Beauty at the Boathouse: The Art and Science of Annual Plantings in Forest Park

Forest Park Forever Gardener Eric H. (far right) works with volunteers to plant bulbs for the spring display at the Boathouse.

Forest Park Forever Gardener Eric H. (far right) works with volunteers to plant bulbs for the spring display at the Boathouse.

Dr. Elliot, a former professor of mine at Missouri State University, once told me that horticulture is a science — but, equally important, it is an art.

Upon graduating and gaining experience in the field, each horticulturist is given the task of developing his or her own niche. After gaining a few years of experience, I soon discovered mine: annual and perennial garden design. Thriving on a challenge, whether in spring or summer, it is my artistic side that loves dreaming up our annual displays for the Boathouse in Forest Park.

On a crisp morning during the second week of October, a group of four Forest Park Forever volunteers joined Gardener Eric and myself at the Boathouse to remove our tropical flower display in preparation for planting spring bulbs and flowering perennials. The tropical display allowed my artistic side to go a bit crazy, bringing in tropical plants from Florida to create a little glimpse of a Hawaiian paradise in Forest Park.

How fast this summer flew by, and how exciting it was to watch the display evolve. Every week, one plant would stand out from the rest, catching the eye of those who passed by. I sat with a friend of mine one Saturday afternoon in August and watched the visitors pass by the gardens going to and from the Boathouse. Nearly everyone paused and took notice of the bold display, with many even pulling out their cameras or phones to snap a picture. It was such a rewarding experience to see firsthand that our efforts made a difference to the community of St. Louis.

The number one question Park visitors asked this summer was, “Can you tell me what plant this is?” No doubt every time Eric and I passed the flower beds we were bombarded by questions regarding the tropicals. The Curcuma ‘Siam Sunset’ were spectacular, blooming nonstop from late June until we dismantled the display. And oh how massive the Alocasia ‘Portodora’ grew this summer, with leaves 4 feet wide and standing 8 feet tall – it took two volunteers to lift one plant out of the ground! When we cut them down it felt more like we were cutting our way through a tropical rainforest, rather than a flower garden, with the cracking sound of each leaf as it fell to the ground. This year, Forest Park Forever has partnered with the Flora Conservancy and St. Louis City Greenhouses to store tropical rhizomes for use in the Park next summer season. Through this partnership we have managed to find ways to reuse most of the tropical plants that adorned our display this past summer.

Though the tropical display is but a memory, spring 2016 should be equally as beautiful. For this coming spring, we have planned a unique display of tulips, spring ephemerals and spring annuals.

What Plants Will Be in the Spring 2016 Display?

It is my nature to choose the unusual and different and sometimes difficult route when it comes to planning an annual design. This spring is no exception, and it is designed to thrill both the novice and avid gardener alike. All of the perennials planted this fall were grown out for the display for the first time in Forest Park with the help of Forest Park Forever staff and volunteers.

A mock-up of the proposed spring 2016 display

A mock-up of the proposed spring 2016 display

  • Heuchera ‘Fire Alarm’: Noted for is bright red foliage in spring and autumn, this heuchera adds interest to the display during the cool months of the year when other plants are dormant. Staying evergreen for most of fall and part of the winter, this heuchera will burst forth with bright red growth just in time for the tulips to bloom in April. Once the display peaks and we start to prepare the flower beds for the next summer’s display, we will transplant these beautiful perennials around the shrub boarder gardens surrounding the Boathouse.
  • Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaicata ‘Blue Moon’): Having seen this phlox species used in a spring floral display with tulips at Duke Gardens in Durham, North Carolina, I always wanted try to recreate this magical display here in St. Louis. This is one of the best woodland wildflowers to thrive in the open sunlight of deciduous woodland in the spring; it virtually disappears in summer. I remember as a child hiking through upper Creve Coeur Park in St. Louis County, admiring the beautiful display of woodland phlox springing up seemingly everywhere along the forest floor. Standing only 10-12 inches tall, it is not only noted for its sky-blue flowers, but also its sweet fragrance. Bringing this beauty up close to Forest Park visitors, our Boathouse annual display will be graced with an uneven border of about 1,000 woodland phlox.
  • Tulip ‘Temples Favorite’: Get ready for a giant of a tulip to cover our annual display this April. Over 6,000 bright orange goblet-shaped flowers arising from 30” tall stems will grace the center of our annual display. ‘Temple’s Favorite’ is a mid- to late-season tulip that I chose for its incomparable size and beauty, as well as the time of year it typically blooms. If in your garden at home you do not battle deer, tulips offer a plethora of colors that can brighten up even the gloomiest late winter and early spring days. Tulips are classified as being early, mid-season and late-season bloomers (and everything in between) and, depending on the weather, early tulips may start blooming in early March. So make sure to plant a few varieties to increase the flowering times of your garden site.
  • Lupinus texensis ‘Ladybird Johnson Royal Blue’: In the spring, roadsides throughout Texas are carpeted in the glorious display of Lupinus texensis, commonly known as the Texas bluebonnet. Being in the bean family, this Texas Superstar® relies on a specific strain of bacteria which colonizes its roots, producing much needed nitrogen in exchange for sugars from the host plant, forming a symbiotic relationship (one that is mutually beneficial). This cultivar Ladybird Johnson Royal Blue is a deep cobalt blue strain that was selected by horticulturists with Texas A&M University Extension, including Larry Parsons in 2006 as part of a project started in 1985 to develop new color strains of the common Texas bluebonnet. We are thrilled to grow out this winter annual this season with seed inoculated with the appropriate bacteria. Through correspondence with Larry Parsons at Texas A&M University Extension, we hope to bring a little bit of the glorious Texas roadside display to St. Louis’ backyard in Forest Park.

Other Preparations for the Spring Display

Mulching with Pine Needles:

I remember as a kid so many home gardeners telling us to remove the mat of pine needles that accumulated under our 30-year-old white pines. It did not make sense to me as a child, for in nature these needles are never removed and build up organic matter on the forest floor. At home we took advantage of the soil-water retention properties of these pine needles, planting a wall of rhododendrons and oak-leaf hydrangeas, which thrived and later reached well over our heads. Those of us who have spent time in the South know that gardens across the south eastern United State are mulched with pine straw. Pine straw, which are pine needles harvested from the forest floor of pine groves, is composed of predominately Loblolly Pine needles (Pinus taeda), but others such as long leaf (Pinus palustris), and slash pine (Pinus elliottii) are also used, all of which are pines native to the south eastern United States.

Having spent time in Raliegh, I fell in love with this great horticulture practice. Besides adding a festive fall look to our annual beds, this layer of needles provides great insulation against cold winter winds and does not erode off steep slopes like other mulches. Just like leaf mulch, pine straw is a more natural way to recycle nutrients back into the soil, while still providing the lasting benefits of hardwood mulch. It also decomposes at a slower rate than leaf mulch. Already we had one visitor, born in the South Eastern US comment on our annual display. To us in St. Louis, this is a novel practice, but to those from the South it is a beloved horticulturally correct tradition. If you have a chance, you may want to try out pine straw mulch in your gardens at home.

Cobblestone Raised Garden Beds:

Years ago, I spent countless days at family property carrying pile after pile of rock to and from fencerows and piles in the middle of the woods placed there by settlers clearing the land for pasture. The only way to garden in the Ozark Highland is through using raised beds, and field stone became my material of choice to line every garden. The foundation and broken-down chimney to an old cabin swallowed up by the forest became steps creating a varying maze of terrain within a front garden fence made of red cedar off restored glades throughout the property.

Although I do not miss the Ozark soil (or lack thereof), I do miss the countless supplies of rocks each with their own unique shape and size, fitting together strangely to perfection. Bringing my memories of years ago with me, I worked with Eric to recreate raised garden beds at the Boathouse annual display this past fall. We reused cobblestones that once lined streets and walkways within the city. Isn’t it amazing how a few rocks (though Eric would argue that there are much more than a few!) can change the look of a landscape bed? In horticulture, creating raise beds can help increase soil drainage and help plants thrive. In March 2016, Texas bluebonnets native to Texas will be visible in the display, thriving in their native habitat of well-drained soil. At the Boathouse, water runoff can pool up next to our flower beds, causing root rot of neighboring plants. Our raised beds serve both sides of horticulture, improving the scientific structure of our soil, and creating artistic beauty.

I hope all of you continue to enjoy the work that our team — my right-hand man Eric, myself and our volunteers — is doing near the Boathouse in beautiful Forest Park. If you are in the Park this coming spring, make sure to come back at the beginning of April when our garden canvas will come alive with a glorious display of unique spring flowers.

Patrick is the horticulturist in charge of Zone 2, covering the area from the Boathouse to the Grand Basin. Click here to learn more about Patrick and the rest of our talented Land Management team