As the relentless St. Louis summer beats down upon you while you labor away in the garden, it might be easy to forget what you are working toward. So, if you are in need of a little botanical inspiration, look no further. After sorting through the nearly 100 applicants, our judges have declared two winners in the annual Post-Dispatch Great Garden Contest.

The gardens, Timber Glen by Mary and Al Geismar of Ballwin and Backyard Oasis by Betsy and Bill Wendell of Kirkwood, tied for first place. Both, as it happens, also feature a cascading waterfall. Both win a one-year family membership to the Missouri Botanical Garden and tickets to see “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience,” coming to the St. Louis Galleria from Sept. 16 to Nov. 7.

Judges for the competition included Travis Hall and Ben Chu, both supervisors at the Missouri Botanical Garden, as well as a panel of Master Gardeners of the St. Charles County Extension. Now, enjoy this tour of what the experts have decided to be the most beautiful gardens in the St. Louis area. 

Mary and Al Geismar

The Geismar garden, an acre and a half of Smoky Mountain forest transplanted into Ballwin, is the culmination of 48 years of gardening and a lifetime love of nature for Mary and Al Geismar. 

Al Geismar’s late mother, Gertie, is the inspiration for the waterfalls in the backyard of his and wife, Mary’s beautiful Ballwin home garden. Video by Hillary Levin

“We were looking for a house for my mother, at 96” said Al of the garden’s beginnings 15 years ago. When they first came to the house, there was virtually no plant life in the backyard, but Al immediately envisioned the garden that they would eventually name Timber Glen. “We started day one,” he said, and in 10 days they completed the cascade that is now a centerpiece of the garden.

Al’s mother, Gertie, sparked the love of nature in her son: “She was the one who introduced me to the North Country, Minnesota, for two months of camp every summer,” he said, “I got exposed to all of nature, so that’s why I wanted to do all this for my mother.” Gertie would sit up on the patio every day, enjoying the cascade they built for her. 

The garden’s design inspiration came from Al and Mary’s favorite getaway. “We said we’ll re-create the North Carolina feel … a very natural kind of look,” said Mary; she takes care to plant a variety of ground cover plants to give the garden the texture and appearance of a lush forest floor, and uses perennial wildflowers. In bloom now are the stella d’oro and daisies. Many of the ferns and other plants were brought back from their trips to North Carolina.

Judge Ben Chu, supervisor of the Japanese Garden and South Gardens at the Missouri Botanical Garden, agrees that the Geismars have re-created nature on Timber Glen. He said “The elevation changes and meandering stonework give this garden a very naturalistic feel, which creates endless opportunities for exploration and enjoyment.”

One of the features that adds character to the forest is the dry creek bed that runs 200 feet through their backyard forest. Its rocks were sourced from “Hope Creek,” named for the nearby Hope Montessori Academy where Mary works. The bed is now a spot for rock treasure hunts for the Geismars’ grandkids. “I placed each of these, thinking I have grandchildren that would love to do this,” said Al, who spent five months on the project.

Al is also passionate about the trees he picks out for his property. Blue spruce add brightness to the foliage, while two striking Japanese maple flank the entrance to the house.

Garden contest winner: The Geismars

Al and Mary Geismar’s backyard gardens in Ballwin is one of the winners of the Post-Dispatch 2021 Garden contest.

Photo by Hillary Levin, [email protected]

The centerpiece of the whole garden is its cascade. The waterfall ended in a Koi pond until all the fish were eaten by owls; its lush ferns and ground cover contribute to the Smoky Mountain atmosphere. Run without chemicals, the cascade’s pump can bring the feature from dry to running in 18 seconds.

From the garden’s border forest comes the garden’s biggest challenge — deer. Once the garden was put together, these critters quickly realized that the Geismars’ place was the best salad bar in town. Even fencing does not always stop them, as the fawn can fit through the slots; Mary recalled how one deer mother used to leave her baby to chow down all day. It has been a constant struggle to find out which plants they eat and which they don’t. 

The newest garden feature is a berm toward the front of their house where vermillionaire and salvia flowers add a splash of color. A departure from their normal gardening style, the berm is proof to Al that he is not close to tiring with gardening: “My mind doesn’t work like that.”

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Garden contest winner: Betsy Wendell

The cascade of water surrounded by the fluorescent pink, purple and yellow flowers of purslane is one of Betsy Wendell’s favorite pieces of her garden. The pond is home to tadpoles and is attractive to cardinals as a bird bath. 

Photo by Hillary Levin, [email protected]

Backyard Oasis

Missouri Botanical Master Gardener Betsy Wendell had never planned on entering the Post-Dispatch’s annual garden contest: “I always look at it and never entered, but my friend said, ‘You have to enter, you have to enter’ and she kept bugging me.” Wendell’s friend also inspired the name of her submission: Backyard Oasis. She “said coming over here is like coming to Shangri La, it’s an oasis.”

Betsy Wendell has created an oasis in her Kirkwood home’s garden areas. There’re many areas for the eye to enjoy when at her home. Video by Hillary Levin

When you enter the garden from the back door of the Wendell’s Kirkwood home, your eyes are immediately drawn to the water feature and the plants around it. A gentle rocky cascade surrounded by the fluorescent pink, purple and yellow flowers of purslane, a plant that only blooms for a few hours a day. 

Wendell, who runs a small landscape and design company, loves to add color to her garden with vibrant annuals, yet her backyard has not always been this way. 

The Oasis has changed much over the 37 years Wendell has lived there with her husband, Bill, as any natural environment would have. When it all started, said Wendell, “it was all grass, pretty much a shade garden.”

The gardening project began in the front of the house, now blanketed with low-maintenance hostas, and the side shade garden, filled with black-eyed Susans and ferns. Yet Wendell found the shade limiting. But after some trees died and the backyard became sunnier, she refocused her efforts there. 

Garden contest winner: Betsy Wendell

A seating area and fire pit are part of Betsy Wendell’s backyard garden in Kirkwood.

Photo by Hillary Levin, [email protected]

The cascade is one of Wendell’s favorite pieces of the garden, both for its relaxing sound and its denizens. The pond is home to tadpoles, which she takes great care not to harm, and is attractive to cardinals as a bird bath. George, the Wendells’ golden retriever, also loves to take a dip in the pond.

The Backyard Oasis is tied together by the layering of plants at different heights and of different sizes. “The layering of plant material gives depth to landscape,” said judge Travis Hall of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Trees are essential for providing height and interest to the garden, especially Wendell’s beloved evergreens. She often gets them when they are quite young, raising them in pots until they are ready to plant — among her most prized trees are the Blue Ice cypress and Weeping Alaskan cedar.

Evergreens provide color year round and are a frequent addition to Wendell’s winter plant-arrangements. Plants that make good cuttings are a big consideration for her: “I love having stuff that I can cut and bring in; that’s one of the things I love.”

The garden truly is an oasis, designed not only for aesthetics but for activity. The pool, installed three years ago, provides a focal point for trees and flowers. She and Bill have also added a firepit and golf green, built for Bill but now mostly used by the Wendells’ kids. The Backyard Oasis is a place to relax, a creative outlet, a place for the Wendells to spend time with their children — a garden of many colors.

The runners-up

See all the finalists

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