Bobbie Smith has raised three babies, but her 2-year-old garden in Fox Chapel may be the biggest challenge yet:
It's dry one moment, wet the next. It teases her with bright sunshine then spits out things that like sun. She has dug up and replanted nearly everything in sight to make it happy.
Still she loves it, and it loves her back.
The 2-acre garden has rewarded her motherly care with year-round color, lush growth and beautiful vistas mature beyond its years. Now it has won her the top prize in the Great Gardens Contest for summer gardens larger than a quarter-acre. Judges from the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, the contest's sponsors, were impressed with all that she had done in the two years since she and husband Keith built a new house.
"I'm slowly learning what to plant -- what's going to work where," she said.
A gardener since the youngest of her three grown sons was school-age, Ms. Smith learned what would thrive in the mostly shade garden of her former home in Hampton. But this plot, which held a century-old Georgian-style house that couldn't be salvaged, was as baffling as a toddler who can't talk. Flowers and shrubs that should have thrived didn't. When she dug them up and tried to move them, the holes sometimes filled up with water from hidden springs.
Ms. Smith tried to sort it out with Melissa Marshall of MTR Landscape Architects. Ms. Smith specified some of her favorite perennials, shrubs and trees and Ms. Marshall offered feedback and a few suggestions.
"I picked lots of plants, but she introduced me to some things," Ms. Smith said.
The biggest surprise for the judges was that the garden was so new. Perennials and annuals grow in large mounds and shrubs and small trees appear to be well established. But the biggest red herring -- or should it be herrings? -- were the many tall trees, including white pines, oaks, maples, elms and beeches. Some are on the Smith property; others are "borrowed" from neighbors, providing a beautiful backdrop for this sprawling garden. The Smiths were careful to retain as many as possible, carefully siting their new house on the sloping lot.
One of Ms. Smith's favorite tree is a cucumber magnolia. Named for its odd-looking fruit, the tree is native to the Allegheny woodlands. Though its flowers aren't as showy as those of its cousins, it more than makes up for that with quiet grace that stands out among a stand of large white pines.
"It's a great shade tree, probably 200 years old," she said.
The two women chose many other interesting smaller trees and shrubs, including weeping hemlock and beech, yellow magnolia, paperbark maple and weeping and species katsura. 'Royal Purple' smoke bush and Japanese maples add red foliage for contrast with all the green leaves. In the winter, the stems of redtwig dogwoods do the same.
A pergola features the yellow climbing rose 'Graham Thomas,' purple-blue clematis 'Betty Corning' and the tiny starlike white flowers of sweet autumn clematis. Among the standouts this time of year are 'Blue Horizon' ageratum, 'Purple Dome' aster, 'Senorita Rosalita' (pink) and 'Senorita Blanca' (white) cleome. There is also 'White Chiffon' and 'Lavender Chiffon' rose of Sharon.
The homeowner and landscape architect have come up with plants that look good year-round, with different colors taking center stage depending on the season. There are lots of foliage plants, too, including hostas, lady's mantle and white-leafed caryopteris. Milkweed was planted to attract Monarch butterflies but alas, Ms. Smith has seen only one this year. To keep Fox Chapel's herds of deer at bay, Ms. Marshall designed a 6-foot-tall fence with a 2-foot section that projects out. Though deer can jump a 6-foot fence, the projection deters them from trying.
Pots containing tropical plants spend the winter in the plant room, something Ms. Smith asked for in the design of the new house. The room, which is kept around 55 degrees, is getting more crowded each year. But Ms. Smith will be sure to make room for one special container: a huge white gardenia she inherited from her mother, Mary Louise Gott of Fox Chapel. All summer, it grew on her patio, rewarding those who came close with a sweet fragrance almost like jasmine. At least 40 years old, it got too big for her mother to handle. So Ms. Smith would bring it to her house in the wintertime.
When Mrs. Gott passed away 13 years ago, it moved to the Smith's patio. This summer, only one beautiful white flower emerged from its shiny dark green leaves. Luckily for the contest judges, it was blooming during their visit. We felt a little like Mrs. Gott, who got the best part of her gardenia -- without the work.
"It got so big that I said to her: 'I'll keep the plant and bring you the flowers,'" Ms. Smith said, laughing.
Kevin Kirkland: email@example.com or 412-263-1978. First Published October 5, 2013 4:00 AM