2014 Great Garden Contest Small Garden Winner: Edgewood garden created on a shoestring

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If you think you need lots of time and money to have a great garden, think again.

Eric D’Ambrogi’s garden in Edgewood, which he entered “on a lark,” won first place in the small garden category of the Great Gardens Contest, early summer judging period.

The retired Deer Lakes school teacher has managed to construct a winning landscape on a shoestring using re-purposed building materials and plants that he’s found or received as gifts from other gardeners. The contest is co-sponsored and judged by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Botanic Garden.

“My garden has been a work in progress for the past 10 years,” he said in his entry essay. “When I bought my home, the backyard was a blank space with three very large pine trees, an overgrown holly tree and a falling apart carport.

“I have slowly transformed the space using a variety of perennials (mostly given by friends), creating an ’English’ garden of various hostas, daylilies, ornamental grasses and other flowering plants.”

What visitors see today is a small garden full of thoughtfully placed plants. In the front shade garden, gravel paths mitigate the need to mow. There’s not much more grass in the back, where a walk constructed from reclaimed brick and stones divides the garden.

“Construction Junction is my friend,” he said during a rainy-day visit. He takes his inspiration from whatever he finds at the nonprofit retailer of surplus and salvaged materials in nearby Point Breeze. Mr. D’Ambrogi had no big plan for his garden, except he knew he didn’t want to mow grass.

“Once I put the pathway in, it led me to what I did,” he said.

He calls the back garden “my Amazon.” He surveys his work from a deck, which he designed and built off the back of the home, again using reclaimed materials. It’s also a nice dining and entertainment area.

Planter boxes have been built into the deck, bringing the garden into the living space. A glowing light box is cleverly constructed of panels he salvaged, with a string of Christmas tree lights inside as the illumination. He created a table top from old wine corks and tweaked an old gazing ball by pouring paint inside and swirling it. Everywhere you look there are clever, low-cost touches dreamed up by the gardener.

While the plant material is not unique, his placement is. A metal sculpture is nestled in a cozy seating area he created in the center. The sculpture was the work of a German exchange student who constructed it and then was not able to ship it back home, so Mr. D’Ambrogi rehomed it. He got the idea for a blue bottle tree from Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, a favorite destination for him and his partner.

A big patch of rosy-red monarda attracts birds and bees, as do the holly berries on that oversized tree that he incorporated into his landscape.

“This has become an aviary,” he said.

Toward the back are raised beds where he grows chives, tarragon, sage, oregano and sorrel. “I don’t get a lot of veggie sun.”

Upkeep is limited to about a half-hour a day.

“It turned out to be minimal as far as maintenance,” he said, noting that he is slow to move the “volunteers” that pop up each year.

“If I like [where they end up], I keep them; if I don’t, my friends benefit from them.”

Nothing is wasted in his garden. Even the geraniums are wintered over from year to year in the basement.

“The goal is not to spend money but to appreciate what’s out there.” 

Post-Gazette garden editor Susan Banks: sbanks@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1516.

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