Metro-East Living

O’Fallon garden blooms with native plants, wildlife

O'Fallon garden filled with native plants

Couple on Gardens in Bloom tour give tips on what they like to grow
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Couple on Gardens in Bloom tour give tips on what they like to grow

The gardens of Charlie Pitts and Annie Skaggs suit every terrain on their 2-acre property in rural O’Fallon, from sun to shade, dry to wet, with one constant.

“We really want people to get that natives (Midwest plants) can be pretty and can co-exist with non-natives,” Annie said.

The native planting encourages wildlife, from finches to foxes to falcons.

“We’ve tripled the number of birds here in four years,” Charlie said. In a single day, he might see more than a dozen woodpeckers. Two tall metal bird feeders also lure chickadees, jays, Cardinals and more.

You can take a tour of seven O’Fallon area gardens during the annual Gardens in Bloom on June 4 and spend some time in the couple’s many gardens. You won’t be alone. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds inhabit an ambling dry creek bed, sunny sideyard berms, backyard raised vegetable beds and a shady wooded path. See if you can identify the natives: copper iris and columbine, phlox and early-blooming trillium, wild geranium and volunteer butterweed, coneflower and black-eyed susans.

We really want people to get that natives can be pretty and can co-exist with non-natives.

Annie Skaggs

A variety of milkweed draws the butterflies, and in the spring Annie plants non-native annuals for added color.

The couple built and then moved into their Craftsman-style dream home in 2012, taking on the challenge of creating a natural oasis of strategically placed gardens.

Annie, 65, is a retired government contractor and Charlie, 71, is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and contractor. Married 29 years, they relocated from the East Coast. They chose the metro-east because they had “military family” who had settled here.

Professionals created the berms alongside the front of the house to hide the ugly green power box and laid down the rock- and boulder-laden creek bed that runs from the top of the backyard next to the greenhouse all the way down to the back woods. But everything growing and flowering is the work of Charlie and Annie. He is a master naturalist and she is a master gardener. Both belong to the O’Fallon Garden Club.

“I’m the ‘yardner,’” said Charlie, who built the attractive four-section compost bin. “But we do the design work together.”

By the front door, bee-laden native purple salvia, sunny coreopsis and an oak-leaf hydrangea live in harmony with non-native hostas and some of Annie’s collection of ceramic and metal frogs hiding in the foliage.

Annie says the shade-loving hostas, her favorite non-natives, and other plants, have been relocated a few times as the couple educated themselves about the soil and temperament of Midwest weather.

Ribbed and variegated hostas with dinner plate-size leaves now thrive in deep shadows next to the greenhouse. The young native pagoda dogwood is doing well there, too, she said. Another dogwood by a rough-hewn wooden fence on the other side of the yard is recovering after being a deer snack.

“Natives are pest-resilient as opposed to pest-resistant,” said Charlie. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘Come on, chew on me! I’ll grow back.’”

Side berms needed “dry-tolerant” plants because they get a lot of sun, said Charlie, so they added rose verbena, sedge, milkweed, day lilies, a few evergreens, a lovely peeling river birch and a slender copper windmill.

“Hey, if we’re living in the Midwest, we needed a windmill,” he said.

A sign in front of the berms notes that the garden is a designated way station for Monarch butterflies.

Honeysuckle has been cleared out of the wooded area at the back of the property, a recent project, so the two could lay down a mulched walking path and plant 120 native sassafras, may apples and more.

But the allure of twisty, climbing honeysuckle, with its vivid orange, trumpet-shaped flower won over Annie, who tamed and contained it to grow up the support posts of the home’s deck.

Before you leave, make sure to ask Charlie about the prickly Missouri native that looks like a yucca but is called rattlesnake master. Then, have Annie show you the blooming onions. Even after they’ve flowered, the beauty of their giant heads on single stalks prevents her from cutting them off.

“They look like exploding fireworks to me,” she said.

At a glance

  • What: Gardens in Bloom Tour of seven home gardens and one community garden in the O’Fallon area
  • When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 4
  • Where: Start tour at any home
  • Tickets: $10 in advance and $12 day of tour; map of gardens included.
  • Where to buy tickets in advance: Sandy’s Back Porch, Effinger Garden Center (both locations), Eckert’s Country Store and Hometown Ace Hardware, all in Belleville; Creative Landscape Garden Center in Fairview Heights; Ace Hardware, O’Fallon; Terry’s Home & Garden Center, East St. Louis; University of Illinois Extension Offices, Waterloo or Collinsville.
  • Tickets day of tour: United Methodist Church, 504 E. Highway 50, O’Fallon. A plant sale will be held at this location — tour tickets not required.
  • Information: University of Illinois Extension, 618-939-3434 or 618-344-4230
  • Note: Some of the homes have sloping garden paths, so dress appropriately.

Other gardens on the tour

  • Philip and Mary Jo Kahlert — When they downsized three years ago, they found a villa that provided them easy access to a garden, which also made it easy to maintain. Mary Jo enjoys flower arranging, so you’ll see plenty of flowers for cutting in their garden.
  • Harlan and Norma Gerrish — Look for the secret garden by following the looping path with three broad staircases. The couple created gardens with a natural appearance, lush vegetation and varying textures and colors. Also look for terraces and a garden surrounding a large fountain.
  • Robert and Joyce Hillebrand — Stroll through the many “rooms” of this colorful cottage garden, from the front courtyard to under the deck to the rock wall. A woodland garden is shared with a neighbor. Keep an eye out for obelisks, trellises, planters and arbors.
  • Bill and Peggy Stimson — Stop at the two vegetable/flower gardens and visit the greenhouse in the parklike setting of this home. Follow the stone path down to the creek, which includes full sun and total shade planting areas.
  • Roy and Gwin Kessler — Enter through a gentle slope and wander through a shade garden called Our Peaceful Valley. You’ll find 12 flower beds, as well as more than 150 hostas. Sit a spell in the cedar gazebo next to a waterfall.
  • Kevin and Laureen Hughes — Follow the granite stepping stone and travertine pathways that will take you past garden benches, a pagoda fountain and through a moon gate. Multitextured plants spill onto the path while hydrangea, azalea and more provide height. Keep your eyes peeled for sculptures, rock cairns and beds of fossils.
  • O’Fallon Community Garden — At the corner of State and Smiley in O’Fallon. This 2-acre gem was an abandoned trailer park five years ago. It is now a productive vegetable garden with landscaped flower beds created through the partnership of the O’Fallon Garden Club, O’Fallon Parks & Recreation Department and Master Gardeners. Residents can rent any of the 29 raised beds. You’ll also find an apiary with beehives, two butterfly gardens and an herb garden. Walking paths were created so visitors can see it all.
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