Ina Block poses for a portrait near a ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese maple Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, at her home in Mt. Lebanon. Mrs. Block has been gardening for more than 50 years and is the small garden winner of the PG’s Great Gardens Contest. (Nate Guidry/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

Mighty small: A garden’s color, texture matter more than size

MT. LEBANON, Pa. — Ina Block wasn’t interested in gardening. She was content to watch the spreading yews she and her husband planted take over the yard around the house they built in Mt. Lebanon in 1964. But her friend in Reading, Pa., kept giving her plants. First, hosta, then irises and daylilies.

“And I always wanted a rock garden,” she said.

So she created one in her small front yard. The irises and daylilies got the sun, hosta the shade on the side.

And she just kept going, adding plants, adding gardens, until there were no yews left and very little grass.

“My friends want to give me plants, but I’m out of room,” she said. “If something doesn’t come back, I will take them.”

And she will know exactly what doesn’t come back. Since 2008, Block has kept track of her various gardens on her computer. Each garden map shows a plant’s name and where it was placed. Letters indicate colors — P for pink, W for white, Y for yellow. It’s a practical, almost scientific approach, yet the result is more art than science.

It was so pretty — even late in the season — that Block was named the winner of the small garden category in the Great Gardens Contest. Sponsored and judged by staffers from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, the contest honors well-designed ornamental gardens with interesting plants and sustainable features, like the compost pit hidden on the side of Block’s brick house. It’s one of the only places she hasn’t planted something.

Twenty years ago, after taking a series of gardening classes at Trax Farms in Finleyville, she knew what she wanted: color and texture. Here is a partial list of plants that have those qualities, from tall to small:

Kwanzan cherry, ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese maple, Florida dogwood, Chinese fringe tree, blue Atlas cedar, ‘Fat Albert’, Norway and bird’s nest spruce, bigleaf and climbing hydrangea, 10 types of clematis, ‘South Orange Perfection’ rose, Russian sage, hardy hibiscus, St. John’s wort, ‘Chocolate’ Joe pye weed, peonies, baptisia, Montauk daisy, coreopsis, asters, yellow archangel, angelonia, Indian pink and many more.

Her herb garden features rosemary, basil, thyme, oregano, mint and sage. Oh, and she had lots of parsley until the resident groundhog munched it. She had goldfish and koi in her pond until a blue heron devoured them.

Block, whose garden was featured on the 2005 and 2017 Mt. Lebanon Garden Tours, admits she will abandon plants if they prove too tempting to wildlife. But she won’t give up her blue flowers. True blue is a gardener’s holy grail, and she has ‘Nikko Blue’ bigleaf hydrangea, ‘William Kennett’ and ‘Blue Ravine’ clematis, hardy ageratum, ‘Rozanne’ cranesbill, bellflowers and a very pretty annual, African violet (Streptocarpus). She buys it from Trax or Bedner’s Farm & Greenhouse in Cecil and uses it in all of her hanging baskets.

This time of year, her favorite shrub is Persicaria. The remains of its flowers jut out like little red springs from the veined leaves. Hidden beneath them and peeping from nearly every part of Block’s garden are ceramic and metal frogs. Her grandchildren have found more than 100 tucked here and there. The gardener also has a dozen cat figures and ceramic planters that she has made and fired in her kiln.

She calls her garden whimsical. We call it wonderful. Whimsical, wonderful, let’s call the whole thing awesome.

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