Alfresco Havens

Elizabeth Koch’s Mayfair Drive backyard features a chiminea and distinctive ironwork from blacksmith John Walters, owner of Iron Eden.

Comfortable spaces demonstrate the best in outdoor living.

We value the outdoors more than ever. In the last year, many of us tromped up and down the hills of Mt. Lebanon. To keep our minds and bodies healthy we have traversed sidewalks, steps and parks. Backyards, porches, decks, patios and balconies have become our favorite outdoor rooms. Four Mt. Lebanon families have created comfortable retreats that blend thoughtful planning and individual creativity. These retreats ensure privacy and at the same time encourage gatherings and fellowship. All are pleasant places to enjoy what we have come to appreciate most these days—fresh air.

Fred and Cindy Soberg’s outdoor space was one of the stops on the library’s 2019 garden tour.

Cindy & Fred Soberg

Fred and Cindy Soberg purchased their 1890s Victorian home on Ashland Avenue 30 years ago. With creativity, keen vision and hard work, Fred, a retired minister, and Cindy, a retired school counselor, transformed their corner lot into a quintessential cottage garden. From the street, steps lead to a short walkway. A white trellis, sheltered by a graceful Japanese maple, forms a diminutive gateway into this welcoming retreat.

The Sobergs opened their garden to visitors for the 2019 Mt. Lebanon Public Library Garden Tour. Cindy describes the garden as a stage, with trellises, patio, pergola and picket fences defining the space. The props include a variety of trees and bushes including crabapples, tall birches, and a double-blossom cherry tree. The garden features visual surprises. An iron rooster nestles among the daylilies, inches away from a cast iron water pump. A whimsical flying pig floats beneath a functional birdhouse. Several angelic stone figures peek out from under lush ferns. Dense, informal plantings characterize cottage gardens and, in this space, vivid hydrangeas, azaleas, roses, autumn clematis and a host of perennials flourish from early spring until late fall.

The area is designed for gathering as well as gardening. In the center of the patio, a round table and white chairs welcome diners. Hardy souls originally from Duluth, Minnesota, the Sobergs, with the help of a portable fire pit, enjoy their patio from early spring through November. The Sobergs enlarged their back porch to create a comfortable space perfect for overlooking the cottage garden. If the garden stage suggests an informal naturalness, the backstage area is where the hard work happens. Tucked around the corner of the house stands a sturdy potting table loaded with tools, pots and gadgets. Here is where vision becomes reality. Cindy and Fred Soberg’s cottage garden delights the senses and provides a refuge from reality.

After 30 years in their Arden Lane home, Peg and Will Wells removed part of the house in order to make room for their enlarged garden space.

Peg & Will Wells  

Tucked away behind their house on Arden Lane, Peg and Will Wells’ retreat is an inviting garden room. They moved into their home in 1976, when Will accepted a position with Alcoa. In 2006, they decided to make a meaningful home improvement. While many residents enlarge their indoor living space, the Wells removed an addition to enlarge their outdoor living space. It was a major project involving sewer lines, machinery, and lots of crushed limestone. The result is a well-designed patio situated in a verdant shady garden. The patio floor consists of irregularly placed, mixed colored paving stones that provide a sturdy surface for groupings of chairs and pottery planters teaming with shade loving annuals. The Wells enjoy entertaining and comfortably accommodate 14 diners with a round and an oval table that are sheltered by
green umbrellas.

Cedar fencing ensures privacy and helps to define the garden room. The privacy show piece is a large, gracefully gnarled wisteria that creates a pleasantly shady bower as it cascades down and around a sturdy wooden arbor. Peg, an interior designer, focuses on low-maintenance native foliage such as azaleas and rhododendron that thrive in the western Pennsylvania climate. A variety of hardy ferns flourish throughout the garden, complementing a mortarless dry stone wall. Through the years, the yard has become a spontaneous bird sanctuary. The showy climbing honeysuckle with vibrant red blossoms attracts hummingbirds while the elegant, 20-foot-tall arborvitae provide a haven for a variety of bird species. The abundant grove of arborvitae serves an important function in making this a tranquil green space. They shield the space from the sights and sounds of Scrubgrass Road that runs behind the property. Peg succinctly captures the charm of this peaceful setting. “This is our sanctuary.”

Elizabeth Koch’s Mayfair Drive backyard features a chiminea and distinctive ironwork from blacksmith John Walters, owner of Iron Eden.

Elizabeth & David Koch

Elizabeth Koch is a Mt. Lebanon native who moved away but came back home. David, a vice president with CBRE, and Elizabeth, director of admissions at Montessori Children’s Schoolhouse, moved to White Oak Circle in 1993 with their three sons. In 2018 the couple decided to downsize and purchased an English style cottage on Mayfair Drive. Built in 1924, the charming home features a welcoming outdoor space enhanced by previous owners and friends, Heather and Kevin Kanuth. Nestled between the house and the detached garage, the Kochs have fashioned a unique space that measures a mere 32-by-14 feet. A well-shaped arborvitae tree and five steps from the driveway define the entry down onto the patio. Placed at various heights, ferns, flowering vines and potted plants create a lush green setting. Next to a mortarless dry stone wall, a chiminea fire pit promises warmth in cooler weather. At the end of the patio a simple white Shaker style fence provides privacy and the perfect background for a tall planter that was once a fire engine red Keystone Oaks coat tree used for football uniforms.

The Kochs are friends with Mt. Lebanon residents John and Jody Walters, and their new patio was the perfect venue for the decorative ironwork designed by John Walters’ blacksmithing studio, Iron Eden. The Kochs commissioned Walters to hand craft a graceful iron fence that faces Virginia Way and a whimsical trellis that meanders up the side of the garage. Rock face concrete block was a popular building material for garages and foundations in Mt. Lebanon in the early decades of the 20th century. Created to look like stone, its textured surface is a fitting background for the ornamental ironwork that curves up the wall. The trellis is a striking focal point with string lights intertwined among the curves. A low ledge beneath the trellis cleverly conceals a French drain and serves as a resting place for pottery and plants. A bright yellow planter and a black-eyed Susan vine reaching up to the trellis provide perfect pops of color. “Our location provides privacy while our proximity to the street connects us to our neighborhood,” Elizabeth said.  The Kochs have fashioned a magical haven with lights peeking from ferns and the soothing sound of a small water fountain. A miniature stone Jizo monk stands on one of the wrought iron tables. With folded hands, closed eyes and a slight smile, he personifies serenity and is a fitting guardian for this restful space.

Inspired by a visit to Italy, Judy and Geno Como added a wood-burning pizza oven to their outdoor space, to complement their rustic Longridge Drive garden spot.

Judy & Geno Como

 Showcased on the 2006 Mt Lebanon Public Library Garden Tour, the Comos’ retreat begins in the front of their Longridge Drive yard. A border of Belgian blocks edges a vibrant collection of plants that include large, old-fashioned hollyhocks, purple hydrangeas, lilies, and lavender. Densely packed plantings enhance the sidewalk that meanders under a wisteria-covered iron trellis. Along the way, decorative pots teem with mounds of luscious green basil. An iron gate opens to the outdoor living room clearly designed
for gatherings. 

In 2012, while visiting Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, Judy and Geno noted that many backyards featured large pizza ovens. Geno always wanted a wood burning pizza oven and when the Comos returned home his vision became a reality. The oven is the perfect addition to their lively vibrant backyard. Built from textured, handcrafted, rustic stone, it is a functional work of art. Another functional work of art is the gracefully curved, well scaled swimming pool.

In one corner of the space a soft love seat, upholstered in a muted blue, adjoins a fire pit. A child-sized Adirondack chair is perfect for grandson Luca. String lights entwine among the large arborvitae planted to ensure privacy. Hummingbirds, cardinals and doves nest in the colorful hanging baskets placed throughout the yard. Geno retired from his business, Geno Como Salon on Beverly Road, in 2018. Together he and Judy enjoy the alfresco tranquility. An added delight is Judy’s favorite pizza recipe—fresh figs, truffle oil, prosciutto and mascarpone.

Photos by George Mendel