2023 Garden of the Year: Wooded Whimsy

Wildwood homeowners enlist Bauer Falls to turn their back yard into the perfect at-home campsite.

By Lucyann Boston

Photography by Kim Dillon


The homeowners had an idea. Caleb Bauer of Bauer Falls had a vision. And Bill Spradley of Trees, Forests and Landscapes painted it with living color and texture. Along the way, Mother Nature weighed in to put her own stamp on the design.

While we are giving credit, we should also give a shout out to Sheila and Boo, the homeowners’ heelers/Australian cattle dogs. They are the reason that a 106-foot rippling stream with rapids-filled waterfalls and five-foot-deep swimming hole, complete with koi, came into being on a property in Wildwood.

Prior to 2021, the homeowners lived in a five-bedroom house in Creve Coeur, complete with a separate suite that had been used by a grandfather, a retired physician, who helped with their two children. The couple has always loved the outdoors, spending the first five days of their honeymoon camping in Dark Canyon, Arizona, and “the next three days in the best hotel we could find in Santa Fe,” they recalled. In St. Louis they indulged their love of the outdoors with a lake house at the Innsbrook Resort complex, just 45 minutes west of St. Louis. With the children grown, “we were rattling around in a big house” and they found themselves using the Innsbrook location less and less. “We decided it was time to start looking around for property to build a new home” that could combine a primary residence and a few acres of outdoor space.

They had been looking for over a year and were driving to Boston to see their son when they noticed a listing for a wooded, 5-acre horse property complete with a 20-year-old house and large barn for sale in Wildwood. As soon as they returned to St. Louis they toured the property. High atop a ridge, it offered long-distance views over the treetops to the ski slopes at Hidden Valley, giving the location a Rocky Mountain vibe.  While there were changes they wanted to make to the house, all the basics were there already, and it was in commuting distance to work in St. Louis. With a new plan in mind, the couple sold their Creve Coeur house and the property at Innsbrook and moved to the rolling hills of west St. Louis County.

They had previously been working with Bill Spradley at their Creve Coeur home to add native trees and shrubs to that landscape. They contacted him immediately to walk their new property and provide some overall advice.

In the couple’s mind there was one obvious thing missing at their new location: water. The two four-legged members of the family loved the pool at the Creve Coeur home and swam in the lake at Innsbrook. The homeowners asked Bill’s advice about how to add a little pond and stream at their new house that the dogs could play in. Bill had read about the water features created by the Bauer brothers of Bauer Falls in St. Louis Homes + Lifestyles  magazine and suggested they contact Caleb Bauer.

Growing up on a property that backed up to a 7,000-acre state park and hiking all his life, Caleb was used to looking at the contours of a piece of undeveloped property and seeing how it could be transformed into a natural wonder. After talking with the homeowners and learning bit more about their lifestyle, he saw more than a simple splash pool for Sheila and Boo. Learning that they were outdoor people who liked to go backpacking and float rivers and streams, he suggested a pond big enough for the whole family to sit around. The natural cedar trees abundant on the property created, in Caleb’s mind, a vision of a “camp site with a waterfall and swimming hole with a gravel bar where you could pitch a tent. The cedars added a rustic feel like you were out in a national park,” he explains. His goal was to design a water feature that “looked like something that had been there before they came and would be there long after they left.”

After we met and forged a relationship, Caleb says, “they let me make the project about four times bigger than they were talking about originally.”

When the digging began, Caleb needed all his creativity. Layers of bedrock lurked under the surface of the soil. Those layers dictated how the project evolved and the stream took shape. To create a 4-to-5-foot-deep pool at the bottom of the stream, he first had to build up a hillside-like wall of earth. The result was an almost infinity-like pool edge looking out toward the woods. Strategically placed rocks allow the homeowners to walk up and through the stream. What appears to be a stone bench at the far end of the pool actually covers the system’s water recycling equipment. Annuals and water plants in the stream absorb nutrients and keep down algae.

“The original idea was to make it appear that we came upon a site that had a creek and we dammed it up.” the homeowner explains. As time went on “Caleb and his digger took on a life of their own. I enjoyed watching him deal with what he encountered and work around that. He just went to town. It was amazing.”

To soften the hard edges of the newly created stream and blend it into the land with plant material, the homeowners called on Bill’s skills with trees, shrubs and landscaping. He has tried as much as possible to rely on plants that are native and nativars (cultivars created directly from natives) that would thrive in the rocky soil. A grove of pawpaws and plantings of black haw virburnum, shortleaf pine, aromatic sumac and arborescence hydrangea accent the stream.  A screen of dwarf conifers hides the parking area.

In shady spots the focus is on deer resistant perennials such as ferns, pulmonaria and hellebores. Plantings of iris, prairie drop seed, yarrow and coreopsis accent sunny spaces. Perennials with strong odors that deer leave alone such as cat mint and allium are mingled with less pungent flowering plants in hopes that the deer will take a whiff of a whole bed and stay away.

Shortly after the couple moved in and prior to the creation of the stream, Bill had rescued a line of struggling black gum trees with exposed roots in the front yard. In addition to feeding the trees, he added organic matter and created a massive, nicely mulched perennial bed to shield the tree roots. So far, the deer have left the bed alone.

The landscape is a continual work in progress with new pathways and plantings being added and the recent creation by Caleb of a free form fence around the seating area using dead branches of the surrounding cedar trees.

The stream and pond are now two years old and the joy of having the equivalent of a park site in their backyard has exceeded anything the homeowners expected. Wildlife abounds with appearances by mink, racoons and bald eagles. Hummingbirds are everywhere and “there are more species of butterflies than you can shake a stick at. You can’t believe the sound of the frogs at night. We started out with 13 fish in the pond. We now probably have 50.”

From the deck at the back of the house, the couple can look out over the stream and pond to groves of evergreen cedar trees and see in the distance the ski slopes of Hidden Valley. “It feels just like the Rockies,” the homeowner says. “We feel so blessed to be out here. We’re still trying to figure out how we got away with it.”



Landscape Designer Bauer Falls