Cindy Gilberg’s natural habitat was a garden. Preferably, one filled with native perennials.
Growing up in St. Louis, she spent much of her time exploring Shaw Nature Reserve. The love of the place, she wrote, brought her back as an adult and horticulturist “to work and share with others the possibilities of native landscaping and the joy of natural areas.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in ornamental horticulture, Ms. Gilberg fine-tuned her skills as the co-owner with her husband, Doug, of a Wildwood nursery for nearly three decades.
For 35 years — through lectures, workshops, magazine columns and gentle probing and prodding — she taught home and retail gardeners the art and ease of using perennials and many of Missouri’s more than 2,000 native plants for landscaping.
Thanks to her leadership in growing and promoting indigenous plants, including edible and deer-resistant landscapes, St. Louis-area gardens are more attractive, need less maintenance and are more hospitable to birds, butterflies, amphibians and other species.
In a recent tribute, Becky Homan, a former gardening editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, called Ms. Gilberg “a local gardening legend.”
Ms. Gilberg died Monday (June 30, 2014) at her home in Wildwood of ovarian cancer. She was 59.
The family will greet visitors at the Schrader Funeral Home this evening.
“She and Doug were pioneers in the wave of popularity for perennials that only crested some 20 years later,” Homan said.
With newly minted diplomas from the University of Missouri-Columbia in-hand, the Gilbergs opened Gilberg Perennial Farms in 1979. They were ahead of their time.
“We tried to promote natives back then, and nobody seemed to be interested,” Ms. Gilberg told the St. Louis Business Journal in 2000. Her persistence would eventually see the share of natives rise to 30 percent of the nursery’s inventory.
Perennials were no easy sell either.
“But early on, Cindy taught us cheerfully and patiently about gorgeous plants that come back year after year to supplement or take the place of fussy bedding annuals,” Homan said.
Ms. Gilberg encouraged perennials and native plants to help ensure gardening success.
“This is a very demanding climate in St. Louis: Too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry,” said Barbara Perry Lawton of St. Louis, a well-known gardening writer and Ms. Gilberg’s mother.
In 2010, mother and daughter co-authored The Missouri Botanical Garden’s Shaw Nature Reserve: 85 Years of Natural Wonders
The Gilbergs opened their nursery in the aptly named Wildwood, then a young community in unincorporated West County. They grew their business to nearly 300 acres spread over two production farms in eastern Franklin County and Robertsville, Mo.
The operation “drew people by the busloads from all over,” said Rebecca Gilberg of St. Louis, Ms. Gilberg’s daughter.
The retail division was primarily Ms. Gilberg’s bailiwick. She also designed landscapes for individuals and businesses.
Her husband handled the wholesale side, which supplied major retailers such as Lowe’s, Home Depot and Wal-Mart. They shipped more than a half-million plants annually to every state, except Alaska, as well as to Canada and the Caribbean. Annual sales topped $500,000.
In 2006, as Wildwood became increasingly less wild and less wood and Ms. Gilberg’s ideas on perennials and natives had taken root, the Gilbergs closed the nursery.
Ms. Gilberg turned her full attention to horticultural consulting, teaching, writing and, as she noted on her website, “assisting gardeners in making sound choices for their gardens, bringing plants and people together in a way that works for them.”
Her efforts worked for many gardeners, among them Ellen Barredo, manager of Bowood Farms garden center.
“Native plants have grown so mainstream, so widely available and well promoted, that I think it’s safe to say that all gardeners, professional and amateur, in the metro area have been her students — or beneficiaries of (her) knowledge — in one way or another,” Barredo said.
Ms. Gilberg went to work part-time in the Horticulture Department at Shaw Nature Reserve, where she taught in the native plant school, using, she said, “Whitmire Wildflower Garden as an outdoor classroom.” Her work at the Reserve helped her develop an expertise in stormwater management through landscaping, a process called rainscaping.
Since 2009, she had served as project horticulturalist for the Deer Creek Watershed Alliance, which awarded her a Certificate of Excellence last May.
As a member of the Garden Writers of America, Ms. Gilberg wrote native plant columns for several publications, including the Kansas City Gardener, The Healthy Planet and the Gateway Gardener, to which she submitted her monthly column for May despite her declining health.
Cynthia Perry Lawton Gilberg was born in St. Louis on April 13, 1955, the daughter of Barbara Perry Lawton and the late Sanford Lawton. While living with her father in Covington, Ky., she graduated from Villa Madonna High School.
She met her husband, an entomology major and fellow St. Louisan, in 1978 while both were attending the University of Missouri-Columbia.
“I had a crush on her from the first time I saw her,” said Douglas Gilberg. “I diligently pursued her until I wore her down and she took me into her heart.”
Ms. Gilberg was a sponsor of the St. Louis Children's Garden Club, served on the national board of the Perennial Plant Association and was past president of the Horticulture Co-Op of Greater St. Louis.
She was preceded in death by her father and a brother, Mark Lawton.
In addition to her husband, mother and daughter, her survivors include a son, Nathan Gilberg of St. Louis; a brother, William (Mary) Lawton of Fort Myers, Fla.; and a half-sister, Deborah (Todd) Pickens of Arizona.
Visitation will be from 6 to 9 p.m., today (Wednesday, July 2, 2014), at the Schrader Funeral Home and Crematory, 14960 Manchester Road at Holloway, in Ballwin. Interment will be private.
Contributions in Ms. Gilberg’s memory may be made to St. Louis Ovarian Cancer Awareness.