There is a lesson to be learned from Ed McHugh's lovely garden in Reserve. Even if you think your garden isn't good enough to enter the Great Gardens Contest, do it.
Mr. McHugh, who had to be persuaded to enter, is a winner of the summer portion of the contest sponsored by the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Botanical Garden. He won in the small garden category -- 2,000 square feet or less.
His exquisite Asian-themed garden, constructed on an extremely sloped lot in heavy shade, is an extraordinary use of space and a great example of human ingenuity. Mr. McHugh, who is employed in engineering and maintenance at the Oakland campus of UPMC, has constructed all of the hardscape, from the pergola in front to the waterfall in the back, using repurposed materials salvaged from demolition sites.
The plants are not unusual -- perennials, ferns and hostas, with begonias, coleus and others providing fiery red contrasts. It's the way Mr. McHugh puts them together with statues and other architectural features that makes the garden special. He has an instinctual grasp of scale, which can be one of the most difficult aspects of gardening.
The front garden, for instance, looks larger than it is, and the curving walk that defines it is eye-pleasing. Holding it all together is a pergola with a Chinese flair, accented by wrought-iron inserts and an ornamental iron fence that gives the garden greater depth.
"The front of my home has a very narrow lot that always was a nightmare to me," he said. "I was never happy or able to manage to design something that was truly pleasing until this past year."
The backyard takes it up another notch. Lovely and calming during the day, the space becomes magical once darkness descends. Here the elements of fire, water and earth come together. A flaming cauldron stands in front of a pond and waterfall. A large mirror behind reflects and repeats the light of the cauldron and lanterns and adds depth to the tiny plot, which is filled with carefully selected stones, hostas, ferns and other shade-loving plants.
"Flowers play a less important role to me. I use them for more intense focus or hot spots of color and to highlight the spots that need it to complete the picture that I have in my mind," he said.
In another area, large statues of foo dogs are placed just so. Mr. McHugh's three children purchased the statues of a man and a woman, but he chose them.
"I showed my wife and she tiptoed around and showed [the children]," he said. "I always like to have everything match. That's one of my quirks."
The waterfall that adds movement to the garden is one of many clever ideas. Its reflection in the mirror suggests a greater volume of water than is really there.
"My mind always runs," he explained. "I just got some plastic PVC and drilled holes in it and piped it to create the rainwater effect."
The pond is a hit with his grandchildren -- Mason, 12, Alayna, 3, and Sean, 11/2 -- who love to feed the fish.
A health issue causes Mr. McHugh to have balance problems, but it can't keep him from his garden. He reworked the paths and beds so he would be able to navigate them without difficulty. He is content to work in a small garden.
"Small spaces can be made to be very dramatic and beautiful and affordable to pull off," he said. "Many people do not have the luxury of having large, expansive spaces."
His advice: "Make the most of what you have."
His wife, Debra, whom Mr. McHugh laughingly says has a "black thumb," clearly enjoys his creation and is proud of her husband's work.
"People in their cars actually stopped and said how much they love my yard," he marveled.
My advice: If you think the front is great, ask to see the back.garden - lifestyle
Post-Gazette garden editor Susan Banks: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1516. First Published September 14, 2013 4:00 AM