Mt. Lebanon Library's pretty courtyard garden is a great place to read a book

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A teenager and two younger children read quietly at Mt. Lebanon Library, enjoying the waning shade of a bright red maple.

Mt. Lebanon might not be the only library with a courtyard garden, but it certainly has the prettiest. The space, which boasts a goldfish pond, vegetables, herbs and many native flowers and shrubs, was named the medium garden winner in the PG Great Gardens Contest, fall/year-round category. The competition is co-sponsored by the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden.

The garden is a natural extension of the library, says director Cynthia Richey.

"We use it for programs, fund-raisers and concerts in August. It's all done by volunteers. It involves the community in many ways," she says.

Best of all, it doesn't use tax dollars. There was no money in the budget for a garden when the library was expanded and renovated in 1997. A huge mound of dirt left by contractors turned to mud every time it rained and seeped under the doors, soaking the carpet, Ms. Richey says. Then Henry Wick and the Friends of the Library stepped up. While he was president, the group provided $25,000 in 1998 to help build the courtyard and surrounding gardens. Local architect James Scarlett volunteered to design the hardscape, and local master gardener Nancy Smith agreed to design the beds and choose the plants.

Both men have since passed away, but Ms. Smith is still head of the 10-member garden committee, which meets every Monday during gardening season to plant, weed, prune and discuss. Although the Friends purchase most of the garden's plants from Sylvania Natives or the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden plant sale, some come from residents' gardens.

"People say, 'I've got an interesting plant. Do you want it?' If it fits, we'll try it," Ms. Smith says.

Gardeners also share their expertise. Mykie Reidy tends the vegetables, which include tomatillos, eggplant, Brussels sprouts, Swiss chard, peppers, asparagus, beets and several kinds of lettuce. Growing nearby are sage, lemon balm, thyme, chives, mint and lavender.

Peter Guild, a musician with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, is also an expert on carnivorous plants. He will soon take in his collection of pitcher plants, fly catchers and others for the winter. Likewise, Ray Olmo will net the 35 goldfish and koi that swim in the raised stone pond, which is not quite deep enough for them to overwinter in.

"Our fish go south for the winter," Ms. Richey jokes, because Mr. Olmo's house is 2 miles south of the library.

Kurt Bonello and Hugh Watkins created artwork -- a steel-and-granite sculpture and Johnny Appleseed statue, respectively -- and an Eagle Scout built a bathouse and trellis that supports native honeysuckle and five types of clematis. Another Eagle Scout may build a stone path that will double as a rock garden to help the gardeners scale the garden's steep slopes.

"We just about kill ourselves going up these hills," Ms. Smith says.

She selected plants that have two-, three- and four-season interest. During an interview, she admires the crimson leaves of Itea virginica and oakleaf hydrangea and points out the golden leaves of a climbing hydrangea vine that tumbles over a stone wall. She gets out a perennial guide to try to identify a tall, late-blooming pinkish-purple aster.

Last weekend, Ms. Smith and other committee members dug up dozens of cannas, cut off the foliage and lined up the tubers to dry in the sun. They will pack them away in her garage for replanting in the spring, she says.

"Our original idea was to do natives, no invasives, no chemicals," she says, adding that they have softened their stance on non-natives but not the other restrictions. The gardeners use only Espoma, a natural fertilizer.

Bollard lights allow the garden to be used at night and its mature trees and gray teak furniture are beautiful even when covered with snow.

"It has a winter presence," Ms. Richey agrees.

At one point in the conversation, she reaches over to pick a few purple flower petals off her friend's shoulder. "You've got sage on you," she says.

"I end up with everything on me," Ms. Smith responds, smiling.

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Kevin Kirkland: or 412-263-1978.


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