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As children, my three sisters and I had a pinto pony named Tony. I think we may have ridden him twice during his time with us. I was the youngest and just a little kid, but I loved to climb up on the fence and pet his soft nose, and for some strange reason, I liked how he smelled. I suspect the only reason my mother consented to having the horse was because of the manure that she could use in her gardens.

Mother loved to garden, and she, like me, had limited sun because of the huge trees in our yard. But she prevailed with her roses, shrubs, and annuals, and Tony the Pony’s gifts to her.

I can only recall one nursery that we went to each spring and that was on Olive in University City. The owners of the nursery knew my mother by name, as did the firemen in our community. Each fall when we raked up all those leaves into piles for burning (do you remember when we could burn leaves?), inevitably my mother would set the garage (really a barn for the chickens and Tony) on fire, and she’d have to call the fire department for help. “We were expecting your call Mrs. Murphey.”

Today, as a gardener, I don’t have the soil amendments that my mother did. But I have learned through the education I receive as a volunteer at the Missouri Botanical Garden, horticulture classes at Meramec Junior College, and my coworkers and mentors at Sugar Creek Gardens how important it is to prepare the soil for successful gardening.
Karen’s garden

My coworker, friend, and mentor Mary Reedy sometimes refers to Sugar Creek as the “Chick Nursery.” Well, I’m the “Old Hen” of the nursery. When discussing with my good friend, good neighbor, mentor, and now coworker Tina Paletta what I was going to do with my life after working for a lawyer for 37 years, she suggested I come to Sugar Creek Gardens. I am forever grateful to her, and to Ann Lapides, the owner of Sugar Creek, for hiring me. I have been privileged to work here for the past five years, and if my body and mind hold up, I plan on being associated with Sugar Creek until they roll me out on one of the carts with some beautiful flowers and, of course, some Cotton Burr Compost. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t learn something new about horticulture that I can utilize personally and pass on to our customers and friends and find enjoyment being with everyone associated with Sugar Creek Gardens.

The good stuff

Favorite annual: There are too many to have a particular favorite. I love the nemesias, verbenas, petunias, angelonias, coleus, all the Thrillers (rubrums, etc.), Million Bells, flowering vincas, on and on…

Favorite perennial: I have many beautiful hosta, thalictrum, astilbe, daylilies, phlox, geranium, iris, heucheras, penstemon, coneflower, rudbeckia, plumbago, just so many and all of them are favorites.

Favorite tree and shrub: I have two Japanese maple trees, ‘Crimson Queen,’ a beautiful Foster Holly that provides red berries for the birds during the winter, and several crab apple, dogwood, and redbud trees. I love my hydrangea macrophylla ‘Nikko Blue’ and my oakleaf hydrangeas. People constantly stop in front of my house and compliment them. The coloration of the Nikkos throughout their bloom time is wonderful — pink, lime green, soft violet, then blue, and the coloration of the oakleaf’s foliage during autumn is spectacular. In the fall I cut off the blooms and foliage when they attain the coloration I want and bring them inside and place in vases and baskets throughout my house. The colors stay true for about a year. Therefore I have year-round hydrangeas inside and outside my house. One plant that has provided me with great pleasure is the Knockout Rose. Several years ago I planted five Nearly Wild Roses in a new bed I created streetside of my yard. Of course I had to keep adding perennials to this bed, and in doing so, the roses were becoming secondary. My quandary was whether to eliminate the roses or enhance them. I decided to enhance by adding five Knockout Roses. Now the bed is fabulous with the almost constant blooming of the roses and the perennial and annual plants. I have strived to incorporate into my garden beds elements of winter interest, too. To this end, I have many azaleas for color during the spring and a number of boxwood; both of these plants are evergreen.

Greatest gardening accomplishment: Almost eradicating my Biggest Gardening Goof of becoming enamored with the heart-shaped leaves of yellow, green, bronze, and scarlet red of Houttuynia, Chameleon, and planting it in several beds throughout my gardens. I thought it was such a beautiful little plant. It attempted to take over these beds and choked out several plants. The roots extend deeply into the soil, and it has taken me almost four years to almost rid my gardens of this invasive plant. It may be wonderful for some as groundcover, but it is not my friend.

Advise to beginners: Take classes within the horticulture program at Meramec Junior College. If you don’t want to be burdened with tests and exams, audit the classes. Become a volunteer at Missouri Botanical Garden and take classes offered by the garden. Become a volunteer within Forest Park Forever. Attend free seminars at Sugar Creek Gardens. Amend your soil!

Advise to professionals: Not from me — I’m still learning!

Karen’s garden was featured in St. Louis Home and Lifestyles magazine, see it here.