Veteran gardener starts over and ends up with a waterfall


PITTSBURGH — After 30 years of work, Marianne Kramer was pleased with her backyard garden in McCandless, Pennsylvania. She had carefully planted perennials and annuals in beds around mature trees and shrubs and a railroad-tie retaining wall.

“We had gorgeous white birch trees and rose of Sharon,” she said.

But the retaining wall was failing, and she and her husband, Fran, had to make a difficult decision: Watch their beautiful landscape roll down the hill or start over with a new garden and a new, longer-lasting retaining wall.

They chose the latter and ended up with a spectacular waterfall and three-tiered garden resting on cut sandstone walls.

Mrs. Kramer said the waterfall was not part of MDL Landscape Management’s original plan. Principals Shane Dablock and Nate Musi were to do only the retaining walls.

“Then Shane said, ‘I can make you a gorgeous waterfal!l’” she recalled.

With only a rough sketch on a piece of paper, the Kramers had to trust Dablock’s vision for a two-stream cataract that tumbles between sandstone boulders and water plants and ends in a hidden reservoir where a powerful pump sends the water back to the top.

It’s called a pondless waterfall and it takes lots of engineering and smart design to pull it off.

“When he said there would be two streams, I got excited,” Mrs. Kramer said.

She admits to some nervous days during the pandemic, watching from their sun room as the MDL crew finished the retaining walls and slowly built the waterfall stone by stone.

The crew checked in regularly with the couple to make sure they were pleased with the work. One day Mrs. Kramer added a new request.

“I said I wanted steps, and he said, ‘We’ll have to get more boulders.’”

In the end, they needed 68 tons of boulders, 99 tons of cut sandstone and another 10 tons of stacked stone and river rock. The project took six months, from April to September 2020, and was finished in time for MDL’s landscapers, Mrs. Kramer and her daughter to do fall planting.

The guys planted the trees and big shrubs, including Colorado blue spruce, red and gold thread falsecrypress and hydrangeas, while the women put in daylilies, irises, liriope, coreopsis, sedge, Shasta daisies and other perennials.

In the spring, Mrs. Kramer added annuals, including impatiens, vinca, geraniums and ‘King Tut’ papyrus along with smaller umbrella grasses ‘Prince Tut’ and ‘Baby Tut.’

She has lots of other interesting specimen plants she picks up on her tour of favorite nurseries and garden centers, including Hahn, Brenckles, Best Feeds and J.E. Mussig Greenhouses in Zelienople.

The veteran gardener enjoys climbing and crossing the waterfall’s stone steps and bridges to tend her plants and play with her grandchildren.

“The top is our perch,” she said. “We have five grandchildren and each one has a boulder.”

Her husband helps where he can — “I’m the pool boy,” he joked — but this garden is her pride and joy, just as the old one was.

“I just love it. I don’t mind getting dirty,” Mrs. Kramer said.

She recalled a man in a car passing by while she was working in the front yard, wearing a ballcap.

“He stopped and asked me what company I worked for. I said, ‘I don’t work for anyone. I work for me, for free!’”

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