Eric French has the ideal North Side home -- a beautifully renovated Victorian with a side yard. But he was not popular with the guys on Monterey Street when he created a garden in record time.
"He came in with Bobcats and a crew of guys and knocked it out in a week," said next-door neighbor Randy Zotter. "Our wives are watching, looking at us and saying, 'Well? Well?' "
They have forgiven him now, of course, and the house and garden that Mr. French shares with Katie Hancock is among 17 featured on the 44th annual Mexican War Streets House & Garden Tour on Sept. 15. The self-guided tour of 13 houses and four gardens runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 on tour day.
Mr. French, president of Eisler Landscapes, had the equipment and know-how to create a courtyard garden on the fly. But finding a house set back from the street far enough to allow for a front garden is almost impossible in the Mexican War Streets. Mr. French bought the small house next door to his current home in April 2004. Built in the 1860s, it's called an alley house or Irish house after its location and most likely owners (many of old Allegheny's servants were Irish).
He renovated it himself and installed the garden in time to be included on the house tour in September 2004. The brand-new garden was beautiful then; it's even better now.
One of its best features is an L-shaped grape arbor that supports wild grapes, a varietal grape whose name he's forgotten, and sweet autumn clematis, whose white blooms glow above the thick grape leaves. Mr. French and Ms. Hancock say the arbor with a dining table beneath it is a favorite spot for long lunches, late dinners and many parties (no wonder the neighbors forgave him).
"It creates a great sense of privacy," she said. "You almost don't realize you're in the city."
Mr. French still owns the smaller house behind the garden and lived in it while renovating the much larger house next door. It was in terrible shape when he bought it seven years ago for $150,000.
"I rebuilt the whole back of the house. I had to break the windows to get them out," he said.
Today, the rear section contains a beautiful modern kitchen and French doors on the side leading to the garden, which will be on the tour along with the first floor of the larger house.
If you go, be sure to look for the Italian plum tree, a 'Brown Betty' Southern magnolia, serviceberry trees and three fig trees. Although the fig trees are carefully covered with huge cardboard tubes each winter, they yielded only two figs this year, "but they were really big," Mr. French said.
His favorite plant is not in the garden. It's planted in front of the big house and protected by a small cage to ward off dogs and cats. Cephalotaxus, whose common name is false yew or plum yew, is not supposed to be hardy in zone 6, which includes most of the Pittsburgh area. Mr. French believes global warming has helped it survive.
"It's a cool plant that you would never have been able to grow here 10 years ago," he said.
Kevin Kirkland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978. First Published September 7, 2013 4:00 AM