The Arch City Gardener

Journeys In St. Louis Gardening and Beyond


Why I Love Paperbark Maple (or the Simple Pleasures of an Early Sunday Morning)


I’ve been on a bit of a bender about my mid-winter ennui. But that is changing now.

I awoke early Sunday and shuffled my way to the kitchen for my slog of coffee–no doubt a scenario many of you are personally familiar with. Awaiting the coffee pot to finish brewing, I gazed out the window into the backyard.

Five years ago the view would have been barren except for the exceptionally large and looming sycamore on the other side of the fence. Today I can keep watch on the row of leatherleaf viburnum planted to shield a low-lying, deeply shaded corner of the yard where nothing grows. Grasses, rose shrubs, and perennials line the edge of the patio. Last spring I replanted (for at least the 5th time) to the edge of the patio two azaleas that I hadn’t yet managed to kill. I’ve got my fingers crossed that they will thank me with fuscia-colored blooms this spring.

And then there’s the paperbark maple (acer griseum), planted in spring 2016, and chosen for its peeling bark feature. From the window she was ablaze from the backlighting of the early morning sun. I mean she was glowing cherry red around the edges of her peeling branches. Beautiful.DSCN5744When I bought the tree, the guy at the nursery told me they are slow growers and that it might take a few years for the tree to really exhibit the peeling bark feature. Paperbark a0218This is a view of the bark facing west with the sun at its back As you can see there is lots of peeling going on. What a cool tree.

And yes, dear reader, there is winter interest…in my own backyard!



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An Urban Garden Oasis

St louis brick (480x640)My sister Nancy lives in the midst of music, mayhem and madness in the shadows of the vibrant Loop in St. Louis city. Yet her yard is a true get away in the midst of city living. Yes, you can hear the drum circle at the Shell gas station a block away. Police and firetruck sirens blare down Delmar Avenue at a fairly regular pace. A rotating “moon” atop the Moonrise Hotel can be glimpsed from the deck. But all that is just a sideshow. The main event is the oasis she has created on a small city backyard lot. Center stage is a large pond full with fish and surrounded by lots of ground cover such as carpet phlox, creeping Jenny and vinca; trees and shrubs such as Japanese maple, lemon thread cypress, Mary Jane magnolia,and oakleaf hydrangea; perennials such as hosta, grasses, salvia and liriope; and annuals to fill in. Large rocks give structure to the pond shape and provide a platform to gaze at the fish and maneuver around the pond.

Urban Oasis 2 (1280x960)If you’ve ever wondered if pond water is good for the garden, wonder no more! Her oakleaf and roses appear to be on steroids!

pond lettuceOf course the pond has aquatic plant species such as water lily, water hyacinth, water lettuce and bog plants. What Nancy lacks in plant knowledge “I don”t know that plant is,” she makes up with an unerring eye for color combination and layout. There’s a balanced interplay between citrus hues (lemon thread cypress), cool tones (a blue dwarf weeping cypress) and shocks of color (the pink Knockout roses). Touches of whimsy, such as this painted frog, let you know the garden is for enjoyment. This frog is an example of her talent in  painting.

 A painted frog adorns the rocks on the edge of the pond.

A painted frog adorns the rocks on the edge of the pond.

I think ponds provide a sense of serenity and the shade cast on the pond from the trees lends a sense of calm in an urban setting. I am always struck by the fact that the yard is small–a typical St. Louis city lot–and there is lots of city noises around, yet the environment feels set apart from the hustle and bustle.

Original St. Louis accents also lend an authentic city touch to this escape and sets the yard apart from other gardens. The home is in Parkview, an historic St. Louis neighborhood dated back to the early 1900s. Above the bed in front of the garage is a light from one of the old streetlamps in the neighborhood. And the first picture in this post is of an old “St. Louis” brick.

Looking back toward the garage.

Looking back toward the garage. Note the dwarf cypress in the back. Behind this is another planting area that hides the power line and the fence leading to the alley.

IMG_0553Between the garden beds, the deck and the pond, you kind of lose sight that this is really a narrow yard that is not all too deep. That is because the design draws your eye down along the space. A brick path along the side bed with the roses help to pull your eye lengthwise. Still developing is a shade garden in front the garage. As with all gardens, trial and error occurs with plant selection, soil and light. This area receives a good bit of shade and Nancy has struggled a bit to get the right plants to take off. Carefree, foliaged perennials are the name of the game, although color contrast is at the forefront. Hostas thrive in the St. Louis climate. Nancy is planting a variety of hostas, and the bed is beginning to take off. I know, however, that in a year or two she’ll introduce an artistic element to heighten the enjoyment of this bed.

What I have not shown you are the window boxes and containers that overlook the deck. And of course there are the lounges and the hand-painted table umbrella. I  hope you have enjoyed this virtual garden tour. I look forward to sharing other small garden spaces in the near future.

How are you making the most of your small spaces?

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Ladies & Gentlemen, Start Your Engines: It’s Spring!

Early leaves of tall garden phlox push their way through.

Early leaves of tall garden phlox push their way through.

Gardener’s grab your rakes, hoes and clippers. The vernal equinox has arrived and the calendar declares it’s officially Spring. Scanning the blogosphere, U.S. gardeners have been more than ready to put behind them a winter punctuated by either colder than normal temperatures or lots of snow and ice. Here in Arch City, we had both.

Artemisia begins to show its finely textured silvery foliage at the garden's edge.

Artemisia begins to show its finely textured silvery foliage at the garden’s edge.

And it’s been a fight for more spring-like temperatures. In early March I started wandering into the backyard on warmer days, giving a peek under the layers of leaves protecting my shrubs and perennials from the harshness of winter. Around the neighborhood crocus and snowdrops are blooming, true signs spring does exist.

The "Oertel's Rose" yarrow is starting to creep.

The “Oertel’s Rose” yarrow is starting to creep.

It’s clean up time. I’ve cut back the ornamental grasses, cut back the Russian sage, removed the dried blooms from the hydrangeas, pulled early weeds from the bed to stop their spread, and started visualizing my plans. The Knockout roses need a trim and the beds and the yard will soon get a good raking.

But it’s still early. April 13 marks our last frost date.

What are you doing in the garden now?

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Cutting Back Ornamental Grasses

Use a serrated bread knife to cut back ornamental grasses. To make the process easier, first tie a string around the grass to hold it in place.

Use a serrated bread knife to cut back ornamental grasses. To make the process easier, first tie a string around the grass to hold it in place.

Like so many of you out there, I am itching to get in the garden. And there is lots to be done. I’ve started to cut back my ornamental grasses. I let my ornamental grasses die back and leave them in place for winter interest.  True confession, sometimes I just don’t get to the annual grasses I use in my pots and struggled getting them out of the pot in spring replanting season. But I digress. After years of using my garden shears, pruners, or kitchen scissors to cut back these ornamental beauties, I turned to the kitchen bread knife. It works like a charm and couldn’t be easier.

Here’s another handy tip. First tie the floppy wintered-over grass with a string to contain it like a ponytail, then cut back the grass with the bread knife.

Do you have a tried and true gardening quick tip?