Rooted in Beauty

This U City landscape reflects a gardening heritage.

By Lucyann Boston

Photography by Kim Dillon


    The best gardens come with deep roots, and few are more firmly anchored in the soil than Cindy Thierry’s University City landscape. The front yard borders and berms and the shrubs and perennials that circle the back yard come alive in spring with bursts of color created by Cindy but with tendrils attached to gardens and gardeners who have gone before. 

    First, there are Cindy’s gardening roots nurtured on a farm in Vandalia, Illinois, where her grandmother created a special plot for her plant-loving granddaughter. “We actually lived with her for a time and she was my touch point. I spent a lot of time with her, and she gave me my love of cooking and gardening,” Cindy recalls. “She was always sharing stuff with me; sending me home with this or that. Her house was on a hill and we would sit out on the front lawn and there was always a breeze. She loved tulips, roses and gladiolus.”

    In 1998, when Cindy and her husband, Steve McMahon, purchased their two-story, Colonial-style home, they discovered additional gardening roots already embedded in their one-third acre property. They were only the second owners of the home, which had been built in 1939 by legendary University City High School football coach Clarence (Stub) Muhl and his wife Adelaide, who reportedly loved gardening. By that time, the couple was in their 90s and the home had been vacant for a year. 

    Little of the original landscaping was in evidence, other than a redbud tree at the corner of the house and some struggling spirea bushes under the front bay window. Invasive bush honeysuckle covered approximately half the backyard. 

    As she worked in her new landscape, Cindy discovered treasures. With the first warm days at the end of winter, white snowdrops popped from hidden corners. As spring began in earnest, the bulbs of dainty Spanish bluebells in shades of blue and white still lived in the soil. Native Virginia bluebells appeared all over the yard. A sweetly fragrant viburnum bloomed each spring. 

    Although in the years prior to their purchase the yard had been neglected, a benefit accrued from the 25 oaks that dotted the property and their leaves, many of which had been left to decompose for years. When Cindy began to garden in earnest, the naturally enriched soil allowed what she planted to thrive. 

    She has continued to add to the quality of her soil. When U City gave away ground up leaf mulch for free, “I used to line my trunk with plastic and haul it home.” Since the city has discontinued that practice, she orders Forest Fines, a mix of double-ground wood mulch and Black Gold compost, from St. Louis Composting each spring. In addition, she keeps a compost bin in her back yard.

    Cindy also credits her roots within the University City community for the beauty of her garden. She was active in the U City School District, while the couple’s three children were in school, and also with U City in Bloom. Her husband is a University City Council member. “This is U City,” she says with a nod to the spirit of the community. “People are always trading and sharing.” 

    Plants in her garden that have come from other local gardeners include three miniature lilacs and a lovely stand of variegated Solomon’s seal. The bottlebrush buckeye, daylilies, golden Tiger Eye sumac and Japanese iris made their way into her landscape via the U City in Bloom plant sale. In turn she has divided and shared with others. “In the spring and fall, I post a ‘Come Shop in My Garden’ notice on Facebook. I tell people they can have this or that and how far they can dig. I know my garden has populated a number of other gardens,” she says with a laugh. “I have one friend who refers to her back yard as ‘Cindy’s garden.’”

     Anchored by her selection of flowering shrubs, Cindy sees continual color as the hallmark of her landscape. In the spring, it begins with a progression of azaleas that bloom at slightly different times. Recently, she added two re-blooming varieties that provide fall as well as spring color. Hydrangeas keynote the summer garden and linger into fall. Red twig dogwoods and scarlet winterberries provide color even in the coldest months. 

    For all its beauty, the garden is grounded in Cindy’s flexibility and practicality. She is fearless in her ability to look at shrubs and plants that may not be thriving where they are and moving them to a different spot. No plants go to waste. As her borders expanded, she divided what she had and moved it throughout the yard. The scrawny spireas that were struggling around the front bay window when Cindy and Steve bought the house 25 years ago are now a “nice, big white bundle” highlighting the back border when they flower in the spring. “The biggest challenge I have in my gardening is throwing things away,” she says with a laugh. “I keep trying to convince myself that it’s okay to put a plant in the compost.”

    Materials are repurposed as well. Following a serious fire in 2007, the house needed total renovation and Cindy and Steve decided to add on to the structure during the course of renovation. Dirt removed from the back yard became the berm that is now the highlight of the front landscaping. 

    Stones from the original barbecue pit that was “falling apart” when the couple bought the house found their way to a stone wall that now helps define the front yard landscaping. The contractor working on their addition had stones left over from another project, which Cindy and Steve were happy to use. While Cindy works with the plants themselves, Steve handles the hardscapes such as walls and edging and has constructed an arbor and the firepit.

    Throughout the years, Cindy has added decorative objects to her landscape simply because they delighted her. A kinetic sculpture purchased at the Tower Grove Art Fair was a birthday present to herself. At the London Tea Room, she bought an antique wire pavilion tower “just because I liked it.” An Oriental statue  appealed to her when renovation from the house fire was in progress as a way to look forward to her future house and garden. A small sculpture of stacked stones reminds her of favorite hikes in both Hawaii and Michigan.

    Despite all the changes she and Steve have made to the landscape, Cindy is always aware of the legacy she keeps alive. “A son who grew up in the house used to come by once a year and he told me his mother was a gardener and she would be so happy,” Cindy relates. “Every time I look out and see those spirea in the back, it warms my heart to know they once belonged to Mrs. Muhl.”