Artists in the spotlight for Pittsburgh Botanic Garden tour

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Gardening and ironwork might not seem a likely combination, but Chris Holt has successfully married the two. The Bell Acres resident, a retired art teacher, is both a blacksmith and a gardener who delights in juxtaposing her creations with her plants in a meandering 7-acre garden.

Her garden will be one of 14 featured during the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden Town and Country Tour on June 22. Sculptors, photographers, a potter, glass artist and dancer are among the artists opening their gardens for the tour. The gardens stretch from Squirrel Hill to Sewickley.

While the landscape at the Holt home might not be pristine, the sauciness she imbues in it more than makes up for the occasional weed. And if you can’t beat the weeds, well, then you might as well embrace them, she says with a laugh.

Take Plantago major, the common plantain. When it became apparent she was not going to be able to eradicate it from her yard, she made it the background for several iron sculptures of waterlilies, creating a tongue-in-cheek take on Monet’s famous painting. In fact, all of the vignettes in the garden are riffs on paintings.

“I think of my garden as a Rene Magritte surrealist experience,” she writes in a description for the tour book. “It first appears to be a traditional home setting and then slowly ’things’ are quite different.”

Visitors find flamingos and a lounge chair on the roof, and yes, she sits in it. A clothesline is filled with “lawndry,” a gypsy wagon is a collection of found objects and crazy faces are cut from metal mailboxes. A walk in the field brings visitors to a “Pittsburgh Living Room,” and a whimsical watering can compost pile sits by the smithy. 

Metal sculptures include one called “When a Plan Comes Together.” If viewed from the other side, it could be called “When A Plan Falls Apart,” she jokes. Wooden and iron rustic furniture surround a burning pit. A resin raven, found at a flea market, ends the tour in a nod to the Magritte painting “The Blank Check.”

Her husband, Bill, an expert bridge player, allows her to do just about whatever she dreams up, she says. His reply to that statement: “Who could stop her?”

The gypsy wagon is a case in point. It grew from an old farm wagon, but little of that remains. Her husband questioned the necessity of it, she says, but it is now one of his favorite places to relax and read. Although it’s on wheels and technically can be moved, she says shifting it elsewhere would be akin to putting a rather large, buxom lady into a pair of stiletto heels. It might be a little tricky.

Ms. Holt grew up on a farm across the road from her present home. Her mother would often place a small bouquet of wild flowers beside her bed at night for her to see when she woke up. The small family -- she’s an only child -- worked together in the garden, and she has never stopped. Her current garden is filled with cottage plants, including hosta, peonies and irises. But it’s not the plant material she’s focused on. It’s the overall effect of the landscape.

The theme of this year’s tour is “Fun Funky & Fabulous.” According to Linda Brown, who served on the botanic garden’s selection committee this season, the gardens chosen for this tour illustrate how an artist’s vision can be translated into a garden. The tour organizers also hope to get people to look beyond the plants and instead focus on how looking at a garden as a whole makes them feel. What do you respond to? And more importantly, what you can take away from a space and use? It was also of the utmost importance that the personality of each gardener was clearly reflected in his or her creation.

Personality is something the Holt garden has in spades. That brings us back to Ms. Holt’s philosophy on gardening: “Work with what you have. Develop it and allow it to speak to you.”

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The Pittsburgh Garden’s Town & County Garden Tour 2014  runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 22. Cost for the self-guided tour is $55 for non-members, $45 for members. Advance tickets can be purchased at Penguin Bookstore, 417 Beaver St., Sewickley (15143); Ten Thousand Villages, 5824 Forbes Ave.,Squirrel Hill (15217), Toadflax,5500 Walnut St., Shadyside (15232); and Wild Birds Unlimited in Monroeville, Pine and Upper St. Clair. Participants can start anywhere and end anywhere. Late registrations or those wanting tickets on tour day can pick up their tour books from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. only at Penguin Bookstore and Ten Thousand Villages.

Tickets for a guided bus tour are $135 for non-members, $120 for members. Buses leave from Morewood Gardens parking lot on Forbes Avenue in Oakland or the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden Office in Green Tree, 850 Poplar St. A lunch at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association is included. Bus tour tickets are limited. Information or registration: 412-444-4464 or

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