Hard work makes couple’s garden colorful and tasty

  • Kevin Kirkland
  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Dec 06, 2017
Brian Dunn stands in front of his property with the transplanted rhododendrons, taken on Oct. 23, 2017 in O’Hara Twps. (Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette)

Some gardeners strive for a bountiful harvest of fruit and vegetables. Others aim to have color in spring, summer and fall. And most homeowners are satisfied with low-maintenance foundation plantings that add curb appeal.

Brian and Barb Dunn have all three, and that’s no easy task. Their O’Hara property was chosen as a winner in the medium garden category of the 2017 Great Gardens Contest, sponsored by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Botanic Garden.

When the couple bought their 1974-built house 22 years ago, the sycamores out front were already very tall, as were the purple rhododendrons and an evergreen hedge planted close to the house. A stand of 25-foot-tall arborvitae crowded a steep slope along one side of the driveway.

The Dunns learned to live with the sycamores — “dirtiest trees ever” — and replaced the evergreens with a weeping cherry, Japanese maple and purple, pink and coral azaleas that won’t crowd the house or block windows. And the arborvitae? Snowmageddon took care of them. The massive snowstorm seven years ago pushed them down the hill and into a neighbor’s yard.

Some people would have simply replanted the same boring hedge. Brian Dunn decided to try something more interesting (and tasty) in a spot that enjoys morning sunlight. At Best Feeds — a great source of fruit trees, he says — he bought apple, pear, cherry, plum and peach trees. He was rewarded with a big crop of peaches in the very first year. But they’re not his favorite.

“The weeping plum has the best fruit I’ve ever grown,” Dunn said. “Pound for pound, they’re the best-tasting fruit.”

Dunn also planted some plum trees in the backyard along with two Southern magnolias, weeping cherries and a red seedless grapevine that bears more fruit on his neighbor’s side of the fence. Cherry tomatoes thrive there and herbs and vegetables grow on shelves on an ingenious wooden Plant Pyramid that Barb Dunn found in the Burpee catalog. Peppers, parsley, arugula, celery and lettuce were a few of the edible plants grown on this space-saver.

Deer are not a problem thanks to three big dogs: a Labrador retriever, Great Pyrenees and Tibetan mastiff. Liquid Fence keeps most of the rabbits and chipmunks at bay, but it doesn’t protect blueberries from squirrels. Brian Dunn doesn’t mind sharing.

“The varmints are good eaters around here,” he said.

The most impressive part of the couple’s garden is a sunny flower bed behind a wall that surrounds a backyard patio the couple added about seven years ago. When contest judges saw pictures of the bed filled with colorful flowers, we assumed it was a steep slope that required lots of weeding, watering and maintenance. We were wrong.

It’s actually a fairly gradual slope in which carefully planted perennials are arranged by size and season. It’s a kaleidoscope of color from early spring through fall.

The show began with tulips, hyacinth, daffodils and hyacinth and continued with irises, poppies, creeping phlox, lilacs and mountain bluet. Bee balms started blooming in late spring along with amaryllis, astilbe, woodland phlox and cranesbill.

Five varieties of bee balm continued to flower as Beth Dunn worked on her planters. Flowering tobacco did well this year and colorful celosia filled a pot containing a beautiful yellow hibiscus from McTighe’s Garden Center.

Mid-summer brought Asiatic and oriental lilies, daylilies and lily trees, daisies and several types of hydrangeas. Fragrance — a key factor for the Dunns — came from lilies, jasmine, gardenia, white cranesbill, asters and gladiolas. Late summer and fall featured hyssop, coneflower, butterfly bush and black-eyed Susans.

“I have red hot poker,” Brian Dunn said. “The hummingbirds love it!”

At the end of the season, the couple focused on fruit, tomatoes and other vegetables.

As a boy, Dunn said he never cared about flowers while helping his father raise vegetables in Squirrel Hill. Oriental lilies, whose fragrance grows stronger at night, were what drew him to flowers. He wasn’t the only one. Butterflies, bees and other pollinators became regular visitors.

“It’s fun to watch the insects do what they do and once I got those hummingbirds, that was very exciting,” he said.

“I just fell in love with gardening that much more.”