Planting and watering these thirsty beauties is their gift to the city

MARY ANN THOMAS/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Standing up to a heat wave in the city seems effortless for the thousands of flowers in hanging baskets and containers in Pittsburgh.

But there is a method and timeliness behind the magic of billows of red dragon wing begonias and profusions of chartreuse creeping Jenny despite the sweltering heat and dry spells.

A watering truck manned with staff is busy every evening. Wands in hand like a symphony conductor, they work their magic in a circular motion.

For about 40 seconds, each hanging basket lining Pittsburgh bridges and Downtown streets gets a big gulp of water nightly plus fertilizer weekly.

“It’s been a summer,” said Art DeMeo, director of Community Greenspace Services for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

A dry spell in early spring required extra water for the daffodils, but the stress then or from recent heat waves isn’t evident. There are sprays of color and greens as far as the eye can see along Grant Street.

Why so many planters and hanging baskets on Grant Street? It’s where the people are.

“It’s all about what people see getting from point A to point B,” DeMeo said. “The emphasis is on where people walk in the Golden Triangle.”

In Downtown, there are 425 planters and 400 hanging baskets, each brimming with multiple varieties of flowers and foliage plants courtesy of the Conservancy and local foundations.

DeMeo, who has been with the nonprofit for 20 years, fires off plant descriptions like a construction worker. “Tough” and “durable” are words he frequently uses.

Plants have to be tough in this heat-radiating concrete jungle. He calls the dragon wing begonia “our trouper” as it thrives and dominates planters with its glossy leaves and tufts of red flowers.

Coleus provides needed texture and colorful foliage in multiple patterns.

Change-ups are inevitable. Creeping Jenny has mostly replaced the popular potato vine, which attracts the dreaded spotted lanternfly. Tobacco plants are out because they get budworms. Tall boxwoods in shady container plantings will grow too large at some point.

“Maybe we’ll use a native like coneflower or black-eyed Susan,” DeMeo said.

There are test plants sprinkled into arrangements to gauge for future plantings.

“Sometimes someone will call a plant color ugly,” DeMeo said. “It’s more important for the flowers to be full and healthy.”

Then there’s the environment, and we’re not just talking about the heat. Parades, protests, construction projects and occasional vandalism are anticipated. Or someone just sits in an arrangement while waiting for a bus.

When DeMeo was caring for 500 planters in Manhattan in his previous job, he ordered 60% more plants than needed for replacement due to vandalism and wear and tear. Here in Pittsburgh, the overorder runs only about 20%

“We expect something to happen and we are ready to fix it,” he said.

DeMeo and a staff of 17 people also take care of plantings in 130 gardens in 20 counties. They help those communities secure funding and other services to keep their gardens going. For example, the Conservancy plants and maintains 60 hanging baskets in Kittanning and has plans for a rain garden.

Conservancy staff comes up with six color schemes for different parts of the city so no one sees the same flower arrangements throughout. 

Each container gets five change-outs of flowers a year: Daffodils and pansies in the spring give way to annual flowers in the summer. Mums take their place in late summer and fall, and evergreens are planted right before Light-Up Night in November.

The Downtown flowers are a gift to the city to break up and beautify a gray blanket of cement and skyscrapers and the hardscape of the bridges.

The Colcom and Laurel foundations continue to support the programs because, well, it’s beautiful.

“Our Downtown greening work has been a decades-long commitment that complements so many revitalization efforts by the city and other partners,” said Tom Saunders, president and CEO of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, via email.

“We appreciate everyone who partners with us on it. The hanging baskets and planters bring color and beauty to so many Downtown sidewalks,” he added.

The Conservancy has been greening Downtown Pittsburgh with trees, rain gardens and more since the 1970s.

The Laurel Foundation has funded 400 hanging baskets annually Downtown since 2005 and the Colcom Foundation has been paying for Downtown flowers and planters since 2008.

Collaborating with the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Colcom bought 420 street planters and hundreds of plants to give the gift of flowers to the city to commemorate its 250th anniversary in 2008, and just kept going.

“The results of WPC’s hard work and expertise made such a positive impact on the Downtown streetscape and atmosphere that Colcom Foundation has continued to provide annual funding for the planters for the last 15 years,” said Addison Phillips, vice president of Colcom Foundation, via email.

The flowers and greenery improve the summer aesthetic of Downtown and make the city more attractive, said Destinee Napolitano, vice president of the Laurel Foundation.

“What has been most rewarding is that the hanging baskets have also served as a model prompting neighboring communities to display baskets of their own, enhancing the vitality of their business districts,” she said by email.

Mary Ann Thomas: [email protected].

First Published August 3, 2023, 5:30am


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