The Pittsburgh East End neighborhood of Point Breeze has watched the slow but steady birth of a garden over many months as a local resident proceeds to transform a ho-hum yard into a diverse collection of superb plants.
Patricia Hermenault, a Master Gardener and volunteer for the Phipps Conservatory’s “Ask Dr. Phipps” advice line began with a yard offering typical Pittsburgh topographical challenges, and devoid of unique horticultural features. Patricia’s property is long and narrow, fronting on a pleasant, small residential street. The side is the long section, and, as an end lot, it abuts 144 feet of sidewalk.
Like many area yards, the property slopes downward on three sides, and initially presented the usual Pittsburgh hill dilemma with the probable popular choices: should the slope be planted in grass, with the burden of mowing, or would a ground cover stop erosion and reduce maintenance?
Boldly, Patricia opted for neither of the usual solutions, instead choosing the challenge of planting both the front and side slopes, as well as the plateau around her home in trees, shrubs and perennials, eventually eliminating all the lawn.
After working on the garden 20 months at this point, it is still a work in progress. Here are her thoughts on the ambitious undertaking:
Q: When you began the garden, did you have a clear end result in mind, or did you simply know you wanted to change what existed?
A: When I started the yard was full of poison ivy, rotting railroad ties and a rusted chain link fence. I wanted a beautiful oasis but I made many false starts including the summer I spent transplanting pachysandra onto the entire hillside before deciding that shrubs, bulbs, perennials and annuals would be more interesting.
Q: Why did you decide to totally remove all the lawn?
A: I removed all the lawn because it is too steep for me to mow and because I need more space for the plants that I keep discovering.
Q: Is there a central theme to your plant selections?
A: I first look at native plants and have selected many from a local nursery, Sylvania Natives, but I also look at plants from the Phipps Conservatory annual list of the top ten sustainable plants, which means that they require minimal water or fertilizer once established.
Q: How long will it take from start to finish to makeover the whole property into the garden you desire?
A: It will take four years for the installation but will continue to look better as the shrubs and trees mature.
Q: Is there anything you can’t change about the property and must learn to live with?
A: The slopes. A flat yard would be easier to maintain.
Q: Most gardeners feel that to some extent a perennial garden permanently remains an ever evolving work in progress. Have you discovered things about the already completed sections which need to be redone?
A: I frequently transplant specimens which receive either too little or too much light.
Q: Which plants have turned out to be most successful, and which have been the least rewarding?
A: The ornamental grasses were inexpensive, they look great and hold a portion of the hill with their large root systems. I love my three varieties of hydrangeas. Caryopteris is wonderful because it is drought tolerant with lovely and long lasting blooms. Annuals from seed packets are a fun surprise. I throw them on the ground in early April and wait and see what pops up. I have had the most luck with poppies, cleome, salvia, nasturtiums and alyssum. I will continue to try new ones each year because they cost so little and it is gratifying to save and share the seeds at the end of the season. A plumed Solomon Seal died but that was because it was beneath a mature maple which hogs the water. I try to always remember the gardener’s mantra of “Right plant, right place.”
Patricia would probably agree with many fellow gardeners that gardening is one of those journeys where getting there is half the fun.