Yard of the Month: Couple creates “rooms” in cramped Cooper-Young cottage yard

By Sharron Johnson

January is an interesting time to think about gardens. Most, if not all of the foliage and flowers have all but disappeared, which leaves us with the bones of the garden. The exposed bones are the blueprint where one begins with garden design. The bones can consist of evergreen plants, trees, and shrubs, or they may be structural, such as raised beds, partitioned areas, decked areas, and buildings. Gazebos and arbors also serve as such.

The woes of the winter garden can be quite blah for the average passerby, but not to gardeners like Bill Schosser and Kim Halyak, who reside at 899 Blythe, the narrowest street in Cooper-Young. The street is filled with rows of shotgun houses and some Queen Anne cottages. Their cottage has a postage stamp sized front yard. The space is filled to the brim with raised beds, encompassing the entire yard and edged by a unique redwood fence that is backset from the sidewalk. This creates a small garden space along the front that the Halyaks have filled with miniature monkey grass and cornerstones of nandina bushes, also known as heavenly bamboo.  This result is a year-round green edge that is practically worry free.

The entrance up to the porch is an arbor that matches the fence with a repurposed, double-opening metal gate. There is a delightful green paint on the gates that enhances the pale yellow-sided home very well. The raised beds have extra wide ledges that create seating for ease of weeding, planting, or just viewing. The clever floor of the garden space is mulch and homemade stones created with concrete that are shaped like flagstones.

When I knocked on the brick red painted door, Kim Halyak and her sweet doggie, Happy, greeted me. Kim led me around to the back of the property to a feast for the eyes. The space is divided into many “rooms.” Each serves a different purpose, such as seating, gardening, passing through, and meditation. There is so much to talk about with this garden that I will have to have a second installment this summer when everything is in bloom.  So, consider this a precursor to a much bigger story.

Tell us about youself and Bill.

My husband, Bill Schosser, and I married 15 years ago on a beach in Florida. This was Bill’s first marriage and my second. The family joke is he brought three dogs to the marriage, and I brought 2 teenagers. We laugh about who had the easier deal.

Now my wonderful children, Carley and Ashely are grown,and living on opposite coasts. I recently retired from 34 years of special education teaching. I taught at Solomon Schechter, Carver, and Ridgeway High. Bill retires from FedEx in June. He is in I.T. in air operations there. His retirement goal is to ride at least 100 miles in each state on his recumbent Cattrike. My goal includes seeing both the Chelsea and Philadelphia Flower Shows.

When did you two move into the area?

We moved into Bill’s rental house in 2006 because we wanted to downsize into a smaller house and yard.  It was the best decision we made. We love Cooper-Young’s walkability, friendliness, and funky vibe.

Have you always been a gardener?

I was born in the heart of Pittsburgh but moved to a 21-acre farm when I was 11. We grew apples, plums, cherries, blackberries, a huge vegetable patch, and several fields of corn. That’s when I started reading my stepfather’s copy of Organic Gardening from cover to cover. Bill grew up in Tampa. He was never a gardener. He’s in charge of growing the sunflowers and corn and does all the heavy lifting I need.

What are your favorite plants?

My favorite plants are whatever’s in bloom at the moment and especially those with fragrance. In a January garden, I appreciate my sweet olive for it’s wonderful smell, the pansies and ornamental cabbages for the bright colors on a blistery day, and the movement of seed heads on the ornamental grasses. Other favorites include: hydrangeas, roses, salvias, and lenten roses.

The design is not typical. Where did you get your ideas?

As a young gardener, I had the typical suburban yard. It was mainly lawn edged by foundation shrubs and flats of annuals. Over time, I began questioning the need to spend so much effort and money growing grass. Most front yards are never used for anything. I want to maximize all the square footage of our front and back yard so I can grow fruits and vegetables organically, have a place to entertain friends, and create an animal friendly space. Additionally, I want our space to be easy to maintain, especially as we get older. Finally, I want it to look beautiful year round.

My ideas come from reading landscaping design books, taking design classes, and observing beautiful spaces to figure out what makes them work. The more I learn, the more I have to redo areas of my garden to make them better. I guess that’s why gardening is so much fun.

Your garden has evolved in stages. Can you expand on this?

Initially, our back yard was Bill’s and our three labs’ domain, and I had the front yard. The front yard started as a grass lawn and foundation flowers. Later, I added an antique white picket fence and cottage garden. Our labs were always trampling on the flowers, and I needed a new fence.

After redoing the front yard with raised beds and flowers, I started eyeing the back yard for growing veggies and fruit. It took a while to convince Bill that there was room for both his projects and mine. My intent was to divide up the yard up into “rooms” to serve different purposes and create a space that felt larger. I wanted the view from every window to look wonderful.

We started with the screened back porch, which has now become our favorite space of our house. Except for the coldest months, here we have our morning coffee, eat meals, entertain, and work on current hobbies. The tin covered roof sounds lovely during a thunderstorm, and our animals enjoy watching the birds and squirrels as much as we do. We salvaged an old cast iron tub and plumbed it with hot and cold water, perfect for dog washing, soaking, and holding iced drinks when entertaining.  The 9-inch bench seats provide seating or a place to stretch out and nap.

The L-shaped raised beds became the next room. I put them on a double axis and added the auger fountain in the center. I love how the seating height makes it easier to plant, water, and weed, especially as I get older. It keeps our dog out of my plants and gives me lots of extra seating when entertaining. The galvanized metal heats the soil up in the spring, letting me plant earlier to harvest sooner. The raised beds create strong lines in the garden that look great even in winter.”

The third room is our fire pit area beyond the raised beds. The fig tree, banana plants, and bamboo create a sense of privacy that feels cool in the heat of the summer. To keep the bamboo from taking over, I keep it in a horse trough raised up on stone. A mounted mirror reflects the fire light at night.

The fourth room is Bill’s tin covered shed and work space. A sign hanging down reads, “Bill and Kim’s Garden of Eden”, a birthday gift from his sister.

The fifth room is two additional metal raised beds with a large covered trellis between them. Each raised bed holds four large planters. In the summer, the trellis is covered with beans, raspberries, eggplant, and cucumbers. Nearby are three blueberry bushes and a bench to enjoy the view.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without my wonderfully talented builder, Jimmy McCown. I heartily recommend him for any construction you need done.

There are many repurposed materials. What is the reason for this?

I love using repurposed materials because they all come with a story. Each one reminds me of a friend’s gift, a vacation trip, or a sidewalk find. The metal tin on the shed came from a friend’s redo of a downtown building. The three large sculptural augers came from a Mississippi friend, as well as the fountain auger. I found the rusty fence on the street and made the trellis. Most of the rocks are from our camping trips across the U.S. The steel wash tub fire pit came from Habitat Restore. The stepping stones are from woven garden hoses. And the metal grid screen on the porch came from grocery store shelves cut to fit. Galvanized tubs hold bulbs and a horse trough contains bamboo.

Tell me about the color choices in the garden, gates, and benches.

I chose galvanized silver metal raised beds and planters to remind me of living on a farm.  The fountain, tub, and shed accents are fire engine red, and the shed and raised bed trim is gold, to go with the yellow siding of the house.

Tell me about the garden club, permaculture, and the forestry groups.

January 2015 I posted on Nextdoor for possible interest in starting a garden group and 13 gardeners showed up at the first meeting. We have since grown to about 22 and continue to add new members as word gets out. Our group is comprised of men and women, all ages, both novices through seasoned gardeners, who enjoy talking plants, swapping plants, and having a good time. We meet at a different member’s house on the third Wednesday of each month, starting with a potluck at 6 p.m. We tour the garden first, eat, chat, then either have a guest speaker or focus on a particular garden topic. We even have several members who come from Evergreen, Idlewild, and Wolfchase. Recently our group weeded and mulched 31 ginkgo trees on Cooper. Future projects include hosting a summer public tour of Cooper-Young gardens, and beautifying the gateways into our neighborhood. Additionally, we hope to create a neighborhood arboretum with labeled trees in the front yards so residents/children can learn tree names and homeowners can make wise choices when choosing trees/shrubs for future plantings.

Recently, Emily Bishop, Christine Conley, Judy Shellabarger, and I completed 24 hours of urban forestry training so we could become more knowledgeable about tree identification and how to protect our neighborhood trees. Anyone interested in joining our group is welcome to contact Judy (jshellab@comcast.net) or myself (kim_halyak@ureach.com) to get on our mailing list.