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First-Place Tie: Professional Category -- Step by step, landscapers transform difficult space on South Side Slopes

Beth Marcello

Saturday, August 30, 2003

By Kim Crow, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When landscapers Tom Tomaro and his wife, Barb, pulled up to Beth Marcello's snug home on the South Side Slopes, they nearly kept going.

Beth Marcello's back yard of her South Side Slopes home used to consist of a concrete patio and a crumbling retaining wall. Diamond Landscapers redesigned it into an inviting space featuring a cut-boulder staircase. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette photos)
Click photo for larger image.

There were nearly 100 entries for this first-ever competition, co-sponsored by the Post-Gazette and the Horticultural Society of Western Pennsylvania. The six winners in two categories, nonprofessional and with professional help, will receive free membership to the Horticultural Society and a pair of tickets to the organizationís famous annual Open Gardens Day. The first-place winners also receive gift certificates to Trax Farms in Finleyville.

"We drove by and almost didn't stop," Tom said, chuckling. "We looked at each other and said, 'What are we doing here?' "

But luckily for Marcello, they did stop. And saw. And conquered.

Marcello's tiny garden built around a dry-stacked sandstone retaining wall tied for first place in the professional category of the Great Gardens contest. Looking at it now, it's hard to believe its state when the Tomaros first saw it.

The back yard was dominated by a concrete patio and a crumbling concrete retaining wall that leaned precariously toward the house. Steep steps led to a tiny strip of grass that took longer to get to than to mow. Marcello had no access to the street behind the house, a real inconvenience when walking her dog, Rusty, or when looking for extra parking space on the crowded streets of the Slopes.

A bed for herbs and a few flowers clung to the ledge over the retaining wall, and the air-conditioning unit sat smack dab in the middle of the patio. It was an uninviting view that Marcello, who works from her home, gazed upon each day from her office.

"I knew something could be done with this space, but I just couldn't envision it," she said. "The one thing I did know is that I didn't want any grass!"

She asked an architect friend, David Morgan of Morgan & Associates, to come up with some ideas that she could present to landscape architects for bidding purposes. Most of the professionals she contacted didn't call her back after hearing her location.

"No one wanted this job -- it was just so complicated," said Marcello.

The back yard was accessible only by a narrow sidewalk and steep steps from the street. Only a few feet separated the houses on either side of Marcello's home, and there wasn't any place to stage the job or store building materials. A friend suggested Barb Tomaro's company, Diamond Landscapers. Her husband has made a name for himself as a specialist in creating dry-stacked retaining walls.

"Beth had an idea that she wanted a Versa-lock retaining wall, but with her budget, that wasn't too feasible," said Tom. "We wanted to soften the look up."

It helped a great deal that Marcello had a realistic budget in mind, he said. In order to keep costs down, they did the project in winter and did the whole plan at once.

"Beth told us she wanted to do the project in layers, but coming back would have been harder and much more expensive, so we just went for it all at once," Tom said.

With the permission and patience of some of Marcello's accommodating neighbors, Tom went to work. The first goal was to create a third level for steps for Marcello's much-desired street access. First they rolled up the back of the chain link fence and dumped a load of clean aggregate, building the area up so that they could get their equipment in. A small Bobcat was used to rip out the old concrete wall and place the giant boulders that would make up Marcello's new retaining wall. Curving stairs of rough-cut boulders came in next.

"I had no idea how they were going to approach it, and I didn't really ask," said Marcello. "But they were amazing to watch, amazingly precise. They got it right the first time."

"We had to play catch with the boulders in order to prevent them from rolling into the house," said Tom.

To soften the look of the large concrete patio, the crew cut in a curvy garden bed on one side and moved the air-conditioning unit to a less conspicuous corner space. The infrastructure was done in January and February 2001. The location limitations added about 20 percent to the cost of the nearly $10,000 project, which was factored in from the beginning. This is for the structural work alone.

"They never went over budget or our timetable," said Marcello. "They did exactly what they said they were going to do, when they said they were going to do it."

That April, Barb Tomaro came in to do the plantings. Knowing that Marcello wanted a low-maintenance garden, she chose plants such as black-eyed Susans, butterfly bush and liriope. Marcello herself added some lavender and herbs, which thrive in the hot afternoon sun and the excellent drainage that her boulder walls provide.

The garden bears little resemblance to the concrete pad and grass it once was. That curvy patio bed is now filled with purple coneflowers and stately 'Skyrocket' junipers that help provide privacy from neighbors. The wall of boulders, impressive in its own right, is fast becoming home to a collection of rock garden plants such as sedums and sempervivums.

A butterfly takes advantage of a butterfly bush in Marcello's garden.
Click photo for larger image.

The flat-topped boulder staircase leads to a second level of plantings where shrub roses peek from under an enormous yew pruned into a tree form. Barb Tomaro added a weeping cherry tree as a focal point, a 'Bloodgood' Japanese maple, ornamental grasses and a butterfly bush. Pea gravel crunches underneath two Adirondack chairs that look down on Marcello's house, a perfect vantage point to watch the sun set.

Another set of stairs leads to the third level and a new gate that at last provides Marcello with street access. Ivy is beginning to engulf the chain-link fence, and fast-growing rose of Sharon bushes will soon hide the neighbors on the other side of Marcello's garden.

"We were able to give her the walls, the steps and the plantings for what she would have spent on Versa-lock," Tom said. "And it's so much more interesting to have what she has than one long, flat wall."

Plants weren't part of the original plan.

"I wouldn't have done all of this, just never would have thought of it without Tom and Barb. They're the ones that convinced me this was the way to go," said Marcello, who has since become much more interested in gardening.

"I'm not big on annuals; I love that perennials almost always come back, that these little miracles can happen after such harsh winters."

She sticks with what works well for her, such as her beloved lavenders, and takes care of the everyday maintenance herself.

"People think that if you live in the city, you can't have a garden or a patio or a garage or even a dog," she said. "Well, you can, plus be within walking distance to the greatest restaurants and shops in the city. It's the best of everything, right here on the South Side."

Tom and Barb Tomaro of Diamond Landscaping can be reached at 412-366-8545.

Kim Crow can be reached at 412-263-1308 .

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