Gardening Green with Doug – Wisdom on a Winding Garden Path
By Doug Oster
August 25, 2020
Alfred Nogrady deftly maneuvers the crisscrossing trails of his stunning hillside garden, with the help of a cane, as he proudly identifies every rare and wonderful plant growing here by their Latin name.
He tells stories about where they came from, how they’ve performed and what they mean to him, as his son Brian and daughter Lorrie look on. They are his accomplices, part of a family who has loved to garden forever. When Alfred tells you he’s 89 years old and adds he stills works every day, it brings hope for all of us. “I love to work,” he says simply. “I’ve been working since I was 13 years old.”
He looks many years his junior, is still completely under the spell of the garden, and is always searching for something new to plant.
“If I don’t have it, I want it,” he said laughing.
This pharmacist is sharp as a tack too, as he details the cultivars growing along the different levels in the landscape.
“I need to accomplish something every day,” he says of working in the garden. “I have to do something.” Every plant is labelled with genus, species and common name.
His lot in Edgewood, a neighborhood of Pittsburgh, is packed with an almost unimaginable number of fascinating varieties revealed at every turn. It’s hard to believe there are at least 240 different plants in an area that’s a little bigger than an acre.
“I love working in the yard, give me a clipper, shovel and wheelbarrow—well not so much the wheelbarrow,” he says with a chuckle.
“He loves to dig,” adds Brian, who does much of the heavy lifting in the garden these days. Brian is also head over heels in love with plants, especially hunting for something special.
As a pharmacist, Alfred became interested in plants which are used to make medications. He enjoys not only the science of gardening, but also the art and the ability to be outside. Since 1962 he’s gardened here and planted just about everything on the property. It also drew inspiration from his parents who gardened, too. Forty-foot-tall spruce trees planted decades ago as seedlings, tower over the backyard.
“It’s evolving all the time,” he says of the garden. “It’s never ending.”
The front yard is an amazing example, which includes a beautiful variegated ‘Wolf Eyes’ Kousa dogwood, along with other unique shrubs and trees. The first Christmas tree from the house is planted in the side yard and it’s another giant after all these years.
One shrub that Alfred is looking forward to seeing in its prime is beautyberry, which produces small, edible, glossy deep purple berries.
“At sundown they are almost fluorescent,” he says smiling. “It’s absolutely beautiful.” He’s growing one variety which actually produces white berries, too.
There are 40 pots filled with tender plants, which summer here and winter at Lorrie’s house. She’s in charge of all the annuals which surround the backyard beds and pool area. She travels as part of her work with Irish setters, and when Alfred and Brian come along, it can be a cramped car trip home.
“We literally had no room,” Lorrie says. “The dog sat on my lap the whole way home.”
They returned to their garden with 30 new plants.
“It’s amazing what you can pack into a Saab,” says Lorrie smiling. “It actually is one of the best memories we have,” she added. “I laugh about it all the time.”
One of the things they found on a trip was a monkey puzzle tree, which is Lorrie’s least favorite. It’s another that is moved seasonally to her house. It sports dangerous, sharp needles.
Brian’s love of landscape architecture and gardening can be seen throughout the property. He rattles off a list of endless projects he has planned, yet to come. One of his latest creations is bench made from a huge tree, which is in place along one of the garden trails. He shares a love of the outdoors with his father and sister.
“I don’t understand why people wouldn’t want to be outside, and how much better our world would be if people could create a garden themselves and learn to take care of it,” Brian says. “It would give them great appreciation of life and other people.”
The trio’s latest infatuation are perennial hibiscus plants, which are blooming now. There’s also a tropical variety growing on the patio with a tight multicolored bud which is preparing to open.
Every day Alfred walks through the garden either before or after work.
“Things change every day,” he says of the ephemeral nature of the garden. “Some things we buy because of the flowers, some for the leaves or shape.”
On the patio, Brian holds up a large plastic container filled with notebooks detailing the plants that are in the garden—the records are meticulous.
Alfred walks through the winding paths passing the chartreuse ‘Gold Rush’ dawn redwood, ‘Skylands Oriental’ spruce, Northern redwood, a variety of other pines, and countless shrubs tucked under the bigger trees in the garden. There’s a willow oak, indigo bush and one of the biggest heptacodiums I’ve ever seen.
Square stone blocks are set in the center of the paths, named for the four seasons of the year, spelled out in Asian characters.
The ‘Dragon Eye’ pine is glorious with variegated white and green needles. It would take days to explore all the different perennials, trees, shrubs and annuals spread throughout the landscape.
At the end of the tour, Alfred reflects on what he enjoys about being in the garden, and what he hopes for the future.
“To sit down there and enjoy nature,” he says. “I’m leaving something here that will be here for years.”
The legacy of this garden will continue he says, in a special way.
“I know my daughter doesn’t want to hear this,” Alfred says, “but after I pass away, I want her to put a little note in there that says, ‘In lieu of flowers, plant a flower, bush or tree on your property.’”
Doug Oster is one of the founders of Tomato and Garlic Days at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, which is virtual this year. The event helps the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. On Thursday August 27th he’ll close the four-day festival by cooking two dishes live, each with 50 cloves of garlic. To register, see more garden stories, photos and videos, go to dougoster.com.