HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.

Winter Visit: Hoover-Mason Trestle, Bethlehem


Bethlehem Steel Stacks

The Bethlehem Steel Stacks is a phenomenal place to visit and see just how well a place that has outlived its original purpose can become something completely different and equally important to the surrounding community.

According to their website: “Steel Stacks is a 1-acre campus dedicated to arts, culture, family events, community celebrations, education and fun. Once the home of Bethlehem Steel, the second largest steel manufacturer in the nation, the site has been reborn through music and art…”

While you can find comedy acts, art exhibits, concerts and all kinds of other events here, in the summer of 2018 you could also get an up close look at the industrial complex that was Bethlehem Steel as well as take in some horticulture.

The Hoover-Mason Trestle (HMT) began its life as a narrow-gauge railroad to carry materials needed to make iron from the yards to the blast furnaces.

Signage along the 2,000 feet of elevated walkway takes you through the history and the process of making steel in Bethlehem from the foundry’s opening in the early 1900s and making it’s last steel in 1995. In addition it walks you through the types of plants you would find naturally in an area like this – where nature is taking over what man controlled for a relatively short amount of time. The interpretive signage also explores colonizing plants known as ruderal species – those that thrive in disturbed soil locations; native plants that would have been here prior to the building of this factory, and non-native and naturalized plants. Interestingly, I did not find anything referring to plants as invasive, though many of those ruderal plants have proven ecologically problematic.


There may be an inclination to compare this elevated walkway with plants to the Highline in New York City. Both being free, urban green spaces making use of abandoned industrial facilities, the interesting aspect of this place that sets it part for me from the Highline in New York City, is that the Highline is very intentionally planted and meticulously maintained, squeaky clean and entirely accessible. There are certainly nods to the garden’s beginnings as an elevated railway, but they are akin to museum works – beautiful but often lacking context of their original home.

The HMT blurs the boundaries of garden and industry. Strolling this elevated walkway you hear the wind causing gentle squeaks, chirps and groans, tiny sounds like the end of the echo of a scream. What once was loud made quiet, less harsh, but still there.  You can still feel the industry, you can still very much imagine what used to happen here. When you look around there are some places you know have been planted and can even see the labels on the plants, but other places you look – into the dormant nooks and crannies of a once bustling factory – you see similar plants as those in the beds and wonder if they were planted there deliberately by people or haphazardly by birds and mammals and time.  The plant palette echos the colors of the quiet facility.

You notice how the blue fruit and gray green foliage on the Eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginana) match the patinaed metals of the compressor room.

Oriental Bittersweet at Steel Stacks

You notice how the deep reds and rusty oranges of the two-tone berries of the Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) (I’m sure planted by birds) vine twining up where men once tread echo the colors of the empty tanks and still pipes.

Paulownia volunteer at Steel Stack

The tawny flower buds of Paulownia tomentosa (Princess Tree) – another planted by wind and rain and time – echo the corroded metal of a towering stack.

Staghorm Sumac FruitFruit of Staghorn Sumac

The rusty red fruits of a planted Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) echoed in the oxididation of the Blast Furnace components behind while those fruits of another volunteer Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) reflect the brick of the compressor building wall.

It is tempting to stay inside on cold days, to postpone garden visits until the days warm up and rainbows of flowers emerge from soft green buds. But winter wanders among the plants can show you beauty you may miss when tender leaves and colors flowers obscure the bones and structure of a place.



Don’t Worry…Mother Nature’s Got This

Tightly curled in protection, the leaves of Rhodendron exhibit the 'droop and curl' of thermonasty. This allows the shrub to survive winter winds and light. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, PA

Tightly curled in protection, the leaves of Rhodendron exhibit the ‘droop and curl’ of thermonasty. This allows the shrub to survive winter winds and light. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, PA

Whether you watch TV, listen to radio or just venture into any retail establishment you are well aware of the many elixirs, potions and formulas available to cure all sorts of ills both real and perceived. The same is true in the plant world. Any garden center you visit will have shelf upon shelf of chemicals, organics, salves, sprays, drenches, repellents, amendments and the like.

One that I have never understood is the use of Wilt-Pruf and other anti-dessicants on plants in the landscape. Sure, I sold it to folks as a young garden center employee without any knowledge of the way plants work, but were I in the same position today I would tell the friendly garden center shopper to save their money. Mother Nature’s got this…

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Many Stages of Blueberry Fruit

Many Stages of Blueberry Fruit

“Girls, can you run outside and pick some blueberries for the pancakes?”

was a question common in our house each June and July Sunday. We would grab a cup and head out to the woods, not the garden, the woods, to pick as many blueberries as the cups would hold, presenting them proudly to mom and dad who were in the kitchen whipping up pancake batter while we stalked the wild berries. If I remember correctly, it was “2 for the cup one for me”, or maybe the other way around. I think about this during a recent visit to western Maine as I squat down to examine small blueberry bushes, with diminutive fruit on them. These are similar to those we harvested beneath the oaks and pines in NJ but are a far cry from the behemoth berries I picked a week ago from a friends farm in Northern NJ.

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Spicebush brightens up an early spring forest.

Spicebush brightens up an early spring forest.

If I had 100 acres of my very own to garden in any way I wanted…I might plant a forsythia. I dabble in cut flower arrangements and there is something so hopeful and encouraging about a pretty vase with a tall forced branch or two of forsythia in full bloom in February on your toilet tank. (Yes, toilet tank. My first floral design teacher told me nothing says “class” like flowers in the bathroom and that has stuck with me through the years). But I would only plant forsythia if I had that much space. And I don’t. Forsythia has a characteristic that I do not tolerate in my gardens; 1 season of interest. There’s no room in my yard for a plant that is only interesting for a couple weeks.

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Buds of the young beech tree protected by leaves hanging on through the winter.

Buds of the young beech tree protected by leaves hanging on through the winter.

Once again I am searching for signs of Spring. It is a rainy day and I am hiking in a park close to home. Like a lot of you, I’m sure, I am a sucker for woodland wildflowers. I get so excited when I find them. I am constantly on high alert for tiny spots of yellow, purple and even white breaking up the monotony of the leafy forest floor. But on this dreary day, there are no bright spots. Not one! The last of the snow hasn’t cleared from the shady spots and ice is still on the reservoir. So I lift my gaze from the ground to take a closer look at what is right in front of me.

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Bear’s Breeches


Bear's Breeches (Acanthus spinosus)

Bear’s Breeches (Acanthus spinosus)

I coveted these fascinating plants the entire length of my summer high school garden center job. I mean they were BOLD in your face plants, like nothing I had seen. I wanted a bunch of them. I envisioned a portion of the space my parents let me garden in the yard laced with these spiny, spiky monsters. But they were expensive. I couldn’t afford one. So as soon as I got my first real job and my very first yard, I bought one of these and planted in the rich garden soil that had been trucked in by the previous owner to grow lawn.  I didn’t research this plant, I was smitten with its architecture, I was instantly taken in by the plant. I brought it home and planted it in my garden and watched it slowly die.

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