Tell Us Your Story: A Natural Progression of Two People Who Love Gardening
By Erica L. Shames
Photographs by Gordon Wenzel
Mary Susan Umbriac grew up in Hazleton, where her father tended a large vegetable garden. “My father was very particular about his garden,” she recalls. “Everything was in a straight line, and he hoed just about every day.”
Mary Susan recalls her father quizzing her about weeds, flowers and vegetable plants and, when she turned 5, her father said, “I think you’re ready.” Every morning, he said, you have to be out here for one hour, picking weeds.
“That’s how I grew up,” Mary Susan recalls. “[Gardening] is hard work, but it’s spiritual.”
Mary Susan and Bob Umbriac, retired Geisinger Medical Center ICU nurse and anesthesiologist, respectively, have applied the same focus to the 5-acre Danville homestead they purchased in 1977.
“It was serendipitous that we found this property,” said Bob. “One of my supervisors at work mentioned the property, owned by his father, was going to be put up for rent. I jumped at it with the hope that we could one day buy it.”
What it could be
At the time the property consisted of a small farm house, built around 1854, and an old barn-garage; both needed a lot of work. “The land behind the house was all grown in with brush and trees,” said Mary Susan.
Bob was eager to start renovating. He began by clearing the back by hand, cutting the brush and trees a little at a time. When the Umbriacs started a family, and needed more space, Bob built a large addition to the house. “Later, I added a sunroom where we winter over plants and start some of our vegetables,” said Bob.
The creek behind the house had been devastated by the floods of 1972 and 1975. “By the time I applied for aid to fix the creek, the funds had been used up,” Bob said. After applying several times over several years and being turned down, Bob applied for permits to fix the creek with the help of his brother and a bulldozer.
“After the creek work and some landscaping, I enlisted the help of my 15-year-old son and we built a covered bridge over the creek; it took a whole summer,” added Bob. “At first I was going to build a replica of covered bridges in the area, using the Burr Truss technique, but I created my own design. I had carpentry skills and learned stonework from my neighbor Charlie Faux, a stonemason who lived nearby.”
Once Bob started the landscape design, he sought guidance from landscaper Brad Diehl. “When I bought a Kubota front loader/backhoe I started to do major landscaping, making terraces and laying up stone walls,” Bob says with pride. “The lay of the land, with its drop off behind the house, just begged for terraces.”
What else needs work?
Bob has made many other improvements, including building a pavilion, root cellar and large grape arbor, and restoring a wishing well—once the home’s water supply—that dates to the 1800s. Bob also has added fish ponds and spillways, and planted multiple trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. Mary Susan is in charge of the flower gardens and arranges the hanging baskets and flower pots that decorate the property. “She really knows her flowers,” Bob says with appreciation.
Bob’s ingenuity extends to the materials garnered for projects. Stone from the old Danville-Riverside bridge columns was utilized to build the pavilion and restore the wishing well, and other materials are picked up at flea markets and estate and yard sales.
Bob and Mary Susan tend a large vegetable garden. Now that the couple’s four children have moved out of the area, they give away or can most of what they grow.
Bob sums up the evolution of the property, which has been a stop on Danville’s Garden Tour multiple times, and last year attracted 200 visitors. “It was a natural progression of two people who love gardening, landscaping and property improvements. I love to design and build, and have an eye for symmetry.”
The philosophy behind it
Bob says new ideas fuel improvements. “An idea can pop into my head to change or improve something, even though I’ve looked at the same thing a thousand times before,” he marvels. “I think what is compelling about this property is its size and location in the borough of Danville.
“My wife and I have been fortunate to live in this beautiful town with its many beautiful people,” Bob continues. “We are retired now, and devote most of our time [as many as 10 hours a day] to the gardens. In the winter, when I am not enjoying the outdoors hunting with my beagles, I build furniture for my children and grandchildren in the carpentry shop I built on the property.”
Equally compelling is the work ethic that guides Bob and Mary Susan. “I believe people are capable of doing much more than they think they are capable of—if only they would try,” Bob says. “Don’t be afraid of failure; it’s a learning experience.”
As to the future? Bob and Mary Susan lovingly care for their property on their own, but foresee a day when they will need help. “Our grandchildren are growing up, and some have even shown an interest in the gardens,” said Mary Susan. “I think we’ll start enlisting their help. They will enjoy that.”