Planting Happiness

A St. Louis County landmark, Vivian Gellman’s vibrant garden is a joyful celebration of nature

Text: Judy Uelk
Photos: Greg Rannells
May 2011

Vivian Gellman presides over one of the most beautiful public gardens in St. Louis. Anyone can view it, and it doesn’t cost a cent.

Starting with hundreds of vivid tulips and frothy pink and white crabapples in the spring to a never-ending, eye-popping display of multicolored zinnias in the heat of summer, followed in the fall by lush blends of red celosia, purple angelonia and sunset-colored begonias, Vivian’s garden has become a St. Louis County landmark. Decorating the southeast corner of the busy intersection of McKnight and Ladue roads, she daily splashes beauty and color into the lives of thousands of motorists who pass by.

In the 45 years she has been gardening in the same spot, Vivian has never failed to share her knowledge and plants with gardeners throughout the area. In the beginning, she admits, there wasn’t much to share. “When we moved into the house, I went to Westover [Nursery] to buy plants. My husband, Herman, said, ‘You’re just going to kill them,’ so I bought a book. Then, I bought two more plants and two more books, then more plants and a couple more books.”

She has learned, she emphasizes, by doing. “If you make a mistake and something dies, it’s okay to try again. When I first did azaleas, they all died because I planted them very shallow.”

The abundance that characterizes Vivian’s garden can be attributed to her success with seeds. “With seeds you can grow things yourself that you can’t get in six packs,” she points out. Through the years, she has become to seedlings what Henry Ford was to the Model T. Her first success came many years ago with a zinnia called ‘Red Sun,’ known for its huge blossom and brilliant color. It remains a favorite today. “My garden is more shades of pink and purple, but I have to have that red.”

Vivian sows her first seeds in January. The dust-particle-like specks that germinate into bell-flowered lisianthus are notoriously hard to grow. “It takes six months for me to get them ready to go outdoors,” she explains. Currently she favors a cultivar called ‘Picotee,’ which is white with blue or pink edging.

By the middle of March, she is into zinnias, literally by the thousands, which she continues to plant until the middle of May. “I know I’ve started 10,000 seeds because I plant them in paper cups, and I went through 10,000 cup cartons,” she says with a laugh. Other garden favorites Vivian grows from seed include begonias, perennial hibiscus and even lemon trees.

“I start everything in the basement on carts,” Vivian explains. Once the plants have sprouted, she moves them into the greenhouse attached to the side of her ranch-style home and eventually to outdoor cold frames to ready them for transplanting into her garden. Excess plants are available to the public and to clients of her garden design/consulting business. She began Vivian Gellman Garden Concepts as a second career in 1992, when she retired as a clinical assistant professor of education at Washington University.

With a slender elegance that belies her 80-plus years, Vivian strolls her garden, pointing out favorite plants and noting new things she’s trying. “I never know what the garden is going to look like until April; although, I do order zinnia seeds before that. Hopefully it changes a little bit every year. Little by little, I add new things,” she says, noting that she’s currently substituting new, easy-care shrub roses for the high-maintenance hybrid tea roses she once favored.

“I plant a lot of begonias. I have to balance plants that need a lot of care with those that don’t, and begonias don’t need anything,” she quips. “I do pink and rose ‘Eureka’ begonias from scratch.”

Other favorite annuals that beat the St. Louis heat and have her garden looking fabulous when most home gardens look fried include low, mounding torenia or wishbone flower and taller, spiky angelonia, both of which have blossoms that resemble small snapdragons. Another newer favorite is ‘Dragon Wing’ begonia, aptly named for its wing-like leaves. The feathery crimson cock’s comb or celosia that is so prevalent in late summer in her border along Ladue Road reseeds and returns every year.

“One of the good things about gardening is that you’re always thinking about next year, making things a little better, trying different things,” Vivian points out. “With gardening acknowledged as America’s number one pastime,” she adds, “hybridizers are constantly coming up with so much new. Ball Seed has come up with a black petunia. I don’t think I’m going to try it, but it’s out there.”

In addition to knowledgeable plant selection, Vivian’s garden also thrives because of the soil. “I compost all my garden waste and work it back into the soil each year. I don’t use any food,” she explains. “I shred and chip and give back to nature what she gave to me.”

Vivian’s three children and three grandchildren help her maintain her huge garden. In years past, she has called upon off-duty firefighters for any heavy lifting. “They are reliable, trustworthy and strong,” she says.

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