Squirrel Hill retiree enjoyed his garden so much he bought the property next door to make it bigger
Basil Cox framed by clematis on his back porch.
Steep stone steps cut through the wall that borders the front of the property.
The backyard looking toward the back porch. The free-standing pear espalier is in the foreground.
A small statue in Basil Cox's Squirrell Hill garden.
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What gardener has not coveted more property? When Basil Cox of Squirrel Hill did, he simply bought the house next door, and now he gardens both properties to his heart's content.
His lush garden, which he says covers about an acre, will be featured June 24 on the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden Town & Country garden tour, this year celebrating its 15th anniversary. Fifteen gardens in Squirrel Hill and Shadyside will be open for bus and self-guided tours, rain or shine.
Mr. Cox's home, built in the late 1800s, sits atop a steep hillside that was once part of a family compound that was re-established when he purchased the home next door. The garden around his home has been a work in progress for about 20 years. Although his mother gardened, he picked up the hobby on his own.
"At some point it seemed like it would be fun," he says.
The former owner of the property was a gardener, but when he moved in, he began over with design help from Lindsay Totten. Some of the hostas and a rose or two are from the previous garden, but the rest is a reflection of Mr. Cox's personality and his idea of "relaxed cottage style" that is true to the architecture of the house. The garden features rooms, interesting ornaments, sculpted shrubs and a couple of water gardens.
He does get help once a week with the heavier tasks and some pruning, but says he's usually outside about 30 hours a week with his companion, a Boykin spaniel named Willie Stargell. "And I would be happy to spend more time there," he is quick to add.
Now retired, he was able to devote time to the garden next door once he purchased the property about a year ago. Both homes share a steep cobblestone driveway, and he has lined it with swaths of lavender. Beds have been carved in the next door lawn and are colorfully spiced up with annuals he gets at Brenckles Greenhouse in Reserve, one of his favorite plant-buying locations. He recently installed a pear espalier on the wall of that home, which he rents out. Pointing to the espalier on the formerly bare wall, he says, "If ever there was a place for it, that would be it."
The plant material is varied and he has a plant list available. "There is a little bit of everything here." And indeed, visitors will see hostas, roses, hydrangeas, ferns, pulmonaria, asarums, Solomon's seal (a favorite), and a selection of conifers, much of it neatly mulched with pine straw that he makes a special trip to Ohio to purchase. He loves the look of the pine straw and feels it is a great way to tie the beds together, adding some uniformity to the grounds. It also makes the beds look neater, since "meticulous is hard for me to deliver."
In back of his residence, he's got a large, free-standing espalier, a pear tree that he says refuses to bear fruit, so he drapes the lovely form with a large purple clematis. Climbing plants are a special interest; there are many climbing roses and types of clematis around the gardens.
He is the gardener at the residence. However, his wife, Jayne Adair, is a talented floral arranger and takes many of the blossoms indoors to use throughout the home.
While the gardens around the house are lovely, what I found most interesting is what he's done with the stone wall that borders the property. Huge chunks of cut stone are stacked Cyclopean style, without mortar.
About 10 years ago, he began work on the wall, then heavily planted with mock orange (Philadelphus), "but you need more than that," he says.
Now it's a happy quilt of many types of plants, both low-growing and mat-forming such as ajuga, sedums and Iris cristata and woodland plants such as hosta and ferns. Solomon's seal is once-again a star player, exceptionally suited to a place beside the stone steps that are cut through the steep hillside. Approaching them from below allows visitors to see the diminutive flowers that droop beneath the leaves during bloom. Cleverly, he has snaked drip irrigation hoses throughout, keeping most of the plants exceptionally happy, except for one, a Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium), which he calls "the thirstiest plant I've ever seen."
He says his gardens are in a constant state of transition, something he clearly finds fascinating.
"I enjoy serendipity. Every year is so different. ... There is something crazy every year."
First Published June 16, 2012 12:00 am