Saturday, July 12, 2003

By Kim Crow, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Herb and Marty Summerfield are not afraid of challenges.

In their garden, an artful collection of shaded glens and sunny ponds tucked into a rocky hillside, they regularly contend with munching deer, ravenous rabbits and greedy groundhogs. And let's not even bring up utility companies.

"This statue combines two of our loves -- children and reading," said Herb Summerfield. His garden, created with his wife, Marty, is one of the stops on today's Passavant Hospital Foundation's seventh annual Enchanted Gardens tour. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette photos)

The Summerfields' garden is one of six stops on Passavant Hospital Foundation's seventh annual Enchanted Gardens tour today. A limited number of tickets are still available for both the morning and afternoon sessions, which include lunch and a guided bus tour.

This Hampton garden is a continual work in progress, one that began nearly 30 years ago.

"At first, we put in beds because it was too much work to mow grass," said Marty. "I don't know if we've saved any time, because the beds are a lot of work, too, but we really enjoy it!"

In place of an endless lawn, the Summerfields have created a woodland wonderland, using their hilly lot to its best advantage. Visitors enter the garden from the left of the driveway and follow a stand of Delaware Valley azaleas and rhododendrons to a sloped stack of terraced gardens. The entry, newly redone just this past spring, is a well-ordered series of mulched paths and carefully placed rocks.

"Years ago, I bought 15 flats of annuals every spring, but now I just go with perennials," said Marty. "I stick with the things that work."

What works are stalwart performers such as astilbe, coreopsis, spiderworts and daylilies. Self-sown bachelor buttons peek out from the rocks here and there, and the Summerfields have chosen many choice shrubs and trees, including a new stand of bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) a gorgeous American native shrub with large palmate leaves that bring to mind an umbrella, topped with sharp spikes of white flowers in midsummer.

"We try to repeat plants," said Herb. "We know what will work well for us and then for design reasons, too, to provide a uniform look."

Some of Herb's top "repeaters" include ground covers such as epimediums and lamium, the perennials liriope, lady's mantle and brunnera, and smaller shrubs like 'Rainbow' leucothe and stately oakleaf hydrangeas and 'Chicago Lustre' viburnums.

The couple, who moved here in 1975, experimented with vegetables and roses and annuals before arriving at the mixed border approach.

"I don't mind the heavy work and planting," said Herb. "Marty's good at details and color."

The Summerfields have learned not to completely trust plant tags and reference books.

Visitors can enjoy a kaleidoscope of color through this large metal sculpture's scope. The bowl of annuals rotates beneath it.

"If something says it can take part sun, I consider it a full sun plant," said Herb, who also tries to put in plants that are fully hardy to Zone 5.

Deer are a constant problem out in this wooded yard, and what choice plants they don't get are fair game for rabbits and groundhogs. The product Liquid Fence seems to be working for them this year, but the Summerfields couldn't find a handy way to keep Duquesne Light Co. away.

In 1999, the power company cleared a right of way through the south side of the couple's property, causing them to lose dozens of white pines and other trees. Instead of a green canopy, the couple now saw a gaping maw of utility posts and thick black cables.

Right around this time, Herb, a former executive at PNC Bank, retired. He had more time to spend in the yard, time he didn't want to spend looking at utility lines. In spring 2000, the couple consulted with Tim Lisowski of Lisowski Tree Service and Landscaping, who conceived of a plan of small ponds and waterfalls that would make the best possible use of the garden's terrain.

That summer and into early fall, the ponds were shaped and dug. More than 150 tons of stone were brought in to line the ponds and make pathways to create a more natural appearance. A dazzling Dawn Redwood came in, too, one with a 6,000-pound rootball that took eight men and two skidloaders to plant. Water-loving plants and shrubs went in the following spring, softening the new water feature's lines. Irises and perennials such as Ligularia 'Desdemonda' provide drama, and purple ajuga and golden-green creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea') crouch between boulders.

This upper pond, which is fed from a small waterfall to its west side, sits outside a patio directly behind the Summerfields' guest room. Lisowski placed viewing rocks so that the Summerfields could walk directly out over their pond and enjoy the fish that live there. He also planted a dogwood and a sourwood tree for four seasons of interest, and the pond is dotted with Monet-style waterlilies.

This upper pond, which holds about 2,200 gallons of water, feeds into a waterfall that trickles past a Hinoki cypress and ligularia and collects in a smaller pond, which then feeds into two separate waterfalls. Both waterfalls pour into the largest pond at the bottom of a slope. This sunny pond holds 17,000 gallons of water and is bordered by huge stands of iris, catmint and ornamental grasses. Dozens of jewel-like koi fish live in its waters and weeping conifers hover in the rocks above the pond.

"When Duquesne Light came in, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise," said Herb. "They really provided the impetus for us to make more of the yard."

The upper pond in the garden of Herb and Marty Summerfield is just outside a patio behind their guest room. Viewing rocks allow the couples to step out over the pond.

"We used to walk around the trees every once in a while, but now we really use the property," agreed Marty. "Scrambling up and down all these rocks is a lot of exercise. We don't have time to go to aerobics anymore!"

Another mulched path leads up the west side of the slope, bordered by deutzias and oakleaf hydrangeas, and ends on the west side of the Summerfields' home. Here is another garden that used to house roses, "but they weren't happy here," said Marty.

While perhaps not sunny enough for diva roses, it's perfect for purple coneflowers and bee balm. The spot is also the home of the fabulous, underused Cornus mas, a dogwood relative that blooms in cheery yellow bells in late winter and provides light shade in the summer. A Parrotia tree, Harry Lauder's Walking Stick, tardiva hydgrangeas and Houttuynia cordata 'Chameleon' are bordered by a carpet of dark purple ajuga.

Visitors to this garden also will find an unusual kaleidoscope sculpture. A scope points downward to a bowl of annuals, and viewers can turn the bowl and enjoy this life-size kaleidoscope of color. Another highlight is the life-size sculptures of children that turn up unexpectedly behind plants or perch above the ponds. The statues remind the Summerfields of their 4-year-old granddaughter, Taylor, who quite obviously is a favorite guest to the garden.

"She just loves it here. She weeds and waters and always wants to feed the fish," said Marty.

For the time being, the deer are staying away, the ponds and hillside are perfect, and two of the koi fish are pregnant. What could possibly disturb this peaceful plot?

"Comcast is going through the front yard now," said Herb, not at all grimly, much to his credit. "Luckily, we like to get out and get dirty."

Hampton couple's garden enchants with glens, ponds and hillside beauty