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Growing passion


To all the identities women traditionally assume, Jeannie Pearce, Amy Orr and Lydia Hunn add three more:

Artist, champion of the city, gardener.

These, more than the roles of daughter, wife or mother, shape the spaces they lovingly - and artfully - cultivate.

In fact, it's hard to say where one influence ends and another begins.

Two years ago, Pearce and her husband, neonatologist Eric Gibson, moved from Wynnewood to Bella Vista, downsizing their garden from almost two acres to a walled backyard measuring 21 feet by 17 feet.

That might seem extreme, but it was the right time, the right place, and Pearce, who teaches photography at the University of the Arts, is joyful about the changes.

"We've downsized 50 percent," she announces. "It's really fun."

For 13 years, she worked her lush suburban garden, which had a boxwood maze, a 60-foot peony row and other flowering treasures, four plots measuring 20 feet by 20 feet, and a 50-foot-long cold frame.

Pearce and her husband grew the usual complement of vegetables, along with corn, asparagus and potatoes. They brought in organic soil and manure, made their own compost, and put up zucchini bread, eggplant, tomato sauce and other goodies to last the winter. Anyone who's attempted this knows it's the best.

Also tough.

And so the time came to embrace a lighter life. With one daughter in college and the other finishing high school, Pearce and Gibson headed into the city, shedding possessions, work commutes and farm-scale weekends.

Now, their tiny garden and spacious three-story home, built on the former site of a small cinder-block garage with apartment above, bring unencumbered delight. "It's easy, easy, easy," Pearce says.

Her photographer's eye is rewarded with colorful flowers, shrubs and trees arranged in raised beds, and with rusted farm tools - unearthed in Wynnewood - on the garden walls.

Pearce has peonies, of course - magenta, from the old house - and lots of small trees: holly, pussy willow, fothergilla, serviceberry, river and paper birch. They lend a woodsy feel to her urban square, which is also dotted with orange daylilies and hellebore and pots of basil, sage, parsley, peppermint and rosemary.

Artistically arranged rocks contrast with an effusive show of ever-blooming pink roses and native honeysuckle. The garden, Pearce protests, has "no real design principles behind it," but like a well-constructed photograph, it requires little effort to appreciate.

In her photographs, Pearce is known for "layering" or enhancing digital images of landscapes and, lately, birds, which dine and play with abandon in her new garden.

"My work always seems to come back to nature," she says.

About the same time Pearce was uprooting from suburb to city, Orr, a fiber artist who teaches at Tyler School of Art, lost two enormous street trees outside her University City home and one giant white pine in the yard. Overnight, her garden went from deep shade to bright, daunting sun.

But the intrepid Orr, whose artwork sometimes incorporates trash-bag twist ties, sliced-up credit cards, and bleached soup bones, doesn't dread this radical change. She relishes the cutting and pasting involved in the redesign of her wraparound garden.

"It's so exciting," she says, comparing the process of "chipping away" at the old garden design to her art, which, she says, "I do in pieces, little bits of treasures all around, that I see coming together."

She envisions a series of "little living rooms" connected by walkways. Her husband, photographer John Woodin, began by building a small pond and brick path. The garden also has a three-story tree house for their now-teenage son; an eat-in patio; a sitting "parlor" framed by spirea, quince and Aunt Clara's lilacs; a woodland, a cutting bed, and ivy pruned to drape over the front wall like a scalloped tablecloth in the dining room.

Orr looks forward to summer nights spent meandering through her outdoor "rooms," weeding as she goes.

"Just to be able to be outside at night, feeling completely comfortable in the city, is wonderful," she says.

As an artist, she loves color - fuchsia allium and yellow iris, purple peonies and chartreuse sedum, silver lavender and near-black butterfly bush.

And, typical gardener: When considering favorites, she can't imagine picking just one.

Typical gardener doesn't quite describe Lydia Hunn.

Behind the "bat-cave doors" of the Victorian home in Bella Vista she shares with her husband, contractor Charles Derr, she cultivates a playful, quirky garden that mirrors her artistic temperament and strongly held beliefs.

Hunn, who teaches at Drexel University's College of Media Arts and Design, so disapproves of the way mankind imposes its will on Earth's landscape, she cherishes even the weeds in her own.

Because they were here first. And because . . . what is a weed, really, but a plant that someone somewhere has declared inappropriate or ill-advised?

"I tend to deal with what I've got," says Hunn, who's purposely planted a carpet of chartreuse weeds that produce fluffy, white blossoms in fall.

"They have become a focal point in the garden," she says gaily, sharing that she sometimes has to stop "helpful" friends from picking them.

Same with soil. Ever the provocateur, Hunn asks, "What's 'good soil' anyway? Stuff is growing here."

Indeed it is, and it's doing so without the benefit of conventional "soil amendments," except for a little mulch.

She has a bounteous mix of creeping Charlie and wild violets from a friend who was weeding; wild grape ivy found near Pennsylvania Hospital; native trumpet vine and honeysuckle rescued from the neighborhood; hostas from sister Sally and neighbor Miriam; vinca from Liz, ferns from Andy - and much more.

As a creative person, Hunn places a high value on experiment and play. Her hidden garden feels full of both, yet still very much a sanctuary.

"I find it a place of beauty, a place to daydream," she says.

She often sits quietly watching cardinals and sparrows, observing earthworms and insects, counting 12 different kinds of bees and wasps.

"I like the fact that this place is not static," Hunn says. "Things grow and die. You see field mice eating seeds and cats acting like they're in the jungle."

Her garden will not become a jungle. Hunn accepts that "plants, like people, need a little space," a notion that upends her urban and artistic impulses.

"When you have a hard city area," she says, "you just want to have green everywhere."

But she'll let the garden breathe. And stay a little messy.

The birds like it that way and, this being Lydia Hunn's garden, it is what it is.

Read Virginia Smith's blog at