A Special Tour Through Highland Park’s Secret Garden, Choderwood

A Special Tour Through Highland Park’s Secret Garden, Choderwood
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Steve Choder and Jody Noble sit in the Meditation Hut at Choderwood. The husband-and-wife team has worked for decades to create a unique landscape. The garden is on the Highland Park Secret Garden Tour and is part of the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Gardens. Photos by Doug Oster
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By Doug Oster

June 23, 2021

It’s Zoey and Coty who are the first to greet me scurrying under Steve Choder at the entranceway to Choderwood, a garden I’ve longed to see for over a decade. The two dogs wag their tails as we step out of the hot sun into an oasis of shade.

A stone bridge crosses the entrance pond, which is more of a gurgling river. The sound of moving water echoes throughout the garden, setting the tone for this special place.

Choder and his wife Jody Noble have created a quiet space for reflection along the Allegheny River, which includes a Buddha Bed, Meditation Hut, Potager’s Garden and more.

The entry path winds into the Shabby Chic Garden which is highlighted by a fountain from Gardenalia, when the shop was located in Shadyside.

The garden is planted in a theme of all white — well almost everything is white. “Except a pink azalea,” Noble says with a laugh. “I have no idea how that happened.”

The couple was happily living in Point Breeze with no thoughts at all of moving. Noble even had a five-year plan for that garden, hoping to get on the now-defunct Pittsburgh Botanic Garden’s Town & Country Garden Tour.

Choder got a call one day at work from a friend on a realtor tour who was gushing about the property.

That evening on the way to Giant Eagle, Noble agreed to take a look.

“I like to snoop,” she said about the two peeking through the fence. “Like the losers we are,” she added laughing.

Two days later the couple owned the place. But Noble was in year four of her garden transformation in Point Breeze. Another four years later, Choderwood was on the esteemed garden tour and then again, a decade later.

Set on three-quarters of an acre and overlooking the Allegheny River this garden is peaceful and eclectic. Cleome and petunias grow in an old Scotts push spreader, sedum grows in the head of a bodiless statue, there’s even a kitchy Kapco fertilizer sign on the side of a building — it’s so cool. Right now, the hydrangeas take center stage, blooming profusely though the garden.

Glory-of-the-Snow flowers
This Scotts spreader makes a great planter.

It’s the Meditation Hut which Choder describes as the crown jewel of the garden. The open-air room makes a statement with its size. Walking up the stairs made of tree stump, reveals a hammock and some comfy chairs along with an amazing view of the river. The idea was born from time with garden magazines and books when Noble scoured for ideas.

“In the winter I would just sit there and dream about spring and what I was going to do,” she said with a smile.

When asked about the theme of the hut along with the Buddha Bed, Choder reflects on what he wants out of those spaces as he’s driven to create constantly.

Yellow Daffodilskerria shrub
Choder makes all the artistic signs at Choderwood.

“It’s something that’s hopeful for me,” he says. “I can’t stop. I’m a (type) A personality. When I’m doing something, I’m thinking of what else I need to do. It clouds me, and it gets me in trouble in lots of different ways,” he confesses.

Noble echoes those sentiments happily, describing her husband as someone who’s enthusiastic beyond measure for new projects, but not very interested in maintaining what’s there already.

This house has a rich history, originally built in the early 1900s for the lockmasters of the Highland Park Dam, which was in a slightly different location than today. In 1957 it was sold along with the next-door property to became private homes.

The couple has met a former lockmaster and the family who owned the house for decades before they bought the property.

What started with just lawn, is now a lush landscape filled with shade plants like hostas, ferns, astilbe, Japanese maples, blue atlas cedar, hydrangeas and much more.

After completing the Entrance Pond and inspired by the water feature at Plumline Nursery, Nobel and Choder teamed up with the late Bill Tribou who founded the nursery in 1974. His handiwork can be seen in a weeping shrub that hangs over the stream.

“It’s just so massive, prominent and beautiful, to me it’s unique,” Choder added proudly.

There’s a huge beautyberry that Tribou planted. He consulted with the couple about much of that part of the landscape.

The stream and pond in this part of the garden were inspired by the late Bill Tribou, who founded Plumline Nursery in 1974.

“I feel there is a lot of Bill in that garden,” Noble says quietly. “The pond area was definitely Bill.”

Chickens roam along the Riverfront Walk behind a fence, but the ducks are free to explore the garden, meticulously hunting for insects and slugs.

“I like the ducks so much more,” Noble admits. “But don’t tell the chickens,” she adds with a chuckle. “They have so much more personality, they are so funny.”

This sign is perfect for the style of Choderwood. It’s fun and cool.

Walking in the garden with her and she can’t resist pulling a weed here or there. Noble is often asked by friends “where’s your favorite spot to sit?” She answers there’s no sitting really, there’s always something to do and her husband agrees.

“As we get older, he says, it’s constant maintenance. Thank god we love it.”

The Potager’s Garden is the only area with some sun. It’s filled with wildflowers, vegetables, herbs and some wonderfully unique garden ornaments. The raised beds were created by Kubrick Brothers Garden Center.

“As I get older, I don’t spend as much time on my knees,” Noble says. “I can sit on the edges and weed comfortably.”

In 2013, the couple were forced to take a new direction with their lives.

“Somehow we both managed to get ourselves reorganized out of our corporate jobs in the same year,” Noble says.

Their first venture was an Air B+B using two houseboats on the river for accommodations. Conflicts in the neighborhood and with the city ended that dream.

They held some weddings in their spectacular garden for a while, but for now this place is their private haven.

The couple was honored when the garden was accepted into the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Gardens.

“It gives you a feeling of accomplishment when you see the stream going and the waterfalls moving,” Choder says looking over the landscape. “It makes you feel like your somewhere special. It’s sunny out there and then you come in here and your blood pressure drops.”

Noble shares her husband’s sentiments about Choderwood. “I really need a connection to the earth,” she says of time in the garden. “It’s very mentally and spiritually rewarding.”

With only two big projects left on her list, Noble surprises Choder with the idea of a labyrinth on a flat area overlooking the river. He breaks into a big smile; you could see the wheels turning as he prepared to start yet another project.

Choderwood is part of the Highland Park Secret Garden Tour on July 11, 2021. Here’s how to get tickets, which are only $15.

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