44 dump-truck loads later, a Great Gardens Contest winner emerges

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Sam Lawther is the first person to win the PG's Great Garden Contest twice.

It's not because his garden is wonderful, though it is. And it's not because we changed the rule that prohibits first-place winners from entering again. It's because Mr. Lawther's garden is totally and absolutely brand-new.

It's a new garden, new house, new property about 15 miles from the old one, new everything EXCEPT the plants and his faithful dog Draco.

Look closely at the pictures: Almost everything you see was put in less than a year ago. And we aren't talking perennials and small shrubs here, we are talking about some significant specimens. How he managed this is a story in itself.

When the home he was renting and gardening in Plum was foreclosed on, he was forced into an unplanned move. He and his girlfriend, Kim Lynam, now his wife, found another property to buy, but at the last minute that deal fell through. Driving around one day, they spied this property in Fawn. The house, built in 1936 on a 1 1/2-acre lot next to a cemetery, needed a lot of work. The elderly owner had moved into a nursing home, and her nephew was attempting to clean the place out. The home was full of a lifetime's worth of possessions and the property had been used as a dump.

"It was just a big stretch of land," Mr. Lawther says.

Once he had bought it, the land became the new home for his Garden of Misfit Plants, also known as Buffalo Gardens.

"During the summer Olympics last year, we moved Buffalo Gardens 14 miles up river," he wrote in his entry essay. "Every shrub, plant, bulb, rock and leaf was brought to our new place. We moved the garden during the hottest part of the summer, on the hottest year ever. Luckily, it began raining 24 hours before we began the move and would continue for the next two weeks.

"Five exhausted people, 15 days, 44 dump truck loads, 1,232+ miles -- $560 in gas. Moving one sacred garden: Priceless."

The order of things was dictated by what they could dig up and load into the truck immediately. In addition to the plants, they rebuilt the Native American structures Mr. Lawther had at the old Buffalo Gardens, including a sweat lodge, medicine wheel, tepees and other items.

A little background on Mr. Lawther: He works for Pivik Landscaping and had constructed his former garden from rejected plants gathered from landscape jobs. With the help of his co-workers and the blessing of his boss, he created a quirky garden from all kinds of discarded plants and other items. When he was forced to move, it didn't occur to him to walk away from the landscape he had created.

The result of his labors is his current garden. When judges from the Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, the contest's sponsors, received his entry in the large garden category, fall/year-round gardens, we all wanted to see what he had come up with this time. It didn't disappoint.

Although he says the order the plants came from his old home ended up dictating placement at the new garden, it is interesting how it has turned into a cohesive whole. With discarded stone and pavers, he's constructed walkways and installed garden "rooms." The sweat lodge is made of wood and vines and the medicine wheel of stones placed in a circle. An old clawfoot tub he dug up on the property has been fashioned into a fountain, and the 1950s built-in swimming pool has been turned into a pond and fountain. Because the pool, which has largely been left untended, now teams with frogs, salamanders and other fauna, Mr. Lawther has not wanted to empty it and convert it into a real water garden. He's figuring out how he can do that without harming the eco-system that has developed there.

Statues abound, and salvaged mirrors hang throughout the gardens, reflecting sunlight and adding whimsy. In one area, he has formed a large elephant out of grapevines removed from a landscaping cleanup job. Mr. Lawther is a genius at reusing discarded items.

Plants of all kinds are included in the garden -- hostas, arborvitae, ornamental grasses and various shrubs and trees. He also grows the four herbs sacred to most tribes -- sweetgrass, tobacco, cedar and sage -- for use in his religious ceremonies. He has several vegetable gardens, too.

Although they live in the country, they have not had problems with deer so far. That's because Draco, a large grizzled mixed-breed dog, is never far from his master's side.

Mr. Lawther is quick to praise friends Rob Rucker, Tim Nuckles and Chris Gasior for stepping up and helping him during his move. And he says his new wife spent many hours watering the new transplants. His sister's family, the Stifflers, also donated time and effort to the new garden.

"And of course, I want to thank Larry Pivik of Pivik Landscape for letting me borrow a skid loader and a dump truck for 16 days."

Mr. Lawther embraced his Native American heritage several years ago when he was working on an independent movie project. His mother had Lakota and Cherokee ancestors.

"When the movie was in its early stages, Kim and I went to see the White Buffalo for the film. We were invited to participate in an Inipi ceremony," he said.

Inside the sweat lodge, Mr. Lawther said he experienced the spirits of the sacred white buffalo and the spotted eagle, protector of the white buffalo.

"I had a vision that has taken five years for me to completely understand. I felt reborn somehow, closer to my own soul than ever before, and closer to the creator. The vision was about love, giving, learning, family."

The garden is an extension of his beliefs. He has dedicated his new garden to his mother, Theresa J. Lawther, who died recently. "She was our lodge mother. She loved to sit in the garden and enjoy the surroundings," he says.

Mr. Lawther hosts an Inipi ceremony once a month. He is full of plans for the new garden and has another passion. A cancer survivor, he has decided to sell some of the plants he collects and donate the money to children battling the disease. He has set up a website, www.plantsforlittlepatients.org, to accept donations and to announce plant drives/sales and other events beginning in the spring.

While he hadn't planned to move Buffalo Gardens, it has all turned out for the good, he says. Winning the Great Gardens Contest again is just icing on the cake.


Post-Gazette garden editor Susan Banks: sbanks@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1516. First Published October 11, 2013 8:00 PM


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