Gardens in Bloom: Wherever veteran goes, he puts down roots

News-DemocratJune 1, 2014 

Wherever retired U.S. Navy Capt. Sterling Garnto lives, he has a garden.

"I grew up in Georgia," said Sterling, 67, of O'Fallon. "We always had one in the backyard. Every time we moved, I put a garden in."

From Florida to Virginia, from Puerto Rico to England.

"We lived in a flat in downtown London," said his wife Mary Jane. "The balcony was full of plants."

"I didn't have a yard," he said.

"Tampa is the one I miss most because of the climate and the pool in the backyard. In Tampa, I could grow indoor plants outside. We had a rubber tree as high as the side of the house."

His garden is one of seven on the June 7 Gardens in Bloom Garden Tour.

The Garntos live in a two-story home on a handsomely landscaped corner lot. Flower beds abound in front and back. Coral bells and sage bloom beneath a river birch near the driveway. A feathery Japanese maple provides contrast amid rounded boxwoods bordering the front walk. Groundcover competes for space.

"Creeping jenny and ajuga are having a battle," he said. "Creeping jenny is winning. ... The boxwood took a beating last year with the snow. They're finally getting healthy." Mary Jane is a big fan of boxwood.

"I push him to buy more of those," she said, standing on the shady front porch, also rich with plants. "I like to see the green year-round."

"My wife, she decides for me which colors to put out there," Sterling said. "She's my biggest help as far as landscaping."

The Garntos' yard was all grass, with shrubs and lava rock when they moved in 14 years ago.

"The magnolia tree is the only tree that's left," Sterling said of the waxy-leafed flowering tree out front. "It's too close to the house, but I don't want to cut it down."

Not much else is sacred.

What doesn't grow well gets moved or replaced.

The north side of the house features azaleas, rhododendrons and fruit trees that include a Georgia peach, Granny Smith and Red Delicious apple varieties and a Bartlett pear.

"It produces hundreds of pears and never gets a disease," he said.

The peach and two apples were Father's Day gifts from his son, Jarrod, a landscaper in St. Louis.

A rose garden bursts with color along the south side of the house. Sterling pruned them twice after the tough winter.

Three-foot high green netting borders two raised vegetable gardens in back where baby zucchini peek from wide webbed leaves. They got an early start in Sterling's 10-by-10-foot greenhouse. He bought it over the Internet and built it himself.

"Like a boat, it's never big enough. I need a bigger one, I think."

He opens his greenhouse the first of March to grow plants that he shares with O'Fallon's community garden.

"It's a good way to learn things. When you start plants from seed, you go through the entire growing process."

He shuts it down in May.

"It gets too hot in there. The first year I had orange trees and lemon trees. It's too expensive to heat through the winter."

Walk around the yard with him on a hazy weekday morning and you'll learn his garden, like most, is a work in progress. Fragile plants suffered over the bitter cold winter. Hydrangeas, usually flowering as they reached for the top of the 6-foot wood fence, started over.

"They bloom on old wood," he said. "Old wood turned into dead wood."

But they have buds.

Other perennials are coming into their own.

Blooming Cardinal vines ("They're a pretty good buy.They got burnt by the cold, but will come back out again and stay red another month.") climb a backyard fence.

Hostas abound. Ferns nestle between them. Clematis climb and flower in purple and pink. Dainty columbine dot garden beds. Hundreds of coneflowers prepare to bloom.

"I didn't plant most of them. Birds did."

Vegetables that got a start in the greenhouse thrive. Tomatoes are full of buds. Peas are blossoming.

But you never know.

"It's almost like playing golf," said Sterling. "Every year is different. What works one year doesn't work the next. Last year, I planted potatoes in the (O'Fallon) community garden. Half rotted because of the rain. Bugs change every year.

"Rabbits will eat you alive."

The netting (You can buy it from any feed store, he said.) fence gives his vegetables, especially tomatoes and eggplant, a fighting chance.

There's okra ("It loves hot weather."), asparagus (that will take a couple years to produce), squash, cucumber and zucchini. The herb garden, near the back door, is still coming up.

"Poor old rosemary I had five years. It's dead as a doornail this year."

Sterling retired three years ago from a second career as business manager at St. Louis University's dermatology department. That gave him time to become a master gardener. He also is a member of O'Fallon Garden Club.

That morning he had already planted annuals at the community garden on State Street and Smiley. Last year, they grew enough to donate 2,000 pounds of vegetables to the food pantry.

"Okra grows good up here," he said. "No one knew what to do with it. You can cook it on the grill. My wife makes preserves with it."

He takes turns with other master gardeners hosting a horticulture line from April to November.

"We get a lot of calls about trees," he said. "You learn a lot. You won't know the answer and have to look it up. ... Lawns will be a hot topic when it starts to get hot."

Granddaughter Nina, 3, his sidekick that day, brought out a mini rake to work alongside him.

"Me and Papa make them grow," said Nina.

Sterling and Mary Jane take care of Nina and older sister, Neta, 7, two of their four grandchildren. They're the reason the backyard is in for a big change.

"We are putting in a pool," he said, standing on a path in the middle of the yard. "As soon as the garden tour is done, the pool is going in here for the grandkids. From the fence to the walkway. we're adding a 30-foot-by-14-foot pool."

Concrete will border the inground pool. He hopes to save some plants, but the Japanese maple will go.

"We'll start digging at 4 o'clock that afternoon."

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