A huge, blood-red hibiscus in Holme Circle, a large fig tree laden with fruit in Rhawnhurst and a flowering Chinese dogwood in Mayfair.
Those horticultural triumphs were among the many splendid varieties that three New Jersey judges saw as they visited gardens in the Northeast last week.
“Every place we’ve been we’ve been so impressed,” said Pat McDermott, who along with Pat Brunker and Rita Vittese, all of members of the Riverton, N.J., Porch Club, rated five local gardens for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s 2013 Citywide Garden Contest.
The gardens the three judges visited on July 24 were among the 41 from the Northeast entered into this year’s contest. Citywide, there are 249 gardeners competing. Winners will be announced in September.
McDermott said that one of the criteria used in judging is how well a gardener uses his or her space, and that’s one reason the judges were in awe of the gardens they saw.
It’s the creative use of little space that’s so inspiring, McDermott said. She, Brunker and Vittese have more ground to work with in their New Jersey properties than many Northeast Philadelphia homeowners, so they appreciate how much is being done in gardens set up in small front and back yards.
Utilization of small space, McDermott said, is a lesson in gardening.
Take, for example, Marianne T. Miller’s property on the the 2000 block of Vista St. in Rhawnhurst.
Miller has a 15-foot fig tree, a small olive tree, a crape myrtle, a 3-and-a-half-foot castor bean plant, sedum, perennial hibiscus, Russian sage, oleander, herbs, tomatoes and too many other plants to name — all growing in her small front and back yards.
She’s lived in the house for more than 60 years, Miller said, but her gardening accomplishments have accumulated only over the last 17 years.
Miller is especially proud of her beautiful red castor bean plant, which she grew from seed.
ldquo;How can you not believe in God when you see that?” she said.
A great garden benefits more than its creator, Vittese said.
“It’s very inspiring for the whole neighborhood,” she said.
Vittese said Mike Scotese transformed his back yard on the 6900 of Torresdale Ave. by using trees to create separate spaces.
“He created a work of great visual interest,” she said. ldquo;It’s such an inviting space. It’s not something to stand and look at; it’s a space to be surrounded by.”
At David and Zita Greenstein’s garden on the 3500 block of Decatur St. in Mayfair, the judges saw a flowering and berry-bearing Chinese dogwood dominating a small front yard that also supported tomatoes, peppers, basil strawberries, squash and cucumbers.
Greenstein said he and his wife have entered the garden contest for five years.
“We haven’t won yet, but we’re hopeful,” he said.
On the 3100 block of Welsh Road, judges saw huge red hibiscus.
“Those flowers were gigantic,” Vittese said.
Each judge evaluates each garden separately, using several criteria, McDermott said. They look at creativity, color, maintenance and design and effective use of space. They also look at how many varieties of a plant a gardener is growing, she said.
The judging is intricate, and the judges have to know their stuff, she said.
Judges come from the city and the suburbs, said PHS events manager Flossie Narducci, who runs the contest each year.
“Some judges have been volunteering for years to visit city gardens. I have always made an effort to send those repeat volunteers to different parts of the city and to judge different categories of gardens. I think the suburban judges are often more understanding of some of the challenges of urban gardening.”
As members of the Garden Department of the Riverton Porch Club, the three New Jersey women have a lot of experience with the subject matter.
McDermott said they’ve exhibited in the Philadelphia International Flower Show for the past seven years. Brunker is a master gardener, McDermott said.
She said last year was their first as contest judges. Their evaluations were done in North Philly in 2012. They found it a very uplifting experience.
“We judged three large urban gardens,” she said. “It was phenomenal.”
“At the end of the day, we’re the ones who are impressed,” she said. ull;•