Metro-East Living

‘Big change to the backyard’: O’Fallon grandpa digs up garden, puts in pool

Sterling Garnto worked to get his garden in shape for a tour last June; then had the yard dug up to put in a pool for granddaughters, Meta, 8, and Nina, 4.
Sterling Garnto worked to get his garden in shape for a tour last June; then had the yard dug up to put in a pool for granddaughters, Meta, 8, and Nina, 4. News-Democrat

You might say Sterling Garnto went off the deep end after his yard was featured on a garden tour last June.

He had the flower-filled backyard dug up and put in an in-ground pool for granddaughters Nina and Meta Garnto.

“I like that there’s a waterslide,” said Meta, 8 1/2.

“I like going underwater and putting my face under,” said Nina, 4. “We don’t care if it’s cold.”

Or raining like it was that day.

“It was a hard decision,” said Sterling, 68, watching the girls grab swim noodles and swim rings and jump in. “It was a big change to the backyard, and expensive, too.”

A concrete border surrounds the 12,000-gallon, 15-foot by 34-foot curvy Fiberglas in-ground pool that looks as much at home in the yard as the honeysuckle and clematis, climbing the wood fence.

Low, grasslike liriope bordering one side of the pool is the plant most likely to get splashed. Boxwood and hydrangea rim the rows behind that. A stone rabbit peeks from the dense garden.

“It came out pretty good, I thought,” said Sterling, who lives in O’Fallon with wife Mary Jane. Flower beds abound in front and back of their well-landscaped corner lot. Hundreds of coneflowers are just hitting their stride. The backyard is more garden than grass now, but there’s still enough room for Sterling’s 10-by-10-foot greenhouse and three raised vegetable gardens.

“Tomatoes are doing real well, and eggplants and peppers. The okra looks good. ...”

Last year’s garden tour was June 7. Sterling went to work late that day, moving plants, before construction began.

Rain complicated things at first.

“The Bobcat kept sliding down the hill,” said Sterling.

The new pool opened the Fourth of July.

“That was just the pool,” said Sterling.

The yard had a long way to go.

“It looked sad at first.”

Until he worked his master gardener magic. To condition the clay soil and encourage plants to thrive, he brought in 15 cubic yards of top soil and and 5 cubic yards of mulch. He built up the area, making sure the ground sloped away from the pool, and replanted, layering plants in an orderly manner. Short, grassy liriope in front, hostas in the middle, taller boxwood and hydrangeas in back. A feathery Japanese maple, a centerpiece before the pool, is thriving in a new spot.

“It was right by the back porch before, where there’s concrete now. One of my grandsons broke his shovel digging it. It weighed several hundred pounds and survived for a month before it was replanted. It looks better than it ever did. It likes its new location.”

Sterling, originally from Georgia, took master gardener classes after retiring four years ago from a second career as business manager at St. Louis University’s dermatology department. He is also a retired U.S. Navy captain and current president of O’Fallon Garden Club. He takes turns with other master gardeners hosting a horticulture phone line from April to November and tends O’Fallon Community Garden.

This pool isn’t the Garntos’ first.

“When we lived in Tampa, everybody had one, it seemed like. Houses came with a golf course in the front yard, a pool in back.”

And they stayed open year-round.

Sterling’s advice: “Find a good company to put the pool in. Check references. We had Wideman Pools, of Festus (Missouri) put in ours.”

“We closed this pool the first of October before the leaves fell,” he said, “and opened up in April. That was a mess with helicopters from the silver maple.”

Nina and Meta, two of the Garntos’ four grandchildren, are around much of the time. An alarm on the back door lets them know when the grandkids are heading outside.

“The pool is 5 feet, 11 inches on that end,” said Sterling. “Meta can swim and Nina can’t. She wears a tube.”

Both had swimming classes, but Nina still has a way to go.

“In the summertime, we have them all day,” he said. “We go to the Zoo, Botanical Garden, Magic House, Monkey Joe’s.”

That’s when they’re not in the pool.

“Papa, look,” said Nina, getting ready to go under water. “One, two, three.”

The girls remember life before the pool.

“I would play on my iPad and go in the hot tub,” said Meta.

“They wanted to ride in their electric Cadillac around the block, over and over,” said Sterling.

“And we’d ride our bikes,” said Nina.

The girls like the pool — and that Grandpa gets in the water, too.

“I’ve been in an hour and a half this afternoon,” he said Wednesday. “They want someone in the pool to play. That’s me.”

When they’re not around, he takes a shorter dip. He has a garden in front and back to tend.

“It’s easier to maintain now,” said Sterling. “When I mow grass, it’s 10 minutes less time. I increased the garden in back. I used a lot of plants I already had.”

To make room for the pool, he also gave a lot of plants away.

“I made everybody in O’Fallon happy,” he said.

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