positively blooming


Over 27 years, the garden tour has brought in $533,000 to pay for things on the library’s wish list that can’t be funded by the budget. /photo: Katie Wagner

There’s something about a garden that connects people. Those who can wither a fern with their very touch and bloom masters who cultivate living Monets find common ground, because the roots of a garden don’t just lie in the earth; they entwine a community. Gardening offers something for everyone. It is lifelong learning, art, environmental science, neighborhood beautification and a lot of hard work.

No matter the level of ability, all will have the chance to chat and gather ideas as they navigate nine distinct gardens on the 28th annual Mt. Lebanon Friends of the Library Garden Tour, Sunday, July 8, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Nancy Smith, a prodigious gardener and volunteer whose Avon Drive garden was on the tour in 2000 and 2013, thinks the comparison to art is apt. “Gardening is the same as painting. You must consider your space, design and layout, but with living things like perennials, shrubs, annuals and so many varieties, you can’t make it a mishmash. You have to think of where the eye will go, where it will wander when looking at the garden.”

Marina Nielsen, senior library assistant and tour coordinator, whose backyard was on the tour in 2014, is excited about the hybrid of community collaboration and professional gardens this year. Participants will be invited to tour six private gardens, as well as the library garden.  In addition, they will be invited to stop at Spalding Circle, where volunteers will be on hand to discuss the new Mt. Lebanon Arboretum and talk about various species of trees. Participants also are encouraged to stop at Bird Park, where volunteers will showcase some of the Mt. Lebanon Nature Conservancy’s latest projects.

Of the rotating crop of volunteer gardeners who have tended the Mt. Lebanon Public Library Garden since its planting in 1999, Smith says “We are a strong and dedicated group who, during this garden process have become good friends. The gardens look beautiful and change through the years…It is a work of love and also fun to see the new flush of leaf and plant growth year after year.”

Elaine Kramer, who oversees the Mt. Lebanon Arboretum, a portion of which is on the tour for the first time, loves that the tour is such an education. “It’s a good opportunity for people to get some basics down. Trees and shrubs are often the foundation of a landscape. They are sort of the bones, they are the landscape upon which the flowers and other things are developed. If you have a great tree in your yard, you plant around it. Understanding the trees is important. Do they provide shade, sun, large leaves, small leaves? What will they look like in all four seasons?”

Many present and past gardeners on the tour cultivated their love and knowledge of plants with parents or grandparents as children. Linda Binek, whose cottage garden features colorful birdhouses among the marigolds, lamb’s ears, daisies and many other deer-proof plants, has loved gardening since she was 13. Past participant and lawyer-by-day-job Chuck Brodbeck planted his first vegetable garden in Sunset Hills at age 10 with his grandfather and has been growing ever since. “We started a men’s garden club years ago. You learn a lot from sharing ideas, seeing what works, what doesn’t,” Brodbeck says. He loves the variety on the tour. “Some have water features, statuary or shrubs vs. flowers, perennials vs. annuals or other features. One year there was an electric train winding through the plants.”

Chuck Brodbeck and John Polena belong to a men’s gardening club that shares ideas and tips. Brodbeck’s garden has been featured on the tour. /photo: George Mendel

This year’s Garden Tour Chair Noelle Conover, whose husband’s vegetable garden was one of the stars of the 2017 tour, says “The beauty of this is that they are all different. From highly planned and traditional, to gardens that are more casual and wild, we have such a range. Last year we had homes with gardens planted around swimming pools, like one that had terrace after terrace with all sorts of little spaces to walk through.” Conover laughs when asked what she contributes to the garden cultivation and says, “Appreciation!”

Appreciation is at the center of the tour. The beauty, say those who share their gardens, is that visitors are so happy to see everything, even though their wonderment brings potentially tramping feet on designated paths. No one regrets opening their yards to strangers. All admit it’s a lot of hard, hard work to prepare, but resoundingly admit that sharing the fruits of their labor is incredibly rewarding. And as with most things, the gardeners themselves are their own harshest critics.

“When you agree to be on the tour you’re hesitant. Afraid people might not like it. But you work a little harder in the winter; you weed, weed, weed. And ultimately, people love it. They ask all sorts of questions and respect your space,” says Smith.

As  the gardeners’ lives have grown and changed over the years, so do their plants. The brave will uproot what isn’t working to their satisfaction and test out new things. Soil and weather is watched. Buds monitored. “There’s no doubt about it, it’s a lot of hard work,” says professional landscaper Claire Schuchman, whose garden has been on the tour twice. “But, there is nothing as great for your garden as being on the tour. We took care of details we normally wouldn’t have attended to. And, if you have a fondness for the library, supporting the tour as a visitor or as a gardener is just incredibly special.”

Neilson, who is spending her first year helping with the tour as part of the staff, agrees: “Learning the depth of the gardening talent in Mt. Lebanon is pretty staggering. That people love to share their work makes it even greater.”   

A serene Shadowlawn Avenue garden on a previous year’s tour