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Tiny Gardener Designed Her House and Garden to Show Off Beloved Flowers

Saturday, July 10, 2010
By Susan Banks, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Irene Ciccarelli stands in front of the the willow, birch and pine trees in the catch basin area of her garden in North Huntingdon. Darrell Sapp / Post-Gazette

Overflowing flower beds with lots and lots of color, that’s Irene Ciccarelli’s cup of tea. Her 2-year-old garden, tucked in the new Lincoln Hills housing plan in North Huntingdon, stands out among the restrained landscaping of her neighbors. It’s not that she doesn’t like the neatly manicured plots around her home, she just likes flowers better.

She also likes being able to look out her windows and see flowers, so her garden has been designed to frame the property and be visible from the indoors, with only a small patch of lawn in the front. It’s also designed to be handicapped-accessible in case the energetic 80-year-old ever needs to use a wheelchair to tend it.

Darrell Sapp / Post-Gazette Monarda in Irene Ciccarelli's garden attracts hummingbirds.

In less than two years, this diminutive woman has managed to plan, plant and tend a garden that will be open to visitors today from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for the Greenridge Garden Club and Norwin Art League’s 2010 Art in the Garden Tour. Mrs. Ciccarelli’s garden and six others will feature artwork by league members.

Mrs. Ciccarelli, who will be in her garden on the day of the tour, is no stranger to hard work. She recalls hoeing corn during the Depression, and also has fond memories of the flowers that her mother tended at their home in Irwin. The names of those flowers intrigued her and led to her lifelong enthusiasm for plants. This is her fourth garden — she has created three others in different areas of the country where she and her husband lived during their long marriage.

When her husband passed away several years ago, Mrs. Ciccarelli, a retired schoolteacher, moved back here to be closer to family. While staying with her sister, she started looking for a new home that would meet all of her needs. The house she is in now was under construction when she purchased it, allowing her to customize the inside, adding more windows and doors, and also alter the outside hardscape. When moving day came, there was no landscaping, just dirt. She had crummy soil, a drainage ditch and a wickedly steep hillside in the back. In other words, she had a Pittsburgh yard.

She first amended the soil by double-digging the flower beds and adding 10 to 12 truckloads of mushroom manure — by herself. Then planting commenced.

Darrell Sapp / Post-Gazette A daylily in Irene Ciccarellli's garden.

When asked if she had a grand plan, she shrugs and says she made it up as she went along. She did know she wanted continuous color and lots of perennials, which she loves. As inspiration, she used Anne Hathaway’s garden in Shottery, England, considered the quintessential cottage garden. She laughs when she recounts that on a visit to that garden she discovered it takes six or eight full-time gardeners to keep it looking perfectly informal.

Though a neighbor cuts her small patch of grass, Mrs. Ciccarelli tends this garden herself, usually in the early part of the day. The beds are overflowing with coneflowers, bee balm, clematis, heuchera, lady’s mantle, daylilies, liatris, bergenia and more; many are now happily self-sowing. Because she mulches heavily, she hasn’t had to start watering until just this past week.

When asked if she had a favorite nursery, she replied that she buys lots of her plants from the damaged table at Lowe’s. She says it’s a great place to find inexpensive plants that just need a little tender loving care, but she cautions bargain hunters to go early in the morning when the pickings are good.

Sometimes, she’ll splurge on a special specimen such as the Bonica rose planted on a trellis. She found a gate/trellis at a discount store and installed that on the side of the house. Conifers are plopped into the beds to provide winter interest and small ornaments are scattered throughout. Her attention to detail is seen in the garden and in her home, both of which were lavishly decorated for the July Fourth holiday.

Her next big project will be the extremely steep bank behind the house. She has started planting it with shrubs and plans on fencing some of it off to discourage the deer, which invade during the winter.

And while the garden will never be finished, she says, “I’ve accomplished what I set out to do (two years ago). I have year-round color.”

Tickets for the Art in the Garden Tour are $10 and can be purchased at Vargos Hallmark Shops, Norwin Town Square and Norwin Hills Shopping Center; Belaks Flower Shop in Irwin and the Greensburg Garden Center, Greensburg.

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