Schnoodleberry Farm in Butler County is an amazing place, even before you know the story behind it. Rolling up the unpaved driveway on the day of our visit, it was clear that something special was going on here. We just didn't know how special it was until we met Nada Sarkin, the small, trim force of nature who created this slice of paradise. Her garden wowed all the judges in the PG's Great Garden Contest, who awarded her first place in the large garden category.
The retired city schoolteacher, who has lived on the 5-acre property for 20 years, has pummeled about 3 acres of it into a lavish garden that is not only enjoyed by herself and her husband Fred, but also by her children and grandchildren, and a veritable zoo of "rescues," including several dogs; Joe, the velvety brown llama; a group of alpacas (she brought them home in her car!); a donkey; a miniature horse; and lots of birds. We'll get to the birds later.
In Nada's world, there is no scuffling, no nasty behavior (one imagines her class rooms were much the same). Everyone and everything cooperates and thrives at the whim of this energetic woman who clearly rules the show. Even the flowers go along, and there are lots of flowers. Beds have been cut-in all around the rustic home, which was built in 1978, and also around several outbuildings on the property.
The gardens are filled with iris, hosta, daylilies, ornamental grasses, ferns, sedum and a stand of huge red cannas. Garden ornaments, many of which were "found" objects, pepper the plantings, further adding to the whimsy of the garden and the delight of visitors. While most of the plants are common varieties, Ms. Sarkin proves that these old garden stalwarts can be combined in interesting ways.
Then there's the other amazing thing about her plot: All the plants have been given to her by friends, dug from her previous home, taken from nearby woods (nothing protected) or "recycled" from castoffs she gets from a landscaper who lives close by.
Not a dime was spent on plants.
"No point in buying things," she says, "If it's not going to live, I don't want it."
Which is why there are no vegetables. According to Ms. Sarkin, the bugs eat them right up and she quit bothering with them.
The pets and the plants are very much integrated. The birds; peacocks, turkeys, guinea hens and chickens, are all free range. The flock follows Ms. Sarkin around as she works.
"They scratch roots and eat leaves, so all of my plants must be very hardy varieties," she wrote in her contest entry.
She also has an abundance of shade, which she has used to great effect. She says she has found that hostas, of which there are many, can live happily in both sun and shade. She uses these garden staples as a backdrop for her collection of flowering shrubs and plants, and they also serve to tie the beds together.
There is a wet area on the property that has been planted with cattails, water iris and willow trees. Behind the home, just off a comfortable awning-shaded patio, she put in a pond and planted it with water-loving plants, such as water lilies. These, too, must be hardy, as her grandchildren enjoy splashing around in the water and kicking up the mud. But no matter, says Ms. Sarkin; it eventually settles. Frogs and fish live in harmony with the children.
Ms. Sarkin is also a veteran yard-saler and Craigs-list and eBay surfer. She snagged the children's playsets, installed in a shady nook away from the house, and a trampoline for next to nothing.
The garden is an extension of, and very much part of, the home. On the day of our visit, Ms. Sarkin showed us around in the company of Cheerio the tom turkey, who puffed up his grand feathers and slowly turned so we could admire him. The bird was so tame, he was happy to be petted, and Ms. Sarkin told us he would allow her grandchildren to dress him up (he won big at an annual Halloween pet parade). Unfortunately, Cheerio passed away shortly after our visit. He was put to rest with other beloved pets on the property. Our visit was certainly made more special by his presence.
Ms. Sarkin told me that she was living out her childhood dream. We won't tell her, but she's probably living out a lot of our dreams, too.
Garden editor Susan Banks: email@example.com or 412-263-1516.