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Mount Lebanon Gardener Turns Destruction into Opportunity

Saturday, July 10, 2010
By Kevin Kirkland, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Larry Roberts / Post-Gazette Wes and Nancy Smith will open their garden for the Mt. Lebanon Library's 20th Anniversary Garden Tour.

In more than 25 years of Pittsburgh gardening, Nancy Smith has tested, sometimes fooled and been humbled by Mother Nature.

She has succeeded with plants that supposedly need more sunlight or aren’t supposed to survive our winters. And she has lost perfectly suitable plants and trees to beastly weather, critters big and small and for no earthly reason at all. She tries to see major disasters like falling trees as an opportunity for change.

“It opens something up,” she says.

But the past five months have tested even the most hopeful gardener’s patience.

February’s snowmageddon brought down three large junipers, a chamaecyparis and a Leyland cypress. A great blue heron ate one large koi and more than half of the dozen goldfish in two ponds, and birds and rodents teamed up to steal her entire crop of strawberries. Then, recent high winds brought a neighbor’s 80-foot-tall black locust tree crashing down on a bed between the two ponds.

Despite it all, Mrs. Smith will have her garden looking great for Sunday’s Mt. Lebanon Library Garden Tour. Hers and six other gardens will be open from noon to 5 p.m. You can see more of her handiwork today, when the library holds its garden party in the courtyard that Mrs. Smith and 11 other volunteers have created over the past 10 years.

Larry Roberts / Post-Gazette Nancy Smith's deck under the trees in her Mt. Lebanon garden.

Everywhere she gardens, Mrs. Smith tries to keep a simple motto in mind:

Destruction is an opportunity for change.

Growing up near Baltimore, she failed in her first attempt at a garden at age 9. She had better luck shortly after she married Wes Smith, another Maryland native. Her parents brought lots of plants from their yard to the rental property the newlyweds shared. They moved to Mt. Lebanon in 1983 and volunteering at the library garden led to classes at what is now Phipps Garden Center. She became a master gardener in 1987 and was one of the leaders in designing and planting the library’s courtyard garden in 2000-01.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Smith was transforming her front and back yard, which once held mostly grass and a pedestrian collection of yews, forsythia, pachysandra and a few large spruce, locust and maple trees. The front still has a little grass nearly hidden by beds packed with interesting cultivars of phlox, sedum, ligularia, boxwood, hydrangea, yellow-leafed caryopteris and other perennials and shrubs. A fast-growing curly willow and red maple provide some shade.

Larry Roberts / Post-Gazette Bottlebrush buckeye

The backyard originally held a concrete patio leading to a grassy hillside. But it soon changed.

“Every year we add something,” Mrs. Smith said.

She adds the plants (she says she’s a reformed “plant hog”) and her husband adds hardscape.

“I build or haul or cut grass,” he said modestly.

One year, Mr. Smith and his two sons-in-law replaced the concrete patio with one made of paver bricks laid in a herringbone pattern. Mrs. Smith created perennial beds around the old brick walls and grill, featuring larkspur, catchfly (Silene armeria), amsonia, New England asters, Joe Pye weed, cleome and an arum with exotic long leaves and giraffe-like spots on its thick stem.

When a willow fell nearby, Mrs, Smith asked her husband to build a pond near the stump. The next year he built a lower pond and linked them with a waterfall. The year the garden was on the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden Tour, he built a deck near the lower pond. He also built a cold frame and all the paths in the backyard.

Larry Roberts / Post-Gazette An arum in Nancy Smith's garden in Mt. Lebanon.

With each piece of hardscape, Mrs. Smith creates adjoining beds. And as trees or limbs fall, she adds interesting shrubs and trees. She’s planted two metasequoias, a paperbark maple, redbud, fernleaf buckthorn, Carolina silverbell, Virginia juniper, ‘Diablo’ ninebark and a bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) that is just done blooming.

A shady bed near the bottom of the hill features Lenten rose, hostas, goatsbeard, ferns, variegated Solomon’s seal and Allegheny spurge, our native pachysandra.

“I like to do a lot of natives,” Mrs. Smith says, but her garden is not limited to them.

Her advice to gardeners who are just starting is simple: Take classes and talk to other gardeners about plants that do well here. And don’t overdo it.

“You can’t handle more than one new garden per year,” she said. “Otherwise, it’s a full-time job.”

Mt. Lebanon Library’s 20th anniversary Garden Tour runs from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. The library will have a plant sale and free consultations with Penn State Master Gardeners and a member of the Pittsburgh Rose Society. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 on tour day at the library. A pre-tour Garden Party will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. today in the library garden courtyard. Tickets are $25 per person and available at the door.

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