Local gardening hacks help green St. Louis region | St. Louis Public Radio

Local gardening hacks help green St. Louis region

May 26, 2015

Whether your garden needs a little TLC or needs to be planted in the first place, the St. Louis area has some unique gardening hacks to help even the brownest thumb among us.

With resources like the following at the tips of your gardening gloves, St. Louis makes it easy to get your garden on.

What to plant

It can be tough to decide what to plant in your garden, but the nonprofit organization Gateway Greening is hoping to make the choice easier with its new “Perfect Picks” program.

Gateway Greening's Perfect Picks program highlights plants at local gardening stores that do well in St. Louis' climate.
Credit Courtesy of Gateway Greening

The group has highlighted about 20 varieties of locally grown crops and native ornamentals that grow well in St. Louis’ Zone 6 climate during its relatively short growing period.

“Gateway Greening supports around 150 community gardens and 90 school gardens and these are the very plants we provide to our garden groups. So we’ve sort of weeded out the ones we’ve had a hard time with in the past, and narrowed it down to crops that we’ve done well with,” said executive director Mike Sorth.

The Perfect Picks aren’t your garden-variety plants, either, Sorth said, noting they include some that “even seasoned gardeners haven’t tried.” They include:

  • Cool season: Coastal star romaine lettuce – beautiful plant with a great taste
  • Cool season: Dinosaur kale, with its scaly-looking leaf
  • Cool season: White Russian kale – a favorite at community gardens
  • Warm season: tomatoes, including Legend, Black Cherry, Black Crème, Sunkist
  • Warm season: peppers, both hot and bell
  • Warm season: eggplant
  • Warm season: herbs, like basil and parsley
  • Ornamentals: native plants including milkweed to feed butterflies and nasturtiums with its color and edible leaf

Sorth said these specially selected organic plants are grown by partner organization Crown Valley Organics, based in St. Genevieve, and are available for purchase at 12 local garden stores, including independent shops like Greenscape Gardens and Gifts in Des Peres, Whole Foods and Lucky’s Market.

Gateway Greening's Mike Sorth said about 20 varieties of plants were selected for the first year of the Perfect Picks program.
Credit Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio

So far, the program has been “wildly successful” and exceeded expected sales of a couple thousand plants, Sorth said. He hopes to expand the program.

“These (varieties) are a drop in the bucket -- the low hanging fruit, if you will – we’ve never met a garden pun we didn’t like at Gateway Greening,” Sorth said. “We’d love to add more plant varieties and add more garden centers.”

The whole project has been a win all-around, Sorth said. Consumers learn about new plants, the stores get to carry new local products, the grower gets into new retailers, and Gateway Greening gets a donation for every sale.

“This is a tool to build community,” he said. “Gardeners are very social people. They want to talk about their garden, so we provide a topic of conversation to build community around in this Perfect Picks product.”

Troubleshooting your garden

Even the most experienced gardener is likely to have questions about their plants.

The Missouri Botanical Garden's Glenn Kopp looks after some newly blooming wisteria.
Credit Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio

Luckily, the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis takes thousands of gardening queries each year in-person, by phone and by email. It also runs an extensive website with gardening information, featuring a “Plant Finder” with some 6,800 varieties.

“The Garden has always been interested in helping gardeners learn about plants, offer education lessons as well, and increase people’s knowledge of plants and how to grow them,” said horticulture information manager Glenn Kopp.

That mission comes into focus at MoBOT’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening. Along with a life-size calendar marking gardening deadlines, the Center also has an extensive in-house gardening library and offers inspiration for backyard lots with its 24 themed demonstration gardens. For instance, one garden shows urban dwellers what plants to use for a smaller city lot, while another demonstrates which plants attract butterflies. Yet another displays beds at varying heights and adaptive tools for gardeners with mobility issues. There’s even a section with different native grass varietals, to help gardeners decide what to use for their lawns.

Last year, the Center fielded some 25,000 gardening questions, Kopp said, “from ‘Will this grow in our backyard?’ to ‘What’s the problem with my plant?’”

Plant Doctors Karlene Feldker and Jim Massey fielded at least a dozen questions from gardeners in one afternoon at the Missouri Botanical Garden.
Credit Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio

For such troubleshooting, Kopp suggests bringing problem plants straight to the desk of the Center’s Plant Doctors for a diagnosis. While they can often identify plant types and garden pests from photos, Kopp said it’s often easier to examine an in-person sample.

“We get some really fun identification. People bring in stuff to identify, sometimes a flower or a piece of a plant,” he said. “If they bring in enough of a plant, it’s always fun to try to key out the plant, what it is. We enjoy doing that.”

At that point, Kopp said staff and master gardener volunteers can prescribe a solution for how to help a plant grow or how to control a pest. Recently, a man brought in leaves from a hackberry tree covered in tiny bumps called galls. The solution?

“Don’t worry about it; it’s not going to hurt your tree,” Kopp said. “People want to spray something. We say, ‘Leave it. It’s part of nature. It’s not going to hurt your plant.’”

In other cases, like with rose rosette disease, there’s no cure and experts will tell a gardener to pull out the sick plant before the disease spreads, Kopp said.

Plant Doctor Karlene Feldker helps Doug Walters of the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation diagnose his rose plant with rose rosette disease.
Credit Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio

“It’s amazing because even though you’re not sure you can come down here and you can feel better with them telling you it is what it is,” said Doug Walters of the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation, who had his rose rosette diagnosis confirmed.

Still, Kopp said other mysteries are harder to solve.

“Someone brought in this orange caterpillar it looked like. They suspected maybe something was eating their plants. Looked at it for a while. Looked at it again and again. And suddenly said, ‘This is a Cheetos,’” Kopp said, with a laugh.

In general, Kopp said he has a few stand-by tips:

  • Closely examine your garden and check for problems
  • Don’t plant too early when it's too cold
  • Don’t dig in the ground when it’s too wet
  • Accept and be happy with a little damage to your plants
  • Learn what are problems and what aren’t problems

“Don’t go out there and spray right away,” he said. “Nature works. The birds need caterpillars to eat, so if there’s not too much damage, let them be.”

Not enough space?

In a city like St. Louis, space can be a premium, and some would-be gardeners find themselves lacking space.

While there are plenty of community gardens to participate in, including those run by Gateway Greening, there’s another option that could help grow community as well as a garden.

Brightside St. Louis created this demonstration garden to help inspire greening projects in public places around the city.
Credit Courtesy of Brightside St. Louis

Neighbors Naturescaping grants give neighborhood groups funding to green and beautify public spaces – like city owned lots, medians and parks.

The grants are awarded by the nonprofit organization Brightside St. Louis, in partnership with the city.

“It’s a program that we offer to any community organization or neighborhood group that wants to improve the public spaces in their own community,” said executive director Mary Lou Green. “We provide Missouri native perennials, shrubs, grass and trees, and the group adopts the area they want to (plant).”

Green said the grants provide up to $1,500 worth of plant material from local growers and request tools for maintenance. She also said applicants don’t have to be part of a formal organization to apply; they only have to demonstrate they are a committed group.

“You don’t want just one person running this because then it’s not a community effort, but also you want 

Flowers bloom at Brightside St. Louis' demonstration garden.
Credit Courtesy of Brightside St. Louis | Facebook

people from the very beginning to work on developing the idea, because the more buy-in you get from the beginning, the more successful it’s going to be in the long run,” she said. “Somebody’s got to be out there to water the plants; somebody’s got to be out there to weed.”

Potential applicants can also get more information and ideas for projects at the St. Louis Urban Gardening Symposium on June 6th, which offers the public classes on a variety of topics. Brightside also has its own demonstration garden where people can learn about what plants are appropriate for different sites.

Green said the grants are about more than just plants.

“The reason we do all of this is it’s nice to have plants, but instinctively when people see flowers in bloom, when there’s not trash flowing down the street, people instinctively feel better,” she said. “If you’re connecting neighbors with each other, if you’re connecting neighbors with the natural environment, then you’re also creating a stable neighborhood.”

Applications are due August 14th at noon.