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Urban dream: How one mud hole became an enchanting little garden

Saturday, September 29, 2001

By Catherine Erickson

I had a dream. It began on a cold, dreary morning in January as I sipped coffee and gazed out the kitchen window at my bleak little back yard in the North Side. Could this barren, muddy, urban space be transformed into a fertile, green oasis?

A picture shows Catherine Erickson's back yard before she and her husband started to rework it.(Lake Fong, Post-Gazette Photos)

I had seen less inviting spaces dressed up in a day on television garden shows, and I had admired the glossy pictures of makeovers in magazines. Yes, I resolved, if they could do it, so could I. And so my adventure in gardening began.

My husband and I agreed to budget about $5,000, which we thought was more than enough for a small patio garden. Renovating the inside of our pre-Civil War home on the Mexican War Streets had been costly, but surely creating a garden would be different. Wrong.

It turns out that embarking on a landscaping project is a lot like remodeling a kitchen or shopping for a new car. Even after you get over the initial sticker shock, the extras can really add up. In the end, we scaled down some of our expectations and stuck pretty close to the budget, spending $5,330. We could have spent much more.

Designer a big help

Despite our budget constraints, I wanted to work with a good landscape architect who could offer design tips and help us pick plants. A friend recommended Mark McKenzie, owner of Landscape Architectural Services. Luckily, he was willing to offer as much -- or as little -- help as we could afford.


Landscape designer Mark McKenzie, Landscape Architectural Services, 412-243-7214.

Alan DePaoli, Porch & Garden, maker of gates, trellises, outdoor furniture and other structures, 412-521-1293.

Decorative painter Michele Ambrozic, 412-486-0178.

Plum Line Nursery, Murrysville, 724-327-6775.

The Urban Gardener nursery, North Side, 412-323-GROW.

The Fireplace and Patio Place store, North Hills, 412-366-6970. (Other locations in Mt. Lebanon and Monroeville.)

Sunshine in the City, Strip District, 412-227-0223.


McKenzie stopped by in the spring and quickly surveyed the yard. We looked at photos I had circled in magazines and garden design books, and we talked about my vision of what could be. That's when McKenzie gave me my first dose of reality: Replacing the tall wooden fence that seemed to lend a "cardboard box" feel to our narrow yard would be very expensive. And removing the old brick patio would cost a lot, too. Having McKenzie draw detailed plans for the yard would probably run about $800, nearly 20 percent of the entire budget.

McKenzie suggested a compromise. We could manage without drawings for our small space, and he could act as a consultant on the project -- lending valuable direction -- for $75 an hour. We could live with the old fence but replace the sagging, unsightly gate. The old brick patio would stay (that grime was beginning to look more and more like patina), and we would lay a new brick path to the gate ourselves. McKenzie would provide a list of plants that we would purchase and plant.

We weren't sure exactly how much time McKenzie would devote to our project when we started. In the end, he stopped by the house four times, we talked by phone twice and he faxed me a rough outline for the dimensions of planting beds and paths. His help was well worth the $375 he charged us.

Not just any gate

The new gate would need to be installed first. McKenzie believed a stylish "door" could serve as a focal point and add a lot to the garden.

"An entry is very important," he said. "It defines the space."

We wanted to include a padlock for extra security because we plan to create a parking space along the alley behind our yard. A variety of companies that advertise in garden magazines sell beautiful gates, but they might not have worked with our existing fence.

The cast aluminum dining set came with chairs that were so comfortable that they did not need cushions.

Alan DiPaoli, a craftsman from Squirrel Hill, came to the rescue. DiPaoli, who calls his company Porch and Garden, makes gates, trellises and outdoor furniture.

After brainstorming with McKenzie and me, he drew up a design featuring a gate with a curved top and a porthole. A trellis and arbor runs along the back wall, curves around one corner of the fence and rises over the gate in an arch. All of these structures are made of hardy cedar. We decided to paint the gate with the same teal blue paint we had used for the trim on our house. An ivory stain was applied to the trellis.

DiPaoli's creativity and attention to detail made the gate a work of art. Inside the yard, the working porthole is accented by a dragonfly he made out of an old drill bit, part of a door hinge and wire mesh dipped in glue.

"I wanted the wings to glitter in the sun," he said.

The exterior side of the porthole door features a painted iron dragonfly door knocker from Sunshine in the City, an eclectic Strip District shop that sells old furniture and architectural elements in the "shabby chic" genre. We also found a weathered antique door handle for $8 there.

To keep our golden retriever from traipsing through the main bed, DiPaoli built a low, open fence that mimics the design of the trellis. To honor my 3-year-old daughter's love of tea parties, he topped three fence posts with finials he made -- two teapots and a cup and saucer. Decorative painter Michele Ambrozic of Shaler painted a delicate floral design on the "dishes" to mimic fine china.

One of our early questions was what to do with the tall wooden post that previous owners had set in concrete on the edge of the patio. We thought it was a bit of an eyesore, but pulling it out would be a pain. DiPaoli solved the dilemma by using the pole as a tall post for the low fence. He added two brackets and architectural detailing to add interest and allow us to hang a lantern or bird feeder.

The labor and materials for all of DiPaoli's work made up the largest chunk of our budget, about $2,515, but it was money well spent. The gate, trellis and low fence looked great and solved some very real problems.

A winding path

Once the wood structures were in, we laid a brick path from the existing patio to the gate. McKenzie helped us overcome our natural inclination to make a short, straight path. A wider path that jogged through the small planting area would make the yard seem less long and narrow, he said.

"It's important to have people move through a space, even a very small one," McKenzie said. "You want the space to be somewhat intriguing, to pull you through. You don't want to look at it and see everything at once."

McKenzie encouraged us to mentally divide our yard into small "rooms" designed for specific purposes. The area under our big cherry tree seemed perfect for a dining set. Extra chairs could create a seating area with a small table on the other side of the fence. A spot near the back trellis seemed right for my daughter's sand box. A bench could eventually move into that space.

"I look at it almost in a sculptural way, where you're carving out spaces and defining different areas for different uses," McKenzie said.

We shopped all over town and browsed the Internet for attractive, durable outdoor dining sets. We were shocked to find that the best sets that seat six cost $2,000 or $3,000. Discount stores like K-Mart and Wal-Mart offered good values on less lasting sets, but we couldn't find the look we wanted. Some discounters on the Internet had good prices on high-end brands, but we weren't comfortable ordering a set without seeing it first.

As the summer wore on, prices began falling on almost all patio furniture. Finally, in late July we bought a no-rust, cast-aluminum, glass-top table and six arm chairs at The Fireplace and Patio Place store in Ross for about $1,600. We liked the fact that the chairs were so comfortable they didn't need cushions. And with a smooth table top, there's no concern about wine glasses tipping over.

Lighting was another consideration. Floodlights mounted on the corner of the porch and an ugly lamp post in the middle of the patio were the only existing light sources. McKenzie had some great ideas about using new lights to accent our space at night. We could even install an outlet near the back fence to hang lanterns for parties or Christmas lights.

A redecorated, screened-in porch looks out onto Cathy Erickson's urban garden.

In the end, we decided to postpone installing lights until next year. We removed the cheap light post. We dug some oil lanterns out of the basement and hung them on the tall fence post and on hooks positioned on the fence around the table. These lamps cast a warm, intimate glow in the evening and seem to encourage us to linger over dinner with friends. And using citronella oil helps keep the bugs away.

Digging in the dirt

When it was time to plant, McKenzie stopped by with small flags on metal rods that could be stuck in the ground. He convinced us to keep one existing plant, a holly bush. We talked about possibilities and when we agreed on choices, he jotted down the names of the plants on the flags and stuck the rods into the ground exactly where the plants would go.

McKenzie stressed the value of choosing a mix of plants that would provide interest all year: evergreens for winter, early bloomers for spring and later bloomers for summer or fall. We chose climbing hydrangea for the back-wall trellis and clematis for the side-wall trellis and tall decorative fence post. A rhododendron, another hydrangea, a boxwood, an azalea, some ferns and annuals rounded out the mix.

Selection was somewhat limited in early August, but we managed to find much of what we needed at one of McKenzie's favorite big nurseries, Plum Line Nursery in Murrysville, and The Urban Gardener, a smaller nursery with a great selection near our house on the North Side. Total cost for plants, top soil and compost mulch: about $840.

McKenzie encouraged us to pull up the last row of bricks along the edge of the patio and the fence. Planting ground cover and some annuals like impatiens in these strips would soften the feel.

"Edges are always important," McKenzie said. "In a small city garden, you can maximize your planting area in edges. With a patio, you need a lot of fluff because there is so much paving."

We had our plants in the ground by mid-August, later than we had anticipated but early enough to let us enjoy the garden a little this year. The plants are young so that lush look I had envisioned is still a couple years off, but that's OK. I'm happy with my little garden in the city.

One recent afternoon, I pulled weeds with the gate open as the Goodyear blimp cast a shadow in the yard. A Steelers fan walking to the stadium peeked into the yard and said, "Your garden is beautiful." I smiled and said "Thanks." That is not something I would have heard a year ago.

Catherine Erickson is a free-lance writer.

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