ST. LOUIS RESIDENT JOHN MERKLE’S TRAVEL ARE REFLECTED IN HIS BACKYARD.
First-time visitors to the home of 66-year-old radiologist John Merkle always ask him who maintains his gardens.
It’s a fair question—the backyard is designed as a series of elaborate verdant rooms, each a canvas for the owner’s creativity, and Merkle gets the credit for tending to it all.
“I do the work, because I’m picky. I want it done right,” he says. “I have a staff of three here: me, myself, and I, and the only one who can do it right is myself.”
Three decades ago, Merkle purchased a historic Compton Heights home, then had to spend his first two years in it getting the infrastructure sound before he could turn his attention to the backyard, which held just two beleaguered trees. “It was pathetic. It really was,” he recalls, “but as a visual person, I could see what it could be.”
Near the property’s northern perimeter, marked by a 120-foot-long cedar fence, Merkle installed a Japanese garden after returning from an inspiring maiden voyage to Asia.
“I can look at this kind of stuff all day,” he says. “I love to travel, and wherever I travel, there’s always a botanical garden or some kind of major botanical feature to see.” Merkle says he’s always been fascinated by Asian gardens, and that first trip to Asia, in the early 2000s, moved him to base a garden on his interpretation of the aesthetic.
Carpeted in mondo grass, the garden features seven types of Japanese maples and a blue atlas cedar. Merkle says St. Louis is about the farthest south that the conifer will grow. “I have to do a fair amount of trimming [of the cedar] to keep things in check,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s too shady and the ground cover is not going to grow.” Ever the treasure hunter, Merkle—also known for his extensive collection of antiquities—found garden-specific decorations, including 18th-century carved marble lotus bowls, Japanese lanterns “that you could light up in the evening with candles if you wanted to,” and antique marker stones, weighing 300 pounds each, that flank the entrance to the garden. “I needed a little help getting them back there,” he says. “I also wanted a teahouse. My buddies and I put that together.”
South of the Japanese garden, just past a ginkgo tree that turns a brassy yellow in the fall, is an English woodland garden, embellished with Lenten roses and tricolor beech trees. Further on, a small rock garden gives Merkle space for experimentation in the shadow of a palm tree, fashioned of scrap metal, bearing coconuts that light up at night. But the side yard’s boxwood knot garden may be the pièce de résistance—though Merkle says he doesn’t like to pick favorites, exclaiming, “I love it all!”
Like other areas of the yard, travel inspired the knot garden. Merkle had recently visited England for the first time and spent time at Hampton Court Palace, where the grounds were undergoing a massive restoration to what they’d have looked like in the time of William and Mary. “I thought, This would be a great space [for a knot garden], because the side yard isn’t really what you would ordinarily call a useful space,” he recalls. Merkle had a friend render the design, 35 feet square, with the use of CAD; he then set stakes, connecting them with rope to ensure straight lines throughout.
The knot garden is adorned with 19th-century Carrara marble sculptures, two Victorian water fountains, and a spiral boxwood at the center of three pool half-spheres, which are lined in red brick to complement Merkle’s Mediterranean house. The “floor” is blanketed in ajuga, a ground cover plant that prevents weeds from sprouting; a hedge of European hornbeam adds height. “You need something vertical. If I didn’t have these, it would just be flat to the street. You need variety,” says Merkle, noting that he climbs a ladder every couple of months to give the hornbeams a clean shave.
Over the years, Merkle says, he’s relied on “mulch friends” who drive to St. Louis from Perryville, Illinois, for special projects: delivering mulch, helping build the retaining walls that define the yard’s rooms. In 2005, he and the friends spent seven hours installing 400 boxwoods, assembly line–style, with one person manning the auger and another handing off shrub after shrub to Merkle, who set them carefully into position.
Merkle prunes the boxwoods once a year, after the spring rains turn them a dark green. (They’re short enough for him to step over.) He selected the Green Velvet variety because it thrives in the St. Louis climate, grows mostly vertically, and takes just two or three seasons for discrete plants to meld into neat hedges. “In March, April, and May, they’ll put on several inches,” he says. “I clip that off.”
At nearly an acre, the yard is large enough to accommodate multiple garden styles, but for Merkle to consider adding a specimen, it must have color, texture, or blooms. “I want it to do something different, depending on the time of the year. I mean, it’s okay if it’s got nice autumn color, but what else can it do? Maybe it’s got beautiful leaves or foliage, or it flowers in the spring or flowers in the fall, or it’s got funky bark,” he says. The English woodland garden meets all of those benchmarks: astilbe, acanthus, iris, epimedium. “I’m trying to get a ground cover called mazus to grow in there. It’s very low lying, but it produces, in the spring and then in the early fall, a purple orchid-like flower.”
Like all gardens, Merkle’s has evolved with age. The dianthus, planted in limestone containers that meander toward the teahouse like boats along a river, need to be moved. “Unfortunately, the stuff that’s in the back there isn’t getting enough light,” Merkle says, so he planned to take them out, plant them elsewhere in the yard, and install colorful coreopsis instead. But coreopsis needs more sun, so he realized that his scheme wouldn’t work. “The best I can think of so far is to look for miniature hostas in various colors and textures,” he says. “There’s a hosta society in St. Louis, so there’s a lot of interest in them.” A touch of the Midwest in a garden holding such worldly delights would be welcome. “It could be very pretty,” says Merkle. “It could be very pretty, very interesting.”
If the home’s next owner isn’t a gardener, Merkle says, that person will need to remove a lot of elements, because his gardens are high-maintenance work: “I like the physicality because my job as a physician—I’m not saying it’s sedentary, but it’s not what I would call physical work.”
Maison des Fleurs
THE ARCHITECTURE SHOWS A FRENCH INFLUENCE, BUT A SURPRISE AWAITS VISITORS LUCKY ENOUGH TO PASS THROUGH THE FRONT DOOR.
On the approach, the house has the appearance of a centuries-old French chateau, complete with a steep cedar-shingled roof, buckets of blooming flowers, and a pebble drive flanked by stonework bearing a plaque that’s engraved with its name.
But in the back of the property, Maison des Fleurs—the House of Flowers—shows another international influence: the homeowners’ childhoods in South Africa, where the moderate climate translates to little use of air conditioning and windows and doors that open wide, permitting an effortless transition between the indoors and the outside.
“We would spend our days outside barbecuing, which we would call braai-ing, and around the pool with our families and with our friends,” says one of the homeowners, recalling her youth in Durban, South Africa. “It would all be inside-outside living. So, growing up like that, that’s what we wanted to create for ourselves and for family and our friends. [Her husband is from Johannesburg.]”
That goal is blissfully realized in a house with a large pool area accented by partially submerged chaises longues and a picturesque veranda designed with a comfortable sitting area, an outdoor kitchen, and a dining table that can accommodate more than a dozen people.
But variations in landscape elevations, a desire to reflect the home’s architecture, and the decidedly immoderate St. Louis weather necessitated creativity in the selection of plants and décor. The designers solved the weather problem by enclosing the veranda and struck a balance between French styling and the locale by curating a blend of formal plants and native perennials and other vegetation suited to the area’s slopes, such as Karl Foerster reed grass and Thorndale English ivy.
Landscapers built steps and retaining walls of Fond du Lac stone and Missouri limestone, respectively, to tackle topographical variations. The retaining walls frame a large auto court that lends to the property’s stately French feel, says Bob Wilhelm, vice president of sales and design for Poynter Landscape Architecture.
“The front is definitely more formal, but the formality carries back to the pool,” says Wilhelm, who served as project designer. “I would say the transitional areas on the slopes are more natural, with native perennials and shrubs.”
Green Giant arborvitae, Bracken’s Brown Beauty magnolia, and Norway spruce provide year-round privacy. White blooms, including peonies in the spring and such varieties of hydrangeas as Limelight, Little Lime, and Alice Oakleaf in the summer, dominate the yard and help give the house its name. The hedges are made up of Green Velvet and Green Mountain boxwoods; black-eyed Susans, Magnus coneflower, May Knight salvia, and Francee hosta grace the perennial areas.
“The design of my yard, with the repetitive simple lines of boxwoods, hydrangeas, and peonies, was to keep the French feel that my house portrays,” says the homeowner. “I just think it gives it that simple but elegant feel. Sometimes, when you try to do too much, the eye doesn’t know where to land.”
That simplicity extends to the decoration of the veranda, a gathering spot all year long. The sofas are adorned with pillows brought back from trips to South Africa, and other custom pieces covered in fabrics by Ralph Lauren and Romo. A heavily textured rug and gas lamps finish the look in a style that many homeowners are seeking for their outdoor spaces, says JR Zachary of JR Zachary Design.
“Homeowners need to carry on as if the indoors is part of the outdoors,” says Zachary, who employed a similar muted color scheme for the interiors. “[The veranda] looks like someone’s family room. It’s cozy.”
The homeowner says the family does think of the veranda as another living space. Glass doors off the formal living and dining areas disappear into the walls when opened, rendering them invisible from the front door. Massive French doors in other rooms around the house open to the backyard. The veranda can be completely enclosed with built-in motorized screens at the front end, giving the designers the freedom to use indoor furniture. “There are comfy couches, so you can curl up and read a book out there,” says the homeowner, who reports that she’ll often walk out to the veranda when it’s raining just to experience the sights, sounds, and scents of the changing weather. “Then I’ve got a long dining table that seats 12 or 14 people. That makes for a great dinner party.”
Vintage items, such as the dining table and a collection of massive olive jars used as planters around the pool, were sourced during a shopping trip to antique stores in Fairhope, Alabama. Antique barbecue and pizza-making tools hang in the kitchen area, which is put to good use on a regular basis.
“We have a lot of pizza evenings. Our son-in-law is a chef, so he brings the pizza dough and everybody makes their own,” says one of the homeowners. “When you build a house, you dream about what you’re going to do with the space. That was one of our dreams: to have everybody over to make pizzas—casual entertaining and sitting around the fire.”
IN A WEST COUNTY GARDEN, KIDS CLIMB AND HIDE, MEET UNFAMILIAR CREATURES, SOLVE MYSTERIES, AND LEARN WITHOUT REALIZING IT.
A pile of butterfly wings on the ground beneath a stand of milkweed: Such a sight puzzled Ballwin resident Krystal Kearns Coxon and her three kids. Their home garden bristled with the native plants, which they’d planted in hopes of supporting monarchs on their life journey. The Coxon kids had even raised milkweed seedlings under grow lights and sold them to neighbors at the end of their driveway. If the monarchs had plenty to eat and a safe place to rest, the family wondered, why were their orange-and-black wings littering the ground?
The Coxons decided: Let’s be investigators. They searched online and found that praying mantises, which resemble milkweed branches, survive by snatching up hapless monarchs who land on that species of plant. Sure enough, the kids went looking for mantises and saw some. They learned that all three organisms—monarch, mantis, milkweed—are interconnected. “It made us sad,” says Coxon, “but it was an opportunity to learn.”
Coxon says her family’s garden is designed to be not just a natural habitat for native plants, birds, bees, and butterflies but also an outdoor classroom of sorts for her children—even if the kids see it only as a natural playground. “Without realizing it, the kids have learned so much,” she says. “They certainly know things as young kids that I’m just now learning.”
Coxon had long been interested in ecosystems. She worked on watershed protection in the Peace Corps and in the public sector in Virginia. When she and her husband, Steve Coxon, moved to their Ballwin home eight years ago, the yard was mostly turfgrass and boxwood, but they’ve since planted about 100 native species—all perennials that come back without the need for replanting and thrive in the area’s clay soil, obviating the need for compost. Best of all: Those plants bring visitors. The bergamot seeds bring goldfinches; the coral honeysuckle attracts hummingbirds; shrubby St. John’s wort is a favorite of ruby-crowned kinglets; the pondless bubbler is a place where eastern bluebirds and waxwings like to shower. And those are just the birds.
Six-year-old Mavis adores watching the squirrels—who behave “like really advanced acrobats,” she says—as they climb the wild cherry tree. (The kids themselves climb persimmon trees and form human pyramids to pick sweet mulberries.) Emerson, who’s 9, appreciates the colors of the tiny tree frog they found. Sage, age 11, likes to hide in the tall bluestem grass but says her favorite plant is the rose mallow, a native hibiscus that she picked out on a trip to a nursery. Its flowers serve as a hotel for the male hibiscus turret bee. “I think it’s really cool how the male bee sleeps in [the flower] at night, and when it opens, they go find the lady bees. So sometimes we get to gently open the flower and there’s a bee inside it.” Whenever the Coxons see or hear an unfamiliar organism, they post photos or audio on the website iNaturalist, whose community can usually help them identify the species.
The kids could certainly memorize facts, Coxon says, but in the garden, they “learn how to follow their curiosity and know where the tools are to learn more.” Yes, there may be insects that sting or plants that make skin itch, their mother says, but to parents concerned about those things, she says: “Be curious, learn more, and you’ll find that there’s not much to be afraid of.”
Another tactic: Give a critter an affectionate nickname. Sage once found a wolf spider and put her in a terrarium. “People thought she was gross and weird,” Sage recalls, “but I didn’t have any pets. I named her Cupcake. She was a cute little spider. I fed her lots of fruit flies. A couple times I thought she had died, but she had just molted her skin.” Coxon didn’t know that wolf spiders molt. As a mother, she’s learning right along with her kids. “The world is a big place,” she says, “and we’re just scratching the surface.”
Sometimes, Coxon says, she hears other parents express a wish to have such a garden for their kids. Her response: “You can have one, and would you like some seedlings?”