscaping that Steiner says was built to please visitors aesthetically while providing the opportunity to learn more about what makes the garden work — from various soil types to the importance of pollinators.

“If you are a person who is just coming out to get some exercise and take a stroll or have a cup of coffee with a friend, the garden will work on that level,” Edelson says. “It will be a beautiful place that is pleasant and inspiring to be in.” 

Steiner describes one of the garden’s features as a “birdhouse” where visitors will be able to watch birds, relax, or do homework from a covered rooftop. The roof will hold several rooms, he says, each looking out onto different features of the garden.

And while it will act as a quiet space for visitors, the garden also functions as a living lab for Penn State students and researchers studying the pollinators.

Patch says he hopes researchers at the university will be able to use the garden as “kind of public platform” to learn more about pollinators and communicate that research at an international level.

But Patch says the garden won’t just further the education of scientists.

“Of course, it’s a beautiful place,” he says. “But it’s also a place where we will have educational experiences for everybody — K through 12, the general public, families, members of the university community, growers, all kinds of people — where they can be educated to understand how to make beautiful gardens that are also biologically functional.”

While construction began in 2019, the idea for the pollinator garden goes back years.

The Arboretum’s botanical garden was built in 2009, Edelson says. Today, that is much of what visitors see at The Arboretum, in addition to the Childhood’s Gate garden added in 2014. In that first botanical garden, there was a small space designated to be the pollinator garden, but Edelson says the garden was not functioning as it should have been.

In efforts to “completely re envision what a pollinator garden could be,” The Arboretum worked with Penn State’s Center for Pollinator Research. Thus, plans for the Pollinator and Bird Garden were formed.

“So from that tiny, original quarter-acre space, which wasn’t doing what we really wanted it to do,” Edelson says, “we’ve now ended up with plans for this really amazing, magical 3.5-acre garden that is going to be state-of-the-art and really enables us to do amazing research, education, outreach, and horticulture.”

Edelson says she hopes visitors will take away an understanding of the importance of biodiversity that is made possible by plants.

“The plants that we are growing in the garden are really the foundation for supporting the needs of all these insects and all of these different bird species,” she says.

Steiner says this project is personal for him, as he postponed his retirement as a professor to see the project to completion.

“It’s been a long haul to get to where we are, beginning with a paper developed by a group of us faculty and some staff, and … no visible support outside the group,” Steiner says. “I really wanted to see it through.”