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Third Place: Professional Category -- As a green thumb develops, so does this Fox Chapel landscape

Jill and Jeffrey Wolff

Saturday, August 23, 2003

By Susan Banks, Post-Gazette Garden Editor

Jill and Jeffrey Wolff recognized that the five-acre property they bought in Fox Chapel in 1985 had great landscape potential. Little did the couple know that achieving that potential would become a passion for Jill.

Jill and Jeffrey Wolff's garden in Fox Chapel was designed with the idea of making the property more private. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette photos)
Click photo for larger image.

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More photos: Jill and Jeffrey Wolff's garden

There were nearly 100 entries for this first-ever competition, co-sponsored by the Post-Gazette and the Horticultural Society of Western Pennsylvania. A panel of five judges visited 18 semi-finalist gardens in two categories, nonprofessional and professional to come up with our six winners, who will receive free membership to the Horticultural Society and a pair of tickets to the organization's famous annual Open Gardens Day. This week, meet our third-place winners, Else Schiller and Jill Wolffe. During the next two Saturdays we'll visit our other winners.

But with a little professional help and lots of hard work and devotion on the part of the entire family, the garden has evolved into a series of planting spaces filled with trees, flowers and shrubs. Roses, clematis, lilacs, dahlias, daylilies, sunflowers, forget-me-nots and campanulas grow in lush profusion in beds surrounding the old farmhouse.

The garden, which won third place in the Post-Gazette's first Great Gardening Contest, professional help category, was part of a master design by a designer who declined to be named, as she is no longer doing residential landscape design.

Today, the garden is about 70 percent complete, says Woolf. A large arcing bed in front of the home has yet to be put in. But what is finished is lovingly cared for by a woman who has become an enthusiastic and expert gardener, or as she describes herself, a "hortaholic."

There wasn't much on the property in 1986 when the Wolffs moved in. Even though it was an old farmhouse, there were only a couple of existing flower beds around the house, and many mature trees.

At first, Jill didn't have time to work on the landscape. She was a young mother with three small daughters and a large home to care for, her time was pretty much taken up by family duties. But as years passed and her children grew older, she found herself being drawn outdoors.

She was interested in what was going on in the landscape and wanted to make some changes, but realized she needed to educate herself before she made any major decisions. She enrolled in Sally Foster's perennial classes.

Foster, whom Wolff calls a "gardener's Pied Piper," has long given classes on gardening in the Fox Chapel area. Wolff says Foster was the person who made gardening accessible to her.

Wolff learned so much from Foster, she laughingly relates, that she took her perennial class four years in a row, and was almost embarrassed to keep showing up. She also attended the Master Gardeners Program at Phipps Conservatory.

Jill Wolff dressed the scarecrow in her cutting garden in an old prom dress she bought at a thrift store.
Click photo for larger image.

The more she learned, the more she realized that she needed professional help for the overall landscape design, especially when it came to larger and more costly nursery specimens, like trees and shrubs.

"I inherited this piece of property. I didn't want to make a mistake ... I wanted to plant the right plants that would meet our needs."

The basic design that called for many larger trees and shrubs like Wolff's favorite, a fern-leafed beech. Other plants include viburnums, Colorado spruce, Concolor firs and crabapples. A grouping of Lawson cypress was planted en masse behind the pool area, to provide screening. Areas for flower beds were also outlined. The design was done with an eye toward making the property more private, a request of Jeff Wolff. The overall goal was a retreat for family and friends.

The hardscape also was overhauled. Wolff and her husband came up with the idea of changing the location of the driveway to "create an entrance [to the home] that was experiential." The driveway was made longer and now brings cars up a winding path bordered by beds of daffodils, daylilies and other perennials.

Even though they had a professional designer to help them, Wolff has done much of the gardening herself. She's the one who has chosen the perennials and planted the beds. She tends the plot on a continuous basis, helped at times by her husband and three daughters, one of whom is now majoring in landscape architecture at Penn State University. She also gets professional help for a couple of hours once a week from Jessica Walliser, owner of Northwood Landscape, whom Jill calls a "horticulturalist extraordinare."

Wolff chooses plants for all-season interest, although she concedes that some of her beds are much showier at certain times of the season than at others. On one side of the house she has a spring garden, which is loaded with bulbs and early-blooming plants. It also contains one of her favorite combinations -- Hellebores, forget-me-nots, candy tuft and bleeding heart.

The spring garden also contains an old apple tree that was original to the property. Now in decline, its gnarled bones are covered with sweet autumn clematis. In the winter, Wolff hangs bird feeders from the branches.

Her cutting garden is surrounded by a white picket fence and adorned with a whimsical scarecrow dressed in a vintage 1950s prom gown. Wolff laughingly calls her a "gardening goddess."

By the swimming pool, perennials are massed and bloom in lavish profusion made more vivid by the cypress backdrop.

A blackberry lily adds grace to one of the many perennial borders that surround Wolff's white brick farmhouse in Fox Chapel.
Click photo for larger image.

"I do rely on texture," she says.

She also likes to use plants that will attract hummingbirds, birds and butterflies.

"I try to practice the basic principles of good design, which are scale, repetition, line, balance, contrast and harmony with color and texture."

"Gardening is an art form for me," says Wolff, who has a degree in art education.

She approaches her landscape much like a painter, creating drifts of color, texture and shape.

"That's the fun of it," she says "playing with what is at my disposal."

Wolff does not like to take complete credit for the creation. She says her husband has been an ongoing help to her, doing things that require "brawn," even pitching in to help her plant hundreds of daffodil bulbs in a hard-packed area by the driveway. Though her daughters are interested in the garden and do help her, she has never insisted that they work outside.

"You have to come to gardening on your own terms," she says. "You can't be made to see it's beautiful."

If you can't find beauty in Wolff's garden, it's doubtful you'll find it anywhere.

Susan Banks can be reached at or 412-263-1516.

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