Driving into St. Vincent College, three gardeners are braving the hot sun while working in the middle of the road on a long traffic island. Fred Byrne, OSB (Order of St. Benedict), and his team are transforming a patch of tough grass into what they hope will be a spectacular garden. They are laying down thick layers of newspaper to kill the grass and then covering the paper with rich compost.
It’s another one of the 12 or so gardens — along with 30 always-thirsty containers — Byrne has created and passionately maintains at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.
The island bed, 50 feet in length and 10 feet in width, was a challenge for the grounds crew to mow, so Byrne was asked to make it into a garden. He had to take into account the height of plants, as drivers need to be able to see both sides of the road.
“We’re going to put in things that grow low,” Byrne said. “Shrub roses. Red for the Abbot, as he loves red.”
Douglas Nowicki, the elected Archabbot, is in charge of the community. Byrne, 65, enjoys finding different ways to include Nowicki’s favorite color in the beds. Instead of geraniums, Byrne has planted stunning, bright red salvia as a focal point in a large bed near the campus library. Like the traffic island, all of these gardens are designed to be low maintenance so that once established they won’t need coddling.
“I try to grow things that are drought tolerant,” Byrne said.
“If a plant grows that’s native to the area, it’s used to being stressed by drought. Perennials like coreopsis, heuchera, butterfly weed and a host of others pretty much take care of themselves.”
When he was assigned to other areas away from campus, Byrne worked hard to improve the flower beds around homes he shared with other monks. When he returned to Saint Vincent College, where he has served for over 40 years, Byrne’s unique gardening talent was recognized by Nowicki.
Byrne was encouraged to take gardening classes in an effort to help improve the campus grounds. He went to Westmorland County Community College and Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens for formal training.
Byrne sees the 200-acre campus as a big canvas, with the plants acting as the art. That’s evident in the beautiful garden he built outside a place called the ambulatory, a walkway for the monks to reach the church without going outside.
It was a reclamation project.
Removed were old, overgrown yews that blocked the beautiful sunken brick window wells, which are now home to tastefully planted containers. A pink dogwood was donated, and it provides a colorful tapestry along with a combination of deep red dahlias, pink gladiolus and perennials.
“You take your chances,” Byrne said, laughing. “Sometimes it’s a surprise how it turns out, the colors are almost by accident.”
This garden is especially important to Byrne.
It’s filled with his late father’s black eyed Susans, the pretty deep yellow blossoms sway in the breeze and remind him of the man who raised him and his seven siblings. A bench in a shade garden is dedicated to his dad. It overlooks the ambulatory garden.
Byrne’s love of gardening can be traced back to his father. Some of his earliest childhood memories were in his dad’s huge berry patch.
“We would pick the strawberries and put them in little boxes and go out the street with our wagon and sell them as people would come by,” Byrne said.
That vegetable garden included corn, lima beans, string beans and more. Byrne’s mother had put them up for the family to enjoy all winter.
Upon the family’s move to Reading, Pa., when Byrne was 8, he convinced his father to turn part of the back yard into a garden. Potato peelings sprouted and were dug into the soil; Byrne remembers beautiful hollyhocks towering above him in the garden.
“I learned a lot from my father,” Byrne said.
He wears his dad’s old, gray, floppy gardening hat when working in this particular garden at Saint Vincent College.
Byrne is relentless about the weeds. He pulls out any unwanted plants as they are discovered during daily rounds.
They only pop up here and there because of his planting techniques.
“I like to grow plants nice and thick, close to each other,” Byrne said.
“Plants are social and like to be next to each other. The closer the plants are together, the less bare ground you have exposed, the less weeds you’ll have.”
Byrne is a frugal gardener at St. Vincent College. He visits Lowe’s and similar business looking for great bargains, especially in the fall. One discovery was a variegated red twig dogwood for the ambulatory garden.
“I found that at the end of the season, it was marked down to 75 percent off,” Byrne said. “I think the manager wanted to get it out. (He said) ‘Five dollars, just take it.’”
The dogwood is now stands at 10 feet, and it’s a beauty that anchors the corner of the bed.
Byrne also takes a lot of cuttings from his plants, making more shrubs and perennials to be used throughout the garden when they are big enough to plant.
Then there is what Byrne laughingly calls “the Secret Garden That Isn’t.” Hard to find and hidden way along a curved pathway, in it hostas and other shade lovers are thriving. This is a quiet space, surrounded by the glass walls of the Science Pavilion. Sitting in it is akin to being in a fishbowl.
“You look up and everyone can stare at you, it’s like your the lion in the zoo,” Byrne said.
Byrne is not the only monk to garden at Saint Vincent College. Other areas are taken care of by other members of the order. But chances are nobody appreciates the gardens as does Byrne.
“I love it, I’m outside all the time,” he said, alluding to his farmer’s tan and stating his goal for students and visitors to experience something special when walking past his gardens.
“I hope they see the beauty in God’s creation and are happy. Beauty makes us happy.”
Doug Oster is editor of Everybody Gardens, a gardening web site operated by 535Media.
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