Mt. Lebanon couple treasure a garden built around pond, waterfall that came from Phipps

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At a flower show, have you ever thought, “That would look really good in my backyard!”

At least 50 years ago, a Mt. Lebanon couple attending a Phipps Conservatory show apparently had the same thought. And it‘‍s still there — a Japanese water garden that is the focal point of the current owners’‍ backyard.

The three-pool pond and garden behind the home of Andy Rhodes and Stacey Vroegindewey Rhodes is one of seven featured on Sunday’‍s Mt. Lebanon Library Garden Tour. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., hundreds of people will stop by their sprawling stone house to admire a fearnleaf buckthorn, blue atlas cedar, and other unique trees and shrubs in the front and backyard. But the pond is what draws the most attention, and what drew the Rhodes family to this property 13 years ago.

“The yard sold us,” he said. “They wanted to walk us through the house. I just wanted to see the yard.”

At the time, tall pine trees nearly hid the pond from view, and what was visible wasn‘‍t pretty. The concrete pools were cracked, the shrubs were overgrown, and “you could put your foot through” the floor of the pagoda-like gazebo that was part of the Phipps’‍ display, Mr. Rhodes said. But four Japanese maples that were also part of the garden showpiece were still healthy, and all sorts of moss and groundcover was growing thickly on lava rock that surrounded the pools.

Knowing nothing about ponds, the couple called North Hills Water Gardens for help. Their experts installed rubber liners on the pools and suggested adding a third pool beneath a waterfall and natural filtration system. Not long after, a few koi and goldfish were added.

Apparently, the fish like it here. They overwinter in its 30-inch-deep pools and each spring, Mr. and Mrs. Rhodes and their three children find a few more goldfish. They now have about 30, including two large koi. A third, named Creamsicle, became a treat for a great blue heron. The pond has also been home to three Peking ducklings hatched by the class of a teacher friend. When they got big and the family discovered that Peking ducks are not migratory, they found a new home.

People are not the only ones drawn to the water garden. The two family cats come by to chase butterflies and insects but leave the fish alone. One afternoon, Mrs. Rhodes was shocked to see a newborn deer thrashing around in the biggest pool.

“It was so small it was drowning,” she said.

She waded into the cold water, picked up the fawn and carried it to the grass, where it lay trembling. Its mother finally returned 12 hours later to lead it away.

Despite their beautiful garden, the couple doesn’t consider themselves gardeners. They credit Dan Santel of Santel Landscape and Design with designing and planting their yards and Elizabeth Frattare of Rooted in Thyme Nursery & Landscaping with helping to choose the plants. Mr. Rhodes assembled the new gazebo from a pre-cut kit.

“We’‍re really not gardeners,” Mrs. Rhodes said. “We‘‍ve always called a big tree that we love Old Oakie. Then one of our neighbors said, ‘‍Um, that’‍s a maple.‘‍”

But it’‍s their pond, not their plants, that they would really like to know more about. Longtime neighbor Gil King has told them the Wilsons, the house‘‍s former owners, told him the pond’‍s story when he moved there in 1971. A March 1963 article in the Post-Gazette mentions a “Japanese-style garden” with a pagoda, waterfalls and small ponds as the newest attraction for the Phipps Spring Flower Show. If anyone remembers that show or recognizes their ponds, the Rhodes would love to hear from them.

“It’‍s just a mystery,” Mrs. Rhodes said.

The Mt. Lebanon Public Library Garden Tour runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets for the self-guided tour are $15 in advance and $20 on Sunday, available at the library, 16 Castle Shannon Blvd., Mt. Lebanon (15228). There will be a perennial plant sale during tour hours. A Garden Party will be held in the courtyard behind the library from 6 to 8 p.m. today. The party will feature wine, beer and hors d'oeuvres. Tickets are $30 per person at the door. Information: or 412-531-1912.

Kevin Kirkland: or 412-263-1978. 

Kevin Kirkland: or 412-263-1978.

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