Tradition blooms in garden on Sewickley tour


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The features of John C. Oliver's garden haven't changed in a century. You can plainly see the handsome brick walls with stone railings, the classical fountain and pond, the columned arbors encircled by trunks of ancient wisteria.

But his wardrobe has turned over many times, as annuals, perennials and ornamental shrubs have gone in and out of fashion. For next weekend's Sewickley Garden Tour, he's returned to the basics: rhododendrons, azaleas and boxwood hedges with fresh white roses just beginning to bloom.

"This is the last hurrah," said the woman who has shared the care of this garden with her husband for 33 years. They don't have the time or energy to dress up John C. Oliver's estate like they used to. It's time he looked his age.

The garden is one of six in Edgeworth and Sewickley that will be open from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. next Saturday. It may be the only one whose plans and photos are now in the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Gardens, a collection of more than 7,000 plots and 70,000 images documenting a variety of public and private gardens.


Sewickley Garden Tour

When: Self-guided tour runs 6-8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. next Saturday.

Tickets: $25; available from Sewickley area shops or online at www.sewickleygardens.org. Proceeds benefit Sewickley Civic Garden Council.


When this stately brick house was built in the late 1890s, its grounds encompassed more than 7 acres, tended by as many as seven gardeners. Landscape architect A.B. Orth designed it initially, and in 1927, William Allen did it over "to simplify landscape maintenance," according to a garden write-up by Susan Craig, a member of the Sewickley Civic Garden Council.

Despite Mr. Allen's efforts, the sunken formal garden, large side lawn and landscaped nooks that dot the remaining 2-plus acres were "a mess, totally overgrown" when the couple became the property's third owners in 1980.

The woman, who asked not to be identified, said she and her husband did all the garden work themselves for many years. Her husband, who worked in horticulture sales, grew up on a 200-acre farm in Ohio. He dug up each of the brick pavers and relaid them in concrete and spent countless hours cutting back wisteria and overgrown shrubs.

Through his contacts in the green industry, he discovered 'Popcorn Drift' roses from Conard Pyle, the same company that introduced Knockout roses. Like Knockouts, Drift roses are tough, low-maintenance, repeat bloomers that are a cross between groundcover and miniature roses. The couple recently planted many of the creamy white 'Popcorn' roses within hedges of 'Green Gem' boxwood. Covered with buds, the roses will likely bloom in time for next weekend's tour.

The woman, who grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, fondly remembers her mother's tea roses. "My mother had a fabulous garden," she says.

But who has the time to prune finicky old roses and spray them for black spot? Not this couple. They now hire someone to prune their boxwood hedges and keep the purple wisteria in bounds. The garden looked its best about a month ago, when the wisteria, rhododendron and azaleas bloomed together.

"It's not a June garden," the woman says. "But it's a fairyland in the spring."

On one side of the sunken formal garden, ranks of pink and white peonies lie where they fell victim to heavy rains. One large bed contains survivors of the couple's youthful fascination with perennials. Purple spiderwort, blue hostas, various coral bells and 'Elijah Blue' fescue cluster together like colorful children at a garden party. And by the pond, like the little girl who dressed herself, is a single orange poppy.

"I threw a handful of Iceland poppies there years ago," the woman said. "I wanted white poppies, like at Sissinghurst [in England].

"I don't have the heart to remove it, even though it doesn't go with the color scheme."

Let's just think of it as Mr. Oliver's boutonniere. We can't always act our age.

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Kevin Kirkland: kkirkland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1978.


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