Barbara and Neil Finbloom’s Kirkwood garden is a showcase of fragrant herbs, lush perennials, ornamental trees, charming structures and whimsical artifacts. Though compact in size, it overflows with spaces to explore and delights to discover. Artfully designed brick walkways beg to be traveled and stepping stones nestled in a bright green, ground-cover carpet of miniature-leafed mazus beckon to be followed.
But the tale of the garden is more than plants and pathways. It is a reflection of the two people who created it and their over 37-year partnership that has blended their careers, hobbies and lives.
Both retired educators in the Parkway School District, Barb was a much-loved elementary school teacher while Neil worked as the band director for Parkway Central Middle School and the assistant band director at Parkway Central High School. His students marched in the Tournament of Roses, Macy’s Thanksgiving Day and George H.W. Bush Inaugural parades.
When they met 40 years ago, Barb’s taste in interior furnishings leaned toward antiques. Her mother, Carroll Kohl, was a clerk for an auctioneer and her father Bud enjoyed refinishing antique furniture. Neil’s mother, Shirley Finbloom, on the other hand, was an interior designer for St. Louis’ largest department store, Famous-Barr Co. “I had my apartment with old furniture and Neil had all modern stuff,” Barb says with a laugh. “But he got into the stories of the antiques and how they were used.” “I like to do things with my hands,” Neil adds, “so I would help Barb. The first piece we refinished together was a chest of drawers.”
Before long they were renovating an 80-year-old home in Kirkwood, refinishing antiques and holding “little sales” in their basement. When Neil retired in 2004, they got into the antique business in earnest as Schoolhouse Antiques, specializing in Americana, folk art and primitives. Traveling throughout the Midwest, they set up shop at seven or eight weekend antique shows per year. “Neil would have everything packed and ready to go and we would start driving as soon as I was out of school on Friday,” Barb recalls.
Education and antiques weren’t their only loves; they also shared a passion for gardening. It was literally in their genes. “My mom and dad were both avid gardeners,” Barb recalls. “My Mom did flowers and interior plants,” Neil recounts.
While they loved their American Colonial home, the asphalt-covered driveway that led to the garage and covered a major portion of the backyard broke their landscaping-loving hearts. Determined to have a garden, the couple got creative. Utilizing the side street that ran along their corner lot, they created a short, new, side driveway and garage opening, not to mention enhancing the garage with beautiful decorative details including window boxes. “We didn’t change the garage, we just changed how we got into it,” Neil quips.
With the asphalt broken up and hauled away and only an old stone retaining wall remaining, Barb and Neil worked as a team to transform the new space into the stunning garden it is today. “I see the overall design and more of the big picture and the designated spaces,” Neil explains. “Barb chooses the flowers and the shrubs; she does more of the details. Neither of us can sit still for very long and we work well together.”
That both were educators with the same Christmas, spring and summer breaks also gave them extra time together to work on their joint projects. Barb’s love of herbs greatly influences the plant choices she makes for the garden. She is currently vice president of the St. Louis Herb Society and her mother was a long-time member of the group. She firmly believes herbs bring not only utility to her garden but beauty and fragrance as well. “I spread herbs everywhere in my garden,” she says. “I have rosemary, sage and lavender right by my front door so there is something to smell when you come in the house.” Ornamental "Kent Beauty" oregano with its cascades of chandelier-like pink blossoms, the ball-shaped flowers of bright purple gomphrena and fragrant wands of purple lavender, all herbs known for their flowers, bring color to the decorative pots on her front porch.
Herbs also add continuity to her garden. “My chives came from my mother’s garden 40 years ago. My spearmint plant came from a friend I taught with, and I have had that in a pot for the past 30 years.” Herbs she would never be without include lemon thyme, savory and Genovese basil.
When she was having trouble growing parsley in her yard due to a multiplicity of “little Peter Rabbits,” she rescued a three-legged iron caldron her father had once used and created “Dad’s parsley pot” by her kitchen door, adding additional herbs such as lemon thyme, rosemary and small peppers to the mix. Both Barb and Neil like to cook, another hobby they share, and love having herbs just outside the kitchen door.
Like all gardens, the Finbloom’s landscape is a continual work in progress. When a Koussa dogwood died, the patch of columbine beneath it proliferated. Now centered with a heart-shaped birdbath, the garden glows in spring “with columbine in every color of the rainbow,” according to Barb. “Nature takes care of some of our gardening for us,” she affirms.
The couple also lost a large oak tree a few years ago. In that spot, now stands one of the decorative highlights of the garden, a large, hand-crafted replica of their Colonial-style home designed for garden birds and created by Neil as a Christmas gift for Barb. As luck, and an eye for antiques would have it, the bird house now rests atop a Victorian porch post the couple had previously purchased at a farm auction, having no idea how it would eventually be used.
Throughout their landscape other antiques, some purchased by the couple and others inherited from Barb’s parents, add warmth and decorative interest to their plantings. Just this past summer, Barb and Neil added another joint project to their garden; a charming shed they designed at Tuff Shed in Fenton to coordinate with the house and the garage. Carefully snuggled in between an existing Japanese maple and a Japanese climbing hydrangea, it now forms a backdrop for Barb’s boxed, herb-specific bed.
“We look at (our garden) as a country casual garden,” Neil says. “We didn’t have a designer come in and tell us what to do. We worked with what we had. Everything evolved out of necessity, even the shed. We added it because we had run out of room in the garage and a previous smaller shed. Now it’s become a key to tying everything together.”
For additional information on gardening with herbs and the more than 8,000 herbs that will be for sale online this year in the 80th anniversary sale of the St. Louis Herb Society, visit the group’s website at stlouisherbsociety.org. Ordering for pickup at the Missouri Botanical Garden at the end of April begins at the end of March.