Michael Strueber often observes that you can't compete with nature, but he certainly expends a lot of effort complementing it.        

Michael Strueber often observes that you can't compete with nature, but he certainly expends a lot of effort complementing it.         

Anchoring the artist's dazzling gardens are white arbors, junipers, blue spruce standard topiaries and ornamental grasses. There's a weeping birch and weeping white pine, trees he calls "grand dames," black cast-iron urns bursting with color and a large pond featuring a full-throated chorus of bullfrogs.         

Strueber founded the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in 1976, but his largest canvas is the 2-1/2 acres outside his Blair County, Pa., residence, a white home with green shutters that he has shared with his wife, Margaret, for the past 22 years.         

At the end of their curved driveway stands an oak tree that had to be topped. It's covered with wisteria and spring transforms it into a vertical arbor bursting with scent. Nearby, another oak tree laced with trumpet vine attracts hummingbirds. Fieldstone walls frame the welcoming garden that greets you at the entrance to the couple's home.         

"Flowers adjacent to an entrance are very important. It's a nice way to say, 'Hello, it's going to be a great evening or a great day.' I do fuss with this garden more so than some of my other spaces," Strueber said.         

The welcoming garden includes bee balm, wave petunias, peace lilies, daylilies, wild sweet peas, variegated micanthus and a new cultivar of cleome that he likes for several reasons.         

"This one doesn't have the jaggers on it. It's not sticky. It stays smaller. It's a profuse bloomer," Strueber said.         

Near the welcoming garden are a weeping mulberry and a weeping Siberian cherry tree. Towering over the land are 100-year-old oak trees that provide major shade but are perpetually thirsty. The size of the property might daunt some gardeners, but not this man.         

"I'm driven. I like projects. Gardening gives me immediate satisfaction and brings great joy to my life," he said.         

At antique shops in nearby Duncansville, he finds large urns whose formality contrasts with nature's simplicity.         

"Margaret will say, 'Surely you didn't buy another urn,' " the artist said. "I love the urns because they give interest, a little pizzazz, a little focus." Every year, one of them falls, and it takes three men to lift it and set it back into place.         

If he's not painting or hunting for treasure, he's hand watering, a task that consumes 2-1/2 hours each day.         

"I do drag those hoses all over creation. Dragonflies are so accustomed to me watering every night, they come over and drink from my hose," the artist said.         

A firm believer in organic architecture, Strueber's first task was to put in anchor plants adjacent to the house to integrate it into the landscape.         

He designed the arbors, which "pull the house into the landscape, especially the white frames, which are repeated on the steps that lead to the house," he said.         

Sculptural junipers and Norway spruce standards are among the most interesting conifers. When snow-covered in winter, they provide the landscape's magic.         

"These pompom junipers -- you have to be part nuts to keep them trimmed all the time. I like them because they add a little uniqueness. I've also made my apple trees and the Japanese maple into big topiaries. I clear out the bottom branches so you can see through."         

Strueber traces his love for gardening to his boyhood when he spent a nickel on a pack of zinnia seeds, planted them and was enchanted when they appeared.         

Three years ago, he started raising his flower beds "so that in my old age I can sit and garden. I haven't had to do that yet. It's hard to keep a garden consistently attractive. I try to keep it going all the different seasons. There's two chairs there that I never sit in." 

Beyond the driveway is a path that leads to a white arbor. Visitors who emerge from its grape-covered archway find themselves in a spring garden.         

"This is what I mean about an entrance to a garden. It's sort of a surprise because you can't see it as you come forward," the artist said.         

Here, the beds are filled with 1,000 daffodils, allium and peonies.         

"In the spring, I like the tree peonies. They make a nice impact. We've done lots of parties here for the museum, the library, the choral society."         

He pauses to admire the dramatic contrast in a daylily with burgundy and gold petals.         

Strueber installed a walkway that leads to a small, 4-foot-deep pond he discovered one day near a cement ledge. After clearing out the muck, he put in a rubber liner that still holds the water.         

Initially, Strueber wanted to tear down the garage, a plan his wife opposed. For 10 years, they rented it to a collector of antique cars. Then, it became his painting studio.          A regular visitor to nurseries, the artist also explores the woods when he paints outdoors on his property or atop Cresson Mountain. He's found two varieties of heliopsis that produce a yellow flower. The ironweed he found grows 6 feet high and has purple foliage.         

"In the fall, I put in wild phlox and cultivate it. It is just as pretty as peonies and it blooms twice."         

The property's contours influenced his decision to put in an 8-foot-deep pond.         

"This was a natural basin here," he says, gesturing toward the land beyond the driveway.         

"Initially, we had a terrible mosquito problem. To overcome the mosquitoes, I put this big pond in," he said, adding that fish and bats eat the mosquito larvae.         

He tried planting lotus in the pond, but muskrats insist on keeping the water surface clear. Even so, the pond provides auditory benefits.         

"I don't clear away the muck. The bullfrogs love it. At night, it's like listening to organ music -- rum, rum, rum, rum."         

Occasionally, a creek overflows so he has anchored nearby flower beds with plenty of perennials and shrubs to keep the soil intact.         

His next project is installing a red bridge over the pond similar to the one Claude Monet had at his Giverny gardens in France.         

As he walks the paths, Strueber points out some of his many favorites.         

"I love pampas grasses. They are so pretty. When the sun is out, you can see through them. When the wind moves, they are just like an Impressionist painting."         

Then there's a biennial ornamental thistle that seeds itself, a popcorn plant that yields brilliant yellow flowers in late fall and a castor bean, which has burgundy blooms and rustic red berries.         

Last year, he had to take down a big oak tree, but recycled sections of the logs into vertical planters.         

"I like them even better than my urns," he said.         

Disassembled chimney pots, salvaged from homes in Pittsburgh, also turned out to be great planters.         

At age 66, his sense of wonder remains intact.         

"Although I look at the garden and see a lot of manmade beauty, I look at the natural beauty and think, 'I couldn't compete with that.' I'm just trying to frame the natural beauty.         

"I don't remember where I've started, thank God. It gives me a great sense of peace to be united with nature. That's where we came from and that's where we belong and where we need to coexist."                   

Contact Marylynne Pitz at mpitz@post-gazette.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.