When Kathleen Simpson moved to Mt. Lebanon 46 years ago, she was a young mother tending to the first of three children. She had no time to garden and "nothing but grass and yews" to work with.
Today, the grass has given way to serpentine beds filled with flowering shrubs, perennials and annuals. And the yews? All have disappeared except for three 25-foot-tall trees in the backyard that are barely recognizable as the boring hedges they once were.
"They're not supposed to be let go like that," she says with an embarrassed smile.
Clearly, she and her husband, Bill, have nothing to be embarrassed about. Their garden is one of seven that will be open from noon to 5 p.m. July 7 for the Mt. Lebanon Garden Tour. It's a tiny testament to what two amateurs can do when they follow their hearts, pay attention to friends instead of plant labels and learn the lessons a garden can teach.
"We're not intellectual gardeners," he begins.
"We're color gardeners," she finishes.
The colors that delight her are mostly in the backyard. The front of their 1934 stone Tudor-style house is framed in restful shades of green, except for a few weeks in the spring when the lavender rhododendrons bloom. The back is more vibrant, featuring rosy orange 'Sunset' coneflowers, bright pink zinnias and lilies, deep purple clematis, burgundy-and-white columbine, and along the driveway, lacecap hydrangeas whose baby blue flowers belie their name, 'Pinky Winky.'
It all began with a gift 15 years ago, when a gardening friend brought some columbine and a contagious enthusiasm for gardening. Since that visit by the late Sally Sweeney, Mrs. Simpson has slowly created a plot that embraces its shady character -- most of the time. She can't resist the occasional sun lover that catches her eye.
"I buy what I like. I ignore what the tags say," she says, laughing.
Her husband, who has always helped with the heavy lifting and digging, became more of a planting partner last year when he finally retired. He says he has no particular garden favorites, except maybe the springtime surprises he sometimes forgets he planted the year before. This year, it was clumps of 'First Blush' variegated euphorbia.
"You plant something small and it comes up so much better the next year," he says.
Eight years ago, he built a two-level pond and waterfall for his wife and bought 13 goldfish to live there. They thrived until last week when a tall visitor came and stole all but three fish. The Simpsons didn't see the culprit but are pretty sure they know who it was.
"The pond guys say that raccoons usually leave them scattered around. Herons don't leave a trace," Mrs. Simpson says.
The three remaining fish stay well hidden under ledges and amid water plants the Simpsons can't identify because they were given by friends. Mrs. Simpson's circle of friends also includes those who tend Mt. Lebanon Library's courtyard garden, a winner last year in the PG Great Gardens Contest and the site of a pre-tour garden party next Saturday. Mrs. Simpson admits she joined the group in hopes of becoming a better gardener. She finds both lessons and rewards in her garden.
"We try to learn by our mistakes," she says. "If I'm out here in the garden, it's always a good day."
The Mt. Lebanon Garden Tour runs from noon to 5 p.m. July 7, rain or shine. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 the day of the tour and can be purchased at Mt. Lebanon Public Library, 16 Castle Shannon Blvd., 15228. Tickets are $30 each for the garden party from 6 to 8 p.m. July 6 at the library. Party and tour proceeds benefit the library. Information: 412-531-1912 or www.mtlebanonlibrary.org.
Kevin Kirkland: email@example.com or 412-263-1978. First Published June 29, 2013 4:00 AM