Garden Connoisseur

Homeowner Jack Breier exemplifies the name of “plantsman.”

By Lucyann Boston

Photography by Kim Dillon


In 1979, writing in the first edition of The Plantsman, a publication of the Royal Horticultural Society, Sandra Raphael, a senior editor in the dictionary department of the Oxford University Press, noted the term “plantsman” is intended to mean a connoisseur of plants or an expert gardener.

She expanded on that theme by quoting Botanist David McClintock, featured in the Botanical Society of the British Isles News, who further refined the word by saying that “a plantsman is one who loves plants for their own sake and knows how to cherish them." McClintock went on to suggest that they “are the cream of those in the plant world; a fund of invaluable first-hand information.”

By those definitions, Jack Breier is a true plantsman. His personal University City garden is a treasure trove of magnificent specimens gathered over the past 20 years and is a testimonial to his love of all things green and growing. His shady front yard with a canopy of a hornbeam, dogwood and redbud features layers of azaleas, rhododendrons, hostas, hydrangeas, boxwoods, campanulas, ferns, liriope and Japanese maples, with some elephant ears and caladium thrown in. Pulmonaria or lungwort provides an edging for much of the space. Trees are limbed up to provide high shade and let the structure of the trunks show forth.

Travel into the back yard, guarded by a huge black gum, where patches of sun allow for groupings of shasta daisies and phlox to provide flowers for the house. More shrub layers flow around the perimeter of the space and provide color even with nothing in bloom. Selections include purple tinted smoke bush (Cotinus), blue spruce, “Gold Thread” cypress (Chamaecyparis) and deep purple “Black Lace” elderberry (Sambucus), all edged by evergreen hellebores and “Mahogany Monster” heuchera.

Espaliered apple and pear trees, with four different varieties grafted onto each trunk, provide a striking botanical and vertical accent. Adjacent to that an herb and vegetable garden offers wonderful selections for the kitchen. Just outside the back door, a private fenced space provides a backdrop for a vertical succulent garden created by Jack’s husband John Douglas, who used the arms of two ancient Adirondack chairs to frame the plants. Whimsical terracotta planters, with succulents spilling over the sides also blend the fence and garden.

While Jack’s professional career includes a stint in the corporate world where he worked in customer service and finance and more recently as a successful real estate agent, his avocation has always been plant centric. Coming from parents and grandparents who were avid gardeners, he grew up around plants. But his interest and knowledge were expanded when, in the late 1990s, his mother sent him information on the Master Gardener program run by the University of Missouri Extension Service and he enrolled in what was then a telecommunication course, which took place during the evenings at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Then living in Dogtown, Jack decided to do the 50 hours of volunteer service the program required close to home by volunteering with the Flora Conservancy in Forest Park. The Conservancy has access to the Forest Park greenhouses and oversees the plantings around the Jewel Box, Pagoda Circle by The Muny and several other areas when needed and also helps out with Lafayette Park. In addition the group propagates plants for a public sale the Saturday before Mother’s Day with the funds raised used to support gardening work in the park.

Not long after that, while housesitting in University City, Jack fell in love with a nearby Spanish-style home with a good-sized private back yard. When the house came up for sale in 2001, he and John bought it.

Fast forward to today, where Jack is officially the consultant/liaison for Flora Conservancy with the city of St. Louis, which owns the park; a long-time board member and president of U City in Bloom; and was a board member of the St. Louis branch of the University of Missouri Extension Service. He also volunteers as a docent and helps with the gardening at the Frank Lloyd Wright house in Kirkwood.

His knowledge is extensive, gleaned from years of talking with other gardeners, going on garden tours and watching a favorite BBC gardening show hosted by gardening expert Monty Don. "I have been exposed to so many different plants I didn’t know about,” he says. “Someone’s always giving me a start of something and then I have to find a place for it.”

Some plants are treasured. There is the fig, purportedly brought from Italy by a previous owner of the Dogtown house, that has been reproduced in U City. Cuttings from that fig have gone to other volunteers at Flora Conservancy and been featured in the yearly sale. Seeds from the larkspur were grown by his grandmother and mother and now scattered in his current garden.

He also is continually trying new things in his own garden and if successful, those plants are eventually propagated for the Flora Conservancy sale. “There is always room for one more plant,” he states firmly. The beautiful blue spruce that now accents his back border was a leftover from the U City in Bloom sale. “I saw it and thought, ‘I can find a home for that,'" he recalls.

When he finds a plant he loves and one that works well in his garden, “I just keep dividing them up and marching them up the border and through the beds,” he explains. “I like to repeat the colors, textures and shapes to bring harmony and draw the eye through the garden.”

He also has become a big fan of using ground-up leaf mulch throughout his landscape because it is lightweight and easy to manage and he believes it increases soil fertility.

While Jack is the mastermind behind the garden design and maintenance, John is quick to pitch in on big projects and with spraying and fertilizing.

Jack sees his garden as a stress reliever. “It is a quiet, serene place where things are green and growing,” he says. “Part of it is meditative. Life can be so stressful. I can go out in the garden, do physical work and see results.”

His work with Flora Conservancy and U City in Bloom, he believes, enriches his life in ways beyond gardening. His fellow volunteers have become friends. “I’ve met a lot of interesting people,” he says “We talk about books and movies and restaurants. I learn more about other cultures." In addition, “it is just so nice to be able to contribute to places so many people enjoy. It is wonderful to see people taking their wedding pictures in front of plants you have planted.”