I Found Pittsburgh's Secret Garden
A hidden private garden full of ponds, forest paths and blooming hydrangeas
It was a Sunday in late June 2021 and I had just discovered the most enchanting private garden I’d ever seen. It was packed with beautiful vistas, fish-filled ponds, winding forest paths and small hidden waterfalls. I’d discovered this space on a garden tour that was raising funds for the local symphony and it was hard to leave. I knew I’d have to find my way back.
Fast forward to just last month when I was back at Mark Meader’s garden. This time I was getting a private tour. As I’ve written about before, I host a weekly video series for NEXTpittsburgh called Yinzer Backstage Pass. For last week’s episode, I brought the series to Mark’s backyard paradise.
Mark doesn’t sketch out landscaping plans. He never has. He just goes to the nursery, finds something that inspires him and plants it in his yard. If he’s not happy with how a plant’s looking in a certain location, he’ll move it for the next season. You might think that would lead to a random-seeming garden but the whole space feels very cohesive yet it also has distinct areas or “rooms” of the garden.
Inspired by a feature he saw in a friend’s yard as a child, Mark planted a large grove of bamboo. Sitting in the small clearing, surrounded by towering bamboo, is a meditative experience and it feels like you’re a world away from the roses and vegetables and ponds just a couple yards away. Mark says it feels especially magical when the wind blows through the bamboo just right. Bamboo can be an aggressive plant. Twenty five years ago, Mark planted two five gallon buckets of bamboo and they’ve multiplied exponentially. To keep the bamboo in its place, Mark dug a shallow moat around the whole area and he snips the new shoots as they emerge.
When it comes to water features, Mark starts with a rough idea of placement and starts digging. Then the difficulty of the substrate he’s digging through dictates how big the pond will be.
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Creating such a lush green space in Squirrel Hill has also attracted a range of wildlife. Mark appreciates some of the wildlife more than others. He loves hearing the bullfrogs when they visit his ponds but he had to build his garden walls a few feet taller to keep the deer out. He’s also put nets over all his ponds to keep herons and raccoons out. Although that method doesn't always work. One time a raccoon managed to get in and eat the head of his biggest koi, abandoning the rest of the fish’s body just outside the pond. Mark loves watching the birds of prey who perch in some of his taller trees. He once saw a hawk dive down, pick up a squirrel and fly off as the squirrel continued wildly swinging its tail.
I’ve been working on my garden for under three years whereas Mark’s been working on his for over thirty. He’s planted seedlings that now tower over him. And because of all that growth, he’s seen his garden through countless evolutions – some caused by his own changing preferences and others caused by growing plants. When he started gardening, most of hid beds were full sun and now – with fully grown trees – there are more and more shaded beds.
You can see my whole conversation and tour with Mark here:
Have you discovered any secret gardens in your neighborhood?
And one more thing: While perusing the most recent issue of Better Homes & Garden, I came upon this incredible photo of an English countryside garden designed by Andrew Salter. I wish we could all close our eyes right now and magically meet there. Should we try?
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