Lori Stringer’s Ballwin garden glows with color. It shines in summer from the golds of native Missouri coneflowers, gray-headed prairie coneflowers and ox-eye sunflowers. The color wheel revolves to the cooler shades of purple coneflower and lavender wild bergamot (bee balm). Brilliant red spikes of Cardinal flower act as exclamation points in the floral display, while native swamp hibiscus, taking advantage of wet spots in the garden, add saucer-shaped blossoms in pinks and burgundy.
But “color is not always about the flowers,” points out Lori. Varying shades of green add their own dimension to the color palette. A huge, evergreen Gold Thread cypress adds a chartreuse punch to one back corner of the yard. In the opposite corner, a rangy Tiger Eyes sumac with reddish purple stems has foliage that begins chartreuse, turns gold in summer, then orange in autumn. Red orange dots of color provided by the dangling drupes/fruit almost appear as though a flock of cardinals flew into the branches, Lori notes. An immense, shrub-like baptisia plant with soft, blue-green leaves provides a foliage counterpoint.
There are layers of terra cotta colors in the sandstone, limestone and granite used to create the swim pond that sparkles with clear, turquoise water. Nearby, goldfish and koi flash red and orange as they glide through the water lily-filled fishpond.
While all these colors can be found in nature, Lori and her wife Gerri Rosen have injected a shot or two of color on their own. Resplendent in a wooden pavilion overlooking the entire garden, two bright red chairs salvaged from the former Busch Stadium offer the best seats in the house. Elsewhere in the garden, Gerri, a huge Cardinal fan, has tucked other Red Bird memorabilia.
It was a flash of yellow that drew Lori into her passion for gardening with native plants. The story of how that happened, however, takes a while to unfold. Having graduated from college and embarking on a career as an athletic trainer in the St. Louis area in 1982, Lori suddenly switched careers and moved to Minneapolis in 1984 to help run a bakery owned by her wife’s family. When the bakery changed hands four years later, Lori and Gerri needed jobs quickly and both landed at the post office when, as Lori points out, there were not a lot of women working as letter carriers. In 1994, Lori’s aging parents, who lived in Affton, were in an automobile accident and she felt uncomfortable living so far away. A combination of cold Minnesota winters and concern for her parents brought both Lori and Gerri back to St. Louis where they continued to work for the post office.
The Ballwin home they bought was on a cul de sac with a pie-shaped lot. “We fell in love with the land, not the house,” Lori recalls. The property featured a hillside planted with a variety of ground covers, some raised garden beds and a small fish pond. Coming from Minnesota and overwhelmed by the heat of St. Louis summers, Lori and Gerrie added a drop-in fiberglass swimming pool. “We’ve made the yard a lot better than it was then but for the time it was fabulous,” Lori recalls.
With a grandmother and mother who loved gardening, Lori paid attention to landscapes and plants as she walked her delivery routes. Her interest in gardening became more firmly rooted in her own back yard in 2010/2011 when Lori and Gerri realized they needed a landscaping overhaul. The fish pond they inherited, created from a cattle tank that had been sunk in the soil, was rusted and leaking. The fiberglass swimming pool was tiring. They headed for the St. Louis Home and Garden show to look for ideas and were blown away when they took in the display created by Chris Siewing of Nature’s Re-Creations. “He brought the woods and a creek into the convention center,” Lori recalls. “There were really cool moss-covered tree stumps. We told Chris we wanted Johnson’s Shut-Ins in our back yard, and he said, ‘I can do that.’”
“Our design goal when we are creating features is to try to mimic or simulate natural features that you would come across in a native Missouri landscape,” Chris explains. “We pay a lot of attention to the stone and how it was pulled out of the ground. Stone has a top, a face and a bottom according to how it has been sitting on a hillside and weathering. The best compliment we can ever get from homeowners is that the water feature we created looks like it has always been there; it looks like they built the house around it.”
Initially, Lori and Gerri asked for only a fish pond but when the bid came back under budget, they added a swim pond as well, cutting some of the cost by reusing and installing themselves the pump and filter system from the previous pool, which they were used to maintaining.
With the stones and water features in place, Lori began the landscaping process. She elected to leave the bottom trunks of dead trees for their natural, architectural interest. She added large shrubs to provide the landscape with permanent structure and also introduced some new groundcovers. Where perennials were concerned, she was looking for what she called “the usual suspects” plants that would offer a continual parade of color and in addition require the least amount of maintenance possible.
Everything changed, however, in 2016 when she was walking her mail route and noticed what she thought was a bright yellow escaped canary. “I said, ‘Lady is that your bird?’” Lori recalls with a laugh. On learning that it was a goldfinch feasting on native coneflower seeds, Lori was fascinated. The native gardener on her mail route became her mentor in terms of both information and plants. Fascinated, Lori began to do more research, purchasing a copy of "Bringing Nature Home" by Douglas Tallamy, which highlights information on "How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants."
At her own home, frustrated by the lack of birds in her yard, she began methodically changing out perennials that were not Missouri natives for those that were.
The perennials she planted initially have reseeded and spread. She is delighted to let those plants find their happy place. “They continually surprise me,” she says. “I love watching what comes up. If I like where they are, I leave them. If I don’t like where they are, I move them. If I don’t like them at all, I chop them down. I haven’t tried to rein it in because, so far, it is working for me.”
Chris worked with Lori to add native aquatic plants such as blue flag iris, hardy canna, purple flowering pickerel weed and lizard’s tail with striking green and white foliage to the margins of the ponds. Those plants supplement the water lilies that accent the surface of the fish pond.
Even before she retired after 30 years at the post office, Lori began adding to her gardening knowledge by enrolling in the horticultural program at St. Louis Community College-Meramec, where she received a Certificate in Proficiency in December. She currently works part-time in the aquatic plant greenhouse owned by Chalily Ponds & Gardens in Manchester.
Through her connection to Meramec, Lori learned about the Wild Ones, a native plant education organization. That knowledge has led to her yard being certified as a Missouri Native Landscape by Wild Ones, where she has become an active member. Her landscape also is Platinum Certified by the St. Louis Audubon Society for outstanding wildlife habitat, use of native plants, water conservation, wildlife stewardship and invasive weed eradication.
In addition, Lori has taken her enthusiasm for and knowledge of native plants to the Gateway Professional Horticulturist Association, where she serves as vice president. And those birds Lori was hoping for? They are slowly discovering her yard. Hummingbirds have flocked to her Cardinal flowers. Hawks have made an appearance. The snags of dead wood from the decaying tree trunks are proving popular nesting areas. And last winter she sighted an elusive Missouri bluebird.