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Morning Glory’s owners work to bring Victorian look to inn’s garden

Saturday, June 09, 2001

By Virginia Peden
Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Five years ago, when Dave and Nancy Eshelman bought their South Side bed & breakfast, the Morning Glory Inn, they wanted it to be as authentically Victorian as possible. So it seemed perfectly proper that the garden be Victorian, too.

About two years ago, they turned to Barry Hannegan, director for historic design programs for the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation.

“For a total historical image, the garden is as important as the house,” he said. “I suggested plant materials for a garden compatible with that house and courtyard. In early days, the yard would have been used for hanging laundry, chicken coops and to store coal and wood.”

Today, the inn’s yard is more likely to be the scene of weddings, parties and alfresco breakfasts. Two years of work have created the beginnings of a true Victorian garden, and Nancy, who is learning as she goes along, is determined to keep it that way.

For example, her trailing geranium has plain leaves because the variegated types were developed too late for Victorian use.

“I pulled out the evergreens,” she said. “The working class on the South Side at that time would not have been able to afford them. The man who built this house in 1862, John G. Fisher, was a brick maker.”

On Thursday, Hannegan will lead a free informal garden seminar beginning at 2 p.m. in the courtyard of the inn on Sarah Street. He will discuss techniques and plants compatible with a Victorian garden, using Nancy’s “work in progress” as an example.

Nancy, 58, teaches a family and consumer science class at Sto-Rox High School and tends the garden on Saturdays. On Thursday, she will talk a little about her handiwork; she calls gardening her therapy.

“It’s almost a woodland Victorian garden because of the shade,” she said.

A pussy willow and a silver maple tree that reach nearly out of sight catch the sun in their tops, forcing Nancy to use almost entirely shade plants. There’s solid green boxwood, honeysuckle, sweet pea, white bleeding heart, goat’s beard, hosta, jack-in-the pulpit, liriope, ferns and oak leaf hydrangea. A pale green bamboo bush bends into an arc.

Hannegan’s advice didn’t require the removal of many plants in the existing garden. Most had been popular for more than a century.

“This ground cover, pachysandra, was called ‘poor man’s ivy,’ and that’s Boston ivy climbing up the wall next door. It dies in the winter and then comes back,” Nancy said.

“The bay magnolias have interesting branches with different shapes and don’t lose their leaves until spring. And this Carolina silver bell gets little white bell-shaped blossoms.

“I’m learning a lot,” she said.

Greg Yochum, a horticulturist with History & Landmarks, also offered the Eshelmans some advice. Hannegan said creating a garden that is compatible with a Victorian home is often a question of what not to do.

“Avoid impatiens at all costs. They have been around for only 30 years. And Bradford pear trees are very much of the late 20th century,” he said.

Other flowering ornamentals, such as crabapples or hawthorns, or a lilac pruned as a tree, are much more appropriate, Hannegan said. He said the inn’s garden is not an attempt at an exact re-creation of a Victorian garden. It fits the house and Nancy’s own requirements, which included a variety of strong fragrances and something blooming from February through late November. She also wanted all new flowers to be white, for a moonlight effect.

“When the white flowering redbud blossomed in spring, it looked like Christmas lights at night,” she said.

The Eshelmans made few structural changes in the garden. Dave, 58, relaid the courtyard’s red bricks in a herringbone pattern, in a more formal shape. Spotlights are tucked around the edges of the courtyard, and candles are used for evening functions.

Like earlier residents, Nancy cooks with herbs from her garden — lemon verbena, mint, flat-leaved parsley, lemon balm, rosemary and basil. She lines cake pans with scented geranium leaves and uses herbs in egg and mushroom dishes for guests.

The garden is a bit between blooms right now. A French silk lilac bush near the front entrance has finished blooming, as have the violets, daffodils and lilies of the valley nestling in a niche. Only one pale peach “wonderfully fragrant” rosebush is in full bloom.

English ivy greens the ground and a neighboring wall, where snow peas are sowed. Two window boxes, made of wrought iron to match the fence, are lavish with pansies, English ivy and clematis. History & Landmarks publishes a brochure on Victorian flower boxes, in which plants can be changed with the seasons.

In July, the inn’s namesake, morning glories, will wind through the front fence, and red rambler roses will one day twine around a graceful iron trellis. Nancy is planting moonflowers, evening primroses and nicotiana for fragrance. She’s also tending planters holding hydrangeas from the garden of her mother, Thelma Harris, in Sheraden.

Soon, she hopes to add a water feature, but not an elaborate Victorian fountain. She and Hannegan have discussed a stone water trough with a gentle burble.

“The sound is important to me,” she said. “I want it to be soft, subtle, sort of ‘I wonder where that’s coming from?'”

Virginia Peden is a free-lance writer

This article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. © Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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