Churchill home's flower beds bring forth a variety of colors and tales


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Paul McKenna's enthusiasm for hostas, ferns and flowers gushes like a garden hose running at full blast.

"No one leaves without a plant, whether they want one or not. They may toss it out the window on the way home but they don't leave without a plant!" said Mr. McKenna, a graduate of Penn State's master gardener program.

A vice president for investments with UBS Financial Services, Mr. McKenna is dressed in a green blazer, yellow slacks and a silk, hand-painted tie as he guides guests through the 10 beds around the Churchill home he shares with his wife, Penny, a retired teacher.

These gardens are so well organized that Mr. McKenna can relate his family's saga by pointing out hostas in one particular bed that parallels a stone path near the driveway.

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That story begins: " 'Paul' in all his 'Glory' traveled to 'Maui.' Upon arriving, he opened 'Pandora's Box,' and in it he found a 'Shiny Penny.' She was wearing a 'Teenie Weenie Bikini.' "

Their daughter, Laura, is also mentioned; her nickname, "Punky," is also the name of a hosta cultivar.

When the couple bought their Holland Road home in 1987, the lot had a pin oak and locust trees, an azalea that still bloomed, some long beds of English ivy, and a lawn stretching over three-quarters of an acre. Now, the soil is so rich that if a stray seed lands, a plant blooms immediately, such as the ornamental basil or the wild begonia with red leaves and pink blossoms that simply appeared in a backyard bed.

Mr. McKenna has been Churchill's mayor for the past 13 years, and with a core of volunteers, he plants and maintains the gardens motorists see when they take the Churchill exit off the Parkway.

Mrs. McKenna maintains updated hand-drawn maps of the 10 beds at their home filled with 250 varieties of hosta, enchanting ferns and a Dawn redwood (Metasequoia) that is 15 feet tall but will get much larger. The tree was a gift from Joan Gottlieb, a fern expert and author of well-regarded books on the subject.

"She was my biology teacher at Churchill High School in 1968. She would have failed me, but I took care of the mice. We have become great friends," Mr. McKenna said.

He's never purchased a fern; Mrs. Gottlieb has given him Braun holly and oak ferns and many varieties of the exquisite Japanese painted fern. The last is similar but distinct from the American lady fern.

Initially, gardening frustrated him because he planted high-maintenance annuals and had uneven results. Hostas were the solution. There are now 2,500 varieties, many with hard-to-resist names like 'Abba Dabba Doo,' 'Elvis Lives,' 'Camelot' and 'Dixie Chicks.'

"I love the hosta because they are so varied. I love the names. People think I make up the names because I am prone to tell stories," Mr. McKenna said.

In this garden, plants must be hardy. If a hosta lasts two years, it gets a nameplate that is laminated and engraved.

Hostas come in blue, yellow and every shade of green. His favorite is yellow.

"When you're a hosta grower, it's all about texture and color," he said pointing out a yellow variety called 'Touch of Class.'

Yellow hostas can handle more sun than the other colors, but you won't find one in a sunny bed that borders Holland Road, where there are purple and white kale, ornamental grasses and yellow mums.

"Yellow goes well with the house," he explained.

In the spring, iris and allium flowered in the sunny bed. Persian Shield, Mrs. McKenna's favorite plant, still looks fantastic in the fall.

"I try to have something going on in the garden all the time. I leave all my ornamental grasses up during the winter," he said, pointing out a variety of goldenrod called 'Fireworks' and ornamental tobacco with fragrant white, bell-shaped flowers that reseeds itself.

He also has an eye for interesting plants. A long row of 'Painter's Palette' Persicaria edges one of the front yard gardens. With its variegated leaves and long red shoots, it's a show-stopper on a golden autumn afternoon.

On the other side of the driveway and not far from the Dawn redwood is a cedar tree imported from Catawba Island, Ohio, where they have a summer home that's been in the McKenna family for 110 years.

"Do you see the stump there?" he asks. "That was the mother. The mother died, but I brought one of the seedlings back," he said.

Then there's a lush evergreen with green and white needles.

"I love that dragon's eye pine because it gives you the best color in the winter. It's just a beautiful specimen."

One of his secrets is "black gold," also known as compost. Each fall, the borough collects leaves and delivers it to residents the following July.

"I put in about 8 inches of black gold," Mr. McKenna said.

Sixty hostas bloom in a bed near the front stone walkway, including 'Cadillac,' which is perfect because a 1963 gold Cadillac Eldorado is parked in the driveway. The black pearl pepper plant is an annual with hot, edible peppers that Mr. McKenna gives to his Italian friends.

In one of the front beds, Mr. McKenna jokes about his "Martha Stewart potting room," which consists of a pad to kneel on and a pile of compost. He can easily pull out a plant, wrap it in newspaper and give it to a visitor.

As you walk along a stone path that leads to the backyard, he relates another story using the names of hosta.

" 'June' was a 'Centerfold.' We had 'Great Expectations' for her. She wore an 'Emerald Tiara' and a 'Powder Blue' dress. She had a 'Great Career' on stage."

The McKennas' property borders Tom and Kate Deger's yard.

"These are our very best friends and we frequently have cocktails over here. You can see they have the best view in Churchill Borough. To fully enjoy our garden, they put that patio in four or five years ago. I tell people every year I send them a bill for $50,000 and every year they don't pay it," Mr. McKenna said.

A breathtaking holly tree that he dug up and moved has grown to 30 feet in the backyard. Previous owners had planted it in front under the eaves of the house.

To keep deer from decimating his specimens, Mr. McKenna uses Deer Scram, a granular product he orders from Scott's Nursery on Beulah Road. In past years, deer ate a delicate purple-and-white toad lily that looks like a little orchid. But this year it's blooming, and he attributes that to Deer Scram.

On one side of the backyard, he has strung a long stretch of fishing line, a homemade deer deterrent.

"I put a lot of that up in the winter. If they hit that and it's pitch black out, it kind of spooks them, so they are less inclined to walk through my property. Of course, I take it down in the spring."

In the backyard, he maintains a duplicate bed. In the fall, he takes out larger hostas, divides them and puts them in the duplicate bed. In the spring, if the borough has a plant sale, he can easily pluck specimens from that bed.

His favorite hostas are 'Gay Blade,' 'Fringe Benefits,' 'Striptease,' 'Pineapple Upside Down,' 'Paul's Glory' and 'Drinking Gourd,' whose bluish green leaves are so large and richly textured that they do look like a bowl. He belongs to the Hosta Society and swaps plants annually with fellow gardener Sandy Csikari. He also orders from Wade and Gatton Nurseries in Bellville, Ohio.

Gardening gives the McKennas a chance to spend time together.

"We garden and because of the gardens, I think, it's made us a very social couple. I give the garden tour. It's just fun. People enjoy it."


Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


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