The Slope of Possibility

"This garden was created as an ever-evolving verdant tribute to the life and legacy of our mother and grandmother Susan Heard Smith, an artist, gardener and radiant spirit. Her sense of wonder and sheer delight serve to remind us to return to a place of gratitude, where the possibility of peace and joy is always available to us."

By Lucyann Boston

Artwork and photography by Marcella Hawley

Photography by Kim Dillon


Marcella Hawley had spent her entire life around beautiful flowers. But until she planted her own beds in Webster Groves, she had no idea of the healing power of a garden.

Growing up in Kirkwood as Marcella Spanogle, she had only to look out her bedroom window at the showstopping landscape filled with daffodils and iris, created by her mother Susan Heard Smith. An illustrator for Hallmark cards with a master’s degree in painting, Susan used her artistic talents to create a gorgeous garden and home that drew both local and national attention from television, newspapers and magazines.

Her skateboarding, music-loving daughter absorbed her surroundings. After obtaining a BFA degree in graphic design from the University of Illinois-Champaign, Marcella accepted a job with a printing company in central Illinois. That company published the catalog of the Illinois-based, internationally known Klehm Nursery, specializing in the production of peonies, daylilies, hostas and a wide variety of other garden plants.

Already a fan of innovative shelter magazines such as Martha Stewart Living, Marcella combined her own watercolors, inspirational quotations, and beautiful typography with more standard photography to design a unique catalog. Not only was it an information guide to the company’s horticultural stock, the catalog doubled as a plant picture book that could be treasured for its beauty alone. Martha Stewart’s art director was on the mailing list for the catalog, noticed Marcella’s talent while researching a story on peonies and offered Marcella a job as assistant to the art director of Martha Stewart Living.

After working in the east for several years, Marcella “came home to a message on my answering machine from Mary Engelbreit (the St. Louis-based artist who created a line of greeting cards, home décor and publications.)  She was starting a decorating magazine and invited me to come back to St. Louis to interview to be the art director” of what became Mary Engelbreit's Home Companion, published between 1996 and 2010.

Marcella then took her experience and left to pursue other artistic endeavors. Always an entrepreneur, she threw herself into a variety of freelance graphic design projects and created Power Poppy, a digital and clear stamp design business while raising two children. She also rekindled her love for skateboarding. At an “Old Man Skate Night," she re-connected with Doug Scronce, whom she had known as a teenager. The two married and began raising a blended family of four children.

Her life turned upside down in 2016, when her mother, mentor and best friend died from breast cancer. Marcella first reacted by keeping busy, as she describes it, “bypassing the hole in my heart and continuing my autopilot go-go-go lifestyle.” Even her own bout with breast cancer did not slow her down.

There was, however, another plan for her life. The same inner voice that made her mother need to dig in the dirt and create a beautiful garden began whispering to Marcella. “My Mom and I were so alike and so close. She had been encouraging me my whole life; been my biggest supporter and cheerleader. I had to become my own person; find a way to make myself feel like she made me feel,” Marcella explains. “Healing for me is to feel the way that she made me feel when she was alive; feeling all the things she loved.”

Creating her own garden became a way to re-connect with her mother and express her gratitude for all she had been given, while charting her own landscaping path.

Since her back garden area was small and confined, Marcella’s previous gardening efforts had focused on containers. To garden in earnest, she needed to dig up her sloping front yard. She broke ground in 2018 and did not start small. Her first order for 3,000 assorted bulbs, particularly the daffodils her mother so loved, needed to be planted in the fall before the ground froze.

“Holy Moley, the crazy plan I came up with on paper was like going on blind faith,” she says laughing. “When you plant perennials and bulbs in the fall, you have no idea what the river of daffodils and tulips will look like in the spring. I really didn’t know what I was doing.  I just threw things together with my color sensibilities.” She called her landscape, The Slope of Possibility.

Marcella worked on the garden through the isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic, turning every shovel full of earth and compost herself and hand-lettering every plant label.  “We had four kids doing school from home. I got to go outside and spend hours working in the garden. It got me outdoors and the days and weeks were uninterrupted. It gave me a chance to see something through and, because it is in the front yard, you can’t leave it. You have to keep going until every inch of yard is used up. I created my own little Holland.”

The landscape first wakes up with a selection of dainty spring ephemerals such as trilliums and trout lilies that will die back when the weather heats up. Her first giant order of 3,000 assorted bulbs her mother would have totally understood. Along with those daffodils and tulips, came early spring flowering hellabores (Lenten roses) and, later, beloved peonies, a reflection of her days illustrating the Klehm Nursery catalog. Though the nursery is now out of business, much of the former Klehm stock is available through Hollingsworth Peony Farm in Skidmore, MO.

Marcella treats her tulips as annuals, ordering additional bulbs each fall. While they are blooming in spring, she “takes copious photos to remember where to plant replacement bulbs. Often she will mark the spots with annuals as an added guide. To gardeners hoping for repeat blooms from tulips, Marcella recommends smaller species tulips and Darwin hybrids with the word “Impression” in the bulb name.

To make bulb planting easier, she touts a drill with an auger bit as a game changer. “I put on music or a podcast as I walk through the garden and think of myself as Johnny Appleseed,” she jokes. “If I slice into an existing bulb, I treat that as a lesson in the impermanence of things.”

Gardening, she believes, is a process. “I think of it more as a laboratory. I am always experimenting. A garden is not just about the individual plants. It’s about how they work in combination, the relationship between the colors, shapes and sizes. Whether I have done it or the plants have simply reseeded, those relationships light me up.” “In creating this garden,” she reflects, “building it, digging it, I didn’t realize when I was doing it that it was a way to honor (my mother) by re-creating her actions. In transforming my garden and my yard, I was actually transforming myself. I feel so much more peaceful and grounded.”

Marcella is currently working on the creation of an online platform called The Perennial Optimist, books and videos that will use her illustrations to explore the relationship between humans, plants and earth cycles. “It is a way to spread the loving, awakening message that plants heal,” she says. More information on Marcella, her artwork and her many projects is available at