Landscaping is Sam Lawther's job (among others). Gardening with the leftovers is his passion (among others). But it is the only passion that helped him recover from cancer, the only one that breathes with his Native American heritage and the only one that brought him, reluctantly, to our attention.
Mr. Lawther's unusual garden of misfit plants is the large garden winner of the PG's Great Gardens Contest: Spring Edition. He entered the ninth annual contest, co-sponsored by the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, at the insistence of friends/helpers. Hidden as it is down a wooded gravel road in Plum, the nearly 3-acre tract is hard to find even with directions. But what a find it was for the contest judges!
Just behind a modest ranch house he shares with the property's owner, two dogs and seven cats is a riot of trees, shrubs, perennials, pavers and other hardscape, all discarded by clients of the landscaper he works for, Pivik Landscaping. Mr. Lawther, 39, marvels at what some people call garbage.
"People are very wasteful. ... Ninety-five percent of what's here people said was dead."
It began seven years ago, when he asked Larry Pivik if he minded him setting aside plants and other stuff that had either outgrown their space or didn't fit in a new owner's plans. At first, the castoffs went to Mr. Lawther's weekend place in Venango County. Then, in 2006, he was diagnosed with cancer. Battling the disease temporarily weakened him, but it also inspired him to pick up the pace of his rescue gardening.
He began to surround this home with the treasures he had rescued from the trash. Overgrown 'Nikko Blue' hydrangea were among the first things he planted, in a bed by the front of the house, beneath a grove of Norway and blue spruce trees. Spirea and barberry joined them, and not long after, he limbed up the trees' dead lower branches to create the first of several clearings, this one for dining.
Nearby is a vegetable garden, where tomatoes, beets, peppers, lettuce, zucchini, cucumbers, corn and other edibles were being guarded by a crouching cat on the day we visited. Mr. Lawther's dogs, Draco and Soma, are usually on patrol, too.
"Deer aren't a problem here," their companion said.
His first garden was for vegetables, planted when he was 12 and growing up in Monroeville. His grandmother, Betty White, taught him everything he knows about gardening, he said.
Mr. Lawther, a former theater major at Community College of Allegheny County, began working on independent films 10 years ago. He's currently working on an apocalyptic film with the title "Fallen 2012," set for release in the fall of next year by his company, MindSeed Pictures (www.mindseedpictures.com). With landscaping, film shooting and editing, and his garden, he sleeps about four hours a night.
His artistic bent showed through as he led a tour of the property. When a visitor was surprised to see the tall gray skeleton of a sunflower, he smiled and said, "It looks like a cane, doesn't it?"
Walking around a fallen trunk in the woods, he explained, "I like how this tree fell down."
The main garden -- the only part he entered in the contest -- is behind the house. A single Japanese maple and Concord grapevine have been slowly surrounded with mature ornamental trees, azaleas, lilacs and rhododendrons as much as 30 years old and daylilies, irises, sedum, hostas, comphrey and other perennials. Colors sometimes clash because Mr. Lawther has no idea what the plants will look like in bloom.
He doesn't mind.
"This garden designs itself. It tells you what to do. I don't know what I'm going to get tomorrow."
About 15 percent of the rescued plants don't survive, he said, eyeing a forlorn inkberry he recently transplanted.
"It's not dead yet."
Discarded concrete pavers and slabs of marble form a winding path along which he has placed a concrete fountain and statues that a friend cast while making new molds for a local statuary company. The figures include saints, animals, even Pan, the Greek god of the forest.
Personally, he feels closest to the earth-based spirituality of Native Americans. He is part Cherokee and Lakota but practices traditions from many tribes. He lashed together grapevines to make the frame for an Inipi sweat lodge. About 20 people from as far as Altoona had used it the night before for a ceremony.
More spiritual places are in the woods beyond the house. In a clearing ringed by a 200-year-old oak and smaller maple, yellow poplar and cherry trees, he built a medicine wheel. Each spoke is made from discarded stones. Mr. Lawther notes that the words some tribes use for stone literally means "grandfather -- because they saw the Creator."
The center stone turned up in a pile of dirt while a landscaping crew was clearing Braddock's Trail. Rain washed the dirt away to reveal a tree scale fossil, he said. The wheel is dedicated to the memory of his girlfriend's niece, Scarlett Lynam of Altoona.
Next to it is Turtle Rocks, a set of balancing stones derived from the Inuit tradition. His friend and roommate John Shook stacked the stones to honor his mother.
Mr. Lawther relies upon friends for help and support. Rob Rucker, Tim Nuckles, Matt Kleespies and Kim Lynam are a few who have helped in the garden. Mr. Shook and Alysa Sheats helped him build the wood frame for a 16-foot-tall man figure. If all goes well, he'll be wrapped in morning glories by fall.
Down another path is his next project, a woodland shade garden around a collection of large boulders probably left when early settlers cleared the land. Hostas, ferns and bleeding hearts will be planted around the central mossy sentinel that speaks wordlessly of age, patience and power.
Along the driveway is a motley collection of plants in containers, waiting for a place in what Mr. Lawther calls Buffalo Gardens. Where will they go?
"I don't know. They haven't said anything yet," he answered, smiling.
Kevin Kirkland: email@example.com or 412-263-1978.